Don’t worry all you non-anime fans out there, this post is going to be about as casually intellectual about the genre as you can get. If you’ve got an interest in storytelling, TV, and foreign cultures, I’d say take a chance and give this a read.
A few posts ago I talked about ‘Methods and Mediums’, and how I believe that the mark of a good story is one that uses its chosen medium to the fullest. I also mentioned how converting a story from one medium to another often doesn’t go well, mainly because adapters forget that the benefits of one medium do not always translate to the benefits of another.
Today’s gem of an M&M is a Japanese cartoon called No Game No Life (produced by Madhouse), adapted from a light novel series of the same name. It is clever, hilarious, and brilliantly executed – a hard pill for me to swallow when I abhor oversexualization of women and this show has fanservice in spades. Despite how much I hate that I love it, this is the prose-to-show adaptation that first had me realize what advantages a TV show has over books, movies, or games.
Of course, to talk about why an adaptation is good, you need to first understand what it’s being adapted from. Some of you might be going, “Gee, internet stranger – what’s a light novel?” Don’t worry because I’m going to spend the next 200 or so words explaining.
In Eastern Asia (though I can only speak with certainty for China, Taiwan, Korea, and Japan), a popular form of entertainment is the modern day ‘light novel’. This is a form of fiction in which a story is told over the course of several short volumes, and its target demographic is usually middle and high schoolers, although the stories often attract readers of all ages. The closest western equivalent that comes to mind is The Series of Unfortunate Events, which is also getting a prose-to-show adaptation via Netflix.
If you want a better sense of what a light novel is like, I know for a fact that the Taiwanese 1/2 Prince, the Korean Moonlight Sculptor, and the Japanese Overlord are available fan-translated into English online.
Oh wait, all three of those are about real people getting too involved into virtual reality video games. Welp, there’s a common theme for you.
In any case, in Eastern Asia, popular light novels often get translated into other, mediums – comics, live-action dramas, and even movies! Some get audio dramas that, if lucky, might even have 3D sound. Japan, however, also has another industry of that functions as its own medium of storytelling: its world-famous animation.
(As a side note, although the English-speaking internet uses ‘anime’ to refer specifically to Japanese animation, in Japan, it is merely short for ‘animation’. Anything animated is anime. South Park and Steven Universe are also anime. For convenience’s sake, I will continue to use the term ‘anime’, but please keep this fact in mind!)
So, with all that out of the way, it is with some giddy enthusiasm that I finally introduce to you the strange, vivid, and oddly charming story of No Game No Life.
As you may have gathered, No Game No Life is also a light novel series, but in spring 2014, it made its debut as a single-season 12 episode anime. I explicitly stated single-season because I am still extremely frustrated that it is not getting a continuation and would like to spare you all the pain of false hope.
The story itself is actually a subversion of that aforementioned ‘too invested in/trapped in a video game’ trope, following the genius step-siblings Sora and Shiro. Together, they are an urban legend, an entity said to have never lost a single game:「 」 (yes, their username is ‘blank’, a clever pun lost in translation). Due to their undefeated status, they are forcibly invited by a god into a different world known as Disboard, a world where violence and war and all things related to it – petty robbery, succession to the throne, country borders, everything – is decided by games.
Spoilers Ahead. Only proceed if you have watched the show or know with absolute certainty that you have absolutely no intention of watching the show.
So, yeah, as a result of the setting, the stakes of the games in the show get pretty high. Sora and Shiro play everything from chess to rock-paper-scissors with surprising intensity, and too often put their lives on the line. Episode 8 of the show exemplifies this, and it is also the main highlight of this M&M.
First, however, let me ask you – what are the unique aspects of a TV show? Yes, there’s sound and moving pictures, but movies do as well. Yes, an episode is significantly shorter than a feature film, but not much more than a short film. If anything, it seems inferior to video games which have actual player interaction to aid immersion. Well, that’s not necessarily true.
The main qualities of a TV show can be boiled down into two things: continuation and repetition. Now, what proportion they are used in can differ from show to show – a comedy series like F.R.I.E.N.D.S is heavier on repetition, with its consistent humor and episodic nature, while a narrative-heavy show like Scandal focuses more on the continuation, ending each episode on a cliffhanger.
Unlike novels or movies or video games, most TV shows have a consistent schedule, airing at specific, planned blocks of time. And unlike novels or movies or video games, most TV shows have the an opening sequence and an end credit roll.
