Chronology is such a basic facet of storytelling that it’s basically an implicit agreement between author and audience that you don’t play with it in such a way as to overly confuse the audience. Because if you can’t even interpret what events occur in what order then the coherence of the story completely falls apart. That being said there are a few techniques you can use to tell a story out of chronological order without causing any real problems, such as starting with a character who has amnesia who is making actions in the present while trying to uncover the events that happened in the past. So long as present actions of the character follow a straightforward chronology, it’s engaging for the audience because we get to work alongside the character to make sense of the chronology as they discover various events, see flashes of prior memories or uncover evidence the character’s past. However if you made events in the present happen out of order too then good God would the story be a nightmarish mess to untangle. And with that example out of the way, let’s dig into a couple shows which play with their chronology to varying degrees of success. There will be spoilers, you’ve been warned.
Baccano is one of the most complicated cases of chronology meddling in anime – barring the truly absurd chronology puzzle that is the Monogatari franchise – and yet it functions very well as a coherent story. For those not in the know in Baccano there are three stories, each a year apart from each other, being told simultaneously so that all of them can reach their various conclusions at the end of the show rather than being told as 3 separate arcs with their own individual climaxes. How does Baccano accomplish this? There are two major tools used to help guide the audience. These are posted dates and the Daily Days, a newspaper shop-cum-info broker that seem to be obsessed with knowing everything about everything going on. The Daily Days is particularly helpful in that one of the characters Eve Geonard is trying to find her brother during the storyline that happens last chronologically. Despite Eve’s search beginning chronologically towards the end of Baccano we are made privy to her search from very early on in the show and will get updates on her search throughout, which can gives us hints that Baccano is in fact telling multiple stories in parallel and providing guidance as to what actually happened. This combined with the much more obvious posted dates not only makes the wonky chronology of Baccano apparent but it strikes a great middle ground by being just complex enough that you need to pay attention to avoid confusion, while not being so complex as to just be a confusing mess.
By using the simple tool of posted dates and the much more engaging tool that is Eve Geonard and the Daily Days, Baccano is able to mitigate confusion to a set of stories they deliberately made less clear. And it works like gangbusters because it means you can navigate the chronology and aren’t overly confused while the show is able to have the 3 endings of the different stories build into each other for one giant climatic finish, that justifies all the fancy footwork done during the buildup. I watched Baccano years ago and I can still remember the chronology and and broad strokes of each storyline because Baccano gave me the tools to make sense of it all throughout the experience. Having said all that I doubt most stories or shows could pull a similar trick off unless they pretty directly from this playbook, or by using amnesia and digging into the past in much the same way Baccano uses Eve. That’s not say no one else should try but Baccano sets just about the highest bar for successful chronology meddling contained in a standalone show, so I doubt most will even want to attempt to replicate Baccano in this regard.
Moving right along we have Kumo ga nani desu ka? aka Spider Isekai, which goes a thankfully simple chronology meddling route. Spider Isekai also tells multiple stories in parallel, one about Kumoko’s journey through the Labyrinth and her struggle against the Demon Lord, and one about all of her classmates. There’s a roughly 15 year gap between these two stories before they eventually connect as Kumoko, now in her final form for the foreseeable future meets her classmates. Both stories are told with straightforward chronologies and this timegap between them become immediately apparent when Sophia is introduced. Sophia appears as a baby in Kumoko’s story and as a teenager in everyone else’s story, with the implication that since Kumoko reincarnated as a spider she physically matured lickety-split while the rest of her classmates and teacher had to physically mature at the same rate as humans.
This method is great because it’s both easily understood and allows Kumoko to enter the classmate story as a ludicrously overpowered character without feeling like a bullshit OP character. We’ve seen – albeit in far less detail than the manga, which is a shame – Kumoko make her hard as balls journey through the the Labyrinth. We know what skills she gained, what foes she overcame and how she has skated from one near-death experience to the next by the skin of her teeth up until she allies with the Demon Lord. Then, when the classmates are mostly starting from scratch as teenagers and just hitting their adventuring groove, save for the ones under Kumoko’s wing, Kumoko and her allies can appear as the unstoppable forces of evil to most of the other classmates – while they target supposedly good elves for using technology that could lead to the world’s destruction and are secretly the good guys. Which reminds me a bit of Helck, a manga you should definitely read if you enjoyed Spider isekai.
