why 50 is damn hard

Categories: commentary


This article discusses the number 50. 50 (fifty) is the natural number following 49 and preceding 51.

So I was writing that Gundam 00 Awakening of the Trailblazer post when I started thinking, “Well, Gundam Seed Destiny was really pretty much game over. How do you expect to tell a serial story that coherently and interestingly span 100 episodes? Just an impossible task. Look at Lost. They had to resort to fucking polar bears on a tropical island.” And, you know what? It is an impossible task. Make up all the excuses you want for GSD, but deal with this one first: can you name a 100 episode serial that does the job right? That’s 50 fucking hours of straight storytelling! The only thing I want to do for fifty straight hours is an orgy with dozens and dozens of meido with varying hairstyles from the ponytail to the sidetail etc etc etc.

(Toriyama-styled anime like One Piece and Keroro can drag on forever. So can episodics like Mushishi or Jigoku Shoujo SVU. They’re not serial in the same way Gundam or Dennou Coil try to be.)

It gets easier with shorter series. A 13 episode series? About six hours of narrative… basically, slightly deeper than a Hollywood-movie type plotline. Which is why something like Asu no Yoichi seems barely deeper than Wanted. Not that either are deep. A 26 episode series? Almost perfect length with a dozen hours of narrative, about equivalent to a full trilogy. Escaflowne and Gurren Lagann work well in this framework. But what about a 50 episode series, like Gundam 00. Tough. Tough to sell a studio to do 50 episodes (basically, only Gundam has the cachet to pull it off in these economic conditions, only because of possible gunpla sales), even tougher to come up with a complete 50 episode story.

Fifty is damn tough. It’s about a full day’s worth of story to tell– do you have story that takes a day to tell? Even if it involves an Viagra-fueled orgy with meido? Ever read a book that required a day of non-stop reading to plow through (excluding my thermodynamic textbooks)? It’s tough. But two have done it, and done it well.

In no particular order, the first one that comes to mind is Clannad (just so happens to be this blog’s best series of 2008). It just had that lucky coincidence that it had the material to span 50 episodes and a studio willing to take its time (unlike, oh, Toei and Kanon). No matter what Kyoto does with The Remainders of Haruhi Suzumiya, the pacing and storytelling of Clannad is their crowning achievement. Even better than stretching K-On! into forty episodes and a movie.

The other fifty episode series that comes to mind? Imagine Cowboy Bebop. (It’s not Cowboy Bebop, but imagine nonetheless, unless the interwuts has completely stripped you of your individuality and imagination.) For the most part, it is a bounty-of-the-week format with some occasional Vicious tossed it. It’s like missionary with an occasional bj tossed in. There’s no reason why it couldn’t drag on or go deeper into the sub-characters more and become a fifty episode series. It could definitely even turned Toriyama a la Bleach or The Simpsons with less original writing as the series progressed. (Okay, that admits there was some original writing in Bleach. I’ll concede that.) But the series ended (spoiler alert!) with Spike’s death. Still, what if Spike lived and went on for countless more episodes? How would we feel about the series? We have a case study! The difficulty of finding the right length. Maybe 13 is too little for Bebop, but 50 would have been too much.

Now that I think of it, it might be the greatest 50 episode anime series of all time: Rurouni Kenshin.

Just a tour de force of storytelling starting with how Kenshin met Kaoru, his allies, and had just enough backstory filler to make everyone a character instead of just being a character. It all built up to the unforgettable ~20 episode long showdown with Shishio. (Okay, it’s slightly more than 50 episodes, but we’re rounding here with California budget precision.) When I say unforgettable, I mean unforgettable, from how Kenshin redeems Shinomori Aoshi, to how Kenshin wins against Shishio, to how unannoying Yahiko finally became. The series had everything– action, duty, sacrifice, love, strategy, lore, epicness– and then some, with the bonus pretty much the whole cast resolving their issues and overcoming their difficulties a la Clannad. (Except no one comes back to life and they do it all at once. It’s like comparing Yukie to Keima, if you know what I mean.)

