…And the extremely effective.
Recently I’ve taken to watching video reviews from The Angry Video Game Nerd. I find his work hilarious… he has that college internet style of humour that online satirists like Maddox from The Best Page In The Universe have, except the “satire” itself has been replaced with extreme crassness delivered with highly colourful (and often creative) language. As a reviewer, he’s kinda going for easy targets by searching for the absolute worst in video game history (though I don’t think any of the titles he’s examined have received any less than they deserve), but as an entertainer, I think he’s great. He’s got legions of fans and he’s been imitated many times, but no one’s come close to reproducing the same responses or executed the over-the-top deconstructions of really bad video games as well. So there’s gotta be something that he does better than most. And I think a big part of that is due to his wide range of facial expressions.
James Rolfe, who plays The Nerd, isn’t what you’d consider a “great” actor, but his exaggerated expressions of shock, horror and agony do a wonderful job of communicating just how torturous the games The Nerd plays really are. There’s one expression that he has that I particularly like; it’s an extreme scowl, similar to the one below but with his brow more furrowed. He has his mouth tightly closed, turned down in an extreme fashion and his chin is all tensed up. The mix of frustration and rage just oozes from his face. These types of facial expressions, the important ones, always appear at the right time. Words aren’t needed. The face says it all.
Anime comedy is filled with examples where the characters’ reactions make for the punch line. Azumanga Daioh was the king of this, but one of my favourite examples comes from Girls Bravo Second Season. Now I’m totally speaking as an uptight critic with a rod up his ass that hates harem anime, but Girls Bravo, especially the second season, is a very funny anime, irregardless of what uptight critics with rods up their asses who hate harem anime say. This scene is so infamous that, even if you haven’t seen the anime, you’ve probably seen it in .gif form. The set-up is fairly straightforward, and anyone watching it knows what’s going to happen (but, considering how unlikable Fukuyama is, it’s probably welcome). It’s the extremely well timed and exaggerated facial expressions which make it work so well.
Just like The Nerd, Fukuyama’s expressions are cartoon-ish, which is why animation has an innate advantage in delivering warped, exaggerated, extreme expressions for comedy. Relatively speaking, it’s an easy thing to do, and there are less limits to just how extreme those facial expressions can be. But a funny face isn’t enough for a funny scene, and, as is the case with most comedy, good timing is essential. As is a minimum of exposition, something which plagues a lot of anime comedies (Baka-Raptor calls it masturbation). With such potentially funny expressions at their disposal, it’s a little disappointing that some anime makers feel that the reaction faces aren’t funny enough on their own, and that they need to be accompanied by an explanation. I guess it comes down to the “show, don’t tell” mentality which is far too often lacking in so many anime.
Live action has an immense advantage over anime when things call for more subtle facial expressions, which is often the case with drama. There are a huge number of actors who are extremely talented at portrayal heavy, meaningful emotions with very subtle facial expressions, but the example I want to use is Clint Eastwood, who has another advantage over other Hollywood actors. In more recent years, the films Eastwood has starred in have also been written and directed by him. And, in many of these films, the characters he’s played have been haggard, old and bitter, which, err… probably isn’t that much a stretch for him. That’s not to take anything away from these performances, since Eastwood brings a tangible amount of believability and complexity to his characters that are, already, extremely well written. But, with squinty eyes, clenched teeth and a distant look, he can display an array of complex emotions and thoughts. His worn features make him a natural for the characters he portrays. And, as with comedy, the timing of these expressions are just as important as the looks themselves (it helps that Eastwood is also such a master director).
Anime, for various reasons, takes a simple approach with the features it puts on character’s faces. This might, on average, mean it’s not quite as effective at using expressions for communicating the important facets (such as emotions and state-of-mind) of characters, but there are still a good number of examples of scenes where a well timed shot of someone’s reaction can say a great deal. In the third Kara no Kyoukai movie, Kokutou is listening to his old high-schoolmate describe a brutal rape he performed. His nervous voice is filled with fear of the prospect of retribution from his victim’s newly discovered powers. Kokutou’s response is damning. “You… Shut up,” he says curtly, and both his voice and vacant face show the disgust and disdain at his old friend’s actions. Here, the features on his face darken in shadow and almost disappear, while his square glasses flare brightly. A minimum of words and a well timed look make Kokutou’s opinion of the matter plainly clear, and strongly hint at a philosophy about rape and murder which underpins the entire film.
Another example of a quiet facial expression saying a lot with few spoken words is in one of the earlier episodes of The Daughter of Twenty Faces. Twenty Faces’ gang works with a submarine crew to raid a sunken treasure (although, as is revealed later, Twenty Faces has other motives), but they’re betrayed by the crew after they retrieve it. After a tussle and a battle of wits, Twenty Faces comes out clearly on top. The submarine captain, defeated, gives Twenty Faces a cliched line: “I hope to fight a country with men like you someday”. What isn’t cliched was Twenty Faces’s response: he says nothing. He instead returns a vacant look, one with a hint of both contempt and pity, the significance of which becomes clearer in later episodes when we realize that Twenty Faces is fairly weary of both war and fighting.
Anime is filled with both entertaining and meaningful facial expressions, the most powerful of which tend to be the ones which aren’t accompanied by unnecessary exposition. What other anime have done a particularly good job of rendering facial expressions? (If you’re going to give examples of moments, try to list ones where the expressions alone, rather than the dialogue, make the biggest statements.)