Understanding Characters: The OP Male Lead

Overpowered characters are nothing new to anime, we all know this.  However in recent years, since the outrageous success of SAO really, the overpowered-as-fuck male lead has become both more prominent and more common.  There is at least one light novel adaptation starring some stupidly OP male lead every season now.  And holy fucking shit is it tiring to see these totally copy pasted OP 15 year old boys, most of whom are swordsmen (I seem to recall that one even had a male lead whose title was like the Fallen Black Swordsman because subtlety doesn’t exist to whoever wrote that particular character).  The appearance of these guys almost universally kills the shows they are in before the show even fucking starts.  This is in part because I rarely find this kind of character appealing, because you know I’m not 15 anymore, but also because their character construction is so barebones and formulaic, because they are designed as self inserts for young boys first and characters second most of the time.  Now that I think about I should write a Raging Rant (and I have, you can find it here) about these kinds of characters but for now I’m going to do the opposite, I’ll explain how to do the OP male lead without fucking it up.  There will be scattered spoilers, you have been warned.

Before I really get going on how to do this character right I’m going to examine one that started promising before falling flat on his ass.  I’m talking about Shiba Tatsuya from Mahouka Koukou no Rettousei, or The Irregular at Magic High School ( if you’re interested in the show I reviewed it here).   I’ve talked about Tatsuya before in a post about badasses, but I do feel what I said there bears repeating.  The biggest issue with Tatsuya doesn’t appear until late in the show, at which point he has snowballed so fucking much his attacks are on the scale of fucking nuke and he’s almost immortal.  Ok technically he was always almost immortal but that isn’t really shown until at least halfway through the show.  Anyway there were a number of reasons he worked for a while despite clearly being OP in comparison to his fellows.  For starters it was established in the very first scene that he has military experience, something other notably powerful magicians have and which would logically give him an edge over classmates without said experience even if it didn’t make him more powerful per se.  In a similar vein Tatsuya deliberately compensates for his weakness in traditional spellcasting (and it is established in no uncertain terms that he is not good at standard styles of spellcasting) by being really good at other things like martial arts or having a strong enough grasp of magic theory and related technology to be more creative in his own spellcasting.  All of these elements, along with more bullshit skills like his eyes that can see magic sequences, culminate in someone who is an experienced and competent fighter, more importantly it results a character who understands typical spellcasting and how to work around it.

What makes Tatsuya so troublesome for most of his early opponents is that, on top of his physical fitness and martial skill, he fights in such an unorthodox style no one knows how the fuck to counter it.  His friends and foes alike are flummoxed by his tactics and attacks because they are so far removed from what everyone else knows.  This is what initially sold me on the idea of Tatsuya, because not only do I find the idea appealing from a dramatic standpoint, it reminds of people who play the clearly unusual characters in fighting games or MOBAs and how hard it is to deal with people who are genuinely good at those characters for the same reason, their skill set is so different from the norm I don’t know it well and thus struggle to counter it.  The final reason that Tatsuya sort of works is that’s made clear he is not a natural spellcaster, his magical abilities were artificially created through a process that changed him at such a fundamental level he can barely feel human emotions anymore.  It’s implied that his more outrageous abilities are the result of him being made artificially into some kind of weaponized spellcaster, which works quite well actually.  It’s unfortunate that the creators just piled more and more powers and skills onto him, because it ruined him for me eventually.  However I do think the positive qualities are worth looking at because I’d love to see more “power fantasy”-type characters that are actually well written and are OP for interesting reasons, like Tatsuya initially was, instead of more fucking Kirito clones.

Another type of OP male lead I like is Ryner Lute of Densetsu no Yuusha no Densetsu, or Legend of the Legendary Heroes in English.  What makes Ryner work more than anything else is that his incredible power makes him a pariah.  As soon as almost anyone finds out about his eyes, the source of his power, they stop thinking of him as a human being.  None of Ryner’s actions ever suggest he intends any harm, but because of how destructive he potentially could be, he’s made into an outcast by default.  Ryner’s power basically comes in two stages, in the first stage he is in total control of himself and he can copy any magic he sees Kakashi style (which makes him an important intelligence threat because each country has totally different magic), in the second he loses control of his power and tears everyone and everything around him to pieces.  Keep in mind he did not earn or ask for this power, he was simply born with it.  Ryner is not a power fantasy character because he hates his power on some level, he want’s nothing more than laze about without a care in the world.  But the world refuses to allow him that peace because of something that is totally beyond his control, being born different.  I’d love to go on and on about Ryner Lute but since this post is primarily about characters who do fulfill a power fantasy, I thought it best to mention him and some of the cool aspects of his character in brief before moving onto the main subject of this post, Layfon Alseif of Chrome Shelled Regios.

For those who have never seen Chrome Shelled Regios, here’s a quick summary.  It’s set in a total wasteland where the atmosphere no longer supports human life.  So people live in these giant moving cities called Regios.  The outside world is populated by Filth Monsters, which are these big monsters that eat people and are really strong, and the Regios avoid them with the exception of Grendan, which is where Layfon comes from.  This is will be important in a second.  These Regios will occasionally battle each other for control of the mines that contain the materials that power them.  The people fighting in these Regios battles are a certain set of people called Military Artists.  These military artists use something called Kei, which kind of works like the early stages of Nen from HunterxHunter albeit way more generic and less detailed than Nen.  Anyway what does all of this have to with Layfon?  Well because of how all the details of the setting work out, Layfon is basically the perfect OP male lead (at least for a character of his age).  Chrome Shelled Regios has a lot of storytelling problems but Layfon is an incredibly well realized character, enough so that he carries the whole show for me.  Anyway let’s dig into Layfon.

For starters what makes Layfon work is that most of the show takes place in the Academic city of Zuellni, while Layfon is from Grendan.  Unlike normal Regios that avoid Filth Monsters, Grendan seems to be actively seeking them out.  This means people from Grendan, like Layfon, have way more experience in battle (and against far more dangerous foes than the enemies Zuellni’s students have ever faced) than any other military artists.   In addition it’s suggested that even among the people of Grendan, Layton is exceptionally talented and hard-working, he has to be in order to survive and help fund the orphanage he lives in, which is why he ends up as a Heavens Blade Receiver, one the 13 strongest people in Grendan.  So when Layfon ends up in Zuellni he’s so many leagues ahead of everyone that he seems irredeemably overpowered.  However it’s also shown in the first episode that he’s not the only Heavens Blade Receiver nor is he the strongest of that group.  It’s also established that even Heavens Blade Receivers have a hard time fighting Filth Monsters that have reached a certain level of maturity.  In other words, Layfon isn’t overpowered at all in the larger scheme of things, he only looks that way in Zuellni because Zuellni’s military artists are so weak.  In this way he can still fulfill the teenage power fantasy most of the time, since most of the time is spent in Zuellni, while still being a believable and internally consistent character that arose naturally from the setting.  More importantly, Layfon is not the type of dude who likes to show his power off.

