Why Gen Urobuchi is taking the anime world by storm.

2011 has been a really riveting renaissance year for anime, as we’ve seen anime Blu-Ray sales stunningly soar, and strong new offerings in the magical girl and sci-fi genres, both of which had badly needed some scintillating sparks to move them forward again. Perhaps no lone person has played a bigger role in this year of recovery for the anime world than Gen Urobuchi, and in this blog post, I will explore why he’s been received so well and been rather effective.

For many people, Puella Magi Madoka Magica will be their top anime show of the year, and that will almost certainly be the case for me as well. For others, so impressed that they are unconcerned that the 2nd half of it doesn’t come until 2012, it will be Fate/Zero. What do these two shows share in common? Well, aside from both having  a masterfully melodic musical score from Yuji Kajura that could compete with the likes of blockbuster Hollywood movie OSTs, the similarity between the two is that they are both the babies of Gen Urobuchi. You could think of PMMM as his hopeful yet troubled teenage daughter, while you could think of Fate/Zero as his brooding and morose adult son. 😉

In both cases, though, I think what we see is something that you don’t see everyday in the world of anime. And this something is what is actually Gen’s greatest strength within the context of that anime world.

What is that strength?

 

Why, it’s simply sincere storytelling.

 

About a year ago, on my old blog “Assessing the Anime”, I wrote the following about what I felt was the greatest weakness in modern anime: Pavlovian Entertainment.

I would encourage Rabbit Poets readers who have never read my old blog to check that link out to get the full scope of what I’m referring to there, but to sum it up in nutshell, pavlovian entertainment is entertainment that operates on the level of classical conditioning. Often in anime, you don’t watch a story unfold so much as you watch a mechanical assemblages of parts in which each part is meant to be an arousing stimulus, appealing to one emotionally or humorously or sexually. So the experience is often less like reading a book, or watching a serious TV drama, than it is like touring an amusement park.

Now, it’s fine for some anime shows to be like that, but back in 2009 and 2010 I felt that there was an overabundance of them, making it very hard to unearth anime shows that were aiming to be compelling stories at least as much as it was aiming to amuse.

And then, as though on cue, this arrived.

 

By the power of Gen's skull, we have the POWER!!!

 

Now, don’t worry those who consider Touhou characters to be the masters of the anime fandom universe, I’m only focusing on Madoka Magica here. 😉

 

Madoka Magica arrived at the perfect time for me, as I was growing increasingly tried with the tropes of anime at the time, and thinking that maybe they needed a little bit of deconstructing you could say.

But contrary to popular belief, Gen does more than simply deconstruct. Rather, he has helped to breath new life into a niche entertainment medium that too often takes the easy way out.

Gen doesn’t take the easy way out, and I think that’s why he’s gained a passionate cult following of sorts, as well as been much of the brains behind two of the very best anime shows to air in 2011.

 

In spite of having a cast loaded with nubile teenage girls, Gen had no beach episode and no hot springs episode. There was no pantsu, and no steamy bath or shower scenes. Mami’s mammaries managed to avoid molestation, and Sayaka was never literally raped by Kyouko.  Gen, my friends, is the anti-Pavlov.

Nowhere is this more clear than in a certain critically acclaimed sausage-fest by the name of Fate/Zero. 😉

 


7 Masters, 7 Servants, and at least 11 of them are male. The remaining 3 are the perpetually rage-induced Berserker, the effectively gender-less Assassin, and a gender-bent King Arthur. Not a whole lot here for male otakus looking for cute girls doing cute things.

But then, perhaps that’s the point. Gen does anything but pander to his audience. And that may be why it’s easier to take his stories seriously, and become elaborately excitedly engrossed by them.

Gen, you see, takes his chosen craft seriously. And that is what storytelling is, a craft. Great stories display good craftsmanship. They call for attention to detail, for taking the time to properly develop characters, to present plots with enough meat to sink your teeth into and find it rewarding. And they also call for a certain integrity, I would argue.

 

It’s Ok for even the most serious of stories to have moments of comedic relief, to embellish a few elements to entertain the audience, and even to give out the odd Easter egg.  But if you do too much of this, the overarching story loses focus, and can even fall apart at the seams a bit.

