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.

“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.

The Greatest Horror Story Ever Pt. IV (October Finale)

Last year, we wrapped up the First Night stories of Higanbana No Saku Yoru Ni. Naturally, this year we’re beginning with The Second Night. Now, the stories in The Second Night are distinctly less driven by the central theme than The First Night stories were, as the whole bullying theme shrinks into the background in a lot of stories, but a result of this is that the central themes of each individual story are allowed to branch out a lot more. And we’ll be seeing a fair bit of that in the stories we look at this year. With that in mind, let’s begin.

The first story is The Lunar Festival, which is definitely the least horror-centric story of the lot so far. It centers around Marie attending a party to celebrate the full moon and the blooming of underworld cherry trees, and primarily serves to introduce the other four Yokai who will be playing roles in later stories. There isn’t much thematic undercurrent to this one, though the ending where it’s revealed Marie wasn’t actually there yet somehow experienced everything anyway was quite unusual. Not really much to say about this story, except that it provided some much needed quiet time in between the previous story of horrific bullying and the next story of a long and grueling chase. Speaking of which…

The main story to talk about is Reaper of the Thirteenth Step, revolving around a girl named Ayako Souma as she is chased by Izanami, Reaper of the Thirteenth Step, second ranked of the school Yokai. The story behind his existence is fascinating. Every stairway in the schools has twelve steps, but sometimes, just sometimes, a human who has lost the will to live will climb up a thirteenth step, and that is the beginning of the curse. Those condemned to the curse will, upon the ending of the school day, be transported to a different dimension, where a Shinigami will chase them, and if he catches them, he will drag them to a hell resembling a giant stomach, where they are digested into horrid lumps of flesh resembling Junji Itou creations for eternity. There is only one way to escape, and that is to run, until the clock strikes twelve. On the first day, it’s only five minutes of running, on the second, it’s ten, and so on. However, Izanami has two rules. One, he will always walk, never run, to give his victims a chance to stay ahead of him, and two, he will never kill anyone until he catches them. The curse wears out after forty-nine days, and if you can outrun him for all that time, you survive. This premise alone would make for a tense and exciting story, but it doesn’t end there. Izanami only targets the losers, the people who see no point in living, as he finds their souls the most appetizing. There’s one more twist to him, that a keen eyed reader can figure out if they pay attention to the clues sprinkled throughout the story. His latest victim is Aya Souma, a girl who spends all her days in a depressed and hazy state, with a kind of philosophical nihilism that causes her to see no point in living except she doesn’t want to feel the pain in dying. If she could die peacefully, she would. One day, she hears the rumor of a Shinigami chasing people who step on the thirteenth stair and killing them, which she assumes will bring her the peaceful death she seeks. And, one day, when climbing the stairs to her class, she takes a thirteenth step, yet when she looks back, there are only twelve stairs. Perturbed, she continues on, convincing herself that she’d just miscounted, but that night, she has a dream about a girl being chased by a man in black, who catches up to her after she collapses from exhaustion, and sends her to the hell of a giant demonic-looking stomach. And, the next day, as school ends, Aya finds herself in the same position. Run, or be killed. This becomes a daily pattern, until she encounters another person cursed by it, who tells her that Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday for him are shorter than Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday, which leads to her noticing that she has shorter times as well, though on different days. The next day, he is gone, presumably having been killed by Izanami, and Aya instead encounters Higanbana, disguised as a student, who mentions that her class (the same as the disappeared boy) has PE that Saturday, which leads to Aya noticing that their PE days are the same as the ones that had shorter times for the boy. She herself has PE that day, and due to her classmates pulling a prank, they have to run laps all class, and after school, during Izanami’s chase, she notices her time is significantly shorter. This is the secret to surviving. Every bit of running you do outside the chase shortens your time in it. Having found a glimmer of hope for survival, Aya takes to this with a vengeance, running between classes, during lunch, at recess, in PE, after recovering from the chase, and so on. And by doing so, she notices that her other unhealthy habits are slowly going away. For his part, Izanami does his best to taunt her, throwing her old lines of thinking back at her and trying to make her give up. He even offers her a chance at peacefully ceasing to exist like she had previously wanted, and she turns him down. By fighting for her life, she has found her reason to live. This is the moment where she begins to realize the truth. “If you have time to ponder such worthless questions, there are a thousand better things you could be doing. Running, speaking to friends, enjoying good food, and so on. You become so wrapped up asking why you’re alive that you forget to really live.” Finally, day 49 comes, the day of the school marathon, and for the first time, Izanami decides to run, alongside Aya. This is their final chase. If she reaches the finish line before he reaches her, she wins. In her bid to stay ahead of him, she ends up passing everyone and winning the marathon herself. At this point, she’s helped up by Izanami, who reveals the final twist. If you’ve been paying attention, it’s been pretty clear what he is. His whole thing has been motivating people who had nothing else by convincing them to find meaning in life through running, under grave threat. He is the school gym teacher. Aya has passed his curse, and now she has things of her own to live for. No longer will she waste her life away pondering questions with no answer, she has to actually live her life by experiencing it. This is the message of the story, and its delivered in a uniquely compelling way. Aya takes to running in her spare time so that she can avoid the painful hell of that eternal stomach, and due to her exhaustion from it, she gains a voracious appetite where she’d previously had none, she begins sleeping properly when the previously couldn’t, and as a result, she is no longer sleeping in class or pecking at her lunch, she has come alive and is seeing the world for what it really is, finding meaning in life through that. It is only when staring down death himself that she learns to live. And it is through her experience that we all learn the same lesson. That our reason to live is found in our everyday moments, whatever they may be. Enjoyment of good food, exercise, time spent with friends and loved ones, we live to experience the little things. Many of us, myself included, had to learn this lesson the hard way (though not as hard as Aya did), and it is among the most life changing lessons one can learn. For that reason, above all else, this story stands head and shoulders above most of the others.

