Monday, 9 February 2009

Xam'd: Notes on the Ending

Endings are difficult to write. Just ask Konaka Chiaki, who wrote Shinreigari (Ghost Hound), maintaining a brilliant script that unravelled catastrophically in its superlatively awful final episode. Seriously, ask him: why was that ending so bad, and what are you going to do to avoid similar travesties in the future?

The ending to Bounen no Zamudou (Xam'd: Lost Memories) isn't a travesty, but neither is it a triumph. This post should by no means be taken as an evisceration of what remains an extremely interesting and refreshing piece of work, but there are definite structural problems with its conclusion that are worth analysis.

First, there are niggling problems with the final episode specifically. Kudos to the team for having the balls to kill off Raigyo in an earlier episode, but in a number of other cases, they trivialise death with how easily reversible they allow it to be. Ishuu seemed quite clearly to have died in episode 23, and yet she appears in the final episode with just a sling and a haircut to show for her ordeal. Kakisu was shot in the face at close range and yet in the final episode he is revealed to be merely in some sort of coma. Akiyuki turns into stone after Nakiami descends into the Quickening Chamber, and yet he is able to reappear and reunite with Haru at the end in a dramatically and thematically satisfying, yet logically dubious fashion.

Rather than systematically developing all the various story threads and then tying them back together into a satisfying, unifying conclusion, Xam'd's plot, from about half way through the series, disintegrates into a series of scattershot story ideas and visual concepts that rain down, disconnected, like pieces of torn paper dropped from an open window.

It becomes pretty clear that this is what's happening from a long way before the end so it's difficult to say that the ending itself is disappointing. Flawed it most certainly is, but the sources of the flaws lie further back in the series.

Perhaps the problem with Xam'd is that the creators didn't know what the story was about. At first it is implied that the story is about Akiyuki's attempt to understand the Xam'd that has been implanted in him and help it recover its titular "lost memories", but that quest is never clearly developed and Akiyuki merely drifts from one set of circumstances to another in what are often interesting diversions, but never quite held together with the sense of forward momentum and sense of purpose that a story needs if it is to conclude satisfactorily. The other characters' subplots are similarly vague. Kakisu's role on Sentan Island and the role of Haru's sister, Midori, builds up interestingly, but it flatters to decieve. In the end it is nothing more than incidental to the rest of the story. The crew of the postal ship Zanbani write themselves out of the story half way through and, with the exception of Ishuu and Raigyo, do precious little else. Haru herself merely runs after Akiyuki -- she admits this to herself at one point, and it feels more like a desperate cry from a writer unsure of what to do with this character whose motivation has not been set deep enough; a tacit admission of the staff's own failings rather than the words of the character herself.

An interesting comparison is with Simoun, which is similar to Xam'd in the way the war is used primarily as a setting against which the character drama plays out. In both cases the cause of the war isn't deeply explored, and in both cases, the series ends realistically with the threat of war an ongoing issue. Both shows also feature plots that drift, with the characters pulled hither and thither by forces out of their control.

The key difference is the ending. Simoun has a very powerful ending, where each character reaches a conclusion that may not be what the audience wanted, but which has clear roots in the way their personalities, motivations and character development have been set up earlier in the series.

Both shows have elements of their endings that are enigmatic, but Simoun ensures that each of these elements is charged with a strong, clear emotional resonance which again has its roots in how the characters have been set up. In a sense, it is the simpler, more archetypal set of characters in Simoun that gives it this resonance. Passion, loneliness, religious fervour and love are the guiding emotions of most of Simoun's cast, whereas Xam'd's characters are more complex, more uncertain, and less melodramatic. It is to Xam'd's credit that it takes this more measured and mature approach to its characters, but in doing so they also deny themselves the dramatic options that Simoun so successfully exploited.