After the final, satisfying duel, Kenshin should have had a happy epilogue episode, maybe a hot springs special, and be done with. No, it continued (or limped, your verbage may vary) along for another fifty episodes. They tried. But you really can’t top an arc featuring a mastermind who (a) replaced Kenshin as the premiere killer and (b) planned specifically to deal with Kenshin… and, most importantly, (c) provided a backdrop for growth for the main characters that helped them overcome past fallacies (i.e. Sanosuke and Yahiko grew up, Aoshi became a bit more sane) and developed them. So what’s left? Introducing T-1000/Borg-like aliens from Jupiter hell bent on conquering Japan? There’s just no more connection or urgency– it just becomes a series of episodic tales rather than a complete series.

So really to come up with a 50 episode story is tough, and it’s generally a losing proposition unless you really thought it through or have some deep source material. (Ironically, two things Gundam never has– thought and an origin gal game to draw story from. So let’s not beat them up too much for having a lazy story. But do beat up a little.) Story and exposition is not easy. Few anime do it and do it well.

37 Responses to “why 50 is damn hard”

  1. Kenshin could’ve had a strong enough finish if it just followed the damn manga.

  2. >>The only thing I want to do for fifty straight hours is an orgy with dozens and dozens of meido with varying hairstyles from the ponytail to the sidetail etc etc etc.

    I second this..

  3. I find the lack of Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood mentions disturbing. Though to be fair, it was a redo, since the first time around had a mediocre second half.

  4. Great post, got me thinking quite a bit. Most of the really great stories that stretched out into the 50 range that come to mind are almost all pre-90s.

    A few that come to mind:

    Legend of the Galactic Heroes: 110 episodes, not including side stories/movies
    Galaxy Express 999: 113 episodes, not including movies etc.
    Maison Ikkoku: 96 episodes
    Ashita no Joe: 79 episodes, Ashita no Joe 2: 47

    Harlock falls a bit short at 42, as does Kimagure Orange Road at 48. I’m pretty sure there is a whole host of sports anime that could claim to better than decent storytelling as well. All of these fit your general idea that source material is key, I think all of these had well-developed followings long before production began. Most of the real blockbusters of the 90s fit into that nice 26 episode realm. I’m wondering if there was pressure to take whatever new manga looked like it was getting hot before someone else took it, rather than wait years for a solid story with a dedicated following. Now we’re left with crap that gets the green light two volumes in.

  5. Get yourself some Legend of the Galactic Heroes. That’s perfect story-telling and it spans 110 episodes.

  6. What about Higurashi? Exactly 50 episodes (not counting “Rei”) were barely enough to adapt the 8 story arcs from the sound novels.

  7. Oh! No geass?

  8. totally agree on the kenshin point. not to mention that they made an ova that recaps everything.

  9. “And, you know what? It is an impossible task. Make up all the excuses you want for GSD, but deal with this one first: can you name a 100 episode serial that does the job right?”

    Legend of the Galactic Heroes. Your argument is invalid.

  10. One of the best things about anime compared to western shows is that they often have clear cut endings. A work is finished, and then its author/adapting studio goes on to create something new, rather than churning out endless sequels, until the franchise is on its last legs. So you do see some tightly planned and well executed stories that have well defined beginnings, middles and ends…occasionally.

    I’d agree that it’s hard to make a good 50 episode show. I’d probably say if you want to tell a good story then 24/26 episodes is great. There’s a good amount of time to work with, with time to let the show catch its breath every so often, but not so much you can afford to get sloppy. If you plan well, you can do amazing things (Gurren Lagann). If you plan pretty well, with a few flaws you can still do some very good things (Kanon 2006, Toradora, Evangelion). If you at least know how you’re going to manage those 24 episodes of time, you can produce something watchable without pacing issues (Amagami).

