FEATURE: Why It Works: “Saga of Tanya the Evil”‘s Snappy Cuts

Last week I offered a brief list of recommendations for the winter season, highlighting the shows I was most impressed by in their first episodes. You’ll notice that Saga of Tanya the Evil didn’t make that list, which was intentional – I actually found Tanya’s first episode very unappealing. The base concept of “fascist little girl murders people” doesn’t really do anything for me, and the show seemed to delight in violence and sociopathic cleverness (think Light Yagami) in a way that always turns me off.


So of course, I obviously had to spend a good hour this week catching up on all the Tanya so far.


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Tanya’s second and third episodes impressed me in ways the first episode didn’t even hint at. Its premise was revealed to be a lot sharper than I expected, and even though Tanya herself is still a repellent character, the show seems to actually understand she’s repellent. She’s even evil in a way that’s far more relevant to our modern world – she’s a me-first modern capitalist transposed back to a World War I-esque setting specifically because God thinks she deserves punishment.


But silly premise aside, much of my enjoyment of Tanya comes down to the fact that it’s just fun to watch. And as always, when I call something “fun to watch,” that thing better watch out. “Fun” isn’t an indefinable, intangible variable – it’s the result of conscious artistic choices. For Tanya specifically, those choices include a snarky sense of humor, genuinely character-infused dialogue, a style of fights that’s inherently, charmingly ridiculous, and some really snappy direction. To give one small example, and to finally arrive at my topic today, Tanya is very good at abusing its shot transitions, or “cuts.”


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Every element on the screen in a given shot offers some kind of information, whether it’s telling us something about the characters, attempting to create a sense of scale or motion, or trying to hit a specific emotive tone. But a show’s ability to convey information and create tone doesn’t end with exactly what is put on screen – the sequencing of that information can be just as important. A series of quick cuts can create the sensation of frantic motion, while a transition between two seemingly unrelated objects can imply a connection without a word. Just like how the “negative space” between the panels of a comic still contains action and information, so too do the transitions between shots in a show or film offer context and content.


Of course, not all cuts are instilled with great significance and, in a flatly directed show, scenes may simply transition from one to the next when the characters have finished all their lines. But Tanya’s third episode had three separate cuts that stood out to me, each with their own clear dramatic intent. The first comes early, and is likely the most recognizable kind of motivated cut. Tanya’s whole goal in the military is to find herself a safe, convenient job on the back lines, and when she learns she’ll be working as an instructor and equipment tester, she believes she’s made it. But one of the big appeals of Tanya is “everything sucks for our terrible protagonist,” and so no sooner has she expressed her gratitude than the shot jumps from her meeting with a superior to her spinning through the sky, trapped at the whims of the Empire’s crazed head engineer.


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It’s a transition style I’m certain most of you have seen before. By matching the overall shot composition and keeping the camera focused on Tanya’s face, the show makes a setup of her complacency in the first scene, and a punchline of her terror in the second. It’s particularly effective in this show because one of Tanya’s principle jokes is “Tanya believes she has it all figured out, but here comes God again.” The show could have transitioned between these two scenes in any number of ways, but by linking the transition to Tanya’s perspective visually, it makes the sequence a clear joke at her expense, while also emphasizing her fundamental lack of control. A simple joke, but one constructed entirely out of a necessary transition, keeping things both funny and speedily paced.


The episode’s second noteworthy cut is actually a pair of cuts, coming just after Tanya gets blown out of the sky. Cursing the head engineer, Tanya swears she’s done with his experiments, and the two argue as Tanya storms off the tarmac, through the research facility, and into the personal quarters. Those transitions are all framed as a series of “wipe” cuts – cuts where a line essentially crosses the screen and replaces the scene, like a curtain being drawn.


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Wipe cuts aren’t terribly common outside of Star Wars, and there’s a good reason – they generally look pretty hokey, and tend to draw awkward attention to themselves. It’s a rare production that wants to draw attention to its own sequential artifice, and wipe cuts tend to look self-consciously theatrical in an undesirable way. But here, that sense of theatricality actually works, as this is an inherently goofy conversation. On top of that, the fact that this scene is constructed as one running dialogue conducted across two wipe cuts emphasizes the sense that this is a near-endless conversation that we’re only seeing in summarized form. By sequencing this exchange across a series of wipe cuts, Tanya is able to emphasize the long-running adversarial relationship between these two characters through transitions alone.


The last noteworthy cut of the episode comes near the end, as Tanya boards a train to study at the capitol. In the leadup to this scene, we see a group of generals at the capitol discussing what’s to be done about the war, ending in the reveal that a new strike unit is about to be established. As our viewpoint character ducks out of that conversation, he opens a door… and then the show immediately cuts to the opening of a different door, as Tanya gets in her carriage. By juxtaposing that narrative resolution against Tanya’s appearance, and tying them together through the framing device of a door opening, the show implies Tanya’s fortunes without directly stating anything. It’s another classic trick, but it’s a staple because it’s effective, and it once again reveals the power of cuts alone to convey narrative information.

 

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So yeah, it seems like Tanya’s a pretty smartly constructed show. Small tricks like this are fine on their own, but a pattern of purposeful, active direction decisions makes Tanya feel generally propulsive, often self-deprecating, and consistently entertaining. Even the smallest execution choices aren’t just random decisions – every element of production is a resource waiting to be used.

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Nick Creamer has been writing about cartoons for too many years now, and is always ready to cry about Madoka. You can find more of his work at his blog Wrong Every Time, or follow him on Twitter.