Monday, 24 November 2008

Twilight of the Heroes

In my writing about anime I often find it difficult to hold back on criticism of otaku culture, especially the third generation (post-Evangelion, Densha Otoko akiba-cool types) and its influence on recent anime and manga. The emphasis on "fan service" is a lazy, self-indulgent substitute for detailed, careful plotting, characterisation and world building; the frequent self-referential jokes that rely on knowledge of other anime shows often break the fourth wall and damage the audience's suspension of disbelief without bringing any real insight or comedic value of their own to the table; finally, the portrayal of female characters in a lot of otaku-orientated anime is something I think I'll always have problems with.

What I always try to do, however, is step back every once in a while. Even as many aspects of current otaku culture annoy me, it is often fascinating trying to understand them, even where I'm unable or simply disinclined to defend them. Secondly, it's important to remember that 95% of any genre or art form is unmitigated crap and that it should be judged primarily on the best of what it has to offer rather than the stagnant sludge that clogs up its wider, shallower channels. With this in mind, one area that the G3 otaku can claim to have made real progress in is the breaking down of archetypes among male characters.

Evangelion, Gundam and the treatment of angst:

The roots of this, of course, run far deeper than 1995 megahit Evangelion (such is the postmodern nature of Gainax's masterpiece that there probably isn't anything truly original about it really) but, as with so many things about modern anime culture, it is nevertheless a key starting point.

One of the most frequently commented-on, imitated and mocked points about the male lead Shinji is his angst: his paralysing fear in the Eva's cockpit, his tortured cries of "Father!", the recurring visual motif of his clasping and unclasping hand. This alone is nothing particularly new; the melodramatic nature of much anime lends itself to angst, with Gundam (1979) and numerous other 70s and 80s shows having plenty to go round, and many of Evangelion's immediate imitators clearly thought this alone was enough, hence the profusion of whiny, self-centred anime heroes in its immediate aftermath. The really radical thing that Evangelion did was in its psychological deconstruction of the Giant Robot genre boy hero archetype. Shinji experiences angst in the form described by existentialist philosophers and director Anno Hideaki uses it as a wrench to prise open both Shinji's mind and the genre's own conventions rather than simply as an end in itself.

Kierkegaard defined philosophical angst as being fear of failure in one's responsibilities to God; conversely, Sartre describes it as being (although not limited to) an emotional response to the non-existence of God. What both views have in common is that they hold angst as a function of the conflict between freedom of choice and our fear of the consequences. In the case of a character like Amuro from Gundam, he experiences a relatively simple form of angst, where he must balance his own emotional fears and desires against those of his comrades on White Base and the people he must protect. His path to maturity lies in putting aside those emotions or desires characterised as "selfish" in order to "be a man" and fight to defend those weaker than himself (women and lower level or non-newtype males).

Shinji from Evangelion experiments with this ideal but is unable to reconcile it with his own internal motivations. In episode 4 (Hedgehog's Dilemma -- the title itself another manifestation of angst) he wearily tells Misato he will fight because he's the only one who can do it, a motivation that Misato violently rejects. She won't accept Shinji fighting merely because he feels he has to in order to protect others: she wants him to find a reason that means something to him. The comment that Shinji reacts most strongly to is when Misato angrily tells him that they don't need him to protect them.

Kierkegaard talks about fear of failing God, but in a largely irreligeous society like Japan, a person's main external responsibility is to the people around them. In Christian societies the idea of "God" replaces the social group as the arbiter of morality and good behaviour, which is all very useful as a way of controlling the Roman Empire, but the more localised Japanese society's emphasis on responsibility to "the group" offers the same function in most practical senses. In Gundam, Amuro's angst takes the form of the conflict between his own selfish desires and his need to protect "the group" and, while Gundam is more complex than most preceding Giant Robot anime, he is driven by a sense of destiny that fits in neatly with the meta-narrative of sacrifice, hard work and responsibility to others that Japanese society constructed for itself to deal with the rebuilding and recovery process in the wake of the Second World War.

By the mid-1990s, as I've said before, the reality of life for young people in Japan was quite different. In Evangelion, Misato denies Shinji the sense of responsibility and direction offered by "the group", and as with Sartre's non-existence of God, the removal of this external motivator leaves Shinji confronted with the dilemma of his own freedom. The look of horror in Shinji's eyes isn't just his shock at Misato's angry outburst: it's his existential dread at the cutting away of the whole meta-narrative of responsibility and destiny that older shows offered. Misato forces him to analyse and deal with his own feelings and in the process denies him the option of "being a man" in the traditional sense.

