For Pocari’s Sake: The Key to Okada Mari

How do you solve a problem like Mari?

Pocari Sweat was one of three readers who made the biggest contribution to LiA, and had a request – a post on the topic of one of anime’s most powerful and controversial writers, Okada Mari.  Not an easy commission, mind you – but I did volunteer, so I thought I’d take a crack at it.
The tricky part is, I’ve already written so much about Okada-sensei that it’s really hard to find anything new to say.  I’ve covered most of the shows she’s written since I began blogging, at least at their start.  She’s had several land on my various year-end top-ten lists, and several that I ended up really loathing.  I think for my part the best way I’ve ever been able to sum up Okada is to describe her as a highly-skilled surgeon who’d rather use a chainsaw than a scalpel.  When she’s paired with a strong director – the one who says, “I don’t think you want to use that Black & Decker there, Okada-san” – she’s tended to produce her best work.  When she’s not, her self-indulgence tends to spiral out of control and things can quickly get pretty ridiculous.
While Okada’s adaptation work is interesting, I think it’s probably simpler to look at her original series for purposes of this discussion.  Currently, of course, she has Nagi no Asukara airing – a series that I think ranks as one of her better, for reasons I’ve described in the episode posts.  The setting is a good fit for her sensibility, and while there are emotionally manipulative moments they generally don’t overwhelm the narrative.  Even at her best (I would argue that to be True Tears -which is for all intents and purposes an original series – and AnoHana) Okada is emotionally manipulative, but she has a way with characters and can depict honest emotional far better than most of her contemporaries.  Maddeningly she can also devolve into saccharine melodrama, and she also seems to have a penchant for self-indulgent ecchi and gender politics that her talents – for me at least – seem poorly suited to.
But then, if you’ve read the posts I’ve written about Okada series over the past few years, you know that’s how I feel.  What struck me when writing this is that Okada is really like two writers in one.  And that made me think of Key, whose best-known works over the years have primarily been the product of two founding writers – Maeda Jun and Hisaya Naoki.  Naoki was largely responsible for Kanon and left Key afters its completion (going on to write the criminally underappreciated  Sola) and Maeda, of course, was the prime voice behind Clannad, Air and Little Busters!, as well as what I consider some rather less successful attempts at branching out from the Key formula.
Your mileage will vary on this, of course, but for me I always preferred Hisaya’s writing to Maeda’s – which is why I always considered Kanon the pinnacle of Key’s catalog.  To oversimplify, I think Hisaya writes subtler and more nuanced material, while Maeda tends to rely too heavily on push-button drama and signature “cry now” moments.  Many of the problems I have with Okada Mari are almost identical to the ones I have with Clannad – a show which I like, but consider very emotionally manipulative.  But then you have True Tears and AnoHana, shows with extraordinarily nuanced and well-developed character dynamics – which is how I feel about Kanon.  In a sense, then, for me Okada is like Hisaya Naoki and Maeda Jun rolled into one.
It would be too simple to cut Okada’s work down the middle in Solomonic fashion into “Good Okada” and “Bad Okada”, just as it would to split Key’s works that way – I love Maeda’s Little Busters!, for example, which has a real power that’s drawn from the simplicity of its thematic focus on friendship, the loss of childhood innocence and the urge to protect those we love.  But for me at least Okada, to a remarkable degree, displays both that which I like and dislike about the works of Key.  I would never dismiss Maeda’s talent, but apart from LitBus I find him emotionally manipulative too much of the time, just as I do with Okada.  And in Hisaya’s work I see the same willingness to do the compositional heavy-lifting required to earn the emotional payoffs that I do in Okada’s best shows.
For all Okada’s inconsistency, she has a rare talent for plugging into archetypal emotions – and that’s what makes her such a frustrating writer.  I think her work in the framework of existing canon – Rurouni Kenshin, Aquarion, Lupin III – has uniformly expressed her egotistical tendency to subvert the material to her own sensibilities.  Her pure adaptation work is a mixed bag, with some extremely strong efforts – Hourou Musuko and Zetsuen no Tempest, though so different, both received superb treatments – as well as less successful entries like Sakurasou (which ultimately suffers terribly from the aforementioned inconsistency).  
It’s her original series for which Okada will ultimately be judged, and again, it’s a maddeningly erratic bunch – and none of her originals exemplifies her tendency to be all over the map like Hanasaku Iroha.  At its best this is a heartbreakingly on-point study of growing up and the divide between generations, but it’s also guilty of detours into incredibly inane dead-end subplots and one of the most misandrist series of the last few years.  There are better Okada series and there are worse, but perhaps none that’s more representative of Okada as a whole than HanaIro.  You just never know what you’re going to get – it can anywhere from moving and brilliant to infuriatingly stupid to depressingly mediocre.  And it’s that unpredictability along with her talent that makes Okada one of the most interesting and frustrating writers in anime.

