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?

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Feminism and Free!

Management: I’m a bit more heated here than my usual tone, but it’s an actually important topic, so I figured I should still post it. This was a straight-up argument, so I haven’t changed a word on either side to make sure no-one is misrepresented. It came about in response to my first Free! post, which apparently ruffled some feathers.

Question (sort of):

You didn’t need to tell us what a good little feminist you are (and oh so concerned with shitting on anything that might be remotely aimed at men) 27 times in one post.


Shit, you got me! I only pretend to be a decent person to look cool on the internet.


For one thing, forcing yourself against your will to hate something that’s nothing but love and kindness (K-On!) because of some political ideology does not make you a good person – quite the opposite.

But even if we grant that your brand of feminism is what’s good, you’re still obnoxious in how often and aggressively you signal your adherence to it, just as it’s obnoxious when a religious person (who is also a “good person” by their standards) talks constantly about how much they pray and go to church.


Forcing yourself against your will to hate K-On because of some political ideology

There is no part of this statement that I do not take issue with! First, there is no “force” involved here – my will, personality, and conscience mind are all in agreement that there is something deeply problematic about the archetypes displayed in shows like K-On, Clannad, Sakurasou, and any other number of shows where a female character’s infantilizing helplessness is supposed to be perceived as attractive. I am not going against any natural tendency here – every fiber of my body finds this stuff pretty disturbing, and I actually have repeatedly gotten in arguments on this board, and often just avoided other conversations entirely, because of it. You seem to think I’m just pretending to believe the things I say – I assure you, I’m not trying nearly that hard.

But this doesn’t address K-On itself, which I don’t actually hate – I honestly do believe the creators of that show were intent on making a lighthearted healing-type show, which is apparently what you got out of it. I did not intend to belittle your experience with the show, or their intent – what I take issue with is the specific style of characterization used, which is very prominent in many other less-defensible shows with overt romantic characteristics. I find those helpless  character  archetypes  indicative of an incredibly sexist and dehumanizing style of pandering. My problem is not specifically with K-On – I merely used it as an example because it’s also a KyoAni show and it bears a large number of humorous parallels to Free!, which is why I was referring to Haru as Mio throughout, etc.

Obnoxious in how often and aggressively I signal my adherence to it

I’m sorry my brand of humanism is so offensive to you! My first suggestion would be to possibly not read my posts, since they are all an extension of my beliefs and thus all likely contain the capacity to offend you, but I’d also like to add a little context here. First, and I’ve covered this earlier, but it bears repeating: I’m not filtering my voice through some outside agenda here. I’m cataloging my honest reactions, adding a little humor, and trying to show people my context on media. My first goal in writing these things is to better process my own thoughts, and become a more intelligent consumer of media (thus the questions of sexism and objectification will necessarily crop up here, since they’re such a big question when it comes to this show, and are obviously on my mind) – but in a roundabout way, you’re also right. My second goal is to impart something. Normally that thing is either my way of analyzing stories or my thoughts on media evaluation or my belief that humility and curiosity are the only ways to have a meaningful relationship with art. But my general worldview is also inescapably a part of that.

I’m not a religious person, but I can understand why a religious person would try and tell you how valuable their religion is, if they care about you – according to a great many faiths, if you’re not an adherent, you are eternally damned. That sucks! Why wouldn’t a religious person want to spare people they care about from that? And personally, as a non-religious person who instead believes that data is a real thing and prejudice exists and our world is incredibly goddamn far from a place where genders or races or sexualities or whatever can honestly consider themselves equal in society, government, law, or media, I think that downplaying this stuff, particularly in a setting where people actually read what I have to say, would be pretty inexcusable. I’m not hammering on my “agenda” here, but if my thoughts make anyone think that maybe continuously treating female characters like objects is a shitty thing to do, then I’d also be pretty fucking proud of that. If you find that obnoxious, whatever, read something else – but you can’t tell me it’s not sincere.

But seriously, I’m not actually trying with that – if I were trying, I could be doing much more directly relevant stuff than criticizing anime. This show is pretty dumb on a straight textual level, and so I find that outside of just making jokes, the most interesting angle to analyze it from is its relation to the pervasive sexism in the anime industry. When relevant cultural stuff crops up in other shows, I’ll certainly mention it, but this happens to be a show where that angle is likely the best one for encouraging meaningful discussion. I did not once think while watching this, “now would be a good time to propagate my subversive feminist agenda” – things just came up in my mind and so I wrote them down because I thought someone else might find them interesting. If that doesn’t work for you – well, sorry, no refunds.


