There are 3 categories of stories, with regard to scope: those that are not epic, those that attempt to be epic, and those that are epic. I'm defining epic as having grand import or concept, or giving the feeling that the events are significant to the workings of greater things. I'm sure you know what I mean.
I find that many anime (or movies, etc.) try very hard to be epic, but do not succeed. What I mean by this is: they contain many elements to emphasize their epicness, but they just end up being lame, or simply do not make you feel like their plot makes any difference to the world. Now to the heart of the matter, what makes good epic and what makes lame epic? In the end, it is all opinion really, but just as most people can agree on what movies are good and which are not, we can probably agree on which anime are epic and which are lame. My main examples today are Giant Robo and the Rayearth OAVs. Whether you like them or not doesn't necessarily have to do with their success at being epic -- try to keep that in mind.
Any way you look at it, they're both trying to be epic. In GR, the world's oxygen will be destroyed if the bad guys win and in Rayearth, everyone will die unless they stop the evil castle. Talking about the end of the world, or human life as we know it, is sure-fire epic material. The two execute their epicosity differently, however. GR uses a lot of show-and-no-tell. You get the characters with no introduction, they do their thing, and quickly we move to the next thing. What's happening now is in the foreground, with epic plots hovering mysteriously behind as motivation for the characters. We see some cool things, people with neat powers, a giant robot, and some good action, but we don't really know what they're thinking. Rayearth, on the other hand, uses a lot of tell-and-no-show. Each character goes through a long discussion with their power source in a basically blank background with minimal action. The power source drones on about their feelings, using plenty of high-and-mighty language. Hikaru, Umi, and Fuu each take their sweet time trying to realize that they have a pure-heart sort of reason to fight before they can do anything. Frankly, it's just painful. I could barely sit through it. Rayearth beat you repeatedly with how epic they are, reiterating the same pure-of-heart reason-to-fight drivel over and over. Even some of the bad guys change sides when they realize their own reasons for being there. In GR, we have this discussion only once, and only with one character. It is important to know why you fight, and what you fight for, but Daisaku doesn't immediately realize that he's pure of heart and can fight for good against all evil. On the contrary, he's fighting because his father told him something even he doesn't yet fully understand. Plus, he's confronted with Ginrei and her father -- she wants to believe in him, but maybe he really did turn evil. Most importantly, this takes no more than 5 minutes per episode (not even that in the first 3), and he doesn't take half an episode to dwell on it while his pals are getting wailed on. [It looks like this article was written before the author had watched episode 7 of Giant Robo. -Ed.]
Mystery is another big tool of epicosity. It seems that a lot of directors or writers think that the less the audience is told, the more epic they'll believe it is. This is simply not a good idea. It isn't in the amount of secrets, it is in the revealing. We now know all about the exact details of the Bashtarlle incident. What made it epic and cool was that we were given bits and pieces of information, and a lot of it was misinformation. The events weren't explained with a lot of dialog; instead we saw what happened, and from the point of view of various characters. In Rayearth, basically nothing is explained, and every 5 minutes, Hikaru, Umi, or Fuu asks "why is this happening?" or "what's going on?" The viewer doesn't need the characters to ask for them, especially when the anime isn't going to give a very good answer. We eventually do find out vaguely why the castle has appeared, but when it's all said and done, it seems like all of the bad stuff could have been easily avoided if any one of the characters from Cefiro had any brains whatsoever.
OK, now for some more in-between. Shamanic Princess is a good anime -- let me get that out first. It was worth seeing. I expected it to be a lot better than it was, especially in comparison to Mahou Tsukai Tai!, which I'm told is its "sister" show (and we have the combination special to prove it). SP gives very little information about what is going on. This is fine for a while, but they barely ever give you any good information on the characters and the interaction between the guardian world and the "real world". For strike two, SP fell into the talk-it-up-with-no-action trap which I mentioned before, especially the interaction between Tiara and the Seat of Yord. The two talk a lot about what is real and what is not, using extremely vague and existential language while they're standing around doing nothing in a cathedral which doesn't really exist. The fighting that does go on serves almost no purpose and progresses the plot not a single inch. I guess when I say it, it comes out rather harsh, but I was disappointed by a show that had a lot more potential. Unfortunately, most of this potential was wasted on lame dialog and unimaginative action with a very choppy assembly. SP was also forced-epic; most of the interactions between the characters had no use for the epic setting. It's vaguely alluded to that some bad stuff will happen if the Seat of Yord gets to roam free, but it really has nothing to do with Tiara's relationships with the 3 other people in the show. It's simply a device to bring them together; it could have been anything -- they might as well have all been the only survivors in a plane crash in the mountains. Epic is good when the character interactions generate the epic plot. It's bad when the epic plot is simply a backdrop for mundane problems.
I'll use that to lead into Kenshin. In RK, who the characters are makes all the difference in the world. Kenshin was the Hitokiri Battosai, one of the most powerful assassins who was used to bring about the Meiji Restoration and destroy the shogunate. Where Tiara is just some random guardian world person, who was born with pretty good powers, Kenshin gained skill as a swordsman and used it to kill people. His own past behavior is what makes Kenshin integral to the plot around him, not the random luck that a lot of other shows use to involve the main characters. RK has another advantage over the other shows in having an epic plot. For 27 episodes, there is no real epic plot. Kenshin easily defeats many enemies in small, unrelated incidents before he is confronted by a truly skilled opponent. For the first time in episodes 29 and 30, someone who has the potential to kill Kenshin fights with him. If every battle is a fight to the death, it detracts from all of the fights. In RK, we know that he's in no danger from his opponents -- he is huge leaps in skill better than all of them. When we suddenly see him faced with Saitoh, it's chilling. It grabs you, and you feel that the upcoming story is much more important than the rest. Kenshin's fight with Saitoh would have meant a lot less to the viewer if it were in episode one, but because of the well-constructed buildup, it's much more significant.
OAVs are much shorter than TV series, so it's difficult to have buildup like RK has. Even so, GR doesn't fail to actually be epic. They have something else in common which makes them better than Rayearth and SP: good music. No, let me rephrase that: great music. The music is exciting and epic for both, whereas I found the SP music interesting, but sometimes misused and too noticeably repeated. I didn't find the Rayearth music to be notable in any way, which tells you that it wasn't very good. I feel like I should deal with the repeated use of music themes a bit more. It's obvious that GR and Kenshin reuse certain themes a lot, especially the Shinsen Gumi BGM, which is basically the hallmark sound for the Kyoto story arc. How they use it is key. Each time I hear the Shinsen Gumi BGM, it gives me a shiver. I know that something's going to happen, and it's probably gonna be a bad deal for someone. SP's music, especially the summoning theme, sees a lot of reuse, but it occurs with practically the same video each time, and it doesn't really foreshadow much of anything (oh yay, another pointless battle sequence that resolves absolutely nothing).
OK, I'm done now. GR: truly epic, 5 stars. RK: knows when to be epic and when to lay off. SP: watchable, but should not have tried to be epic. Rayearth: lame, lame, lame, and lame.