Cruelty on Display: A Look at the Anti-War Film

Part One: Shock and Awe

“Some films claim to be anti-war, but I have never seen an anti-war film. Ever film about war ends up being pro-war.” -Francois Truffaut

Modern culture has an odd relationship with war. Most people are aware intellectually that war is a terrible thing, and media in particular tries to depict this fact on that level, but the actual nature of media, the structure and craft of it, consistently suggest a very different picture on an emotional level. This is a very difficult thing to explain in words, but it makes a lot more sense when shown in examples. However, it is important to recognize that this is an underlying pattern, not necessarily an inherent aspect to film. Truffaut’s quote is interesting food for thought, but are things truly so simple

First off, it’s important to establish that there are two primary subgenres within the war genre of film. First is what can be called the historical event film, also known as the historical epic. These are films that focus on dramatizing real events, usually ones of great spectacle and importance. Good examples are films like Waterloo, A Bridge Too Far, and We Were Soldiers. Each of them is wildly different in tone and level of focus, and it can be hard to pin them down ideologically. Waterloo for example gives a largely neutral depiction of events, showing the battle from the perspective of both the British and the French in largely equal measure, celebrating the triumphs of both when they occur. Now, this is still political, both in the way all filmmaking is to greater or lesser extent, and more specifically in that taking a neutral stance on a historical war, regardless of which war it is, is itself a political statement. A great example to make this point is the film Gettysburg, a film that in seemingly taking a neutral stance on the American Civil War unduly lionizes the Confederacy and the Lost Cause myth. This is a fascinating phenomenon, but ultimately this has to be a sidetrack, because at the end of the day, this kind of film is not what people are referring to when they say “war film” nine times out of ten.

The second subgenre of war film, and the far more popular of the two, is what could be called the “war story” film, which depicts fictional characters and (usually) fictional events that are meant to capture a feel, message, or tale around the war being shown or even war in general, rather than focus on military history. The vast majority of war films, especially in recent decades, are in this category. In addition, the disconnect from the real history and focus on narrative writing means that the ideological bend of the story comes into much sharper focus as the story invariably will shed more attention on it. And it is this style of film where the true distinction is made.

To circle back around to Truffaut, the point he was making in this quote was that every movie centered on war at the time, even those with anti-war themes like Paths of Glory or Dr Strangelove, still ultimately had a pro-war edge to them by indulging in the spectacle of violence in a way that is ultimately entertaining, despite their more critical overarching tone. This matters because while the story’s themes and writing are highly critical of war on an intellectual level, ultimately the moment to moment craft of filmmaking made it so that the violence was entertaining, which sanitized the experience. On some level it’s unavoidable that the audience will have a disconnect, as at the end of the day they are experiencing everything in a safe environment and can detach themselves more easily as a result. That said, this effect is often overstated, and the far bigger deciding factors come from the craft of the films themselves, something that is only determined on a film-by-film basis. Thus, the primary way to look at this dichotomy is with examples.

Part Two: Heroism

“Every war movie, good or bad, is an anti-war movie.” -Steven Spielberg

While it is true that many war films are overtly focused on spectacle and entertainment, and implicitly pro-war in that regard, where things really get muddy is films that are expressly anti-war, as they have something to say on the subject, and that gives them much clearer thematic definition, along with making their common problems all the more starkly visible. Foremost, what happens when a film has anti-war intent, but ultimately suffers from dissonance thematically from clashing themes or filmmaking that doesn’t mesh with the story presented?

It is thoroughly impossible to talk about war films as a genre without talking about the enduring influence and legacy of Saving Private Ryan. That quote from Spielberg comes from an interview he did to promote the film, and his point in saying it was that every war film regardless of quality inevitably shows to greater or lesser extent the presence of violence in warfare, and the values of the average audience member include the belief that violence is wrong and not something to be exalted. While this may be true intellectually, it unfortunately does not hold up nearly as well in practice, and Saving Private Ryan is a perfect example of this. Everyone loves to talk about the first major sequence after the framing scene, but discussions always seem to forget or ignore the rest of the film, and this is irritating because for all the praise the opening gets, the rest of the film is completely different, to the point where their themes and goals are completely at odds with each other. The Omaha sequence depicts warfare as something chaotic, brutal, and full of death that is ultimately meaningless. Nobody who dies in the sequence does so in service of anything, they’re gunned down seemingly at random, in the middle of doing nothing of greater consequence. This is the kind of depiction of combat one would expect from an anti-war perspective, it depicts war as cruel and fundamentally pointless. If this sequence were released as a short film, then it would be an excellent depiction of the realities and fundamental wrongness of war. Unfortunately, it’s stapled to the rest of the film, in a story that ultimately cheapens it by association. When discussing the film, both Spielberg and screenwriter Robert Rodat said that they wanted to make it both critical of war itself, and yet still honoring the soldiers who fight in it. And to put it as bluntly as possible, those two themes are incompatible. There are two possible means of “honoring the soldiers”, either lionizing the men themselves as heroes, or lionizing the cause as righteous, and both of these glorify war itself. If the soldiers are heroes for fighting in it, then to fight, kill, and die in war is itself a heroic act. If the cause is righteous, then to fight for it is a righteous and glorious mission. Either way, glorifying the men who fight in war inherently valorizes war itself. This actually speaks to a militaristic undercurrent in American society, the sacred pedestal that soldiers are placed on is a fundamental characteristic of militarism, and one that American culture is utterly enraptured with. So even films that claim to criticize war itself are fundamentally handicapped by a complete inability to criticize one of the most fundamental aspects of war: the men who wage it. Should this be an aspect above criticism? Should the men who fight war be respected or venerated? Well, to answer that it would be instructive to look at another odd mixed bag of an example.

Depictions of World War II are rather odd, as it’s all too easy to fall into a trap. World War II is unique among wars in the nature of the enemy fought, no other power in history matches the sheer cruelty of Nazi Germany, and as a result the temptation is always there to portray the fight against them as a just cause. While this is understandable, it’s a very dangerous tightrope to walk as it runs headlong into that problem of valorizing war itself in the process. That constraint does not apply whatsoever to other conflicts though, and films about them have much more room to openly criticize every aspect of war. A particularly unique example is Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, which has some unusual issues of its own. In complete contrast to something like Saving Private Ryan, Full Metal Jacket is a film about the dehumanizing nature of military culture and the inhumanity it breeds in the men subjected to it. This is as anti-war as a theme gets, a biting and vicious criticism of the fundamentals of militarism itself. And yet, there’s a problem, one no filmmaker can control. Common in reactions to the film is that audiences responded very positively to the boot camp section, but felt that the section in the actual war was a weak follow up. And this just does not make sense with a cohesive reading of the film, the only way to make sense of it is to thoroughly miss the entire central theme of the film. This is a unique situation created by the interaction of the film with the culture it is a part of. Despite the revulsion the public felt towards the Vietnam War, that did not extend to the institution of the military itself, and so the critique of it went ignored as instead audiences pushed off the blame onto the characters being weak, rather than the institution itself being cruel. This kind of interaction between the audience and the film is something that’s almost impossible to predict, though Kubrick’s characteristic silence on the meaning of the film certainly did not help matters. The actual text of the film is very clear, the military beats the individuality out of its soldiers to minimize their selfish survival instinct and the possibility of them hesitating to kill. Throughout the first half of the film, the only one who refuses to buy into this framework is Joker, he never truly discards his self the way the others do, and as a result, in the fight with the sniper, he hesitates, and some of his comrades die for it. The film ends with him executing the sniper and completing his journey in the eyes of the system, and in the final scene it’s impossible to tell which of the soldiers he is, he has fallen in with the rest. The text of this is very explicit and almost impossible to miss as it gets a lot of focus. So the film as a whole is a unique and interesting case of a film that is very clear and biting in its critique, but ultimately goes misread by an audience who misunderstood the most critical component of the film’s themes. As bizarre as it is, this is actually not an uncommon issue with Vietnam films in specific, there’s very often an enormous amount of cognitive dissonance in play to square the films’ critique of war with the audience’s exaltation of the military. This is simultaneously an unpredictable reaction on a per film basis, and also an uncomfortably common trend in the genre as a whole. When it comes down to it, the likely answer to this mystery is the cultural dominance of the idea of heroism in war, something that predates film itself by centuries and is dominant to the point of monolithic in the industry, and indeed in culture as a whole.

At the risk of sounding overly harsh on the works of Spielberg, there is one more of his films that needs to be talked about in this point, and it’s perhaps his most critically beloved: Schindler’s List. While not a bad film by any means, it is the first and foremost example of the heroism in wartime structure applied to civilians, which while much rarer in war-themed films is equally important to talk about. Now nobody would have much issue with regular civilians helping each other in the wake of devastation, say, a construction crew who saves a person trapped under rubble for example, but when it comes to depictions of explicitly wartime heroism, that is almost never the case. A common formula revolves around the partisan, a civilian figure mythologized as a soldier forced to fight for what they believe in, which runs into the same problems as the usual fare. A unique example is the lionizing of the boat operators in the film Dunkirk, an interesting grey area between the civilian hero and the partisan, celebrating ordinary civilians who risked their lives to rescue soldiers. Dunkirk is unabashedly a pro-war movie though, so this kind of hero worship is to be expected. It becomes much more strange when it appears in a film that’s ostensibly anti-war, which is where Schindler’s List comes in. Films about the Holocaust are by necessity extremely grim (unless they’re Life is Beautiful, but that film is both terrible and considered extremely offensive by many survivors and their families), and that of course makes sense, the greatest atrocity in human history is not a place one looks to find hope or inspiration, or so one would think. Well, that thought would prove to be wrong, as it turns out there is an entire subgenre of Holocaust fiction that attempts to find hope in the situation, and they all suffer severe problems. More obvious examples like The Boy in the Striped Pajamas have earned extremely loud and vitriolic criticism, but Schindler’s List often flies under the radar, for the same reason Saving Private Ryan does. Spielberg is a talented filmmaker, and when he decides to portray something grim, he does a superb job of it. But exactly like Saving Private Ryan, when people praise the film, they only refer to one part of it, and seem to forget about the rest. Much like Saving Private Ryan did with the Omaha sequence, Schindler’s list does an excellent job capturing the bleak, oppressive atmosphere and casual disregard for human life that defined the Nazi concentration camps, but then drops that to focus on a more traditional hero narrative that forms the core of the film’s story. This is where one of Spielberg’s biggest limitations as a filmmaker comes in, for all his skill at the craft, he is limited in what he can create filmically by his worldview. Spielberg is fundamentally an optimist, and that shows through in all of his films. If there is one thing he cannot portray at all in film, it’s cynicism, or indeed despair. And this is reflected in his view of war as a genre, that the mere presentation of violence is enough to on some level constitute opposition to it, which is a very optimistic outlook on the craft that ultimately falls short, and this goes a long way towards explaining the disconnect in his films. When he aims to be anti-war, he doesn’t take the perspective of war being futile, death being meaningless, or cruelty being the sole mode of conduct, he takes the perspective that it being violent is what makes it wrong, but that being good within it is still possible and something to strive for. As inspiring as this theme may be, ultimately it comes back to the initial problem. War has no heroes. The myth of heroism is just that, especially in this context, and the portrayal of soldiers, civilians, and other war figures as heroes inherently sanitizes the most critical parts of war to oppose. And that’s without lionizing a German industry baron whose claim to heroism was caring enough about his literal slave labor force to try and keep them alive by maintaining their work for him, which is a whole other can of worms. The greatest thing standing in the way of anti-war cinema is the construct of heroism and its universality in story structure. But that’s not the only aspect of anti-war writing, there is another that is equally interesting.

