Thoughts on Formulaic Storytelling and Critiquing Entertainment

Management: This discussion was prompted by the creator of this blog post reflecting on the role repetition plays in enabling climactic and satisfying reversals in storytelling, and how our repetition-bred expectations can lead to more resonant moments in media. It’s a great article and a fascinating subject, and I only begin to explore the artistic implications here.


Do you consider the formulaic structure so much anime adopts a problem for you?


I really like the point your article raises, about formula-breaking moments containing that much more power and significance by virtue of how established those formulas were prior to that point. The problem as I see it is that those moments don’t actually validate all the formulaic stuff that came before – sure, they lend it added significance, but they don’t make it in and of itself worthwhile or artistically interesting. I don’t know if there are any easy answers here, either… hm… let me cover some other facets of this, and then I’ll try to loop back around to that.

Alright, first, I do think formula does in fact have a place in certain works. It’s generally not that compatible with tight storytelling/character-building/thematic explorations, but not all shows are about those things, or need to be – for example, I think Madhouse’s Hunter x Hunter reboot is just a very fun exploration of the shonen genre, and most of the arcs follow semi-typical shonen structures, but the show is meant pretty specifically just to entertain. Well-crafted popcorn can be its own reward, and I think formula can be used to great effect there.

But regarding shows that actually want to say something, or develop characters with emotional resonance? There, I think it’s much more difficult to argue for formula, but there are still examples that kind of ride the borderline. For example, I think Cowboy Bebop is a great show that articulates a classic but still solid theme about the difficulty of rising above your past self and redefining/rebuilding yourself, but I also think it uses formula to great effect – many of the episodes are just “bounty-of-the-week” adventures, but they work very well as independent storytelling vignettes, and they contribute both to the mood/world-building as well as the slow-building empathy the audience is meant to feel for the emotionally distant/reserved protagonists. And many great shows are built almost entirely of similar thematically related vignettes (Kino’s Journey), and many other shows use a series of utterly unconnected and similarly structured conflicts to slowly build a mood and set of characters for the underlying story (Hyouka). There are endless examples of degrees of this, and frankly, the fact that anime is an episodic medium means that for most shows, the mere necessity of an initial conflict, rising tension, and resolution each episode will result in a number of semi-similar structures. This is just how storytelling works in mediums like this.

But I think your point was treading on more difficult ground – if the formulaic structure is useful purely because it provides a structure that can create suspense and surprise if deviated from. Honestly, within a single work, I don’t think this leads to incredibly successful art – it might lead to great moments, but as I said at the beginning, the subversion doesn’t retroactively grant all the prior material meaning, character, and distinction if it didn’t have those things to start.

However, I do think the meta-narrative trick of subverting expectations with the entire scope of a work can be effective and lead to consistent artwork, as long as that work is internally consistent. This is where I think shows like Eva and Madoka fall – even if part of their power comes from changing what came before, all the parts of those shows are solid on their own merits, and in fact the first few episodes of each provide some of that original context (though obviously well-written and tonally/thematically consistent with the later parts) to provide a portion of that dramatic turn even for people not well-versed in the relevant genres. Most of what makes these shows good is not their deconstructive or genre-defying nature anyway – it’s the fact that they’re well-written and well-produced stories with a lot of good inherent ideas, regardless of their position within an artistic tradition.

Incidentally, I think another interesting example of a similar effect is Aku no Hana – I don’t think it would come off nearly as effectively if audiences were used to rotoscoping, and that the art style intentionally serves to unbalance viewer expectations. But again, I think that art choice also results in a mood that works in that show’s favor outside of medium-conditioned viewer expectations, which makes this another example of “it works partially because of this expectation-subverting trick, but it also just plain works.”


Management: I’m rewriting this question so my response makes any goddamn sense – it wasn’t even really a question initially, but the subject is so interesting that I kind of went off on it regardless.

I think there may be differences in our standards of evaluation. I look for anime to succeed first and foremost as entertainment – and that moment of unexpected subversion results in great entertainment for me, regardless of whether it succeeds as “high art.” Also, you’ve covered a variety of ways formula can affect anime, but isn’t the phenomenon I’m referring to with Mazinger a little different from the craft arguments you’ve put forth?


I don’t really mean to deny or demean the role of entertainment in media, I just feel that even (in fact, sometimes especially) shows that exist primarily to entertain still work within structures that can be examined and discussed – they have “goals” just like any message-oriented art, those goals are just different. For example, I think Redline is a pretty perfect piece of entertainment and nothing more, but it’s far from a stupid work – it displays an incredibly high degree of craft through its mastery of propulsive storytelling structure and economy of characterization/dialogue. Its “goal” is to entertain, but it entertains by doing what it does very intelligently and well. I don’t think saying “this work is just meant to be entertaining and nothing more” means it’s not useful or interesting to critically examine that work – it might not have deep themes to discuss, but storytelling is an art form worthy of discussion even if you disregard “message” works. So when I talk about whether a work is “successful” or not (I also don’t really like the high art/low art divide, and don’t find it all that meaningful), I’m mainly talking about whether I think it did the best job it could to succeed in its own goals, be they tell a taut and entertaining story or illuminate the nature of the universe or whatever.

But your point about entertainment being a relative value is a sound one. As much as I believe there are definite ways mastery and execution of craft can be close to objectively measured, art’s effect on the viewer, and what specific elements that viewer responds to, will always be a subjective, personal thing. It’s always good to keep that in mind.

I also agree that the specific situation your article describes is different and distinctive from the ones I’ve been discussing. There’s something more fundamentally shocking there, something that really seems difficult to quantify according to classic storytelling models… if I understand the kind of series Mazinger is, it seems like it conditions you to love these characters in the context of one entire genre over years, and then flips the table on you. That’s not just deconstructing a preexisting genre – that’s changing the stakes of a world you’re already emotionally invested in. The only example of that kind of thing which immediately comes to mind for me is Clannad, which is basically one story and genre of anime for 35 episodes, then abruptly shifts to another story and genre of anime, while keeping the characters you’ve already associated with the first mode. The thing is, I don’t think Clannad actually works in the way I talk about things “working,” because, well, first the writing is just not very good, but more fundamentally because the kinds of repetition that characterize the early arcs are not the correct kind of repetition for the emotional turn it’s hoping to provoke – they reflect more on tangential side characters, and their emotional stakes are not tied tightly enough to the actual protagonists, at least not often enough.

But if a story did do that… if it used the kind of repetition I mentioned Bebop or Hyouka employing for many episodes, and then veered into a turn in the way Clannad or Mazinger does…

Yeah, I think there’s a whole goddamn lot of resonant storytelling potential there.

Damn, now I’m getting all kinds of crazy ideas…