On Setting and Atmosphere

by eternal on September 27, 2009

On Setting and Atmosphere

It can get a little tiring thinking about plot and character all the time, can’t it? The Araragi Theory of Bakemonogatari, the Nasu-ified story of CANAAN, the theme of the value of life (and, well, brotherhood) in FMA: Brotherhood – while all of these things are good by themselves, they can easily lead to a mentally-taxed viewer.

Well, when you look at it objectively, being mentally taxed isn’t exactly a bad thing. If anything, it’s good to have stuff to think about while watching anime, but as everyone knows, sometimes it’s nice to just kick back and relax. But what is it about these shows that lets us do that? Aria is an extreme case, but even so, what is it about the show that causes it to be such a stress reliever? The characters and story are part of it, but surely that isn’t everything. When I started questioning why I fell so easily for a show about baseball girls in the early 20th century, though, I knew it was time to get to the bottom of it.

The term “milieu” in literature refers to the environment or setting in which a story takes place. Thankfully, that’s not what I’m here to talk about (I could do with a lecture on the topic myself). What I do want to talk about is how basic things like setting and premise can affect a person’s enjoyment of a show, and how vague intangibles like atmosphere can often make or break a story.

It sounds strange when you put it that way. If a story is good, then isn’t it just that: good? How can a good story be bad? And yet, when it comes time to input your MAL ratings, you probably find yourself wondering how much you enjoyed the series you just finished, weighing its objective quality against your subjective experience. It’s difficult to describe because it’s all internal, but when you do away with the independent factors that define what a show is about, it’s surprising to find that there are still a lot of aspects that could affect your enjoyment.

On Setting and Atmosphere (2)

Really, I’m not using this as an excuse to post pictures of Hazuki!

If I said that I like goth-loli character designs and therefore I like Tsukuyomi, you’d probably take it the wrong way, so let’s look at it from a different angle. What makes Tsukuyomi appealing to me? Well, there’s Hazuki, of course. Looking at moe as an aesthetic, that means that I like the art and character designs. Fair enough. But Tsukuyomi isn’t the only show to feature goth-lolis, and yet it’s certainly the only one to make me react like this. So why did it happen, then? It’s because it involves more than just goth-loli character designs; it’s saturated in the romanticized gothic anime setting.

I suppose it would be unfair to compare Tsukuyomi to Victorian literature since, for one, vampires were scary back then. But that aside, it’s a fact that the show is stuffed to the brim with the kind of imagery (mysterious misty castle), architecture (design of said castle), music (eerie, string-heavy), and all-around tone that people usually associate with the Victorians and their horror stories. Of course, since this is an anime, those things should instantly bring to mind magic battles and vampire lolis.

The same can be said for similar stories like the manga Tetragrammaton Labyrinth, which I fell for instantly for no apparent reason. Looking back, the reason was actually quite obvious: I like gothic settings in anime, especially when they’re accompanied by vague fanservice (or in this case yuri, which makes the deal arguably sweeter).

On Setting and Atmosphere (1)

At any rate, back to Taishou Yakyuu Musume. Why am I raving over this show when I could be pretending to analyze Fullmetal Alchemist or scouring Danbooru for new Senjougahara pictures? Well, it’s because of something completely indescribable.

It makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside.

That’s it, really. It doesn’t overload my heart like a good shoujo manga, nor my moe-senses like the aforementioned goth-loli paradise; it’s just plain warm and fuzzy, in the truest sense of the word. The everyday adventures of a bunch of 1920s Japanese girls as they fight against society’s norms shouldn’t rank too highly in my book, even if it’s got a touch of romance and it’s closer to being a comedy than a drama. And yet, contrary to my common sense and preconceptions, I can’t help but feel good every time I finish an episode.

And that’s about all I can say. I did say that these things were intangible, remember? There’s no way to describe it: it’s simply a magical combination of plot, character, aesthetic, and dialogue that produces an atmosphere that can only be described as pleasant. The same goes for all atmospheres of all genres – you can never put your finger on it and describe it as you want to, but the moment you start watching, you know it’s there. It’s that invisible X-factor that makes a good thing even better.


