Here, I wish to examine an animated scene in depth, with a focus on exploring the creative techniques used to raise tension throughout the sequence. Mob Psycho 100 is a currently-airing anime series, adapted from creator ONE’s original manga. In terms of visuals it is notable for its distinct aesthetic and its stylistic experimentation, for example including sequences of paint-on-glass animation. Its protagonist, an unassuming middle-school boy named Mob, has incredibly strong psychic powers linked to his emotions but is reluctant to unleash them. The show employs a device taken from its source manga, where there is a counter that appears every so often charting Mob’s feelings from 0 to 100% – the point at which he ‘explodes’.
This device is intriguing as it inherently suggests a certain amount of suspense in the scenes where it appears. The scene I will analyse, then, is the first time in the series that Mob’s counter climbs all the way to 100%. The viewers have been waiting to see what happens at that point, and that makes this scene important in how it handles that suspense and rising tension – if it had failed to do so effectively, the show would have lost a key moment to excite and intrigue its audience.
The scene in question: Mob gets lured to a cult gathering, where everyone is suspiciously euphoric. The cult leader, Ekubo, is psychic himself and controlling his followers’s minds to force them to feel happy. He tries to rope Mob into the cult too by attempting to make him laugh. This raises an interesting situation where the antagonist is trying to escalate the situation further and further as he gets more desperate, while the protagonist is actively trying not to let the scene escalate. This creates a push-pull effect around which character is controlling the scene, with rising tension which is then held at a plateau before rising again. Ekubo is trying to move Mob; Mob wants to remain unmoveable.
At this point, when Ekubo himself directly confronts Mob in a milk-drinking contest, Mob’s counter is at 58% due to previous events inching it upwards. I will largely exclude the wider establishing shots of the scene, in order to focus on the shots that show the characters’ frame of mind. The confrontation begins with close-ups looking up Ekubo and down at Mob, which is usually used to convey dominance in scene composition:
However, Mob is visibly unaffected, not even bothering to lift his head to account for the camera angle. (Incidentally, the protagonist being selectively immune to the story’s own dramatic devices is a feature ONE’s adapted works have in common.) Despite the camera angles then, they are equal at this point. Ekubo aspires to control the scene but does not yet, and Mob is defiantly unmoving. Then we have an extreme close up of Ekubo, clearly planning something.
This acts as anticipation for [this sequence], a fantastic transition to paint-on-glass animation which itself goes from bright colours to a blue/orange contrast to a stark black and white. Following this, Mob flails around the shot, contrasting to his previous stillness. In forcing Mob to move, Ekubo takes control of the scene. But Mob then reacts – there is tension in his expression being hidden initially – and counteracts with his own extreme close shot, accompanied with fisheye distortion, and undoes Ekubo’s spell on everyone for a moment.
There follows a plateau in tension as Ekubo tries to figure out what happened and restores his power over the crowd. In-story, Mob is holding down his temper – but in terms of the storytelling Mob effectively halted the scene, trying to avoid the coming fight. This pattern begins again – extreme close up on Ekubo as anticipation, then the crowd grabs Mob and he is once again forced out of his stillness, being yanked across the shot:
Here something unexpected happens: Ekubo says something that strikes a chord with Mob, but which the audience doesn’t know the significance of yet. It’s the first time in the scene Mob is actually affected by something, but the audience is left in suspense as to why.
Suddenly there’s a flashback with an abrupt colour shift, and the scene is essentially suspended for a minute – the audience still does not have a full understanding, but Mob’s visible reactions shows the viewers that he’s starting to struggle, as does the abrupt reappearance of the counter:
Ekubo tries to escalate things even further, and we get a series of shots with wild and eccentric effects happening around the characters. Here I will note that I was expecting shot length to get a lot shorter and tighter, as is common in film cinematography – and there are more shorter shots as the tension in the scene mounts, however they are interspersed with many longer held shots too. I feel this is in part to add another dimension of exaggeration to the expression and gesture of the characters by holding on them – and then the fast-moving background textures and effects add motion and excitement to keep the scene feeling fast-paced, even when the characters themselves are relatively still:
Mob, still affected by the flashback we saw, tries to explain himself in an attempt to stop Ekubo’s escalation again. Ekubo, however, decides to use this as ammunition. A very distorted close-up anticipates that this attempt is going to be more insidious, and the next shots are all heavily skewed toward black and white in contrast to the previous bold colours shown above. Ekubo has realised force won’t move Mob, so he mocks and goads him instead – and this begins Mob’s losing control of his temper. The counter begins to recur more quickly, racing up toward 100%.
Shots of Mob are getting less literal because we’re seeing him being emotionally affected now. Compared to the vivid colours of Ekubo’s shots, Mob’s are now stark monochrome as he becomes more angry. Several stylistic changes in quick succession create a feeling of unpredictability – the higher the counter goes, the wilder the variance gets.
Now Ekubo reveals himself as a spirit and exits his host to fight Mob, getting his followers to pile on top of him. This third Mob is pushed around is the last before his breaking point – but the action is actually suspended again like with the earlier flashback. This time, a narrator explains the link between Mob’s emotions and his powers. This narration, and the last ticks of the counter, are the final touches of suspense for the audience, before the tension is released in the episode’s [climactic battle scene].