Art is hard you guys…There’s no real formula to it. No magic set of rules you can follow to produce perfect art every time and yet – it seems very easy to make bad art. As for anime, it’s pure magic. It’s the art of illustration combined with the art of animation layered under the art of music and sound designed, enhanced by the art of voice acting and held together through the art of storytelling. It’s like a huge wobbly Jenga tower of art. And if by pure miracle you manage to get all those artistic elements right and to properly work with each other, then you have to line up some serious technical expertise to bring the entire thing together through precise and intricate production skills.

Honestly, that we managed to create such a wonder even once is mind-boggling. And yet here we are. Not only do we get to enjoy dozens of new animes each season, but we are so spoiled that we stopped even noticing the marvels they contain.

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too easy???

That’s a shame, don’t you think? People put some hard work crafting those elements for our enjoyment, the least we could do is give them an occasional shout out. I spend a lot of time reading reviews and general essays on anime. I know that most people understand how difficult and primordial the performances of voice actors are. We all love interesting visuals and smooth animation. We appreciate the mood enhancing properties of a carefully chosen soundtrack and rhapsodize over our favorite anime songs. And naturally, the aniblogger community being home to so many talented and aspiring writers, is careful to dissect all the elements of a good plot and praise narratives for their excellence.

However, there are some elements that get mentioned considerably less often. Today, I’m going to talk about a few of my favorite underappreciated anime components. I debated whether I should specifically mention color selection but since I talk about it nonstop, I really can’t say no one ever mentions it.

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quick: what do you hear?

White Noise

One of the first thing that popped into my mind is atmospheric sound design. Not the soundtrack or voice acting. I’m talking about all those little background noises that bring a scene to life and enrich the entire experience. For instance, the sound of cicadas and buzzing of electrical cords that seem omnipresent in summer time episodes. Rustling of leaves when someone is running through a forest. Of course, the absence of such sounds immediately makes the scene feel completely unnatural shattering any suspension of disbelief we may have gathered yet I rarely see anyone talk about it.

Terror in Resonance has amazing sound design across the board. The music is beautiful and fantastically chosen. It meshes and enhances the show in such a way that I have heard people recommend it on the strength of the soundtrack alone. However, very few people talk about the masterful sound beyond that.

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the city was brought to life!

Noise and voice levels are perfect. You always hear dialogue clearly but differences in volume and sharpness are added depending on the relative position of the speaker or sound source. Even if you close your eyes, this creates a complete 3 dimensional image of the action on screen. City noises are carefully layered and responsive to the action. An explosion scene will of course have the explosion noise on the foreground, as well as the sounds of the immediate panic ensuing but if you list very closely you’ll hear tiny details like the sound of unseen cars stopping, people apparently calling loved ones to share the news, muffled expressions of wonder from witnesses that are far from the scene. These are almost imperceptible, and the average viewer will most definitely not hear them, but they add an intangible depth and realism to the scene that creates a much richer experience overall.

I don’t have very sharp ears, so I rarely manage to notice these details but when I do, I’m always amazed by them. I can’t even imagine the level of craftsmanship and attention to detail this special touch must require.

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girl scout cookies you guys…

Stories about nothing

A long time ago I read a series of articles defending the Slice of Life genre. Calling it a maligned or generally unappreciated genre. The only time I’ve ever seen anyone deride Slice of Life animes however, is in those articles so I’m not sure how much this applies. But one thing I will grant them is that narratives are often undervalued for Slice of Life anime. I will read lines such as – it’s a Slice of Life so there’s no real story, or nothing really happens it’s just sweet and fluffy. It’s not the type of show with character development… I may have read those things in my own reviews.

We have been thaught that stories have a beginning which establishes the narrative elements (characters, setting, background), a middle that usually introduces some type of conflict a climax and ultimately a resolution. If any of these elements are missing, we feel as if the story is incomplete or not really a story.

As such, if a Slice of Life anime introduces very little conflict or omits resolutions, letting problems just go on unresolved, it’s sometimes difficult to frame it as a proper plot but that doesn’t mean the story isn’t great. Of course, I’m going to go to my beloved Natsume. I recently read an article that stipulated exactly what I mention above. Natsume Yuujinchou is heartwarming and sweet but has little to no character development to speak of and no story beyond random Yokai of the week.

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see…there are multiple Yokai in the same week…

I guess if you only watch a couple of episodes you could be left with that impression but I’m sad for you. You’re missing out on something fantastic. You see slice of life animes are a little like a puzzle. Each individual episode is a single piece. You could take that piece and admire the tiny bit of image in it and call it a day, but that’s not really the idea. Each piece stands alone, it may be easier to start by the edges, but you don’t have to. Each piece is very much like the other. They don’t build upon one another like legos.

