Ask John: Which Anime are Too Convoluted for Their Own Good?

Question:
I’ve lately been hearing that Kyoukai Senjou no Horizon has a plot which is completely indecipherable as well as being needlessly complex. This has deterred me from watching it, and even though I do enjoy thought-provoking and complex plot lines (Neon Genesis Evangelion, Perfect Blue) I really dislike overly convoluted tales (Ghost in the Shell: Innocence, Un-Go). Which series or movies have such a jumbled mess of a plot-line that it has thoroughly overshadowed some of it’s more exemplary elements such as animation, setting, or characters?


Answer:
Due to the evolving nature of the anime production industry and its target audience, arguably with the exception of select Yoshiyuki Tomino creations like the Gundam franchise and Space Runaway Ideon, both with a multitude of characters, and the dreamlike Angel’s Egg, anime from the 1950s through early 1990s typically didn’t have especially complicated, convoluted plots. It really was mid-1990s anime like Evangelion and Utena that introduced tremendously dense and opaque narratives to anime. Despite having dense or complicated plots, most such anime do literally make sense and are comprehensible to the viewer willing and capable of deciphering them. Furthermore, there are numerous nebulous anime that succeed in spite of their complicated plots. Then, regrettably, there are also other anime which suffer because of their impenetrable or unduly convoluted storytelling.

Select anime such as Neon Genesis Evangelion, Revolutionary Girl Utena, Serial Experiments Lain, Rahxephon, and Canaan have dense, philosophical, deeply thematic stories that are difficult to decipher but ultimately do make sense. Yet these particular productions also have such vivid, dynamic, imaginative design and characters that they’re engaging, entertaining, satisfying shows despite the confusion their stories create. Typically viewers like these shows even if they don’t fully understand the shows. Anime including FLCL, Guilty Crown, and the current Rinne no Lagrange are a bit difficult to decipher because their narratives purposely withhold information from viewers. These shows are difficult to understand while they unfold because they’re the figurative equivalent of looking at a jigsaw puzzle after someone has removed and hidden some of the pieces. Yet Guilty Crown excels with exceptional production values and amazing visual creativity. Rinne no Lagrange remains enjoyable despite its opacity because of its very likable characters and positive tone. And FLCL seems positively simplistic when all of its explanations are finally revealed.

But periodically anime appear that are too convoluted for their own good, titles with narrative construction so convoluted, dense, or distracting that it compromises the enjoyability of the show. Screenwriter Sadayuki Murai is sometimes guilty of placing style before function. His screenplays for anime including Durarara, Kyogoku Natsuhiko Kosetsu Hyaku Monogatari, and Perfect Blue have been dense yet easily comprehensible. However, his screenplays for Boogiepop Phantom & Mouryou no Hako have been much less effective. The 2000 Boogiepop wa Warawanai television series may come together at the end, but until that point the anime is so convoluted, so disjointed that it frequently deters viewers. Mouryou no Hako has a pervasively creepy tone and lovely character and art design, but it suffers from a literary construction that teachers have been discouraging for centuries. The Mouryou no Hako TV anime is so convoluted that it has to spend its entire final episode bluntly explaining itself to the viewer. A wall of exposition is traditionally considered evidence of poor writing.

Ryosuke Takahashi can also be called sometimes guilty of over-thinking anime. His 1998 series Gasaraki is a fascinating mixture of mecha action, war politics, family intrigue, and supernatural manipulation. But the disparate elements of the show get so little explanation and seem so haphazardly mashed together that they all weaken each other instead of complimenting each other. Takahashi’s 2006 web anime series Bakumatsu Kikansetsu Irohanihoheto has wonderful art design, stellar character design, and excellent animation quality. Yet the narrative is so dense, so oppressively dialogue heavy, and so jam-packed with obtuse Japanese names and references that it comes across like a master-level history textbook rather than a supernaturally-tinged historical adventure story.

Higurashi no Naku Koro ni makes sense to viewers that manage to watch enough of it. But the original 2006 series’ tendency to reboot time without any forewarning or explanation tends to frustrate many viewers, polarizing response to the show into strict love-it-or-hate-it camps. Unfortunately, the unforgiving nature of the story construction really does hurt the show as much as it helps because the original series’ weak character design and poor animation quality provide nothing to compensate for the polarizing narrative construction.

