How To Recognize A Great Anime (in just one episode) [Part 1]

Edited by The Davoo

Text version:

I’ve never really understood the point of the three-episode test. For those who’ve never heard of it, the three-episode test is a common practice in anime communities, in which viewers will allow any show three episodes to hook them in, supposing that a series with a slower buildup may not really get interesting until after a few episodes. However, in my experience, I’ve never actually seen a show that I ended up loving in the long run which didn’t have a good first episode–the only exception being Gintama, which infamously started off with a two-part anime-original filler episode that bizarrely fell short of the entire rest of the show. Beyond that, though, I’ve never experienced this so-called “it gets good later” effect.

Sure, there’s a lot of shows that get better across their run, given that basic narrative structure usually dictates a rising action in the story–but I’ve never seen a show that started off bad and ended up being great. Hell, the fact that something starts off bad is a pretty huge detriment towards being good on the whole anyways; especially if you find yourself annoyed with the story and characters, or have your suspension of disbelief broken early on, causing difficulty with taking the story seriously or caring about it once it gets dramatic. More often than not, the weaknesses that a show exhibits in the beginning are indicative of the weaknesses which it will continue to have across its run–just as the opposite is usually true of shows with strong opening episodes.

Now, I have seen plenty of shows which had really strong openers, only to go downhill later thanks to writing, structure, and production issues. A good first episode isn’t always indicative of a good series overall–it’s just that I’ve never seen a show that I thought legitimately started off poor, and then became great later. This seems to be an unpopular stance, though, as I’ve been told countless times by other fans about how certain shows have weak beginnings and then get good later on; for instance, this seems to be a commonly-held opinion of Steins;Gate–one of the most popular and critically-acclaimed anime TV series of the last five years.

Personally, though, I loved the first episode of Steins;Gate. In fact, I loved the early part of the show so much that I considered it to be a member of my favorites list after only four episodes back when it was airing. Obviously I must have seen something in the show that others weren’t seeing at the time–and perhaps this is why my perspective on the idea of shows getting good later on is so different from others, and why my policy of dropping most stuff after only one episode is so confusing to some. After all, I asked on twitter for my followers to tell me what shows they loved in spite of disliking their opening episodes, and all of the shows that I liked which were named, were shows that I liked by the time the first episode was over.

So, in the interest of helping some of you to understand my perspective when it comes to dropping shows early, and in being able to identify a great show after just one episode, I’m going to write a ridiculously long about some great–and some terrible–first episodes of anime–and hopefully give you some tools as a viewer to distinguish the cream from the crop even faster than you might already; bearing in mind, of course, that this is all a matter of personal taste in the long run.

So for starters, let’s take a look at the opening episode of Steins;Gate. To some extent, I can understand and forgive a lot of viewers for having difficulty parsing this episode, because it is kind of confusing–especially if you haven’t seen the show already. The episode is full of little hints towards things that happen later, and some of the events won’t really click into place until you’ve had a better understanding of the series narrative. This actually makes the episode even better on the rewatch, since there’s so many little “a-ha!” moments sprinkled in that you wouldn’t have noticed initially–but for a first-time viewer, parts of it can throw you for a loop.

To a lot of people, including elements that the viewer can’t possibly understand into the opening episode might seem like a bad thing–but to me, it serves a massively important purpose in helping to set the tone for the series. Steins;Gate is a sci-fi mystery thriller with a fairly dark tinge, and the elements of mind-fuckery in the opening episode go a long way towards establishing this air of narrative unreliability and tension–as well as in putting us in the same position as the lead character. If we’d completely understood the fact that Okabe had slipped through time, and the mechanics by which he’d done so, then we would’ve spent a good chunk of the story waiting for him and his friends to figure out things that we already knew, which could get annoying. Instead, we start off the show just as confused as Okabe is, and have to solve the narrative riddles at the same pace that he does–making each of his revelations throughout the show that much more impactful. Then, when we come back for the rewatch knowing everything that’s going on, we’re treated to all these little tidbits that we didn’t get at first, which keeps the show feeling fresh.

