5 Hallmarks of Good Storytelling in Anime
What Makes an Anime's Writing Good?
So if you're interested in trying your hand at writing and drawing your own manga, or maybe if you just want to win that argument about your favorite anime series, I've developed here a list of five things I think anime writing needs to have in order to be considered good.
This can apply to other types of fiction, but I wrote the list with anime in mind. It is also by no means exhaustive, I didn't want to try to think of everything a good anime needs to have. Instead, I just focused on five of the main things. The list is also, you should know, not in order of importance. So what makes an anime well written vs. badly written?
1. Interest, Emotional Effect, and Meaning
A show has, absolutely has, to catch the viewer's attention and sustain it. Who cares? What's at stake? Why should I be interested in these characters' lives? An anime should answer all that in the beginning episodes.
A lot of times, in Western culture, we dismiss the value of emotions. We don't like being emotionally persuaded. We like to think we only respond to logical reasoning. We're a society that values the scientific mindset, which yields many positive results, but one negative result of this is that we no longer seem to judge art by how it makes us feel or study how it impacts our emotions. We want to gauge everything on lists and pit this show against that one like it's a dog show. We often think that there exists some kind of objective criteria that we can use to measure the quality of art or story.
But the thing is, you can't take personal feelings out of the equation. Even Roger Ebert, undeniably one of the best film critics of the 20th century, said (I'm horribly paraphrasing) that he doesn't take himself out of it; he didn't review films without referring to his own personal reaction to it. That's why I think it's important to study anime for the emotional response it generates from the viewer. This can, of course, vary considerably depending on the audience, but it also can be a good starting point from which to delve deeper into analysis: you start with your first, instinctual reaction to something and then explore and analyze why you felt those feelings in reaction, if that was the artist's intention, etc.
Trust your gut; if you watch an anime for 5 episodes or so and don't take any interest in any of the characters, don't watch it further. I feel like people intuitively can sense the quality of an anime or anything else without needing a ton of logical reasoning. (I'll talk about some of the more logic-based hallmarks of good writing later.)
Basically this boils down to having a few things that have to be present from the beginning:
- A meaningful conflict is established.
- The characters are likeable, or at least not boring.
- There are characters the audience can "root for" or easily relate to.
- The characters seem enough like real people, and not emotionless robots or too-perfect heroic archetypes (no Mary Sues or Boring Invincible Heroes, please!)
- The world generated for the story to take place in is interesting by itself. (More about world-creation later.)
- The reader knows that everything that happens has a purpose, and is going to build up to something really important in the future.
- Watch an episode, by the end of it, you should have a really strong desire to see the next one. If not, the anime might have a problem sustaining viewer interest.
- When watching it, you shouldn't feel like you really struggle to care or to sustain focus; a good anime or any good story pulls you in, you don't have to work very hard to stay interested in it or immersed in the vision of it.
Good Example: Mononoke
For those of you who don't know, Mononoke is a beautifully artistic anime series set in the past in Japan, where a mysterious man travels around solving problems that are caused by malevolent spirits.
The reason I listed it as a good example is that, even though I only saw a few episodes of it, and that was a couple years ago, and yet I still remember it and still desire to see all of it. It wasn't just that the art style was exquisitely charming and intricate, although I respect good art. It was that from the beginning, I felt seriously emotionally affected by what was happening on the screen and deeply interested in finding out more about this amazing world. Though the main character says little, the anime makes the viewer interested in his story from the beginning in a way that feels organically magical.
This storytelling does what I think good stories should do; draws you into a foreign world of magical fantasy, and makes you feel like you authentically inhabit the same point in space-time as the characters. Mononoke feels like traveling to a strange place and yet weirdly feeling familiar with everything. It creates both a sense of "home", and a sense of strangeness and wonder.
Bad Example: Haibane Renmei
Around the same time as I watched Mononoke's first five episodes for a review(My first reviews just went through a mile-long list of anime titles I had collected from a TV Tropes list of users' favorite anime, and from that list I would watch the first 5 episodes of each one to see if I wanted to further watch, study, and review that anime in its entirety.), I also did one that involved watching Haibane Renmei.
Haibane Renmei is an anime many people think is good, and it may well have many of the things I consider to be good in anime. In fact, I thought it praise-worthy at the time. However, it suffers from Whogivesashit Syndrome, at least from my perspective. I didn't fall in love with any of the characters that were introduced. The world introduced is mildly intriguing and mysterious, but overall the show lacked the buildup to real adventure or to any sort of interesting conflict I could see coming from the beginning episodes. Everything that happened was too dull and ordinary, even though the setting was supposed to be supernatural.
The characters were likable, but they were all more or less just ordinary children whose special talents and personalities didn't really shine much in the beginning at least. They seemed too generically cute to be really interesting. None of them did or said too much that was unexpected or special.
