My grudge against nighttime scenes

A small point that I appreciated in Ballad of a Shinigami is how it handled its nighttime scenes, but it was so minor that I felt it would be a stretch to include as a full reason. The anime doesn’t even really do anything that special.

The screen is just tinted a dark blue to communicate to the viewer that it’s night. Notice how there are no apparent light sources in this scene. Kouta has a flashlight that is turned off and there are no streetlights or lamps anywhere in view, yet we are still able to clearly make out our characters and even the surrounding environment & buildings. That would seem like basic sense, but more and more often I find myself watching anime or playing video games where “dark” places or nighttime scenes are almost pitch black.

I had to turn my brightness all the way up and use the snipping tool overlay to realize that this screenshot above is meant be some creepy, derelict house. This is from season 2 of Mob Psycho 100, by the way, which is generally a good-looking anime with strong art direction. This nighttime scene in episode 3, however, was exasperating to sit through and neatly shows off how unreasonably pitch-black Ballad of a Shinigami could have been.

I’ve heard two arguments for this. Some argue that it’s realistic for a scene where no light sources are present to be as dark as possible. Go out into an old forest at night and just see how well you’ll do without a flashlight. In a way I get it, but that’s more of an argument for live-action entertainment, and doesn’t even necessarily hold up there. A theater wouldn’t just keep the stage entirely unlit because that’d be realistic, and any director worth their salt would prioritize making scenes look good over making them look realistic. Somebody with more experience in critiquing movies than I illustrated this to me just recently, by showing off just how well-lit and visually-pleasing the Battle for Helm’s Deep in Lord of the Rings is, in spite of the visible light sources being nothing more than a few torches.

And this is anime! Fuck Realism! I watch anime specifically because I want to see cool animation that doesn’t have to abide by the boring reality we live in. You could make your scene as bright and colorful as you’d like. Nobody would be a nitpicker over how realistic it’d be.

Screenshot by Reddit user /u/Adernain

The second argument is that this is for atmosphere, which I… how? How is just pure nothing atmosphere? I can’t feel scared or tense about what I am watching when I literally can’t make out what I am watching.

Anime is already not exceptionally well-suited to horror, but when I think back of the best horror scenes out there, none of them stand out for just being dark. The torture scenes from Higurashi, the uncanny, abstract Witch Labyrinths of Madoka Magica, the slowly unfolding mystery of Memories, or the finale of the 1997 Berserk adaptation. All of them are dense in atmosphere, specifically because their visuals are so clear.

When I see scenes that are entirely dark, my first impression isn’t “wow, what an atmosphere” but “wow, I wonder what they’re trying to hide”. I used to see it in a lot bottom-tier shows like Mushi-Uta, where it was probably safe to assume that scenes were dark so they didn’t have to draw backgrounds or could cheap out on the animation. That’s why it disappoints me so much when I see these shenanigans pop up in awesome shows like Mob Psycho 100, but also why it’s especially nice when a smaller show like Ballad of a Shinigami goes the extra mile to make its night scenes look good.

6 Comments Add yours

  1. Karandi says:

    I’m with you. I don’t want realism to the point where I can’t see what is happening. I want my night-time scenes to still have sufficient colour and contrast that I know what is going on even if it isn’t exactly true to life.

  2. Very good point and I’m very much with you. Besides, isn’t there tons of other ways to convey atmosphere in a night/evening scene than just making it… dark beyond seeing?

    1. Casper says:

      This is pretty funny considering your username.

      1. So I should know, really.

  3. momomanamu says:

    Yeah, I completely agree. My eye sight isn’t great anyway, so when anime is too dark or too anything so I can’t see it properly I just get frustrated. There are just so many ways that an anime can convey “darkness” besides blacking out the screen.

  4. Merlin says:

    AGREED.

    Used right, darkness can be effective for all sorts of effects, much like when what we don’t see is at least as powerful as what we do. However, there are so many times when it can get… so… freaking… RIDICULOUS! We rely on our eyes to convey the most information to us, so if they want us to understand what they are showing us, then, to point out the obvious, WE NEED TO BE ABLE TO FREAKING SEE IT! What is it about this very simple concept that people WHO MAKE VISUAL STORIES find so difficult to understand?