Unlike say Kirito, or the Asterisks War’s Ayato, who have no qualms about using their ridiculous power all the time and who sometimes go out of their way to show said power off, Layfon is more than aware that is power level is freakish and he has no intention of revealing it.  He ends up doing so pretty early on anyway, but for a significant portion of the show he remains reluctant to get serious.  Layfon even confesses at one point that all military artists are like monsters compared to normal humans and that the Heavens Blade Receivers are monsters compared military artists, making Layfon a monster among monsters, which is an idea I generally like.  In a similar vein Layfon’s outlook on life is both strangely aloof and removed while also exceedingly human.  He is able to the view world and people around him from the position of a total outsider thanks to his inhuman power level, but at the same time he grew up in an orphanage and understands how desperately humans can struggle to survive or protect their home and/or position.  Despite the fact Layfon is the same age Kirito and Ayato he is demonstrably more mature and self-aware than those two could ever hope to be.  He understands his unusual position, how different he really is from normal people, and rather than simply rely on his massive power, he tries to find other ways to grow as a person.  And while I wouldn’t say Layfon despises his power the way Ryner Lute does, he also rarely has any desire to use it because of it marks him out and isolates him.  He understands that raw power and crazy sword skills are not ever going to be able to solve all his problems, so he takes no real pride in them.  Like Ryner Lute, Layfon is someone who manages to be incredibly down to earth while also being an outcast relative to those around him.  However what really makes Layfon one of the best OP males leads I’ve ever seen is the impact he has on the character interactions and relationships of those closest to him.

Like SAO and the Asterisk War, Chrome Shelled Regios has a harem setup, albeit a much more interesting and subtle one than those shows could manage.  In total there are 5 girls who have noteworthy relationships to Layfon.  The first is his childhood friend Leerin who has loved him since before the show started and whose opinion of and feelings towards Layfon remain unchanged throughout the show, so naturally I’m not going to talk about her much.  The second is the female lead Nina Antalk.  I think Nina is the worst match for Layfon from a romantic standpoint, so I won’t talk about that part of their interactions.  Instead I want to talk about how they contrast and struggle with each other.  Nina is one of the most powerful fighters in Zuellni, she’s extremely motivated to win and get stronger, takes a lot of pride in her abilities and military arts, and therefore Nina is always taking things very serious, often too seriously.  So you can imagine how hard it is for her to grasp Layfon’s ideology.  In her mind he has all the power in the world but no drive to use it, he has clearly mastered military arts to level she is envious of but treats that mastery as a mere tool and takes no pride in it, he should be leading the charge doing all he can for Zuellni but instead he hides his powers and only shows interest in winning when Nina basically commands it from him.  Oh and Layfon thinks the practice battles and inter-city battles that Nina is obsessed with winning are ultimately pointless because they don’t mean anything in the face of Filth Monster attacks.

One of the most interesting parts of the show is a short arc that begins around episode 8 where Nina learns about the shadier parts of Layfon’s past and the two almost part ways.  For this arc Nina’s squad has to explore a ruined Regios with another squad.  This other squad is led by a guy named Gorneo Luckens, he’s from Grendan and he has grudge against Layfon for what Layfon did to his anideshi (this word has no concise English equivalent, but it basically means that Gorneo and this other guy, his name is Gahard, studied under the same martial arts master and Gahard was the senior student).  Basically Layfon was participating in underground matches to make money for the orphanage he lived at, Gahard tried to blackmail him about it and the next day Layfon chopped Gahard’s arm off in front of stadium full of people.  This led to Layfon being banished from Grendan, hence why he’s in Zuellni.  When Nina confronts Layfon about this, Layfon doesn’t appear particularly troubled by his behavior and remarks that he did it to survive, this is shortly after telling Nina that he would do anything to survive and make sure the things he needed to protect survived.  Nina, who is proud of military arts, proud to a point beyond what is healthy or mature I might add, is repulsed by this news  and almost kicks Layfon off her squad.  This dynamic eventually falls apart but it’s really interesting to watch because a, I don’t see it often and b, it’s usually not as well done as this one.  Which brings us to the other girls.

The other of Layfon’s squad mates to fall for him is Felli and they make one of the best pairings in the show.  Felli has a lot more in common with Layfon than her other squad mates.  Felli is not a typical military artsist, she is a psychokinesist.  It means she uses telepathy and other psychic power to analyze enemies, coordinate her team and communicate over long distances but does little to no actual fighting.  Unlike military arts, which can be learned, psychokinensists are simple born with their powers and it can’t be taught.  Felli was born and raised in Zuellni but her psychic powers are way off the charts, so naturally her parents and later her brother (who basically runs Zuellni) forced Felli to become a psychokinensist fighting for Zuellni.  Felli resents this and in protest hides her power from her squad mates and never gives it her all.  This is of course her link to Layfon, they are both of them made into outsiders of a sort by their power levels and they come to similar conclusions with regards to their power.  Though they have minor differences here and there, and for a brief time Felli is almost as abrasive towards Layfon as Nina, the two end up complimenting each other really well.

This is shown especially well when Zuellni is attacked by a Filth Monster and Felli directly opposes to Nina’s behavior during that arc where Nina almost boots Layfon from the team.  Where Nina struggles to understand Layfon and butts heads with him, Felli understands him well and the two take solace in each other’s company because of their mutual understanding and similar circumstances.  A lot of the best character dialogue in the show comes from these two just talking to each other with no one else around, which makes sense since these two are the ones who are trying to grow the most and their circumstances are far more interesting than Nina’s.  The two just work well together, as Layfon stated in during the Filth Monster attack, stopping that monster was something only he and Felli could do, and it was that moment that really brought Felli into her own a bit.  She takes a bit more pride in her abilities as a psychokinensist when she’s using them to support Layfon, she starts to open up more as a person and the two begin supporting each other in earnest thanks to their similar circumstances and outlooks on life.  This brings us to the fourth girl, Naruki Gerni.

Unlike the other girls who show a strong affection towards Layfon eventually, Naruki’s attraction to him is much less pronounced.  In fact the show doesn’t come out and say she’s in love with him at all, though a number of scenes suggest she is at least mildly interested in him and may be very interested in him.  Another thing that makes Naruki interesting is that she occupies a kind of middle ground of the girls mentioned so far.  She’s a military artist, and while exact her power level is unclear, she is at least competent enough to catch Nina’s eye.  Naruki isn’t interested in military arts to fight for the school though, instead she’s more focused on specialized applications of military arts to become a policewoman.  Naruki is more laid back than Nina but takes far more pride in her job and skill than Layfon or Felli.  Unlike Nina and Felli, Naruki doesn’t spend a ton of time with Layfon though the two do work together on occasion when Layfon basically does contract work for the cops and the two are pretty close because of this.

This puts her once again, in the middle of the road compared to the other girls, as she understands Layfon’s desire to be useful beyond his abilities as a military artist but also doesn’t understand why he isn’t more proud of those skills and the elite position they have placed him in.  Naruki makes a good contrast to the other girls precisely because of how little she knows about Layfon and how casually she interacts with him.  Their relationship doesn’t have a lot of baggage nor is it as restricted as anyone else’s, so episodes where Naruki plays a big role have a very different flow and feel than those where she is absent, and it also means she and Layfon generally have more interesting dialogue because they can just talk about things like normal human beings in self-contained stories without concern for the bigger picture.  I also find it interesting how she’s the only girl who gets mad for Layfon more than she gets mad at Layfon, it’s refreshing.  And of course any discussion about Naruki would be incomplete if I failed to mention how she’s rooting for her friend, and Layfon’s fifth love interest, Meishen Trinden.

My guess is that a lot of people who have watched Chrome Shelled Regios, or who go onto to watch it, hate Meishen or at least find her annoying (though most of the hate seems to be reserved for Nina).  Meishen is almost like a combination of the worst aspects of Sakura and Hinata, she’s useless like Sakura and gets paralyzed by embarrassment all the time like Hinata.  However while her embarrassment can get annoying, her characterization has a thematic purpose.  For one thing she is supposed to be useless because she’s a normal human, not a military artist, so she has no combat ability nor was she ever intended to.  She’s basically Layfon’s polar opposite, weak where he’s strong, flustered where he’s confident, and so on.  However she’s also the only girl who really seems to be succeeding in achieving her goals unrelated to military arts, which is something Layfon desperately wants to be able to do.  When compared to the other girls Meishen is most like Leerin, but since she lacks a long history with Layfon she gets flustered in his presence.

