Hey everybody! Hope you had a good Halloween (for those of you that celebrate it), and for those of you that celebrate Thanksgiving, I hope you’ll give it the breathing room it deserves before the Holiday Rush. I know I will: I vow not to watch a single holiday movie until at least after Thanksgiving (a rule I didn’t follow last year and ended up watching them all in November, leaving me nothing in December). That and now that Halloween’s done I can move on from my marathon of Tim Burton films and the like and go back to catching up on more anime, since the hunger for it’s still alive and kicking (though I may need to set aside a block of time to rewatch Hunger Games before Catching Fire comes out WOOT!). But on the subject of anime, despite the fact that I’ve got a ton of other blog post drafts in my line up, I had to bring this topic up almost immediately as I’ve been giving it a lot of thought, especially while I’m continually working at the editorial process of my novel.
In terms of storytelling, the medium of anime has a lot going for it, since a lot of shows that are considered to be anime (whether you consider shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender, The Legend of Korra, and RWBY to be a part of that is a whole ‘nother kettle o’ fish) not only come up with some of the coolest and most creative premises (right up there with BBC’s Sherlock and The Walking Dead*), with a long history of taking its viewers on flights of fancy from epic space mech-battles to quirky romances with kitsune (fox-demons) and everything in between, but they ALSO, when done well, open some of the most delightful avenues for character development, since most animes (with the exception of OVAs) tend to consist of a series of episodes that can be anywhere from thirteen to fifty episodes long (or longer if we’re talking the ongoing march of Naruto, Bleach, or One Piece).
And this is where I really get inspired as a writer while watching shows like that (well, especially if the writing of the show I’m watching actually is good), because I have discovered over the years that I’m absolutely fascinated with the concept of character development, and on the grander scale the better, which is probably another reason I gravitate toward book series, like Harry Potter, Hunger Games (we’ll pretend Twilight never happened, ahem–except for all the parts in the last movie where Lee Pace was badass Lee Pace).
Not only do I gravitate to these shows as a reader, but as a writer too. I’m not even finished with my first novel yet and already I’m jotting ideas all the time about what I have planned for upcoming sequels. The concept of setting up a character and then putting it through some paces and watching him or her grow and see what level I can take him or her to next really excites me in the writing process, and I love seeing it in anime.
Here are some examples (SPOILER ALERT):
1) Lelouch Lamperouge, from Code Geass
If you’ve read much on the internet about Lelouch Lamperouge, a.k.a. the exiled prince Lelouch vi Britannia (already that gives him a point for fangirl appeal, at least in my book), you’ve probably noticed that a lot of people make comparisons between him and Light Yagami from Death Note. But as I watched Code Geass all the way to it’s AMAZING end, at the same time I watched Death Note up until the episode where Light makes the fiancee of an undercover agent he killed commit suicide and then I threw up my hands in frustration and left the show at that (that and I knew that eventually L was going to die at Light’s hands too, and that L was going to die realizing it, so that basically sealed the deal).
The reason I could stick with Lelouch, despite him having a body count probably just as high as Light’s, if not higher, is the development of his character getting lost inside the cold, calculating alter ego of Zero is far better done, and even then, Lelouch still retains many of his redeeming qualities, even as he falls prey to what many masked men and women can and sometimes do fall prey to. Where Light Yagami has declared himself the “god of the new world” by the end of the FIRST episode, we just get a whisper of the monster inside Lelouch at the end of his first episode, and for all of that, what drives him to declare war on the Empire of Britannia at any cost (and those costs grow higher as things get more tangled up) is his love for his crippled and blinded little sister, Nunnally, wanting to create a world where she can be happy and free from struggle, despite her frailties.
