Understanding Storytelling: Maturity and Realism

So in my Raging Rant about high school I said what the anime industry needed was more shows that are mature, shows that cater to slightly older demographic than the endless stream of high school shows.  And during the course of the post I brought up realism a number of times, usually as a mark of shows that did a better job at being mature.  But what I didn’t do over the course of that rant was explain, what realism and maturity entail, nor why I think they are related.  So of course I’m going to do that now, in a nice little follow up to the rant linked above.

Let’s start with realism since it’s definition is much less subjective.  Realism, for the purposes of storytelling, is about building believable worlds and characters usually by way of making everything messy and flawed enough to help us relate to them.  It doesn’t mean that the events in the story have to be limited to what is possible in our world, or that the setting can’t be fictional.  Here’s an example.  In a typical fantasy story one of the common character archetypes is the selfless knight.  In many cases the knight is a noble, selfless person simply because he is a knight.  Now it’s a widely accepted character archetype because many people were told this was how knights behaved both in stories and at school to the point where it was considered a normal understanding of knights.  But if you’re like me, and have an interest in history, you already know that the chivalrous knight stereotype is largely bullshit.  In fact most the rules of chivalry only apply when both parties were nobles, so knights could rape and murder the peasants whenever they damn well pleased.  But even without an interest or background in history, the selfless knight has a flaw if you think about him, he’s human.  And while some humans may be selfless I have yet to encounter a single social demographic or occupation in which the majority of people were selfless and chivalric.  This is why I consider the selfless knight to be an unrealistic character, sure knights and chivalry existed, but the way they are portrayed does not accurately showcase human nature which is a problem since knights are human.  By comparison if you made a knight character who frequently got drunk, occasionally lorded his power over the peons and acted like a dick whenever he wasn’t around his peers or people he wanted to impress, then I would say you’ve taken at least a step towards a more realistic character because that better portrays human nature.  The heart of realism, to me anyway, is its focus on flaws and the overall messiness of the world and the people who inhabit it.  Because I can relate to such a messy place better.  Let’s do another example that is more anime specific.

One of the greats among all the anime out there being watched is Neon Genesis Evangelion, and to a large degree I would say it owes that success to its realism.  Now as far as I know we  will never have an apocalyptic situation similar to NGE’s and if we ever did I doubt our solution would be to make Gundams and have teenagers pilot them.  So from the outset, much of NGE’s setting and story strain our suspension of disbelief.  But once you start watching, as you dig a little deeper, you’ll find that strain vanishes.  This isn’t because the story and setting have changed in any way, but because of how they are presented to us in the details.  The cast of NGE is full of flawed, damaged human beings who behave like flawed, damaged human beings.  It explores real psychological issues, like the hedgehog’s dilemma for Shinji or Asuka’s need to be recognized as an adult.  Moreover everyone has to balance their various mental problems while trying to be professionals doing a super dangerous and important job.  Now I admit, I’ve never had to deal with say, a period while piloting an awesome robot like Asuka, but I do know what it’s like to show up for work, or class, or whatever when I feel like shit, or when I have more pressing personal issues I’d rather take care of.  And because I have those experiences, I can better relate to Asuka, and the other major cast members because many of their problems.  I can understand how they think and act better, and because of all of this, I can get more invested in these characters as people.  This is fucking huge.  Because if I’m invested in the characters I will also get more invested in the rest of the story.  And keeping the audience invested is worth more than all the budget in the world.  Another thing that makes NGE so memorable compared to the countless mecha shows out there is that it was more grounded science.  In NGE there are no friendship trumps all, nakama power-up asspulls, it generally takes human ingenuity and the power of science to overcome every trial.  Because of this NGE can get away with some of the most insane battle plans and make it all feel believable, in sort of “well it seemed reasonable at the time”scenarios.  The realism that NGE provided in the characters was also placed into all the other aspects of its story, this is what makes NGE a classic.  It’s not just because of the infamous budget problems, cool action and weird happenings, it’s because of how they and the rest of the story are all strung together.  Which brings us to maturity.

