Anime isn’t exactly a medium renowned for great dialogue. There are probably several reasons for this, most of them stemming from the fact that creative dialogue isn’t really seen as a requirement in most series for conveying story. Most series tend to take a very straightforward approach to explaining plot points, a consequence of the fact that, in most instances, the only objective is clarifying the important points, so being elaborate can come off as unnecessarily extravagant. The other place where one might expect great dialogue is in dramatic moments, but drama in anime tends less towards the theatrical and more towards the sentimental, so again there’s not a huge amount of time for dialogue that is bold or distinctive. There’s also a small matter of context. It takes a lot of care to set up an intricate and elaborate character like Senjougahara, who can believably spout out lines like “I mean, the only kind of girl who would talk to an unappealing virgin like you are late-bloomer crazy virgins like me!” It doesn’t take nearly as much effort to set up a once-and-done character that ends every line with “desu”. (This post contains mild spoilers for the tagged anime.)
It’s slightly harder to judge dialogue as a non-speaker of the language, but I wouldn’t say it’s impossible. Memorable lines transcend language, and you only need to ask fans of Tengen Toppa Gurren-Lagann to find people who’ll vouch for that. The question then becomes, what are the criteria for dialogue, given the fact that what we “hear” is inevitably filtered by a translator. One of the obvious markers is how natural the dialogue sounds. Dialogue in live action is almost always less artificial sounding than dialogue in anime. I’m not sure how this has evolved, but I guess the fact that premises in anime tend to be a little more far-fetched would be part of this. The concepts that are communicated in dialogue are another important component in deciding the “worth” of a scripted line. When dialogue manages to communicate meaningful and/or insightful and complex ideas in a way that’s succinct and intelligible, then that’s something that’s worthy of recognition. And, just like an anime as a whole, if there’s a line that’s memorable and that sticks out among all others, then there’s gotta be something good about it.
Bakemonogatari does all these things very well, but what makes it (relatively) unique is that the speech is very elaborate and comes from characters that are rather unusual… in a fun way. I’m not just talking about Senjougahara, but there’s no denying that she’s stealing the show so far, in much the same way that Suzumiya Haruhi had almost complete ownership of the first season of her show. Senjougahara is an enigma, and her emotions and desires are interwoven in levels within her language, particularly towards Araragi. It gives anime viewers who like an active viewing experience a lot to chew on. She’s almost a bunch of simultaneous contradictions that manage to hold themselves together somehow (like a lot of tsundere-kos in hindsight). She’s very straightforward and highly sexual, something which makes Araragi a tad confused and something she uses to drag him along a little, but she’s not terribly open about her own emotions, preferring to talk about sentimentalities with a certain curtness (ie, when talking about her mother and her “weight”) or an amount of ambiguity (ie, when teasing Araragi). Araragi himself is also an interesting character. He takes the role of a slightly toned down version of the sarcastic narrator popularized by Kyon, and has a similar sense of self-awareness, but he’s almost like an “evil” version of Natsume from Natsume Yuujinchou, in that he’s reluctantly helpful to these people (always girls so far, notice) afflicted by supernatural adversities, but isn’t above laying smackdown on little girls in a comedic context, as he’s done twice now to Mayoi. Bakemonogatari has dialogue with impact that is rare for anime, but it’s not the only series I’ve encountered which has used words to great effect.
Full Metal Panic! The Second Raid
There are a number of genuinely tense confrontations that come in the second half of FMP!TSR when the drama is ramped up. The phone call between Sagara and Wraith in episode 7 openly shows many of Sagara’s fears and insecurities, while his discussion with Tessa in the next episode turned into an amazing heartfelt outpouring of emotion from the captain. As far as memorable lines are concerned, Chidori remembering Sagara’s “only a third rate person would lick his lips in front of his prey” during the scene where she was hunted by Yu Lan, one of the best scenes of the series (and a lesson to other anime on how to do suspense), is certainly up there. But one of my favourite confrontations is Sagara’s “heart-to-heart” with Arbalest’s AI, and how Sagara’s illogical attempt to reconcile duty and emotions lead him to such a vulnerable mental state that, ironically, Al saw fit to give Sagara advice. Through their exercise of figuring out definitions for words, they were really exploring Sagara’s state of mind, and his compromised ability to do his job.
Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo
Gankutsuou is filled with epic lines, most of them coming from the Count. His speech patterns are a component of his imposing presence, and he does everything with an air of grace and dignity, despite the fact that all his actions are part of an elaborate scheme. Quite frequently, his lines are used to explore one of the prominent themes of the story, the idea of fate and its role in his quest for revenge, as can be seen as early as episode 5 when he tells Albert: “I need you. The day we met on Luna… You may feel that was a coincidence, but there is no such thing as ‘coincidence’ with fate. Just as the setting of the sun is determined by universal laws, fate also consists of immutable inevitabilities.” Despite not believing it exists in real life, I’ve always found the concept of fate to be fascinating in fiction. But one of the most epic lines was in the flashback when Edmond Dantes first met “Gankutsuou”, who said in French: “My friend, my friend! My friend… Hope… Grief… Ardent desire… Resignation… Anger… Terror… Despair… And once again, hope… I… have waited several thousand years within this borrowed body for a human like you to arrive… I am… with you… And you are with me… I will give you my wisdom and power… and you will offer me that heart and body…!” The brilliant delivery of the line and the dramatic context of that scene make it unforgettable.
Kaiji gets surprisingly philosophical at times. It manages to strike an interesting balance between these incredibly suspenseful yet rather contrived life-and-death situations and an existential exploration of life inside of and departing from equilibrium. Episode 14 is just packed with this, starting with Tonegawa’s monologue on the shortness of life, and how people become complacent and waste it, and finishing up with the narrator creating an analogy between the isolation of Kaiji and Sahara’s place on the beam and the isolation of everyone on earth as they drift separately through life. The strength of Kaiji‘s script isn’t so much in the elegance of the lines of dialogue like Gankutsuou, for example, but more in the ideas it transmits. One of my favourite moments comes with Kaiji’s realization in the final episode, regarding the futility of prayer. It’s a somewhat unexpected conclusion, given that fiction tends to ramble about the power of prayer, but it’s also one which appeals to my natural attitude on such things. I see Kaiji, both the anime and the character, as smarter than the normal story for that reason.
So, what other anime do you think have good dialogue? Is dialogue even something that can be gauged by non-speakers of the language? Your thoughts.
Update, 29 Jul 2009:
The discussion continues at anitations:
1. sorrow-kun, Bakemonogatari and Other Anime With Great Dialogue (specifically, owen’s comments on translation)
2. lelangir, anitating owen about sorrow-kun’s Bakemonogatari and Other Anime With Great Dialogue