Expectations of an Audience: Flashback Edition

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We often talk about what we as an audience expect from our entertainment (in this case, anime). We expect there to be a certain level of quality, from animation to the musical score. While we don’t always know exactly where our individual borderlines for “good” and “bad” stand, we do feel it when something lives up or falls short to our standards. But what if we look at this from a different perspective? What do creators/meddling publishers think of us? What is their standard for an audience, and are they underestimating us?

The answer is yes, at least for some, and the proof is in the anime pudding. Recently I had a realization when watching an anime, ReLIFE I think it was, that its flashbacks were being regurgitated in a very “generous” fashion. As if to ensure that the audience understood the joke they setup, they flashed back to a previous moment in the series. Kaizaki was trying to help Chizuru in her attempts to make friends. His advice to her was to smile more. She showed him her smile, and as it turned out she was completely incapable of producing a fake smile that looked anything short of malevolent. We move forward an episode to Chizuru’s first try at being friendly. What Chizuru doesn’t understand is that the girl she’s trying to befriend actually sees her as an academic and romantic rival. When Chizuru walks out with the girl’s crush, she makes an effort to smile and it only comes off as smug due to her inability to look even remotely cordial.

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This is a solid joke. In works on a number of levels too, because not only does she think Chizuru hates her, it also seems she’s trying to steal her boy(friend). It was clever, albeit a little predictable, but that’s okay because what’s really exciting is actually seeing it in execution. What wasn’t amusing however, was the flashback they tied to it. While it wasn’t really a flashback and more of a recollection in Kaizaki’s head, the point still remains that someone who had a part in creating this thought, or feared that we wouldn’t understand the joke. That the audience, or at least a part of the audience couldn’t remember what happened a mere episode ago. And in a way, it diminished the joke for me.

I enjoyed knowing that remembering a simple moment like that would eventually result in a payoff. It may have been a small victory, but understanding a punchline is rewarding, and being rewarded feels nice. What doesn’t feel nice however, is being belittled. Ask any comedian, having to explain a joke to someone RUINS THE JOKE! And that’s essentially what flashbacks like these are: disparaging explanations to ensure the understanding of an obviously underestimated target audience.

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And ReLIFE isn’t the only offender. I’ve been noticing it more and more in the simulcasts I follow, all these flashbacks to make clear of the foreshadowing that led up to any sort of moment. It doesn’t have to be comedy, it happens in almost every genre. Mysteries of course are excused from this because usually they hide important details by making them seem insignificant at the time, and the final explanation is more for the viewer’s confirmation of everything that’s happened.

Now, some might argue that there is some merit in accessibility. If for some reason a person would want to hop into a series at episode 4, they’d also probably want to be able to understand what’s going on. And in some instances, this wouldn’t come at the extent of a long time viewer. “Previously on…” was invented for this exact purpose. Explanatory flashbacks are better kept in the front of the show to avoid interrupting the flow of the episode once it actually starts. In long running series like Yu-Gi-Oh!, this works perfectly and can add to the show’s charm, becoming a quirky staple of the series rather than an annoying waste of time created for coddling newcomers.

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Typical 13 episode runs aren’t warranted this exception. Because it’s 13 episodes. Not 200. Not 100. Not even 50. 13. And at roughly 25 minutes an episode, that amounts to a mere 5½ hours. Even if you’re not binge watching, you shouldn’t be watching episodes so few and far between that it’s near impossible to remember. You wouldn’t read a book halfway, put it down, and then pick it up half a year later, would you? But I digress.

I feel some shows are expecting too little of its audience, and one of their glaring underestimations in us is our memory capacity. But what do you think? Are there any anime you’ve encountered that you felt crossed the line with its flashbacks? Or perhaps crossed the line in some other ways? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. Thanks for reading.

4 thoughts on “Expectations of an Audience: Flashback Edition

  1. I’ve noticed this more recently in anime. Earlier anime seemed to just leave you guessing or forced you to remember but now they seem far more overt in a lot of anime (there is still the ocasional one that leaves it all in the audience’s hands). I’m not a huge fan of being spoonfed a story or a joke, though it hasn’t got quite to that point yet. Hopefully, they can find the balance between explanation and pandering.

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  2. Can’t remember which part/episode in ReLIFE you’re using as an example, though I feel like using a flashback that “ruins” a joke doesn’t always mean that the director is belittling us. It can either be 1.) a flashback meant to refresh the viewers of what happened or 2.) a flashback meant to /show/ the viewers what this certain character is thinking. They’re telling a story after all, and we also have to take into consideration what the intent of the author is.

    Additionally, using a flashback can mean highlighting something important. It’s like moving the stage/though process of a character from point A, to point B. An example I can think of is this: chara B is chilling on a veranda. He looked up at the sky, frowns then… –> flashback from episode 1. –> returns back to the initial setting. In this case, they’re not explicitly reminding us what happened. It was meant to tell us what this character is thinking of specifically.

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    • While the writer might not be overtly belittling their audience, that can often be taken as the end result. In my example, it was indeed a representation of what a character was thinking. However, that thought only existed in context with the joke, and it wasn’t necessarily important to understand what Kaizaki thought at that given moment. Or at least it wasn’t important that his thought be an explanation of the situation. A simple facial gesture would’ve sufficed to prove that he himself knew what was going on. Instead, he has a completely nonsensical thought explaining what was happening to himself, which is clearly meant only as a reminder to the audience.

      It’s belittlement because I feel belittled, not because the creator meant to belittle me. I understood the joke and it personally annoyed me when it had to be explained again. That however, is just an individual preference. Abrupt flashbacks to make sure a joke hits (not to set up a joke, because that was already done earlier) interrupt the flow of the episode. It becomes a minor bump in an otherwise smooth road, and while one hiccup might be very easy to get over, they start to pile up to make a truly bumpy and unenjoyable ride.

      What’s most aggravating however is when there’s a flashback to something from the same episode. That really makes me want to scream.

      I think flashbacks are okay when it’s not something we’ve seen before. Otherwise, it probably should be kept in the “previously on…” section.

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