June 16, 2008

Figure 17: Parkinson's Law of Anime

"Work expands to fill the time available." That's Parkinson's law. There have been dozens of variations on it: clutter expands to fill the desk space available, book collections expand to fill the shelf space available, porn expands to fill the disk space available, you've heard 'em. (Steve's posts expand to fill the browser space available. shaddup...)

To that we add a new one: story filler expands to fill the anime broadcast time available. My experience has been that half-season series have averaged better than full-season series. I've seen some half-season series which monumentally sucked, and there have been full-season series which have rocked me, but on average it's much more likely that a half-season series will be good.

Some of that is because many series concepts just don't have enough juice to fill a full season. But an important factor is that the short format forces story-telling discipline on the writers.

Figure 17 has an unusual distribution format. It's 13 episodes, but each episode is 44 minutes long. I've watched three episodes now, and so the obvious question is, how does the long format stack up?

Unfortunately, not too well. The story-telling feels flabby. Just as having too many episodes to fill causes writers to reach for the filler, so having a long episodes seems to have done the same.

And it's already settling into a pattern. We follow Tsubasa in her daily life, as she faces some small hurdle (usually social) which make her miserable and angsty, while off in the distance another maguar egg hatches. Danger looms -- but it spends ten or fiteen minutes looming, as we get brief glimpses of the danger looming intermixed with long essentially-irrelevant sequences of Tsubasa's daily life, and see how it's been changed by having Hikaru around.

The main theme of the series is that Hikaru is zestful, cheerful, outgoing, willing to take risks; Tsubasa is quiet, miserable, withdrawn, unassertive. Hikaru has been pushing Tsubasa to be more assertive and proactive, less of a victim, and I can see that slowly, slowly, Tsubasa is changing.

That's the real story being told. Effectively, all the rest is just a carton to explain how and why Hikaru came into Tsubasa's life, plus an excuse to put a pretty spectacular fight sequence into each episode.

It's almost like they're afraid of really telling that story. The action is a form of pandering, like the fan service in Divergence Eve. It's something they include in each episode because they don't think anyone would watch the series otherwise. That's what it feels like.

Ep 3 seems iconic, and it was definitely much, much too long. It could easily have been fit into a 22 minute episode, and it would have been a better story for it. Too much time was spent watching DD find, and then to try and fail to fight the third maguar himself. WAAAY too much time was spent watching the kids practicing post-ball. The battle, once Tsubasa and Hikaru finally got involved with it, was about the right length, but it was only a few minutes. Even leaving that alone, there would still have been plenty of time in a 22-minute episode for an adequate second story about that game. And the whole sequence with DD trying to fight the critter himself could have been collapsed down to about 30 seconds.

Pete mentioned that when he watched it, he felt as if he had to struggle to get through it. I've been feeling the same. I started skipping through the post-ball parts of ep 3, and I felt like skipping through parts of the first and second episodes.

The story is placed in Hokkaido, which is Japanese for "the ass-end of nowhere". Hokkaido is big-sky territory, Japan's equivalent of Alaska, a place with marvelous scenic vistas and cold winters and no real cities to speak of; a nice place to visit but who in their right mind would want to live there? It's rural, it's Hickville, it's the sticks. It's a slower life, a slower place. That's the stereotype. Did the writers somehow subconsciously try to adopt a more languid story telling tempo because of that?

I doubt it; I think it's just an attack of the fillers.

I'm finding myself comparing this series to Tenchi Muyo: GXP which is, of course, entirely different in most ways. The one thing they have in common is that they're the same total length. TMGXP's story telling is crisp, even staccato. What we see is a year in the life of Yamada Seina told in 600 minutes, but Nabeshin shows us the "good parts" version of his life. He leaves out all the boring stuff. As we're watching it, it's clear that Nabeshin has been brutal in cutting out everything that's boring and mundane, not just between episodes but also within each episode. And that means that the story never bogs down, never gets in a rut. That's only possible because Nabeshin has 600 minutes of good-stuff with which to fill his series. He doesn't ever need to reach for the filler.

I've always prized economy in story telling. And I'm not feeling it here, which means that I have had to struggle a bit to keep watching. There's something wrong with the story-teller's art when the audience starts muttering, "OK, OK, I know about that, already. Get on with it! Get to the good stuff!"

Posted by: Steven Den Beste in General Anime at 03:41 PM | Comments (6) | Add Comment
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1 The standing joke in my anime watching group was that Figure 17 was sponsored by the Hokkaido Tourism Bureau.

Posted by: pflorian at June 16, 2008 04:51 PM (Ipvhu)

2

What the shows have been doing, as I mentioned, is to show us mundane day-in-the-life episodes but mixed in over the course of ten to fifteen minutes will be an occasional 5-10 second cut showing a maguar developing.

There's two ways of interpreting that. One way is that they're trying to follow the immortal Hitchcock. I saw an interview with hime one time where he talked about tension. Take a room and put a man and a woman in it and have them make small-talk. No tension. Now, let the audience know that there's a time bomb hidden in that room and now they'll be on the edge of their seat.

The other way to interpret it is that the director is saying, "Come on, now; don't change channels. Something good is coming, I promise you. Just stick with us." In other words, "How can you have any pudding if you don't eat your meat?" How can you have any action if you don't first wade through another day-in-the-angst with Tsubasa?

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at June 16, 2008 06:10 PM (+rSRq)

3

What I find most often is that 13-show series are best for stories that concentrate on a story--a goal to be completed. 

26-episode series, on the other hand, tend to be more successful when they are more character-oriented.  The story is there and it progresses, but the main thrust of the show is spending time with the characters.

(Anything 6 episodes or less tends to be goofy comedy, where neither story nor characters are more important than the jokes.)

These are obviously not hard-and-fast rules, and there are exceptions (Haibane Renmei or Pretear, eg) but this is what I tend to find in my own limited experience. 

It's why a series like Aquarian Age failed (for me)--despite the fascinating premise, the story took a backseat to the characters to the detriment of both.  I think it also explains why there can be a great deal of impatience with 26-episode shows that don't have compelling characters.

Again, it's just something I've noticed in my own viewing.

Posted by: BeckoningChasm at June 18, 2008 08:58 AM (kLWtB)

4 Sounds like the 13 / 44 format would work best for something plot focused, that has a *lot* of plot.  Or perhaps an ensemble show, where you are seeing multiple different plots at once ( think 'Heroes' ).

Posted by: metaphysician at June 18, 2008 09:37 AM (9Lztf)

5

I can conceive of the 13/44 format working very well. But it's something the writers would have to learn how to handle. A lot of the problem here is that the writers are used to 22 minute episodes, and suddenly they have all this time and don't quite know what to do with it. They aren't used to filling that much space.

It's interesting that each episode of this is the same length as the one episode of Early Reins -- and that moved along very nicely. It didn't feel flabby at all.

If the 44 minute format became more common, I think we'd see writers learn how to use it. But it's not too surprising that one of the earliest attempts at it didn't work as well.

(Of course, that's my preliminary conclusion; I haven't watched the whole thing yet.)

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at June 18, 2008 10:26 AM (+rSRq)

6 I did not realize the episodes were double length until about half-way through. Since I was saving them off DVDs, I noticed that VOBs were much longer than usual, and I started pondering blogging about video compression. It was a good thing that some blogger mentioned the double-length explicitly, which made me rush to video and wow... they were double-length! Amazing!

Posted by: Pete Zaitcev at June 18, 2008 07:16 PM (qNSKg)

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