I must admit that I’ve never finished watching the Ergo Proxy and Texhnolyze television anime because I found both shows interminably pretentious. The same criticism applies to particularly the second Kara no Kyoukai movie and the 2011 Kara no Kyoukai OVA. The second movie is dense with convoluted dialogue and lengthy philosophical discussion, but the principles and meaning of the discussions and movie are actually fairly simple. The movie actually disguises its straightforward scenario with multiple layers of artificial intrigue and turgid dialogue to make the film seem much more intelligent than it actually is. Similarly, the Kara no Kyoukai OVA consists entirely of ridiculously grandiloquent discussion, much of which is actually founded upon philosophical concepts easily refuted with common sense or observation of reality. But the OVA distracts viewers and makes itself seem much smarter than it actually is by discussing simple ideas in pretentious, inflated discussion.

The 1969 short movie Soratobu Yureisen (The Flying Phantom Ship) is one of the rare vintage anime that suffers from an excessively tangled narrative. The hour-long film packs in a vengeful ghost commanding a super-high-tech ship, a rampaging giant robot, mechanical sea monsters, an insidious conspiracy revolving around a deadly soda-pop, military-industrial villainy, a revenge story, a protagonist’s hidden past story (that makes no logical sense), a romance story, and a threat to the world from a mysterious evil force that’s never clearly revealed. With so many plot threads in place within such a relatively short film, practically none of them get adequate explanation. The movie receives a lot of credit because Hayao Miyazaki worked on it as a key animator, but earlier anime films like Hakujaden and Shonen Sarutobi Sasuke have better animation, and Flying Phantom Ship’s narrative is rife with logical and common sense flaws.

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6 Responses to “Ask John: Which Anime are Too Convoluted for Their Own Good?”

  1. seanny Says:

    Mawaru Penguindrum is an obvious recent example, which builds a dense vocabulary of metaphorical/symbolic imagery and iconography. The mechanics of its finale were so abstract, it took several blog articles (incl. yours) and apple/fate flow charts & diagrams for me to sort-of get it.

    On the whole I enjoyed Penguindrum and its density of ideas, but its over-abstraction obfuscated some of its expression, IMO. Sometimes I wanted it to be straightforward.

  2. PockyBox.com Says:

    Granted it’s been a while, but I’ve always felt the Tenchi Muyo! OVA was fairly convoluted. There’s a lot going on that is rarely explained, and fans were strung along for around ten years before the very disappointed (to put it diplomatically) final act was produced.

  3. Aaron B. Says:

    Fun topic. Complicated programs can be fun if you have the time to diagram it all. I loved BOOGIEPOP PHANTOM when I first saw it, even if I didn’t really know what the hell was going on. I saw a timeline once, showing the proper sequence of events and from which episode each event occurred, and that helped me understand things a lot more. GHOST IN THE SHELL TV, particularly the second season, is definitely guilty. The second season just wrapped a re-broadcast on Adult Swim andthere are still a few parts of the series that kind of leave me in the dark. The fractured series structure that Production I.G carried over from the first season is partly to blame, no doubt. (Some anime do this better, others do it worse… where, I wonder, does a title like BACCANO fall?)

    I watched TEXHNOLYZE all of the way through, but don’t remember anything about it. ERGO PROXY, which I got halfway through, was something I could stick with… but the anime kind of lost its way, more preoccupied with Re-l’s random encounters with lost cities while on the run than with actually discovering the truth about her corrupt home city.

    There are also plenty of anime series’ that aren’t deliberately or overtly obfuscating but still manage to be miraculously confusing because the story dynamics or character dynamics are duly in compatible. I had a serious problem with FRACTALE in this regard, where characters literally refuse to explain what’s going on until the last one or two episodes. The second season of DARKER THAN BLACK is problematic too… giving the audience multiple parties (“culprits” or whathaveyou), and kind of just mashes things together at the very end. STARSHIP OPERATIONS is kind of fun, but if I remember correctly, is unnecessarily loaded with hard sci-fi techno babble. Also, Akiyuki Shinbou…

  4. Zhou-BR Says:

    Say what you will about Sadayuki Murai, but all of his shows and movies end up making sense once you finish watching them, which is more than I can say about some other writers who try their hand at dense, non-linear narratives. In Boogiepop Phantom’s case, the TV series is a lot easier to understand if you read the Boogiepop and Others novel or watch its live-action adaptation first.

    A show that really put me off with its excessively convoluted story and setting was Horizon in the Middle of Nowhere. Some of the ideas in it seemed interesting, but to me the show completely failed to present them in an interesting or coherent way.

  5. Zhou-BR Says:

    Sorry, I meant “engaging or coherent way”.

  6. GATS Says:

    Sohryuden.

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