Anime Story Arcs

Preemptive Troll Disclaimer: I am not insulting your favorite anime (hopefully). The below analysis of archetype plot scenarios occur frequently within 26 episode series. These aren’t ironclad rules, but if you watch random shows on Crunchyroll, the pattern reveals itself. If you only consume content friends recommend (and have vetted), you can avoid these overused tropes and plot derailed situations. If you don’t agree with the below, congratulations, you only watch good anime.

Episode 1: Drastically Different

The stage is set with one of two seemingly out-of-sync scenarios:

The first scenario reveals the protagonist in normal life. They attend school, hang out with friends and engage in a regular routine. Knowing nothing about the plot, a viewer would think they are watching a slice-of-life drama. Within the last two minutes, the true conflict arises: a spaceship crashes into their house; a mysterious stranger arrives; their dormant powers activate. A catalyst is revealed which changes the known rules. The narrative is disrupted to show the juxtaposition of normal life and the x-factor, which causes the protagonist’s perspective of reality to alter.

The second is an out of sync episode. If the story were told chronologically, this would be episode 18 or possibly 37 (the show will only exist for 26 episodes…). This mechanic is used to detail how capable the hero will be or show the world in complete disarray. By the end of the episode, time will shift to the actual starting point and the viewer will wonder what journey will lead them from point A to the far flung future they were teased with.

Episode 2 – 6: Exploration and World Building

Throughout the first true arc, the protagonist will rally around a ragtag team of misfits who are determined to save the world. Their plan is complicated, but don’t worry…they will monologue their origins, life ambitions and how they wish to improve the world. The rules of the new society are conveyed. The main characters, and viewer, learn that despite space-magic (or whatever fantastical element is introduced) there are limitations to what is allowed.

While the allies’ goals are spelled out for everyone to follow, the villain’s are not. The antagonist is either mentioned only by name or seen in their shadowy lair barking orders to underpowered servants. (Sidenote: it’s always nice of the arch-nemesis to send their lackeys in order of capability…almost as if they are training the hero throughout the series). There are hints of what the rogue is after, but the audience is left wondering what their true endgame is.

Episode 7 – 12: Action and Hints

Long stretches of exposition cease. The story utilizes rules and scenarios established to build action sequences and character arcs. This is typically one of the strongest portions of the series. The protagonist proves themself a capable member of the team and completes feats no one has witnessed before. Preconceived notions of characters are disrupted in lieu of more complicated interactions. It is possible that an ally will fall to prove the true danger of the battle at hand.

Motivations are explored in detail and origins expanded. The truth behind the world is hinted at, and the greater mystery begins to unravel. Audiences think they grasp the story and fully understand the rules of the world created. Everything is exciting but not unexpected.

Episode 13: Recap

Hey, kids! Did you just watch 12 episodes but have the attention span of a fruit fly? Well, you’re in luck. This episode will waste twenty-two minutes summarizing events. Best-case scenario, the entire experience can be skipped. Worst case, there is a vital scene in the last two minutes, which you didn’t realize until you are ten minutes into the next episode.

Episode 14 – 19: Twists and New Characters

New intro! (I love the beginnings in anime…unless they are spoiler heavy). The second half of the series adjusts expectations of characters or perceptions of the world. Just as audiences began feeling comfortable with everything that happened before, rules shift. A character, item, danger or mcguffin is introduced which alters the landscape. The story remains on track, but bends slightly around the events.

This is the crux of the story. Vital pieces of information are revealed; true natures of characters and relationships fully form. This is another arc where the creators demonstrate a firm grasp on the storytelling mechanics and plot constructed. Viewers speculate on how things will end and fully understand the core concepts of the story being told.

Episode 20 – 25: Catch-up and Adjustments

When episode twenty begins, fans wonder, “how will they wrap up so many plotlines in only six episodes?” The answer: change character behavior, rapidly tell events and adjust the rules established. In literature, there is a saying “show don’t tell.” Up until now, the series was detailing the struggle and world the characters inhabit. Now it is shouting events over a loudspeaker.

Characters switch sides, are killed meaninglessly and unrevealed plot mechanics are introduced with long stretches of dialogue. It is as if each chapter of the manga was a single episode, but now the show is attempting to cram an entire volume (approximately 8 chapters) into each episode. Or the anime was green lit before the source material concluded, and the story is playing catch up with itself. The slow burn and character development is replaced with a mad rush to ensure plot points are mentioned before the final battle.

The show is also running on a skeleton budget. The last two minutes of each episode will be the first two of the next installment. There are lots of flashback sequences to earlier episodes. Sometimes, there will be a flashback to a scene within the same episode just to fill the screen with more than a still shot of a character thinking for thirty seconds.

Episode 26: Severely Unusual

Remember the rules established, cultivated and mentioned throughout the first nineteen episodes? Forget them. A new mechanic, that has no reference to anything before, appears just as the hero is almost defeated. The story is incapable of providing a resolution for the protagonist within the framework established and is forced to introduce a deus ex machina.

If there is closure, it is rushed. Questions posed in the beginning of the series are left unanswered or provided a haphazard response that doesn’t mesh with the rest of the series. The premise was interesting, the buildup left viewers wanting more, but in the end, the promise was far more than the show could hope to deliver.

Satisfying endings are not the norm in anime. You’re better off remembering fondly the first three story arcs, which grabbed your attention, then reading the manga for the canonical (and better) ending.

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