In the grand scheme of things, how important is the finale?

In the twilight of, not just the Fall 2019 anime season, but of the entire 2019 year, I think it’s important that I grapple for a bit with the idea of endings. How important is it to get the finale right? There’s quite a few shows this year that I have brutalised (or am about to) for poor endings, while others have had their runtime validated by a strong ending and gone from ‘good’ to ‘great’. Then again, it’s also true that I usually have a good rating in mind before an ending comes, and there’s only a few exceptions that break the rule. So, it would seem that the outcome can be disproportionately large compared to the rest of the runtime. To address this question, I will take a step back and look at what makes an ending, deconstructing the narrative importance of an ending, and coming to terms with how important the ending is in the grand scheme of things.

I bring up many other series throughout this post, but it is spoiler free.

An Ending is a conclusion – or it should be!

While these two terms are generally considered synonymous to one another, many fans of manga adaptations or long-runners will know that these are often not the same. The way a show ends is not necessarily conclusive, and that in itself is a big problem. But what does it mean to conclude, really?

Much like in essays, a good conclusion is a reiteration of the core themes and an end to the discussion of the question that has been posed. For more classic tales of heroism, the question is likely to be ‘will the hero save the day?’, or simply in revenge stories with questions like ‘will the protagonist get revenge?’, but this is much more contextual in other genres such as dramas, for example a character making a choice about their future will produce something along the lines of ‘will the protagonist choose to go to the drama or the science university?’ Setting up a question is extremely easy to do, for example, a spaceship will pose the question ‘how does a spaceship work?’, but ‘major dramatic questions’ are what push the storytelling forward and guide the character’s actions, such as a villain to stop or a choice to eventually make and ruminate on until coming to a decision. These dramatic questions are fundamental, because when they are answered with a convincing ‘yes’ or ‘no’, the story is complete, and without them, the story will go on and on. The entire story would therefore build up to the scene answering this question, making the scene, and then moving on to the next arc or the epilogue to wave goodbye to the story. These are general terms often referred to within a ‘Three Act Structure’, and it’s very unlikely you will find a story more generally refrain from this fundamental theory of ‘set up, development, climax’ where the dramatic question will be answered in that final sequential climax.

But that’s basic, and even if you didn’t know the technical terms it is very likely that you knew the theory because it is so ubiquitous. In general, going outside of this very elementary structure will probably result in a poor ending; having a finale that does not answer that core question will not feel satisfying. As a brief aside, it’s worth noting that not every story is grandiose. Many episodic or arc-based shows do not have larger narratives that they must address, but this theory still applies to them on an episode-by-episode by basis. These sorts of shows would have many conclusions, offsetting one resounding moment of cathartic question answering with many more questions to be answered. Though it goes without saying that if they do not have an overall question to address, these series of stories can go on indefinitely!

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To give an example of this theory in critical action, I must refer to Yagate Kimi ni Naru, a show that I lauded with praise, but must make a confession: it is an adaption that did not answer the core dramatic question of ‘will Yuu fall in love?’ I appreciated the unique phrasing of the final episode, answering the dramatic question with a caveat – a ‘yes/no, but…’, if you will, which is a good place to setup another arc, episode or series because it summarises the story thus far, indicates developments have occurred and that a new question will be asked henceforth. Many, however, found this ending inconclusive, and it largely hampered their feelings on the show, resulting in mixed feelings felt by fans and critics alike. Or, at least, it will remain like that until a second season comes. Please come.

It may be controversial, then, to say that not every question needs answering. Many shows will have a world-building left as a mystery even in their denouement. The impressive and gloomy Haibane Renmei is one such anime, that decides to answer a more personal question on character drama rather than addressing the inner-workings of its world. Either question it answered could have been fulfilling, but around the mid-point it became clear that the story of Haibane Renmei was headed towards its characters’ past turmoil moreso than its exploration of the world. In this instance, the world’s machinations are left up to the audience to ponder, which creates a more spiritual story, leaving a poignant question to be thought about long after the final curtain. In learning theory, Daniel T. Willingham stated ‘memory is the residue of thought’, and this idea can be extrapolated to imply that a contemplative question to leave the audience with will result in greater enduring success for the story, simply because it causes the aspects of the narrative that are thought about answering that question to reside in the mind longer. Of course, this isn’t restricted to these philosophical types of anime; other types of stories may leave a ‘will they; won’t they’ as the question for the audience to stew over, and this question has promoted fanfiction writers all over the globe to write down their own musings. Answering every question may create an impressive sense of closure, but leaving lingering ideas can also be very rewarding.

