Understanding Appeal: Shingeki no Kyojin, Black Bullet & Owari no Seraph

So a few months ago I did a post explaining the core difference between the three shows mentioned in the title using episode 1 as a basis.  Now that discussion had very little to say about Black Bullet in particular, but more to the point it doesn’t really point out the appeal of each show.  So with Owari no Seraph season 2 over, I thought it was time to dig into these shows a bit further.  There will be major spoilers for all three shows, you have been warned.

Ok lets get this out of the way first and foremost, Shingeki no Kyojin is by far the highest quality show among these three so I’m not to talk about it too much.  There are a lot of reasons why of course, some of which are explained in the linked post above.  But the point of this post is not about comparing the shows with regards to animation quality, characters and so on.  The point of this post is to look into the minute differences between each show, which feature many similar traits, and what elements they have that are good.  You see one of the biggest issues with Black Bullet and Owari no Seraph, is that as they are dismissed out of hand for being “AoT clones” is that most people don’t seriously consider their positive aspects.  This is understandable of course, neither Black Bullet nor Owari no Seraph is remotely near the top of my favorite list, or even shows I consider good, but they do incorporate certain elements of storytelling that would be worthwhile if used in a series with better direction and characters.  And it is these elements I want to focus on today, if for no other reason than to bring them out in the open.

Let’s start with Shingeki no Kyojin since it is the most popular.  I already explained the show’s emphasis on psychological terror, though that mainly is true of the first 1/3 of the show and rapidly drops off later, and how that made it engaging.  The other thing that made it engaging, besides the action and animation which was good but was more a of a bonus than a real selling point to me,  were the mysteries.  There is a lot of information we don’t know and while that is often a flaw, Shingeki no Kyojin places a strong emphasis on unraveling the mysteries towards the end, and even as early as episode 3 or 4 the show lets us know that the people of this world are indeed learning about the titans and keeping record of their knowledge.  Now I will admit the final battle is awesome and I would count that as a selling point of the show, but during the excruciatingly slow middle chunk of the show the thing that really convinced me to keep going were the mystery aspects.  What are the titans exactly?  Where do the come from?  Why do they eat people if they don’t have a digestive system and don’t even need to eat?  How come there are humans who can turn into special titans and why do these special titans have totally different abilities and attributes?  All of these questions are things I very much want to see answered, but in a way that intrigues rather than frustrates, that sparks interest to see more rather than to bore while waiting for answers.  This more so than the action or characters is what kept me invested in the later part of the series and looking forward to a sequel.  So how do the other two measure up?

Let’s do Black Bullet first since it aired first.  For those who don’t know the idea with Black Bullet is that this weird virus called the Gastrea Virus has mutated the animals of the world into huge monsters creatively called Gastrea.  This virus is contagious can can turn people into monsters as well.  Now there are two weapons with which humanity fights the Gastrea, Varanium and Cursed Children.  Vanarium is a black metal that repels Gastrea and shuts down the unnaturally high healing capabilities of Gastrea, so people can kill them.  Cursed Children are what happens when pregnant women get infected with the Gastrea virus, instead of becoming monsters they give birth to special humans, all of whom are girls for no particular reason.  The Cursed children have heightened physical abilities and powerful healing much like the Gastrea.  Curse Children are then paired with Inspectors who are both Gastrea hunters and handlers for the Cursed Children.  Anyway what scuppers Black Bullet is twofold, how the Gastrea are shitty CG monsters that look terrible and uninteresting, and the overall direction the story takes and missed opportunities with the characters.

