Mari Okada: Modes of Melodrama (Kiznaiver)
Now that we’ve established a melodramatic basis and looked at the particulars of teen melodrama, we can start to criticize those particulars and flesh out the complexities of melodrama. Mari Okada herself engages in this criticism via her writing of Kiznaiver. I think it’s fair to assume that, after many years of writing for and adapting melodramatic projects, Okada has some opinion on the mode or has learned something from it. This might sound like an endgame essay topic (like we’re looking at the culmination of Okada’s career), but discussing this early on allows unique insight into the melodramatic mode and why Okada would be continually asked to/interested in working on these projects.
Digibro explained Kiznaiver as The Breakfast Club told in the style of Cabin in the Woods, and I think that’s a hilariously accurate description. Kiznaiver is quintessential teen melodrama manipulated and ramped up to the point the narrative doesn’t make any sense if you stop to think about it. Yet, that’s why it’s so interesting. (Side note: if you haven’t seen either of those movies, do so immediately. The Breakfast Club is my favorite film of all time and Cabin in the Woods is one wild ride). But anyway…
In Kiznaiver, emotions are the primary “object” at stake. This is spelled out to us via the Kizna System which, though beginning as a technological mirroring of physical pain, eventually translates into empathy for emotional pain and emotions in general. This transition starts when the Kiznaivers feel Maki’s guilt and suffering over her lost mangaka partner, but grows to even “[connect them] positively through love and friendship or whatever,” according to Hisomu. For our purposes, we don’t yet need to dig past Hisomu’s vagueness about positivity. We can keep it simple and say the Kizna System aims to undermine the repression/failed expression of emotion and bring about a melodramatic climax. If characters feel the emotions of those around them, then that skips the need to vocalize repressed emotion.
The irony (purposeful irony) is that Noriko and the Kizna researchers still need to force the Kiznaivers to express themselves. In the first experiment, Noriko wants the Kiznaivers to “reveal everything” and to insure that happens she threatens to kill them all. While that’s an effective means of reaching a melodramatic climax, I’m not sure you can credit the result to the Kizna System. Additionally, she has to employ tricks like unleashing dogs on Tenga or putting posters of a fat Yuta up to force the issue. These are hyperdrive versions of what would be longer arcs in other teen melodrama. By Episode 2, we’ve learned everyone’s secret and even had a love confession! Kiznaiver purposefully operates on max intensity.
Even the settings of teen melodrama are forced past their usual context. At one point, the Kiznaivers are physically trapped in their school by a typhoon. This goes beyond the inherent routine of a student and again into that manipulated extreme created by the Kizna researchers. It is not merely the circumstances of being a child in an adult-ruled society that bind the Kiznaivers to school, but a potential natural disaster. Via these manipulated and meta extremes, Kiznaiver industrializes, politicizes, and weaponizes the struggle of teenagers against their de facto authority figures.
Woo, that’s a lot of –izes! Most of this is the result of Sugomori City being constructed purely to house the Kizna System and its research. Thus not only are the Kiznaivers forced to stay in school and around each other, but their very home is simply a construction that serves the will of the Kizna researchers. Kiznaiver extends the oppressive setting of routine—the places that are inescapable because we have to visit them daily—to an entire city. Sugomori City is quite literally a model created for scientific experiment, with the subject of the experiment being teen melodrama.
Furthermore, while the authority of teen melodrama usually resides with parents and principals, Kiznaiver forces its teenagers to directly interact with a government (a government of adults, naturally). The researchers and funders behind the Kizna System govern the city and control the law enforcement in the form of the Gomorin mascots. The goal of this government is to achieve true world peace, which is a complicated mission that we’ll talk about in future essays on melodrama’s “progressive” appearance.
The pseudo-government behind the Kizna System creates an unusual relationship between the teenage characters and their de facto authority figures. One would expect the teenager in melodrama to lament that their parents don’t understand or value their emotions. However, in Kiznaiver, the relationship is more: Mom and Dad (the government here) eradicated my emotions. At least in the case of Katsuhira and the original Kiznaiver children. This was supposedly an accident, but the adults are at fault all the same. The researchers were willing to round up another batch of children even after the failure of their first experiment.