The mysterious setting seems to make the viewer ask "What's behind the curtain?", but I also found myself asking, "Who cares what's behind the curtain?".
2. Internal Logic and Consistency
Any anime is going to contain things that surpass the limits of ordinary reality. If not doing that, at some level, then why bother making it an animated show rather than a live action one? So I don't really judge anime based on "realism" in the sense that it has to be a 100% true mirror of ordinary reality at all times. I have a heck of a lot of suspension of disbelief.
But magic, or advanced technologies, have to work according to some kind of system of rules that are always consistently followed in the universe of the show. One nitpick I have with the western animation (but arguably, anime-styled) show My Little Pony; Friendship is Magic is that sometimes, the rules of magic in the show seem logically inconsistent from episode to episode or story arc to story arc. There is just so much that's strange and off about various kinds of pony-magic that a lot of times it just seems to be made up for the sake of the plot requirements of whatever the episode is. I love the show, but it could use more consistency. (And don't get me started on "Pinkie Sense"... ugh...)
When a show does this, it makes the magic, technology, or whatever is being used feel awkward and contrived. If something's power or abilities differ too greatly from episode to episode or story arc to story arc, it feels like haphazard, sloppy writing. People like logical consistency. Basically, if you as a writer have established certain facts about how the world you're showing the audience works, those facts should remain as such throughout the story.
Of course, as a writer, I know you will want to throw some stuff that's genuinely unexpected (The Reveal) at your main characters, and therefore at the audience. But in my opinion, The Reveal doesn't work if it's too far-fetched based on what we know about everything based on everything that's happened before. It still has to make sense at least, following the basic underlying logic of the rest of the story.
Basically, think of your world and your story as a map of a country. The characters, setting, plot, all of it happens and exists in a defined space. Outside the borders of your country, things work differently, so what you want is not to let too much stuff from outside get in. Also, every town in your country is a certain set distance from every other town. You've mapped out every river, every lake, every mountain. You wouldn't then say, without a hell of a good explanation, that the next day your characters wake up and a whole range of mountains has moved from the east side of their country to the west!
What works is incremental changes that logically follow from a realistic expectation of cause and effect. Characters can gain new powers, be forced to chase after new bad guys, or undergo some sort of character development and personal growth. All of these things are good. If you don't have some change, the story would be completely boring, after all.
But the change should make sense, that's the bottom line. If a character goes from having a magic ring that makes them invisible with no negative consequences, to say, having that same ring be cursed and evil, that change has to be logically explained. (You know what I'm talking about, I take it?) I think Tolkien did that, but that brings me to saying that basically, this is a problem to consider any time a story goes on for very long and becomes a drawn-out series involving many adventures and multiple story arcs with multiple villains.
Obviously, you don't want everything to be the same every time, but you don't want the differences to seem made up or like they came out of nowhere.
Good Example: Claymore
In Claymore, although the characters are constantly encountering new information about the world they live in, the discoveries still seem realistic, as does the adaptation of old powers or the gaining of new ones.
The organization that the main character, Clare, works for is very secretive. This helps the writer keep back some information about it to keep the audience guessing, for massively impactful dramatic reveals later on. At the same time, even though Clare learns new things and gains new powers over the course of the series, none of it changes the reality of what happened before or was explained to the audience before. Changes are often incremental, mirroring the way physical training takes a long time to achieve results in real life.
And yet, the show walks a really good balance, in my opinion, between making nonsensical, abrupt changes in the characters on one hand and being too slow and formulaic without changing enough on the other hand.
Bad Example: The Pokémon Anime
Ok, so I'm not bashing Pokémon here in general: I've been a fan of the show, the card game, and especially the handheld video games for years. I probably know more Poké trivia than any adult ought to.
The anime is warmhearted, and often very emotionally touching. But, it's also inconsistent and illogical at times. Especially whenever Ash goes off to a new place. Ash has no head for strategy, because a lot of the show's drama relies on him getting the basic concepts of the game wrong at the beginning of the episode. He's a self-defeating trainer from a game strategy perspective, and I don't think I have to go into the numerous examples of this that will be evident to people who both watch the show and play the games (either the card game or the video games).
Then, there's the issue that not even the main characters and their pokémon are consistent. The show keeps Ash and Pikachu, but Brock, Misty, and even the lovable original Team Rocket kept getting replaced, which is actually what made me quit watching the show. When they brought back Brock after the Orange Islands story arc but not Misty, I was, something that starts with a "p" and rhymes (inexactly, maybe)with "Misty". (Misty cannot be replaced... Ugh this is opening up old battle scars!)
