How To Recognize A Great Anime (in just one episode) [Part 2]

Edited by The Davoo

Text version:

If you ask me, the best way to watch The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya is in its original broadcast episode order. Here’s why: the first season of Haruhi is an adaptation of three volumes of the light novel series–the first of which consists mostly of character introductions and long pieces of exposition before jumping into a big emotional climax; and the third of which is a handful of short stories which are mostly focused on fun character interactions.

If these stories had been adapted into anime chronologically–as a lot of people seem to be insistent on watching them–then you’d reach the story’s biggest emotional climax halfway into the series; before jumping into a bunch of random side-stories, leading up to an unceremonious ending. Kyoto Animation obviously recognized this problem, and decided to shuffle the episodes on their broadcast so that the character introductions and exposition would be broken up by all the fun side stories, leaving the biggest emotional climax to come near the end of the series. Said climax is made even stronger in the process, as the viewer has a lot more time to form emotional connections with the characters over the course of the show, meaning that they can really feel something when that climax occurs.

This format was able to make sense because so many of Haruhi’s episodes worked so well as stand-alone stories, and were able to keep the viewer curious about the elements which they didn’t quite understand yet until those things were explained. Like in the case of Steins;Gate, this also lead to the effect wherein watching the series over again was even more rewarding because of all the little things that you’d notice which you might not have otherwise.

One of the major factors which is often cited in the defense of watching Haruhi chronologically is that the first episode of the broadcast version is very bizarre and confusing, and doesn’t offer a lot of explanation about what the show is actually going to be. I distinctly remember when the first episode dropped, reading speculation on anime forums about whether this was going to be a show about amateur filmmaking–and I don’t think it would be at all unreasonable to make that mistake. However, the idea that this doesn’t make for an excellent opening episode for the series, or that it doesn’t tell you exactly what you’re in for as well as an opener possibly could, is where I have to disagree.

The most prominent thematic aspect of the Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya is exploring and playing with the meta-textual elements of anime as a whole. The main character, Kyon, has grown up into a cynical person who’s long stopped believing in the kinds of fantasies which would be portrayed in anime, video games, and sci-fi stories; yet ends up coming into contact with three different people who each represent some kind of classic sci-fi cliche. Meanwhile, Haruhi, who gathered all of these characters together, wants desperately to believe in the existence of these cliches, but isn’t allowed to know about them. From there, hilarity ensues.

While the chronological beginning of the series does indeed start from the beginning of the story and informs us of the goals and personalities of Kyon and Haruhi before diving into the main point–which is why it made for a great second episode in broadcast order–it doesn’t really capture a lot of what the story is actually about or what makes it good. We only meet three of the main characters, and we don’t learn any of the important parts of the plot; nor is the meta-textual comedy element made immediately clear. It kind of just feels like any old opening episode of a light novel series; especially nowadays when such a thing comes at a dime a dozen.

Meanwhile, the first episode of the original broadcast starts off firing on all cylinders with an utterly bizarre parody of the moe and magical girl genres in the form of this badly sung, hilarious opening video which you can immediately tell was made up by the characters in-universe before we even know anything about them whatsoever. The very first seconds of the show are one of its biggest moments of genre parody–which sets the tone for the entire series perfectly.

Over the course of the episode, we see the main characters acting out a silly, cliched anime plot for the camera, while Kyon delivers sarcastic narration and constantly breaks the film’s fourth wall–which is pretty much what the Haruhi experience is all about, only without the context of being a mock student film. Of course, we can’t know this at the time, but all of the cliches which the characters are performing match up with the cliches that that actually turn out to represent in reality–as the show itself is about a bunch of anime cliches pretending not to be cliches, while ending up in cliche scenarios. There’s so many layers of irony to this series that it’s hard to know where to begin with unravelling them; but this episode makes that aspect of the story abundantly clear, even if only in its ludicrously ambitious production design.

Kyoto Animation put an astonishing level of effort into making this episode mimic the look and feel of a low-effort and low budget film–which is, in itself, some kind of irony ouroboros. I could probably go on for half an hour about every hilarious audio hiccup, background detail, lighting mistake except it’s not a mistake because the animators deliberately made it look like a mistake, bad acting except that it’s bad acting on the part of characters being played by real actors, which in turn makes it amazing acting, et cetera. There is no end to the layers here.