As I did with the First Night, I will begin with covering two stories one year, then three stories the next two years. That brings us to the end of this year’s reading from Higanbana, next year promises to be excellent as well.

Happy Sugar Life: Love is Scary (October Special #2)

One of the shows I missed out on last summer that I really should’ve seen/talked about was Happy Sugar Life, because it definitely would’ve gotten a spot on my best of year list. Good horror is sadly uncommon in anime, but every once in a while, you get one of those shows, the ones that get the pacing, the story, and the characters down perfectly, and create a surprisingly chilling experience. Happy Sugar Life is absolutely one of those shows. Its core premise and story lend themselves very well to the field of animation, because the extremely personal and psychologically-themed story of Happy Sugar Life allows for a better focus on drama, something anime excels at when done by competent staff, and it uses that drama to create tension and fear. This is prominently done in two ways. First, there’s the classic horror trope of everyone being some variety of insane, which the series does an excellent job of capitalizing on, and second, the series is in full recognition of how fucked up some of the tropes core to its story are. The most conspicuous thing in this category is how every character’s relationship with Shio is depicted. The series is fully conscious that Shio, in spite of the emotional maturity she shows at times, is still an 8 year old, and this remains relevant in how everyone else’s relationships with her are depicted. Though Satou’s affection for her is never implied to be sexual, it is still the case that a high schooler kidnapped an 8 year old, and Satou isn’t shy about taking advantage of Shio’s naivete and openly manipulating her in order to keep her from being found. And crazily enough, that is the LEAST fucked up situation of the three major ones. The second one is Mitsuboshi, who is also by far the grossest, since he’s just flatly a pedophile and is easily the most implicitly sexual of the three. This is also the least developed of the three, since Mitsuboshi only meets Shio once before the finale. He’s got a little more to the pedophilia thing than you might expect, as it actually arises from trauma resultant from the events of the beginning of the story, but it’s still flat once it gets past that point. And the third is her brother Asahi, who on paper seems like the logical choice for her to side with, but the more you learn, the less that seems to be the case, especially with how unstable their mother is. This story thread also sees the most interesting conclusion, with Shio deciding for herself not to return with Asahi and to find out for herself what Satou’s final act meant. This is a really interesting way to end that story, but it feels almost like a misstep, because it’s a moment where Shio, an 8 year old, is given the agency and thinking capabilities of an adult. Something like this had happened earlier in the episode, but there it was her choosing not to return to the mother who abandoned her after being tormented with visions of that event throughout the entire story, so it’s understandable why she’d choose Satou over Asahi at that moment, but a decision like this feels like the story ascribing more agency to her than any 8 year old should have. Aside from that misstep, the series demonstrates a lot more self awareness than most about how fucked up it is that all these invisible expectations are being placed on an 8 year old, and that people take advantage of her innocence so regularly for their own ends. There’s a third aspect to what makes this series so disturbing, which is how it serves as a character study for Satou, Shio, and the relationship between them. Satou’s psychopathy is explored in depth, not only in its origin from her aunt’s abuse and how it manifests in the form of her internal monologue, but also how it affects her behavior. Before she met Shio, Satou was the type who slept around regularly and went through a long string of boyfriends, which is heavily implied to be her searching for a way to fill her internal void, hence why she immediately stops after meeting Shio. On Shio’s end, her devotion to Satou is entirely understandable, bearing in mind her age and the fact that Satou is the only person in her life who hasn’t abandoned or openly mistreated her. Not only that, but when Satou takes missteps in trying to manipulate Shio, Shio always reacts to it with the closest thing I’ve seen to understandable child logic, which ultimately only makes Satou’s manipulation more effective. For her part, what makes Satou so disturbing is how the series uses the tools of making sympathetic characters to make her understandable, which is terrifying because, as extreme as her actions are, the logic behind them is clear and, in its own twisted way, sound. She is terrifying because her path to the actions she commits is entirely understandable, which raises uncomfortable questions in the mind of the audience. Many of her actions are dark reflections of things a reasonable person would do, especially early on. It was the right thing to do to take Shio in, though she obviously should’ve called the police instead of kidnapping her. It was the right thing to do to kill the artist to protect Shio, though she obviously shouldn’t have hidden the corpse. It was the right thing to do to expose her manager, though she shouldn’t have bothered with blackmail and should’ve just gone to the police, and so on and so forth. For the first half of the series, most of what Satou does is “the right thing, but”. However, with each of those actions, there is progressively less and less “right” to them, and far more in the “but” category. Around halfway through the series, the former category is gone entirely and everything she does is just flatly wrong, but the seeds of her previous train of logic remain, so you almost start to believe that her actions might be sensible in her situation. And that, above all, is what makes Happy Sugar Life so unsettling.

Mini Episode: Realism and Surrealism in Horror (October Special #1)

So, there’s a bit of a divide in horror between stories with more realism where the horror is how close to life they feel, and stories that completely depart from realism and derive their horror from how bizarre things can get. Most horror stories in textual form fall into the former category, for obvious reasons, because surrealism is difficult in text at the best of times, let alone surrealism so vivid it becomes scary. The origins of the literary horror genre, from Poe to Lovecraft, are largely built on injecting slight amounts of surrealism into otherwise realistic settings. The Raven is so unsettling because it’s believable, the only thing that happens is a man being taunted by hearing one single word over and over again, projecting his own grief and instability onto a bird. Lovecraft has a reputation as a purveyor of the bizarre, but the actual structure of his stories is that of occurrences that largely follow understandable logic and the bizarreness of his storylines is mostly in the forms of weird things existing in that world, rather than the actual story itself being bizarre. Someone like Junji Itou follows this general format, albeit with a very different and more surrealist style. Itou’s stories are almost entirely about ordinary people stuck in the middle of bizarre things happening, perhaps most distinctly Gyo, which takes place in a real location (Okinawa), but focuses on incredibly strange events (namely, an invasion of fish with metal legs), and follows a pretty conventional story from there on. Probably the biggest departure from this is Uzumaki, a series of vignettes that each show off the bizarre theming of spirals in a mysterious town and how all of this affects the life of the main character, who’s always around when weird stuff happens. This contrasts heavily with a very similar manga author, Shintaro Kago, whose storylines are much much more… well, surreal. A lot less makes sense about them, but a lot of that is where the horror comes from. What makes Kago a great horror artist on par with Itou is that his stories are as bizarre as his artwork, and while that makes them less creepily relatable, it makes them scary in a new way due to their strangeness.

