Understanding the Medium: Premise Means Nothing

An anime’s premise is practically fucking worthless.  Now a lot of anime fans be they new, casual, old or otaku don’t think that way.  Look at some of the biggest hits of the last few years, SAO, Erased and Shingeki no Kyojin.  I’ve seen all three and I have a lot of problems with all three, and while the community is pretty divided on their opinions of these shows it is undeniable that they are in fact some of the biggest hits of the 2010’s.  And the reason why these shows are so big is that they have cool premises, and people flocked to them because of those premises.  Now I have to explain why those premises don’t fucking matter.  There will spoilers.

This might seem hypocritical and confusing but a show’s premise is simultaneously something valuable and something fucking worthless.  As I explained in a previous post, the ability to craft a good premise is in fact a skill and it seems to do a great job at getting people’s attention.  You know the first time I started watching currently airing anime seasons was the season SAO came out (I am an otaku but compared to most I haven’t been at this very long, I just got way into anime once I finally got into it), and I remember how exciting it sounded.  It was the Matrix set in an MMORPG, I don’t even like MMORPGs and I thought that sounded great.  And there was another show in particular which caught my attention that season, Shin Sekai Yori, which also appeared to have a cool premise. While I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t realize quite how shit SAO was when I first watched it (it sank in a bit later once I got more critical and had seen more shows), even when I saw it that first time I still vaguely understood that it hadn’t lived up to the premise.

By the end of SAO’s Aincrad arc I was very “meh” about the show and my opinion went down after the end of Alfheim.  Meanwhile I was pretty fucking excited about Shin Sekai Yori the entire time it was airing and I continue to enjoy it to this day.  Unlike SAO which rapidly became less interesting because the execution of the show did not at all live up to the premise, Shin Sekai Yori had my attention and continues to have my respect.  “How did Shin Sekai Yori, an obscure little anime succeed to entertain while the titanic SAO fell by the wayside?” you might ask.  The answer is simple, SAO presented us with an interesting premise but after episode 3 (at best) it stopped executing the premise well.  SAO stopped being a death game set in an MMO and became just a teenage empowerment fantasy aimed at gamers, i.e. a huge percentage of the young male demographic.  By comparison Shin Sekai Yori executed it’s premise well, it had expressive artwork and insane visuals to match it’s eerie tone and disturbing ideas.  It had characters I cared about, it constantly addressed and expanded on the premise and core themes by adding relevant narratives and setting details, and this made it an engaging, thought provoking watch, compared SAO’s boring, low quality action and harem-comedy fare.  And this is one of the main tenets of this entire post: A good premise can bring your anime attention, but good execution is what brings your anime critical acclaim.

Because here’s the thing, yes it takes a little imagination to come up with a cool premise for a show, but really, anybody can come up with a cool idea.  It takes people with talent and vision to execute any premise, be it cool or mundane, with a lot of skill.  For example Madoka Magica is also one of the biggest hits of the 2010’s and it does have a cool premise, again I’m not even a fan of magical girl shows and I think Madoka Magica is built on a cool premise.  But do you know why Madoka Magica is so much more universally beloved than the other three big hits I mentioned above?  Because it was executed well.  The presentation of Madoka Magica was phenomenal, with all kinds of trippy visuals that played into the darker aspects of the show, and the flash-forward to the fight with the Walpurgisnacht to engage our curious minds.   And then they built up the character drama with the sudden death of Tomoe Mami in episode 3, the reveal of Kyuubei as this amoral monster who tricked girls into giving up their physical bodies and eventually turning them into the monsters they hunted, Sayaka’s total mental breakdown, Homura’s backstory and character transformation, and of course with Madoka literally rewriting the rules of the universe across all of time.  In short the execution of Madoka Magica was good, and lived up to the premise that got everyone excited about it.

More importantly you don’t even need a good premise to make a great show.  One of my favorite shows of the Spring 2016 anime season, which was a great season overall, was Bakuon.  Bakuon was a stupid moe high school comedy about a bunch of cute girls with motorcycles and their shenanigans.  Its premise is incredibly mundane and boring and its genre is not really my thing, I’m not big into moe even if I’m not anti-moe per se.  In fact it looked so mundane and boring that I initially skipped over it and wasn’t going to watch it at all until I heard someone describe the first episode.  Then I gave it that watch and what do you know, I fell in love immediately.  I looked forward to every episode and enjoyed every episode, Bakuon never let me down and I was never bored.  It was so good that it instantly made it into my top five comedies, no small feat when you’ve seen and enjoyed as many comedies as I have.

