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.