Will They, Won’t They Just Kill Me Already? (February Special 2019)

So, Romance shows tend to drag their feet a lot. That’s hardly a new observation, indeed it’s a common joke, especially among anime fans, due to the particularly egregious nature of it in anime. This sort of thing has a name, and it’s “Will They, Won’t They”. Over its 30-year history in mainstream anime, it’s become a shockingly universal part of the romance genre, it’s even more “fucking everywhere” than even the other universal tropes the community mentions. Why is it so criticized? Why is it so popular? And what would my preferred take on it be? All good questions, and all I will answer.

First off, why is this formula so popular? Well, to answer that, it might be helpful to look at its mainstream debut. Though incarnations of it existed in some form before then, the trope hit the mainstream with Rumiko Takahashi and Ranma 1/2. In this context, the formula makes some sort of sense, Ranma was a serialized manga, and the “will they or won’t they” question keeps fans engaged, thereby still reading new chapters and keeping the manga afloat. Weekly anime have a similar motivation, keeping the question going and continuously baiting the viewers keeps them watching week by week, which obviously is what any show wants. Ignoring every other piece of context for a moment, it’s clear why this is an attractive formula, it is highly effective when divorced from the other variables that affect the audience’s interest. And, for the first few years, it seemed to work pretty well. However, that’s not to say that the formula does not have its own problems. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is a horribly flawed formula that was on a very short lifespan once it hit mainstream popularity.

The appeal of this formula is fairly clear in and of itself, but the big flaws of it are a little more difficult to explain. The simplest of the lot is that it absolutely kills the pacing, because progress in this part of the narrative flat out does not happen for who knows how long. There are cases which can get away with this, Clannad being a favorite of mine (we’ll get to that later), but the vast majority of shows which include this formula refuse to deviate it up until the very end, meaning exactly one step of progress gets made over the entire run, and by that point, the pacing of it is so bad and the plot is so unresolved that it just becomes unsatisfying. To be clear, two people getting together is not a resolution for the conflict, it is the beginning of an arc, and while there is plenty of room to bend those rules, putting a setup plot point at the end is one of those things that you just don’t do. It also means that, to keep the audience invested in the possibly-going-to-eventually-be-a-relationship, the writers need to keep teasing it nonstop. And if you keep teasing your audience like that for so long and consistently don’t make any progress on following through with it, they will start to get annoyed. People don’t tend to like nonstop teasing with no signs of actual progress. This feeds into something even the most unobservant fans notice, the contrivances. If you want to include all this teasing but also stop progress from happening without it feeling overly nonsensical, you’ll need to start contriving excuses in order to keep these two ordinarily incompatible factors existing alongside each other. I haven’t named the most common one yet, but I’m sure every one of you knows exactly what I’m talking about: misunderstandings. Dear god, misunderstandings. While one or two well-written misunderstandings can be charming on their own, when they keep happening over and over again, it just becomes more and more annoying. What’s worse, given that any writer will tell you that using the same event over and over gets repetitive, this creates the demand for the misunderstandings to become more and more absurd in order to perpetuate the delays. I can think of no better example of this than Kimi ni Todoke, specifically the insane delay tactics present throughout the second season. The most interesting premise for a dilatory tactic was when another guy showed up with an interest in Sawako, at least that could bring out some good drama in concept (in practice… meh). But that wasn’t nearly the extent of their delays, not even close. Even the first time they both confess to each other is in service of this need for perpetual delay, with both of them somehow fucking up their confession attempts so much that they manage to convince the other that they’re actually rejecting them. It’s so absolutely incomprehensible and obviously contrived to keep the story from progressing that it received a colossal backlash, and it thoroughly earned it. This kind of plot is continuously frustrating because of how transparent it is, alongside how much it’s clearly just trying to manipulate the audience, and people are very good at catching on. Finally, we come to a point I touched on earlier, the fact that getting together is what I called a “setup plot point”. If you were to categorize different plot points into their role in a story, “relationship starts” would go in the “early parts” nine times out of ten, and in “around the middle” the tenth time. The reason for this is because “relationship starts” is not in and of itself any sort of payoff, it is a setup for a plotline of its own. It’s a starting point, or at the very least setting up a new paradigm for the story to follow up on. Using it an an ending is unsatisfying because romance plots are about relationships, but there isn’t actually a relationship, there’s only the buildup to one. Ultimately I find this the biggest nail in the coffin of this formula, it’s just stringing people along with no satisfying conclusion.

