I’m sure we’re all familiar with the “Three Episode Rule,” but who actually has time for it? In my opinion it is much more preferable for a show to sink its hooks into you in just one episode. But what goes into creating that perfect episode, that perfect introduction to a series? Today we’re going to look at some of the best first episodes in anime history to try to answer that question. That includes Episode 0 of Kado: The Right Answer, a Spring 2017 anime that blew me away right from the start, and has continued to do so with each successive episode. [engage shillbag mode]
You can check out Kado, and most of the other shows I’m about to talk up, streaming in HD on Crunchyroll. Watching anime on Crunchyroll supports the creators of your favourite shows, and their queue feature, which is in my opinion the best designed of any major streaming platform, makes it a breeze to keep track of everything you’re watching. You can see what I’m talking about for yourself, and watch all of these great anime by heading to crunchyroll.com/basement to sign up for a 30-day free trial of Crunchyroll premium. [end shillbag mode]
Now, there are as many potential ways to start a TV series as there are stars in the sky, but if you’re telling a longform story and you wanna hook people right at the start, there are three things you ABSOLUTELY need to do in order to make that happen. You have to make us like your characters, you have to give us an interesting goal for them to follow, and you have to surprise us. Let’s look at how some of the best anime out there accomplish those goals. A key element of any great introduction is that it leaves you wanting more, and the most important step in doing that is making us care about the continuing fate of the people who inhabit your world. That means that they need to be written in a way that allows us to relate to them, but with a level of depth that cements them as their own person. (It’s hard to care about a blank slate.) Of course, what exactly “Good Writing” entails is going to vary wildly depending on genre and the story that your show is trying to tell, but there is one secret ingredient that you need to make this work: Restraint. Writers; I get it. You have all of these great concepts that form the basis for your world, and you’ve dreamed up all these wonderful, interesting characters to inhabit it, but it takes time for an audience to grow attached to anything, and in 23 minutes you only really have time to properly acquaint us with two, or maybe three, major characters, and one or two of those really interesting ideas. If you frontload your show with the worldbuilding exposition dump, or kick things off by introducing us to so many characters that you need to put nametags on them, nobody will care. You CAN give us a large supporting cast right off the bat, be they simple, disposable stereotypes, or interesting characters in their own right who hold the promise of later development, but you can only ever properly flesh out a few of them, so you’d better put your best foot forward. That means it’s often best to focus on the story’s core duo, or maybe trio. Edward and Alphonse Elric; Akane and Kogami; Lawrence and Holo; Taiga and Ryuji; Simon and Kamina; Eren, Mikasa, and Armin; Yotaro, Yakumo, and Konatsu; Mugen, Jin and Fuu. Hell, even Kirito and Klein, which makes it all the more baffling that Klein gets sidelined so dang hard in every subsequent episode. And Kado does a great job of this.
(I’m gonna be saying that a lot, by the way.) Kojiro Shindo’s eccentricity and clear brilliance makes him fascinating, if a little difficult to relate to, but that’s what Shun Hanamori is there for. His lackadaisical attitude and simple desire for a vacation are eminently relatable, and his friendship with Shindo gives us a point of reference for understanding him. The two characters have a “Holmes and Watson” chemistry that’s very fun to watch, and I’d be on board just to watch them bounce off each other, and whatever other quirky characters the writers invent for each new episode. But the show also gets us attached to a big idea that- Well, we’ll get to that. If less is more when it comes to character introductions, then it could be argued that focusing on just one character will give you the best results. And while One Punch Man’s introduction to Saitama provides a great example of this, I can think of few more striking introductions to a single character than the way we meet Yusuke Urameshi at the start of Yu Yu Hakusho. The first moment you see Yusuke, he’s jumping out in front of a car to save a little kid. The next… he’s dead. A disembodied spirit who can do nothing but watch as the ambulance carts his corpse away. It immediately leaves you wondering how he got there, and a flashback immediately begins filling you in. From the get-go, it’s clear that he’s a delinquent who causes nothing but trouble for his mother, and his childhood friend Keiko. His fighting and bad grades are a big headache for his school, and the closest thing he has to a male friend is fellow thug Kuwabara, who’s constantly challenging him to fights. Yusuke is not a happy kid, and as far as he’s