There is this anime called Ga-Rei Zero, which is a supernatural drama anime, or to be more specific a Tragedy, both in the literal and figurative terms. Not a super popular show per say, but certainly not obscure or underground, it has a devoted cult following it, which claim it to be one of the best anime of its kind, a claim which I find to be laughable. As Ga-Rei Zero is nothing more than a collection of cheap clichés and shock factor, although it is indeed carried by the overall solid directing and presentation, just enough to earn an above average rating in my book. But not enough to excuse itself for its sins.
Ga-Rei Zero starts off in a seemingly standard way. We are introduced to a bunch of supernatural monsters and creatures that are easily slaughtering the civilians and law enforcements officials who have no way whatsoever of harming these monsters. We are cut to the bureau that specializes in the elimination of monsters, saying they have already notified their agents and that they are on their way. We are then quickly introduced to our supposed main characters who after meeting up witch each other, proceed to kill the monsters with their specialized weapons that can actually harm them. We are also shown hints of a back story on our supposed protagonist, which could later lead to some potential development or plot. It is also obvious that his female companions has feelings for him as well as some kind of pre-show history. After this the show introduces a bunch of supporting characters, whose roles range from Commander to Communications guy, who help the two main characters to defeat the largest of monsters. A seemingly solid, badass and even interesting set of characters were introduced in the first episode that could have contributed to a potentially good show.
Then all of a sudden, after seemingly defeating even the strongest monsters. Our characters start dying in increasingly brutal ways, one by one they fell just like the useless policemen from before. When the ‘protagonist’ is stabbed after a short flashback, the episode abruptly ends, leaving you thinking: “What in the hell just happened? Did this show really kill the entire cast in its first episode!?” All of this happens in the last 4 minutes.
Most viewers who have seen this rather violent first episode, including me, immediately continued to watch the next few episodes to see how the show would continue with its entire main cast dead. And we once again seemingly get our answer, in the form that we go back in time prior to the events of the first episode. Most people will rightfully come to the conclusion that ‘Ah it was just in medias res‘ and continue watching expecting our previous main characters to show up again and take the stage.
Except they never show up. Those characters who died in the first episode will never be relevant in any form in the entire remaining show, despite being initially presented as the main characters. Even at the point where the past finally collides with the future that was shown of us, we are still never shown a glimpse of those old characters that died back in episode 1. Instead we are introduced to 2 school age girls as our new main cast of monster hunters, yeah. School girls as usual. Have fun with the rest of the show~ As it pretends that the events of its own first episode never happened.
Welcome to the “art” of what of I call Viewer Baiting. Something which I think I have sufficiently introduced with the above text. This is what I will be talking about today.
Traditionally speaking, the goal of a first episode within any series, is to get you interested within the show. They usually do this by introducing an interesting premise, story or theme ( Toward the Terra, Gundams, Code Geass) some unique atmosphere (Gankutsou, Texhnolyze), pure baddasery and fun factor (Needless, Gurren Lagann) unique art-style or aesthetics(Mononoke, Shaft Anime) or good old humour (Comedy anime and the like). These things are officially known as Hooks, techniques that are meant to draw the audience in. You can even say that if a first episode failed to reel you into watching the show, then it is a failure as a first episode.
However shows that bait, don’t draw viewers with any of these methods, instead they mostly use the element known as Shock Factor. Meaning they show the viewer something shocking, unexpected, brutal, gross or otherwise questionable content within the first episode, such as large amounts of people dying in the first episode, massacres, children dying, towns and other human settlements getting attacked and destroyed, someone being tortured or even raped all qualify as shock factor. And it tends to work as viewers are drawn further in by their own morbid curiosity, even the ones who are aware of this trick may find it hard to resist continuing. The obvious disadvantage to shock factor is that by ‘shocking’ the viewer, they create a certain hype or expectation, in order words they will expect similar events to happen as in the first episode and if they don’t get it, then they will be unconsciously disappointed. There are two possible followups to such a beginning, the first is that the show continues to pile shock factor upon shock factor, increasing the intensity each time, thus keeping the reader hooked. This however massively lowers the show’s objective quality and causes it to become what is unofficially known as Train-wreck (The reason for this term is that Train Wrecks are obviously bad, but entertaining to watch, just like the shows that are given this remark.)
