One of the reasons I enjoyed Jinrui wa Suitaishimashita (Jintai for short) so much this past season was because it’s a very consistent show across the board. When your story takes place in the form of short, two-episode arcs for the most part, one of your primary concerns as director is to link together the standalone arcs into a cohesive story (or at least, a cohesive product, since it’s debatable that Jintai doesn’t need some sort of unified narrative). In that sense, Jintai is every bit as lacking in depth–or, for lack of a better word, flat–as the content that it portrays in its sometimes unbelievably sharp assessment of modern day culture.
While I’m hesitant to use the word flat to describe the narrative and artistic style that belongs to the show, there’s a sense in which it is: from the watercolor backgrounds to the lighting techniques to the way the story is structured, each one of these areas employs techniques that are designed to add an illusion of depth in non-3D mediums. As I’m sure there have been other blogs who have covered in detail Jintai‘s narrative criticism, I’ll stay away from looking too much at the story. Instead, let’s take a brief look at how the show chooses to express itself visually, and how its art plays such a huge impact on its biting criticism.
First, we start with the background art.
Scenic and beautiful, the background illustrations for Jintai are done purposely to produce a visual feel similar to those works of art done using pigments suspended in water (watercolor, gouache, etc.). I won’t get into the technical differences between artistic mediums here, but my point in bringing up watercolors and gouache is that they don’t lend themselves to the same malleability as, say oil paintings when creating highly realistic works that attempt to capture the world as we see it. In other words, pigments dissolved in water-based solutions are not a strong choice for artists wanting to produce true depth simply due to the physical properties of the materials. Take a look at the background scenes and you’ll notice that much of the spots that seem to jump out to the eye are actually dark spots, patches, or swaths that represent darker areas or shading. This is one of the key differences between watercolor/gouache and charcoal, acrylics or oil paints: darker spots are drawn last and sit on top of lighter pigments. Oil paintings, for example, will often have the lightest parts (using white paint) drawn right on top of the painting with light brushstrokes to produce an effect of light.
Yet while depth with watercolors and gouache can often be produced by adding extra layers on top of lighter ones for darker areas, the artists for Jintai take this technique one step further by applying the equivalent of dry blots of color to create a feeling of texture. Look at the screenshot above and you’ll see what I mean. A shot of what is presumably a stone wall, and you can notice how the bumpiness of the stone and overgrowth is emphasized by the splotches of strong, dark color on a relatively lighter and blurrier background. At the same time, if you look long enough it’s not immediately obvious if the dark spots are jumping out to the viewer or if they’re actually the dark cracks in the stone where the light doesn’t reach. Here, the technique of shading darker areas last to produce depth also creates an unusual visual effect where the viewer isn’t sure if the darker spots on top or on bottom, essentially flattening the image.
Strong colors tend to do this. I discussed color choice in a previous article two years ago, in which I offered an example from SHAFT’s Bakemonogatari, where the image paradoxically creates both depth and flatness. There are other examples of this in contemporary art, but my main point is that Jintai liberally uses a combination of interesting approaches to color to create a vibrant yet blurry world.
The scenery isn’t the only thing in Jintai that plays around with depth, and this is immediately obviously by looking at the lighting techniques. Jintai plays out far more like a play than a movie, one that frequently employs use of asides to drive home the point of a scene (often delivered through Watashi’s punch lines). Since two of the most important aspects of theater is lighting and staging, which produces a sense of depth that isn’t always conveyable to an audience through simple placement of actors in a 3D space. Instead, lighting can be introduced to create 3D space by adding extra verticality to the stage. This is exactly what Jintai chooses to do with this relative lack of depth, often through the introduction of either a dramatic (for lack of better description) stage light or the use of a flashlight. The bottom images give an example of each.
So in the case of the stage light, the viewer’s attention is focused on the place the light shines on the floor, which is supposedly solid and lets the characters stand. At the same time, a spotlight also creates extra visual clues as to the spatial relation of characters and items on screen, not the mention that the shadows produced do the same thing as well.
Perhaps more pervasive than the stage light throughout the series is the lamp or flashlight, both of which also function to create a sense of 3D space while flattening the image. While a flashlight may create shadows on the face or shine a particularly bright part on the screen, the lighter swathes of light directly contradict the watercolor painting technique of layering dark on light; in fact, it’s the very opposite by shining light on top of dark. By looking more closely at how shading is applied to light sources, it becomes immediately obvious that the show constantly plays around with light and shadow in a way that’s consistent but paradoxical.
Though I would normally be willing to tie this all into how an illusion of depth is one of the themes of every different cultural point the show touches on (time travel, otaku, capitalism, etc.), I don’t really think this needs to be repeated here. I haven’t really read much on the series from other writers, but I have a hunch everyone’s already latched on and identified Jintai‘s ability to pinpoint some of the vapidness of modern culture. However, I do want to conclude by touching base with the notion of a fairy tale, which is no doubt related to the core concepts underlying this work.
While fairy tales, creation stories, and legends differ across culture and language, up until the early modern era there was little consciousness regarding the cultural value of such stories. In fact, more often than not these tales simply figured into the world view of the people who grew up with those stories. In Europe, among some of the earliest pioneers of folk studies were the Brothers Grimm, whose work collecting tales from across Europe was not only academic, but served the dual purpose of compiling shared cultural values, especially those belonging to what would later become a unified German culture (at the time, Germany still wasn’t a single country yet). They often exercised their own control over which versions of these folk tales made it into their collection, meaning that by documenting culture they also simultaneously created it.
This idea of creating and seeing culture through documentation is something that is pervasive throughout Jintai. After all, books are a huge source of knowledge for the inhabitants of its world, and they can only begin to guess at the lifestyle of their human predecessors through studying ruins. Similar to how we choose to document culture or study history today, Jintai illustrates to us exactly how different our understanding of culture can be with the passage of time.
To draw from the Brothers Grimm example, their collection of tales grew to become a huge influence on the Western world, and Disney’s choice to use their collected stories as a base for their animated stories was a fully calculated move. Even more importantly, the Disney versions of the stories collected by the Brothers is far happier and lighter than their originally documented versions, which were in turn sometimes dulled down versions of very gruesome and dark oral traditions that had been floating around Europe for centuries.
Needless to say, the visual illusion of depth employed in the series is a calculated reproduction of the illusion of depth (in terms of meaning) that we may find future humans thinking when they look back on the creations of their ancestors, particularly if we think about how different layers pile up over the passage of time to result in what we see today. When our contemporary understanding of the world is vastly different from how the world was a long time ago, time has essentially both taken out a chunk of the content (flatten it) while at the same time added its own layers (an item from the past may be passed down, mistake for something else, reinterpreted, built over, etc.). Jintai is every bit a history lesson as it is a comedic attack on our current sensibilities.