Image source: DMM pictures on YouTube
The three-episode rule is a very real thing among anime fans. But, why are the first three episodes of an anime series so important? Anime-Gataris gives us a small look into those reasons.
High school girl Minoa Asagaya has joined her school’s anime club. There, she meets colorful characters who enjoy all sorts of anime and manga. But, as a budding anime fan, Minoa has a lot to learn about anime, anime culture, and anime viewing habits. One viewing habit she recently learns about is the three-episode rule.
Among anime fans, the three-episode rule is an unstated rule where you give a series three episodes to hook you. If it doesn’t, you drop it. For some of us it may be as simple as it doesn’t suit our palate. For others it might be because the series veers in a direction we don’t like. While it’s not a universal rule, it’s a gauge for fans to understand what an anime series will be like going forward. Yet, behind the rule is actually a distinct narrative structure that explains reasons why series are developed specifically to keep us interested for the first three episodes.
How the characters in Anime-Gataris describe the format of the first three episodes to Minoa is: The episodes are designed to introduce the viewers to the characters and world, establish the character relationships, and then give us a twist about what the series is really about in the third episode to keep viewers interested. It’s a remarkable concept because what this insinuates is that some anime series are walking us through the essential concepts before getting to the heart of the series; essentially telling us who’s who and letting us become attached to them before showing us the type of story we’re actually going to get. It’s a good format to say the least because it allows us time to become acclimated to the characters before diving into what motivates the characters. However, if you’re paying very close attention, in actuality what’s being described to us is the Japanese four-part narrative format of kishotenketsu.
While many in the West are accustomed to the three-act structure (opening, body conclusion), the four-act kishotenketsu approaches storytelling a bit differently. The format runs like this: Ki is the opening where we’re introduced to the characters and world; Sho develops the characters and story; Ten adds a twist or turn in the story; Ketsu is the conclusion. So, what the characters in Anime-Gataris are describing to Minoa with the three-episode rule is actually the first three sections of the kishotensetsu format—except the twist is where we’re shown the true nature of an anime’s story.
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The summation of the first three episodes of each series is quick but handled as such: You think it’s a happy-go-lucky magical school-girl anime, then in the third episode a character dies; three girls make outfits and practice dance routines, only to have no one show up for their first performance. Although it’s not spelled out for us, what’s being conveyed in the descriptions are the first three parts of kishotenketsu, the introduction, development, and twist. We’re introduced to the characters in the first episode, they’re developed in the second, and finally a twist in the story comes in the third.
This is why the third episode of an anime series becomes a key to keeping viewers attention—it’s our turning point in the series. That’s why the third episode of Anime-Gataris suggests when the turn isn’t handled well or isn’t there at all, we tend to lose interest because we want more from the series. So, the three-episode rule stokes our want to know what drives the character to actually pursue their dreams or goals.