The spaces in between

The non-verbal storytelling of Zankyou no Terror

I mentioned on Twitter while watching the third episode of Zankyou no Terror (Terror in Resonance, ZnT) about the “non-verbal storytelling” in it and felt that it needed some elaboration because it’s something that is rare to find in anime.

The easiest way of describing the technique of non-verbal storytelling is that it’s what comes between what is shown and what is told in a visual medium. Video games often opt for “environmental” storytelling whereby the locale of a player informs them about what happened there. With linear, directed narratives like anime and film, stories can be told in everything from shot composition, colour scheme, editing decisions through to body language and character expressions (just “acting” when it comes to live action). For more on composition and colour scheme in ZnT, I highly recommend SeHNNG’s post on A&V which is an excellent read on the subject.

It’s perhaps important to understand that non-verbal storytelling is at its best when it isn’t noticed, so pointing out a lot of instances of it can elicit a “well duh” response which is more-or-less the point. Its nature is to bolster and enhance without being overbearing because the “non-verbal” part is equivalent to “not explicit” which, when taken to the extremes, gives you arthouse quiescence (I’m looking at you Angel’s Egg and Mamoru Oshii). In Zankyou no Terror’s case though, I wanted to frame it as character study into Lisa who, despite her secondary nature thus far, is likely going to be the lens through which we see the majority of Nine and Twelve’s story.

The first shot that we see of Lisa isn’t the pool scene but the opening animation which has her in two scenes: behind a chain-link fence and running. The former gives rise to thoughts of barriers and separation, the latter poses the question of “what from” or “where to”. I’ve said before how good openings spoil their series but aren’t exposed as doing so until later, and ZnT’s opening is rife with imagery that is bound to be important as the story progresses.

Regardless, the pool scene: even that initial distant shot it’s obvious what’s going on. The bare feet though are foreshadowing for a scene in the third episode, just as the theme of edges and leaping are established. It’s what happens next though, that makes it clear that this isn’t just a one time event and she’that Lisa has internalised what is being done to her by making excuses and justifying what’s about to happen. After Twelve jumps into the pool though, we have the lovely benefit of a scene cut so we don’t see the no doubt awkward conclusion to that situation.

Fast forward to the school trip and even before Lisa runs to the toilet we see her spot Twelve with a brief look of happiness, followed immediately by silent resignation - despite her feeling that Twelve saved her before, she doesn’t approach him despite obvious willingness. The scene in the toilet is the second part of Lisa’s puzzle, and even without knowing it’s her mother behind all of the text messages, we can see just by volume that it’s borderline harassment or at least an abnormal situation.

The final section of the first episode then is the escape from the crumbling building. Having created her exit, she emerges from the smoke into the daylight and sees Twelve below her, beckoning. We hear her heart beat and see the different emotions cross her face: from shock to fear and finally courage as she jumps through the smoke and becomes an accomplice to Sphinx.

It’s at this point that we already know why Lisa chose to trust Nine and Twelve and jumped because we’ve already been made aware that she’s trapped: bullied at school and with an obviously fractious home life, she may have been in an imploding building but she chose to overcome despair for a chance to escape from her current life, even if it is with the terrorist duo. So whereas at the pool scene she hovered at the precipice of the diving block despite being pushed, here she jumped of her own volition.

As if to hammer home this point the ending shows Lisa plunged into water, slowly sinking only to be saved by a spindly hand before disappearing out of sight.

Lisa’s most important scenes bookend the second episode. The first being a homecoming to a distressed mother who, at first, it seems is just concerned about her daughter and the events of the day, but it becomes clear as she vigorously shakes Lisa and screams about leaving her that there is something unhinged about her concern. As Lisa runs to her room she hears the words of Nine: “There’s no turning back now”. This reinforces the last scene of the episode as she chases Twelve down the streets of Tokyo with his words: “You may be an accomplice, but you’re not one of us”, and just like that she’s right back to where she was before meeting the pair: trapped.

The third and fourth episodes complete this opening emotional arc for Lisa because she escapes from her current world and into a new one (more or less her words), ready for the remainder of the series.

So at the midpoint of the third episode we have a shot of her packing a bag - already indicating her intentions after we’ve been shown so many of her motivations; and again the doorway when we hear the plaintive call of her mother, there’s a moment of hesitation at leaving through that door, a moment when she could turn back but instead just runs, somewhat symbolically leaving that door open behind her.

The fourth episode sees her mother harassing her by phone just as miscreants on the street proposition her until she finally meets back up with Twelve, seeing the return of the fence as a figurative barrier, only unlike the opening this time she is on the same side of it as Twelve. He, meanwhile, only looks towards the light while Lisa is only seen in the darkness, before finally looking to the heavens with tears in her eyes. When Twelve saves her from the police officers - those who threaten to take her back to the life she is running from - the sequence of faces she pulls on the bike goes from fear - clutching close to Twelve - to relief, and finally release where we see her laugh and smile for the first time. Finally then, at the door to Twelve and Nine’s apartment, we see the result of that release as she succumbs to her fever, no longer needing to be stoic and soldier through it.

In just four episodes then we already know so much about a character who has barely spoken a page’s worth of dialogue. We know her circumstances, her family history, her desire for someone to rescue her and her inability to break out of the cycle of victimisation she’s trapped within. What’s more, it’s a fair assumption that regardless of what happens with Nine and Twelve (and the sumptuous Five), challenging that mentality will be the overriding theme to her emotional development. Lisa of course isn’t the only beneficiary of non-verbal storytelling, some of her limited scenes are even used to establish parameters for other characters, but with so much explicitly going on with everyone else, Lisa is the perfect recipient of what’s implicitly happening.

When going into so much detail on one show, it’s easy to feel like you’re over analysing things and perhaps reading details into places that don’t have any. With Shinichiro Watanabe though, or any director worth their salt, it’s difficult not to argue that all of this is evidence that it was thought out and planned and not just incidental. It’s only by comparison with other anime that you can see how rare it is and the skill involved; so rather than having a blunt voice over about running away, Lisa is just shown doing it and it’s only after the fact that it is confirmed. Similarly so it’s shown that she views Twelve and Nine as an escape, yet only afterwards, when her escape has failed, is this admitted.

It’s a brave technique because it asks the audience to be engaged with the ongoing events rather than just a passive consumer and it demands a level of intelligence that, in all fairness, a lot of anime don’t need. If anything, that just makes them easier to watch, but Zankyou no Terror has so many amazing things going on with it, non-verbal storytelling being just one, it’s hard not to be thoroughly enthralled by it all.

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