Even if this episode didn’t perfectly convey the general thematic ideas and feelings of the series as a whole, it nonetheless would’ve made an incredible first episode just on the back of how unique and ambitious it was. It’s definitely not like anything I’ve ever seen before or since, and the attention to detail in its production design is still impressive to this day. Even more so than Steins;Gate, I feel like if this show came on at the start of a new season, I’d be amped for it straight from the starting gun–which I honestly don’t think I’d be able to say about episode two. Haruhi pulled out a lot of ambitious tricks over the course of its run to keep itself exciting and interesting, and I think it’s for that exact reason that it became the massive success that it was.

Another series which played around with its chronology in similar ways for similar reasons, and which has also taken some flack for its bizarre opening episode, is Baccano! Not unlike Haruhi, the Baccano anime adapted four volumes of the original light novels–a story about immortal gangsters, a two-part story about a crazy-ass train heist, and a story about a big gang war–all set over the course of a three-year period. The anime adaptation mixed them all together into one spiralling storyline for the same reason that Haruhi did–so that all of the climaxes would come at the end of the series; instead of awkwardly reaching minor climaxes and then building back up from the bottom as many light novel adaptations tend to do every few episodes.

But whereas Haruhi was able to mix up its episodes with near reckless abandon thanks to many of them making for such great stand-alone pieces, the winding narrative of Baccano’s three stories is a lot more complex. Each one of them has its own sizable ensemble cast, and the combination of all of them leads to a roster of characters so huge that you need the entire OP just to keep track of them. It takes a while to fully appreciate how each of these stories intersects and interacts with one-another, or even to figure out what any of the characters are really all about. As such, the first episode makes the interesting decision not to start with any of the stories or characters right away, but instead to spend the first half of the episode establishing the mindset with which the series should be approached.

It’s worth noting that this isn’t out of character for the source material; the first book of the light novels uses the framing device of being told as a story from one character to another at a much later point in the timeline. Jumping between characters and points in time is a common element even of the original story, which is meant to play off of the fact that a lot of the main cast is comprised of immortals, who go on getting themselves into all kinds of mischief over large swathes of the 20th century.

The anime series in particular seems to borrow a lot structurally from the films of Guy Ritchie and Quentin Tarantino–with Baccano’s OP having been very obviously based on the same sequence from the start of Ritchie’s Snatch, and the aftermath of the Flying Pussyfoot incident echoing the opening scene from Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. Both of these are anachronically-told, ensemble gangster films, which are all about putting their smirking style first and portraying a cast full of wacky, colorful badasses–which is exactly Baccano’s raison d’etre.

So the first episode opens up on this conversation between the vice-president of a newspaper group and his assistant discussing the nature of storytelling; and trying to determine which elements of this story would be necessary to its conveyance, or what would make for the best starting point–ending with the very meta conclusion that they, themselves, could be that. It’s basically the show’s way of informing you that its plot is complicated and has lots of moving parts, and that there’s no one starting point that necessarily makes the most sense. If you’ve ever seen Mr BTongue’s video explaining the concept of Shandification by way of the Fallout games, then you’ll really get where this conversation is coming from–and if you haven’t seen that video, then I highly recommend doing so, because it can double as a great Baccano analysis in this regard.

Understandably, this scene could be pretty confusing for new viewers, and it doesn’t really do a lot to establish the actual story or characters. For me, a lot of the appeal of this scene the first time through was just in listening to Norio Wakamoto droll out the word “Carol” while talking to Chiwa Saito; and staring at the gorgeous character and setting designs. But what this scene does accomplish is a lot of establishing the general tone and feel of the series. We start off with some fun, weird characters who feel very strongly about oddly specific things; flashes of intense violence and gore; an establishment of the setting of Prohibition-era New York; some really badass animation of something very supernatural happening to a guy’s fingers; and a chronology that you’d need a map and a compass in order to track. Do I even need to mention at this point that this episode is a lot of fun to go back to on the rewatch?