Part Three: Goodbye, Blue Sky

“It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped the shells, were destroyed by the war.” -Erich Maria Remarque

A growing aspect of war film in the more recent decades has been the psychological effect war has on the people who live through it, soldier and civilian alike. While rudimentary forms of examining war’s effects on the psyche date back to Carl von Clausewitz, for most of the last few centuries, the prevailing attitude surrounding war had been that it was a thing to seek glory in, an exciting adventure for the youth to participate in. As a result, negative lasting effects on the psyche were individualized and dismissed as caused by mental or emotional weakness. This persisted up through the World War I era, where the condition known as Shell Shock was stigmatized and shamed by broader society. However it would be here that things began to change. World War I was a continent-wide traumatic cataclysm, the likes of which were never before seen in history and the fallout of which arguably persists to this day. The aptly-named Lost Generation was the first to take steps in the direction of understanding and sympathizing with the pain of survivors, soldier and civilian alike. The seminal work in this regard is All Quiet on the Western Front, a novel heavily based on author Erich Maria Remarque’s experiences in the war. The main character, Paul Baumer, heavily based on Remarque himself, is a constant window into the fears, pain, and insecurities bred by war. This trend persists across both film adaptations, though both take vastly different approaches to his character. The first film has him buckle under the weight, demonstrated the best in a film-original scene where he speaks to a class of schoolchildren exactly like his from before the war, and when he tells them how horrifying and unbearable the front truly is, they call him a coward for it. The second film sticks much closer to the book, where for all the misery Baumer undergoes, he does his damndest to stick to the model of a “good soldier” until he finally can’t anymore and emotionally disconnects entirely from his surroundings. Both of these interpretations, while wildly different, do an equally good job of capturing the pain and struggle that came from living through the war, and marked the beginning of a slowly growing trend that would grow even more prominent following the Second World War.

While many films focus on the psychological effects war has on the soldiers who fight it, far fewer focus on the trauma it leaves on civilians, and fewer still on how that pain lingers and is passed on by its survivors. Indeed the only really notable one that does it is the multimedia project The Wall. The Wall is a much broader film in scope and subject matter than any previous examples, as its central focus is on the disease that plagues society as shown through the life of one man, and how no one thing is the singular cause, and instead each individual cause is a single brick in the wall that forms the problem. That said, one of the largest and most commonly emphasized bricks is a seething resentment directed towards the lingering pain left on Britain and its population in the aftermath of World War II. There are two primary places this manifests, first in the opening song, When the Tigers Broke Free, as well as its second part later on, and secondly in the sequence of Goodbye, Blue Sky, and both of them are completely different in their targets and emotions expressed. To explain this properly, some backstory is needed. Roger Waters’ father was a conscientious objector in the early parts of World War II, a pacifist who drove an ambulance during the Blitz. However, in September of 1943, motivated by a growing fear of German expansionism, he would enlist in the Royal Fusiliers as a second lieutenant, and be deployed to Italy as part of the Anzio offensive. Within six months, he would be dead. When the Tigers Broke Free recounts the latter half of this story, and is built on seething rage at a system whose callousness with human life forced Waters as well as countless other children to grow up never knowing their fathers, and is further reinforced by the corollary songs The Thin Ice and Mother, which focus on the way that loss caused his mother to become smothering and overprotective in response. The message, then, is that the destruction brought about by the war and the lingering damage caused by the reaction to the pain of that loss are inextricably linked. The war may be over, but the pain will not go away, and the same system is to blame for all of it. Goodbye, Blue Sky on the other hand tackles a completely different aspect of the war from a very different perspective, but with very much the same message. Two key aspects really stand out, first the depiction of the German Eagle arising from a dove, signaling the end of peace and looming over Britain like a great predator, sending the frightened population scurrying for shelter and tearing great bloody chunks out of the land itself. This is a very clear metaphor for the Blitz, leaving damage in the hearts and minds of the British people as much as it did on the land and the bodies of the dead. The other key moment is the running motif of the white crosses, an infamous symbol for the graves of men killed in the World Wars. This pays off in a gut-wrenching way as the Union Jack shatters into a white cross, that begins to run with blood, soaking it and draining slowly into the gutter. Aesthetic symmetry is used throughout The Wall to draw parallels and connections between the various subjects, and this moment is the best of them all. What this says is fairly straightforward: English nationalism at the end of the day is just blood in the gutter, a destructive force that led to the destruction of countless lives, thrown away meaninglessly. It’s important to mention another use of the crosses here, where the bodies of soldiers stand in formation and dissolve into that same cross, which when combined with the other symbolism is also very clear. These men didn’t die for their country, or anything half so noble. They just died, and whatever post-hoc justifications are offered, the dead won’t hear them. Animator Gerald Scarfe made something truly incredible with this material, beautifully capturing the feeling of a nation traumatized by war, where it seems the good days of blue skies and sun will never come again.

Two examples, two fascinating looks into the psychology of war from two completely different angles. Nowadays it’s common for war films of all stripes, regardless of their ideology, to at least pay lip service to the psychological damage war inflicts on people. Even otherwise pro-war films like American Sniper will at least touch on this if not make it an outright focus. For as justified as they portray war to be, there is no ignoring the pain it leaves on all who experience it.

One final place to examine this form of generational trauma lies on the other side of the Iron Curtain. If Britain was traumatized by World War II, the Soviet Union was utterly devastated by it. Tens of millions lost their lives in the war, soldier and civilian alike. A whole generation was butchered by it, and the lingering pain of it would not only be carried with the survivors for the rest of their lives, but be passed on to the younger generations as well. This is displayed perfectly in their films, and the way their culture remembers the Great Patriotic War. Some of the most powerful and moving anti-war films like The Cranes are Flying and Ivan’s Childhood exemplify exactly what the war was in the minds of the Soviet people: devastating, inglorious, and a lingering source of terrible pain that continued to wreak havoc in the minds of the people even decades after it had ended. None of these films ever went halfway with it, never did they pull their punches for the sake of sparing the audience, and so in them you will find some of the most brutal and scathing critiques of war in existence. However, even more than anything mentioned thus far, there is one more film left to discuss. It is the cardinal anti-war film, the film that most perfectly captures the horror of war, the pain it leaves in all, and the cruelty and futility of its mode of existence. Never before or since was such a horrifying anti-war film made, and there is much to talk about regarding all the ways it embodies the paramount form of everything discussed so far.

Part Four: Zenith

“And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and See. And I looked, and beheld a pale horse: and his name that sat upon him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with the beasts of the earth.” -Revelation 6:7-8

No war film has ever captured its horror to the anything approaching the extent of Elem Klimov’s masterpiece film, Come and See. Klimov, previously known solely for directing comedies, took a unique approach to the war film when crafting Come and See, where the moment to moment craft of it is far more similar to horror than it is to your typical war story. The direction is very stark, the framing can be uncomfortably centered on a character’s face as the editing drags a single shot for a discomforting length of time, similar to the iconic stylistic trappings of Stanley Kubrick. The pace is very slow, and the editing is very deliberate. It cuts when it needs to, and not a moment sooner. The sound design is extremely focused, forgoing traditional score in favor of a grim and foreboding ambient soundtrack, and very carefully and deliberately choosing sound effects to keep the audience focused in the protagonist’s perspective at all times. The lighting and cinematography choices are also used expertly to build up this atmosphere, as Klimov elects to shoot exclusively with natural lighting, so colors are very washed out, blacks are deeper and starker than usual, and the grim isolated feeling of the Byelorussian countryside is used to its fullest effect. This goes for the camera work as well, with an excellent use of handheld shots in many of the tensest scenes creating the feeling of the characters being watched by something or someone just out of their sight. This all combines for a tense and uncomfortable feeling throughout the film, and that’s all without even mentioning the story.

