Anime Film Scripting Traditions
It’s all about telling stories: The distinctive Japanese Anime style of animation was developed over decades by making lots of excellent kids’ films. CGI technology then allowed the art style to develop from the original hand-drawn era. However, the market changed along with the new 3D technology. Far fewer kids’ films, now, as the international demand is mostly for stories with modest adult themes like teen love stories or mild fantasy.
Modern Anime art suits serious stories, funny stories, kids’ stories, adult stories – but making films with adult themes, especially for the international market, is not just about the art. Telling adult-themed stories demands adult logic, which Anime script-writers deliberately avoid using!
The reason is that most Anime stories are set in Japan, so characters must ACT like Japanese people, respecting strict visual limitations for public places. Films from other countries show characters acting out the emotional and social elements of a story, but that would be culturally offensive in Japan. Many actions, completely inoffensive in other countries, are considered rude or impolite in public – acceptable for Foreigners, perhaps, but not for Japanese characters!
Visible displays of emotion in public are considered very bad manners for Japanese adults. That’s a crippling limitation – film audiences need to SEE what characters are feeling, but showing that would make characters seem rude, so script-writers avoid it. Without emotional displays as a guide, audiences find it difficult to follow adult-themed stories, which ALWAYS have lots of emotional and social content.
Japanese audiences accept the use of Shinto’s ‘Spirit World’ to avoid showing adult elements, because it’s part of their cultural heritage. Things happen by magic, conveniently out of sight. But international audiences – with different cultural values – just have to guess, because there’s nothing to SEE.
Many Anime films show possible storyline causes but then do NOT show what effect, if any, they might have... showing that might make story characters seem unattractive to Japanese audiences, so any effect must be imagined. This extreme understatement is no good for adult audiences. If no effect is SHOWN, they logically conclude that nothing happened. It’s a film, after all – a story – important story elements should not be left unexplained or unresolved.
These story-telling limitations are all CULTURAL. Japanese social customs are different to any other country, and will not change any time soon. Film is a VISUAL story-telling medium, so Anime films have beautiful images, but very vague and ineffective story-telling. Characters never show, say or do anything rude, distasteful or possibly offensive by Japanese custom. So excellent Anime art style is not enough – more convincing ways to show adult actions or concepts, suitable for both Japanese and international audiences, are urgently needed. Otherwise Anime studios will be forced to make only kids’ films. Studios in other countries can tell stories WITH adult themes, but WITHOUT any limitations on what characters do, say, think, or feel...
Possible solutions: Here are some ways to tell adult-themed stories 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. Also often show them DOING the opposite of what they are feeling, showing that compromise is often expected for respectability.
- Frequently show characters going out of public view – even if only briefly – so TWO characters can legitimately share emotions frankly. The audience would feel privileged to see or hear what characters are privately feeling, and could then follow subtle story developments. Make that clear for international audiences! When exiting that private space, characters should revert immediately to normal public behavior, once again hiding their true feelings.
- The core function of any film is telling a story. Not showing important story elements fails to meet that critical need. If extreme understatement is used for style or artistic license reasons, it should always be followed by visual hints to clearly alert the audience. It is not essential to show events that would be considered rude in Japan. Instead, at least show characters seeing the cause and reacting with surprise – or thinking about it, or discussing it – so the audience knows that SOMETHING important to the story is now likely to happen, even if it is not shown.
- Stop using Spirit World magic as a story element. It suited kids’ films – they don’t question illogical story events – but does NOT suit stories with adult themes. Most adults regard magic as childish fantasy or unconvincing medieval nonsense, so it simply ruins all adult credibility.
- Use the anime art-style in a deliberately stylized, exaggerated way to show a type of ‘thought bubble’, with backgrounds drawn instead of CGI rendered, so not looking REAL like other parts of the story. A character could IMAGINE implications of an adult-themed element from their perspective – acting, speaking or thinking in a purely symbolic manner – without being culturally offensive. See my page about CGI clothing for an example.
- Set more stories in a fictional land that RESEMBLES Japan but can be treated as an international zone, where far more liberal emotional and social restrictions apply, and adult themes can be depicted without artificial restrictions. Many would argue that this is the ONLY option for adult themes.