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Look Up in Anger – The Righteous Indignation of Maria the Virgin Witch

Burning

Maria the Virgin Witch is an angry show. At first it may have looked like just an affable sex comedy about a prudish teenage witch and the horny succubus who wants to get her laid, but the longer it goes on the more its seething anger boils over. Mostly gone are the jokes about awkward teenage horniness and cherry popping, replaced with pointed condemnations of the ugly, tangled mass of religion, blind doctrine, and power dynamics that make up the medieval Church, as well as the ways the people who wield its power use their weight to push people around. It’s a far cry from when the highest stakes conflict was whether or not Maria’s incubus familiar would ever get a schlong of his own.

Thankfully, Maria the Virgin Witch is also an intelligent show. It would be easy for it’s brand of anti-authority, “leave me alone” anger to come off as flailing and immature, especially when directed at a target as big and as tempting as the Catholic Church of the Dark Ages. But Maria‘s anger isn’t the yelling kind that comes from hatred and bile; it’s the kind that comes from bitter disappointment. The show’s villains – the zealot Inquisitors, feudal politicians, and violent thugs who profit from war, promote ignorance, and vilify Maria – aren’t cartoonishly evil mustache twirlers who were born bad and laugh while the world burns. Their evil is the most mundane kind: they’re jealous, small-minded, self-centered, and desperate to maintain their lot in life, naturally afraid of anything that challenges their worldview or takes power out of their hands. It’s the kind of evil that people commit reflexively, without thinking, while still being absolutely sure that they’re in the right. That kind of evil seems small, but it’s the most pervasive kind of all, and often it’s the most destructive and the hardest to combat.

Michael

Which isn’t to say that Maria herself is perfect, or that she doesn’t have many of the same flaws. Maria is pig-headed, naive, quick to anger, and at the start of the show was just as self-centeredly convinced of her own righteousness as Bernard, Galfa, and the other agents of the Church, State, and the Heavens who oppose her. Despite her blessed name and her virginal status, Maria is far from pure. But that doesn’t stop her from trying to improve the lives of the people around her and make the world a better place, whereas her opponents use their energy and influence to wage war and control thought.

Why the difference between them? What separates the flawed, humanized hero from the flawed, humanized villains in the world of Maria the Virgin Witch? A shallow reading would say that the difference is purely a choice of religion – the pagan Maria vs. dumb, violent, witch-burning Christians – but there’s much more to it than that. What director Goro Taniguchi and writer Hideyuki Kurata (who was also the scriptwriter for the thematically similar, but much more hyperbolic Now and Then, Here and There with director Akitaro Daichi) have repeatedly emphasized as the problem is not the spiritual validity of the Christian faith, but the way the people and institutions that claim their power through it use that power. Maria the Virgin Witch isn’t interested in debating whether or not Jesus died on the cross to redeem the world’s sins, or if the old-world pagan spirits are the true religion; it wants to know why the beings vested in the Christian God’s authority can’t seem to live up to their own precepts. If faith in Jesus is the light that shows the truth, why are his followers so set in their obvious ignorance? If God is love, then why does his Church promote intolerance and revel in judgement? If He weeps for people’s suffering, why doesn’t He do something to stop it?

Church of the Earth

Maria the Virgin Witch may not have a good answer for, “Why does God let people suffer?” (who does?), but it definitely has an answer for why His servants have such a big hateboner for Maria herself: they cannot control her. What the Church represents most of all in Maria the Virgin Witch is those who gain power, status, and self-worth through the position of being able to control others (even the soldier Galfa, who is of much lower social status than the rest of the villains, derives his self-worth from being a tool of the system: he lives for the violence, plunder, and glory that being his rulers’ strongman brings him). And to the people in charge of maintaining the current order, someone who refuses to listen to them or to recognize their authority is the ultimate threat to their existence. As functionaries of a misguided and oppressive power structure, Maria’s enemies don’t just hate her; they can’t even comprehend her.

It’s the blinding, morally stultifying effect of being a part of a corrupt authority that Maria is most angry about. The men who abuse and condemn Maria aren’t evil by nature. They do evil things because they can’t see outside their own sheltered prism, because they insist that everyone else see things the same way, and because they use the power they have to force their will on anyone who doesn’t. Maria the Virgin Witch wants you to be angry at these people, not because they are inferior, but because they should know better.

