Understanding Characters: Resonance vs Convenience

So just a few days ago I was listening to a 3 and a half hour podcast debate about Erased, where one of the debaters gave the show a 2/10 while the other gave it a 9/10.  Anyway it’s a good debate and if you have the time it’s worth listening to, and it was what inspired me to write this post about characters.  This will not be about any specific character or archetype, it won’t even be a case of good characters versus bad characters necessarily.  Instead I want to focus on certain approaches to how characters are written and why these different approaches end up with such drastically different results.  There will be scattered spoilers ahead.

I want to stress right now that Erased is not the only show to suffer from the problems I’m about to describe, it just happens to a really popular show at the moment that highlights said problems.  Erased is not a bad anime, well sort of.  From an animation/directorial standpoint Erased is actually cool, it does some interesting stuff that you could never have done in the manga.  And in my Surly Summary of Erased I acknowledged that, hell even the guy who gave Erased a 9/10 in the debate I was talking about was mostly focused on the directing.  I think Erased is a strong show case of how to use animation creatively and arguably effectively and if I gave half a shit about using review scores that would earn Erased some points on my hypothetical scale.  However in it’s totality I consider Erased to have mostly failed.  I don’t even think this is a problem with the anime itself necessarily, it could easily have been a problem in the manga I just don’t know because I haven’t read the manga, but the characters just feel fucking dead.  Barring Satoru himself and his mom, everyone feels like they are just one thing.  Kayo is just a girl who gets beat, and that’s all she is.  Ok she does have a few scenes which showcase a bit more character depth, but by and large she exists solely to be the poor little girl you feel sorry for and feel you must protect.  Yashiro’s sole purpose it seems is to be the fucked up bad guy with no depth to him at all, yes I know there’s more to him in the manga that didn’t make it into the anime but the anime has to stand on it’s own so I don’t care.  The point is that almost all the characters didn’t really feel like people, they stuck too closely to a single persona or attribute that served a narrative purpose.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with making a character who serves a narrative purpose.  For example Hisoka from HunterxHunter serves a purpose in the show, he helps drive Gon to grow by being this looming threat that Gon has to someday break free of, which Gon can only do by getting strong enough to beat Hisoka.  But Hisoka isn’t just Gon’s antagonist, he has a life and personality that don’t relate to Gon at all but do inform his relation to Gon.  Hisoka actively seeks out all kinds of potential challengers of which Gon is one, and sure because Hisoka is this way he plays a distinct role in Gon’s story, but the point is that Hisoka is this way because that just who he is and he applies this philosophy to everyone, not just Gon.  As a result Hisoka feels like an actual character, feels like he exists as a distinct entity in the world of HunterxHunter.  By comparison Yashiro just feels like an avatar used to put a human face on a concept.  Sure there are crazy murderers and child kidnappers in the world, and yes the whole spider web thing does have a narrative/symbolic purpose, but Yashiro the person does not feel like he exists.  In the anime at least, I should stress this opinion doesn’t apply to the manga, Yashiro does not come off as a being which fits into the world the story is set in.  He exists solely to be Satoru’s enemy, the obstacle he must overcome.  Ironically the spider web power is part of what robs Yashiro of his depth, he worked better as a believable human being when he was just this smart, sadistic serial kidnapper and murderer.  But when Yashiro decided to become Satoru’s enemy and had his entire personality defined by this relationship with Satoru, he stopped being a human and became a concept with face and mouth.  The reason Erased failed to me was because none of the characters really resonated with me as people, most of the time they felt like Yashiro did, ideas with a face.  Kayo’s mom for example was just way too over the top and heavy handed in her abuse, to the point I stopped giving a shit about her by the time the show revealed she had been beaten by her husband and that may have influenced her behavior.  Now let’s divorce Erased from the discussion and talk about the concept in broader context.

