First Impressions: Opening Sequences and Audience Expectations


Many car­toon open­ings have catchy theme songs and engag­ing visu­als that get us excit­ed for the show and tell us about the char­ac­ters. The Flintstones, The Powerpuff Girls, Avatar: the Last Airbender, Steven Universe, and dozens of other car­toons have songs or suc­cinct nar­ra­tive back­sto­ries that are unique to each show and give us a taste of what to expect in each episode. The words of a car­toon theme song or an open­ing nar­ra­tion apply specif­i­cal­ly to the car­toon itself and wouldn’t log­i­cal­ly make sense with a dif­fer­ent show. Opening sequences in Western car­toons lead us to expect a cer­tain tone. They typ­i­cal­ly don’t make us antic­i­pate one thing from the show only for the show to deliv­er some­thing entire­ly dif­fer­ent.

Anime open­ings, how­ev­er, leave much more to the imag­i­na­tion. The songs rarely name-drop the series or explic­it­ly intro­duce the char­ac­ters. They’re often longer than Western car­toon open­ings and can some­times feel like pro­mo­tion­al music videos for the series. Anime open­ings can even be decep­tive, lead­ing audi­ences to expect a light and happy show only to deliv­er some­thing dark and trag­ic. The lyrics of anime open­ings are not always spe­cif­ic to the series them­selves. They may match the series the­mat­i­cal­ly, but plen­ty of anime open­ing songs could plau­si­bly apply to other series.

Let’s take a look at some anime open­ings and what they lead us to expect.

 

Princess Jellyfish

This open­ing is play­ful with its numer­ous pop cul­ture ref­er­ences, but these ref­er­ences aren’t just for kicks. Combined with the chill, steady music, we get the sense that this series is a mix­ture of drama and humor. We get brief shots that clue us in to each character’s per­son­al­i­ty or inter­ests, but noth­ing in the song lyrics or on screen explic­it­ly tells us who they are. We don’t make the con­nec­tion between The Great Train Robbery ref­er­ence and the char­ac­ter shown until we learn from the show that this char­ac­ter is obsessed with trains. Most anime open­ings build in these sorts of char­ac­ter and plot clues that only become obvi­ous the fur­ther you watch in the series.

 

Attack on Titan

Longer anime series can have two, three, or even twelve open­ings. Openings will typ­i­cal­ly change after a story arc ends or at the begin­ning of a new sea­son. Attack on Titan has only one sea­son so far, but there are two open­ings because the sea­son cov­ers two story arcs.

The first open­ing is ener­getic and intense. We see huge titans ram­pag­ing the city and human­i­ty des­per­ate­ly fight­ing back. The dark col­ors mixed with the epic, oper­at­ic sound pre­pare view­ers for a grip­ping yet vio­lent story and that’s exact­ly what Attack on Titan deliv­ers.

The sec­ond open­ing is just as epic and ener­getic as the first, but it also reflects changes in the story. Now, human­i­ty can go out­side of its city, but quick smirks and shady glances from some char­ac­ters give us hints that the titans aren’t humanity’s only enemy. However, the open­ing doesn’t explic­it­ly tell us any­thing. It’s a puz­zle that we grad­u­al­ly fig­ure out as we watch each episode.

 

Sailor Moon

Whereas Attack on Titan, Naruto, and other lengthy anime series typ­i­cal­ly use new songs and ani­ma­tions when it’s time for a new open­ing sequence, Sailor Moon uses slight­ly dif­fer­ent ver­sions of the same song for four of its five sea­sons while chang­ing the ani­ma­tion as new story arcs begin. In the first open­ing, we see three girls togeth­er in sev­er­al shots, indi­cat­ing that they’re part of a team. We get shots of the moon, some men­ac­ing glances from bad guys, and alter­nat­ing images of Usagi as a reg­u­lar school girl and Usagi as Sailor Moon.

Yet this open­ing doesn’t explic­it­ly name these char­ac­ters or tell us how they got their pow­ers. We can glean some clues from watch­ing it before each episode, but we have to wait for the anime itself to tell us how the char­ac­ters are all con­nect­ed.

Now, here’s what hap­pened when Sailor Moon came to North America in the mid-90s. Back then, many anime were not only dubbed but adapt­ed to be more appro­pri­ate for chil­dren and appeal­ing to English-speaking audi­ences. Sailor Moon got a new theme song that’s melod­i­cal­ly sim­i­lar to the orig­i­nal Japanese open­ing, but has lyrics that explic­it­ly intro­duce the char­ac­ters, just like most Western car­toons.

In both cases, the open­ing leads audi­ences to expect the tri­als and tribu­la­tions of a team of super hero­ines, but the English dub open­ing doesn’t require view­ers to read into it as much as the Japanese one does because the song pro­vides a lot of spe­cif­ic infor­ma­tion. The lyrics to the Japanese open­ing, on the other hand, leave much more to the imag­i­na­tion. Sure the moon­light imagery clear­ly con­nects to the show, but the song could still the­o­ret­i­cal­ly apply to other series.

We also see this explic­it vs. implic­it dif­fer­ence in open­ings when American car­toons are adapt­ed into Japanese anime, as is the case with Powerpuff Girls Z. The orig­i­nal Powerpuff Girls open­ing has a nar­rat­ed back­sto­ry that names the main char­ac­ters and explains how they got their pow­ers. The Powerpuff Girls Z open­ing has a song that could eas­i­ly apply to any anime and a range of scenes from happy to dra­mat­ic, but we don’t learn any­thing about the girls’ back­sto­ries.

 

Puella Magi Madoka Magica

Some anime open­ings are inten­tion­al­ly decep­tive like the one for Puella Magi Madoka Magica. The open­ing leads us to expect a good mix­ture of girl-power, teenagers being silly, and epic bat­tles to save the uni­verse, but instead the show deliv­ers a dark spin on the mag­i­cal girl genre. This jar­ring effect inten­si­fies our expe­ri­ence of the series. Because Madoka’s open­ing is mis­lead­ing, it’s much hard­er to guess the plot. Most Western car­toon open­ings wouldn’t employ this tac­tic, except for car­toons made for adults.

Because Western car­toons are most­ly tar­get­ed to younger chil­dren, it makes per­fect sense that they usu­al­ly nar­rate the back­sto­ry or work intro­duce char­ac­ters with a catchy theme song. You want to remind kids of the basic story and main char­ac­ters so they can enjoy the episode. Anime, on the other hand, has a much broad­er tar­get age range, so its open­ings typ­i­cal­ly ask for a lit­tle more audi­ence inter­pre­ta­tion. Of course, there are some anime open­ings that explic­it­ly intro­duce char­ac­ters and some Western car­toon open­ings with songs that aren’t as spe­cif­ic to the shows them­selves and leave more to audi­ence inter­pre­ta­tion. No mat­ter which approach is taken, open­ings aim to engage us into a story that’s about to unfold.


About Taylor Ramage

Taylor Ramage is a fiction writer and blogger whose interests include anime, theology, intersectionality, and pop culture. She also enjoys memes and bad (read great) puns.