Mari Okada: Modes of Melodrama (Teen Melodrama)
This is one of many essays on Mari Okada and melodrama. If you stumbled upon this post, I recommend you start at the Introduction or Table of Contents instead! Spoilers for Sakurasou no Pet na Kanojo.
I want to dive into all the social commentary and Okada’s experimentation with the “generic” (“modal” in this case) mythos as soon as possible, but we’ll take things step by step. Most people have been exposed to teen melodrama in some form—especially with its recent resurgence via Twilight and teen fiction in general. So we all know what teen melodrama is, but it can be hard to put into words. Things can get even trickier if you think about how “teen” or “young adult” labels are really just a facet of marketing. However, we can still pinpoint unique elements of teen melodrama and investigate how Okada utilizes them.
The defining feature of a teen melodrama is its particular “situation”. This is kind of a vague concept, but the general idea is that certain kinds of characters are in certain settings under certain conditions/stresses. The situation of teen melodrama involves archetypal teenagers in a school or home who are in some kind of identity or agency crisis. All of this is then soaked in the woes of puberty and sweet, sweet angst. As with all melodrama, the climax takes the form of an honest release of emotion. I quoted Douglas Sirk last time, so now here’s actress Molly Ringwald speaking on the melodrama in The Breakfast Club:
“…a lot happens. We [the characters] are all really, incredibly honest. And when people are honest, a lot of interesting things happen.”
It’s important to remember that the general conflict of all melodrama is usually the confounding of some kind of realization. The characters can’t get what they want or they can’t figure out what they want. Honesty is the elusive and supposed silver bullet to that issue. Anyway, that’s the situation. It will lead us to other essential elements of teen melodrama, but let’s explore those as we work our way through Sakurasou.
Sakurasou no Pet na Kanojo is actually kind of tame when viewed as a teen melodrama—at least compared to Okada’s other work. However, like I alluded to earlier, the show can also be viewed as a domestic melodrama, which we’ll talk about in the future. For now, tame is good. This will help us notice how the show is specifically targeting this mode of storytelling and judge whether it succeeds in that endeavor. Keeping the situation simple helps reveal the core of the mode. Since setting can often imply the majority of a “situation”, let’s start there.
As per the name, the show’s main setting is the Sakura Hall dormitory full of its “problem kids”, with a secondary setting of Suimei High itself. In Sorata’s own words, Sakura Hall is a “den of freaks” he desperately wishes to escape from. He even makes escaping his goal and hangs a banner of declaration in his room. Traditionally, we’d expect teenagers to be trapped in environments of routine (school, home, etc.) because of their parents, but Sorata is really only stuck in his situation because he wants to help stray cats. His opinion of the dorm will eventually flip, but for now let’s just say he wants out.
Sorata’s inability to escape Sakura Hall is put in contrast to Nanami’s inability to remain at Suimei. Attending Suimei is essential to Nanami’s dreams, since living in those dormitories and attending that school are acts representative of her dream of becoming a voice actress. Thus, if there is anything particularly interesting about Sakurasou as a teen melodrama, it is that Nanami’s parents prevent her from living in a supposed environment of routine. Her father does not want Nanami at Suimei and, by extension, pursuing her dream. The world outside Suimei then becomes the oppressive setting for Nanami, as she would have to abandon her dreams of acting if she leaves the school. This reveals something crucial about the school—particularly about Sakura Hall.
Sakura Hall is the most expressive and free place at Suimei. It is where Sorata can keep his cats, it is where Jin can come home late after his playboy escapades, and it is where the wallpaper is painted over with pure expressions of adventure and friendship. However, the school board wishes to demolish Sakura Hall as a means to oppress Mashiro’s creative pursuits. Ryuunosuke’s hacking reveals that the board views Sakura Hall as a “threat” to Mashiro because she is creating manga there rather than high art—let’s call it aristocratic art. The adult authorities in her life control Mashiro’s physical location as a means to oppress or restrict her expression. To limit her freedom.
This is really the key to discussing setting in teen melodrama (and domestic melodrama to some extent). There is an unexpected emphasis on—sometimes very precise—physical location and the movement between locations. In The Breakfast Club, Mr. Vernon does not want the kids in detention to leave the library. In Sakurasou, the school board does not want Mashiro to live in Sakura Hall. Setting becomes a tool to cage teenagers by limiting their available actions and/or keeping them under direct observation. We can imagine how Mashiro may be denied the resources to draw manga in her new dorm and how a stricter authority figure than Chihiro will watch over her.
