What It Means to Speak: Melodramatic Articulation in Anime
This essay contains significant spoilers for Toradora!, The Anthem of the Heart, and A Silent Voice.
In her autobiography, From Truant to Anime Screenwriter, Mari Okada faces the quintessential melodramatic dilemma: how can I speak aloud what I feel inside?
“I’m hopelessly inadequate with words,” she writes. “Whenever I try to say something, the words will clog up in my throat… Until I became a scenario writer, I’d thought that it was solitary work where you could carefully pick the right words to use and express your feelings perfectly. But that’s not how it was at all. Being an anime scenario writer means grappling with people. You can’t just write your feelings in text; you have to say the words out loud.”
When we imagine the pivotal conflicts and climaxes of melodramas, it is easy to gloss over the mechanics through which those scenes are expressed. We think of love confessions, emotional outbursts, and flowing tears, but always with a focus on their emotional weight and register. This is where the negative characterization of melodrama is often grounded–its “hysterics” and “manipulations”. Rarely do we examine the construction of such scenes in terms of their specific, observable actions and reactions. In short, what are the characters actually doing during these confessions and outbursts?
Closer analysis reveals these conflicts and climaxes are most often resolved or engineered via speech. For now, let’s specify “speech” as vocal articulation for a few reasons (although I’ll complicate that claim later):
Most importantly, melodrama as a narrative mode has its roots in performance on the stage. Playwrights and stage actors have many tools at their disposal–from gesture to facial expression to score–but the most readily identifiable, the most immune to misrepresentation or ignorance, of these tools is speech. What the actors speak (i.e. what is written in the script) is the dramatic element least likely to change from performance to performance or director to director, and the most likely to be remembered and discussed by the audience. We quote Shakespeare because his dialogue is the most content-laden and permanent feature of his plays. Thus, the spoken word becomes iconic.
Speech is also important for its relation to truth in melodrama, specifically the emotional truth of characters. To keep things simple, a melodrama can be split into two parts: 1) when the truth of emotions and relationships is either hidden or overlooked and 2) when truth is subsequently expressed and acknowledged in full. We find the first part of a melodrama is decidedly mute of truth (or deaf to truth). Imagine the dramatic or dreadful musical score, the questions caught in the throat, the characters clutching at their hearts while watching a love interest go, or–infuriatingly–the confessions misinterpreted by another. Akin to dramatic irony, the audience understands the emotions of a character despite that character’s inability to articulate those emotions within the storyworld.
The second part of a melodrama often witnesses the overcoming of (though not always triumph over) those inarticulations and miscommunications. Emotion–the elephant in the room–is put into conversation, and conflict is resolved for better or worse. The words characters have wanted to say all along finally come out. You can imagine the tension in melodrama as one long delay of an inevitable: “We need to talk.”
A Basis for Articulation in Toradora!
Toradora! makes for a useful opening example because of its repeated, explicit emphasis on articulation of the truth. In the show’s climatic arc, Ryuji quite literally mutes himself of the truth of his love for Taiga. This muting of the truth is made explicit by his plan to tell Taiga that Kitamura saved her from the previous arc’s blizzard. Simultaneously, he feigns deafness to her own semi-conscious confession of loving him. The titular lovers have denied themselves the truth, but that soon changes.
Minori recognizes the lie (the inarticulation) upheld by Ryuji and Taiga, and decides the truth needs to be expressed. Minori, as many characters do throughout the show, focuses on what Taiga “said.” She demands Taiga “just tell us.” However, Ryuji and Kitamura stick to their fabrication that “nobody heard a thing” of her confession. Here, Minori explicitly calls Ryuji out as a “liar” and demands that Taiga be “honest.” As Minori and company trap Ryuji and Taiga in the classroom–the arena of truth–we witness how brutally painful it is for Taiga to attempt to articulate her feelings. Her screams are like a representation of the inner turmoil of extreme stage fright or social anxiety, though she is simply being asked to tell the truth.
