Storytelling plays a huge role in how enjoyable an anime can be. The appeal of any media we consume is greatly based on escapism and our emotional response to it. Anime is often, and sometimes arbitrarily, categorized into genres, but what if we could find our next favorite anime by categorizing them into emotional arcs: the path the story follows according to positive and negative emotions.
In a large-scale data mining experiment, the University of Vermont analyzed over 1,700 written stories in English to determine the most popular emotional arcs. [https://www.technologyreview.com/s/601848/data-mining-reveals-the-six-basic-emotional-arcs-of-storytelling/] They revealed six emotional pattern shapes: (1) rags-to-riches or rise, (2) steady ongoing fall, (3) fall and then rise, (4) rise and then fall, (5) rise-fall-rise, and (6) fall-rise-fall. These basic arcs can also be combined as building blocks to create an even more complex and emotional ride.
How do these emotional arcs fit with anime? We’re really interested in applying this new way of categorization to our favorite anime. The original study analyzed the emotional arcs by words. For anime, however, there are many more ways emotions are revealed beyond dialog, including visuals and music. The computation analysis would be much more complex, and Honey has refused requests to get access to a super computer, but we’re going to discuss it anyway using Honey’s anime expertise. Let’s take a look at each arc one-by-one.
The rags-to-riches story arc is a basic rise-to-greatness, zero-to-hero storyline and is often the beginning arc for many shounen, magical girl, and idol anime when a relatively average person becomes a hero, be it Dragonball Z, Sailor Moon, or K-On. One anime that follows this emotional arc religiously is the super-power parody One Punch Man, in which Saitama is your regular Average Joe who develops super powers and takes on and defeats increasingly tougher opponents. There are no limits! The only way is up!
Comedies, like One Punch Man, Gintama, and BECK, can take advantage of this story arc, because it is in fact, quite basic in design. This allows for more flexibility in delivering jokes without disrupting the overall plot, but of course, this pattern isn’t restricted to one genre. Straightforward romance plots in both harem and shoujo anime follow a general rise pattern. Long-lasting battle anime (One Piece, Naruto, Fairy Tail, Bleach, Hunter x Hunter, Magi) have a generally upward trend, even though there are minor setbacks. This pattern is one of the most versatile of the six.
It’s also common in coming of age stories, such as Spirited Away, FLCL, and Space Patrol Luluco. Recent anime that have taken advantage of this emotional building block are Shokugeki no Soma (Food Wars), Amaama to Inazuma, Tales of Zestiria the X, Tanaka-kun wa Itsumo Kedurage, Snow White with the Red Hair, Ore Monogatari, Fukigen na Mononokean (Morose Mononokean), Boku no Hero Academia, Bungo Stray Dogs, the Monogatari series, and the JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure series.
Usually marked with a neutral start and a positive ending, these plots focus heavily on the determination and perseverance of characters. Sometimes, these characters are rather simple in their stubborn desires, Soma-kun or Gouda Takeo, for example. Other times, these characters have more complex ideologies that lead them towards their end goal, such as with Inazuma-sensei or Killua.
The appeal of this emotional arc is pretty obvious. Someone, a normal person like you or me, finds the source to happiness or success and drives toward that goal. It’s the ideal situation. Of course, there are always some hiccups along the way, but the general trend still points upward, and we love seeing our favorite characters reach for the stars and actually get the wonderful ending they deserve.
Life, however, is not usually a fairy tale and more of a fail tale. Here comes the tragedy, a constant downward spiral that ends sadly, as with Romeo and Juliet (spoilers?). These plots are equally enthralling and all the more dramatic with a harsh ping of reality. We keep these stories around to remind us that life isn’t fair and teach us life lessons. Rock bottom doesn’t really exist.
It should come as no surprise that some very popular anime are filled with tragedy, the most notable being Death Note. Light is an all-around respected and admirable guy. He somehow becomes a god-like person when a death note falls into his life. He’s believes himself above other mortals, and thus, begins his tragic fall. Throughout the Light vs. L arc, we seen Light losing his moral compass and eventually, well, you know what happens.
