What’s in an Opening?

Just going to take a little time off from writing about moe.  There have been a plethora of different groups with large followers who have posted their various opinions about what openings have been the best (I had intended to put more links in, but I get lazy during my standard writing hours).  It’s one of the favourite things to do when you’re a young kid.  I’ve got my own list, but that is pretty besides the point.  To direct this where I wanted, what I was going to discuss was what exactly makes an anime opening a good one?

First, though, why do we even care about openings?  I mean, they are, at a maximum, two minutes of a 22 minute program.  Four minutes if you add an ending theme alongside this.  It’s obvious that they are quite important or else we wouldn’t be having this conversation.  So what about the theme songs are so important to the show?

One commonly used argument is that themes set the stage.  They, in their short period, become the show distilled down to a single song.  It gives an identity to the show.  It would be excellent to note here that anime isn’t alone in this regard.  We’ve seen people argue about what traditional TV shows have the best openings.  Heck, it isn’t even limited to scripted shows.  We get people discussing which sports show have the best theme.  For example, take the Hockey Night in Canada (old) theme song:

For those of you familiar with the above (and are a fan of hockey), it’s probably going to be easy to describe the emotions tied to it.  For others, think about what the song captures in the short sequence.  It has a sense of tradition in its sway.  It almost feels like a national anthem to some degree in its musical composition.  In fact, this isn’t a rare feeling either…the theme has been, on more than one occasion, called Canada’s second national anthem.  This really provides a fairly strong backing that a solid theme can set the stage for what is to come next…in this case, the theme rings of familiarity, of being part of something that has been going on for a while. Anime is no different.  Theme songs can be used to create a sense of what is going to come.

But this is hardly the only factor.  We also use themes to create emotional bonds with the show.  As one who played music until high school, I’ve always felt that all of us have the ability to have a musical heart.  We can all feel and understand music to a certain degree.  It’s why, in my opinion, we get “earworms”, parts of songs which refuse to leave our heads.  Back to the main point though: a good opening can draw from your emotions.  A song sung with deep sorrow can call forth your own feelings of sadness and depression.  If done right, this can create an even more powerful emotion through the show.  We can draw from famous examples here.  The first thought when I say “depressing anime opening” is probably Lilium of Elfen Lied.

Incidentally, this is probably the same opening you’d have though of had I said “name a Gustav Klimt inspired anime opening”.

Whether or not the show intends to be depressing, this certainly sets the stage for you to think of your own negative emotions.  If the melancholic piano wasn’t enough, the slow pacing, the lack of energy in the opening, and the sorrowful ominous Latin (which, if you understand Latin, are a little creepy on their own) will put you on the side of either creepy or depressing.  And that can set up very well, especially when you start the first episode with a creepy opening sequence…even if you start fading out because blood pressure doesn’t work that way damn it (and because there’s a naked women killing everyone), one sequence there is downright cold and disturbing.

At any rate, this is the other primary draw to an opening: the fact that we reach out emotionally to songs.  This goes double if you understand the lyrics.

With that said, I think there’s a solid point that openings are important.  Now, the other part I wanted to identify was what the key points of an opening are.  And, here, I’ve tried to list some anime openings with quality examples:

  • An effective opening requires a good opening song.  This can be broken further into singer and instrument choices, but I’ll keep them bunched.  A solid song will always benefit an opening, since a good song will be memorable…and, though this should go without saying, a memorable song can improve an opening’s recognition.  I’d consider Slayers NEXT‘s Give a Reason for Life by Megumi Hayashibara an excellent example here.  I’ve made it no secret that I love this song.  Hayashibara’s singing is near pitch perfect for much of the song and, while the synthesizers don’t help, there is very little background music.  This helps put the singing to a forefront, which improves the song in my mind.
  • An effective opening requires lovely art.  Some shows will cheap out on their openings and use easily repeated sequences, much like how filler episodes will use long-range shots or still animation pans.  Some examples of this can be seen in the very popular “Every Anime Opening Ever Made” video.  By contrast, a smooth opening will stand out for this reason.  Much like how a visually stunning sequence in the show itself can stand out, the same can be applied to its openings.  I made mention of this in my review of it, but Ergo Proxy‘s opening is legendary for the amount of effort and detail they put into everything.
  • The suitability of both the song and the art style need to be consistent with the show.  There are a huge number of examples of shows which either provide openings which don’t have animation consistent with the show or a song which pumps you up, but throws a wacky comedy at you instead.  I’m sure you can provide your own here too.  At any rate, while the raw quality of both are important, it’s also very heavily ingrained that they need to lead you in a direction consistent with the show.  This is part of the reason, in my mind, that Cruel Angel’s Thesis (Neon Genesis Evangelion) is so memorable – both parts are suitable.  The animation isn’t exactly the most graceful detail, using almost every trick I mentioned above.  This really sets the stage for the low-budget animation you’ll be watching.  Additionally, the lyrics are symbolic.  Very much so.  And this, again, fits into the mentality of the show.
  • Finally, the three elements have to work together.  A great song which has animation that doesn’t take advantage of a strong beat in the song isn’t going to be memorable since the two parts don’t work together.  Similarly, a song which was chosen for the reason of being great picked for arbitrary reasons may not be suitable for the tone of the show.  Or it may be impossible for the animation side to create something of even comparable quality, making if feel like a waste.  This one is probably the toughest to really show an example of, since the synergy of the three categories is never going to be perfect and is of personal preference.  I personally would point to the second season’s opening for the Haruhi Suzumiya series (Tomare!) as an excellent integration of the song’s naturally stronger beats to emphasis on the animation, while the opening to this blog’s namesake, Serial Experiments Lain, tries to keep the song in mind for both the opening in style and to the anime itself.

At any rate, there we go.  This was meant to be a simple rundown of what I feel an opening is and how to measure it.  Any thoughts and comments are greatly appreciated, since I’m certainly not the authority on such matters.

One response to “What’s in an Opening?

  1. Pingback: kirant’s Top Ten Anime Openings | Lain's First Law

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