‘The Journey’

A common argument I see against the fundamental importance of endings is to suggest that the journey to the finale is more important than the finale itself. And it might seem like I disagree, but on the contrary, I argue that the journey determines the ending. Whichever question a story chooses to address or how it rephrases a question in its addressing, it must use priorly set up ideas to answer with, lest it become a hackneyed finale. Thematic and narrative conclusion is really important in moving a story into its latter stages, and it should be clear from the opening act what the ending conditions of a story are or even what phrasing it will likely have; if it isn’t clear, then it is very likely to be poorly set up and offer little acceptable closure.

Detective mysteries are ones I instantly turn to to discuss more general narrative conclusion, largely because it’s simple. Our resident Sherlock will find a series of clues throughout the storytelling, then line them up to solve the puzzle of whodunit, howdunit or whydunit. Good mystery storytelling will therefore give the reader all of the pieces to the solution, whereas bad mystery storytelling will blindside with essential pieces of information as the mystery is being solved, meaning that we could have never solved it ourselves. This is something I criticised in the rather impressive character drama Lord El Melloi II, as several times during the ‘detective exposition’ there would be new pieces of information that would re-contextualise the prior clues. For amateur sleuths such as myself, late introduced ideas made me want to give up trying to work out mysteries myself; generally, this demotivating the audience to join-in is a sign of weaker storytelling. While I felt it was not too damning to the El Melloi II’s overall quality, it is still a sticking point to bring up in critical discourse.

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The same fundamental idea applies to many other genres, and applies not just to narrative devices but also themes (such as ‘hope’ or ‘depression’). It will almost always result in something feeling haphazard, poorly planned and ultimately weak if the ending, due to narrative or thematic upheaval, is out-of-left-field. There’s actually a trope, specifically named from anime, called a ‘Gainax Ending’, referring to the iconic studio Gainax who were renowned for endings that cram everything in at once. It is very rarely that this sort of ending will feel satisfactory to the overall story, which can severely hamper the audience’s takeaway from Act I and Act II in the previously described Three Act Structure. To give an example on this in terms of themes, I recently saw Star Wars Episode IX: Rise of Skywalker, which suggested that ‘hope’, thematically, won the good guys the battle, but this aspect was not only not priorly shown in previous episodes – it was priorly criticised in the previous movie! This meant that the cheesy ending failed to land resoundingly, and irked more than rewarded.

That’s not to say that plot twists cannot happen in the climax. Even late on in a story, a giant perspective shift or a revolution can still occur and be amicable. As previously suggested, this could rephrase the dramatic question or dramatic response that a sequel will address, but it is more likely to be due to good foreshadowing that a plot-twist can land well. Give a hero motivation to switch sides, perhaps, such as abuse or sympathising with the villain after hearing their Tragic Backstory, or realising that the villain has the power to heal them. Believability, accountability and credibility can all be made in break in the finales because all the character groundwork should be done. Laying ideas well mean that it’s unlikely a good ending will blindside you, as it should really be expected.

The anime trope I am frequently bashing is the villain backstory flashbacks – just as they’re being defeated, we get a sob story explaining their background. Kimetsu no Yaiba was a repeat offender, and while that was not the sole reason it fell out of my good-books, it certainly wasn’t helping. Tragic backstories at the last moment do not significantly change future storytelling as that character will no longer be around, so the only purpose these sequences add is to recontextualise the villain’s prior actions, and in far too many cases, trying to cop a tearjerker moment with cheap melodrama. With good setup, these scenes can be powerful and cause you to look differently on the story up to that point; with bad setup, these sequences are mere detractions – and with bad execution, these scenes don’t even bounce off of the heroes to develop them. Not every villain needs to be sympathetic, and sometimes leaving the villainous to the imagination could be more effective than describing a cheap, rushed tragedy giving unneeded answers at the expense of pacing.

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Of course, it is only the context of the ending that should be set up. I previously alluded to a ‘choice’ that could be made, and being unsure which choice they will make can create tension. But that choice will be the primary dramatic question to address, and their answer is related to the storytelling of the prior acts – otherwise, the journey has been for nought. Galaxy Express 999 is a particularly well constructed grand narrative that keeps the choice a mystery until the final few moments, but ensures that that decision is made at the behest of all the prior storytelling and all the experiences that the character built up. This created a great deal of catharsis, and justified the monumental journey that was traversed across 100+ episodes.

