Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Thoughts on Consumption of Cartoons

There was a Sunday morning when I was seven that I fell sick. As was the custom when myself or my sister fell ill, Dad let me lie in the parents' bedroom and hooked up the VCR to the TV that was in there. He then pulled out a box of recently acquired tapes, placed the first in the machine and said "give a shout if you want to see the next one. I think you will. Get well soon."

It was Star Blazers.

As well as spending a day watching a great show about humanity's last hope flying through space firing inexplicably powerful lasers at blue-skinned nazis, there were a couple of concepts I was introduced to:
1) That television shows can be written with a beginning, middle and end
2) There's more japanese cartoons that have conclusions than Western ones
3) Marathoning a show can be really fun.

A term that modern film critics and analysts are using to describe the way a lot of people watch shows like HBO's juggernaut Game of Thrones and AMC's Breaking Bad is binge viewing. There's lots of study going on at Netflix on how to best deliver content to people and much contemplation on what it means for how shows should be written.

For fans of japanese animation, we don't call it binge viewing. We call it watching a show. While my introduction to the world was a bit different from the norm 20 years ago, Western anime culture is still very much steeped in watching content in clumps. Early fansubbers would try to fit as many episodes of a show on a VHS as possible. The early digital fansubbers would cram awful RMVBs onto CDs to pass to their friends. Mid-2000s fansubbers were extremely early adopters of batch torrents, and the decreasing costs of DVD burners and players made it all the easier to hand out full shows to people. We are extremely used to scrambling for as much content as we can find and just getting immersed in it in one fell swoop.

But things are changing.

While the mainstream media analysis is all about observing how digital distribution and the incredibly cheap costs of television shows on DVDs allow for greater amounts of binge viewing, anime viewers are currently experiencing the opposite situation. Almost every show broadcast each season is being simultaneously screened on live streaming services as a legitimate enterprise through organisations such as Crunchyroll and the websites of the distributors who are still functioning. What this means is that people are being introduced to a whole new way of perceiving their cartoons.

What's this newfangled realisation? That we have to watch shows one episode per week.

Anime fans are quite often not used to watching shows once a week. They're not used to shows written this way. For people who love to watch the big action serials like Naruto, Dragon Ball Z, One Piece or what have you, they don't think in terms of weekly problems. They're used to thinking of drawn out story arcs. They're used to three flashbacks an episode. They're used to referring to anything not related to fighting the current villain as the dreaded filler. Sitting down once a week and catching up on your friends and what adventures await isn't a way that anime fans usually look at the stories they fall in love with.

So what does this all mean? When I see people complain about shows like Stardust Crusaders spending each week fighting strange gimmicky fools because Jotaro hasn't punched Dio a million times in that internet-famous scene, I think it's because people just aren't used to watching this sort of show. They've forgotten that a lot of shows are adapting comics that are published a week or a month at a time and made to provide some entertainment while on the train to work or school each day. People are used to treating pulp fiction like high art, and now the distribution is changing they need to come to terms with what the medium they've fallen in love with is.

So, anybody up for rewatching Cowboy Bebop?


  1. More generally, I can really appreciate the difficulties that episodic stories have to deal with, since you need to not only make sense as a coherent whole, but you also have to ramp up and wind down every thirty minutes (or sixty minutes, or two hours, or sixty pages, etc). Or, y'know, every five hundred words, if you're me and you hate posting fragments of larger stories. Something usually gives, and it's often interesting seeing what that something is.

  2. Damn i need to rewatch Cowboy Bebop because it actually WAS screened on TV here (in germany) once a week like 15 years ago and i missed one episode when the story was nearing conclusion so i skipped the rest and never saw the end.....