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Hello, dear reader. What follows is a measured discussion between myself and The Subtle Doctor on what we feel is the most important element of anime: its narrative. It also serves as a response to our friend Josh Dunham‘s recent post. We hope you’ll approach this with an open mind, and we’d love to continue the discourse in the comments once you’ve finished reading. Without further ado, let us begin.
The Subtle Doctor: Tim, did you really just write “sakuguys”? Mada mada dane.
The narrative elements in anime have always been the biggest draw of the medium for me personally. It’s character moments, plot twists, and big reveals that really stick with me, sometimes years after I’ve seen a show. Anime is an audio-visual medium, so visuals are a significant part of how narrative is conveyed here, but what makes anime moments indelible to me has just as much–if not more–to do with what is being presented as with visual presentation itself.
Do you think it might be helpful to define what we mean by narrative? I believe various folks who read this will have different working definitions of this concept, so it’s probably a good idea to be clear on how we’re using the term. After all, there are artists such as Jackson Polluck or William Faulkner whose work exhibits narrative techniques that are vastly different than what some people might consider to be narrative.
Tim: Good point. Narrative is an incredibly broad term, one that even those who defend it like ourselves can often use to mean any number of things.
The dictionary definition of narrative is “a spoken or written account of connected events; a story.” We can all agree upon this, yet it’s still vague given the semantics of this discourse. This is because there are multiple ways to interpret how each medium tells said narrative. In Josh’s piece, he argues that anime–being a medium defined by its animated style–relies on said animation to tell its narrative more than it does its script. From his perspective, visual style predominantly attracts one to an anime series.
Conversely, the definition of narrative that Subs and I are working under focuses on scripts, screenplays and storyboards. These form the base of a story-driven audio-visual medium from which other elements such as character design, animation and sound design stem. You could argue that this process varies from work to work, that some anime may be initially conceived through a piece of concept art or the like, but ultimately it’s relatable characters and the engaging storylines they’re involved in that hook in the average viewer. Whatever was the basis for a series’ inception, the final product is reliant on a strong script.
Actually, this introduces another important distinction in defining written narrative: characters are more key than any other storytelling element because they form the emotional core of the piece. Neon Genesis Evangelion’s big mecha scenes don’t have the same impact if not piloted by kids dealing with serious personal trauma. Cowboy Bebop’s escapades are a lot less fun without big personalities behind the steering wheel. Slice-of-life series live and die based on how much their character writing endears the viewer. One could argue that visuals also play a role in attracting us to such characters—and there’s absolutely truth in that—but appealing artwork doesn’t beget the writing of the character giving the drawing its soul.
The Subtle Doctor: Beautifully put.
Now, I do think our definition needs defending from a certain charge. There are folks who would disagree with us (and with Josh as well, to be fair) that there is any real distinction between narrative and its presentation. “The medium is the message” is the old chestnut, I believe. As much as one may conceptually parse the two, there’s no separation between an anime’s audio-visual presentation and its narrative in reality, they argue.
Counter-point: consider the following example. Anime Character A says something surprising. Anime Character B makes what is supposed to be a surprised face but it’s kind of just meh and fails to communicate B’s surprise. The scene continues, and A along with Characters C-E act/react in the context of B’s genuine surprise.
We intuitively know this scene fails; we don’t believe that it has accomplished what it set out to do. The scene fails because there is something distinct from and procedurally prior to B’s facial animation that is supposed to be communicated through that facial animation: the narrative! What’s happening onscreen between the characters is first a Platonic ideal in someone’s head, then a group discussion and an expression in the form of scripting and storyboarding before anything we consider an anime’s visual presentation actually exists. For me, all of this indicates that there is, in fact, a distinction between the presentation itself and what it’s presenting…if that makes sense.
None of the above is meant to do down visuals or argue for their non-importance. Media, as media, requires a conduit through which consumers interface with it and receive what it has to offer. Part of anime’s conduit is its visual presentation, and thus it is significant. Actually, our definition of narrative creates some commonalities between our position and Josh’s piece, as I read it.
Tim: Indeed, it’s important that we make our common ground with Josh clear: both him and we acknowledge that no one element of an artistic medium can stand alone. So far we’ve discussed how poor animation can do a disservice to well-written characters (just as much as good animation can enhance it), but this also extends to the sound direction and voice acting quality. We can pick series apart as much as we want but at the end of the day, a great series will generally have its elements synthesize. Where we differ from Josh is what we feel makes the backbone for said synthesis, which we’ve detailed in our working definition of narrative.
My own misgivings with Josh’s piece are exemplified in the following excerpt (note: Josh uses “style” to mean visuals and “substance” to mean narrative in this context):
Style completely changes the emotional density of the substance, and changes a premise into a story. “Naruto is a story about a boy who becomes Hokage” is substance, but that’s not what we should be concerned with. Being outside the story itself, we know that one day Naruto will be the Hokage – that’s the very foundation of the story, and in a way that knowledge is the ultimate spoiler. Except, it turns out that we aren’t actually concerned with the end result. We want to see the events that lead up to the inevitable conclusion, to see them unfold.
