The Explosions of Anime Melodrama
Spoilers for Your Name, Toradora!, Kuzu no Honkai, Mashiroiro Symphony.
International record-breaker Your Name features plenty of destruction, including the exploding of an electric substation towards the end of the film. This moment stands out not only for the fact that it is the first instance of heightened action in the movie, but also for how it represents the communicative struggles of the movie’s characters. The scenes that involve Mitsuha’s father and bookend the comet sequence provide an interesting glimpse into a major motif of the melodramatic mode.
Before the comet strikes, Taki–through the life of Mitsuha–attempts to explain Itomori’s peril to Mitsuha’s father. Of course, he doesn’t believe Taki and says all this “nonsense” about the comet is just “madness” his daughter inherited from the Miyamizu family. There’s a lot packed into this scene, but the key point is that what Taki tries to express to Mitsuha’s father is rejected. He is unable to communicate his fears, desires, and knowledge to the mayor. As a result of this, he, Tessie, and Sayaka have no choice but to proceed with their plan to blow up the substation. Because verbal communication is not an option, an explosive physical expression seems like the only way to save the town.
However, this plan quickly falls apart. The power goes down throughout the town and Sayaka is able to broadcast her emergency warning, but ultimately none of the residents evacuate. Tessie and Sayaka are caught by their parents and the plan fails. The physical expression of Taki’s fears did bring some attention to his emotions, but could not actually resolve them. At this point, all seems lost until Mitsuha takes control of her timeline again. She returns to her father’s office to attempt to communicate once more. With the emotional awareness she and Taki both gained through their twilight rendezvous, Mitsuha is able to verbally express herself to her father. He receives her message successfully and the town is evacuated and its residents saved.
This sequence from Your Name is a very pure example of a major melodramatic motif. Narratively, it follows a simple structure: verbal communication fails; a physical outburst is chosen as an alternative or reaction; then finally a renewed verbal expression is able to communicate what the aforementioned could not. We find this narrative motif repeated throughout the melodramatic canon as far back as the 18th century. Although we tend to associate melodramas with crying and talking, explosive physical outbursts are as much a staple of the mode as teardrops are. Melodramas are, at their core, bombastic dramas.
To give due diligence to the history of violence, explosions, and competition in melodrama, let’s take a brief look at some historic examples. Famously, René-Charles Guilbert de Pixérécourt brought trained (and not-so-trained) dogs on the stage, utilized giant backdrops and stage scenery, and supposedly set off actual explosions on the stage. These explosive physical expressions might seem out-of-place in love or family-focused stories, but were used to accent the emotional expressions or frustrations of characters or to arbitrate life-threatening stakes. And considering Pixérécourt dramatized volcanic eruptions, you could call melodramas the original disaster movies.
As with any technical feat in the arts, other playwrights and directors wanted to match pace or outdo their peers–such as Pixérécourt. Thus, melodramatic stagecraft reached a point where impressive (read: dangerous or absurd) stage effects became commonplace. This understandably had a lasting effect on stage plays as a whole–Ben Hur’s late 19th-century production featured a live chariot race that had horses run along treadmills–but this tropic lineage eventually transcended artistic medium. It didn’t take long for Hollywood melodramas to incorporate gunshots, bar fights, and car crashes as standard practice. Physicality–some grand moment of visual action–became a trope of melodrama. However, this wasn’t just a standard in the West. Anime melodramas are as physical as any Victorian stage play.
Toradora! makes for a good example and allows us to investigate the purpose these moments of physicality serve in melodramatic stories. There are a couple of climatic moments to choose from (each arc tends to have one major physical outburst), but Episode 16’s fight between Taiga and Sumire is the simplest to connect to melodrama’s overarching motif.
After learning that Sumire will be leaving to study abroad in America, Kitamura begins acting in all sorts of strange ways: dyeing his hair, refusing to run for student council president, and being generally sulky. He feels like there’s no point in confessing his feelings to her and instead just wants to “destroy everything” he’s built in his life. Kitamura explains that Sumire herself “never said a word to [him].” At this point, there are two uncommunicated feelings–Kitamura’s love for Sumire and whatever Sumire feels about leaving Kitamura behind.