Yes, Light had a sister too. And there’s a scene where he helps her with her homework, but other than that, I felt he had no real connection to any of his family, so all I can do is outright hate him upon ALSO finding out that in addition to killing off L, Light eventually kills off his own father too. The problem is that from the get-go, Light came off as purely an egotist to me, so any scene where he’s having an “innocent” moment with friends and family just comes off as fake from the start. I know he claims that he’s going to use the Death Note to rid the world of evil, and in simplified terms, that seems like a pretty noble cause. But after a while it just comes off as a noble cause being carried out to, again, feed his genius ego. Which resulted in my inability to really see his alter-ego, Kira, (basically an Internet name that’s supposed to be, from what I recall, an “Engrish” pronunciation of the English word “killer”) as an entity separate from Light. I know alter-egos are supposed to be just another part of a person’s psyche brought more to life, but I like to see a little more distinction between the two.
Lelouch is rather a genius too, or at least very intelligent and a whiz at chess (foreshadowing). But in the first episode of Code Geass, though it’s subtly established he’s about to start some shit with the Britannian Empire and their cruel regime over Japan (now called Area 11), we as the audience get the chance to live a little bit with his character in a good and natural light: he runs over to see if a couple of people in a semi accident (terrorists) need help while everyone else just stands around taking pictures on their cells, he tries to protect a girl he doesn’t know though who we will come to know as C.C. (spoken, “C2”) who ends up giving him a godly power to compel anyone to obey his command, and in a moment before he believes he’ll die he thinks of Nunnally (she’s revealed as his sister in the next episodes) with emphatic despair–enough to let us know that she’s someone important to him and whom he can’t imagine leaving behind and open to hostile possibilities (they were in hiding after all). So over time as the series progresses, we get a chance to see not only the roots of the cold alter-ego Zero, but we get to see how that slowly takes him over, and how despite that, he struggles against it. We see how he started out as an innocent kid living an idyllic life as a Britannian prince with his sister and mother, but then that world was ripped apart when his mother was murdered (and Nunnally crippled and blinded in the process), and he and Nunnally were sent to Japan as political hostages shortly before the war between Britannia and Japan began. It buries in the young boy a seed of ire for the Empire that seemed to have abandoned him and his sister, vowing to obliterate Britannia and avenge his mother (believing her murder not to have been the work of terrorists but instead an inside job) as well as create that happy world for his sister.
Which is WAAAAAY more fascinating to me, and I personally am more willing to cheer for Lelouch’s struggle than Light’s vain speeches about “true justice”. I know I haven’t seen the whole Death Note series, but I can’t imagine a moment where Light feels the least bit of regret for all the people he’s killed, not even for his dad. And this is not to say that Lelouch doesn’t have his share of “faking it” for people in order to ensure his survival as the masked vigilante Zero, but what sets Lelouch apart from Light is he has real human development in his role as a dark avenger. Maybe I missed something, and I’d love to hear an instance where I’m wrong and I’ll happily look into it.
For instance, there’s one episode where circumstances force Lelouch to murder the only other sibling aside from Nunally to whom he was ever close, Princess Euphemia: he unwittingly loses control of his Geass, his power to force people to obey him, in the previous episode, accidentally compelling her to massacre a large portion of Japanese people. In order to stop the bloodshed, he has to kill her (because in a sense he’s killed her already, he’s just “finishing the job”). In reality, Euphemia, or Euphie as she was called by the people who loved her (including Lelouch), was a sweet and innocent girl who wanted to bring peace between Britannia and Japan, and after killing her, we get a scene where Lelouch is utterly broken by what’s had to happen, by the tragedy he brought about all because of a malfunctioning superpower. And because of this and of other incidents that occur throughout the series, when Lelouch takes the lives of innocent people, we can see that when he expresses regret for them that he’s sincere, and that the only thing pushing him onward is his goal to remake the world so that it’s safe and happy for Nunally. It’s kind of like the father from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, who kills and dehumanizes all others in doing so all for the sake of protecting his son.
That kind of emotional-roller-coaster character development gets a stamp of gold approval from me, the kind of character who despite having a godly power makes mistakes, regrets them, and even though he does dark things to achieve his otherwise noble goals, it’s because of those goals and the humanity we see in him struggling behind Zero’s mask that the viewers still root for him regardless. This show is often described as being very “Shakespearean”, and I would totally agree with that. And as for where Lelouch ultimately ends up as a character , let’s just say that if you aren’t moved by the way Nunnally says, “Oh big brother, I love you,” (if you’re watching the dub) then you’ve seriously missed something in watching this show. Or you’re just made of stone.
