The Importance of Presentation in Strong Anime Narratives

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Text version: The Legend of the Galactic Heroes has a reputation as the poster child for the importance of narrative in anime. Spanning 110 episodes–notwithstanding a collection of side stories and films–and featuring just as many named characters enacting an epic war story in space, the Legend boasts one of the most complex, intricate, and massive narratives in anime history. With much of the story being conveyed through dialog and narration, the series is often seen as “book-like,” and de-emphasizing the flashy audio-visual presentation which other series might rely on. However, what can easily be overlooked by focusing so much what on the Legend’s plot and characters do to make it interesting, is how perfectly the show uses its visuals and sound to sell its epic narrative; and how easily it could have been handled poorly. One look at any image from this series can tell you exactly what kind of story it is. It perfectly balances the regal intensity of an epic space drama with the grounded, realistic look of a military war drama. Its characters have realistic faces, yet most are still handsome, rugged, and captivating. You can feel the weight of its narrative just by looking at its promo art, which comes off at once as kind of stuffy and self-important, but also kind of alluring and interesting. It looks exactly like what it is, and sets your expectations correctly before you even start watching. If one aspect of the Legend’s visual design could be considered the heart and soul of the anime adaptation in its entirety, it would be the hair. Like most anime series, the Legend gives every character a unique hairstyle in the name of being able to tell them apart, which becomes even more imperative in a series with so many of them. Unlike most anime, though, the Legend only uses realistic hair colors, even if it does push it in a couple of places. But what really makes the hair noteworthy, as first pointed out to me by friend and fellow anime blogger Baka-Raptor, is that not a single character in the entire series has hair which covers their eyes. Even in the incredibly rare cases that their hair is long enough that it could cover their eyes, it is always either parted or trimmed such in a way as to avoid obstructing their vision. Why is this such a big deal? Because the Legend of the Galactic Heroes is a serious military war drama. Most of the characters spend most of their time in uniform, and their dialog is so dense with honorifics and military formalities that you could probably cut like a sixth of the average episode’s runtime just by removing them. It’s evident that the character designers were given the herculean task of creating hundreds of unique designs without ever breaking at least some semblance of military dress code–and pulling that off is a hell of an accomplishment. Now, for the sake of comparison, let’s look at the character designs in 2008’s Tytania. Both Tytania and the Legend of the Galactic Heroes were based on novel series by the same guy, and both adaptations were handled by the same animation studio and director. However, one look at Tytania makes it much harder to take seriously compared to its predecessor, simply because of the unrealistic hair styles, the silly uniforms, the less careful use of color, and the more anime-like faces. It would understandably be tempting to blame this difference on the eras in which each of these shows were released–but it takes only a bit of research to realize that such an argument wouldn’t hold water. The Galactic Heroes series was released from 1988 up through 1997, and its design sense would be pretty atypical even in sci-fi series of that era. Most anime was going for big, colorful hair, cute girls, pretty boys, and violent action, to the backdrop of 80s synth tunes. Moreover, the designs in Tytania were based on original art by Haruhiko Mikimoto, who was responsible for the designs across most of the popular 80s and 90s sci-fi franchise Macross, which came from the very same director as the Legend and Tytania. Whatever the motivations may have been for using that kind of design sense in Tytania, it’s pretty clear just from looking at the two shows next to one-another that the Legend of the Galactic Heroes is more of a class act; and if the incredibly strict design ethos wasn’t enough to convince you, then the soundtrack most certainly would. The Legend features a soundtrack entirely comprised of classical music. Epic space battles are accompanied by equally epic pieces of booming instrumentation. This decision to forego popular modern music in favor of something which predates anyone who would be watching the series, helps to sell the sense of timelessness that the presentation aims for. The tradition of using classical music to convey the scope and majesty of space dates back to Stanley Kubrick’s classic film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and I have no doubt that the director of the Galactic Heroes was cribbing from Kubrick’s playbook here. Once again, this makes for an interesting comparison against Tytania. Both shows use somewhat corny orchestral ballads for their opening themes, yet Tytania’s battles are set to a dramatic orchestral score which feels so typical of modern action movies as to be unremarkable. Couple this with CGI ship battles that look disconnected from the show surrounding them, and the series manages to date itself poorly in a way that the Legend was able to transcend by conveying a sense of timelessness. In ten years, Tytania will feel like a pop culture artifact of late 2000s anime, whereas the Legend will feel like an ageless classic; regardless of the actual narrative in either series. Of course, while the Legend of the Galactic Heroes and Tytania are both political space dramas created by most of the same people, you could make the case that they were not chasing the same narrative goals, and therefore this comparison can’t really be taken as a slight on the production of Tytania. However, we can find an even more potent example of the importance of visual design in conveying