I’ve distinguished a couple times so far between plot, which drives an episode or arc of episodes to a conclusion, and the meta-plot that drives an entire series. In Pokemon Ash or one of the others has to do something by the end of the episode. That’s plot. “Gotta catch ‘em all.” That’s meta-plot.
The problem I see with a lot of anime series is that the structures of the form force the series into standard lengths of roughly some multiple of twelve episodes. That seems to be the expectation.
Here’s your problem: What happens when your meta-plot doesn’t stretch that far?
There are great anime that time it out just right. When I look for an example of an anime that got it just right (on any of a number of dimensions), I point to Kill la Kill. The meta-plot keeps moving forward all the time there. Of course, it’s a very twisty thing and it takes time to get all those twists worked out.
My fave anime, as mentioned, is Black Lagoon. The series wrapped with a sequence of episodes set in Japan that resolved the meta-plot thoroughly, beautifully, and tragically. But before they could get there we had a three-part arc featuring Greenback Jane, the Indian counterfeiter. It was almost as though someone said, “You know, this is just filler, so do whatever you want.” There are more panty shots in those three episodes than the rest of the series combined. It’s as though they knew this story arc didn’t matter…I love Greenback Jane but she’s pure filler.
Two anime I’ve seen recently sort of exemplify this problem in different ways. One is Ergo Proxy, the steam-punky dystopian anime. I had a hard time getting through it because of the density of the text; to be frank, I tend to do other things while the TV is on, and listen to the sound. The political thriller elements of the plot make it difficult to track without careful viewing. (Be warned.)
Now that I’ve gotten through it, it’s worth it.
Still, at the same time, they have a problem. They had about eighteen episodes of meta-plot and they had to stretch it out to the full twenty-three, so you end up with episodes like “Girl With a Smile,” that are clever but don’t advance the meta-plot. This seems to be a pretty common way of dealing with the problem of too little meta-plot, and you see it in a lot of places. (I mentioned Black Lagoon; how about the baseball episode of Samurai Champloo?)
Erased was a whole separate problem. I was introduced to it at my college’s anime club, and complained immediately that it contained an attractive, single, middle-aged woman (Sachiko, the hero, Saturo’s, mother)…just my type…and they whack her immediately.
Sachiko: 52, single, and hot. Why isn’t she on match.com?
Erased is basically a detective story with some time travel elements. Saturo has some kind of control over time that allows him to go backwards under certain circumstances. If he figures out who murdered his schoolmate Kayo (voiced in English by the wonderful Stephanie Sheh), he solves the whole meta-plot and changes the future sufficiently to keep Sachiko alive. That IS the meta-plot. Technically speaking, it’s Overcoming the Monster.
Kayo (left) and the young Saturo
Erased is only twelve episodes long. As it is a mystery, you’re offered a red herring, someone who is an obvious suspect, but by about episode seven or eight (if that long) you’ve figured out that the red herring is indeed un herang rouge. Problem: at that point there’s only one person left who could be the killer. So either the solution is obvious, or the story is so poorly constructed that the actual killer will pop up out of nowhere. And Erased is a pretty good series, so a disaster like pulling an antagonist out of thin air isn’t coming. So its a mystery where you already know who dunnit.
So now I know who done it and you know who done it. The series has to play out…of course, we don’t know exactly how Saturo will figure out who it was and how he will stop the killer, but still…it’s a mystery plot and the mystery is solved. We don’t know the exact course of events, but we know who Saturo will identify and that the killer will be stopped. The meta-plot is finished, and in important ways so is the series, but it still has three or four episodes to go.
It’s quite possible that this series could have actually been longer. If it was, they could have developed more possible suspects.
Still, Erased has the same problem as the other series mentioned: a meta-plot that didn’t fill the series.
This suggests an important question: Is it better to have too much meta-plot or too little? I’ve mentioned a number of anime whose meta-plots don’t quite stretch all the way, and at least one (School-live!) that has ended (so far as we know at this point) too early, which is to say, unresolved. (I’m told the anime of Copellion is unresolved, although that’s because it was pretty bad and no one watched it. The underlying story told in the manga series is finished, though.) If there’s too much meta-plot the producers run the risk of rushing it to an end, leaving the end incoherent, or not reaching the end, leaving conflict unresolved. Is it better to stretch to avoid these problems?
Given that the narrative form requires closure, it seems like it’s best to have too little meta-plot than too much. In that case, alas, we must prepare for more episodes of filler.
I always look at comments and feedback, and I’m sure I’m not the first to see what I’ve seen, so have at it. Just keep it clean and keep it on target…no personal attacks, okay? Thanks.