It doesn’t hurt that Layfon saved her about five minutes after meeting her, which caused her to fall for him.  Now girls quickly falling for the OP male lead is often annoying as shit because, let’s use Kirito as an example, generally the dude isn’t actually doing anything significant for them and they fall for him anyway.  I mean Liz and Silica fell for Kirito even though he treated Liz like crap for most of their adventure and used Silica as bait to arrest Rosalia (Kirito’s a real charmer ain’t he).  But in this case, Layfon legitimately saves her life or at least prevents her from sustaining major injuries as she was going to be buried under a healthy chunk of building, and therefore her affection is more genuine and therefore not annoying in the slightest.  What really sells me on Meishen (it’s here I should admit I think she’s the most attractive of the girls) however, is how she is the character who is furthest from Layfon in every conceivable sense, and yet is the most accepting of him.  He straight up tells her about his deeds in Grendan as well as how he’s a monster among monsters as mentioned above, and she’s the only character that doesn’t flinch from him or berate him for it.  She’s sort of like Layfon’s link to his most human side, she can bring a lot out of him, far more than any of the other characters.  Anyway I think I’ve gone on about the womenfolk long enough, time to bring it back to the subject of the post OP male leads.

Ultimately the biggest issue with a lot of OP male leads is that they aren’t very well written because they don’t have to be.  They exist as self-inserts for young boys and little else.  This lack of attention to detail also manifests in their power, which is so ridiculously over the top in a negative sense, so young boys can pretend to feel powerful and heroic.  This frustrates me a lot, because there are ways to make interesting OP characters, and they are being ignored in a rush to make the next bland Kirito clone.  As detailed above, using the setting to your advantage, giving the hero a unique and difficult to counter skill set, taking steps to make sure there are some negatives to him having this ridiculous power level to balance out the positives, all of these are great ways to make an OP character without breaking suspension of disbelief, without compromising creativity and without breaking the story or world.  You can in fact make fantastically constructed characters in the OP male lead mold, and it isn’t even particularly hard to do.   In my post about perfect characters, I said perfect characters only really worked when the show used the setting, narrative, or themes to account for that perfection, and the same idea applies here.  Take steps to account for the presence of the OP male lead, explain him in some way that makes sense with regards to the setting, story, the dramatic ideas therein, the themes, something, anything.  As long as you do that, then you should be fine, and we might get another OP male lead worth a damn.  Thank you for reading, I hope you enjoyed it, and I’ll see you in the next one.

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Understanding Storytelling: An Influx of Influences

I don’t know if this is just me but it seems like I keep running into a particular trope.  I don’t run into all the time, but often enough that it has totally lost any of the novelty that probably made it seem awesome once upon a time.  This trope, which I’ll call the Ultimate Influence for the sake of convenience, is essentially when the villain is, somehow, behind everything, or at least way more than is reasonably possible. This is of course not a new trope by any means, but as I keep coming across it in a variety anime, films and books, I think it’s finally time to examine all the ways the Ultimate Influence is a fucking mess most of the time, and how it can be used to glorious effect when someone really puts in the time and effort to make it work.

One of the more infamous instances of the Ultimate Influence was Aizen Sosuke from Bleach, where near the end of the show he claimed he had manipulated Ichigo’s growth as shinigami since birth, sending all of his opponents to him in the exact order he fought them to bring Ichigo to the point he’s currently at.  Now that might conceivably have been a cool twist if it had been even remotely possible.  Sadly in order for that plan to work Aizen would have to be omniscient, able to see the future and perfectly infallible, of which he is none.  More recently, I talked about how fucking idiotic it was that Madara was able to manipulate the ninja to an insane degree while essentially chained to the husk of Ten Tails in this post about villains.  Both of what these Ultimate Influences have in common is that they break the story on some level, there is no way either character has the ability to achieve the level of influence they claim, but somehow they are granted it anyway, no matter how harshly that strains the audience’s suspension of disbelief or shatters the world and narrative of the show.  It’s cringe-worthy, a cheap act that tries to play up the badassness of one character without regard to the damage that does to the rest of the story.  It’s fucking childish really, like I remember when I was a kid and this was how me or my friends would try and make a fictional person or monster seem awesome, because we were kids and you could get away with that.  But for someone who’s telling stories for a living I have a hard time wrapping my head around the mind that makes interesting settings, powers and so on before shattering all of those by introducing childish ideas.  Granted the Ultimate Influence is not always as exceptionally shitty as these examples, but I find almost universally off-putting nonetheless.

For a less extreme example let’s look a book series I love called the Dresden Files, written by Jim Butcher.  They are really good, they have great characters, interesting plots and monsters from almost every mythology, magic that generally makes sense and so on.  But in last few books they introduced the idea of something called Nemesis.  Now it hasn’t been detailed exactly what Nemesis is but it is implied that everything, or at least almost every event in the story thus far can be linked to Nemesis.  This works in part because it’s established that many of the events that occurred in the previous books are freak occurrences, where powerful beings act totally out of character or otherwise betray their nature.  The other reason this sort of works is because it’s not just empowering a single character.  This setup suggests that no matter how dangerous the events of a single book and foe are, there is a larger game afoot, perhaps one so large people have no idea they are playing it.  That idea is actually a good one, the idea that one villain is a pawn in another villain’s game works because at least thus far no character has proven their elaborate plots to be narratively broken.  Also because for all the flaws of the Ultimate Influence I will at least give it credit for trying to be a big deal from a dramatic standpoint.  Drama is an important part of storytelling and building up to crescendo before turning the story on it’s head with a major twist is a classic tactic to reel the audience in.  But the Ultimate Influence is generally shit and even when it’s not outright terrible, it doesn’t make the big dramatic impact it was going for, at least not to me.  To explain what I mean let’s look at Inuyasha.

I’m not going to explain the plot of Inuyasha, I assume you know by now or you don’t care.  The point I’m going to make assumes you at least get the gist of the story so maybe skim a wiki entry before you read more if you’ve never seen or read Inuyasha.  In Inuyasha the main villain is Naraku and he is a master manipulator.  He’s is total scum, his plans are ruthless, often cruel and mercilessly underhanded.  And because he has so many puppets he has more information than the heroes most of the time, allowing him to make almost anyone a pawn in his game.  At this point you may imagine that he is an Ultimate Influence and is simply better made than the ones mentioned above.  Well yes and no.  He seems like an Ultimate Influence because that is how the show portrays him, he is able to manipulate many other powerful forces and always seems like he’s several steps ahead of the heroes.  However Naraku is not the only influence even if he’s biggest one.  I mentioned this in my long-ass post about strong women but Kikyou in particular is a major influence on the story.  She can drastically change the flow of the struggle between the heroes and Naraku in a single episode, or she can cause major character developments among the heroes and change their group chemistry.  Likewise Sesshoumaru sweeps into the story like a storm, causing both Inuyasha and Naraku plenty of trouble over the course of the show.  And then there’s Toutousai, who brings the heroes the tools and knowledge they need to triumph when they run into a figurative wall from time to time.  The point I’m getting at here is that while Naraku follows the same puppet master archetype and  has the same vibe that the Ultimate Influence does, he is not the only major force in the story, there are a myriad of sources which can alter the story in ways large or small.  There so many other influences of note in fact, I’d be hard pressed to call the struggle Naraku’s game at all because he’s often thrown for a loop when Kikyou or Sesshoumaru appears even as  tries to manipulate them.  Also while Naraku is the villain, he is not the cause for the struggle.  Naraku doesn’t become an issue until after Kagome randomly and accidentally enters the world of the story and even then he doesn’t appear until after the Jewel has already been broken by accident.  He is not the mastermind of the whole conflict, like Aizen claims to be or how Madara is behind basically everything that got the Fourth Ninja War going, he is simply a very dangerous player in a game that started by pure chance, and at odds with the heroes.

