There have been quite a few anime over the years that attempted to trick their viewers. These shows were marketed as being something normal and expected; a happy-go-lucky magical girl series, a fantasy story about a magical academy, or a slice-of-life anime about a school club. The first episode plays this straight, only to suddenly reveal that the show is something else entirely. Usually something grim and dark.
Mild spoilers for various series going forward. Please be alert.
I have come to call this “The Episode 1 Plot Twist”, though I’d be happy to hear if anybody has a catchier name for it. It’s effectively a marketing stunt, which depends on the small audience attracted to a fairly uninteresting series losing their mind over the twist and then spreading the word. People are then drawn to the “controversial” anime that looked cute, but is actually about violence, murder, and violent murder.
However, therein also lies the problem. Once word begins to spread that the moe blobs are going to engage in a battle royale for survival or the cutesy slice-of-life series turns out to be horror, everybody attracted by the buzz is going into the series with the big twist spoiled in advance. It’s hard to be surprised when mad shit goes down when everybody who recommended you the show promised it’d be a mad time. My friend who recommended me Talentless Nana specifically told me to do NO RESEARCH for this exact reason, but even that was enough to signal that there’d be one of these twists lying in wait.
That is assuming the mystery even holds up until release. Madoka Magica famously struggled to keep its true intentions under wraps when industry-savvy people saw Gen Urobuchi working with Shaft on a magical series and rang the alarm bells. However, it can go wrong for just about any series that tries to pull this off for any reason. When my friend recommended 0 research, that really was the only way to go forward. A lot of effort was put into keeping Talentless Nana enigmatic, but one look at the manga’s blood-splattered covers and the gig would have been up. Or even just the Wikipedia, AniList, and MAL pages. You can mark tags as spoilers in AniList, but you can’t hide the genre listing that says “Drama, Horror, Psychological, Supernatural, Thriller”.
Another problem with episode 1 plot twists is that you then need to keep building on the twist. This is where School-Live! excels, because it isn’t just about a school club surviving the zombie apocalypse, but also about the mental state of main girl Yuki that caused the first episode to be the way it is. It’s not just a surprise after which the anime moves on to the actual series, it’s a meaningful part of it. Talentless Nana doesn’t fail at this entirely, but it’s more akin to something like Punie-chan than School-Live! in terms of execution.
It can also just feel wasteful.
Making your audience sit through an episode that doesn’t capitalize on your strengths at all, only to reveal it could have been more interesting at the end, is a bold move, especially when your show is only 12 or 13 episodes long. I praised School-Live! just earlier, but how many people would have dropped it during episode 1 if everybody had gone into it without being promised a twist at the end. A show like Higurashi can afford to be a little deceptive because it’s over 50 episodes long, whereas Madoka Magica was ambiguous in its marketing, but foreshadows its true nature almost right away in episode 1.
There’s no textbook example of how to do this stuff right, because different series have had success with wildly different approaches. It’s always going to be a tricky thing to pull off either way and the increased use of this twist in recent years may make it even more difficult as audiences get used to this trick and become cynical towards it. Still, I won’t deny that surprises like Madoka Magica and School-Live! kick ass when they work out, so I am curious to see what future anime may be able to pull it off too.