Opening up a series in such a bold way can be a double-edged sword. After all, can we really trust that the show is going to deliver on its promise of a gripping narrative which can justify the confusion we felt at the start? Well, this is where the first element of learning to identify a show’s potential comes, in the form of looking at the staff list–and having some context into who the creators of the show are. Steins;Gate was co-directed by Hiroshi Hamasaki, who previously had directed another sci-fi mindfuck in the form of Texhnolyze–along with the starkly brutal short anime adaptation of Shigurui. Both of these shows had also started off with really bizarre, confusing, and thickly tonal opening episodes before diving further into their stories.

It’s not exactly a guarantee that every Hiroshi Hamasaki-directed show would follow the same trajectory, given that he didn’t write any of them, and that Steins;Gate came from a different studio and was based on a visual novel–but when this show came out, seeing the name of such an interesting director attached to it, who previously had worked on one of the most bizarrely fascinating shows that I ever considered a favorite–inspired a lot of confidence in it on my part.

Diving into the episode itself, the opening scenes are incredibly stark and thickly tonal; starting with a sequence of semi-transparent images that look vaguely like the inside of the internet, shots of TV static, and pictures of various locations in Akihabara, all laid over heavily grainy shots of telephone wires against a stark white backdrop. All of this imagery immediately establishes Steins;Gate as a techno-thriller–calling back to the visual trademarks of shows like Serial Experiments Lain, and giving a sense that this story takes place within the more mysterious and abstract parts of our technological landscape. While most viewers probably wouldn’t recognize Akihabara just in the few obscure glimpses of it in this opening scene, those who do might also get an even deeper sense of the show’s focus on technology, given the city’s reputation as the “electric town;” as well as the show’s heavy emphasis on otaku culture, given that Akiba is widely regarded as a sort of mecca for otaku.

From there, we transition into a couple of shots of Okabe standing on the roof of a building which are filmed at uncomfortable dutch angles, further establishing this sense of tension and stress, which is only amplified by the lack of music and abundant atmospheric sound effects, which will be common elements throughout much of the episode. When we finally see head-on shots of our main characters, it is with harsh, blown-out lighting, and against a pale sky–and each shot is framed in such a way as to make them look overly white and washed-out.

This aesthetic of harsh, blown-out lighting is upheld as we transition to the streets of Akihabara, filmed once again at dutch angles–wherein some of the buildings seem to simply evaporate into the atmosphere as they get further from the camera. There’s something unsettling about how this entire scene is colored, as though the boundaries of reality have become opaque and uncomfortable. All of this is to say that Steins;Gate does an excellent job of generating a sense of mystery and suspense in its audio-visual design alone–which sets you up for the unnerving nature of the episode’s midsection as soon as the episode begins. It’s pretty rare for any anime series to put so much effort into setting such a thick and unique audio-visual tone right off the bat–and most of the ones that do so are fantastic–so at this point it’s already pretty clear that we’re potentially looking at an ambitious project.

After a very brief moment that you probably won’t understand until near the very end of the series, Steins;Gate then gets into some of what I think the show does best–its natural-feeling and casually hilarious dialog. Mayushii and Okarin’s brief conversation by the gachapon machines gives us a lot of insight into their personalities and relationship, while also managing to feel like a normal conversation about a subject which the characters are interested in. While you could say it’s a little forced that Okarin frames a sentence around the fact that he and Mayushii are childhood friends, the rest of the following things are established without being spoken in the dialog:

Firstly, that Mayushii has a very childish personality. We can gather this from the way that she refers to herself in third-person, squats down and stares longingly into a machine that dispenses cheap toys, is disappointed when Okarin refuses to buy her one, and becomes exceptionally excited at the sight of a rare one. Secondly, we learn that Okarin is a bit of a brat. He laughs at Mayushii over the fact that he refuses to buy her a toy, and then goes out of his way to buy one in front of her face just to tease her. Later into the scene, he also insists on being referred to by his chuunibyou made up name, Hououin Kyouma. However, thirdly, we also learn that Okarin does seem to care for Mayushii and to be probably a pretty nice guy for the most part, since he hands over the Metal Oopa once he sees how excited she is over it. Lastly, aside from telling us about the characters’ personalities, the scene also gives us just a tiny bit of insight into their hobbies, as Mayushii is deeply knowledgeable about these tiny trinkets, whereas Okarin doesn’t even recognize when he’s picked up the rare one.