Ah, but that’s the key to Gen’s approach. He seamlessly incorporates many of the elements that otakus like, without letting them impact on the integrity or seriousness of the story.

Madoka Magica has its yuri subtext, its attractive magical girl aesthetics, some popular anime archetypes, and moments of melodrama. But these all serve to merely frame and polish the work, rather than to be the work itself.

Instead of an otaku painting that few non-otakus could like, we get an otaku frame around a story that almost anybody could appreciate. Now, that doesn’t mean that Madoka Magica and Fate/Zero are going to be absolutely huge (in a mainstream entertainment sense) in North America, or Europe, or Australia. But it does mean that you can appreciate these shows at a different level than you would many (if not most) other anime shows.

 

To be fair, other anime shows do have good overarching plots worth caring about. But often they are frequently shunted into the background for lengthy periods of time, allowing frequent fanservice filler to take center stage once more. Hanasaku Iroha, Kamisama Dolls, and Kamisama Memochou, though all good anime shows in my view, are nonetheless good examples of what I’m referring to here. Each and every one has compelling stories in them, but those stories often disappear for entire episodes at a time, even if those episodes are not your standard beach and hot springs episodes.

With Madoka Magica and Fate/Zero, though, the story remains a key focus from episode to episode to episode. Everything feels interconnected, everything feels whole. A series identity is allowed to take hold and flourish, drawing in viewers looking for something deeper and more intellectually rich than your run of the mill harem comedy or ecchi adventure.

Those harem comedies and ecchi shows have their place in the anime world, but I don’t think that they should define the anime world.

Thankfully, due in large part to Gen Urobuchi, they’re not defining the anime world this year.

This is the year when serious sincere storytelling makes a comeback, thanks in large part to Gen, but also thanks to some degree to Mari Okada’s Anohana.

 

Now Gen’s works are not without their flaws. Some may find them too dialogue-driven. Others may find them too dark. But these flaws are usually minor ones, occasionally making the work have a stronger or thicker taste than what you would like. But at least the taste is rich and satisfying precisely because it avoids needless fluff.

Gen doesn’t muck around in his works.

He continually gets things done, and pushes things forward. The plot may occasionally seem slow and methodical, but at least it doesn’t take detours to spend a night at the Kissuio Inn in order to let an inner Jiromaru take over for awhile as you forget the plot direction prior to the detour.

Such forgetfulness is not in Gen’s works, creating tight plots and hence captivating stories.

Gen Urobuchi, and to lesser extent Mari Okada, has shown that not only do narratives of this sort have an audience within the ranks of the modern otaku, but that there is a passionate audience that is longing for this material, as sales success clearly demonstrates. And that’s why I hope and think we will get more stories like Madoka Magica, Fate/Zero, and Anohana in the near future.

 

The world of anime has indeed recovered from a relatively week 2009 and 2010, but let’s not forget why it’s recovered.

And in this post, I honor the man who has played a huge role in pushing that recovery forward. Perhaps Gen Urobuchi is a healing writer, after all. 😉

 

22 Replies to “Why Gen Urobuchi is taking the anime world by storm.”

  1. LOL, they have the power.

    But yea, it would seem 2011 was a more entertaining year to me, since people have tried to just give us a story instead of tossing us some marketing gimmick. Stuff like Usagi Drop just reaches a level of maturity that is rare. Steins;Gate was one of the better adaptations I’ve seen that led to one giving a damn about their characters.

    Even shows like Kamisama no Memochou had some ounces of effort placed into them, it’s a pity they ran out of money for it.

    And as for Madoka, I guess it started here and there. Send a message “Try harder. Or else.”

    Adapt or die. I think they’re choosing the former. =p

    1. Ah interesting. I didn’t realize Urobuchi was involved in Madoka and Fate/Zero. Although F/Z does lumber along at times, I have noticed the relative straightforwardness and near-complete lack of fanservice… especially compared to the first FSN.

