The Queen of Anime Melodrama

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While no shortage of studios and directors have achieved recognition in the anime fan community, it’s incredibly rare for writers to achieve the same–and not without good reason. When looking through the average anime writer’s portfolio, they often seem to have been involved with every kind of show, with little consistency in their style or in the quality of what they’ve written. Because so much anime is adapted from manga and light novels, it can also be difficult to get a sense of what the anime writer is responsible for in comparison with the writer of the source material.

The first anime staffer to have achieved mainstream recognition purely as a writer is Urobuchi Gen, who rose in popularity for his prominent style of dark, depressing original stories with the likes of Madoka Magica, Fate/Zero, and Psycho-Pass. However, the Urobutcher isn’t the only anime writer with a distinctive style, nor the only one pumping out plenty of anime-original stories. Today we’ll be talking about a writer who brings a similar edge both to her adaptations and to her original work, and who‘s proven herself to be the queen of anime melodrama: Mari Okada.

Considering the size of her portfolio, there’s a good chance you’re familiar with at least one thing she’s worked on if you’re big into anime. Toradora, Anohana, Black Butler, and Vampire Knight have all enjoyed fairly mainstream success; and, in the past few years, Zetsuen no Tempest, Nagi no Asukara, The Pet Girl of Sakurasou, and Selector Infected WIXOSS have all been fairly popular. At a glance, these shows may not seem like they have much in common in terms of genre; but when you look at the way the shows are written–from the overall structure, to the interactions of the characters–then you’ll quickly pick up on some commonalities.

Okada’s shows almost always feature some kind of love triangle, rectangle, pentagon, dodecahedron, etc., and her characters are often very much defined by their obsessive love for someone else. The melodrama which arises within a group of friends when all of them start falling in love with one-another is by far the most common theme in her work, whether it’s in the form of a high-stakes mystery thriller, a quiet series about middle schoolers dealing with transgender issues, or a modern fantasy about the racial tension between fish people and land-dwellers. Often times, the major plot twists in her shows are incited by someone acting out of frustration for their unrequited love–often with tragic consequences.

To that end, Okada is not afraid to bring heightened stakes to her drama. One of the most unique things about her work is that even when she’s doing adaptations, most of her shows tend to have definitive endings, and are not designed to be left open for a second season or for the continuation of the manga the way that most anime tend to be. Even in cases wherein the manga does continue from where the show left off, she often tries to keep the story fairly self-contained, and to not just leave it unsatisfyingly open-ended. Because most of her shows are not designed to go on forever, she often has the opportunity to let characters die; or, even more amazingly, to actually allow relationships to take off before the end of the series. If you want to see love triangles which actually end in two people getting together, then her shows are probably for you.

My personal biggest criticism of Okada’s writing is that her characters tend to feel very strongly about things which I am not given time to care about much as a viewer. Most of her characters fall very deeply in love very quickly, often without much of a reason, and I sometimes can’t bring myself to care which relationships will actually pan out in the end. Because her characters tend to be so single-minded and obsessive, their dialog can also get very repetitive. These problems appears most strongly in her original work, whereas the characters in her adaptations tend to come packaged with a little more depth and intrigue to round them out.

A common criticism of Okada’s work is that she sometimes takes the melodrama too far, with characters often yelling, crying, and gesturing wildly during key dramatic moments; but I think that she uses this overwrought style on purpose, possibly in the name of feeling like stage drama. While some of them are adaptations, Okada has managed to work on multiple shows which make heavy reference to Shakespeare, and even wrote on the semi-musical drama Red Garden, and the other-kind-of-stage drama AKB0048. I think the overwrought dialog and emotions of her shows are a deliberate stylistic choice if anything, and while your mileage and mine will vary on how well it works from show to show, I think it’s pretty cool that she goes through with that style in so many series.

Okada is also a huge proponent of the good old fashioned plot twist, and will dole them out regularly throughout each of her shows. Several of her works are structured around a huge plot twist occurring right in the middle of the show, followed by a time skip, and then slowing down the pace to re-establish all of the characters’ relationships.

It’s worth noting at this point that while Okada has been responsible for writing some really excellent series such as Wandering Son, Red Garden, and Hanasaku Iroha, she has also been responsible for some of anime’s most infamous trainwrecks, such as Fractale and the Black Rock Shooter TV series. A lot of her shows ride the line between being amazing and horrible by way of turning into a total clusterfuck by the end, such as Canaan, Aquarion Evol, and AKB0048; though the latter two of those are also Shoji Kawamori vehicles, which are known for being pretty unhinged already. Many of Okada’s shows are highly divisive, whether in terms of their overall quality with shows like M3, Gosick, and Kodomo no Jikan, or in terms of the events that happen in the story, with shows like True Tears and Kuroshitsuji II. Suffice it to say that whether you find yourself enjoying one of her shows or not, you’re likely going to see something a bit different from the norm, and to walk away with a strong opinion about it.

