Reviewing Anime #5: Story, Plot, Theme and Symbolism
For each lecture in
our continuing series on the Art of Reviewing Anime, the Anime
Academy Professors have shared with you the necessary
components of anime, including characters, music, art and
more. All of these ingredients are combined with one goal
in mind: to successfully tell a story. Today's class will
focus on the heart of anime, the story, and the elements of
plot, theme and symbolism that contribute to the story.
looks like a good story...
1) Story. The
story is the reason you are watching the anime. Something
about it had to interest you or catch your attention, or else
you wouldn't be investing the time. The story is often a situation
that prompts one or two questions, which you will often see
at the end of many summaries in the Anime Academy library.
Some of the more popular questions are asked by multiple series.
Can this person save the world (Neon
Genesis Evangelion, Sailor
Moon)? Will a love-stricken protagonist confess to
the object of his or her affections (Kimagure
Orange Road, Maison
Ikkoku)? Will this person reach his or her personal
goals (Hajime no Ippo,
Hikaru no Go)?
To review an anime,
you must understand the story and be able to accurately relay
it to your readers. This is one reason why a summary of the
story is a necessary part of the review; however, always take
care not to reveal too much so that important elements of
the plot stay unspoiled. Leave those for your reader to discover.
Instead, put into words the premise of the story, usually
shown in the first episode of a series or the first scenes
of a film.
2) Plot. Although
plot and story are similar, the plot is the sequence of the
events that answers the larger questions of the story at hand.
Good plots are well-structured and consist of a beginning,
middle and end. Each of those sections in turn also follows
a certain structure. The beginning must start at the appropriate
time (not weeks before the story starts, for example) and
provide sufficient background information. The middle, usually
the longest portion of the plot, develops the characters while
the events and actions of the story occur. Usually, the protagonist
must meet and overcome obstacles, and the conflict rises until
it reaches a climax.
faces her obstacles
Pacing is the speed
at which the events occur, the majority of which happen in
the middle. How smoothly these events happen can affect the
overall story. If there is overly long dialogue or too much
time spent on irrelevant characters or events, the pacing
slows down and runs the risk of losing the viewer's interest
in the story. Episodes that take a detour from the plot are
commonly referred to as "filler" and are considered
to be flaws for just that reason. Conversely, trying to cram
too many events and characters into a short amount of time
can leave the viewers confused, or worse, cause some of the
questions asked by the story to remain unanswered.
The end of the plot
includes the climax and must satisfactorily answer those questions
by offering a resolution. Leaving major questions unanswered
at the end will leave a sour taste in the mouths of many viewers,
fans can attest to. Also, merely answering the question without
mentioning the consequences won't always provide satisfaction
to the audience. Let's look back at one of our example story
questions. Did the protagonist confess? If so, what was the
response? While the consequences of every ending won't always
be spelled out for the viewer, he or she should at least have
a feeling of what is to come for the characters of
It is possible to have
a story with no plot, although the results vary. Character-driven
stories can succeed with having no plot, but the characters
must be very well developed or endearing to the audience.
One of the most popular examples of an anime with no plot
that does succeed is Azumanga
Daioh. By telling the simple story of girls in their
high school years, there are no events that create an actual
plot... yet the quirky cast of characters and comedic moments
hold the audience's interest and emotions.
is a hat more than a hat?
3) Theme and Symbolism.
For all the components of plot, there is one very simple question
that is answered by the theme: what is the story about? Not
in terms of the plot, but rather, what idea should viewers
get from watching this anime? Anime with a well-defined theme
have a clear focus. Often times the theme is not a message
or moral that the creators are trying to preach but merely
the unifying idea of the story. Miyazaki
Hayao, for example, often explores the same themes over
many different films: the power of nature and the innocence
of childhood. Understanding the theme of an anime and how
successfully that idea is carried throughout the story can
shape a reviewer's judgment.
Symbolism is present
in a story to reinforce that theme. A symbol is an object
in the story that represents both itself and some other idea,
usually abstract. Many stories in anime (but not all) add
symbols by using repeated and recognizable imagery.
Symbolism does not require
a certain amount of intelligence to infer the meaning of the
symbols in the story. Nor does an anime have to be as complex
as FLCL or
Utena: The Movie to include symbolism. Luffy's straw
hat in One Piece, for example, is a repeated image
in the series. It makes an appearance on his pirate flag,
his crew is referred to as the "Straw Hat Pirates"
and he often removes it to keep it safe or reacts violently
when another person damages it. The hat stands for the feelings
he has for the person who gave it to him. This is a simple
example of a symbol in an uncomplicated story that most viewers
can recognize through instinct and comments from the characters
within the anime itself. Symbolism merely exists to adorn
a story by supporting the themes; in the case of One Piece,
the bond of friendship is one such theme that the symbol of
the hat supports.
Plot, theme and symbolism
are all parts of the story. The story should be one of the
first factors you consider when writing or reading a review.
By being aware of those parts and how they contribute to the
anime as a whole, you will be a better reviewer and, as a
reader, understand how those elements can influence a reviewer's