With this in mind, Ryuunosuke’s words of, “Sakura Hall isn’t a place one chooses to live in,” take on double meaning. Indeed, the freaks of Suimei will be exiled there as a sort of cleansing of the main student body. However, other students may be pulled from the Hall in the exact opposite manner. You do not choose to enter Sakura Hall, but your circumstances may force you to. You do not choose to remain in Sakura Hall, as adult authority may revoke your residence. This creates a tragic duality of expressive routine environments and oppressive routine environments.
If I had to sum up Okada in one word, it’d be “duality”. Almost every show she is in involved in pits expression against oppression, conservatism against progressivism, or freedom against entrapment. Yet, these values are not isolated from each other. Apparently opposite values can be represented by the same people/places or the same kinds of people/places. I’ll constantly be returning to this idea as I make the argument that melodrama is both a conservative and progressive mode. No writer better understands that duality, or engages with it as directly, as Mari Okada.
But I’m getting ahead of myself here. What about the adults threatening the freedom of the Sakura Hall residents?
We can consider the relationship of teenagers to adults one of de facto authority. Teenagers need their parents to provide the necessities of living, and so they more or less have to obey parental authority. Principals (sometimes teachers) occupy a similar position of inherent authority, acting as an extension of parental rule in school. The conflict between teenager and adult typically arises out of the adult not understanding or valuing the emotions/individuality of the teenager. This can take the form of collective adult society battling collective youth society, or just with individuals. Additionally, authoritarian oppression may not be the main antagonist of teenagers in teen melodrama (though we’d expect to see it in some form). This is certainly the case with Anohana and is somewhat true of Sakurasou as well.
Adult authority makes up about half of the source of conflict in Sakurasou. As described above, Nanami’s parents and the school board both threaten the freedom and expressivity of the show’s teenagers. Note that Nanami’s parents have an influence over Nanami, despite not being around, because her lifestyle is not financially sustainable. Oftentimes, melodrama makes the point that what the heroes/heroines lack is the very thing that allows authority to be oppressive. In this case, Nanami lacks the ability to provide for herself, and that security is precisely what her parents can hold over her. This “lacking” is more than just not having a certain thing—it’s the result of a failure to act to save oneself or a failure to acquire an object of desire. Nanami has to submit to her parents because she fails to make it as a voice actress.
This is not to be interpreted as a condemnation of all adults, nor a suggestion that adults have all succeeded in life. A common trope in teen fiction/film in general is the Sage Teacher who provides advice and a helping hand to a student in need. Sometimes this trope is flipped (as is the case in The Breakfast Club) and sometimes it is undermined. Okada tends towards undermining. Her teachers typically have good intentions, but they’re not pinnacles of morality or even all that competent. Chihiro, for instance, simply steps aside when the school board wishes to demolish Sakura Hall. While she doles out wisdom occasionally, she’s also prone to deliver gems like, “The only thing you need ‘for the time being’ is beer.” Not a role model.
Yet, adults are not the absolute source of conflict. They are not the only reason the series reaches what we’ll call a “melodramatic climax”—i.e. the emotional confrontations of characters, the full expressivity mentioned in past essays. Conflict otherwise arises from a gap between intention and outcome. A character intends to express their love to another, but winds up seeming distant or uninterested. A character intends to show up at an important event, but winds up missing it. So on. Among literary critics, this is referred to as: shit happens.
And shit certainly does happen in Sakurasou. Hollywood loves the “missing an event” trope, while anime often experiments with miscommunications and other gaps between intent and outcome. Miscommunication is precisely what causes one of the earliest melodramatic conflicts of the series. Sorata catches Nanami sleeping in the kitchen of Sakura Hall and she explains how she’s trying to work through her exhaustion and handle her workload. Sorata offers to help with her chores so that she can “get some rest.” Nanani acts stubborn and eventually yells out, “I don’t need your help.” Suddenly, all of her frustration is irrationally targeted at Sorata. She does not explain why she wants to work so hard or why she needs to reject his help. This is our gap in communication.
Sorata is trying to help out his friend and potential love interest, but Nanami interprets his words as coddling and forceful. Likewise, Nanami just wants to prove to herself that she can handle whatever responsibility is thrown at her, but she ends up fighting with Sorata. Nanami’s lack of honesty about her feelings leads to a miscommunication and, subsequently, melodramatic conflict. Note that there are no adults in the scene. Instead, Nanami’s inability to express herself is the result of an uncertain identity and an unconfirmed agency.