The story in Come and See starts out very slow, and as it goes on it touches on each of the aspects mentioned thus far. The first half hour of it is innocuous, as protagonist Flyora seeks to join the war effort, motivated by the romanticized vision of the partisan. When he finds a rifle and the partisans come to pick him up, he’s all smiles and excitement. However, this comes with the first sign of the trouble to come, as when digging up the rifle Flyora is seen by a German Fw-38 reconnaissance aircraft. This airplane shows up several times throughout the film, and it’s always a harbinger of disaster to come. Sometimes immediately, sometimes later, but always something comes of it. For now it takes long enough to see the consequences that the entire first act of the film goes by. Flyora gets left behind by the partisans, all except for a girl named Glasha. Glasha is an interesting figure in the film, acting as a very solid foil tom Flyora. Where Flyora is idealistic and naive this early in the film, Glasha is very clearly experienced and wearied, with her very introduction being a lesson she teaches him in not trusting others, because anyone could be a liar. The two nonetheless strike up a rapport, until the 48 makes its second appearance, and shortly after they and the partisan camp are shelled by German artillery. Needing a place to hide, Flyora brings them both back to his village, and it’s here that the film truly gets its first taste of darkness. 45 minutes in, they arrive at the suspiciously empty village, and for a few minutes Flyora acts like nothing is too far amiss, until he notices his younger sisters’ dolls left unattended on the floor, surrounded by flies. He recognizes something is wrong, thinks he knows where everyone will be hiding, and takes Glasha and runs off. The scene up to this point has been building and building in tension, and finally it pays off as they’re running and Glasha turns around for a brief moment to see the entire population of the village, lying dead in a pile behind Flyora’s house in a manner similar to the photos of stacked victims in concentration camps. This shot lasts only a moment, but plenty long enough to get the message. From here on, the movie becomes a brutal slog, with moments of relative calm in between intense and grueling scenes, one after another. The horror and brutality of war is on full display, in all the mud, blood, and filth that implies. This has nothing on the film’s climax however, an extended sequence based on the Khatyn massacre of 1943, wherein the SS Dirlewanger Brigade rounded up the residents of the village of Khatyn, locked them in a shed, and set it on fire, gunning down anyone who attempted to escape as the others burned to death in a horrific conflagration. Approximately 150 people were killed, and only 5 survived. Come and See takes inspiration from this and uses it to construct a truly disturbing sequence with some of the most hauntjng imagery ever put to film, in particular the shot in the aftermath of a teenage girl with a thousand yard stare, her face covered in bruises and her thighs soaking in blood. It’s so harsh and so well-made that a short summary would lose out on all the substance of it. The message is clear: war is brutal, war is horrifying, and you cannot look away from the truth, you must sit and watch it. This is the double meaning of the long uncut shots, they force you to look and absorb a single image for seconds on end, preventing you from finding relative safety in the cuts and continual processing of new rapid fire information that many other films would try and get away with. Every atrocity shown aside from the first one lingers, it holds you there and forces you to watch and ponder all of it. It is the ultimate depiction of the horror of war for this reason.

Flyora’s character is interesting in how it actively goes against the myth of heroism so often seen in war films. Though he dreams of the romanticized life of the partisan at the start of the film, he steadily gets it beaten out of him in a perversion of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey structure. Rather than being pushed to grow from his experiences, he is instead only beaten down, traumatized, and run through the wringer time and time again. Massive credit must be given to Aleksei Kravchenko, this was his first time acting and he went through a brutal slog himself out of dedication for the role, so much so that Klimov hired a therapist and even a hypnotist to help him get through shooting without the risk of having a full on breakdown. The Soviets never did anything halfway when it came to filmmaking, and a lot of the most endurance straining scenes were shot as practically as it gets. The slog with Flyora and Glasha in the marsh was shot in a real peat bog, and Klimov was right there in the mud with them. The scene where Flyora and a cow are ambushed by a machine gun position is one of the most mad decisions ever put in a film, as no props they used looked quite right, they made the decision to use live tracer rounds fired from a real machine gun to get the effect, and it left a stunt with no room for error. On and on the film goes, breaking him down further and further, until at the nadir of his descent, we reach the poignant ending of the film.

Following the massacre at the village and some gut wrenching moments in the aftermath, Flyora finds a photo of Hitler laying in a puddle, and begins shooting it. Every time he fires, the shot is overlayed with photos from Hitler’s life going backwards chronologically. When he reaches the final moment, a photo of Hitler and his mother when he was an infant overlays the screen, and Flyora finally stops shooting. It’s worthwhile taking a brief detour to explain this. The film’s original working title was “Kill Hitler”, but as it was released for the anniversary of the war ending it was deemed inappropriate for the film to have “Hitler” in the title. Not obviously this title is not meant literally, the metaphor of it is to overcome that wrathful and cruel part in all of us. Even after all the brutality Flyora has been subjected to, as traumatized as he is and as much as the war has broken him, he stil doesn’t have it in him to pull the trigger again. It’s a brilliant and haunting moment that caps off the film in a truly unforgettable way. The final bookend of the film is a text card, saying how 628 Byelorussian villages were burned to the ground by the Nazis over the course of the war, along with all their inhabitants. Though the film itself is fictional, it wants you to remember that the horror it captures is very, very real.

Part Five: In the End

“Only the dead have seen the end of war.” -Plato

Come and See is everything the anti-war film should strive to be. It makes no excuses, accepts no caveats, and holds nothing back in its absolute condemnation of war and everything that stands for it. Nobody is a hero, nobody finds any glory, everyone is only progressively damaged time and time again, as the brutality and cruelty of the worst of humanity is put on full display. War is cruelty, and it cannot be refined. It must not be sanitized, or glorified, or romanticized, doing so only serves to prolong it and indoctrinate new generations into the mistakes of the past. Through all of these examples, the mistakes, the steps made, the themes explored, all have to one degree or another approached this theme, but most have fallen short. One wonders if another film like Come and See will ever be made again. After all, a unique advantage that Soviet filmmakers had was that they didn’t need to worry about marketability or the likelihood of achieving a return on investment, and so were free to make films that were challenging, even harrowing to watch. While the occasional film is still made in Hollywood that aims to do something similar, the industry at large has been moving away from that direction in more recent decades. These kinds of films don’t sell, not in the way studios want their films to sell, and so it’s very rare to see one made, as they’re passed over in favor of safer crowd-pleasing fare. What this suggests about the future of war films is not good, especially as the trend of lionizing the military only seems to be growing, for a variety of industry reasons. There is much to worry about going forward, but looking back at the history of film’s coverage of the topic, there remains much room to grow and explore the more difficult topics, and in that regard it’s a field of opportunity for aspiring filmmakers. So in that, perhaps, there is still hope.

2022: Reloaded

Kept you waiting, huh? Last few years have been pretty rough for my upload track, but I’m looking to change that going forward. My passion for writing was restoked recently, and this year I would like to take on a few larger multi-part projects, a few recurring series, and some other one-offs. Down, but not out, I have returned with a vengeance. I plan on restarting my seasonal anime beat, working on some long-form analysis in between other projects, and really expanding my series of character analysis to cover a lot more variety. Unless something completely insane happens, the manga for Golden Kamuy will probably wrap up this year as well, and when that happens I’ll write up my final thoughts on it, which should be absolutely glowing. In my eternal battle against the “What do I even want to write next?” disease, I have enlisted some outside help also, so on occasion I may even collaborate with some of them. The future holds so many exciting possibilities. To the new year, and a more prolific future.

Spring 2020 Anime Impressions

Apologies once again for being late, I’ve been suffering a bout of depression-induced creative block that I’ve been trying my best to get over. Nonetheless, I did eventually get to watching a few things this season, so late though it may be, I thought I would offer a few thoughts regardless.

First up is Arte, a period piece drama set in Renaissance Italy, more specifically the cultural hub city of Florence. Alongside my love of character drama, I have a particular adoration for Renaissance Italy as a setting, so this show was pushing all the right buttons for me right out of the gate. Particularly noteworthy is that this show appears to be a Künstlerroman, that is, a coming of age story focused on one’s growth as an artist. This is a genre very common among books and film, but much rarer in anime. The setup of this show is incredibly standard for an example of the genre, but I held out hope that the show would do something to put a unique spin on things. First impressions were not good, the story made clear from the very beginning that it would focus on a girl coming of age as an artist in a society that shuns her for her gender, but it chose a setting that does not mesh with this concept. Renaissance Italy, while sexist and patriarchal by modern standards, did indeed have female artists. By no means were they common, especially since most art tuition was limited to men, but they were enough of a sight that the kind of categorical “you cannot because you are a woman” comes off as out of place. This also feels like a missed opportunity, since the gender dynamics of Renaissance Italy were extremely complicated in a society that was experiencing change from the ground up, and boiling it down the way this show does really feels like a shame, since they had the opportunity to make a much more complex and interesting relationship between the main character and the society she’s a part of. Despite this mountain of missed potential, I was willing to scale back my expectations and meet the show where it’s at, and see what it did with that chance. The introduction of Angelo in episode 2 made things a little more interesting, presenting a character with a more fleshed out relationship to the gender question, and that made for an interesting dynamic with the main character as the two had interactions that went beyond the black and white presented earlier in the show. The show picks up immensely in the third episode, as it focuses more on how Arte herself grows as an artist, teaching both her and the audience by extension about the skills she needs to learn. It’s really unfortunate when a period piece is at its best in moments that have nothing to do with the setting, but ultimately that’s very consistent with the show’s strengths. In episodes 2 and 3 the show starts to add romantic overtones to its central dynamic, and as a fan of the genre that isn’t unwelcome or anything, but it could certainly have been handled better. Really, I think that idea sums up My entire experience with the show, I can’t find many things it explicitly does wrong per se, but every time I think it’s about to do something exciting it disappoints me. The end result is an okay show that should have been excellent.

Next up is Great Pretender, a show that is in no small part responsible for this article being as late as it is due to Netflix’s unbelievably shitty release schedule in the US. This show starts off on a strongly evocative note, doing an excellent job of grabbing the audience’s attention with the first shot, depicting the main character strung up by his heels from the Hollywood sign. Starting from this strong first impression, this show does an excellent job of presenting a stylish and engaging narrative that held my attention from start to finish. While you won’t find much if anything special about the actual barebones structure of the narrative, the presentation and delivery of it are nothing shy of fabulous, in a way that keeps the show interesting and tense as it tells the story of a con artist who bites off more than he can chew and keeps sinking deeper and deeper into the trap. It’s a show I don’t necessarily have a lot to say about, in a way that’s actually a compliment. There isn’t necessarily too much I have to say about this show, and that’s a good thing. It’s simple, and executes on that simplicity very well, which is really all it needs to do. Also credit for using Freddie Mercury’s The Great Pretender as the ending theme, that was an excellent decision.

Next up is Kakushigoto, perhaps the most anticipated show of the season in the circles I run in. I like dad stories as much as the next guy, and thus I had high hopes for this one. The premise is very cute, the idea of the protagonist hiding his profession from his daughter out of shame is an amusing one that the show gets a lot of jokes out of. The cold open is functional if not particularly exciting, establishing that this story takes place in two time periods, one before she finds out and one after, sort of like the Illusory World scenes in Clannad without the symbolism. By the third episode, it became clear that this show wouldn’t just be cute and funny, it has a large dose of sadness to it as well. As much as I love my fluffy cute shows, I also love sad ones, and the juxtaposition of a cute story with a sad one makes both sides hit much harder. I found this show to be incredibly charming, with funny writing and sublime animation that really brings its characters and story to life. Strong contender for best of the season, and an easy shoe in for end of year awards.

