Understanding the Medium: Bring the Noise

In a prior post I talked about how the common idea that an anime’s source material is inherently better than its anime adaptation was utter bullshit.  Now I’m going to explain why I believe that anime is just a straight up better medium than the manga and light novels from which so many anime are derived.  There will be scattered spoilers you have been warned.

In case you couldn’t guess from the title the main reason is sound.  I’ve never been big on comic books, graphic novels or anything else which resembles manga and sound is the biggest reason why.  Sound brings more out of me as a viewer than words or pictures.  I’ve never been brought to tears by a book for example, now I love books and I read a lot of books, but I yet to find one that can bring the same level of emotions out of me that anime or even more mainstream film can.  I mean for fuck’s sake songs in a language I can’t fully understand have a better chance of making me cry, than any book I’ve ever read.  And it’s not just about the ability to make me cry either.  I spend a lot of my free time imagining things that I don’t quite have the skill to write about, or would constitute gross copyright infringement even if could write about them properly.  For example a common mental exercise I do is to write my own character into any story I’m reading or watching, basically I write/imagine fanfic where I’m creating my own character and their story within the confines of whatever story the fanfic takes place in (I don’t really think of it as fanfic though, that’s just a well known term that fits to some extent).  Anyway to keep this tangent relevant, the point is that music is a godsend when I’m doing this mental exercise because it can help me imagine scenes in this made up character’s story and if I get a couple of scenes I like together, I can start stringing together a more cohesive character narrative and make much better stories and characters.  This applies to my more original work too, I do a much better job imagining thinking up characters and their actions when I try and build it to the backdrop of different songs.  Long story short, sound brings more out of me as a creative and as a viewer so yea, it’s pretty goddamn important.

In fact I don’t think’s a stretch to say that sound is the most important aspect of anime, to someone like me at least, and its absence is what turns me off to a lot of manga.  Kingdom for example is an anime I absolutely love, it’s on my top 10 anime of all time list.  And it looks like total shit, the first season anyway, season two looks really good.  I’ve talked about Kingdom before, and I’ll link that here, but since almost no one’s looked at that post, seriously I’m almost positive it’s the least viewed post on my blog, here’s a recap.  Kingdom is battle shounen anime set in ancient China during the warring states period and it follows Xin, a former slave seeking to become the greatest general of all time and blah blah blah.  Anyway Kingdom has a lot of things that make it good and in the first season, visuals is precisely none of those reasons.  Season one, with it’s heavy use of mediocre CG, sort of encourages people to check out the manga, which is way more popular than the anime, so the story won’t look like shit.  But I can’t do that, I can’t read the manga, and not because I can’t read manga at all, because I have read some.  It’s because what Kingdom lacks in visuals it more than makes up for in audio.  The OST is full of grand, sweeping tracks that lends the story a huge, epic (in the literary sense not the epic=cool sense) feel.  The battle noises are satisfyingly solid, and unique enough that you can usually tell which main character is attacking in a scene without even looking.  For example Xin has these super heavy attacks and you can hear the attacks tearing through flesh and armor, while Qiang Lei his top lieutenant has these airy and ethereal strikes that reflect her super natural fighting technique.  And last but not least, the voice acting is fucking phenomenal, it adds so much tension, drama, pacing and impact that there’s no way in hell I could ever read the manga after hearing that shit.