    If you want to tell a great story with a 12/14 episode series that’s a lot harder. It needs to be planned really well. Haruhi Season 1 managed it due to its out-of-order broadcast order meaning they could cherry pick from the source material to compliment the main story. Bakemonogatari managed it, since they didn’t try to cram too much in (they just thought they could make some extra webcasts…worked well, right?), and didn’t waste any time. Eden of the East (if you don’t include the movies) used this format well. It then just went down the drain when they used the 2 movies to tell the rest of the story. It should have been another 12 episode season for a grand total of 24 episodes.
    Angel Beats abjectly failed at this, only realising it was a 13 episode season at around the episode 10 mark. An awful lot of 12 episode shows that do try to tell a story are prone to feel rushed at the end.
    On the other hand, if telling a great story isn’t your goal then 12 episodes is great. You can mess around or tell a light hearted story without anything getting stale.

    If rushing is the main enemy for 12/24 episode shows, then sloppiness is the main problem for longer ones. You don’t have to plan so tightly. Things can get boring, because they’ve been dragged out too long. They can lose direction (I’m looking at you Lulu). So in that respect it probably does help to have some source material to work off, which at least lets you put together some sort of plan (as Clannad did, but Code Geass didn’t, seemingly writing the episodes week by week throughout season 2). Even if you have source material plotting out the future, if you can’t adapt it well (Studio Deen!) then your 50+ episode show is still doomed to failure.

  11. Legend of Galactic Heroes is the only coherent show I can think of that is 100+ episodes. Epic is epic.

  12. Seconding everyone else’s comments, Legend of the Galactic Heroes is by far the best 110+ episode series ever made as far as planned out plot is concerned. It had a little bit of an unfair advantage in that it was based off of a rather lengthy novel series, but still, the fact that a studio could maintain the level of quality and execution the entire way is nothing short of amazing. And that’s not counting the 20+ episodes of side-series spinoffs (only one of which was not as amazing as the rest, though still quite good).

  13. I enjoyed Hikaru no Go for its 75-episode run, Full Moon wo Sagashite went for 52, and even Cardcaptor Sakura was watchable through 70 episodes. The only long series I’ve ever watched that went full-trainwreck by the end was Yakitate Japan. The first two arcs were great, the final two just had me shaking my head by the time the last of the 69 episodes came around.

  14. Cross game, anyone?

  15. Darker Than Black told a pretty good story granted it’s only 40 episodes or so it easily could have been longer. They had all of the characters pasts they could’ve delved into a lot more. Gantz should have been longer too that last arc they did was bullshit, I suppose thats what rushing things before their source material is finished does. There are some shows i’d watch forever if they kept making new episodes though, like Spice and Wolf <3 which will probably end around the 50 episodes point and be good.

  16. Um as far as English series. there’s Babylon5 and Galactica. There’s Sopranos and Dexter on the premium networks. And umm oh The Last Airbender had a solid three seasons.

  17. I’m surprised that there haven’t been any mentions of Touch.

  18. Damnit, late to the party, but yeah…

    Legends of the Galactic Heroes.


  19. Legend of Galactic Heroes 110
    Touch 101

  20. Equally late to the party, but yeah…
    50-hour orgy with meido, side, pony, twin-tailed, etc.

  21. Like Neriya says, one of the reasons I prefer a good anime to watching Western TV is that the constraints of having a set 13, 24, or 50 episode run forces writers to build coherent stories with real progression and satisfying endings. In Western television, the aim is make a property last as long as humanly possible, leading to endless strings of self-contained, zero-sum-game plots followed by a frantic rush to tie up loose ends when the show finally gets cancelled years after it ceased to be relevant or entertaining. When you know from the word “go” how much time you have to tell your story, it makes you more inclined to assemble a single, coherent arc tailored for that window of time you have.

    This is a problem that the writers of American network television seem vaguely aware of, but they can’t quite seem to find a solution yet. Firefly, for instance, had the seeds an complete overarching plot in the form of River’s shadowy persecutors, but Fox cancelled the show before Whedon could go anywhere with it. Lost had the same promise, but dragged on for about three seasons too many before finally wrapping up. Castle’s first season seemed to be progressing smoothly towards a conclusion, but then the producers realized they had a winner. They couldn’t afford to let the main characters’ relationship progress too fast, so now the chemistry is all screwed up. And those are the bright spots; the vast majority of shows are still set up to be interminable “X of the week” affairs that drag on long past their expiration dates.

