If last Friday hadn’t been such a draining experience that I didn’t get anything done for the feature article this would have been perfect to end the week on, since I seemed to be talking about the narrative opening in a comedy/adventure show three days straight. It shouldn’t be a surprise given that I have a whole category for favorite and not-so-favorite intros that I do enjoy an intro, also referred to as an opening or “op” and maybe even the credits, though that’s only for live-action shows. Most animated shows outside of Japan don’t really have any credits except for the title. And in the case of Batman: The Animated Series and Superman: The Animated Series (and come to think of it the Ruby-Spears Superman) you don’t even get that.
Animated shows don’t need a cast list because one of the benefits of a cartoon is that a voice actor can take on more than one role, or if something happens to him or her someone else can assume the role a bit easier if they sound close enough. Live-action shows more often than not (the Star Trek franchise for example doesn’t do this) has to not only introduce the cast but show their faces so you know who they are. It’s one of the reasons I prefer cartoon intros to live-action ones. Movies and video games also use intros but they’re often very different. Why is a good intro important?
Done correctly an intro serves two purposes (three in the case of shows with cast lists): to introduce (duh) the world the show takes place in to draw you into it, and in turn to “sell” you on watching that show. The latter may not be considered as important now in the days of streaming and on-demand choices but in the time before when you found shows either through a TV program guide (usually either TV Guide or some programming guide in your local newspaper or from the cable company–HBO for example used to have their own guide that they sent out each month and so did some cable companies) or by flipping through channels to find something catch your eye. You would watch the first few minutes of a new show or at least new to you show and decide if you wanted to spend time watching it. The intro helped you with that decision.
The other part of introducing you to the world, and this is true whether it’s a normal world cop show or some space fantasy, is by explaining the show’s premise, just enough of a teaser for you to decide if this is your kind of story. It sets the tone for what’s coming and if done right it matches the tone of what’s to follow. That’s been one of my biggest problems with anime, and I’ll give you a very extreme example. The opening to Mythical Detective Loki: Ragnarok is a very melancholy, sober opening while the show itself has some darker moments but not nearly as dark. In fact the girl on the boat is usually one of the most chipper, lively, and airheaded characters I’ve ever seen. I’d show you but apparently that’s near impossible with this show since all I can find on YouTube are fan music videos and skits. So you’ll have to trust me that unless it’s highlighting a later episode (Anime Network On Demand didn’t show the full series or I didn’t have time to watch it before I was forced to stop subscribing to it) the tone whiplash was amazing. It’s basically a comedy/drama as Loki investigates supernatural mysteries.
My other problem with anime intros, as I showcased during the many MANY intros of the Transformers is that even when the visual tone matches the song itself often doesn’t match up with the show. You may get the tone right but the lyrics have nothing to do with the show unless you count shoehorning in “Transformers” at the end. Something like Viruta Fighter received different lyrics for the English dub and it might have been to the show’s benefit. I guess now that so many official dubs and subs (especially YouTube subs produced by Japanese distributors like Tsuburaya and Toei when they actually have subtitles or English-language versions) don’t translate the themes anymore it may not seem like a big deal since they’re gibberish to those of us who don’t speak Japanese but it matters to me because that’s not a good intro.
Of course you can’t go explain the whole series in an intro. If you’re going to do an exposition dump do it right. We went over that with The Centurions, where the explanation was dramatic, like it was being performed. Another way is to actually perform it in song. Bravestarr is a good example of that.
You don’t have to even get that deep into explaining. Let the theme highlight the show and let the visuals sell you on the rest. Bionic Six is a good example.
You can also consider a hybrid, a bit of exposition followed by the theme to hook you in. For example, Jayce & The Wheeled Warriors, still considered one of the best theme songs of the 80s.
Still my favorite intro of all time, Starcom: The US Space Force, is one that has no exposition, only one line of dialog, and still tells you everything you need to know by visual and realizing that even a kid can figure out context.
I’ve been using 80s action cartoon because that’s my jam, but the same rules apply for something more wholesome, fun, or relaxing. Set your tone, make your characters look like people the viewer want to know in a world they want to check out, and you’re in. If it looks boring, no matter how good your show is, you’ll chase them off. If the intro is good then they’ll be disappointed when the show is garbage but the intro did it’s job…just this time it was being a con artist. If the show is good and the intro is good both will be remembered fondly like the shows I used for my example. However, I only covered TV intros. While a movie intro has different requirements, and most video game intros I’ve seen seem to crib from movies though I’ve seen a few that look more like TV shows, they’re no less important. Next time I’ll go over those.