If you find two pieces that fit together you may get a bit more out of it but more often than not it’s just a slightly bigger piece of sky that doesn’t bring on anything new. It’s not until you’ve managed to find enough pieces that fit together that you really start to get a clear picture.

Crafting a narrative that slowly fits together rather than continuously building on past elements is a tricky thing. I can’t point to the precise moment Natsume changed or grew. There were some big events but people don’t just change overnight and sometimes they regress. I will never be able to sit down with someone and simply explain how Natsume got the be the boy he is from the scared child he was. I can tell you that the character is one of the best developed and full personalities I’ve seen in anime as every single episode adds a little piece to the whole.

So just because you can’t clearly summarize a story, doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

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you want to see it now, right?

Background art

I started talking about Natsume and went on forever didn’t I…I’ll try to make the rest more concise. One of the very few visual elements that doesn’t get mentioned quite as often is background art. It is still the most popular element in this post but I think it merits a bit more praise.

The Ancient Magus’ Bride is stunning to look at, but beyond character design and animation what personally brought the universe to life for me was those magnificent painted backgrounds. So detailed and alive with dancing shadows and bright reflections. Sometimes you look at an anime and you have the impression that it doesn’t really exists beyond what you see onscreen. That show did the opposite, it gave me the impression that I was seeing but a sliver of an enormous universe.

Alternatively, the almost naïve backgrounds of Fullmetal Alchemist, with minimal detailing and a crayon like appearance not only gave a very interesting visual contrast but cemented the eye to any action happening on-screen. The world existed as an afterthought while my attention was entirely riveted on the Elric brothers and their adventures. (MHA uses absolutely gorgeous watercolor like backgrounds for a similar effect).

I don’t think we realize how much these touches change the way we take in the story.

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I’m sorry – I don’t even know who you are yet I juge you

Finally, let’s take a minute to appreciate the straight man

You know, the boring guy. The anime harem protagonist. The audience surrogates. The one important character who is nobody’s favorite, ever!

Most of us understand that a cast can’t be entirely made up of awesome weirdos and you need one normal character to hold everything together and make everyone else’s awesomeness shine through. You also need someone to dump exposition on the viewers or have stuff constantly explained to them, so we can understand it too. But I’m not sure we appreciate how difficult it is to write a normal guy (or girl – I’m using the genderless guy term here).

The reason these characters often end up boring or annoying is because crafting a subtle, understated and relatable personality to act as a foil and glue to the cast is both delicate and complex. Without wacky quirks or over the top traits to fall back on, these characters have to be way more developed as any lack of depth has nothing to hide behind. This said, develop them too much and they lose the everyman quality that’s central to their purpose in the plot.

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what to do…what to do?

Some authors will decide to forego this difficult balancing act by making various characters take turns playing the role but that’s just cheating.

The worst part is that a truly great vanilla character, a narrative tour de force, will usually go unnoticed and leave little impression behind. In fact, I can’t even think of an example and I just looked through a whole bunch of pics….

Wow, I didn’t think I would have so much to say on the subject. This got a little out of hand didn’t it? I hope I didn’t bore you too much. And also, I hope you ill give these little unsung heroes of anime production some attention next time you think of it. We might not notice these things in the moment but they make a big difference.

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40 thoughts

  1. I’ve always wanted to be a clueless idiot harem king. Here is who I’d want. Brownie points if you can identify them without looking them up.

    Tsuyu Asui
    Ryoko Hakubi
    Urabe Mikoto
    Megumi Noda
    Chihaya Ayase
    Sakurako Kujo
    Yukari Yukino
    Rokka Shimao
    Nana Osaki
    Hatoko Nikawa

  2. What a lovely post. I really need to pay more attention to ambient sounds; I’m not good at it. This reminds me that this is part of the bigger picture of sound direction, something I don’t quite understand. I remember, when Sword Art Online aired, I thought that the soundtrack (one of Yuki Kajiura’s better efforts, IMO) got better as the series progressed. Someone told me that I probably had the impression because the sound direction improved – the relation between music, voice acting and ambient sounds shifted the balance in favour of music. I can’t really tell whether that’s true, but it gave me renewed appraciation for parts of the craft that I’m neither aware of nor understand very well. (Just in case you wondered, I find SAO mildly entertaining with spots of intense irritation sprinkled through out. But the soundtrack is great.)

