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 favourite underappreciated anime components. I debated whether I should specifically mention colour 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.

I want to go to there

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 watercolour 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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18 thoughts

  1. Colour selection you really only notice if it’s glaring (see: NGNL) or too muddy (see: Perfect Insider). I seem to gravitate towards anime with brighter palettes *looks awkwardly at Concrete Revolutio and Prince of Stride*…

    Apparently the “straight man” image is Naoto from Rail Wars (it’s stated in the image name). I don’t know how much of a straight man he is or how boring he is, though.

    1. I really enjoy colour selection in almost every sigle anime I watch. Uninteresting palettes won’t ruin my experience though but good ones always make it better. A lot of genres are colour coded and it’s quite interesting when a production chooses to borrow a colour range traditionally associated with a different genre. It plays with perception of long term anime watchers in a very subtle way.

  2. Beautiful background art is one of my most favorite things about anime. I certainly appreciate the effort that goes into a gorgeous landscape or interior design that perfectly compliments the action or drama or enhances the tranquility of the atmosphere.

    Maybe it’s just me, but I have a sneaking suspicion that slice of life anime is just as popular if not more so than the action adventure stuff. It’s just that the fans are a little quieter and less inclined to go looking for conflict or affirmation or any other thing requiring social interaction. Fans of action are naturally going to find slice of life boring. And bloggers are, I would think, largely going to be people who seek deeper meaning in their anime – and thus lack in appreciation for episodic slice of life. There’s lots of us out here who just go along watching anime we like to relax. Nice, quiet, pretty slice of life anime… who don’t blog because we actually don’t want or need to make a living out of anime, or even make it a huge part of our life. We just want something pretty and nice to watch after a long or rough day. Not that bloggers don’t enjoy slice of life, but they might not be inclined to blog about it because they feel there isn’t enough material there. Not sure I’m making sense. Haven’t slept. 😛

    Good post. Thank you for reminding us it’s the little things that count. Small things like background noise that we hardly notice, that can mean so much to a story and to our suspension of disbelief (of lack of).

    1. I think SoL is potentially the most popular genre but I also see it written off as superficial or just a brainless distraction. I sort of disagree. SoL shows have often made me reflect more than action adventures.

  3. Slice of life shows are the type of stuff you just want to turn your brain off and just enjoy something fun.

  4. Slice of life is basically the type of show you just want to watch when you just want to turn your brain off and just have fun for once. I mean not every anime has to be this deep philosophical story like Evangelion. Slice of life doesn’t also necessarily have to be just plotless either like lucky star Haruhi had elements of paranormal in it and Carole and tuesday its the same universe as Cowboy Bebop and Space Dandy.
    -K (Rogueotakugamer)

    1. Some Slice of Life is deeply meaningful and insightful but people just write it off as fluff, you know?

  5. @Sound design: It’s 2012. I’m watching Sword Art Online. It’s the second half of the show, the one where people soured on it. The musical score of the show was written by Yuki Kajiura, who is a legend and everybody knows. I don’t exactly remember what the conversation was about, but I remember saying that I thought this was one of her better soundtracks, one that was tailored to scenes again and relying less on her personal clichés (like, say, Fate/Zero). I was also saying how I thought the score was better in the second half of the show. I gave an example.

    Someone disagreed with me: the score didn’t get better. It’s always been that good, from the beginning of the show. What did get better, though, was the sound direction. The shows track mixing made more of the score in second half. Better balance, and so on. I never rewatched the first half of SAO; the show’s just not good enough to waste a re-watch on (for me). But this was the first time I started to pay attention to sound direction. The balance of music, speech and ambient sound. I’d never really known what a sound director does, so this was a revelation.

    As it is, I didn’t learn much since then. I’m just not really good about that. But I do appreciate the work they do. It’s purposefully invisible and makes other people’s work shine: the voice actors, the composers and musicians, the scenic atmosphere… I don’t have what it takes to talk meaningfully about sound design, but it’s certainly good to remember the job from time to time. It’s not a job that gives you fame, but the anime we like so much would be a so much poorer experience, if they did a bad job.

    1. I’m a lot like you, I can sense something is great about the experience but I have a very though time pinpointing it, especially when it comes to sound design.

  6. “the sound of cicadas”
    *Higurashi flashbacks intensifies*

    Honestly though, I think I mentioned it in one of my evangelion posts but I somehow found those rather still frames in the anime okay to watch cause the background noises and effects just made it feel like I was just staring blankly and absorbing the surroundings.

    Well, I guess what we mean when we say that slice of life has no plot is just that it isn’t the main point. Slice of life is all about the fun interactions between characters and depending on the existence of the drama tag, some internal conflicts.

    Talk about backgrounds without talking about Makoto Shinkai?! O.O

    1. I saw your name in theatres which is great but also means I didn’t get screencaps and have a chance to really pour over backgrounds. But I know little shoka was really into the backgrounds in that movie.

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