All of that said, there are cases of this formula being done well. Namely, Clannad (the anime, the novel is not this at all), which put a new spin on it. The opening scene thoroughly sets up the pairing between Tomoya and Nagisa, and then it doesn’t really go addressed for a while, as the two spend most of their time helping other characters with their own arcs rather than putting any focus on their own. This is in large part a consequence of how the show was adapted, these other parts are actually different routes the player can choose in the novel, but the show decided to adapt the majority of all the different routes into one cohesive story, so as a result they relegate the story between Tomoya and Nagisa to the background in the arcs where others are in focus, except for Fuko’s arc, which puts it front and center. This works for a few reasons. One, while Nagisa is not in focus for these arcs, she is always there, and it gives her time to develop as a character by showing how she interacts with the others and how she feels about things that happen. Two, it is exceedingly clear that the other dilemmas are the focus, and they take up so much of that focus that there is almost no “will they/won’t they” teasing. Three, most of the other arcs build towards it in one way or another. The key event in the first season is the drama club’s performance, something that is established very early on to be extremely important to Nagisa, and it’s further established that Tomoya is helping many of the others primarily to get their help with putting on the play because it matters so much to Nagisa, who he’s focused on helping. Fourth, and most importantly, the show does not end with the two getting together. The show follows it up with After Story, which actually does tell the rest of the romance arc, thereby leaving the “getting together” scene as the shift into a new arc that it’s meant to be. However, that isn’t to say it does this flawlessly, even it makes a few mistakes at times. There’s one scene where Tomoya and Nagisa embrace in the courtyard, until Kyou interrupts them. This scene really bothered me, because it was the scene where they originally confessed in the novel and the obvious contrivance of the interruption is clearly just to delay the confession scene until later in the story. As a result, a few of the other best scenes in the novel are changed into less compelling forms, which I just found horribly disappointing. So, overall, Clannad handled this pretty well. Umineko also had an interesting spin on it with the characters of Jessica and Kanon. What made this work so well was that the two of them were very open early on that they wanted to be together, but Kanon felt they couldn’t because he is “furniture” and she isn’t. In other words, the story establishes that they want to be together but can’t because one of them has personal issues that got in the way of them getting together, so the question becomes if they can work through those issues or not, on top of all the other weird shit that Umineko’s premise adds into the mix. The lesson to take from these seems to be that this formula works best when combined with 1.) one or both characters having personal issues to work through directly relating to the conflict that builds up to the relationship, and/or 2.) shifting focus elsewhere while including development for both characters on the side via the new scenarios they encounter.

So, up until now, I’ve been talking exclusively about other works that use the trope, but now I should answer the third question, how would I use this formula? Well, the answer is that I wouldn’t make it a traditional romance. What I would do is basically the opposite, a hardcore drama about two really toxic people in a harsh relationship who perhaps know deep down that they really shouldn’t be in this relationship, but aren’t consciously aware of it, so the tension is whether or not they’ll realize it and break it off. That’s a very very unconventional take on it, but I genuinely dislike the trope as a writer and therefore am inclined not to use it in its normal form. The reason for that is the same reason I never really got why so many people I talked to seemed to just think this is how things are done, or even unintentionally adopted aspects of it, such as ending their stories with the main characters getting together. Not only do I like the romance genre as a whole, but I especially like writing relationships, and I always found it frustrating when writers I was working with didn’t want to go that far because they were stuck in delay mode. So avoiding this trope always came naturally to me because I was never interested in it. Hence why I’ve been so much more critical towards it than defensive. I don’t consider it a worthwhile formula in most cases and would certainly never use it in the normal way.

Before I wrap up, I’d like to quickly touch on one defense of this trope that really bothers me, which is when people confuse it with the “slow burn” romance. These two are not the same thing, they are in fact very different. A slow burn is when the progression up to the arc starting takes a while, but that is largely taken up by the characters getting used to each other, learning more about each other, helping each other out, and eventually falling in love. Whereas, a will they/won’t they is usually where the characters are already in love but delay actually progressing it in any meaningful way. To put it another way, Clannad the novel is a slow burn, the last few episodes of Clannad the anime are a will they/won’t they. Unsurprisingly, I vastly prefer the former, especially because slow burns don’t generally end with the main characters getting together, and actually include the romantic arc. It’s a huge difference, and one I get extremely annoyed by the ignorance of. Just needed to clarify that quickly.

V for Vendetta, 30 Years Later Part IV: Valerie

So, I have said, in every part so far, something that either references or directly mentions the scene of reading the letter written on toilet paper during the imprisonment section. And every time, I have said to keep it in mind, as I would cover it later. Well, it’s time to talk about that scene. When Eve is under arrest and thrown in her cell, she finds a letter written on toiler paper crammed into a mouse hole in the wall. Written in this letter is the life story of one woman, Valerie. After the ruse is revealed, V explains that Valerie was indeed real, and the letter was the same one he himself had read in the cells of Larkhill five years before. She was the woman in Room 4. The first half of Valerie’ds story touches on a lot of major issues faced by the LGBT community, beginning with her years in grade school and her first girlfriend “growing out of the phase”, a sad but common occurrence, then moving up through her acceptance of who she is, being rejected by her family, finding a life on her own, falling in love, and all the things that come with that. Up to this point, her experiences are, if not directly relatable, at least the sort of thing that can be easily understood by the average reader, enough to create a sort of empathy for Valerie and blunt the edge of fictional detachment. It’s at this point that the story moves into her experience with the war, the Norsefire taking over, her wife getting captured and tortured into betraying her, her arrest, and experience in the camp. The value in this story is primarily in its service to the book’s commentary on fascism. Up until this point, the things we the audience saw about Larkhill were entirely from the perspective of the Norsefire members, specifically Prothero and Surridge, and as such couldn’t fully convey the horror of it. Then, with the introduction of Valerie, the book presents the same events from the opposite perspective, and because the previous two accounts pulled no punches on how horrific the treatment of prisoners was at Larkhill, Valerie serves as the bridge connecting the audience to all those horrible things, due to the first half of her story building that sense of understanding and connection to her as a character, the parts that describe and/or imply the horrible things done to her in the camp hit all the harder because the reader (ideally) has built up enough empathy for her as a character that they can even begin to imagine the horrible things she describes in much more vivid ways. This is built on further when Finch, the closest thing to an impartial observer the book has, visits Larkhill himself, and that experience for the reader further colors their perception of his observations. In so far as what her story does directly in the narrative, being the lynch pin in V becoming who he is, and Eve following his footsteps, her story is the perfect catalyst, even as far as V is concerned, the suffering and misery endured by a woman who died mere feet from him yet he never got the chance to speak to serves as the most understandable reason his mind broke and reformed into what he became, especially combined with the mind-altering effects of Batch 5. As for Eve, someone who has only vicariously known of any of the horrors of the Norsefire until that point, and then suddenly finding herself in similar conditions, Valerie’s note serves as the fullest possible “eye opening” device, the thing that snaps Eve into fully understanding exactly how horrible the Norsefire are capable of being, and setting in motion the chain of personality changes that lead to her final decisions in the book. All of this from one small scene comprising only one chapter, and a few short mentions afterwards. It’s things like this that make V For Vendetta as great as it is.

