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?Read More »
First Thoughts on Maquia
As with Your Name, I want to get my initial impressions of Mari Okada’s Maquia out there while the film is fresh in my head. I’ll likely revisit the movie once it sees an official home release, discussing it from some perspective concerning melodrama. After all, there’s no better pair than Okada and melodrama. But in the meantime, here are my musings on the film after two theater viewings (both with surprisingly mannered audiences). No major spoilers ahead.
Obviously the biggest draw for Maquia is its status as Okada’s directorial debut. I was certainly interested in seeing what her “vision” for her own words were for once, as well as whether her writing would change now that she held the ultimate responsibility for transmuting the story to screen. Overall, I think her recent experience writing for The Anthem of the Heart benefited her a lot in directing Maquia. Being heavily involved in an anime film production–and overcoming the production and personal struggles surrounding that project, according to her autobiography–seems to have given Okada enough know-how and confidence to succeed with Maquia.Read More »
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.Read More »
Mari Okada: Modes of Melodrama (Kiznaiver)
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 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…Read More »
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:Read More »
Mari Okada: Modes of Melodrama (A Melodramatic Basis)
This is the second part in a series of essays on Mari Okada and melodrama. If you stumbled upon this post, start at the Introduction instead! No spoilers ahead for now.
Before we can start talking about anything relevant in Mari Okada’s work, we have to establish a melodramatic basis for analysis. In other words, we have to know what melodrama is and where it comes from—which means chugging through some history and exposition. The history of melodrama is actually quite interesting and I’ll be keeping it light and to the point, since it’s way more fun (and useful) to talk about the gritty details once we’re engaged with some specific anime. In addition to history, I’ll give a brief overview of the most universal elements of melodrama to be expanded upon in future essays.
Melodrama originated as a method of performance in the theater, not as a genre or tone. Music was used to add or fine-tune emotion within a scene, hence melo+drama. Here’s the entirety of Ariadne auf Naxos and an excerpt of Medea so you can get an idea of what this would look like onstage. As you’ll quickly notice, theatrical melodrama is not far removed from opera, and the functioning of melodrama (i.e. the method of acting, the emotional impact of the music) has greatly influenced modern media. Most notably, early cartoons such as Tom and Jerry and most silent films (Nosferatu as a random example) rely heavily on a melodramatic mode to better convey character motivation and emotion. I’m leaving out some details about the overall bombastic nature of melodramas, but this is a fine starting point.Read More »
Mari Okada: Modes of Melodrama (Introduction)
Welcome to the start of what may be a long, long series of essays on the woman I find to be the most interesting of all notable anime writers. We’ll be adventuring through a jungle of diverse shows and discussing a variety of topics, so it should be fun. With that: adventure start!
If this title sounds familiar to you, it’s probably because you’ve seen Digibro’s “The Queen of Anime Melodrama” which refers, of course, to Mari Okada. If you haven’t seen that video, I recommend checking it out as Digi provides some useful background info and speaks from a perspective I’m going to (sort of) criticize in these essays. In particular, Digi umbrellas Okada’s work under the incredibly nonspecific term of “melodrama”. I can’t really blame Digi for this, since he’s just trying to give an overview Okada’s work and melodrama is an apt term for that. The purpose of this series of posts isn’t to directly engage with Digi’s video anyway. Instead, our goal throughout these essays will be to develop a more nuanced understanding of melodrama and its features, as well as investigate how Okada both utilizes and revises those features.
So, what is the issue with lumping her writing under the catch-all of “melodrama”? This isn’t necessarily wrong, but it misrepresents Okada, her work, and melodrama as a whole. Simply designating Okada’s writing as “melodramatic” with some vague definition of the word does us no good. Digi speaks as though melodrama is the feeling an anime gives off, and as if it’s something Okada can just crank up like a volume dial. As we proceed, we’ll see how lacking this perspective is. I’m not saying “melodramatic” can’t be used in a broad sense—it’s a legitimate adjective. I’m just hoping to provide a more specific context to the melodramatic mode and to get us all to like Okada more as a writer!Read More »