First part: Apologies for being unnecessarily rude earlier – I did find your initial post a bit condescending. Although I can see where you’re coming from about helpless women, I don’t think this is an entirely fair portrayal of K-On! The girls in that show may be goofy and a bit childish in their personal interactions, but they’re also proactive and successful at their goals. They aren’t genuinely helpless and they don’t sit around waiting for men (or anyone else) to save them.

Second part: I think there’s a danger in jumping in too whole-heartedly into any political belief given the high possibility of those beliefs being at least least partially in error. Taking abstract beliefs completely seriously is powerful but dangerous, and can drive things like terrorism just as much as it can drive positive change (not that I think you’re going to bomb anyone). I did think it was a bit weak when you were about to criticize Free! for possibly being sexist against men and then cringed back because you were apparently terrified of being labelled an MRA neckbeard – I think it’s better to own your thoughts instead of fearing “thoughtcrime”.

For what it’s worth I have no comment on Free! itself – I don’t intend to watch it but anyone who does enjoy it is welcome to. I did think it was a bit lame that some people claimed to be watching it in an attempt to stick it to /a/ somehow – just watch what you want to watch and don’t worry about what some anon said about it.

Anyway, thanks for being reasonable when I started out being a bit snarky.


Abstract beliefs

The thing is, the only real “beliefs” I’m proposing here are that all people deserve equal treatment, that various societal and systemic forces trend towards sexism, and that this extends to media as well. And none of those “beliefs” are really debatable – there’s endless academic evidence for it, and even a cursory examination of anime at large reveals the general tendency to objectify and infantilize female characters. I agree that unsupported beliefs are dangerous, but I think what you’re proposing here is equally dangerous – the idea that all viewpoints are created equal. They aren’t – there’s only one reality, and when all the evidence supports the idea that women are not given fair representation in media, the viewpoint in support of changing that becomes kinda self-evident.

Terrified at being labeled an MRA neckbeard

I was actually just making a joke there, and am not particularly worried about being labeled an MRA or whatever. I don’t deny that men can also be objectified in media (I mean, look at this show), but I think the relative objectification/agency ratio is so skewed towards male fantasies that raising a show like this as a counterpoint to sexism at large is pretty laughable. That was pretty much what I was trying to say with my joke: that Free!’s existence as a show that objectifies men does not excuse an entire culture of sexism in the other direction, farcically playing off the general tendency to use single isolated examples in order to “prove feminism wrong.”

Thanks for the apology, by the way. I try to stay as reasonable as possible, since we can’t really learn anything from each other if we’re just throwing barbs.


Regarding My System of Scoring/Evaluation


In discussing Maoyuu Maou Yuusha, you talk a lot about whether a show’s ideas or themes are well-articulated. However, I consider myself a person who watches shows for characters, and want my media to be worth empathizing with on a human level. Is there room for this instinct in your cold, blackened critic’s heart?


Haha, I actually consider myself the same way – most of the stories that effortlessly connect to me are the ones primarily interested in characters and relationships. For instance, Toradora and Chuunibyou are two of my very favorite shows, and they’re far more thematically simplistic than Maoyuu or Penguindrum – they’re just character stories told well. And Evangelion is my actual favorite show, because I think it explores characters more fully than anything else I’ve seen.

But I also find both the craft of storytelling and human nature in general fascinating, and this show is just very unique in its purpose and methods. For instance, in episode 8 of Maoyuu, I loved that the characters’ response to the church condemning the scholar wasn’t something like, “damn the church! How could we have foreseen this?!” or “we have to fight them,” it was: “Unfortunate. If we fight the church, we lose the people. How can we minimize the fallout of this attack?” It’s willing to make a lot of smart assumptions about human nature, and then build on those assumptions to find some really compelling truths.


Can you explain your scoring/evaluation system a bit? The numbers as they stand just don’t make sense to me – Chuunibyou a 10, CLANNAD a 3, After Story an 8, Nisemonogatari a 9, Nozo no Kanojo X a 4. What’s the system here?