So if the good way to use the Ultimate Influence is more smoke and mirrors than actually making the character an Ultimate Influence, how do you strike the proper balance between the illusion and the reality to make the character and story interesting?  The answer lies in RWBY.  Season one of RWBY was fun but a bit wonky and childish.  The episodes were inconsistent in their length, the stories ranged from sort of interesting to incredibly ham-handed and cliche, and it seemed like people making didn’t know how to make certain scenes work in the 3D animation (mostly the comedy stuff) and the acting was a little rough around the edges.  Season one was a kind of first draft, proof-of-concept show.  Season two was a huge improvement, more consistent episode lengths, better acting, amazing use of the 3D for comedic effect (seriously look up RWBY food fight on Youtube, I dare you to find me a better food fight), and a story that was more coherent and interesting.  Season three started off a bit slower, gradually built upon the foundations of the world with regards to lore and then ended with a fucking phenomenal finish which not only took me totally by surprise but impressed me enough to really start comparing to other anime I liked in terms of storytelling quality.  Don’t get me wrong I always liked RWBY but I always thought of it as a cut below most anime I enjoy and now it’s really come into its own and shaken that perception up.  Go watch RWBY.  Anyway at the end of the season is a big battle which brings an arc that was started as early as episode one of season one to a close, but it’s the scene that comes after the credits that really is relevant.

At the very end there’s this creepy monologue which is come from this woman, who is clearly one of the Grim, the monsters of the show’s world.  In this monologue she mentions this was only the beginning, the first stage and implying bigger and scarier things were on the horizon.  Technically this could end up flopping into a boring Ultimate Influence like Madara but that wasn’t the sense I got from the ending.  My impression was that Cinder, who totally played the role of puppet master herself over the course of all three seasons, was likely not even aware of the humanoid Grim or that if she was they weren’t working together.  Instead the impression I got is that the scary Grim lady may not even have had a hand in manipulating Cinder, though it does make sense that she would do something subtle like leak info about the Fall Maiden, which would then cause Cinder to act.  However there is no doubt that the Grim lady was using Cinder no matter how indirectly, that Cinder’s plan to spark a revolution was nothing more than the Grim lady stacking the deck in her favor before the game entered it’s next phase.  This is how manipulation is done right.  For starters the Grim lady is not clearly the only influence of note, even if you write off Cinder as her pawn, and I don’t, she mentions Headmaster Ozpin by name, indicating that he is a force to be reckoned with even by this eerie yet clearly powerful Grim.  Moreover as I described, Cinder is not the Grim lady’s pawn the way Obito was for Madara.  Obito was basically Madara’s lapdog and spent a lifetime acting out schemes for Madara’s benefit.  By contrast Cinder appears to have her own motivations, her actions suggest she want’s to shake up the established order of the human world and reshape  it for her own ends, while the Grim lady hints at an impending apocalypse brought on by the Grim, which while not in direct opposition to Cinder’s plans does not play into Cinder’s best interests at all.

The point I’m trying to make here is what I described in the Inuyasha paragraph, that the best way to use an Ultimate Influence is not actually have one, whilst appearing to have one.  The illusion of an Ultimate Influence can have all the dramatic tension the real thing is supposed to inspire, with the added bonus of not totally fucking up the story.  In RWBY’s case the Grim lady’s introduction suggests she is a powerful manipulator with a mind for long term, broad scale type plans.  This in turns allows her to make Cinder, who thinks in shorter terms and narrower scales, do her dirty work for her without Cinder even realizing it.  This is not to be taken as proven fact, it is sadly only speculation at this point, but at the very least I hope I’m illustrating the concept properly by extrapolating the information we do have to the conclusion I find most compelling.  A true, honest to God Ultimate Influence is only really possible if the entire story were something a godlike  being setup to entertain itself, but in most stories that doesn’t work and even in that kind of setup, unless the godlike being directed every single move of the characters in the story, there would be variables which the characters could influence and write part of the story themselves.  I get the appeal of the big, bad puppet master, and used right the character can work very well.  But the key is that they can’t actually be an Ultimate Influence, no matter how many steps ahead of the other characters they seem to be, there need to be other factors in play, other characters who can throw their carefully laid plans into chaos in some way.  They can maintain the illusion of being an Ultimate Influence all they like, it can add to their character or to the drama of the show when the rug is pulled out from under by one of the chaos factors.  But it has to be an illusion and ideally it’s one that gets dispelled before the character’s puppet master routine feels stale or strains suspension of disbelief.  What many good stories have are lots of characters with agency, people who can take actions that shake up the story to some extent.  And sadly the appearance of an Ultimate Influence shits all over the agency of most of a show’s cast.  Anyway I think I covered all the major points and examples I wanted to, so thank you for reading, I hope you enjoyed it, and I’ll see you in the next one.

 

Unpopular Opinion: D Gray Man

So recently it was announced that D Gray Man was getting continued this year.  This has got me excited for a number of reasons.  And naturally I’m going to explain said reasons, but before I talk about the show itself there’s another topic I want touch on in brief.  One of my earliest posts was about the current anime industry and it’s slurry of sequels.  In that post I lamented that many sequels came about because of split core shows, a show which airs 12 episodes in one season, takes a season off, then airs another 12.  In my experience, I felt that many split core shows were actually initially designed as doublecore shows, shows with 24 episodes, and then were cut in half.  There are a number of examples but Gate is an especially good one, since it ended it’s first season on the second episode of a five or six episode arc and just left us hanging for three months.  Anyway my point was that a lot of sequels were coming out but most of the sequels were to new shows, and I thought it made more sense to make sequels to older stuff that was really popular like Black Lagoon or Spice and Wolf.   Which brings us to D Gray Man.  D Gray Man ran from 2006 to 2008, and now after eight years of an ending that left me begging more, it’s here, and against my better judgement I’ve hyped myself up for it.  Now lets get to analyzing D Gray Man, there will be major spoilers, you have been warned.

For those who have never seen D Gray Man, it’s a battle shounen with a total of 103 episodes.  It’s overall narrative setup is similar to Inuyasha’s, with a lot episodes searching after Innocence in-between major battle arc the same way Inuyasha had the main characters search for Jewel shards before and then in-between  major arcs.  The story roughly goes as follows, a secretive sect of the Church, called the Black the Church, found a prophecy that details the end of the world and have taken steps to combat the harbinger of this apocalypse, the Millennium Earl.  Fast-forward to the late 19th century, an unusual boy named Allen Walker, he’s an Exorcist like all the other main characters, arrives at the Black Church just as the Millennium Earl seems to be becoming more active.  The Exorcists, the warriors of the Black Church, all of whom use weapons that have Innocence as their core, are currently in race with the Millennium Earl over finding the lost cubes of Innocence.  And so the series begins.  Anyway that should be enough recap, now I’m going to talk about all the things I liked about the series and what I sincerely hope is coming in the 2016 release.  I should note at this point I have never read the manga so any predictions I make are pure speculation.