    “Stories about nothing” are one of the things that drew me to anime. Everything anime does well other media do well, too. But the “stories about nothing” strain is a speciality of anime. Outside of anime, I find that sprinkled very rarely through arthouse films (say Jim Jarmush). Anime does it really well, though. Slice of life generally comes in two guises: comedy (usually highschool comedies about friends hanging out), or iyashikei/healing anime (there’s some overlap, but usually there’s a focus one way or another). Natsume I consider iyashikei, but not slice-of-life. It’s too focussed on character development and narrative for that. There are basically three strands running through the show: Natsume coming to terms with the youkai world (getting to know more about his grandmother in the process), Natsume coming to terms with the human world (finding a family and friends), and Natsume getting embroiled in Exorcist politics (which is the thread that, plot-wise, connects the other two). So I’d say Natsume is actually pretty far from being a story about nothing.

    One of my favourite slice-of-life comedy is pretty effective at showing people simply goofing off. Yuyushiki: example, the Pan Ningen sketch. Note how it’s almost all scene composition, music and voice acting, but the writing is actually pretty intricate. You can’t know this from just watching the scene, but there are two groups of three girls, and this is near the end, where all of them are together for the first time. The troll who comes in last has never interacted with the main cast before, which adds a sort of extra punch to the scene. Yui, the tall blonde one, is also a pretty good straight man in terms of comedy, but the writing is such that the role doesn’t actually stand out. The gimmick of the show? They’re forming the “data processing club” – which means looking up random things on the internet and improvising a small poem at the end of the session. It’s quite literally about nothing at all.

    Flying Witch spent half an episode following two people around as they follow a cat.

    1. Yuyushiki was going to be a blind review but my collaborators never got around to it.
      Flying witch was a pretty calm anime. I thought it was paid for ny the tourism board. It had really beautiful vistas and I badly want to go to that cafe

          1. It’s great. A slice-of-life comedy with good between-the-lines characterisation and social dynamics and the occasional absurdist touch (high speed sakura petals [5 cm per second? Pah!], God decending on a snowflake [special snowflake]…).

  3. “The Ancient Magus’ Bride is stunning to look at, but beyond character design and animation what personally brought the universe to life for me was those magnificent painted backgrounds.”

    Weren’t those transfixing? I remember one shot (morning or evening) with the sun hanging just over snow-encrusted fields with refraction sparkling all over.

    “(MHA uses absolutely gorgeous watercolor like backgrounds for a similar effect).” You know who else does great backgrounds with watercolor-like effects? Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash! Their “sets” are unobtrusively beautiful, and I think they’re a great example of what you’re talking about here.

    “The anime harem protagonist.” I immediately thought of Darling-kun (Kimihito) from Monster Musume! Or maybe even Minato from Sekirei. Kimihito had a super power (well, two: cooking and indestructibility), whereas Minato was just all around supportive. Still, compared to the characters surrounding them, they felt like straight men to me!

      1. I think you might like Sekirei. Maybe. Ashika Sakura, the writer, brings a sense of romance to the characters (especially Musubi and Minato) that is so often missing in other similar shows. Maybe I’m being cliche, but I’ve always suspected that her perspective as a woman brings a breath of fresh air to the show.

        I’m not trying to bad mouth Monster Musume! But as much as I love Miia (one of the monster girls), I have to admit that it’s much more crude than Sekirei. Whereas Musubi tries to win Minato over with devotion and achievement, Miia’s more often exposing herself or pressing her affections on Darling-kun. It’s not that Sekirei is devoid of fanservice; I just find it to be much more classy.

        If classy fanservice is really a thing…

        Anyway, if you’re interested, it looks like Hulu has Sekirei. Anime-Planet says they have it, but it looks like Hulu hosts it, and I don’t know what kind of hoops you have to jump through. It’s likely best to start with season 1 (not Pure Engagement). The two seasons build on each other.

        If you watch it, I’d love to know what you think!

  4. How lovely to see a dedicated anime blogger focus a post on those unappreciated little things. I am an artist. I prefer realism. And the beautiful, detailed backgrounds of anime were one of the elements that made me fall in love with this form of entertainment. There are anime I have watched with ZERO interest in the plot or story simply because the art is so beautiful. I’ve taken screen shot after screen shot simply to be able to admire every single detail in a garden or wilderness or home or cityscape at my leisure. I rarely see anyone else say anything about this beyond “the art is beautiful”. These are people who have never spend DAYS drawing each individual tree in a snowy landscape (I have) and getting them just right. Now imagine that times, what, thousands of frames? And yes, sure, much of it is CGI but at some point in any detailed background SOMEBODY sat down and DREW that – then put it in the software to animate it. The TLC…

