Tuesday, September 30 2008

Great Anime: Overview and a Melancholy Tale

In my last post, I regarded five recent anime series as great, and I've decided to break up my explanation of which series and why into three separate posts.  Posts two and three will probably not be completed earlier than next week;  I have a brief vacation to Washington state this weekend.

I find that on one level, greatness is impossible to explain.  A great anime just is; the pieces just fit together right.  On the other hand, there are common threads linking the five anime I think turned out the best of the recent series, and that's enough to start from.

As an arbitrary categorization, I've decided to look at three "factors": Setting, Characters and Plot.  All five series stand out in at least one of these areas, but none in all three.  I don't expect a series to be perfect, but it has to stand out in some way from the rest.  More importantly, a series can't fail in any of the three categories if it expects to be great.

Setting is the depth of the world of the series.  At a basic level, it is the detail in the world behind the characters and plot.  It is in part the artistry of the series, the use of color, scene arrangement and style to emphasize the other factors.  It's also a consistent and logical background for the world beyond what is strictly necessary for the backstory.  It can also be a sense that the story extends beyond what is seen on screen.  A good setting is one that makes the watcher believe that the story doesn't take place on a (metaphorical) sound stage, but in a living world.  For me, a great setting is one that, for all I know intellectually that the whole thing is a work of fiction, makes me emotionally want to go there and experience that.

Character is the depth of (obviously) the characters in the series.  A good character should be obvious.  The cardinal rule of characters should be that the author's intent for the character much match the audience's reactions to the character.  (Paging Jeff Goldstein: intentionalism at work!)  Some series fail because the author's visions of the characters and the ways they interact differs strongly from the ways the audience views the characters and the ways they should act.  A classic anime example of this is Love Hina: the protagonist, Keitaro, is stuck with an obviously abusive relationship with Naru because of the author's focus on his predestined relationship, while the audience mostly seems to think he should stick with Mutsumi (though he loses his frequent flier miles).  A great character should be larger than life; in most cases, this means one of two things: either the character fully personifies a standard anime archetype, or transcends the archetypes entirely.  A great character exists to some degree independent from the series from which they come.

Plot is the story elements, both the pacing and execution of individual elements in an episode and the overall story as a whole.  A good plot should be logical given the characters, at least in retrospect.  On an episodic level, the action or drama should flow smoothly.  On a series level, events should build off of each other to a dramatic climax.  A great plot goes beyond what is expected, using foreshadowing and plot themes to accentuate the story, and making action pieces that are exciting and dramatic pieces that elicit an emotional reaction.

These are all gray areas of arbitrary categorization; it's impossible to separate the character development of a good character from the plot that drives the drama, and a plot scene must reflect the setting it takes place in.

When I mentioned that I regarded The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya as a great anime, I included a caveat.  In hindsight, Otaku seem to be divided regarding the series; while it was impressive when it was first released, a number have now changed their opinions after sobering up.  While I still think it to be a great series, I think it lies perilously close to the border between Great and Mediocre (as opposed to the longer border between Great and Good).

The Setting is good enough, while not great.  It's mostly a standard Japanese high school.  The school, however, is colorful and dynamic.  The club room where much of the story takes place evolves over time to reflect the events of the story.  Unnamed students are visible and normal.  There are a variety of non-school locations used, which are not skimped on.  The second episode makes interesting use of a washed-out image to highlight Haruhi's introduction.  All in all, nothing spectacular, but all beyond the minimum.

The Plot is half of what puts the series on the border between great and mediocre.  The only reason the series-level plot doesn't completely bomb is that the episodes are not in chronological order, as the dramatic climax in the series is actually relatively early chronologically.  As it is, deficiencies in the series-level plot are made up for by the occasional excellence in the episode-level plot for a couple of the episodes.  The "Day of Sagittarius" episode is completely unconnected to the larger series plot, yet serves as a very well-written plot for pushing character development.  The school festival episode is full of little bits and pieces of plot excellence that only really show up when re-watching the episode.  Finally, the series has one of the best five-or-so minute bits of plot-animation in any recent anime.  Caution: Big Spoiler:

Several of the Characters in the series are what really make the series great.  Ironically, Haruhi Suzumiya herself is not great, and nearly relegates the series to mediocre all by herself.  She's not all that likable a character through much of the series, despite being the title character.  In a similar dynamic to Love Hina, her predestined relationship with Kyon is, at least through the series, something not desired by the audience.  The difference between Kyon and Keitaro is that at some level, Kyon seems to be fighting his destiny through his relationship with two great characters, Yuki and Mikaru.

I spoke earlier that some great characters seem to personify the standard anime archetypes.  Mikaru is, at some level, Moe incarnate.  She takes half a dozen of the stereotypical male attractors and combines them with a likable personality.

Yuki, likewise, has taken over a standard anime archetype, the quiet, seemingly emotionless one.  To some degree she's larger then life because of her absence of outward signs of personality for most of the series, which makes those occasions where some emotion is briefly visible deep down inside all the more poignant.

Neon Genesis Evangelion was a series that could have been great.  I believe it failed in its attempt toward the end of the plot.  But no one can deny that some of the characters it spawned were great archetypes and grew beyond the end of the series (in part because of aggressive  marketing on Gainax's part).  For a long time, Rei Ayanami was the archetype for the quiet, seemingly emotionless one, while Asuka Soyru-Langley was the archetype for the overly active, intimidating, pushy and loud Lucy van Pelt type.  In my opinion, Yuki has unseated Rei, while Haruhi failed to unseat Asuka from the archetype exemplar, but not for lack of trying.

Posted by: Civilis at 07: 54 PM | No Comments | Add Comment
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