What makes this dialog so great is that it can teach us so much about the characters, without being about the characters. In a lot of shows, this would’ve been a wacky, high-tension comedy scene, wherein, after Okarin bought the gachapon in front of her, Mayushii would’ve yelled about how he’s such a bully, and how he’s always been a bully ever since they were little kids. Instead, this scene is presented without any music or fanfare, and is resolved emotionally through a brilliant piece of sound design–when a chipper-sounding intercom jingle is played just as Okarin’s heart is being warmed by the sight of Mayushii’s face. [roll clip] This is the kind of joke I’d be expecting from an Edgar Wright film, and not from a typical TV anime.

This whole scene is also propped up by the phenomenal voice performances on the parts of Mamoru Miyano and Kana Hanazawa–at least if you’re watching in Japanese. While HanaKana is clearly using an unrealistic cute and ditzy voice in this role, she nonetheless manages to sound far more grounded than a typical moe girl character would–and Miyano brilliantly balances the wacky side of his character against a deeper, more sobering voice. Considering that Miyano usually plays far more flamboyant and wacky characters, it’s kind of amazing to realize that this deranged, conspiracy-obsessed otaku with a penchant for dramatic flair is actually one of his more restrained and down-to-earth performances.

If I had to describe the overall aesthetic of Steins;Gate in terms of realism, it would be “almost anime trash, but not quite.” The look of the world is mostly realistic, but with a slightly off-kilter color palette that would be unusual in any medium. The character designs have a very pixiv-esque feel to them, being based on the super-detailed original designs from Black Rock Shooter creator huke, yet the tall bodies and relatively normal proportions of the characters make them feel fairly realistic–not unlike the designs in shows like Durarara or Kara no Kyoukai. The voice actors are clearly doing anime voices, yet they perform them with more subtlety than they typically would; and the sound design skews so sparse and foley-focused that the events feel like they’re being recorded right there in the world, rather than dramatized for television. It’s an aesthetic that allows for the show to at once be loaded with beautiful anime girls and light otaku genre trappings, while also feeling grounded and physical enough that the drama can really hit hard in the later episodes.

Following the Metal Oopa scene, the next six minutes or so would probably be especially confusing for first-time viewers–but they do provide some little hints as to the nature of what’s going on. For starters, Okarin is attending some sort of panel on the nature of time travel, which ought to clue us in right away that this will be a relevant aspect of the story. Particularly of interest is that Okarin brings up the John Titor story, which was a real-life internet hoax of the early 2000s, perpetuated by a man who claimed to be a time-traveller from the year 2036. Aside from the fact that certain elements of the story in Steins;Gate are directly based on the John Titor story, making references to it gives us an interesting frame of reference into where the series is coming from–i.e., that it’s the kind of story where an internet sci-fi hoax from the early 2000s would be relevant to the plot and characters.

Internet and science-fiction culture both play a very big role in Steins;Gate, and a huge part of how the main characters interact is based on their breadth of pop cultural knowledge and vested interest in the subjects that they find themselves involved with in the story. Knowing that Okarin is obsessed enough with time travel to be so familiar with the John Titor story is a telling part of his character, especially for any viewers who have heard of the story prior to watching the series.

Okarin is then dragged into a particularly confusing conversation with Makise Kurisu, which is mostly confusing for the reason that all of the characters involved are as confused as the viewer is. For whatever reason, Kurisu seems to think that Okarin was trying to tell her something fifteen minutes ago, whereas Okarin doesn’t seem to remember anything of the sort. Neither one of them really knows whom the other is, and Okarin’s reaction to the situation is to play up his persona as a mad scientist on the run from an evil organization, which Kurisu seems to see through pretty easily, but still doesn’t get any answers out of talking to him.

As weird as this scene feels in the moment, I think that the rest of the episode makes a pretty good case for the viewer to try watching it over again–especially for viewers who were watching the series at the time it was airing. As the episode goes along, we can piece together that what we’re experiencing is an unclosed time loop, wherein Okarin witnesses Kurisu’s murder, then goes back in time to warn her about the murder, thereby causing her to take an action which ends up preventing it. If this all seems terribly confusing, that’s because Steins;Gate operates on the parallel universes theory of time travel, and the time loop fucks with our basic understanding of events as happening in a linear sequence. If you can figure this out just by watching or rewatching this first episode once or twice, then you’ve pretty much figured out exactly what this show is about–and from there it’s just a matter of having the dramatic stakes ramped up later on.

