Panicked, you rush out the door and hop into your car. You are late… again. Today is the most important meeting of your life, you are supposed to be pitching your company’s “next big thing” to a big fish client. Scrambled, you try and call ahead, the meeting is just about to start and you are at least thirty minutes away. No luck! With no regard to your self, you begin racing to the office as fast as your car will allow. A sense of dread hangs in the air as you finally arrive at the office. You enter, head down, ashamed. Clearly, your boss isn’t happy because you do have a history of pushing your luck, but you have never messed up so badly before. Can you guess what happens next?
The above paragraph is an example of tone in an everyday, although extreme, scenario. Without me telling you how the story ends, you were probably able to figure it out given context clues provided by the tone of the narrative. We don’t often actively think about this sort of thing as we go about our busy lives, but you are more likely to clue into the importance of tone in books, TV, film, and yes, especially anime. Today I take a look at two shows that handle tone very differently: Death Parade and Little Busters!
As I was re-watching Death Parade with my mom not too long ago, I couldn’t help but realize that this is one anime that understands just how important tone is. You see, I had also just recently started up Little Busters! and the first arc of that anime really bothered me. The problem was with how it balanced its comedy and serious portions, the tone was off. So this got me thinking, what exactly were these two shows doing differently?
Fair warning, I will be spoiling just the tiniest bit of Death Parade, specifically some of episode six. Additionally, some spoilers for Little Busters! as I discuss some major moments in its first arc. Just wanted to give you a heads up, so don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Right out the gate, Little Busters! doesn’t take itself all that seriously. Yelling, nonsense comedy, and zany characters! Everything practically screams, “this is a comedy anime.” Right before jumping into the main character’s inner monologue about how his parents died but his friends made his life so much better. There’s nothing particularly wrong with this setup, but maybe I’m becoming jaded to the whole whacky high school hijinks anime troupes and was kind of turned off by just how overly ridiculous everything was.
This alone, isn’t the actual problem, and thankfully the series does improve quite a bit as it goes on, but the fast-paced comedy angle is what really ruins the first arc of Little Busters! by inappropriately setting its tone.
The premise of Little Busters! is about a group of friends who want to play baseball with their friend who will be graduating later that year. Like every other Key anime, Little Busters! is a visual novel adaptation that has the main character going around helping his friends and making possible love connections with all of the female cast. Since baseball needs a nine man team, this is a decent plot vehicle to get stuff started.
In this first arc, our main character, Riki, meets and helps out a bubbly happy-go-lucky girl Komari. These early episodes establish two things, this show is going to be fun and there is something just a bit more going on under the surface. The last bit is more interesting but isn’t explored in that much detail right away, really, it is largely sidelined.
Unfortunately, the show “being fun” is only the case if the cast doesn’t annoy you. They pretty much all make Masato the butt of all the jokes and that just becomes grating after awhile. I do like this weird mission impossible sequence with everybody in the first episode, but I’m getting a bit sidetracked. My main point with all this, is that the show is trying really hard to be funny nearly all of the time.
As you may imagine, this throws some wrenches into the tone when Little Busters! decides to sober up and take things seriously for a bit. The first instance of this is when Riki explains that he has narcolepsy. Right away you can tell that this is a serious concern for the main character the first time he brings it up in one of his monologues. It’s this looming threat from episode two onward because he could fall asleep at any moment and for any amount of time.
Except it doesn’t work like that at all. I don’t mean in real life, I mean in the show itself.
It is the most conveniently timed narcolepsy, almost as convenient as amnesia in some other anime. When it does strike, it is only for a few hours. He randomly takes a nap sometimes. That’s literally it. This completely undercuts the serious tone it tries to establish early on for the parts that are actually fairly serious later. I laughed out loud when this got brought up; not a good sign. By the way, this happens the same episode he brings it up…
Whenever this plot point gets brought up I had a hard time taking anything seriously. It wasn’t dramatic, tense, or mysterious like it is made out to be. It’s just kind of dumb and goofy. So far, Little Busters! has been excellent at that.
Another joke, another joke, another joke, another… all on rapid fire. That’s how the show goes for a bit. There are moments where the show manages to set a serious tone, but it quickly abandons it in favor of the more light-hearted and comedic. This changes toward the end of Komari’s arc when things try and get fully serious. Unsuccessfully of course.
The first indication that things are starting to shift is toward the end of episode four. Komari’s arc has two episodes left at this point and the arc is sufficiently foreshadowed. On a second watch, things are handled a little bit better than I had remembered. There are some moments that feel good but really it is still the land of giggles and laughs.
Episode five feels pretty good at the start. It takes things seriously and tells the audience exactly how tragic this and the next episode is going to be without being overly silly. This is all undone when Riki finds out the truth (literally told explicitly to him) about Komari’s past and then just randomly questions it for no reason, it makes zero sense. There are some overly-cliché moments too that diminish the tragedy that unfolds. Other than that, this is the first time the show really got the tone (mostly) right.
Then we get to episode six, the worst offender. This is the episode where you get to see Komari’s past told in full. Her brother dies, and that scene had me laughing out loud. The tone is captured pretty well, right up until he dies. He coughs up blood onto her face, which doesn’t phase her, and then they go to sleep and he is dead. She wakes up and convinces herself that it was all a dream. It’s cut similarly to the comedic scenes which is a partial problem, but is made worse by just how silly it all seems.