This is their advantage.
I know, it’s a subtle thing – how could openings and credits possibly be an advantage? Isn’t it just an annoyance? Most people just skip them while binge-watching anyway. Well, perhaps, but I would argue that it’s because it isn’t done well. No Game No Life, in my opinion, is an example done well.
Japanese cartoons differ from most western animations in that the opening and ending sequences are songs, usually over a minute and a half and often sung by popular JPop artists. The visuals are meant to be an introductory glimpse into the show and get people excited for the new episode. Like western opening and credits, these songs air with every single episode, and they usually remain one song until halfway through a season.
Openings and credits represent the repetitive aspect of a TV show. However, that is where its strength lies. Isn’t it a fact that once people settle into a routine, there’s an expectation of consistency? A sense of unease when things go differently? Well, let me tell you how I felt about episode 8. Now, here’s the last warning, because the spoiler’s coming up next:
In this episode, Sora goes out of existence. Yup. He bets his existence, and with it everyone’s memories of him, and partway through the game loses it, leaving Shiro to finish the game herself. Unfortunately, due to the nature of the bet, Shiro seems to have forgotten him, although not the sense that she had not been alone.
Imagine, you watched 7 episodes of a lovely ending sequence – a fitting song with wonderful watercolor visuals. I tried to find it for you, but unfortunately, it’s pretty heavily protected on YouTube so I couldn’t find a proper video of the credits. In any case, after that, you get to episode 8. The story hints that everyone has forgotten about Sora. You have absolutely no clue what’s going on, and if you like the ending song, maybe you’re looking forward to it – something peaceful and nice to wind down with.
You can see the comparison video below and see for yourself what’s wrong.
Maybe I’m just too sensitive to these kind of things, but I get chills just remembering the first time I experienced this – I’m watching this muted and small-screen as I’m writing this sentence right now, and I still went cold when I saw the monochrome at the end.
Sora is a constant in Shiro’s life. He is her older brother, her game partner, and implied to be the only one who has ever understood her. Suddenly she has no recollection of him. Suddenly no one does. All the memories they shared, every accomplishment they made together, is reconfigured so that she stands alone. How could the director possibly have conveyed that sense of loss to the viewer?
Remove a constant for us as well.
To the viewer, Sora was a main character, half of 「 」 – simply having him missing for an episode might have gotten the point across, sure. However, that would be loss from a dimension removed. The viewer has to be invested in the story, and even then is only lamenting the loss of screentime for a character or empathizing with Shiro from an outside view. The viewer would not necessarily be feeling the wrongness of it in the first-person.
So what did the director decide to do? As you saw above, they removed Sora from the ending song. They completely erased all trace of the character from the ending song you have seen in its warm, technicolor glory at the end of every episode in the past. They glitched the audio, they broke up the screen, and after the searing brightness of the show’s art style, the colorless watercolors at the very end are downright disturbing.
The ending song of No Game No Life was a constant, a routine the viewer settled into, and by tampering with the routine retroactively, the viewer gets to experience firsthand how unsettling the situation must feel for Shiro. Furthermore, they experience through a visual metaphor what a world without her brother feels like to Shiro – even a fantastical, vivid world like Disboard is colorless and bland.
This effect carried over, in fact, to episode 9, which again made use of the repetitive opening and ending sequences to its advantage… by simply not having it. Episode 9 did not have an opening song, which in turn implied that this was merely a continuation of the previous episode and reminding the viewer that we didn’t leave the show in a place where the highly colorful opening song would fit in. This is further emphasized by how we have an instant of color once the episode begins, but as Shiro remembers the strange sense of loss she feels, everything comes crashing into grey.
Most of the episode remains grayscale, and as you can see in the pictures above, that feels pretty strange from a show as stylized and bright as this one.
Wow, I did not mean to take up this many words. Guess that’s really all I had to say about this. For those of you who might be frustrated by my M&M choices and are poised at your keyboards ready to point out a dozen other shows that are better than No Game No Life or have done this sort of deal before, please understand that these M&Ms are written from my perspective and I only really got into movies, video games, and TV shows in the past three years.
Furthermore, I’m not saying that No Game No Life is the epitome of TV show storytelling – I’m merely starting off my blog by listing the first of every medium that had me realize that medium’s potential. No Game No Life just happened to be that one for me.