Plot vs Characters in Anime

Judging any sort of writing can be a particularly difficult thing to do. That is because the very products of writing cannot be judged in an objective manner. While in mathematics, one plus one will always equal two no matter the circumstances, there are personal preferences involved when it comes to words, and in that extension, stories. However, the criteria at which to judge stories are often the same regardless of cultural background, gender, or race. They are generally plot, characters, and writing style.

While all three criteria are incredibly relevant to the storytelling medium of written stories, these criteria have changed. As the present marched forward, stories began to present themselves past the written words and into movements and dialogue spoken by real people. No different than books sold in stores, I believe that movies, shows, and of course, anime, are instruments to telling stories. However, with the shift from words on paper to movements on a screen, writing style is harder to judge when the only style presented is dialogue. As a result, plot and character development are at the forefront of a good story.

Anime series come in many dimensions. In no way am I asserting that only plot and characters matters. The voice acting must be well done to sell the characters and the situations. The animation is always a bonus to the series if it is well done. Soundtrack is needed to set the atmosphere unconsciously in the viewer’s head.

Cowboy Bebop

However, at the heart of it all, anime is another form of storytelling. It is possible to be “excellent” in the other three areas above, but if they lack plot and characters, the series is largely forgotten. And in contrast, when an anime series has both excellent plots and character development, they are almost instantly considered classics even if the voice acting, soundtrack, and animation is only considered “acceptable”. When we speak of Cowboy Bebop, Code Geass, and Death Note, we can easily provide examples as to how these anime series embodies the best of both criteria. But more often than not, anime series lack in one area over the other. In those circumstances, which criteria is more powerful and thus wins out the audience? A better plot? Or better characters?

In seeking for an answer, I ended up stumbling upon comparisons with Attack on Titan, One Punch Man, Bungou Stray Dogs, Death Parade, Violet Evergarden, and Psycho-Pass. I remembered when Bungou Stray Dogs first aired. There was already a lot of hype surrounding the popular manga, and when I heard that the characters were based on real life authors with their powers representing the authors’ works, I was instantly intrigued. In that case, it was the setup, and in extension the plot, that snatched my interest.  

However, once I had begun the first season of the series, I actually found myself disappointed. I thought the hype was overdone because the plot was quite inconsistent. At times, I felt like too much has happened within a single arc, yet other times, I felt like the arc didn’t result in anything. And while the popularity of the anime continued to grow, for me, it wasn’t until the second season that I actually saw the magic people gushed about with Bungou Stray Dogs – a story that has both the plot and the characters. When I compare the two, I found the first season to be incredibly weak in storytelling. Plot did not make the mark, but something else did.

Dazai Osamu is the answer.

While not the main protagonist, it is without question that Dazai’s entrance and flippant personality stamped its mark into people’s minds. Even I remembered Dazai’s mannerisms, his mysterious background, and the completely entertaining character that danced across my computer screen despite all my critiques to the first season. And when I see a clip of him released on Youtube, I’m still quick to watch.

Dazai would probably be flattered with this assessment

The plot that drives Dazai forward might not be interesting, but his troll-ish laidback attitude coupled with his sudden, intense violence is ultimately intriguing. We care less about the circumstances in the present surrounding the characters but instead constantly ask about his past. Where did he come from? Which personality – funny or apathetic – is his real self? How did he end up with the Agency? Why did he end up with the Agency? Attachment to this character is what allows audience members to easily forgive the weaker plot if it means more instances of seeing Dazai on screen. In a case where the plot clearly started out weaker than the characters, character is what won the audience and earned Bungou Stray Dogs its fandom loyalty even before the story’s major improvement.

That led me to Attack on Titan. Though the series’ incredible animation is without a doubt a factor into its popularity, Attack on Titan has its merits from the very beginning, namely its storyline. Titans were new monsters that the anime world hasn’t really seen animated before. The world was built within walls, but not in the sense of castles and kingdoms. The imagination behind the 3D maneuver gear to fight Titans was undeniable. In fact, one can argue that characters were its weak point due to Eren’s generic “I must kill all Titans in revenge” attitude while plot twists shock viewers every week.

Attack on Titan – strong plot, animation, voice acting, and soundtrack from the beginning

But Attack on Titan’s popularity follows a similar pattern to the Game of Thrones series. While both were already well acclaimed shows amongst its niche group, it wasn’t until a certain event that triggered the shows’ popularity to waterfall into the general public. For Game of Thrones, it was the Red Wedding that took place in Season 3. For Attack on Titan, I only remember seeing the explosion of memes, discussions, and video clips shared by people outside of the anime fandom when Levi entered the fray.

Levi is still considered Attack on Titan’s most popular character. His utter annihilation of the Titans with swift, easy movements compared to the struggles of everyone else we’ve seen before signified one of the most “epic” entrances in anime history. His constant snide remarks on literal crap, his short stature – a physical attribute not usually associated with popular characters–and his infamous beat down of Eren in a trial levitated him in people’s minds far beyond the main protagonist. And keep in mind that Levi didn’t enter until after the first half of the series had already aired.

It is Levi’s character that allowed Attack on Titan to stretch beyond the popularity of already anime fans and introduce Attack on Titan as an entry anime series for newcomers to watch and enjoy. In a situation where the general consensus had always agreed that the plot started out strong, it took a character to help the series reach a level above its already high station.