Maria Be Myself

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Emotions Are For Losers – Aldnoah.Zero and the Heroic Virtue of Being a Robot

Aldnoah.Zero season 2’s opening credits sequence has one of the most unintentionally funny moments so far in anime 2015. Recapping season 1’s bloodbath of a final episode, the opening images show protagonist Inaho and the Martian princess Asseylum being parted by the sudden violence that left her in a coma and cost him an eye. The animation in the sequence would have you believe that the trauma of losing Asseylum has had a profound emotional impact on Inaho; his face contorts with grief and his eyes appear close to shedding tears as the image of her before him disappears. The irony of this, of course, is that Inaho has never once displayed anything close to this amount of emotion in the actual show.

Sad Inaho
Pictured: false advertising

In the show itself, Inaho isn’t so much a person with human thoughts and feelings as he is a supercomputer made of meat, one that’s programming allows him to comprehend or perform no interaction with humanity beyond numbly reciting useless trivia and stiffly correcting people for not being factually correct or logical enough. Despite the Aldnoah.Zero‘s repeated insistence that he and Asseylum forged a deep, emotional bond over the course of season 1, it’s impossible to think of any moment where Inaho expressed anything remotely resembling human affection for her, before or after she was shot. Equally impossible is coming up with a single moment where Inaho interacted with another human being in a way that would leave any of them with the impression that he was anything but the most awkward and closed off person they had ever met. Inaho does not laugh, cry, cheer, or frown, no matter the situation. Whether he’s dryly lecturing the people around him about the atmospheric effects that make the sky appear blue or blandly reciting the overly complex way he’s figured out to defeat the latest nigh-invincible super robot to cross his path, Inaho faces every situation with the same dead-eyed, emotionally vacant expression.

Inaho Faces
The many emotional states of Inaho

And yet, nearly every character who meets Inaho is instantly impressed with him, drawn in by some phantom magnetism that only the characters in the show can even begin to comprehend. His blank, inhuman nature isn’t off putting or distancing or even a barrier to communication; it’s something that everyone around him loves and respects. Any time someone doesn’t understand him or disagrees with him, it’s never because Inaho can’t express himself properly or because there is room for disagreement. Failing to understand Inaho is always caused by the other person’s silly emotions and lack of natural supercomputer calculating power keeping them from being able to get on his level of pure, unbiased logic. Inaho is never once wrong, about anything. Even when he makes decisions that might seem questionable, the plot twists itself to make sure that everything he does is justified (remember when he shot down Slaine’s plane in season 1 for no good reason, even after Slaine fought on his side to help him? Don’t worry, the show forgot about it too). Every action that Inaho takes is the perfect result of flawless calculation that only ever goes wrong because someone else had to have their silly feelings and mess it all up.

If Inaho has strong feelings about anything that can’t be mathematically calculated or quantified, we certainly haven’t seen it. Despite being the central figure in a war for Earth’s survival against a genocidal enemy and the many near-death experiences he and his crew mates have gone through, he doesn’t even seem to feel much concern about any of their suffering or the atrocities being committed around him. If half his compatriots were to die in the next battle, Inaho’s response would likely be to suggest the survivors skin the corpses to make sleeping bags, and then be confused as to why anyone would find such a logical suggestion the least bit creepy.

Inaho Cloud Nine

But still, time and time again, Aldnoah.Zero has hammered home that the true source of Inaho’s heroism is that he is cold, logical, and smarter than everyone else, something the show has gone so far out of its way to establish that Inaho isn’t so much a character as he is a walking plot device, a magic problem solving tool that instantly overcomes every obstacle he is pointed at without having to so much as furrow his brow in frustration. He is heroic because he has no emotions, and for no other reason. Not because of his personal character, his empathy, his passion, his dedication, his resilience in the face of overwhelming odds, his values, or anything else that is generally used to demonstrate a character’s heroic virtues. Inaho doesn’t even struggle to be the perfect creature of logic, and thus the most perfect and powerful person in the show. Being an emotionless robot is effortless to him because it’s all he is, and yet he is constantly rewarded for it and held up as the ideal all others are inspired to imitate. Inaho isn’t heroic because he’s a better person; he’s heroic because he’s a better robot.

