Mari Okada: Modes of Melodrama (Family/Domestic 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 Fractale. Additional note: it is difficult to pin down who is responsible for what in the making of Fractale. I’ll detail that issue extensively later.
After a couple of quick looks at teen melodrama, I think it’s best to develop a second grouping of modal elements to exemplify how such groupings can differ. As with the first teen melodrama essay, I’ll mostly be talking about what elements give this grouping its identity and how we might recognize them in a specific anime. This time, I chose Fractale. It’s far from a simple example, but it most clearly demonstrates the important elements of this grouping. Keep in mind that I’m just detailing core differences and there will still be a lot of similarities because these two groupings are still melodrama at the end of the day.
That being said, I haven’t seen a true family melodrama (in terms of Elsaesser’s classification based on 50’s Hollywood films) in anime. Nor have I heard of any shows that seem to be classic family melodramas. I’m sure they exist somewhere—probably as a film rather than a TV show—but I imagine you can count them on one hand. Although the origin of my grouping of “family melodrama” is rather specific, the elements are absolutely influential in contemporary anime. The treatment of expression and oppression, the tropes, and the modal duality we discuss here originate from Thomas Elsaesser’s analysis of a specific trend, but can be reapplied here.
But enough babbling, let’s talk about family (aka domestic) melodrama.
A complex setting of “spheres” is to family melodrama what situation is to teen melodrama. The setting is typically the house/home, but can be generalized to the entire domestic sphere. We don’t need to take a strict, historical definition of “domestic sphere” and can instead consider it the house, home, or family, or any places/activities necessary to the upkeep of such. In practice, this means a heavy focus on houses, gardens, grocery stores, hotels, villages, etc. Anything closely related to the place you rest your head at night and take most of your meals. This isn’t to say you never have scenes elsewhere or that other places aren’t important—particularly in anime, where schools are abound—but melodramatic climaxes usually occur in those spaces or in relation to those spaces.
As the name implies, characters in a family melodrama are typically a family. But you can also call this grouping “domestic melodrama”, thus a collection of hotel staff could be the main characters just as easily. Whoever they are, the characters will be in some way invested in keeping, finding, or creating a home. Pressures on these characters will result from their current home or lack thereof. Everything kind of relates back to a vague idea of “home”—which is in essence our complex setting.
Home can be vaguely recognized as “the place where one belongs”, but can also be more strictly defined as where one sleeps and eats (as I did above). In Fractale, we can analyze Clain’s house, the Granitz’s village, the Granitz’s airship, and the Temple as the main domestic spaces. Clain’s father’s house is an interesting auxiliary to Clain’s house, but I’ll save that for an in-depth discussion of Fractale. As you can imagine, “belonging” somewhere has a lot to do with the people or lack of people around you. Over the course of the show, Clain slowly gains the trust and good will of the Granitz clan and eventually we could classify his home as: with the clan. This distinction balances on the idea that family determines what we can consider the domestic sphere. Thus, setting is inevitably tied up with character.
Family itself is always the result of bonds, either by blood/law or by trust. We get both in a variety of ways in Fractale. Phryne is technically related by blood to the Temple, and thus the religious hierarchy that resides there is her family. Clain, despite only living with their doppels, is obviously the child of his parents, and thus they are family. But he also grows to become family with the Granitz clan through communal effort. Likewise, Clain, Phryne, and Nessa grow close and form a family unit that temporarily resides in a traditional home (yet another auxiliary setting to explore). Family is not necessarily a union characters want to be a part of. Often it isn’t—that’s where we get our drama. In such cases, home is reduced to the place one eats and sleeps. Yet family can also be a union you willingly create. Then home is elevated to a place of belonging.
Yes, this is our good friend duality again. Next essay will look at this concept in depth since I keep bringing it up, but here’s the idea behind this particular instance. I can use “home” or “domestic sphere” to refer to the same idea, same place. But one place may be a whole lot cozier than the other. Clain’s countryside cottage with Phryne and Nessa is a home, but so is the Temple’s barren prison. This distinction is the source of family melodrama’s unique tension. The desire to escape one place (an undesirable home) and reach the other (a desirable home) will motivate most of our protagonists. Let’s get a little more specific. What exactly are the typical issues with undesirable homes and undesirable families?
I described oppressive settings (schools, mostly) in teen melodrama as being the result of adult authority more than anything else. While homes in family melodrama share the routine nature of schools, they tend to only signify oppression/repression resulting from social order and institutions. I like to think of schools in teen melodrama as labor camps ruled over by a sunglass-wearing warden, and homes in family melodrama as tight cages or shells. Recall Douglas Sirk’s quote about the raging emotions hidden in the harsh colors in his movies. There are no outlets for expression and no satisfactions to be found in any available actions or reactions. To sum domestic life up in one word: claustrophobia.
As a result, family melodramas lack (or at least intend to lack) a true villain. Every character is a victim of society or existence, even those who appear to cause others to suffer. A character may be the perpetrator of “evil” acts, but they are not “evil” people. As Elsaesser puts it: “The critique—the questions of ‘evil,’ of responsibility—is firmly placed on a social and existential level, away from…private motives and individualized psychology” (457).
