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The Expectation Problem, Part 1: It’s Not Freakin’ Ibsen (Melodrama in Anime)

8 min read

A couple readers may remember Greg Smith and myself, Brian Threlkeld, from an earlier column, Arguments About Anime. It appears that we greatly overextended our budget with that effort (and maxed out The Fandom Post’s corporate credit card…sadly, we haven’t been able to get a new one). So, after a brief hiatus at home with plenty of time to catch up on our reading and TV (human resources calls this an “involuntary leave of absence” for whatever reason), we’ve decided to get back to things. While our focus will be wider, beyond the scope of any one medium, like anime (though we’ll still talk about that a lot), our new budget, unfortunately, consists only of what loose change we can find in the office lounge furniture near the vending machines. On a positive note, however, those chairs are somewhat comfortable.


GBS: My partially aching back can only somewhat agree. So, no more arguments, but what is this “expectation problem” you’re talking about?

BCT: It is about, simply enough, how our preconceived ideas about something alters how we experience it. The “problem” is that we expect things to be different—better or worse—than what they are or are intended to be.

GBS: It interferes with our ability to understand what’s in front of us.

BCT: And what is in front of us this time?

GBS: Not that long ago, I read some anime critic saying that most anime fans are invested in human nature and emotion to the point where they’ll sit through hours of story in order to learn more about the characters. But are these characters and their emotions really as deep and complex as he seems to suggest? Frankly, a lot of anime seems to me to be pretty shallow and overblown in both its characterization and emotional development, in my opinion.

BCT: To wit, melodrama. That’s what most anime is, I believe.

GBS: Indeed, though in all fairness the same could be said of most fictional works. They are all very melodramatic. Much as I like science fiction, for example, most of it tends to be overly dramatic and features exaggerated characters who are there to bring out an outsized emotional response. You can feel it even in the acting styles you find in filmed versions of the genre, which tend to be at best pseudo-serious and at worst schlocky. Schlocky? Yes, that’s the technical term I’ll use for some of the laughably overwrought histrionics that grace, say, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (note: I love that film). So, no surprise that it’s true, too, of anime.

BCT: It’s important to note here, yes, that despite its exaggeration and often very over-the-top characters and plots, I do enjoy a lot of the melodrama of anime, as with other genre-heavy entertainment, like sci-fi. Not all of it. But enough to know that it is a large part of what I enjoy about the medium.

GBS: I think we’re all suckers for a good melodrama now and then.

BCT: And I don’t think that there’s anything about anime fans that makes them any less susceptible to it. Yes, many anime fans (and we include ourselves here) are of the sort that will sit through hours of character drama and twisting, contriving plots, looking for things like “growth” or moral arcs.

GBS: Do you think anime fans somehow react more strongly to such subject matter?

“SAAAATSUKI!” … Okay, not the same ring to it as “Khan”.

BCT: In a way, yes, but not because we are more sensitive than non-anime viewers to the human condition. It may come as a shock to some but anime, for the most part, is not freakin’ Ibsen. The reason we sit through this stuff is because, simply, we are anime fans. Not visual media fans. Not TV fans. Or even, many of us, animation fans. Anime fans. Our condition is marked by the obsession of donning that specific label and identity, apart from anything else like it.

GBS: Okay, so most anime is melodramatic in nature and the fans are highly attuned to it. The question then arises: is this why most anime is melodramatic? Most fiction is melodramatic, but is it as simple as that or is there something that is specifically tied to the creation of anime (and its common sources of manga and light novels) that more often than not pushes things in the direction of melodrama?

BCT: I think you have material catering largely to a younger demographic (even if many of its consumers age out of that) that relies on relatively simple story structure and characterization that needs often to be straightforward to be understood. And the melodramatic form is best for “hooking” the emotions of the viewer and keeping her entertained. It’s an attribute of most animation, for better or for worse—with notable exceptions. That plenty of anime proves exceptions to the idea of simple storytelling, but still retains melodramatic techniques, gets even more into the question. Habit, culture (traditional theatrical forms in Japan are often highly sophisticated melodrama), the culture of the anime industry itself and the formats of comics and light novels that fuel it, audience expectations—I think each plays a part.

GBS: All of that is certainly true, even if I would argue those things (habit, culture, etc.) as well are not unique to anime by any means. Though this might get us too far off-track.