The counterpart to Inaho’s perfect roboticness is, of course, Slaine Troyard, Inaho’s rival for Asseylum’s affection and Aldnoah.Zero‘s favorite whipping boy. Unlike Inaho, Slaine is driven by feelings and his relationships with other people. His involvement in the conflict is personal and complex, and it causes him to react emotionally on many occasions. And every time he does, he is punished for it. For Slaine, the first season was nothing but one physical and emotional trauma after another, with every person he forges a personal bond with either dead, in coma, or having betrayed him by the end of it. Despite Slaine and Inaho supposedly being rivals, the Slaine from season 1 can hardly be considered any real competition. Inaho’s lack of humanity gives him all the power he needs, while Slaine’s emotions render him a useless non contender whose only role is to be brutalized, fail in all his goals, and lose the love of his life, first to an emotionless automaton of a person and then a bullet. Even when he shoots someone through the eye at point blank range, he fails; all those silly tears of his must have messed with the bullet’s trajectory.

Before...
Before…

Cut to season 2, and what’s this? Suddenly Slaine is no longer a failure. In just a matter of months, he’s gone from being the universe’s punching bag to a certified superbadass, from futureless vassal to duly appointed Knight in service of Mars, from perpetual victim to serious political player, from crybaby weakling unable to kill a man from 3 feet away to the most fearsome enemy of all Earthlings, who can mow down any number of foes without breaking a sweat. Turns out that after all the horrific trauma from season 1, Slaine decided put all that silly empathy and emotion he used to feel away and decided that he can be a cold, emotionless badass too. Turns out all he needed to unlock his hidden potential was to stop feeling those dumb feelings.

Slaine Has No Dreams
…and after.

No longer overcome by emotion, Slaine has been liberated from the shackles of humanity and become a true rival for Inaho. Season 2 has so far been framed by the conflict between the two, and that conflict has been entirely defined by Aldnoah‘s “emotions are for weaklings” philosophy. Despite being hated rivals, the greatest amount of feeling the two have managed to display for the other is robotically repeating each other’s names and emotionlessly commenting on how superhuman the other’s tactics are. You would think that two men with so much reason to hate each other would show the least bit of anger when the other one appears, but the duel of destinies between them is entirely one of two cold, blank faces trying to out-supercalculate each other. And since strength in Aldnoah.Zero comes not from the content of your character but from how much like a machine you can be, both characters have gained new, overwhelming power from being given powerful machines: Slaine now pilots an invincible robot that can perform calculation so advanced it can effectively see into the future, and rather than having any sort of emotional crisis over seeing his girlfriend being shot and having his left eye blown out, Inaho has been rewarded with having an actual computer implanted into his head, because apparently he wasn’t robotic enough before.

Inaho Computer

But naturally, Slaine eventually has to lose. He’s just pretending to be emotionless, and only pilots a perfect, logical supermachine; Inaho is a perfect, logical supermachine. And unlike Inaho, Slaine still has things he cares about. He’s on a personal mission to reform the government of Mars. He has a new vassal he seems to like, and is taking care of a brand new Princess who will surely soon die to make him feel sad. In other words, Slaine still has things he cares about, things that can throw him off his balance if anything happens to them. Those connections could cause silly feelings to happen again, and once you have feelings you’re no match for Inaho, who still shows no real concern for any of the people or things he’s fighting for. After all, this is Aldnoah.Zero, where emotions are for losers.

12 Days of Anime #6 – Shiki’s Coming to Your Town

Shiki is one of those shows that few people have seen, but that almost everyone who has loves. Unlike a lot of anime horror (and horror in general, really), which often caters solely in schlockly gore and cheap shock tactics, Shiki thrives on actual substance and atmosphere. Which isn’t to say it skips out on the gore or shock. The difference is that Shiki earns its gore and brutality. It takes a while to get there, but Shiki’s last few episodes are shocking, bloody, and brutally cynical, and also one of the most memorable things I watched in 2014.

WarningSpoilers for Shiki to follow

Shiki 1

If you’ve ever lived in a small town, it won’t take long for you to pick up on the particular set of emotions that 2010’s vampire horror anime Shiki taps into. Peaceful Small Towns are some of the most idealized places in many cultures, often portrayed as oases of serenity, simplicity, and moral superiority away from crushing life in the corrupt big city. You don’t just find this attitude in fiction, either; talk to any Proud Small Town Resident, and they’re likely to have that exact attitude about their perfect little home town. Some of them say it so convincingly and so politely that it’s easy to miss the arrogant superiority and reactionary distrust toward anything from Outside, if you haven’t lived through it yourself.