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15 comments

  1. M

    I wasn't even aware of this Okada Mari person until people started bitching about her. Instinctively don't gravitate to the kinds of material she writes. Couldn't care less about NagiAsu, AnoHana, Hanaro whatsit, and the largely disappointing ZnTempest (not that I blame her for that mess). I got on board with the criminally overlooked Simoun back in 2006, but more so for its unique setting and ambition to tackle bold ideas/themes. If I went back and rewatched it I'd probably pick up on some Okada-isms but doubt that would sully my impression of the work as a whole.
    Equally, I never had a problem with the subversion presented in Lupin III: Mine Fujiko, which seemed more like a joint movement by both writer and director that reinvigorated the franchise tremendously.

    Similar to Gen Urobuchi, I wouldn't be in disarray if her talent suddenly disappeared off the face of the earth. I've never found either of them exceptional, only somewhat intriguing.

  2. l

    Lupin III: Mine Fujiko was awesome. One of the best from last year. Anyone that disagrees is a trad conservative Rush Limbaugh faced dickwad!!

    Like you, I can't be bothered with her other work. Just not my thing. She needs to ditch this moe-angst-teenager-fishknee nonsense and write proper wholesome family-friendly stories involving sex, drugs and jazz.

    Maybe we should let her write a Hamtaro remake. Now that would be trippy!!

  3. E

    Both Okada and Urobuchi, despite their very very large shortcomings (puppet-strung "feels"-oriented writing for the first, and heavy-handed tragedy coupled with overly repeated ideological struggle themes for the second), are very good at what they do: writing.

    Both feel like writing a story isn't the simple task of getting from Point A to Point B, both agree that there's a bit of complexity required for the task and that you need to put a little bit of yourself and a little bit of what's around you in your work for it to feel authentic to the audience. Which is why people hold them in high regard when it comes to writing: because no one who's experienced their work can say they're not shining examples of the trade.

    They're not, like some people tend to call them, "geniuses" of writing; we'd have to be honest and say that both are very, very, VERY far from it. However, I would indeed be disappointed if they suddenly decided to stop writing, because we sure don't need less good writers around in anime – right now we sure need more, actually.

  4. A

    Sometimes I just think you're tsundere for Okada.

    I don't think I've ever knowingly seen anything she's done that I've disliked.

  5. I don't even know what that means in this context, to be honest. But if you like everything she does, great for you. I just take 'em one show at a time.

  6. S

    Interesting write-up about one of the most prominent writers in anime these days. I have a love-hate relationship with her works: Overall I like Toradora, Anohana and HanaIro, yet I dislike Sakurasou and Nagi no Asukara. Why one show appeals to me and others not, I think it depends on how well-relatable or interesting the emotional/social/love problems of the characters are. In some cases the emotional manipulation works, in others not.

    (Maddeningly she can also devolve into saccharine melodrama, and she also seems to have a penchant for self-indulgent ecchi and gender politics that her talents – for me at least – seem poorly suited to.)

    I understand the forced drama elements, but what do you mean or refer to with “self-indulgent ecchi and gender politics” in her works?

  7. y

    Okada likes crass ecchi humor, such as the Jiromaru stuff in Hanasaku Iroha or the "Anaru" jokes in Anohana. It's a recurring element in her work – indeed, her initial plan for AnoHana was a coming of age story that centered on awakened sexual tension among close friends who grew up together. Probably a lot of erection and breast jokes, although I do wonder about the Westermarck effect.

    Okada also likes pee and fart jokes. We had Poppo's piss arc in AnoHana (this was fine) and the fish curse in Nagi no Asukara (this was totally stupid and worked in as part of a contrived melodramatic development). It's a part of her personality. In an interview, she admitted to finding amusement in deconstructing female idols like AKB48 – basically, the fake image of beautiful perfection vs the reality that they have unflattering bodily functions like anyone else. Maybe she'll expand on this theme in a bishoujo/moe heroine one day (and I suspect the fish joke was a starter) – or maybe not! A producer might quash the idea!

