Author:
• Friday, November 04th, 2011

I’ve been thinking lately that anime doesn’t depict relatable human emotion as often as I’d like it to and began wondering why that is. There’s no shortage of drama in many anime story lines, after all. It shouldn’t be all that hard for a studio to punch you in the gut or make you cry out in joy since animation is a visual medium and we as human beings are quite used to seeing emotion playing out before our eyes in our daily lives. Why, then, do I feel like the depiction of emotion in anime is largely unsuccessful? In a word, I think the answer is melodrama.

Japanese entertainment on the whole seem rife with melodrama, to the point where I feel hard-pressed to name something that doesn’t include it. Part of this is certainly due to my limited exposure to Japanese media, to be sure, but I’m left to wonder why most of what I see from that nation suffers from excessive amounts of this literary technique.

This kid knows what I'm talking about.

I guess it’s worth talking about melodrama itself before continuing. For those not in the know, melodrama is essentially when a character begins acting almost irrationally emotional in order to appeal to your, the viewer’s, emotions as well. The plot can also be melodramatic, throwing characters into emotionally-charged situations without adequate explanation for the same purpose, to make you feel something. The inherent problem lies in the “make you” part, because the entire point is to force you to feel something that you might not feel naturally in a given situation. It can work, I’m told, but I’m not well-read or well-watched enough to summon up any recent examples.

This leads to a lot of scenes in anime where characters are thrust into a situation that doesn’t really match the tone or context of the rest of the show in order to drag an emotional response out of you. This can be as simple as an ordinarily upbeat and chipper show, perhaps even a comedy, suddenly being thrust into an emotionally charged situation at the very end. Thus, instead of laughing at some slapstick humor like you have been for a dozen episodes or more you’re suddenly exposed to a dark, sometimes downright disturbing situation and these fun-loving characters are changed into walking sacks of depression or anger. More insidiously, melodrama might be infused into the show from the get-go but not completely explored until the creators wanted you to suddenly be happy, sad, angry, or any other emotion. There’s a lot of ways that studios use melodrama, and in my experience it’s almost always bad for the show as a whole.

Another good example of melo- WHAT'S WRONG WITH YOUR FAAAACE?

So, there’s the foundation of my point laid bare. In my next entry I’ll give some examples of shows that make excessive use of melodrama (which shouldn’t be difficult, as my pictures have no-doubt shown) as well as shows that either use it well or don’t need to use it at all with better results. I’ll end with a question for you: Do you also find the depiction of emotion in anime somewhat lacking? Do you also attribute it to melodrama or do you believe that something else is at work here?

I look forward to your thoughts.

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5 Responses

  1. 1
    Hogart    » Reply «

    One perspective I find amusing is:
    – drama: the character is feeling X
    – melodrama: YOU should be feeling X

    The two kinds of melodrama that get my goat the most are the kind that builds up to drama decently but then thinks it has to twist the knife to make it’s point, and the kind that doesn’t seem capable of building up drama and so takes the easy way out with hyperdramatic techniques.

    I suppose it comes down to whether they feel the need to tack a melo onto drama when it’s not really necessary. Melodrama, to me, is the sign of a writing flaw: they failed to build the right mood. So when it wasn’t necessary to be melodramatic, it feels insulting at worst (we don’t think you’ll get it) or lacking in confidence at best (we’re not sure we convinced you, so just in case..)

    I’ve found that my brain is more willing to forgive “honest” melodrama, though it’s tough to put into words what “honest” means. In a show like AnoHana, I know the point isn’t just to make me cry, but to explore why the characters are crying. Angel Beats, on the other hand, didn’t seem to be about the drama at all, and it happened in such a jarring and over-the-top way that it had the opposite effect on me.

  2. I agree with the idea and the concept you’re trying to explain in your post. Melodrama is fine as along as it’s done in limited amounts. It should be used sparingly so that it has a good impact each time and shouldn’t be showered all over the place. This only makes the show good technically, but very depressing to watch, like AnoHana.

    However, as you’ve already pointed out, is disastrous if you employ it right in the very end, in the final confrontation/meeting between the protagonists. It just doesn’t fit. I’d rather see the show digress from its funny style, start building up a more serious atmosphere and make the viewers really care about the characters and then throw in all the melodrama. I have a feeling you’ll disagree with me on this (since you put up an Air picture), but the most popular example I can think of is Clannad After Story. I thought that was melodrama done well, and if only it had more… believable characters, it could’ve been the perfect example of perfect melodrama.

    And even when executing the melodrama, it has do be done neatly: Nothing is more annoying than over-the-top wailing and cheesy dialogues at a high pitch.

  3. 3
    Logopolis    » Reply «

    I actually find anime better at depicting emotion than any other medium I’ve come across, and I think part of that is because I find it gets away with melodrama more easily than anything else which can do it satisfactorily in the first place. Which I think is because it looks pointedly unlike reality, which leaves less of an expectation for events to be like reality, more capacity for stretching and exaggeration.

    I also think it’s because you can have some really good drawings, which can convey a lot without needing to be melodramatic in any way. The control you have means you can draw just one feeling, and eliminate any others, so it doesn’t have to be strong because it doesn’t need to show through any unnecessary noise and detail. But by getting creative, I find it can depict strong emotion more powerfully than anything else. I’m thinking of things like the “wall of words” in ef. Only anime can do that sort of thing. Try putting it in a live-action show, and it would just look silly.

  4. Oh. Wow. You’ve just defined the word that was always at the back of my head. So that’s what has been giving me a stiffy these past few months.

    Melodrama is great. Great shows all think alike.

  5. 5
    Reed    » Reply «

    “Am I kawaii uguu~” – every Key adaptation.

    Real drama comes from buildup and character development. That’s not to say melodrama is always bad. Just watch Strawberry Panic. Maybe we need three categories – drama, melodrama, and DRAMA. The latter is highly entertaining

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