Endings have always been a problem in anime. Even among my favorite shows, those that actually come to some kind of satisfying conclusion at the end of the series are a small minority. As an anime fan, it’s just something you learn to deal with — I’m at the point, especially with one season (13 episode) shows, that I just don’t expect them to actually wrap anything up. Even so, it can be frustrating!
(It also means that when a show does have a distinct beginning, middle, and end, planned and executed for its run time, it often stands out. This is one of the reasons Madoka Magika was so impressive.)
This problem with endings comes from a number of sources, some of which are familiar to American TV audiences, others being more unique to the anime world. The most obvious problem is when shows are continued or ended based on popularity, without regard to story arcs. This is a phenomenon tiresomely familiar to American viewers — the premature end of Firefly, the endless attenuation of X-Files, the flip-flop that screwed up the last two seasons of Bablyon 5, and so on. (It would probably be harder to find a show that wasn’t affected by this problem.) This happens to anime too. Gainax‘s early effort Nadia: Secret of Blue Water was unexpectedly prolonged mid-season, forcing the writers to maroon the cast on a desert island for 13 episodes in order to postpone the ending. Many other shows, their hopes for further seasons dashed by low ratings, have been forced to cram enormous amounts of plot into a few final episodes, creating weird chunks of exposition and nonsense.
For anime, though, a larger barrier to a satisfying ending is its relationship with the source material. With very few exceptions, anime is based on a print source — often a manga (comic), sometimes a novel, and more recently a light novel series. (Light novels are short, partially illustrated novels that are aimed mostly at teens and come in long, comic-style series.) When the source material is a series, it is usually still ongoing when the anime begins (to capitalize on its popularity) which means the pacing of the anime has to be carefully regulated so as not to overrun or fall too far behind the source.
A good example is Full Metal Alchemist. The original series overran the ongoing manga, forcing the writers to invent their own, completely different ending from what the original author had envisioned. Later, after the manga had finished, a new series (FMA: Brotherhood) redid the story from scratch, rushing through the early parts that the first series had already covered and then animating the manga ending. Most series aren’t so lucky, though — they either get abbreviated endings, or are simply left hanging, if the manga releases don’t keep up. (I’m reminded of the worries about George R. R. Martin and Game of Thrones, one of the few US TV shows that has a similar dynamic.)
More recently, a frustrating trend (for US viewers) has been the new model of shows deliberately animating just the beginning of a series, usually a light novel series. This has economic roots — anime is often not very profitable (or even loss-making) in and of itself, and relies on selling merchandise and tie-ins to make money for its creators. Taking this to its logical conclusion, studios now partner with the publishing companies to produce what are essentially 13 episode advertisements, unprofitable anime that drive sales for the much more profitable book series. Obviously, for those of us relying on translations, this is irritating; the only saving grace is that if an anime is popular enough (like Bakemonogatari) it can become profitable in its own right, and more seasons will be made.
(If you were hoping for an explanation of the end of Evangelion, by the way, there isn’t one. The creator is just insane.)
Now that we’ve talked about why so few shows end properly, let’s look at a prime example of the phenomenon, a show that starts off brilliantly and then falls apart.
(Because I talk about the second season, this will contain some spoilers, but nothing that’s a major reveal.)
(The subtitle is roughly “Lelouch of the Rebellion”.)
The world of Code Geass is an alternate history, sort of, in which the “Brittanian Empire” (roughly the US) has conquered much of the world, including Japan. Japan, renamed “Area 11”, is populated by a mix of Brittanian citizens and “Elevens”, natives with few legal rights.
Lelouch is a former prince of Brittania, exiled to Area 11. (To go to high school, of course.) One day he gets caught up in a terrorist attack and unlocks a mysterious suitcase, which contains a girl who calls herself C.C. (“Girl in a suitcase” is, for some reason, a recurring anime trope.) Contact with C.C. grants Lelouch “the power of the King” — the ability to give orders to anyone that they are forced to follow, up to and including suicide.
There are a couple of things that make Code Geass great. One of them is the worldbuilding, which is a lot more detailed and better thought out than most shows. Giant mecha are the weapons of choice, of course, but their designs have at least a nod to practicality rather than being purely based on coolness. (They even have escape pods!) Lelouch’s power, which at first glance would seem to make him nearly godlike, comes with some interesting restrictions: it requires eye contact (not always easy when someone is riding a giant robot) and only works on any given person once, then never again. How he deals with these drawbacks (he even experiments to find out the precise limits!) is one part of what makes the show fascinating.
The other thing that makes Code Geass work is Lelouch himself, who is practically unique among anime protagonists. (The only comparison I can think of would be Light from Death Note.) He’s both pro-active and highly goal oriented — immediately on discovering that he’s been granted this power, he starts implementing a plan to destroy the empire that scorned him, starting by raising a rebellion in Area 11. It’s rare enough for a show to have a main character be the primary driver of the action (rather than simply reacting to things that happen to him) that this directness of purpose is enormously refreshing, and the plans that he comes up with are entertaining to watch. The show relies a lot on the “something’s gone wrong — or was that part of the plan?” tension that carries heist movies and similar.
It also doesn’t shy away from moral issues. Lelouch is ruthless and duplicitous, willing to do whatever is needed to get what he wants, but as he comes to know the rebels his willingness to sacrifice them is tested. They make a point of acknowledging the chaos and death caused by the rebel terrorism, and questioning whether the gains are worth the cost. On the flip side, the Brittanians have a full range of characters, from sympathetic to scenery-chewing evil.
So what went wrong?
Roughly speaking, the same kind of TV shenanigans that we’re used to in the US. At the end of season one, Lelouch’s rebellion had come out into the open, and he’d cast off his high school student identity for good. But the show was moved to a new timeslot, and the producers worried that new viewers wouldn’t be able to pick up in the middle.
The result was a mess. Handwavy memory-manipulation magic put Lelouch and his friends back into high school, in theory so new viewers could get to know them in the original context, but in the process undid much of the character development of the previous season. The pacing was also thrown off, so big chunks of season two are dull, while the final ending is crammed into a tiny space. Even the world design and fights suffered, shifting from interesting plans and tactics to ever-more-powerful special mechs fighting.
It’s a shame, because there’s hints in there of the story that might have been. The ending, which doesn’t work in context, might have been satisfying if it had been given the proper room to breath. Like Firefly or Babylon 5, I’ll always wonder what might have been if the creators had been given the freedom to do what they wanted. (Maybe they would have screwed it up anyway.)
The question of whether to recommend Code Geass is a complicated one. The first season is as good as any mecha/action show I’ve ever scene, with solid, interesting characters and good plotting. It’s hard to watch, though, knowing that the various mysteries and arcs will never be brought to a really satisfying conclusion. If you can live with that, then its definitely worth checking out; just go in with your eyes open.
Django Wexler is the author of fantasies The Thousand Names and The Forbidden Library. He graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh with degrees in creative writing and computer science, and worked for the university in artificial intelligence research. Eventually he migrated to Microsoft in Seattle, where he now lives with two cats and a teetering mountain of books. When not watching anime, he wrangles computers, paints tiny soldiers, and plays games of all sorts.