The Mike Toole Show
by Mike Toole,
Every January, I visit Arisia, a science fiction convention here in Boston. For me, it's a fun change of pace – the convention is smaller and lower-key than the anime events I appear at, and while I'm on the speaking program, the panels are mainly focused on discussion rather than playing tons of little clips, so it's a chance to relax. Arisia does have a 24-hour anime theatre, as well. Years ago, I used to run the thing, and it was a blast – if you're truly, madly in love with the medium, there's nothing like sharing a bunch of your favorites with mobs of total strangers.
Eventually, I stepped away from running the theatre, so it's now a place for me to chill out between panels, just like the anime video rooms at anime cons. Last year, I used the theatre to check out Argevollen, which…yeah, that was pretty bad. But lately, I've been a little disappointed by the theatre, because whoever's been programming the thing for the past few Arisias has been using its whopping 72 hours of program time to showcase maybe twelve or thirteen shows. Basically, if you want to watch all twenty-six episodes of Fruits Basket, running from 7am to 5pm on Saturday, you're in luck! The room, once a place to sample 50 different shows and movies or more, was now all about binge-watching.
Right now, I'm in the throes of binge-watching not one but two shows. Now, this is partly a matter of my role with Anime News Network, because if you review anime on DVD and blu-ray, binge-watching has become a professional obligation. Years ago, you could get away with putting down your thoughts about a single four-episode DVD volume, but nowadays a review means that you're staring down the barrel of at least twelve or thirteen episodes. In some respects, this is a good thing – I think a review of a full TV series, or at least half of a TV series, is more useful than one of just a handful of episodes.
This isn't merely a new way to watch stuff on blu-ray, either—it's how a lot of people watch their shows, period. This didn't dawn on me until that cool Netflix Voltron series came out last year, and I casually asked my nephew, on the day of its premiere, if he was planning on checking it out. “I already watched the whole thing,” he coolly replied, forcing me to calculate, on the spot, at what time he would've had to start watching to get through the entire thing and talk to me like it was something he took care of a while ago. It would've had to have been around 7am that morning. Good, the kid's an early riser. Through the course of 2016, I'd start to have that same conversation regularly, with friends and co-workers who threw away weekends or took workdays off to suck down entire seasons of fare like Luke Cage and Stranger Things. And also A-jin, and Symphogear.
"But binge-watching ten or twenty episodes at a time doesn't make sense," a writer friend once groused to me. “These shows—older shows especially— were designed to be absorbed one episode at a time, with an entire week's separation between them so you have time to actually think about what you saw. When you watch all of them at once, you're overloading yourself and going against the intent of the creators." I pointed out that this was a surprisingly nuanced way to approach the best method for watching The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. “Then think of it this way,” they countered. “When you open up a box of doughnuts, you don't eat every last one of them on the spot, do you? " This yielded an embarrassed silence.
This conversation was an interesting one, because it followed a marathon viewing of the second Haruhi Suzumiya season, the one with the same episode over and over again, only with minor changes. On the show's original airing, fans were first confused and then upset when they realized they'd be watching almost the same thing for eight weeks in a row. But taken in all at once, you get a new appreciation for the material – it's still kind of boring, of course, but it's a lot easier to pick up on the subtle changes that are introduced in each iteration of the same “Endless Eight” story. You could argue that Haruhi Suzumiya, with its oddball scheduling and episode-order variants, was one of the first shows to really benefit from binge-watching. I watched all of the second season in service of a review.
Another binge-watch that comes to mind is my viewing of Anohana, which took place in a single sitting so I'd understand the newly-released movie better. Watching it all in series made the show's one big flaw, its lack of characterization for the ghostly Menma, more obvious. I still liked the show (everyone told me it'd make me cry and it didn't – oh crap, what's wrong with me?!), and ripping through it helped me appreciate the film more. When I later watched Love Live for similar reasons, it turned into something to do while leisurely cleaning the living room. After all, Love Live isn't heavy on lore or storytelling, so it's easier to stop what you're doing and pay attention during the funny bits and musical numbers.
