Saturday, April 28 2007

The Warning Moment in Anime

Something crystallized for me when I read Steven den Beste's post at 20070426.2300.  He discusses anime that turned out to be different than what he expected at the start of the series.

A lot of series come packaged in a way that sells them as something other than what they turn out to be. If you have the wrong idea about the series, you're likely to be disappointed. Maybe if you know what it actually is you'll be disappointed anyway, but if you know ahead of time at least you won't be surprised. And you have a better chance of choosing things that fit your tastes.

This is something I've noticed over the years as well.  I like comedy anime, but generally not straight comedy.  Straight comedy series generally turn into a series of running gags.  I need plot, and for plot you need tension or conflict.  It can be the neverending series of trials between a couple of romantically involved highschool students or an attempt to save the entire universe from a deranged madman.

On the other hand, I generally hate anime that start as comedies and go all dark and depressing by the end.  If I wanted that, I'd take some horror series to start with.  Too many anime lose all humor by the middle of the series, leaving the end as a depressing slog of angst and despair.

One dead giveaway I look for in the series is the "warning point".  This is the point in the series where the creators give you a hint as to how serious they are going to make the series later.  Generally, it consists of a brief episode of violence far more serious than anything seen before in the series, and generally of a tragic and shocking nature.

If the series so far has consisted of the heroes bashing evil monsters and all of a sudden one of the heroes gets seriously wounded, this should serve as a warning to the audience.  "This is serious combat.  The heroes are not immortal and are at risk.  If we need to, we will kill them."

If the heroes screw up, and innocents are hurt or killed, this is also a warning to the audience.  "The heroes are on an important quest.  If they fail, it will come at a cost."

In lighter shows, often athletic or other contest series which don't involve the threat of death or injury to the main characters, a similar emotional reaction can be had by having our prodigy hero, or their more-skilled teacher, defeated once or twice early on.  The hero may eventually triumph, but the audience is put on notice that there is someone out there with the skill that the outcome is not a foregone conclusion.

Often, the series will then go back to a fair number of lighter episodes before the level of seriousness reaches the same peak or goes beyond it.  Sometimes, the seriousness never materializes.  But the fact that you know, emotionally, that the authors are willing to go to that level adds tension to the series.  Intellectually, you may know its just a TV show.  You may even know how it ends (or at least that there's a sequel in the works).  But that emotional reaction is there.

I have found that If this warning point doesn't appear and the series gets progressively darker and more depressing then I'm always disappointed by what the series ends as.

I think the best non-spoiler example of this I can give is American, actually.  It's part of the central Spiderman backstory that with Peter's powers come great responsibility.  Early on in the movie, Peter doesn't use his power when he has an opportunity, and as a result, his uncle gets killed.  Peter and the audience are on notice that there is a real price to failure in the world of the series, and it is demonstrated with the senseless death of an innocent.

For more examples, often spoilers, click More below:
[Spoilers are for: Martian Successor Nadesico, Trigun, Angelic Layer, Mahou Shojo Lyrical Nanoha, and The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya]


The classic anime Warning Moment is Guy's death early on in Martain Successor Nadesico.  Early on in the series, Guy is introduced as the heroic mentor mecha ace for our protagonist.  This is normally a doomed role in the story anyways, a la Roy Fokker from Macross, but normally that doesn't occur until at least midway through the story and occurs because the mentor thinks he's invincible and at the hands of the big bad enemy mecha ace, therefore settimg up the final battle.  Guy gets killed in episode four, and in a rather petty fashion.  The series doesn't get too dark, but there are a few other tragedies along the way.

An example of a Warning Moment in a series that gets too dark for my tastes is episode 12 of Trigun.  The series starts out as an action comedy.  Although a few innocents get killed along the way, and much property destruction ensues, Vash is able to at least keep a lid on the carnage.  Then the first of the Gung Ho Guns (Monev the Gale) shows up and lots and lots of people die.  While the rest of the Gung Ho Guns aren't quite as destructive as Monev, the bar has been set, and the rest of the episodes lack nearly all the humor that could be found in the first part of the series.  I think this series fails as most of the innocent bodycount isn't a necessary result of Vash's failings but an attempt by the villain to push him over the edge.

In Angelic Layer, Misaki's defeat at the hands of Hatoko serves as a Warning Moment to the audience that although Misaki is the protagonist, and the Miracle Rookie, her ultimate victory isn't a foregone conclusion.  Likewise, Hatoko's defeat by Sai serves to keep reminding the audience how good  the competitors are at that level.  The Ever-Victorious Goddess, alas, isn't.  It's a good example of a Warning Moment in a series that does not have any real violence.

The first series of Mahou Shojo Lyrical Nanoha seems to lack a definitive Warning Moment.  There are a few places where one can see that the episode resolution was chosen to provide an uptake on the tension in the series.  When the giant tree wrecks the city, it serves as a "With great power comes great responsibility" moment for Nanoha.  One could argue that when Fate first appears and defeats Nanoha it serves warning that the opposition she faces is as skilled as she is.  The incident in which both Nanoha and Fate go for the Jewel Seed at the same time and end up damaging Bardiche and Raging Heart finally puts the whole plot into perspective as to the consequences of their rivalry.  The second Nanoha series, Mahou Shojo Lyrical Nanoha A's, in contrast, has a well defined Warning Moment: the first fight between Nanoha and Fate and the Wolkenritter.  Both Bardiche and Raging Heart are heavily damaged and Nanoha ends up in the hosptial after Schmal's attack.

One could argue that the Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya has two different Warning Moments.  The first is when they find the body on the isolated island in Remote Island Syndrome Part 1 (Episode 6).  Until that point, the audience isn't aware of what the effects of Haruhi's obsession's are, although the results at this point are somewhat mundane.  The second is the fight in the Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya IV (Episode 10).  This event reveals to both the audience and, plotwise, to the protagonist (Kyon)  exactly how dangerous the whole situation is.  The sheer violence in this episode is, although brief, completely unexpected and unparalleled elsewhere in the series.  It does exactly what a good warning moment should do, both come as a surprise to the audience and the character, and raise the suspense of the rest of the series.  It's such a disappointment that it came so late in the series, but I consider myself sufficiently warned for the sequel...

Posted by: Civilis at 03: 18 PM | No Comments | Add Comment
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