I actually recently changed my scoring system to make use of the numbers more effectively – anything six and up is “solid” for me, and it’s only 3 and down that I consider “bad”. You can see my current grading system in the About[1]section.

The three main things I look for in a show are: Does this show convey what it wants to in an effective way? Is what it is trying to convey meaningful or distinctive? Does the experience of this show resonate with me emotionally?

So, regarding the shows you listed…

I think Chuunibyou is not terribly ambitious, but it is very, very close to perfect in conveying its characters and story, and it struck me very strongly emotionally. It is, outside of exactly one scene in the first 11 episodes and some extremely slight pacing issues in the finale, what I’d consider a “Perfect Romantic Comedy.”

Clannad, on the other hand, I felt was incredibly ineffective as a comedy, slice of life, or romance – the side arcs murdered the pacing, the characters on the whole were thinly developed, and Jun Maeda has no subtlety in his writing, making the show veer constantly between repetitive slapstick and unearned melodrama. Plus, I found characters like Fuko and Kotomi extraordinarily problematic in their design – perhaps the VN developed them as people, but in anime format they came across as vehicles for viewer’s broken bird fantasies, which I consider one of the very worst things about anime.

In contrast to this, once After Story escapes from the side arcs, it becomes an incredibly effective and very unique look at life after education, something that is both woefully underrepresented in anime and very resonant for me personally. The episode where Tomoya is first forced to semi-interact with his abandoned daughter is honestly one of the most distinctive, effectively directed, and powerful episodes of television I’ve ever seen. But because that is just a subsection of the show (and because I feel the ending undercuts most of the drama the show has earned), it only averages out to an 8.

Nise I already posted that huge-ass analysis of[2] , but in short I think it approaches issues of perspective, self-representation, and the male gaze with incredible intelligence, and while uneven, is such a necessary art experiment that I have to strongly respect it.

Finally, I just thought Nozo no Kanojo was incredibly uneven, and while it had some very interesting ideas (particularly the rare and noteworthy focus on how weird and uncomfortable adolescent intimacy can be), it too often fell into the routines of its genre to be considered a solid work.

I’d actually love to keep talking about any of those shows, since you picked a set of examples that I find extremely interesting as artistic works, even though I personally enjoyed or respected some more than others. There’s something interesting in virtually every show – I pretty much never regret having watched something.


In that case, would you agree that there’s a fair amount of personal passion in your rating system? Also, would you say the quite harsh scores you give to certain shows (Another, OreImo) is more reflective on your selective process of watching anime than their objective quality?


I actually do try to keep the passion to a minimum, and restrict it to corner cases like the one you mentioned. For instance, I really do think Chuunibyou is more or less a flawless execution of a classic concept, but I’d have to admit that my own preference for romance and character-based shows might knock that one to a 10 over something like, say, Baccano. But I don’t think it’s all that unfair to say shows that strive for deeper meanings or strong emotional resonance are “aiming higher” than pure adventures or comedies – and normally, adventures and comedies are largely improved by the addition of these elements.

I also sometimes use my emotional reaction as a counterweight to my critical assessment of a show – for instance, logically I considered Ano Hana emotionally manipulative and awkwardly constructed, but because I actually did have an emotional reaction to the finale, I figured it was at least partially effective. Obviously the distance between my personal preferences/emotional touchstones and my critical assessments will always result in disconnects, but I try to be aware of it and only use the emotional response as a tool and sounding board, not a general metric.

My previous scoring system was a lot closer to the classic “5 is a failing grade” system – almost everything on my list was 7 or higher, and my grading system was basically 7 = decently flawed but I enjoyed it more than I didn’t, 8 and up are things I’d actively recommend. But I figured copying the classic grading system wasn’t really that valuable – if everything below 6 is just “so bad it’s not worth watching,” why shouldn’t I condense that category? It seemed more useful to stratify degrees of flawed but interesting shows than degrees of terribleness – for the lower shows, I figure “Just plain bad,” “Tooth-grindingly terrible,” and “Literally offensive to my values as a human being” should suffice.

The shows you mentioned kind of betray my own view of the anime medium – that is, I appreciate it and critique it primarily as a narrative, message-based, or character-focused art form, and not a visual one. I mean, I do love great visuals, and when they work in service of a show it’s incredible (Madoka and Hyouka represent two ways visuals can really contribute to themes, characters, and narrative, for example, and Redline works so well because all the narrative elements work in service of the fantastic visuals), but I won’t have mercy on a show just because it has polished production. OreImo might be very competent in its design and animation, but because I find its messages actually offensive and likely developmentally hurtful to its intended audience, I probably couldn’t personally like or critically respect it any less even if it were less competently produced.

