Hello again one and all. Some of you faithful readers may already know this, but I don’t really follow the three-episode rule. You know, that informal rule that some anime fans have to give any new series three episodes before passing judgement on it.

It’s not a bad idea, I totally get where it comes from. It just doesn’t work for me. I don’t have that type of patience. I’m also very open-minded when it comes to anime so if I didn’t find something to love in an entire first episode, well there likely wasn’t much there at all.

However, I was watching an anime movie the other day and it got me thinking. The entire movie was roughly 90 minutes. A little less in fact, like 86 minutes. And that’s pretty much the same as three episodes of the standard anime. Some anime have double-length episodes to go up to an hour with commercials but they are very rare for some reason.

So basically, what the three-episode rule is creating for the people who do use it, is making them watch the equivalent of an entire movie before making up their minds. What’s interesting about that is what it implies about writing anime.

From what I have gathered, we anime fans accept that a series is going to have a sort of warming up period. You know, a number of episodes that are absolutely necessary for the show to establish the premise, characters and universe. That makes complete sense. And some shows do need to find their footing with early episodes being a bit rocky. Like sitcom pilots.

And this is why judging too early can be misleading. The audience just doesn’t have all the information it needs yet and those episodes aren’t likely to be the best representation of what the show has to offer. Not to mention the audience side of it.

What I mean is that it takes us, the viewers, a certain amount of time to warm up to new characters and get engrossed in a story. Sure there are series that manages to really garb us from the first second but that’s not going to be the majority. And it does depend on the genre to a certain point. Not to mention that baity first episodes are also not the best representation of a series. I’ve been lured into watching mediocre anime with a great first episode plenty of times.

But what does that mean for movies? If the entire runtime of a movie is equal to the period that fans allot to start getting into the story and understanding what’s going on, how are movie writers supposed to approach it?

A little while ago, on a completely unrelated post, a conversation started in my comments section that revealed that most of my readers largely prefer watching series to movies. Some of them hardly ever watch anime movies. And I have to admit I’m one of them.

I never really stopped to think about why but now, I realize that it might have something to do with the three-episode rule. Indirectly that is.

You see, I’m someone who enjoys slow-paced character-driven stories. And it’s very difficult for me to get that attached to a character in a movie. Not that I don’t get attached at all, I do. Just not as much, simply because I don’t spend as much time with them. The limited run time also means that ensemble pieces are pretty rare, how the heck is anyone supposes to develop a cast of 30 characters in a single movie. And unfortunately, it does also mean that tragic backgrounds can sometimes get condense to the point of farcical melodrama as a character has to suffer through what would have been years of occasional misfortunes, in the span of 15 minutes or so. It can make it seem as if there’s never a happy moment.

All of this said I have been watching more anime movies lately. More importantly, anime movies that are not linked to any series in any way. And I’ve come to appreciate some of the aspects of the shorter runtime. In a good anime movie, I have found that the writers have no choice but to trust the audience. As in they don,t explain every little thing. The narrative is put together in a way that allows the viewers to piece together whatever the story doesn’t have time to show and to infer the bits that were left out. I really like that narrative style. I think it adds a not and allows me to make a story just a little bit more for me through interpretation.

Although characters do tend to be a bit more simple and straightforward because of the time crunch, that doesn’t mean they can’t be interesting. And the big advantage I have seen is that they tend to be more consistent. Too many series I have watched try to make a character layered and complex but they end up feeling muddled like they’re just doing and thinking things at random. Because the character simply doesn’t stay consistent to themselves. I’ve noticed that uneven characterization annoys me way more than the average anime fan so this might not be as big a plus to others. To me though, it’s a huge boon for movies.

Finally, movies tend to have a better grasp on their plot. When the story goes from start to finish in a single leap, you’re much less likely to get bogged down in some B plot for too long or lose sight of what you want to do with certain characters. Yes, the pacing can still be awful but I rarely see movies where the narrative seems to have gotten lost.

When I say these things are because of the three-episode rule, I don,t mean it literally of course. I’m just saying that a movie’s limited runtime forces the story to take a different shape because of the way audiences interact with it. And there are advantages to that which is something I had never really stopped to consider before.

It also gives me a newfound respect for movie writers. They have to accomplish a lot in very little time. Some of my favourite anime movies have had a huge impact on me. Arguably more so than series I have watched over 100 episodes of. And that’s just impressive. I don,t have another word for it. Knowing how to choose your scenes that well is pure art.