Next up is Sing Yesterday For Me, another highly popular show in my social circles. While the opening shot is incredibly bad, starting off with the alarm clock, overall this show starts off on a strong note. I immediately fell in love with this show’s aesthetic, it mimics the texture of penciling flawlessly and serves as a wonderful breath of fresh air in comparison to the styles of most of the anime I watch. The writing of this show is equally charming, and the superb vocal performances really tie it all together to make this show a very compelling experience. A beautiful aesthetic, likable characters, good dialogue, solid pacing, there isn’t much more I can ask out of a show like this. Its story is fairly light and far more focused on character interactions than plot, which leaves me very little to talk about as far as impressions go. While it may not be especially deep or profound as far as writing goes, it takes its simple plot and executes on it extremely well, so while it may not reach the heights of those more complex shows, it nonetheless presents a solid experience that remained a joy to watch at every moment. It did such a good job with its character writing that I was even willing to forgive it for being a Will They/Won’t They love triangle plot, which is by itself everything I hate in most romance shows. In that regard, this show is a perfect example of how good character writing and good presentation can trump bad or uninteresting plotting to keep a show compelling, especially in this kind of slice of life/romance series. While I don’t think these aspects carry it well enough to be a very strong Best of Season contender or a particularly likely candidate for end of year awards, they do make for a show I was very happy that I watched and would gladly see more of.

Finally this season is BNA, or Brand New Animal, the newest offering from Studio Trigger. Right from the first scene it’s clear that this is a show about prejudice, and likely one for which the in-universe animal people are representative of some minority population. Given my extensive history as a viewer of RWBY, this was a red flag, the worst part of that show was the use of its equivalent characters as a vector to talk about prejudice despite a clear lack of understanding of the nuance of the issues. Expanding that problem to encompass the entire main story of a show would be a recipe for disaster, and I had thoroughly hoped this would not happen. Thankfully this series handles the topic with a lot more skill and understanding of the topics it portrays, alongside its delivery of an interesting story with some fun characters and gorgeous presentation, exactly the things I love most about good Trigger shows. There are some worrying signs, the undertones of conspiracy that run through some of the show’s scenes could really screw up the story and turn it into something far less compelling in future, but from the 3 episodes I watched for this, the show is really looking like a winner. Watching it did a lot to remind me of why Trigger is my favorite animation studio, and that feeling is more than enough to earn this show a hearty recommendation.

Overall this was another solid season. 4 shows I liked, and one that was disappointing. I hope this year keeps up the trend, there will be some very strong contenders for the end of year awards if it does.

Winter 2020 Anime Impressions

This one was very late, and I do apologize for that, but better late than never. This season seemed rather promising, and while light on the kinds of heavy drama that usually make up the top of my list, it does nonetheless have a variety of shows that seem interesting in their own right.

First up is Magia Record, an entry in the Madoka Magica franchise. This is as close as I can get to breaking my “no sequels” rule, but since this is a spinoff and not a true sequel, it just barely escapes the rule. My affection for Madoka Magica is pretty apparent if you’re familiar with my work, so this show had very high standards to live up to. Note that I also did not play the mobile game, so I was completely blind in terms of what to expect going into this show. It certainly starts on a strong note, as studio Shaft once again delivers an absolutely beautiful aesthetic, and despite the absence of Yuki Kajiura, the music does an excellent job of feeling cohesive with her work from the original show. The opening scene is incredibly strong, with the exception of a very clumsy exposition dump awkwardly added into the background. I get why this is necessary, for people who haven’t seen the original show and need to understand what’s going on, but it does feel a lot clumsier than the way the original show handled the same information, which no doubt comes as a consequence of having to shove it all into one scene rather than stringing it across two episodes the way the original did. Once that’s out of the way, however, the way this show actually handles its storytelling is surprisingly strong, with some legitimately fantastic scenes and story beats. In addition to strong character-driven storytelling, the series also does an excellent job of expanding on the things established in the original, adding new elements to shake up the formula in new and interesting ways. I particularly like the Chain Witch, the idea of a witch that haunts specific regions like a Yokai is a really fascinating premise for a story arc, and they really use it to its fullest potential to deliver a strong character beat and set up a conflict in a unique way, which is exactly what I would expect from a franchise like Madoka. The story beats, characters, and conflicts shown off even in just the first three episodes do a great deal to remind me why I love this franchise so much. While it may not truly live up to the quality of the original, it does a great job earning a place alongside it. Definitely a favorite for this season.

Next up is the one that caught my eye the most on this list: Jibaku Shonen Hanako-kun, aka Toilet-Bound Hanako-kun. Now, as I understood it, this show was going to be some sort of horror-comedy revolving around a Yokai that haunted a toilet. If my numerous pieces fawning over Hignabana are any indication of my feelings towards horror-themed stories about Yokai, then it should be very obvious that a premise like this would be extremely appealing to me. First impressions of this show were rock solid, the aesthetic is beautiful, the pacing is solid, the music complements the scenes very well (except the OP, which feels weirdly jarring when combined with everything else, though a fine song on its own), and the level of craft put into the show is apparent immediately. I quickly realized that this would be far more on the comedy end, and that any horror elements would be few and far between at best. Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that, it just seemed my expectations were misplaced. Watching this show, I very quickly realized that the direction of it is on my wavelength in a way almost no other show has been. Between the slick editing, liberal use of inserts and other visual elements to keep scenes flowing, and superb use of distinct and memorable shots that flow extremely well from one to the next, it was clear almost immediately that I would really mesh well with the way this show was presented. This feeling persisted throughout the first episode, which was funny, paced well, and even had some good dramatic moments. The next two episodes were equally good, and I was utterly hooked on this show. The characters were fun, the aesthetic was beautiful, the direction was energetic and peppy, and all the stories were interesting. While the show is lacking in terms of thematic potency, and that aspect undoubtedly holds it back compared to what it could be, what we got is nonetheless a superbly entertaining show in its own right, and one that I enjoy very much.

Next up we have ID:Invaded. Every once in a while, there comes a show with a premise so fabulous that it seems guaranteed to be great, and from the outset, this seemed like one of those. The idea of tracking a serial killer by having to reconstruct their identity and motives through the fragments of their mindscape in the moments that drove them to kill is an absolutely brilliant premise for a psychologically-driven mystery. This could easily have been one of the all-time greats of the genre. And then it hit the first stumbling block: the dialogue. Not to say all the dialogue is bad or anything, but it runs into a Garth Marenghi-shaped problem very early on in the first episode. That is to say, much of the dialogue appears to be written under the philosophy “I know writers who use subtext, and they’re all cowards”, leading to a tendency to overexplain everything, even if it was already shown visually or implied in more interesting ways. While this is annoying on its own, it also left me extremely concerned for what was to come, as such a trait is often a sign of much bigger writing problems. However, despite this problem, the actual storytelling of the show is fairly compelling. Despite its flaws, there’s just enough of an intellectual character drama there to hold my interest, and overall I would say the show is decent to good, at the very least good enough to warrant checking out.

Last up this season is Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken. I must confess that I am not particularly familiar with the work of Masaaki Yuasa, the only work of his I’d previously seen was Devilman Crybaby, but his reputation precedes him enough that I knew I would have to check this out just on principle. First impressions of this show were rock solid, it’s very clear from extremely early on just how much energy has gone into this show, this is a passion project through and through. And because of that, there is a certain beauty to this show that I haven’t seen since Spirited Away. The rest of the show follows suit, expressing in the clearest possible terms the kinds of emotion and imagination that go into making animation. Despite all that, it doesn’t feel self-congratulatory, all this is in service of presenting why people can become so invested in creative work, and that’s a wholly different feeling. Putting aside my personal biases as much as possible, I would say that is is objectively the best show I watched this season, though that doesn’t necessarily make it my favorite. Either way, it is an absolutely beautiful work of animation and strong contender for the best show of the season.

This has been an exceptionally strong season for entertaining anime of all sorts. Never before in the history of my seasonal impressions have I seen this many shows and liked them all to this degree. While I would not call this the best season I have covered, it is an exceptionally strong start to the 2020 year, and hopefully this trend continues in the upcoming seasons.

The Brilliance of Bloom Into You (February Finale)

So the manga for Bloom Into You concluded last fall, and thus now is the perfect time to really look over it and really examine what makes it work. I am aware that I’ve been a bit of a broken record on how great it is, but bear with me just a little longer, because I’d like to go over the key aspects that make it as truly incredible as it is.

Foremost, obviously, is the relationship between Yuu and Touko, their character arcs, and how these two interact. Yuu is the primary POV character, so let’s start there. Lot of people early on thought she was asexual, something later shown to be wrong, but this initial impression is clearly meant to be taken as such and to color a reader’s view of all her scenes through that being a possibility. Though the term itself is never used, Yuu and some others do speculate (and in h er case, despair) that she might indeed be asexual/aromantic. A big part of her arc centers around learning, acknowledging, and accepting that while she does indeed love Touko, she doesn’t feel or express it the way she had expected to, and coming to terms both with her own feelings and how they will affect everything around her. Added on to this is her genuine concern for Touko and her determination to help her understand and confront her own issues. As far as character arcs go, hers are fairly simple, but they’re exactly what’s needed to fit her role in the story as a relatively stable POV character and as a complement to other characters’ conflicts. Which brings us to the most complex aspect of the story by far.

If you asked me to list out the characters who I find the most in compelling in all of fiction, Touko Nanami would be right at the top, just under Beatrice herself. What makes Touko so interesting is that beneath her cool and charismatic facade, she’s actually a complex bundle of flaws and self loathing, and that inner layer makes for one of the most truly human characters I’ve ever seen. Her primary flaws are a hatred of herself combined with deep admiration for her older sister, a dependency on emotional support and affection, a fear of stagnation, and a resultant fear of love and relationships. These all combine to make for a really complex character who fits in perfectly with the central ideas of the story. Her self-loathing and deep-seated insecurity towards the kind of person she really is are the real core of every conflict she’s a part of, because when they’re combined with her misunderstanding of love as a force of stagnation, it results in an incredibly tense and indeed toxic situation where what she wants in the early part of the story amounts to someone who she can be affectionate towards and demand emotional support from without taking on the responsibilities or complications that come from having that person reciprocate her feelings the way they would in a traditional romantic relationship. She falls for Yuu specifically because Yuu is the one person in the world who she believes would fit these criteria, something that causes Yuu herself no small amount of stress as she finds that she isn’t able to hold up her end of the deal, and is indeed falling in love for the first time in her life. This situation results in 2 primary conflicts: the council play, and Yuu trying to convey her actual feelings.