The odd part about the story is that the characters aren’t that bad.  Sure most of the side characters are one note and uninteresting but the main ones are ok.  Hell, Kagetane the masked guy who appears as villain in the first arc, was actually pretty interesting.  The thing that really gets me as far as the characters are concerned is Kisara and Rentarou.  At the end of the show Kisara flips from a champion of law and justice to murdering one of her elder siblings while laughing about how justice accomplishes nothing.  Mind you that change in mindsets is not necessarily bad nor unwlecome and of itself, but the implementation of it was shit.  Also it makes more sense for Rentarou to be the one who gives up on justice.  He faces far more trauma than Kisara, and there is a point where he was about to lose faith in justice.  Just before the last arc really kicked off Rentarou was teaching a bunch of Cursed Children in an informal school and some asshole essentially left a Varanium claymore in the school one morning, killing all of Rentarou’s students.  And ironically it was Kisara who convinced Rentarou to have faith and remain true to his sense of justice.  Why the fuck would they do this?  If you’re like me the question you’re asking is why did they bother with Aldebaran arc  at all?  Wouldn’t it have made more sense for Kagetane, who consistently shows contempt for civilization as it currently exists and an interest in Rentarou as a fellow mechanized human, to leak the identity of the bomber/bombers to Rentarou, let him make the choice to kill or spare them for himself and build an arc based around the violence within the city that is slowly killing this society instead of the external CG threats?  That would’ve made a much more interesting dynamic than having Kisara convince Rentarou to keep being the good guy before she herself gives up on law and justice.  But anyway what really is the appeal of the show?

Well I count Kagetane as an appeal in and of himself because he has a creepy mask, a snappy red suit and is voiced  by one of my favorite voice actors.  He’s also the person my personal views on the society of the Black Bullet align with.  Because frankly this society deserves to die.  Even if we ignore that one former royal guard who actively sabotages Rentarou’s battle strategy against a giant monster that has broken through the Varanium barrier and is in the city, these people still need to die.  The thing is this society has a lot of people who hate the Cursed Children because they were born of the same Gastrea virus that fucked the world up.  This is understandable, however the amount of Cursed Children who get killed by average Joes is not.  Keep in mind that the Cursed Children are the most effective fighting force the humans have, even if they were discriminated against you’d think the government would try and protect their supply of Cursed Children and prosecute anyone who killed them, because even if they personally hate the Cursed Children, those little girls are vital to humanity’s survival.  None of that happens though, instead authority figures from street cops to prime ministers seem to be content to attack Cursed Children out of hate for all things Gastrea related.  And it gets even worse when the overwhelming majority of people either fall into this camp of violent, hateful people or just let it happen.  There is no mass movement of any kind that tries to stop this unabated violence even though the Cursed Children are the primary means of protection when monsters invade, as happens from time to time.  This is a world that can well and truly hate, and by God is it cathartic.  It also helps that I prioritize individuals over society as a whole, so seeing a society where the individuals were so right and the society was so fucked was somewhat gratifying.  If you want feel anger at people or want to feel angry at people, this series does provide.  This is reinforced by some of the flashes of realism found in Black Bullet.  There isn’t much but when it shows up it does wonders.  For example I really liked how Kisara’s older sibling, whom she killed in the final episode, made one of the Varanium barriers on the cheap, which is why the Gastrea could destroy it during the final arc, and then pocketed the extra money from the budget used to build it so he could advance his own position.  This in turn justifies Kisara’s hatred for her own family, this doesn’t save the terribly abrupt transition in her character but it does at least serve as a backdrop for said transition.  To sum this up, Black Bullet is a show that has a number of good pieces that were put together badly, resulting in a story which doesn’t live up to full potential of all it’s elements. Which brings me to Owari no Seraph.