Well, there’s ONE more thing, but we’ll need to wait until the next installment for that one.

The Art of the Monster (October Special #1)

So, it is not exactly a controversial statement to say that Horror as a genre is extremely reliant on what we could call a “monster” for the central conflict, be it an explicitly inhuman creature or a human who has been given distinctly inhuman traits. And it is also not controversial to suggest that most Horror (at least by volume) is fucking terrible at it. So, why is this, and what are the factors in those instances where it is done well? This is what I seek to answer today.

The aspects of an effective monster are, in ascending order of importance, what it is/how it looks, how it moves, how often and how much it’s used, and the symbolism of it. First off on this list are what it is and how it looks, two sides of the same coin. Ultimately, this doesn’t count for much. You could have the most ridiculous looking monster available within your means, and it can still be amazing if you use it correctly. The xenomorph was just a cheap rubber suit, Sadako was just a girl with a little makeup, and so on, yet they worked because they were used well. In fact, a lot of the best horror properties look slightly shit, because they are fully conscious of those limitations and have no choice but to be more creative in order to work within the means they have available.

Next up is how it moves. This is a lot more specific, explicitly referring to monsters which are not directly moved by humans, ie, nobody in suits, or makeup, or what have you. In other words, monsters you animate the movement of. And it kind of applies to monsters controlled by humans, but not quite so much. As a baseline, monsters which move less like humans normally would come off as more unnerving as a result. Take, for example, stop motion vs CGI for animation. It is (or should be) no surprise that one of my favorite movies of the genre is Coraline. Directed by Henry Selick and based on a book by Neil Gaiman? Absolute dream match. Anyway, Selick really outdoes himself when the Other Mother becomes a more horrifying monster in appearance and movement, her movements have distinctly artificial and inhuman character to them, much more so than most of the other characters. While I cannot 100% prove this is deliberate, I mean, come on. It’s not like his craft would slip a notch at the most important part of the movie, at least for the animation. So yeah, the way the Other Mother moves in her more monstrous forms is unnerving in how inhuman it is, because we are, to greater or lesser extent, hardwired to identify with our own and treat things that aren’t as potential threats. In this case, since this thing is an actual threat, the best way to reinforce it is to put emphasis on this visually, both in how it looks and how it moves. It’s much harder to notice the second, but it ultimately has the greater effect.

Next is an interesting one, which is how often its used and how much of it you get at a time. And for an extra challenge, I will explain this without using Jaws as an example. So, there are two aspects to this. First is the most obvious, how much screen time is given to this monster? To quote HP Lovecraft, “…the oldest and deepest fear is fear of the unknown.” Now, this rule is not universal, the aforementioned Coraline had a lot of exposure to the main antagonist, but the catch there is that she was disguised with a more human form and more friendly persona for most of the story. The mystery that comes with little exposure to a monster is an excellent source of fear, even if writers (especially Lovecraft himself) can have a tendency to overdo it. Put it this way, to quote Clive Barker, “There’s only so many occasions in a book when the author can tell me that the monster was so terrible he doesn’t have words to describe it before I become irritated.” It’s all about striking that balance between what you do and don’t show in order to create something truly terrifying. This principle also applies to how much you show of the monster in the time it’s given. Or, to put it another way, what does it do with that time, how much of it do you see in a scene of it, and how does that execution affect the monster’s “scariness” factor overall? There’s a deleted scene in the original Alien where the xenomorph crawls out and stands up to its full height before attacking someone. Now, this was not only deleted from the theater cut, but even the director’s cut doesn’t have it. Admittedly, this is explained by Ridley Scott as being because if you actually saw the whole alien, it would be so obvious that it was just a guy in a kind of dumb looking rubber suit, but it doesn’t erase the genius of the move in general. Because you see so little of it at a time, it maintains enough mystery to always be intimidating because you don’t know what else it’s capable of. This principle applies very well to horror as a whole, unpredictable will always be scarier than the alternative.

Speaking of Alien, this brings us to the final and most important category: the symbolism. And this is by far the most fascinating, at least for me. As confirmed by film writer Dan O’Bannon, a lot of aspects of the alien are deliberate allegory for some pretty uncomfortable concepts, at least in so far as empathizing with them goes. The Face Hugger is the most overt in this regard, with its method of laying eggs in the victim’s throat being a deliberate evocation of the imagery and trappings of oral rape. Similarly, the Chest Burster is an evocation of childbirth, albeit with a deliberate phallic nature to its design. And then we come to the death of Lambert, which has a few disturbingly suggestive aspects of its own, with Scott saying in a later interview that the implication was meant to be something “really hideous” happening to her off screen. Combine that with how the last few shots of her are framed, with the tail of the alien flicking at an uncomfortable angle between her legs, and the rape symbolism implies something of a much more literal sort. (A much more detailed analysis of this theme can be found here.) And this was, to quote O’Bannon again, a way of “making the male audience squirm”, in this case by having them witness situations allegorical for things that tend to be both unfamiliar and deeply horrifying to think about for most men, and the brief feeling of empathy it creates is extremely disturbing. This use of symbolism, coding, and allegory is absolutely brilliant, and I wish more examples of horror media were willing to do stuff like this. Reality has many things that are fucking horrifying, and a lot of the greatest horror is that which evokes those things in some way or another. For another, totally different example, let’s look at the mystery/horror that is Legend of the Golden Witch. Yeah, that’s right, I managed to find a way to gush about Umineko here too! So, in the first book, the character of Beatrice is not seen in person until the very end, but her presence is constantly felt, as if she were constantly looming over everyone at every moment. The most we see of her is indirect signs, such as the golden butterflies when Kanon makes his last stand, or the vague hints of her presence when Natsuhi challenges her near the end. But that in itself is the symbolism of her presence, as implied in later books. Beatrice the witch from a symbolic perspective is a symbol for the unknown, the gaps people fill in between the blanks when they cannot explain everything about a given scenario, as well as when they’re led to believe something to be true. In essence, she is the embodiment of superstition given physical form. And it works so well that Battler, ever the grounded voice who never once entertained the notion of Beatrice being real, is thus utterly taken aback when she appears before him. In a way, it is as if his fear itself has gained physical form, and seeing this thing he denied for so long appear in front of him is an incredibly shocking moment. The symbolism is, instead of drawing on real world horror, using the audience expectations and questions about the story itself to make a symbolic point about its own narrative, something it would continue to do in all the other parts.

