Friday, October 8, 2010

Does Anime Lack Wit?


I recently watched the first episode of the new Iron Man anime.

Personally, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and felt that it did justice to the character of Tony Stark/Iron Man. I also felt that its characterization and plot did a superb job of mixing a very western Americanized superhero character into a very eastern Anime-esque setting. Iron Man isn't quite a stranger in a strange land here, but the contrasts between his personality and the Japanese culture that he's coming in contact with where nicely played upon, in my opinion.

However, not all felt the way I did here, and one particular comment to that effect stood out to me.

Anime Suki poster jonli made the following observations on the first episode of the Iron Man anime:

"Being a comic book fan as well as a manga fan, I have to say this does not do Ironman justice at all. ... Tony's personality has a lot less "flare", he's like 10 times less charming than he was in the comics or in the movie." 


At first, I found this critical take on the first episode of the Iron Man anime to be perplexing. The Tony Stark of that first episode was slick, smooth, suave; ever in control and quite assertive in conversation but maintaining a perpetually relaxed demeanor. The showboating aspects of Stark were on full display in the episode. His intelligence and media savvy (cultural differences notwithstanding) came across well. Tony's alcoholism didn't come up in the first episode, but perhaps that's for the best anyway.

So where was "charm" lacking? Where did the billionaire playboy feel a bit less than his usual self to jonli as well as some other critics? Then it hit me like a repulsor blast from Iron Man Dio: This Tony Stark was not quite as witty as his usual self, you could say.

He was smooth and surefooted in a general overarching sense, yes, and his dialogue was decent on the whole... but was there any particular line that came across as a whimsically winsome witticism? Were there any lines that an Oscar Wilde would smile and grin at, if not laugh over?

The answer is probably no.

And as I thought on this further, another epiphany of sorts came to me: Perhaps this is a problem for anime as a whole, a lack of witty banter as part of a rapturously riveting repertoire.

Don't get me wrong, anime has its memorable lines to be sure. But most are sincere statements of philosophical belief, or dramatic defiant deliveries of dialogue meant to inspire excitement and cheer.

Anime often does drama and suspense exceptionally well. It also can really make you think.

However, I can't think of many one-liners in anime that represented great wit. Even prominent anime characters heralded as geniuses, like Raito Yagami and Lelouch Lamperouge, tend to not be particularly witty characters.

I wonder if this might be a large part of the reason why anime has arguably declined somewhat in the western world in recent years? Western entertainment tends to have sharp, crisp dialogue, loaded with zealously zestful zingers. Indeed, one of the more beloved TV shows amongst what you could call "American geekdom" was Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and that show was typically a veritable zingerfest. It had a tremendously sardonic wit to it.

Sometimes I feel that western TV shows (in the sense of shows from North America and Europe; not just shows about cowboys and gunslingers ;) ) can overdo it in the witty banter category. The dialogue can feel contrived and not natural; almost nobody is this effectively witty and sarcastic 24/7, let alone a full cast of characters being like that. However, the other extreme of no witty dialogue at all can leave a piece of entertainment very much lacking savor and spice.

One anime that I felt hit a pretty good balance here was Bakemonogatari
 


Bakemonogatari was very much a dialogue-driven anime, and its dialogue was frequently top-notch. Hitagi, in particular, displayed a good (but not overbearing) degree of wit. However, I have not met many anime characters like her in this regard.

Perhaps this is partly why Bakemonogatari, in spite of being a show with a fair degree of moe in it, is not the lightning rod for moe haters that K-On! and various Key adaptations tend to be.

Perhaps, then, the issue moe haters have is not with cute girls with cute and blossoming personalities, per se, but rather with overly polite, reserved, and/or saccharine dialogue.

In fairness, moe often requires a certain degree of saccharine dialogue and personality, but it also allows room for wit as well, which we see with Bakemonogatari.


It's been suggested to me that  part of the reason why moe is held in contempt by a fair number of anime fans is because moe is perceived as not being "cool". But then, I don't think that "cool" and "cute", or "cool" and "sweet", or "cool" and "caring", are mutually exclusive. Quite the contrary, cute, sweet, and caring can be very cool. But "cool" is a particular mood, a certain tone, a way of carrying oneself, and a certain sharpness in dialogue. A key element to "cool" is a good sense of humor, and hence some genuinely witty dialogue from time-to-time.

Perhaps this is something that anime needs more of.

What do my readers here think? Can either of you think of a particularly witty anime character, or some uniquely good lines from anime when it comes to wit?

6 comments:

  1. hmm, I wonder if this has more to do with general cultural customs, tthan something specific to anime. I think back on a variety of non-anime Asian comedies and dramas, and none of them really come to mind as particularly "witty".

    alternatively, could some of the original wit be lost in translation? maybe we're missing out on some of the wit that native speakers pick up on.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Heh, Bakemonogatari was the first thing that came to mind when you implied anime doesn't have wit. I'd also consider Spice and Wolf pretty witty, although necessarily in the cool, one liner sense.