      Definitely agree with Archon, Usagi Drop is another show in which I was pleasantly surprised by how earnest the story was without devolving into too many cliches or tropes. I suppose it’s a little bit different from F/Z, Madoka and AnoHana, because it stayed very true to the original manga, but still credit’s due where credit’s due.

  2. The only thing you should remember though is that anime are planned far out in advance, something like Madoka was in the development stages for years. There’s actually a considerable lag time between the production of a show and the effects it has on the shows around it.

    Still though, 2011 has been a great year, and Urobuchi Gen is certainly one of the top contributors to it for me personally as well.

  3. So basically, you’re saying that Urobuchi is a key figure in popularizing non-vapid anime with teenagers again? I agree. But let’s not go overboard here 🙂

    Saying he “doesn’t muck around in his works” is a bit silly. Madoka was every bit as Pavlovian as it HAD to be to reach popularity critical mass (which is to say, more than necessary to be truly “sincere storytelling” in my books).

    He’s also had a lot of luck, including little competition while Madoka aired, and even the very opportunity to create Madoka to begin with. And because of that, he got the chance to do F/0.

    His skill and ability to balance ideas to appeal to lots of people are great things, but it’s important to not forget the many other sincere (and even less Pavlovian) anime since 2009 that kept the door open so someone like him could get that big break.

    1. What I mean by “he doesn’t muck around in his works” is that he doesn’t take significant amounts of time away from plot focus in order to incorporate lots of pavlovian or vapid (good choice of words there on your part) elements into his works.

      I don’t see a problem with slight embellishment to make something more entertaining at an “in the moment” level. Homura vs. Walpurgis Night in Madoka Magica, and Saber vs. Lancer in Fate/Zero, both had significant embellishments to them to simply make them more entertaining in the heat of the moment. That’s fine, in my opinion, as long as you don’t get carried away with it.

      I agree that those embellishments are, yes, necessary in order to reach popularity critical mess. It’s the lack of such embellishments that seriously limited otherwise great anime shows like Monster, imo. It can be good to offer a little bit of exciting candy (be that great action scenes, or attractive character designs, or what have you) every now and then, but what actually happens on paper should constitute sincere storytelling, imo.

      I will concede to you though that some shows have more sincere storytelling in them than even Gen’s do, such as Monster.

      1. Sure, and don’t think my aim is to take away the fact that he has skill, is trying much harder than most, or that he’s currently taking the anime world by storm. Nor was I trying to take shots at Madoka, frankly.

        Just like how one person’s “slight embellishment” is “jumping the shark” to someone else, I wanted to add a comment to temper some of what you said with another perspective that wasn’t really at odds.

        Great article, by the way. It’s nice to read these kinds of thoughts and note that some people aren’t just praising Madoka along with everything else, or because it’s the first anime of it’s kind they’ve seen.

  4. Epic analysis, Triple R. I enjoyed what you tried to convey here and I’d like to add that Gen Urobochi had this respect for the viewer, he never wanted to treat the audience as incompetent fools who are just there to watch, he rewarded people who watch the shows.

  5. It’s actually very interesting to compare Madoka and Fate/Zero against each other, as they share many themes. Keep an eye out for those, Triple_R 🙂

    Gen does a decent job at telling his own story as a writer too, and he actually used the healing writer joke in the commentary/interviews for both works. While both seem to be spawned from the same darkness within his heart, the joke is more meaningful than it might seem in both cases, although in different ways.

    In the postface for Fate/Zero Vol. 1 (what became eps 1-5 of the anime, so I don’t consider this a spoiler, and it shouldn’t be to anyone who has seen or read F/SN), Gen explains how he has always wanted to write happy endings, but never was able to as they were so incompatible with the way he viewed the world. He claims this frustrated him and tempted him to give up writing, but found catharsis in writing Fate/Zero, an experience he says saved his career. Knowing that it was the prequel to a work with a happy ending, he could enjoy his craft without trying to go against his tragic nature.