Which makes a nice segue to my next topic, voice acting.  Even more so than music, voice acting is what really makes anime appealing, after all I can listen to music while reading and get that same boost to creativity (not so much to emotion) I was talking about before.  Good voice acting on the other hand is much harder to come by, especially if we are talking about voice acting in foreign language.  I’m one of those guys who can’t do dubbed anime, not even the good dubs like Panty and Stocking, but it’s not because I’m a purist or anything, it’s because I’m a big fan of the way Japanese sounds.  I particularly like seeing the different dialects or styles of speaking, Yakuza/delinquent Japanese and archaic incantations in particular are favorites of mine.  But getting away from my personal tastes, voice acting can add a lot to any given scene, performance or overall production.  If you’re reading a book or a manga you get to experience the story at your own pace, and there are benefits to that, however there are reasons we go to anime and movies, to see how people who stage things creatively for a living, like directors, handle a story.  Because a lot of people will simply blow through manga or books, I know I’m guilty of that, and sometimes that is a grave mistake.  For example, building tension is an important part of anime and films across a wide variety of genres, a proper buildup and release of tension can make any scene, episode or overall story much more interesting.  And when you’re blowing through the manga, odds are you are building precisely zero tension.  Alternatively, the manga might be building up to something and then present you with a page where so much is going on, that it’s hard to process the information.  Not to say that some anime can’t fall victim to these same problems but they are less likely to do so.  Because when you’re watching an anime the pacing of a scene is set for you, usually by way of the voice acting.  Now badly paced anime scenes are definitely a thing and bad voice acting usually ends up somewhere between a cringe worthy moment or a so-bad-it’s-funny-moment, however, good voice acting will do wonders to any given scene.

For example in Fate Zero Rider has this famous line in the Banquet of Kings scene where he says a true king embodies the sum of all his followers’ desires.  In Kingdom there’s a scene where one of the major figures from the first season says almost the exact same thing, but concerning generals instead of kings.  Both lines are well written, both have an appealing message (basically the same one), and both are voiced by great characters.  But the way each character delivers the line makes for a world of difference, and it makes the general speech from Kingdom far more impressive in comparison.  Make no mistake, I’m a big fan of Fate Zero, and within Fate Zero Rider is probably my favorite character.  But his version of the speech just does not compare, it’s big, bold and relentless and he is shitting all over Saber while he makes it and it’s not even close to the general speech.  The general speech is much slower, not nearly so energetic and brash, and it’s shorter than Rider’s is, and none of those are weaknesses.  The general’s slower, more ponderous speech allows him to make better use of rich, deep voice, his words feel as though they carry far more weight because of how slowly and deliberately he says them, and he has much better dramatic timing, making each line count whereas Rider’s speech just kept pushing forward with little time to set any of it’s individual lines dramatically to shove his larger and still quite impressive speech in Saber’s face.  And the music during Kingdom’s general speech was better too, unbelievable as that may sound to all the Yuki Kajiura fans out there.  And this effect is even more pronounced when you compare anime to manga and other print mediums.

There’s this line in a book that illustrates what I was talking about before in how someone delivers a line.  In book 3 of Peter V. Brett’s The Demon Cycle, there’s a scene where two women are on trial for having joined the fight against the demons.  This is important because the society they come from is based on a medieval Islamic state where women have next to no rights and battle is the domain of men.  And during this trial where people from all sides, the clergy, the women’s husbands, and many warriors, are against the women, there’s this line where one the women’s father, who has spent very little time with her and is a member of the warrior class, says that if his king had asked him yesterday he would have railed against the idea of fighting alongside women like most warriors, but after seeming them fight he said what he felt most for his daughter was not shock or anger, but pride.  And it’s a really emotional and dramatic moment in the book, but it’s just one line separating a few larger paragraphs, it has not textual flavor to add weight or emphasis to it, and it takes maybe five seconds to process the whole thing.  It’s there so briefly that when I get to that part I have to read it over and over to get the full emotional impact of the scene.  And I can so easily imagine how easy it would be to make this scene phenomenal in animation.  The dialogue is there, the words you need to say are there, and what’s left to do is decide how to say them, and with a slower, deliberate speech pattern, complete with pauses to show how the father is contemplating his careful choice of words this scene could be devastating in it’s emotional impact.  Imagine, just imagine, the idea of a young Muslim woman, hell any young woman, stumbling onto this hypothetical animated scene and being blown away by it.  Can you imagine how earth-shattering, in a positive sense, that scene could be?  It would be fucking incredible, and sadly it’s unlikely that it will ever happen, at least for this particular scene.

