Visual Storytelling techniques in The Disappearance of Nagato Yuki-Chan

Day 4 of ’12 Days of Anime’ – [See other posts in this series]


*Knock Knock*

“Who’s there?”

Only

“Only who?”

ONLY THE BEST SLICE OF LIFE SHOW SINCE 2006. 

And what show came out in 2006 you ask? The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya! If that has jogged your memory, then what you may also know is that the series sparked the release of a film called The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya. Now if you’re looking at the title of this article and thinking there is some sort of connection then you would be right.

That’s what I’m here to talk about.

Because as you, the reader, are presumably an anime fan, you will be well accustomed to people having bad opinions. You know the type. People who will spout objectively wrong statements like “Midnight is better than Uraraka”, “Kagami is best guy in Kuroko’s Basketball” or “School Days is a better anime than Pingu”. All plainly incorrect remarks when put under the lightest amount of scrutiny.

However one of the most relevant and egregious ones is “The Disappearance of Nagato Yuki-chan sucks”. This was something I got accustomed to hearing a lot back in 2015 and it broke my poor little heart. I loved this show and could never wrap my head around the loud vocal distaste for it. People didn’t like the character designs, despite them being closer to the Haruhi source material than the Kyoto Animation adaptation was. They hated how Haruhi was sidelined to a supporting role, irrespective of how much she features in a show not even named after her. Voices cried out over the romantic comedy plot line and moe aspects, without the show ever having been advertised as anything else, and certainly not a Haruhi season 3.

I say all this background fluff, because it has long since been my goal to redeem the show from its unjust reception at launch. I’m sure that my love for the original influences my opinion on this spin-off, however I haven’t lost the ability to pinpoint exactly what I like about the show beyond nostalgia. So today we’re going to explore the flair and creativity behind The Disappearance of Nagato Yuki-chan.

Camerawork

Camerawork is a bit of an ambiguous title to ascribe to the show, but I think it’s the broadest way to define the exploratory use of a nonphysical camera to present scenes from unusual perspectives. If you think about the anime you watch, how often do they seek to deliver a scene through height-level standing dialogue and action? It is certainly a safe and well practiced approach for animators to take, but I think the direction of Nagato Yuki-chan deliberately sought to avoid defaulting to this. As such you find the camerawork moves between a variety of different angles and heights without fear of failing to convey tone and visual clarity.

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Setting the camera within passive objects is one such example that happens quite frequently in the show. I’m often shocked by how underutilized this type of direction can be, given how much freedom animation has compared to conventional film-making. That’s why I’m happy to see the camera positioned inside a washing machine as is the case above, since it would be an impractical and overtly ineffective decision to make in real life.

And if you think about what it accomplishes beyond just being ‘different’, it’s not hard to see why it’s praiseworthy. At any given moment, one of the characters is obscured by the washing, giving viewers a visual cue that symbolizes the temporary disconnect between the two characters. Likewise in a scene that would otherwise be stationary conversation, animating movement from objects rather than characters prevents a scene from boring the audience. Furthermore it has secondary functions such as demonstrating a passage of time in a scene that wouldn’t naturally have a clear indicator for such a thing.

This is a notion you see brought up again much later in the story; as the tone shifts to a move pensive and disconcerted atmosphere, you find this ‘life through objects’ approach abandoned, creating the jarring contrast required to communicate loss and longing.

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That’s not all that happens with the camerawork however. Truthfully a more dominant and transparent type of approach taken by the show is the unabashed usage of depth of field, action panning, distortion effects and distance projection. Since the result of these skills is quite visually obvious, I can rely more on images to illustrate what this means.

In the above image, the dimensions of the stores are clearly being distorted by the presence of the two girls in a way that is not as extreme but also not dissimilar from a fish eye camera lens. The positioning of the man standing meekly in the center is explicitly to juxtaposition the girls as domineering presences within the frame, almost bending the confines of reality to their will. It functions well as a comedic effect, and even though I have deliberately avoided telling you the specific context, you can likely tell what the tone of this scene is.

