“I believe that everyone has that feeling of wanting to run, when they have all the uneasy feelings from indignation to impatience, to feelings that just don’t make sense.”
Spring 2016 marks the ten-year anniversary of the first episode broadcast of Sasami Magical Girls Club. At around 30 years of age, Sasami is also Mari Okada’s first credit in the role of series composer for a TV anime. Since then, she has been responsible for thirty TV anime series, seven anime movies, a spattering of original OVAs, and many episodes on a variety of TV series – including two where she had an atypical amount of influence. On the way, she won an Animation Kobe award in 2011 for AnoHana. And of course, Okada has much more on the way including Kiznaiver and Mayoiga this Spring. Her works consistently fall into the genre of melodrama, thriving on extravagant emotion, specifically in contrast to a society with a reputation for stoicism. These stylistic and thematic choices have often made her polarizing creator, but has also earned Okada significant popularity among many of her projects The sheer number of original stories created by Okada is also a testament to her chosen styles and the demand for her work from within the anime industry.
Okada started as a freelance writer in 1996. Although she originally intended to focus specifically on video game scenarios, her earliest work was spread across a variety of platforms – direct-to-video movies, radio, CD drama, magazine and internet articles, as well as games – and many of these projects occurred under a pen name. It’s not until 1998 that she started working on anime when she was hired to type up series composer Hideki Kakinuma’s scripts for DT Eightron – though she edited through some of his rough edges. Director Tetsuro Amino then invited her to submit some plot ideas for the series as a test. In the end, five of the twenty-six episodes were penned by Okada. Her name would be absent from anime until 2001, when she penned all of the scripts to the zodiac-themed Angel Tales. This series is peculiar because although she scripted all the episodes, the series composition is credited to Juzo Mutsuki. DT Eightron and Angel Tales mark the beginnings of the series of relationships that got her working in anime as her primary job. Amino would bring Okada on to work on Crush Gear Nitro. Ryouta Yamaguchi, Nitro’s series composer, invited Okada to work on Diamond Daydreams. Jukki Hanada, a fellow screenwriter on that series, brought Okada on to work on the Rozen Maiden series. Similarly, Angel Tales director Kazuhiro Oichi asked for her work on PoPoLoCrois and Hamtaro. Eventually, through these connections, Okada began to focus specifically only on anime, and after 2006, she would rarely be found working on the productions of other series composers.
Among these relationships, perhaps the most significant is the one she built with Junji Nishimura. Okada joined the script-writing team for Kyou Kara Maoh and wrote scenarios for 16 episodes over its year-and-a-half initial broadcast. Nishimura was the director of the series at the time. Through her work on Maoh, Okada joined the staff on Simoun, also directed by Nishimura. Okada joined the project specifically to rework the second half of the series. Episodes 12 through 26 of the series were all written by Nishimura and Okada.
The two of them would reunite to produce the 2008 anime True Tears, an original romance drama that served as PA Works entrance as the primary animation studio for TV series. Though she battled with Nishimura (as well as scriptwriter Mayumi Morita) over certain aspects of the True Tears ending, the two have very similar but different perspectives of storytelling. While Nishimura’s character drama tends towards more muted scenes, as evidenced in Windy Tales and Glasslip, Okada’s push towards more grandiose emotional scenes. Nevertheless, they have made it work throughout their careers. Nishimura, who works as both an animator and a director joined a number of Okada’s projects since True Tears – Canaan, Hanasaku Iroha, the Woman Called Fujiko Mine, AKB0048, and Nagi no Asukara. Additionally, the two of them reunited with PA Works to create promotional tourism shorts: Koitabi for the city of Nato in 2013 and two more shorts for Saga prefecture this year.
True Tears is the only original series Okada would pen in a very busy 2008. That year, she was in charge of five series compositions: two seasons of a shoujo manga adaption for Vampire Knight with director Kiyoko Sayama, the two-cour first season of Black Butler with Toshiya Shinohara, and the adaption of the Toradora! light novels with Tatsuyuki Nagai – the latter two were both very popular series.
While Okada’s may have earned praise for these adaptions, her popularity and notoriety mostly stems from her original works. Her most successful original work is the 2011 Noitamina series AnoHana, working once again with Nagai. The series exemplifies Okada’s flair for the dramatic and interest in expressing emotions in a very extravagant manner. Despite its popularity (or maybe because of), the series received the perhaps anime-exclusive “criticism” of being “emotionally manipulative.” While Okada does have experience adapting character dramas with a quieter demeanor, such as Sketchbook, Okada has shown a preference for this style of melodrama to explore emotions in her works.
