Spring bloomed with a whole pile of new anime to watch and as usual, more than a few of these are returning franchises with spin-offs, sequels, and reboots a plenty to be found in the line up (of course there’s plenty of new titles as well to be found across the various streaming services). However, when I was reading various first impressions I just kept wondering if some of these premieres would have gone so well without the brand recognition behind them.
There’s no doubt at all that brand recognition is having an influence. Prior to the season beginning, some of the most talked about anime were the returning shows such as My Hero Academia. A week into the Spring season and if you sort the titles on MAL by score, of the top 5 Spring anime, 4 of them are returning franchises. And while there’s nothing wrong with people being excited that a franchise they love has come back, I have to wonder whether there were some other first episodes that maybe did a better job of setting up the season that were overlooked due to the power of some of these brand titles.
So let’s take a look at some of these first episodes and what they did and didn’t do. I’m going to look at My Hero Academia, Tokyo Ghoul: Re, and SAO Alternative: GGO. I’d look at Steins;Gate Zero but I’m honestly still trying to figure out whether it actually was a good start to the season or not. Keep in mind, I’m not bashing these shows. All of them have ended up my watch list and I anticipate varying levels of enjoyment from all of them, and some of them have actually delivered slightly better in their follow up episode, but I’m just going to focus on the first impressions we had of these returns. However, I’m aware that if I’d watched these first episodes cold, as an introduction to a series, there were some definite issues that lesser known titles would never have gotten away with.
My Hero Academia Season 3
With the exception of the opening song, which some viewers quite liked but for me just fell completely flat and kind of set the tone for the episode, My Hero Academia returned with its usual excellent production values including great animation and a vibrant colour palette that makes the whole thing just easy on the eyes. MHA is always a high energy and really engaging watch, even when very little is happening and this first episode was not an exception. So for those already hooked on the series and those who had waited with held breath for the return of their favourite class of super heroes, realistically it makes sense that the anime can get away with not doing much.
But think about it. How many anime would get away with an almost entirely flash-back filled first episode with some minor filler story-line connecting the recap? No doubt this was high quality filler. There were some amusing antics, some reasonable character moments, and if you just wanted to re-engage with the cast it certainly succeeded. It even managed to hint at a direction for the upcoming season, though kept its cards fairly close to the chest so the specifics of what the season will focus on were still pretty much a mystery. But high quality filler is still filler and recaps are always best done as ‘specials’ rather than legitimate parts of the season. And episode 1? Really?
Couldn’t they have taken a page from Kimi ni Todoke and had an episode 0 for the season where we had the recap, if a recap was in fact needed? The other excuses for recap episodes where the team have fallen behind don’t hold water when it is episode 1. This was planned recap. I know I’m letting my bias show here, but I just felt that after months of waiting for a new season this show needed to do more than this. Fans of the franchise don’t need a class roll call to remember the cast and newcomers won’t be jumping in at season three so this essentially served no viewers’ purpose.
I’d have to compare this episode of My Hero Academia to the first episode of Lostorage Conflated WIXOSS. Also a returning franchise and also running a fairly recap heavy first episode, WIXOSS managed to do a lot more in its twenty minutes than MHA. For instance, some of the flash-backs were actually new sequences that gave us additional information on events that had happened during the last round of card games. Also, the sequences in-between recollections and exposition of past events set up a very clear direction and conflict for the coming season. While I didn’t really need the reminders of what had happened prior in this anime either, I felt it was far better integrated into a new plot and the episode as a whole just felt more meaningful. Not as fun, but then again an anime about a magical card game that essentially plunges all its players into misery isn’t exactly aiming to be high energy fun.
Tokyo Ghoul: Re
Alright, again we had a well produced episode that showed off some quite decent animation as well as the general dark tones we expect from Tokyo Ghoul. We also meet the new characters, set up a current conflict, get hints of political tensions within the organisation, and at the end of the episode get a strong hint of the character drama to come. All and all, a pretty decent first episode.