  22. I always thought that the first three slayers series made for a good long series when you watch them all together. Though i, ignore the new slayers revolution series i tried to watch them but just couldn’t not after the first three any way. The slayers ova’s and movies further complement the oiginal series as well but slayers is another series with strong source material having over 40 light novels to draw from.

  23. Monster was a great story for over 50 episodes. There were a few episodes in there that could have used some trimming, but for the most part it was a great ride.

    Most of the arc’s after Shi-Shi O sucked, but I have always enjoyed the Anti-Christ arc. Also the Prequel OVAs and even the epilogue were pretty awesome. (both done after the main show was done if I remember correctly.)

  24. Cross game comes to mind for 50.

    Anime are too short lately. 11, 12, 13 episodes aren’t enough and making us wait between two seasons sucks.

  25. I second slayers, and I’d also like to add Kodomo no Omocha, 102 episodes.

  26. Conan ftw.

  27. Waitm what is this about Kyou and “damn hard”?

  28. Monster, 74 episodes. With maybe the exception of one or two around the 20-episode mark, there was no filler, and the narrative stays coherent and gripping throughout, culminating in an excellent final arc.

  29. @Thrashy: Agreed. That’s what I hate US television too. It’s just about making another episode rather than telling a story. “Friends” was the worst offender. Everyone slept with everyone towards the end. I surprised they didn’t make Monica and Ross an item.

  30. Pretty interesting read for something I think about on occasion but never thought to blog about.

    I’d make the argument that Death Note could have gone on for more than 50 episodes, but honestly even if they followed the manga closer during the second arc it wouldn’t change the fact that well… the second arc.

    Gotta agree that 26 episodes is primo for something like Gurren Lagann where in-depth explanations for how their Mecha worked was never a real focus of the show. As for Toriyama-style shows, I’d say anything under 100 could work. Then again, Yu Yu Hakusho got away with a bit over that and was pretty good throughout. Meh, mileage varies, I guess.

  31. I strongly second Eric Weiner and Shoeshiner on Monster (and Kenshin was my first love as anime go – and what a pleasure to go from the great main series to the even greater OVA). Another great story series of near-50 episode length is Twelve Kingdoms, which ought to have gone on much longer except the artist got sick? Or something along those lines.

  32. This post wins. To mention Kenshin, Bebop and Clannad in arguably the same tier of greatness, I tip my hat to you.
    The meido orgy wins more though.

  33. “The only thing I want to do for fifty straight hours is an orgy with dozens and dozens of meido with varying hairstyles from the ponytail to the sidetail etc etc etc.”

    You have just won the internet twice over. Good Job.

  34. The problem with following the manga (for Kenshin) was that there was no manga to follow.
    They caught up to the manga at that point and was trying to see how the Jinchuu arc went before animating it.
    Thus did the world get the Kenshin filler.
    And then there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth.
    (And truth be told, the Jinchuu arc, while nice for giving more background on Kenshin, wasn’t as strong as the Tokyo + Kyoto arc.)

  35. Yu Yu Hakusho,112 episodes.
    What do I win?

  36. I’d say Eureka 7 did fairly well for a fifty episode anime. The way Renton grew up and Eureka started to show her emotions was well paced.

  37. One of the best things about anime compared to western shows is that they often have clear cut endings. A work is finished, and then its author/adapting studio goes on to create something new, rather than churning out endless sequels, until the franchise is on its last legs. So you do see some tightly planned and well executed stories…

    The big three would like a word.

    I’m not a great fan of anything greater than 24. Perhaps it’s just my attention span, typical to many of my age, but really, 24+ seems too long. Having said that, there’s only one that comes to mind (while excluding the fact that I haven’t seen many mentioned before me) which is Cross Game.

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