In the recent months, there have been several anime releases that have caused a massive amount of discussion about the concept of “show, don’t tell” between fans and critics alike. From my observations of discussions on recent anime, including Re:Zero, Mob Psycho 100, and Kizumonogatari Part I, along with many others, the community at large seems to have varying perceptions of which animated productions utilize this concept well and which ones do not. Many people seem to share a common opinion about the topic though, and that is “show, don’t tell” is a storytelling technique that is universally accepted as a standard for media or literature to always strive for, and when used, it is almost always presented in a positive light. Likewise, when there is a large amount of dialogue presented to the audience, it tends to have the opposite effect, creating a near universal hatred for moments that tend to use dialogue-heavy scenes. Although personally, I don’t think either of these expressions are a great way of thinking about the concept as a whole.
“Show, don’t tell” has been widely used as a literary technique for years, and authors have always taken different approaches in how they utilize the concept and how much emphasis they place upon its usage depending on the type of story they wanted to create. The technique itself usually involves a lot of subtly descriptive text without physically describing the detail wanting to be conveyed by the author. Although, executing “show, don’t tell” effectively through literature is much different than portraying it through a visual medium such as a film or animated work.
For visual-based media, “show, don’t tell” becomes more about utilizing the subtle features of animation, filmography, or backgrounds to convey a particular meaning without having to directly convey it through dialogue. Animation in particular though, has one of the greatest potentials for being able to display this technique effectively, as it is arguably much more lucrative and creatively expressive than a live-action counterpart. In the past year, we’ve had an influx of massively creative works (both visually and otherwise) using the “show, don’t tell” concept, each one almost topping the last, and we should definitely praise its usage when it’s executed well. However, I don’t think every work has to always utilize visual elements to tell a great story, as there are plenty of excellent works that use effective dialogue to perform a similar effect.
The Monogatari series is a good example of this. While it does have some instances where visuals are used to communicate a particular feeling to the audience without explicitly stating it, most of the time they serve only as a stylistic eyepiece for the viewer, as the conversations between characters are the main focal point of the series.
Within the series, there are multiple instances where the characters just stand around talking to each other for the majority of the episode, with the visuals usually coming secondary to the story being told. While these visuals are interesting and mostly pertinent to the scene, there are very few instances where you can learn something introspective about the show through the animation or backgrounds alone, but this does not mean that it’s poor storytelling. Instead, the series uses its dialogue to create an atmosphere between the characters and through this, we begin to learn more about these characters, even if the dialogue itself sometimes seems sort of meaningless at first glance. The writing style and storytelling techniques of NisiOisin are heavily dialogue-focused, and the same writing style of “Tell, don’t show” are also used within Katanagatari, as demonstrated by RCAnime in this video (also definitely check out this video as it has many visual examples of this exact concept). These works can tell a story through dialogue relatively well while still maintaining an interesting and compelling narrative. I find it equally as interesting though, when an animator or director wants to adapt a work in a more creative way suitable to their own style.
This is why when I watched the adaptation of Kizumonogatari Part 1 directed by Tatsuya Oishi with Akiyuki Shimbo as the chief director, I thought that it was a rather hazardous decision on their part to attempt adapting a dialogue-driven series into a more visually-driven movie format. While they were the same team that worked on Bakemonogatari, which is still one of the highest selling and financially successful anime series of all time, their adaptation of it was more in line with the way the novels were written and still kept the heavy dialogue aspects within that part of the series. Within Kizumonogatari, however, many dialogue-driven segments were replaced with heavy-handed visuals attempting to perform a similar function as the removed segments of dialogue from the novels, yet those visuals sometimes failed to successfully reflect that original function.
Granted, there were also several scenes where “show, don’t tell” was conveyed well in the visual elements of certain scenes. One notable example would be the scene where Araragi runs to a nearby store to grab a risqué magazine to satiate his lustful desires.
What made this scene excel so well was both the setup and the timely execution of the joke itself. In the prior scene, Araragi had just met Hanekawa for the first time, with the encounter starting with an upskirt of Hanekawa’s panties, as per Monogatari style. The scene transformed into a conversation of wordplay and introspection, slowly revealing several aspects of Araragi’s life unknown to the viewer. After arriving home, the prior panty shot from earlier remains in his mind, which begins to create the humorous situation which is about to unfold. He then almost literally runs at bullet train speeds to the bookstore, creating a very human-esque hole in the very wall of the store, which continues to remain there even as he normally exits the store after buying the magazine. In this case, “show, don’t tell” was used for a comedic effect, doing so through meaningful visuals that were both creatively interesting and thoroughly engaging for the audience.
If this scene had utilized dialogue instead of its comedic visuals, I think the writing would have been effective, but the visual comedy of this scene made much more of an impact than any sort of dialogue or direct explanation of the joke could have done. However, other scenes felt like they needed more explanation to fully understand how the characters were feeling and what motivations spurred their actions. Several minutes after the prior example I gave, another scene occurs in a subway station where Araragi decides to give his life to Shinobu in order to save her own.