Eventually, Kitamura is convinced by Sumire (and Ryuuji + Taiga) to run for president, and naturally he wins. The structural trope of melodrama begins during his acceptance speech. As you’d expect from a melodrama, he tries to pour out all of his hidden feelings towards Sumire regardless of who else might hear. What matters most to any melodramatic hero/heroine (for Kitamura is the hero of this particular arc) is that they are heard–one way or another.
But, as with Mitsuha’s father in Your Name, Sumire rejects Kitamura’s attempt at communication. She even turns his confession into a joke, making it as if he had never said anything at all. His earnest words were turned ethereal. This rejection of communication is one of the ultimate conflicts of melodrama. As we saw in Your Name, a failure to communicate instantly raises the dramatic stakes by denying a dramatic resolution for any of the characters. In Your Name, Taki is denied the chance to save a Mitsuha of the past; in Toradora!, Kitamura is denied the chance for romantic closure and a genuine goodbye.
In melodrama, a failure to communicate through words inevitably leads to the physical alternative. Frustrated with Sumire’s refusal to communicate with Kitamura, Taiga rushes to attack her, to force her to communicate. Sumire repeatedly calls Taiga and Kitamura “fools” during the fight, to which Taiga responds by calling Sumire a “coward.” Where Sumire believes being “honest to a fault” will only cause you trouble, Taiga idealizes the ability to be honest with the people you care about. She struggles to do so, but it’s still her ideal. Obviously, those opposing viewpoints are physicalized by the classroom brawl.
Taiga and Sumire attempt to force-feed each other their beliefs through their punches, but that will never bring about resolution. Although Taiga says she wants to do “all she can” for Kitamura, beating Sumire to a pulp isn’t going to provide any closure. Likewise, beating Taiga to the ground won’t allow Sumire to feel any more confident that she made the right decision by refusing to hear Kitamura out. It isn’t until Sumire starts talking and letting out her emotions that she, Taiga, or Kitamura begin to find any peace. Finally Kitamura gets the response he needs, Sumire relieves the burden she’s been enduring, and the two reach an understanding. After Kitamura hears Sumire’s truth, he can send her off with a smile and continue living his own life.
Of course, anime melodramas don’t stick strictly to this structure. Sometimes physicality can’t even be pinned down in terms of narrative events. I’ve talked before about how Kuzu no Honkai uses sex as its main physical expression, but that doesn’t mean it necessarily follows the same pattern as Toradora! (in terms of story arc). Sex–the show’s physicality–is woven throughout the story. It shows up more as a developmental state than a narrative climax.
For example, we can view Hanabi and Mugi’s relationship as having two states: sexual and nonsexual. When their relationship is built off their sexual interactions–as is the case for the first half of the show–it is because they cannot yet communicate their emotions to those they love. Hanabi and Mugi turn to each other sexually for the sole purpose of relieving their romantic frustrations, which is why they consistently imagine their would-be lovers during sex at the start of the show. The logic of this is the same as Toradora! (because emotional communication is stifled between one character and another, that character turns to the physical as an alternative), but there is no plot point that pushes Hanabi and Mugi towards sex. Their sustained sexual relationship, and the fact that it ceases once they do express themselves verbally, suggests their frustrations are the result of a state of being rather than a specific event.
When Hanabi and Mugi build their relationship out of their inability to confess their true feelings, all it creates is further distress. They each struggle to be honest with those that love them (Ecchan and Moca), thus offering false hope to lovers that they will never truly reciprocate feelings for. Because Mugi won’t admit that he loves someone else and won’t decide whether his relationship with Hanabi is an earnest one or not, Moca convinces herself she can wedge between Mugi and those half-baked feelings. She offers up the sexual relief that she knows Mugi wants, saying it’s okay if Mugi doesn’t love her. Because Mugi is living in the same self-deceptive state as Moca, he tells himself it’s okay to take what Moca offers. Ultimately, his state of distress leaves even this relationship half-baked. He rejects Moca late enough to destroy her dream, but early enough to leave her in a state of limbo. Mugi tells her she is “special” and tries to keep her around without admitting the truth of his feelings to her.
It is not until the very end of the show, when Hanabi and Mugi have owned up to all their emotions and ceased their physical substitution of love, that they or any character around them can reach closure. In the show’s final episode, a boy from her class confesses to Hanabi and she (after nearly being dragged away by Ecchan) clearly rejects him while acknowledging his ability to reach out to her. Hanabi knows how difficult it can be to express your feelings to the one you love and how painful the alternatives to that expression can be, so she makes sure to give her classmate closure. She doesn’t want to allow herself or anyone she interacts with to fall into that distressful limbo state again.
