The opening to a story is probably one of the most difficult things to write in any medium. In just a few pages or a few minutes of screen time, the writer has to establish characters, setting, tone, genre, a central conflict, motivation, and a strong hook – all without overwhelming the viewer with information or dragging things out and causing the audience to lose interest. And there are so many different ways to start a narrative, it can seem impossible to know which one is right for the story you’re trying to tell.
But when done right, the opening to a story can be iconic and unforgettable. Any Star Wars fan can remember the first moment they watched A New Hope and were awestruck at the epic struggle of the Rebellion versus the Empire. But my biggest nerd passion is anime, so I wanted to talk about some of my favorite first episodes in anime, and how they do a brilliant job establishing all the most important parts of the story while also being a ton of fun to watch. There are no real spoilers here, except for what happens at the first episode, but if you want to go into these series completely blind then you may want to at least watch the first episode and then come back. Anyway, without further introduction, my favorite first episodes in anime are…
Neon Genesis Evangelion: Angel Attack
Yes, I’ve already written about Evangelion, and this won’t be the last time I gush about my favorite anime series. While most people remember Eva for its climactic last few episodes and the existential mind screw of an ending, I think the action-packed first episode does a brilliant job at introducing the audience to the story through some classic character moments, blood-pumping action, and a ton of suspense and intrigue.
The episode begins in medias res, with just a few establishing shots of Tokyo-3 before the Eldritch horror known as the Angel attacks and lays waste to the city. Almost all of the important characters are introduced in this first episode – our young hero Shinji, his caretaker Misato, his cold-hearted father Gendo, and the mysterious Rei – and their scenes tell us a lot about their characters with just a few establishing shots and lines of dialogue. Shinji has been chosen to pilot the Evangelion, a giant robot said to have the power of a god – but he initially refuses, and only agrees to pilot it when Gendo threatens to force the injured Rei to do it instead.
Just in this one interaction, we learn a lot about these characters and their personalities. Shinji is shy and unsure of himself (setting himself apart from most anime protagonists), Gendo is aloof and has a strained relationship with his son, and Rei… well, we don’t really know much about Rei yet, but her willingness to pilot the Eva in her injured state shows us her determination to carry out her mission, as well as her seeming lack of regard for her own life. But as much as we learn from this episode, we also get more questions than answers. Who are the Angels, and where do they come from? What is an Eva, really? Why is Shinji, a 14-year-old boy, the only one who can pilot it? By starting off with an action episode and giving very little exposition at first, the show draws in the viewer and makes them hungry to find out more of the story. It’s a fantastic episode that does everything right and practically begs its audience to keep watching.
A Place Further Than The Universe – One Mwillion Yen For Youth
Not every series needs to start with an action-packed first episode. Sometimes, all you need for a great hook is to forge a bond between two memorable and well-written characters. A Place Further Than The Universe, the heartwarming adventure anime that made everyone cry last year, does this brilliantly, establishing two of its main characters straight away and showing the themes of discovery, overcoming self-doubt, and the joys and sorrows of female friendship.
Kimari is a bright, fun-loving, and slightly ditzy high schooler with dreams of going on a big adventure but no plan or means to make something like that happen. One day, she meets Shirase, a slightly older girl whose sole motivation in life is to go to Antartica to find any trace of her vanished mother. Initially, the two seem like they won’t get along, but Kimari gets so swept up in Shirase’s seemingly impossible dream that she agrees to go with her, and help out in any way she can.
Right away, this anime shows us what its story is about, while also foreshadowing many conflicts that may arise later. Kimari and Shirase are great characters, but they’ve only just met and haven’t yet formed a real relationship. And there’s a lot of time spent on the practical issues of a group of teenagers going to the most inhospitable place on Earth. Shirase can’t find any expedition willing to let high schoolers on board with them, and has basically given up her social life so she could work and save enough money for the trip. Most importantly, though, A Place Further‘s first episode brings all the joy, wonder, and fear that can come from exploring new places, as well as making the viewer instantly attached to the characters and showcasing the feels that will hit you like a truck later. With just thirteen episodes in its run time, this anime has to make every moment matter, and its first episode delivers brilliantly.
Yu Yu Hakusho: Surprised to be Dead
I adore Yoshihiro Togashi as a writer. I wrote a whole post nerding out about my love for Hunter x Hunter, but I think his other classic series Yu Yu Hakusho does the better job of starting the series off with a strong emotional hook. And you really can’t get a stronger emotional hook to kick off a story then, well, killing off the main character in the very first moment, and forcing the viewer to work backward from there.
Yusuke Urameshi is a teenage delinquent with a cynical outlook on life. He seems to cause nothing but trouble for his mother, his teachers, and his childhood friend Keiko, and he’s constantly fighting with the school bully Kuwabara. But the first thing we see of him is an act of selfless heroism: he pushes a child out of the way of an oncoming car, getting hit and losing his life in the process. When he meets a weirdly cute spirit guide who offers him a chance to be revived (because, apparently, the afterlife is like a hotel and there are no more vacancies), he refuses, believing that he would prefer being dead and that everyone else is better off without him.
That is, until he gets the chance to see his own wake, and sees his mother, his friend, and even Kuwabara breaking down, seemingly unable to continue on in life without him. Yusuke realizes how important he truly is to all these people, and how much he had taken them for granted, and decides he wants to return to his physical body after all. This creative and emotional setup gives the viewer a strong attachment to these characters right away, but shows how precious and meaningful life truly is. It gets me every time.
Attack on Titan – To You, 2,000 Years In The Future
Hot take: I think Attack on Titan is massively overrated. The pacing can be glacially slow at times, the main character is flat and uninteresting, and the series’ over-reliance on shock value can make its most climactic moments hard to take seriously. (And while I do believe in separating art from the artist, I definitely don’t agree with author Hajime Iyasama’s political views.) All that being said, though, the first episode to Attack on Titan is fantastic, brilliantly mixing action, horror, and drama to kick off an epic, long-running saga.
The episode gives us a ton of world-building to sink our teeth into straight away. The setting of Attack On Titan seems loosely based on Europe in the early Renaissance, with a heavy dose of steampunk technology to spice things up a bit. We learn that all of humanity is stuck behind humongous walls, meant to keep them safe from the monstrous Titans that wiped out the rest of our species 100 years earlier. The three main characters, Eren, Armin, and Mikasa, seem like ordinary kids at first. But their lives are changed forever when a colossal Titan emerges right in front of them, smashing the wall to bits and sending a flood of creepy, giant naked people in to wreak havoc on civilization. The emotional gut punch of the series comes when Eren’s mother gets trapped under a mound of debris and begs her son to run away, just before she gets eaten by a Titan.
This episode boasts some spectacular animation and cinematography, an intriguing premise, and one of the most memorable “Oh shit!” moments in all of anime. It clearly establishes Eren’s central goal – to avenge his mother and wipe out all the Titans – while also showing the immense struggles he must endure to make that goal a reality. Even though I don’t think Attack on Titan lived up to its potential in later episodes, I will readily admit that this first one is one of my favorite openings in any anime series.
The first episode of an anime series leaves a huge impression on its audience, and it can often make or break a series’ success in the long term. These are just a few of my favorite introductions to anime, and if you enjoyed reading this blog post I would love to hear what your favorites are and why. 🙂