concerned, the few people he cares about would be better off without him. So when a mysterious (and weirdly sexy) spirit lady offers to revive him as a reward for his uncharacteristic heroism, (and because they’ve run out of space in the afterlife,) it only makes sense that he would turn her down. She gives him time to mull it over at his own wake, and there he mostly sees what he expects, students showing up for extra credit and not caring, and teachers badmouthing him over his dead body. But he’s taken by surprise when Keiko and Kuwabara are broken down with grief at his passing, and his principal breaks down crying too, mourning his lost potential. And then there’s his mother, who’s such a wreck that she can’t move. All of these people he saw as giving him a hard time were just trying to connect with him, trying to help him do better and be happy, he just couldn’t see it. But his death removes all that pretence, and the revelation that those closest to him might be worse off without him gives him a new lease on life. This episode gets me every time I watch it. This is such a fantastic introduction, not just because we’re given a full 23 minutes to be introduced to his personality, but because we see not just the worst of Urameshi, but also the buried good that others see within him. He’s a punk, sure, but he can be better if he tries, and he wants to try, and we as an audience want to see him try, and succeed, and pay back everyone who cares about him. This is the real essence of making a relatable character; Highlighting the part of their arc that’s universal, so that the stranger things that make them unique can be understood by everyone. Not everyone is going to immediately identify with a street punk who gets in fights all the time and skips classes, but almost everyone can grasp dissatisfaction with authority figures, and the basic desire to be appreciated by those around you. Yusuke is a likeable, yet incomplete character, and the show has given him a clear path forward for bettering himself, one that we want to see him follow. Which leads us nicely to the next point. Making your viewers care about your cast is only half the battle. You also need to get them excited to see where your story can go from there. You need to have a blueprint for how your story can move forward, (if not exactly where it’s headed,) to give both your characters and your viewers a reason to keep going. In other words, you need to define a central goal for your characters to pursue. Even if you’re setting up a story that you can keep expanding on forever, this is important. “I wanna become Hokage!” “I wanna be King of the Pirates!” “I wanna be the greatest superhero in the world!” “I wanna get my old body back!” (That’s a common one.) A good protagonist needs this kind of desire to pull them forward. They also need to have some kind of roadblock in their way, otherwise there’s nothing to stop them from ending the series right away. Satoru has to stop the killer in the past to save his mom, but he doesn’t know who the killer is, and first he has to save Nazuki. Ed and Al need to find a Philosopher’s Stone to correct their mistakes, but every lead comes up false. Ryuko needs to defeat Satsuki to find her father’s killer, but she has to beat the student council first. Saitama wants to find just one more good fight, but he’s so strong that no one can take him. I could pick almost any of these to talk about, but there’s one series that I wanna acknowledge here for having one of the strongest first episodes that I’ve ever seen: Sword Art Online. Yes, you heard that correctly, and no, you don’t have brain damage, and neither do I, and your computer speakers are working fine too. SAO is still a terrible anime, but its first episode is really good. So good that it basically tricked me into watching the rest of the series, and that’s because of how effectively it establishes a compelling goal for its characters. Kirito (and also 10,000 other people who don’t matter because they’re not Kirito), becomes trapped in the world’s first virtual MMORPG, Sword Art Online. The game’s creator, Kayaba Akihiko, has developed a bit of a god complex, and in order to escape, the characters have to clear all 100 of the game’s raid dungeons, and reach its ending. Oh yeah, and if they die in the game, or someone tries to unplug them, they die in real life. And I mean theoretically, someone could could just stick a lead or possibly even aluminum sheet between the back of their necks and the NerveGear to dissipate the microwaves, but- NO!! Bad Geoff! You’re supposed to be nice to SAO this time! “You die in the game, you DIE FOR REAL!!” is a clichéd cliché at this point. Making fun of it is as played out as doing the trope straight. But I’ll be damned if SAO doesn’t present it in a unique manner. The horror-inspired camera work and editing here gives the show a real air of menace that sets it apart from its contemporaries, and that I really wish it had kept up. In most cases the idea of being trapped playing a video game sounds kinda cool, to be honest. But SAO leaves no question that its players are gonna have a bad time. It creates