{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

ghostlightning September 27, 2009 at 8:35 pm

Hehe, well you can also consider that I talk about character a lot because I don’t have the chops to do setting well. It’s also about knowing what I’m not good at LOL (at least not good at yet).

I’m also biased towards characters because they are the things we care about as far as I’m concerned. Even settings are valued in that how they allow human stories to unfold.

All that said, setting is a great subject to explore and I’d love to read more posts about such. Animekritik and gaguri are both excellent sources of literature on settings in anime and manga.


Martin September 28, 2009 at 2:39 pm

I’d agree that atmosphere isn’t everything – you only have to look at the Tsukihime adaptation to see what happens when the atmospherics are all there but storyline and characterisation that made the original so special are lacking. Still, setting is important for me because when it’s really immersive it takes you somewhere else…the escapism aspect of entertainment is important I think.

I understand why you don’t voice your admiration for the othic-lolita aesthetic too – it’s commonplace for people to sexualise everything these days! Shinbo’s Cosette OAV is a prime example of atmospherics and aesthetics being the main driving force; the storyline doesn’t make much sense (it’s actually fairly straightforward) but it looks amazing!


Y10NRDY September 28, 2009 at 6:33 pm

atmosphere is a crucial element to a good series. i’ll admit it. there have been many shows that have drawn me in (and kept me there) with nothing else but mood and character aesthetics… and i don’t think i am alone. the sheer volume of the moe phenomenon fanbase speaks VOLUMES about how style can sometimes almost BE substantive especially when it comes to the way it makes the viewer feel.

when i have had a crappy day. when my ex-wife has been up my @$$. when my small comic shop has not generated enough revenue to pay the bills. when the liberal amounts of anti-depressant drugs i am prescribed do not seem to be passing muster.

i go home and put on kannagi. or k-on. or magical girl lyrical nanoha. or moon phase! i am instantly transported to a different place… sometimes a stupid place…

…but usually a better one.


kadian1364 September 30, 2009 at 8:04 pm

Atmosphere is something I closely equate with narrative style. In anime, that would be the mood of the music, the tone of the dialogue, the significance of camera angles, how a specific scene or act plays out and wholistically becomes more (or less) than the sum of its individual parts. It’s not the What or Who of the story, but How it was conveyed to us the audience. Needless to say, each of us have our favorite styles and directors/authors that utilize those styles.

Setting is often the forgotten middle child of storytelling. A workable metaphor would be that setting is like super high/low frequency sounds; its something you don’t consciously notice in everyday life or music if you’re not listening for it, but you definitely sense its presence, especially when it’s missing. There’s a richness to live music and sound that is lacking in low compression mp3 formats. Likewise, a fully realized setting elevates a simple premise and fills it with life, while ambiguous or generic settings make other stories feel lifeless.

Akari and friends aren’t just gondoliers in training, they live in an otherworldly recreation of European coziness and romance. Kamichu! isn’t just about a middle-schooler turned god, its about an unseen world of spirits of all shapes, sizes, and dispositions interacting the happenings of a small, idyllic port town. Cowboy Bebop isn’t just about a hard-luck gang of bounty hunters, its about the mixture of humanity in the frontier of space, how each individual does his/her best to make a living, to live life, and deal with the true blues of reality.

They say the devil is in the details, and that’s what atmosphere and setting are about: details. It’s a kind of thoughtfulness in storytelling that has no shortcuts, and I’d say that we as an audience are inclined to enjoy a work proportional to the amount of thought the author/director put into it.

At these times it’s unfortunate I don’t have my own blog to pimp, but here’s a link to otou-san’s on a post about anime settings:


ETERNAL October 1, 2009 at 8:58 pm

See, this is why you should start a blog! You articulated the entire concept in a single comment. Good job, it was an enjoyable read :D


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