Currently, my entire social media experience is peppered with buddies sucking down the new Voltron season like reptiles unhinging their jaws to devour their prey whole. It's an interesting phenomenon, seeing folks marking premiere dates on the calendar, or reveling in the odd unexpected snow or sick day, because it's a chance to catch up. I'll marathon a show when it's for a specific purpose, but beyond that, I really can't bring myself to actively block off a few hours in the schedule. It just has to happen on its own. It did happen a few weeks back, when Giant Gorg was suddenly added to Crunchyroll's retinue of streaming titles. I started watching this beloved classic, which I'd never properly finished, just to see how it held up. “Tune in to the next: the same GORG time, the same GORG channel” is a bizarre thing to see when you know that the next GORG is starting immediately, and it's not really on a channel, is it? Anyway, nine episodes passed before I realized it was three in the morning and I was due in at work at 6am. This is the danger!
Right now, I'm in the midst of re-watching Galaxy Angel, the better to review the Blu-Ray release. I've had to break it up into two sittings, because I was going wall-eyed after watching twelve fifteen-minute episodes. I find that there's a point of diminishing returns when you binge-watch something, when your brain just stops processing what you're seeing. It varies from series to series. On one hand, I pretty much had to make myself stop watching Star Blazers 2199 after five or six episodes so I would actually sleep that night, but on the other hand, a single episode of a nutty, fast-talking comedy like Lucky Star can leave me feeling wiped out. I poll my friends for what they're watching, only to hear tales of ripping through entire seasons in the space of hours. Maybe your performance diminishes as you get older? I dunno.
I can still recall my first binge-watch. It happened in 1995, and it started inauspiciously enough, with my old college friend Frank trooping into a mutual pal's dorm room with a crate of videotapes—videotapes featuring hand-lettered labels, with MAISON IKKOKU (NT Anime) lovingly scrawled in sharpie on each tape. Frank announced that we were going to watch these episodes until we reached a convenient stopping point, which seemed like a good plan to everyone—we'd been watching Maison Ikkoku on club night and everyone was eager to see where the series was going with its tales of awkward romance. So we started pumping these tapes into the VHS deck one by one (one tape of episodes was fansubbed by Arctic instead of NT, which broke up the monotony nicely by translating “kanrinin” (“landlady,” a title that protagonist Godai uses with slavish hilarity on the woman he's trying to court) as “janitor”).
We'd started by watching every episode including the credits and preview, and occasionally paused in between to discuss what we'd watched. As the night progressed, we started fast-forwarding through the opening and ending bits, except for that one random episode with the Gilbert O'Sullivan song in the opening sequence. At some point, madness took hold, and it stopped being about enjoying the show. Instead, it was about how much of it we could take before we were defeated. I'll never remember the exact number we watched, I just remember that we started in the teens and ended with the episode where Godai is pursued by Ibuki, a high school girl. (I didn't like that girl, she was kind of a jerk. Team Kozue for life!) The ultimate symptom of watching that much anime in one sitting? Mild euphoria, followed by sleeping through my classes the next morning.
In light of the way I'm seeing viewing habits bend towards these marathon sessions, I have to ask the question: Why binge-watch? For me, beyond professional obligations, it's both a new way to watch shows that are delivered the Netflix way (I have to plead guilty to watching all of Stranger Things at once), and a means to cope with the fact that there's a goddamn avalanche of new anime shows every three months, and sometimes that's the only way to catch up. My next day off is earmarked for watching all of 91 Days. We're privileged to live in an amazing time when the number of shows you might want to see is almost guaranteed to far exceed the amount of time you'll have on a day-to-day basis. The number of anime being produced per season is set to decrease in 2017, and while this means there'll be less work to go around the anime business, it's still news I take with some relief.
Here's one last twist in the tale: remember way back at the beginning the column, where I was complaining that the Arisia anime program was all about marathoning long shows? Well, the person running it couldn't make it, so smack in the middle of the day on Friday they asked me to step in and create my own program. Now, you might think that this is an absurd request to make with zero notice, and that I'd have to be an idiot to agree, but this is me we're talking about. I took the job on, I got the theatre back on track… but I didn't fill the time with any long shows. No marathons, I couldn't do it.
But, you know, if they ask me to do it all again next year, I am morbidly tempted to fill the entire 72-hour block with nothing but Legend of the Galactic Heroes. Think about it for a second: if you take the entire OVA series, the Gaiden series, the movies, and that one weird, dumb Golden Wings thing, it's almost exactly enough! Do you think you'd last the entire 72 hours? What's the longest time you've spent continuously watching anime?
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