(this post contains spoilers – like this one right here, for this post and the fact it contains spoilers!)
The next time someone calls you out for ‘over-analysis’, throw them some Mother’s Basement. A critic who made his name picking apart the OPs of popular and influential shows, he won’t rest until he’s pointed out the significance of every detail and directorial choice he can spot. Like an academic exercise in ‘close reading’, this – contrary to what you’ll hear from commentators on Reddit or Tumblr who just wanted the two girls in Hibike! to kiss already dammit – is exactly what the anime critic, to the extent that time and interest allows, should be doing after they watch a show normally in order to work out how the material performs itself to the viewer.
Analyzing an OP is akin to poring over the cover of a novel or album; you sure as Magano can, should and do judge a book by its cover! Else there wouldn’t be covers, and when the next Harry Potter and the Twilight Games gets reprinted with a new aesthetic on the front, you wouldn’t bat an eyelid. But you will. In literary theory, the things that come before the material, the ‘text’, that try to market it to us and inform us of what we’re in for, are called ‘paratexts’. Mother’s Basement has done incredible work that, dare I say it, tends towards largely objective readings of what and how paratextual OPs of popular shows communicate to the audience.
Today I want to extend that practice, and think about titles.
The more you subconsciously take in an aspect of art, the more pragmatic and exact we can get about how it affected you. A title serves a number of functions that are rarely discussed but always in effect; they echo everything they stand for whenever we think about a show, sit down to watch it or see it halfway when the ad-break starts. The last few seasons in particular hold a number of great examples of how a Naruto by any other name would not be as… ninja-y?.. despite how simple a choice of title may look.
The Power of Premise
Those who view Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress as an Attack on Titan rip-off must be missing all the inversion of their old work Wit Studio have been stressing in the Kabaneri – some of it signposted even before it aired.
Attack on Titan‘s title grabs us because it constantly prefaces a world of defense against an insurmountable threat, noted as singular, with the thought of active offense, the goal of the protagonist and the group he joins. It may not be the most thematically rich, but Wit’s first outing had a good interplay throughout between whether one should risk their life or hoard what they have left. Or both. Potato Girl was the best microcosm we had of that.
And yet, an accurate translation of Shingeki no Kyojin alters the mood of the subject and reads instead as ‘Advance of the Giants’. The roles are reversed, and a more faithful translation encapsulates the premise of the onslaught of the titans along with the development of the premise into Eren ‘advancing’ as a ‘giant’ himself, ultimately tying into the show’s handling of human evolution. I prefer this translation: it has a thematic weight that evolves along with the show while remaining the same reference point linguistically. The show likewise encourages us to apply the concern of human extinction in a variety of circumstances.
‘Kabaneri’, on the other hand, operates very differently. The cover art of Attack on Titan tells us plainly enough what a titan looks like, but that history of titular monsters, identifiable in most post-apocalypses with an unknown quantity in their title, presents Kabaneri as a question rather than the answer; we can’t be sure, form the title alone, which side to place them on, good or bad, which fits their very role in the story. Even titles that unpack the question for you – DanMachi and Netoge being prime examples – operate effectively, if a little less interestingly, in this way. Theme is always a matter of a question, and a title should deliver that as seriously or humorously as is fitting for the show.
Placed in the genitive mood, subject to an ‘Iron Fortress’, the ‘Kabaneri’ of Wit’s current IP are far more intriguing than the quickly-definable ‘Titan’ of Shingeki’s Western translation, and sets up a sense of belonging that the show has already counter-acted with the difficulty of Kabaneri being accepted by a society that so fears its own kind becoming Kabane to any extent. More irony can be felt from this ‘Iron Fortress’ having been demonstrated as incredibly fragile; the iron hearts of the Kabane outlast the psychological fortifications against fear the bushi have put in place, which quickly crumble under pressure.
Kabaneri offers us a great case for how a title will shift in its relationship to the material, filling us with expectations that the show can then tear apart. Puella Magi Madoka Magica forecasted innocence, and we know how long that lasted; hardly anyone is ‘living’ at Gakkou Gurashi!‘s school, and the whole theme of the show is really about learning to live beyond it; and recently, High School Fleet has given us a bunch of girls who have quickly become separated from their High School and their Fleet.
Titles like these establish irony between the expected premise and the ‘real’ premise of the show. Sometimes that ‘real ‘premise is actually delivered in the summary of the show you can read on MAL or whatever streaming site you use; but it’s still of great value. A title giving you one feeling and the reality of the show messing with that natural expectation backgrounds your experience of the show with a foundation of active engagement. Having that before a show even starts makes your mind go ‘hey, this might be cool!’.
This active relationship between title and material extends to the most simple of cases. Take Kiznaiver: once again, reading this title is a question, not an answer. How can you notice Kiznaiver without asking what one is? The very foreignness of the word is attractive, and its sharpness of pronunciation fits the art of the show previewed to you. You get a confirmation that Trigger are forefront about the provocation and – in a positive context – ‘edginess’ of the show, in the same way Kokoro Connect gives you confirmation that the cast shown in the cover art won’t just fill your time with mindless gags that never develop their relationships with each other.