Let’s start with the most obvious thing I like about the series, the main character.  I find Allen interesting for a number of reasons.   For starters his cursed eye looks fucking awesome, like someone took the best parts of Naruto’s Rinnegan and Sharingan then put them together.  But more importantly is the effect said eye has on his character.  Like all of the Exorcists, Allen is dedicated to destroying Akuma, the oddly human-while-also-demonic-while-also-robotic weapons of the Millennium Earl.  Unlike his fellow Exorcists however, Allen can see the trapped souls of the people who form the core of the Akuma, and fights as much to destroy the Akuma for the threat they represent to other humans as he does to save the souls trapped inside them.  It seems like a minute difference, I mean he still ends up destroying the Akuma, the same as everyone else, but his desire to save things is a fundamental part of his person and it becomes much more important when he encounters the Noahs later in the story.   But let’s put a pin in that for now and go back to Allen sans the context of the narrative.  His weapon is this fucking huge metal-looking claw that is savage as hell.  Yes I know he gets a sleeker, albeit less awesome looking version later, but his initial claw is a work of art.  More so than just the claw itself, I like how it’s so atypical a weapon for a hero. I mentioned in my post about battle maniacs how, typically heroes had simple weapons and powers that the audience easily relates to, while battle maniacs often fought exceptionally exotic weapons or otherwise fought with things which we don’t identify as weapons at all, like Hisoka’s cards.  And Allen’s claw, while simple, doesn’t look like a hero’s weapon at all, it looks like something a monster would have.  Between the claw and his cursed eye Allen stands from a lot of his shounen hero contemporaries and it just makes for striking image.  It also helps keep feeling different from his fellow exorcists because most of the exorcists have more typical hero weapons.  That’s enough about Allen for now, let’s look at the setting and atmosphere.

D Gray Man is a pretty dark series, particularly for a shounen battle show, and I don’t just mean it looks dark and grim, although many episodes feature mostly dark and grim environments.  Remember in order for Akuma to function, someone has to die, someone close to the deceased has to be tricked into calling their soul back so it can be trapped in the Akuma’s core, and then the Akuma will kill said close someone and wear their body before going on to kill more people.  It’s a pretty fucked up cycle if you think about it, especially considering how many of the fucking things the Exorcists tear apart over the course of the series.  This already dark and depressing cycle is enhanced by many of the characters, there’s the doctor who kills his patients so he can help the Millennium Earl make Akuma in exchange for money for example.  Or Allen himself, who got his cursed eye after he made his foster father into an Akuma as a child, which his claw awakened to and crushed.  But despite all the tragedy and darkness the series curiously resists becoming depressing or edgy as many shows that try to be dark, grim and violent often do.  In part this is because the show has a fair amount of silly comedic moments and routines to keep the grim-ness in check, but it has more to do with the atmosphere.  D Gray Man has a certain haunting or ethereal quality to many of it’s episodes, fights take place in dark places often with no other humans around, the music (which is really good) has many tracks that are airy, haunting and melodic.  The sound complements the visuals and themes of the narrative very well is what I’m saying.  And all of these elements come together to make a show that creates a compelling sense of atmosphere, which helps make the setting both more real in the sense that the fantastical and grim elements make sense there, and paradoxically enhances the fantastical nature of the show and many of it’s elements.   Which brings us to the villains.

The main villains of the show are the Millennium Earl, who I kid you not, looks like Dr. Robotnik from Sonic the Hedgehog with a creepy goblin face and a top hat, and the Noah clan.  I kind of love how ridiculous the Earl looks but my main focus is the Noah clan.  In a clever bit of narrative work the creators of D Gray Man put a new twist on the story of Noah’s Ark.  In this fictional re-imagining of that biblical tale, Noah turns against God after the flood, and while I can’t say that I remember Noah having any one reason in mind, the best thing I could come up with was that the destruction and loss of life caused by the flood was not an act befitting a merciful god or any god at all really.  My guess here is that writer understood or experienced most of Christianity’s messages about love, mercy and tolerance from the New Testament and didn’t have as firm a grasp on the Old Testament where God lashed out with acts of destruction more often but whatever.  Either way the running idea is that Noah had superhuman capabilities of some kind since by the show’s logic he was considered the greatest disciple of God, and that he passed these powers and assumably his grudge against God onto his descendants.  This is the Noah clan in a nutshell.  There are a total of 13 Noahs presumably inspired by Jesus’ 12 disciples and Judas, a former disciple who betrayed him and have their own powers inspired by certain elements of Noah, Skin Bolic for example is Noah’s wrath and can use lightning to smite his foes.  Anyway the point is, I love what the creators did with this.  There are no shortage of anime that draw on the folklore and religions of cultures, but most of the time it’s kind of incoherent and not used all that well, Misteltainn for example is a name that crops up every now and then, and usually the shows using the name have literally nothing to do with the Norse mythology the name comes from.  By contrast, D Gray Man takes a well known story and turns it entirely on it’s head with a few interesting alterations.  That’s an impressively savvy move in its own right but I find doubly interesting since I’m very much interested in mythology and religious lore.  Narrative tricks and style aside there is one thing I especially like about the Noah Clan, Road Kamelot.

Road is the oldest of the Noahs and her power is the ability to create dimensional spaces, often using the dreams and nightmares of the intended victims as inspiration, which makes sense considering she inherited Noah’s dreams.  What makes Road interesting though is her attraction to Allen.  You don’t see villains trying to hook up with heroes too often and I for one find the idea both narratively interesting and totally hot.  In Road’s case especially, I feel like she and Allen make an interesting match.  Unlike say Esdeath’s attraction to Tatsumi in Akame ga Kill which was used almost exclusively for comedic purposes, I can see Road and Allen having some interesting chemistry.  She leans sadistic and while I wouldn’t call Allen a masochist per se, his obsession with saving people does cause to him have strong self-sacrificing tendencies.  The other reason this could work is that because Road is technically human, all of the Noahs are, Allen’s inclination is to save her not destroy her.  And Road’s obsession with Allen favors a situation in which she hurts him playfully without ever trying to destroy him outright.  Theoretically I could see the two of them sticking together each trying to convert the other to their cause without ever trying to settle their differences by force because they have bigger problems to worry about.  So I ship Allen and Road, end of story.  Sorry you had to see me writing a rough outline for some D Gray Man fanfic, I apologize it won’t happen again, but before I finish I think it’s time to look to the future of D Gray Man and why, I’m really looking forward to the 2016 continuation.

Part of understanding why I’m looking forward to the continuation is in understanding where the old D Gray Man left off.  I mentioned above that Allen fights for different reasons than his companions, and while this never meant much when their opponents were Akuma, the game changes considerably with Noahs involved.  Before I really get into this here’s some context for those who haven’t seen the series.  The Earl’s base is in Japan which consists almost entirely of Akuma at this point.  So our heroes went to this base by boat from China.  This boat was attacked and all but one of the crew dies.  Later after the good guys have invaded the Earls base, its called an ark and it can do weird things with space and doors, that surviving crew member is chosen by a block of Innocence and is going to become an Exorcist.  Shortly thereafter he meets the Noahs for the first time, Road makes out with Allen in full view of the other Exorcists and the Noah that almost killed Allen before they got on the boat from China (I’m not kidding), and a battle begins.  During this battle Allen uses his new powers, which he got after almost dying, and by his own admission is not trying to kill his opponent, he’s trying to kill the Noah within his opponent, thus rendering them a normal human and thus saving them.  The new exorcist can’t understand this and gets really pissed off at Allen, and I’m guessing some of the other ones have a similar reaction even if they don’t show it.  After the fighting is over Allen saves the ark from disintegrating by using powers that aren’t connected to his Innocence but are instead related to his foster father Mana, whom the show suggests was the 13th Noah.