The council play begins as the ultimate manifestation of Touko’s unhealthy views of herself and her older sister, essentially her attempt to do the one thing her sister couldn’t and earn some kind of Pyrrhic victory by doing so. Because Touko hates herself and idolizes her older sister, her entire outward persona has become a direct mirror of everything she believed her sister to be. This is a central theme of the story, with the original title of the story even translating to “Soon, I Will Become You” as a nod to this. Further credit to the anime adaptation for the genius idea of punctuating the opening credits with a shot of Yuu and Touko replaced by intertwined flowering vines and masks instead of faces. The vines represent how intertwined their lives become due to the love between them and the bonds they form, and the masks are a pitch perfect visual representation of the story’s theme. For indeed, Bloom Into You is about the masks we all wear, the idea of persona, and the different ways we present ourselves to the different people in our lives. And this is where the council play comes in, because while Touko plans for it to be the ultimate moment where she “becomes” her persona, two things end up happening that undermine this. Firstly, upon learning about this, Yuu decides that she wants to use the play as a chance to show Touko the error of her ways, and because she’s friends with the script writer, she gets a chance to help craft a message for the play (which, incidentally, uses the concept of an amnesiac questioning who they really were as a way to comment on the same themes of persona and evolving image) as one fundamentally critical of how Touko sees herself, and one that (so she hopes) will show her the error of her ways. Secondly, and just as importantly, while the student council is working on putting the play together, Touko, someone who idolized her older sister as a seemingly perfect individual, is confronted with the reality of who her sister really was, how she had sides to her that cast her in a much less ideal light. And that friction between who Touko thought her sister was and who her sister actually was is the source of a major identity crisis for her, because if her sister wasn’t the ideal she had always seen her as, what does that make her, someone trying to imitate that perceived excellence? This is a brilliant means of forcing introspection, as people like Yuu, her teachers, and her parents had constantly been trying to imply, hint, suggest, or push her into outgrowing her flawed perspective, and she dug in her heels every single time. There’s actually a very good lesson being conveyed here, particularly in one scene where Yuu suggests that people around Touko might be happier if she dropped her persona and accepted her real self, and Touko responds “I would rather die than hear that”. While this is obviously upsetting to Yuu, as it throws a wrench into every gain she had tried to make, it becomes far more interesting when you learn more about why Touko is the way she is, and suddenly her line makes perfect sense. Fundamentally, Touko believes that the “real her” is a horrible person, and it’s clear that she is upset and distressed by letting it show through, so for Yuu, the person she loves most in the world, to suggest she should live her entire life like that is clearly painful for her to process. While Yuu perceives it as a threat, as a way to say “stop trying to change my mind”, Touko doesn’t even seem to understand it in terms of how everyone else around her thinks. She isn’t able to really process that someone like Yuu is able to love those aspects of her, because to her those aspects are abjectly horrible, so she perceives “Maybe some people even prefer the real you” as an attack, something dragging her down to something she couldn’t bear to be, and as a result the intended message didn’t land . However, when she’s confronted with the reality that the person she’s idolized for so long as someone she’d wanted to be was actually a flawed person, she breaks because it runs so contrary to what she’s believed for so long, and the dissonance is something she can’t fully handle. In that moment, if she can’t be her “real self”, and she can’t be her persona, then she is left with the same question as the character she plays on the stage: what will she become, what is she really?

The second conflict of the story is Yuu coming to terms with her feelings and trying to help Touko reach a point where she can understand and accept them despite her initial insistence on that not happening. As a result, this really runs parallel to Touko’s growth as a character, as Yuu starts to figure out that she either does love Touko or wants to as early as when Maki (an asexual classmate) questions if that really isn’t what she’d already been doing, and by the time the council play that forms the crux of the story’s events is into serious production, she already understands to some degree that she actually has fallen in love. And the degree to which she and Touko react to that impending possibility changes drastically as other events of the story progress. Yuu first hints at it around the time she discovers the truth about Touko imitating her sister, at which point Touko is entirely oblivious and shuts down any attempts at making her understand that reality. However, it is very clear that, while she may not be consciously aware of it, she knows on some level that it’s happening. So, at her lowest point, when she is left entirely unsure of who she will become, Touko actually does extend her feelings into threatening Yuu for the first time, in one of the most memorable lines of the series: “Don’t fall in love with me, okay? After all, I hate myself, and how can I love someone who loves something I hate? I want to stay in love with you.”, with the implication being “but I can’t if you ever love me back”. This clears up shortly after during the aquarium sequence, where she truly comes to terms with the question being posed for the first time, and begins to find her answer. “Even if everything else about me is fake, I know that my love for you is my own”, as she says. And this is the moment where she truly begins to change and discover who she really is, by beginning with what she knows for a certainty to be true and working her way out from there. So when the council play comes, she is able to finally understand the meaning of it and grow into who she truly is. However, this is not the end, for Yuu is still haunted by the specter of her own feelings and ultimately is driven to confess the truth, that she broke her promise and did indeed fall in love with Touko. And what follows is arguably the best “misunderstanding caused by poor communication” story I have ever seen. Touko, in shock, can only respond with “I’m sorry”, which Yuu perceives as her acting on her previous threat, bursts into tears, and runs off. So, the real question to be asked is, what did Touko actually mean by this? Well, in general, Touko has been wrapped up a lot in her own personal growth, and basically viewed Yuu the same way that we the audience did, someone who didn’t feel romantic attraction in any circumstance, something Yuu herself did nothing to discourage. As a result, Touko never really processed the real predatory and destructive nature of her behavior early in the series, because she clearly assumed that these kinds of consequences would never actually happen. So when she’s confronted with the reality of how much her own selfish desires had torn up the person she loved most in the world, all she could express was “I’m sorry”, and I think that if she had expanded the sentence a little in that moment, what she was really thinking would’ve been “I’m sorry for hurting you”.

At this point the two are split apart, and it is only by consulting the people who can see through their facades that they can truly make up. Yuu acts like she can just shut out her feelings and make herself ace by choice, and Maki points out how she’s just lying to herself because she can’t handle the reality of how she feels and that she needs to step up to face her problems directly. Whereas Touko has to deal with her best friend Sayaka confessing to her, and thus grappling with her love for Yuu and why it feels so different from the love that she does feel for Sayaka, and thus being convinced that she can’t let something like that go to waste over a misunderstanding. It’s a beautiful ending to both of their character arcs.

Hopefully this has shed some light on why the primary story of Bloom Into You is so compelling. This won’t be the end of my talking about the series, as I have several other pieces planned, including a character study for Sayaka, an analysis of the play itself and how it connects to the themes, and a few others. But, for now, this should serve as a pretty good rundown of how the series makes drama so compelling, and why its earned its crown with so many fans.

Burning Up For You: Toxic Relationships Aren’t Inherently Bad (February Special #3)

So, a common topic in critique of literature is the concept of “toxic relationships”, be they romantic, platonic, familial, etc. The last one is the most common to appear in fiction, as familial bonds require absolutely no other forms of investment on the part of any character involved, meaning you can make it as toxic as you want, including having them be full-on enemies, with almost no limitations. Ditto with the similar concepts of “former friends” and “former lovers”, both of which often just add more layers of drama to existing adversarial or uneasy relationships. But I’m more interested in something a lot rarer, and comes with a lot more baggage: romantic relationships that are currently ongoing and contain elements of toxicity. When these crop up, they are almost universally criticized, often with good reason. Topics like abuse, dependency, and the like are extremely sensitive and need to be treated with respect and care. Indeed, as I said last week, many authors remain completely unaware of the heavy implications of their writing and end up accidentally writing an extremely toxic message into their story, an unfortunately common result when people try to write these kinds of relationships. However, a common thread I’ve started to see in a lot of criticism is the painting of all depictions of toxic relationships as condoning the toxic elements, and that’s something I would like to push back against.

Broadly speaking there are a lot of different ways of depicting toxic relationships, and there are two I would like to focus on. First, and more common of the two, is one where the toxic element is noted and addressed, with the arc of the story about characters healing from and moving past that toxic element. This is fair enough as a premise, it gives opportunities for interesting scenes of drama and introspection, but it’s also very easy to fall into some common writing traps that distort it into something horrifying. Most often, this comes from placing the responsibility for ensuring that growth on the person who doesn’t actually have the issue. “Your partner is broken, and you need to fix them” is an incredibly toxic theme to present to an audience, because it shifts responsibility onto the wrong person, effectively blaming the victim for not being good enough to live up to an unrealistic standard. So, whatever you do, do not ever do this. It’s very important to remember that, while the emotional support of loved ones can be very beneficial, the responsibility of changing always falls on the shoulders of the person who needs that change. More of this next week. So long as you remember basics like this, you ought to be able to do this just fine.

Something extremely uncommon, but most interesting of all to me, is depictions of toxic relationships where the toxic element is extremely evident to all involved, but never actually goes away, either because it can’t or because characters won’t do it. Outside of really hardcore drama, most authors are gun-shy about this, and I think that’s a crying shame, because there are issues that can’t just be worked through so easily, or worse, cannot be done because one or both characters involved rely on those issues to keep themselves together due to other problems. A case of the latter is what ultimately inspired me to write this, coming from my favorite source of good writing examples: Umineko. Now, Umineko had 4 romantic relationships playing key roles in the story, and the one that really comes to mind is that between the characters of Lambdadelta and Bernkastel. Their relationship is easily the most complex and fraught with issues of the four, and that’s exactly why it’s so compelling. Lambda and Bern have developed a complex codependency based on their years of surviving Hell together, and Lambda in particular is fully aware of how much their need of each other’s support combined with the masks of detached cruelty has absolutely destroyed them both, but neither could bear the weight of their trauma without the other, so they stay together. And it’s not like they don’t have genuinely sweet moments together, but in large part their relationship is defined by their codependency, which is the best thing about it. It adds layers upon layers of complexity and drama from everything to their bickering, to Erika trying to muscle in on Bern, to their mutual scheming against Beatrice, and so on. So, when they fight to the death in the final book, all this drama and buildup makes the confrontation all the more tense. It’s so much more than just “lovers on different paths”, and it saddens me that a lot of people would dismiss this kind of complex dynamic as some kind of toxic messaging, or a lost cause that cannot be done well simply because it’s got toxic elements to it. When you really see the potential of adding elements like that to relationship writing, it makes you wish that you saw them explored more often and in more depth.