Typically, antagonistic adults don’t acknowledge the emotions of teenagers in melodrama. More impure desires for wealth or power override any empathy—this is the prototypical principal who wants to be king of his little castle/school at the expense of the students. We saw this in Sakurasou with the school board’s concern for reputation before the community built by Sakura Hall. Kiznaiver plays with this trope by making its adults over-acknowledge the emotions of the Kiznaivers. However, this leads to the children becoming casualties of an adult system much in the same way as traditional teen melodrama. What adults in Kiznaiver share with the impure parents and principals is a neglect of a teenager’s emotional agency.
In the case of the adults who don’t care, the agency of teenagers is pushed aside because teenage emotions and desires are not relevant to the adults’ goals. They only care about acquiring power. In the case of Kiznaiver, the agency of teenagers is pushed aside because those emotions and desires are too relevant. Emotion and pain are the key ingredients in the plans of adults (and later Noriko), so the adults can’t leave those ingredients in the hands of teenagers. They seek total control of those emotions. In both cases, the teenagers are stripped of the ability to pursue their own identity and are expected to conform to the systems constructed by the adults around them. It just happens that the Kizna researchers want to manipulate emotions rather than ignore them. All the same, this over-acknowledgment interferes with the ability of teenagers to answer the three melodramatic questions.
Last essay, I determined three major questions that teenage characters struggle to answer: who you are, what you’re worth, and how you feel. In Sakurasou, characters look for answers to these questions in art and by living life in a generally creative way (making art, living in Sakura Hall, etc.). This is how melodramatic stories are usually constructed—“I want to explore themes of XYZ and I’m going to do it in the melodramatic mode.” Thus, all of those questions find their answers within the general themes of XYZ. Anohana is structured this way (exploring loss through melodrama) as well as Hourou Musuko (exploring gender through melodrama). I’m oversimplifying, but hopefully you get the point.
Kiznaiver is a little different. When we ask “What is Kiznaiver exploring?” or “Where do characters (especially Noriko and Katsuhiro) find their answers?” we kind of have to say melodrama itself. “Friendship” is certainly a focus, but as Katsuhiro explains in the last episode, that’s not quite right. Noriko credits the bonds of the original Kiznaiver children to the Kizna System (the extreme empathy system), and Tenga counters by claiming friendship brought them closer together. Katsuhiro rejects both explanations, yet can’t provide an answer himself.
Honoka presents a sort of middle ground—friendship itself is not omnipotent, but it is the result of a powerful force of melodrama. This powerful melodrama isn’t the Kizna System and, in fact, the Kizna System destroys the delicate frustration of melodrama. Noriko presents the Kizna System as a shortcut past misunderstandings, but Honoka declares that we grow closer “because we don’t understand.” Because we don’t have the answers to the above questions. Honoka claims that overthinking the words/actions of others, doubting yourself, and struggling to connect with those around you are actually the reasons why we eventually connect with other people. Thus, we can see how Kiznaiver grapples with the very meta of melodrama.
If we consider the Kizna researchers as would-be artists creating characters and stories, then Okada can make statements about real artists—particularly herself. To simplify things, consider Noriko as a writer and the Kiznaivers as the microcosm storyworld she is creating. She assigns the Kiznaivers archetypes—such as “muscle-headed thug” for Tenga—because archetypal characters are a mainstay of melodrama. She forces (writes) them into particular situations where they end up having certain interactions typical of melodrama. She’s the master hand, the author. Thinking like this, Noriko as a character becomes a symbol for melodramatic writers in general (or perhaps just the general attraction people may feel to melodramatic stories). Okada can then criticize herself, and the artistic mode she so often works in, through this character.
Noriko believes that the Kizna System—a system that brutally forces melodramatic climaxes—will make people happy and create a utopia for them. Her claims about Sugmori being a “peaceful and happy garden” contradict the idea that repressing emotion will maintain peace. Remember that in our introduction to melodrama, I claimed that characters fail to act out of fear of disrupting social order. Noriko counters by saying the release of emotion is the only action that can lead to social order. Anything less—to her—creates a façade on the verge of shattering. During her speech atop Sugomori’s bridge, she repeats over and over that the Kiznaivers grew closer “because of the Kizna System,” that the only reason anyone ever liked her was “because of the Kizna System.”