Now some of you probably think I’m crazy.  I mean how could a “real anime fan” prefer something like Bakuon to SAO, Erased and Shingeki no Kyojin, with their great premises and huge popularity?  Because Bakuon executed it’s stupid premise so well, that it outclasses those other fucking shows by an overwhelming margin.  SAO is a dumpster fire, I can see why certain people enjoy it but it’s bottom of the barrel writing.  Erased is mess because most of the characters feel like cardboard cutouts meant to make certain story beats happen instead of existing organically as people in a real world.  And while I cared about the mystery of the titans in Shingeki no Kyojin for a long time, it’s taken too long to get any answers and now all I really care about are the fights.  See that’s the thing with premise, it has a lot of pull but not a lot of staying power.  My interest in any premise, no matter how good or cool it is, will eventually burn out someday, but good execution lasts forever.  My opinions of the three big hits changed for the worse rapidly because they rely on premise to keep me interested, by contrast Bakuon works its ass off to make sure I have a good time and that’s why I will ALWAYS have a good time with Bakuon.

What I’ve found recently is that a lot of shows I sort of liked or found at least ok because of their premise are shows where I generally start to think “you know that show was actually a piece of shit” and end up hating it later down the line.  Overlord is a good example, by the show’s end I found it very mediocre but held on because the main guys were demons and monsters and that was a cool idea.  But ever since then every time I think of Overlord I can only think of all the shitty parts and how I really hated the damn show and wonder in retrospect how I ever finished it in the first fucking place.  But well-executed shows don’t suffer from this problem, because they fucking earned my respect and love.  Banking a show on premise is essentially betting on whims and fads, you might love it now but it won’t stay that way.  Good execution is like ancient engineering, built to last a thousand years after the creator is dead.

Another great example of execution being more important than premise is D Gray Man Hallow.  Setting aside the unforgivably terrible first episode, which I’ve ranted about at length, the show is surprisingly not terrible.  The main arc has some interesting ideas and story beats, even if I figured out the main thrust of this arc back when I finished the original D Gray Man.  In fact, the fact that D Gray Man Hallow isn’t total shit is a testament to how good the premise and ideas of this arc are, because by all rights it should be shit.  But sadly that will not save D Gray Man Hallow for me, because with every episode I watch my reaction is that I inevitably end up thinking how much better this would be if it had happened in the old D Gray Man.  I hate all new voice actors, most them don’t match their characters and they have no chemistry, but even worse is the new visual design.  What really sold D Gray Man a lot of the time was not just the action or the story, it was the look and feel of the show.  Back in the old D Gray Man, the visual aesthetic was this dark, Gothic look and it matched the overall darker tone of the show, the older European setting (of many but not all episodes) and the excellent dark, Gothic atmospheric soundtracks.

So much of D Gray Man’s appeal was communicated by it’s aesthetic, sound and atmosphere and how those things influenced the overall narrative and characters; and that’s FUCKING GONE.  D Gray Man Hallow is too bright, sleek, clean and modern to ever recapture the feel of the old D Gray Man, even if they hadn’t replaced all the voice actors and fucked up a bunch of the characters, they were never going to get D Gray Man right with this visual redesign.  That’s what happens when you execute something poorly (especially if it’s because it’s a blatant cash grab), I, and a lot of other people, will find your show wanting.  It makes me wish D Gray Man Hallow had never happened, because I would be happier imaging this arc in my head for all time with the old D Gray Man’s feel as reference then see it brought to life by people who have no understanding of what made the show good to begin with.  D Gray Man has a lot of cool ideas, but I love the show because they did a good job with it.  D Gray Man Hallow still has those cool ideas but I’m disappointed because they didn’t bother to do them justice.

Now I’m sure some of you are wondering what good execution looks like, if some of the biggest hits of the 2010’s don’t have it.  There’s really no answer to that question.  You can do anything well, and you can do anything poorly.  For example, as I discussed in one of my first posts, you can attempt any kind of battle in an action anime, you can do a instant win One Punch Man style or you can drag it out for a whole season DBZ style.  And theoretically you could do a great job with a fight on either of those extremes or anywhere in between, of course you could also fuck up any fight at or between those extremes.  Now add that freedom to anything a story can do, and this is why premise isn’t important.  You can make any kind of show from a dumb high school moe comedy to a high concept super-immersive scifi story with deep themes, and you can make that show good.  Or you could fuck it up.  There’s no template or formula for what makes good or bad execution, there’s no genre or trope that automatically sucks or rules.  And there’s no such thing as a premise that guarantees one kind of show to be better than other kind of show.

That’s about all I have to say.  Premise has some value in the short term, i.e. getting people’s attention, but long term value, which is what really matters for art, comes from good execution.  More importantly, any premise from the mundane to the arcane can be executed well or be executed like shit, so it makes no sense to place any value on premise, because the premise does not in any way determine the quality of a show. There are hundreds if not thousands of anime examples that prove that premise alone is not worth anything, that prove that execution of a premise trumps the damn premise itself.  It’s a very simple truth, a basic idea, and somehow a lot of people don’t get it.  Hopefully some of you get it now.  Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you in the next one.

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