Understanding Storytelling: Dynamic Dialogue

Warning there will be some spoilers for the Monogatari series in this post.  If there’s any given aspect of anime that I think is generally undervalued by the community and many big name anime critics, it’s dialogue.  Often times we are so caught up in the visuals, music and action of any given scene that the dialogue is sort of lost in the mix.  But good dialogue is a very powerful tool in the right hands.  This evidenced by NisioisiN, the author of the famously wordy Monogatari series.  In the Monogatari series action is rare and standing around and talking dominates the screen time.  To most that probably sounds boring, hell if that’s all I had to go on I would think it sounded boring.  But the Monogatari series is a pretty mainstream hit despite being almost nothing more than dialogue.  How the hell does this even happen?

For the sake of being misleading, I’ll start with all the ways which aren’t dialogue that helps it happen.  For one thing Shaft, the studio behind the Monogatari series is really good at style.  Shaft shows rarely have the same level of artistic detail or prettiness in their shows as other studios might but their mastery of and penchant for stylistic visuals over traditional ones, usually allows them to side-step visual issues.  If you’re like me style counts for a lot more than just being pretty, even shows that may end up pretty mediocre usually get my attention if they go for an unusual style of visuals or presentation.  It’s one of things I liked so much about Kekkai Sensen, which I reviewed here.  In my mind a series which dedicates itself to style is generally going to be more unique and innovative than shows with traditional animation.  That’s not always true nor is it an assurance of quality  but at bare minimum it usually makes the experience more memorable.  And the Monogatari series has style in spades.

I’d also like to think that a lot of the supernatural subject matter is part of what makes the show interesting to people.  The supernatural is something people all over the world love to see and speculate about.  I also happen to be pretty interested in mythology and similar subjects so the Monogatari series is a huge treat for me.  An unusual series centered around vague supernatural beings with weird mythologies to support them, I’m excited for this.  The final major thing that isn’t dialogue, though the dialogue contributes to this in very important ways is the series’ focus on psychological issues.  In the Monogatari series physical side effects of the supernatural creatures are just that, side effects.  It is usually relatively minor mental events that open the door for the supernatural creatures which in turn leads to major psychological backlash once the person who in effect “summoned” the supernatural being realizes what they’ve done.  It’s a very specific type of psychological horror, one that severely punishes a person for relatively minor mistakes.  I’m not going to explain the appeal of horror, that would be another post worth of text, so instead I’ll just say that horror fans are some of the most passionate and vocal fans I’ve come across and leave it at that.

So how does dialogue play a role in the success of the Monogatari series?  Well continuing on my last argument, it plays a major role in the psychological horror of the show.  The character that personifies this is Oshino Meme.  Meme is not an evil character nor particularly ill tempered but it’s hard to call him a real good guy.  Yeah he solves peoples’ problems with the supernatural but a lot of what he says and how he says it is can turn his “help” into statements that range from detrimentally subversive to maddeningly vague.  Meme is not a malevolent character but he’s not entirely benign either, his somewhat ambiguous nature as a character is mirrored by his often ambiguous dialogue.  There are times when Meme will say things that sound contrary or confusing just for the sake of doing so.  This is part of how they build up his scenes and keep the viewers engaged.  Remember he’s speaking a lot of supernatural mumbo jumbo, if he doesn’t make it interesting the audience will get bored.  So he makes it interesting by speaking in a fashion that adds to the tension or mystery of a scene.  His character would be a lot more boring if he just gave straightforward answers to deep psychological and unusual supernatural problems, so he doesn’t.   He meanders on with dialogue that is full of related tangents, hypothetical speculations and grains of truth hidden among fields of tricky and counter-intuitive statements.  In other words he makes himself as much of mystery to deal with as any of the supernatural creatures which he can help placate or destroy.  In this way he becomes more of a last resort than a go-to guy, because working with him is its own kind of headache.  This is also important to the structure of the stories.  If Meme was easy to deal with and knew everything then he would outshine Araragi in every arc.  It’s only because Meme is his own kind of monster that Araragi who is more inclined to do good and be helpful in more straightforward ways remains pivotal to solving of each problem.  So what else does the dialogue do?

There is a lot of dialogue to go around and plenty of it distracting.  I don’t mean that in a bad way, a lot of seemingly random statements can have a wide variety of effects on the characters, it could trigger a supernatural event, solve a supernatural problem, be a joke, be prophetic or just be a long running routine that helps ground the series amid all the supernatural nonsense.  Take for example Hachikuji and Hanekawa.  Both of these girls have a particular line they always say around Araragi.  Hachikuji purposely mispronounces his name which leads to a repetitive but sort of cute gag.  Hanekawa will always ends her replies to Araragi’s questions with “I don’t know everything I just know what I know” whilst appearing to know everything.  Almost everyone in the series has some kind of verbal or physical tick like this which helps ground the series.  In the myriad sea of supernatural monsters and Meme’s confusing explanations about their vague lore, the audience needs something to latch onto and these ticks are it.  They recur with such frequency that they allow us to take mental breaks, we can mindlessly enjoy a simple routine that we’ve seen many times before while we process all the complicated stuff they just talked about beforehand and will continue talking about afterward.   Without this kind of distracting dialogue, the Monogatari series would drive most people insane or just exhaust them and suck all the fun out of the experience.

In a similar fashion, good dialogue is central to good humor and humor is what makes Monogatari more manageable.  If the various Monogatari shows were not funny I would likely not be too much of a fan of them.  Keep in mind while I like the psychological horror it uses and supernatural lore, I need to be able to laugh too.  If every damn thing about Monogatari was supernatural, then the supernatural loses its allure.  It’s only because the characters also spend plenty of time dealing with more mundane issues, usually via clever jokes or more absurd slap stick style humor that brings us back to more comfortable version of the world, that the supernatural remains jarring and potent.  Likewise the psychological horror would be way less horrifying if there was no levity to balance it out.  If Monogatari was more depressing all the time it be more of slog to get through, not the engaging show I find it to be.  Having the humor can even add layers of depth to characters.  For example when Hanekawa gets possessed by/transforms into Black Hanekawa, rather than try and fix the problem right away with total seriousness, Araragi gives her a tongue twister so that he can buy some time to understand Black Hanekawa and try to solve the problem that way rather than just suppress her with Shinobu.  In a similar way Shinobu could have been a bland deus ex machina character but she’s not.  She likes to engage Araragi with dialogue that is often one part farcical and one part helpful, and she has a Homer-like craving for donuts.  These little ridiculous details are the kinds of things that give Shinobu character which is especially important for people with as much power as she has.

Character is a big deal not just for the characters but for the show in general.  In the Monogatari series you are expected to put up with a lot of dialogue, most of it nonsensical and confusing.  But if the show and the people in it have character then it makes the talking way more interesting.  The craftsmanship poured into the dialogue also gives the show more character, the Monogatari experience is an experience precisely because the way the dialogue was handled sets it apart from almost every other show in existence.  There are shows with similar kinds of horror, similar supernatural elements and similar stylistic visuals.  But aside from other NisioisiN works, I know of no other shows that have a similar variety, style and mastery of dialogue.  A lot of talking is a risky prospect when it comes to entertainment, but a lot of really good talking is almost always a surefire success.  Why else do you think British actors are so sought by Hollywood?  Brits tend to talk really well and talking well makes the character engaging which makes the movie more engaging.  Dialogue may not get the same kind of attention as visual effects, music and the plot of an anime, but it is no less important than any of those things and anyone trying to create something memorable would do well to remember that.  Anyway I think I’ve written enough about talking at this point, hopefully you all enjoyed it and I’ll see you in the next one.

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