So far I’ve explored tools and tricks that allow stories to successfully meddle with their chronologies while still being coherent, enjoyable stories. What happens if you fuck it up though? Well you get Peach Boy Riverside, which was the main inspiration for writing this post. Now before I go on to shit on this new show let’s make a couple things clear. I went into PBR hoping to like it. It looked mildly edgy but had a thicc princess, Oni and some bastardized mythology for story backdrop. All of these things were pros in my book, even though I would say the presentation is lackluster at best and that’s before we get into the chronology. Like why does Frau the white hare who is clearly from some Japanese folk tale I can only vaguely remember wear a modern school uniform in a world that is otherwise medieval? Why do Oni have such a loose physical boundaries as beings to the point that more traditional Japanese Oni are technically in the same group as vampires and monster chickens? These are big questions people. That being said it also presented some interesting ideas, like having Peach Boy be a borderline genocidal pyschopath who fights Oni not to save people but for the joy of slaughtering Oni. Or Sally the MC having a similar power but not having any control of it. Things which suggest interesting possibilities. And then we get to the timeline and just, ugh.
At the time of writing, PBR is six episodes deep and the chronology is Episode 4, Episode 1, Episode 2, Episode 5, Episode 6, Episode 3 – and Episode 6 has two different characters make reference to a battle that happened previously but which we haven’t seen yet except in a brief flashback that probably takes place sometime after Episode 2. In case that sounds like a mess, congratulations it absolutely fucking is. For the life of me I can’t understand why PBR is presented this way. This chronology fucks with the story so bad it hurts. For example it’s implied in Episode 1 that Sally is searching for Peach Boy because they are longtime friends, possibly even childhood friends and they have some deep connection. Episode 4 then proves they are very nearly strangers who spent like a day or two together before he got her kingdom out of an Oni-induced jam and then left. Episode 3 ends on a semi-cliffhanger as it appears that one of Sally’s companions are about to end up fighting one of Peach Boy’s companions in a fighting tournament while the leader of the Oni and Peach Boy both make Sally an offer to join them. Keep in mind we have almost no insight into either of these characters at this point nor any reason why Sally would choose the Oni over Peach Boy. Then we cut to her meeting Peach Boy and it’s both briefer and more traumatic than expected as she sees his darker side. So you would think the logical thing to do then is cut back to the spot Episode 3 ended and at least have some dialogue before maybe branching off so Sally can weigh the events of Episode 4 against some of her own encounters with Oni. But no we cut to a random 2 episode event in the timeline which has more to do with Frau than the Oni, which itself suggests that there is yet another, earlier event (that we haven’t seen yet) which effects Episode 3 because it involves Peach Boy’s companion who is in the fighting tournament and is probably going to fight Sally’s companion in the fighting tournament. And if you can parse that set of sentences without scratching your head you have some idea of just how baffling this show’s chronology truly is.
PBR’s timeline is a clusterfuck the likes of which are rarely seen. I cannot comprehend why it was presented this way. There is no describing it beyond confusing mess or clusterfuck. I can only assume that it was presented this way in an attempt to be artsy or cool, or that the creator was outright trolling because this mess is just so needlessly retarded. I’m all for complex stories and as detailed in the prior entries I don’t mind when shows mess with their chronology so long as they do so in a way that doesn’t make their stories incoherent. PBR is borderline incoherent, aided only by the fact it isn’t actually finished yet so I don’t have a full picture of just how badly they fucked this whole thing up. But I know enough to say that this show will fail, hard. It’s tone is utterly inconsistent, the events as presented don’t even string together much a story – honestly they’re like bullet points in a rough draft story outline, there’s practically no buildup and what buildup there is is being worked into the story retroactively from episodes released after Episode 3. There is no real story to speak of, no overarching plot worth mentioning, and what has happened so far really only serves to give a vague sense of what the characters are like – sort of, maybe as it suggests there’s more depth that we haven’t been shown yet if we’re lucky. Maybe this is all supposed to present us with an intriguing mystery to keep us hooked but if that’s the case it could not be working any less if it tried. The only reason I’m still watching is because this season is so barren I’d pretty much be down to Idaten, Dragon Maid and Bakarina if I dropped everything else I tried out and didn’t immediately hate. And even then I’m still considering dropping this. See you in the next one.