Now, I still don,t gravitate towards anime movies as much as series. I probably never will. Part of it is the fact that I like both the added length and the malleability of a series where I can watch as many or as few episodes as I want in one sitting. There’s also the fact that original anime movies seem to overwhelmingly be romantic or tragic and those are not my genres of choice.

But I have been getting a new appreciation for anime movies lately and I want to share it with you. In certain regards, movies can bring something unique and very enjoyable to the table and I have been missing out. So to remedy that, please let me know what anime movie I should watch. I understand that a lot of them will be romantic, that’s ok, but if you have a different genre to suggest, I’m all ears. Also please don’t tell me to watch Grave of Fireflies. I don’t think my heart can take a second viewing.

25 thoughts

  1. I don’t have a “rule” when it comes to either series…I have dumped a series after one episode, after several episodes, and sometimes I have watched through to the end even if I wasn’t sure why…so I guess I just go on how I “feel” about where a series is when it comes to making a decision about whether to stay or go…

    I think the fact that anime watchers seem to prefer series over movies (although is this just a western phenomenon or does it happen the same way in Japan, too, for example?) points to both the unrealistic expectations some fans have about movies, as well as their failure to understand the fact that they are different media forms that demand different approaches at every level. That said, I enjoy both forms and watch both series and movies regularly, and get different (equally valuable) things out of both…

    And, no, I won’t suggest you watch Grave of the Fireflies – watch In This Corner of the World instead; it tackles some equally tricky issues, but is far less relentlessly heartbreaking.

  2. Another very fascinating post, Irina! I was very interested in your perspective, mainly because I’m the opposite. I find myself only able to enjoy anime movies these days, because they generally animate better and are more complete, as opposed to the eighty anime that everyone wants second seasons of that never happen. It’s just a shame that streaming is a problem for a lot of them, at least in my region. Hopefully Netflix’s hostile takeover of anime streaming will fix that someday!

    1. Oh nice, that’s an unusual perspective and it’s great to hear people still have have variety of tastes.

  3. You know, that’s really interesting that three episodes, typically, is loosely about the same as an animated film. I wonder how those who abide by the three episode rule, translate that rule to a movie. Do they only watch the first 20ish minutes before deciding to continue or not? Do they just suffer through a movie they don’t even like because they’ve allotted three episodes worth of time to watch it? Questions without answers…. I say as someone who will suffer through any movie under 3 hours because it’s ONLY a movie lol.

    As for movie recommendations-

    No Romance
    -Tekkon Kinkreet
    -Children of the Sea
    -Angel’s Egg – one of my favorites of all time
    -Colorful (kinda difficult to watch if you’re not in the right headspace)
    -Night on the Galactic Railroad (don’t be misled by the ‘kids’ demographic)
    -The Skycrawlers – it’s kinda long, kinda dense, but really good
    -Jin-roh: The Wolf Brigade – I actually think you’d like this one a lot for some reason.

    Some Romance but nothing too overbearing
    -Sing a Bit of Harmony (I don’t think it’s been released internationally, but highly recommend it)
    -Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop
    -Children Who Chase Lost Voices – romance is really minimal

  4. I have a 1/2 episode rule which is followed by a 3 episode rule. But no series is completely safe until episode 9 or thereabouts.

    If we wanted to really have fun with this, let’s compare Mugan Train as a movie to Mugan Train as an episodic series and then to it as a single session binge. We could do the same for the original Evangelion. But then, the dynamics of breaking a movie up into a series are different from making a series from the start.

    Even though a series can bring (in theory) more detail to a story, I find that a (good) movie is better at telling the story. The movie has a continuous flow and more unity of concept. A series is by nature episodic and in 22 minutes the depth you can reach is limited. (Never mind the loss of time due to the OP and the ED and perhaps summaries of previous events and scenes from next week.) Even within those 22 minutes, the flow is broken by a commercial break.

    A week later all those yummy details will have been forgotten so they usually never get included. Anime series that deals in subtlety is a rare bird.

    Movies are based on completed works and not on work-in-progress. There is no need to add filler episodes. Movies also tend to have better animation quality.

    There are some series, like “Kino’s Journeys,” that I can’t imagine as a full-length movie. There is no real arc and each episode is so tightly written that the content exactly fits the available time. Turning “Land of Visible Pain” (for example) into a longer piece would require adding more material than is necessary – extra subplots and drawing things out father – and would blunt the message. Like inflating a perfect short story into a vacuous novel.