Shows that make use of the Train-Wreck effect: Guilty Crown, Black Bullet, Senki Zesshou Symphogear, Mirai Nikki etc.
The second possible followup is obviously, after the first episode they will no longer or sparsely use shock factor elements. But this is bad in its own way as it will cause the viewers to be the disappointed on some level or another, because as I said earlier, shock factor beginnings raise certain expectations (or even wrong expectations) towards the show, expectations that they failed to meet by not continuing the shock factor. The best case scenario would be to not use shock factor at all, because once used, it will lower the quality of the show in some way or another. This is another example of creators ruining their works because they care more about money and views than making something good. Shows that are examples of the second follow up: Attack on Titan, Ga-Rei Zero, Chaos Dragon. All of them go against the traditional Greek formula of a tragedy and ruin themselves because of it. Why am I mentioning Tragedies all of a sudden? Because Tragedy is the drama genre that focuses on human suffering and personal loss of the characters, therefore all Shock Factor elements would normally be found under this genre. The traditional Greek tragedy formula is: Premise>Plot>Unraveling of the Plot>Climax>Stalling>The Tragedy>Conclusion/Resolution (If there is a resolution).
This has been a successful and widely used formula since Ancient Greece, the slow but steadily increasing beginning, builds up the latter parts, which is meant to maximize the tension in the viewer once the climax hints, then it moves to the end with a steadily decreasing conclusion. But shows like Ga-Rei Zero and Attack one Titan do the exact opposite, which is why they are doomed to disappointing their viewers. Let me give an example of how a proper tragedy/drama would go and then compare it with Attack on Titan, as that is one of the prime and highly known shock factor anime.
The Premise: (Introduction of the basic situation and characters) : There once was a Kingdom where the King was old and sickly, he had no heirs so the future of his kingdom was quite uncertain, with a possible succession war in sight. He had a beautiful and a young wife, who failed to bring him a male heir despite the numerous attempts.
The Plot (The introduction of an element into the story that will cause further events to occur that will eventually lead up to the moment of Tragedy): Then a few months later, the Queen gives birth to a healthy boy, the whole Kingdom celebrates the mews with the exception of the King. For the old King refuses to believe that the child is of his blood, the Royal Court dismisses his concerns, thinking that he had gone senile.
The Unraveling of the Plot (Follow up of the previous event): The King, fueled by paranoia decides to start spying on his Queen, he discovers that one of his knights has been spending too much time with his Queen and seem to be close to her, too close. But he does not act on his suspicions yet as he does not have evidence. Weeks pass after weeks, and the old King can’t help but notice how his “son” resembles the young Knight……
The Climax (The Plot reached its peak, starting the beginning of the tragedy): The King eventually grows certain of his wife’s adultery, feeling betrayed and having his honour tarnished, he accuses the wife in public and then challenges the Knight to a duel.
The Stalling (Trying to prevent the inevitable tragedy, it is a tool to increase tension): The Queen pleads the King with teary eyes, not to kill the Knight for he is innocent and she fears the outcome of the duel for both men. However her prayers are useless as the King decided to go through with his challenge, mainly because once a blade has been drawn, it cannot be put back into it’s sheath, without first shedding blood. The moment the King challenged the Knight to a dual, their fate was decided.
The Tragedy ( The loss of fortune): In the duel the King successfully beats the more skilled Knight, who later succumbs to his wounds and dies. He comes home, only to find that his Queen had committed suicide. The grieving King then goes to the Bedchambers where he finds a sealed letter written by the deceased Queen, which explains in honest words that she never cheated on him and that the Knight was just a good friend, she proved this by spilling her own blood.