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.

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…

Square Pegs, Round Holes, and the Art of Adaptation

Hey guys. There have been a couple posts recently (well, semi-recently now) about adaptation, and while they kind of talk about what adaptation is, I don’t think they really went into what makes adaptation so interesting artistically. And I have a lot of thoughts about that!

I was originally writing this post as a comment for one of the article links, but I figured that would probably get buried, and the artistic side of this is interesting enough to warrant its own discussion. My thoughts here aren’t law, or based in massive industry knowledge – I’m just a dude who likes stories a whole lot, and thinks about storytelling pretty much constantly. And I have far less of a single thesis here than I did with my Nisemonogatari writeup – if anything, my points are mainly that adaptation is both a craft and an art unto itself, and that understanding mediums is critical to understanding how and why adaptations work or don’t. The main point here is to promote discussion and your own opinions, not just say How It Is. Anyway, let’s get to it. What’s up with adaptation?

Why Are You Even Trying

One of the main reasons I find adaptation interesting is because, although I know this isn’t the actual intent, the very act of adapting something makes me think, “Why? Was it not suited to its original medium?” Every medium has different strengths and weaknesses, and most of the time, a truly great piece of art works partially because it takes advantage of the unique strengths of its medium. An adaptation seeks to take the “essence” of some work and translate it to a different format – but this does not imply a perfect 1 to 1 transformation. In fact, a “perfect” adaptation is very rarely the best possible adaptation, and some restructuring or refocusing is normally required to make the best work possible.

And obviously, from a production perspective, adaptations are chosen not because they make for artistic challenges, but because a proven property will sell regardless of the medium. But that doesn’t make the challenge less interesting, or the results less respectable. A good adaptation requires both a keen understanding of the work you’re adapting, as well as understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the mediums you’re converting both from and to. Misunderstand these strengths, and even an adaptation of a fantastic work can fall completely flat.

So let’s get into those mediums. I’ll only cover a point or two each here, but there are a ton of angles to take on what makes each of these mediums interesting to adapt, so I hope you guys offer some of your own.


Manga has traditionally been the largest source of adaptations, though the ascent of Light Novels has challenged its position. But it still reliably dominates certain genres, and it’s still the source of virtually all heavyweight long-running commercial properties.

In general, manga might seem like it’s the easiest to adapt, since you could consider it just a series of static anime frames already, with cinematography and everything. In a way, this is true – a strict adaptation makes by far the most sense for this transition. However, one major problem you can run into here is pacing. In a manga, the flow of panels can dictate pacing to some extent, but ultimately it is in the reader’s hands how quickly any given scene goes by. This matters so much when it comes to things like action or comedy – the flow of a fight, or the speed of a joke’s telling and its immediate aftermath, can entirely dictate whether those sequences soar or fall flat. This is why I only read shonens (outside of the rare shonen with both compelling writing and a well-directed adaptation), and why I couldn’t stand the Genshiken adaptation, despite the manga being possibly my favorite manga – the pacing felt incredibly belabored and drawn out, making me feel like I’m watching two seconds of joke and then seven seconds of “THAT’S THE JOKE!”

Also, because of manga’s similarities to animation, adaptations from this medium can sometimes hew closest to the “entirely redundant adaptation” problem. This isn’t actually a bad thing, but I feel it is a true thing – for instance, Monster and Cross Game are both manga with incredible pacing, because both of their artists have an absurd gift for panel flow and a flawless understanding of traditional storytelling. So how were they adapted? Panel for panel. Basically the exact same piece of art, in color, with voices. And there’s nothing wrong with that, of course – but if something was absolutely perfectly suited to its original medium, what does an adaptation really accomplish? This is why the writer of Yotsuba has outright refused to have his manga adapted, which is a viewpoint I completely respect and understand. The pacing and mood of Yotsuba is perfect as-is – he chose his medium correctly. Granted, some people simply prefer watching things to reading them, and anime does offer a few things with no parallel in manga (like sound design), but I think this point remains. Anyway, moving on!