Anime has been using tragedy as a major plot arc for a while, and it doesn’t stop, including no-one-is-safe anime, such as Akame ga Kill, MIrai Nikki, and Danganronpa. Dark by design, horror anime Elfen Lied was also painstakingly tragic, whereas School Days is shockingly gory—sorry, tragic. Like watching a train wreck, watching a person self-implode or fail is a strong emotional experience. Anyone who watches Grave of Fireflies or Now and Then, Here and Then knows how devastating the outcome of this pattern is. We keep rooting for our tragic figures to pull themselves out of their situation, so when everyone ends up dead or traumatized, it’s hits us that much harder.
Fall and Rise
Of course, you can get knocked down, and you can get up again. They’re never going to keep you down. This is the basic premise of many sports anime, including the ever-popular Haikyuu, in which our beloved Karosuno volleyballers are called “fallen champions” and “flightless crows,” as the school itself had an illustrious past and a mediocre present. Even the main characters are all fall at first. Kageyama Tobio was a dominating player who got shunned by his teammates. Hinata Shoyo put his all into volleyball only to be defeated in his first official match. The team, Kageyama, and Hinata, later try to overcome these initial setbacks, but in a major season one ending, they in fact, fail. Lucky or us, since the second season, we’ve been seeing a steady rise with the humble beginnings of a Cinderella story.
This is even more popular than the straight-forward rise emotional arc, because we can get more sympathy for the players as they start their upward climb, and looking at the size of the Haikyuu fanbase, it’s definitely working for them. Sports and battle anime that have a lot more episodes will repeat a cycle of fall, rise, fall, rise, fall, rise throughout its entirety. Another good anime with this major plot pattern would be Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, in which Ed and Al are met with tragedy that leads them on a journey to make up for past mistakes. Redemption is a key component of many fall and rise arcs.
As for the sports titles, we have Baby Steps, Kuroko’s Basketball, Days, Cheer Danshi, Free!, Ping Pong The Animation, etc. Whereas sports titles generally start off with athletic frustration that later turns into determination, other anime that use this plot device can be very dark or intensely sad with an eventual rise or heroism or happiness. These include Arslan Senki, Seraph of the End, Blue Exorcist, Shingeki no Kyojin, Sword Art Online, ReLIFE, Clannad: After Story, Orange, Tokyo Ghoul, and Boku dake ga Inai Machi (Erased).
Rise and Fall
On the other side of the coin we have the Icarus pattern: the rise and fall. Arguably, Death Note is in fact a rise and fall anime, but the fall is the major pattern. Rise and fall anime aren’t as numerous, but there are definitely some very good titles that pull it off nicely. Think Puella Magi Madoka Magica. It starts off as your normal magical girl anime, but then oh no, oh dear, no. In the beginning, we see Madoka join the magical girl brigade and learn about the new world she’s entered, but soon, we start seeing all the cracks in the magical girl system and all that’s left is sadness.
As for other anime which starts on a upward path and then ends with a bucket of tears, we have a great tear-jerker You’re Lie in April. Even taking a step outside of its own genre, we have the OVA Mobile Suit Gundam Thunderbolt. This pattern is no stranger to shock and surprise. Sometimes a generally hopeful plot will end on an emotional low point, such as in Cowboy Bebop, Pyscho-Pass, Terror in Resonance, and Into the Forest of Fireflies’ Light. Rise and fall anime tend to be major heart breakers in the anime landscape. The build up and likeability of the characters make the fall that much more tragic.
Rise-fall-rise and fall-rise-fall
Things can even get more complicated. For anime fans that like complexity in their plots, this up and down is welcome and keeps the story fresh and interesting. Code Gaess takes advantage of this up and down and leaves you wanting to know what will happen next in its fall-rise-fall emotional arc. Lelouch is an exiled prince with a veritable tragic backstory, in which his mother dies and his sister loses the use of her legs and eyes. On the brink of life or death, Lelouch makes a contract with C.C. Thus, begins his rise to power as Zero and then as an emperor; however, Lelouch must become hated by the world in order to create a peaceful and ideal world.
Fall-rise-fall becomes the devastating modus operandi as we cry our way through AnoHana and Angel Beats! It also noted as the strong point of Fate/Zero. Even though they have yet to end, we see this pattern being played out over and over in Re:Zero kara Hjimeru Isekai Seikatsu and possibly in the prohibition-era drama 91 Days. Seriously, how will they end?
