I have been watching an anime recently and thinking to myself, this would be great if it weren’t for the characters… Le sigh… That’s not exactly a flaw that’s easy to sweep under the rug. It reminded me of Demon Slayer.
Not that the animes have anything in common. However, if I remember well, most of the criticism Demon Slayer got was due to the characters being “annoying”, and more specifically Zenitsu. Which was a bit of a surprise considering he had been a fan favourite for readers of the manga.
This disconnect was always interesting to me. But when you think about it, it really does make perfect sense. Zenitsu, and his character archetype, works very well…on paper. I’m not saying that you can’t make a super excitable or whiny character that’s also great in an anime (and Zenitsu is both whiny and excitable!), but it’s very difficult to pull off and I’ve only seen it manageable, in small doses. As the main character, that’s a real challenge.
But is it possible?
Acting is one of the biggest issues here. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the actor was bad. He was not at all. The fact is I actually kind of like Zenitsu, especially with some distance, and that’s saying a lot. The thing is, translating “excitable” as a character trait to anime almost always comes in the form of screaming or at least talking really loud. And having someone scream at you from your screen, is always going to be way less enjoyable than reading text in slightly bolder lines or in spiky speech bubbles. That’s just the way it is.
And I have to say, I’m not sure how else you could bring it across. It has to be a mannerism that’s universal enough to be understood by fans the world over and obvious enough to bring that trait across. If the character just talks normally, then even without changing their lines, it changes their personality.
It’s similar for whining although there’s a subtle difference. In text form, whiny or depressed moods are often simply implied by the words themselves. We know a character is self-pitying because of what they are saying or thinking, usually with very little other visual cues. Letters can get a bit distorted for deep depression but it’s not a given. So for a reader, the only change is really the text itself, there is no sensory assault to go with it and it’s up to the reader to interpret the rest.
However, just saying depressed or whiny lines without changing anything in one’s tone or inflection sounds really weird. In fact, it often sounds sarcastic giving the audience the opposite impression of what they would have gotten from reading it. (On the other hand, sarcasm usually has to be spelled out in manga with exaggerated facial expressions, changes in font and occasionally actually telling readers someone is sarcastic when a simple inflection is enough in anime). So unless sarcastic is what someone is going for, it makes perfect sense that an actor will try to sound whiny when delivering whiny of self-pitying lines. And for a lot of us, hearing someone whine is kind of annoying.
So are these archetypes that can be fun to watch in anime form without changing their core personality?
For one, I think toning down personalities is always a good thing but I can understand that a lot of people fund that boring so I won’t suggest it.
But I did think a lot about the excitable and whiny problem. Most people will overlook either of these traits when it’s in characters they otherwise like or characters that happen to have a great design, so it’s difficult to get a good idea of how the audience actually feels. Still, I think that generally loud doesn’t tend to do to good.
The thing that anime has in its arsenal aside from sound is actual animation. You could make a character fidgety, jumpy and generally very quick in their mundane movements to illustrate some of that excitement non verbally. A studio could also use body language like having a character’s default stance with their hands on their hips to show defensiveness or have them avoid eye contact to show a lack of confidence. Combine enough and you could end up with something close to self-pity.
The issue here is that for one, a lot of people don’t notice body language. Like ever. If you’ve ever tried to hint at something to someone without actually saying it and smacked up against a wall, you know how unobservant a lot of people can be. So unless the entire scene is staged and blocked to draw the viewers’ attention to those movements and stances, it’s almost certain that it will go right over a chunk of the audience, potentially a really substantial chunk at that.
There’s also the fact that animation is usually more expensive than voice acting. It’s simply much more efficient for a studio to have an actor scream their lines then spend dozens of extra hours making sure the character never stops moving or something.
When I thought about it, I don’t actually dislike excited people. They do tire me out occasionally but as introverted as I am, everyone does so it’s no biggie. Surprisingly, I’m not that against whiny people either. So why do I tend to have no patience for these types of characters in anime?
For one, no one really screams at me. O.k., I do have one friend I occasionally have to remind to use their indoor voice at the office and I like them a lot. But most of my excitable friends just tend to start talking really fast when they get on a subject they are passionate about. Their eyes get all wide, the stumble across their words a bit and run out of breath mid-sentence cause they forget to pause. That’s actually really cute and generally gets me just as excited about the subject as they are.
If a character like Zenitsu could show their excitement and passion that way instead, I would find it considerably more charming!
But what about whiny. I’m not sure about this one but personally, I prefer hearing someone sigh then hearing that high pitch sing-song voice that usually accompanies whines. Grumbling is also much better in my book. I don’t mind grumbling at all! So that could be one way.
I do like several characters that lack confidence or have a lot of self-pity, and I noticed that instead of changes in intonation, they often have a skit or running gag. Tamaki crouches against a wall and has a colour fail whenever he gets down on himself, Ririchiyo changes very little in her tone or delivery but turns into a chibi whenever she’s getting mopey. This does sort of destroy the mood of any more serious or dramatic scene mind you. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have a more serious visual indicator. A character could play with their hair or hands whenever they feel down, But it’s something that has to be established right from the start of a series and really reinforced for it to have the same impact as a tonal change since ultimately, it is still just body language.
Mind you, although I am suggesting ways to translate these archetypes that would work for me, this may not be so for the rest of the audience. And ultimately, it is changing the source material tonally which is something people tend to get very defensive about.
So maybe there are just certain archetypes that will always work better on paper. Do you have any that come to mind? How about the other way around? Are there character types you love in anime but find boring on paper?