[Description]: An examination of the strengths and appeals of an incredibly niche genre of shows that are driven by character interactions, eccentric personalities, and dramatic irony. Through analysis and examples, I aim to illustrate what makes these shows so memorable and engaging.
Before anything else, it’s important to discuss exactly what this sub-genre is and what shows I think exist within it. These are stories with large, boisterous casts of often outlandish and unconventional characters who continuously interact with each other. Their shared dialogue and exchanges are the lifeblood of their respective shows and through these events, they paint a complicated and interweaving network of relationships. What’s significant are the implications of these people meeting – both for the characters themselves and for the viewer. They each possess their own unique personalities and set of circumstances that have propelled them into each meeting and taking stock of these things and appreciating the richness of their interactions is where these stories become so captivating.
The six shows that I feel exhibit this structure are Durarara!!, Working!!, Baccano, Yozakura Quartet: Hana no Uta, Toaru Majutsu no Index, and it’s spin-off series Toaru Kagaku no Railgun. As I dive into the appeals of this fictitious genre and these shows, I’ll attempt to illustrate the unlikely similarities between a workplace comedy about running a restaurant and a chaotic exploration of Ikeburo’s color gang conflicts; between a world set in a futuristic city full of espers and a town where humans and otherworldly youkai have come to live together.
Everyone Meets Everyone
The idea itself that every character meets every other is of course hyperbole but it underlines what’s important about the cast dynamic of these shows. Not only are these characters exceedingly distinct and eccentric but many of them form a rapport with so many other people that this kind of feeling is ultimately achieved. The diversity of who each person knows quickly becomes staggering and as each show progresses, the chemistry between certain cast members grows increasingly more complex and adventurous.
What’s interesting is that these encounters and relationships don’t have to be fleshed out or even meaningful. They can be longstanding relations with lengthy histories or ephemeral meetings possessing no more significance than the two characters being on-screen at the same time. All the same, they breathe life into the world in their being together. It’s not necessarily realism that they conjure but rather depth and verisimilitude. Through the interactions of so many members of the cast, both main and supporting, you gain a sense that these characters really do live together in the same world. It becomes a tangible element of the show.
The Implications of Characterization
This is all to speak nothing of what the characters themselves bring to the table. While not necessarily dialogue-driven shows, they do possess a great deal of communication between different cast members which births several appealing elements. Chiefly among them is the way in which the characters flesh each other out. A woefully under-explored supporting character suddenly is granted insight when they associate with somebody else by means of their behavior and attitude towards that person who is often a known-entity. You don’t just watch the characters meet each other but the effects they have as they reflect upon one another, accentuating each of their similarities and differences.
Repeat this process regularly with an extensive supporting cast and suddenly the whole world comes into focus. Without any need for grand exposition or direct character investigation, you learn about each character as they exist in their own world – how they behave and think in certain situations and what they are likely to do. As these relationships grow in number, the cast becomes more and more interconnected and this effect births some of the show’s most surprising and interesting character chemistry. Characters you never thought might become acquainted with one another are inexorably drawn into one another’s company through a series of otherwise unrelated events. It’s fascinating to watch play out.
It’s important to note that it’s not enough for a show to just have a sprawling cast of characters to exist in this way. It’s normal enough for the protagonist of a story to meet a great many individuals but rarely elsewhere do you see the supporting cast busy itself in such a way as you do in these shows. It’s one thing for the protagonist of Working!!, Takanashi Souta, to be acquainted with Mashiba Youhei, the air-headed underling of the manager but another thing entirely for the head-chef, Satou Jun, to interact with him. There’s nothing about either of their personalities or roles in the show that dictate that they should ever converse with one another yet when the situation arrives, new chemistry is born. Satou’s short temper and blunt attitude matched against Mashiba’s clumsiness causes the scene to unravel predictably yet the viewer knows this without ever having seen them meet before.
Crucially, each character carries with them their own connotation within the context of other people. The iconic, headless rider of Durarara!! Celty Sturluson takes on a myriad of roles without ever once changing who she attempts to be. To Kishitani Shinra, she’s a lover. To Sonohara Anri, she’s a close and reliable friend. To Orihara Izaya, she’s a courier and a pawn. To Kinnousuke Kuzuhara, she’s a criminal and a target to pursue. This is only to name a few of the perceptions under which she can fall and this flexibility extends to a countless number of characters throughout all of these shows. What’s so intriguing is that when two characters look at someone like Celty, they see somebody fundamentally different. They aren’t privy to what the other knows and only have their own experiences to go off of. In this way, through the multitude of relationships each character in each show exhibits, they offer many intriguing identities while remaining fully recognizable and familiar to the viewer.
