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