Scope and Format in Anime (or Why I lurve the 13/26 episode counts)

June 21, 2006 at 7:12 am (Anime, Theory)

I guess I should check on these things when I start watching shows, but I usually don’t, so I only found out by word-of-mouth the other day that Nana was slated for at least 50 episodes, rather than 26. Normally this would be cause for alarm from me, but it’s actually not, in this case. Usually with a 26 episode count, I worry about the compactness of the story.

The 13/26 episode count standard was actually one of the major reasons I first got into watching anime. Most of my experience in viewing Western television has been with shows that did not finale until they ceased to be profitable, or possibly the actors all died or left in disgust. Not knowing how many episodes your show is gonna run has to be a really stifling factor to the kinds of stories you can tell. Any given story requires a certain space of time for it to be properly told. I’m going to mostly draw examples from sci-fi shows, since that’s where I have the most relevant experience.

The most common way I’ve seen this issue dealt with in American TV is to write stories that only last for one episode. One way of doing this is to make an anthlogy style show like The Twilight Zone, where a theme is established, but each episode is a self-contained story with its own characters and setting. I think that works pretty well, but it sure as hell limits the kinds of stories you can tell, and it doesn’t let you create viewer attachment to your characters, since they will never see them again after the end of the episode. The far more frequent variety of single-ep-story format seems to be what you find in Star Trek (or, like, any American TV drama up until the mid-90s): a set of characters and basic premise are established early-on, and then the premise is played out in single-episode short stories until the show dies. I actually really loathe this. The problem is that this format often tries to have an over-arching story across episodes, but the uncertain length of the show makes it nearly impossible. In Star Trek: Voyager, for example, the characters are supposed to be trying to find their way back home. But if they succeed, the entire premise for the show is wrecked! Well, maybe if the writers knew when the show would end, they could construct a decent story of that journey with logical parts to it. But how can somebody write the “middle” of a story, when they don’t know if they are 10% of the way through, or 50%! So the major premise, as a story point, just has to kind of hang there, while the show does single-episode stories, until the writers know it’s getting cancelled (if they even do) at which point they have to contrive some way to bring everything to a conclusion.

There are some exceptions to my loathing of this format. I thought Star Trek: The Next Generation actually did an admirable job of dealing with the episodic format while maintaining a persistant cast. It was built into the premise of the show though. There wasn’t a major overarching story; they were just out there to explore space. And since they tended to be in a different system or a different planet or whatever every episode, they had a lot of flexibility in creating new single-episode stories, while only having to maintain the consistency of the microcosm of the starship. Man, my brain is trying to resist writing this paragraph because it makes me sound like a hardcore trekkie, which I’m really not. Ow.

Looking to anime for some long series, I guess I’d bring up Ranma 1/2, Inu Yasha, Y!!J, and Nana. Inu Yasha I quit watching after like four episodes, because I saw that they were going to be “collecting the pieces” until the end of profit time, and I didn’t see any other interesting story emerging from that. In Ranma it was more like, hmm, this romance is going to last until the show decides to die; though I watched more of it (something like 35 eps) because it had the redeeming factor of amusing me. Yakitate!! I watched all of, but I thought it would have been much better if they’d ended it after the international newcomers competition. The episodes after that are barely worth watching, with the exception of the One Hour Special of Love and Friendship. Nana, well, granted, it’s just starting, but I think it will be fine as long as they actually have an end *planned* for it. More on this in a bit.

There’ve been some big turn-arounds in Western TV in the past decade though, possibly starting with Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, which had a general premise that wasn’t story-bound (i.e. Hunt Vampires!, not Vindicate myself from the murder of my wife!), but instead of episode-length stories (well it had those also, there was a sort of layering) it tended toward season-long stories. There is some of this back as far as Babylon 5, actually, but B5, while story-arced by season, had more interplay in the stories between seasons, where Buffy season-stories were much more self-contained.

So getting back to my birth into anime, I was really wowed by the prevalence of the single-season format. When I think about it, most of my favorite shows are shorter, usually in the 13-episode cluster. 13 episodes is just shy of 5 hours of actual programming. I think that gives the shows stories of about the same breadth as a typical movie, but paced much differently and a bit more complex since they’re a bit longer. Still, it’s short enough that there are seldom dull moments, and no particular tricks need to be employed to pace the stories to the length provided. 26-episodes is more like 10.5 hours of programming, and gives rise to a different sort of story, but one still far more succinct and crafted than what I had been used to. The 26-episode show, however, seems to have a particular sort of pacing to it. A common progression I see, is the one found in Trigun and Mai Hime, where roughly the first half of the show is devoted to comedy-(insert genre) and after that it’s dark-(insert genre) as, the characters now being familiar, the humour of the audience is taken advantage of to elevate the pathos of the drama by comparison to what preceeded it. More generally, most 26-episode shows seem to split into two 13-ep arcs, though they aren’t self-contained arcs most of the time (you generally need to watch from the beginning).

