As this year comes to a close, I have been thinking about what shows or works top my “best of” list for 2010. Well, I didn’t think too long when it came to TV shows: The Tatami Galaxy took the title easily. It occurred to me that, in fact, The Tatami Galaxy was not only my pick for 2010, it was the first one to surpass in my eyes 2006′s The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. Other shows had come close, including 2007′s Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann and 2009/2010′s Bakemonogatari, but The Tatami Galaxy was the first both to match it and to surpass it.
Then it got me really thinking: what was it about these works that had made me hold them in such high regard? One thing that immediately popped out to me was that each one of them had a strong, focused denouement, one that not only provided satisfying closure to the events of the show but also provided a peek into the new beginning of the new beginning of the changed lives of the characters. That last part in particular is quite important; the denouement should not only close out the current story but also acknowledge that life goes on beyond what’s shown on screen. This holds true as well for the show that I see as being greater than any of those mentioned above, FLCL. And for (at least, a classic narrative based show) a show to join the ranks of the elites, to be considered one of the greats, it needs to have such a strong denouement.
(Please note that this post contains spoilers to the endings to Bakemonogatari, The Tatami Galaxy, Strike Witches 2, Angel Beats!, Gunbuster, and various arcs of Amagami SS)
Bakemonogatari was a summer 2009 TV show, but due to delays, its last episode came in the summer of this year. And it was a fine example of a denouement done right. After the climactic encounter between Koyomi and Tsubasa Cat, things return to normal, even if, as Koyomi’s narration stated, things have forever been changed. To drive in the point that this is the end of the story, Meme Oshino leaves, without even saying goodbye, but we’re still treated to the main characters reminiscing about him while exploring his now vacant home. They hardly even exchange words, but their mere actions give that all important sense of closure. And finally, the show ends with the two protagonists, Koyomi and Hitagi, looking to the future to their relationship together. Koyomi’s narration mentions not only this but the fact that he is likely to encounter oddities again – the story of his life is far from over. But he has taken a step forward, and this is a new beginning, where he can face the oddities without Oshino’s help. The show properly ended the threads of the main story while still emphasizing the fact that life goes on.
The Tatami Galaxy did very much the same thing with its last episode. The climax came, of course, when Watashi leaped to Ozu’s aid, followed behind by a swarm of moths, only to fall into the river. And, just as important, there was him finally returning that doll to Akashi, allowing them to take a step in their relationship. With Watashi having learned his true path to happiness and escaped from the maze of his constantly repeated timelines, he finally gets started on his new, happy life, with Akashi and Ozu both beside him. The show is explicit in that Watashi and Akashi really are in a relationship, but also emphasizes that that relationship is not part of the show (Watashi’s comment that “there is nothing as boring as a story of successful love” both rings true and tells us everything we need to know). Similarly, we see Watashi make peace with Ozu, coming to see him as another human and a friend. Plus, he now gets to turn the tables on Ozu and torment him just as he was tormented. But, importantly, the show only tells us that that’s what is going to happen. The story of the show is over, and the denouement performs its job to show us that what follows is a new beginning.
But it seems to me that this focus on the denouement is something that is all too often ignored by studios that seem happy to build everything up to the climax then call it a day. While a good build up and climax can make a show still be good, not having a proper ending keeps it from being great. There were a few shows this year that confirmed this to me.
Look at this summer’s Strike Witches 2, an otherwise excellent show that was happy with giving us a simple full stop immediately after the climax. The only glimpse at an ending we got was a brief scene of Yoshika taking care of a bird at her clinic back home over the credits. A real ending that showed how the lives of the members of the 501st went on afterward would have left the series on a high note and could have made the show great.
AIC’s other summer show, Amagami SS, had the same problem, but multiplied many times due to its parallel story structure. 2 of the arcs – Kaoru’s and AI’s – ended right after the climax with no closure or even an attempt at trying to show us how this marked the new beginning of their relationship. A couple others – Haruka’s and Tsukasa’s – gave limp attempts with brief “10 years later” scenes that showed the couple only after the real “next story” had occurred. These weren’t real endings; they were either awkwardly placed full stops or lazy failed attempts at providing closure. And though there was certainly a lot more wrong with Amagami SS, its failure to provide a competent denouement to any of its arcs was a major factor in why it is such a poor show.
On the flip side, what about Angel Beats!, a show that was just as full of problems as Amagami SS, but which devoted the entire final episode to the ending, the main characters saying goodbye to each other? Though the show may have been horrible, this final episode gave us some genuinely heartwarming and hilarious moments (I’m thinking Mapo Tofu) between the main characters and an amazing school gym scene as the characters disappeared one by one. And though that last twist involving the shared heart between Kanade and Otonashi was detestable, the very final scene hinting at a new beginning for these 2 main characters left us with hope, instead of the crushing despair that the time we spent watching this horrible show is something we’ll never get back.
It’s commonly said that the ending can ruin or make great a piece of work. At the same time, there’s something to be said for the idea that it’s the journey that matters, not the destination. Of course, the rules of fiction are not set in stone, and this is not a dichotomy. For most works, the rising action, climax, and denouement are all things that matter. But there are works that comfortably break these rules and come out ahead thanks to it. The End of Evangelion and Gunbuster are examples that immediately come to mind. The problem is that such works need to be exceptional in execution to pull this off, and most shows aren’t exceptional. For a narrative based work of fiction to excel, it needs to have a strong denouement, one that provides closure and adequately shows the start of something new. In 2010, The Tatami Galaxy and Bakemonogatari stood as shining examples of just how much a positive impact a strong denouement can have to a show.
- Other examples of anime works this past year that were enhanced by good denouements are: Durarara, The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya.
- Other examples of anime works this past year whose poor denouements took away from the works are: Ookami-san and Seven Companions, Black Rock Shooter, Highschool of the Dead, Kimi ni Todoke, A Certain Scientific Railgun.