The Magic of Silence

No, Nagato didn't get raped here.

The NHRV staff has put a lot of effort in churning out articles on our blog at the start of this year, Sorrow-kun’s “Violence > Action” being the first in the blog surge. I’ve read all of them and appreciate all the insightful ideas and opinions of the article writers and the people who made response comments. I want to highlight one of Sorrow-kun’s blog articles entitled “How to Disappear Completely“, where he discussed aspects of the movie that makes it such a remarkable work by Kyoto Animation, including its masterful use of reflections and high production values. I don’t disagree with any of his points, since they’re all spot-on.

However, when I reflected on the movie, I wanted to know what makes the movie truly memorable to me. What is it about the movie that spurred me to give it a very high grade and even vote it as the Best of 2010? Is it the use of reflections? Is it the drastic change in Kyon’s role this time round? After thinking for a long time, I’ve come to the conclusion that the relationship between Kyon and Yuki in the movie – the scenes featuring them together, to be more specific – is what makes the movie exceptional. I experienced a lot of tension whenever the two interact with each other and, in case any of you may not have realized, that tension is amplified by the use of silence. When I say silence, I mean that there’s complete absence of any background music, and the only sounds you hear are the exchange of words by the characters and perhaps complementary sound effects (e.g. heavy breathing, raindrops falling, etc).

The use of silence, if effectively utilized, can result in memorable scenes that even define the show. But the buildup of tension through the use of silence comes in various forms for different anime shows. I’ll be highlighting four shows that exemplify the wonderous uses of silence, and I’ll explain why silence really (and ironically) speaks volumes when applied appropriately.

DISCLAIMER: Like my previous article, I need to explain specific scenes in the tagged anime so spoiler-rific content is inevitable.

NANA

If I were Nobu in this scene, I'd feel like I committed a sin.

NANA is perhaps one of the most popular shoujo dramas in recent anime. I didn’t read the manga, but I did watch the live-action movies and enjoyed every single episode of its anime. NANA may be one sappy melodrama, but the anime really knows how to be poignant with the drama and deliver heart-wrenching moments. You will particularly know what I’m saying here if you have watched episode 32. Remember the bed scene featuring the confused Nobu and mortified Nana pouring their hearts out? If you do remember that scene, do you also remember the silence in that scene? I certainly do, and it’s one of the clear examples on how silence makes that scene work.

An appropriate background music could have complemented the bed scene, and music shouldn’t be a problem for a show that already has an amazing soundtrack. But I think the scene is perfect because there isn’t any. By stripping away background music, you will only pay attention to the words exchanged by the pair, and when you pay close attention to them, you will understand and empathize with their raw emotions. There isn’t any music getting in the way while I watched and listened to the baffled Nobu raising his voice as he seeks answers, and the mortified Nana apologizing as she realizes how she feels like a whore when her pregnancy secret leaked out.

That bed scene is one of the several moments of truth in NANA, and in my honest opinion, any background music would’ve diluted the poignancy and tension. It’s a fitting example of how silence serves as a catalyst to creating dramatic tension and thus renders that scene unforgettable. There are many other memorable scenes in the series, but that one takes the cake.

Highschool of the Dead

Any straight man would get a boner in such a situation.

I pulled no punches when I slammed Highschool of the Dead in my previous article “Has Madhouse Lost Its Edge?“, where I mentioned that the show became “too stupid for its own good”. The action sequences are cheesy, the poetry in motion of the oversized boobs is shameless, and HOTD’s portrayal of the female characters is even misogynistic. Although I did say that the show got way too disastrous, that doesn’t mean that I didn’t get anything out of it. I did enjoy watching the first half of the series, and one of the best scenes came in episode 6.

Picture this: two hot-blooded adolescents are all alone in a house and everyone else is asleep. These two kids have had quite a rough time in their relationship, and one of them is a drunken hot chick who wears nothing but a pink singlet and a pair of panties. Sounds like a scene straight out of a pr0n movie, but what seriously makes this scene work is not just the premises, but also the lack of music. The only things you hear are their conversation, and Rei’s horny heavy breathing.

Any unsuitable background music would’ve killed the sexual tension that thickens between the two. And of course, any inappropriate music would kill any sexual tension and render the male viewers “flaccid”. By not having any background music, you get the full experience of their carnal lust and, if it weren’t for the goddamn ending credits and a barking mutt, we would’ve seen them go all the way. In a show full of fanservice and gore, this is a scene that shows how no music works in favor of building sexual tension.

Full Metal Panic! The Second Raid

When is the last time you had a good chat with your barber?

Many people enjoyed watching the Full Metal Panic! trilogy, including myself. What makes the trilogy a little different from others is that each instalment in FMP is different from one another. The first season is your standard but entertaining war action series, the second is a slapstick comedy spin-off, and the third is, as Sorrow-kun said in his review, a “war drama”. Although the first instalment is fun to watch and the second is side-splitting, I consider FMP: TSR the best among the three because of its stark contrast in tone and character portrayal compared to the two prequels. Some never-before-seen sides of the main characters’ personalities are shown, the ambiance is heavy and the tone is occasionally subdued. To explain the last point, I want you to recall the haircut scene in episode 6 of FMP! TSR.

Chidori and Sousuke have been through a lot in their relationship throughout the course of the FMP storyline, but that haircut scene is the first time that they have a casual talk alone without any inteference. The “silent” conversation is exceptional because the two are commonly known to be a rambunctious pair who rarely speak to each other in a normal tone, and in it Chidori’s words come straight from her heart. The role silence plays in this scene is “contrast”; sequels are popularly known for being frivolous for most of the time, but FMP! TSR shall be known for quite the opposite. Personally, I don’t think that this is the best moment in the series but I would considered it as a pivotal one that’s well-executed.