Shiki understands small towns, from their simplistic concerns to their conservative distrust of anything new to the resentment hiding behind the smiles of neighbors who know too much about each other but are too polite to speak their minds. As the residents of the show’s fictional Japanese town, the isolated mountain village of Sotoba, fall sick with a mysterious illness and die one by one (spoilers: the strange new family that’s moved to town are a coven of vampires), all of those simmering tensions start to rise, until the town’s idilic facade collapses under the strain.

Shiki 2

Shiki starts slow, wallowing in an atmosphere of uncertainty and dread as townspeople are picked off one by one. As the nature of the threat becomes clearer, the boundaries between monsters and regular folks start to blur. Panic and fear show Sotoba’s residents to be callous beasts ready to turn on each other at the slightest suspicion once their passive existence is threatened. Meanwhile, the family of ghouls are revealed to be complex, relatable people who just want what most people want: a family and a home. This inversion of sympathies is complete by the story’s final act, an orgy of brutality that sees the townspeople devolve into the monsters they’ve been threatening to reveal themselves as since episode one, and that only ends with the town in flames and the entire population with blood on its hands (and also on their lawnmowers).

The bloodbath that is Shiki‘s final episodes is inevitable. It’s slow pace and reliance on atmosphere over forward momentum, especially in its first half, all call for an eventual crescendo into a final explosion. But unlike many other horror stories, the climax isn’t a cathartic purge, or a return to normalcy through the driving out of the corrupting, foreign Other that upsets the perfect balance of the world. It’s an explosion of savagery that marks the final collapse of all the pretenses that once held a community together. The horror that Shiki deals in isn’t the horror of outside corruption invading a small, peaceful town. It’s the horror of that small, peaceful town revealing the corruption inside itself at the smell of blood.

Shiki 3

12 Days of Anime #5 – /Fiction

 

Unlimited Blade Works

At the beginning of 2014, Type Moon’s Fate/ franchise was an inscrutable thing that I had no interest in exploring. Twice I’d tried the first episode of Fate/Zero, the anime adaptation of the prequel novel to the visual novel that already had multiple other spinoffs and adaptations, and twice I’d given up after being confronted by a wall of dry, rambling exposition about an impenetrable mythology that unfamiliar characters pontificated on while walking around each other in circles. At that point my impression of all things Fate/ was that it was an overly complex mix of fantasy worldbuilding and RPG elements adapted into nominal story form, and Fate/Zero‘s first episode did nothing but reinforce that opinion.

Fast forward three months. After being goaded by friends and people whose opinions I trusted enough to take the leap, I pushed through the first episode of Fate/Zero one more time so that I could finish the series. Once I made it through the show’s slow, move-the-pieces-into-place first half and arrived at its sturm und drang bloodbath of a finale, I finally got it. I got what people saw in the story. The clash of ideals. The exploration of different ideas of heroism. The Holy Grail-based mythology that tied it all together. It made sense to me. The show wasn’t without its flaws, but they didn’t really matter when measured against its accomplishments.

RIP. Never Forget.
RIP. Never Forget.

Fast forward another three months. Now I’m completely confused again. Having been converted by Fate/Zero, the next obvious step was to dive into the original Fate/Stay Night visual novel. When I did, I was incredibly disappointed. All the familiar stuff was there: Grail Wars. Thoughts on heroism. Servants and Masters. What I wasn’t expecting was all of this to be hidden inside a bloated, poorly written mess of a story thats appeal completely escaped me. There were plenty of promising ideas, but they were far too easy to forget about when wading through hours of purple, circular prose, endless momentum-slaughtering meal scenes, painfully unfunny bits of sitcom comedy, and protagonist Shirou’s obnoxiously creepy and patronizing thoughts every time he encounters a woman.

F:SN Sex Scene 1
Not to mention the pure erotic poetry that is the sex scenes.

Fate/Zero no longer felt like an entry point into something special; it seemed like a salvage job that had found bits of treasure under a sea of flotsam and bilge. The willful ignorance it would take to overlook the game’s faults was too much to ask, given the weight and volume of those faults to compared to everything else. Once again, whatever it was that inspired such passion in so many people was obscured behind a curtain that no amount of lengthy examination or judicious squinting could penetrate.

But…skip to the end of the year. A new Fate/Stay Night anime is airing, and I watch it religiously. Between my aborted attempt to read the VN and the new adaptation premiering, I’ve continued to read summaries, spoilers, and other info on what happens in the story. It’s been a regular topic of conversation. With a little distance, the story’s strengths have become a lot clearer and easier to appreciate. That the new anime has done some serious editing and streamlining of the material, trimming the excessive fat and sanding down the weirder digressions, makes it even easier (also: holy shit, they made Shirou likable!).