I said that I was gonna focus on two, but I lied, there’s room for a bonus type, something much more specific: the Enemies to Lovers trope and how it can turn toxic. And if you’ve been tuned into online discourse at all in the last two months, you can probably guess I’m talking about Reylo. For those of you blissfully out of the loop, Reylo is a particularly galling ship from the new Star Wars trilogy that was extremely popular among an extremely loud and angry community online, who spent 4 years straight begging for it and screaming at people who criticized it, up to and including the cast of the films themselves. Making this ship canon was the worst mistake they could’ve possibly made. And the thing is, I saw it coming and dreaded it. Back when The Force Awakens came out, I predicted that the series would go that route and expected that it would be awful. But the thing is, then The Last Jedi came out, a movie which actively criticized this idea and showed in the clearest possible terms that trying to reach out to the kind of person Kylo Ren is depicted as is a bad idea start to finish, because not everyone fits the mold that makes the kind of arc that fans were expecting, and taking a chance on the wrong kind of person can have terrible consequences. And after that movie came out, I had some hope that maybe the series would go in a different direction. But then Rise of Skywalker came out, a film that did everything possible to placate fan desires, and dove straight into the proverbial trash bin that was Reylo. Not only was it a bad idea to begin with, but it was also executed in the most terrible way. Could I believe Ren would try and redeem himself? Yeah, I could. Could I believe he’d sacrifice himself to keep Rey alive? Yeah, I could. Could I believe people would forgive him for all the shit he did? No, absolutely not. Could I believe Rey would decide to spur of the moment kiss him right in the instant before he dies? First off, no, and second off, yikes, after every horrific thing he did throughout the series, both in general and to her specifically, having her turn around and kiss him is the worst possible way to conclude that story thread. For a better example of Enemies to Lovers done well, I recommend checking out Promare, which came out only a few weeks before and did the idea fabulously.

In general, the point I want to convey here is that including toxic elements in relationship writing is not inherently bad, as it can create interesting drama and add unique depth to relationship writing that would not be possible otherwise. It’s a worthwhile tool that I would like to see used more often.

Let’s Talk About LGBT+ Representation… Again (February Special #2)

So, my original piece on the topic of LGBT+ representation two years ago was the worst thing I have ever written, I disown it completely, and I decided to take another crack at it. The reason for this is because I, in the midst of crunch time between classes, work, etc, idiotically decided to cut corners and put out an article too short to actually make its point, and which accidentally came off way too much like those insufferable folks online who insist representation is “forced into everything” and other nonsense like that. And that is not my goal, quite the opposite in fact. So, time for another bite at the apple, I’d like to remake/expand upon the original argument to hopefully make my point better. But before that, I would like to make it very clear that this is working off the basis that representation is a good thing overall and a net positive inclusion in stories, rather than examining the worth of its existence at all, I am interested more in what aspects can be done with it to make it more engaging and poignant, so everything I have to say should be viewed from that lens, and I don’t want my words being twisted to support some sort of anti-representation message.

I mentioned last week that my three theories of romance appeal were leaving out a fourth one, and it’s time to talk about that fourth: Romance as Statement, which is particularly relevant to discussions of representation. This is really more of a subcategory than anything, because it’s incredibly rare to encounter it on its own. Broadly speaking, Romance as Statement is using romantic elements to make a statement on elements related to it, usually some form of cultural or political statement. This is particularly relevant to discussions of LGBT+ representation in the political climate of the modern world, for the simple reason that our modern political climate has turned the existence and validity of LGBT+ dynamics into an inherently political statement, owing to the open hostility to the community from social conservatives. As a result, it is impossible to meaningfully discuss the nuances of LGBT+ inclusion without discussing the wider political scene and how that influences the attitudes and behavior of creators who tend to be either overly conscious of the implications of their writing (and cautious as a result), or completely unaware of them. Either of these, taken to their furthest logical extreme as is so often seen in modern discourse and creative circles, can wreak utter havoc on a story, so an important question to be posed is how exactly to thread that needle. And this is where we come back to Romance as Statement as a concept and really have to dive into the merits and drawbacks of it.

One thing I would like to establish beforehand is that if Romance as Statement appears primarily as an inescapable byproduct of the inherently political nature of art and representation, that is absolutely fine and I have no particular quarrel with the concept. What I’m far more concerned with is the use of romance elements with the express intent of making a statement with them, because that can go extremely awry extremely quickly. And this is a risk that comes from making direct statements on current issues, every statement has implications that often ripple much further than the direct meaning of the thing being said, and diving headfirst into cultural issues necessitates a level of understanding of those implications that many people either don’t have, or overthink. Obviously, the solution to this issue is not to “just don’t make statements at all”, like some people would have you believe, it’s simply to think through the particulars of your statement. Between the two extremes of either not thinking of implications at all and accidentally saying something toxic (see, Steven Universe’s piss poor portrayal of “forgive the sexual assault metaphor”), and being so terrified of causing a reaction that you end up failing to actually make a statement with any teeth (see, The Rise of Skywalker hyping up the existence of a gay kiss, only for it to be completely glossed over). Of the two, the former is objectively worse, but the latter is more personally irritating to me. This issue is omnipresent when it comes to portrayal of LGBT+ issues, and it manifests in many ways. For example, explorations of when LGBT+ relationships can turn toxic are absolutely valid as a subject matter, but someone who doesn’t think about implications could accidentally imply that these problems are inherent to LGBT+ relationships, while someone who is overly conscious of their implications might be gun-shy of depicting toxic dynamics at all for fear of accidentally sending such a message, and such stories can come off as saccharine or toothless. A big part of storytelling, especially in a genre such as Romance or Drama, comes from this sort of conflict, and being afraid of depicting it is a really tragic loss in my eyes. While being careful to avoid toxic implications is definitely a good thing, it can’t be something to paralyze a creator from fear of possibly screwing up. Poorly made statements can always be amended or disavowed, but the same cannot be said for statements that are never made. So, one key rule for making statements, especially in regards to LGBT+ issues, is “Think through the implications of your statement, but don’t think so much that it stops you from saying anything of substance; be transgressive, but not toxic”. However, there is one more thing I really want to bring up, a nasty side effect of what can go wrong when priorities are wrong in this field.

Now, we’ve talked about statements made as a side effect of just telling the story, but cases do exist where making the statement is the priority, and other elements come second to that. I’m in two minds about this. On the one hand, other elements in the story tend to suffer when this happens, and I find that such messages tend to be more concise and memorable when delivered directly as political statements without the superfluous fluff of narrative conventions. On the other hand, not every story with this intent is like this, and just as there is merit to the point that direct political statements are more concise and distinctive, so too is there an argument to be made that formatting it as a story makes it easier to introduce to an audience who may be unfamiliar with or unconvinced on the political topic itself, for example Platoon codified the sheer brutality and horrors of the Vietnam War and the Invasion of Cambodia far better than any statistics list ever could. The crucial difference, really, is that even leaving aside the message they tell, films like Platoon are still fundamentally compelling stories at the end of the day, and this is something people caught up in messages can often forget. While themes are, more often than not, the most important aspect of storytelling, that doesn’t mean the others don’t matter. Without compelling characters and some form of engaging narrative, those themes are ultimately lost on an audience that lacks investment in what’s happening. And this is where we loop back to the question regarding representation that I posed in my original article back in the day. While representation itself is both easy to do and fundamentally a good thing to have, it cannot be your only concern, or else you start to lose sight of other elements that ultimately undermines the message you were going for. When, two years ago, I said that representation ought to have a point beyond the message inherent to its existence, this is what I was talking about. For a story’s representation to land with an audience, there needs to be more than just that representation message present. And, to be clear, this is a very broad category. A story that goes for the Romance as Charm style while starring a gay couple the way half the Yuri genre does absolutely fits this requirement, as does a hardcore Character Study drama about people dealing with toxic aspects related to their identities or relationships and experiencing personal growth as a result such as Stars Align. But both of these have worth as stories beyond just the message inherent to representation, and that is something to keep in mind when writing. This second rule could be described as “Representation on its own cannot carry a story, back it up with strong storytelling to help the message land more effectively.”

Finally, something I would like to talk about is a divide between two schools of thought on the topic of how representation should be handled. The first argues that traits like gender or sexual orientation are fundamentally benign traits (that is, traits that do not necessarily affect a person beyond the areas covered directly by their existence) and thus can easily be included without having to affect anything, while the other posits that because the LGBT+ community does experience unique problems in life that their cishet counterparts do not, and meaningful discussions of these issues are both warranted and a net benefit to the story overall. I half agree with both of these. While I agree that things like gender and sexuality are benign traits, I think there is value in exploring them as part of the narrative. And while I do agree that the LGBT+ community is very poorly treated by society as a whole, and that exploring this can make stories more dramatically compelling, I would also argue that that’s beyond the scope of many stories on the topic and that there are plenty of aspects beyond society’s views on the subject that are worthy of being explored. And this is where we come to the actual position I hold, which is somewhere between the two. While I do believe that every story which includes mentions of LGBT+ issues should make an effort to explore them and how they relate to the characters involved, the actual exploration can be as simple as telling a fluffy romantic subplot featuring a gay couple, or as complex as diving into the intricacies of someone exploring and coming to terms with aspects of their own identity and how it relates to society as a whole, and both ends of that spectrum are perfectly valid. This third rule can be described as “Explore the issues, and make that exploration as simple or complicated as you want; not all exploration must be deep, but it should still be there.”

