I know that anime is something of a flagging industry in recent years, and there’s been a major upswing in merch and secondary publications to offset that fact, but I draw the line at outsourcing the emotional bond that theoretically drives the plot. And the names and characterizations of several secondary cast members. And any but the most bare-bones plot revelations necessary to keep the plot moving. I was really burned by K, is what I’m saying.
C’mere internet, I need to explain a thing
It’s my own fault in some ways, as someone who’s continually looking for a repeat of the perfect guilty pleasure high that was Descendants of Darkness despite knowing how rarely supernatural pretty people fests can handle their one-cour runs. And years of keeping up with the gaming community have trained me to expect being nickel-and-dimed for content (the most egregious example being we’re-not-a-MMORPG-we-swear Destiny, whose approach to plot best is summed up as “I don’t even have time to explain why I don’t have time to explain this to you”). In fact, a lot of series I love commonly practice the release of world-building material and character tidbits outside the main story (see: Pacific Rim and Tiger & Bunny, among others). I can even, now and then, get behind the idea that additional content (paid or in some other way specially acquired) is a way for fans to invest more deeply in the show or to return to a story that had reached its conclusion. When you need a roadmap to decode what’s going on as it’s airing, we need to have a talk.
For those unaware, K (also known as K Project to help browser searches everywhere) was a 2012 original anime set in an alternate universe of Kings – seven clans grouped around different color sets (denoting different power sets, natch) who pretty much live in a constant state of near-turf war. The plot kicks off with the murder of a Red clan member by the wildcard Colorless King (or so he calls himself in the found footage), leading a multi-faction manhunt for high school student and murderer lookalike Shiro (do you get it), who swears he has no idea what these people are on about. You might be saying to yourself that that seems like a pretty manageable plot for 13 episodes, and you would be right – if I hadn’t left out about 20 mitigating plot factors that are going on simultaneously (including but not limited to the weird ex-lovers vibe between the Red and Blue leaders, the Red leader being in constant danger of his powers going into city destroying meltdown mode, amnesia, mystery naked catgirls, reluctant bodyguards of mysterious origin, Red members who defected to Blue to the anguish of certain tsunderes, psychics colorblind moe girls, and action scenes that don’t so much happen as ooze gelatinously across about half of the show’s running time with increasingly smaller budget allotment).
In fairness, he’s the Most Fun waste of time
Ah, but doesn’t a mystery story have to keep secrets from its audience? Isn’t that the cause for investment? To a certain extent yes, if the story is intent on answering those questions. And K does answer, sorta, its two biggest mysteries: was it Shiro who killed Totsuka, and will Mikoto’s quest for revenge kill him. It even gives some backstory on that defection, and a dozen other little tidbits vomited out whenever there’s time between the color-filter doused fight scenes. But when you’re telling a story it’s not enough to simply check off all the boxes. You have to answer them well, prioritizing the characters or elements that you’ve deemed most important and giving them enough time to allow for the audience’s emotional investment. Take note of shows like Madoka, which has less than half a dozen truly important characters (and even above that prioritizes Homura and Madoka’s relationship as the series’ core); or even Baccano, which retains a larger ensemble cast but focuses them through how they respond to a central theme/narrative element rather than many disparate ones (while also giving them vivid personalities and designs that establish themselves quickly in the viewer’s mind). Rather than do any of that, K throws a bunch of stuff on screen that it’s pretty sure an audience will buy, tapes it together with a shaky whodunit and some good old subgenre queerbaiting, and then started pumping out things to sell to its prospective audience.
And boy, is there merchandise. If there’s a subsection of stuff to sell to even mildly invested fans, K has it: body pillows, clear files, audio dramas, magazine scans, posters, live events, specialized items that are only available at those live events, figurines, side novels, a manga, and (to be finished) a feature film. It’s a behemoth of shambling capitalism, but what makes it the worst is how clearly the subsidizing items are prioritized over the main product (that’s the anime, if you weren’t certain). One of the more egregious cases is the relationship between Yata and Fushimi (that betrayal subplot I mentioned), which adds very little of actual substance to the plot in a show that simply doesn’t have time in its structure for interesting but practically irrelevant character subplots. Two whole episodes are lost to the souring of their ‘really close no homo but kinda buy our merch’ friendship, not enough to pay off the conflict in a satisfactory manner but too damn much in the ticking clock of the conspiracy plot. But it sells like absolute gangbusters with the fujoshi set, and so it gets its dues at the expense of the ‘real’ plot (as someone who liked the characters, the answer is perhaps to write them an actual central role, but the plot’s not interested in that either).
