THE WRITER vs. THE AUDIENCE: THOUGHTS ON NANA (anime)

Media, Writing

ImageSorry its been a while since my last post.  Ive been busy working on a short story.  I thought I might post some of it here, but I’m lucky I didn’t:  I’ve just learned that doing so would disqualify the story from being published in any journal that asks for first-publication rights, which is pretty much all of them.

THE WRITER vs. THE AUDIENCE:  THOUGHTS ON NANA (anime)

What am I, a child?

I’m watching the addictive anime series NANA, and I’m totally shocked with the turn the story has taken in ep. 16.  The episode begins with Nana’s/Hachi’s breakup with Shoji, which ought to have been the saddest, heaviest weight on the series, good for at least one or two whole episodes of delicious self-pity and navel-gazing.  But before the episode ends, we see the writers have dumped it instead for the intrigue and potential reunion of Nana and Ren.

I’m totally impressed with the provocation and propulsion of this unexpected, whiplash plot shift.  What’s even more impressive, though, is that the writers have gone against the grain here.  What I, and I suspect most of the audience, really wanted was more time for Hachi to grieve her breakup with Shoji.  But the writers decision to defuse the explosion of the breakup was the right choice, even though it goes against the audience’s wishes.

How could that be?  Aren’t writers bound by the pop-cultural imperative to “give the people what they want”?  How have they gone against this maxim without alienating the audience?

They’ve done it with character.  To move the plot in the direction of Nana + Ren, i.e., away from Hachi’s troubles, is a character-based move.  First of all, it’s a distraction, or a move of self-preservation.  Hachi’s situation is grave:  Shoji was her entire reason for moving to the big city, and he has dumped her.  Without Shoji, there’s nothing keeping her tethered.  She hates her job (which is as menial and dead-end as jobs get) and is on the verge of being fired from it.  She has also nearly estranged Nana, the only solid thing she has left.  In short, she’s on the verge of having to leave Tokyo, her dream of being a big-city girl in ruins.

Rather than facing down her troubles, she lets herself be distracted.  We know she’s a match-making schemer, so naturally she becomes obsessed with reuniting Nana and Ren.  She’s also a sucker for two birds, one stone opportunities.  Bird 1:  recouping her image in the eyes of Nana.  Bird 2:  forgetting how close to loneliness and financial desolation she has come.  In other words, it is a character-based move for the plot to take this turn.  It’s built into Hachi’s DNA.

(Side note:  even when it seems all the focus is on Nana, more than ever it is Hachi that’s steering this ship.)

At first I was disappointed with this plot twist.  I felt cheated.  I wanted more time to wallow in the gloom and self-loathing of Hachi finding Shoji with another woman.  It’s only in all this meta talk that I’m able to appreciate what the writers have achieved.  What they’ve given us is better than what I wanted.  Far better.  To wallow in the basest of emotions–it’s not unlike giving over to feelings of bigotry or directionless rage.  I thank the series writers for rescuing me from a downward spiral of weepy, woe-is-me bitterness.

But who could blame us for wanting self-indulgence?   It makes sense that people are addicted to melodrama.   On the one hand, it’s what a child would choose.  But on the other hand, we were all once children.  Picture me at six years old, walking home one morning after a sleepover, carrying a paper plate of cookies I’d helped bake the night before.  The plate folds and the cookies fall to the street.  Rather than pick up the several unbroken ones (i.e., counting losses and moving on), I weep bitterly for my loss and stamp them into the pavement.  I run the rest of the way home shrieking bloody murder.  At home in the kitchen with my parents, I’m inconsolable.  I say, I’ll never bake cookies again, never.  

It’s not about the lost cookies.   It’s about the caretaking I evoked by coming home a blubbery mess.  It felt good to have my parents cooing at me and petting my hair.  And I knew by instinct the melodrama I’d brought home would elicit that response from them.

Children are drama queens.  So are adults, when not on guard against it.  And when you’re watching a riveting dramatic series, you’re not on guard against anything.

What the audience would have chosen is vastly inferior to what the writers gave us.  Choosing self-pity — that would’ve been choosing the irrational, choosing stasis over progress.

In other words, it wouldn’t advance the story.  And if there’s one maxim that trumps giving the people what they want it is this:  The story must advance.  Anyone who has watched a great TV drama knows why this is.  There’s just too much story to tell.  The writers have no time to waste.

The writer knows this.  Good thing it’s the writer in charge of the script, not the audience.

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