In the last blog post I posted about my troubles with reviewing anime, I was trying to get my finger on why I was finding it a bit difficult to write anime reviews that actually made sense of the madness that tend to pervade that medium. As I continue to wrestle with those bits of self-doubt as an online critic, I then watched a video that helped me make more sense of it all. It was just a matter of getting back to the basics of storytelling, which is something I had been struggling with as a writer for years.
Perhaps the reason why I couldn’t make more sense of stories in anime is due to not having that clear of a sense of what makes a story interesting other than just putting blinders on to not be distracted by the typical anime bullshit that tends to irk me at times. I did understand that it all went back to the protagonist and how his/her story is told in each episode, so at least I haven’t entirely been a lost cause.
Most people who read my stuff regularly say that I do get most of the big talking points down in my anime reviews, but I still sense that something is off. Whenever I write a game review, I tend to get the sense for that title in question quite easily since I had been writing game reviews since 2008. Anime reviews have been a learning experience for me at a time when I thought I’ve hit a roadblock too big to get around.
Let’s focus on the two main arguments presented in the video, and I’ve done my best to add more supporting points to strengthen each of them.
Originality Being Overrated
The much talked about misconception among artists and writers who want to create something good, but can’t due to apprehension and analysis paralysis, is the idea that the concept for a new work has to be entirely original in order to do well. Whenever those people come across something interesting, they would whine about how they weren’t able to think of it first and scraps whatever plans they may have had. This is the wrong attitude to creating since that person will just not create and finish anything of value as a result.
To counter this, we look to the king of copying tropes Quentin Tarantino, who said something along the lines of, “Don’t strive to be original; strive to be genuine,” (or maybe it was someone else). In any case, if complete originality was the requirement to make something worthwhile, then almost nothing will get made. In reality, everything is pretty much the revamping and reconfiguring of something else.
I found this quote in some film review blog (that weirdly had everything in all-caps), and it was quite profound.
“We all have the natural instinct to be cool. It’s all part of the human inclination to be accepted… Remember the kid on the playground who tries to be cool instead of genuine? Yeah, it often goes poorly.”
It’s not about whether something is original, but if it’s not a blatant copy and if it’s not flimsy. There needs both depth and structure in a concept to make it work, which is not easy to pull off. We’ve already seen enough anime with lackadaisical regard for structure due to its overemphasis on being original. With video games, Final Fantasy XIII is a big example of this. As for anime, just about everything that looked original but you’ve now forgotten is what that is.
Mistakes with the Main Character
This is what make the video really good at what it is trying to do. People may know of this, but it does bear reminding since most tend to forget something like this due to all the bullshit that tends to cover up the more basic aspects of a fictional work. A lot of things go through the protagonist, but so many get it so wrong on so many levels; fucking up what’s supposed to be a big part of storytelling fundamentals.
“The main character doesn’t have a flaw.”
When something looks more like badly-written fanfiction than professionally-done work, it certainly goes out the window and into the gutter. One of the easiest ways to ruin a story is to have a Gary Stu or Mary Sue (all-powerful character with no flaws) as a protagonist (the other is to jump the shark), and I’ve read enough bad fanfiction to know what to look for. It’s alright for a story to be a bit of a power fantasy, but even Superman has his Kryptonite.
As far as my review process is concerned, this one is nothing new since I’ve always hated omnipotent main characters (maybe a bit too much since I don’t really like superhero comics). In anime, Kirito of Sword Art Online is often pointed as a prime example of this.
“The main character does have a flaw, but he/she overcomes it too early.”
The video showed the first episode of Kekkai Sensen as an example, and it pretty much hits the nail on the head. Perhaps those types of anime try to play on the audience’s need for an all-capable character, but they already have that with Sword Art Online. But since having no internal conflict within the protagonist can kill the story, perhaps some writers have thought that if they can put the resolution of the protagonist’s self-doubt early on, that still counts and the rest of the story can show him/her getting better.
But still, having that resolution way too early means that the story and the main character have changed. Doing that right at the first episode is clumsy, not to mention that anime tend to use the cliche of having them reach that crucial moment of finding new strength either by having them standing up to the villain with a smirk and a confidence that previously wasn’t there or having them scream at the top of their lungs and go for an all-or-nothing banzai charge that somehow works. Watching that happen over and over again is getting rather tiring.
“The main character is forced to drive the story by him/herself.”
Well, that’s kind of true, but not in the way that most people think. There’s the concept of everyone being the hero in their own story, but few of them actually understand that what makes their life interesting is not who they are, but what they do to overcome obstacles. However, they don’t get that by shutting themselves out from the rest of the world. (That’s actually the main reason why this website was created in the first place.)
In any kind of character-driven story, the main character’s trials and tribulations are what make up the meat of the narrative. However, it’s not just about the problems and conflicts themselves, but where they come from. Thus the true driver of the story is not the main character, but the villain — the main source of adversity and the reason why the main character must rise up and become stronger.
This does make complete sense. For example, in Rurouni Kenshin, the reason why Kenshin Himura had to go back to his estranged master to learn the final parts of the Hiten Mitsurugi style is to stop Makoto Shishio from fulfilling his conquest of Japan. That threat was also the reason why Sanosuke Sagara learned the Futae no Kiwame from Anji the Mad Monk so that he could actually help his friend Kenshin and not be a burden in fights.
(I guess you can only understand that if you’ve actually watched the Rurouni Kenshin anime. If your only exposure is the movie trilogy, I feel sorry for you. That third movie was a complete travesty.)
This post was written as a way to consolidate all these new things learned from that video, as well as revelations acquired from other sources and from taking time in thinking about all of this. While in the last entry, I was still sort of apprehensive about my ability to review anime at a reasonable capacity, this one ends with a lot more confidence.
Perhaps all I really needed to do was to get back to the basics of storytelling. The good thing about this is it doesn’t only apply to anime, but to just about every medium out there as well. Thanks to the AnimeAddicts YouTube channel for the great video.