At Okada’s press conference at Anime Expo 2013, she explained some of the motivations for the last scene of AnoHana. She felt that her generation shied away from being emotionally direct. She counteracted that by having characters scream to show their honest feelings – a literal encapsulation of a key aspect of melodrama: “a way to communicate emotions too abundant to put into words,” as Anne Helen Peterson put it. Characters screaming isn’t unique to AnoHana. Similarly, in the opening scene of the movie Hanasaku Iroha: Home Sweet Home, Satsuki screams before jumping into a pool after a fight with her mother. Emotional repression and releasing frustrations in one of the loudest was possible goes back to Okada’s first series composition as well. Sasami, while focusing on five girls with magical powers in the real world, also features a witch society that locked away all of their negative emotions. These ideas follow with many of her projects through the years. Noe in True Tears is unable to cry. The emotions of young girls are expressed in violent alternate dimension battles in Black Rock Shooter. Yoshino in Blast of Tempest spends most of the series withholding his grief of the death of his girlfriend. And in the movie Anthem of the Heart, again working with Nagai, the character Jun has locked away her ability to speak and express herself.
Often in her works, she is willing to engage in these generational divides, placing children at odds with adults, and typically their parents. Among adults, it is required to keep their emotions tied in order to protect their daily lives and move forward day-to-day. However, those internal feelings often get released and passed on in bitter ways. In True Tears, Shinichiro’s mother has retained jealousy of Hiromi’s late mother, and as a result acts harshly toward Hiromi. In turn, Hiromi passes her own bitterness towards Noe, but with regret: “I think those words which unconsciously came out of me were my true feelings. And I didn’t want to feel that way either… I’m saying the exact same things [as Shinichiro’s mother].” In Anthem of the Heart, Jun’s silence is caused by her parents anger about her father’s adultery and their subsequent divorce. Though she didn’t understand at the time, her parents believed that if she had simply not said anything, they would have maintained a stable life, even if it was broken. Still, blame was levied on Jun, and as a result she carried an idiosyncratic form of that shame that frustrated her mother on a regular basis.
She however recognizes that the older generations handling of feelings isn’t all negative. In Nagi no Asukara, Akari talks with her father before the Boatdrift Ceremony, acknowledging that he acted the way he did in order to protect her from the upcoming winter. She understands that restraining his feelings was what he had to do in order to raise his children after their mother passed away. Still, Akari’s father wanted to avoid even discussing that, but Akari met him head on with her feelings of gratitude: “You were the one who had it hardest. And yet, you never let those emotions show, and you watched over us.”
Okada’s most thorough investigation of these conflicts can be found in the three generations of women of Hanasaku Iroha. Sui Shijima is stern, focusing her entire self only on running Kissuiso. Satsuki Matsumae is the complete opposite, driven by her emotions, whimsical, at completely at odds with her mother. Somewhere in the middle is Ohana, the third generation, who has a strong sense of duty, but is also wont to burst with passion and fly by the seat of her pants. All three also hold a hard stubbornness. Okada build’s Ohana’s story with a sense of competition – that Ohana has to “defeat” her grandmother by becoming good enough at her waitress job. Similarly, she has to “defeat” her mother. Ohana forces Satsuki to actually visit Kissuiso when the latter writes the inn a bad review from Tokyo. In the past, she also forced her mother to eat food she hates when she breaks a promise. Ohana’s competitive nature is perhaps most simply seen when she runs cleaning the patio floors revving herself up with a roar. As seen in the Home Sweet Home movies, Satsuki is the same. She believes by running away and making her own life without the help of Sui, she will “win.” When Satsuki’s husband passes away leaving her to raise an infant Ohana on her own, she returns home only to witness Sui’s own competitive nature: “She isn’t clinging to the past. Mom… can’t lose. She can’t lose. She can’t lose to herself. For the sake of her future.” Upon understanding that, Satsuki leaves, keeping her brief visit to Kissuiso secret, declaring “I’m not going to lose to you, old witch.” While Hanasaku Iroha orients these three generations in competition with each other as well as themselves, it refuses to suggest that any is necessarily wrong. Although Satsuki admits that she “lost” when Ohana declares she wishes to be like her grandmother, Ohana is very much emotionally representative of both Sui and Satsuki. But by desiring to be like her grandmother, Ohana suggests that the Sui’s and older generation’s emotional and social substance is complementary to the promise of emotional directness that Okada continually writes in her stories.