Though we can trace specific acts of oppression or “evil” to specific characters, we are not meant to place responsibility onto those characters. While it is the principal’s individual greed that leads to his/her oppression of teens, oppressors in family melodrama are not uniquely evil. The takeaway is supposed to be that anyone could wind up in the oppressor’s position. This is because of the presence of rigid social rules/roles and the moral obligations those rules/roles carry.
In this way, all characters are victims of circumstance. Evil acts are usually the result of desperation or forced conformity. Even if we primarily sympathize with one oppressed character, we are capable of feeling sorry for everyone. We think: if the dice had rolled a little differently, everyone could have wound up happy. This wording is critical here—tragedy in family melodrama is often the result of external circumstances. To take things to their logical extreme, the home is the ultimate victim. We can choose to consider the home—and the very construct of a family—corrupted (Elsaesser would say “exploited”) by rigidly applied rules. You can’t choose who your lawful relatives are or how you are related to them. Yet these circumstances can be used against you: to keep you from attaining power if you are born a daughter rather than a son; to control your right to sexual or marital consent if you are a young woman; to force you into a particular occupation or duty if you are a man. So on. At their worst, familial bonds are primarily a method of controlling people.
Fractale engages with this tragedy directly at times, though it strays at others. In Sirk’s melodramas (the quintessential family melodramas, probably) I find myself increasingly sympathetic towards the supposed oppressors with each rewatch. After rewatching Fractale, I’ve yet to find any reason to be sympathetic towards Barrot the priest. He is unredeemable—a rapist and maniac apparently victimized by nothing. He resembles the individualized principal in his evil. This isn’t strange itself—I would argue it’s only the best melodramas that manage to convincingly portray all characters as victims. Fractale does come close to this goal, since other members of the Temple are made sympathetic, most notably the Archpriestess Moeran.
Moeran experiences an emotional breakdown after being confronted with the fact she is the “maiden who wasn’t loved by the world” and Phryne is the incarnation of the original Phryne that is most “beloved”. Moeran was cloned, cloistered, bred, and likely abused in the name of becoming the “key” to the Fractale System, only to be abandoned in favor of a younger incarnation of herself. We as viewers do not approve of her strangling Phryne, but we can understand the act as a result of Moeran being a victim of systems beyond her control. It is the awful feeling of inadequacy in her role and the pain of being replaced that causes Moeran to breakdown as such. And this is certainly a breakdown—not a diabolical plan. It is a collapse under pressure.
This is part of the corruption of the home I mentioned earlier. We have in Moeran a mother/older sister figure who suffers in her assigned role and abides by its rules, only to find she has been exploited. She is cheated by the same societal structure she suffered for. Interestingly, she is replaced by a younger and more “beloved” woman, which strikes so close to the heart of family melodrama. In these melodramas, we find people eternally dissatisfied by luxury because of deep-rooted insecurity; we find husbands jealous of familial outsiders who seem better suited to be man-of-the-house; we find women forced to stand by abusive or obsessive husbands; we find children who are victims of favoritism or neglect. This is where the major tropes of family melodrama come from. My dad wants my friend to be his son instead of me. I’m not able to bear a child/impregnate my wife. You get the idea.
In all these conflicts and tropes are the common threads of desire and satisfaction. Or, from another perspective, the desire for satisfaction. Characters want to feel good, loved, or accepted, but cannot.
There is something brilliant in this setup of domestic conflict and the bondage of familial relations. Family melodramas don’t doom all their characters to eternal suffering—there is always the hope for redemption or salvation. Characters can still reach the benevolent ideal of a “home”, of a family built from love and not obligation. The reason so many characters don’t is because they are unwilling to give up or escape from the very structures or circumstances that torture them.
Elsaesser puts it better than I ever could. He claims the “masochism of melodrama” is driven by a “network of external forces directed oppressingly inward and with which the characters themselves unwittingly collude to become [its] agents” (457). The obvious response to a network of victimizing social structures would be (if you are the victim) to reject them. Yet, in so many of the classic family melodramas, only the main heroine ever seems to do so. Why?
It’s a topic for debate, but I find myself agreeing with Elsaesser (as usual). The other characters fail to realize that they are victims and that they will never find the happiness they crave as long as they abide by the systems that exploit them. Written on the Wind exemplifies this concisely (semi-spoilers incoming): a working woman winds up marrying a rich man and entering his wealthy household full of dysfunctional and ruined family members. Eventually realizing the horrible tragedy of this household, the woman leaves in order to save herself. The wealthy—let’s say aristocratic—family only knows this luxuriously oppressive lifestyle and cannot realize that it is the source of their suffering. How could they? They have all they could ever need, so why would they benefit by abandoning that lifestyle?
You may already be seeing parallels to some of the Fractale-addicted towns in Fractale, and that is exactly the road we’ll be going down next essay. This is the point where things get complicated and potentially political…okay, that’s not true. Definitely political.
Next time: our first look into conservative/progressive duality in melodrama!
The works referenced in this post are as follows:
Elsaesser, Thomas – “Tales of Sound and Fury: Observations on the Family Melodrama” (1972)
You can contact me for assistance in finding Elsaesser’s essay.