Owari no Seraph has the almost the opposite problem of Black Bullet, surprising as it may sound the overall direction the story has taken is actually really good.  In fact were I to rate the three shows in this discussion solely based on their narrative progression, Owari no Seraph would be in first.  This is not to say Owari no Seraph is a good show, because it isn’t, but taken on it’s own the narrative it’s trying to tell is quite engaging.  I know, if some random stranger on the internet told me what I just told anyone who reads this, I’d call bullshit too.  And in all honesty even I have a hard time reconciling the gap between all the creative elements that form the interesting story and the bland, uninspired characters who drive said story into the fucking ground.  The single biggest problem with Owari no Seraph is the characters, I mean the whole humans vs vampires in a manner similar to Shingeki no Kyojin premise doesn’t help, but it doesn’t kill the show either.  The characters are so one note and cliche it hurts.  Not to mention the voice acting is thoroughly mediocre and the dialogue is cringeworthy, which really puts the final nail in coffin labeled characters.  I have a hard time putting into words exactly how bad the characters are, because it’s not just one thing that’s wrong with them, instead there’s something wrong with them on almost every level.  Most of the character designs alone will tell you exactly what kind of person the character is, all the characters stick closely to pre-established archetypes and have very little in the way of uniqueness to them, and they all put on disappointing performances thanks to the lackluster voice acting and horrific script.  This would almost be funny as a parody, a satire about how not to do characters, save for the fact that they occupy a story and world that are interesting.  I like the variety of monsters and/or sources of power that inhabit the world, from vampires, to demons to angels.  I like the use of Biblical lore, especially towards the end of season 2 with the appearance of Abbadon and the King of Salt.  But most importantly I like this because it is a story where both the humans and the vampires are the bad guys.  I was able to predict that humanity fumbling with powers it should leave alone was what caused the world to collapse with ease, but unlike most stories that use that particular premise, in Owari no Seraph it’s not suggested that the vampires are any better.  Usually when humanity, or really anyone we typically expect to be the good guys, either fuck or end up being the bad guys, the story will then cast the opposite force as the good guys.  Not so with Owari no Seraph, life under conniving, arrogant and pettily cruel vampires is no better than life under the tyrannical, ruthless and power-hungry upper echelons of the Imperial Demon Army.  This is a rare approach, and while it was predictable as fuck in the broad strokes, the minute details of the situation shows an unexpected level of care in craft in their construction.  I guess what I’m trying to say is that, Owari no Seraph is a good story, set in an interesting world, and even if it’s characters had just been average, it could’ve been a good show.  But the characters are just thoroughly shit that they turn a show that by rights should have been at bare minimum a decent show into something terrible.  Taken on their own the world and narrative of Owari no Seraph have serious merit, and deserve some scrutiny so that people who want to write a similar story can see how it works.  It’s just a shame that the full package that is the show is spoiled by it’s rotten characters.

Thank you for reading, this was a long post by my standards, and while I’m certain there is more to talk about on this subject, I think this is good enough for now.  Hopefully I will see you in the next one.

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Understanding Psychology: Shingeki no Kyojin, Black Bullet & Owari no Seraph

Shingeki no Kyojin took the anime world by storm, but you guys already knew that.  So the question is how.  Was it the titans?  The post-apocalyptic setting?  We seem to have a lot of movies, tv shows and anime based on that running around right now.  Was it the 3D maneuver gear and the action?  Well yes, yes and yes but let me ask you a different question.  Why was Shingeki no Kyojin so popular while it’s subsequent clones failed to get a major following?  The answer can be found as early as episode one of the three series mentioned in the title, and it’s that question I’m going to answer.  There will be spoilers for episode one of all three shows, you have been warned.

Before I dive in I’m going to say, for the sake of buying time, that God Eater didn’t make this list because its first episode was bland as fuck and I hate the “realistic CG” art style and character designs.  Moving on.  Let’s start with what each series tried to do with the first episode.  Black Bullet was more concerned with helping us understand the world we found ourselves in then anything else so it was naturally quite a bit drier than the other two.  But all three wanted to smack us right in the feels with some tragedy and only Shingeki no Kyojin managed to.  Black Bullet had a guy who didn’t realize he was turning into a monster, die and become a monster before getting killed by the main characters. The concept is tragic but the execution was tired and predictable, I would be very surprised if anyone gave a rat’s ass about that random guy who dies at the end of episode one.  So there is no tragedy but that’s sort of ok for Black Bullet because the focus of its conflict is not the Gastrea monsters outside the walls but the humans inside them, although this isn’t really showcased in episode one.  Owari no Seraph tries much harder to hit our feels, it slaughters a small family of young orphans.  That is a tragic event but the execution is just going through the motions once again.  The “twist” where Mika’s escape plan was really a trap by a twisted vampire noble was obvious as soon as we first saw the noble in question.  He looked like a sly, sick bastard and no one was expecting a child to outsmart him.  But more importantly Owari no Seraph doesn’t focus on the parts of the slaughter that make it a real tragedy in our minds, it’s only concerned with the physical action.