Ironic treatment of "the cult of masculinity":

Jennifer Kesler discusses what she calls "the cult of masculinity" over at The Hathor Legacy. The "man" as constructed by the media... something that does not occur in nature. It is a supernatural creature of extraordinary emotional, physical and mental resilience. It can withstand enemy torture for years on end without ever giving out the codes; it can somehow magically love its family, God and country without actually being distracted by normal human feelings; it has no moods and is always perfectly even-tempered, except when roused to fight for good. It can get over abuses and wrongs done against it, even in its most vulnerable formative years, without sorting or processing its feelings and experiences.

The traditional anime bildungsroman, which experiences its highest male form in the Giant Robot story, requires that boys become a variant of this "supernatural creature", although an important difference is that the Japanese anime hero is far more emotional, with fire, passion and impulsiveness valued as key character attributes. Nevertheless, a shared ideal of masculinity is that the hero should make clear his intentions by acting decisively; "sorting or processing its feelings and experiences" is not encouraged.

These types of passionate, masculine leads didn't disappear by any means, but as a result of the self-consciousness and genre-awareness of the G3 otaku (by this time important as both a target market and as creators working within the industry), the narrative had changed. In Kido Senkan Nadesico (Martian Successor Nadesico), the Shinji-like main character Akito is put opposite a fiery anime hero type called Daigoji Gai but the show subverts Gai's character on many levels. His real name is revealed as the more mundane Yamada Jiro, he is ridiculed by his comrades and, inevitably, he is an anime otaku. He is also killed in episode 3, prompting Akito to embark on a personal quest to live up to the anime-inspired ideals that Gai espoused.

In Gainax's own return to the genre, Gurren Lagann, Kamina and Simon's relationship is similar to that of Gai and Akito, with main female character Yoko left as a pragmatic voice from the same set of realities that the audience occupies. The over-the-top macho antics of Kamina and his and Simon's phallic obsession with drills are the subjects of wry humour. Despite the irony the characters and situations are sympathetic and frequently moving, but again the emphasis has changed. Kamino is sympathetic as a kind of Walter Mitty character, living in a fantasy within his own mind, cut off from the reality represented by Yoko. Simon's character development is given pathos as, while we identify with his desire to live out a boyhood dream of heroism, we can clearly see the path taking him further from common sense and indeed sanity. The irony here is clear and surely intentional: the path towards "being a man" is a road into a childish dream, and it is Simon's more mature, feminine side that occasionally holds him back.

In both Nadesico and Gurren Lagann the appeal of those heroic ideals now lies in their value as nostalgia rather than as something relevant to modern society; the modern audience can hold them close for warmth against the chill of the existential void, but there is a shared agreement between fan and creator that they are something to be affectionately mocked rather than wholeheartedly embraced.

Masculinity under the microscope:

The arrival of more complex, believable male characters in anime, whose existences recognise the dilemmas (the angst, if you will) of modern life, and whose growth through their story's narrative is characterised by some degree of self-awareness and reflection, is one of the great achievements of the 3G otaku generation and one that goes far beyond the Giant Robot genre.

One example is in the treatment of issues such as bullying. In the past, bullying was treated as a fairly black and white issue. Bullying was character-building and bullies were either weaklings-at-heart to be stood up to and defeated or they were hard-but-fair teachers, who were only doing it for your own good. In either case, the victim's response was tied up inescapably with their masculinity. Over the past decade or so there have been several cases of anime shows that have delved into the more complex nature of bullying in Japanese schools, dealing with the relationship between victimiser and victim and even questioning the whole nature of the society in which these incidents occur. Shigofumi, as I mentioned before, includes one particularly good example of this, and Kon Satoshi's excellent Paranoia Agent also touches on the subject powerfully. No longer a simple matter of standing up and "being a man", there is often no easy solution and the audience is left with an uncomfortable sense of moral ambiguity.

Another phenomenon that has been gradually developing over time has been the way previously female genres have been co-opted into the male otaku world. The appeal of magical girl shows featuring leggy teenage girls in idealised versions of the traditional Japanese schoolgirl uniform to shy men on the fringes of acceptable society is I think obvious, as is the yuri romance, begun as a subgenre of shojo manga in the 1970s but co-opted into the male otaku world. While often simply played for cheap titilation, male-targetted yuri sometimes has interesting things to say about male gender.