One 13-episode show I thought was too short was Hellsing, though they may have run out of source material during production, so maybe it’s a bad example. One 26-episode show that REALLY needed to be longer was Mai Otome. I thought Mai Otome had asstons of story potential in it, almost none of which was exploited. They would do really slow character episodes and just ignore millions of subplots and unanswered questions. The show really felt like it was paced for more than 26 episodes, and I’d fervently held to the futile hope that it was for a brief period of time. I mark it as a failure to properly pace a show for its episode count. Nana, on the other hand, seems perfectly paced for about 52 episodes, from my perspective. The characters were introduced very slowly, and you get to know both Nanas individually before they meet up (which was a new construction on me, and one I really found I liked), and now there’s a slow slice-of-life kind of story building up, that maintains comedy and occasional poignancy across episodes. So I’m looking forward to seeing all of it.



  1. kacpy said,

    13/26 are the perfect episode counts for me too. Totally agree with what you said about about western shows.

  2. Waterfall said,

    Hellsing manga was still running. The Incognito ending and the text stating that they defeated the masters was anime only.

  3. sethjohnson said,

    Waterfall, yeah that’s what I thought. It’s too bad, I thought the show was really good and could have easily weathered another 13 episodes.

  4. Anga said,

    I always prefer short shows since it takes a lot less time. One of favourite animes, Full moon wo sagashite would have been even greater with 26 episodes. 52 episodes stretched the anime too much.

  5. The Hierophant said,

    I feel obliged to point out the biggest difference between Buffy and Babylon 5: With Buffy, Whedon was writing a series of indeterminate length, season to season, so each season was relatively self-contained. It’s the episodic structure write large – keep going until it becomes unprofitable. JMS created Babylon 5 as a single story in five seasons, with an established beginning, middle, and end. In that sense, it’s much more similar to the standard among anime – a self-contained set of episodes, with the show ending when the story does, a format that to the best of my knowledge is unique to B5 in American long-run television (ie, excluding short-run miniseries).

    And I recently heard that the producers of the Hellsing anime jumped the gun on getting it out, and ran out of manga. Hence the non-manga ending.

  6. ChibiDan said,

    You write the things I wish I cared enough to write; and you agree with me most of the time.

    This errant entry on the direction of shows is something I have been hard pressed to put into words. I am watching B5 now, actually, and I can tell that it does have motion. I think my addiction to anime is similar to what you described as well. These stories have ends – a reason I refuse to pick up the Wheel of Time series. I agree that I have enjoyed few series greater than 26 episodes long, GTO stands out in my mind, though I’ll admit to great excitement that Honey & Clover is going to produce a second season.

  7. Bento Physics » Weekly Linkage: Learning Language, Episode Counts and the Anglophonic Fandom said,

    […] Seth Johnson of Gnostic Lone Wolf Poetry talks about how episode counts affect television storytelling, whether in longform multi-season serials or as compact single/double-seasoners: […]

  8. Kill the Wizard First » campaign models said,

    […] A friend of mine recently had a post about the standard 13/26 episode formats in anime, and it’s something that I think is applicable to campaign design too. Note that this is from the perspective of GM-as-scenario-writer, where the PCs have agency within the framework of a general plot, but the tacit assumption is that they’ll tend to go along with it. This is far from the only way to play, but it’s the one I have the most experience with. It also assumes a Narrativist creative agenda – if you’re just dungeon-crawling, killing things and taking their stuff, the rules are different. […]

  9. reoh said,

    Im reoh I like u a anime addcit my self if there any new tell me a nd find the new anime friend to all my favorite is fantasy ,romance, comedy, magic ant anime ilike u and yaoi but its the one i have the most experinces with all my my life and i say thats to al my comments for anime addict

    # rozen maiden
    # Magis=c night reyearth. thats all

  10. Psyke said,

    Dude so you guys mean that there are more than 13 episodes of hellsing?? :O

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