These elements are key to effective use of a monster, and the use of them is sadly rare among most horror stories. And their scarcity means that I am rather lacking in horror stories that genuinely interest me, at least for those which are based around some sort of monster. I’m always on the lookout for more good ones, though sadly I may be starting to exhaust the list.

V for Vendetta, 30 Years Later Part III: Volk

So, the closest thing V for Vendetta has to an audience surrogate, and indeed, a morally upright character (at least early on) is Evey. She is not psychologically broken like V, her character flaw is cowardice/naivety rather than being insane, she isn’t a fascist, or an anarchist, she’s just an ordinary person. This is subject to change as the story goes on, and all the horrible events she lives through warp her into a mirror of everyone else, as shown by the end where she literally becomes V. Put a pin in that, we’ll come back to that later. So, Evey is the closest thing the book has to the likely mentality and life experiences of the audience, and therefore serves as the voice of ordinary people, at least early on. Even so, she has also been victimized by the war, disasters, and the Norsefire, just as everyone has in this world. Her mother died of disease, her father was hauled off to a concentration camp, and she was forced to work in a match factory. While this has clearly has a profound effect on her, as will be explored later in the story, at the onset, she is very much dealing with it. Her life is, while at least partially shaped by her upbringing, still comparatively stable, at least as far as people in this story go. Put a pin in that, it will be important later. Anyway, she is as close to a completely normal person early on as we’re going to get. Then she meets V, and everything starts to change. Early on, Evey is complacent with most things that happen around her. Witnessing V blowing up Parliament elicits no strong reaction from her aside from asking V if he’s concerned about the law coming after him. The actual event has little if any effect on her, by the looks of it. She isn’t happy about a symbol of the government’s power being destroyed, sad about the loss of a national monument, angry at this blatant breach of authority, or anything like that. As the audience surrogate, she is complacent. This ties into a major theme of the early part of V for Vendetta, which is that the general public has gotten complacent with all the bad things being done to them, this is primarily established during the TV break-in. This ties back to the English public’s complacency with Thatcherism, at least at the time, so far as Moore viewed it, and as such frames the rest of her changes as changes Moore saw the public as going through when put into the circumstances he made allegories for. So, the first moment her complacency is shattered is when V targets Bishop Lilliman. Evey is sent in dressed as a loli, no, seriously, and the bishop’s attempt to rape her is one of the first major things that forces her to confront this struggle. After his death at the hands of V, she gives her position on it, which is that she does not want to be complicit in murder, because killing is wrong. His reaction suggests that he views her as naive, which is certainly true, but maybe not in all the ways he is thinking. She later decides that her previous outburst was an attempt at dodging blame, and though she apologizes for it, she maintains that she does not want to be involved in killing anyone else. The next major defining moment is when she asks V about her own suspicion that he is her father, and he in response forces her out into the street, alone. Skipping past the TV studio scene where the thesis on complacency is delivered, the most we can talk about there is that Evey’s complacency is suggested as being representative of the public as a whole ultimately being complacent in allowing harmful systems to dominate them, which, y’know, kinda speaks for itself. So, the next time we see Evey after that is when she has moved in with a low-ranking street thug by the name of Gordon Dietrich. The important thing to note is that Evey has decided to put her time with V out of mind, and as a result has reverted back to her old self. This, of course, does not last long, as Gordon is soon murdered and Evey is forced once again into a situation that shatters her entire world, except this time, she decides to do something about it, taking a gun from his cabinet and setting out for revenge. The result of this is her getting kidnapped, ostensibly, by the Finger, and put into a blacksite prison. We then get a very bizarre nightmare sequence suggesting bizarre and complicated feelings towards her father, who she has wrapped up with her two father figures, V and Gordon, resulting in an unintentional Electra complex by association, then moves through her lingering memories of being molested by Lilliman, her feelings towards V and his murders, her resultant terror of him, and eventually a hint towards who really kidnapped her. It should also be noted that everyone who appears in the dream is either somebody she’s met, or someone important to the story. V, Rose, Lilliman’s aide, Dascombe, Surridge, Creedy, the Fingerman from the first chapter, and a few that I will aadmit I don’t recognize. And now, we come to the catalyst for her change of heart, the prison sequence. This happens in two forms, one being things that directly happen to her, and the other being a story told to her from a letter. We’ll talk more about the latter next time, but for now, I will say this: both of these are meant to make her understand the true horrors of being in a concentration camp, one by having her live some aspects of it, and the other by forcing empathy for someone who lived the real thing, by letting Evey project the horror she’s living through onto aspects of the letter, knowing all the while that the full thing would’ve been so much worse. We will be focusing on the direct effects of her physical torment though. She is put through torture over and over for weeks, until eventually she is given a choice. Sign a confession and live, or refuse and be killed. She refuses. It is then revealed that this was all a trick by V, who did everything himself, in order to “set her free” of her complacency and convert her to his way of thinking by showing her what the system was capable of. However, this is also where another implication becomes clear. Evey’s change comes in the form of her having a complete breakdown and apparently seeing things for a more true outlook. However, this only shows that V has effectively broken and twisted her to be more like him, without her consent, and effectively forced her into becoming as damaged as he is. As I’ve said before and will doubtless say again, V is not a good or admirable character, and this is the best moment to prove it. Over the course of the story, only 2 people come to truly understand V, and both from undergoing representations of the same thing that broke him, and it is implied that both are similarly damaged by the experience. Thus, he, and the ideology he represents, are further portrayed as the result of a pendulum swing into the absolute extreme as a result of experiencing the worst of fascism firsthand. In this, the book is not portraying anarchism as the correct option, it is portraying it as the extreme belief caused by the belief that going to the other end will correct the problem, and we’ll fucking get to that. But for now, back to the story of Evey, or Eve, as V now calls her. The next scene with her is when he gives her the choice whether or not to pick a rose he offers, with full knowledge that if she picks it, he will kill Harper for her and avenge her dead lover. She ultimately refuses, but in a way that shows her growth as a person. Instead of refusing because of a dogged belief that killing is always wrong regardless of context, she does so to symbolize that she has abandoned revenge and will instead focus on larger things than petty vengeance. For most of the rest of the book, her character is fairly consistent, and she still isn’t fully on board with V’s way of thinking, even questioning his ideology when he institutes anarchy for a week and Britain dissolves into chaos. However, then her character morphs one more time, as one last event shapes her final transformation: the death of V at the hands of Finch. Having lost her final father figure, she is left alone once more, to ponder the meaning of his final requests, specifically, that she must discover whose face lies behind his mask, but must never know his face. After thinking on it for a while, she realizes: that face he referred to was the idea he represented, that the persona of V could belong to anyone, and that he wished for her to carry on his legacy. So she does, becoming the next V, destroying Downing Street, and taking an apprentice of her own. This is the end of her story, and the future of her, and all of England, is left uncertain.

