How to Do Exposition Right, As Seen In Zankyou no Terror Episode 2

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In my last video on Zankyou no Terror, I explained how the show does such an amazing job of informing the viewer without resorting to exposition. I also talked about how to do exposition poorly, by having characters explain things to one-another that those characters would already know. However, I don’t want to imply the misconception that I’m anti-exposition, or that exposition doesn’t have its place in animation. Zankyou no Terror episode two once again serves as an example of good technical writing, this time by showing us how to do exposition RIGHT.

Now, I’m not saying that all of the exposition in this episode is necessarily interesting. That’s a totally subjective argument, and personally I found that the episode was little hit and miss with which things caught my attention. With this video, I just want to show you how the exposition was presented, and how it avoided falling into the problems that other shows fall into.

The first line of exposition for the viewer happens when Lisa’s mother asks if she intends to leave just like her father did. From this scene we learn that Lisa’s father left and that her mother basically went insane afterwards. The line itself still sounds like something her mother would say in this situation–it’s a perfectly natural sentence, albeit one that also sounds like a crazy person–that just happens to inform as well.

After this, we get a pretty lengthy scene of exposition in the form of a briefing session at the police department. Briefings are pretty much the perfect way to handle exposition in any kind of police or military story, because they are a form of exposition dumping that actually happens in reality. The whole point of this meeting is for people to trade information and get a comprehensive grasp of a situation. Moreover, this show almost seems determined to make sure we know that characters are indeed informing one-another by having them react with surprise at one-another’s revelations.

Now, some of what is said in this scene includes things that we as audience members may have already figured out while watching the first episode, but none of it is information that was made explicit in the first episode, and some things work more as confirmation of our suspicions than outright exposition. Plus, if you didn’t rewatch the episode five times and do a shot-by-shot analysis of it, then most of this info probably feels a lot more fresh.

After the briefing, we also get conversations between people from the meeting reflecting on the information given. I have no idea what Twelve means when he says he wanted to be compared to Japanese pop star Kenji Sawada though. Nine explains to Twelve why he used the word “accomplice” before, because Twelve actually asked.

In another example of a natural piece of dialog that happens to be informative, Shibasaki’s partner says that the terrorist case has “nothing to do with us here in the archives.” After this, we launch into quite a bit of exposition regarding a riddle that the terrorists give the police, which many viewers will instantly recognize as the Sphinx riddle from Oedipus Rex.

Now, it’s easy to imagine a lot of people getting bored or annoyed with all the talk about this riddle, because it’s been used in a lot of shows and movies and could be seen as rather cliche. However, it’s difficult to determine if this riddle is as much of a cliche in Japan as it is here. After all, I read Oedipus Rex in high school and I’m certain I’ve seen the riddle elsewhere, but I don’t know if they read it in Japanese high schools. My brother claimed that he had definitely seen the riddle used in other anime before, but neither of us could think of immediate examples.

Whatever the case may be, what matters is that in the context of the show, all of the discussion about this riddle is clearly between people who don’t already know about it. A point is made once again to have the detectives react as if they’re learning about this all for the first time, including when Shibasaki tells the police chief about the alternate version of the myth at the end.

The one logical problem that I had with this episode is that the police didn’t immediately come up with the alternate version of the myth when they were doing their own research on it–but this is excusable if we consider that the police were chasing the first lead they saw on such a time-sensitive case. It’s also subtly implied through Shibasaki’s playing word games beforehand that he has, or seeks, a great wealth of this kind of trivial knowledge, which might be part of how he figured this out before anyone else.

Before I wrap this video up, I’d like to address a comment that someone made about how I keep taking down Aldnoah.Zero for the way it handles exposition. The comment argued that, since Aldnoah.Zero is a sci-fi series, it has to explain a lot more things about its world for the viewer to follow, so it can’t always pull off the whole “show don’t tell” rule. And I agree–in fact I’m not even as adamant on the show don’t tell rule as my last video might lead you to believe. I appreciate when a series can inform the viewer without telling them, but I don’t mind being told things when it’s in service of the storyline. The problem is simply a matter of immersion.

When you’re trying to make a story feel dramatic, the most important thing to do is to make the characters feel believable and alive in the context of their own world. We have to have the impression that the characters are actually people, and not merely devices that are used for the author to tell their story.

To use a classic sci-fi example, The Legend of the Galactic Heroes, often considered one of the best-written anime ever created, contains insane amounts of exposition to flesh out its expansive universe–but the heavy load of this exposition is carried by a narrator. The narrator informs us of things that there would just be no reason for the characters to discuss, but that we as viewers need to know, and that way when the characters do converse, then all of their dialog can remain relevant. On the other side of the coin, Zankyou no Terror has its characters provide exposition, but it does so by putting them in contexts where it makes sense for them to inform one-another, and never has a character explain something that the other character would already know.

I realize that not everyone will be bothered by the kind of dialog used in Aldnoah.Zero, and some may even prefer it to something like the disembodied narrator–but I hope that I’ve helped you understand what I mean when I say that characters explaining things to one-another that way makes it feel like they aren’t really having conversations, but are instead acting as a cypher for the writer to talk to the audience, thus breaking the illusion that the characters actually exist in their own world. Zankyou no Terror continues to prove an interesting and enjoyable watch, even if my admiration for it is mostly on a technical level. I doubt I’ll end up doing full-on analysis videos for every episode, but if you want to see my reactions to each episode along the way, be sure and subscribe to my anime vlog channel, Digi Does Anime. Also, if you want to help me continue to make these videos, consider offering support via the links in the description. Ciao!

One thought on “How to Do Exposition Right, As Seen In Zankyou no Terror Episode 2

  1. Great points made about exposition as i have argued how to probably do exposition as well whenever i discuss a visual medium. Honestly, even though i can agree with people who state that aldnoah has no choice but to be heavy on the exposition. I disagree that it cant be done with the “show-dont-tell” method. The problem with AldNoah’s exposition is how it feels the need to inform us on all these details as if it was a lecture, and doing it with characters that would already know what all this information is. Aldnoah could easily sprinkle hints here and there, while allowing the characters to interact within the setting that give us nuggets of information about how this sci-fi world works. It’s ok to allow your audience members to speculate while easing them into the world for a couple episodes. With each ep, you reveal new information to the audience while ultimately aiming to create legitimate scenarios in which crucial information about the plot and the setting can be discussed in that it feels that the audience was informed about something without them even knowing that they just watched a piece of exposition. It makes the writing feel tighter and makes the series feel more riveting because it feels like you’re more involved, and that you are being challenged. Some shows dont have the confidence to allow the audience to speculate a bit about the rules of the world while slowly learning about it as eps go by. That’s my main gripe about the exposition in Aldnoah; still doesnt take away from the fact that i think its a good series right now.

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