    In that same postface, Gen also compares the inevitable tragedy in his plots to the progression of entropy in the universe, concluding, “Therefore, in order to write a perfect ending for a story you have to twist the laws of cause and effect, reverse black and white, and even possess a power to move in the opposite direction from the rule of the universe. Only a heavenly and chaste soul that can sing carols of praise towards humanity can save the story.” Hmm, I wonder what kind of storyline could have been inspired by this idea. It turns out that Madoka’s script was done about 3 years ago, which is not too long after he finished writing Fate/Zero. The dots here are begging to be connected, and Madoka could be seen as Gen rediscovering the ability to write happy endings he claimed he had lost.

    Now you might be wondering what the point of this long comment is. First, I wanted to give a little more evidence that, as you noted, Gen takes his craft seriously and puts a lot of heart into it. Second, given that Madoka and Fate/Zero are two sides of the same coin, it will be interesting to see where he goes from here as a writer. It’ll be interesting to see if he can take what made this pair of stories so successful and continue to innovate. Will his future works continue on this thematic track, or branch out? I’m excited to find out.

  6. Madoka has definitely opened some literal eyes when it unleashed the out of the box wrapping of a magical girl show. I can’t say it was my favourite but it had it’s positive points and enough WTF to get people to notice it at least.

    I won’t credit Gen too much for Fate/Zero because the world/characters/plot highlights were already there and well established by Nasu on the Type-Moon VN. He definitely breathed life into characters that seemed shady from the FSN point of view. I won’t say that Fate/Zero doesn’t have the traditional moe characters because Rin is still pretty tsundere even if she’s a chibi. Same can be said about Illyasviel. Iri and Saber will provide all the female delicacy and even BAMFness at some points just being there. Fate/Zero is rife with otaku subtext that delights a seasonal watcher with a greater horizon of characters. I’m definitely enjoying the adaptation by the excellent team of ufotable. I think not just the write but the team of studio and staff is what makes an anime exceptional.

  7. There are a lot of embellishments in this post… I mean saying Fate/Zero does not pander is like saying strip clubs do not pander. The whole project of Fate/Zero is a massive exercise at pandering to otaku, and both F/Z (as a media mix project) and strip clubs’s primary goal is to take your money. The only difference you really should point out between F/Z’s method and some others (and certainly there are other works which are similar to Fate Zero, in fact a growing number of them in the light novel era of late night anime) is the method and focus.

    I’m probably just cynical, but when I compare Madoka and Fate/Zero, it’s not Butch that stands out as the singular similarity–it’s IwakamiP. That man knows how to produce quality otaku fodder. Sure, writers are great and they contribute a lot esp. when it comes to original projects, but it’s really rare that people flock to an anime just because the writing is good (see: Book of Bantorra, Level E, etc) or it applies some kind of hollywood-style narrative.

  8. A balanced article overall with some justified opinions. But I don’t agree with you on a lot of points.

    I’m going to try to be as polite as possible about this. So apologies in advance if any of the following rubs you the wrong way.

    Where I agree with you is the Pavlovian Entertainment aspect has been overused in anime recently. Stimuli-oriented shows that rely on aesthetics and face value impressions have driven me up the wall big time.

    PMMM may only have relied on stimulus at some points. But I honestly think things went too far in the other direction. If anything, I honestly felt the simplicity, sterile and formulaic nature of a lot of episodes was what frustated me so much. And I know I’m not alone in this. I’d speak to a lot of different types of anime fans locally – around and at the local anime club – about various shows, including Madoka. And comments they were making came under two categories.

    1. ‘Hmm, this looks pretty. Love those backgrounds. Character X was cute. Dialogue was amusing. Those battles at the end of each episode were trippy. This is what I like about modern anime!’

    2. ‘Okay, the backgrounds are impressive to a point. But here’s the problem. I’m watching them do close to nothing for about 15 minutes of each episode, then flick the ‘tippy battle’ switch to make that what people remember! They’re not even moving much, if at all, during those 15 minutes – it’s just close ups, zoom outs and repetitive shots! That dialogue is utterly dull. And there’s nothing but cute little girls everywhere! This is exactly what I hate about modern anime!’