Briefly, 4-koma are a subset of manga that consist of a series of distinct 4-panel strips, normally reserved for comedies. They’re a kind of manga, but their adaptation provides unique challenges, so I’m separating them here.

The 4-koma format is interesting to adapt, because if you’re actually going to transition what was originally a series of 4-panel gags into 23-minute episodes of cinematic television, you basically have to create an entirely new work – it’s barely an adaptation at all. All you’re carrying over is a collection of jokes, characters, and, if you’re lucky, the “feel” of the comic – you need to either flesh out that world and add another dimension (like K-On), or sequence those gags in such a way that they add up to more than the sum of their parts (like Azumanga Daioh). Adapting a 4-koma probably requires the most inherent artistic input of any adaptation – that is, unless you are strictly presenting a series of the 4-koma gags, only animated (which is frankly a huge waste of animation’s potential), you need to find some larger thread to build these gags around.

Light Novels

Recently, light novels have become the primary source for a wide variety of popular anime, from the industry-shifting Haruhi Suzumiya to otaku favorites like OreImo or action shows like Sword Art Online. This makes sense to me – the popular aesthetics and tropes of the core anime-buying market have largely shifted from the action and adventure of the past to slice of life and romantic comedy, and these genres lend themselves to the character and dialogue-focused style of light novels. But creating a light novel adaptation that actually makes use of the anime format is deceptively difficult.

Light novels are tricky for almost the opposite reason of 4-komas – there is very little direction or scene-setting (usually), but there is a very established script, and normally a very specific narrative. The problem here is the mediums have completely separate strengths and weaknesses – light novels are about conversations and character, and generally read more like a play’s script than a novel, whereas anime is a visual medium that is at its best when scripts and characters work in tandem with a strong visual aesthetic. Thus, even in some of the best light novel adaptations (like Spice and Wolf), it’s incredibly clear that this is a light novel adaptation, because it really is just a series of conversations linked by an understated overarching plot. At the other end, some light novels succeed beautifully because a visual component would always have made them better – I think Haruhi is a solid example of this, though that might just be KyoAni being really good at their jobs. But normally, to add a strong visual component to a light novel adaptation is incredibly difficult. Some shows get away with it by essentially treating their material like an actual live-action sitcom, complete with the standard camera angles and lengthy multi-camera-sitcom-esque single-room sequences. In my opinion, this is a huge waste of potential – as I explained at excruciating length in my Nisemonogatari rundown, active cinematography can add a huge amount of emotional impact to a show, or even undercut the spoken message, and by limiting yourself to the tools of a conventional sitcom, you fail to take advantage of your true toolset even if you succeed in making a popular show.

Actual Novels

Full novel adaptations are the rarest of the possibilities I’ll be covering here, but they really, really, really shouldn’t be.

Actual full-length novels are possibly the medium best-suited to anime adaptation, and in fact I’d argue that no medium is more suited to successfully recreating a novel than anime is. They just match up on so many critical variables: they’re both long-form narratives that are generally separated into smaller subsections, they both involve a creator having absolute creative control (unlike the sitcom, or even film, where your ability to manipulate the frame and conjure the unreal is significant, but never infinite), and they both have a critical emphasis on and ability to manipulate mood and tone. Most novels are extended, character-focused narratives that successfully create a strong voice (either through a character or the narrator’s own voice) and contain several distinct plot strands that reflect off each other and ultimately present a number of consistent and well-explored themes. A novelist can conjure literally any scenario he wishes, and have the reader take it for granted as the truth of that world (as long as he doesn’t betray his own truth through inconsistent characterization or world-building). The mood and “feeling” a book evokes in the reader is the result of both conscious narrative choices and the collective impact of the language chosen and the style of writing used. All of these things translate absolutely naturally into anime, and reflect the extraordinarily similar strengths of that very distinct medium. Frankly, it’s crazy to me that more novels aren’t adapted into anime – although considering the sales numbers of Shinsekai Yori, perhaps those producers aren’t so crazy after all.

Visual Novels

A fan favorite, and the one I’m sure my opinions will be the most controversial for. Visual Novels are essentially branching “choose your own adventure” games, generally with a huuuge focus on characters and conversation, and often formatted as a love story where the largest branches correspond to a set of several potential love interests. Because of the player agency and the distinct nature of the main paths, visual novels are often a collection of several very different and separate narratives, though the themes and characters of each may intersect and overlap.

