Anime Film Scripting Traditions (c. 2022)
Cultural Barrier: Japanese film-makers are not allowed to depict adult-themed story elements. Japanese censorship is based on cultural beliefs (not legal beliefs). Bureaucrats and religious leaders decide what is ‘culturally acceptable’, and politicians make that law. ALL films are considered Public Displays because audiences see and hear anything depicted in the film, in large enough numbers to be regarded AS the public. No allowance is made for fictional stories told in films. In real life, Japanese can do or say anything in private, but since everything in a film is officially public, Japanese films can’t show any adult content because that is culturally offensive in a public place (a film), or show events that are not real. This is effectively a Privacy Ban.
Foreign films show characters acting out emotional and social story elements so audiences can see what they think and feel. For cultural reasons, that would be unacceptable for Japanese characters in a public place (a film). Unlike books, film is a VISUAL story-telling medium, so all story elements must be SHOWN. Japanese cultural beliefs are unlikely to change, so unless film censorship rules are relaxed, Anime is a lost cause, really... very unlikely to tell adult stories well.
Anime art-style is visibly artifical, but NOT cartoony, so can tell adult-themed stories convincingly. Audiences accept characters as substitutes for real people.
For Anime stories set in Japan, characters ALWAYS behave politely and very formally, because they are ALWAYS in public (a film). Expressing ‘private’ thoughts or emotions is culturally offensive in public. Film audiences, therefore, can’t follow adult-themed stories with emotional content.
To avoid SHOWING anything culturally offensive, Anime scripts usually use Shinto’s ‘Spirit World’ magic as a metaphor. This keeps ‘rude’ stuff out of sight, but also ruins all adult credibility. International audiences, with different cultural heritage and reality values than Japanese audiences, just have to guess.
Extreme Understatement is often used, showing a possible story influence, with audiences then expected to imagine a following effect. But if adult audiences SEE nothing happen, they logically conclude that nothing did happen. It’s a film, after all – a story – all story elements need to be shown in some way.
To compete with foreign films, either a Fiction Disclaimer (that the film does not represent reality) or a relaxation of the Privacy Ban (or both) is needed. Then, like in all foreign films, at least some adult-themed story elements could be shown. Otherwise, Anime will be forced to return to making only kids’ films. Excellent Anime art style is a good foundation... but beautiful images with very vague, ineffective story-telling is a hopeless combination.
Possible solutions: Here are some ways to show adult-themed or emotional story elements WITHOUT offending Japanese cultural purists:
- Much more over-the-shoulder thought-stream, so we see what the character sees, and they can TELL us what they are thinking or feeling without showing any emotion in public. Better if not in conversation-style sentences – people ‘think’ in snatches of loosely-related ideas. Also often show them deciding to DO the opposite of what they are feeling, demonstrating compromise for respectability reasons.
- Structure stories so that key characters are often shown in a PRIVATE space like a home, small office, elevator or car, so the audience sees characters legitimately sharing emotions and FACING adult issues, out of public view. When exiting that private space, they should revert immediately to normal, formal public behavior, emphasizing respect for cultural rules, never discussing that private issue. Most Japanese woud accept this solution for Anime characters, but cultural purists would not.
- Use a ‘Fall-guy’ to trigger cultural explanations – a Foreigner who doesn’t understand why another character conceals critical personal thoughts, so it needs to be explained as good manners. More conservative in Japan than other countries – Japanese living in other countries behave differently.
- Bend the rules of the official ‘privacy ban’ by showing characters interacting in an adult manner in a PUBLIC space like a street, but with no other people close enough to see or hear what is happening. Two characters could at least discuss an adult subject without appearing to break any cultural rules.
- Use artistic license! Slightly stylize and simplify the Anime art style, with backgrounds drawn instead of CGI-rendered so they don’t look real like other parts of the story, to show a type of ‘thought bubble’. A character could vividly IMAGINE different possibilities for an adult theme from his or her perspective – acting, speaking or thinking frankly – in a surreal, culturally inoffensive, ‘dreamlike’ private manner. See my page about CGI clothing for an example.
- Extreme understatement (not showing important story elements) fails the core function of any film – telling a story. If used for style or artistic license reasons, the audience should be clearly alerted. At least show a character seeing the story element and thinking about it (thought-stream). The audience would then know that SOMETHING important to the story is now likely to happen, even if it is not shown.
- Spirit World magic suited kids’ films but should NOT be used as a story element in adult-themed films. Adult audiences regard magic as childish fantasy or medieval nonsense. So it simply ruins adult credibility, essential in a story with adult themes. Perhaps always follow a Spirit World explanation by a character rejecting that as old-fashioned and unrealistic. Suggesting, even if not actually showing, a more ‘logical’ reason.
- Show characters NOT fully understanding why a story event or emotional challenge happened. Show them thinking about it, puzzled, considering imagined ‘reasons’, but then just accepting it. Use this to SHOW adult-themed story elements without showing characters actually causing changes.
- The easiest solution is to set more stories in a fictional land that RESEMBLES Japan but can be treated as an international zone, where adult themes can be depicted without artificial restrictions. Many critics would argue that this is the ONLY option for adult themes.