Maturity is much harder to define, mainly because most people have no idea what it means, so there’s no consensus on what makes something mature.  For many people the operating definition of maturity is things which are not for children.  Which is fine insofar as I agree that maybe five year old Jimmy shouldn’t be playing Grand Theft Auto or five year old Suzy isn’t ready for that steamy lesbian sex scene in some movie.  But anything “not for kids” isn’t necessarily mature.  Here’s an example.  In theory at least Family Guy is an adult comedy which children shouldn’t watch.  But Family Guy isn’t exactly mature is it?  The humor is crude, vulgar and childish.  It’s mostly sex jokes, jokes about topical subjects and slapstick humor.  In short Family Guy is not mature even though it’s not for kids.  So you can see how this working definition is a problem.  Naturally I have a better definition, one which has no consensus to draw on and therefore will take more time to narrow down.  To me a mature story is one that expects a lot from its audience, it expects us to be engaged enough to be thinking about the story as it unfolds and doesn’t hold our hands with excessively linear plot structures or by announcing its themes.  For example I would say that Gatchaman Crowds Insight is a show that isn’t fully mature despite its rather ambitious and thought-provoking themes, because it spells out the themes for the audience and even sort of provides some answers to the inherent questions raised by the themes it was pursuing.  By comparison NGE is a mature show because it presents the audience with deep, ambitious themes and leaves it to us to figure out our own answer based on what we know and what we saw.

Another thing I think makes stories mature is that the themes they tackle are unsettling.  There’s nothing wrong with trying to teach people the value of friendship and willpower that you get in the shounen genre.  But the key here is that the show is trying to teach the audience something instead of present them with a question for them to answer on their own.  I’m not saying that a show with light themes can’t be profound and mature, I just think it’s a lot easier to do it with darker themes because those generally make for more unsettling questions.  Questions that a certain portion of the audience will always shy away from, either consciously or sub-consciously.  Take Casshern Sins for example.  Casshern Sins is a show that displays a very dim view of humanity at both the individual level and as a species.  Most people, or shall we say for the purpose of this post immature people, probably don’t want to see questions about the human condition and the nature of humanity in a grim view or otherwise.  So they don’t, they probably thought it was just a gritty, depressing robot show and that was that because the show never told them it was about showcasing a dark view of human existence.  And at first glance there is no reason to suspect that Casshern sins is about such a mature thing, I mean all the characters are robots.  But if you pay attention and watch enough of it, you’ll see some of what I’m getting at.  Sure all the characters are robots but they all behave like human beings, or at least like a portion of humanity would behave if we had to deal with living in a world that is almost dead and rife with plague.  And because everything in the story works towards portraying the unsettling themes it represents, voila you have a mature show.  I realize that mature is highly subjective and in all likelihood, a show which expects a lot of the viewer and asks unsettling questions, probably doesn’t quite cover it.  But in my experience these are two most common aspects of mature stories, along with a third element, realism.

So to tie everything I’ve been talking about together in nice, neat little bow, it’s time to talk about how realism lends itself to mature shows.  Now I don’t think it’s impossible to have a show which is both mature and doesn’t incorporate realism, and I know for a fact a show with realism will not automatically be mature, but I do think they go together well.  Jumping back to Casshern Sins, one of the reasons the unsettling questions posed by the story’s themes are as powerful as they are is because the characters behave like people.  They may be robots but they have enough humanity, both in their flawed actions and messy backstories, that I can get invested in them as people.  If I couldn’t do that there is no doubt in my mind that Casshern Sins would have been a much weaker show.  Likewise I would say that NGE became that classic that it is because even amid it’s scientific, realistic world and characters, it was able to incorporate potent religious symbolism because doing so allowed it present themes that have unsettled us since we started really thinking.  Both of these shows are enriched by their realism and they also can only reach the deepest depths of their unsettling themes because we had the realism grounding the more “normal” parts of the show.  Above all I think that the mess, flaws and overall believability that results from skillfully used realism will benefit a show trying to portray mature themes.  Because if the fictional world and characters better mirror our own world and ourselves, the unsettling nature of the themes will cut deeper and find greater meaning to us personally than they would in other circumstances.  And I think that, a story with care and craft enough to enable us to find personal meaning in said story, is a major part of what mature storytelling is all about.

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3 thoughts on “Understanding Storytelling: Maturity and Realism

  1. We have had a couple in the past I suppose. Usually in the OVA’s the anime characters hit 18, but I see what you mean. Then the point about maturity and age was a good point. I suppose realistically since anime is pretty much the new kid on the comic block it is possible that it has not reached that yet because the generation that started actually reading manga as far as the US goes (since the US has a really strong market) were born in the late 80’s and beyond. Great argument though. Love it.

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    • Couple of anime that are for mature audiences is what I meant by my first sentence like cowboy bebop, DBZ, you maybe able to count Zoids, Inyuyasha and the Gundams if you look at the setting and world. Black Lagoon and say Hellsing. Just to name a few.

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