Netflix revolutionized how Western television was made in February of 2013.
No longer were shows shackled to the constraints of network time slots and censorship. No longer did you need expensive cable plans to access the best of what television had to offer. And no longer did fans need to wait week by week for the next chapter of a saga; it was all right there from the get-go.
House of Cards had arrived.
Needless to say it was eye-opening. It had flashy Hollywood A-listers at the top of its billing, episodes that ranged anywhere from 46 to 58 minutes to accommodate for each’s content, and you could watch it all unfold over the course of a weekend. It was event television at its finest.
Streaming is the most game-changing innovation in the history of television. It opened the flood gates for accessibility and experimentation. When before could we have gotten the non-linear fourth season of Arrested Development that really only makes sense when binged? What about a five-episode revival of Mr. Show with Bob and David? Netflix and its contemporaries created a space for these things to exist.
We can take this even further with anime in the modern era so why aren’t we?
This isn’t to say that anime hasn’t had its fair share of experimental formats over the years. The tradition of OVAs goes back to the early 1980s and has become a mainstay ever since, reaching particular prominence in the 90s as an avenue for stories that didn’t fit the mold of the time’s gargantuan television series. You could have a raunchy comedy like Golden Boy explore its ideas in six concise episodes or weave an epic space opera over the span of a decade à la Legend of the Galactic Heroes. It was the proverbial Wild West of anime production.
Anime had opened the door to modularity. In an ideal situation a studio could make their series as long or as short as needed in order to properly tell their story. OVAs were also a safer bet for production committees. Television anime were regimented steam trains and putting the brakes on them would end up costly for investors, let alone leaving fans with an unfinished product.
This trend waned in relevancy as more and more television anime got produced. We all know how it is: most of the modern anime industry’s output comes in the form of 12-episode series (double that in increasingly rare scenarios). If that’s successful you may get a second series within a couple seasonal cycles. We have more options than ever, just in a more restrictive format.
We’ve seen great results when series are freed from these restrictions. A series like Ninja Slayer can air on Niconico in Japan, experimenting with variable episode lengths and animation techniques that likely wouldn’t fly on television. The same goes for Planetarian which was able to tell its story in a succinct five-episode run, adapting its short visual novel without any additional fluff for maximum emotional impact.
Why are these examples so few and far between?
The truth is that streaming in Japan isn’t quite what it is in the Western world. Physical media still rules the day with its high markups. A Japanese Crunchyroll would very likely cut into those sales and streaming kickbacks aren’t necessarily a sustainable business model for a niche product with high production costs. Plus, that television airtime is a critical part of selling Blu-rays to potential fans. Embracing new media would mean a mass restructuring of industry financing.
So okay, let’s say we’re at a standstill with streaming for the moment. There are still avenues for modularity yet! Take Katanagatari for example, a series that aired one 50-minute episode each month throughout the course of 2010. Each episode adapted a full light novel and in a stroke of brilliance a month would pass in the story’s chronology to mirror that of its release schedule.
Katanagatari was able to faithfully adapt Nisio Isin’s light novels both in content and tone. The length of each episode gave it breathing room to develop each sword master, allow the characters to ramble off Isin’s trademark dialogue and lead into a fulfilling climax. Shichika and Togame’s tribulations are given significance through the time we spend conquering each trial with them. Episodes could hypothetically be truncated to fit into the industry-standard 24 minutes but everything that makes the story special would be lost in the transition; only through adjusting the format to fit its needs did Katanagatari achieve greatness.
Compare this to the arc of Trigun where Vash must take out the Gung-Ho Guns. The short span in which the series had to cram in those characters resulted in a lack of investment because most of them never amounted to more than flies to swat. Now imagine if those episodes were lengthened in order to develop the cronies and make Vash’s showoffs against them all the more impactful. A few additional scenes could have made the difference but it’s instead a clumsy blemish on an otherwise classic series.
Just because Trigun was constrained to a programming block doesn’t mean it had to stay that way in post. One of the benefits of Japan’s physical market is that studios often have the chance to touch up animation that got overlooked during the rush to meet television deadlines. What if they could also use that time to expand upon episodes?
Neon Genesis Evangelion famously did this with its director’s cuts of episodes 21-24, each adding key details that fleshed out the plot and backstory. But of course this practice comes with a price tag attached. Most anime series aren’t making back their budgets as-is so spending even more to expand them would be bad for business. It’s another reason for the industry to embrace streaming where episodes can be made the way they should be during the initial production cycle.
For all my praise of series flexibility it must be acknowledged that limitations can breed creativity. In much the same way that silent films used intertitles to convey dialogue so too can the fixed runtime of an episode dictate the creatively efficient compaction of ideas. In fact, by having the ability to adjust your run time at will you can run into the problem of bloating your episode with content that should’ve been left on the cutting room floor. I’d attribute these pitfalls to bad directors rather than bad format though.
You may have noticed that I’ve not yet mentioned one very important innovation in modular anime: shorts. These have opened up a sector of the medium rife with experimentation and oddball ideas, all wrapped up in a digestible format. However, these still tend to set a rigid format and stick to it. This is at odds with the gag comedy nature of most shorts. Variable episode lengths would mean they could throw their punchline with precision comedic timing and get out. To accommodate this I see the future of shorts existing on services like YouTube and Niconico where short-form content thrives.
Perhaps the pinnacle of modular anime is the Monogatari series. Not only do its episodes have accommodating runtimes but it utilizes different formats to best fit the needs of each light novel. I’ll be covering this in more depth in my arc-by-arc analysis of the franchise beginning very soon!
I can’t say I feel we’re on the right path when it comes to tailoring formats to most effectively tell a story, at least as long as television is involved. The homogenization of the single and split-cour means that series that need longer runs aren’t getting them. The same goes for shorter stories as very few stand-alone OVAs are being made anymore, those ideas instead being padded out into full seasons.
But there’s a glimmer of hope. Trigger and noitaminA recently announced deals with Netflix and Amazon respectively to simulcast their series in Japan, and ReLIFE was released in full on streaming sites before airing last year. Even though these series are still restricted by fitting into programming blocks it’s proof that the anime industry is willing to test the waters of new media. The future of anime achieved by continuing down this path is one I’m excited to witness.