Anyway, the power of Pikachu and Ash's team of pokémon and Ash's strategic abilities are also incredibly inconsistent. He wins most of his gym matches in Indigo League either by dumb luck, being nice, or by getting the gym leaders to feel sorry for him. He rarely wins a Pokémon fight conventionally; the show is much more about bonding with pokémon as we would to an animal or a child than it is about the battle strategies that win in the games. Ash's Pikachu also periodically goes from having god-like powers to being weak and pathetic.
This is kind of like the same problem there is with Fluttershy in My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Fluttershy is a meek, gentle, and well, shy character. But in many episodes, she also learns lessons and undergoes experiences that give her incredible boosts in confidence. However, she seems to have amnesia concerning these experiences later, because she tends to learn the same lessons over and over again. Ash and company also go through this, and I think it's just one of those annoying things that all long-running, repetitive kid's shows will suffer from. (BUT NO IT WAS NOT OK TO REPLACE MISTY. I DEMAND JUSTICE.)
3. Uniqueness and Creativity
In addition to balancing the need for logical consistency with the need to resonate emotionally, writers also face the challenge of wanting to be unique and wanting to create something familiar enough to be marketable.
I browse a lot of anime, as a reviewer. I look at the first few episodes of a lot of anime. The anime that gets me to want to watch more, and even to buy it, or pay to see it on a subscription site, has to have something pretty special. Like any art product, it has to stand out in a sea of similar ones being marketed to me the viewer.
Most anime series have recognizable traits and use various storytelling tropes associated with their genre. We know that a shounen will most likely be a hero's journey type of story where the hero, usually a male teenager, will form bonds of friendship as he develops his strength in a martial art that borders on mystical, and fights obviously evil villains, learning life lessons in the process. A magical girl anime will usually have a female protagonist, magical glittery outfits that would make any fashionista green with envy, talking cute animals, bright colors, and unrelenting optimism and faith in friendship. I could do this for just about any genre.
But the most successful anime are able to play with and use tropes associated with their genre and use them in new and unique ways. This doesn't always mean taking a happy genre and making a depressing deconstruction of it, like with Puella Magi Madoka Magica or Neon Genesis Evangelion, but those series do stand out because they deconstruct their respective genres of magical girl and shounen/mech.
Why does this work? Because with deconstruction or parodies of the genre, you're creating a work that plays with what the audience expects based on what they know from watching other anime like the one you create. Mostly, it's important to know that your work will consist of literary tropes that are already recognized and identified; it will have character types, a setting, plot elements, and such that have been done before. Sometimes, you'll be recycling these things from longer ago than you may think. There's no real problem with this, in fact, my current anime favorite on Netflix, Magi: The Kingdom of Magic, borrows significantly from 1,001 Arabian Nights. People like to consume media that resembles something they're already familiar with, such as an old fairy tale, folk tale, or mythological story.
However, every anime, and new piece of fiction in general, also has to be unique. It has to truly stand out from the crowd, so to speak. The story of Moses, for example, is over 2,000 years old, and yet it remains fresh through more recent retellings, such as The Prince of Egypt and The Ten Commandments. In this way, a real visionary can breathe new life into an old story. A good storyteller knows how to combine just enough creative new twists and turns with just the right amount of culturally familiar elements for the audience.
Good Example: Jungle Wa Itsumo Hare Nochi Guu
This wacky comedy anime definitely takes home the gold for creativity. In fact, I would say that the comedy genre in general is usually more creative than more serious action stories. Because, maybe if you're not taking genre and logical constraints super seriously to begin with, you end up with a more creative-feeling show.
Bad Example: Naruto
Not to pick on another beloved anime to many (not myself), but very little in Naruto seems genuinely new, at least from a Japanese perspective. Kitsune have been done to death in anime, since they come from Shinto legends. Elemental magic is common in fantasy and has been since forever. Ninja are nothing new, and there's nothing particularly ground-breaking about combining magic and martial arts. Even the protagonist seems like Ash and Goku had a little blonde baby (don't ask me how that would happen exactly). What I'm saying is he's every dumb and incompetent yet good-hearted and lucky shounen hero. Sakura is basically every side maybe-love-interest/maybe-annoying friend character you seen in every kid's shounen anime. She's Kagome, she's Misty, she's Tea from Yu-Gi-Oh!. Seen it a million times. Naruto trods on familiar territory, that's for sure.
Does that mean it's not enjoyable? To me, it does, but to some other people, I still see how sometimes there can still be interest in the show itself. I just never thought it was original.
