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.
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.