    A series can have complexity and depth but (IMHO) it requires very high-quality writing and more than 12 episodes to accomplish what a good 90-minute movie does easily. Balancing this out is that single episodes are easier to consume than a movie.

    1. Oh it is particularly interesting to compare the different presentations of Mugen Train, even if it was only a 7 episode season. I haven’t seen the movie so I am very curious about how the two stack up and if the impact is different. I liked the arc but I have a feeling it would have been better as a movie. The pacing was off

      1. They also added some content that did not exist in the movie. An advantage of a series.

        I have an unsupported feeling that if Mugan Train had been planned exclusively as a series of 12 episodes of 22 minutes each it wouldn’t have been nearly as good.

  5. Actually, three episodes amount to about an hour worth of movie (a little more; here’s the approximate maths: most episodes are between 23 and 24 minoutes; about 3 minutes are dedicated to openings and endings – that makes around 60 minutes of content, plus one OP and ED, and perhaps minus previews if the show has them). But that’s just quibbles and doesn’t invalidate your point. I’ve actually thought about it like that before (and countered myself with the same maths, and then said to myself that that’s not really what matters). In any case, I even watch one-off OVAs that last aroun 20 minutes, and, that’s 1/3 of the three-episode rule, and I’m done. Unless, it’s a five minutes short, then you have 11-13 episodes that don’t emount to three regular episodes… Maybe you should apply the 3-episode rule in fractions: Three episodes are roughly 1/4 of the show, sometimes a little more (3/11) or a little less (3/13)… I wouldn’t know, since I don’t stick to the rule, either (and I’m just being a number nerd here).

    In any case, I’m a huge fan of slice-of-life, the plot-less, mood-driven (or rather mood-floaty/non-driven) kind, and you tend not to find that kind in movies. I liked the episodic My Neighbours the Yamadas, an atypical Takahate Ghibli movie (untypical for Ghibli, that is), but every other film I can think of provides a single narrative.

    One film I don’t ever see people mention is Hells, a magical school/isekai story with a punky feel. Schoolgirl dies and goes to a hell run by Hellvis. I thought it was nice at the time I watched it, but sort of never quite managed to forget this little show, which surprises me to the day. I can watch it for free on Amazon Prime, but not in the original Japanese. Is this a recommendation? I’m not sure, actually. I don’t remember the details so much.

    Most of the time, I haven’t seen a film because it’s harder to find than series, and because it’s outside my viewing habits. Films I want to see but haven’t: Mquia, Liz and the Bluebird, Barefoot Gen, Steamboy, Sword of the Stranger, Angels Egg, Paprika, Hi no Tori, Whisper of the Heart, A Tree of Palme, Up on Poppy Hill, Metropolis, Tokyo Godfathers, Tekkonkinkreet… And so on. To be sure, I have a very long series to-watch list, too, but the movie one is longer.

  6. You’ve probably already seen it, but just on the off-chance you haven’t, Hotarubi no Mori e. It’s a very short movie but boy does it pack a punch.

  7. I tend to stick to the three episode rule, though there have been cases were I’ve dropped a show at the first or second episode because its clearly not for me. Otherwise a movie’s worth of story feels like the appropriate length to gauge a writers skill for me, if a series can’t find its feet by that point it doesn’t inspire much hope, though there are exceptions as always.

    For anime movie recommendations two of my favourites are A Silent Voice and Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms, if we’re talking about films that aren’t connected to franchises.

  8. Hah, I almost applied the 5 episode rule (for me, it was 5) with “Hunter x Hunter 2011”. Honestly, that would’ve been my biggest mistake regarding anime watching (╯°□°)╯

    By the time I made it to the Chimera Ant arc, I sure wanted to go back in time and give the past me a pat on the back for not quitting.

    Recently, I was about to commit the same mistake with “Demon Slayer”. Well, I decided to once more make the future me proud… I’m not quitting.

    Good post, as always. Love your wholesome voice 🙂

    1. I’m one of the rare peole that liked the HxH early episodes but the show definetly grows a lot. It’s almost unrecognizable after a while…

    1. Thart’s dedication! I think I’m a sucker for sunk cost fallacy and probably wouldn’t drop something at episode 9 unless it was a 50 episode series or something. It’s not a very smart way for me to think…

Leave me a comment and make my day!