Mari Okada: Modes of Melodrama (Introduction)
Welcome to the start of what may be a long, long series of essays on the woman I find to be the most interesting of all notable anime writers. We’ll be adventuring through a jungle of diverse shows and discussing a variety of topics, so it should be fun. With that: adventure start!
If this title sounds familiar to you, it’s probably because you’ve seen Digibro’s “The Queen of Anime Melodrama” which refers, of course, to Mari Okada. If you haven’t seen that video, I recommend checking it out as Digi provides some useful background info and speaks from a perspective I’m going to (sort of) criticize in these essays. In particular, Digi umbrellas Okada’s work under the incredibly nonspecific term of “melodrama”. I can’t really blame Digi for this, since he’s just trying to give an overview Okada’s work and melodrama is an apt term for that. The purpose of this series of posts isn’t to directly engage with Digi’s video anyway. Instead, our goal throughout these essays will be to develop a more nuanced understanding of melodrama and its features, as well as investigate how Okada both utilizes and revises those features.
So, what is the issue with lumping her writing under the catch-all of “melodrama”? This isn’t necessarily wrong, but it misrepresents Okada, her work, and melodrama as a whole. Simply designating Okada’s writing as “melodramatic” with some vague definition of the word does us no good. Digi speaks as though melodrama is the feeling an anime gives off, and as if it’s something Okada can just crank up like a volume dial. As we proceed, we’ll see how lacking this perspective is. I’m not saying “melodramatic” can’t be used in a broad sense—it’s a legitimate adjective. I’m just hoping to provide a more specific context to the melodramatic mode and to get us all to like Okada more as a writer!
Thus the main goal of this series will be to elevate our discussion of melodrama beyond the way melodramatic narratives portray emotions or—even worse—whether we buy into those emotions. We’ll investigate the functioning of melodrama as well as its thematic concerns throughout history, keeping an eye on Okada’s work the whole while. Comparing the melodramatic mode with examples of that mode will allow us to better understand the topics we discuss, in addition to growing our context for Okada as a creator.
But first, I need to address two issues.
The minor issue: you may have noticed I refer to melodrama as a singular “mode”, yet titled this series “Modes of Melodrama”. I’ll explain further when it matters, but to be clear—recently (in academia, anyway) it’s become popular to categorize “melodrama” as an artistic mode with its own style and thematic focus. However, I find it more accurate to consider “melodrama” as a set of modes or modal elements that all melodramatic art draws from. In a frozen yoghurt shop, all the toppings are laid out buffet style and you pick out what you want. Toppings are all unique and some don’t seem like they would belong in a group with other toppings, but at the end of the day they’re all still “toppings”. The various features of the melodramatic set are a similar idea, but more on that later.
The major issue: what does it mean to “write” an anime? That is, how important are the credits of Series Composition, Script, Screenplay, etc.—especially considering the percentage of anime that is adapted from manga and light novels? There are certain aspects of a show—music being the biggest—that play an important role in defining said show as a melodrama, but musical timing and selection isn’t under Okada’s jurisdiction. Nevertheless, animation is a collaborative industry and in most cases Okada’s writing will define when directors/sound designers include music, or Okada will know at least know a scene will include music. As for adaptations, Okada does take significant liberty with how she changes the source material and, even ignoring that, she is the person chosen time and time again for particular projects. If nothing else, that is proof that she is the go-to girl for melodrama. Here is a post detailing some decent info about the roles of anime writers if you want an alternative perspective.
There are several extremely confusing instances of Okada’s involvement in a show, but we’ll talk about those when we get to them. For now, it is enough to say that characters, plot, and dialogue are firmly enough in Okada’s control to justify talking about them. I won’t be stepping too far away from discussing pure writing anyway, so this shouldn’t be too hard to agree on.
So, with our problem and goal defined, let’s embark on our journey across the Mari Okada Melodramatic Sea. In the next post, we’ll begin to define “melodrama” and put the mode into historical/social context, as well as establish some elements of the “melodramatic set” I explained above. From there, we’ll dive right into Okada’s work and try to figure out what makes her and her melodrama so special. It’s been an exciting ride for me to research and think through all this information, so hopefully you all enjoy these posts just as much.
I’ll be listing spoilers for shows at the start of each post, but I encourage you to read even if you haven’t seen a certain show. If you’re interested in a more detailed post about the specifics of Okada’s career, check out this. It touches on melodrama, so it makes a good prelude to this series in addition to Digi’s video.
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