The dust doesn’t settle on this conflict until Taiga resolves to tell Ryuji her honest feelings that night, asking him to stop her if she tries to run away again. Finally, the pair do confess to each other. The show even makes a joke about which one of them should get to articulate their feelings first. They no longer refrain from speaking their feelings or their hopes for the future (i.e. mute themselves), and they no longer deny the truths that they have heard each other speak (i.e. stay deaf to each other).
The Literalization of Muteness/Deafness
These elements of muteness and deafness have been literalized since the time of melodrama’s inception. The playwright de Pixerécourt’s early melodrama “Coelina, or The Child of Mystery” (1800) features a mute hero, and Holcroft’s on-the-nose “Deaf and Dumb” (1801) a mute-deaf one. Such plays complicate the value placed on articulation, often by contrasting what Kate Nesbit describes as the “emotional purity and communicative immediacy” of nonvocal expressions with the potentially deceptive or ineffectual nature of vocal expressions. Mari Okada’s The Anthem of the Heart operates within this melodramatic tradition.
Early in the film, Jun is identified as a “chatterbox,” a notably negative descriptor of “one who speaks.” Her consistent articulation of truth reveals her father’s infidelity, and that infidelity results in her parents’ divorce. After this revelation, Jun’s mother tells her she “mustn’t say anymore,” and her father places all the blame of his actions and their consequences upon her articulation. Threatened with a life of similar emotional pain, Jun agrees to seal away her voice. Effectively, she is muted.
Although melodramas like “Coelina” privilege muteness by a simplistic contrast of pure and sympathetic heroes with deceptive and devious villains, The Anthem of the Heart strikes a more nuanced balance, without the moral binary between speech (whether associated with good or evil) and muteness (likewise). The opening incident of the film, the infidelity, could never be caused/avoided by Jun’s decision to speak or not–regardless of how other characters may try to thrust that blame upon her. Speech is not inherently positive or negative. Nonspeech is not inherently positive or negative. The film poses the question: “Why should speaking be necessarily better than not?”
We see this evidenced by Jun’s constant desire to speak in spite of the pain it causes her. She wants to make the truth of her feelings known, and finds that alternative methods of doing so (those supposedly pure nonvocal expressions) leave her unsatisfied or misinterpreted. She is unable to properly represent herself or her feelings, such as not wanting to be on the Charity Committee or later wanting to produce a musical, without some help from spoken words. Discovering that she can articulate herself vocally through song, she rejoices and the symbolic egg–part incubator, part cage–begins to crack.
Breaking the Vocal/Nonvocal Binary
Jun’s proposal of a musical for the charity event holds an interesting connection to melodrama as a mode, and further reflects the film’s unique take on expression. Daiki challenges the proposal, saying a girl who can’t even speak could never produce a musical. Her desires and emotional truth (her very self) denied, Jun resolves to sing: “I can handle it!… I’m sure that I can.” This truth expressed and recognized, the characters begin to grow and connect. Jun asks Takumi to help her express more of “what [she] really want[s] to say” by putting her feelings “into a beautiful song.”
This request bridges the gap between the inarticulate and the articulate, those two essences of melodrama I’ve discussed so much. The inarticulate expressions of music and pantomime and the direct articulation of speech come together in a musical. This union allows a character like Jun, unable to speak and yet unable to properly convey her emotions otherwise, to finally express the truth that is the destination of all melodrama.
However, The Anthem of the Heart’s conflicts are not resolved so simply. The film does find a balance between speech and nonspeech, but I declared it nuanced, not simplistic. The content of Jun’s musical still reflects some aversion to speech, suggesting “the most egregious sin in the world is to hurt others with your words.” Jun has not determined the ending to this musical, as she has not yet found what she “really wants to say,” nor the faith to say it. Similarly, the issue of how to communicate one’s emotional truth remains in conflict throughout the film.
Most notably, Takumi accuses Nito of making assumptions about his and Jun’s feelings towards one another, to which Nito replies that she only made assumptions because she can’t tell how he is feeling. Takumi makes the standard melodramatic realization that no one can know his feelings unless he “put[s] them into words.” Jun overhears this conversation and learns of the romantic history between Takumi and Nito. As her imaginary egg tells her, the pain she feels from these words doesn’t result from her curse, but from heartbreak. The egg claims Jun has spoken too much, though he doesn’t mean through “words,” but rather that her heart “talks too much.” Put another way, she has expressed too much emotional truth.
