Monday, 17 October 2011

Two Years Later...

Warning: As much as I'm trying to keep them vague it's not always possible, so this post contains some spoiler information for Naruto, One Piece, Bleach, Fairy Tail, Usagi Drop, and Death Note. Each manga will have its own paragraph so if you don't want to risk finding anything out that you don't know, then please (time)skip ahead to the following section.

Last week, within the space of twenty-four hours, I encountered time skips in two different and wholly unreleated manga. Plus, with the One Piece anime having recently reached its own temporal leap, it fels like the time skip is the order of the day. Certainly, when it comes to mainstream shounen manga in particular, it seems that jumping ahead several months or years is becoming the thing to do and it's certainly an effective hook. Time skips offer up the chance to completely revitalise a manga or change its dynamic often following a climactic event, and as such prove to be a turning point wherever they feature.

Back in 2005, Naruto started the recent trend with the two-year leap following the events of the Sasuke Retrieval Arc. Having come to a definite conclusion it offered up the perfect chance to power-up the protagonists with each member of Team Seven walking their own paths to train. Sasuke turned his back on Konoha in order to get into the metaphorical bed with Orochimaru, Sakura - fed up of being the useless one - begins her tutelage as a medical ninja under Tsunade and Naruto heads off on his journey with Jiraiya to become stronger than ever. The skip also marks a distinct change in focus. Whereas Orochimaru plays the role of lead antagonist in the first part, the two-year jump marks the switch to when the biggest thread to the ninja world is actually Akatsuki.

In the same year, another Shounen Jump hit also hopped on the time skip bandwagon. Death Note however opted for a six year differenceto mark the beginning of a new saga. With the manga focusing on the game of cat and mouse between L and Light, L's death comes as a climactic event that in no uncertain terms ends what the whole story has been about. The mangaka then take the opportunity to skip ahead to allow the next generation to come to light. Had Near (also known as L-clone) appeared immediately after his predecessor's demise, then all the spiel about how L was the only one capable of katching Kira would have been flushed down the toilet. Likewise, it allows for Light to become more even more confident and complacent. In not being an excuse for the protagonists to simply power up, Death Note's time skip shakes up the pace by similtaneously starting from the very beginning (L-clone's investigation) and continuing the second act (Kira/Light's reign of terror).

While the leap in Death Note proves interesting in it's own way, the "powering up" time skips are what it's all about for me and both the ones in Naruto and One Piece work in essentially the same way. In both series the main characters split off (though this happens forcibly in One Piece) and undergo their own training following a distinct loss (Sasuke's departure from Konoha and the events of the battle at Marineford). By the time that the characters return from their adventures, there's a definite sense of excitement and anticipation. What will they look like now they're two years older? What new moves will they have? How much stronger are they? If done well, the events immediately after a time skip can keep you on the edge of your seat. One of the best examples of this is One Piece where Eiichiro Oda has not only timed the timeskip perfectly but also plays out the beginning of its second act with pacing so spot on that it keeps you hooked.

The two-year leap in One Piece came at the ideal time. The Straw Hats had made it half way along the Grand Line and were about to enter the New World, a sea so full of peril that it supposedly makes their adventures thus far seem like playtime. Additionally, following the Whitebeard War, a distinct singular villain has emerged, which all means that the dynamic of the plotline could shift. As for the anticipation value following the skip, that Eiichiro Oda had split up the Straw Hats some considerable time before, he now hits us with a double whammy of excitement: the gang finally reuniting plus the results of their training. Also throughout the course of the fishman island arc, Oda has only gradually revealed just how powerful the crew have become and with each teensy glimpse of Usopp's toned awesomeness or Zoro's even more deadly slashes you can't help but marvel. While Naruto brought out most of the hero's new awesomeness in one Orochimaru-targetted attack in the arc following the skip, One Piece spreads it out creating several smaller awe-inspiring moments as opposed to that one jaw-droppingly epic scene.

It was only last year that One Piece skipped ahead, but hot on its heels was Bleach with it's very own leap. Unfortunately, while placed after a climactic battle and Ichigo's subsequent power loss, this time skip is the most underwhelming of the big three by quite some margin. While it has allowed eighteen months for Orihime, Chad, and Ishida to power up, this becomes slightly meaningless as Bleach always has (and seems that it always will) focus on Ichigo's ridiculously strong abilities and the constant power-ups that Kubo seems to yank out of his arse every so often. Instead, it seems that the main funtion of this skip is to make it so that Ichigo doesn't lose his powers only to suddenly regain them immediately after. It also doesn't help that the end of the arrancar saga had a very definite conclusion and the manga felt like it could have ended right there and then and everyone could go home relatively happily. So whereas the likes of Naruto and Death Note promise more and feel unfinished, making their skips more exicting, Bleach's seems to lack purpose by comparison, other than to drag out a series that probably should have been laid to rest with Ichigo's shinigami abilities.

The most recent time skip in a shounen manga - only a couple of weeks ago - is that of Fairy Tail which, following a pretty horrific event that devastates the main cast, jumps ahead seven years. Now with such an epic skip, you would be expecting something great, unfortunately I'm yet to be convinced that this was a sensible move for Mashima. With the Edolas arc and the following Tenrou Island plotline, Mashima had really found his stride and various plotlines were all weaving together. Now, with the timeskip, he's lost all that momentum and frankly, with the latest installment (chapter 255) I'm getting concerned as to how this will all turn out. This week's chapter felt rushed. Everything happens at one hundred miles an hour to the point where it feels like Mashima just wants to get this little bit of explanation out of the way and done with. At the moment it doesn't fill me with hope, but I won't write it off just yet as this is a bit of a timeskip with a difference, and the dynamic between the drastically altered and the unchanging could prove interesting.

Of course time skips aren't just limited to shounen, and one in particular that I'd like to mention is the one in Usagi Drop. This series is a perfect example of how a time skip can completely change a story. The first four volumes of Usagi Drop place strict focus on Daikichi learning how to take care of Rin. It's about his growth as an adult, his development as a parent and the dynamic between an awkward single thirty-year-old and an innocent six-year-old girl. Then suddenly, at the beginning of volume five, everything changes. Without really reaching a definitive moment beforehand, the manga jumps ahead ten years. Now, instead of being a story about a man coming to terms with sudden parenthood, the focus shifts to become more about the romantic entanglements of a teenage Rin. Now a decade-long skip would be pretty epic in most places, but in a story centring on a child it changes it 100%. Imagine if Yotsuba&! did that? Instead of being a manga about a naive and exciteable girl exploring the world, it became a tale about a hormonal teenager trying to date the school hottie. It seems wrong, right? Certainly, I enjoyed the Usagi Drop manga much less after the time skip, since it wasn't the story I'd fallen in love with - that and I still can't help but feel that the final direction it went in was just plain wrong.

Time skips can be the making or breaking of a manga and it all depends on several factors:
  • Is the time skip necessary/does it come at the right time.
  • How the mangaka handles events following the timeskip.
  • Personal preference.
While points one and two are integral, for me it's the third one that will ultimately decide whether the skip has been successful or not. I have not been enamoured with the jump in Bleach but I don't doubt that there are people out there who love it as much as I love the skips in One Piece and Naruto. Similarly, because I personally dislike the direction Usagi Drop takes after the jump, I find myself disappointed by the manga. What I'm going to find most interesting however is seeing how the Fairy Tail skip pans out since I have yet to grasp whether it's awesome or awful and at the moment my stance changes from week to week. But despite everything, I still love a good time skip, as even if there have been times where I've been disappointed, sometimes it's good to shake things up a bit.

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