    As for gender politics – well, a big deal has been made over female empowerment coupled with negative portrayal of males. Basically, her male characters are often douchebags, super betas, goofy crossdressers, or losers who're too incompetent to succeed at anything. There's a sense of male disarmament, and there may be some truth to this. In interviews, Okada admits that she isn't good with cool and handsome "3D men". However, once the costumes go on (she's referring to a musical here), they become 2.5D, and she has lots of fun.

  8. A

    My running joke is that Okada blatantly ripped off Little Busters's initial setting in Anohana, what with the Super Peace Busters childhood friend group, the russian-japanese loli with light colored hair, and the snarky chick that seems to have a thing for emasculation and crossdressing. Well, actually Little Busters has at least two that's into that thing and there's that episode of LB where I was surprised to know that Okada was on the other side of JC staff. =p It's certainly said that Okada was quite capable of almost out-Keying Key as I prefer Anohana over most of her other stuff.

    But if you want what I really, believe, I feel that there is some sense that Maeda just isn't that great on his own– LB was written by several writers and honestly I feel the same way about Okada who also needed help in keeping her worse tendencies in line. I mean Anohana was going to be a bad perv comedy. Without a strong leader to hold Maeda or Okada back, you get nonsense like the overall plot of Angel Beats! or Hanairo episode 3. (Sorry, PA, you're just really easy to bash)

    I don't really find anything particularly wrong with emotional manipulation since stories are contrived to make the viewer feel something, though certainly if there were more sincerity in their efforts, it would be better. If we look at Kanon, Maeda wrote my favorite part (Mai) which was pretty heavy but actually felt less contrived than say the arc for Makoto which he did as well. And certainly Hisaya's work for Shiori will outclass most stuff Key, just becuase it doesn't rely on supernatural crap. On the other hand, the main story of Kanon I was just left out, and I'm pretty sure I would never watch that ending drunk. Key generally falls really flat and romance. I think the romance in After Story (NOT CLANNAD– oh god that harem bullshit was awful) was wonderfully done even if it suffered from prude sensibility. The best romantic elements seemed to fall into Maeda's court though with Tomoyo though, the rest seemed to be more like a friendship thing even if we count the animu adaptation necessity. I'm sorry, I don't take Ayu seriously as a romantic intrest, lol.

    And you also have to consider that a lot of the quirks of Key animu also have a strong Kyoani touch to it, as they've altered a lot of elements, some for the better, but I do think they did fuck up on After Story to some degree from just mechanically adapting the loose arcs to insisting on using Torch as an ED every episode. In reading the mood, I would say JC Staff eventually came way ahead on Kyoani, honestly.

    But back to Okada, I don't think she tries to force a lot of emotional reactions. She might actually believe the crap she says and thinks the sledgehammer is the correct way at times.Okada's advantage over any of aforementioned is that her scripts have a much stronger logical cohesion, sort of like writing code. So you never have that "holy fuck there was no foreshadowing what so ever", though you may find her methods cheap. And that's also an edge for Little Busters as they did actively add elements to help you not feel that this is out of place. And LB might just have the first ending that did not require cp[ious amounts of mind altering substances to finish.

    But that brings me back to my last joke. Thus, far Okada and the Key folk have yet to bring me an ending that was truly satisfying. I'll be waiting though.

  9. p

    As the person who requested this commission, apologies for my late reply. Been busy as hell at the workplace trying to finalize everything before the Christmas/New Years break. Firstly, I would like to greatly thank Guardian Enzo for taking it up. I assure you it wasn't a troll despite allegation amongst some acquaintances of mine because she is a very interesting topic to write on. Perhaps you should followup by doing that "3 hour podcast" on RandomC sometime that you have hinted on a few occassions Enzo ;).

    Mari Okada. So where to start…

    I'll start by saying that, more or less I agree with Enzo on the point that she has a tendency to be incredibly good at what she does, or spectacularly fail due to self-indulgence and overboard. In other words, very inconsistent and the standard deviation between her best works and her worst is the distance between the floor and the sky.

    At the very least, she is as far as boring you can get. As the most prolific anime writer in the industry in the current generation alongside Gen Urobuchi (though Gen has been involved with far less series and is generally more consistent, but not necessarily better), it's almost impossible to not talk about. Much like it is impossible to not talk about how say Kyoto Animation shaped and popularized (but not necessarily invent) moe or at least a certain brand of moe in contemporary anime, it is impossible to not talk about Mari Okada when talking about contemporary character drama/coming of age series.