To summarize the last two paragraphs, line delivery is super fucking important, even more so than music.  You can write the most clever, inventive, ingenious and thought provoking line in the world and until someone comes along and says it just right, it will never reach it’s full potential.  It’s part of why vlogs, podcasts, and of course Youtube videos have so thoroughly overtaken blogs like mine, which are nothing but text and pictures, which in my case specifically I almost never use.  I like to think I’ve written some decent lines amid all the crap in my blog posts, and I know that if I had the time, equipment and skills to turn it into a vlogging channel or a Youtube career I would, because hearing something will produce a stronger reaction.  There’s a line in one of Youtuber Jim Sterling’s Jimquisition episode about voice acting in video games where he talks about how a good voice actor can capture our imaginations with the way they speak their words, and I’ve always found that to be a very noteworthy observation and a great way of saying said observation.  Because it’s true, how someone says a line will have a huge effect on the kind of message the line would have and what effect the line would have on the audience.  In a semi-related vein, I think the phrase “X speaks to me” is indicative of the power of spoken word.  You see it all the time in real life and in fiction, people will say something speaks to them, maybe it’s an art piece, maybe it’s architecture, maybe it’s the voices in your head or maybe it’s a fucking rock.  Point is that when people want to say they really feel like they understand something and/or are way into it, saying it speaks to them is a commonly understood phrase which communicates that message.  By comparison a common phrase associated with reading is that one will read into it or read up on it, both of which imply a more basic and impartial understanding of a topic than “it speaks to me” which generally conveys a more personal and intimate understanding of a topic.  And while this is me taking a tangent much further than I ever intended to, I do believe that these phrases and their respective meanings reflect the power of speech over print when it comes to affecting us at a personal level.

Battle noises, or ambient environment noises when no battles are going down, are important parts of an anime too.  It certainly makes the experience more lively and entertaining when an animated scene really communicates the impact of some major attack, like Izuku’s first smash in Boku no Hero Academia or Rokuro’s punch from episode 1 of Sousei no Onmyouji, or literally any punch from One Punch Man.  Environment noise is important too, whether it’s as simple and low key as bugs buzzing and chirping in the background of forest scene or the thunderous sound of train wheels slamming into the tracks at full speed like Koutetsujou no Kabaneri uses all the time, these noises do a lot to the set the tone of a scene before any actions occur or any lines are spoken.  Bugs in the forest, probably a low key slice of life scene, train thundering down the tracks probably a daring escape from or valiant charge into a dangerous situation.  One of the best things about ambient or environment sound, is that it can build tension by being absent.  This is true of dialogue and music too, the absence of sound can build tension, but generally long silences in conversation or music convey a sense of awkwardness or deep introspection.  By comparison a scene where the environment is silent is far more unnerving, because it’s not supposed to ever be silent.  There’s always supposed to insects buzzing, birds singing, people talking in the background, cars zooming down the highway, trains loudly going choo choo in the distance or any of the numberless noises that we experience everyday.  When all of those go silent, it’s just weird because we don’t quite understand it.  We’re used to the occasional, or maybe even frequent, awkward silence in conversation and we’ve likely all had at least some moments of silent introspection.  By when have we walked into a place that was completely silent?  I don’t think I ever have and I live in the middle of fucking nowhere, odds are people from more densely populated areas are even less likely to have found a totally silent place.  A truly silent environment is alien to us, and therefore it builds tension, plucking at our subconscious anxiety and just doing it’s overall best to creep us the fuck out.

This is not something you can do in print mediums, because the environments are always silent, unless the writer makes a conscious effort to add sound effects to a scene, but in my admittedly limited experience, all sound effects in manga are directly related to the actions of the characters and do not exist as ambient noise.  That said silence is not used all that much in anime either and even when it is it can be undervalued and unappreciated, see for example all the comments, and analyses claiming that Evangelion’s long silent scenes were the result of budget problems versus all the people, me included, who thought they served a storytelling/artistic purpose, that they encouraged introspection and in some cases built tension.  Anyway silence is just one more tool in anime’s toolbox which print mediums do not have, and more tools means more options, which is a good thing.