narrative atmosphere by looking at another of the author’s works, The Heroic Legend of Arslan. The first Arslan adaptation, a six-episode OVA series which ran through the early 90s, is not without its problems. It rushes through the story at breakneck speed, with weird time skips and confusing action sequences that seem too eager to press on without letting anything sink in. However, the show’s visual presentation could hardly have been more perfect. Its gorgeous character designs scream fantasy legend, taking clear influence from the original novel art by Yoshitaka Amano, who is best known for his work on Final Fantasy and Vampire Hunter D. Amano’s designs always have a trippy, ethereal, and often sort of asexual look to them, which this OVA translates well into something easier to animate. Where the visuals really come to life, though, is in the background art and color palette. Each scene in Arslan is given a unique palette that instantly sets the tone; from the stark white, almost spooky atmosphere of the opening battle in the fog, to the nearly grayscale morbidity of the sewer encounter, to the luscious landscapes in some of the calmer dialog scenes. Every image in this OVA drips with the majesty of a high-fantasy setting–even when it’s cutting a bit too fast to really drink in all of the fantastic visuals. Had the show’s artwork and involving political narrative been given room to breathe in a long-form TV series, then it could’ve been a true classic of fantasy anime–which is why it’s a shame that the currently-running Arslan TV series lacks any of the visual luster of its predecessor. The new Arslan anime is based on a manga adaptation by Hiromu Arakawa of Fullmetal Alchemist fame, which looks a lot less high-fantasy, and a lot more… well, Fullmetal Alchemist. It isn’t very different from typical shounen action fare–which isn’t so bad, until it makes the transition from manga to anime. Foregoing the impressionistic high-fantasy look of the first OVA and the bubbly shounen art of the manga, the TV series tries for a more grounded, gritty, and realistic look in its colors and backgrounds–in spite of basing its designs and storyboards almost shot-for-shot on the panels of the manga. The result is an aesthetic that not only bores me to tears, but seems to clash with the baby-faced character designs with its attempt at grittiness. Even more so than by the characters, the show’s attempt at realism is instantly undercut by its shoddy use of CGi and uninventive shot compositions. When it came time to show a large number of soldiers moving at once in the original Arslan OVA, the creative solution to hiding the indistinct soldier designs was to depict them in silhouette or to hide their faces, creating the illusion that they could be an army of individual men if seen up close. In the TV series, the armies are represented by a sea of literal CG clones, which immediately removes any dramatic tension from all of the war scenes. I cannot possibly watch these sequences without thinking about the fact that every single soldier on each side is the exact same guy. The manga didn’t have this problem, since Arakawa could much more easily give each soldier a distinct face as long as they weren’t moving; but by copying the manga panels directly into the storyboards, the anime staff shot themselves in the foot and created some truly goofy-looking war scenes. Arslan TV runs into the same problems of other manga adaptations in that characters spend a lot of time standing around and talking when they should be moving, which results in scenes that drag on forever and lack any excitement. On the whole, the production faces the opposite problem of the original–it has time to flesh out its characters and setting, but plods along with so little energy and flair that there’s little draw to the setting and characters in the first place. Creating long-form, intricate narratives in animation is always a risky proposition. Most anime can’t afford to be long, and are more interested in following genre conventions or sticking to popular styles than they are in creating perfect visual and narrative synthesis. In cases like the works of Yoshiki Tanaka that I’ve discussed in this post, these stories already exist in light novel form, where they are assumably as fleshed out narratively as they will ever be. The impetus to adapt these into animation comes from adding the unique layers of storytelling that only the animated medium is capable of portraying. A lot of the times, it’s almost impossible to create an anime series which adds to the source material without subtracting anything significant. It takes a lot of space and care just to present the narrative as completely as possible; and even more to justify its transition to animation by making sure that each element of the audio and visuals compliments or enhances the story. While the writing of a series like the Legend of the Galactic Heroes is worth celebrating, I think that its deft hand at justifying the existence of the series in animation is equally noteworthy. Let me know how you feel about each of Yoshiki Tanaka’s adaptations in the comments, and let me know if there were any plot-driven anime series that you felt were made or broken by their audio-visual presentation. If you enjoyed this video, then share it around, and consider supporting me via patreon to keep this channel going. Follow me on twitter @Digibrah for updates, and check out my game commentary channel Digi Bros if you find yourself really bored for like 45 minutes around noon every day. Thanks again for watching, and I’ll see you in the next one!

7 thoughts on “The Importance of Presentation in Strong Anime Narratives

  1. I’m a pretty big fan of Arakawa’s manga adaptation of Arslan Senki, so I was pretty let down by this adaptation. I totally agree :P

  2. The visual representation of LotGH when it comes to the space battles is pretty awful though. Some people think it’s strategic and tactical but it’s actually 2D naval battles at best. And i don’t mean just the animation of how the battles unfold and i’m talking about how the battles are written itself.

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