Sure, it all is framed correctly. Given the idea that this should be sad and serious, but many, it’s not just me, found this arc to fall flat. It had some cool ideas though and moments of animation that reminded me a bit of Studio Shaft’s work, but everything was so goofy for so long that once it decided to be serious, I just couldn’t take it seriously.
Simply put, the tone of the show was ruined because of two things: The first being that the start of the show is just too silly and rarely takes the time to be serious. When it actually manages some seriousness, it always undercuts it with another gag with no real breathing room. The second issue is in the inability for Little Busters! to get people to care about what’s going on. Things are so over-the-top all of the time, that it is just draining to bother caring about it. I know this sounds harsh, but this first arc really just isn’t that good.
As I said, Little Busters! only improves from here as it moves into its second arc. It portrays a sort of pseudo-suicide arc. I found it to be a more interesting (albeit straightforward) arc that handled things much better. On the second watch, this first arc did feel a little better, just because I knew where things were headed more clearly and had some other details for later to notice, so that helped.
That’s enough talking about Little Busters!. The reason I even thought about this is because I was watching Death Parade with my mom, as I mentioned earlier. It was when episode six, “Cross Heart Attack” finished that I really got to thinking, “This is a great example of just what I mean when I say there was a tone issue with Little Busters! start.”
Death Parade’s premise is that when people die they are sent to a place that is like purgatory. There they are sentenced to judgment by beings known as Arbiters. This is done by having a pair of recently deceased people play a game. The game could be darts, air hockey, old maid, or literally anything. After this, the souls of the two people being judged are either sent for reincarnation or cast out to the void (basically Hell).
Prior to episode six in Death Parade, the stories have run an emotional gambit. We’ve had the setup for the premise in episodes one and two with emotional weight, a bittersweet third episode, moved into darker territory for the fourth, and had a plot advancement episode for the fifth. If Death Parade does anything right, it’s nailing its tone.
Episode six of Death Parade and we get something different. While the other five episodes prior always had this tragic, grounded undertone, this episode is light-hearted and “anime” feeling. “Cross Heart Attack” is a fanservice episode that is goofy. It’s main purpose is to provide a good laugh, give the audience something to look at (yes even the ladies get some manservice), and push a plot point for character development on one of the Arbiters.
Right away, the episode dives head-first into some silly fun. The characters Mayu, an overenthusiastic school-girl and Harada, a pop idle are the focal point of this episode. We follow as they play a game of Twister which allows for the fanservice to tastefully be applied. There is some fun banter between all of the characters and then the show gets serious again toward the end of the episode.
At first, everything is smiles and fun as the pair play normal Twister. Then when the game has been going on for quite awhile, the tone shifts when Ginti, the Arbiter, starts “the real game.” Mayu and Harada realize the significance of the situation, one of them will die playing this game. Harada’s reaction is shown first, “push or be pushed.” and is about to before we hear Mayu’s thoughts explaining that she can die happy because she met her idle. In this moment, she decides to sacrifice herself for Harada’s life. She gives him a sappy speech and in the last second begins to loose the game.
However, Harada is moved by Mayu’s words and attempts to save her at the very last possible moment. It seems like things may be ok for a just a second, but then Mayu falls to her death. Well, that’s how Harada thinks it plays out. Actually, as the audience we know that Mayu and Harada are already dead and this was just a test to see whether they should be reincarnated or cast out to the void.
This moment lingers though. The characters expressing several emotions, anguish, confusion, fulfillment, etc… Some may argue that being clued into the tragic irony of what’s going on diminishes the gravity of the situation, but that’s what makes the story telling here so much better. It offers context as to why the characters are acting the way they are. It makes their experiences human and realistic.
Right after everybody realizes what’s going on, the episode goes back to being a bit silly but you can feel the difference. It isn’t as genuine, more like the characters are putting on airs in order to come to terms with their current situation, to normalize it.
This is better than how Little Busters! handled things for a few reasons, if you couldn’t tell already, let me break them down. Episodes one through four established a somber tone so this shift to comedy is jarring, but in a good way. It makes you feel a bit uncomfortable because the usual formula of how an episode goes is just the tiniest bit off. Adding to this with traditional anime things like panty-shots and sexy man abs, it is just bizarre. This being said, the audience knows that there will be a tragic twist, and there is but it is made distinct from the comedy. When that kicks in, it owns the scene and is interrupted by a joke or inappropriately set expectations.
Tension for the serious bit build until finally it is allowed to release. Right before this, there is a moment where things stand still, allowing you to soak things in. Then, and only then, does the episode allow itself a mild gag to relieve the tension its built up. It doesn’t rapidly jump between the two things or interrupt itself with a silly blood-splatter that completely ruins the impact of the scene.
If you’ve seen both shows, then these points are a lot more obvious as you have full context for them. I’d love to have included some video so you could see exactly what I meant, but I couldn’t find ones that were suitable. I highly recommend Death Parade and Little Busters! season one does get better, with a superior second season (or so I’m told) so it isn’t like that isn’t worth watching. You can watch both series over at Crunchyroll, VRV, and Hulu.
What are some moments where an anime failed to convey its tone to you? What are your thoughts on Little Busters! and Death Parade? Let me know in the comments below. If you’d like to see more content like this, consider supporting me on Patreon. I could really use the help, so even if you just take a look and share the page that would be a great help! You can do so by clicking the button below. Most importantly, thanks for reading and I hope to see you back here at Jon Spencer Reviews soon!