Foreignness doesn’t only have to be from other languages. Dragon Ball is, grammatically, a single compound noun that poses its own question: like Kiznaiver, just what is it? We easily find out it’s the most important, revered, wish-granting variety of artifact in the show, but that speaks of more than itself. The narrative of Dragon Ball is a mystical pilgrimage, a training of the mind and body in order to have ones wishes fulfilled. The same theme resonates in the 16th century Chinese novel Journey to the West, Toriyama‘s primary inspiration for the series. We quickly go from seeking out the meaning of ‘Dragon Ball’ into anticipation of what wishes will be sought out through them. Even the most archetypal battle Shounen engages its audience actively from the outset.
We also feel the singular ‘Dragon Ball’ emphasizing the significance of the objects far better than if they were plural. Would ‘Dragon Balls’ have as good a ring to it?
These are great titles; in some ways, perfect titles. But of course there are bad titles too.
Misfits and Misdirection
Musaigen no Phantom World advertises its ‘myriad colours’ as though it wants people to only appreciate the superficiality of the show, which would be fine – it is blatantly superficial – if not for each episode beginning with a few minutes of complicated science or philosophy that finds its heavy-handed way into holding a tenuous link with the episode’s plot.
Still, the show actively mocks intellectualism too, so perhaps the writer just thinks all academics are superficial. For all his smarts, the MC gets out-done by a teddy bear when it comes to technological proficiency, the element we often see him in throughout the series, which matches his artistic talent and to a greater extent defines what little of his character there is. Musaigen no Phantom World is a terrible title insofar as it gives us no questions, no engagement, and only links into the aspects of the show that, whenever it performs well, it is actively trying to avoid.
Sword Art Online has the obvious problem of prefacing future seasons not set in SAO with the memory that the show’s time spent in SAO was painfully short-lived, and no amount of fairies getting assaulted by tentacles or perverted elf-kings will fill that void. It reaches the point that some fans will refer to the show when not in SAO as the title of the game it is actually set it, such as Gun Gale Online. Why not-set-in-SAO sequels to SAO didn’t adopt this practice themselves speaks of how desperately the series tries to cling onto its initial fervor and success despite the rising ineptitude of its writer, as Mother’s Basement’s review of the four SAO openings makes impossible to miss.
Perhaps we keep ‘Sword’ in the title because Kirito is a bladed one-trick pony. But there’s no continuity of theme or narrative between the arcs of SAO, an it would be respectful to its own lack of coherency if the show transformed its title over time. At least Chuunibyo put ‘Ren’ on the end of its second series so we know which one to tell people not to watch, while that ‘Ren’ is as pointless as the existence of the second season in the first place.
The best contrast between a great title and an abysmal one is facilitated by none other than divider-0f-the-critics Jun Maeda. Say what you like about Angel Beats! and Charlotte! – I adore the first, despise the second, and my hatred of the second has really helped me understand people’s dislike of the first. But Angel Beats! sells itself infinitely better than Charlotte through its title. We are quickly given who ‘Angel’ is, but only at the end of the show do we realize the significance of her ‘Beats’, and how those define Otonashi’s character simultaneously with Kanade’s transform the title at the end into a monument, if you enjoyed the show, of the incredible beauty of the revelation of the ending. By having these ‘Beats!’ run throughout the show as a titular preface and beyond it as a memory of the reality of their meaning, the title signifies everything the show stands for in its musing upon the vitality of life at the beginning of, through and beyond itself, regardless of how short lived your life, or the show you’re watching, turns out to be.
Charlotte is the name of the random meteor that gave all the kids super powers. That’s it. If you have anything more to say about it thematically, I’ll be more in shock than viewers were as they witnessed the Guinness World Record for the number of plot holes in a finale broken in the show’s final episode.
Consider how much more can be felt from X-men or Watchmen or Boku no Hero Academia – any other story about a bunch of people with super powers. One Punch Man creates an irony with its title against the fact that the best narratives of the show lie in the heroes around him, like Mumen Rider, who cannot solve their problems with one punch. Neither can Saitama solve their problems with his punches. My Hero Academia emphasizes the emotional and personal tie Deku has to being able to follow in the footsteps of All Might through the possessive pronoun, which is contrasted against every initial effort of world-building working towards making Deku feel isolated.
Charlotte is a lump of rock that fell from space, with a girl’s name. The ‘title drop’ moment is as forgettable as any meteor shower – pretty to look at, but we’re far beyond the time we used to give mystical significance to astrological phenomena, and neither are we going to instill Charlotte with any deep meanings beyond noticing it as a lifeless bit of fallout from Maeda’s otherwise stellar and successful career (whether or not you like any of his work).
Wrapping it Up
Some of these thoughts about titles are things that may not even register subconsciously with some viewers; but the important thing is that they can resonate with them, and titles inherently connect to what you watch in an evolving relationship as you progress through the material. The more you think about them, the more you can cement your thoughts on the wider themes of the show in an objective reference to what the writer is trying to get people to notice.
We could list every title and pick it apart for all it could possibly be worth, but that would stop being illustrative. What I hope these ramblings have done is inspired you to think more yourself about the value of a well-chosen title; has anyone ever factored it into their MAL review or ‘first impressions’ of a season? I know I haven’t appreciated the importance of titles enough until now. The title is the first bastion of interest that shoots you into the story. The very first impression starts there.
As always, thanks for reading, and see you next time!