At four weeks into the Autumn season of anime I’m now reflecting on the choices I made about what to watch and what to pass on. A lot of these choices are made at episode 1 (even if they aren’t confirmed I really do start leaning heavily towards watching or dropping something during that first episode). This season I probably sampled more shows than ever before and I watched shows with blurbs that I would usually have never touched (To Be Hero definitely fell in this category). So this time around I decided to think about what I like and don’t like in a first episode and what are some of the major factors that will make me walk away from a show early on.
These are just my thoughts and I’d love to hear yours below.
Like most things it is easier to start with what I definitely don’t like in a first episode rather than defining what I actually do like. The main things that will see me bailing at episode 1 (or soon after) are:
- It’s hideously ugly or the character designs creep me out to the point where I’m not paying attention to the story. This one is really subjective but it was a lot of the reason why I never got into Mob Psycho 100 (okay it isn’t ugly but its unique style is not one that really appealed to me). And to take a second swipe at To Be Hero, it fit into this category as well (though clearly they were hoping that the appearance would add to the ‘humour’ of the situation).
- On the opposite end of the spectrum, its pretty and bubbly and bright and excessively chirpy to boot. Sorry, I just can’t handle stories about idols and happy groups of people bouncing along to reach their dreams (reason why I didn’t even try Love Live or any thing similar).. While I don’t need my anime characters to be miserable, I’d really prefer not feeling like their smile was about to knock me out of my seat every two seconds while viewing. Dream festival definitely hit this button for me and got dropped before I even finished the first episode. Maybe it doesn’t stay this bright and bubbly throughout but it was all just too many sparkles.
- Moving away from the appearance of things, a first episode where nothing happens is usually enough for me to call it a day. Or rather, stuff happens but I either don’t care about it anyway or the show gives me no reason to be invested in the outcome. Touken Ranbu Hanmaru fell into this category. An episode spent semi-introducing so many characters I couldn’t remember their names before plunging into a badly choreographed fight sequence where I didn’t care if anyone was injured or who won because I’d been given no reason to and this anime hit the chopping block. Last season it was Scared Riders Xechs that I gave up on due to lack of caring about anything that happened in episode 1.
- The last thing that really causes me to run away from a show is absolute atrocious execution of an idea. This is probably the one that annoys me the most because you can sense that somewhere in amongst the mire of poorly delivered dialogue and frantic jumping around there just might be a brilliant story buried, but you aren’t going to find it. Occult;Nine nailed this by minute 5 and while I forced myself to sit through the remainder of the episode I already knew I was never going to continue the series (which is a shame because I’d kind of looked forward to that one). That said, I didn’t really drop anything last season because of this in the first episode so it is rare that something seems to be good but delivers it in a way that is unbearably bad from the word go. I mean, Big Order should fit into this category but episode 1 was kind of coherent compared to the rest of the series.
As I said at the beginning, it is much easier to criticise and state what I don’t like than it is to really explain what makes a good first episode. While there isn’t a magic formula or any guarantee there are some elements that will definitely encourage me to keep watching regardless of the potential flaws in a premise.
- Wow, that opening was amazing. I was enthralled and it was great to listen to and the visuals just really had an impact. Opening themes seriously can make or break a show and while a lot of first episodes either don’t have an opening or don’t include the visuals (they play the song either at the end or over an introductory scene to avoid spoilers that may be given in their own opening) a great opening song will keep me watching something for at least half-a-season before that 1 – 2 minutes of joy becomes outweighed by the drag of the rest of the show.
Autumn has been particularly light on themes that have grabbed (with the exception of Yuri on Ice and I promise I will stop gushing about this theme eventually). Evangelion has one of the best openings ever and it was the first one I learned to sing in Japanese just by watching the show (or just the opening) over and over again. Original Sailor Moon had a truly amazing opening if you are pre-teenage girl (which I was when I watched it). Steins;Gate had the kind of opening that visually was mesmerizing and it worked so perfectly with the series. All of these shows hooked you in with their openings (although they also delivered a fairly rewarding viewing experience – though some of you may argue about Evangelion).
- I may not know where this is going yet, but I’m intrigued. Give me something to try to predict or guess. Give me something I need to figure out. Give me enough decent plot points that I can see that you are going to go somewhere with it and that somewhere might be great. The first episode may not be a masterpiece (after all you have to introduce characters and setting and that takes up valuable time and while you can do it in a fluid way, generally we end up with info-dumps galore and if we dropped every anime that did that I’d not have much to watch) but if somewhere in this first episode you give me enough reason to believe there is a final destination to the story, I’ll usually stick around. These are the anime that get until at least episode 3 to impress. After you’ve got your characters and a setting, have you done anything with them or are they going through the motions?
Magical Girl Raising Project wasn’t a great first episode but I kind of wanted to know what they were going to do different to other dark magical girl stories. In episode 2 the only answer I got to that was make one of them look like a witch and another a cowgirl and there ceased to be any hints of something interesting looming in the shows future. On the other hand, Flip Flappers delivered an interesting but confused first episode and didn’t explain much in episode 2 but at least kept the promise of future reveals and intrigue. Maybe it will all amount to nothing but it held my interest sufficiently to throw it over the line.
Alderamin on the Sky last season started with a ho-hum kind of opening but there was enough hope of something emerging and fortunately it did. That show just kept building on the world it had kind of half-heartedly introduced during the first episode and the characters definitely grew into their roles. It ended up being one of my favourites for the year.
Another anime that really did this was Psycho Pass. Episode 1 just got me asking so many questions. The episode was actually good in its own right, which just made the whole viewing pleasurable, but just thinking about what had happened and the implications of living in a world where you could be executed on the spot for exceeding a certain level of stress (in a highly stressful situation) and the choice that Akane made during that situation… It was just so much fun and it made me want more.
- This last one is obvious but has to be said: Good-quality story telling. That really should be obvious but sometimes you have to wonder. My two top picks in week 1 were Natsume Yuujinchou Go and March Comes in Like a Lion. Neither of these are going to blow you away with mad action sequences but both have a clear focus to their plot and deliver their story in a way that makes it completely immersive.
Natsume’s first episode certainly did use an info-dump as has been formula for the previous 4 seasons as Natsume narrates the circumstances that have led to him living where he is now, but after that the story unfolds organically and at a well thought out pace. In March Comes in Like a Lion we have some fairly impressive visuals and heavy reliance on symbolism to convey information but again the story unfolds at a well thought out pace and the entire episode just felt like everything had been put in exactly the right place and time.
Okay, I’ve definitely gone on long enough so I’m going to turn it over to you. What do you admire in first episodes and what makes you go running for the hills?