This is where Shingeki no Kyojin steps in.  The death of Eren’s mom is one of the most powerful scenes I have ever witnessed in a first episode, and is a very powerful scene by any standard.  But it’s not because a relative of the protagonist dies, if that’s all it took to be tragic and powerful then Owari no Seraph would have done fine.  It’s because of the psychological aspects of the first episode.  The episode explicitly showcases the powerlessness and hopelessness of the situation.  In Owari no Seraph the would-be escapee children would never stand a chance against a vampire, so there is no shock when the physical actions confirm that.  Also the protagonist escapes after shooting the vampire in the head which destroys the powerlessness of the humans in the scene.  But usually we expect the adults to, if not solve the problem, then at least make some kind of meaningful action.  That doesn’t happen in Shingeki no Kyojin.  The adults are just as powerless as the kids.  This is best showcased when Hans puts on his manly bravado voice and assures Eren that he’ll kill the titan and save his mom.  But when Hans actually faces down the titan he freezes, the rest of the background goes black and we zoom in on the creepy face of the titan, smiling with mindless cruelty.  Then Hans looks terrified and runs away with Eren and Mikasa in tow.  Then we watch as Eren’s mom is casually devoured by the titan while the armed adult man runs for his life.  This is what makes the scene powerful and made Shingeki no Kyojin so successful, it understands that the physical terrors the titans represent are superseded by the horrors they inflict on the mind.  Being afraid of titans, vampires and Gastrea on a physical level is not just understandable, it’s prudent.  It has no particular effect on us as viewers.  But seeing a mind crippled by fear is unnerving and uncomfortable.  It reminds of us of how fragile humans can be, a truth we largely like to ignore.  This is especially true since adults are afflicted by the terror.  It’s one thing for a bunch of kids to live in of fear their vampire overlords, it’s another entirely to watch grown men and women, members of the military no less, run with shameless abandon from a fight broken by their fear.  That kind of crippling mental terror, the kind that haunts characters even when they are in a safe place, is far more tragic and powerful than any amount of physical violence can ever hope to be.  And it’s because that fear is so pervasive and prevalent in Shingeki no Kyojin’s world that it was such a big hit.  I’m not saying the art, music, and action didn’t contribute, because they were all amazing.  But the beating heart of Shingeki no Kyojin is the psychological horror, the palpable atmosphere of human powerlessness, and it’s that heart which not only sets it apart from the so called “AoT clones” but is what made it so damn successful in the first place.

Thank you for reading.  I hope you enjoyed it and I’ll see you in the next one.

Understanding Characters: The Battle Maniac

I have already talked about the basics of good fights here, and expounded upon the nature what makes certain characters badass in action here.  But there is a certain kind of character that is central to action and often one of the badasses involved who I’ve not yet covered.  Enter the battle maniac.  From here on their will be scattered spoilers as I dissect what makes up a good battle maniac and use examples to prove my points.  You have been warned.

Some people just like to fight, but while that is an integral part of the battle maniac, this trait alone does not qualify a character to be a battle maniac.  Take for example a typical shounen hero like Naruto, Natsu, Ichigo or Gon.  These characters fight a lot and upon occasion they enjoy the challenge of fighting someone strong.  But I don’t think anyone would call these four battle maniacs, because they are always fighting for something or someone.  Even if they enjoy some of their fights, most of the time they’re fighting for the survival of friends, family or just humanity at large.  By comparison someone like Hisoka or Grimjow are battle maniacs because they enjoy fighting for its own sake.  Unlike the heroes they fight against, Hisoka and Grimjow get restless when there’s no action and actively seek out fights to kill their boredom.  That particular trait is essential for battle maniacs.  That they must enjoy fighting is something of a given, but they also should be seeking out fights or at bare minimum worthy opponents for future battles.  If they don’t have this trait they generally can’t be a battle maniac, anyone can enjoy a fight either for the challenge or the adrenaline, battle maniacs need to seek out enemies who can spark much deeper feelings in them.  Take Hisoka, to Hisoka what matters the most is finding and later fighting opponents who he finds challenging enough to be worth the effort.  Anyone below that level is of no interest to Hisoka and he crushes them without thought as a way to vent his enormous bloodlust.  Which brings us to our next most important trait.