The second half of the episode isn’t so much built around conveying plot information, as it is around setting up certain ideas. It cuts together a spattering of events from all over the timeline to communicate some of the most important plot elements, just so that we’ll have them in mind for the future. We learn that there’s a mafia turf war going on; that a guy named Dallas Genoard is in some deep shit with one of those mafia families, while his sister is worried about him; that there’s a bunch of characters who can be riddled with bullets and still manage to survive; and that some crazy ass shit went down on this train that half of the cast just rolled in on. A surprising amount of these scenes actually take place at the very end of the story, with almost none of it happening at the chronological beginning–yet they create some sense of what we’re going to be getting out of the series eventually when things come to a head.

Now, I’m fully willing to admit that the first episode of Baccano is not one of the best first episodes of anime out there, and certainly not one of the best episodes of the show. I think that it possibly goes too far with showing so many scenes that the viewer has no reason to care about or understand yet, and that it wasn’t totally necessary to put these exact scenes at the beginning. All of the things that I just described could’ve been accomplished with a different scene selection, and perhaps fewer moments that outright don’t mean anything yet.

However, I do think that the first episode of Baccano did more than enough to show that it had potential to be an amazing series. Hell, the OP alone would have been enough to convince me that this show was worth watching to the end, cause Christ if it didn’t kick ass. The first time I saw this episode back when it was airing, I was really excited to be getting what felt like the anime version of some of my favorite stylish gangster movies; and the level of badass violence, cool looking characters, and sleek animation was more than enough to hook me in. I don’t know if Baccano would’ve had my favorite opener of the season in every season that I can imagine like the other two shows that I talked about; but looking at Summer 2007’s showing, the only thing that I remember liking more on the basis of its first episode was Zetsubou-sensei. In any case, I certainly didn’t drop it.

So alright, up until this point I’ve been playing defense for opening episodes that I think do more to accentuate the positive qualities of the shows that they come from than they’re often given credit for–but now I wanna take a look at an opener which was not only controversial at the time that it came out, but which may have played a role in getting the show’s director fired. I’m talking about the infamous first episode of Lucky Star–a show whose director, Yutaka Yamamoto, was let go after the first four episodes and replaced with another KyoAni staffer, Yasuhiro Takemoto.

Now, before I go making too much of a big deal out of the director change, I think it’s important to assess how much of a difference this actually made, and why it may have happened. For one thing, it’s most likely that the script for the show was already completed before any of it went to air, so it’s not as though giving Yamakan the axe meant that the entire nature of the show was going to change. If you didn’t know about this alteration, then you could probably watch the entire show without noticing that anything had happened. Yamakan is even credited still on some of the storyboards and scripts that he provided for later episodes in the series, so it’s not as though they threw out all of his creative input.

Moreover, from what I’ve observed over the years, Kyoto Animation seems to be a pretty tightly-knit studio with a clear voice that tends to come through no matter who’s directing their shows. While I, having studied their work for a decade now, could probably break down all of the subtleties in the directing styles of Naoko Yamada vs. Tatsuya Ishihara, it wouldn’t change the fact that even a casual viewer can tell when a show was made by Kyoto Animation at little more than a glance. I also suspect that Yamakan being let go may have only had as much to do with his performance as a director as it had to do with the fact that he’s a volatile, pretentious asshole, who has achieved a degree of infamy over the years for his controversial statements.

The point I’m getting at here, is that Lucky Star’s first four episodes aren’t *that* different from the rest of the show. However, it is definitely true that the series gets a lot more comedy-focused and generally better as it goes along, so it’s understandable that some viewers may not be able to warm up to the show until it reaches the point where things get a bit more exciting.

I would also make the argument that pretty much every slice-of-life show gets better over time, as it has the chance to flesh out and endear you to its characters–and to gradually make you feel like you’re watching the interactions of some friends that you know and love, as opposed to a bunch of strangers whom you’ve just met. I think it’s for this exact reason that Lucky Star’s opener was risky and off-putting for a lot of people, because it doesn’t make for much of an easing-in period. It feels like the viewer is plopped right into the middle of a show that they were supposed to have already been familiar with and just runs with it. Like every other episode that I’ve talked about, it’s another one that’s a lot easier to parse on a rewatch, but it’s more difficult for me to blame someone if they didn’t get what the appeal of this series was after just this episode.

