What’s Up With Anime Tone Shifts?

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If you’ve ever heard anything about Bollywood films, then you’ve probably heard about how they’re these insane, super-long, genre-spanning, and frequently tone-shifting epics that totally break all the conventional rules of screenwriting. The existence and success of this style of filmmaking kind of inherently calls into question how important those so-called rules really are, and to what extent many of those rules are merely cultural preferences.

Whereas Bollywood is often looked at as a sort of alien world that our Western sensibilities simply aren’t prepared for, anime for some reason is much more often criticized along traditional cultural lines, with critics commenting on the tone and pacing of these series in the same way that they would any regular Hollywood film. Somehow, in spite of anime with crazy tone-shifts and rule-breaking narratives achieving a fair deal of success, they are often talked of as though this is in spite of those elements, which are fundamentally problematic–even though the proliferation of successful media all around the world which has a different sense of pace and tone would suggest that maybe the desire for tonal and structural consistency is more of a preference than a rule.

To make my personal stance perfectly clear, I actually think that the frequent use of tone-shifts in anime is one of the medium’s greatest strengths across many of its genres, and that this is one of the things I’d like to see carried over into mainstream Hollywood film. Hell, my favorite film of all time, the 2008 Speed Racer movie, pulls much of its greatness from embracing the pacing and tonal style of anime. But I’m getting ahead of myself–let’s take a look at some examples of shows that do what I’m talking about.

Some of my favorite anime series which are known for violently changing tone at the drop of a dime are Angel Beats, Kyouran Kazoku Nikki, and Futakoi Alternative. Each of these shows is willing to switch from totally absurd, over-the-top comedic hijinks to overwrought emotional drama on an episode-by-episode, or even scene-by-scene basis–and at times it can be jarring or even confusing to watch; but what makes these shows work is that they fully deliver on the tone of every scene, making each of those scenes functional. The juxtaposition of emotional drama and goofy comedy may be weird and even somewhat draining, but it’s also, like, exactly what life is.

In real life, tragedy doesn’t wait around until the climax of a careful tension build to strike–it usually blindsides you out of nowhere. And on that same note, the fact that you’re in a bad mood and wrapped up in your thoughts isn’t going to stop something funny from happening around you, or from you accidentally enjoying something. Sometimes your thoughts can shift from positive to negative, or a bad day can become a good one, etc. If anything, it feels weirder to me when a story just assumes one tone all the way through, as if anyone’s life is ever just mired in moody bleakness, or a nonstop chain of hilarious hijinks. In the same way that a person will most likely have different reactions to different scenarios and find themselves in different emotional moods, I think that a character becomes much more well-rounded and relatable when we get to see them in a variety of situations and how they’ll react to sudden changes in the atmosphere around them.

None of this is meant to be an indictment of crafting tone, or of tone-based criticism. I think that tone-pieces are revered for good reason, as crafting everything in a piece of media around reflecting just one feeling can be powerful and immersive. Something like Texhnolyze does such an amazing job of sucking the viewer into its state of mind that it’s certainly worthy of commendation; but I also think that the series could never create the kind of nuances and multi-faceted world and characters that other shows can by being able to represent a variety of emotional faces.

Even more so than simply talking about tone-pieces, though, I think that there’s a very important distinction to be made between a piece of media which changes tone frequently, and one in which the tone is incomprehensible. Too often, it seems like critics will say that the tone was “all over the place” in spite of being able to clearly describe how one scene was funny, one was dramatic, and so on. If you can tell what the tone of each scene is, and are able to feel the emotions which the scene is designed to convey, then it’s not that the series is bad at handling tone–it simply is moving between different tones in a way that you might not see coming.

This, again, doesn’t mean that it can’t be done wrong and criticized for it; Charlotte, another series from the same writer as Angel Beats, has a lot of the same heavy tonal shifts, but so many of its dramatic scenes are so corny and heavy-handed, and its comedy is so stale and unsurprising, that being able to recognize the shifts in tone doesn’t stop them from feeling hokey and unearned.

Where tone management really becomes a problem, though, is when the tone of a scene is outright unclear. A good example of this that I already talked about at length in another video is the first episode of Gate; when, in the middle of a scene of a horde of fantasy monsters murdering people in the streets of Tokyo, our main character is loudly concerned about whether he’s going to make it to his doujin sale on time. Everything about the scene, from the goofy looks on the pedestrians’ faces, to the flatly lit midday city streets, to the fact that it’s not clear if the main character is oblivious to what’s going on, or just weirdly ineffectual, makes the tone of this scene impossible to parse. Instead of conveying any particular tone, it just feels like a stream of visual information with little coherence.

I think that it takes a lot of skill to be able to deftly move between different emotional tones, and to sell each one in its own right–even if the transitions between them can seem weird at first. (Often times, these kinds of things are more logical and comprehensible in retrospect and on rewatches anyways, when the shock of having experienced the change firsthand has washed away–and if anything, creating those kinds of emotional reactions is an interesting trick in itself.) I think that shows which can use these kinds of tone shifts well are worthy of being celebrated, and that more critics should take a step back and wonder about whether a weird tonal shift is necessarily a bad thing for the story it takes place in, or if it just isn’t a kind of storytelling that you’re used to.

If you’d like to see a shift in the tone of criticism surrounding anime as well, then be sure to share this video with anyone whom you think it would interest. Support me on patreon if you’d like to see more videos like this, and to help give my editor a raise. Check out my vlogging, podcast, and podcast let’s-play channels if you want much more frequent content from me, and stay tuned for all the new stuff I’ve got in store for ya. Thanks again for watching, I’ll see you in the next one!

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4 thoughts on “What’s Up With Anime Tone Shifts?

  1. One Piece has great tonal shifts too. The back-and-forth between dialogue about current / past events and world-building to puns and comedic scraps to confrontations and badass fights with oddball or witty banter and lastly to the strong emotional moments, just works somehow. I don’t know what it is, but Oda’s a damn genius! That’s for sure.

    ~ Ace

  2. I had noticed that anime, J-drama, and K-drama alike have this tendency to have drastically different tones in the back half of their seasons. The first half sets up the premise, establishes the relationships, but the back half will more often than not go full SRS BSNS. More than a few critics have noted how this means that audiences often don’t get to see the things that made them fall in love with a show in the back half. And yet, that tone shift is so pervasive in the structure.
    Finding out that it’s actually somewhat Storytelling 101 in Japanese culture was a huge illuminating moment for me. It utilizes the “kishotenketsu” structure, and just Googling it brings up some great insights as to how this differentiates even things like 4koma pacing/comedic structure, or even non-storytelling presentations/lectures!

    And I do like that SRS BSNS back half/last arc, sometimes. Done well, it really digs into the characters. By fully exploring implications, that serious tonal shift signals to us that the creators love the characters and take them seriously just as much as we do. “Now that we care about this character, what if,” divorced from tonal limitations.

    But yeah, I think that in many cases, some Western reviewers who pooh-pooh the shifts fail to consider that kishotenketsu is culturally entrenched in the native audience’s expectations and reception of stories, and so would be evaluated quite differently by them.

  3. Pingback: Just my guilty pleasure reblog.

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