One reason I haven't been as enthusiastic about updating my blog recently is because I have once again been bitten by the fanfiction bug, which bears an uncanny resemblance to the Common Plot Bunny, thus creating a sort of horrific entomological lagomorph, otherwise known as Bugs Bunny.
Bear with me, I'll get to the point soon enough.
In the long, rambling thread in the Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha subforum about Original Characters, which has long since mutated into something only barely recognizable as a sounding board for said fanfic original characters set in the universe and is now mostly a Random Discussion area, there were three Youtube videos posted, which were supposed to be the 2ch-voted Best 300 Anime Songs (OP, ED, Insert, Image, whatever) of all time. (If you're wondering, number one is "Cruel Angel's Thesis", the OP from Neon Genesis Evangelion, at over 1600 votes. I'll get to this later.) If you have a Nico Nico Douga account, the videos are here, here, and here.
Somewhat coincidentally, I came across a post by 0rion over at Epic Win which discusses something very relevant, which is: what makes a good anime OP?
Now, I'll take a cue from him and narrow the focus down to OPs only, since if we open it up to EDs and Inserts and Image Songs and such, my brain will explode. Even then, I'm nowhere near an expert in something like this, since not only am I relatively ignorant when it comes to the huge amount of anime that has ever been released, but I also have a very bad memory, and I'm sure that after I post this, someone will comment with an example which makes me go "WHY DIDN'T I THINK OF THAT" and then I have to go on a training death course to redeem myself.
The first problem we encounter is the definition of "good OP" as applied here. Now, I have, in my notes for this blog post, the following criteria, listed after watching the Top 300 Anisongs videos:
- The song should be musically interesting. This can mean anything from "the song is of interest to musical scholars as being something Unique and Different" to simply "the song is catchy". Basically, to me a song which plays around with some aspect of music (deconstruction or whatnot) in a way which still makes it listenable is on par with a song which just sounds nice, and which can stand alone as a pop song; they just approach that standard of "musically interesting" from different angles. The high road and the low road, so to speak, leading to the same place.
- The video should fit the song. It's not enough to have the characters stare soulfully at the viewer while the background pans and the credits roll, but something should be happening that interests the viewer in the opening. In other words, given a choice between skipping the opening on a DVD or watching it, the viewer should be watching it more often than not. Make a demand for the non-credit version, and all that.
- The OP, taken as a whole, should interest the viewer in the show. Think of it as a sort of advertisement to the converted: we're already going to watch the show anyway, but the OP animation and song should make us like the fact that we're going to watch the show. Pump us up with anticipation, with the feeling that soon, Something Good is going to happen.
In short, make us want to watch the OP, for whatever reason.
At the end of the Epic Win post, we have this summary:
1. It needs to have an awesome song, one that can stand on its own merits.
2. It should look cool and be fun to watch.
3. In plot-driven series, it should show as little as possible of as yet unrevealed characters or plot points.
4. If possible, it should highlight the characters and setting, but preferably not at the cost of any of the above points.
Apparently 0rion had the same thoughts I had, but he can state them more succinctly. I'll be stealing the first two since they say what I wanted to say, and as for my third point, I'll boil it down to "the OP should interest the viewer in the show". The easiest way to do this would actually be to violate 0rion's Point 3, since the least amount of plot one can show in an OP is none, and therefore the OP has nothing to do with the show (see: Tsukuyomi Moon Phase OP). However, it is not the only way, and so Criterion Three and Point 4 are not mutually exclusive.
So, how do these points add up?
Let's have a look at a few OPs, not intended to be objectively representative, but mostly as a case of the first examples which came to mind, which obviously means that it's skewed somewhat. (Standard Youtube Disclaimer applies.)
Clannad – "Megumeru" (or "Meg Mell", according to some translations) by eufonius
When the anime came out, a fair number of bloggers commented that KyoAni seemed to take the "faithful adaptation" thing too far by having an opening which looked like an anime-ized version of the original game OP. This probably helped its case, because, well, faithful adaptation, and any fans of the game who were expecting to see the game translated line-for-line into anime form would certainly be hopeful that this would indeed be the case. Criterion Three in full force here; the showcasing of the characters with their names like some kind of title card would probably fit 0rion's Point 4.
Hidamari Sketch – "Sketch Switch" by the voice actresses of the main four characters (Kana Asumi, Kaori Mizuhashi, Ryoko Shintani, and Yuko Goto)
A SHAFT anime, this also has 0rion's Point 4 in that the characters are introduced in their natural habitats, and the setting of an art school is eminently illustrated (pun unintended) by, well, the artsy style. Bright colours abound, the very puni character designs are exaggerated, and we have crayons, paintbrushes, and artbooks all over the place. Watching the OP, there will be no doubt (well, apart from the bait-and-switch possibility) that this will be a happy anime about art school students, and so the mood is set for the rest of the episode.
Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei – "Hito Toshite Jiku ga Bureteiru" by Ootsuki Kenji, plus the Zetsubou Girls ie voice actresses of some of the female characters (Ai Nonaka, Marina Inoue, Yuu Kobayashi, Miyuki Sawashiro, and Ryouko Shintani)
The other side of SHAFT, this is the approach also taken for Negima!? and Pani Poni Dash, replete with blink-and-you'll-miss-it text and images which linger just long enough on the edge of one's vision to cause a reaction of "wait, did I just see what I thought I saw?" The rock song is nice and loud (and the sort of thing one can scream out when one is In Despair), and the lyrics are apropos to the theme of the series.
Mind you, the lack of any opening animation for the first three episodes (and the last episode) might have contributed to the anticipation of the real thing. Also, when I said there was blink-and-you'll-miss-it text, I really wasn't kidding.
Manabi Straight – "A Happy Life" by Megumi Hayashibara (originally by Ritsuko Okazaki)
Megumi Hayashibara sings a song by Ritsuko Okazaki, in an upbeat arrangement, set to a stylish video of a group of friends having fun, admittedly with graffiti. That's two criteria taken care of; the third doesn't really come up, since the only way viewers will know the significance is to watch the entire series, by which time it's a bit late.
Lucky Star – "Motekke! Sailor Fuku" by the voice actresses of all the girls, which I can't be bothered to list
There's the obvious advantage of a dancing theme in that it's memorable and catchy, even when the lyrics make no sense. Musically the song is actually multi-layered enough to be fascinating (the bass part is a killer), but overall it begins to feel like the composers are just being clever, so one might as well just bop to the beat. The animation has the cheerleading routine, which, this being KyoAni after Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya (and specifically "Hare Hare Yukai"), fans immediately began emulating in anticipation of the full version (which came in the last episode).
Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995) – "Cruel Angel's Thesis" by Yoko Takahashi
I'll be honest here, and state that taken alone, ie based on the first two criteria of mine, I can't see why this was chosen as the Best Anime Song Of All Time. The song is nice, but hardly groundbreaking. The animation has the soulful stares and action sequences, but most anime around that period had the same (see the entry for Slayers Next, a bit below).
So I have to conclude that the reason why it got number one is criterion 3.5: anticipation by association. (Imagine, for example, a live concert, with the opening chords of Baba O'Riley.)Evangelion, my personal opinions on it aside, is huge, and while I think that the OP is merely okay but not especially special, I am (almost literally) outvoted by those to whom this OP, and this song, represent Something Amazing About To Happen.
Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha A's (2005) – "Eternal Blaze" by Nana Mizuki
I'm biased. After the first Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha, which dealt from the transition from a regular magical girl to a sci-fi action series, with lots of emphasis on the Power Of Friendship, I was only mildly looking forward to the next season, in the sense of "oh, maybe they'll continue the story, cool". I could take it or leave it, but since I watched the first season, I may as well watch the second.
And then I saw this OP, and when the diving-through-clouds scene began, I was hooked. Who are these people? Why is there so much action? Can it be that the pace will pick up? Criterion Three fulfilled.
Sakura Wars OAV (1997) (apologies for the especially horrendous quality; I can't find any other videos of the OP which isn't the TV series version) – "Geki! Teikoku Kagekidan" by the voice actresses of the Teikoku Kagekidan
Criterion One in spades here: this anime is actually one of the favourites among my non-anime-fan cousins (and their kids), entirely because the opening song is an anthem, complete with soaring mezzo-sopranos and trumpet fanfares. I'm of the opinion that even though it doesn't really reach the high points of OP animation, since the scenes don't really tell much of a story and so cannot stand alone, the anticipation for the episode is carried entirely on the song alone.
Still, I prefer the OAV version mostly because it focuses, if only momentarily, on Li Kohran.
Slayers NEXT (1996) – "Give A Reason" by Megumi Hayashibara
Action and comedy set to the driving beat of a Megumi Hayashibara song. Set in the era of "let's all make anime on shoestring budgets" (y helo thar Lost Universe), it's impressive that the OP for Slayers NEXT can score as high as it does in terms of anticipation, but when compared to others made in higher budget times, it begins to fall a bit short. Which I suppose would be fine for what is an action comedy series, but then the animation would fail the Standalone test. Still, the song is pretty nice (my favourite Slayers opening, in fact).
As an exercise, take the Evangelion OP, and the Slayers NEXT OP, divest them of their inherent series (assume that you've never seen either series before), and then compare the two.
Revolutionary Girl Utena (1997) – "Rinbu Revolution" by Masami Okui
Possibly one of (but not the) my favourite anime openings, the symbolism in this is breathtaking. (I'll not go too much deeper into it, for fear of spoilers.) This fits all three of my criteria exceptionally well: the song is musically interesting in the technical and subjective sense, the video fits well with the song and is visually attractive enough in its own right, and the whole package makes me want to know just what all these roses are about, as well as the floating castle and the crumbling platform.
I might, if I didn't take so long trying to compose this post, do something like this for anime EDs. In the meantime, what are your own views on what makes a good OP?