But what about anime series that started out strong and began to lose its momentum? The most current one to come to mind is the currently airing One Punch Man whose first season made an explosive entrance into the fandom. Everyone fell in love with the bald-headed Saitama who has a heart of gold, no hidden agendas, and is literally so powerful that he can punch his way out of everything. Then a handful of other colorful characters entered including the puppy-loyal Genos, the bishounen balls-who-died-from-punch Speed-o-Sonic, and the lolicon girl whose mind can bend you to pieces Tatsumaki. In fact, there wasn’t really too much plot to begin with aside from following Saitama’s every day punching life.

Strong start and fandom thanks to Saitama

That ultimately had no effect on the hyped aura of the series after the first season aired. The first reason being that unlike Bungou Stray Dogs and Attack on Titan mentioned before, One Punch Man is a different genre. While both series have their comedic moments, neither of them is flatly in the “comedy” genre. Both of them have long running conflicts that are to be taken seriously. On the other hand, One Punch Man’s greatest conflict is just finding an antagonist strong enough to last after one punch against Saitama. From the get go, it was not meant to be taken seriously. Comedy anime’s plots are meant to be taken from a shallow view, if there is a plot at all, and audience members knew that.

But what happens when a serious plot enters? Logically speaking, it should elevate the story more. Yet, when a plot is introduced in the second season of One Punch Man, the viewers hardly noticed it at all. In fact, they made such a ruckus over the change and decrease in animation quality that many didn’t even bother trying the second season at all. A plot ultimately didn’t even matter to the fandom with this particular series.

One, of course, can argue that One Punch Man from the very beginning had started off its fanbase with its characters and not for its plot. It indeed differs from Bungou Stray Dogs in that regard. Though the first season was weak, a plot with intricate details and twists still clearly existed, unlike the first season of One Punch Man. Because of the precedence the anime had already set in people’s minds, people are no longer looking for a plot when the series continued with a second season even when given one.

That ultimately led me to compare two anime series that were acclaimed for their uniqueness of world and ingenuity in storytelling: Psycho-pass and Death Parade. Both anime series gained high praise for the world they took place in, the conflicts that the characters faced, and the themes told. Both were dark anime series, focusing on twists and turns to hook the viewers. Ultimately, Death Parade was forgotten and rarely spoken about, but mention Psycho-pass, and people’s eyes literally light up. In which way did Psycho-pass win?

The dynamics of Psycho-Pass

The characters are my answer to that question. Kougami, a protagonist, and Makishima, an antagonist, dazzled audiences with their interactions. They clearly fought for opposite ideals, yet they were ultimately different sides of the same coin. Their antagonism towards each other but continued similarities in personalities and determined pursuits of each other coupled with some excellently choreographed fight sequences quickly seared into people’s minds. When the second season came around and it was not nearly praised as much as the first season, people kept asking about Kougami despite the fact that Akane is still the main protagonist.

While Death Parade received no less praise than Psycho-Pass when it came to worldbuilding, conflict, and resolution, the former faded in people’s minds while the latter remained strong enough to have a third season for the upcoming Fall season. Psycho-Pass opted to focus on all their characters and making sure they all took part in contributing to the conflict, while Death Parade’s conflicts were not as dependent on those characters. Decim and Mysterious Woman do end up receiving their own character arc in the series, but all the other characters were largely sidelined. In comparison, Psycho-Pass still made sure to develop and highlight their supporting characters, whether they were villains who sided with Makishima and their thought process for joining him, or heroes like Ginoza, who had his own inner conflicts and development to go through.

Decim of Death Parade did get a character arc…but it wasn’t enough

In the end, Death Parade’s overall lack of focus on their other characters and the relationship between each of them affected its lasting presence in people’s minds. Focusing on the two main characters simply wasn’t enough. The series’ uniqueness in storytelling and plot simply could not match up with Psycho-Pass’s age old connection of two ideologically similar people fighting for different reasons that people have seen on screen for so long.

My final analysis brings me to Violet Evergarden. Throughout the article, I have largely covered anime that has a large focus on more adrenaline inducing anime. Bungou Stray Dogs, Attack on Titan, and One Punch Man squarely sit in the action genre. Psycho-Pass is a mystery sci-fi thriller with action sequences to boot, and Death Parade is a psychological thriller. Violet Evergarden, on the other hand, is an episodic series with a much slower pacing and emphasis on enjoying the peacefulness of life.

Violet Evergarden is an anime series that I love. I love the stories told in each episode. Even though Violet, the main protagonist, goes through an incredible character arc herself, I mostly looked forward to the content of the episodes. I love how each of them were written differently yet still fed into the theme of love. I love how the episodes, though complete on their own, were also ultimately connected by a continuing conflict. When I speak about Violet Evergarden, I do not speak about the characters but the plot.

However, that does not make me the majority. Throughout the course of the season that year, while Violet Evergarden started strong, it lost its popularity to other shows such as Laid-back Camp and A Place Further than the Universe as the season went on. Some attributed it to the slower pacing, but a bigger reason was at bay.

Violet Evergarden needed one more character to help her out

Because the format is episodic, aside from Violet, none of the other characters introduced in the stories ultimately return. There is a small motley group of supporting characters but their actions and thus effects on the plot and the viewers are minimum as the focus is only on Violet and her growth. This lack of expansive characters to love and bond with ultimately bit into the popularity of the series that started at the beginning when audience members were expecting a full linear story rather than episodic stories each week. It didn’t matter how good the stories were in each separate episode. People wanted more than just Violet to root for.

My analysis is far from enough to form a “right” answer if a right answer even exists. There are thousands of anime series out there with thousands more to come that may very well shift the view on whether plot or characters are more important. However, in my personal view on the elements of storytelling and the success of an anime series, ultimately strong characters is what leads to a better future with the audience.


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