‘Show, Don’t Tell’ Is Not The Ironclad Rule People Think It Is

Show, Don't Tell - Seitokai no Ichizon And The Differences Of Media

As you’re surely aware of, dear readers of mine, this is a blog dedicated to anime (not really), manga (very not really), games (especially not really), arbitrary translations (more really) and MahoIku (magi-really), all of which compose a significant chunk of Japanese media. And on this grand weblog of mine, I, the blogger himself… etc. pp.

Exposition. Talking heads. Anime telling us about what’s happening on screen even if nothing is happening. You’ve probably had experiences with vast amounts of abusal of these before in… more than every second seasonal anime actually. So let’s talk about those for a bit.

Lately, the very good director Shingo Natsume with the very good anime Sonny Boy which you should absolutely watch for which I have also translated some Shingo Natsume commentary has stated that his modus operandi for Sonny Boy was to cut down all the monologue and let characters and situations express themselves contrary to what most other anime do. And then the people who are about smart enough to not use the MAL forums but share their thoughts on anitwitter anyway agreed in unison and the phrase “show, don’t tell” was thrown around as the universal rule it is known as.

Show, Don't Tell - Sonny Boy

I don’t agree to that entirely. And don’t get me wrong, I agree that anime as a medium would be better if that sentiment was applied to most of anime, really. The idea behind this is that anime is a visual medium and an overuse of explaining feelings or circumstances rather than depicting them is detrimental to the medium. And I do follow that logic.

Now, do I think that anime has a problem with over-exposition and constant narration that’s not needed? Absolutely. Half of these terrible LN adaptations start out with the protagonist, being the average student/salaryman he is, telling us that he’s just an average student/salaryman. Why? What is being conveyed here? What would get lost here by removing this bit of information that should be very obvious from just following the show? Who is this being told to? The space goats living inside his head? I would understand a protagonist narrator doing the job as his future self maybe. “I had yet no idea about the adventures that would ensue.” Still not good but has a narrative purpose. It also conveys “things are about to happen” contrary to “nothing is happening right now”. Yeah, I can see that.

It’s especially egregious in the first episode of The Rising Of The Shield Hero where everything happening on-screen needs to be narrated through the protagonist. No, not the fantasy stuff. The high school stuff. High schools don’t need explaining. Is this how visual media is supposed to work? But almost every isekai LN adaptation does that. Then again, pretty much every isekai anime is thoroughly terrible. At least they waste no time to point out their own shit writing when wasting my time otherwise.

Show, Don't Tell - Inner Narration In Isekai Anime

I can somewhat understand the purpose behind this kind of introduction in a written medium like a light novel. But a light novel is not an anime. What works in one doesn’t necessarily work in another. Anime fans who are especially anal about any changes or cuts from the source material need to understand that adapting is very different from copypasting. Someone should hand over some adaptations a memo.

Kimetsu no Yaiba’s first episode was equally as terrible, especially for how template-tier generic it was. Most of this stuff just feels like poor audio commentary transported to a visual medium. And so I left and never came back. Can you please shut up inside your mind when your mind is not all that interesting and just kinda redundant?

If you want to go further, one could argue that just being able to hear a character’s thoughts violates the rule of “show, don’t tell”. In fact, it’s something that barely ever happens in live action yet is a common gold standard in anime. When The Sopranos did do it to portray the inner struggles of Vito trying to fit into an average worklife, it stuck out like a sore thumb even. I don’t think that listening to characters’ thoughts is bad but there’s a time and place for everything regardless.

Show, Don't Tell - Exposition & Meteora From Re:Creators

Anime also has some inherent problems with clunky exposition. Take a sip for every sentence you encounter that starts with “As you’re surely aware of…” Even ACCA, an actually very good anime, resorted to this in its first episode. Do people talk like this in real life? “Hey there, good friend of mine with whom I have been for years. As you’re surely aware of, this is the country we inhabit. Let me tell you about our population size and the language we speak. Just as good friends are wont to do.” When you’re writing a show about lizard people disguising themselves as humans and you yourself don’t know it, you’ve got a problem.

First and foremost, it reminds me of those awkward language learning VHS programs with stilted dialogue. “This is a pen. I am holding a briefcase. I am telling you, my coworker, about this now.” You know the stuff. It also feels about as natural as those maths questions where Tony buys 4 apples, 6 melons, 12 bananas, 37 potatoes, 34 oranges and 12 strawberries. Tony clearly does not live in America as they do not have fruit and vegetables over there. Apart from pizza. Which is deemed a vegetable in the US. I’m not lying, look it up.

Oh dear. Do you see what I just did there? I went off a tangent and accidentally got conquered by exposition myself. Even my blog can’t help it!

To illustrate this further, here’s a guy talking about the equivalent to his world’s sun, I kid you not:

Show, Don't Tell - As You're Surely Aware Of

This is what makes me appreciate organic introductions to any fantasy series out there. Take Ousama Ranking. Which has a huge competition as a ranking between kings going on. The protagonist, Boji, can’t talk and is one potential candidate to become king. So what happens? Does he suddenly start thought-narrating about all of this? “By the way, I can’t talk. This is my country. This is my country’s specific geopolitical situation.”? Of course he doesn’t, since all of this can be inferred from the anime itself. Meanwhile, your average fantasy anime starts out by presenting us a map that won’t matter to point at various kingdoms and exposit at us on how these countries vaguely are at conflict. In the first few seconds of an anime. What is this? Why not start out with the protagonist or another character for us to see the world through their eyes and therefore organically learn more about it? That would put the audience in a state of curiousity and let them almost explore the world these characters inhabit by putting the pieces of information together. Well, now that sounds a lot more interesting and immersive than “Our protagonist is generic. This setting is generic. Do you understand? No surprises.” But that would require a bit more writing effort and talent and trust in the average anime fan to not be lost unless completely exposited to. And we can’t have that.