And speaking of Lelouch’s little sister Nunnally….
2) Nunnally vi Britannia, (also) from Code Geass
Nunnally actually has a very awesome story arc of her own, in a cast of other female characters who’ve established themselves as being strong (though I guess we’d have to wait until Attack on Titan, a.k.a. Shingeki No Kyojin to get strong female anime characters who DIDN’T also offer fanservice, though I guess I shouldn’t talk since I enjoy the fanservice from strong male anime characters very much indeed).
At first she starts out as Lelouch’s sweet little sister, who despite the trauma of her mother’s murder and having been shot and crippled as well as blinded, she manages to have a kind and gentle personality, and wishes the world were just as kind and gentle. It’s the world her big brother fights for as Zero, though she of course has no knowledge of it, and thus is as afraid of Zero as many of the other Britannian citizens living in the Tokyo Settlement in Japan/Area 11. But she’s not prejudiced either. Not only is she a pascificst like her big sister Euphie, (the two of them are also shown to have been close) but she has an appreciation for Japanese culture, and actually will refer to Japan as Japan, rather than Area 11, and calls the Japanese people Japanese, rather than “Elevens”. Euphemia does the same, even though her rather warlike older sister Princess Cornelia does not.
In fact, Nunnally and Euphie are tied together not only by their love for Lelouch, but also for Lelouch’s childhood friend, a Japanese turned Honorary Britannian and Britannian soldier, Suzaku Kururugi, and he’s another reason Lelouch is so interesting in his development: Lelouch and Suzaku both want to make the world a better place, but they have different ways of doing it, and despite their being best friends, this eventually turns them into enemies. But where Lelouch and Nunnally were friends with Suzaku from their time as children spent in Japan as political hostages, Euphie and Suzaku meet later during the present timeline of the series and eventually strike up a romance that of course ends in tragedy with Euphemia’s death, and this of course propels Suzaku into outright hating Zero, and shortly thereafter hating Lelouch when he finds out they’re the same person (though of course he has to struggle with it, since they were, after all, best friends).
When at the end of the first season Nunnally is mysteriously abducted, we find out at the beginning of season two that she’s in fact not only in the custody of the Britannian Empire, but she’s returning to Japan as it’s new Britannian viceroy. At first Lelouch thinks she’s being used as a political tool, but when he tries to rescue her, she tells him that it was in fact her idea to become the new viceroy (despite her having not even completed middle school, gotta love that anime age logic), and she wants to reinstate Euphemia’s original plan for Japan (before it got botched up by her “accidental massacre”), which is to create a “Specially Administrated Zone of Japan”.
Eventually the story goes that both Euphie’s sister Princess Cornelia, and their older brother Prince Schneizel, both agree that actually Nunnally is most fit to be the next ruler of the Britannian Empire (after Lelouch’s killed his father, Emperor Charles). With all three of them well aware of Lelouch’s identity as Zero, and all that that entails, Nunnally is forced to declare war on her beloved older brother, but we can see how it pains her to do so. She even insists too that she be the one to hold the launch button for Schneizel’s arsenal of warheads called F.L.E.I.J.A.s (more or less nukes, though not nuclear but still as destructive). Since Lelouch is her brother, (full brother anyway) she feels it her responsibility to see him stopped.
In the last two episodes, Lelouch reaches his sister again, only to have the two of them have what I’d consider a brother-sister argument of epic political proportions. Before they do however, Nunnally claims she won’t keep her eyes closed to the truth anymore, and it turns out she means that literally as she breaks through the impairment of her blindness (actually her blindness was forced upon her by a memory-changing Geass from her father the Emperor) and she can see again! Only to have the first thing she sees be her brother turned into a demon ruler.
This is followed by Lelouch ultimately being forced to use his Geass on her, sealing her hatred of him, and in the end, it turns out that Lelouch was intentionally uniting the world in hating him and then staging it so that Suzaku (at this point working beside Lelouch rather than against him) can kill him in the guise of Zero, “breaking the chain of hatred”, and thus bring about peace to the world. Nunnally understands this in Lelouch’s final moments, utters the “Oh big brother, I love you” line, only to watch him die and have her scream his name and sob over his body.