Conversely, rise-fall-rise is much more uplifting, with a marked fall in the middle. One good example is Steins;Gate, in which we follow the exploits of a mad scientist who stumbles upon time travel, only to face a horrific time loop resulting in Okabe reliving the death of this dear friend, but finally achieving a satisfying resolution in a timeline leap. This pattern is prominent in some of the most beloved titles in anime history, including Neon Genesis Evangelion, most Mobile Suit Gundam titles, Honey and Clover, Sakamichi no Apollon, NANA, and the Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. Newer anime that make quite a stir for its rise-fall-rise plot pattern include Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress, Charlotte, Gurren Lagaan, Noragami, Kiznaiver, Shinsekai yori (From the New World), and A Lull in the Sea.
It’s amazing what an interesting plot can do for anime, instantly launching them into legendary status for many anime lovers. Still, it should be noted that this complicated pattern can in fact make a story hard to follow and ultimately lead to its demise filled with plot holes, illogical jumps, and unanswered questions.
Combining emotional arcs
While these are the six basic emotional arcs, it should come as no surprise that throughout a whole story, these arcs are combined to create new stories. In the case of Kuroko’s Basketball, it’s easy to see the fall-and-rise pattern that, in the conclusion of its third season, ends as a Cinderella story rags-to-riches pattern. Kill la Kill, likewise, starts off as a rising zero-to-hero story, but after learning the secret of the Life Fibers, we are faced with an emotional arc reset that follows a more complex fall-and-rise pattern.
In the case of Death Note, depending on your emotional attachment to Light or L, the emotional arc itself can be variable. If you’re particularly taken by Light, it could very much seem like a rise and fall. On the other hand, if you find yourself on L’s side, the shape is more of a rise-fall-rise, including the anime’s second act.
Complicated series that combine individual and political story lines, such as Shinsekai yori and Attack on Titan will also combine emotional arcs when transitioning from character-level plotlines and world-building plotlines. In Shinsekai yori, the character-level arc is very rise-fall-rise, whereas the political side is more fall and rise. The Fate series, as well, takes in quite a number of different emotional arcs throughout its entirety.
Emotional arcs vs. genres
By now, you’ve probably noticed that emotional arcs are not restricted by genre. Likewise, anime that may seem “similar” actually follow different emotional arcs. Take for instance, sadness-overload anime Clannad: After Story, AnoHana, and Your Lie in April. Clannad: After Story is categorically fall and rise. If you take into account Clannad and After Story together, it is overall a rise-fall-rise epic. We all cried buckets of tears during the emotional fall out, but the upward conclusion had us smiling through happy tears.
AnoHana starts on a rather negative note, with a group of friends irrevocably separated. The group then begins on a more upward trend as they reignite their friendship for Menma’s sake, but inevitably Menma passes on. Again, we’re crying and smiling, but the smile is more of a fight for sanity while we say goodbye to the young ghost girl.
Finally, Your Lie in April is a visually-appealing and beautiful-sounding emotional car crash that we all see coming but take part in anyway. Although with a tragic backstory, the anime begins on a surprising upbeat note, in which Arima Kousei becomes enamored with Miyazono Kaori. Arima has already decided to live out a normal life as an unnoticeable Friend B, but Kaori changes all that, pulling him back to the stage in an uplifting performance. Arima discovers a love of music and a desire to be a musician. As we gain more insight into Arima’s past, we watch him battle his way past his childhood trauma, but then we also have to deal with Kaori passing away. Your Lie in April starts pleasant, but gets heavier and heavier, ending with us crying, screaming, and throwing things. Arima, how are you possibly smiling at the end? He’s a greater man than the rest of us.
Arguably, all are beautifully made cryfests, but fans can easily point out which one they personally enjoy the most. It could very well be that the plot pattern is the determining factor in which one you personally think is the best, whereas your BFF thinks another is #1. Out of these three good cries, which emotional arc shape did you personally find the most appealing?
Good stories come in all shapes and sizes. Maybe you have one type of pattern that you particularly like, or maybe you find yourself weaving between different emotional arcs. As with the research done by the University of Vermont, the relationship between emotional arc shape and audience appeal has yet to be determined. Still, we’re able to pick our own favorites up until computers take over the world and tell us which is the best.
We hope you enjoyed this week’s version of otaku hyper-analysis. Which emotional arc pattern do you like the most? Which pattern does your favorite anime follow?