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The series often employs symmetry into its framing as well. In many of the scenes like the two shown prior, the girls repeatedly appear in similar positions within the frame, despite these images not being part of a singular continuous sequence. You’ll also notice the return of distortion and distance effects, again applied to illicit certain responses from the viewer. In this case their meals are elongated to inflate not just the quantity of food prepared, but also the importance the girls place on it compared to everyone else. The 3 other members of the group are placed at the end to make them appear as small and unimportant as possible next to the real competitors.

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Perhaps by observing these images you noticed another trend. As mentioned at the start, anime frequently tends to place the camera proportional to the height of its characters. This has a purpose of course, in that it gives a clear impression of who or what is present in a scene. However shows get too comfortable with this formula, as Nagato Yuki-chan demonstrates conversely through its recurrent creativity.

In many shots the camera is above or below the characters. It is perhaps far away from them or even on the ground. When it is leveled out, it is usually through a passive object or with some kind of distortion brought into the foreground. Simply put; there is always something going on.

In the last two images for this section, I just want to draw your eyes to how the camera is at feet level, maintaining an uncertain distance, while still giving you a clear snapshot of what is happening. In one scene this creates a sense of hostility, and in another, camaraderie. It goes to show that you can make a scene far more visually appealing without having to sacrifice narrative coherence. Again, I bet you can figure out what the tone of the story is without even having any dialogue shown. If you can, think about whether that would still be possible for many of the scenes you’ve watched from this season’s anime. It’s not as common or easy as you might expect.

Focus on Adaptive Character Expression

If there is one thing to be said about this series, it’s that it is not afraid to morph and squash character designs in order to convey humour. While you may not see this as anything new, it is worth both praise and demonstration regardless. This show in particular has a truly wide variety of different expressions that the characters adopt. I’ve deliberately hand picked the images to give you broadest possible overview of the kinds of faces and bodies the character designs take on, but this is far from an exhaustive list.

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While a lot of these images explain themselves, or you otherwise subconsciously understand what is being done, I’ll still go ahead and draw attention to specific elements.

One such element being the prevalence of shadows and shading. Whether it is the partial or complete obscuring of a characters face or body, you probably have an innate understanding of what this means. It can convey anger, mistrust, despair, frustration and more. It’s interesting just how well it works though. For example you wouldn’t think the girl above was upset with herself or feeling deflated. It’s very clearly directed at the guy, which is communicated by the cat eyes and black border around him, however I’d argue that you would still understand the direction of her attention even if that wasn’t happening. That’s what you achieve when you blend shadows and framing together.

That’s not all we see though. As evidenced below, it is not uncommon to see the character designs cross boundaries of genre and style. The examples provided leaning heavily on Shojo artistic tropes. This mimicry of styles is effective because we already have a preconceived understanding of where these character designs come from and what they are used for. In this sense the need to explain the scenario is bypassed, because what other purpose would these images serve if not for the romantic implications? A simple word would be parody, which does indeed fit, but I don’t think subversion should be taken as the main aim, as the show actually wants you to transfer feelings for old school shojo romance over to this modern adaptation.

Emphasis on the eyes is another factor I want to briefly touch upon. You might think that the tendency for character designs to have enlarged eyes makes this point redundant, however there is a clear distinction between functional and practical implementation. In the case of the former, we give characters eyes because they are modeled after people in day-to-day life. In the latter, the eyes are not just a reflection of how we perceive humanity in drawn characters, but also a effective tool for expression. Of course real eyes don’t turn into squiggles on command or take the shape of an animals, but because we’ve already been instructed to see them as human, we are more willing to accept deviations from reality. This then allows animators to present emotions such as confusion and shock, without having to be hyper-vigilant with facial cues that we otherwise rely on for emotional connection in real life.

These principles underline the notion of adaptive character expression. When creators allow themselves to take creative liberties with how characters look, you again meet another advantage of animation as a medium. That being; you can’t drastically change how an actor looks in real life like you can with animated ones. Before this gets misconstrued as film-bashing, I think this advantage is also one of necessity, since emotional ranges are not as universally understandable and easily applied through drawn faces, as opposed to live actors.

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This reliance on ‘adapt to survive’ has of course created a welcome and lasting quirk for anime, which is never more apparent than with shows like Nagato Yuki-chan. Whether you appreciate it as reaction faces to use on social media, or for the absurd humour it often encapsulates, you can’t downplay the wide range of applications it has for an animation’s storytelling. Frankly, I think it is a hallmark of a good comedy that the show refuses to depend solely on dialogue to get laughs out of a viewer.