When the good guys return home, it’s not the glorious return afforded most heroes.  Allen in particular is essentially under house arrest because the upper echelons of the Black Church find his connection to the 13th Noah suspect.  I should note here that for the entire show up until this point the upper echelons of the Black Church have done nothing to make them seem like a threat or to be hostile, they were barely even present in the story.  But at the end they suddenly appeared as a hostile force to Allen and while not portrayed as villains, they certainly aren’t portrayed in the same light as the rest of the Black Church, adding a whole new layer to the organization.  So what does this mean for the show?  Well aside from the nuance it lends the Black Church and it lends the story new possibilities, some of them very interesting.  Specifically the story looks like it intends for Allen to go rouge to me.  Rifts are forming between him and the Black Church, he seems to have some kind of connection to the Noahs beyond Road’s attraction to him, and at the time of the shows ending his list of allies looks very thin.  I’m not saying this is what will happen, but fuck do I want to see it go this route.  Again this last bit is entirely speculation, but it makes sense to me particularly because that’s what I would do with the story if someone told to continue writing given the scenario I’ve described.  In any event, the last arc of D Gray Man has made the world of the series a much more complicated and messy place, full of new possibilities.  It’s an exciting prospect getting to see how the story will play out after 8 years, and regardless of the outcome I am looking forward to it.  Thank you all for reading, I hope you enjoyed it and I’ll you in the next one.

 

 

Understanding Characters: Strong Women

So in my last post about ripping on the new light novel trend of manufacturing women characters that appear strong but are ultimately treated as damsels in distress, I spent some time explaining what it took to make a real strong female character.  Now I’m going to expand that topic into it’s own post because I think its important.  There will be scattered spoilers ahead.

Before I really get going on this topic, I’m going to needlessly complicate things by way of me pontificating on the nature of strength itself.  Strength, in my eyes, has nothing to do with a character’s power level.  Yes strong people often are powerful, but power and strength don’t necessarily go hand in hand.  Soul Eater illustrates this well, the Kishin is stupidly powerful but at the same time he is crippled by his own weakness, his lack of strength, which causes him to fear everything.  This is because strength, as I interpret it, is more closely tied to a character’s heart, mind and soul.  Those who are powerless can still be strong fucking people, because their strength of character allows them endure what weaker characters can’t handle.  So when it comes to strong women, there’s no such thing as the best strong woman of them all, because that ignores that there are multiple kinds of strong women all of whom deserve to be recognized for their merits.  Naturally this applies to men too, but since this post is about women I won’t be talking about them.  Anyway what this means is that it’s very hard for me to lay down any specific rules or set of traits that strong women should have, but there is one thing I can think of that everyone needs and that’s agency.  Agency, for those who don’t know, is a character’s ability to take action of their own accord and have influence over the story, setting and characters who surround them.  For example, let’s look at Hinata from Naruto.  For most the story Hinata is such a background character you can be forgiven for forgetting she exists at all, especially since until the Pain fight her actions are almost all defined by her embarrassment in the presence of Naruto.  Since most of her actions are not truly actions, but are instead reactions to the presence of the male lead, Hinata has no agency.  But in the Pain fight when she actively chooses to go out and fight, she has agency.  In both scenarios Hinata acts a certain way because of the situation Naruto is in, but in the Pain fight she chooses what that action is, and that in a nutshell is agency.  So in order to make this post helpful, I’m going to put together as many trends as I can and talk about a handful of strong women that I really like and why I think they are strong.  Bear in mind that I am a dude so some things will probably slip under my figurative radar.  Now onto the women.

Let’s start by using some of the most iconic and well known strong women as a way to talk about the trends that built them.  Ghost in the Shell’s Major Kusanagi and literally any of the major women of Neon Genesis Evangelion, are held up as paragons of strong women by a good sized chunk of the anime community.  And for good reason, they are excellent strong women characters, and conveniently, they neatly outline two popular but opposite trends when it comes to writing strong women.  Let’s start with Evangelion.  In Neon Genesis Evangelion almost everyone, not just the women, is badly damaged by a wide variety of traumas.  Loss of parents is common to many of characters, many of them faced their respective traumas as children, many continue to struggle with their day to day life as a result of their traumas or the damage left in the wake of Second Impact.  And despite all this negativity, this pain and mental scaring, you find characters who are often willing to fight the toughest enemies humanity has ever faced.  Impossible odds and otherworldly terrors, complete with the pressure that failure likely means annihilation, are just another day at the office in NERV.  In short, because these people have survived their various traumas, they have emerged stronger.  They are still very much damaged, and it can cause them to break down or run away, but when all the chips are down these are people who roll up their sleeves and get shit done because they have the mental fortitude to struggle in the face overwhelming odds.  This is how the majority of strong women characters are written, as characters who have overcome trauma and emerged stronger than their former self.  Now there are no hard and fast rules about this trend is used.  You can have characters whose strength comes solely in response to the trauma, others can be strong before the trauma and then emerge even stronger after a traumatic experience.  Riza Hawkeye is a great of example of the latter.  She was strong enough to volunteer to be a soldier before the Ishval war, but she’s clearly shaken by the brutality of the war when she’s in it, yet when we meet her as a Lieutenant serving as aide to Colonel Mustang, she’s clearly stronger than her former self.  But we can get into more specific examples later, for now let’s look at Kusanagi and the trends that built her.

Kusanagi stands in glaring opposition to women who got stronger through trauma.  Kusanagi was always strong for one reason or another, it’s at this point I should admit I’ve only seen the original Ghost in the Shell movie so if I get some things wrong, that’s why.  Anyway as far as I know Kusanagi never experienced trauma, her drive to be the ass-kicking leader of her squad, is just a part of who she is.  It’s such a fundamental aspect of her character that it almost defies logical explanation.  The answer to the question “why is Kusanagi strong?” is simply “because she’s Kusanagi” and no amount of justification will change that.  This trend, of inherent strength of character, is considerably rarer than the reaction to trauma trend detailed above.  This is for two reasons, one, it’s harder to understand because a lot of people demand that things come from somewhere and wrapping their head around the idea that the trait is innate to the character just doesn’t register, also you really have to sell the audience that the character’s strength is innate otherwise it strains suspension of disbelief and convincing us of this is itself tricky.  Two, the whole reaction to trauma idea just makes more sense to most people and it’s not hard to use well, so it’s just an issue of the path of least resistance.  Anyway lest you think Kusanagi is just some fluke, or in case I’ve made some mistakes without realizing it, here’s another example, Balalaika from Black Lagoon.  Balalaika is one of the most terrifying women in all of anime, even forgetting her physical capabilities or those of her loyal subordinates in Hotel Moscow, which are impressive on their own, the strength of her character is frightening in it’s intensity.  For example the impression I got while watching the show was that while Revy or Dutch would never want to fight Hotel Moscow, the person they are most afraid of is Balalaika herself.  More to the point what makes Balalaika seem so threatening is her ability to always dominate any scene with her mere presence, she seems just as powerful when she’s about to off some nobody as when she’s standing over Roberta and Revy who are no slouches themselves.  Like the trauma trend, there are no rules this inherent strength has, it manifests very differently for different characters.  And with that I think it’s time to switch gears and look at a handful of my favorite strong women because I’m running out of things to say about this trend.

