Understanding Storytelling: It’s Hard to do Well

kuzu-no-honkai-05-13

Do forgive the title for explaining the obvious.  For this post I’m mostly going to be talking about writing and storytelling and using anime examples to highlight what I mean rather than talking about anime in depth.  The exception to that is Kuzu no Honkai which I’ve more or less been dying to say something about for weeks, so this post will spoil the shit out of it if you not up to date with the latest episode.  In the event you’ve not seen any Kuzu no Honkai I highly recommend it, it’s already been one of the best romantic dramas I’ve ever seen as it immediately disregards the usual anime relationship bullshit and has the main duo get to second base in episode one.  Now into the abyss that is creativity.

Writing and storytelling are at their core made up of two things, ideas and structure.  I’m an ideas guy.  I’ve come up with a ton of characters, scenes, settings, game concepts and mechanics, fantasy creatures and even my own in-universe mythologies and histories.  But I’ve got no structure, or rather I just plain suck at it.  I can never take those characters from a starting point to the scenes I’ve pictured in my head for years, I’ve tried many times but the pacing seems too brisk, or I feel like I’ve crammed in too much crap in between and disrupted the emotions I want to convey, or I want to write a story with a certain tone to it’s overall themes but the tone I’m writing in doesn’t match up.  Point is, if I ever want to work creatively for a living I’d either have to learn a lot about video editing and make a YouTube channel or bust my ass getting good at forming structure competently.  But enough about me because this applies to a ton of creatives.  Part of the reason I’m bringing this up because I feel like Kuzu no Honkai has sort of the opposite problem, but I’ll get to that later, for now I want to address something that came up in a semi-recent PCP podcast.  Namely that some people don’t believe certain shows, or even anime in general can convey meaningful messages and themes and therefore be just as good and valid as more “normal” media.

Kill la Kill is a good example.  There are a ton of people who see, or least back when it was new a bunch of people saw, Kill la Kill as just fanservice and action, like a popcorn flick with no deeper meaning.  And I agree that on the surface Kill la Kill can look that way and it’s easy to enjoy that way.  But if you’re that hypothetical person who sees nothing else in Kill la Kill I want to ask you a few questions.  If Kill la Kill is just dumb action and tits, why is the main school Honnouji Gakuen named after a famous temple (or maybe castle I don’t remember for sure) that Oda Nobunaga built?  Is it just a fun reference?  If it’s just a reference why does the Tri-School Raid also mirror Oda Nobunaga’s conquests, why does Satsuki have (at least at first) the same goal of conquering Japan in her own way and reshaping the established order like Nobunaga?  Why does Sanageyama the strongest of the Elite Four get called monkey all the time like Nobunaga’s companion Hideyoshi? Because I find it odd that Kill la Kill would take a mere reference to a historical figure and run with it so far across the show.  To me it makes more sense that Kill la Kill is utilizing symbolism here to communicate certain themes rather than just make a reference.  There are plenty of other example but I think I’ve made one of my points.  The other main point is that, in case you don’t do much creative work, there’s a metric fuck ton of planning that goes into the creation of anything that isn’t memes.

I can’t tell how many times a story I want to write doesn’t even make it past the planning stage because I’ve got so much I want to do and so much I need to plan out in advance, that I never get around to writing anything but the planning before getting distracted and working on something else.  In the same vein, nothing is that happens by accident.  I mean people get some ideas on the fly and certain scenes or phrases come serendipitously, but everything that is put in a story was consciously put there on purpose.  For example towards the end of Kill la Kill’s Tri-School Raid there’s a scene where Jakuzure and Inumuta insult Sanageyama, by once again calling him monkey, while insulting each other for being snake-like or being unusually clever for a dog.  This scene only makes any sense because the Sa in Sanageyama is the same Sa in saru (monkey), the Ja in Jakuzure means serpent, and Inu, which starts off Inumuta, means dog.  And none of that was there on accident, the writers decided to make sure all of the Elite Four had characters in their names which correspond to animals on purpose, Gamagoori has gama, meaning toad, in the name of rounding out the group.  It honestly doesn’t matter why they put it there for the purpose of this particular paragraph, regardless of what meaning or theme the creators wanted to convey by naming the Elite Four like this the point is that they had to have done it on purpose.  So now that we’ve got the basics out of the way I’m going to praise and rant about Kuzu no Honkai at the same time because otherwise I’ll go insane talking to myself about the show.

Thus far probably my biggest issue is that Kuzu no Honkai has a very coherent narrative, i.e. good structure but some of the baseline ideas seem to be at odds with each other.  The “evil” teacher is the root cause of this.  On the one hand most of her traits, like how she’s totally narcissistic and takes great joy in attracting men because being an object of male affection makes her feel valuable, or how she seems to like being superior to other women by snatching up the men they like even if she doesn’t like the men at all, or how just incredibly shallow and superficial she is a person, are great, by which I means realistic and fine in the context of the story.  But she has an unusual antagonism for the main girl, Hanabi, that I just can’t wrap my head around.  Like if she was just a little spiteful to other women in general I sort of get it, but she goes way out of her way to antagonize Hanabi, to the point where she fucks Hanabi’s “oniichan” and tells her so in a hallway where anyone nearby could have heard her, not a smart move as there were in fact other people nearby.  This would make sense if Hanabi and the teacher were rivals or peers that didn’t see eye to eye, because one-upping a rival or peer you dislike is realistic behavior.  But how is Hanabi a rival or peer to the teacher?  They are least five years apart in age, and probably more, they have very different levels of sexual experience, Hanabi is still a virgin and the teacher will fuck just about anyone just to not be bored, and they’ve known each other for like 3 months tops, it’s not even clear if Hanabi is in this teacher’s music class, for all we know they’ve only talked like 3 or 4 times.  The only reference to them being rivals at all is the incredibly nebulous idea that they both take advantage of others to make themselves feel good and are therefore the same kind of woman, which I call bullshit on.  So why does the teacher go so far out of her way to antagonize Hanabi?

