Arata Kangatari’s 7th episode was delayed this week thanks to a pan-Asian Table Tennis tournament, so I was going to write a post celebrating rapid-fire tennis comedy Teekyu. But a certain phrase kept popping up in that post, so I thought I’d address that first. And really, I’ve tossed around the terms “fast pacing” and “high energy” a whole awful lot over the past couple of months. I think it’s only fair I define both terms, since I’ll be using them a lot in the months to come.
Pacing is a simple term for how fast events are happening, sort of the box score of a show. Almost all movies and the majority of good tv shows will alternate between fast pacing (the demons attack, characters die, and meanwhile the parliament passes a resolution banning the sale of fresh-baked bread) and slow pacing (the main characters sit around in a basement, playing low-stakes cards and chatting).
Energy level is a show’s “change factor”; the extent to which it focuses on characters’ efforts to create change or variety. Put another way, how dynamic a show’s characters are. This attribute can manifest itself in a number of ways. High-energy characters are constantly thinking, experiencing rapid emotional swings, acting with passion, and generally mixing it up with the world. Low-energy characters are those that have carved out their niche in life and are largely content with their societal standing, letting the world wash over them.
Fast pacing and high energy are not the same thing. Nor are slow pacing and low energy. The simplest way to illustrate what I mean is to give examples of what each of the four combinations give a show when done right and when done wrong.
For a stellar anime with high pacing and high energy, look no further than Redline. It’s a thrill ride where the plot twists approach at a mile a minute, and the rich cast of racers is constantly being played off each other in delightful ways. On the flip side of the quality scale, this approach backfiring results in trainwrecks like Zetman and Gundam Seed, where the plot is confusing and the cast is difficult to connect to (and thus painful to watch). The overall impression left there is one of a dish that tries to mix chocolate, salt pork, and durians with painful results.
Gambling Apocalypse Kaiji is an exemplary show with slow pacing and high energy. The plot moves at a glacial pace, and the events of a single episode usually comprise about one line of summary text. However, the thoughts and actions of the characters are numerous and constantly in heavy focus, sucking the viewer in. Hajime no Ippo represents a slightly different flavor of the same approach; the show’s all about the characters, not so much about the details, and spending multiple episodes on one boxing match totally works for what it’s attempting to do. When this approach screws up, you’ll find yourself looking at a show like Elemental Gelade or Naruto, where screentime devoted to characters you don’t really care about drags down a plot that might otherwise be manageable.
High pacing and low energy are a fairly rare combination, but anime that go that route do exist. Kino’s Journey is the story of a bunch of events occurring around a traveler who (almost) always does nothing but observe and move on. In this case, the pacing/energy combination accents the atmosphere, lending a definite pessimism to what otherwise might be a morally ambiguous story. A worst-case scenario for this approach is the second season of White Album, where the male lead is reduced to a helpless, useless pinball passively ruining his own life in a nearly-unwatchable fashion.
To Heart and Koi Kaze are both excellent examples of slow pacing, low energy shows that are beyond excellent. These works milk their scenery and tell stories that are uncomplicated and don’t involve a lot of character actions, yet still emotionally deep. The burnout examples in this category have been railed against more than any other one: school life shows like A-Channel and Kimi to Boku. The criticisms of these shows are simple; they’re boring because they’re slow-moving and the barely-likable characters don’t do anything worth mentioning.
You’ll notice in that last paragraph that the factors that make good slow pacing, low energy shows appealing are the same ones that ruin the bad ones. That’s true for all combinations of these attributes, really. People can prefer certain types of shows, but even shows of the same type can receive dramatically different receptions based on how well they’re executed. I personally have a huge soft spot for slow pacing, low energy shows, loving the way they incorporate scenery and distill less-straightforward emotions, but I really enjoy all approaches done right.
I do feel that the idea that any one of these approaches is fundamentally good or bad shows up a lot, based on knowledge of a small fraction of the category. A major consequence of that misunderstanding is that people often end up bashing shows for issues that aren’t at the core of the problem. Even worse (to me), there are times when it can lead to logical inconsistencies; people will bash a major battle series like Bleach for its slow pacing, then praise shows like Akagi for their methodical approach (i.e. the same thing that was a problem 5 minutes ago). Different people will defend a trainwreck like Guilty Crown because “at least things are happening” (defending a show that’s a different kind of bad). In both cases, people are relying on self-defeating logic that serves to justify their own emotional reactions to a show. It’s great to have those reactions, but it’s less great when you try to prove your own opinions by relying on arguments that don’t address the heart of the matter. The best anime debates begin with honesty. Knowing the nuts and bolts is a big first step in that direction.