Craft and Romantic Comedy

Management: Finally posting the sequel to this piece, which focuses much more closely on four commercially successful romantic comedies: Sakurasou, Toradora, Clannad, and Chuunibyou.


I can see where you’re coming from when you talk of judging a show according to its goals, as well as your reservations regarding some goals. How would you apply these metrics to Sakurasou?

Continue reading

Hataraku Maou-sama! – Review

Maou is kind of a tricky beast to review, because though it’s always fundamentally a comedy, it puts on a number of specific hats throughout its run – satire, sitcom, drama, action, romance, etc. But it’s actually normally quite good at whatever it attempts; the action finales of 5 and 11/12 are fairly satisfying, the everyday life drama of the central characters is more believably slice of life than most actual slice of life shows, the characters are decently well-written (with a caveat – but I’ll get to that). The show’s overall high level of storytelling and aesthetic craft is almost certainly its greatest asset – but it can also sometimes kinda be its greatest weakness.

Continue reading

Craft Exercise – Little Witch Academia as a Series

Management: I’m aware I basically plot out the most standard possible genre piece here. The point was not to outline something potentially groundbreaking, it was to illustrate the amount of work a first episode generally has to do regarding narrative structure. A really great first episode would require a much larger infusion of creativity than the structural hack job I perform here.


Little Witch Academia was awesome! Do you think it could be turned into a full series?


It was great, but it was also solidly self-contained – it told a fun, breezy story that doubled as a metaphor for that “showy entertainment is needed to inspire the young” theme (words on that if you’re interested), and everything was written/characterized to the extent needed for this one thing. It answered all narrative questions it raised and fully articulated its thematic intent – I think it’d have to be quite different to work as a series.


Can you elaborate on that? What made the OVA unsuitable as a first episode, and what would have to be changed to make it work?


Well, the main problem is that like I said, it basically answered all of its own questions, which is something a first episode generally doesn’t do (though this obviously isn’t a rule, and I’m not the story police – for instance, Cowboy Bebop’s first episode is virtually entirely self-contained, though it does actually raise the core theme of the difficulty of escaping your past identity and choices). Anyway! The conflicts Little Witch Academia raised were:

  1. The protagonist gaining acceptance and respect at her school.
  2. The protagonist proving the legitimacy of her idol.
  3. The protagonist resolving her specific conflict with her rival.
  4. The treasure hunt/dragon fight.

Additionally, the thematic point that I’m fairly sure this show as trying to make was:

“Ostensibly low-art popular entertainment like the flashy shows of this protagonist’s idol are actually not just entertaining, they are incredibly important as inspiration for the next generation – as an example, here is a story of that actually occurring within a piece of this kind of entertainment created by a group of people who were in this way inspired.”

The OVA resolves every one of those conflicts entirely (she saves the school, thus resolving 1 and 4 – she does it by using the wand of her idol, thus resolving 2 – she ends the series by being rescued by and bonding with her rival, thus resolving 3). While doing these things, it acts in its entirety as the thematic argument I outlined. This is all great storytelling, and I think the piece totally works on a surface and thematic level because of it.

However, if I were to make a full series of this, I feel something like this would act more as “proof of concept” than a first episode – you can’t really have the first episode of your show not leave any suspense, or unanswered questions, or possible new avenues for conflict, or not-fully-explored themes.

How would I go about fixing this?

The world would certainly have to be a bit broader – the current cast/characterization would possibly work for a very simple monster-of-the-week thing, but seeing as how we’re trying to make a good series here and the OVA has already displayed the creator’s interest in actually raising interesting thematic arguments, I’d like to aim a bit higher than that.

Currently, a decent bit of runtime in this OVA is dedicated to articulating the various beats of the thematic argument (the initial performance, arguments both with her rival and with her friends about her validity, all the business with the wand, the final reconciliation) – in a full series, I wouldn’t recommend this, and would probably just have a hint or two of this thematic concern.

The surface conflict would probably have to be shaved a bit and tuned down as well – having our hero save the school from a dragon probably works better for a one-episode OVA than a series that’s supposed to rise in tension throughout, plus having her save the school immediately too easily resolves the conflict of her finding her place at the school as someone who hasn’t come from a classic wizarding background.