However, the generational conflict in Okada’s stories often go beyond just emotions. In Iron-Blooded Orphans, Merribit served as a mentor and moral compass for Orga. However, as Tekkadan’s efforts to help Kudelia’s mission becomes more violent, she increasingly is forced to see them as child soldiers, especially as they become more eager to sacrifice themselves. Her moral compass is forced to take on the youthful and misguided passions of the children before her. Conflict between generations takes on a bit more of a literal take in AKB0048 as Takamina and others are forced with the quandary of the fact that one day, the younger generation will replace them, even if they still want to be idols.
When Okada’s stories revolve around grander world-saving storylines, often the causes are the sins of our fathers. The failures of those before us force the children to clean up their messes. In Sasami Magical Girls Club, Sasami and her friends save the world from both the negative feelings locked away long ago, as well as the Chief Sorceress who wants to use that magic to “fix” the human world. In Black Rock Shooter, Saya’s own guilt as well as the switch of Yuu and Strength drive the problems of the other world for the younger Mato and Yomi. In Nagi no Asukara, the slow-coming apocalyptic winter is said to be caused by the rift between the people one the surface and the people of the sea. Even when Hikari and the others try to get the adults together to stop it, the adults end up fighting. The kids instead lead the efforts to hold the Boatdrift ceremony to hopefully stop the snow. The demons in M3 are the revenge initiated by the adults of the village of Yomijima. They tasked Sasame, Minashi, and Tsugumi as young children to carry out that vengeance for the violent experimentation conducted on them. Adults often helped created many of these problems, but they’ll still often support the younger characters in their missions as in Zen Fudo in Aquarion EVOL or the Lost Millennium in Fractale. Particularly, in Gosick, the main characters of Victorique and Kujo are rendered helpless in the final act. Instead, Victorique’s mother Cordelia Gallo and Brian Roscoe save Victorique and take down the Marquis.
While Okada has her stylistic preferences, she also understands how to grasp the heart of her adaptions – though she will add her own touches. In an original scene in Wandering Son, Nitori runs away from home but happens to bump into his friend Yoshino. The two of them talk about their frustrations about school and their identities in ways matching creator Takako’s Shimura’s sparse but telling dialogue. But at the end of the scene, Yoshino lets out a scream venting all of those feelings she had been holding in. Original scenes and stories are usually a product of fitting enough into a one-cour or two-cour period, but it still requires writers to match the original material. In Otome Youkai Zakuro, Okada wrote an original story for episode 2, about a youkai who had been displaced by the construction of a hotel. The events reflect the discrimination and prejudice that youkai experience, as well as develops the relationships of its main cast. Lily Hoshino, the original author of the Zakuro manga said that she “would have never thought of that story on [her] own” and “it was similar enough to the original that it couldn’t be considered a derivative work.” Similarly, Yuyuko Takemiya, original author of the Toradora! light novels complimented the original “bento battle” bonus episode created for the Blu-ray box set release. She said “you can sense the relationship between Ryuji and Taiga… it really sums up the whole Toradora! series.”
“I hoped I could write the feeling of love in various forms… Falling in love with someone in nature, and being torn apart by nature. But I wanted to show how love is like the sea. And then from there I wanted to connect how ‘the feeling of liking someone changes your fate.; I mean to say, the world might be ending, but the feeling of falling in love with someone is changing the future little by little.”
Romance stories similar in structure to that of Toradora! are commonplace in Okada’s works. Character dynamics are typically more complex than love triangles, with the feelings of love sprouting in many directions, whether or not romance is the main focus of the story. A simple version of this can be seen in her first series composition, Sasami. As a major point of the show, the main character Sasami falls in love with the vessel Amitav, her classmate Monta harbors secret feelings for Sasami, and her shy friend Misao develops a crush on Monta. Although Okada does have experience working on harem series in her early scriptwriting such as Angel Tales and Fate/Stay Night, she herself is not fond of harem love stories. She often incorporates the harem structure in much more complicated relationship dynamics, such as in True Tears where characters and their feelings weave in and out of existing relationships, or in Nagi no Asukara where, although three are romantically attached to Hikari, the four of them are also part of a much more complex web of feelings and relationships. These complicated relationship structures have helped Okada avoid the typical arc or episodic harem-styles narrative structures that one might encounter in shows like To-Love-Ru or the Bakemonogatari franchise. Perhaps Okada’s most (or maybe least) conventional use of the harem concept is Naze Turbine’s actual harem in Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron Blooded Orphans – though that set of characters is not the primary focus of the story.
