Soaring High Above the Stratosphere: Kotoura-san and Atmosphere in Anime

And by soaring above the stratosphere I mean any coherent semblance of a stable atmosphere in Kotoura-san at all. I thought Maoyuu was bad at keeping consistent, but it seems we have a winner.

Sorry Kotoura, but it's true.

Sorry Kotoura, but it’s true.

For most stories, much work is put into establishing coherent settings, where the action takes place, as well as an atmosphere to go along with it, which sets the mood. Against this backdrop, character interactions and plot progression play out. The goal of any story is to trick you, to make you believe you are, in some way, one of the characters. It wants you to empathize with the characters – you should feel happy when they’re happy, sad when they’re sad, angst when they’re going through times of trouble. Root for them or pray for their defeat. Regardless, the goal of a story is to immerse yourself in another world and, most importantly, in other people. In order to do this, it’s important to be able to feel what the author of the story wants you to feel. Certain scenes accompany certain emotions, and stories are calculated ways to manipulate those emotions into line. However, all these play out against the contrast of the setting and atmosphere, which pervade the work and tinge the emotions evoked.

I couldn't mention atmosphere (let alone stratosphere) without including a reference to SOFIA, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy. It's a telescope in a plan, yo.

I couldn’t mention atmosphere (let alone stratosphere) without including a reference to SOFIA, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy. It’s a telescope in a plan, yo.

Rather than try and go through theoretical descriptions of atmospheres and how they should work, I’ll give a couple examples of recent shows which utilize them well (and reference myself, of course). After that, I’ll turn back to Kotoura-san and show how it completely and utterly fails.

Examples

Let’s first go with a show which tries to keep a stable atmosphere throughout. Blast of Tempest is a good choice for this (also seeing as I just wrote a post on it). It establishes an atmosphere of drama and tragedy using music (oh god the music), Shakespearean-esque dialogue (and references), flashbacks, and continual foreshadowing of tragedy. Even if the show wanes in action or introduces subplots, I don’t think anyone would argue that the overall tone really shifts too much. Even the comic relief is just that – comic relief. Bursts of humor that both the we and the characters recognize as only short reprieves from the show, a temporary breath before we plunge back into the swing of things.

Although its theatre-inspired roots are not my personal preference, I have to admit that Zetsuen is incredibly consistent both thematically and theatrically.

Although its theatre-inspired dialogue and plot scheme are not personally my favorite genres, I have to praise the show for being incredibly consistent both thematically and theatrically.

We can also consider shows that take a turn for the worse, usually encompassing dramas. These often include Key shows (I’ll talk about Little Busters! in a bit) or, in last season’s case, Chu2koi (which I conveniently have also written about). The show starts off very moe moe and soon takes a turn for the dramatic. While most dramas tend to do this, the contrast with Chu2koi was especially stark, given its 1 cour run and drastic shift in almost one episode. Did the viewers fully follow along? It was a bit of a stretch. But the fact that they followed at all rather than ridiculing such a drastic change in tone must have meant the potential was there. And it was – KyoAni tried very hard to emphasize the darker, hidden elements of Rikka’s life even during the sequences when things were going peachy. This led to an atmosphere of tense enjoyment, where the lively action taking place seems to be precarious balance that could collapse at any time.

It's all the little things that help establish a mood, and KyoAni's focus on animation, especially body language, really helps.

It’s all the little things that help establish a mood, especially KyoAni’s focus on animation, especially body language.

We see similar events occur in Little Busters!, but with a drastic reduction in effectiveness. The response to Komari’s arc was almost universally negative. Rather than empathy, we got incredulous disbelief (and anger). Why? The show was successful at setting up the same atmosphere of tense enjoyment as Chu2koi, but failed so utterly in getting us to follow it when things went sour. The main problem was that the first arc happened too early – we had barely been introduced to the character before things took a turn for the worse. We hadn’t cozied up to them yet. A secondary issue was the fact that the ailment was so drastic – unlike just sadness or an escape from reality, Komari’s ailment requires us to suspend an almost unreal amount of disbelief. Finally, there’s the voice acting. All the characters sound like chipmunks and try and talk all kawaii as fuck during most of the show. This persists even into most individual routes, and prevents us from taking them as seriously as we should. Chu2koi avoids this problem (since both Deko and Rikka talk similarly) by having them switch speech patterns.

Viewers can tell sometimes if you're trying TOO hard, which is what happened early on with Komari. Little Busters has since cleaned up its act decently well.

Viewers can tell sometimes if you’re trying TOO hard, which is what happened early on with Komari. Little Busters has since cleaned up its act decently well.

