I recently read Irina’s post on ‘That Brand New Anime Feeling‘ where she discussed what she is looking for in the first 10 minutes of an anime. It made me wonder what it was about first episodes in anime that can appeal or cause me to walk away.
Now I have previously listed the top 5 signs you’ve been completely charmed by an anime’s first episode though that definitely discussed behaviours of people who had fallen in love with a show after the first twenty minute episode was finished. I’ve also quite facetiously listed my top 5 draws when deciding what to watch but I’ll note that given I through the presence of dragons on the list and dragons in anime usually don’t go well I probably need to have a more serious look at this topic.
Because, as a seasonal viewer and an anime reviewer, I’m watching a lot of first episodes. Way more than ever appear on my blog. And twenty minutes (twenty-four minutes) isn’t really a long period of time and yet for a lot of us, the first episodes in an anime are the only episodes we’ll ever watch because there’s just too many shows premiering each season to watch them all and there’s always anime to catch up on from previous seasons.
Why do some first episodes in anime appeal and others leave you reaching for the escape key?
For each viewer, the decision of whether something appeals or not is going to be different. There are genre preferences, comparisons to other recently watched shows, expectations going in, hype, and so many other factors that ultimately play a role in that final decision a viewer will make. That’s before you even actually look at the quality of the first episode in question.
First episodes in anime are doing a lot of heavy lifting for the brief length of time they run. They are establishing their cast, setting, plot, setting up the tone, usually trying to cram in some of the standard tropes, and depending on the genre they are trying to end the episode at a point that makes the viewer want to keep watching so usually some kind of dramatic reveal or conflict (though slice of life and episodic comedy anime are probably an exception here).
Certainly there is a basic science behind writing the orientation of a story. And anime has some well established conventions and tropes that more or less help them take short cuts in establishing their genre. Also, other than the really big titles, most anime aren’t going for universal appeal but are rather trying to appeal to a specific niche audience and they know what that audience is looking for in a story.
But whether the first episode has all the requisite ingredients to be interesting doesn’t actually mean it will be. Nor does it mean that the anime is going to necessarily be good. That’s where the art comes in.
Weaving all the elements together into something that actually works and causes the audience to get sucked into the story is definitely a unique skill and two stories could have almost identical elements in their openings but elicit very different responses.
Then there’s that little something extra. The magic of having everything come together with the right story with the right visuals and the right music and all just at the right moment for the viewer. Anyone who has ever dropped an anime and then returned to it months or even years later and realised it was amazing will know that sometimes timing is everything. There’s nothing the people making the anime can do about this factor. It is entirely dependent on the viewer and their mood and mental state at the time of watching.
Or maybe they just watched too many slice of life anime the previous season and weren’t up for another. Or maybe they recently went through a bad relationship so aren’t ready for that romance.
Magic happens when all the elements come together for the viewer and then a first episode can really sweep them away.
Of course, as I say that, I’m looking at the current line up for the Fall 2021 anime season and I’m not really feeling swept off my feet, yet (there’s still plenty of first episodes to watch).
Example First Episodes in Anime
Jobless Reincarnation wasn’t really a first episode as we jumped straight into the second cour of the story without preamble, so it doesn’t really count.
Mieruko-Chan intrigued me. I won’t deny I was kind of curious about where it would go and I kind of liked the feeling that it was similar to Natsume in that the main character was trying to not stand out and was pretending she couldn’t see the ghosts. I suspect though that unlike Natsume, this isn’t going to be a story about a girl learning to accept herself and the supernatural. Given the comedy tag, I think this is going to be an ongoing gag and may wear out its welcome.
Still, as a first episode, it had some good moments. Then it also had some weird voyeuristic camera angles that felt totally out of place and for an anime tagged as comedy the laughs were a little absent.
But if we look at this as a first episode for me it built a connection to a character I’d previously loved in that the protagonist here had a similar trait. It also used the horror/supernatural genre elements at its disposal to really build some solid scenes. The bus-stop sequence in particular was awesome. The memorable character reaction (both during and after the encounter) really sold it.
So while I was left with reservations, Mieruko-Chan ended up firmly on my watch list for the season.
Compare that with something like Banished From The Hero’s Party where I don’t actually have any stand-out moment to discuss and really this one was just kind of comfort food. It didn’t do anything wrong but it also wasn’t really pulling out all the stops to appeal. It is kind of comfortable in being this mid-tier fantasy slice-of-life. They did throw in some fan-service but otherwise this first episode was unpretentious and decently executed without being exceptional.
There’s so many anime like this each season that just are genre pieces and are happy doing their thing (or at least seem like if from their first episode). For fantasy fans or those who wanted a slice of life set in a fantasy world, Banished From The Hero’s Party is competent and doesn’t seem to be trying to be anything more or less. That also means a lot of viewers will move on because time is limited and this one doesn’t seem set to make any waves.