The comedy drama series Kashimashi: Girl Meets Girl deals with a very feminine young boy called Hazumu who is accidentally turned into a girl by visiting aliens and how this switch of gender affects his relationship with Tomari and Yasuna, the two girls in his life (clue: it doesn't much). So far, so Ranma, but Kashimashi has a bit more to say than simple comedy. The story takes the form of a traditional male-orientated love story or dating simulator game, with Hazumu being a fairly blank central character. What is interesting is firstly how easily he adapts to being a girl, and secondly the fact that such a character is presented as the point of identification for the male audience. Sure, plenty of men have fantasised about what it would be like to have breasts and dress up in girls' clothes (not that I ever, err... did), but through the process of presenting the audience with a male character as an avatar and then switching their gender at the end of episode 1 the show also takes the audience through the process of transformation and expects them to continue to relate to the character.

By allowing the character's gender to switch so easily, Kashimashi denies the relevance of gender labels in the pursuit of a character's emotional needs. It's not just that Hazumu can adapt so easily to being a girl, it is that the audience itself is able to adapt with him. A similar idea, although less central to the plot, exists in .hack//Sign, where central character Tsukasa appears in the online world (and to the audience for most of the series) with a male avatar and falls in love with female character Subaru. It is later discovered that Tsukasa is a girl in real life, but in the end that is no barrier to her relationship with Subaru. Again, the obvious caveats about male fans' predeliction for girl-on-girl romantic action apply, but as with many aspects of otaku culture, lower motivations on one level don't necessarily preclude higher considerations in the execution.


dotdash said...

Reply to comment left here:

It's a long time since I've seen Grave of the Fireflies -- where do I make a reference to it?

As for shows like Texhnolyze etc. I'm not sure they easily fit into a discussion about the Giant Robot genre, but in terms of their characterisation there are a few things I can think of off the top of my head:

Personally I'm a big fan of both Cowboy Bebop and Texhnolyze. Texhnolyze's writer Konaka Chiaki has worked on a lot of truly excellent shows (Lain, Princess Tutu, Shadow Star, Big O) but he considers himself primarily a horror writer, which seems to me a genre that dwells more on the weaknesses of the human spirit than the strengths.

Cowboy Bebop is that most wonderful and precious of things: an anime series that recognises that it's possible to be influenced by things that aren't other anime.

I have some problems with Now and Then, Here and There, and one of them is the unreflecting pinheadedness of the hero. He's like a character from a 1970s mecha anime who has somehow been trapped in a believable, realistic scenario, and his schtick grates when set against the real dilemmas of the people around him.

Anonymous said...

I truly enjoyed reading this post, especially the first parts as it discussed shows that I've seen.

Is it truly deplorable how self-referential the shows have become? I would be uncomfortable somewhat if all shows fed on themselves like this, but I don't think that shows like Nadesico, Evangelion, and Gurren Lagann suffer from referencing their respective traditions.

I actually think that all texts are responses to other signifiers (textual or otherwise). For example, a poem isn't necessarily merely a response to a natural phenomenon (like a flower), but a response to the poetic forms and tradition itself. The 'content' of the response itself is the use of forms and tropes that place the subject within and perhaps an attempt to depart from the poetic tradition.

dotdash above mentioned Cowboy Bebop, which he remarks on how the show used references outside anime. Perhaps this is a better thing? I didn't find it bad at all that the finale raped the Better Luck Tomorrow (2) movie for one of its action scenes, but that may just be me.

In any case, great post.

Anonymous said...

It's a pleasure to read a 'big issues' post that reads so easily & well. You've written papers on the topic?

I wonder if male viewers (and you were posting about male viewers, I think) really need a male or crypto-male protaganist to identify with. I was drawn to anime more because I identified with female protagonists more than (okay, as much as) I desired them - and I think that I'm not unusual, and that it's not accidental. It started with Miyazawa Yukino, and seven years later I'm cheering Kou Shuurei on.

Michael Huang said...

Fantastic article. I especially love your analysis of Evangelion, about how that particular scene subverts the group-oriented, obligation-centered attitude so prevalent in Japan and other Asian societies. I remember watching that scene myself and thinking--my word, how many times have I pulled myself through life saying what Shinji said there. Misato is calling Shinji to make, in quasi-existentialist language, an authentic decision made in good faith. "Life is decision" as Kierkegaard might put it.