(That’s what I meant earlier when I said you’d have to be a stone not to be moved by that.)
And it’s totally believable at that point too that Nunnally would move on from that point and carry on as a political figure, Suzaku as Zero keeping watch over her and defending justice. We’ve seen her grow from the sweet little girl in the wheelchair (she kind of reminds me of Nessa Rose from Wicked in that regard) to the strong leader who despite her handicap (she can cure her blindness but she still can’t walk, oh well) is able to govern her people fairly and firmly in the new world her brother’s created, whatever his faults. It was yet another beautiful development of character I enjoyed watching.
3) Tomoya Okazaki, from Clannad and Clannad: After Story
Based off a visual novel by Key, (visual novels are basically like electronic “choose your own adventure books”) Clannad, and it’s second season, Clannad: After Story, is one of the best dramas I have ever watched. Period. And it’s an anime. Not only that, it’s moe anime, which from what I can gather is a kind of anime style where everything is…CUTE.
The story in a nutshell follows the male protagonist, Tomoya Okazaki, as he slacks his way through his last year of high school. He starts out as your practical joker who partly uses the persona as a mask, with a dead mother and an estranged alcoholic father, and an all around crappy and seemingly pointless life that he chooses to toss aside day after day with his friend Youhei Sunohara, cutting class and generally not caring because he wants nothing more than to escape high school and escape this unnamed small Japanese town he lives in where nothing ever changes.
Until he meets the sweetly awkward Nagisa Furukawa, who turns out to be the girl of his dreams. Watching their developing romance over the course of the series is probably one of the best things I have ever seen on screen as romances go (and animated ones at that). With too much time on his hands, he decides to help her revive the school drama club, and she in turn not only introduces him to her wacky parents, but unwittingly draws him into having a family experience he never thought he would have. The two of them grow closer and eventually get married in the After Story second season, and after some heart-rending trouble involving cycles of death and time reversal and gathering orbs of happiness to make a miracle wish, they have a daughter together, Ushio, and Tomoya throughout all this goes from a high school senior who could care less to a working husband and father (and favored son-in-law) who finally has a real family he can come home to (argh, just thinking about it makes me tear up and smile).
The great thing about watching his transformation was that it wasn’t anything on the epic scale of Code Geass or Attack on Titan, but every episode was heavy with weight, deep with dramatic development, even in the lighthearted episodes. It’s the kind of show that makes you either cry from laughter or cry from…well, crying, and the funny parts are so funny for all the moments that are so sad or bittersweet or tender that are. If you have an enjoyment not simply for drama, but for that nostalgic feeling of that pinnacle community of people I think we all belonged to in our early years and to whom we grew close and with whom we built our first meaningful relationships (to varying degrees), this is basically the anime version of that. And I highly recommend it to you.
And granted, Tomoya’s no Lelouch Lamperouge, but he’s still got that “I’ve-got-issues-is-there-a-girl-out-there-who-can-fix-me?” kind of thing going for him that always ends up being so damn attractive. Unless maybe you’re…Edward Cullen.
4) Armin Arlert, from Attack on Titan
So this is the anime I’ve heard compared to The Walking Dead (except instead of zombies threatening to break the protective wall, it’s giant naked people). And I knew going in, after having watched a review, that while we have a fiery and somewhat dark protagonist in Eren Jaeger, and a wingman–or wingwoman rather–in Mikasa Ackerman, who’s probably the first badass anime female I’ve seen who wasn’t also fanservice (see my mention in above entry on Nunnally vi Britannia), the trio is completed with Armin Arlert, the…typical scaredy cat who’s also incredibly smart. But at the same time they make him into a real character, not a cardboard cutout.