Oh no, not…that generically pretty guy. His earring was so shiny
But even that can’t compare to basing a story around the death of a character (and not ‘his death starts the plot,’ but ‘half the characters’ actions don’t make sense, because we only have a minimal idea of what their relationship to the deceased was like) who has less than 15 minutes of screentime in the entire show. There’s simply no excuse for it in a show without an adaptive source, and the fact that a prequel was written but released after the series proper (not ‘another story’ but a proper prequel about Totsuka and the key rivalry between Red and Blue) makes the production staff seem incompetent at best and opportunistic at worst – to the tune of ‘just put enough together to make it sell, and if it does we’ll have the less flashy stuff we can sell them on the side later, I guess.’
And so we have a mystery with little suspense, because we don’t care about the victim (when we are very clearly supposed to). We have an action series without spectacle, because the budget was clearly frontloaded to get butts in metaphorical seats without much concern for the increasingly cheap measures they’d be seeing if they stuck around. And we have a character drama with more characters than it can give developed arcs, leaking over into extra material that may or may not give proper ‘canonical’ development, because what is canon when you have dozens of writers across many mediums, some material of which has been artificially rarified? It’s not even clever enough to imply what it doesn’t say, to give enough background or well developed world-building to encourage the audience to play with the mechanics of how the different factions work (why bother, when you can just throw an arbitrary element in when the plot demands it?). If I seem unusually cruel, it’s because my sense of goodwill toward flawed works is dependent on a clear love for and belief in the story being told on screen (that, and there were parts of the show I was sincerely invested in – viewer scorned, and all that).
There’s a whole other article to be had about all the ways in which GF is
‘totally for kids, no really’
Which brings us round to the ‘pro’ end of this article. Rather than go the ‘additional paid story content’ route (though there are instances of excellent story-based DLC out there in the world and a few magnificent works of the old ‘make a movie to tie up lose ends’ approach like Return of the Joker), I wanted to focus on the show’s approach to implied/unspoken information in regards to both its mystery and its characters. To that end, I give you Gravity Falls: a Disney show about twins visiting their great uncle over the summer and trying to uncover the mystery behind the titular town, and one of the smartest animated shows on American television.
In the name of fairness, GF has a lot of things over K: a higher episode count, a unified writing team with a purposeful director, the need to fight for every one of its risky narrative decisions due to Disney’s rating restrictions, and so on. It also obeys the law of keeping a very small central cast with secondary players developed as time allows, and metes out its mystery element in concentrated doses once or twice a season in-between episodic character plots. Mostly.
Just bring me my tinfoil hat
And yet at the same time you can wander into a fandom discussion that hinges, with ironclad belief, on the existence of a secret missing twin that has never been explicitly mentioned in the narrative. And it’s not mad fan invention, either. GF is well known for placing seeming inconsistencies into its narrative only to reward them later (villainous illuminati triangle Bill Cipher being the most overt example, who appeared as a background detail from the very first opening theme but wasn’t introduced until the first season’s finale. It’s a show that includes strings of code at the end of its credit sequences and then gives the clue for cracking that code as a whisper in the opening theme that must be played backwards. Later, it switched from a fairly simple ‘three letters back’ code to a vigenere cipher, which involves both a chart and a decoder word to work out the message (in a show ostensibly marketed to children, mind). At one of its pinnacles of weirdness, the creative team put out a garbled and seemingly meaningless message that, upon investigating the source code for the page, revealed an asterisk picture of secondary villain Lil’ Gideon (who played a large part in the season one finale as well). These are deep cuts that require specific resources and skills, a kind of game played between creator and viewer to tease out additional secrets about the show’s universe.
There are two major differences that elevate Gravity Falls’s approach above K’s. The first, critically, is that the secrecy games are free to participate in (putting aside the assumption of not-so-cheap technology necessary to do things like rip clips and play them backwards for secret codes). While there’s merchandise to buy (including a scrapbook with another set of foreshadowing secret codes), it’s almost entirely separate from the cryptography games that have become a major part of the fanbase and pretty much indispensable to discussion within fandom circles.
Secondly, and critically, the secrets are all bits of information that are eventually revealed (even if not in exact words) within the explicit narrative. The show already makes no bones about its characters’ arcs and the importance of their relationships to one another (with Mabel and Dipper’s bond superseding even the central mystery), but it keeps its plot events both concise and uncondescending as well. Both viewers who’ve been immersed in the nitty gritty of the latest cipher and those who’ve had no more involvement than watching the latest episode can grasp a full enjoyment of what’s happening on screen, and that’s the true mark of successfully integrated supplementary material. Because eventually the magazines, the fake-obscure dramas, and the side canon will fade away and force the ‘main’ story to stand on its own, a prospect K will doubtlessly have difficulty with when its creators have run off toward the next marketable possibility. And that’s not just frustrating as a consumer. It’s sad. A story with real potential, squandered and poorly meted or not, deserved better than that.