Between these three rules, the really basic aspects of making good representation are covered, and so long as you keep the right mindset when telling a story and treat the issues with the dignity and respect they deserve as relevant social issues, you will do fine. I cannot stress this enough. A lot of times, people writing on issues like this, especially if they don’t personally belong to the community, will be met with accusations ranging from “appropriating struggles” to “telling a story that isn’t yours to tell”, both accusations I’ve seen commonly lobbed against people writing about these kinds of issues in the past. And let me be clear, in most cases, they are both full of shit. The former is simply misapplied, a story about gay or trans characters going through the struggles of living as a gay or trans person in society is not appropriation, because it’s still directly about the issue itself, regardless of who the author is. And the latter is flatly wrong in general. While that argument usually comes up in discussion of portraying other cultures and usually is rooted in the author’s unfamiliarity with a culture they have not experienced (which is still wrong as a line of reasoning, some of the best studies on culture in human history come from people who were not part of that culture, such as Lermontov’s writings on the Cossacks), it can be applied to discussions of LGBT+ issues rather frequently, where it is even less justifiable. What matters is knowledge and understanding of the issues, not the checking of arbitrary personal boxes. And while that knowledge and understanding does require work and research on the part of someone who hasn’t experienced issues being discussed, that kind of research is honestly common among people within the community too. Just having a trait like being gay or trans does not automatically anoint you with some special knowledge on the issues, and people regardless of their identity can educate themselves enough to understand and show respect for the topic. That aside, I hope this cleared up my actual thoughts on the topic of LGBT+ rep and proves potentially useful in answering any questions about the basics of the topic.

The Appeals of Romance (February Special #1)

There comes a time in every analyst’s career where they ask themselves a few introspective questions. “Why am I doing this?” “Why does this exist?” “What do people enjoy about this?” “What do I enjoy about this?” And I found myself asking these questions recently. Ever since I started this blog, I’ve been writing articles about romance fiction every year, even when other things were getting in the way, and up until recently, I never questioned why I was so passionate about it. But once I started thinking about it, the questions wouldn’t stop coming. Why did I dedicate a month of the year to writing about it? Why does it have such clout as a genre? What is the appeal of romantic fiction? What motivates people to create it, to consume it, and to enjoy it the way they do? Why do we take time that could be spent on things like badly-needed extra sleep or managing actual romantic relationships in order to experience fictional ones? After thinking it over for a while, I’ve come up with a few answers.

Broadly, there are three primary modes of appeal that I can see for romantic fiction. Romance as Fantasy, Romance as Charm, and Romance as Character Study. The first, and perhaps most obvious, explanation is Romance as Fantasy. Now, the idea of fiction being used as a vector for the audience’s self-insert fantasies is not new, with the idea of Power Fantasy in action-oriented media being the most widely understood. It’s not much of a stretch to then apply this logic to the romance genre, obviously there is appeal in depictions of romance to people who can’t experience that in their ordinary lives, usually for younger audiences. And there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that, but going overboard with it has wrecked many a story. Just like how overindulgence on power fantasy results in an uninteresting story, so too does overindulgence on self-insert romance fantasy create its own problems, except the problems created here are often far more varied, and can be much more detrimental to story as a whole. One that particularly strikes me as relevant is one so prevalent that it effectively dominates all discussion of the topic, which is the fact that writers indulgent in this kind of fantasy tend to be gun-shy about actually going anywhere with it. Last year, I talked about the prevalence of Will They/Won’t They as a trope and lamented how it so often results in the actual story of romance itself not being told, and that concept makes a return in full force here. Particularly in situations of harem fiction, a part of the fantasy being sold is this utter lack of progress, for the same reason so many protagonists are so generic in these kinds of stories, because actually progressing the romantic plotline can ruin the self-insert fantasy, since those types of stories tend to make the main character less universally relatable to an audience that generally has no experience with this sort of thing, not to mention that the circumstances of romantic relationships tend to force characters to express aspects of themselves due to the variety of situations that typically result from characters going through their lives while romantically involved with each other, especially if this is a subplot of a story win another genre, as is often the case in some kinds of action stories. And there is one more aspect of it, that I don’t necessarily want to focus on, but will doubtless get brought up by someone if I were to ignore it, which is the noted prevalence of this kind of writing among, well, juvenile writers and audiences, with fanfiction and light novels being the most infamous in this regard, for different reasons. Fanfiction tends to have a reputation for centering around this kind of storytelling, whether deserved or otherwise, and that notoriety is exacerbated by the fact that examples which brought about this reputation are extremely toxic. This is important because it does exemplify the ways this kind of writing can go horribly wrong, as airing out one’s own fantasies in a public venue can result in some extremely uncomfortable situations, especially since not all fantasies are healthy and proliferating the unhealthy ones can do real harm, but that’s a topic for another day. As for light novels and similar fiction, this kind of writing tends to be the absolute embodiment of things already discussed. And if that’s your preferred fare, that’s fine, but in general that much self insert fantasy tends to result in weak narrative that often lacks any sort of conflict that couldn’t be easily solved, but that really ties into a larger problem involving self insert overindulgence in general, and that’s far beyond the scope of even the genre itself.

Obviously self-insert fantasy is not the only appeal to romantic fiction, and the next form, Romance as Charm, is the most simple and straightforward of the lot. This form of appeal can be best summed up as “Romance is endearing to watch, and that sweetness is appeal in and of itself”. This is also the most common approach to romance writing, with entire genres almost completely made up of this sort of writing. And beyond that, this kind of romance writing is both the easiest to get right, and nets a lot of returns from audiences who tend to respond very positively to it, myself included. As much as I love hardcore drama, I’m also a sucker for cute and wholesome material, especially in romance stories. That said, this type of writing can frequently have a lot more to chew on than is presented on its face, as it often takes complicated relationship dynamics into account, and the drama resulting from that is a big part of the appeal. For that reason, I would bundle romance stories where the appeal is in the drama in with this category, as that is fundamentally extremely similar appeal, just with a slightly different catalyst. This kind of story is thus the bulk of the romance genre, and its simplicity, versatility, and universal appeal make it a great way to construct a story for new and experienced authors alike.

The third, and most fascinating, form is what I like to call “Romance as Character Study”, which is when a given story uses its romantic elements to explore, develop, and criticize or otherwise comment on various facets of a given character. I can think of no better example of this than Bloom Into You, which used the budding romance between Yuu and Touko to explore the latter’s crippling inferiority complex, self-worth issues, and the very real damage her flawed outlook on life was capable of doing to the people she treasured most, and thus provided an excellent opportunity for both characters to grow as people as a result of their relationship. More on this in a few weeks. While Bloom Into You is at the pinnacle in this regard, it is by no means the only one, nor is growth as characters or as people entirely necessary per se when it comes to this kind of storyline, using romantic elements to examine a character’s flaws and how they can actually be exacerbated by the situation is a common setup as well. I can think of no better example for this than Madoka Magica, both the original show and the third movie, where Homura’s love for Madoka drives her to first rewind time in an endless loop in order to protect her, and then eventually to change the universe itself to ensure that end is met permanently. And the questionable healthiness if not outright dysfunctionality of this dynamic is a central focus, both in the story itself and in all discussions of interpreting it. One cannot meaningfully talk about Madoka as a whole without discussion of this aspect, it very much takes center stage from the moment Homura shows who she really is onward. And it makes for a fascinating and extremely compelling story of a single person’s downfall for the sake of protecting the only person she truly loves. This kind of story is something I find extremely compelling, and it’s something I genuinely think the genre needs more of, and that kind of thinking was what inspired me to write this piece.

Overall, these three forms of appeal form the vast bulk of why people like me love the romance genre so much, and any one of them could feasibly carry a story on their own (to varying degrees of success). That said, I have left something out. There is a fourth kind of appeal, which I will talk about next time. Until then, commit these three types of appeal to memory, as they will become a running theme over the next few weeks, if not in all my pieces going forward.

Fall 2019 Anime Impressions

Ok, so I know I said last month that I was going to have this up by the end of November, but then I actually looked at the seasonal chart a second time and was struck dead on the spot, so having only just recently revived, I can now actually set about torturing myself with the fare of this season. It became clear as early as the seasonal chart that this was going to be a deluge of sequels and shoveled out garbage, and picking through all that to find even three shows worth watching took some time, bearing in mind that I never cover direct sequels/prequels to existing anime (though self contained stories in an existing universe are still allowable). So, once again, I can only talk about three shows this time around, but I’ll try and make the most of that.

There are times when my love of the mystery genre ends up getting me into trouble by compelling me to watch something terrible because I love the genre and am constantly looking for a metaphorical diamond in the rough, and this unfortunate tendency has struck again this season with Kabuki-cho Sherlock, an anime loosely based on the Sherlock Holmes mythos. While on its face, this series fits as a proper mystery, it largely follows Knox’s Decalogue and Van Dine’s Rules (except arguably Knox’s fifth, though instead of stereotypical racial minorities it’s extremely tasteless depictions of gay-coded men), but the actual execution of it as a mystery is piss poor at best. In his video “Sherlock is Garbage and Here’s Why”, Hbomberguy talked at length about how the BBC series Sherlock suffers from its approach to describing analytical scenes because of its tendency of showing very little of the actual clues until Sherlock explains them when he describes how he solved the case, and this show has an extremely nasty case of that. What’s sad is, the first episode actually did have interesting clues once explained that could lead to the audience drawing the same conclusions that Holmes does, but the scene they’re introduced in does a piss poor job of showing them off because it’s more interested in showing off Holmes himself and how he looks while examining them. Indeed, it would appear that this show suffers from all the problems that the BBC Sherlock did, except noticeably worse because it starts off in the bin and has absolutely none of the entertainment value that that show did. Between being horribly unfunny, and also an extremely poor outing of a mystery show, this show utterly failed to impress me and I dropped it like a lead balloon after one episode. Good voice cast though, I can at least compliment that much.

Anime has a bit of a reputation for being… weird, or at least having a much higher proportion of weirdness than most other forms of media, and every once in a while, a show comes along and reminds me that this reputation is not undeserved. This season, the show that did this for me was No Guns Life, a show about a guy with a gun for a face that works crime cases involving other people with weapon parts. Because the show has all the subtlety of a brick through your window, it’s also very blatant about how it holds anti-corporate, anti-war economy, and arguably anti-augmentation themes, not exactly uncommon fare among cyberpunk stories. In so far as the content of the story goes, it’s fairly standard “megacorp conducts illegal experiments, kick their asses” fare, generally inoffensive but lacking in any sort of unique appeal as a result. The only thing that really kept me watching was my enjoyment of the character Mary and how consistently entertaining I found her dialogue to be. I’ll probably watch a bit more, though my interest in the show was definitely wavering by the third episode. Likely a strong 5 to light 6, nothing special but also not particularly bad.