In the first few episodes, we see him determined to be in the top ten in the army the humans have built up against the Titans not only so he can keep close to his friends Eren and Mikasa, but also so he can make it to the world outside the wall that encloses the entirety of the human race in an effort to protect it from the Titans. It’s been his and Eren’s dream since they were very young to go outside the wall and see the wonders of the world beyond, and despite his fear, Armin can’t help his curiosity. Though he doesn’t overcome his fear immediately, we see him grow into a stronger character that isn’t so much stronger because he loses his fear or anything, it’s still there, but rather because he finds it in himself to do things despite his fear.
In the beginning, Eren and Mikasa were always rescuing him from bullies who liked to beat him up, and in his and his friends’ first real battle with Titans, Armin sees the massive death around him and just freezes, unable to move. But he goes from believing himself to be a hindrance who always needs rescuing and choking up under pressure, when he comes up with a strategy that turns the battle around in the humans’ favor. That and when it’s revealed that his friend Eren has somehow developed the ability to actually turn into a Titan, resulting in all the nearby soldiers going crazy with fear and wanting to kill him, Armin agrees to stand before them and try to talk some sense into them, where he gives probably one of the most epically self-sacrificing speeches ever. (Seriously, if you’re on trial for something you didn’t do but it looks like you might be convicted anyway, call Armin Arlert to be your lawyer.)
And it goes beyond that. I haven’t finished the series as it stands yet (I know there’s talk of season two in development) but I’ve seen parts where Armin’s screaming at the top of his lungs with a bloody face in the midst of battling a Titan. Wow. How do you go from the scaredy nerd getting beat up to the guy covered in blood gritting his teeth in determination? With good writing you do! What’s nice is they don’t just zap him with the magical “now you’re a soldier and automatically a badass” and call it character development. He’s not up to scratch with Mikasa and he doesn’t have nearly as much wrath as Eren, but he can bring the heat in his own way, and that’s what makes him so cool (and my fave character–actually I’d probably say that aside from Mikasa just for the simple fact that she’s made of awesome and win, that probably goes for nearly every fan of the show).
5) Simon, from Gurren Lagann
Now who said that an anime had to be serious at the very least to give it good character development? Not so! Gurren Lagann (short name) is strictly a turn-off-your-brain-and-just-enjoy-the-explosions-and-humor mech show. But for all of that, it’s got some very awesome character development, mostly because it’s nothing more than the classic hero journey I like to compare to the likes of Luke Skywalker.
Our protagonist, Simon, (See-moan) is an all around good kid who’s afraid of getting killed by the Beastmen and their Gunmen who’ve taken over the planet, but with the guidance of his big brother (in spirit) Kamine, he grows up into the ultimate ideal of manly awesomeness (without the ridiculous use of any kind of enhancement that is). And you’d think that being a girl, I wouldn’t appreciate this all that much (there’s one episode where the humor comes pretty much from all the girl characters’ cleavage (back to the fanservice) and all around nakedness). And granted I haven’t finished this series yet either, but I’m told that the ending is supposed to be epic animation-wise, and you know what? That’s enough for me. Not as complex as the story arc for Armin Arlert, (and certainly not to be taken as seriously) but it’s still fun to watch.
Plus there’s just something (especially with today’s animation production values…usually) spectacular and worthy of eye-feasting about watching anime explosions. This can be applied to anime blood too (which is another reason I enjoy the very-possibly-yaoi-with-a-little-demons-vs.-angels-story-in-the-surround show, Uraboku (short name)).
Maybe I just enjoy hearing Johnny Yong Bosch’s voice (he doesn’t play Simon but he’s still in this show) because now all I hear is Lelouch.
So those are a few examples of some (hopefully summarized) story arcs, just enough to give you an idea of what anime shows can offer in terms of character development, and why they’re so cool in their medium.
Obviously there are more out there. As I understand it, in the show Fairy Tail, there is quite a lot of excellent character development (so I’ve put it on my ever-growing watch list). And there are a fair number of other examples I haven’t put up here that are worth mentioning, such the very awesome and old school anime, Cowboy Bebop, often praised as phenomenally setting the bar for all future English dubs of Japanese anime, and pulling off a perfect marriage of crime syndicate story arcs, the age of space travel, and an homage to the old American west complete with sexy jazz beats. And then you’ve got a little show called Stein’s;Gate, which explores the concept of time travel itself and all that that entails. I haven’t yet watched it (on my list), but I’d probably call it a deconstruction show of sorts, much like Madoka Magica or Neon Genesis Evangelion.