This brings another problem -- in fact perhaps the main problem of Xam'd. What made the early episodes so refreshing and believable was the way the characters' personalities were shown up through their interaction with the circumstances in which they found themselves, and as long as those circumstances were tangible things that the audience could relate to, there was a satisfying sense of solidity to them. As the end approached and more abstract issues such as the Hiruken Emperor and the Quickening Chamber became more central to the story, that solidity started to dissolve and the story became caught up in what I call "the spiral of hippy". Everything became winged beings of light, raining down balls of goo on the earth, ancient mechanisms that are powered by esoteric metaphysical principles, and glowing orbs that embody trans-human spiritual entities. Once a series starts trying to explain its mysteries by going along this road, it becomes contagious and starts infecting other elements of the story with the same disease. Characters are forced into either passive, observational roles, or heroic, superhuman roles, both of which distance the audience emotionally from what is going on. Nakiami will sleep for a thousand years in the Quickening Chamber, you say? Is that good? Is that bad? What does that even mean? Our bewilderment overcomes our emotional response.

By way of contrast, in Simoun Neviril and Aer's final departure to the "other world" is more emotionally powerful for its simplicity. We aren't urged to understand the mechanics of it; all we see is them fading in and out of reality, forever young, as the other characters age around us. They didn't save anyone by making this journey and its purpose isn't explored so their situation can only be seen on its own emotional terms. The key emotions of loneliness and love in its purest sense are what remain, and set against the increasingly complicated daily lives of the other characters as they grow older and become embroiled in more wars, these emotions become a reminder of what one loses as one grows older. Any kind of mechanism or psuedoscience would have complicated and detracted from the emotional power of that ending, and by retaining its grounding in the recognisable physical reality of those characters left behind it never steps off the precipice into the spiral of hippy.

In a lot of ways, Xam'd is simply a victim of what appears to be a congenital disorder within Studio Bones. Every anime I've seen from this studio is in some way hobbled by an ending that, while not rubbish, feels somehow patched together (bear in mind that I've only seen Eureka Seven and Scrapped Princess all the way through -- Rahxephon and Wolf's Rain pissed me off too much before I got to the end). Xam'd also contains the more adult worldview and mature characterisation that makes aspects of other Bones shows so interesting, and is by far the best thing I've seen out of the studio.

In October of 2008 I met the director Miyaji Masayuki and interviewed him about the show, then still in its relatively early stages. He was an extremely enthusiastic, intelligent guy, bubbling with ideas that would shoot off in all directions, and it's tempting to see the series' flaws in that context. One imagines that if he can learn to focus his ideas more clearly, his next directorial work will be, rather than wonderful-yet-flawed, merely wonderful.

19 comments:

thefjk said...

Xam'd's first episode enticed me instantly. I just finished watching it but I had to Google for some sort of plot summary, since it lost me somewhere!

I'm a sucker for main characters so I thought that Akiyuki's journey to learn more about being a Xam'd wasn't fully explored. In episode 25, Nakiami just tells him that his Hiruko is merged with his soul and that he's got a mission. I think he (or maybe we, the audience) should have understood what all that meant and his destiny to face the Emperor when he remembered his identity first time around.

The ending would have been impactful if Akiyuki remained a stone and everyone that clearly died stayed that way. The Emperor was not even close to being a monster, I was expecting the Hirukos of at least half the people in the Quickening Chamber to be sucked out of their still-living bodies before Yango and Nakiami had them leave. This would perhaps make the Emperor transform into something tougher, giving Akiyuki a harder boss fight making his sacrifice worth it.

But all in all, it was a great ride... and I enjoyed watching it.

dotdash said...

Hey there, thanks for the comment.

A few people have said that it probably makes more sense if you marathon it. Catching it a weekly episode at a time probably made it more difficult for me to pick up on the details and messed up the flow of some of the narrative threads for me. Definitely feels like something that would benefit from a second viewing.

I just kind of zone out any time an anime starts talking about something merging with someone's soul. It's just a conveniently vague idea for lazy writers to use when they write themselves into a corner and they can't wrap up the ending. Evangelion was a very rare attempt by an anime to really get to grips with what the soul is all about and the action and drama of the show leading up to the ending explored the philosophical underpinnings of the idea in a way that eventually makes some kind of sense (repeated revisions of the ending aside).

Basically, I think Xam'd missed an opportunity, although I agree with you that it was a lot of fun along the way.

Jack said...