4. The Plot Moves Forward in Each Episode
Filler is the bane of an average anime watcher's life. You get all excited with your Ramune sodas and your Pocky to sit down and watch the next episode of your favorite show, and... it's boring. Nothing happens. The plot seems to move at a glacial pace. Some tiny, insignificant side character gets their episode in the spotlight, or the audience is teased by some of the romantic intrigue, but nothing much actually happens, and you felt like your time was wasted. This can happen with movies too, especially if a relatively boring anime movie is just building up to the actually climactic events in another one. Grr. (*cough* Rebuild *cough*)
But filler aside, sometimes an episode can be perfectly interesting and meaningful, but if it still doesn't do something that advances the main plot line, it can feel like still a waste of the viewer's time. In some shows, like Samurai Jack and My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, this is ok. The viewer knows that the main conflicts with the big villains are not going to be resolved until the finales, and so it's ok that most "ordinary" episodes are in fact technically filler.
The main problem is that sometimes, a show will build you up to expect things that it doesn't deliver. Or, in the filler episode or filler arc, you get little hints at the main overarching plot. It's kind of like you're seeing a battle where two armies just line up on the battlefield and grimace at each other for 22 minutes. It builds up to something and then doesn't take us there, or it takes so long to get there that by the end, when the battle actually begins, the suspense building up to it is spent.
Good Example: Attack on Titan
Attack on Titan has its flaws, mainly with thoroughness, which I will discuss later in my final point. But what it does well is this: it moves the main point of the lot forward with each episode, and it doesn't feel like a single episode is wasteful or unnecessary. Each step is an integral part of Eren's development into a titan fighter. Each episode also unfolds crucial new information about titans, which makes the series exciting.
Bad Example: Inuyasha
Again, I'm not trying to bash anyone's favorite show. Not to say that Inuyasha does not in fact have its good moments, likeable characters, or general warmth and liveliness that makes it enjoyable. But, Inuyasha has major filler issues. Many episodes go by without much getting resolved or changed. The characters all wind up in less-exciting side quests or into silly romance-ish diversions; and I say romance-ish, because the romantic subplots never seem to go anywhere. Usually, by the next episode, the pair in question forgot all about how much they got to a point where they were willing to admit their feelings for one another in a previous episode, which is a little annoying the first time, let alone the 300th.
You get the sense that they are going to fight Naraku... eventually. You get the sense that as they add one more shard to their bits of the Shikon jewel, they're going to collect 'em all... eventually. You know that Sango and Miroku end up together, and that Kagome and Inuyasha do. But it takes forever. And in that time you spend waiting, you kind of lose interest and fall asleep.
5. Thoroughness and Closure
When an anime reveals, in the beginning episodes, mysteries or questions about something, I generally expect that all the important questions will be eventually answered in the show. We want to know as readers, not only how certain characters' personal narratives end, but what happens with the larger world in which the story takes place. What changes in the history of that fictional setting because of the actions of the heroes and villains? How does it end, not just for main characters, but for everyone?
When a story gives its audience a mysterious tidbit of information, we want to know what the answer to the riddle is by the end. For example, I seriously doubt that the end of Game of Thrones, for all of its fantasy genre deconstruction, will end without telling us who Jon Snow's real mother is. Since intrigue and hints are part of the interest, we don't expect that to be revealed until close to the end, but we do expect as an audience that the answer will eventually come to light. It's part of the closure required for the story of that particular character. I mean, unless George R. R. Martin decides to really stick it to us fans...
Good Example: Death Note
I think Death Note is a good example of closure. Yes, perhaps they should have shown more information about the Shinigamis and their realm, but it seemed to wrap up the main characters' stories without leaving too many unanswered questions.
Bad Example: Attack on Titan
For me, this is the area where Attack on Titan (the anime, at least) loses points. It fails to wrap up much of anything by the end and leaves a lot of questions unanswered. We're left not knowing what titans are; if humans made them or if they're natural, and we're also left not knowing much about what goes on inside the inner circle of the government or what the big wigs in charge of everything are doing. We get glimpses and hints, but the series ends without the audience becoming fully aware of the larger reality of what happened. There is also a lot of stuff in the mangas that got left out of the anime. We can only hope for subsequent Attack on Titan anime. At present, however, I cannot recommend watching the Attack on Titan anime, because you just won't get any sort of closure by the last episode. One incident resolves itself, but bigger questions about the titans, and about humanity in the world of the titans, are left unanswered.
So, these are five things every good anime should do well in terms of story writing:
- Emotional Appeal
- Logical Consistency
- Originality and Uniqueness
- Moving the Plot Forward
An anime can be lacking in one area, but make up for it in others, like with Attack on Titan. But if you're starting out as a writer, this is what your story should have in order to stand apart from the crowd; let's face it, there are a lot of wannabe writers, and you want to stand out from them.
This is also a guide for talking about and criticizing anime. If I want to tell someone I don't like Naruto, and it's their favorite thing ever, I can use the above criteria to delve further into why I don't like it so that they understand. In a lot of anime forums, I see people bashing shows unintelligently with insults that don't really criticize the anime's writing in a constructive way. This just leads to insult-off shouting matches that don't really create a meaningful dialog. I think we could all use more constructive internet arguments and less of that.