The two trends I’ve been talking about are just common aspects of characterization that a lot of strong women share, they don’t tell whole story at all, especially since they are at best loose guidelines as far as character creation is concerned.  Which is what makes Balsa, Seirei no Moribito’s leading lady, so interesting.  I’ve talked about Balsa before here and here, but she’s well written enough that she deserves more analysis.  Balsa is a mix of both trends I’ve been talking about, she is forced to flee her home at a young age, her father is killed and her foster father is eventually killed.  She also shows an inherent level of strength of character, adapting to the loss of her home and father quickly, before becoming a badass fighter herself.  But the thing that really puts the cherry on top is how Balsa is both of these while also being a maternal guardian.  Now the maternal guardian is a very common trope to basically every medium in existence, and as such it’s not a huge fucking stretch to think out it as an outdated and possibly even chauvinistic or sexist characterization.  Now it can be all of those things when used wrong, but it also has a unique narrative power when used right.  Keep in mind that motherhood has been associated with women since forever and since it’s something men can’t experience, it has a unique suggestive power to a large section of the potential audience.  And maybe if used it right it can even make women feel empowered or better about themselves, I have no idea if that’s true but if any women would like to confirm or deny the statement, I’m curious to know, so please feel free to comment.  Anyway I feel it adds an extra layer to both Balsa the character and the story in general.  I mean Balsa still gets to be the badass fighter, the solid and reliable leader of the party, the glue that holds everyone together.  But she also gets to play the maternal figure to male lead, and that adds another dynamic to her character, and deepens the nuance of the character interactions, which is super fucking important in a story where character interactions are the bread and butter of many episodes.  There’s even a scene where one of Balsa’s charges literally weeps when he’s forced to leave Balsa behind, even though he’s being reunited with his actual parents, because she’s been such a influential and beloved figure in his life.  And that moment, which was a damn powerful moment, could never have been told if Balsa wasn’t a maternal guardian.  Her character is enriched by her maternal side, not cheapened by it.  And the fact she’s able to maintain her maternal side while also being the awesome powerful fighter and a strong leader like Major Kusanagi, makes her one of the most impressively well written woman character I’ve ever seen.  I can’t say Balsa is my favorite female character of all time, but she is arguably the most technically proficient and that’s a far more impressive achievement than being someone’s favorite strong woman.  Next up Karulawatarei from Utawarerumono (which I reviewed here).

Part of what makes Karulawatarei, or Karula for short, interesting is how she is both similar to and almost the opposite of Balsa.  Like Balsa she is built on both the trauma and inherent strength trends.  She is losses her kingdom and is enslaved when she is young.  Yet when we meet her for the first time, she’s rocking a cocky smile as she emerges from a shipwreck before going on to wreck a whole crew of armed guards with her bare hands.  The thing she shares most closely with Balsa is confidence.  A lot of of strong women have confidence, but very few have it on the same level as Balsa and Karula.  Karula is confident at all times, in all situations.  She seems just as relaxed when she’s enjoying a cup of sake at home or when she’s brawling with hordes of enemy soldiers.  She’s comfortable with herself at all times, and that’s not something I can say of many characters, though to be fair a lot of people in the real world have a hard time being confident and comfortable with themselves.  Anyway what makes Karula different from Balsa is how the two mature.  Balsa emerges from her experiences and creates a purpose for herself, meanwhile Karula makes a conscious decision to enjoy not having a purpose.  Karula is at once a constant and constantly going with the flow, becoming a reliable ally to those whom she deems worthy of following.  That might sound like Karula is more of a servant type, which clashes with the strong woman characterization, but while she chooses (and the fact she chooses to be in this position is an important part of her character) to be a subordinate she is by no means servile.  At one point she actually kidnaps her own king, whom she chose to serve, to force him into helping a cause she believes in.  She takes more of a second among equals approach to most of the cast, letting her king dictate the plan but refusing to be a pawn, not that she’s ever really treated like one.  In fact she’s proud of her approach and of her way of life, even refusing to let her friends try and remove the giant shackle on her neck because at this point her experiences as a former slave and gladiator are so integral to her personality that the trauma associated with those experiences no longer bother her.  And that, I think, is a more poignant expression of strength than finding a purpose in response to trauma, if nothing else it’s so rare I’m almost tempted to call it unique, and that gets my respect in and of itself.  Next up another character whose name starts with a K, Kikyo of Inuyasha.

Most of the time strong women are forced into one of three roles, one of the main characters, a support character who’s important to the main characters ala Winry Rockbell, or the villainess.  Which is why Kikyo is so special, she’s none of these.  Kikyo is something of an ambiguous entity for most Inyasha’s run time.  Her end goals seem suitably good, which is reasonable given her background as miko (that’s shrine priestess for those who don’t know).  However she also shows a lot more anger and even malice then her backstory or former position would imply.  Yet strangely, Kikyo’s attitude never strains suspension of disbelief, not even when her actions appear outright evil, like when she straight up gives Naraku Kagome’s large Jewel of Four Souls shard.  She also adds an interesting dynamic to the character relations, I mean yeah she creates a love triangle big whoop, but she creates a love triangle where the hero actually chooses her not the heroine, and I can’t stress enough how rare that is.  Another part what makes Kikyo interesting is her ability to influence the overall narrative.  In an old post about badasses I linked in Balsa’s section, I said one of the things good badasses can do is totally steal the spotlight whenever they make an appearance.  Kikyo does that most of the time, but she also takes it one step further.  When Kikyo steps into the story she usually causes drastic changes to the struggle, or at least causes enough chaos in the character relationships to force everyone to take a breather.  She actually holds a similar position to Sesshoumaru, an ambiguous and very very powerful force that collides with the main characters from time to time.  Basically Kikyo has a ton of agency and influence over the story, to the point where she steers the main conflict about as much as the heroes and the villain.  Moreover, because she’s not restricted to a heroic or villainous role, she is versatile and the scenarios she creates or involves herself in are more flexible and varied.  In one episode she can try and kill Inuyasha, in another she can intervene in a scenario that might get Inuyasha killed.  She can be in episodes where she quietly does her own thing or episodes where she’s the catalyst for major story developments.  And that flexibility, coupled with power, confidence and an interesting relationship with the male lead, is what makes Kikyo so special.  It’s a rather remarkable combination of traits that has resulted in a compelling and engaging character.  Now onto the next character.

The women I’ve been talking about thus far are all mature women, which is how a lot of strong women are presented.  And for good reason, it can be used extremely effectively and in all honesty, more mature women are more likely to be appreciated by an older audience.  Rin from Rin: Daughters of Mnemosyne, was a woman a spent some time discussing here because she highlights the value of mature women and mature shows, and she is a strong woman.  However rather than keeping on about mature women, I think it’s time to talk about immature strong women.  And to to kick off this section of the post I think a good starting point is Yona of Akatsuki no Yona, because I already reviewed that show here and I’m re-watching that show at the moment.  Yona is a fascinating woman because of how strong she is while also being so powerless.  Well sort of.  Actually what makes Yona truly compelling is how she actually starts off as a very weak character.  For the first 4ish episodes, Yona is not only totally powerless and useless, her character is so fragile and weak that she can barely function without Hak.  And if that had been Yona’s entire character she would never have made this list.  However, it is only by understanding how weak and powerless she was at the start, that we can truly appreciate how strong she gets by season’s end.  She still never got powerful, at least not compared to those around her, but she is incredibly strong, I mean she, a former princess, volunteered to pose as a slave on an enemy ship so her allies could sink it.  That takes a lot more courage and strength than it takes to be merely powerful.  More importantly with Yona we get to see the rather interesting process of her becoming stronger, more mature and powerful all at the same time.  In a lot of the strong but immature women characters I’ve seen, they either already have strength or power and are on the way to maturity.  But Yona has to acquire all of them as the story goes forward.  Which is why, when she has those moments that show her strength, are so striking and powerful.  It’s excellent writing, and I for one can’t wait for a second season of Akatsuki no Yona.  Onto the next strong woman.