Battle maniacs should not only be able to deal with bloodlust but usually cloak themselves in it.  Battle maniacs are an abnormal type of character, they are natural outcasts whose violence drives more sane characters away from them.  This one reason why so few heroes can be battle maniacs.  Even if you take heroes like Eren Jaeger or any of his contemporaries who live to wipe out whatever monster took something precious from them, these guys aren’t battle maniacs.  They don’t drive people away like battle maniacs do because their defining trait is their extreme determination and drive.  Battle maniacs on the other hand tend to be defined by their ability to intimidate and the how they enjoy the things they do.  You can see how battle maniacs tend to be more twisted than even the most violent heroes by glancing over at Hisoka, or the lesser known Akabane Kuroudo from Get Backers.  Both characters intensely value the heroes of the story because they see them as perfect challenges.  They both are portrayed as creepy, with even their allies being wary about them and their actions.  Both characters are played up as menacing and they are completely nonchalant in what most would call dangerous situations.  Another thing that usually separates heroes from battle maniacs are their weapons.  Heroes tend to use very traditional weapons, not that some don’t use more exotic weapons, but generally the hero uses simple weapons or magic that the audience will approve of.  Natsu and Gon for instance both use special abilities that center around a simple physical fighting style because punches and other simple martial arts strikes are something everyone is familiar and comfortable with.  By comparison Hisoka and Akabane use cards and scalpels as their weapons and are made all the more creepy by how they wield such unusual weapons with deadly skill.  It makes them scarier since they fight with tools that aren’t associated with fighting, because when the audience has no point of reference for understanding how they fight, it makes them more alien to us on some level and alien is scarier than familiar.  However, despite all these differences with heroes, there is some overlap.

One of the traits that heroes and battle maniacs share is that they fight inconsistently.  What I mean is that they power up exponentially when they fight someone stronger.  For most heroes this means it’s nakama power-up time but it works a bit differently for battle maniacs.  The battle maniac will always appear strong.  So when they fight small fry opponents they put in very little effort and then appear exponentially stronger when fighting an opponent who is actually a challenge and they put in some effort.  Akabane for example, moves much better and uses more vicious techniques when he takes on someone near his level than he does when fighting average Joes.  Heroes that best blur the lines between battle maniac and hero are Xin from Kingdom and to a lesser extent Natsu from Fairy Tail.  Now make no mistake Natsu has plenty of nakama power-up moments and he usually lacks the more malevolent traits battle maniacs have, but he has a number of similarities.  For one thing when Natsu really gets pissed he tends to take, to some extent, the malevolent traits he lacks.  His anger turns him more feral than a typical hero, therefore he becomes more intimidating because he is moving away from more understandable human anger and entering a more alien realm of anger.  Likewise Natsu loves to fight more so than most heroes, he intensely enjoys fighting powerful opponents and generally is more inclined to seek fights out rather than wait for them to come to him.  Xin is even more pronounced in this regard.  Xin loves to fight and he actively seeks out the strongest opponents he can, though his targets also tend to be high value military commanders so his reasons for fighting them are for personal enjoyment and military accolades.  Also, while Xin isn’t wrapped up in malice he has a certain weight to his presence that marks him out to powerful opponents.  And in Xin’s case there are very few nakama power-ups, he just fights a lot better when he takes on more talented foes.  In the end I don’t know if I would call Xin a true battle maniac, but it’s close call to be sure.

Generally speaking battle maniacs fit much more neatly into the OP Badass category.  They are always strong and because they are usually built up as being creepy or menacing, they already have the dramatic build-up they need when they go into battle.  Uvogin and Hisoka are both great examples of this.  Both characters are incredibly powerful, enjoying fighting for its own sake and love crushing worthy opponents.  But both are also vulnerable.  At one point Hisoka loses both arms in a single fight and Uvogin gets put in life threatening situations on more than one occasion.  Also a good battle maniac should be a pretty important character in the story.  If they aren’t they end up like Christoph Gardos from Strike the Blood.  Gardos is a battle maniac insofar as he loves war and enjoys battling the strong but he lacks too many other key elements to be a good battle maniac.  For one he’s not all that strong, two he isn’t very intimidating and three because he’s essentially a footnote in the story he lacks the kind of presence that a proper battle maniac like Hisoka or Akabane has.  So Gardos ends up being one of these small time bad guys who looks more like a poorly thought-out psycho, because he loves war even though he’s way too weak to be particularly good at it.  You don’t want that.  A true battle maniac is generally a recurring character, like Hisoka or Akabane, and the only reason these two work so well over the course of the story is that they always feel menacing and dangerous.  It’s an essential part of the battle maniac’s character and any would-be battle maniac who lacks that trait can’t measure up to the real thing.  And that about wraps this post up.  Hopefully you all enjoyed it and I’ll see you in the next one.