Most fascinating to me about Okada’s style is that it’s totally not my thing. Plot-focused dramas full of twists and turns and any kind of teen melodrama are about as far away from my strike zone as I can imagine. A lot of the time, her shows certainly don’t do much for me. However, at her best, she’s managed to write the few shows in those genres which I actually am a fan of. I certainly favor Okada’s adaptation work over her original stories, but I also value her ability to bring her dramatically energetic and flavorful style to series like Toradora and Hourou Musuko, which could’ve been handled very differently by another writer. I wouldn’t attribute the my favoritism of every show that I like from her entirely to her writing, as I think that Red Garden owed a lot to director Kou Matsuo, and that both Canaan and Zetsuen no Tempest were very much enhanced by the phenomenal action direction of Ando Masahiro, but I nonetheless think that she helped to carry these shows and to make them interesting. There are still a number of shows that she’s written which I haven’t seen yet but have heard good things about, such as Pet Girl of Sakurasou, and I’m pretty excited to get around to watching them.

If you’ve seen any of Okada’s shows, then let me know what you thought of them, or about her style in general, in the comments below. If you want to see more videos like this, then be sure and let me know by subscribing, or by supporting my channel via patreon or paypal. Thanks again for watching, and I’ll see you in the next one.

5 thoughts on “The Queen of Anime Melodrama

  1. Pingback: AniWeekly: Of Titans And Digimon - Anime Herald

  2. On Simoun, Okada did 12, (Alti/Kaimu ep) 13, (Aaeru confronts Neviril about the Emerald) 15, (the fall of Paraietta) 16, (DOMINURAAAAA RIMONEEEEEEE) 18, (Paraietta does the 2006 yuri sexual assault thing, Angulas’s funeral) 20, (Mamiina aftermath) 21, (return of Dominura and Rimone!) 23, (Yun gets Onasia’s backstory) and 24. (the members muse over and make their decisions, Neviril and Aaeru confess to each other)

    So she got lots of the big romance beats and confrontations, especially the Big Dramangstz with Alti/Kaimu and Paraietta.

    When Okada forces herself to keep the characters’ emotions internal, showing rather than telling, I find her work much better, sometimes phenomenal. It’s when she’s allowed to have them doing big dramatic monologues and cryfests about it that things miss the mark. Ironically, Okada’s best work is when she lets the silences do the talking, by forcing the storytelling to be done in the animation, in expressions and body language.

    Her fandom of the real life idols really shined through in AKB0048, but the show’s writing was at its best when she was lovingly recreating the real-life events that make idolling so fascinating. It struggled more when doing the slice of life and sci-fi stuff, where there was no “source material” there to prevent her from rendering the subtext into text.

  3. I once read a comment about Urobuchi which posited that he’s the worst thing to ever happen to anime, because while he’s an obviously competent writer, he’s still pretty mediocre; and because his talent tends to cause him to leave out a lot of the crazy fun of many great anime for philosophical stylings instead, his shows tend to achieve little beyond that basic competence.

    Of course, I think that overstates the case, but I certainly understand the sentiment!

    Okada, on the other hand, histrionics aside, in my opinion is (or at least, can be) a genuinely talented writer. At her best, her characters are believable, and her dialogue clever and naturalistic.

    To cite just one example: I had no intention of watching Hanasaku Iroha until I happened to catch the opening scene, a conversation between Ohana and her mother. It was just such a stunningly realistic exchange between a mother and her adolescent daughter that I immediately vowed to watch the whole thing through.

    And while I don’t think Hanasaku Iroha is the best thing since sliced bread, I DO think it has a pretty great script.

    Which isn’t to say I’d watch an anime just because Mari Okada wrote the script. But I’d certainly at least consider most things with her name on them…

    • Oh yeah! Hanasaku Iroha made me realize that Okada is so gifted at writing adults. Much better than she is at teenagers, imo. Ohana’s mother is one of the best characters in anime, full of complexity, subtlety, and nuance, and the rest of the adults at the inn, from the grandmother to the brother, to his consultant girlfriend, to the head of the servants, they’ve all got such rich characterization, that is glaringly lacking in the girls. This is why the Hanasaku Iroha movie was better than the show, and the last arc of the show, strongly featuring all of the adult characters and focussing on the mother and grandmother like the movie, was the strongest part of the show.
      AKB0048 had the same problem, where the adult characters and senbatsu veteran idols felt much more realized than the cardboard archetypes of the newbies protagonists. (And their subplots stole the show, too.)

      I kind of wish Okada would write live-action, where most of her subjects would be the types of characters she excels at, instead of continuing to do her overblown teenage anime characters.

  4. I mostly love Toradora and Hanasaku Iroha, but both shows have very unfortunate parts that dumps all her strong characterization out the window in the name of drama. This seems to happen a lot when she decides that she wants to build to up the big emotional climax. I haven’t read the original for Toradora, so I’m not 100% certain how much of the parts I didn’t like were due to her writing, but they have a lot in common with her famously melodramatic original, AnoHana. At her best though, she adds so much life to her characters and is able to write engaging character driven drama.

    I didn’t realise she did the writing for Wandering Son, but within the constraints of the characters of that manga, she was able to produce a show full of strong and sympathetic characters. The ironic thing is that the characters in Wandering Son are quite young, but are written as if they’re basically adults without the associated cynicism, so they end up being leaps and bounds more mature and believable than your typical anime teenage leads.

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