Instead, we’d probably want a little more runtime dedicated both to characterizing her friends and rival a little more deeply, perhaps providing first glimpses of a couple more secondary characters for future conflicts, and probably providing a more full picture of daily life at the school. I feel one of the main strengths of this material is “Harry Potter but as an anime with vivid, humorous animation,” and one of the main strengths of Harry Potter was, in my opinion, how entertaining they made life at the school seem even in the absence of any crazy tension or dark forces. Again, since we’re stretching the darker stuff across a greater number of episodes here, I feel the first episode would probably be lighter in tone in general, and ride more on its humor than its adventure-adrenaline rush, as more pieces of the starting template are set in place.

That’s not to say there wouldn’t be a conflict, though – my first instinct would be to have our Protagonist’s desire to prove herself result in some disastrous consequences, with some theatrical conflict that would hopefully complicate the rivalry between her and Rival, possibly accidentally unveil a hint (perhaps only to the audience) of some larger, darker conflict to come, and likely clue the Protagonist in to the possibility that her Idol exists somewhere at the school. This would hopefully offer plenty of opportunity for the story to go in a variety of directions and hints of things to come while still offering immediate entertainment through humor, likable characters, immediately understandable rivalry, the first steps in exploring a very imaginative world, and a fun, brief dose of action to top it off.

Anyway. Those are my first thoughts on how I’d go about converting this to a series.

Clannad – A Critical Overview on Character Development, Dramatic Structure, and Thematic Dissonance


What’s your problem with Clannad? Have you no soul?!?


Quite likely. However, my main problems are that up until halfway through Afterstory, it’s a combination of cliched, one-note characters, repetitive slapstick, and maudlin sub-Angel Beats melodrama. Then it gets very interesting and unique for about ten episodes, then it flips the audience off with an ending that invalidates all the good parts.


But isn’t that just, like, your opinion, man?


Let’s take this one item at a time.

Cliched one-note characters and repetitive slapstick, I don’t think you can really defend against. It’s hard to dispute that for the greater part of the series, most of the characters are defined by one core attribute – Kyou is a tsundere, Kotomi is the Rei-clone, Nagisa is straight moe, etc. The “repetitive slapstick” is even less arguable, since that just is true – some people find this more funny than others, but the fact is this show repeats its jokes constantly, and most of them are of the broad physical comedy variety. Easy, broad humor is a problem common to a lot of anime, but that doesn’t make it less of an issue.

The problem with the drama is that the show doesn’t give you a reason to care about the characters before telling a sad story – it introduces them as their character type, and they remain that type, but sad things happen around them. Fuko is only ever “ditzy girl who likes starfish”, but we are expected to feel sorry for her because life is sad. That’s not really how characterization and empathy work in storytelling – this is clearly subjective (I mean, a lot of people think Angel Beats is good), but I can pretty confidently say this show hasn’t learned the give and take of characterization and drama that Disappearance of Haruhi or Toradora have a mastery of. A tragic backstory doesn’t create character depth unless you see that depth in the characters themselves, and the side-arc characters are pretty uniformly shallow.

Then there’s Afterstory. For the second half of this season, I was actually extremely impressed with the show. It went beyond the usual high school daily life experience, showing things like the pressure/pride of personal responsibility and the tiring but satisfying honor of a manual blue-collar job. What other anime covers this stuff? It was also handled with much more grace and subtlety than the prior arcs – it felt like the show had an entirely new, much more talented director. The death of Nagisa actually struck me, since the second half had been full of great character-building moments between her and Tomoya, and the episode where Tomoya doesn’t know what to do with the daughter he’s abandoned is in my mind one of the strongest episodes of any anime. Even the stuff with his father is deftly done.

When Ushio became sick, I figured the show was finally pulling its strands together – the themes of nostalgia, of embracing the past while accepting sadness and moving forward, and the recurring references to the hospital/hill that saved Nagisa were all going to come together, and Tomoya would just barely save Ushio by getting her to the hospital, the “place where dreams come true” – this would be Nagisa’s last gift to him. It would be bittersweet, since Nagisa would still be gone, but life is full of sadness, and you have to learn to cherish your past without being captured by it.