An afterword for the Epilogue

Many conclusions are tied to an epilogue, which can be the defining factor of an entire story. After the climax, an epilogue begins; an epilogue often attempts to tie up loose-ends of a story, set up a potential sequel with new hooks, or briefly explain what happened to the characters after the storytelling is over. There is often a lag between the when the finale happens and when the epilogue begins, and this in itself can be used in many interesting ways, and can often improve long term memorability of the project.

Many stories fail to develop a character outside of the plotting. What happens to a Hero when they have no Villain? It’s unlikely that a story will have had time to wonder who these people are when they are not faced with the major problem, and if a story has done this it may have ruined the overall flow (I discussed this aspect in my Character Development post). Epilogues often serve to bolster characterisation tremendously, albeit in a patchwork manner, so their inclusion can greatly improve depth.

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I like to point to Samurai Flamenco when discussing epilogues, because it took a whole 4 episodes out of a 22 episode runtime to address the after story. While there is a villain during this period, they represent a more domestic problem, and the ongoing arc addresses a major question that has been left hanging all season while giving credence to these character’s futures. Suddenly, the world of Samurai Flamenco opens up, and in this short epilogue arc, it becomes clear what kind of world will continue to breathe long after the final credits roll.

On the flipside, I greatly criticised Symphogear XV’s poor epilogue. A brief sequence was included to show only two characters of the extended cast, a while after the final events of the action of the final ever series. While there were no grand lingering questions to answer, the fact is that the scene didn’t last a minute and suggested no meaningful development. For a show with so much content under its belt, there was incredible potential to draw on to make an epilogue that would increase the likelihood of fan works that would continue to generate interest. Instead, the one final poof of Symphogear pushes the show from a decently fun-time into an entirely transient experience.

A conclusion on conclusions

Stories have a fundamental structure to them, with the finale(s) posing important consequences on the narrative and themes. Fundamentally answering at least one dramatic question, using the direction and tools the narrative has previously set up, is key to creating a sense of closure. Sometimes, leaving a question up to the imagination could increase longevity, as it gives audience something to wonder as they walk out of the cinema, perhaps even prompting fan-works. Answering final points could also be left to the epilogue – a section with exponential world-building and characterisation possibilities, which can increase depth and thus long-term memorability, and potentially even promote fan authors to write their own stories for the characters.

At the end of the day, making your story stick in the minds for longer is what leads to success. There are many tools that I have not yet discussed that could cement places in the history books that are not the finale, but narratively speaking, the finale has a disproportionately large impact on audience interaction after the final credits. To go back to my earlier hypothesis; a good ending will round-off an already strong story, instil even more depth and bolster long term memorability, but because these ideas must be set up, the contextual scene of an ending is likely to be predicted; a bad ending, then, is one that is unrelated to prior storytelling, gives a weak sense of closure or fails to capitalise on enduring potential.

5 thoughts on “In the grand scheme of things, how important is the finale?

  1. That was an intriguing article. I’ve thought about what makes an ending good or bad. Not everything has to be a happy ending, but something that could make sense and could close a certain story or at least a major arc. Also, major props on talking about Haibane Renmei. That’s one of my favorite anime series ever and it was the first thing I gave a 10/10 to on my Iridium Eye Reviews blog. That was a character-emphasized show and it didn’t need some grand finale. Sure, there was resolution with Reki’s character arc and it has an open end that things will still go on in a decent manner even with Rakka having more responsibilities in Old Home.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Haibane Renmei’s a very good show! I started this blog several years into my anime career and only post reviews of things I’ve seen recently, so a lot of my favourites are actually without review. So these sorts of articles will often reference shows that I haven’t discussed before, which is also fun in its own way.
      Endings are funny things. It can seem really simple to decide between a qualitatively good or bad ending, but the infrastructure that goes into either is surprisingly complex. All it theoretically has to do is put a full-stop on things, but that requires the foresight to not which loose-ends should be tied and which shouldn’t and also setting up the means to do that. Depending on genres or series length, this can mean wildly different things, too. So it’s very complicated yet also surprisingly intuitive.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes! Haibane Renmei is one of the most beautiful and unique anime I have seen in my life. It was the first series where I actually bought the soundtracks to it and I can think of no other series that was like it that came before.

        That’s certainly true about the endings. I certainly agree with that.

        Liked by 1 person

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