Today we'll explore the finer points of one of sweetness & lightning's most distinctive episodes!
Hey everybody! Saturday has come again, which means it’s time for one more edition of Why It Works. Today I’d like to talk about a show I haven’t covered before - that most heartwarming of cooking adventures, sweetness & lightning.
sweetness & lightning is not a hard show to understand. It’s a largely low-key exploration of close personal bonds, exploring both the traditionally familial relationship of Tsumugi and Kouhei and their mutual found-family relationship with Kotori. It treats small personal struggles with compassion and respect, centering episodes on issues like Kouhei not being able to find time to cook for his daughter, or her reaction to getting in a fight at school. It’s a fundamentally gentle show, one that loves its characters but also allows them to make a variety of very human mistakes.
But for all its general respect for its cast, sweetness & lightning has so far largely been framed from Kouhei’s perspective. Tsumugi’s poor diet and loneliness are not treated like her own problem to solve - they are a conflict presented to Kouhei, who must himself find a way to make his daughter happy. Even episodic conflicts like Tsumugi’s fight at school, while they present a very believable portrait of childhood drama, are ultimately framed as “Kouhei learning to better communicate with Tsumugi.” Like most similar shows aimed at an adult audience, sweetness & lightning favors the parental shoulder while portraying its parent-child relationship.
While that framing choice is a perfectly valid one, portraying all of the show’s conflicts from Kouhei’s even-keeled perspective can both lower the stakes of the drama and also result in an ultimately repetitive tone. Fortunately, sweetness & lightning’s seventh episode changes up this formula, as Kouhei’s sudden illness forces Tsumugi to take drastic action. And so we finally get an episode from Tsumugi’s perspective, complete with a whole variety of new aesthetic tricks designed to put us right there beside her as she ventures out into the world.
Some of these tricks are fairly obvious ones. sweetness & lightning’s visual storytelling is often fairly routine and functional, portraying the three main characters with level, mid-distance shots designed to convey closeness, but not much else. This is not a flaw; Kouhei is an adult man who is confident in his surroundings, and thus the world around him appears routine. But Tsumugi is a little girl, and so her adventure is framed very differently. Shots from high above emphasize the world as a huge and potentially unfriendly place, while other shots place us directly in her head, emphasizing whatever she is focusing on to make sure we understand her priorities. And as Tsumugi continues to explore her neighborhood, the shots only pull further and further away, ultimately dwarfing Tsumugi in the unfamiliar market surrounding her.
Additionally, much of this episode’s early storytelling is conveyed largely through wordless emotional resolutions by Tsumugi. As a young child, Tsumugi is making big, important decisions from very limited information. It’d take us out of the story if she started monologuing her feelings at us, and so instead, the progression of events in the apartment make her feelings clear visually. We see in clear narrative beats how she transitions from being reliant on Kouhei, to at a loss for what to do, to inspired by her magical girl idol, to committed to saving her father. Taking a child’s perspective returns the story to narrative fundamentals, in a sense - her actions are a clear progression of a single line of thought, unburdened by the complex insecurities or contradictory priorities of adulthood.
Later on, Tsumugi’s world is brought to life in a new way, as the camera fully embraces her fears and imagination. The sequence of Tsumugi walking between shark-infested waters is, in truth, fairly visually conservative (sweetness & lightning has been forced to tone down its consistent character acting since the very strong premiere, a common problem of full season shows), but it still helps to bring Tsumugi’s feelings home to the viewer.
More impressive than this sequence’s visual storytelling is its excellent pacing and sound design. This is clear in the shark sequence, as the show slows down to take the sidewalk march as seriously as she does, but also emphasized later on, in the open-air market. As Tsumugi hums a made-up song to herself, the background music actually works to match her melody. When she stops to inspect a vending machine, the music stops - when she moves again, it resumes. And when she is frightened by a man on a bike, the music cuts out entirely, letting her rushed breathing convey her clear panic and create a sense of claustrophobia. In this way, sweetness & lightning’s production matches the actual tempo of her feelings, creating a tangible connection with Tsumugi that’s consistent across multiple senses. The more holistically a production can convey its dramatic intent, the more that intent will be understood by the viewer in not just an intellectual, but visceral, emotional way.
Tsumugi’s adventure is a very long day, and it ends with one more classic kid activity - throwing a big old tantrum. I mentioned earlier that sweetness & lightning’s animation has somewhat dwindled over time, but the show is still able to pull it together for the big moments, and Tsumugi’s tantrum is a great one. Throwing her legs around wildly and accidentally kicking her dad in the face, Tsumugi is the ultimate believable child, making sure everyone knows none of her limbs are happy about being yelled at. After an episode dedicated to showing off the many ways anime can bring a child’s perspective to life, it’s nice to end on Tsumugi demonstrating her kid-ness in the silliest way possible.