Just over four and a half minutes into the short film, paneling appears in Doukyuusei.
First, the hands of guitarist Hikaru Kusakabe appear in an isolated panel, centered over black. Next, his band is shown with the lead singer thrashing wildly, the drummer’s hands and hair nearly a smear in the background. Finally, Hikaru is shown again, isolated and still, save his strumming hands.
In this moment, he’s thinking of his classmate — and soon-to-be significant other — Rihito Sajou. The band moves around him, but he’s lost in his own world, as shown by isolating his moving fingers in a panel and later, his still body in a full frame. Paneling is used a few times in Doukyuusei, always to display heightened emotion or to draw attention to the feelings of a specific character. It reminded me of the currently-airing series Scum’s Wish, which uses paneling as its primary visual technique.
Paneling is hardly new to anime — after all, anime is directly tied with manga and drawn cartoons which use panels to simulate movement or draw attention to a specific emotion. Masaaki Yuasa’s Ping Pong: The Animation served as my personal introduction to the technique in anime and uses panels as a way of heightening emotions or adding extra, physical, facets to a scene — while presumably cutting costs.
Ping Pong‘s paneling efficiently amplifies emotion in a given scene, emphasize movement, and adds in pertinent details through establishing/pillow shots or audience reactions. While using the latter, it even draws on flashbacks or memories, splicing them with moments in real time. Some of the series most poignant moments come in panels, especially during Yutaka “Peco” Hoshino’s emotional narrative.
This also heightens viewer awareness of movement within a panel, again, adding nuance. By physically freezing the animation and restarting it in the specific framework of a panel, Ping Pong ensures that you cannot look away while the action unfolds. The technique is sometimes more effective in conveying motion than animating the entirety of a high-stakes ping pong match on the ones.
Airing this season, Scum’s Wish is a series that deals in emotional currency between teenagers and adults alike, all trying to navigate their way around their own feelings. Director Masaomi Andou — whose work I loved in Gakkou Gurashi/School Live — frequently uses paneling as a narrative device throughout the series.
Paneling even appears in the opening sequence. Hanabi Yasuraoka and Mugi Ayawa sit back-to-back on the school rooftop — a fairly traditional school romance scene by anime standards. Both appear stiff and uncomfortable. Hanabi lowers her head slightly and a panel appears on the left with a closeup of her sad and distant countenance. Her sadness is all the more palpable for the slight head movement followed by the focus on her facial expression.
This is Andou’s most common use of paneling in Scum’s Wish. It separates a person’s face from their words — even if those words are an internal monologue that only the viewer can hear — and individuals from each other.
In the above sequence, Hanabi bumps into one of her teachers, Akane Minagawa, scattering papers on the floor. Well aware that the object of her own affection, childhood friend Narumi Kanai, is romantically interested in Akane, Hanabi simply stares at her and glares. Another student, Mugi Awaya, steps in front of Hanabi, picks up the papers, and smiles at Akane. The two chat, their short talk revealing that Akane knows Mugi personally.
The panel starts with Akane and Mugi, isolated as Akane cartoonishly frets over forgetting to address Mugi as Awaya, since he is a student and she is his teacher. Then, a panel appears on the right with Hanabi observing the scene. Lastly, a panel appears on the left revealing a small, sad smile on Mugi’s face. Three separate story beats telling us definitively that, Mugi and Akane know each other (one), Hanabi realizes that Mugi is not just another student with a crush on Akane (two), because his face is full of unrequited love resembling her own (three).
Andou’s touch isn’t always as deft as it could be, but he’s remarkably graceful at other times in Scum’s Wish, making us feel the characters’ emotions in ways that few series that tackle similar themes are capable. He’s at his best when the paneling is combined with full shots that reinforce the isolation that panels naturally give a scene.
Pictured above is the scene where Hanabi realizes that Narumi is actually in love with Akane. Bouncing into the classroom, giddy with excitement to see Narumi, she jokingly calls him, “big brother” before the school-appropriate moniker of “teacher.” Scum’s Wish zooms in on her eyes widening before cutting to Narumi and Akane laughing warmly in the center of the classroom. Here paneling is used to narrow Hanabi’s focus. When she opens the door and looks in the classroom, this is what she sees. Their visible enjoyment of each other’s company is all Hanabi sees, especially through the internal filter made of her own feelings for Narumi.
The next shot is actually the one that brings the entire scene together and makes it all the more isolating for Hanabi from our perspective. She is shown in the background through the gap between Akane and Narumi in the foreground. Only Hanabi is in focus. The scene composition mirrors the paneling shot that came before, making the message abundantly clear — Akane and Narumi are together, Hanabi is alone.
It was this combination of focused, paneled frames and larger full frames in Scum’s Wish that came to mind while watching Doukyuusei. When comparing the two, Doukyuusei director Shouko Nakamura is a bit more adept at creating nuanced situations by using paneled frames more sparingly — although in similar fashion — and often reserving them for establishing shots like these two water bottles.
The above scenes are from Mawaru Penguindrum Episode 17, which Nakamura storyboarded and directed in 2011. Although it’s not paneling in the true sense — as she uses in Doukyuusei — Nakamura is visibly playing with panels, constructing three distinct staging areas from the fabric store where Ringo Oginome and Himari Takakura shop.
Nakamura continues using landscapes to construct false panels in Doukyuusei, purposefully dividing the larger canvas to isolate leads Hikaru and Rihito. More often than not, it’s used to bring Hikaru and Rihito together and isolate them as a couple from the rest of the world. In other cases, like the third example above, paneling isolates them from each other.
Because Nakamura uses panels more sparingly, it makes the scenes where she does use them all the more potent.
Hikaru’s slight glance at Rihito as the boys assemble for their school choir performance is a small movement that is steeped in longing due to the manner in which they’re framed. Rather than simply glancing at his crush in a full shot, Hikaru appears after Rihito and the two are separated into equal panels on the screen. With this physical barrier imposed by Nakamura’s direction, Hikaru looking at Rihito across the divide is that much more intense.
Nakamura has more extensive directorial credits — and, as an aside, Nakamura and Andou have never worked together directly that I could find — than Andou. Her story of a burgeoning romance between two high school boys is just as, for lack of a better word, mature as Andou’s introspective teenaged melodrama but the former trends more towards nuance while the latter uses paneling to put Hanabi and others’ feelings in rotating spotlights.