INT. GENERIC CORRIDORS WITH FANCY DOORS
UNIDENTIFIED MALE IN STUPID COSTUME: This is a bad videogame!
INT. OBVIOUS DEATHTRAP
STUPID COSTUME 2: No, this is a horror B-movie!
INT. SCHOOL CORRIDOR BUILT SPECIFICALLY FOR A MEET-CUTE
OBLIGATORY HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT: No, this is a romantic comedy!
It’s a curious way to start any anime. Fairly meaningless action-cold-open, cut to traumatic flashbacks, cut to immediate genre shift. This does not necessarily make for a bad pilot; A.I.C.O Incarnation, at the very least, a dense amount audience hooks. There’s gun-blazing action just because, some thriller, some mystery, random fanservice, and even a potential romantic subplot because why not? Every audience bait in the book is in this pilot, and combined with the sci-fi flavour makes for as an effective a start as one may plan for.
In practice, while this may be a great start for, say, a movie, it’s not necessarily the best start for an anime. This is because anime is an episodic medium, and between weeks there is an information retention problem. Now, I’m sure many of you, as readers of Random Curiosity, are hardcore anime fans. You research shows before a season starts. You know which ones you want to check out. You have a good idea of what kind of shows you’ll keep and what kind you’ll drop. But the majority of viewers — Japanese couch potatoes — simply have anime as part of their late-night TV diet. And they have a deficit of attention. If you start complicated there will be a portion of viewers you will just lose between weeks. It’s a problem that a lot of sci-fi thrillers like A.I.C.O. have to deal with. They lay out a mystery, with lots of little details that watchers can pick up on. Meanwhile, throw in a bunch of jargon or technical exposition to imply a complex sci-fi setting. All that is very interesting in the moment, but it also requires the audience to process a lot of information — information that they may not retain until episode 02. They may care about your mystery and your jargon now, but within the week it’s gone. That’s why anime pilots generally work better with pilots with a lower information density. Hook them with spectacle, or a fantasy, or just some laughs. Move that high-adrenaline action sequence to the end of the episode. Give some small payoff to the mystery with a minor reveal. The positive feelings, at least, will last until ep 02 and hopefully that gets the audience invested.
With that said, enter Netflix
Netflix has been dipping its incredibly wealthy toes in the anime waters for a while now, to the extent that there are now anime that are made for Netflix. A.I.C.O. is one of them. For big thing about this new platform is that Netflix does not really do the weekly schedule that we are accustomed to with anime. They release their shows in batches. All 12 episodes of A.I.C.O. are available on Netflix right now. At some point I will need to go into more depth about writing anime specifically for Netflix (maybe I’ll find some opportunity while writing about Violet Evergarden), but as far as A.I.C.O. is concerned it means that while an anime watcher on regular TV will have to mentally hold onto your complicated sci-fi thriller for an entire week, for the Netflix viewer, they can just go straight to the next episode. The story too complex? Too alien? Too confusing? All the more temptation to keep watching to get answers as to what that previous twenty minutes was all about. Sunk cost fallacy? Maybe. But in this format, it’s much harder to resist.
It’s a fascinating turn for the anime industry. Sure, there are plenty of series that turn out better watched in marathon. But now, we can have anime designed to be marathoned. And I suspect that A.I.C.O. is indeed binge anime. Give it a go. I haven’t had the time to watch it all myself, and it is certainly the kind of overweight show that can implode on itself towards the end. But you can find out immediately if it does and even then it won’t be weekly torture, but a glorious trainwreck. This is the future of anime. We should start getting used to it.
ED: 「未知の彼方」 (Michi no Kanata) by 白石晴香 (Shiraishi Haruka)