Continuing in the theme of powerless strength, one of the common archetypes of women characters from mostly older shows was what I call the Sufferer.  Typically this archetype manifests itself as a woman who is the wife or girlfriend of someone going to war, or something like that where the woman has to wait while worrying about the fate of her man.  Now that was just a typical example from TV and cinema, it doesn’t end up this way too often in anime.  Winry Rockbell who I mentioned above is a decent example, she supports the Elric brothers but is largely left to worry about them while she waits at home or the workshop.  Now Winry is a great example of how this archetype can still be engaging but she’s not the one I really want to focus on, that honor goes to Togame of Katanagatari.  Togame is an interesting woman because she’s able to switch from moments of mature and collected actions, and childish tsundere outbursts without either seeming out of character.  Also while Togame is powerless, she actually makes a point of proudly proclaiming her own powerlessness to some of her opponents, she’s not useless.  She’s a strategist, she’s very intelligent and some battles are won because of the various tricks and tactics Togame has up her sleeves.  But this is all beside the point, why is Togame strong?  Because more than anything else she’s able to make plans she knows will hurt her in order to succeed.  I mean for fucks sake she was going to commission the the man who killed her father, and forced her out of her comfortable life as a princess, to work for her on a ridiculously difficult quest because she figured he was the best bet to succeed.  That takes some serious willpower, to set aside all the terrible memories associated with a person in order to work with them on an important endeavor.  Even more telling much Togame’s character works this way, she outright says that she wouldn’t scheme if it didn’t hurt her.  There’s a lot more to that statement than strength or suffering, but it also speaks volumes about Togame’s relationship with both.  I mean Togame’s not a blatant masochist, so it’s not like she gets off on her own suffering, her relationship with suffering is way more complex than that, to the point that even after watching the show four times I can still honestly admit I don’t entirely get it.  What I can say for sure, however, is that it takes a lot of courage and strength to live a life wherein you cause yourself a lot of suffering by choice.  Regardless of how irrational Togame’s behavior seems as I’ve described it (not that all people are rational) she finds a way make it work, to remain compelling as a strong character.  Ok only two more types to go.

The next type of strong woman is something of a difficult case because it’s actually easy to argue that they are weak.  This archetype is what I like to call the Outsider.  It’s not a common archetype, but it is an interesting one.  The Outsider is sort of similar to the inherent strength trend, in that the character is very difficult to understand and relate to.  However the Outsider takes the alien aspects of inherent strength to a much higher level, resulting in characters that can barely seem human at all.  Esdeath from Akame ga Kill is one of the more prominent examples of this but she’s not the one I want to talk about.  That’s because I think Shiki from Kara no Kyoukai is much better example.  Kara no Kyoukai itself is pretty weird, with interesting supernatural elements, seemingly needlessly complex or deep ideas interspersed with truly profound ideas and so on.  Anyway I don’t think it’s a stretch to call Shiki an Outsider.  I mean not only do more normal people avoid her outright, with only the male lead being the exception and he is considered odd too, but she deals almost exclusively in the supernatural and her powers most strongly affect the supernatural.  Where the danger of calling Shiki strong appears is where it appears for most characters in this archetype, rather than projecting strength she projects emptiness which could be construed as a form of weakness.  Emptiness is after all often a consequence of a character being broken by a trauma instead of overcoming it.  However where Shiki starts to prove that conception wrong is how she’s learning to become more than empty.  But to really illustrate what I mean I’m going to stop talking about Shiki and start talking Qiang Lei from Kingdom (which I also reviewed, weird how that keeps happening).  Like Shiki, Qiang Lei is more attuned to the supernatural than other characters, though in her case she’s one of the only supernatural characters because Kingdom is more about history than fantasy.  Likewise she’s also a character define by emptiness at first, though she follows the typical anti-hero revenge story where Shiki does not.  What makes Qiang Lei interesting though is how she gradually starts growing throughout the story.  She still keeps to herself, doesn’t talk much, and is distinctly different from her friends and allies but she’s no longer an empty vessel fueled by a need for vengeance.  She, a drifter by nature, finds a home in her allies, the people she’s fought three major battles with, and acknowledges that she needs to get her vengeance behind her in order to really move forward.  It’s actually one of the best forms of the vengeful character I’ve seen because she’s not obsessed with her revenge to the point where she leaves everyone supporting her behind, hello there Sasuke and Kurapika, but instead resolves to get her revenge so she can finally close this chapter of her life and move the hell on.  And feel like that’s a powerful expression of strength, to, after years of surviving on revenge alone, forge a new life for yourself, to remain an Outsider while also committing yourself to making a place for yourself among a lot of people who don’t fully understand you.  To come back to the struggles that come with living after years of pushing those aside, to accept the weight of responsibility once again after shying away from it, that’s not an easy thing to do and it’s not something the weak can do.  Overall Qiang Lei makes for a great character because of how close she comes to a couple anime tropes before gracefully choosing a slightly different and altogether refreshing path.  And now for the figurative final form.

The final archetype I want to look is what I call the Game Changer.  As the name implies, the Game Changer is someone who radically reshapes the world of the story just by entering it.  For example, in Kill la Kill Satsuki was always going to rebel against Ragyo, regardless of whether or not Ryuko ever showed up.  However the appearance of Ryuuko blindsides Satsuki and causes her to grow.  It drives her to finally put on Junketsu, leads to the creation more powerful Goku uniforms, helps Satsuki perform the three cities raid more efficiently, helps Sanageyama level up and so on.  Even if the overall plan remains unchanged the details have been totally re-written because Ryuuko showed up.  Another great example of the Game Changer is Ichinose Hajime from Gatchaman Crowds.  Hajime is even more influential than Ryuuko, totally changing the way the entire Gatchaman organization works, even causing all of Japan undergo drastic changes in national policies and attitudes.  Both Hajime and Ryuuko also share a particular brand of strength, uncompromising individuality.  A lot of people like to pretend they have an uncompromising individuality, but let’s face it in order to function in most of society you can’t be uncompromising in your individuality.  Likewise it’s easy to talk shit about being an individual standing up to the Man, and make a big deal about sticking it to the System, but how many people actually do so in any kind of meaningful way?  Given how society and the System is slow to change even when people are clamoring about how much it’s changed already, I’d say pretty few.  Which is where Hajime and Ryuuko come in.  Hajime basically forces the world to dance to her tune, pre-established rules and norms mean nothing to her, and she’s undaunted by taking actions that end up having far-reaching consequences.  The biggest difference between Hajime and Ryuuko is that almost no one is able to put up serious resistance to Hajime, and while Hajime changes things all the time she’s also influenced by society and changes a bit herself.  The world of Gatchaman Crowds is more fluid, standing in direct opposition to the rigid world of Honnoji Academy.  Ryuuko doesn’t change the world the way Hajime does, her appearance doesn’t change the overall direction of pre-existing organizations even if alters the details significantly.  However Ryuuko also resists change, and refuses to bow down in the face of determined and frequent opposition.  This is one of the many things that makes Ryuuko my favorite strong female character, because I wish I could be this uncompromising, I wish could I spit in the world’s face when it told me I had to abide by its rules, I wish I had that kind of strength.  Now I’d hardly call myself normal by America’s standards but even I, can’t tell the world to fuck off all the time and look like a badass.  Ryuuko can.  Moreover, Ryuuko can change but only when she wants to, rather than have changes imposed on her, which again speaks to the solidity of her character.  She exemplifies the power of the individual in it’s purest and, by my reckoning, most appealing form.  And the strength it takes to do that is truly unfathomably great.

Thank you all for reading, this was a lot of somewhat repetitive text.  This has been a pretty big project for me, it’s officially the longest post I’ve ever written since I started this blog.  I hope you all enjoyed it, and I’ll see you in the next one.