Let’s set the scene: your favourite spikey-haired protagonist is engaged in mortal combat with the main antagonist of their respective universe. In this final battle, the antagonist drops various bombs regarding the true nature of their intentions, their past, their ambitions, their favourite colour and a host of other things – all while exchanging blows with the protagonist. While sharing important information about their master plan, our dearest villain doesn’t shy away from telling us things about the scene, the plot or the fight itself that we already know. This brings us to an interesting topic to wrestle with: expositions in anime. As anime fans, we know our favourite medium is guilty of having moments where characters describe things that are self-explanatory, sometimes in situations that are ridiculously obvious; other times, focusing too much on telling us what’s going on. Now we investigate – expositions in anime: how much is too much?
Wait, what’s going on?
Put simply, an exposition is a literary tool used to give the audience more information about the characters, the setting, or current situation. This is achieved through dialogue, flashbacks, narration or description. Expositions can come in multiple forms and can be fairly concise observations, or full-bodied explanations of occurrences and their consequences. Expositions are quite evidently an important part of storytelling, and where anime is concerned, expositions are as natural as breathing is to us. They help the audience make sense of the situation and the overall story at a specific point in time. However, that being said, it is important to note that while expositions can healthily flesh out a given story, they can also work against it. You know what they say about too much of a good thing – too much exposition at a point can negatively affect the pacing of the story.
Naturally, there are multiple ways in which one can present a given scenario to the audience and even use of exposition varies from series to series and even different media have different ways in which exposition is used. So how about we look at different exposition styles?
Tell me everything you know
Earlier we noted dialogue as one of the ways in which the exposition tool is used in anime. This would apply to any show which features characters explaining the plot or situation at hand. A large variety of anime of different genres uses dialogue as a means to divulge important information. Most shows are a combination of various uses of exposition, depending on the situation at hand; however, some shows are known specifically for the method of exposition. This highlights the true importance of exposition – educated use of the tool could even define whole careers.
Take NisioisiN (Ishin Nishio) for example. The author is known for his brilliant, interesting and intricate characters, and his greatly appreciated work, the Monogatari Series, is known for being extremely heavy with the dialogue. The series is mostly narrated by the main character, Araragi Koyomi, however, such is the case when presenting the scene at the beginning of an episode. Characters in the series talk a whole lot, about various different things – most of the time, it is conversation leading onto the various supernatural entities Araragi Koyomi deals with on a day-to-day basis.
Another series which has relied on the use of exposition through dialogue is Hunter x Hunter. After the events of the Hunter Exam, a whole new world was opened up with the introduction of the series’ awesome power: Nen. Upon its introduction, it was through a conversation with Gon Freecss, the series’ protagonist, and his master at the time, Wing, that the audience was given a full on lesson about the various forms and abilities available to one who learns to harness their own Nen. Exposition through dialogue has one fatal drawback: drawn-out conversations tend to cause some viewers to lose interest and with action-packed titles, it may come off as unnatural or uncharacteristic of the series itself. As such, the way in which information is given to the audience tends to become part of that series’ very personality.
Remember that one time when we…
Flashbacks. A widely used form of exposition that allows viewers to see the same thing several times for various reasons and is quite frankly, an anime staple. One would also imagine that from the perspective of animation houses and sound recording studios, flashbacks allow them to fill in parts of the episode with parts from previous episodes, allowing for the story to tell itself. However, that isn’t the only way in which flashbacks are used and in many cases, they allow for a more immersive journey into the past, which is far more engaging for viewers than having the narrator explain everything, or have the characters converse in a way that lets us all know what’s cooking.
Long-running titles, particularly Shounen titles make use of this expository method in order to give more life to characters, or to change the plot somehow. Like dialogue, this method done excessively does more harm than good. One show guilty of this is Naruto – it is literally known as Flashback Central, given the sheer number of characters in the story, as well as its length. With so many characters getting screen time, as well as a look into their past, Naruto is riddled with the flashback exposition method.
Another use of this method, the intentions of which are much more obvious, is the way in which certain anime titles have recap episodes which summarise the plot up to a certain point. These tend to be presented in tandem with a character’s narration of the events – which then presents the opportunity for more information to be divulged as a result of that character’s perspective.
The last two forms of exposition are narration and description, which are fairly straight-forward in how they perform the task of relaying information to the audience. Narration comes in many forms, but the most popular is the use of an omniscient narrator who gives information from an objective point of view. They merely tell you what is happening, or give details about what is happening. Titles like Dragon Ball Z, Terraformars, and Hunter x Hunter have all used this expository method. Picture David Attenborough giving you a run-down on what’s cooking in your favourite show. Description tends to be the chosen course of exposition when things cannot be explained verbally. Naturally, it relies on visual cues in order to give viewers the information they might need. Shingeki no Kyojin (Attack on Titan) is a title which makes use of this – at the midway point of every episode, an infographic appears, displaying various kinds of relevant information. The cuts are fairly quick, so unless one takes the time to pause and read the information, it goes somewhat unnoticed.
Now that we’ve understood the various forms of exposition in anime, we come to the whole reason why we’re looking at them in the first place: we want to know how much is too much. The short answer is that it depends. It depends on the nature of the anime in question, narrative styles and even art – exposition forms a large part in the way that stories are told and therefore, it will be employed and manipulated to serve any number of purposes. However, it goes without saying that dedicating large portions of episodes to exposition the way that titles such as Naruto have done.
Others just seem forced and unnatural – sometimes exposition through dialogue “reveals” the blatantly obvious and thus isn’t ideal; sometimes you may feel like the information given serves no real purpose, much like the intensely wordy opening scenes of episodes from the Monogatari Series. It is absolutely vital that the story’s progression should not be hindered as a result of exposition.
Generally, shows employ a number of different literary devices in order to present, perpetuate and complete a story. While important, exposition is fully capable of bringing entire shows to ruin – if it feels uncharacteristic of a series, it might not work too well. That being said, this debate could go on forever as the way in which exposition is executed just so happens to be a completely subjective experience and what is seen as too much by one, could be someone else’s “just right”. As long as the overall progression of the story is not negatively affected by use of exposition for various reasons, it is an author’s best friend.