Perhaps it will be more productive to turn to a central issue you’ve raised, that melodrama is the most effective means of “hooking” the audience by getting an immediate emotional reaction out of them. That’s a good point. It’s that quick emotional investment that the viewer makes which can often determine whether you have a long-term watcher or a casual passer-by. Are there shortcuts authors and producers can use to launch a story without a massive (and generally boring) chunk of exposition, whether it be text or dialogue?

BCT: Easiest shortcut is the one at the very beginning. Setup is everything in anime. And creators playing to certain cues that the audience expects in a typical setup helps, I think.

GBS: That makes sense. One that immediately comes to mind for me is the classic example of when you see a large female cast, all slightly differentiated by body type and personality, surrounding a single male. It’s fairly reasonable to expect tame comedy and juvenile romance to follow.

BCT: Melodramatic cues abound in the large female cast. There is often the girl with the tragic backstory, played off of the girl with endearing anger-management issues, played off of the girl just trying to do her best no matter what—and we’re supposed to be pulled in multiple directions at once, investing our time in the show deciding on who the “winners” and “losers” are.

Yet, some of us come back for more. And, in rare instances, are rewarded with a show that uses the exact same techniques to draw us in, but seems more adept at hiding or delaying them, until, too late, we realize that that old addictive melodrama has stolen all our time again.

GBS: It’s funny how sometimes it’s the backstories that catch us, other times the visual language of melodrama (exaggerated character designs which lend themselves to a greater range of expressiveness than is normal in the real world) which sucks us in and leaves us wanting to know more, even when we think we already know this story.

BCT: Visual cues in anime are significant. Some people, when reading “melodrama” may think of, say, Snidely Whiplash, the dastardly archenemy of Dudley Do-Right from The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show—the Dudley Do-Right shorts themselves parodies of early stage and silent film melodramas—and his long twirling mustaches and black clothes. All of it saying: villain! Anime’s original melodramatic cue was probably its eyes: the lesson learned from Walt Disney in its early days about large expressive eyes conveying more emotion in an animated face than any other facial feature. In anime’s case, as it evolved, this was to say: Innocent! Vulnerable! Cute!

Snidely Whiplash and Ayu Tsukimiya. Separated at birth.

GBS: Indeed. Another quick shortcut to villainhood is to give the character a very sharp and angular design. Now, this is not always played straight as there are artists in Japan who like angular and sharp lines for all of their characters, but it’s much easier to impart menace and malice to a character who looks unsettling even when he or she is smiling.

BCT: Visual cues are easy, though. Writing effective melodrama is probably more difficult than it seems—harder, at least than just making a character’s eyes water up.

GBS: True. It’s also more effective when done well. The problem comes, I think, when the writer relies on cheap and lazy methods of creating melodrama.

BCT: True. Like what?

GBS: One method is to throw in an early event that justifies the central conflict between the “heroes” and “villains.” You need conflict to create drama, but often this early “battle” feels so staged that it seems completely artificial.

BCT: The staged setup rears its head, as well, when the Mysterious Transfer Student appears. Who the protagonist just happened to have had a life-changing encounter with that very morning…

GBS: Ah, yes. We could call them “Chekhov’s character,” since they always turn out to be a central part of the drama.

BCT: When a new transfer student appears you know there’s a behind-the-school confession coming. Or a spaceship is going to show up.

GBS: And sometimes…both.

…this doesn’t sound at all like Ibsen, does it?

BCT: I wouldn’t know. Haven’t read him since high school.

GBS: Can’t say I’ve really looked at An Enemy of the People or Hedda Gabler all that recently either.

BCT: Post-Romantic shift to Realism in theater. Or something like that. Point is, it’s something we take as being complex and sophisticated, at least in its own time and context.

GBS: Which most anime isn’t?

BCT: Not as often as we hope, perhaps. But just because most anime isn’t Ibsen, doesn’t mean it’s not as good. And how we are attuned to how anime often works, with all those melodramatic hooks, is part of what makes it so. Giving complexity and depth that isn’t actually on the screen to what may be shallow and overblown characters or plots, simple as they may be, is how we grow attached to the medium and hobby.

GBS: Perhaps it’s how well some on the other side can “fake” those things (complexity and depth) which brings back even seemingly world-weary and cynical fans who think they have seen it all before.

BCT: It’s a confounding medium. You become cynical about all this melodrama…and then something comes along, doing all the same stuff you’ve seen before, but in a whole different way.

GBS: Or in a way that simply leaves you smiling again…or cringing.

BCT: That reminds me—oh, the lights just went out.

GBS: Wha…!?

BCT: We’ll get back to this; the Fandom Post offices must be under attack again.


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