First episodes in anime can also be incredibly divisive. Platinum End seems to be one such title with some reviewers identifying it as juvenile, edge-lord material (summation of multiple reviewer comments and not attributed to any single review) and others have found it an intriguing set up for what is going to be a shounen story (so it is aimed at teenage boys).
I fell in the camp of those who quite enjoyed the set-up for what it is and am curious about where the plot will go. I’m not under any illusions about this story actually being masterful, but the first episode in this anime established the tone, main character, and premise and whether viewers like what it is offering or not will end up being an entirely subjective choice.
I wonder though how viewers would feel about Platinum End if they’d never seen Death Note (by the same creator) or if they’d never watched Future Diary (similar premise). Would they be as critical of it or would the same first episode have had a wider appeal?
Hard to say and you can’t second guess. Platinum End is coming out in 2021 and long time viewers of anime have seen many similar stories and set-ups. Whether Platinum End will break free of the comparisons and establish its own identity is something that the first episode alone can’t tell us.
What are you looking for from the first episode of an anime?
If we go back to the initial question of whether it is magic, art or science, the answer really does end up being some combination of the three. First episodes in anime can set the internet on fire for good and bad reasons, others will fly under the radar and almost not make a ripple on the overall consciousness of the aniweb and some will find their core group of loyal viewers and that’s all they were ever aiming for.
From my perspective, the one quality that a first episode must bring to the table is that it must make me curious. Whether it is curious about the characters or curious about where the plot will go, I need something that makes me want to ask questions and makes me want to watch more. Of course, that does mean I sometimes watch multiple episodes of obvious train-wrecks like Tesla Note because I am curious about where the plot is going despite the obvious issues with it as an anime. But that’s okay.
As they say, “Time You Enjoyed Wasting Is Not Wasted Time”. While I’m still enjoying watching an anime, even if it ends up not being good, I don’t feel too bad about it. Of course, in the rare cases where I watch an anime I’ve clearly ceased enjoying I often wonder why I wasted those precious minutes.
Be sure to leave me a comment letting me know what it is you are looking for from the first episode in an anime.
Thank-you for reading 100 Word Anime.
Join the discussion in the comments.
8 thoughts on “Is It Magic, Art, Or Science? Why do some first episodes in anime appeal and others leave you reaching for the escape key?”
I have a ton of anime that I have stopped watching after 4 or 5 episodes, but rarely do I watch one episode and say to myself “that’s it! Mo more of that!”. Nonetheless, it has happened on occasion, and I think the causes you identify are spot on. In particular, the mood/mindset/circumstances of the viewer (which, as you point out, is entirely beyond the control of the creators) as well as the viewer having glutted themselves on similar genres (also beyond the creators’ control) are two key reasons why I have stopped watching an anime series after a few eps. As for stopping after one – usually it’s been a case of “well, that was boring”. Or, more accurately, as you surmise, it failed to pique my curiosity. Also absurd or puerile sexualisation usually rules out me watching more than one episode; I just find a juvenile approach to sex and sexuality really tedious. Anyhoo, thanks for this piece – some really thoughtful insights here! 🙂
The worst thing an anime can be is boring. Far worse than just being badly made or written.
Well I suspect bad production and writing contribute to boring…but, yes, even mere engagement is not substitute for the genuinely interesting…
A phrase often heard in my house after a great episode of anime is “That was never 24 minutes!” It’s not my only measure of quality, but if a show makes me say that, it has successfully drawn me in and I’ll definitely be back next week.
First episodes are the biggest anomaly in anime for me. Some really set up for a thrill ride, some start a series off strong when then falls off a cliff, some have awful first episodes then pick up later.
Getting it right is a skill, because anime has just 20 minutes to hook us whereas most dramas have an hour, films have longer with their opening act and books can draw you in to stay with the first few chapters.
Then we are expected to come back the following week and see what happens next but if that opener didn’t grab us, we may not be back. This, for me at least, is only overcome when binge watching via review discs because I am duty bound to go the distance and often find some shows take a while to establish themselves.
Some shows, usually action shows, tend to use reverse psychology in having the first episode be an example of what the action is like and introduce the cast, then start the story proper in episode 2, often by going back to what created the world and the situation the protagonist is in. It is easy to see how some viewers might not enjoy this come down after an explosive debut episode, making this a risky move.
Ultimately, the opening episode should leave us wanting more and if it does that then the rest of the series needs to be strong enough to fulfil this promise, leading to an equally crucial final episode to wrap things up. It is amazing how many shows get this so wrong and end up shooting themselves in the foot.
I would like to conclude it isn’t rocket science but after what I have just proffered, maybe it is…. <_<
You are right that binging is quite a different experience because even if something is just okay it is easy enough to keep watching. Going back after a whole week to something that you were on the fence about is much harder.
I think, for me, I just want a first episode the draw me in. I don’t mind if it didn’t do anything new, or there wasn’t a big shock or cliffhanger, I just want to enjoy it enough to want to see more. I’m fairly simple like that.