    On one hand she is capable of character drama extremely well, both of the subdued and of the more heightened theatrical type. I would argue that on TV side of things (movies excluded, since that's a completely different ballpark and I have higher and stricter critical mind when it comes to those) she is capable of doing it better than anyone else in the anime industry at the moment. Unfortunately, potential and actuality more often than not do not converge. For every moment of brilliance, there is a moment of disgust and frustration. For every True Tears and Wandering Son, there is a Black Rock Shooter and Black Butler 2. Or there is Hanasaku Iroha which no other series of hers highlights this delta.

    The thing I could never find out though is whether this she willfully and intentionally turns out this inconsistent or if its forced upon her. I recall several interviews, the most notable recent one being the one at this year's Anime Expo where when she was asked "what is the hardest thing about writing for anime", she replied with "having to put in more melodrama than I originally planned". There's other notable answers like she saying that she isn't "good with men in real life", except when they are in costumes and that she seems them as "2D.5". Or when she had to change the writing of the entirety of the latter episodes of True Tears because of how it progressed, despite having personally "shipped" the pairing that eventually lost.

    In other words, I can never figure out if she actually likes writing sappy melodrama, or is forced to due to her superiors. Because at times I can see the brilliant almost Shinkai/Watanabe like mono no aware dialogue, particularly when it comes to scenes between a parent and child, but at other times I see the crass and forceful theatrics and waterworks as if it was some cheapo B-grade Korean soap opera. In fact, if Okada channeled her theatrical half and was a screen/scriptwriter for the Japanese or Korean TV industry she would be such a perfect fit (in commercial terms) that it's not even funny.

  10. p

    As for her lowbrow comedy… particularly when it comes to her sexual or emasculation type, at the very least she is far from the only one who does this. But it is incredibly disappointing nonetheless to see a writer who is capable of being truly great, for whatever reason reach down to the lowest common denominator whether it be for her personal indulgence, her popularity status or the fact she is forced from her superiors. Similar to the dilemma I have with light novel writers at the moment… are they are actually that terrible of writers, or are they forced by their publishers because it's the only style that is commercially viable.

  11. y

    Regarding light novel writers, the problem is skill and breadth of experience. While the format once commanded some modicum of respect, it's now dominated by hardcore fans of older works. Basically, the authors live and breathe eroge/otaku light novels and have little else to offer (they don't read much of anything else, nor are the majority of them trained writers) except to copy what they love. Think what would happen if Seven Seas rounded up unskilled Haruhi/Clannad/Bakemonogatari fanfic writers and hired them for OEL light novels.

    It's a special circumstance in which people who'd never get published anywhere else can get rich. Publishers happily oblige because it's cheap, it makes money, and it's a natural fit for pandering (fanboys pandering to fellow fanboys).

    KyoAni's imprint might be even worse off since they publish authors who couldn't win contracts with Dengeki, Media Factory, Kadokawa, etc.

  12. I think that "forced to by my superiors" thing is a big cop-out. How come every writer in anime isn't forced by their superiors to do the same shit Okada does in her weaker moments? She's just trying to insulate herself from criticism.

  13. p

    To be honest, in hindsight I don't think Okada is as bad we initially seem to think. Her weaker moments are in no ways worse (I would argue not as bad) than say a typical light novel writer with their "light novel hijinks" in the next generic Harem romcom 101. It's just that when we compare okada high moments with her low ones, we are in shock because they seem like two different writers completely. Not to mention your average harem romcom series have almost nothing salvegale, at least with okada she has her moments even in the worst of her shows.

    But you are right. "Forced by superiors" is not really an excuse. There are people like Watanabe for example who gives zero fucks about the state of the current anime industry atm.

  14. y

    I suspect that she's presenting audience expectation to be the force.

  15. L

    I don't find Maeda to be manipulative at all, I think he can give enough back story to characters that you care about them. You could have the same stories set with different characters, but if you don't like character you won't feel for them. Not only that, but the actual content of the story is what matters too. You can't just have a sad story with likable characters the idea behind the story has to work too. This is coming as a game player who has played the games and not just have seen an adaption. In ONE to the shining season I even loved Maeda's writing there too ( I even loved Naoki's work as well). The stories were even more simple. Though different strokes for different folks I suppose.

    I also found Sola to be heavily influenced by AIR and the overall story was bogged down by a boring male lead. The story theme was good but the overall story plot was something to be desired of. I did love the imagery and the idea of the umbrella.

    As for Mari Okada, I have yet to fully care or invest myself emotional at all really into her characters. She writes them in such a one sided way making them unlikable and I simply shrug off the feelings for most of the characters. Even some of the circumstances and plot situations of some characters I find are lacking that give them the depth they need. This is not to say that her work is not enjoyable.

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