This scene was equally as visually creative and well-animated, but unlike my previous example, the usage of “show, don’t tell” to me was extremely ineffective within this scene. As Shinobu is begging Araragi to give up his life, he ends up becoming terrified of this idea and flees the scene as he fears the loss of his own life. After some self-reflection though, he decides that he should still give up his life for her as he doesn’t have any real reason to continue living his life anyway. The visuals generally communicate that he is very mixed on doing this for someone he had never met before and that Shinobu was grateful for his gesture of selflessness, which was something I greatly appreciate. However, they did fail in communicating the clear, specific motivations behind why he had given up his life for her, and even combined with the dialogue within the scene, there are no specific reasons ever conveyed to the audience as to why he did this. Although, the novel does in fact convey his thought process in specific detail during this scene, explaining that his life was meaningless and how he had no reason to live.
“There isn’t a single reason for me to bother staying alive, not a single reason for me to value my own life over someone else’s, the world wouldn’t care one bit if I died!”
Neither beautiful, nor pretty.
If that was my life, then to allow this beautiful thing to live…
Shouldn’t the choice be for me to die?
Wasn’t that the logical conclusion?
I was but a worthless human.
— Araragi in Kizumonogatari (Wound Tale), page 51, published by Vertical
The adaptation was clearly attempting to convey those emotions within the scene through the director’s visually emphasized style, but neither the visuals, the dialogue, or any combination of the two gave the audience a clearly presented image of Araragi’s motivations for his actions. While I also think that you could pinpoint this issue to not using the dialogue to its full extent, especially in a dialogue-heavy series such as Monogatari, this causes a different issue to arise of the same nature: The issue of using unclear “show, don’t tell” in place of highly descriptive dialogue.
Situations like this one when the visual direction doesn’t work in the favor of certain scenes or for certain dialogue-heavy shows is when the tried-and-true technique of “show, don’t tell” becomes a bit problematic. While this particular scene in question was both visually stunning and well-animated, it failed to effectively invoke the proper feelings of the characters and also caused an unnecessary tonal shift for the series. While this may seem like a personal complaint or preference as to how this particular part of the series was handled and some may think that these scenes in particular were handled fine, this created an even larger problem, which is what initially provoked me to write this discussion.
While there are personal preferences to how people may think scenes should have been properly handled, many of the people saying that those scenes misrepresented those moments of the series had their opinions almost immediately disregarded with statements saying that the scenes used “show, don’t tell” effectively, offering little to no explanation as to why. Therefore, if you thought the scenes needed more dialogue or weren’t explained well, then you were basically wrong as the scenes used the “show, don’t tell” technique which is the end-all be-all that can do no wrong. Depending on the part of the anime community or discussion boards you visit, this was the overall gist of the comments to the people preferring dialogue over visuals, ranging anywhere from civil to raging. This is a problematic way of thinking, and is also a part of an even wider community problem involving a lack of understanding of differing opinions.
The writing technique of “Show, don’t tell” is just as fallible as any other literary technique and doesn’t get a free pass from critique just because it typically causes a “better” product to be produced. You can have a visually stunning work of art or scene of animation, but if the meaning is skewed or improperly conveyed because of those visuals or because of the lack of dialogue not providing enough insight as to why the visuals are there, then it can be as equally as jarring or disrupting as a misplaced info-dump would be.
There are definitely stylistic preferences in terms of visuals, and there are definitely instances where the animators may just want to place visual emphasis on a particular scene because they want to, and that’s fine! Artistic merit of a work is one of the reasons that animation can be so visually interesting compared to other mediums, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t analyze a particular scene in-depth from different angles or viewpoints just because it looks well-animated and, to some, may be demonstrating qualities of “show, don’t tell”. Of course, this also applies to dialogue-driven works and the usage of dialogue as well. They can be used well and effectively and also poor and ineffectively, just like many other creative techniques used within anime.
Nothing is beyond the realm of criticism within media, as there is never a complete right or wrong way to do something. There are only preferences based on a particular person’s values and tastes. Diversity of opinions is one of the reasons why I personally seek out what others think on particular topics or shows, and I think we need to encourage a community that can also do the same. That’s why I think promoting universal truths, such as “show, don’t tell is always right” or “dialogue-heavy shows are better than visually-heavy ones”, can lead to a slippery slope of misused terms and misunderstanding concepts that people can latch onto very quickly and easily misuse with no regards to the original context.
While I think both techniques have merit depending on their context, how the techniques are used is much more important than which ones are actually used, as that merely comes down to preference of the creator and the consumer. The choice of whether to use a stylistic technique such as “show, don’t tell” in a work eventually comes down to the director and the staff surrounding him. It’s ultimately their decision as to whether they use that technique to retain the original style and further progress the work and its present themes, or if they utilize their own style and invoke their own creative and unique twist to progress the work in a different direction from the original. No matter if they choose the former or the latter though, the definite outcome will always be a new experience for us, the audience.
Revisions made on October 2nd, 2016.