Jun believes the egg and convinces herself that she can never express her truth without becoming unhappy. Speaking, not speaking, and the melodramatic bridge of singing all fail to protect her. As the egg told her, she must bottle up all expression to avoid suffering. To these beliefs, Takumi tells Jun he is willing to be hurt by her. If it means she can “speak the truth some more,” he’ll accept the pain Jun fears. He is, as we learn, a character who fell into the same desperate trap as Jun, though from a different angle.
Takumi relates how he stopped speaking what he felt to others, and wound up believing there was “nothing [he] really wanted to tell anyone” anyway. He contrasts himself, who spoke without ever truly articulating anything, to Jun, who never spoke, yet had so much she wanted to articulate. In this moment, The Anthem of the Heart disassembles the aforementioned melodramatic binary. Depending on the contexts and users, speech may be useless for articulation or vital for it. Jun found she needed speech, despite Takumi finding himself unable to articulate anything with speech. In both instances it was the fear of pain that stifled articulation, with Jun and Takumi afraid of hurting others or being hurt themselves. The film refocuses the melodramatic dilemma on its real roots: pain and fear.
At last, the conflicts of the film are settled and the blocked emotions of the characters are released. Jun is set free by the realization that she cannot avoid pain by staying silent, nor bypass pain through a loophole like singing, and that she instead must find a way to embrace truth in spite of pain. She confesses to Takumi, knowing already that she will be turned down. But finally she has dissociated speech and expression from her fears of pain, and relieves herself of the false blame she accepted so many years ago. As her mother thinks just before Jun’s arrival at the musical, she “never wanted” Jun to stop speaking, she was only lashing out because of the pain of hearing the truth.
This centering around pain calls our mind back to Toradora!‘s classroom climax and Taiga’s heart-wrenching screams as she clings to inarticulation. Early melodramas utilized muteness as a way to challenge the emphasis and privilege placed on speech in the tradition of western drama, for a mixture of political and aesthetic reasons. The Anthem of the Heart pulls our attention towards the push-and-pull between truth and pain without falling back onto a simple binary of speech and non-speech. When it comes to the question of what it means to speak, the idea of “speaking” is not so easily defined.
Which are the Silent Voices?
Yet, no anime challenges the idea of “speaking” quite so much as A Silent Voice. Even in The Anthem of the Heart, speech and articulation always involve a concrete vocal element. To be pedantically clinical in this reference: Jun’s curse prevents her from expressing linguistic noises with her mouth. Speaking remains firmly in the realm of the vocal. However, A Silent Voice tackles this central question from a more abstract perspective. The film positions the question in the context of socialization. Its characters face the challenge of communicating truth and meaning to each other, not necessarily vocally, but socially. The question becomes: What exactly is melodramatic articulation in the social sphere–in a society?
A survey of melodrama as a whole proves this approach to be intuitive. After all, the clues that build that proposed “dramatic irony” in the audience–the prolonged glances, the pained facial expressions, and the desirous body language–are all social cues. The tensions that prevent characters from speaking–potential ostracization/rejection, fear of changes in the status quo, pressures from parents or social classes–are all of a social/societal nature. So, A Silent Voice seeks to explore how characters can articulate those emotional clues to each other and which communicative actions come in conflict with those social tensions. Again: What is melodramatic articulation? What does it mean to speak?
A Silent Voice tackles the question through two related elements: 1) the usage of a nonvocal language and 2) the representation of societal consequences for communication. The first element further dissociates articulation from speech, which then contributes to emerging consequences for how and what characters communicate. The film investigates how the intentions behind communication, the biases in reception of communication, and the contexts in which communication does (or does not) occur affect the consequences of articulation. If The Anthem of the Heart adds the “how” to the matter of articulation, A Silent Voice throws on the “why, when, where”.