Now how about shows that try and simply go a more ‘slice-of-life’ feel? We have a couple options here. The first would be a show such as To LOVE-Ru Darkness, which knows what it is (a romcom) and doesn’t try to achieve much more than that. The second would be a shoujo such as My Little Monster that uses slice-of-life events to build up a relationship. It’s fairly standard shoujo, which knows what it’s doing (even if I’m not a huge fan) – those recipes exist for a reason. The last would be Haganai NEXT, which started off more in line with the former and has started venturing out into a bit more drama. This type of thing works because every harem setup is inherently unstable – the tense enjoyment atmosphere – and so when things start to take a turn for the melodramatic we can understand why. This doesn’t always have to happen (some shows are just meant for laughs), but the important thing is that the possibility is there.

There's always the nagging feeling that the male protagonist can't be THAT dense. And it's this uncertainty that Haganai exploits moving forward.

There’s always the nagging feeling that the male protagonist can’t be THAT dense. And it’s this uncertainty that Haganai exploits moving forward.

Let’s also consider one failed example, namely the second half of SAO. The atmosphere it sets up is one of tension and a race against time. Asuna’s trapped, her life (and her relationship status!) is in danger, and Kirito has to somehow beat this new VRMMO in order to save her. Against this backdrop, the show does a number of things wrong. First, it pulls a deus ex machina multiple times because of bad writing, which eliminates some of the tension that should be present as Kirito faces insurmountable odds. Second, it gets sidetracked with much ancillary events in-game (which only serve to build up more of Kirito’s harem), which also detracts from the tension. Third, the quest for Asuna’s love is subverted by the weird (and failed) wincest dynamic between Kirito and Suguha.

Was this really necessary?

Was this really necessary?

Kotoura-san

Ok. So what’s the problem with Kotoura-san? Namely, it tries to be all of the above at once. And by doing so, it fails miserably. It tries to keep the show tinged with depressive-undertones by constantly bringing up Kotoura’s past, which would be fine, if the main focus of the show was on helping her overcome her childhood trauma and negative self-image. But then it also tries to do a ‘slice-of-life’ romcom thing, which is hindered by the random intercession of drama from Kotoura and events at large. This, like Little Busters!, also occurs way too early, so the viewers have trouble empathizing and following along. To make matters worse, this drama is then hindered further by the introduction of melodrama, mainly the odd love from Mori to Manabe. But then this is hindered by Mori’s presence as mainly comic relief, where she serves as either the subject of cruel jokes (which is in itself unpleasant) or turning Manabe into a punching bag. So the possible romantic rival dynamic falls flat. And the problem is that each intercession is accompanied by a complete shift in mood. See, any of the elements would be fine if they were seen as simply breaks from the action (I mean, this is true in real life as well – one person isn’t experiencing hardship or crushing depression or enjoyment all the time), but instead they’re treated as completely separate sagas. And thus your emotions are constantly dragged around (even from one minute to the next), and the viewer is uncertain how to feel.

Now, the show could succeed if it picked one of these to be its primary objective and treated the others as ancillary  Let’s say that it wanted to be a show that emphasized Kotoura getting over her past and also wants to be a romcom (which I think is the intention). Then treat Mori with more respect so she becomes at least a semi-legitimate love rival. Emphasize the President’s manipulating and strained relationship between wanting Kotoura to be happy and wanting to vindicate her dead mother. Make sure the slice-of-life events at least have undertones of fragility. Make the melodrama and the quest for recovery/acceptance portions help each other advance, rather than hinder each other at every turn. These are all manageable.

I think this sums up the show perfectly. Just everything about this scene (the characters, the lead up, etc.) is conflicting.

I think this sums up the show perfectly. Just everything about this scene (the characters, the lead up, etc.) is conflicting.

In ∑: Kotoura-san‘s problem is, like Maoyuu Maou Yuusha, that it doesn’t know what it is or what it wants to be. And that hinders its effectiveness at every turn as it tries to be a little of everything. 

You know Mifune wanted it.

You know Mifune wanted it.

Now back to catching up with all the stuff I put on hold last season…

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4 responses to “Soaring High Above the Stratosphere: Kotoura-san and Atmosphere in Anime

  1. Everything I read about Kotoura-san makes it sound like “worst anime of the year” material (and given what happened with R;N, that’s pretty bad), at least when it comes to the stuff that’s relevant. I could barely get past the first two episodes and apparently it devolved into an apocalypse that I didn’t have the patience to stick with.

    • Sweet – Flawfinder response! :D

      I actually felt much the same way Enzo did with R;N, so I don’t really think it was all that bad. I’m very biased on this issue though, as I tend to like coherent, thematically consistent stories even if they’re not my cup of tea (e.g. Zetsuen). That said, it definitely wasn’t amazing either, and you raised some good critiques in your posts on it (episode 19 was…interesting).

      As for Kotoura, dropping it was a good choice. The drastic contrast in tone in the show was novel at first (and I think probably why many enjoyed the first couple eps), but when it became a more frequent thing then it just started to really suck. Its failure across the board makes it an interesting (if aggravating) watch each week though – it’s always valuable experience to dissect bad shows.

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