Even a show like Elfen Lied, which is full of graphic violence and sexuality purely for the sake of having graphic violence and sexuality (loosely tied into the plot), not to mention full of stupid and/or unlikeable characters, is fun to watch as it progresses (the last episode got me to CRY, despite the corny dialogue and awful dubbing). I think in that case it was because it all got tied together with it’s BEEEYUTIFUL main track, “Lilium“, which you’d have to listen to to kind of get my point, if or if not you’ve seen the show already (link in title, though admittedly it’s to a more orchestral version than what I have in iTunes, but it’s just as wonderful nonetheless).
So what have we learned from this, aside from the fact that character development is cool? Or rather, why is it cool?
My guess is that when character development works the way it’s supposed to, it pulls the audience member, or in the case of books, the reader, into the drama of what the character’s going through as he or she develops, which taps into our own feelings. As a result, the audience member or reader finds him or herself taken along for the journey that the character takes, and when this is done at its most poignant beautiful, something magical happens: there’s this firework display of self-discovery flashing across the neurons. Or something neat and flashy like that. That’s really the only way I can describe it.
And taking that journey as a writer is just as exciting. In fact more so because it isn’t just using the imagination in terms of projecting images while reading, but creating these images from the ground up, being the first to project them. It’s just a treat, and it’s one of the best things I love about writing in general.
With anime in particular, the art form that it uses creates something visually pleasing in character development, with expressive eyes for the characters, (usually) excellent VA’s to pull it off (in both English and Japanese–though please let me know if there are instances of other language dubs and not just sub translations, like French dubs for example (that would be awesome!)), and just the visual feast itself, whether it’s body language of the characters, or a combination of magic with visual effects that create an explosion of fluid colors across the screen (you know, more complex than Goku’s “super saiyan yell”).
And I’m aware there are tons of terrible anime out there that’s nothing more than idiotic slapstick, or fanservice, or both, or certain shonen shows that are loud and annoying and WAY too drawn out, or visual novel adaptations that simply suck (see School Days–no wait, DON’T see School Days–I’ve only seen a review of it but I already know that I’d puke more than once if I saw it in full, so see the GRArkada review on YouTube if you want to know what I’m talking about, not the actual show). But that goes for any form of entertainment: there’s good stuff, and then there’s…the unmentionables.
But with the good stuff in mind, when I need to unwind with some visual entertainment that still feeds the creative soul, I will continue to turn to anime shows (that and the fact that my anime watch list is getting about to be as long as my books-to-read list) to take a happy little vaycay trip down the Character Development Road, which hopefully is never a road to nowhere (again, School Days). There are a lot more shows out there, and I’ve yet to watch them, but you can bet I look forward to discovering a whole new wealth of intricacies to the growth of a character put through the paces of anything from excellent drama to psychological torment to awesomely powerful action.
To cap off today’s post, here’s a button linking to a neat little video that I like mostly because it’s just a treat to watch. Just click below on the picture of the alien girl riding on a Vespa wielding a chainsaw electric guitar to see it.
*I won’t lie I’ve avoided The Walking Dead because aside from Shaun of the Dead and Warm Bodies I’m not partial to watching zombie movies or TV shows, mostly due to the gore factor, and while Shaun of the Dead and Warm Bodies have that, I don’t think it’s as gratuitous because they’re both defined to varying extents as “romantic comedies”…that just happen to involve zombies. Actually, there is in fact an anime that’s about teenagers who battle zombies in a high school (of course) called High School of the Dead, and I may put that on my watch list because A) it’s cartoon zombies, which I can handle gore-wise (heck I got through Elfen Lied and episodes of Higurashi No Nako Koro Ni), and B) part of it’s appeal is it’s just straight-up badass without necessarily trying to take itself too seriously at the same time. From what I’ve seen of clips anyway.