What do first episodes achieve?
In its most simplistic form, it hooks the viewer into the show. After all, this is its mission; it has to make people want to view the next episode, and the next. For the more people you have viewing your show, the more popular it is, and ultimately, the more money it’s going to make as a direct result.
It it no use to have a show that is brilliant in all areas except for the first episode, because many – including myself – will not give it a second chance. And, why should they? It is the same with any form of media, not singularly anime. If the first chapter of a book is drawn out, and uninteresting, why read the rest? If the first ten minutes of a film is a hash of expository nightmares, why bother continue viewing in the hope of something better?
In modern society, time is hugely valuable.
Why waste time with something mediocre, when there is a land of brilliance waiting just there, right beside you? It doesn’t make sense to fill time with things that are valueless, with things that bloat the mind; stagnant and repetitive. For example: Why watch the remake of Conan the Barbarian, (2011) when you can simply watch the original (1982) and bathe in the gloriousness that is early-Arnie. (Not sarcasm!) P.S. If you haven’t seen it, watch it now please…
What Makes for a Good First Episode?
One of the very first things we see is the opening (some shows only introduce the OP in their second episodes) Now, unlike live action TV, the openings of anime are much more significant; important to the overall feel and tone of the show in the most general sense. Helping us with the notion of the things we’re getting ourselves into.
One of the best openings from this season (Fall 2017) is unquestionably Juni Taisen’s:
First episodes will generally have a prelude, as to offer some expository information without wading too far into the deep end. After all, it helps to have a little brief knowledge of characters and the surrounding world, before the ‘real’ narrative starts in earnest.
In most cases, these’s preludes come in the form of flashbacks, or devices of similar nature. I have, at times, loathed the use of flashbacks to inform the audience. It can be lazy. Instead of subtly showing us how a character has been changed by their past, we’re simply given that past to come to our – often dull – conclusions. It comes to the literary technique: Show, don’t tell. In this sense, how has any particular scenario affected the character? It’s preferable to see the result through their actions in the current storyline, rather than get fed the scenario itself with a spoon. It adds mystery and tension. It makes us ask questions: Why are things like that? Why is he/she like that?
Because, characters are as important in anime as they are in any other visual, or literary medium. They personally connect us to the narrative. They are our definite link to the world, and to the experiences that can happen within it. This bond has to form in the first episode, we have to express emotion for the characters – whatever that emotion might be, be it sad, happy, or completely contemptuous. After all, it’s as hard to create a truly detestable character, as it is a truly loveable one.
Other points that are important in first episodes:
- Set-up of the plot and general narrative.
- Well-paced progression.
- Immersive worldbuilding.
- Consistency in the animation and art (goes without saying…)
Once again, I’m coming back to Welcome to the N.H.K. It’s established itself as a staple around here… N.H.K’s first episode is just wonderful, in the ideas it manages to offer in those few minutes, and in the true sense of identity it brilliantly conveys. It’s mad, and that’s what makes it great. It reveals certain things to us; need-to-know things in ways that are relatively shocking – because the show itself is shocking. But it also selectively withholds certain aspects of this information – the things that put us on edge. Just through the visuals and script alone, we – to a degree – know what is happening. ‘Flashbacks’ are not necessary here.
This is just one great first episode amongst so many others. Still, it serves as an example, both structurally, and morally, that there is no excuse with the lack of effort and value in first episodes.
Finishing Those 24 Minutes…
As with beginnings, endings of first episodes are just as vital.
If the job of the first episode is to get us returning and watching the second, the ending has to reflect this drive. The thing is, if we are left wanting nothing more, why would we return? Things need to be left in question – a cliffhanger.
Cliffhangers provide us with the desire to know. And, the desire to know is one of the strongest emotions the human psyche can express; one of the most fundamental. Because if a first episode leaves us with this feeling, it has without a doubt succeeded in the best way it can.
We will feel need to know more of the characters. For if they have been presented well enough, we will be emotionally connected to them, we will recognise them as real people. If the world they exist in is wonderous, and contains many questions, many unresolved struggles – we’ll want more! Of course, this is important in all episodes. But ever the more when it comes to something wholly new and untested; for the audience is yet to invest anything
What’s your perspective on first episodes? Do any particular stand out to you?
Thanks for reading, as always!
-Chris (Follow me on Twitter! And, consider supporting my work on Patreon!)