So, this metamorphosis from audience surrogate to V has several angles it can be viewed from. First, as the idea that anyone can become what V ultimately was if placed in the right circumstances. This is a very similar idea to The Joker’s central thesis in The Killing Joke, that all it takes is one bad day for anyone to become as crazy as him. While The Killing Joke ultimately rejected this thesis, at least so far as the text itself goes, V for Vendetta treats it as true, which is a very interesting take on it. This idea, or one very similar to it, also appeared in Watchmen, where Rorschach tells his therapist that his current state is a natural result of having stared into the abyss of human depravity. The important thing to remember in this theme carrying over is that neither The Joker nor Rorschach were “good” people. They were broken by their pasts, yes, but that pushed them into becoming something extremely dark and twisted, and that is no less the case here. The only difference is that the enemy V is fighting is every bit as bad as his new form is. He is a dark reflection of the “freedom fighter”, the revolutionary who fights for an ideology that will ultimately do similar damage to the one he opposes, albeit not quite to the same abhorrent degree. And this rubs off on Eve, she ultimately succumbs to his ideology and becomes exactly like him. The counterpart to reject the idea that this could happen to anyone is Finch, who ultimately does not change his ways into agreeing with them. Next, is the idea that it is a warped form of growing up. This one is fairly simple. V treats her as a child at the beginning, the heavily relies on parental figures throughout the early parts of the story, and then as she gets twisted into being more like him, he starts giving her more and more agency, and when her reliance on him is finally severed for good, she takes off on her own, relying on herself and taking up a new trainee in a metaphor for adulthood. Finally, and most darkly, is where we talk about her psyche. Remember when I said she was stable around the start of the book? It’s time to take that pin out. So, while Evey clearly hadn’t worked through her issues revolving her parents being taken away at an early age, she had at least gotten a lid on them and was not governed by them. However, then she met V, who would, over the course of the story, dredge up her issues, force her through a really traumatic series of events, and morph her into who she became by the end as a result. This is, to say the least, extremely dark. Taking, by all accounts, an innocent bystander and forcing them to live through an almost indescribable nightmare in order to shift their worldview as a result? That is some seriously disturbed shit, especially with the implication that Eve by the end is largely a result of the traumatic experiences he forces her through. She, by the end, has dealt with her parental issues, those are thoroughly resolved, but V replaced them with something much darker. We didn’t get enough screen time with Eve at the end to really see how this ordeal has affected her, but I think  it would be fairly obvious that this kind of experience and the damage it would cause would eventually take a huge toll on her. Sadly I cannot comment on it much further, as I am not actually too experienced in this field. Still, those are the three lenses through which I viewed the changes from Evey to Eve over the course of the story, and hopefully at least someone will find another one to examine her from.

V for Vendetta, 30 Years Later: Part II, Values

As I stated last time, there are no necessarily good people in V for Vendetta. Even the most morally upright people are still some degree of fucked. Last month, we talked about the Norsefire regime, one half of the central conflict. Before we start unpacking everything else, it would be wisest to actually delve into what that conflict is. On the one side, we have the Norsefire, an extremely brutal fascist regime, and on the other side, we have V, an anarchist terrorist. An important distinction to make is that, practically speaking, neither of them are right. Both of their ideologies are horribly flawed to the point of being utterly non-functional at best and completely horrific at worst. It’s not really clear how intentional this is, but a lot of this article is gonna be a little less about V for Vendetta and touch a lot more on the faults of both ideologies, as a sort of Extremist Politics 101 course using this book as a lens.

