There’s been a lot already said about the proliferation of anime, seasonal watchers, and the general idea that there’s just too much content so I’m really not going to get into that. However, in that sea of content, creators know they have to get the attention of their very fickle audience and then they have to catch us and reel us in. Mostly because seasonal watchers tend to demonstrate a number of common traits: a short attention span and limited tolerance for ‘filler’.
While previously shows have had episodes to build a world and characters, now many viewers make snap judgements with some cutting episodes before the first scene is done. Where the three episode rule used to hold true, and current narratives seem to be well aware of such a rule with more and more shows either moving a mini-climax to episode two or making episode 3 a two-parter to draw their episode back (How Not To Summon A Demon Lord), less viewers seem to actually hold to this rule these days. To be honest, they just don’t want to sink an hour of their lives into something they are ultimately going to drop.
As such we are getting more and more first episodes and more and more characters with quite distinct traits designed to draw the audience in with the hope that then the rest of the story will hook the in for the season. While sometimes this works beautifully as the audience is dragged along on a wondrous adventure before being cut loose to go and bite some other line, other times it leaves the audience feeling like they got reeled in and left high and dry.
This isn’t exactly new. Entertainment has always been competitive and most shows have always realised they needed something to distinguish themselves from other titles. Yet in the age of streaming and simulcasts this has become more important than ever and it is starting to show in the way first arcs are feeling more and more compacted and rushed and mid-seasons are feeling a little bit empty before we escalate toward a climax.
Now, there are some obvious baiting moves. If we look at Darling in the Franxx, well we already know how they baited their hook, the glorious Zero-Two. She was such an energetic enigma of a character in the first episode. Throw in some nudity, a bit of danger, and a sense of her rebellious nature, and you have the perfect bait for a community to go crazy on social media. And so they did. I also really loved Zero-Two’s initial characterisation particularly the way they built up the idea of her being a partner killer. However, this was definitely a case of bait and switch as little came of the partner killer idea beyond the first arc and Zero-Two became a progressively less interesting character as the season continued.
Clearly the writers knew how to grab the audience’s attention but then they didn’t know what to do with it. They’d created this perfectly researched, tantalising character, but had no message, point, or even solid arc for her to travel on. By the time she literally became a hollow shell before turning to stone while staring at the sky a lot of the love for Zero-Two had worn down and many viewers realised that they’d been hooked onto a show that ultimately didn’t suit them and what they wanted from an anime.
Other obvious baiting moves include the flash forward or flash back to some kind of massive conflict that may or may not become relevant later. The issue with this is it has been done to death and when done poorly, it mostly just eats up screen time with characters no one knows running around or shouting and there’s little reason to care what is going on (Lord of Vermilion – looking at you right now). However, this can be highly effective bait.
Look at the opening sequence to season one of Attack on Titan. The birds slowly flying over the city to the wall where we suddenly see the titan emerging. The close ups on the character’s eyes as they widen in fear and horror. This sequence is brief enough that it doesn’t feel like wasted time and yet sensational enough to have an impact. The audience wants to know. When is this going to happen? What happens next? And fortunately, Attack on Titan knew what to do after baiting the hook. It delivered the titan by the end of the episode. No waiting an entire season just to get back to the original bait. For all that Attack on Titan might be criticised for some of its narrative choices, it knew exactly how to capture an audience and that really explains why its popularity exploded the way it did, even if the longevity of that massive fan-base wasn’t so set in stone.
However, bait isn’t limited to first episodes. Supporting characters introduced later in their series need bait as well otherwise they get crowded out or forgotten. There are many shows where viewers would struggle to name any of the support characters even a month after the show finished its run. Yet a memorable support cast can really elevate a viewing experience.
That word memorable might be a bit of a double edge sword though with some shows simply giving characters insane designs or making them needlessly crazy but forgetting to actually characterise them in any meaningful way. The Musicians from Caligula would fit this bill. They were definitely visually distinct and yet their characters rang very hollow and ultimately I couldn’t tell you anything about any of them, except one of the guys had some complex about another guy being prettier than him. That isn’t exactly leaving an impression.
My Hero Academia excels at building its support cast and baiting their individual story-lines so that when the main narrative turns its attention to one of these characters it doesn’t feel like filler but rather like a much anticipated story thread. Who didn’t want to know the story behind Todoroki’s scarred face? Who isn’t curious about Tokoyami’s dark shadow? And let’s be honest, if Twitter is anything to go by, Tsuyu is a character who has captured all the fan’s attention and the filler episode of season 2 was entirely a show about everyone’s beloved Froppy. These characters each have something about them that makes the audience want to know more and feel satisfied when they finally get it. They are talked about almost as much as the protagonist’s, and they are an intrinsic part of what makes the show feel like more than what the basic narrative of Midoriya becoming a hero really should warrant.
When a show does baiting right the audience feels satisfied and happy with the experience. When the baiting is just that and there’s no substance to back it up, then the audience feels cheated. When the baiting is poorly done the audience looks at the hook and then turns away looking for something better.