The Shapes of Voice
The obvious place to begin is with the usage of sign language as another means of articulation. Starting here makes it immediately obvious how societal expectations and social biases can interfere with the articulation of truth. Though Sahara makes earnest efforts to learn sign language in grade school and have open communication with Shoko, her environment repulses those efforts. As Naoka states when a special education teachers proposes the class learn to sign, it’s easier for her to just communicate through Shoko’s notebook. Why should the whole class have to change to facilitate Shoko’s articulation?
This reaction also shows up whenever Shoko attempts to articulate vocally or to hear the vocal articulations of her classmates. When she reads aloud, Shoya rejects her efforts by mocking her and making nonsensical noises. When she sings in the chorus, Naoka remarks there’s no point in performing with Shoko since they’ll lose the competition anyway. When she tries to join in conversations, her classmates pretend they weren’t actually talking about anything. These rejections build toward two more dramatic consequences, namely that Sahara is bullied out of the school and that Shoko’s hearing aids are repeatedly destroyed.
These consequences send a message from the social environment: We don’t want you articulating yourself outside the normative language. We don’t want to accommodate any alterations to the status quo of communication. This presents Shoko with a catch-22 in which she is never allowed to articulate emotional truth. Her social environment is telling her to either remain silent or face retaliation for communicating against the biases of that society.
As Shoko continues to attempt to articulate herself, Shoya demands, “If you want to say something to me, say it,” enforcing the standards of the society upon her. She makes further attempts to communicate in her own way, the consequences growing more severe as time passes. More and more of her hearing aids are broken until the school intervenes, though she remains bullied so harshly that she leaves the school before long, totally rejected. In their last confrontation before she leaves, Shoko cries out that she is “doing [her] best,” but Shoya is still deaf to these words and repeats, “What are you saying?… I can’t understand you!” Until the very end, the onus is on Shoko not to articulate emotional truth, but to articulate within the norms of the society. Even years later, when Naoka attempts to settle the history between them, she insists they not use Shoko’s “weird notebook” and instead speak aloud.
However, the revelation these characters fail to make until the end of the film is that their misunderstandings and hatreds aren’t borne from a difference in method of communication, but from the biases and circumstances surrounding communication.
Shoya’s friends turn on him as quickly as he turned on Shoko. The same pattern of bullying repeats itself once Shoya is singled out as the culprit in front of the school principal. Despite articulating himself along the same standards as his friends–in fact, despite being the main enforcer of those standards upon Shoko–he finds himself in her position. His friends use their vocal articulations to lie and avoid blame, and conspire to be deaf to his accusations of their participation in the bullying. Here we see that the “how” of articulation hasn’t changed between Shoya-the-bully and Shoya-the-victim, but the “when” or the “why” has. It is socially favorable to be biased against Shoya’s truth at this point, so his words lose all weight and the words of others are suddenly turned against him.
Bias and circumstance are later represented visually by the X’s Shoya places over the faces of his classmates and others. These don’t come packed with the cruel bias Shoko suffers under, but Shoya still communicates with X’d out people in a predetermined way. If possible, he avoids all communication, and if he has to speak to them, he won’t attempt to articulate anything like an emotional truth. What’s more, he imagines those around him as saying cruel words about him, reinforcing his beliefs about the pain speech can inflict. His anxieties create a circumstance in which meaningful articulation is impossible–for him to speak or hear. In fact, as he prepares to kill himself, there is only one person Shoya attempts to communicate truth to.
Shoya learns sign language in order to undermine the expectations he held Shoko accountable to as a child. Still focused on the question of “how” to articulate, he thinks this effort might reconcile some of the pain he caused her in the past. Similarly, as Shoko grows fonder of Shoya, she begins to practice speaking aloud in a reflection of the efforts Shoya made. Although their initial communication keeps Shoya from suicide and helps them grow in some respects, we soon learn that they are still unable to articulate truth and redeem the idea of communication. Words and relationships remain tainted in their eyes.
One significant instance of this is Shoko’s vocalized love confession. Shoya mishears “love (suki)” as “moon (tsuki)”, and Shoko is unable to correct his understanding by either vocal or nonvocal language. Although this moment is tropey, that works to its benefit by positioning a unique narrative setup (a mix of nonvocal and vocal articulation; the bullied speaking to the bully) in a common framework. Despite all the complexities behind the scenes, we see that classic melodramatic tensions still run through the film.
