12 Days of Anime | 12 – Ruminations on Mari Okada

Disclaimer: Major Spoilers for Maquia and Minor Spoilers for Toradora! and Hanasaku Iroha

If I had to define 2018 as the year of anything, I’d probably call it the Year of… Well, more political hellscapes. But if I were to define 2018 in terms of my personal anime watching experience, I’d call it the Year I Fell in Love with Mari Okada’s Work. At pretty much every point in the year, I was watching or thinking about Mari Okada in some capacity. From starting off the year watching Toradora! to watching Maquia’s US premiere in the summer, her works were a major pastime for me. And while watching those anime, I sort of went on a journey of my own, gradually coming to appreciate the idiosyncrasies of Okada’s writing.

I had always been a fan of Mari Okada on some level. I mean, if any of you were reading my writing back in the Brave New Moe days, you’d know that I wrote a pretty long post defending the flawed show Kiznaiver. Hell, even if you only know me from this blog, you’d see that I recently wrote a piece gushing about her first high profile anime original movie The Anthem of the Heart, which was a personal favorite of mine even before this year. However, I guess what I had failed to realize was how much I personally resonated with the way she told her stories.

Beginning with Toradora!, my first revelation about Mari Okada was that she could create adaptations of great material while still giving them her distinctive dramatic touches. In her autobiography, From Truant to Anime Screenwriter, Mari Okada reveals that she doesn’t consider a lot of the projects she’s worked on to be definitively “her writing,” which makes sense. Her autobiography and shows like Shirobako have revealed that its actually pretty rare for a screenwriter to be the sole voice in the writing process. Most of the time, stories are formatted via roundtable discussions with the Series Composer/Head Script Writer synthesising the ideas of various production team members into something everyone agrees on.

However, even though that process of collaboration does muddy the waters on a definitive writer for most anime projects, I think Mari Okada’s voice still shines through on adaptations like Toradora!. Unintentionally or not, the series fits in with a lot of Mari Okada’s personal thematic and character archetype interests. Okada’s works often feature protagonists who struggle to communicate, either due to their bluntness or their inability to express their true feelings. Both Ryuji and Taiga fall into this category, with Ryuji’s rough appearance walling him off from being able to interact with most other people in spite of his kind behavior, and Taiga’s brash personality hiding her true loneliness. In adapting this material, Mari Okada emphasizes these struggles, while making sure to keep the drama going by having this cast of firmly defined personalities bounce off each other to form both hilarious comedy and heart wrenching drama. What this ended up creating is one my personal favorite romance anime, a series which may be archetypal in some respects, but in execution is passionate and unbelievably watchable.

Meanwhile, the next Okada work I consumed, the original project Hanasaku Iroha, revealed something I had always suspected about her writing… She’s kind of mean spirited sometimes. Hanasaku Iroha is an interesting work, because in a lot of ways its first few episodes are defined by cast members being jerks to each other. In our premiere episode, our protagonist Ohana is forced to move away from Tokyo because her mother wants to run off with some guy she’s been dating for a few months. This act of cruelty should probably make the audience empathize with Ohana, and it does in many respects, but the show then showcases that our “innocent” protagonist is also pretty rough around the edges. When her long time friend Koichi confesses his love for her, her reaction is pretty abysmal, and upon her arrival to the KissuIso Inn we also learn she’s pretty immature, in spite of how her mother’s upbringing forced her into a caretaking position from a young age.

Then, there’s all the coworkers at KissuIso. All of them have distinct flaws right off the bat: Minko starts insulting Ohana on her first day at work, Nako refuses to communicate with her at first, and Ohana’s grandmother doesn’t seem to care at all about making her time at the inn easy or relaxing, immediately placing her into a maid position. No one is particularly kind, and this leads to a first episode I can only describe as shockingly cruel and harsh… And yet, I kind of love it. That harshness in Hanasaku Iroha’s characters, while not something I’d personally go for in my own fiction writing, does make for incredibly compelling drama. Throughout the episode, I couldn’t help but feel myself driven forward by the constant bickering and clashes between everyone’s personalities.

Hanasaku Iroha is one of the first projects Mari Okada had major creative control over, and it shows. This work exhibits a ton of her personal thematic obsessions, particularly with its motherly characters. Once again going back to her autobiography, in that book Okada stated that her goal with Ohana’s mother was to create a motherly figure who she thought her Mom would desire to be. This fact becomes pretty hilarious when you take into account how cruel Ohana’s mother’s actions are. Still, that makes sense when you consider the strained relationship between Mari Okada and her mother was in real life. Yet, for all her flaws, Ohana’s mother is never truly an inhuman or unsympathetic person.

It’s that humanity and sympathy that makes the mean spirited aspects of Mari Okada’s character writing work for me. Okada can be incredibly judgemental toward her characters, but in that judgement there’s always some attempts at empathy. Ohana’s mother may be a mess, but she isn’t without her caring side or past issues of her own. In a lot of ways, Okada’s work here and in The Anthem of the Heart can be seen as her attempting to decipher the complicated relationship between mothers and their children, and why those relationships are often strained.

These thematic ideas sort of come to a climax in Maquia, Mari Okada’s directorial debut and a film which in some ways acts as the conclusion to my personal arc with Okada’s work. Maquia is probably one of my favorite films this year, if only for its brazenness and ambition. The film is crammed with ideas, to the point where it kind of struggles to fit them all in, but the ideas are so beautiful and the central ruminations on motherhood so poignant, that I couldn’t help but almost cry during the film’s final moments. Like I mentioned before, this film is, in a lot of ways, a culmination of Mari Okada’s ideas on motherhood. Just like the mothers in her previous works, Maquia is a flawed parental figure, but in this film the story ends with Ariel and Maquia definitively coming to terms with their strained relationship. Because although they have clashed with each other, they’ve ultimately both changed each other for the better. Maquia become more mature by raising Ariel, and Ariel become more mature by being raised by Maquia.

After reading Okada’s autobiography, I couldn’t help but see this film as Mari Okada finally coming to terms with her mother’s flaws. After using Ohana’s mother to attempt to understand her own mother’s desires, she’s finally able to understand them and why mother and child relationships exist. And that ability to inject her personal struggles into her art in order to explore them is something appreciate. Mari Okada has lived a tough life, and while her work occasionally suffers from clunky plotting and some mean spirited elements, the passion and personal drive behind her work is undeniable. She may not be the cleanest or most agreeable writer, but she’s always looking for ways to illuminate human struggles through a dramatic lense. Underneath her character’s flaws, you can see her attempt to understand and empathize with their struggles. And although she’s sometimes unsuccessful, I think it’s the effort that counts. Her work may be messy, but she is, in many respects, a master craftsmen with a great understanding of the fundamentals of what makes drama so compelling.

This post is part of my attempt at the 12 Days of Anime Challenge! If you want to read more from this challenge, click on this link.

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