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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Addicting Anime

When you got this moment in Code Geass, you couldn’t stop watching. Admit it, you knew you were in the long haul as soon as exasperating scenes like these started to close out every other episode. And it got worse. Case in point:

I’ll be blunt. We need more of this. Thrilling, explosively ambitious storylines. Brutal cliffhangers. Plot twists that contain skull-caving amounts of Wham. In other words, we need more shows that are unforgivably addicting.

Obviously, Code Geass might as well be the poster child. Its cliffhangers were such a defining feature of the series that the producers went the extra mile to painstakingly carve one into the end of every episode of the sequel, no matter how unsightly or unwarranted.

But even when such catastrophic cliffhangers were shamelessly shoehorned in, they worked. They kept use glued to our monitors week after week purely out of anticipation. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.

It wasn’t just the cliffhangers, gripping as they may have been. So long as the series wasn’t shooting the breeze with a breather episode, unwavering suspense was literally leaking out of every cavity. Look at the Mao arc of Season 1, for example.

I mean holy crap. Nary a moment of respite in sight! Shirley crossing paths with a sickeningly manipulative mind-reader, Lelouch trapped at gunpoint by the girl whom he was quite fond of, Mao getting his comeuppance for messing with Shirley, and the white-knuckled desperate race against time to rescue Nunnally which culminated in Lulu and Suzaku emerging victorious, against all odds, thanks to Lelouch’s devious, yet brilliant maneuver.

So why exactly does Geass sit heads and shoulders above all the other pretenders? There are two criteria to be fulfilled in order to qualify as a truly addicting series and Geass just happens to have done its homework and satisfied each requirement.

First, the series must keep our attention over the course of an episode, meaning minimal downtime and maximal volatility. Second, each episode must end leaving us craving more, whether it be by cliffhangers or the thrill of the unknown pushing us further and further into the abyss.

Now it’s obviously not as straightforward as it seems. In order to keep the audience captivated, a series must make us feel for the cast. This means crafting characters that are likable and emotionally engaging to the point where we actually give a damn about them were a tragedy to strike. And finally, to avoid coming off as contrived or inane, the ever-present harrowing situations or whiplashing plot twists must be smartly written, well-timed, and plausible.

As I mentioned, Geass fits the bill quite nicely. It strives for unpredictability at every possible turn and doesn’t let up. It first shovels an ensemble cast of interesting, likable characters into our craniums and then proceeds to dangle our beloveds precariously over the edge of a cliff, laughing madly at the fact that we’re powerless to stop it.

You see, in Geass, there are no incidents of Like You Would Really Do It. The fact that the series is unafraid of burying a few innocents to make that point abundantly clear (much like Zero himself) is established quite early on. Additionally, the consistent lack of clumsy execution or outlandish rationalization is what truly separates mesmerizing spectacle from un-buyable, frustrating wall-banger. Stuff like Bloodstained Euphie is just sensationalist enough to slacken our jaws without causing us to stop and ponder the plausibility of it all. It strikes that elusive balance of surreal and believable, skirting the borders of sophistry, with the end result etched firmly in our minds as the nuclear bomb of Wham Episodes.

While Geass is undeniably addicting, it doesn’t strive to shake things up terribly much. It’s got a lot of style and a wonderfully merciless protagonist, but there are ways to further tweak the formula and wring a bit more investment out of the audience. Enter Death Note.

Like Geass, Death Note has got one hell of an elegant foundation crafted. Compelling leads, superb writing, and lots of unpredictable, yet not implausible swerves to keep us on our toes. However, it does one-up Geass by introducing the concept of competition.

Death Note is sort of like watching a sports match where the two sides are duking it out with words and internal monologues alone. No, really. The series is so well-written, the mind games are so intricate, and the melodrama is concentrated at just the right consistency that every decisive stratagem executed feels like a stunning play out on the field.

The most cunning ploy, however, is that the series has the game rigged in such a way that you don’t know who to root for. As a result, every tide-turning, game-winning, mind-blowing play leaves you equally as awestruck since your allegiances will always lie with whomever’s brilliant scheme just came to fruition. I’d almost call it sneaky and underhanded if the effect weren’t so damn satisfying. Compound with a supernatural angle on the age-old tale of cat-and-mouse detective drama and Death Note most definitely keeps you gobbling away.

And then there’s Kaiji. Whereas Geass goes for style and grueling cliffhangers, and Death Note gives a nod to the spirit of competition, Kaiji takes emotional investment to another level, as I’ve stated in a previous blog post.

In Kaiji, the empathy is so palpable that you might as well be standing right there alongside the characters. Their fear and apprehension at the coming calamity cuts to the bone. In fact, it’s scary how often you’ll ask yourself what you would do if presented a path to redemption, no matter how many landmines lay hidden beneath the cobblestones.

Again, Kaiji nails all the elements of an addicting show with ease. The scenarios are just realistic enough, despite being splashed with a coat of sensationalism. Truth is, no one has trouble realizing that the plot of Kaiji could have very well been a defining chapter in their own lives were they placed in such a desperate situation. That, above all else, makes Kaiji a series that leaves you craving more; it makes you feel as if you’re just as much a part of the never-ending cycle of despair as Kaiji himself is.

Outside of those three series’, however, I can’t honestly say that I’ve found a series that I’ve been unable to put down after the initial boot. It’s kind of disheartening as a lot of shows are but one step shy from reaching such an illustrious pedestal. Eureka Seven, for example, could have used tighter pacing and the plethora of adrenaline-pumping action shows like Darker than Black, Claymore, or Gundam 00 just needed a beefier cast, emotionally speaking.

Now, obviously the vast majority of series’ don’t go out of their way to actively seek the mantle of “addicting show” and that’s perfectly fine. After all, being addictive is far from a criterion of being a great show. But for all the ones that do, it’s surprising that only a handful have managed to truly succeed.

We need more shows that make us feel like this during the wait for the next episode.

I know that anime in general isn’t fast-paced or deftly gripping from the get-go, but I’d like to see more shows, specifically anything action-oriented, try their hand at giving Code Geass or Death Note some healthy competition in that regard. After all, such shows are inherently poised to really sell the “drug” aspect of the “gateway drug,” thus making the medium of anime more accessible and enjoyable for all.

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