First off, Fascism, specifically the Nazi form of fascism that includes the genocide thing. Before we get to the mass murder part, we first must discuss the nature and failings of ordinary fascism. Fascism is most commonly characterized as a hyper-nationalist ideology distinguished by its focus on service to the country above all else, almost fetishistic reverence for the state, more specifically, the leader and sometimes the military, xenophobia, intolerance of criticism and political dissent, theatrical presentation, and authoritarian philosophy. This on its own is not, at least in theory, that bad. Aside from the intolerance for dissent and xenophobia, it is not too difficult to see ways to improve this kind of statist theory and create a generally functional and decent country. Of course, in practice, it makes for an almost uniquely horrific ideology, notorious for its brutality and outright inhumanity, and also for its tendency to disguise itself as other ideologies as a dog whistle. Back in the early 20th century, the two major examples of dog whistling in this regard were the twin horrors of Nazism and Stalinism (yes, despite calling themselves communists, the USSR was much closer to a fascist police state under Stalin). And V for Vendetta pulls no punches on this, it shows all the horrors of fascism clearly and makes no excuses, as addressed last time. And it’s here that we have to address the genocidal angle. So, a central piece in Nazism is the idea of a “master race”, the false belief that certain ethnic groups are genetically inferior and that there was once a sort of genetically perfect race, known as Aryans, that Hitler strove to recreate. He did this through eugenics, the theory of ethnicity based genetic engineering, and genocide of those who did not fit his vision. And not just ethnic minorities like the Jews and the Romani, but political dissidents, gay people, antisocials, everyone who they didn’t consider part of their superior race. V for Vendetta kind of carries this over, but is even less veiled. Susan initiates genocide not because he has some eugenics based goal, but because he is deeply religious (and delusional), and his dogmatic beliefs lead to hatred of ethnic minorities and gay people. I should not have to explain why this is so close to… well, evil. Frankly, this aspect of fascism, no matter the “justification”, is the single most indefensible piece of political philosophy in human history and thoroughly cements fascism as the very bottom of the barrel. Now, I realize it may seem redundant to explain why fascism is bad, anyone who doesn’t know it already is likely to be one themselves, but understanding exactly how to pick it apart is a valuable skill in dealing with those who support it.

Now, for the flip side. The polar opposite of authoritarian fascism, and the second half of the central conflict, is anarchism, represented by V. Frankly, I don’t know if I can do anywhere near as good a dressing down of anarchism as Lily Orchard did in The Legend of Korra is Garbage and Here’s Why (I strongly recommend looking into it, she is a major inspiration for me), but I will at least try to explain why it’s wrong. The faults of anarchy are twofold, one is logistical, and the other is in the consequences of the core premise. I will start with the latter, because it’s the only one actually addressed in the story itself. See, in a system absent of government, and thereby, law enforcement, it becomes more and more difficult to actually prevent people from doing things like murdering each other over desired property. The book includes this, fully portraying the chaotic madness perpetuated by anarchy and its inherent destructive nature. “Do What Thou Wilt” shall be the law, and that leads to an awful lot of bad things being done. V tries to justify this by saying anarchy is without leaders, not without order, and that the only true order is voluntary order. Frankly, this is utter nonsense. Voluntary order is fragile, especially in people conditioned to think of themselves first. I find it funny that V states the age of order will come when this era of confusion runs its course, because this in itself is the greatest fault in anarchy: it cannot last. Anarchy is a power vacuum, something will always take its place, and that thing tends to be authoritarianism. And people will gladly go along with it, because to them, anything is better than the madness of anarchy. The order V speaks of will come, but it is not voluntary order, and it will not come through anarchism, it will come from the installment of a new government. This is something the book doesn’t mention, because it ends right with the advent of anarchism in Britain. But these two faults are what make anarchism an ideology just as if not more flawed than those opposed to it.

This dichotomy presents an interesting take on political conflict, instead of the heroic rebel fighting the evil authoritarian government, the rebel here is almost as bad as the government he fights. Not only that, but the diametric opposition of their two extremes implies that after seeing the horrors of authoritarian fascism firsthand, V responded by pendulum-swinging in the complete opposite direction, which is perhaps the ultimate folly for one in his position. As a result, as I have said at the start, there isn’t really a “good guy” per se in this conflict. It’s two forces who are wrong, fighting each other for power. I’m not entirely sure this was intentional, but the end result has a lot more complexity than most conflicts of the type. But I fear that maybe people didn’t see the faults in V’s ideology, and legitimately thought anarchy was a good idea, because they didn’t think through the implications of what he stood for, and only focused on how cool he looks killing fascists. Thankfully, if that did happen, it wasn’t in a large enough quantity to affect real change. Most anarchists I know, except my cousin, are just idiot teenagers who haven’t thought it through beyond “governments are bad”, which, I fear, may be due to a quintessential part of the American narrative. We as a country are couched in our beginnings as a revolt against British taxation and micromanagement, and I think that environment of fetishizing our beginnings as a country has caused people to ignore a lot of the flaws in the original ideology of the founding fathers. Y’know, they were not perfect, and they had to learn just how wrong they were the hard way when they made a completely ineffectual government at first and almost immediately had to put down a rebellion. So they put in a stronger government that could properly run the affairs of the country. But with the state of a lot of American politics, and a lot of the public seemingly not understanding the basic principles of how government works, it seems that those lessons did not stick, and people are too focused on their flawed original vision to see the lessons they learned. The kind of libertarian absolutism is as flawed as V’s anarchism, and they’ll pull out equally pathetic excuses to defend it. So while V for Vendetta may not have turned Britain into anarchists, this kind of effect seems to be common in my home country. V for Vendetta was in many ways something that could only come as a response to Thatcherism, but I think the faulty message that inattentive fans could take from it is far more like something you’d get in America. In that way, I think the true nature of this conflict is something we in America could learn from more so than our British counterparts. If nothing else, I think a lot of people who read the book when they were maybe a little too young to understand everything in it, such as myself, can develop their critical thinking skills as they get older, and the more they reflect on it, the more this becomes apparent. But then, maybe that’s unwarranted optimism on my part.