The more important example, though, is Shoya’s final realization that he never truly apologized to Shoko. This overdue apology comes after an endless sequence of apologies from Shoko–to everyone. For the entire film, Shoko has apologized, and yet other characters repeatedly misunderstand. Either they literally fail to understand her articulation, or they fail to understand why a girl who’s been so repeatedly hurt would be apologizing. In either case, the communication of emotional truth fails. Ueno, in particular, cannot grasp the feelings behind Shoko’s apologies, and thus is the cruelest to her throughout the film.
Shoya’s delayed apology and Shoko’s oft-repeated ones create a parallel that completes the construction of “speaking” in A Silent Voice. Shoya, despite articulating himself in various ways and making all sorts of efforts to understand Shoko, fails to express the one truth he always meant to. Shoko, despite articulating herself endless times and making all efforts to be understood, fails to express the one truth she always felt. When the pair finally make their feelings explicit, Shoya does so through sign language and Shoko through vocal language, demonstrating that the method of articulation was never necessarily important. Accepting the right conditions (and removing the wrong ones) for communication was always the key to understanding each other.
It is the intentions behind what we articulate, the biases and expectations influencing how we hear articulations, and the willingness to accept the truth and pain that can come with articulating that determine the “shape of voice,” to take the film’s title literally. This is summed up beautifully when Naoka tries to call Shoko “stupid” in sign language. Although technically insulting her, the expression incites such a positive and excited reaction in Shoko. Naoka, who was once the most adamant opposer of learning to sign, is finally taking part…albeit in her own special way. Because of all that they’ve been through recently, and Shoko’s sense of Naoka’s intentions, she interprets the insult as ridiculous rather than hurtful–a reading that Naoka is hilariously defenseless against.
Finding a Voice
When early melodramas sought to expose the deceptive and ineffectual nature of speech, what was really being exposed was the power of intent, bias, expectations, etc. to influence the impact of speech. Having experienced this revelation and gained a new perspective on communication, Shoya lifts his hands away from his ears. He is once more willing to hear the words of those around him, and the X’s fall from their faces. Either way you want to put it: he hears the silent voices; he feels the shape of voice.
Mari Okada’s lesson about scenario writing illuminates how human communication cannot be contained in a vacuum. There is no room of solitude we can hide in until we perfect what we want to say. Our expressions are pulled out of us before we are ready, colored by the why and when and how we say them, and received by ears that may or not be listening in good faith. These are challenges to be braved, however, and not disasters to fearfully avoid. It is through failures of communication that the characters of melodrama learn where they went wrong. Melodramatic heroes and heroines try and try again out of a belief that their truth is worth expressing.
As Okada says, expressing yourself means grappling with other people. The goal of expression is to put our feelings outside of ourselves, but not simply out into the void. We express onto other people, quite literally pressing our ideas onto them. This innate need of humanity, this personal scenario writing job we’ve all taken on, requires us to find a way to articulate our truth. We, like the characters of melodrama, have to find out what it means to speak.
Note: Melodrama is a complicated narrative concept with much debate over what to even categorize it as (mode, genre, or dramas confined to a historical period). There is a wide variety of perspectives from which to write about melodrama, particularly so for its modern iterations in Hollywood, soap operas, and anime. Speech/Voice is just one such perspective. For a more generalized overview of the melodramatic mode and other perspectives on anime melodrama, feel free to look through my other essays in the “Modes of Melodrama” series.
If you’re interested in further reading on the melodramatic mode or speech studies in melodrama, the following sources are good places to start:
Brooks, Peter. The Melodramatic Imagination. Yale University Press, 1995.
Nesbit, Kate. “Melodrama’s Wordless Elocution: The Vestigial Voice in the Orchestration and Pantomime of Thomas Holcroft’s A Tale of Mystery.” European Romantic Review, 27:5, 583-600.
Please feel free to contact me for assistance in acquiring either text!