    Horses for courses, maybe. But honestly, I’m one of those under opinion 2. For some, it may be that Urobuchi’s style is what you crave. But for me – I’m driven to boredom rather quickly by it. There is stimuli there that is hooking people in, but it’s more subtle than the Pavlovian style. Shinbo relies on subtle imagery and backgrounds throughout a lot of episodes of PMMM then hits you with an intentionally visual overdrive scene which is what a lot of people remember most about that episode. Urobuchi’s writing compliments in because it’s very ‘simplistic’. I’d rather use this term than sincere. In all honesty, after watching PMMM, seeing what I have of Fate/Zero and reading the source novels, I’m beginning to understand how Urobuchi impresses. He goes for very simple emotions/themes – friendship, fighting for someone/what you believe in, self-sacrifice for the greater good, affiliation. The emotions are very light until the crueller moments and the body count stacks up. There’s not a lot of punch to what he writes most of the time and I think this is intentional. Being lulled into a more sedate state then to feel the sheer bluntness and cruelty of he inflicts on them when he goes for the climaxes/impact moments. All with younger girls being the ones being the characters – again, nothing that new. As for the whole anti-Pavlovian idea, the graphicness of their transformation scenes, the OP and the final episode – that’s was very uncomfortable stuff for me to watch and I’m definitely not alone with that. Perhaps overall it was anti-Pavlovian, but some moments were very borderline/cringe-worthy.

    And I think this ties into something Urobuchi has said in multiple interviews. He feels the most comfort and enjoyment when he writes only for the sake of entertainment and nothing else. Urobuchi is not setting a new standard or doing something revolutionary. He’s simply stripped things back to a level more people can relate to and digest. Give them dialogue focusing on simple themes and some philosophical ranting then hit them with a dark scene that sticks in the mind. Another thing to remember is Urobuchi has a considerable gaming background with working for Nitroplus and being a gamer himself, particularly RPGs. Again, material that focuses on entertainment. This is a guy who has been around the block a few times, figured out what appeals to people on a simpler level and pitches to it. And this time, he created something with not only anime sales potential but mass merchandising potential. Simplicity usually makes for big merchandise dollars.

    On to Fate/Zero. Okay, we can’t give Urobuchi as much credit here, because virtually every F/Z idea was Nasu’s. Urobuchi is implanting his writing style into Nasu’s universe. It should also be noted Urobuchi admitted himself he was still learning to write while writing that Fate/Zero novels. Thus far, it has been a decent watch. But not a great one. Book 1 is a VERY cubersome book. It’s saturated in dialogue and incredibly slow. And thus, Episode 1 was a dialogue-fest, that did get necessary character exposition done, but pushed too many people to their limits. 40 minutes of dialogue is pretty pretentious, really. If I wasn’t already a fan of Type-Moon, that episode may have been too much for me. And that scene with Sakura 14 minutes in made me feel incredibly sick. It took me weeks to get over that scene, along with a good deal of people I know. Episode 4 was merely a laborious lead-up to a great Episode 5, but it shouldn’t have been like that. Book One’s flaws hindered the start. I do know things get better as of Book 2, which starts being adapted as of Episode 6, so pacing and substance should improve.

    But what is annoying me about the way Urobuchi writes Fate/Zero is the lack of emotional impact I’m feeling. It feels so cold to me – as did PMMM, but for different reasons. Nasu’s other works were VERY evocative for me. The original Tsukihime game really gets the heart pumping and the mind on edge. Garden of Sinners was a visual delight and had so much punch/danger/thrill to it even with its slow pace. The original Fate/Stay Night game is very dark/gripping and solid – don’t take Deen’s moe-styles adaptation as the real deal for one second. Urobuchi’s writing in Fate/Zero feels very cold and few characters are having emotional impact for me. I only care about Irisviel (tragic character with elegance and love), Saber (charming, chivalrous and bold) and Rider (manly, passionate and ambitious) so far. And even then, the level of my feelings gets worn down by the pacing. This is styled to appeal to gamers, people who like action/quick thrills or manly trolling. Nothing wrong with thatm but Urobuchi’s writing isn’t that solid. I honestly think better writers could have made Fate/Zero go at a better pace, not be so weighed down by dialogue at times and have characters that really strike the heart. Urobuchi’s writing is too simple for me.