No, Tokyo Ghoul: Re is on this list because it kind of assumes viewers have read the source material. Jumping from Season 2 of Tokyo Ghoul to this is sort of jarring and you are having to make a lot of assumptions and guesses about what has actually happened because season 2 didn’t follow events in the source and Re isn’t even trying to help fill the gaps. It’s just charging ahead full steam with its plot line. While fans of the source material are probably rejoicing that this has returned to the ‘story’ people following the anime are left more than a little confused and wondering if we’re going to get the explanations we need further down the track.
Then again, it is Tokyo Ghoul and it isn’t as though the first season wasn’t riddled with narrative and character issues, so maybe I should just make my assumptions and watch things unfold as they will without giving it too much though. The anime seems to go down better when you stop trying to make it be more than what it is.
Sword Art Online Alternative: Gun Gale Online
From reading other viewers first impressions of this, I’m guessing I was overall in the minority of people who found it kind of lacking. There were many reviews singing the praises of this new version of SAO. The regular descriptors included fun, ride, exciting, etc. One common comment came up again and again. SAO without Kirito. It must be better. Which I guess if Kirito is your main reason for disliking the original SAO that might be an appealing trait, but does that actually make the anime any better?
Possibly it might. That’s assuming of course that any of the new characters have interesting characters. Which is impossible to tell from this first episode. Basically, the first episode is like watching someone play a shooter. They are in a tournament and we follow a team of two as the discuss tactics and execute their plans. That’s it. It’s well produced with music, animation and visuals all working well enough and it all fits in with the general aesthetics established by SAO so this isn’t a jarring deviation from the anime and source that this has of course sprung from.
But after episode one, I had no idea what this show was actually about. Okay we have a girl playing GGO. I know from the synopsis she has a complex about her height. I still don’t know what the overall complication or direction for the story is going to be. In fact, I don’t even have a hint. There was absolutely no narrative construction in this first episode. It was watching two people play a game. We don’t know why these two are teamed up, or what they want, or whether there was any overall grand picture. All we know is, they played the game, and the pink bunny girl has got some moves – you know, she reminds me of someone.
All and all, this first episode of GGO left me with a pretty bad taste in my mouth. Sure, it has potential to be quite good. They could introduce the characters and have some overall plot going on, but realistically this first episode gave us nothing to go on and not even any reason to think maybe there’s something going on. As much as people like to criticise the original SAO I at least left the first episode knowing the basic personality of the protagonist and what the overall goal was for the story. It was pretty straight forward but it worked.
Ultimately, this isn’t news to anyone that brands and franchises influence our perception. There’s a reason the various super-hero movies keep making major money at the box office despite varying quality between them, and there’s a reason sequels, prequels, spin-offs, origins, and whatever-elses keep getting made from recognised titles and characters. They sell.
And when something is known to sell, it is more likely to be suitably funded in the first place. Bigger budget leads to bigger spectacle, so even if the story isn’t as rock solid and the performances and characters not quite as nuanced, the overall quality of the production will be there and sometimes that’s enough to keep people watching and happy. Plus, its entertainment. Provided it is entertaining, does it really matter if it isn’t the be all and end all in storytelling?
As much as I would love to be blown away by a narrative populated by incredibly diverse and fascinating characters who consistently hit their mark, I can’t say that I’m not happy just watching the kids from MHA play at the pool, or the ‘not-Kaneki’ reconnecting with himself, or even pink bunny girl going all rambo against professional soldiers. These were all fun first episodes in their own ways. But, I think sometimes even while having fun, it is worth stepping back and wondering what more something could be or do and more importantly, whether some of those dodgy first episodes with poor animation due to less experienced teams or smaller budgets, might actually have delivered a somewhat more solid narrative.
But that is probably a long enough ramble from me. I’d love to know your thoughts on the big franchise anime that have come out this season and how they’ve started.
Thanks for reading.
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