And when Shounen Protagonist The Angry Kid tells us in his long-winded thoughts on how angry exactly he is, I’m not sure what the point of any of that is. You have gestures and mimics. Use them to express something. Here’s an impressive showcase of how Comic Girls managed to show us the inner thought processes of a character without a single word.

Several of the best anime understand that they don’t need to hold your hand. Paranoia Agent, Texhnolyze, Pale Cocoon, Mononoke, the aforementioned Sonny Boy, the list goes on.

But here is where things get complicated if we take a more nuanced stance to the concept of “show, don’t tell” being granted the universal acclaim. How would something like Yu-Gi-Oh! work without constantly explaining card effects? This is where characters, dialogue, music and visual execution shine. There are duels in YGO! DM that last six episodes. Characters explaining things written on cardboard to each other. That sounds boring on paper. But then you have one monster smashing into another giant monster as one of the most magical OSTs blasts throughout the encounter and characters argue about their motives and concepts that relate to their experience as they pose dramatically and suddenly, it’s an exhilerating blast to watch.

Show, Don't Tell - Pale Cocoon Has No Hand-Holding

Take something like Build Divide where the characters just stand around and blabber at each other even though they should be engaged in a fierce battle. The visuals there don’t support the show at all. This is fatal. Card game anime _need_ visual support. Yu-Gi-Oh! gives you posing, framing and dynamics as a means to compensate for the lack of animation. That’s kind of what you have to do when your show is technically about two people standing at a set spot. This isn’t rocket science or magic but basic thinking that they figured out 20 years ago at their very first attempt. Expressiveness can absolutely make an anime that is conceptually entirely about exposition. If it’s not there, it will fail.

This is why Yu-Gi-Oh! uses the characters akin to stage performers and angles and whatnot are actively used to create variety in an otherwise perfectly still environment. It works with its limitations.

In fact, there are several anime that deliberately refuse to nod to the rule of “show, don’t tell” and they are off all the better for it. Want some examples? I can provide!

JoJo breaks this rule all the time in its earlier installments. No bizarre enemy attack that is so totally shocking can go by without Speedwagon uttering three paragraphs in utter horror at the madness that’s unfolding within a split second. And it’s hilarious.

Hunter x Hunter’s Chimera Ant arc is critically acclaimed and the over-narration and slow pacing are part of the reason. The narrator practically gives you a tutorial on what some of these characters are feeling and doing much as if within a novel. By all the accounts of “show, don’t tell”, this should be a disaster. But it pulls these various perspectives off convincingly and the narration enriches what is happening on screen.

Show, Don't Tell - HxH, The Chimera Ants Arc And Its Narration

Terra Formars also does this really well. Usually, I would be pissed off at insect exposition breaking the flow of an action scene but Terra Formars turns them into a staple that builds up and relates to the next scene to the point where these segments become part of the flow. “Damn, so the punch of a mantis shrimp is that strong? So this dude who used to be a boxer must be CRAZY POWERFUL!” is something that wouldn’t have occured in your head without the narration beforehand. Shigurui, coincidentally also directed by Hiroshi Hamasaki, does the same. Here’s lines on how this character’s body is made of steel. Then he smashes some dude’s chin to bits. And now’s him getting cut in half. Woah. The narration provided a very good build-up in this case.

Meanwhile, Kaiji’s narrator keeps screaming at me about the desperate situation at hand and it just wouldn’t be the same without it. Can you see how much Kaiji is in agony? Well, here’s the narrator also screaming it at you. And it works wonders. Akagi’s and One Outs’ narrators meanwhile are a lot more subdued but they also portray the graveness of the situation accordingly.

So it depends on a case by case basis. Do 90% of anime mess it up? Absolutely. The blame does not lie with the remaining 10% however. Media criticism should never resort to a checklist of bullet points.

Anyone who believes that “show, don’t tell” is an ironclad rule might as well self-smugly declare “Tatami Galaxy? lol. Why don’t they just show us how he feels instead of having him narrate his every thought at a breakneck speed?” Clearly you’ve won this argument against this piece of fiction hereby. But see, writing “rules” aren’t necessarily maths equations.

And this brings us to the very forefront of the problem and the end of my article. Every pretentious anime-watching sap out there has an inner critic dedicated to proclaiming that “show, don’t tell” is the #1 rule that must be kept at all costs. But every pretentious anime-watching sap out there also has an inner critic hailing Tatami Galaxy as an undisputed masterpiece. Much like those killer robots you can defeat in the movies™ by asking trick questions like “What came first, the chicken or the egg?” before smoke eludes their metallic heads, this antinomy will send their hypocritical and paranoid heads out of control as two sides form like vaguely defined anime fantasy countries that are now in a bizarre conflict with each other and nary shall their ideologies intertwine.

Show, Don't Tell - Tatami Galaxy And Its Stream Of Consciousness

Now that is one inner conflict you should narrate about in excruciating length.

1 thought on “‘Show, Don’t Tell’ Is Not The Ironclad Rule People Think It Is

  1. God I love how much opinion and personality you put on your texts, it feels i’m talking with someone instead of reading a blog

    Maybe they make terrible adaptarions of LN because they know it will sell, so quality isnt priority?

    Sometimes the overwhelming quantity of shows like this every season makes me think japanese watchers are kinda dumb


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