As discussed earlier, Katsuhiro argues that “that had nothing to do with the Kizna System.” Here is where Honoka’s explanation of friendship comes in. According to Honoka, friendship is the result of misunderstanding/failure to communicate. I’ve been using a lot of long quotes in this essay series, so here’s another from Honoka herself:
“It’s because we don’t understand [each other] that we wonder what the other is thinking, and try so desperately to understand every word they say. You end up thinking too much about the other person, and being close to them becomes painful, so you try to distance yourself. I believe you become friends with someone by doing that over and over…”
To practice cliché: you can’t have light without darkness. Distance breeds empathy. Distance allows for emotions and expression to mean something. Imagine the endgame of the Kizna System—you understand every thought and feeling of those around you immediately and clearly. Would there be any point in communicating ever? If everything is understood, why bother speaking your mind? Why would you care to reach out to your friend if their emotions are omnipresent in your own mind? The Kizna System’s final extreme is the complete passage of emotion from one person to another. In the case of the original Kiznaivers, this leads to a blanched idleness.
I don’t want to dive too far down this hole, but Japanese philosopher D.T. Suzuki wrote that “the enlightenment experience does not annihilate anything,” referring to the Buddhist distinction between suffering and nirvana (46). Enlightenment and nirvana are not achieved by getting rid of suffering, but by accepting it. Suffering is a necessary part of the experience that leads to nirvana. Likewise, frustrated communication is a necessary part of connecting with others.
That frustration—that gap between intent and outcome, and between sender and receiver—incites people to reach out to one another. Without that effort to understand or make oneself understood, our connection to others is as shallow as enlightenment achieved without suffering. If you are at peace without having suffered, how true a peace could you have found? If you are connected to someone without having first misunderstood them, how true is your connection?
While I don’t think Kiznaiver or Okada is actually accessing Buddhism or Suzuki here, we can draw parallels between “suffering” and “frustration”. These are forces that block us from achieving inner peace/nirvana, but both Buddhism and Okada’s melodramatic philosophy urge us to seek balance. If Okada makes any statement via Kiznaiver, it is that we shouldn’t seek to purge or destroy frustration, but to overcome it. If we assume that Okada is—in some way—reflecting on her involvement in melodramatic stories and the experiences she’s had bringing those stories to life, then this is quite powerful. Honoka’s conclusion is an affirmation of the melodramatic mode as a truthful and meaningful mode.
Indeed, once Noriko releases the emotions and pain of the original Kiznaivers, they begin to regain their energy and color. Katsuhiro and Noriko begin to grow closer as well. Noriko tells Katsuhiro that she has “been wanting to think a lot” because she wants to “truly know” what Katsuhiro and the other Kiznaivers are thinking. She says this as if, despite knowing all their emotions and pain, she didn’t know anything resembling the truth of those emotions. This points to a concept I want to explore in future essays, and makes a good bookend for this analysis of Kiznaiver.
The messages we receive from others—after the expression of those messages has been frustrated; after the person speaking has mulled over what to say for far too long; after we’ve twisted the message with our own interpretation—are more “true” or “honest” than if we had plucked the same thoughts directly out of someone’s head. There is something in that burdensome mediation of deciding what to say, struggling to say it, and having what you said interpreted that speaks to an external truth. Artists describe this often: you can’t fully understand what’s in your own head until you put it to paper/canvas/song/etc. Truth—even personal truth—exists outside the person.
This is where melodrama gets it power—a belief in the beauty and importance of all facets of communication (both positive and negative). Along with conservative/progressive duality, this belief is probably the most important element of melodrama we’ll discuss. The truth is uttered. If there is one thing Kiznaiver teaches us about Okada’s writing and melodrama in general, that is it. Truth exists only when uttered. In melodrama—particularly Okada’s work—there is significant emphasis on that specific act of utterance. In so many moments of Noriko’s dialogue, we see Okada setting this up: “Words are futile in answering your question. The only way is to be bonded.” Noriko’s entire character is built upon this foundation of taking shortcuts past utterance, and Okada criticizes this perspective so harshly in the series finale. Sorry Nico, friendship isn’t omnipotent, but words are.
As always, we have really only scratched the surface. I have hardly even mentioned color, romance, identity, or many other aspects of Kiznaiver that we could analyze through the lens of melodrama. We’ll get to all that in due time. Okada has happened to work on a lot of shows I find extremely interesting, which is part of why I decided to limit the scope of this series to shows she was involved in rather than any anime melodrama. Even with that limitation, we still have a dozen shows to discuss and endless analytical possibilities.
For now, I’ll end by saying I think Mari Okada sought to utter some truth with Kiznaiver. She thought over all her experiences, mediated her message through these characters, and waited for us to “listen”. For this reason, I find Kiznaiver to be both the culmination of the experiences of her career and a fantastic starting point for analyzing that career.
The D.T. Suzuki text referenced in this essay can be read here.