“But wait,” you hopefully ask yourself, “if visual novels are actually a *collection* of stories, then how do you adapt that into the linear narrative of an anime?”

The answer is, “Most of the time? Very, very poorly.”

Now don’t get mad just yet. I’m not saying this is a fault of the visual novels themselves, and I’m not dismissing anyone’s legitimate attachment to and experience with a visual novel adaptation – I’m just saying that when you take four or five unrelated stories and smash them into one continuous narrative, something’s gotta give. Normally, visual novel adaptations result in very disjointed narratives, where a primary set of characters and perhaps main narrative are established in the first couple episodes, and then the story takes its time exploring each of the other potential plot arcs in turn before weaving its way back to that central narrative. While this tactic keeps the fans happy by not significantly shortchanging any favorite character, it is absolutely death to a coherent, focused narrative, and is in fact a fairly poor representation of the original source anyway. After all, does the main character of a visual novel do everything for everyone the way these super-humans often tend to in their adaptations? No. They have one story arc with one character, and that is their story. If you want to have another story, you start over from the beginning, and having another story. Sure, you might “progress” only by completing all these stories, but that’s a meta trick of game design – that’s not the same as all of them being part of the same narrative.

The “fit all arcs into one narrative” approach to VN adaptation not only results in a wandering and unfocused narrative, but it also generally results in an unrelatable superman of a main character, unless the character’s wanderings are somehow related to the main themes and point of the show (School Days, for all its faults, does a wonderful job of making the inherent weirdness of combining separate love stories into The Point Of The Show). I was actually hopeful Clannad would do something similar, and that Tomoya’s savior complex would end up being a reflection of his wish to avoid becoming his father… but Maeda instead merely uses the concept for a deus ex machina ending, and the show remains unfocused throughout. Honestly, I think this approach is nearly impossible, and requires a very, VERY specific narrative for it to work – the only two examples I can think of are the aforementioned School Days and Steins;Gate, which manages to work both the necessity of helping a set of side characters and the temporary nature of the character growth thereby gained into a clever conceit in its third act. So basically, unless your story is about time travel or womanizing, it’s pretty difficult to pull this off and have your story still work as a coherent narrative.

Another approach to VN adaptation, and one I think has a great deal more potential, is to simply drop the ruse of a single narrative and actually adapt your VN as a collection of separate short stories. I feel Yosuga no Sora isn’t a particularly good show, but I think it actually used this approach to fairly strong effect. Other problems do emerge by taking this strategy – for instance, to continue with my example, the second-most-important character in Yosuga no Sora is the main character’s sister. However, she starts off the story in a very unhealthy place emotionally, and because most of the show consists of establishing characters other than her and then backtracking to the start, her personality ends up coming across as artificially and frustratingly static, even though the second the show actually focuses on her, her character growth is immediate. But I feel problems such as this are much, much more easily fixed than the inherent problems of single-route adaptations.

That said, I don’t think the single-route adaptation problems are inherently unsolvable – but for most shows, they would require a far more significant restructuring of content than they tend to receive. Plots would have to be woven together more coherently. Characters would have to take the place of others to avoid “hero protagonist” syndrome. Storylines that could possibly reflect or influence each other would have to be merged. Essentially, a new coherent narrative would have to be created by smashing each storyline into pieces and then patching them together as a single framework – and this is both at least as hard as writing a story from scratch, as well as less likely to appease the fans that desire a strict adaptation of “their” route. As far as I can see, the question of successful visual novel adaptation is still an open one, and the relative success of many very unfocused current adaptations leaves creators with little incentive to truly answer it.

I would welcome more examples of different styles of visual novel adaptations, or examples from within these styles that work well. I’d also love to hear of any adaptations that actually adopted my “smash the storylines to bits, make one coherent one” proposal, regardless of the results. The concept of adopting a visual novel is extremely interesting creatively, even if I have mixed feelings about a lot of the results.

And the rest

There are a variety of other sources for adaptations – toys, idols, videogames, etc – but for most of them, there isn’t really a process of translation so much as full artistic creation or re-imagining, so they’re not really as relevant for the specific topic of adaptation. But anyway, those are just some of my initial feelings on the subject. I know better than to narrow the discussion with any specific questions, so…

Your thoughts?