Even amid the confusion of these scenes, we still get a lot of insight into Okarin’s character. For one, we get the sense that he’s a total weirdo and social recluse who’s trying very hard to be cool; but it’s obviously just an act, which Kurisu easily sees through. Coming back to this episode after knowing more about Kurisu’s personality makes it obvious that she probably deals with people like this all the time, given that she’s big into Japanese internet culture.

We also get a sense of Okarin’s social class when Mayushii tells him that the Metal Oopa can be sold online for 10,000 yen–which is less than 100 US dollars. This number doesn’t just excite Okarin because his lab is apparently dirt broke, but he even considers it enough money that he can buy what he describes as “science equipment” with the money. You might not come to this conclusion immediately, but given what legitimate science equipment would probably cost, it’s pretty obvious that he’s talking about thrifting around for random bullshit that he can use for his home experiments. Again, this is all dialog that tells us about Okarin’s character without really being about him.

Finally the scene rounds off with Okarin witnessing Makise Kurisu’s dead body, and then a bunch of trippy imagery back in the streets of Akiba, wherein time and space seem once more to evaporate around the edges, as Okarin loses grip on and trust in reality. This is the last piece of the puzzle for setting up what Steins;Gate is–a technology-based thriller, with an emphasis on time travel, characters who are strange, obsessive otaku, and a bit of murder mystery and psychological mindfuck thrown in for spice. It’s only appropriate, then, that with all of the pieces in place, we finally cut to the opening theme–which is energetic, fun, and cool, and has a video that suggests all kinds of trippy time and reality fuckery yet to come.

After the opening video, Okarin provides a more proper introduction to himself, his friends, and what all of them are doing, in the form of what looks at first like a fourth-wall-breaking monologue, as he addresses the audience on the other side of the TV screen. While this dialog is very obviously forced and expository, I think that the scene manages to work exceptionally well thanks to all of the stylistic layers which are stacked on top of it.

For starters, the fact that Okarin is talking into the TV seems like a pretty clear nod to the classic dystopian novel 1984, in which Big Brother watches over everyone in society by way of TV monitors in the corners of their rooms. Considering that Okarin is a conspiracy nut who thinks that he’s living in a dystopian society, it only makes sense that he’d believe there’s someone watching him from the other side of the TV screen. The fact that the show which he’s talking to is some kind of bizarre program where an alpaca with a man’s face stares into the camera absently forever, honestly makes it feel like maybe Okarin isn’t wrong to think so.

Aside from being a cool nod to classic dystopian literature, and a great visual shorthand for once again reinforcing the show’s emphasis on technology, this scene also is just really visually interesting. The fisheye lens perspective allows us to see the entire room all at once, and Okarin moving around the foreground so much allows him to alter the blocking of the shot and transform it over the course of the minutes that it stays on screen: when he’s the only one talking, then he gets in close and hogs the camera; when we need to see someone else, then he backs away, and sometimes moves to one side or the other to highlight one character at a time. It’s all around just an incredibly cool shot, and what it loses in the fact that the dialog is overly convenient, it regains in how much character is packed into each line of it.

Okarin’s acting here gives us a pretty clear portrait both of how he sees himself, and of how his relationships work with his friends. Mayushii seems eager to go along with Okarin’s persona in the name of having fun, whereas Daru sees it cynically as a chuunibyou character setting and blasts him constantly with troll comments. Something which could be somewhat muddied in translation is that Daru speaks almost entirely in 2channel lingo, which is basically like if you hung out with a 4channer who was constantly spouting memes. [Best Guy Ever] Daru’s dialog particularly brings home the fact that this show is deeply steeped in otaku and internet culture with his talk of waifus and settings–and we also learn that Mayushii is a resident cosplay expert to boot.

Sprinkled throughout the following scene is a mixture of offhand philosophical dialog, as the characters ponder whether their reality is real, or if they’re really the ones inside a monitor being watched by Alpacaman; character and relationship building between all three of the lab members as they bounce insults and ideas back and forth; and important plot details, as Okarin becomes disturbed by the discrepancies in his memories while looking at a news report about a crashed satellite. My favorite detail in this scene, though, is when Daru breaks out a toy laser gun and uses it to change the channels on the TV. In this brief moment, it becomes apparent that for all of these characters’ goofiness, they probably do know at least enough about engineering and technology that they can build rudimentary devices in special DIY fashion. When Okarin refers to this laser gun as “futuristic machine #1,” it starts to feel like what these guys probably do most of the time is scavenge random appliance parts and repurpose or modify them into fun, wacky gadgets.