Like many other romance stories, Okada’s tales are commonly anchored in feelings of unrequited love. The reasons people are kept apart can vary, such as Misao’s shyness in Sasami or incest for Yuzuki in the Wixoss series. And miscommunication is wont to happen as in many series. Okada has also built romance around work. In AKB0048, she toys with romance and the strict cultural romantic denial of being an idol: despite the shared feelings of Yuka and her childhood friend Mamoru, she chooses to pursue her dreams of being an idol without him. Most prominently is the arc in Hanasaku Iroha when Ohana returns to Tokyo to drag her mom to Kissuiso. Her best friend Kou, who has unrequited feelings for Ohana, is a literal and symbolic figure of all the things she left behind when she left to the countryside. The changes scare her, and she too feels left behind, but she wants her life at Kissuiso where she is able to grow and depend less on Kou. For Ohana, staying apart is best for her, as well as what she believes is fairest for Kou.
One of her more common recurring threads is feelings of unworthiness. In the adaption of Venus to Mamoru, the titular character feels this ways about his lack of power, even despite already having an official relationship with the main heroine Ayako. Similarly, Jin in the Sakurasou no Pet na Kanojo adaption feels his abilities as a writer are too poor for him to accept the love of Misaki.
Self-worth and guilt play a role in many of Okada’s original stories as well. Most prominently, in AnoHana where the entire main cast struggles with both feeling implicated in the death of Menma when they were children, and the romantic feelings they work through ten years later. It also figures significantly into Nagi no Asukara in Chisaki’s feelings as the only citizen of Shioshishio escaping sleep, as well as in the Sea God’s guilt for taking the sacrificial maiden Ojoshi-sama from her original lover, the feelings that originate the snowy weather. Among other series are Santana’s inability to reciprocate Hakko’s feelings for helping destroy her home in Canaan, and Mahmu’s remorse over the stories and secret cruel desires she writes in her diary in M3.
Her stories and style of character drama has earned her the praise of many of her regular collaborators. Director Masahiro Ando (Canaan, Hanasaku Iroha, Blast of Tempest) said he loves Okada’s scripts because they “tend to be very dramatic and full of emotion.” Toshiya Shinohara (Black Butler, Book of Bantorra, Nagi no Asukara) believes she “possesses such endless potential as a scriptwriter.” Shouji Kawamori (Aquarion EVOL, AKB0048) complimented “can write a love story, she can write about the thoughts of young men and women.” Of Okada’s work on The Woman Called Fujiko Mine, Sayo Yamamoto was ” really pleased with how amazing the script ended up being.”
As she’s grown as a writer, some of Okada’s more eccentric qualities have also come up. Early in her career, when Nagai requested Okada to join the Toradora! team, he said she was simply introduced to him “as one of those young women with tons of spirit.” Her willingness to ignore bounds and her comedic sensibilities have more often come to light since then. AnoHana, while the story that is considered one of the most “pure Okada,” originally started off as a comedy with more raunchy humor before they decided they would prefer a drama. Some remnants of that comedy remained, including Naruko Anjou’s nickname. Yamamoto noted that producers tried to keep them apart before Fujiko Mine: “we were ‘two birds of a feather,’ or ‘north pole plus north pole is not going to work out well, working together.'” Kawamori noted that on Aquarion EVOL she could “come up with some totally crazy scenarios… I was amazed at the amount of dirty humor she managed to fit into that script (haha). The original script was at least 10 times dirtier than what ended up on film. I had to trim and tone down some scenes that took it too far, and whenever that happened she look a little sad.” Indeed, Okada is often fond of childish and perverted humor. In Sasami, Monta attaches a mirror to his shoes in an attempt to see girls’ underwear. In Nagi no Asukara, the toddler Akira enjoys the “kancho” prank, often poking the butts of the main characters. Taro Jiromaro writes erotic novels, typically featuring the women of Kissuiso in Hanasaku Iroha. This infamously led to the scene that ends up with Ohana in rope bondage. This sort of humor is almost always present, even in her serious shows. In her most recent series, Kiznaiver, the last thing the main character Katsuhira sees as he falls down the stairs is the underwear of the girl who pushed him.