The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya

Would any righteous man walk out the door after seeing this?

Probably the most prominent example in my article, TDoHS uses silence copiously throughout the movie. In particular, any conversation between Yuki and Kyon has a mute tone, and that’s actually what makes them memorable. Like I’ve mentioned before, silence is incorporated in this case so that viewers would pay full attention to every word exchanged by them in unadulterated fashion. But in TDoHS’ case, silence is not simply used in defining the overall tone, but in a way it’s also used in defining Yuki’s new character.

The prime examples of scenes where silence is key include Yuki having trouble in wanting to say the right words to Kyon. For instance, the scene where Yuki wanted to prevent Kyon from leaving her home smacks of so much intimacy between her and Kyon. At that moment, Kyon feels obliged to stay, and I fully understand why. Throughout the movie, Kyon is fixated at Yuki in an understated way because her character is completely different from the one Kyon normally perceives. For the first time, Kyon is able to emotionally connect with Yuki, and their conversations are coupled with silence to define the right atmosphere.

Silence is a powerful tool that directors can use to enhance a scene in anime. It serves as a way to amplify the raw emotional tone of a scene, be it in dramatic, sexual, contrasting or atmospheric context. But this doesn’t mean that silence is a universal tool. Improper use of silence may result in underwhelming scenes as a result of a “dead air” atmosphere (personally, I feel that this is a common problem for anime comedies). This is where a suitable background music would come into picture, but that’s another story. Apparently, the adage “Silence is golden” applies to anime as well and it can say more than a thousand words.

7 Responses to “The Magic of Silence”

  1. For me, the most powerful moment of silence in Disappearance is the moment where this silence becomes incredibly obvious and consequently gains strength and purity. The ending credits. They’re amazingly so.

  2. I am reminded of that phone call shared by Shiki and Mikiya in Kara no Kyoukai 7. The tension in that scene was only enhanced by the silence, and you really got the sense that it was a personal battle for the both of them, with Shiki’s very humanity on the line.

  3. On the topic of Kara no Kyoukai, the scene where Shiki eats the Häagen-Dazs ice-cream in the first movie is another good example of tension and emotion being created with silence. However, I don’t quite agree with AC’s definition of what constitutes silence. Knowing full well that there’s no such thing as perfect silence (except in a vacuum), I think what you’re talking about here is better described as “absence of music” than silence, which to me involves no music, no dialogue and very, very sparse background noise. It’s still an important directorial technique though. Less is more, etc, etc.

  4. @Numbers and Space

    I think that several years down the road, people would remember TDoHS mainly because of Nagato and how different the ambiance is when compared to TMoHS, which is more lively and rambunctious. It’s a bold approach that paid off in spades.

    @Cokesakto

    Although it’s not without background music completely (there was some towards the end), I’d take it as a valid example. However, I didn’t remember the scene because of the use of silence; I remember it mostly for the 7th movie’s melodrama. It’s a great movie I kid you not, but a tad sappy, and that’s what made me not quote it as an example in my article. Plus, Kokutos’ preachiness got under my skin.

    @Sorrow-kun

    Ooh ooh, is it the part where she ate the strawberry ice-cream from in-between her thighs? Yeah :V

    Well, I can see where your definition of “silence” comes from. The “absence of music” describes the aspect more accurately, but I personally feel that “silence” isn’t completely wrong to be used here. I may be very liberal with its use, but I want to describe how the scenes I quoted above are not the usual scenes you get in your average anime-viewing. When I wrote the article, I pictured these scenes from the characters’ point-of-view, and try to detach myself as a viewer.

    Come to think of it, can you imagine what would it be like if some of the most memorable scenes are devoid of their respective background music? Or, imagine how those scenes are like in the eyes of the characters and not ourselves as the viewer. Strange.

    Dammit, I felt like I missed out something exemplary for my article: Rurouni Kenshin – Tsuiokuhen. This show has a number of scenes I should’ve used~

  5. I agree that silence is a great tool to give something that extra punch- but only when there’s contrast. I think people in general are way too obsessed with filling every minute of every day with some sort of noise or distraction. It’s pretty telling how strange it feels when a room suddenly gets dead silent for seemingly no reason. It feels wrong somehow because with all the crap we’re subjected to every day that requires 100% of all our attention all the time, we grow unfamiliar with quietude. This feeling of unease was used really well in Disappearance, but only because the opening scenes in the “normal” world provided such a contrast. My jazz nerdiness may be showing, but they say the sign of a truly great jazz improviser is when they know when to stop playing. That is to say, less experienced jazzers try to fill every beat of every solo with sound that it becomes difficult to tell a true narrative. When musicians and anime directors alike know when less is more, I think a lot of great things can be achieved.

    Enjoyed the article.

  6. @Aftershok

    While I agree that contrast would make the use of silence (or more appropriately, silent background) more effective, I don’t think that this is necessary. Sometimes, a whole series/movie can have a subdued ambiance intentionally and therefore, the use of silence is spread throughout it.

    TDoHS can be used to describe both the “contrast” and “atmospheric” aspect of silence. “Contrast” can be seen if you put TDoHS and TMoHS together on the same platter and observed, so for those who watched TDoHS but not TMoHS (which wouldn’t make sense to me IMHO), they’ll lose out in appreciating the difference in directing approach. “Atmospheric” is of course in the context of the movie’s calm yet unsettling tone in the altered world.

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