The rest of the episode mostly serves to reinforce all of the things that I’ve talked about with even more fun dialog and minor character details; such as Okarin trying to argue with his landlord over a less than ten dollar TV repair fee, and Mayushii revealing that she’s the only one in the gang who seems to have any sort of allowance. Minor stuff aside, there are two other important pieces of information to pick up before the climax. Firstly, that when confronted about why she continues to hang out with a loser like Okarin, Mayushii claims that she serves an important role as his hostage. This at first seems like just some ditzy character setting aspect–but then later on, when Okarin sees her looking up at a tree, we get a flashback to her doing the same in front of a large headstone. From this, it seems likely that Mayushii hangs around with Okarin and acts so childishly out of some kind of emotional trauma that she’s experienced due to someone’s death; and that maybe Okarin is playing more of a caretaker to her than it first appears. Secondly, the scene with the gel banana makes it evident that, as goofy and ridiculous as the lab’s machines may be, they do seem to be producing some kind of unnatural results. The gel bananas are taken as equal parts useless and harmless by the characters, yet they still work as evidence to the fact that these kids might be onto something.

From there, the episode rounds off on a couple of quick twists and turns. It’s revealed that Okarin’s text message seems to have travelled a week back in time, having been cut into thirds in the process; and then we find out that Makise Kurisu is very much alive and kicking. This is what I meant when I said that the episode gives you enough to go on that you might have gone and rewatched it to try and figure out what was going on before episode two came out. Knowing what we know at the end gives a lot of insight into what was going on before, and makes it a lot easier to pick up on where the story is going after just this one episode.

So, taking stock of what we’ve discussed so far, I think it’s pretty clear that the first episode of Steins;Gate had a lot going for it. The characters were firmly established in their personalities and relationships from the get-go, and their back-and-forth rapport was a blast to listen to thanks to excellent writing and voice acting. We’ve got call-backs both to classic science-fiction stories, and to more contemporary internet conspiracy stories and message board culture, which creates a fairly unique kind of tone for a modern sci-fi story. There’s a plethora of well-directed scenes, memorable imagery, and even funny moments of sound design, suggesting a carefully-handled production–alongside bold choices being made from very early on in the name of creating the kind of atmosphere which would be most beneficial to the storyline. Top all of that off with gorgeous character designs, a pretty cool setting for those who worship at the altar of otaku, and all kinds of hilarious details like the Alpacaman TV show and Scientific Device #1, and there’s more than enough going on in this episode to suggest the possibility that this show was going to be great.

Now, none of this is to suggest that it was obvious just from this one episode that Steins;Gate would eventually be as good as it ended up being–nor is it to say that I even picked up on half of this stuff when I watched the show for the first time. The post that I wrote about it back in 2011 mostly talks about how cool it is that the show is weird and confusing and reminded me of Welcome to the NHK; but then my writing was pretty fucking terrible back then. Still, the point I’m getting at here is more that if a new season of anime started up, and I was looking at this opening episode next to all the other ones that came out, I’m pretty sure that this one would’ve blown just about everything else out of the water. Even if I had no idea what was going on in the story and was just kind of drinking in the episode’s wall of eccentric information, the fact that a show would start off with so many points of interest would’ve had my attention immediately. There’s no way in hell that I ever would’ve dropped Steins;Gate after just the first episode, because it probably would’ve been one of the most interesting things on TV at the time. (Although, in fairness, Spring 2011 was actually a really solid season with a lot of really good first episodes to go around.)

So, alright, we’ve made the case now that the first episode of a great show will probably lay a lot of groundwork for what’s good about the series as a whole; but what about when the first episode is something really weird that throws the audience for a loop and doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the story, even though it turns out to be a good show? And what would an unconvincing first episode look like from a show that never quite makes it to the level of being great? I’ll be tackling both of those questions as this video series continues, so be sure to stick around on my channel if you want to learn more. If you haven’t had enough of my voice yet, then be sure to check out the Pro Crastinators Podcast which I do with my friends once a week, and subscribe to my vlogging channel, where I constantly bitch about everything. Also, if you want to help keep my channel going, then consider supporting me via patreon by using the links below. Thanks again for watching, and I’ll see you in the next one.

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