Sorry to leave a comment so long after a post has been written but after having recently seen X'amd I thought I'd have to say how I agree that the plot loses all momentum and sense half-way through. The crashing of the the postal ship seems to be a perfect representation of this.

I feel the show certianly suffers from a large cast of characters that aren't fully developed and a question about who the main character of the story actually is.

It's a pity that you did not see through to the finale of Wolf's Rain, not the show finale but the strange OVA like ending that follows that, which I feel to be the only satisfactory ending to a BONES show that I have seen.

Dr. BrightSide said...

Beautiful story and graphic, but not well developed. The last episode made me anxious for the first 20 minutes, "Is it going to end this way, Akiyuki is gonna be a stone forever? Is Haru gonna be a single woman for the rest of her life or will she find a new guy and settle down with" In the end, although not clearly explained, the ressurection of Akiyuki brought a well earned anti-climax. Weak unclear plot, but in the end it made me happy. And that's what matters. Btw Dotdash, awesome write up and blog.

SikArtist said...

Just finished watching the series and I agree with everything you said. I had to do a google search to try and get a better understanding of the whole story, but I guess it is what it is. Not very satisfying and a bit of a cop out, yet at least there where some entertaining points. Still, I can't help but feel a little bitter about it all

Zierm said...

What a lot of people seem to miss is that Akiyuki gave his name, and therefore himself to the emperor. That is why Akiyuki is with Haru at the end. That Akiyuki is really the emperor that became Akiyuki while the true Akiyuki turned to stone because he forgot himself.

Mathias said...

Just finished and I really loved the series. You make some good arguments, I don't agree with them (except for the remark on character deaths -- spot on) but it's nice to see some good thoughts on anime for a change (kudos to the commenters as well...).

The final episode had me until the time jump -- I was even swayed by the extremely sentimental raining of "unknown destination" letters, which I thought was a sweet ending to the series especially after killing off the two main characters. The epilogue that followed, though, just felt a tad bit cheap and overdone.

As for Akiyuki coming back, I agree more with the comment before mine, to an extent. I'm not sure who that person is, logic says the emperor but it may just be a dream (there were plenty of times where the series played with reality and it wasn't always so apparent in its transitions) and the jarring cut to non-animated footage suggests something, I dunno, different than a simple he-came-back-and-happily-ever-after-the-end. I haven't figured out what that small cut means, but if anything, it's extreme stylistic difference suggests some thought deeper than a happy ending.

Unknown said...

I think that the Akiyuki that is there in the end is the real one and that he came from the stone. That is what I believe. It was nice to at least get some kind of closure for the series. Not very many series do that.

David Garvin said...

Akiyuki came back because she spent 9 years sending her thoughts to him.

dotdash said...

Thanks everyone for continuing to comment on this so many years after I initially wrote it. To be honest, I can't remember that much about it anymore

"9 years sending her thoughts to him"

So basically by magic then? That may be what the director intended, but I'm not convinced it's particularly good writing. Pretty sure the Greeks had a word for that sort of thing.

We should probably be careful with all these other theories though. It can be interesting and fun to speculate, but if the director didn't put it in the story, it's not there, and it's what is in there that I was most concerned about.

That said, I think there's a lot to be said for ambiguity making something seem more real. It's been noticed that all the unexplained, mysterious stuff about the Star Wars and Alien universes are part of what makes them so appealing (and why the sequels/prequels ruin the franchises by explaining too much). Not sure that's entirely the case here, but it has been such a long time since watching.

Sam Plothow said...

I think the initial analysis that dotdash posted was right on. I just finished watching the series and was concerned that I severely missed a key episode that would explain the ending. I didn't though. The ending was just super random. Akiyuki turned into the purple stone on top of the quickening chamber and was moved to the hill on the island, right? But all of the sudden nine years later he comes back? And what was the deal with Aikyuki giving his name to the emperor? What did that accomplish? So basically I loved the characters and I loved the story that was set up, but I didn't love how the whole thing was wrapped up. Although it was nice that Aikyuki got to be with Haru at the end even though I have NO CLUE how he got there.

Jay B said...

