Does It Matter If An Anime Is More Style Than Substance?

As we launch into the Winter 2020 anime season viewers are now seeing the return of the Madoka franchise. One that is either beloved or seen as overrated depending on which side of the debate you choose to sit on. However one of the common arguments I heard against the original Madoka TV series from the detractors was the it was a visual spectacle or a caricature of the magical girl genre but lacked substance. I kind of disagreed as I felt the series had enough substance in Madoka’s choice for the run time, but it is one of those arguments that leaves you wondering whether it would even matter if the anime didn’t have any substance and was just stylistically interesting.

Which of course made me wonder when Magia Record popped up this season (yeah I wasn’t paying attention to what was coming out in 2020 so it caught me by surprise) whether this newest side-story had anything new to say. As much as I am a fan of the Madoka TV series I’ve never gone on and watched the movies, though I’ve been told they are good. The reason was that I was deeply satisfied with the story the series gave and where it concluded for the characters. I didn’t feel compelled to watch on as I felt that they had made the point they’d set out to make and the story was done.

Yet here we are 9 years later and this franchise continues in a lot of forms outside of the anime TV series and now we’re getting another anime series. Magia Record most definitely caught the visual style of Madoka in both the characters and the settings. Yet that first episode felt like Madoka lite. Part of the reason was probably because there was no shock factor to be had in the story with the appearance of the witches or the darkness underlying what it means to be a magical girl. However, even in the decision to send the protagonists’ family away takes away from an opportunity to show the impact the events in the magical girl aspects will have in the grounded life of the character. Madoka’s family, while given minimal screen time, added to her character arc and made her decisions even more weighted.

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However, Magia Record wasn’t the only new release anime that had me wondering about whether style over substance was actually a problem. ID:Invaded is a very nice looking anime and it oozes style. Both inside the world of the killer’s mind and in the office the rest of the team works in. Functionality is taking a back seat to appearance and that kind of sci-fi facade that fairly ordinary stories paint over themselves in order to look hi-tech. I mean, we could simply say the detective is a psychic and can meditate his way into the killing intent of murderer and the rest of the characters could just be ordinary police set in the modern world and realistically the opening two episodes wouldn’t have changed much outside of the visuals.

That’s not actually a black mark against the story. Let’s be real, anime is a visual medium. Those cool and compelling visuals are necessary for broader audience appeal and even if we could have the same story set in the normal everyday world it might not be as fun or distinct so why worry about it overly much. Except that it would be nice if all that style served a purpose. Like I always wondered in Madoka why the classroom walls were transparent as clearly that just opened the possibility for distractions. I mean, it looked cool but it didn’t feel practical. Similarly, the layout of the office in ID:Invaded looks great, but not exactly functional.

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However, I am not just poking fun at 2020 anime. I’m using these as an example because so far all we’ve seen are establishing episodes. By default these episodes should bring the wow factor and their unique style to the party. And at this point is it any wonder that we don’t know whether there is any substance or whether the substance will be worth it when the stories are just getting going? Both Magia Record and ID:Invaded have the potential to really do great things with their narrative and characters and if they manage it, when combined with their stylistic choices, they could end up being pretty amazing. Of course, they also might not and we might get a visually interesting walk through nothingness and then I’ll have to wonder whether or not that was worth the time.

But it isn’t as though this is a new debate or argument. When I watched and reviewed the K anime series I asked then if being cool and looking good was enough for a series. In the case of K, it really was. It was a delight to watch and while the narrative and characters really didn’t make a huge amount of sense if you gave any of it too much thought, the anime was very good at keeping you engaged and distracted enough so that you didn’t sit and pick at some of the finer points. While it might not make for a great work of literature it certainly works as entertainment.

I opened this article by asking whether it matters if an anime is more style than substance and honestly the answer comes down to, ‘it depends’. It depends on the viewer and what they are looking for in an anime at the time. It depends on whether the style is engaging in and of itself. It depends whether the story promised more depth and then chose not to go there and instead frolicked in delight at its glorious visuals. It also depends on what you actually count as having substance.

Going back to Madoka there are a lot of people who don’t feel it has much to say and yet I found it a very interesting look at the transition between the normal world and the extraordinary and one that is usually overlooked by magical girl stories because the story is in such a rush to have a protagonist who is a magical girl. That transition phase being extended and having Madoka exposed to the world she was going to enter if she made a wish and seeing the impact that world had on those she met was fascinating and opened up the magical girl genre to trying new things. Admittedly, in the wake of Madoka all we really found were grim-dark rip-offs that didn’t quite understand what made Madoka interesting.

As a viewer, I like things to have some substance but honestly if substance does take a back-seat to style then I guess I’m fine with it as long as I’m still entertained in some way. However, I’d love to know whether you feel it matters or not.


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Karandi James



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12 thoughts on “Does It Matter If An Anime Is More Style Than Substance?

  1. It certainly can help make a bad or underwhelming anime much easier to enjoy or sit though if the visuals are arresting and immersive. Not to mention taking the edge off a baffling arthouse anime (Utena, I’m looking at you!)… šŸ™‚

  2. I’d have to say yes. Just like some friends you call for drinks are not the same ones you call when your car just slides off the road during a heavy rain, some anime series are more for style while some are more for story (substance). Is Room Camp substance? Heck, no! Do I rush to watch it and feel the happies? You’d better believe it. . .

      1. Yeah, but I lost track of the actual question–that example would have gone much better with an answer of “no.” Hey, I’m old. . .

  3. I guess it really depends for me. Is it a series that wants me to think a lot, but only provides interesting visuals. Is it a series that just wants to have fun and explode things everywhere? The second one allows me to love style over substance. The first one is lacking.

  4. There’s probably a limit to how far an anime could go with style.

    I think of an anime like Maou-sama, Retry!, and I can’t imagine any amount of style being able to bail out what was an incredibly monotonous and boring “fantasy business tycoon” second half. Style definitely can make an anime more watchable, but I think after a while a boring / meaningless story will dig its own hole regardless.

    1. I don’t think much other than a full rewrite would have helped that one though a lot of what happened was very similar to anime like Reincarnated as a Slime etc. The difference was in the delivery and Maou-Sama Retry just did very little to appeal.

  5. I;d say style over subtance is fine. In games we have stuff like Bayonetta and Devil May Cry that rely more in being cool than logical and sensible we all eat that up as well.
    However I do think a show needs to know what it is. If you want to go for style over substance a show as to commit to that. I very much dislike it if a show begins with substance then writes itself in a corner and just tries to add a cool new mcguffin to escape it.

    It’s like if you buiild a ride in a theme park you either make it a coaster that is all about thrills and fast action or a beautifull narative dark ride. If halfway down the darkride the found out those animatronics are to expensive and .. “lets just make the ride go fast” you;d end up dissapointed in both elements.

    I personally prefer if they try to focus on either style or substance so you can put on an anime that sutis your mood. Sometimes you just want to watch stuff blow up and sometimes you want to think but watch a nice tranquil show. Some anime can do both…the really great ones, but in the “average” range I vastly prefer either/or.

    1. That seems like a very sensible stance on it. And I’m the same. Sometimes I want something that makes me think and makes me feel something for the characters and other times I just want trash horror or explosions and it really does depend on my mood at the time.

I'd love to know what you think.

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