    But frankly, solid writing isn’t that popular. Critics/more seasoned people may want that. But simpler writing at a level most people can understand is easier for people to relate to. The world has changed. Life is faster. People have less time. The world is a more dangerous place. Conservative values/sentiment are growing stronger globally. People want security and stability. Deep, meaningful material just doesn’t work anymore to be a financial success. You need to pitch at a simpler level for people to appreciate/feel comfortable in.

    I’m not saying Urobuchi is a bad writer. I’m saying that he’s not that good a writer. But he knows what sells and he’s doing it at the right time for it. 10 years ago, this would not have worked. The distance between the 1998 wave of anime fans and the current wave is a very gaping one indeed. They want very different things from the anime they like. They rarely get along. Urobuchi may be the tonic for the current wave. But for those who have been in the anime fandom longer, he’s more like the cancer for the cure and typifying why a lot of people are walking away from anime for good.

    PMMM is a sign of the times. If people like it, good luck to them. But for me, there is no series I despise more than it and it’s #2 on my all time despised list.

    Fate/Zero – Good but it should be better. Urobuchi is benefitting from being within the Nasu universe. However, if a series with mainly men in it actually sells well in these times, I’ll be glad. Sure, I like female characters more but I’m sick to death of female-dominated casts and most animators + writters forgetting how to do males properly.

  9. I agree with some of the sentiment of this blog post but I also agree with those that say that Madoka and Fate/Zero are definitely otaku targeted. As were AnoHana and Steins;Gate and a few others IMO.

    What sets these shows apart from many others, however, is that the staff on these shows all seem to have some faith in their audience and realize that making an otaku oriented show doesn’t mean making the stereotypical otaku targeted show. And I’m glad people are starting to get that now, because I’ve been feeling for a while that a lot of the stereotypes give otaku too little credit.

    However, I’m not sure I’d give Gen all the credit for Madoka and Fate/Zero turning out so well. I personally feel that Madoka was in part so effective because of Shaft’s stylistic approach, and Fate/Zero is professionally endorsed fanfiction.

    That’s not to say that he isn’t a good writer. One of the things I really like about Gen is that he manages to use flawed and/or tragic characters in crapsack worlds… without having it turn “black and grey”. Both Madoka and Fate/Zero manage to give their conflicts a pretty strong “purity vs. corruption” vibe that I don’t see that often. I think he’s use of mystical elements enhances this. I seldom like Madoka and Fate/Zero’s characters as much as some others on my favourites list on the basis of their actual character alone, but their struggles make me admire them.

  10. I never realized you blogged, nice to know 🙂 (kirarakim from Anime Suki)

    Interesting analysis, although I don’t necessarily agree that Madoka & Fate/Zero did/do not pander to Otaku but that is okay with me because at least they ALSO tell a good story on top of this pandering.

    Neither are my favorite of 2011 (well Fate isn’t finished) but I certainly appreciate that they tried to do something different (especially in the case of Madoka which is an anime original and that is always a risk) & succeeded. However, it seems to me that this was true for a lot of series in 2011 and that is why I believe that 2011 has been the strongest year for anime in a long time. Madoka & Fate/Zero are only 2 good series in a string of wonderful shows this year.

    So I won’t give Gen Urobuchi all the credit but I do agree he certainly deserves some of it.

  11. Your post describes the magic from Madoka and Fate/Zero PERFECTLY ! I think every serious anime fan out there should read this post.

    And I also want to thank you for getting me into Fate/Zero, I felt sceptical at first but it’s now one of my faves !

  12. Gen Urobuchi like the creator of Bakemonogatari and that piece of crap that was Medaka Box is overrated.

    Both Fate/Zero and PMMM were peopled by characters you don’t give a sh++ about, main characters that weren’t even main characters and were both pointlessly dark (wow, a serial killer that kills children who found what he was looking for in his own guts… Very profound).

    For the first point (shows in which you don’t care about most of the cast) his newer works are the same: Suisei and Psycho Pass.

    Not a fan, though I understand what the underlying subtext of your post (too much trope not enough story).

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