a pressing need to get out as quickly as possible, which makes the roadblocks the show sets up that much more intimidating. On the one hand, the actual clearing of the game is a hell of a task that’s going to require insane grinding, and have an immense human cost; just look at how much it took to kill one low-level boar in this game. On the other hand, Kirito specifically has the problem that he’s an antisocial dork who thoroughly dislikes interacting with other people, as is conveyed beautifully through the contrast between the inconvenient, painful, and dull real world, and the vibrant, colorful computer world. Kirito is given a clear goal right at the start of the series, and put under immense pressure to complete it. And since his personality hasn’t yet been minmaxed out of his stat sheet to make room for more hacking skills, you actually do want to cheer for him. This awkward dork who doesn’t know how to make friends is gonna have a tough time of it in this death game. Or, y’know, he would if Reki Kawahara had the wherewithal to follow the great blueprint he laid at the start of the series. Unfortunately, SAO goes well and truly off the rails very quickly, but to its credit, this opening episode was good enough to keep me hoping that it would get better, long past the point where it was obvious that it wouldn’t. Of course, not every storyline supports having this sort of clear-cut motivation, and your go-to fallback if that’s the case is the burning question that needs to be answered. “Why did I wake up naked, with a revolver, next to the White House?” “Who, or what killed that missing girl after we found her?” Pursuing the answers to these questions leads characters to their true goals. Kado does this exceptionally well (I warned you) putting one incredibly pressing question in our minds that will run through them all day after the episode wraps. What? What!? WHAT!? WHAT!?!? BUT! I’m getting ahead of myself. How it does that brings us right into our next point. Last, but not least (and also sometimes not last,) is the “Oh Shit!” moment. The moment that changes everything. The scene that makes your audience sit up and take notice. The part that makes them say… “oh shit!” This is the moment when we realize that the protagonist’s journey is going to be much more difficult than they first expected, or the moment that we as an audience realize that all of our assumptions about the story are wrong. It’s the moment that gets our mind racing with questions, and makes us eager to see what will happen next. This is the Colossal Titan showing up out of the blue to kick down the wall. Subaru experiencing his first return by death. The epic Sawano drop that begins Aldnoah.Zero. This can take many forms; it can be a moment of brutal intensity, like Kabaneri’s Ikoma curing his zombie bite in the most metal way possible, or seeing the darker side of the Sibyl System laid bare, as it drives a latent criminal over the edge, and then turns him into pulp. It can be an emotional gut punch that makes you realize, no, you definitely don’t have enough tissues for this shit, like the old lady saying a too-early goodbye to her robot granddaughter in the first episode of Plastic Memories. Or it can be a simple upending of genre conventions, like Haru declaring his love for Shizuku in the first episode of My Little Monster, The entire cast of Ga Rei Zero getting slaughtered the second they think they’re safe, or Saitama turning Vaccine Man into mist right at the start of One Punch Man. And yes, some anime do frontload this reveal, using it to catch your attention right at the start of the story. Eden of the East is a great example; there are few things more attention-grabbing or intriguing than a naked man running up to the White House with a revolver and a cell phone. Many anime stake their entire opening episodes on the power of this one scene, and if it’s strong enough, it can totally upend an otherwise mundane introduction. Gakkougurashi! seems like a boring, run of the mill, dare I say it, kinda bad moe club show, until it’s revealed that all the moe shenanigans are delusions that Yuna is using to cope with a full-on zombie apocalypse. That one twist shifts your perspective on the rest of the episode, which is a bit of a slog the first time you watch it, but becomes genuinely brilliant on repeated viewing for all of its subtle deceptions. My favourite “Oh Shit!” moment in recent memory, and the main reason that I wanted to make this video in the first place, comes from Kado: The Right Answer Episode 0. The turn that the story takes at the end of this episode is so monumental and so out of the blue that it leaves your mind racing, wondering what could possibly come next. Kado spends almost the entirety of its first episode’s runtime getting you invested in the buddy bureaucrat antics of Kojiro Shindo and Shun Hanamori, and right at the end of this plot, it hits you with a twist; the Diet member who brought them on was only trying to shut down the factory because the owner was his old friend, and he wanted to buy the land to give him a comfy retirement. This casts the whole plot of the episode in a new