You might not have guessed it from some of the two- to three-thousand word pieces that grace this site, but I'm a fan of brevity. In storytelling, that is. If I feel a story has a chance to be told well in a two-hour movie versus a 78-episode TV series, I'll pick the former. But I also know, all too well, some stories just don't lend themselves to that kind of boiling-down. The question I come back to, especially as it regards to anime and manga, is: Which stories? What's worth telling long, and what's worth keeping short?
The journey of a thousand miles
It's not the length of the story that is the true issue, I find, so much as it is the justification for that length. If I watch 78 episodes of good guys knocking down one drop-target bad guy after another, that's amusing and diverting, but nobody's idea of essential. There's no reason to ride that particular horse; you can change horses any old time. But if I'm watching 78 episodes of something where every episode punches from a different direction, where it's constantly refreshing the parts other shows do not reach, then it doesn't feel like 78 episodes anymore. I've stopped counting.
One kind of story lends itself best to this sort of thing: the quest. And not just any old quest, but one where the journey is clearly more important than the destination. One Piece comes to mind, both because of the stupefying number of episodes it's already racked up (over 700 and counting), and because the format and premise of the show lend themselves to such a treatment. It's not about whether or not they find the fabled One Piece, but about the adventures Luffy & Co. have along the way. If you're inventive and vigorous enough, you can spin out something like that nearly indefinitely. Naruto, on the other hand, seemed more like a title that required a definitive ending: it was about a child who was father to the man, and for a story like that not to end with the man in some form is a cheat.
The other kind of story that lends itself to being a long-form open-ended work is the sitcom, where the fact that almost nothing changes across episodes, seasons, years, or decades, is a virtue and not a drawback. Few sensible people complain about the homogeneity of Kochikame (197 volumes and still going!), because the sameness is precisely the point. It's a comfort food rather than a fancy restaurant outing. If there's a disadvantage to such stories, it's the same one I outlined above. Because the job is to aim fairly low, there's little overriding reason to pick one over the other save for one's own tastes.
With a quest, it doesn't matter what the characters in question are questing for; it matters that they have a restlessness of spirit and an undying urge to press on. Those desires don't have to be expressed in a big, showy way, either. Kino's Journey, a delightful and underappreciated series about an androgynous young fellow and his talking motorcycle (no, seriously), riding through a setting reminiscent of pre-WWII Europe, is an open-ended quest of sorts, and definitely one where the journey — hence, the name! — is more important than arriving any one place or achieving any one goal.
My calendar runneth over
Writing this has made me realize my own long-standing prejudice towards shorter, more self-contained storytelling reflects my viewing habits more than my actual critical stance. I've got less spare time than ever, and that means any long-term commitments I make to an entertainment need to be for keeps. I hate bailing partway through something because the time just isn't there. Leaving anything unfinished makes me wince. Best not to start at all if I can't finish what I started, right?
It's been difficult to separate this personal, time-management issue from the way I analyze such things. I've long tended towards the prejudice that long-form (and long, long, long-form) storytelling is just a cynical cash-grabbing way to justify the continuation of a monetizable franchise, has nothing to do with storytelling as such, etc., etc. Likewise, I worry that if you give people something that immersive, it becomes something for them merely to lie down in and go to sleep in, as it were. I worry about the corrosive effects of mass-market media on the imaginations of current and future generations of potential creators, about whether or not the lesson being taught is that the best way to make something is to make something reminiscent of something else.
But there are just as many times when the long form, open-ended or somewhat closed, does take us places the short form simply can't. Just because it sometimes does so in an ignoble way doesn't mean the whole approach is invalid. For that I'd have to give up my beloved Berserk (40+ volumes and running), or Vagabond, or the Vampire Hunter D series of novels. I make time for those things, because I know they're worth keeping up with, and so it's harder for me to add a new project of what promises to be similar girth to my schedule. D, in particular, works well as an open-ended quest, where the real subject of the story isn't D's origins or fate, but the way he becomes our tour guide through a world that never ceases to yield up quirks, strangeness, and charm.
Again, whatever destination exists in such a franchise is entirely of-the-moment; what matters more is the experience of it all. I treasure an open-ended journey when it is able to show me something I have never seen before. Kino's Journey worked like that; Mononoke, ditto. Both were relatively short, but they could have gone on forever. With One Piece, based on what I've seen (roughly the first fifty to sixty episodes), it felt like most of the real wildness and invention was in the way things were stylized rather than in the storytelling itself. Not fatal, but not the main thing I look for.
One other thing about a shorter work as opposed to a longer work is it's easier to revisit a shorter work. Revisiting things I admired once and seeing how they hold up now (sometimes well, sometimes not) is a crucial part of the critical process. But the form factor matters. Rewatching a movie is practically an impulse decision; rewatching a show of more than thirteen episodes requires an advance booking. If I'm going to invest initially in something that might merit a return trip, why not make it something where the return trip is not going to constitute four detours all by itself? Still, a good series is a good series no matter how long it is. No good series is ever too long, and no bad one ever too short.
In the end, with long and short alike, I may well be seeking the same things Karlheinz Stockhausen asked of his fellow composers: Invention, and that he astonish me. Open for me a door to someplace truly new, and I will walk through it any number of times. If I am only able to walk through it once for two hours, or again and again for hundreds of hours, I will find new things in it either way.