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 »
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.Read More »
The winter holidays are a wonderful occasion to spend time with friends and family, and then binge watch anime once you’ve exhausted yourself answering questions about where you’re working or going to school. Obviously the only way to replenish your energy during the holidays is by watching the adventures of a bunch of characters that can’t ask you questions (because they don’t exist). So, as we navigate the dissonant desire to isolate ourselves from social interaction by seeking companionship in fiction, let’s take a look at five good anime Christmas specials to spread holiday cheer.
Note: these are just my five personal picks that I find most enjoyable or likely to put me in a festive mood. If a description contains spoilers, I’ll indicate so next to the title of the show.
Yuru Yuri – Season 1, Episode 7 (No Spoilers)
Probably my favorite slice-of-life show and one of my favorite comedies in general, Yuru Yuri relieves the stress of holiday shopping, preparation, and deadlines like none other. It’s the kind of show perfect for reminding you to take a moment to appreciate how beautiful your tree looks or how comforting it was to have the company of old friends and family. As a slice-of-life comedy should, it settles down your negative emotions and refocuses your attention on the quiet, pleasant emotions waiting beyond.
Although Christmas pops up a couple of times during the series, I have to go with Season 1’s Episode 7 for this list. For a show that thrives off its characters’ absurd relationships and quirks, the episode’s main premise about pairing off for Christmas “dates” is perfectly to-the-point. All of the main and secondary cast draw lots to see who their faux date partner will be, and from there the episode reaches punchline after ridiculous punchline. The show’s editing sequences the pairs (by cutting from one date to another) for added effect, letting the dysfunction of one pairing contrast with the awkwardness of another.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 Jerryand 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 »
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 »
But hopefully my letter has a little more substance to it than Taiga’s.
Taiga attempts to put a love letter in Kitamura’s bag, but mixes his up with Ryuji’s. Ryuji then finds this letter, only to discover it is empty. All of this confusion results in Taiga attacking Ryuji and Ryuji winding up with Taiga’s empty envelope. Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: Taiga’s mix-up with Ryuji and Kitamura’s bags is a foreshadowing of her initial crush on Kitamura giving way to her love for Ryuji. I called it obvious, but this is certainly an important interpretation (and probably the main intended one). However, Toradora is not satisfied until it’s packed every bit of meaning into a symbol as it can.Read More »
Christmas is fast approaching, so let’s jump back in time to take a look at the Christmas Eve episode of Toradora. There’s something beautiful in this show’s simplicity. Like a vine grows only where it can grow, Toradora’s story proceeds in the only way it could. A heads-up that I’ll be assuming you’ve seen the show in its entirety, and will be taking for granted what we would know about the characters and their relationships.
I struggle to express the appeal of this show in so few words, so let’s take a look at three symbols from Episode 19 to see what I mean. Ryuji’s gift for Minori, his scarf he gives Taiga, and Taiga’s father’s suit all begin as very simple symbols and expand in meaning as the episode progresses. Let’s figure out where these three symbols start, and then trace their development one by one. None of them grow to be all that complex, but that’s because they’re precisely as complex as they need to be. There’s not a thread on the scarf that doesn’t hold it together, so to speak.
The show makes the initial meaning of each symbol obvious without bludgeoning us with an explanation. The camera focuses on Ryuji’s gift as he calls Minori to tell her she has to come to the party. Clearly, it represents his affection for her.