The Conclusion (The end of the story): After reading the letter, the King feels terrible, his condition worsens after realizing that he had done bad, his fragile soul can’t take it and thus he breaks down. He lies on his death bed, knowing that he will not wake up the next day. He assigns one of his most loyal servants to be the young Prince’s regent until he grows of age, doing what he could do for his son, in his miserable state. The King then closes his eyes and goes to sleep, forever.
Now lets look at Attack on Titan.
The first episode has a minimal exposition that cannot be in anyway called a proper premise due to its small length and shallow, minimal information. About 3/4 of the first episode is meant to make us believe in a false sense of security, thus therefore increase the incoming Shock Factor element. That Shock Factor element is the Colossal Titan himself, who appears at the 17th minute mark of the show. He knocks down the wall that guaranteed the people’s safety as well knocking down the viewers personal feelings of security, which was built up in the previous 17 minutes. The wall is broken, the titans break in and start slaughtering and destroying everything and everyone in their path. This way the first episode of Attack on Titan, literally starts with the CLIMAX, the moment of tension and uncertainty where we don’t know who will die and who will survive and what happens next, pushes the viewers onto the edge of their seats from all the sudden excitement.
Our main characters immediately rush to their mother’s home in order to get her to safety and escape with her, only to find her trapped under a pile of rubble that was their house. With this we are put into the STALLING phase of the story as our child characters attempt to rescue their mother with their futile effort, all the while a titan inches ever closer. When the adult character named Hannes arrives, it seems like the fortunes would be reserved and their mother would be rescued, but no this is still just the part of the Stalling. As Hannes didn’t have the courage to face the smiling titan, he takes the two kids and escapes, letting the tragedy occur.
Thus we arrive at the Tragedy, Eren helplessly watches as his mother is picked up and slowly brought to the mouth of the titan, every second seems awfully slow, just for the sake of directly amplifying this effect. Then all of a sudden with a disgusting bite sound, Eren’s mother is no more.
The Tragedy is further intensified as Maria’s wall is also broken through by the Armoured Titan in episode 2, dooming another bunch of humanity to death, starvation or worse. The Conclusion then arrives in the form that our young heroes enlist into the military each for their own reasons so as to never repeat the tragedy of the first episodes.
This is when Attack on Titan suddenly starts building a premise, explains its world, terminology, setting and everything in the following episodes. After the characters turn of age, we get the Plot in the form of the reappearance of the Colossal Titan, which will cause all the events until the end of the show, but it never ends in another climax or tragedy as Attack on Titan just piles plot twists upon plot twists, ones that are actually quite non-sensical and even stupid in its own setting (such as titans being human made weapons in a medieval era world) and ruins itself further by needlessly extending and complicating these plot lines.
The Tragedy and The Climax are viewed as the most tension filled and intense parts of any drama, which will cause the most feelings and reaction within the viewer, because of this sane reason it is left for the latter parts of the drama, the earlier parts are meant to build this up. The tragedy usually ends up shortly after the moment of fortune reversal with the conclusion/resolution, but since these shock factor shows started their entire story with the Tragedy/Climax, the viewers expectations are absurdly raised and set up for future disappointment. As in any show the Climax is the paramount, the top of the mountain, it doesn’t get any better than that in terms of emotion and intensity. Attack on Titan started with a climax which made all the other episodes that were not of the same intensity inferior. Quite a few people who watched Attack on Titan admit that it gets worse after 3-5 episodes, this is because 3-5 eps is the usual time when the shock factor of the first 2 episodes wears off.
As it could be seen from the previous pic of Aristotelian Tragedy, it initially flows like a river that steadily rises until the point it arrives at the peak (climax), then it all falls down as if it was a rapid water fall, which then ends up a slow but steady river that is the Conclusion. Meanwhile Shock Factor shows like Attack on titan could be likened to a heartbeat monitor, as they abruptly rise and fall, rise and fall in a roller-coaster of emotions.
This is just a short example and evaluation of how a variety of anime ruin their quality for the sake of baiting in viewers via the usage of Shock Factor, but there are dozens of more methods that I will also explore in the future.