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Over reliance on comedy through body morphing is certainly an issue, although I can’t reasonably mediate those concerns without saying that it’s not all the show has to offer, but then that puts on unfair onus on you to watch it. All that said, I want you to appreciate the artistry behind something that is not typically meant to be taken seriously, and how its design extends beyond cuteness for its own sake.

Movement as Storytelling

Lastly I want to talk about movement as a form of storytelling favoured by this show in particular. While there has been crossover so far with the other aspects, in that I talk about mood as conveyed through movement like with the washing machine, there is still a broader application of this to unravel.

Character moments (or -acting) is a term I hear being used more often these days. It describes an approach pioneered by studios such as Kyoto Animation, which is loosely characterized by animation focused on making minute details become outstanding definitions. To simplify, it can be the pattern of a characters breath on a cold winters day, or the subtle twitch of their hands when they’re nervous. It can be just about anything really, but typically tends to be the things that get overlooked due to constraints in the animation process. After all, it’s a huge expenditure for what are often such short and inessential highlights in the animation.

That explanation is all to say that when Nagato Yuki-chan does it, you know that it’s already taken a step beyond the average anime production.

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Given the romantic coming of age themes in the show, feelings of restlessness and indecisiveness are commonly the focus of Nagato’s particular brand of character moments. In this scene the motion of her pen flicking and the inflections in her handwriting are hyper detailed. This both asks and answer the question; would you rather her current mindset be told through description or movement?

But when I talk about movement as storytelling, I don’t want you to think it has to be a non-stop sakuga fest. Indeed some of the best scenes throughout the show are fairly straightforward and lacking the kind of esoteric complexity you might expect me talk about. Dissatisfaction is correlated by stillness, with gentle movements being taught as unnatural because of how often the animators keep its characters moving.

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And it goes without saying that comedy is commonly presented through this eclectic ‘movement’. This is deliberately meant to play on the eccentricity of the characters, which if you know anything about the Haruhi franchise, is practically its main selling point.  That’s why the show takes extra steps to ensure that camera angles switch around at breakneck pace, and why simple actions such as reaching out to touch someone always have a sense of pure velocity.

When you add all of that together, you end up with a product that successfully utilizes a specific type of conveyance with lasting thematic consistency.


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There is more I could mention about the show than what I explore here. Particularly concepts like diegetic sound influencing non-diegetic sound, and the use of CCTV techniques as a means of relating viewers to conditions of disassociation. However, I have to end this somewhere, and I think you get a sufficient explanation in a case for The Disappearance of Nagato Yuki-chan.

And on the off chance you feel like I haven’t yet talked enough about Christmas for this 12 Days series, then you’ll be happy to know that the show actually starts during December, and has cute Santa costumes in only the second episode. Not saying you have to watch the show today, but if you’ve been putting it off then now is the time…

Thanks for reading!

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6 thoughts on “Visual Storytelling techniques in The Disappearance of Nagato Yuki-Chan

  1. To be honest Haru-san I haven’t watched or read either of the “Disappearance of”
    I feel bad now.

    Still, you have convinced me to watch quite some new anime in these days of #12 Days. I promise I will~
    Awesome post!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I need to fight whoever thinks Kagmi is the best Kurobas omg

    I didn’t finish Yuki-chan when it was airing (too many things at the time), but I have the Blurays since I bought Funimation’s big boxset & your article is reminding me I need to get back to it. I do, however, absolutely remember the good faces.

    Overall I feel Haruhi and Yuki-chan as shows are rather different beasts despite sharing the same cast, and that’s cool and good in my opinion. Haruhi (both TV series and film) has had its visual merits—of which there are admittedly many—praised to death, so it’s nice seeing a similar approach applied to Yuki-chan. ^_^

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s somewhat ironic that for a blog named after the Haruhi series, I now have one post for Nagato and zero for Haruhi.

      The shows are indeed very different. I wish more people had recognized that at the time. Not liking something because it’s different is much easier to swallow than not liking it because it isn’t the same. Some might think that means the same thing, but one puts the emphasis on preference, while the other treats the work as subject to the whims of one particular demographic.

      Thanks for the comments and praise!

      Liked by 2 people

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