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.