It is often observed that works of an episodic nature tend to fall into predictable patterns over time. Plot structures, character personalities and so forth tend to develop comfortable, consistent shapes, often called “formulas”. Many works, of course, use formula and repetition to a specific end—e.g. in service of a specific thematic goal. Yuasa leverages formula in The Tatami Galaxy to viscerally drive home the work’s thesis; untold volumes have been filled dissecting its use in Revolutionary Girl Utena. But what I mean to discuss here is the function that repetition serves more generally as a narrative, not thematic, device—we arrive at formulas because if something worked once, it’s likely to work again. Repetition, used carefully, can enhance a work as much as effective photography or musical score.
Perhaps the most pervasive example of this in episodic mediums is the opening and ending title sequence. The title sequence is nigh-universal in film and animation, and tends to take a very particular form in animated television series. On a basic, functional level, an average competent opening sequence communicates the content and tone of a work (and the most basic, functional opening sequences do little else). But if information were the only intent, opening sequences wouldn’t need to be nearly so intricate; and, in fact, many excellent title sequences fail to meaningfully communicate much of the “content” of a work. This is because the key function of the title sequence is not to communicate information, but instinct.
As Jim Emerson puts it, ”Any good movie teaches you how to watch it.” The serial work takes this a step further: rather than teaching the viewer, it trains them. This is ideal, given that serial works are (a.) generally shorter than films and so don’t have the time to instruct the viewer from scratch for each installment, and (b.) made up of many separate, similarly-shaped installments, so any critical tools the work presents once are quite likely to be employed again. Thus, repetition serves a Pavlovian function: the serial work encodes its key ideas into formulaic elements, and so trains the viewer to understand them, in a sort of emotional shorthand. The recurring title sequence often serves as a “lexicon”, re-indexing all of the key elements in the viewer’s mind. Many of these associations are personal or nostalgic, as explored in A&V’s earlier That Lingering Feeling series.
This is demonstrated excellently in the opening sequence to the animated series Gravity Falls. It contains purely functional elements such as introduction of the setting, characters and so forth, but Gravity Falls‘ opening sequence also primes the viewer’s expectations in remarkably subtle ways. It begins with three ominous establishing shots, with minimal musical accompaniment, before two more lighthearted shots which establish the characters and “main” setting. As it continues, the sequence progressively mixes humorous and ominous elements, setting the stage for the series’ precise blend of overt cartoon humor and quietly disconcerting horror. The opening is also riddled with occult and conspiracy theory imagery, contributing to an underlying, perhaps subliminal sense of alienation—a central recurring theme in the work proper.
Moreover, for serial animation in particular, the title sequence has become so fundamental that its formula can be observed not just at the level of a given work but of the medium as a whole. In the same way that a given title sequence trains its viewers to watch a particular show, title sequences in aggregate train us to experience entire cultural bodies of work in a specific way. Anime openings often reuse established clichés because, as clichés do, they make up the most primitive and fundamental media culture training the viewer has.
One can apply this same analytic principle to other common formulaic concepts; take, for example, the transformation sequence common to the magical girl genre. The transformation is often as semiotically-dense as a title sequence; its intricacy and length re-focus the viewer’s attention. This is vital given its location in the script, i.e. the division between girl and magical girl. It acts as a transition both textually in the logic of the work, and subtextually as a means of softening the effect of the quick change in tone. It also develops its own shorthand with the viewer, creating the same sort of Pavlovian response. This is why magical girl anime tend to shorten the transformation sequence in later episodes—the greater pomp and circumstance early on is needed in order to condition the viewer, but once that conditioning has taken hold it can be recalled with less effort.
To abstract a step further, many works are of course formulaic at the story level. Mystery and detective stories, for example, are often formulaic, and also provide a good example of the pragmatic efficiency of formula. The classic cartoon Scooby Doo, Where Are You? is well known for its very formulaic format—to the point of frequent parody. But the series earned its status as a classic because of—not in spite of—its well-designed and extremely satisfying formula. Scooby Doo‘s obvious is its talent. Training the viewer to expect given story elements to work in predictable ways—settings, mysteries, villains—allows Hanna-Barbera to focus on executing those elements cleverly and enjoyably.
In fact, this correlation of formula and satisfaction is taken to its logical extreme in Knox’s Ten Commandments, as discussed here previously in relation to Hyouka. Golden-age detective fiction comprised an entire genre of literature explicitly defined by a rigid set of formulas. They are often framed as rules to a game, rather than formulas for writing. In golden age detective fiction, enjoyment is placed explicitly before originality as an artistic priority—and it achieves this through formula.
Formula is of course only a tool, and it can of course be used incorrectly. If a formulaic element fails to be sufficiently elegant or superliminally satisfying , it can distract the viewer from appreciating the formula’s deeper narrative functions. ”Formula” in fiction is often maligned, but imprecisely so: the problem is not recurring elements per se—a location is a recurring element, a character is a recurring element—but careless or unengaging use thereof.