As I said before, writing characters who serve a narrative purpose is not inherently bad, however there is a need for balance.  Every character who has a purpose in a story should have thought put into how he or she serves that purpose.  However there also needs to be thought put into how the character resonates with the audience, fits into the setting, fits into the lore, basically how the real the character feels, how much weight their existence has to the viewer in the context of the story.  And jumping back to Erased for a second, that is where the show trips up.  Someone, maybe the director, maybe the writer but probably both, put effort into making the characters serve a purpose in the story and how they serve that purpose and what aspects of their character make them serve the purpose effectively but that’s just about all they did.  They didn’t put enough effort into all the stuff that contributes to the weight of the characters’ existence.  To be as blunt as I possibly can about this subject, making sure your characters feel like they exist organically within the world of your story is REALLY FUCKING IMPORTANT.  You can make great shows with mediocre plots and unimaginative settings if you can make organic, relatable characters which we the audience can get invested in and resonate with.  A great example of this is Monster Musume.

I loved Monster Musume for a wide variety of reasons, but the root cause of it’s success was the characters.  Besides the addition of the monster girls, the setting was the same generic modern Japanese setting that shows use all the fucking time.  Likewise the plot was pretty par for the course for harem shows, generic nice guy keeps getting hot girl after hot girl to fall for him while he drags his feet choosing a final partner because then the show would end.  There are certain details specific to Monster Musume like how the main guy can’t screw the girls by law and is being pushed to marry one of them to set the precedent for the rest of the world and improve human-monster relations, but overall the “plot” if you can even call it that is barely different from other well known harem shows like To Love-Ru and Nisekoi.  Despite the similarities of the various harem shows, Monster Musume is much better, because the characters are better.  I found the monster girls more endearing than typical harem girls, even the ones I didn’t particularly like (Cerea mostly), because they weren’t just defined by their attraction to the male lead, they had issues of their own to overcome, usually about the human perception and subsequent bullying of monsters.  And because I got to see them struggle through these kinds of issues and how the male lead helped them make it through said issues, I care more about them and their relationships.  By comparison I generally only care about To Love-Ru’s girls insofar as which ones I find most attractive (the answer is Riko, obviously) because for the most part we don’t learn as much about them, we’re too busy watching Rito fall into their panties or accidentally grope them all the time.  I admit I’m making some broad generalizations here, but understand that if I tried to bring up every minute detail this post would never end.  We need characters that we can resonate with, yes they should serve some kind of purpose in the story, but they need to have more to them than just serving their narrative purpose.

Look I’m not just bringing this up to point out the obvious to people who will never read this, I have an agenda here.  I’m getting worried because I keep seeing more shows where the villains in particular are suffering from writing/directing where the characters serve a purpose more so than exist naturally in the setting.  Arguably even more alarming, a lot of these badly damaged villains are coming from the shows of A-1 Pictures.  Erased makes for a good example but there are others as well, Gate and SAO are some of the other well known A-1 shows that fall victim to this trend too.  This bothers me for two reasons, one A-1 Pictures has done a handful of shows I love and I would hate for people to write those off because they get buried under all these shitty shows A-1 makes, and two, bad villains are even worse for a story than bad heroes.  In an older post about villains, I said villains are often the most interesting characters in their shows because anyone can understand wanting to be the big, brave hero or the best (insert profession/hobby here, for example Pokemon trainer, swordsman, gamer, etc.) among your peers or indeed in the world.  By comparison it takes a much more unique, nuanced and interesting kind of mind and/or life to end up a powerful villain and getting us the audience to understand how the villain became the villain is usually one my favorite parts of any show.  For example in Psycho Pass, I found myself agreeing with Makishima Shouko, the villain, from a purely ideological standpoint when he revealed his philosophy, even as I sympathized with Shinya Kogami and his desire to kill Makishima, thus avenging the death of his partner and punishing Makishima for his unquestionably irredeemable crimes.  That could never have happened if Makishima ended up like Yashiro, who I stopped understanding as a human being when he got around to explaining his supernatural power, philosophy and backstory, because of how tactless and edgythe delivery of those details was in its attempt to impress on us how evil Yashiro is.  And this sort of thing frustrates me a lot.

