Home > Anime, rant > Answerman’s Take on Exposition

Answerman’s Take on Exposition

Watching Aldnoah Zero, one of my main complaints was the amount of exposition in the episodes shown so far. It’s lazy writing and an insult to the viewers’ intelligence no matter how you look at it. I’m glad this person posed the question in the answerman column because it’s a common issue in anime storytelling that needs to be addressed.


Frank asks:

So recently I had an argument with a friend of mine. Although I am typically satisfied with the quality of most of the anime I watch, I couldn’t help but agree with some of the complaints that my friend brought up, namely that anime tends to over-use expository dialogue and narration. At a certain point you have to ask yourself, “did he really needed to say that out loud”? Off the top of my head, I could remember from the first episode of Aldnoah.Zero, there was one guy on a bridge who saw something strange falling from the sky and he remarked “what is that?” as if he didn’t think the audience was smart enough to figure out that there was something falling. There is also the trend of “info dumping” in a lot of anime and manga, where a character or the narrator just casually explains the entire back story of something or the rules of an event that the character is participating in (Fate/Zero Episode 1). For some viewers, like me, this is tolerable, but both my friend and I feel that making dialogue do most of the work doesn’t give viewer the chance to invest in a show, and it can sometimes make the viewer feel insulted that the director had to include something so obvious. So my question is, do anime directors or writers seriously think that their viewers don’t have enough patience or intelligence to accept a subtler, if not cleverer, style of storytelling, or is this simply a norm in Japan to explain stuffs in a straightforward fashion, or are the directors constrained in some way to be unable to deliver such storytelling? What is the reason behind this?

Zac and I have bemoaned the anime dialogue info-dump and other bad writing technique in anime for a long time, ask any ANNCast listener. Whenever we do, we inevitably get someone telling us that it’s a cultural difference that we just don’t understand, and that truckloads of expository dialogue is TOTALLY ACCEPTABLE IN JAPAN!

I hate to break it to those people, but they’re wrong. What this is, simply, is just plain bad writing. The golden rule of screenwriting is “show, not tell.” We should know about things happening by seeing them happen, not by being told about them. Being told about things is boring, rings hollow, and shows a distrust on the part of the filmmaker in their ability to convey the proper emotions to the audience.

This happens in anime like absolutely no other visual artform. This is not a “Japanese thing” because Japanese cinema does not do this. In fact, most Japanese live action films are fairly minimalist with dialogue, unless you count the recent glut of cheap TV dramas-turned-movies. The classics by Ozu and Kurosawa, from which the country’s filmic language is inspired? Sure, there’s some expository dialogue here and there, but nobody is overtly declaring what emotions they’re feeling, and an “info-dump” would be unheard-of.

The info-dump can likely be blamed on the practice of adapting anime from light novels, which tend to be pulpy affairs that are aimed at genre fans. Genre novels can get away with a lot. They focus on building worlds, and often do that through character conversation. This dialogue doesn’t really work in visual form — nobody actually talks that way — but producers of the anime versions are concerned that the more pedantic fans of the show are literally following along with the light novels in hand, expecting absolute fealty to the original work. If their expectations are not met, after all, they’re likely to raise hell on social media, and sales will suffer.

So take that otaku pandering, and combine it with an overworked and somewhat ghettoized contingent of writers who are often looking for shortcuts in order to get their scripts done on time, and you have a recipe for some really bad writing, which usually goes unnoticed by Western fans because it’s really not clear from the subtitles how stilted and crappy the dialogue actually is. I’ve actually seen anime based on a Korean work that seemed like the dialogue itself was translated into Japanese with Google, and then not edited at all. That’s how bad some of the writing is on these things.

If none of this bothers you, great — by all means, be a fan of those shows. But it’s absolutely true that a significant amount of anime really suffers in the screenwriting department, and it’s those flaws that you and your friend are noticing here. But if it does bother you as much as it does me, it’s a great reason to follow who’s doing the Series Composition on each show. That title is that of the head writer, and the truly great ones are as worth following as the best anime directors.

Of course, I have my list of favorite anime writers, but who are yours? Let us know in the talkback thread!

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  1. September 19, 2014 at 6:44 pm

    I agree 1000%. I’ve been a fan of Anime as long as I can remember but I don’t recall the shows of my youth like Starblazers, G-Force, Robotech and Speedracer, to name a few, used the info dump method as much as the shows of the last decade anda half or so has.

    My issues with it are, like you, feel like they’re insulting my intelligence by spoon feeding key story points like an adult telling a story to a kid. Also it takes away from the action when a fight between Goku and Freeza is interrupted by the eyewitnesses to the fight (there always has to be people on the sidelines watching so they can tell us back story to why any two characters are fighting) just to tell me something instead of setting it up beforehand by showing me.

    Another tactic of the info dump I hate is the exposition where the characters are thinking to themselves. The new series Attack On Titan uses this at nauseum and destroys any momentum the action created.

    Diehard Anime nerds tell me I’m just being to hard on Anime because I look at them through my writer’s eye. Maybe, but all I’m saying is all the Sagas in DBZ could be cut in half if so much time wasn’t put in lazy storytelling by utilizing exposition.

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