Of course, that does leave us all with the question of whether or not this is going to have a positive impact on how stories are told? While grabbing a reader’s attention has always been an important goal for a story, usually there was more time to do this. As we get increasingly more gimmicky, more violent, more zany and more over the top premises clamouring for our attention (and longer and longer titles on light novels) you have to wonder where it is all going and whether we’ve already gone too far. Has narrative integrity been abandoned for a series of point in time sensational moments that will be shared on social media?
The more cynical would say yes, but that is ignoring some fairly fantastic stories that have come out in recent times. However, there is definitely a shift occurring in the way stories are presented and as always it is the audience driving this shift, whether we’re doing it intentionally or not.
Over to the readers then: What is the worst bait an anime has used to hook its audience?
Thanks for reading.
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18 thoughts on “Friday’s Feature: Baiting the Hook”
I’ve never really paid attention to baiting in anime, so this post has made for quite interesting reading! I definitely won’t be able to unsee it now.
I’m always fairly curious about what shows are going to do early on to either distinguish themselves or ensure they don’t have a third episode drop. There’s definitely a trend in where two part episodes or mini-climaxes are placed these days.
I’ll definitely be keeping my eyes open from now on
children of the whales took more than one episode to reveal itself to the audience if i remember correctly. i’d say that show did an effective bait and hook because they had a coherent story that felt evenly paced for the most part
There are definitely things that Children of the Whales could have improved, but they didn’t just throw all their good ideas into episode 1. They actually did progressively reveal things and build on them. While overall, I didn’t really end up clicking with Children of the Whales, I definitely watched it all the way through so it got my attention and kept it.
This was very insightful. I think that most of the spring season baited us with these exciting trailors, only to deliver some boring storylines with generic characters. Or, the opening scene promised something interesting, only for it to be thrown away for easy storytelling. I have yet to finish Darling because I hate what happend to Zero-Two. She had this ferocity at the beginning that made her captivating. Now, I’m not as interested.
Spring definitely started strong but few shows delivered in the end (then again, I wasn’t watching any of the shows that ended up being season favourites so maybe that’s why I had such a slow season).
I’m not into frat boy behaviour or drinking but I am finding Grand Blue hilarious, especially as the behaviour always backfires on the leads. Maybe it is the base side of my sense of humour coming to the fore but this is one of my fave shows of the season. It’s good to laugh at typical anime tropes once in a while. 😉
But back on topic, the worst kind of baiting is a show with a promising concept or central premise established in the first episode which is then completely ignored for the next eight or nine chapters as they cover the usual anime activities (inc the obligatory beach/onsen outing) then remember the story with two episodes to go, leading to a mad rush to reach the conclusion! >:(
I think you just described like 60% of all anime series. Set up a great concept, go through usual anime antics, get back to your concept in a rush to conclude.
Yup – and it’s annoying! 😛
Well, as you know I still have a hard time dropping shows. So even when I am not baited in a first episode I try to stick around and see if it’s going to improve along the way. What I think is one of the worst things a show can do is present itself as something, and then turn out totally different than what it was. (Although there is one example I can think off where that actually worked and that is School-life). The latter show also took a risk though. I think there might definitely have been some people who did know about what the series turned into, and might have switched it off after the first five minutes. Maybe that is a case where we are actually talking about reverse click bait? (Yup..just totally though up that name 😂😂)
I disagree on Zero Two being a bait-and-switch. Calling it that would imply that they intended to substitute an inferior character design/arc down the line, but I don’t think that was the case. Rather, they couldn’t even figure out how to tell the story in the first place. The derailing of all the characters was mostly just a side-effect of that.
I wonder, too, if this whole less-than-three rule now is more so just new to anime as it spreads further into the west. Live-action western TV shows have been trying to hook people on the pilot ep for as far back as I can remember, and that would at least slightly predate the era of streaming service dominance. I think every era has its “violent, gimmicky” bits, too. Like the ultra-violent testosterone fests of the 80’s and 90s (both animated and live-action).
I can see why some might say that narrative integrity has taken a hit recently, but like you said, that would discount several recent stories that haven’t thrown everything at the wall in the first two episodes (Violet Evergarden, Made in Abyss, A Place Further Than… and so on).
Fair enough on Zero Two. She was hardly the only issue with Franxx and really her character was probably more a victim of poor narrative choices in general.
Yes, as much as I could find plenty of examples that would support the loss of narrative integrity in recent times, there are plenty of older shows that do much the same thing, and there are still quality stories mixed in amongst them each season. I think it really comes down to individual choices. That and just because something does throw a flashy hook at you in episode one doesn’t mean the story is going to end up going nowhere. It may actually still be a decent story that they dressed up to avoid getting overlooked in the crowd.
Grand Blue Dreaming certainly baited during it’s promos – pushing the diving aspect and ignoring the frat boy antics entirely. Or maybe that was trolling, the line between them can get blurry.
The line definitely gets blurry sometimes. With Grand Blue Dreaming I don’t think it would have mattered which aspect it played up (the diving or the frat boys) because I’m not interested in either so would have passed on it either way.