light, and dramatically changes your expectations for the series moving forward. Shindo isn’t simply acting to advance the interests of the government, he uses his power as a negotiator to help everyone he can in the best way possible. You’re left expecting an ongoing, possibly episodic and heartwarming storyline that focuses on the human element of government. BUT, and this is the really brilliant part, that’s not actually the “Oh Shit!” moment. It’s more of a “Oh. Shit.” The episode sets up an extremely interesting, if a little dry, bureaucratic slice of life story. It gets you acquainted with two great protagonists and a very likeable supporting cast, introduces the basic ideas of political maneuvering that will likely drive the plot, and tells a self-contained story, that sets up a great template for how future episodes might play out. It even has a moment that defies your expectations, albeit a small one, within that narrative. The introduction to the show feels truly complete, so what happens next when they get on the plane in an even greater surprise. As Hanamori and Shindo are waiting for their plane to take off, and a new adventure to begin, Hanamori looks out the window and spots a massive, two cubic kilometer purple box materializing out of the sky like a Game Cube from Reboot. Before anyone has a chance to react, the cube decends on the airport tarmac. Shindo’s plane is swallowed up, and some weird extra-dimensional energy starts seeping through the walls and distorting reality. As the cube touches down, in a final, incredible shot, the camera pulls out from the airport, through the streets of Tokyo, until it reaches a massive wide shot of the cube looming over the entire city. Not only does this shot sell the scale of the show, it also makes a vital statement. To this point, the story was all about Shindo and Hanamori. Now, it’s about how this event will affect all of humanity. And from the next episode on, the show makes good on that promise, delivering a triumphant, hard sci-fi first contact tale to rival the best the genre has to offer. And it doesn’t even start as a sci-fi show. I love abrupt shifts in genre like this. It really enhances the surreal elements of a plot when the buildup is this realistic. And as for all those “What?”s, the answers we’ve been given so far are extremely satisfying. The scale and scope of this story, and the ideas it presents are well worth experiencing for yourself. Even if you’ve had the first episode spoiled for you by something like this video. And if you have, I’m hoping that it’s given you some idea of why I’ve been so passionately evangelizing for this show. It takes some doing to jump genres like this and stick the landing, and believe me when I say that that’s one of the less impressive things about this show. Its incredible direction, and wealth of interesting ideas put it neck and neck with Re:Creators as my anime of the season. If you wanna give it a shot for yourself, or watch most of the other anime that I’ve highlighted in this video, then you can do so at the link in the doobly-doo on Crunchyroll. By the way, in case you’re somehow watching this without knowing what Crunchyroll is, Crunchyroll is a streaming service that lets you watch subtitled anime and j-drama series in full HD the same hour they come out in Japan. Crunchyroll was designed by weebs, for weebs, and streamlined to make anime as easy to watch as possible. The slick user interface makes it a snap to search for anime by season, genre, popularity, or simple alphabetical order, or you can hit the random button if you can’t decide on one of those. Once you find a show you like, you can add it to your queue, which lets you know exactly where you’re at in a series, down to the moment you dropped an episode, and can be rearranged at the click of a button. Add to that a bustling online community, and a store full of frequently discounted collectables straight from Japan, and you’ve got a one-stop shop for everything anime. (Except Avatar. They don’t have Avatar.) If you’re interested, head to crunchyroll.com/basement to sign up for a 30-day free trial. But before you go, make sure to hop down to the comments section and tell me which anime had your favorite first episode, and, while you’re down there, if you feel like hitting those like and subscribe buttons, well, I’m not gonna stop you. I also won’t stop you from supporting my Patreon campaign, which you can find at patreon.com/mothersbasement The fine folks whose names you’re seeing right now are some of my top-tier contributors, but having your names at the end of a video isn’t the only benefit you get from joining my Patreon campaign. You can also read my scripts, or join me for monthly anime hangout nights where we watch anime and shoot the shit. It’s a good time, trust me. And you can sign up, once again, at patreon.com/mothersbasement If you’re not sick of hearing my voice yet, then you can click up here for… whatever it is that Google thinks is best for you, or click down here for a great episode of my podcast, the Weekly Weebcast. I’m Geoff Thew, professional shitbag, signing out from my mother’s basement.