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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.