The final thing to talk about is visual noise, aka my cheeky and not at all clever attempt talk about color and still stick to the “Bring the Noise” title.  Color of course can bring worlds to life immediately and sometimes it’s absence is sorely felt.  Magi for example is a series I absolutely love, it’s got everything I want, vast fantasy world, distinct cultures and states based on real historical empires or kingdoms of myth, tons of exotic monsters, multiple approaches to magic and a well thought out magic system, action, and tons of vibrant, lively color.  This is one of the main reasons I can’t read the Magi manga, trust me I tried and it was a fucking slog, not because the manga is bad but because what really makes Magi so appealing at first glance is how alive the world and inhabitants appear to be, as shown by the colors.  Like how can I take a black and white Djinn seriously after seeing one in it’s glorious blue form?  Why would I go to a world where all the different races are black and white and have less to distinguish themselves when I can see quite clearly in the anime that a lot of the kingdoms and races have specific hair and eye colors that mark them out?  What’s the point of marveling over vast steppes, oceans and deserts if none of them have any color, when I can marvel at how they contrast when you give them color?  This is a problem I have with a lot of manga, when an anime has great colors and those colors add a lot to the experience, why the fuck would I ever want to experience the story without them?  Now a common answer might be, “because I want a complete story/more of the story and this anime cuts off in X chapter of the manga?” and trust me I do get the appeal.  I have tried reading the manga for various anime I liked because I wanted more of the story.  But  between the loss of color, loss of voice acting and loss of music, I find it a huge struggle to make it through a lot of manga.

In conclusion, I love good stories and I read a lot of those, some of which are manga.  However when I see how much more anime brings to the table I can’t help but put it before the manga or light novel.  Don’t get wrong, I’m not saying manga or light novels are bad, though plenty of both are which just like how there’s plenty of shit anime.  But at the level that matters most to me, my ability to get immersed in a story and have all kinds of emotions about it, anime is stronger.  Because audio and color bring a fictional setting and people to life to me, so much more so than words on a page or black and white illustrations.  And when it gets down to it, I’d rather have a incomplete story that I will drool over forever, than a complete story that I really had force my way through.  So I find anime to be the better medium, and I’ve no doubt people like me feel the same.  On a less subjective note, I do think that because anime has more features to play with that it is ultimately a more interesting medium on the whole, but honestly so much of appreciating and consuming media is so heavily dependent on personal taste anyway that it barely matters.  Hope you enjoyed this post and I’ll see you in the next one.

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3 thoughts on “Understanding the Medium: Bring the Noise

  1. Yes, I enjoyed this post. How thorough. And yes, I agree that treating source materials like manga & light novels as better than the anime adaptation is bullshit. I treat them as separate medium. I love that an anime follows the manga loyally, but I get intrigued & excited when the anime has the guts to veer away from the source material. When executed right, the anime will even surpass the source material story-wise. Although I agree with your points about the music, voice acting, etc., they’re not that big factors to me. The most important factor for me will always be the story. Whether that is in book form or TV form doesn’t matter much. I enjoy both forms & that’s what important. Anyway, great post.

    P.S. I cry equally whether it’s a book or a show.

    Like

    • Thanks for reading. Oddly enough, considering I just spent a couple thousand words praising sound over print, I agree that the story matters a lot. For example I just was not interested at in Breaking Bad at all, which I’m fairly sure constitutes a cultural crime here in America, because the kind of story it was trying to tell just didn’t appeal to me, even though I thought the first season, which I was more or less forced to watch, was really well put together and had good voice acting, sound, and directing and such. But once I find a story I’m interested in, that’s when I start to care more about the sound.

      Liked by 1 person

      • That’s great to hear. Perhaps you felt differently when you were writing this post. Oh well. I don’t watch Breaking Bad, so I won’t call you on your crime. Besides I’m Canadian. 😉 But still it seems that Breaking Bad is as popular here as there. Anyway, good post. I enjoyed reading it. Keep it up.

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