Instead, all of that raw character building and sharp reflection on the earlier themes of the show turns out to be a dream because magic, and everyone lives happily ever after. Not only is this literally deus ex machina (god just decides to save them because they’ve been good all year), which is never good storytelling, but it also undercuts the themes of the show. The entire strength of the last act had been built on mono no aware and the idea that unlike high school, life doesn’t have any easy answers… and then it concludes with an incredibly easy answer. Not cool.

I think there are many moments of this show that are well-directed, and I think when it’s working on the main Tomoya/Nagisa plot, it’s actually a pretty good and sometimes extremely good show, minus that ending. But I also think it’s a very flawed show, that it makes a lot of too-easy narrative and character choices, and that many parts of it simply don’t work storytelling-wise.


So basically you’re a heartless monster. But adapting Visual Novels is really tough, as you’ve discussed in the past. Are Clannad’s problems even solvable?


The answer here is, “yes, but not easily.” Still, let’s see what we can do.

The main, huge problem is that by adopting all the paths of a Visual Novel, they destroyed the pacing of the storyline and added a huge amount of superfluous plot and very poor melodrama. From the first season, I would cut all episodes from the Fuko storyline up through the end of the Kotomi storyline. I would also cut those two characters entirely, since they’re the worst offenders on the “just exist to be moe” scale and add nothing to any other part of the series. I’d perform the same surgery on the second season, cutting out all the episodes from the second until when they finish the superfluous side arcs.

This would condense the series to roughly one 26 episode season, and do wonders for the pacing already. This would also indirectly help Nagisa’s character a great deal, as her character development would now be continuous, as opposed to randomly stopping for 10-12 episode stretches. Tomoya would also lose a lot of his generic VN protagonist Woman Fixer absurdity. There’s still work to be done, though.

Sunohara would have to be fixed. His character is two jokes repeated over and over (Sunohara likes girls LOL, Sunohara gets hit LOL), and his character development arc requires him to randomly become an asshole for several episodes and then be “fixed” by Tomoya. Cut his sister, give him one or two actually good traits, and set his motivation arc in place from the first couple episodes. The resolution of the baseball team storyline was actually one of the better moments of the early stuff, so focus on what made this strong – his temper, his convictions, his bond with Tomoya.

Nagisa also needs work – she eventually comes into her own as a character, but it wouldn’t hurt to have a couple more defining traits than “cute, helpless moeblob” for the first half of the series. No, liking the dango family is not a personality – but it might be the lead-in to one. Find something to make her stand out and have a better-defined character arc of her own – right now, character arcs happen around her, but her own agency is very minimal.

Tomoyo is fine. Kyou is a generic tsundere, but she also gets some of the most honest conversations with Tomoya, so she’s also probably fine. Ryou probably doesn’t need to exist… no, actually, it would probably be better if Ryou were Kyou’s male twin. This would kill any last vestiges of haremness, and delete the last unnecessary moeblob. I’d suggest something even more drastic, like give male Ryou a crush on Sunohara, but anime writers apparently can’t handle gay characters without making them into tasteless jokes, so I’ll just leave that alone.

Finally, we’d have to fix the ending. Adding a “magic fixes everything” ending cheapens the themes of honest work, perseverance, and helping to hold each other up that are present all throughout After Story. Bringing Nagisa back to life destroys the significance of Tomoya’s character growth in the last, best act of the show. Instead, have that scene where Tomoya questions if he should have met Nagisa at all simply inspire him to get back up. Tomoya runs to the hospital on the hill, cradling his (unconscious, but not dead) daughter as he reflects on his time with Nagisa and all the people he’s met in this city. He wants to hate this place, but he can’t; like Nagisa said, this is where they were born, and there’s too much of him, too much of Nagisa in this place. He reaches the hospital where Nagisa was saved and begs them to save Ushio; she just barely pulls through. Nagisa is still gone, but his memories of her helped him save the daughter they were meant to raise together, in the city he’s come to love.

This maintains the strength of the last act while actually tying together the earlier themes and foreshadowing. Plus, by cutting the magical glowing balls, Tomoya’s early helpfulness can be resolved by something that actually helps the story – have it be his way of attempting to be the opposite of his father. If Nagisa makes him realize this, it would even help her character, too.

There’s an incredible show hiding somewhere in Clannad, but the humor, pacing, and early melodrama make it very hard to find. I think as a one season show that abandoned directly adopting the VN and instead attempted to tell a single story well, it could be something truly great.