    I also felt Stark's character was off in the Ironman anime, but my general thought was "needs an English dub". I didn't notice anything wrong with the script, I just felt that it needed to be in English to really feel like it was Ironman.

    Like RP, I also wonder if some wit gets lost in translation. I seem to remember that Funimation's version of Nanoha A's is missing at least one of the best one-liners from the fansub, although it's unclear which is actually closer to the original line.

    As for mixing cool and moe... it can work, although I don't think that dialogue is the only factor at play here. Bakemonogatari is heavy on the wit, but it also had a very slick sense of style, and I'd actually say that you can tell Hitagi is a cool character just from some of her poses in the promo art. It's a whole package, not just the dialogue.

    As such I'd say you need to plan a show from the ground up to accomodate "cool". Sola is a good example here: Matsuri is charming and in my opinion even assertive (well, more accurately she alternates between assertive and pacifist/fatalist), but she's not cool, and I don't think you can really make her cool very easily. Even Takeshi doesn't really fit the "cool" type, he's too reserved for it.

    Which brings me to another point: I suspect that a lot of the lack of dialogue "wit" in certain types of anime comes from the fact that Japanese on the whole tend to be very reserved people. I suspect that part of the reason characters like Yui are popular is actually because that sort of spontaneity and energy is unusual in Japan - I've heard someone who taught English over there say that highly energetic teachers tend to be liked for similar reasons.

    I do agree that the "cool factor" is part of why Bakemonogatari doesn't get the sort of flack K-On! does, especially when you consider that Nadeko seems to attract a minor hatebase within the fandom from what I've seen precisely because she's not very "cool". Although Bake is also less well known in the west from what I've seen. I guess I just think that that sort of tone wouldn't work with something like Sola or Clannad though.

    As for one liners...

    "If you so much as lay a finger on my onee-chan, I'll chant Buddhist prayers until you disembowel yourself."

    Hikaru (Ame's sister, remember?) did a pretty good job of being a "cool little sister".

    ReplyDelete
  3. Okay, minor edit to my last post: I shouldn't say that cool can't mix with Sola or Clannad. Heck, I can remember Kyou having a few cool moments in Clannad. What I will say, though, is that I don't think adding "cool" to this kind of series would be a trade-off free affair. Even with a lot of writing talent, you could very quickly lose the original tone of the work. Which is why I hold that anyone trying to emulate Bakemonogatari should build the work from the ground up with that intention, not try and retrofit it into other styles.

    All this isn't to say that I don't want more works like Bakemonogatari... I'm pretty sure I've mentioned that I'm excited and optomistic about what Bakemonogatari and Durarara's sales numbers could mean for the future. I just see them more as a variety of show we should have more of, not something I want to see become hegemonic.

    ReplyDelete
  4. RP - That's a good point about some wit being lost in translation.

    This will strike some as ironic, as I tend to prefer Japanese cultural nuances to be honored in subs of anime, but for jokes that you'd need to know Japanese to get, I'd honestly encourage sub groups to substitute them with the best joke English-speaking audiences would get (and that would fit with the scene in question, of course).

    I've seen sub teams put in notes on screen explaining Japanese puns, but it's like the old saying: A joke isn't funny if you have to explain it.


    0utf0xZer0 - Witty dialogue alone doesn't make somebody cool, but I think that it can help. A certain sense of style is important too.

    As for Matsuri... hhmmm... she might not be cool, but she's close. Her cheeky humor and flashy combat style shifts her towards cool, though maybe not all the way.

    You're right, though, that cool needs to be incorporated in a "ground up" sort of way, or at least made specific allotment for (i.e. some characters would be moe in a more traditional sense, but a particular female moe character would be built up to also be cool, a la Hitagi).

    I also wouldn't want the style of Bakemonogatari and Durarara to be downright hegemonic. But rather, for characters like Hitagi, or even Kyou, to be more frequent in various animes.

    It would be nice for at least one female character in a harem-esque anime to be like them.

    ReplyDelete
  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Cool and witty? Cowboy freakin' Bebop. Every line of dialogue is nuanced and layered and there's not a single character who lacks the tendency to say one thing and mean something entirely different. What's truly amazing, however, is that in spite of all this, the dialogue still manages to feel completely natural and convincing rather than like horned-in fauxlosophical babble. The fact that the series is built around episodic vignettes just helps to foster the classy highmindedness of it all.

    And if it's a line you want, one of my favorite lines in all of anime has to be:

    "I'm not going there to die; I'm going to see if I'm even alive."
    ~Spike Spiegel

    And for more recent stuff, The Tatami Galaxy is particularly impressive in its ability to maintain smart, focused, witty dialogue even as it comes cascading out of the protagonist's mouth at a zillion miles an hour.

    ReplyDelete