Just last night, I had just finished two episodes of Rinne no Lagrange and was about to go to sleep when I suddenly had this thought – Rinne no Lagrange feels very dissimilar from a lot of anime we have around today. There’s just a certain mood it has about it that differs from everything else. Mouretsu Pirates, as well. They have a certain quality about them that makes them stand out from most of the other offerings these days. Other shows that give me a similar feeling are Mahou Tsukai ni Taisetsu na Koto ~Natsu no Sora~, the ef series and the starting of Puella Magi Madoka Magica.
What, then, is it?
I came to the answer rather suddenly. What, in my opinion, makes the biggest difference is these two factors:
1) Expression, and
2) The manzai routine.
What I mean by expression here is how character emotions are expressed – not by facial expressions, but by artistic qualities. It’s hard to explain properly without description, and it’s hard to name the two methods, so here’s an awkward version:
- The “in-your-face” route. This one involves a lot of visual cues that are prevalent throughout anime: The large sweatdrop to express mild consternation, the vertical lines down the face to express situational embarrassment or depression, the use of chibi to lighten situations that are deemed to be funny to the audience.
- The “realism” route. This one negates all of the visual cues as mentioned before, opting to present the characters as they should be. No chibi, no sweatdrops, no weird expression changes. Everything is portrayed with the characters as they are – people.
Obviously this creates two very different breeds of shows. People may not realise it, but directors do draw a line on whether to include visual cues or not (I took a look at the production sketches released in book format for PMMM; The guideline informing staff never to use visual cues was on the first page).
2. The manzai routine
This is less obvious. What I’ve noticed is that Rinne and Mouretsu do not make use of the manzai routine. PMMM, due to its nature as one of the most screwed up series of yesteryear, obviously does not contain any manzai routines. ef as a series was more focused on drama and thus did not bother to try lightening the mood at all.
First, an explanation on manzai. There is a boke (gag man) and a tsukkomi (straight man), with the boke usually performing some twisted act or saying something twisted and the tsukkomi calling him on it. It doesn’t always have to be performed in this standard form; either can be removed, as long as the standard action-reaction pair remains in place.
Using this at inappropriate moments can completely break the mood a show was trying to build, and because it can exist in so many forms (as long as the action-reaction pair exists), it is pretty easy for a director to screw up a mood he tried so hard to set because of a little mistake. One of the more recent examples I can remember is in episode 3 of Guilty Crown, where Shuu went around the school pulling random Void Weapons out of people. This is in essence a action-reaction, as he reacted to almost every weapon he pulled out (most noticeably the refrigerator-sized Void Weapon), and, of course, totally messed up the mood of that episode. This directorship is one of the reasons Guilty Crown feels schizophrenic.
These two factors are, in my opinion, two of the most important factors in determining the mood of a show. Mass media is changing gears to respond to a changing viewership demographic, where people want entertainment that they don’t have to think about. They want the show to tell them what to laugh at, when. The visual cue is the tip to the audience that “this is what the character is feeling, this is the other character’s reaction”; gone is the need to listen to the voice, watch the expression, and understand the nuances that a slight change in camera position or music might entail. The manzai routine, essentially presented straight-up, is high-speed humour, designed to keep the audience laughing – but there is no need for the audience to process it. The humour is obvious, based around puns, misunderstandings and double-entendres; it is comedy in its most distilled form, spoonfed to the people willing to drink it.
Shows that try to be subtle, to express emotions not through a gag face but through the overall image portrayed to the viewer – they are a lot fewer in number. And therefore they stand out – and not the other way around.