I enjoyed your article so much I've decided to feature your article on the Dailysite anime and manga channel tomorrow, where I'm editor. Every day I handpick several articles to feature and yours are the kind that I want to see more of. Keep up the great work!

dotdash said...

"Is it truly deplorable how self-referential the shows have become?"

Depends on the show, I suppose. I wrote more on this idea here. Sometimes I find it really annoying and sometimes it makes me laugh. For the record, I think Evangelion is one of the best TV series of any kind ever made (animated or otherwise).

"I actually think that all texts are responses to other signifiers"

Sure, and this in some way goes back to the idea of memes (as Richard Dawkins described them in "The Selfish Gene" rather than as Internet phenomena). Cowboy Bebop has a wider "meme pool", which is part of what keeps it fresh.

"I was drawn to anime more because I identified with female protagonists more than (okay, as much as) I desired them"

What I should have talked about in this article but completely missed at the time was how Gunbuster took the archetypal story and characters from old-fashioned girls' manga (particularly Ace wo Nerae, obviously) and transplanted them into a boys' mecha story. The more I think about it, the more I think this was a really radical move for the time. I think male audiences have no trouble with female main characters, but someone just ain't writing them.

"You've written papers on the topic?"

Nope, not really. I'm a music journalist so my anime writing is just a hobby, although about 10 years ago I seem to vaguely remember that my university thesis was about Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.

>Michael Huang

Thanks. I hope I don't come across as sterotyping Japanese culture as being this borg-like homogenous blob -- I live in Tokyo and it's not like that at all. I agree that it's a more prevalent cultural trait than in the UK (where I come from) and it's quite noticeable in Japanese media (which often does a perfectly good job of stereotyping itself without any help from foreigners!)

NegativeZero said...

If you really want a show that revolves around discussion of the role of a modern young person and their role in Japanese society and so on, then an excellent show to look into is The Melody of Oblivion. It's very heavy on the symbolism and metaphor and I've never seen anyone really dig into it which is a shame.

I'm not convinced about your points re: Gurren Lagann though. While they're valid, I suspect they're not deliberate at all. The show was concepted from the outset as being a tribute to the giant robot shows that the creators grew up with. If anything, the dynamic between Simon and Kamina is about the creators trying to reconcile the male protagonist of the classic 70s and 80s super robot shows with the more modern male protagonist and produce a super robot show that is more relevant to the current generation, without betraying what was so appealing about the classics (contrast with GaoGaiGar which takes those old tropes and runs with them unchanged). So actually I'm not sure if I disagree with your point so much as the driving purpose behind it.

I have to wonder if some of the complexity in more modern anime protagonists might not be a little bit of creeping influence from shoujo anime on the more male-oriented stuff due to a desire for higher crossover between male and female audiences. Gundam Wing for example was a huge success because it managed to capture a female audience despite being originally targeted at a male one, and Sunrise have been trying to reproduce that odd phenomenon ever since - Gundam Seed for example was clearly designed to have that wider gender appeal.

dotdash said...


Right, and I do think we're broadly saying the same thing here. The part that I flagged as a conscious decision from Gainax is the irony inherent in Simon's situation. We know his timidity is rational and realistic, and this is the part of him we relate to, but we still cheer him on when he acts crazy. Gainax exploit this for comedic effect so it must be intentional.

With Lagann Gainax were trying to lots of things, not least get away from Evangelion's serious, introspective style, but it's almost as if, having already crossed that bridge, they were unable to fully cross back over. After Evangelion, none of us can cross back over!

"I have to wonder if some of the complexity in more modern anime protagonists might not be a little bit of creeping influence from shoujo anime"

Yes, definitely.

"due to a desire for higher crossover between male and female audiences."

This makes sense, although this would be a top-down (commercial, marketing-led) influence rather than a bottom-up (otaku culture-led) influence. I know precious little about the audience demographics of anime shows but it would be really interesting to see if they've changed over time, and how they compare between different shows.

Zhong said...

LoL. The post was published several months ago but most of the comments came three months later.

Have you watched Legend of the Galactic Heroes? It's got some real men in there.

dotdash said...


This blog is a bit of a backwater suburb compared to the bustling metropolis of the more popular sites. We do things more slowly here.

"Have you watched Legend of the Galactic Heroes? It's got some real men in there."

I've not seen it all the way through yet, but its depiction of vaguely homoerotic Prussian aristocratic manhood is certainly striking.