    You know, I think I’ve gotten the general idea that “serious” anime fans don’t think much of slice of life anime, and yes, I would have to say that it is my favorite genre. I don’t think it’s been a specific article or articles saying “Oh slice of life is a waste of space”, but more a general dismissive tone of “this anime is episodic, slice of life but it’s enjoyable for something light”. So it gets a 100 word review instead of 10,000 words of rhapsodizing about the themes of conflict and futurism. It’s just a point of view and it does seem to be somewhat in the majority. Perhaps only because the millions of us who love those “light” and “simple” anime are not so dedicated as to have an anime blog, or write articles or even extensive reviews on a website. Because, well, we watch anime because we love it, not because we love to dissect it. And maybe we’re even a bit discouraged since it seems like our favorite anime are not those that get all the “buzz” so we think no one else cares like we do. Maybe we just cherish our little gems so much we can’t bear to put them out there among the vivisectionists who would judge them for a slower pace, a simpler theme, a quiet, beautiful forest and softer stories.

    Some days you get more words out of me in reply to your thoughtful blog posts, than my current work in progress inspires! LOL. Thank you again.

    1. Don’t think I don’t appreciate these comments – They absolutely make my day. Hearing from you is all the motivation I need to write!
      That was beautifully said. I absolutely adore this blog that compares anime images to real life pictures of the places they portray:
      I can spend hours there – it’s like a mini vacation with a touch of magic

  5. Nice shout out to the straight man!
    I disagree about the taking turns thing though (unless you mean throughout an entire anime there is no designated straight man, then I agree 100%)

    You can have an assigned straight man character like Shinpachi (the quintessential straight man) and still give them occasional moments where they have a lapse in judgement and create their own comedic moments. I love those times where characters flip roles for a brief moment, like Gintoki becomes the straight man as a reaction to something that Shinpachi and Kagura are doing. The irregularity of it adds to the comedy I think.

      1. Here I am repping Shinpachi as my wordpress profile picture and he is still forgotten! I can’t blame you though, he is a straight man character, it comes with the job.

          1. I guess so? He has his own personality quirks, but if you look at individual scenes most of the time he plays a vanilla straight man role.
            Anyways no need to get bogged down in details!
            Great post, also great points about slice of life anime, one of my favourite genres.

  6. From background noise, background characters, to literal “backgrounds,” I find it difficult to encapsulate everything that I want to say about a given show in my reviews without going on and on, forever increasing that word count.

    I suppose I could write an entire post on how Steins;Gate’s cicadas, endless blue skies, and blazing sun epitomize the essence of a hot summer day in Japan, or how rain in Shinkai’s The Garden of Words acts more like a character than its own leads, but even then, I’m not sure if people would be interested in reading that. Would they? Heck, I don’t know, but I loved the appreciation for the little things in this post!

    1. Am I people? I would be interested. I guess you don’t just write stuff for me but …I would be interested! Hoenstly that comment made me realize how awesome it would be.
      Like that city in Haibane Renmei that’s also a character onto itself. Or how the color coding in ACCA 13 was a huge non verbal part of the narrative.

      1. Right? And how character placement within a frame dictates power in Kill la Kill, or how the classic Sailor Moon’s unnecessarily high episode count is actually one of its strongest features? I think we’re really on to something here! Ahaha!

  7. Found myself in awe with your blurb on sound design. Never really considered to take all of that into account (though this is the guy who used to watch anime with barely audible sound). Great post!

    1. Thank you! I have always been floored by the amount of work that goes into anime and when those little things are done right – you kinda don’t notice them at all…

  8. Wow, very nice, kinds of things I never thought of it at least not often. Except the slice of life one. I love slice of life and I’ve really been in the mood for it lately.

  9. Definitely some great underappreciated elements!! I love that you included white noise! The background sounds are something I always seem to notice. There are some anime like FLCL that jump out huge for this, some of the best scenes are the scenes where nothing at all is being said! Great post! 💖💖

    1. Oh yeah – the original FLCL did have some beautiful athmospherics – that show really knew how to ge into detail

  10. As soon as you mentioned white noise, my mind immediately went, “Terror in Resonance!” Of course, there are plenty of other titles that handle this element extremely well, but given that anime aren’t generally ‘known’ for their white noise, Terror in Resonance must be something truly special in that department for my mind to immediately go there, as it appears it also did with you.

  11. This is why I watch my Anime in English Dub. I love the visuals so much. I don’t want to miss out on any of it. There have been times when I have watched Anime and heard the sound of something moving in a bush and the character jumping out of fear. what I always found amazing about this is how each branch moves separately from the others. I think these are the things we take for granted.

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