Cozy to Cold – An Isshuukan Friends Analysis
You might have seen my first Isshuukan Friends analysis last week where I focused on directing. All those scenes we looked at last time are supported by the show’s warm and cozy atmosphere. Actually, in the case of Episode 4, we should probably say that the scenes are supported by a contrast against the show’s usual warm and cozy atmosphere. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We have to set the metaphorical table before we flip it (or maybe we wouldn’t want to do that…?).
Oh well. Let’s figure out how atmosphere can influence drama.
The first thing you notice when you turn on an episode of Isshuukan Friends is the watercolor-like background, coated in a pastel color palette. While Isshuukan is far from the first animation (Japanese or otherwise) to utilize a soft, brush-strokey background, it might be the one that benefits the most from it. These backgrounds (combined with a couple other elements we’ll get to in a second) create a relaxed atmosphere that meshes perfectly with Hase and Kaori’s interactions. These characters are timid in their friendship—especially Hase.
It seems obvious that you wouldn’t draw those characters in a shadowy, sharp environment (think Psycho Pass), since such a background would set the viewer’s expectations up for something drastically different from what they wind up getting. However, knowing what backgrounds don’t work isn’t the same as knowing that a particular background will work. Even when you decide that this watercolor background is the best fit, you haven’t fully established atmosphere.
Isshuukan completes its atmosphere with its choice of music and character designs. All of the music is composed of these gentle strings or piano loops that sound almost like lullabies. All of the songs are buried beneath the dialogue or, when no one is talking, the air itself seems to dampen the music. When Kaori and Saki are out on the town having fun, you’d expect some kind of xylophone solo or otherwise peppy song to play. But instead we get a track that is just as subdued as the rest, like you might expect in a nostalgic scene.
The character designs keep the soft feel of the show going with characters like Hase being hidden under loose sweaters. Everyone wears their ties and buttons partway undone, and most of the main cast’s faces are constantly blushing. It all feels childlike and innocent, which fits these characters and this story.
Now, I really, really, really wish I could say that the loose strands of hair on Hase’s and Kaori’s head are symbolic of their respective mental troubles (Kaori’s memory issues and Hase’s worrying nature). Saki has the same stray hairs, too, which fits her own forgetfulness. Unfortunately, pretty much every character—even background characters—have these loose hairs, kind of ruining my claim to symbolism. Shougo and the teacher are the only characters who don’t have that style of hair, so luckily I can say that this creates a subtle atmospheric difference between Shougo+teacher man and the rest of the cast. Shougo in particular is a voice of logic and reason, and the sole reason this show doesn’t crumble into chaos. So, when we don’t see strands of hair flying out of Shougo’s head, we feel that he’s more level-headed than Hase.
Despite how well that works, I’m still going to mourn my lost symbolism.
Anyway, the entire show is cohesive in terms of atmosphere. Even the voice acting is gentle and innocent. Saki’s voice is some powerful stress relief—if you’re in need of that. Of course, the other way to look at all these atmospheric elements is to call them boring. Oftentimes, the show feels low on energy—even moreso than pure slice-of-life shows.
That could pose a problem once the dramatic elements get introduced. If Kaori and Hase begin arguing or crying in this peaceful, pastel world, we’re not going to feel much dramatic impact. The same goes for the show’s more romantic moments, too. Luckily, Isshuukan Friends knows how to use its atmosphere for its benefit, not its detriment.
Looking back at Episode 4, Kaori’s voice grows loud and sharp in response to Hase’s misunderstanding on the roof. This contrasts with how soft-spoken she usually is and how carefully she usually chooses her words. Her yelling against the suddenly dark backdrop of rain clouds rips the coziness right off the show.
The drama continues as she loses her diary, and the atmosphere reacts accordingly. The world is no longer bright and colorful. The rainclouds suck all the saturation out of the screen, leaving it dull and grey as Kaori walks around town and Hase fails to get her to recognize him. This isn’t anything revolutionary, but it’s well-executed and works especially well due to how soothing the atmosphere was before this point. The audio isn’t as sharp as when Kaori yelled on the roof, but it certainly isn’t cozy. The music cowers in a corner when Kaori can’t recognize Hase. All we can hear is the droning of a beating rain.
One way to create drama is to take away something the audience likes/finds comfort in. Thinking from a story and character perspective, that would be Hase’s relationship with Kaori and Kaori’s memory-building. Taking away those elements may create some drama, but—thinking about what other aspects of the show are connected to those elements—we can create even more successful drama. The cuddly atmosphere goes hand-in-hand with these characters’ happiness, so snatching away that atmosphere dresses the drama in all-black. If you take enough away from the audience, you can create drama that even Kaori couldn’t forget.