So I wanted to do a case study today, and I’ve been thinking a lot about anime and how it works. To be fair, I probably haven’t seen as much anime as a lot of other people. What anime I watch, I watch all of, but I’ve seen about ten anime series, and they’re just about the same, but in a good way. How is it anime can be so formulaic and still be entertaining? Sure, the magic system or fighting system is unique. The characters are sort of unique. But if you’ve watched Dragonball Z, you’ve seen Naruto, Bleach, and a host of others. Again, I don’t mean that as an insult. I love all of those shows, but they all follow a pretty basic formula, and I’m going to go over that today.
Step 1: Isolated hero seeks to be accepted/respected/befriended or the rogue hero who stands up because “someone must.”
Ichigo and Naruto are isolated people who either form small groups or seek small groups of friends. They either earn those friendships quickly or must fight doggedly to earn them. In either case, they’ll risk everything to save their friends. This is where they’ll risk their lives to protect others.
In either case, these bonds are the catalysts for the first arc. The bulk of the first arc is all about the development of the friendships or the establishment of the lengths the hero will go to in order to protect those friendships.
Step 2: Enter powerful antagonist 1.
When this person arrives, there is immediate dislike. There is rivalry. This new arrival has (at the very least) a leg up on our hero.
Step 3: The fight.
This fight either ends with one winning, and therefore winning over the antagonist, creating a new friendship or ends with a more frightening opponent arriving, forcing the original combatants to join forces.
Step 4: Enter even more powerful antagonist.
This villain walks in and wipes out pretty much the entirety of the original cast, and they do it with ease. This butt whoop’n either establishes the larger arc or teases it before the next phase (or both). The heroes somehow survive (or die and maintain the ability to do the next phase).
Step 5: The training arc.
This is where our heroes get down to business. They usually meet a mysterious mentor around here who beats them until they reach the next stage of their abilities. Our heroes are often given some sort of “uber level” attack or state of being they must reach within a deadline that is impossible. But somehow, they pull it off. Sometimes the writer makes us wait to see if the move works or not, but the training is the bulk of this stage.
Step 6: The underling or main event.
Our hero either takes on the current big bad or starts his way up the chain. The fight is close, but our hero reveals his/her new ability and wipes out the current challenger. But then an even stronger foe arises, who beats up our heroes, who barely survive and find somewhere to train.
That’s right folks. Hero wins. Go back to step 4. Rinse repeat until the ultimate of ultimate level 80 villain is vanquished.
All the while the previously defeated foes become fast friends and members of the metaphorical Scooby Gang.
To be honest, I don’t know why it works (on me every time), but it does. I love Dragonball Z. I love Naruto. I love Bleach. I love Jujutsu Kaisen. I love Demon Slayer. All of those shows follow the same template. The moves have to be cool. The fight scenes have to be epic.
Most importantly, even though everyone who’s been watching anime since Goku was a baby knows the hero is going to win (at least in the end), the writer has to make the fight seem impossible. The hero must get beaten and battered to such a degree that the reader says, “Wait, is he really gonna lose?” That’s the magic part.
Some anime throws in a twist.
Twist angle: Hero has some indwelling creature who offers great power at a great cost. This indwelling creature is another antagonist, but the relationship is literally symbolic. In this case, the hero reaches his Epic Tier when the hero converts his indwelling pest into a true ally. Then the hero does that last step mentioned above.
So there it is. This is the only genre I’ve ever seen that never gets old for some reason. Interestingly, I haven’t seen it used that much in books, which is why I want to give it a try at some point.
Did I miss a step? I will say I understand that there are other anime that don’t remotely follow this formula. There may even be the great majority of anime that don’t. But if the hero is a plucky fighter of some kind, I promise I know what’s going to happen. The excitement for me is to see what the “next level” ability or move looks like.
Thanks for reading,