Hanabi and Mugi’s relationship itself reaches closure in the final episode as well. After weeks of wondering whether they can find an honest love for each other again, the pair finally meet by chance and resolve any lingering doubts. Hanabi tells Mugi that she can finally “put [her feelings] into words now.” She congratulates him on confessing to Akane as well, then the two talk and reach a resolution. As Hanabi herself puts it: “I felt that for the first time we avoided physical comfort and tried using our words instead.” They make a decision that, although all their complicated feelings and fears of loneliness remain, they have to say goodbye to each other. They are only able to do so because they listen to each other, express themselves, and realize that they won’t find in each other the “real love” they are looking for.
Although I can write all of this about how anime capitalizes on this trope, that doesn’t mean every anime melodrama necessarily includes violence or sex as an alternative to communication, nor does it mean that lacking physicality precludes a show from being defined as a melodrama.
In Mashiroiro Symphony, physicality is decidedly lacking in one of the show’s most climatic moments. Things work out differently in the visual novel of course, but the adaptation remains a melodrama and succeeds in executing this specific emotional arc. One member of the Nuko Club, Sana, has a crush on a new member of the club, Shingo. Unfortunately for Sana, she has a romantic competitor in her upperclassman and close friend Miu. This standard melodramatic set up plays out as expected, with Sana unable to express herself to Shingo because of Miu’s interest in him and Shingo’s apparent love for Miu. As Sana explains, she doesn’t confess to Shingo because he is “someone [she] want[s] to be happy.” Since Shingo and Miu have mutual feelings, she keeps her own love hidden.
This does not result in a physical event (violent, competitive, or sexual), nor does Sana seek out any kind of physical alternative (this doesn’t necessarily need to be sexual–it could also take the form of “putting your all into a sport”, for example). Still, if those emotions aren’t being verbally expressed, melodrama demands they get released somehow. The alternative to a physical outburst is a displacement of emotion. Displacement is what Sana resorts to in Mashiroiro Symphony.
Despite being allergic to cats, Sana forcefully takes ownership of the kittens that the Nuko Club recently became responsible for. One of those kittens is unsubtly named Shingo and is an obvious target for Sana’s displaced emotions. She talks to Cat Shingo like a lover to tease Real Shingo, and in a very telling line claims: “I’m not talking to you [Shingo], I’m talking to [Cat] Shingo.” Sana attempts to relieve her frustrated emotions through displacement, acting out fantasies with Cat Shingo behind a facade of facetiousness. Sana exclaims, “I love Shingo,” but quickly clarifies that she means Cat Shingo. This is a fun play on tsundere tropes, but also a clear sign of displaced emotions.
As Miu and Shingo grow closer and Sana realizes that none of her false expressions of emotion will convey to Shingo how she really feels, a divide begins to ruin the club atmosphere. In the same way physical outbursts only provide short-term relief, displacement only avoids conflict for so long. Sana inevitably has to face reality when Miu and Shingo become lovers beyond a doubt. Under a downpour of rain, Sana has no choice but to cry and suffer as all the emotions she never expressed burn up inside of her. As with the threat of Itomori’s demise, melodramas always have a warning for us: a failure to communicate will inevitably lead to suffering. Sometimes melodramas merely hold the threat of pain over our heads, other times they let it pour down and drench us. Mashiroiro Symphony is of the latter type.
Melodrama is a mode borne out of a rebellion against silence and silencing. The voices of writers and the characters they write are the sharpest swords and loudest explosions in the melodramatic mode. Time and time again, melodramas show violence to be a useless tool towards resolution and explosions a useless means towards revolution. The other extreme–a lack of both action and speech–is no better. Where violence projects emotions in an outwardly destructive manner, displacement projects those same emotions in an inwardly destructive manner. In melodrama, the only way homes and souls survive in one piece is through the expression and reception of emotion. Even if our love is not returned, or our hopes are not realized, we need to communicate those feelings. In a phrase: the pain of rejection is far better than the rejection of pain.
Some of Pixérécourt’s plays can be read in Pixérécourt: Four Melodramas (Martin E. Segal Theatre Center Publishing, 2002).
Further details on Pixérécourt’s stagecraft can be read in Peter Brook’s The Melodramatic Imagination (Yale University Press, 1976), pg. 45-48.