We can argue that shit happens in teen melodrama because teenagers are not confident in their identity and do not possess full agency of their lives, bodies, movement, etc. Again, we’ll get into specifics in the future. For now, we can see the huge role identity and agency play in Sakurasou’s conflicts. Mashiro’s artistic agency is threatened by the school board. Nanami and Sorata’s identities as creators is threatened by their failures to succeed—Nanami fails her decisive audition; Sorata’s music game is beaten out of the contest by another. Every major character struggles to realize who they are, what they are worth, and how they feel about others. These are probably the three biggest questions in terms of teenage identity (this isn’t a definite rule or anything, but it’s what I’ve noticed across many teen melodramas).
These questions are directly tackled at various points throughout the series. On Christmas Eve, Mashiro admits she wants to talk to Sorata but doesn’t know how because he always looks angry. “How could I make you happy?” she asks, and resolves that the only thing she thinks might help is to give him a baumkuchen—the same cake Sorata buys Mashiro earlier in the series, and the sweet she likes best. In this scene, Mashiro directly questions what her relationship to Sorata is. Why can’t she speak up when he is mad? What is her connection to him? How can she use that to make him feel better? “I didn’t think of you like this before,” she says. “I don’t understand it myself.”
Identity is actually the very first thing Mashiro and Sorata ever talk about. When they first meet, she asks him what color he wants to be. He answers that he isn’t sure, but for now he is “iridescent,” which he later describes as an “ambiguous” color. Sorata has no idea what he wants to do with his life at the start of the series and, even once he decides on game design, fails multiple times to properly express his vision. Interestingly, Sorata is a teen with great agency—he could escape Sakura Hall at any moment; he is not at risk of leaving Suimei; no one wants to control his art—but he’s at a loss when it comes to identity.
Mashiro herself answers the color question by saying she’s “probably white.” Notably, Mashiro struggles to express emotion or depict an emotional reality in her manga. Where Sorata can be considered lost, Mashiro is empty. But this essay will triple in length in we go down that path, so let’s leave our examples at that.
Anyway, lack of identity and agency inevitably lead to emotional or moral crises (more often emotional in teen melodrama). I view these crises as moments that force the characters to make decisions about identity or to take action to regain agency. For example, Sorata decides to be a game designer and blame his success or failure on his own efforts once confronted with the crisis of Mashiro losing her manga competition as a result of his leaving Sakura Hall. The crisis of Mashiro going missing on Christmas Eve leads to Sorata and Mashiro expressing their concerns and feelings towards each other more honestly than ever before. At the end of the day, this is still teen melodrama so usually the crises aren’t Earth-shattering. Usually.
To finally, finally tie everything back to that Molly Ringwald quote: honesty is what pushes teenagers towards a stable identity and the reclamation of emotional (and various else) agency. Now there are some problems with this idea, and boy oh boy is Okada aware of that. Yet, this is the mythos of teen melodrama. This is the abstract, semi-holy truth that teen melodrama adheres to. We’ll be talking about how Okada challenges this particular mythos next essay, in addition to seeing how she engages with melodramatic mythos at large in later essays. But if you take away anything from this post, let it be that, in teen melodrama, honesty is the path to a healthy identity and empowerment.
It is only once Nanami shows her weakness and insecurity to Sorata that she can resolve to return home and attempt to convince her father to let her pursue her dream. It is only once Misaki confesses her feelings to Jin that their relationship moves towards something serious. Crisis into honesty into growth. I think I can let the series’ final expression of emotion speak for itself. In Misaki’s words: “In the winter, we had some disagreements, and our relationships became strained. Our days weren’t always so sunny. There were times when we tried to run away and abandon everything because it hurt so much. But, because of those rainy days, I believe the small seeds of emotion sprouted and bloomed into new relationships.”
There’s a lot more going on with Sakurasou, but a lot of that is in regards to domestic melodrama. And I think we can all agree I’ve rambled enough today. This essay is more about introducing the modal elements of teen melodrama and pointing them out in an Okada show. We’ll be returning to Sakurasou in the future, but one step at a time. We now have a toolkit of modal elements to work with, and we’ve even discovered peculiarities that make Okada’s writing unique. In the next essay, we’ll apply what we discussed here and get meta with Kiznaiver!