Minor spoilers for Sarazanmai and Hinamatsuri.
Supposedly, there’s this thing called a “three-episode rule” that says you should watch three episodes of an anime before deciding to drop it. But, if you’re like me and you’re checking out every season’s new anime, three episodes is TOO MUCH time to waste. No, I’ve honed my critical senses to the point where I can usually get a sense of whether or not a show is trash within the first twenty minutes. Bad writing will usually rear its ugly head right from the beginning – sometimes as soon as the very first scene.
If an anime series starts with a map and a five minute narration of the world’s history, I’m immediately going to drop it. Nothing annoys me more than when a character drones on about its setting instead of just SHOWING it to me. Forced exposition like this is exhausting, and it’s almost impossible to actually retain these information dumps once they’re over. A setting needs to grow and expand along with the characters. A fictional world needs to be explored naturally, not explained away immediately. Keeping a little mystery to a series’ setting and characters is what makes viewers want to keep watching. If everything gets given away in the trailer or the opening sequence, what’s the point of sticking around?
This clipshow overload method often pops up in isekai and fantasy anime – those genres require that their settings have a deep, rich history. There’s nothing wrong with having a setting with complicated lore, but there is something wrong if a writer feels the need to try and cram an entire backstory down its viewers’ throats right off the bat. Of course, a series still needs SOME sort of set-up for a story. Overloading with exposition is bad, but throwing a viewer in completely blind can be bad, too. Starting an episode in media res with a cold open can be effective, but only in the hands of a skilled writer who knows how to create thematic connections for an audience before they even know what they’re watching.
Last season’s Girly Air Force is a perfect example of how NOT to start a series – episode one throws viewers into a contextless (and shitty looking) battle, but it doesn’t give any clues as to where or who they are. The scenery is a bland looking ocean with some bland looking ships, and there’s a bland male lead who shouts, “it’s the Xi,” when a shiny green plane starts dropping bombs. A girl grabs Kei’s hands and pulls him away, but that’s the only thing we really have in terms of character establishment. We can infer that there’s some sort of war going on, but…why should we care? There’s nothing visually interesting here, and these people getting attacked don’t feel like real people. In these first few minutes, the problem is lack of context – it tries to grab viewers by starting in the middle of a battle, but it fails because no attachment to these characters are formed in the meantime, and there’s no real sense of danger.
Then, somehow, the first episode flips around and has the OPPOSITE problem – it starts giving TOO MUCH exposition. Kei immediately explains EXACTLY WHAT JUST HAPPENED in a narration, which is a huge no-no. Then, the girl who held his hand is forcibly established as The Childhood Friend. From there, there’s a split-second flashback about them being separated from their parents that holds no emotional weight because, again, we don’t know them. Kei shoe-horns in a line about wanting to avenge his mom by joining the Air Force, and then Childhood Friend screams at him. Instead of being shown hints that they have been separated from their family and building up their potential traumatic state, the show basically throws up a flashing neon sign that says FEEL BAD FOR THEM PLEASE. Even worse, Childhood Friend starts yelling exactly how she feels to Kei (“I am worried because I think you need me!”) instead of showing that she is worried or establishing that there’s some reason he would need her. It’s bad. It’s just bad.
Compare that with this season’s Sarazanmai, which has an excellent buildup. Right off the bat, its premise is overwhelming – kappas exist, desire physically manifests itself as butthole orbs, and there are otter police going around singing songs and taking prisoners. It throws its viewers directly into its world with little explanation, but this works because the world is actually interesting. There are bright colors, actual established characters, creepy kappa transformation scenes – you don’t know what’s going on, but you want to.
Best of all, it doesn’t try to over-explain its setting – it presents this overwhelming world, and while it doesn’t explicitly explain what everything means, it gives enough context about character relationships that the audience can start to fill in some blanks. It’s not exactly subtle about revealing its themes – there are a ton of monologues about desire and making connections – but it is subtle when it comes to the world-building. Sarazanmai takes five wild episodes before it finally starts to explain the lore behind the kappa and their world via flashback. By waiting, it actually gives the backstory more weight, since viewers have been given time to get to know the worlds’ inhabitants. The flashback doesn’t define the character’s personality, like in Girly Air Force, it merely gives further context to their motivations and established personalities.
Another series that does an excellent job of slowly building up its world is Studio Feel’s Hinamatsuri. Episode one begins with our main character, Hina, suddenly transporting into gangster Nitta’s house. We’re not told where Hina is from or why she’s there, but we do know that she has psychokinetic powers and that Nitta is freaking the hell out. A psychic girl in a metal pod is entertaining without knowing exactly what world she’s from, so Hinamatsuri doesn’t feel the need to include any forced narration about her background. Instead, it uses its time to establish Nitta and Hina’s personalities and quirks, which are actually more interesting in the moment than Hina’s origin story would be.
In fact, Hinamatsuri might be the master of “show, don’t tell.” For example, we learn through Hina’s interactions with others that she was actually feared in her homeworld. We don’t need to be told this via flashback – instead, we are shown when Kei Ikaruga, a security chief from Hina’s world, approaches her fearfully and nervously. Seeing a grown woman fear a middle schooler gives us all the information we need to know. When two other young espers are also stuck in the same timeline as Hina, we learn that the organization is probably not very well organized, since it keeps losing powerful children. And, ultimately, that’s all the information we really need to learn about this mysterious place. The characters and their daily lives are more interesting than all that, because the show knows exactly what story it wants to tell and what it needs to show to tell it.
It’s such a shame that so many series don’t understand what is and isn’t important in those first episodes. We don’t need a history lesson in episode one, we just need to learn who the characters are so that we can care about them. At the end of the day, characters are what drive a story – they give the audience something to connect with, and it’s best to explore a world through them. Hopefully, every anime studio exec in the world will read this essay and never, ever force me to listen to a character explain their tragic backstory in the first ten minutes again.
But, most likely, they’re still gonna pump out five isekais that start with a crumpled up map next season….