If you really like arguing with people on the Internet there are a treasure trove of topics that by merely off handily mentioning them can cause a maelstrom of debate without even the smallest amount of effort. Beyond that each fandom has it own unique hot buttons that can ruffle the feathers of that group more than anyone else. Anime fandom is hardly an exception. Moe, fan service, the proper use of term otaku all come to mind as easy kegs to spark with any congregation of anime and manga aficionados. But one thing that always gets anime fandom riled up is hardly unique to the fandom but seems especially divisive among anime fans none the less. It is constantly brought up in reviews and any discussion of a series big or small, shonen or shojo, popular or obscure. It is probably not extremely more significant in anime and manga fandom but since I am neck-deep in anime and manga fandom I see it more here. That is the issue of pacing.
Unlike art, story, music, characters, or presentation it is rarely something that is given a quantifiable number score. There might be someone out there that says Evangelion has a score of eight in pacing but Azumanga Daioh has a four but I have never seen them. More often than not it gets brought up in an overall review or around the half way mark of a series when its airing. That said I have seen it as a topic of debate as early as the first episode of a series and it usually just becomes more and more of a topic of discussion as the series goes on. The longer a series is the more the topic comes up and the deeper the arguments are. It gets to the point where it seems like you cannot bring up a long shonen series without the topic coming up.
The thing is there seems to be little consensus on any given series. Really long series tend to garner a good deal of resentment over their pacing and pacing eventually breaks down to arcs of the show being judged individually as well as pieces of a whole. Very short series tend to get off lighter with some noticeable exceptions. Everything else seems to be a tempest in a teapot. I have recently seen people call Kill la Kill perfectly paced, far too hyper, and meanderingly lethargic. I remember the debate over Penguindrum’s pace being rather fierce. People will remember the soccer episode of Eureka 7 more than the Alamo. But why? What causes such a fierce debate? I have wondered that because for all the discussion there seems to be no easy answer to why two people will have such different opinions on pacing.
It turns out tomato sauce might have the greatest insight into why this is always such a topic of debate.
If you watch the video above you will see a TED talk from Malcolm Gladwell talking about Howard Moskowitz and his work with Pergo pasta sauce. To sum up the main gist of the talk it is about how Howard Moskowitz was hired to help Pergo overtake its rival Ragu. While it was generally agreed that Pegro was the higher quality pasta sauce they could never defeat their long time rival. They hired Howard Moskowitz to formulate the style of pasta sauce that would finally let them get on more dinner tables. Everyone expected some simple formula that once discovered would put them over the top. Maybe the right amount of garlic or the perfect blend of spices. As it turned out that was the wrong way of thinking.
Howard made 45 batches of sauces of all emphasizing a different aspect of the sauce from spiciness to chunkiness. Most people would have presented the flavor with the highest average rating as the solution. As it turns out if you go for the most popular sauce you only wind up pleasing a small group of people. In many ways you really only get the compromise candidate. The real solution was not just to pick the popular choice but to put the results into groups and see what shakes out. It turns out the three most popular groups were totally the Plain Jane sauce, spicy sauce, and extra chunky sauce. (BTW I’m totally a spicy sauce man). There was no perfect pasta sauce only perfect pasta sauces.
In a way that story was a eureka moment to me. I think that the fact of why people disagree about pacing in anime is fairly obvious. Pacing is clearly a matter of taste which is amazingly subjective. In fact you might have read the beginning of post and wondered why I was confounded by the issue at all. The thing was I think what was bothering me was actually the deeper issue I did not see but clearly felt. What was the deeper level problem that was making people so adamantly militant about pacing?
We like to think that our taste is the platonic ideal. What we like is the true path to universal happiness, enlightenment, and popularity for all people. As much as we might say platitudes like “to each their own” deep down on certain subjects that is more a phrase said as lip service to avoid fierce debate than a deeply held belief. We view pacing as something that is done correctly or incorrectly. Ask one person and they will tell you that Show A spends too much time on exposition and not enough on moving the characters forward whereas Show B is moves along briskly wisely building its world as it goes. Ask another and they will say Show A deliberately constructs a universe with stakes for its characters but show B messily makes up its plot as it goes along relying on action to distract you. Both people assume that they have objectively dissected the pacing and come to the logical conclusion of what was better constructed. Both reviewers assume that they have discovered the perfect pacing because there is one true path towards the objective ideal.
Its is not like anyone but the most conceited fan openly and sincerely states that their preferences as the platonic ideal of taste but look at the way people talk about pacing. People rarely declare their preference in pacing is the only way but it is usually an extremely binary expression when discussed. We usually talk about shows being too slow and to fast as if this was a universal truth. The pace of a show is discussed more like the existence of plot hole. A show that marches forward without trying to explain itself should be more viewed as spicy sauce and a show with a languid atmospheric pace should be seen as a heavily garlicky sauce as opposed to seeing either shows as merely rotten.
Also to go off on a slight tangent I think it is worth mentioning one other lessons from that video: What people say they want and they actually want are not always the same thing. Just like the fact that people say the want a rich bold dark roast coffee when they actually tend to want a weak sweet milky coffee I think what people want in pacing and what they ask for are very different. As much as people complain about the pacing in shonen fighting shows those are some of the most profitable and popular shows around. But that conflict between what we say, what we desire, and what we enjoy could be a post in of itself.
I think it is important to end on a note that I’m not saying that you can no longer express a strong opinion about the pacing of a series. It is easy to dismiss this lesson as a saccharine plead for everyone to like everything and write all reviews utterly objectively. That would be taking the wrong lesson from this post. Your preferred pacing is still the perfect pasta sauce for you. When you are expressing your opinion alone you should champion your preference. This post is more about when your debating the merits and flaws of a show with others. It is far to easy to think that the person you are debating is objectively incorrect instead of subjectively differing in opinion when it comes to pacing.
Just remember that there is no perfect style of pacing only perfect styles of pacing.