I agree with Josh’s broader point that audiences are invested in the journey, not the destination. Our investment in characters translates to having a shared experience as we follow them through their trials and tribulations. However, what Josh gets wrong is his implication that visuals are what fill in the general framework of a plot. In the conclusion of his piece, he says that “[Visuals] will naturally be the most defining when it comes to ‘how’ the events unfold and how we feel about those events.” This isn’t how creating an anime series works, though. Animation doesn’t simply just happen; it needs a script to base itself off of, and that script is where every moment you see depicted on-screen comes from. There have certainly been exceptions-to-the-rule moments in live-action film that have gone off-script (the bazaar scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark being a particularly famous one), but with animation you have to very specifically know what you’ll be drawing before putting the symbolic pen to paper. There’s no free-form involved.
In my time studying screenwriting at university, one of the things that was consistently drilled into my head was that anything you wanted to see on the screen needed to show up on the page. Conversely, anything you want a team of animators working under time constraints to portray needs to come across through the storytelling blueprint they’ve been given, whatever form it might take. Without this, any production falls apart at the seams immediately. If we tried to make a series where animators made it up as they went, nothing about the series would be remotely cohesive. Here’s an analogy: it’s the hand of a writer (or team of writers) that sets the course for a ship and plans its itinerary, and then the crew members of animators, sound engineers and the like make sure it holds that path. Along the way their scanners may find sunken treasure that they can hoist up from the seabed, imbuing greater riches upon their journey; the “creative control” of the crew members has less to do with telling the story than it does enriching it.
The Subtle Doctor: Right, the narrative as defined here frames the production and dictates how/if the other elements will come into play. From the creative’s side of an anime, narrative is procedurally prior, and therefore foundational, to the visual presentation. However, I think Josh’s argument is chiefly about the audience. His points hinge on what the audience wants to see, how they feel, and what they remember about an anime. I want to engage his argument on these terms for a moment.
Naturally, any mental image you have of an anime will involve its visual presentation because the visual sense is one of the two ways that the anime sense data gets to your brain. It’s trivially true that when you recall your favorite part from any anime, you’re going to think about the pictures. But, I think it’s important to ask why you’re thinking about that part in the first place. And also, why that part and not some other one? Why a tearful reunion or an underdog’s triumphant moment and not someone doing a flip or tossing their cape over their shoulder? Narrative context. Moments etch themselves into my memory because I care about the characters involved in them. Well done visual presentation enhances these moments; I don’t think it defines them.
To use Josh’s Dragon Ball Z example: Trunks cutting Frieza in half is amazing because TRUNKS CUTS FRIEZA IN HALF. The narrative context of what’s happening in this scene is what makes it an all time great. It’s the swift, brutal end to a remarkably cruel longstanding series villain. The fact that it looks good is not make-or-break, it’s simply a value-add. There are plenty of finely animated moments in Dragon Ball Z. Why does this one stick out? I’d argue it’s because of the strong narrative that frames it rather than because the visual presentation carries or elevates everything else.
Audiences do want to see events unfold, but, as Tim points out, not free association, unplanned completely spontaneous images… that’s not even possible in this medium. Implicit in the notion of animated events is an intention, a structure, a script. A narrative, as we defined it above.
Tim: Good points, Subs. Remembering visuals is a powerful thing, but a powerful visual requires the context of a narrative from which to derive meaning. It’s also worth noting that most people can’t recall a great piece of sakuga frame-by-frame; they’re instead remembering snapshots. This is true across all audio-visual mediums. Animation in the form we see it is difficult to retain in our long-term memory.
Narrative is importantly how we relate to a piece of media. Take my recent piece relating my fascination with an idol and the state of the modern industry to Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue. The film has some brilliant visual moments that strongly convey its narrative, such as the use of spotlights and cameras to fuel Mima’s paranoia. However, it’s the narrative of her being stalked and going through an identity crisis that makes such imagery meaningful. I was able to see something from my own life within the film because of this. Really, I think Satoshi Kon’s work is brilliant because of the previously mentioned synthesis of its narrative elements: the scripts he works with ooze with complexities and the visuals back them up narratively with stark, reality-bending imagery. Kon’s films because of this. Reading it as a book or looking at pictures wouldn’t convey the breadth of it; you need context.
I do want to note that I don’t hold a fascination with animation against sakuga fans. I think recognizing the hard work of animators is important. Animation reels are a great showcase of an artist’s work and styles, and such forms of analysis only add new perspectives to the conversation. However, I think to overlook the narrative context of such sakuga is to fail to see what an artist is trying to convey. Even the animation techniques an artist uses are defined by this. The more holistically we look at a piece of art, the greater of an understanding we achieve with it.
The Subtle Doctor: I want to get behind that final point as well. Sakuga fandom and the work its participants are doing is vital to the anime fandom. What’s more, the things about art that are most personally meaningful vary among individuals. We all have our preferred ways of interfacing with media. However, when arguments surface stating that visual presentation is the most important element in anime full stop or, conversely, that narrative is not just as important as the other elements in the anime recipe, then I feel the need to respond.
I think I’ve said everything I need to say here, Tim. By way of summary, I’ll just restate that I think anime is a medium in which a synthesis of elements work together. Narrative–i.e. idea, intention, message, script–is both procedurally prior to presentation and imbues that presentation with meaning. As such, I believe a good argument can be made that it, more than any other aspect, steers the Good Ship Anime.
Tim: I’ve said my part as well, and I think that perfectly sums up our mutual thoughts on the important role narrative plays at the forefront of storytelling mediums. Without it, the greatest tales would never have been told.
That wraps up our discussion. Next time you’re watching your favorite anime, make sure to give thought to the ways in which it weaves its story. Thank you for reading, and feel free to offer your own thoughts in the comments below; we’ll be sure to chime in!