There’s a Fine, Fine Line
between a life-drama and a slice-of-life
Posted by tai on Sep 23, 2008 under Discourse

I started watching Nana under the impression that it was going to be a series that was quaint, relatable, insightful, and full of music goodies. I was expecting a slice-of-life type of show. It was. The first dozen of episodes were nice, homely, describing the woes and wonders of two teenage girls stepping out of their adolescence and into their adulthood. Their quirks and personalities were exposed to us as we watched them struggle to obtain the necessities of life and gain a foothold on the adult world. It was, but it was and not is. As I proceeded through the second dozen of episodes, the story started getting confusing: new characters flying in left and out right, old characters being irrelevant to the plot, and occasionally I had to pause and rethink what happened the previous episode to understand the basis of some actions and statements. It seemed like the show had left the slice-of-life genre and jumped onto the stage of drama. As I pass the half-way checkpoint I no longer feel motivated to continue with the show: there is too much focus on plot progression, and not enough time spent on the more micro, slice-of-life elements of a story. Looking at other blogs and review sites, Nana is described as both a drama and slice-of-life. But, looking at a show as an entirety, a show can only be one of drama or slice-of-life, never both. A slice-of-life that changes is drama, since a constantly progressing story defeats the purpose of slice-of-life.

The initial push we give to a setting to create fiction is the use of change. Changing circumstances cause characters’ opinions to diverge, and when opinions start diverging, they start finding themselves faced with conflict. As this conflict remains unresolved, suspense is built, then as the characters become more and more certain about their emotions and opinions a resolution surfaces. A resolution without any sort of confrontation is generally uninteresting because of a lack of interaction between characters, and so as a consequence most resolutions come forth in the form of a confrontation. The length of each individual event can vary, and this dictates whether a show is a drama, action, or otherwise. However, the presence and sequence of these aforementioned events are extremely important—first we must have conflict, then suspense, and then a final confrontation. These three basic elements, incurred by change, are what make a traditional fiction, including dramas. More sophisticated fictions have these events in various scales, durations, and hierarchies.

A slice-of-life indicates, well, a slice, or a small piece of the whole. It takes a small fragment of an individual’s or a collective group’s lives or visions and approaches it to observe and analyze the different layers and flavours. From a director’s standpoint, slice-of-life is like a camera: it is a tool of observation. It captures a static sample of a subject, where we must manipulate our replica of the original to learn more about it. We have complete control, but only over our duplicate—we have no power whatsoever regarding the original. Because of this, we iterate on that small, captured slice to discover more about it. We look at it in different ways: we isolate themes and symbols, draw analogies, determine its structure, and so forth. The slice-of-life is taking a static frame and portraying it in as many ways as possible. It is the anime equivalent to observing lighting, highlighting, shadows, colours and contrasts, etc. within a still photograph. If we wish, we could hypothesize how this piece could morph over time or in the presence of other materials, but this would be purely imaginary and nothing else, because of the restrictions of our tools. Because of this, we hunt frugally to pinpoint this one single moment or compose it ourselves in order to ensure it is as interesting and innovative as possible. The characters must be fully developed before we start a slice-of-life, the setting laid out; their histories and perhaps even their futures will already be written down. We must make sure that everything is in perfect order before snapping the shutter of slice-of-life, because once the frame is taken we can only work with what we have captured.

The moment Hachi declared her break-up was the moment NANA took a sideways turn from slice-of-life to life-drama.

However, once we are granted the power to observe changes within subject matter, we take a step back and focus on this procedure of change. In this newly introduced dimension, time, we can still increase the level of observation, by controlling and slowing down the rate of change. But because we are focusing on changes and differences we can no longer work upon a single instantaneous moment, and we cannot iterate upon this. The dimension of time is no longer available for use to experiment with, since it is the only way we can depict change. And these changes are no longer various viewports pointed at a single frame, but instead, it is a single viewport which shows the characters as they proceed along the path of fiction. Like how you cannot use a still frame to show a video, slice-of-life is a genre independent from fiction. The moment a slice-of-life introduces change, it ceases to be, and becomes a fiction of some sort, most likely a drama. In a drama, or any other fiction it is the characters that change, but in a slice-of-life, it is we who change instead: Hagumi Hanamoto definitely transitions between phases over the sequence of Honey and Clover, but Akari Mizunashi in the last episode of Aria the Animation is the same as Akari from episode 1 and Akari from episode 4 and Akari from episode n; in this case it is we who changed while watching the anime learning about her character.

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