Finally, we have Hoshiai no Sora, or Stars Align, and I’m just gonna come out and say it right now, this is the best show I have seen all year, it is an excellent drama disguised as a sports anime. While not all of it is done well, even the weaker elements (such as the cliche’d behavior of the main character’s abusive father) are accented with extremely strong elements (such as how the main character reacts to and processes what happens to him whenever his father shows back up), which make it easier to overlook the show’s weaknesses. While, based on the early episodes, I would not call this a knockout hit the way I did for Bloom Into You last year, I will say that this show has (unless it fucks up later on) all but clinched the top spot for best anime this year, and from what I know of the later episodes, it will continue to improve. A real diamond in the rough of this season.

“Badass Girls”, Diversity, and the Elements of Character

So, I got in a bit of a long-winded rant on Twitter in response to a piece mocking a clearly awful video about “badass girls” that hilariously included “SCREW DIVERSITY” in the title. There were a lot of aspects to the concept of that video I find objectionable, from the obvious dogwhistling of reactionary social politics to the unnecessary and gross inclusion of “hot” in the thumbnail (as the original thread pointed out), but the thing that really got me thinking was that the video is 22 minutes long, when the method of making a “badass girl” character is so easy that I would struggle to fill a mini article with info about it, let alone 22 minutes’ worth of writing. Not only that, but I think the emphasis on what makes a character “badass” largely misses the point of why characters in that archetype are interesting. To that end, here are my extended thoughts on the subject.

So, when I say that making a female character cool is easy, I really mean it, you just need to run down a short checklist of traits that they should have. The video thumbnail in question includes Toph Beifong from Avatar, Erza Scarlet from Fairy Tail, and Yang Xiao Long from RWBY as three examples (there is a fourth in the thumbnail, but they’re halfway hidden by the others and their inclusion feels like an afterthought, also I don’t actually know who they are) of how to do “badass girl” characters, and each of them just so happens to check every box on the list in similar ways, while two of them also show how this framing is deeply flawed and largely misses the point of why these characters are interesting. So, to start, the traits that make a female character (or a male character for that matter) “cool”. First and foremost is agency. You hear this talked about a lot in discussions of character and story analysis, for good reason. Agency, that is, the ability of the character to decide the path of their own life/actions, is a crucial aspect of compelling characterization. It’s common knowledge that characters with autonomy who drive the story themselves are generally considered more compelling than those led by the nose or subservient to the autonomy of another character, and I think that recognizing this need for independence is the first and most important aspect of making a character your audience will perceive as “cool”. We see this in the examples provided, Toph sneaks off to fight for fun, joins Aang’s group of her own volition, disobeys her parents to do so, and refuses to ever be pushed around. Yang is consistently the most independent member of team RWBY, and has no qualms about taking action the moment she decides it’s the right thing. The second, almost as important aspect, is to give the character both a goal and the will to see it through. In the case of the examples provided, all three have the exact same one, they’re loyal to their friends and want to protect that aspect of their lives. But for an even better example, I would point to arguably the most driven character in anime history, Satsuki Kiryuin. Anyone who likes Kill la Kill, and even most who don’t, will acknowledge that Satsuki is a being of pure condensed awesome for eighteen episodes straight. And even after she shows moments of vulnerability and doubt late in the story, she never ever gives up on her ultimate goal of defeating Ragyo, and her unshakable drive and iron will towards that end are her two most iconic character traits. Sure, she has incredible charisma and a very dominating presence, and those certainly don’t hurt, but the biggest reason she comes off as being so cool is how strong her willpower is and how it keeps her going through impossible odds, an aspect she and many other characters in all of the team’s entire portfolio share. The third and final aspect that all “cool” characters have is the strength to back up those previous two traits when the chips are down. This doesn’t always necessarily equate to physical strength, in more psychological stories, this can often manifest as intelligence or skillful decision-making, but given that all the examples given are from fighting-oriented stories, physical power becomes a very common method of including this aspect. But however it manifests, it is there in some way or other with all “badass” characters. They don’t just have the will and autonomy to see their goals through, they have the strength/cunning to ensure that they get there. Those three aspects, autonomy, willpower, and strength, are all that’s necessary for making a character “cool”, and as long as you pull off all three competently, you’ll have a character that the audience will see as being cool. Yes, it’s really that easy. But one thing that comes from being so simplistic is that this structure is lacking on its own. You have a character driven and able to achieve their own goal, but if that’s all you have, you’ll still have a flat character. And that’s where I think the whole framing of this goes wrong, it gets “cool” mixed up with “interesting”, when the two are not synonymous, and indeed often exist independent of each other. There is some overlap between what makes a character cool and what makes a character interesting, but far too often, writers will focus too much on striving for the former and ignore the latter.

So, if making a character cool doesn’t automatically make them interesting, then the logical next question to ask is “What DOES make a character interesting?” Now, this question is a rabbit hole in and of itself, as there are many widely different ways of making interesting characters, but for the sake of keeping this article at a tolerable length, I will stick to the archetype of the “cool character” and how they’re made interesting. Broadly, there are four main aspects to making an interesting character: their psychology, their conflict, their relationships to other characters, and their progression. Their conflict is the easiest to explain, characters are made interesting by going up against obstacles that challenge something about them, be it their physical strength, their beliefs, or their emotional well-being. Tied into this is their progression, that is, the way that they change as people in response to the conflict, and the ultimate person they become as a result of their journey (that is, their character arc). These two are fairly simple on their own, but what really makes them compelling is how they tie into the other two. A character’s relationships with other characters are interesting because of how they modify every other aspect at play. Toph’s loner persona changes and melts away as she bonds with and grows to trust her friends, Satsuki learns the folly of her chosen path due to the loyalty of her four closest friends, etc. And all three of these tie into the fourth one, which is a juggernaut all its own. Essentially, the complexities of a character’s psychology and how they interact with every other aspect previously mentioned are the real secret to what makes characters interesting. And this is where the video in question really drops the ball, because in trying to make the point that characters can be cool without being diverse (which is true in a vacuum, but oftentimes is contradicted in practice), it misses the far greater point that making interesting characters often comes directly as a result of them being diverse. The video was mocked for the fact that it says “SCREW DIVERSITY”, yet one of the examples it uses is Toph, a blind character. Something really important to note about this, though, is that what makes Toph interesting is specifically that she’s blind and therefore uses her skills to overcome the aspects of her disability, enabling her to fight alongside the rest of the cast as arguably the strongest character aside from Aang himself. Her blindness also ties into her major character conflicts and much of her psychology. It caused her parents to be doting and overprotective, which created her rebellious tendencies and short temper, as well as prompted her to run away from her home, kickstarting her conflict for the rest of the season. Her complex relationship with them gets addressed frequently in the series, even up through the final season, and the moments of emotional intensity around it are some of the most powerful in the show. Ditto with Yang, albeit in a very different way. It shouldn’t be news to anyone that Yang as a character carries heavy bisexual overtones from the beginning of the show until now, but an aspect of this that I think often goes ignored is how it affects the rest of her character. This is most apparent in her affections for Blake, and the way their relationship progresses throughout the series. Almost all the most powerful scenes in RWBY are in regards to the emotions and psychology underlying this, be it Yang relating to and curtailing Blake’s obsessive search in season 2, their moment of choosing trust after the leg break in season 3, Yang nearly dying while trying to protect Blake, Blake subsequently leaving out of guilt, and Yang being hit hard by this abandonment, the way they both process this over the next 2 seasons, and how they mend that bond after they’re finally reunited and grow in their friendship/understanding (even as the romantic overtones between them get stronger and stronger), this conflict is the most deeply explored and consistently the best written in the entire series, and it deeply enriches both characters, making them extremely interesting. So, both of these characters are made interesting by the traits that make them diverse and the complexities related to it, which is the real secret to making interesting characters in this archetype. For an example of doing this wrong, I would point to Erza. While she is a fairly cool character, with a likable enough general personality, some cool powers, moments of doing cool stuff, and the best voice actress in the entire cast, she ultimately comes off as very flat, because her conflicts are very lacking in depth and largely do not relate to who she is as a person beyond the most surface level. She doesn’t have a philosophy or set of beliefs to fall back on either, the way someone like Satsuki does, so ultimately she’s just kinda there, her character is the most plain and uninteresting of the lot (which is really saying something, ha ha). What she could’ve really used most of all is something that deviates her from “the norm”, be it in terms of diversity or even just personality traits, that could’ve been used to drive conflict. This is a key aspect of character diversity that goes often ignored in wider discussions about the topic. While traits like race, sexuality, or gender identity can be completely benign traits (in the sense that they don’t affect the story beyond the fact of their own existence, e.g., the lesbian implications of Satsuki and Nonon in Kill la Kill don’t affect much beyond the way the two of them interact throughout the show), they don’t have to be, and indeed, if one were to take the additional effort of really exploring the implications of the trait and conflicts that can arise from it, it can add mountains of interesting story to a given work. Returning to RWBY one last time, there’s one more aspect of the dynamic between Yang and Blake I haven’t mentioned, which is that Blake, as a faunus (read: catgirl), is discriminated against as an underclass in a similar way to how Black, Irish, Asian, and Latinx people have historically been treated in America (and in many cases, still are). Where this introduces additional conflict is when you incorporate the fact of her relationship with Yang into that discussion. It’s possible that their society has a very different view of miscegenation than America did, but given the way the Faunus are treated, I strongly doubt it. This is an excellent source of conflict if followed through on, especially for Yang. Having your love for someone treated as wrong is a very distressing thing, and there’s a lot of potential to show off the effect it has on both Blake and Yang as they deal with the racism of wider society. Stories like this, where core aspects of characters interact with the environment around them and create conflict, as well as opportunities for development, are something almost inherent to making diverse characters, especially in stories set in the real world, and I think that’s an aspect that should get more focus, because it’s a shining example of the genuinely positive effect that diversity can have on stories.

Big thanks to The Pedantic Romantic on Twitter for tweeting out the original image that gave me the idea to write this, I’d also like to thank them for introducing me to Happy Sugar Life, since I probably wouldn’t have ever seen it otherwise, and as my piece on it from last month made pretty clear, I’m very glad that I did watch it. This article was very impromptu in response to a string of thoughts I had on the subject, I’ll try and get more regular stuff (like my Fall season impressions) out by the end of the month.

Edit: I was just made aware that the title of the original video has changed to “Diversity is Killing Badass Females”, which is honestly even worse. The change doesn’t necessarily add anything new to the discussion, because I’ve already talked a great deal about how making a character diverse can, and often does, actively contribute to making them better, but the new video title is so terrible that I felt it worthy of mention anyway.