Still, it would be difficult for me to think of this episode as being very far below the baseline quality of Lucky Star episodes; and the sheer notoriety of it as an event piece has definitely made it one of the most memorable opening episodes of any series I can think of–which I’m sure is exactly what Yamakan was going for, given his penchant for great marketing gimmicks. This was the guy who choreographed Haruhi’s famous Hare Hare Yukai dance, after all, and then went on to popularize Lucky Star with a high-energy opening dance of its own. Either one of these has a cultural footprint on anime history which is deeper than a lot of complete series.

Lucky Star opens up on a nearly eight-minute scene of its characters sitting around in a classroom talking about food. It’s very cleverly directed, with the characters seamlessly weaving between literal and figurative reality in the middle of the conversation, and there’s a few moments of dry comedy sprinkled in that do legitimately make me laugh out loud. It’s hard for me to step outside of myself on this one, though; if you’re a fan of my let’s play channel, then you’ve probably listened to hours of me talking about food in much the same way, because eating is my favorite pastime and I have a lot to say about it.

A couple of years ago, I made a video about the similarities between the appeal of slice-of-life anime, and that of podcasts and let’s plays; and I think that the first episode of Lucky Star conveys this kind of appeal perfectly–which is probably deliberate, given the origins of the series. Years before the manga was adapted into animation, Lucky Star had already been adapted into a set of drama CDs–which are basically like a scripted radio program. Moreover, leading up to the release of the anime series, there was a tie-in radio show called Lucky Channel, which would turn into a segment at the end of each episode of the anime. Knowing all of this, I think that what the anime series was going for was a cross between the style of a four-panel comedy manga adaptation, and that of a more free-form radio program–wherein the characters could engage in longer, more detailed conversations, as opposed to just setups and punchlines. In a way, I’d even say that the series was ahead of its time with this idea, and I’m surprised that another big series hasn’t come along to try and deliver on that premise in an even bigger way.

Between the hyperactive opening title sequence, the perhaps overly ambitious episode structure, the bizarre Lucky Channel segment, and the bit wherein the characters are overheard performing karaoke in lieu of an ending theme, the first episode of Lucky Star was definitely nothing short on ideas; and a lot of people continued with the series at the time out of sheer curiosity over where it was planning to go with those ideas. For me personally, I was pretty new to the whole slice-of-life genre at the time, and was wowed enough by the cute designs and vibrantly well-chosen color palette that I was on board for the ride. It took a while for me to really get into the series myself–to the effect of watching the entire thing twice before considering myself a fan–but I definitely think that if something like this dropped today, I’d be intrigued by its ballsiness right from the get-go.

Glancing over the stuff that I’ve been getting out of this genre over the last couple of years really makes it sink in just how inventive Lucky Star really was when I look back on it today. After rewatching the first episode for the sake of writing this video, I immediately found myself wanting to marathon the series all over again, even more so than I did for Haruhi or Baccano. That whole scene where Kagamin feels like she’s in hell listening to the aimless small talk between Tsukasa and Miyuki has more self-awareness to it than anything that I’ve seen in the current season’s moe offerings, and I feel a burning need for that kind of quality right now.

By this point, I really hope I’ve made the case that a great show is usually recognizable from the very beginning. Even if the first episode might be a little bit confusing, or might not necessarily be indicative of how good the series will eventually be, it usually makes for a great showcase of the show’s core essence, and gets you in the right mindset for approaching what will come later. In the next video I’d like to present the flipside of the coin–a first episode which raises all of the warning flags that what I’m about to watch is probably going to suck–even if those flags aren’t immediately obvious to most viewers. Stick around on my channel if you want to see that, and consider supporting me via patreon if you want to help these videos to get made. Check out my podcast if you can’t get enough of my voice, and follow my vlogging channel for a frankly disturbing frequency of content. Thanks again for watching, and I’ll see you in the next one.

2 thoughts on “How To Recognize A Great Anime (in just one episode) [Part 2]

  1. Since you mentioned Reservoir Dogs earlier, for me that whole chocolate cornet conversation in Lucky Star reminded me of the gangsters discussing Madonna’s Like A Virgin at the start of Reservoir Dogs, or the foot massage debate between John Travolta and Samuel Jackson in Pulp Fiction. It had that same quality of being able to suck me right in even as nothing happens.

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