The Pleasure in Dramatic Irony
The moment to live for in these shows is when a character with a rich backstory encounters another with a similarly complex history that they aren’t aware of. To each other, the two characters are like anyone else they might meet in passing but to the viewer their intermingling carries with it an immense meaning. This dissonance between what the characters know and what the viewer does is immensely important and pleasurable for a few reasons. Firstly, in the truest sense of the word pleasure, it makes the viewer feel good. Such a character interaction allows for the viewer to, in that moment, fill in the gaps for both characters and accurately gauge the implications of their exchange. This process makes use of their knowledge and familiarity of the show – it’s engaging and directly prompts the viewer to provide what they know.
When Toaru Majutsu no Index’s Accelerator meets the diminutive Tsukuyomi Komoe, she appears to him as she would appear to anybody walking by – a 135cm girl with an anxious demeanor. He doesn’t know that her appearance betrays her age or that she is a full-fledged teacher. He doesn’t know that she is the homeroom teacher of someone he would consider his arch-rival or that, as a non-esper, she was capable of performing magic in order to save the life of an injured nun. She doesn’t know that his hands are stained with the blood of countless people.
The viewer brings these things to the scene and through their insight can discern a potential danger in Komoe interacting with Accelerator that neither are aware of. They act civilly towards each other and in-line with their personalities yet the exchange is so much more than it appears for the viewer. This is the underlying purpose of dramatic irony but for it to be used so excessively and to such an extent, these shows take on a unique quality. When the interplay of over half the characters is like this, the cast becomes significantly more compelling.
The Convergence of Different Worlds
A fundamental part of almost all of these shows is that many of the characters who come into contact with one another are from vastly different worlds. This isn’t just to say that they are from different walks of life – that they were raised differently, or their motivations are different. It’s often a far more extreme divide that separates them. Take for instance Toaru Majutsu no Index once again. It’s entire premise revolves around the distcint reality that the world of science and the world of magic exist separately and in opposition of one another. What then happens when a character originating from the magic-side of the story intrudes upon the otherwise scientific narrative? Similarly, in the case of Baccano, there are mafia, gangsters, and thieves but within the same story exist alchemists and homunculi. They all play a key roll as the various interweaving stories unfold yet their backgrounds couldn’t be more different and this makes the cast’s chemistry with one another very interesting.
Narrative context aside, the characters exist within their own worlds in the same sense that everyone is the protagonist of their own story. Naturally, this is the entire purpose of Baccano and to some extent Durarara!! but the same can be said of most of the other selections as well. The characters in these shows feel storied – they feel like they have lives off-screen that we at times dip into for the sake of storytelling and character investigation. This effect is achieved through several distinct means. There is no literary rule that exists that states that two characters have to share dialogue or touch each other in order to interact and this first point speaks directly to that understanding. People can affect others in ways that they themselves aren’t aware of and in the same way, they can be unknowingly affected by others.
This, like many other elements of this sub-genre, further emphasize the show’s appeal through dramatic irony. Durarara!! is famous for this narrative style, often introducing the viewer and point-of-view character to an outlandish scenario without detailing how it came to be until later in the episode. Why several characters in Yozakura Quartet busy themselves with cleaning up a memorial site isn’t revealed until afterwards when you learn of a bout that took place there shortly beforehand, roughing up the setting and altering a previously highlighted environment. Through this narrative approach, the stories introduce an additional sense of mystery, discovery, and intrigue all while speaking to the independent lives of their characters.
The other way in which the viewer gains an extensive sense of the character, their personal story, and respective world is through the manner in which the show unfolds. More than a few of these shows feature scenes that take place at the same time as each other or stories that are told anachronically. The viewer quite literally sees the distinct worlds of the characters blur and bleed together as certain plots play out in the background of other scenes and influence each other as they transpire. There’s an authenticity to the proceedings in this way. Similar to how the characterization and interactions of the cast breath life into the characters, this method of storytelling legitimizes each persons’ narrative as much as the next, whether they’re a protagonist or a supporting character. Things don’t happen in isolation – their effect is clear on the characters and the setting. It feels like they are actually happening as opposed to only existing for the sake of narrative convention.
Were I too list more examples and fully detail all of the intricate ways in which these six shows behave, this would surely go on indefinitely. I’ve likely utterly romanticized the subject in how I’ve discussed it but hopefully this gives some insight into why I feel so passionately about these shows and the ways in which they are similar. Some of these shows exemplify certain things I’ve talked about more than others and something else to note is that none of these narrative techniques or character dynamics are unique to this sub-genre. Other stories and shows make plenty use of dramatic irony, anachronic storytelling, and extensive character relationships however perhaps none do so in quite the same way as these shows and most certainly not all at once.
In short, these six shows are interesting because they present large casts of characters with an emphasis on character relationships and the interplay between individual narratives. They possess memorable, character-driven dialogue, complex networks of interpersonal connections, and a strong sense of fictional authenticity about them. The way in which so many drastically different characters play off of one another is endlessly entertaining and gives these shows very likable casts. These characters and worlds feel alive due to the unique way in which the many different appeals of this genre snowball together into a surprisingly engaging format where seemingly everyone meets everyone.