I think the real Akiyuki came back from being a stone. To me, the little conversation between him and Haru said it all:

Haru: "Welcome home, Akiyuki."
Akiyuki: "I've returned. I've always heard your voice, Haru."

Plus, just before the conversation, you see Akiyuki's 1st person view of him looking at his hand like he's surprised that he can move it again. Haru's words for 9+ years got thru to him and I guess the power of love or something set him free, lol.

Pennyiscute1984 said...

Hey, i'm another late bloomer with this anime, but I just wanted to just say that i also had to google the ending as i was confused about why Akiyuki came back after 9 years??

i did enjoy seeing everyone grow up though. That was exciting :)

I agree with SikArtist about being bitter. A part of me feels bitter about the ending. Not sure why, I'll think about it more, but i felt the ending was....well...i don't know? not satisfying enough i guess. Just wishy washy.

Oh well. In the end i love Studio BONES and have watched many of their productions, and now adding this to my collection :3

Abimo Shrivole said...

Thank you for the write up, I totally agree with you on how everything got complicated and unexplained things got the later part of the series. I think the series deserved a 50 ep to fully explore the characters and it's just the studio running short on time. BONES is really good making these mature fantasy themed stories which I really like so much.

I just finished watching the series. I think I'm four years late. And I just have to google myself to find out what happened in the ending, specifically how Akiyuki got back in the end. Thanks to some comments here I think I got an idea of what happened. In my opinion, the emperor might have given back akiyuki gift he received as he was relieved of his sadness well enough and akiyuki was still alive inside that stone laying dormant. The ongoro that grew on his grave probably was a sign that he is regaining back life.

Though i didn't actually expect Tojiro and Ishu to be alive.Well maybe ishu should've been in a wheelchair atleast. BONES is just too kind to kill stubborn characters haha!

Really enjoyed the series!

Justin Lin said...

I believe the little conversation they had is to imply that Haru was able to remind Akiyuki of who he is. So I guess after 9 years, Stone Akiyuki finally remembers who he is and thus reverse his condition.

An Enemy said...

Old post found through a google search. I have my own theory that what we saw in the end was through Haru's eyes. Akiyuki was still stone. If you compare the shot of Haru and stone Akiyuki and the shot of Haru and the reborn Akiyuki they're standing in the same spots. There are a couple other slight hints like the jello spirit hanging around stone Akiyuki and the jello spirits hanging around the petrified former Tescian(sp?) Guardians. Probably wrong, but its interesting.

Jojo Ecosta said...

The ending really bugs me because what i got out of it was " Akiyuki is not really alive and haru is just reminiscing and imagining that he's there with him" As if to say akiyuki might have passed away but he is always with me. The fact that they never touch hands and just sstare the same way. Also i thought the whole " forgetting your name" was a pretty big part of the story because Akiyuki spent a long time being a slave because being amd caused him to forget who he was. i take it he took the emperors place and he'll sleep for a thousand years along with nakiami and then she'll have do the same the that old lady did ( creating xamds to stop akiyuki) The ending was just so vague on explanation that i still want more.

Miraleth said...

So you could say, they made the ending all mixed up for the audience to decide what exactly happened; since they didn't want to do it themselves.

Therefore I would apreciate most: That Akiyuki took the emperors place, but after 1000 years they would not have to fight; why?
because Akiyuki is not the emperor, his stone was still blue even after giving up his name, so his "core" is not despair but hope (or so i think)

Then of course you can say that the emperor took Akiyukis place by Haru's side,( even though that feels very strange to most of the audience; but come on let that guy have some happy time and Haru too deserves not to be alone)

So that was my opinion, the Analasys helped me see through a lot by the way :)

I hope, I do not come to late and someone still reads this. I would really like to share my opinion and get feedback

manuelfire said...

i believe as the emperor said to akiyuki that he was the darkness inside of him when akiyuki gave him his name you could say they became one, he was lost for 9 year but he found his way back because haru kept thinking about him, so id like to believe the akiyuki who came back is still him because in the end giving his name to the emperor its still not like the emperor replaced akiyuki more like he became him completely.