If you’re a fan of anime, you’ve undoubtedly noticed that some shows seem to move at a much slower pace than others.
Q: How many Dragon Ball characters does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A: Only one, but it will take three exciting episodes.
Of course, Dragon Ball’s oft-exaggerated reputation can make the pacing seem much worse than it really is.
But, slow or uneven pacing can be a problem for many anime shows, especially shonen series ranging from One Piece to Naruto to Fairy Tail.
Why does this happen? One huge reason is the original format of the story that the anime is adapted from.
There are several types of content which frequently get adapted into anime:
- Manga. Japanese “comic books,” for lack of a better word.
- Yonkoma. Four-panel comics, similar to a newspaper comic strip.
- Light novels. Written books, typically with illustrations.
There are other sources to consider — some anime series are based on games, while a few have no apparent original format at all. But manga, yonkoma, and light novels are responsible for a lot of the pacing issues you will find in anime.
Dozens of anime shows are based on traditional manga series. This can have a huge effect on pacing.
Of course, people in Japan and people in the United States or Europe typically read manga slightly differently.
People in the West are more likely to find manga published in tankobon format — that is, collected volume books where you can read several chapters of one series at a time.
Japanese readers have the option of reading those big, “phone book”-sized manga magazines. It’s the magazine format, not the tankobon, where episodic pacing really comes into play.
If you want people to purchase Shonen Jump or Weekly Shonen at the train station every week, you have to provide them with a good reason. So, most chapters are deliberately designed to have a cliffhanger.
Want to find out what happens to Luffy or Deku? Buy the next issue.
Anime shows will often try to follow the manga as closely as possible. So, each anime episode will represent one chapter of the manga (give or take).
Of course, that same “keep the audience hooked” marketing pressure still applies even if an anime series is a more loose adaptation. But that cliffhanger manga pacing is easy to adapt.
This cliffhanger style is most commonly found in action-adventure shonen series.
With the yonkoma format, you can expect the stories to be slice-of-life comedy tales. They will typically be funny or humorous.
The four-panel structure lends itself easily to “set-up and punchline” jokes and gags.
Examples of yonkoma-based anime would include:
- Azumanga Daioh — Lots of cute little gags and short stories about the lives of school girls.
- Lucky Star — Similar to Azumanga Daioh. Adds a lot of Seinfeldian conversations, and nerdy stuff.
- K-On! — Actually has a story arc. But the episodes can sometimes have choppy pacing.
- Hetalia — Actually a mixture of yonkoma and longer stories. Each anime episode is short, and the story jumps around a lot.
- Haruhi-chan — Gag-based spin-off of the main Haruhi Suzumiya story. Very silly and cartoonish. Other spin-offs of more serious manga will often be yonkoma.
- Blend S — Maid cafe comedy. The anime action is not as choppy as some yonkoma-based series. But it still contains a lot of little jokes and gags.
- Pop Team Epic — The manga is just as weird, random, and silly as the anime.
- Ninja Girl & Samurai Master — Cute little stories about a shinobi who helps Oda Nobunaga. Each episode is short.
Light novels play by their own set of rules.
There’s no need for cliffhangers. Rapid-fire jokes and gags are not a requirement. There’s more room for lengthy discussions of philosophical topics.
Anime series based on light novels can be slow-moving, but not for the same reasons that it happens to manga-based series.
If a show such as The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya slows down, it’s to give Kyon and Koizumi time to have the same thought-provoking discussions about life, religion, and metaphysics that they had in the novels.
For some reason, a lot of isekai stories start out as light novels. Perhaps the science-fiction and fantasy concepts involved are easier to explain in a written book format. The heroes also need time to ponder their unusual predicament.
These light novel isekai stories include: Ascendance of a Bookworm, KonoSuba, My Next Life As a Villainess, Overlord, Re:Zero, The Rising of the Shield Hero, and That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime.
Of course, a light novel might also be adapted into a manga before the anime comes out. And some light novels can be based upon anime series as well.
Finally, we need a footnote about some surprisingly good and imaginative series which seemingly came out of nowhere. No manga or light novel was needed.
Technically speaking, a Cowboy Bebop manga came out before the anime. But there must have been a glitch in the production schedule as the manga is considered an adaptation of the anime.
In all of these cases, any problems with the pacing can only be blamed on the animators, director, producers, executives, and associated staff.