This problem, the writing of inorganic but functional characters and their attendant headaches, is what convinces me that what some call the Hayao Miyazaki problem has serious merit.  For those who don’t know, the Hayao Miyazaki problem is an observation , made by Miyazaki, that otaku are ruining anime because the industry is full of otaku authors and animators who don’t spend enough time paying attention to or trying to understand real people, which has a negative effect on their art.  Whether you agree or disagree with Miyazaki’s observation is up to you, I don’t agree with him all the way but the last several years in particular have convinced me he was onto something.  This is not to say I think an inability to write organic, relatable characters is necessarily only an otaku problem, but I can understand why it might be more pronounced in otaku authors than it would be among more “normal” authors, because it’s in a lot of the generic light novel adaptations where this problem pops up and most light novel authors are otaku.

In any case this can’t keep happening.  I know Erased was hyped up and a lot of people did end up loving it, but think of how much better it could have been if the characters where more organic, more real.  And don’t forget that a lot of people ended up being disappointed by Erased, and while I can’t speak for everyone, I think the characters are what really killed it for me.  I didn’t much like the writing either but good characters could have feasibly salvaged the show.  The same goes for any other show with a similar problem, it doesn’t matter how interesting the premise is, how cool the animation is, even how good the directing is, a show full of hollow characters is going to be hollow, because so much of the story’s emotional impact comes by way of the characters, be it their backstories, their actions, their relationships or their dialogue.  As anime Youtuber DemolitionD+ aptly put it “when it comes to building an atmosphere in a work of fiction, the characters that inhabit that setting are a lot more pivotal than you’d imagine.  You can have the most believable, living, breathing world of death and decay as possible but if the players in the field are hollow the whole machine ceases to function as well as it should.” And like I mentioned above, you can have shows with much more generic premises and plots as well as equally predictable writing, and still have them be good if the characters feel real, and can be related to.  Monster Musume was better than Erased to me, and I don’t doubt that that seems inconceivable to some people.  Like how could a slice of life, romcom, harem show be better than a more unique show with an interesting premise like Erased?  Hell writing it out like that makes it seem like a contradiction of many things I’ve been saying since I started blogging.  But it’s true and the characters are the reason why.

There are many different aspects of storytelling I love to analyze, love to see brought to life.  In fact I think worldbuilding, especially in fantasy shows where the world doesn’t resemble ours, is the coolest part of storytelling.  However, in my opinion, characters are by far the most important part of storytelling, and because I think that I’m ok with generic shows that put a lot of effort into their characters, while I bitch about more inventive shows that neglect their characters like Erased did.  For instance I’m in the middle of watching Hibike Euphonium after putting it off for several months.  I’m not a KyoAni fanboy, I didn’t do band at any point in my life, hell I can’t even read music, and I’m a dude.  On the surface nothing about Hibike Euphonium relates to me beyond me having been a high school student once, and it certainly doesn’t lie in my typical genres of interest like fantasy, action or historical.  But I have not binged a show with the kind of relentless speed with which I’m tearing through Hibike Euphonium in a long time.  It’s like a book that I just can’t put down no matter how late it gets and how sleep derived I’ll be at work tomorrow, the only reason I didn’t finish it all in one sitting is because my computer decided to quit on me at 2 in the morning.  And Hibike Euphonium brought this out of me because the characters are so damn human, so easy to relate to, to want to root for and come to understand.  There’s a scene where the one of the main girl’s friends blurts out a confession to a guy who likes the main girl so she gets rejected, and it was perhaps the most personally relatable scene in any anime I’ve ever come across, because I been the guy who was confessed to out of the blue and said no because I was going after someone else, and I’ve been the one to blurt out a confess and get rejected.

What I’m trying to say is organic, relatable characters who fit naturally into the setting of a story are paramount.  I like cool premises, I dig elaborate plots, I love creative new worlds to explore, and I’m impressed by good writing and directing.  And in an ideal world I would find a show that has it all.  But if you give me great characters that I want to understand and relate to, then I can put up with not having any or all of those other things, that’s just how much good characters are worth.  I hope you enjoyed this post, and I’ll see you in the next one.

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