Throughout Okada’s career, many of the same people have become regular collaborators like Ando, Kawamori, Nagai, and Shinohara. These include directors Junichi Sato (Sketchbook, M3, Amazing Twins), Takuya Sato (series composer for Fate/Stay Night, director of the Wixoss series), and Yoshimasa Hiraiike (Sketchbook, AKB0048). She has also had a number of regular screenwriters work under throughout these past ten years, with Toshizo Nemoto writing episodes for nine of her TV series, and Shinsuke Onishi working on five series. More commonly in the first half of her career, Jukki Hanada (who brought her onto the Rozen Maiden series), Mayumi Morita (whom Okada credits with being important in her development as a series composer), and Tatsuto Higuchi supported Okada in her many works. Additionally, she has found regular work with the animation studio PA Works, as well as finds her name attached to numerous Aniplex and Fuji TV’s Noitamina productions.
Over these recent years, Okada has flourished, expanding her horizons to working with a much wider variety of people. Hajime Kamoshida, the author of Sakurasou and Okada’s childhood friend, has become one of her most common regular scriptwriters. She also appears to have taken two rookie screenwriters under her wing, Akiko Waba from Bones and Keigo Koyanagi from PA Works. While both have worked on a number of Okada’s TV projects, the two also joined her in script writing for the 2015 Kaiketsu Zorori movie and penned the two stories for Okada’s and Nishimura’s Saga prefecture shorts. She has also found new opportunities in almost entirely new places, such as writing all the episodes of Koufuku Graffiti, an adaption of a Manga Time Kirara Miracle! comic about using food and friends to fight loneliness, working with director Naoyuki Tatsuwa and the popular animation studio Shaft. She also joined Nagai once again to write a character drama focused version of the Gundam franchise in Iron Blooded Orphans at Sunrise. The near future points Okada towards working in completely new collaborations on more original stories. In Kiznaiver, Mari Okada gets to write scripts for Hiroshi Kobayashi’s directorial debut with Studio Trigger. She also gets to join forces with Girls und Panzer and Shirobako director Tsutomu Mizushima to create Mayoiga with Diomedea. With more opportunities to write, Okada’s writing also becomes more refined, as well as a little crazy, especially with so many chances to craft completely original stories. Nevertheless, it is easy to see how the demand for Mari Okada’s talent throughout the anime industry not only remains high, but appears to even be expanding into the future.
- A very special thanks to Lamp and Sammi. We put together a panel for Anime LA once where we worked out many of the ideas regurgitated in this essay.
- Sasami originally first aired on April 13, 2006 on the WOWOW network. Fittingly, one of Okada’s new Spring shows this year, Mayoiga, is airing on a revived anime block on WOWOW Prime.
- In helping define melodrama, I referenced an article about Nicholas Sparks by Anne Helen Peterson. I also wanted to reference this other article she wrote about Jane the Virgin, Empire and other contemporary popular western melodramas. Anyway, Buzzfeeds longform stuff is pretty good. As is the Another Round podcast.
- I also wanted to somehow reference Mallory Ortberg’s classic “Male Novelist Jokes” but I gave up.
- A good amount of the details on Okada’s early career came from this interview translated by thirdlc on the AnimeSuki forums.
- The highlighted quotes come from the NIS America artbooks that come with the Premium editions for Hanasaku Iroha: Home Sweet Home and Nagi no Asukara.
- Yuyuko Takemiya’s quotes from from NIS America’s artbook from the Toradora! Blu-ray release.
- Masahiro Ando’s quotes come from this interview with Otaku USA Magazine.
- Toshiya Shinohara’s quotes come from this interview with ANN.
- Shoji Kawamori’s quotes come from this interview with One Peace Books.
- Sayo Yamamoto’s quotes come from this transcription by the Fandom Post of her AnimeFest 2012 interview.
- Tatsuyuki Nagai’s quotes come from ultimatemegax’s translation of this interview with him and Okada.
- Much of the data in this was compiled over the past few years (probably since 2012) of watching Okada shows. There are still a few things I have procrastinated on, like the Ruroni Kenshin OVAs, as well as things that are just kind of hard to find since they are kids show not named Pretty Cure (the Kaiketsu Zorori movies). The Japanese Anime Wiki is pretty consistently useful as is AniDB for crediting scriptwriters and specific episodes. For much of Okada’s earliest work, Japanese Wikipedia actually details staff for many episodes. Except for Hamtaro.
- I realize this covers more than ten years.
- See the previous post for a visual timeline of Mari Okada’s works.
- Akatsukin wrote a really good piece on Mari Okada’s writing style that you should read.