I mean the obvious answer is because it makes her a clear villain that Hanabi, the heroine, must defeat but they didn’t need to do that.  In Golden Time, I’ve written about before and it’s thus far my top anime romance, there’s a scene where Tada Banri and Linda find out that Linda’s older brother’s girlfriend or fiancee, not sure which stage the two were at, was cheating on him with a another man.  The two follow the girlfriend/fiancee the next time she cheats to get evidence, with Linda’s plan being that she would use the evidence to destroy the relationship and protect her brother from this unfaithful woman.  That’s all Kuzu no Honkai needs right there.  There’s even a brief moment where Hanabi mentions something along the lines of protecting her “oniichan” from this shallow bitch of a teacher, that’s plenty of reason for the two to be in conflict without turning the teacher into this cartoonishly petty and evil villain that Hanabi must defeat, there’s no need for the teacher to antagonize Hanabi the way she does to be the “bad guy”, Hanabi can just be in conflict with the teacher in the name of protecting “oniichan” and that would suffice.  This is what I mean by the ideas being at odds, it just seems off because the way the teacher treats Hanabi and the way all the other setting and character details are laid out feel like they’re telling two different stories, I’ll grant that the differences between these stories are subtle but they definitely are different and it just bugs me like an itch while I’m trying to enjoy all the shit I love above Kuzu no Honkai.

And last but not least, not every story is for everyone and Kuzu no Honaki is definitely not trying to appeal to me.  I’ve discussed how shows appeal to specific audiences before, and that’s ok but it does bring the show down for those not targeted, the fact that it’s still good enough for me to consider one of the best romances outright should speak to the strength of it’s writing and presentation.  Let me say this loud and clear, fuck incest.  Hanabi’s “oniichan” isn’t actually related to her at all, so that wouldn’t be incest if they fucked, but the fact she still wants to fuck her older brother figure means it’s the same kind of shit and it pisses me off.  I get that incest is taboo and some people like taboos so it sells but personally I give negative fucks whenever something vaguely incestuous is part of a show.  It’s such an automatic turn off that I almost skipped over Kuzu no Honkai for sounding like an incestuous version of Toradora from the plot synopsis.   Like if we’re be gifted with an anime where characters are actually fucking regularly and a fetish is being targeted to help sell the story can’t we get futas instead?  I’d much rather have a Kuzu no Honkai where Ecchan is a futa in love with Hanabi and how that would complicate their relationship than hear about how Hanabi wants to fuck her boring as shit “oniichan.”  Incidentally the scene where the “evil” teacher said Hanabi’s “oniichan” was so boring she couldn’t see why Hanabi liked him was amazing.  Hell even the “oniichan” himself only seems attracted to the “evil” teacher because she vaguely reminds him of the mother he hardly remembers, i.e. he has an Oedipus complex, another turn off for me.  Though if it ever comes out that and the “evil” teacher finds out “oniichan” only liked her because of the Oedipus complex and she either has a breakdown or throws a tantrum because of it I would love to see that.

Ultimately what I’ve been trying to tell you all is that good storytelling is really hard.  You can have great ideas but fail at structure and tell a mess of a story, you can have an excellent story structure warped by conflicting ideas, and regardless of how well either the structure or ideas are there will be some people that will think the story sucks because it doesn’t appeal to them and their tastes.  Storytelling is hard. You can do so much right and still bug the hell out of your audience by doing a few things wrong, like pandering to the incest fetish.  Seriously I’m sick to death of it, either it needs to go or I need some futa shows to balance things out, that’s only fair right?  Anyway, thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed it and I’ll see you in the next one.

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4 thoughts on “Understanding Storytelling: It’s Hard to do Well

  1. “But she has an unusual antagonism for the main girl, Hanabi, that I just can’t wrap my head around. ”

    Well to be fair at first her attitude towards Hanabi was no different than any other woman who had something she wanted – but between the confrontation over Mugi and her recent surprising feelings of jealousy in the motel room this past episode, I get why she would turn the dial up just another notch when dealing with Hanabi.

    “Let me say this loud and clear, fuck incest. ”

    Roger that

    Like

    • I think your argument makes sense but it stills feels like the teacher takes it just a little too far to me. It feels more like she behaves that way to make her a clearer villain and make us root more for Hanabi, than she does as a natural extension of who she is. And as someone already rooting for Hanabi it kind of seems like the show is trying just a bit too hard to push me in that direction. It’s not so much that her antagonism makes no sense, it’s just that I think it’s overdone or overstated given the situation.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. In reference to your opening remarks about stories being a combination of ideas and structure, are you familiar with the MICE model of storytelling: Milieu (setting), Ideas, Characters, and Events (plot)?

    Like

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