F:SN Ideals

I doubt I’ll ever be a died-in-the-wool Type Moonie. There’s too much wrong with the original source for me to ever love it, even if I’m starting to appreciate it, and I have no interest in most of the side series, spinoffs, and other franchise ephemera that fills Fate/ devotees demands for more. But after a year of fits, starts, and dead ends, I finally get it.

I think.

Akame Ga Kill – Kill the Video Game Narrative

Akame Ga Kill Header

I’ve watched every episode of Akame Ga Kill so far for a single purpose: I figured there had to be something in it worth writing about. A show this clumsy, this lunkheaded, and this downright offensive had to have something about it worth exploring and discussing, right? It took me awhile to find the topic, but once I keyed in on it, it became obvious and made the cause of many of the show’s storytelling problems easier to see.

There are a lot other things about Akame Ga Kill that I could have written about. It’s rampant sexism, for instance. It’s constant homophobia. The nihlistic undercurrent of self-righteous sadism that the worldview it espouses is built on. The black-and-white childishness of that worldview. The show’s equally immature belief that hyperviolence and gore alone make it more serious and adult. It’s stupid use of the “Kill the ____” gimmick for every episode title (at least that provided me with a handy title for this essay)…

I decided not to write about any of these things at this time because most of the discussion of Akame Ga Kill has been about all those issues. They’re all worth talking about, but I also felt that all the discussion of the ways the show is offensive and obnoxious was possibly distracting from another of its series issues: it’s storytelling is downright abysmal.

It’s been obvious from Akame Ga Kill‘s first episode that video games are one of its main inspirations. This is hardly the first instance of a TV show having a strong video game influence; video games have been a part of the culture for a very long time, and video game-inspired stories or references in nerd-targeted shows and movies have been common for years. But even taking this into consideration Akame Ga Kill‘s indebtedness to the video game medium (particularly RPGs) stands out. From episode one it has been relied on the storytelling cliches and terminology of video games, always to its detriment.

Not every part of Akame Ga Kill is directly inspired by video games, and not every one of its many faults can be blamed on it’s over-reliance on video game storytelling tropes, or its misunderstanding of how different mediums rely on different narrative tools. Despite that, video games are still a clear inspiration on the show, and examining how that influence has shaped the show’s narrative both explains some of the show’s compromising structural problems and helps reveal others.

The most obvious sign of Akame Ga Kill‘s video game influence has been in the dialogue. Despite taking place in a vaguely European fantasy setting, the script has tossed around video game slang and terminology from episode one. Characters describe growing stronger as “leveling up,” and the strength of the random monsters they encounter are described by what “level” and “class” they are (“high level,” “multi-level,” “dragon class,” and other terms obviously pulled from RPG video games have all been thrown around liberally by the show’s script). But the influence goes deeper than just vocabulary. It’s had a large impact on the shape of the narrative as well, and the first half of episode 12 has one of the clearest examples.

After their base was discovered in a previous episode by an enemy agent, the members of Night Raid (they’re called that because they perform raids. At night.) are forced to relocate. From the moment they arrive in their new location, it’s is described as if it were a level in a video game:

High Level Danger Beasts

This is the only information about the new location that the characters discuss or that is shared with the audience: 1) It’s title (and through it’s name the type of terrain, though this is completely incidental)  2) The “level” of the monsters, aka “Danger Beasts,” that inhabit it (Danger Beasts would be the easy winner for dumbest-named thing in an anime for 2014 if Akame Ga Kill didn’t also have a class of monster called “Evil Birds”). In other words, this new location is introduced only by the information that would be relevant to describing the next stage in a video game: what it’s called, and the difficulty of the enemies located there.

In case the connection wasn’t clear, Night Raid’s leader Najenda then describes her purpose for bringing them to this location:

Level Up 1

As mentioned previously, this isn’t the first time that the phrase “leveling up” has been said before in the show, but it’s usage here is particularly relevant because of the scene that follows. Immediately after the scene where the discussion about how Night Raid has moved to a new stage for the purposes of increasing the characters’ skill levels, it cuts to a scene of Night Raid members Tatsumi and Leone fighting Danger Beasts. After the discussion about how it’s time for characters to level up, the narrative immediately jumps to characters grinding to gain experience points. Aside from the random monster fighting, nothing else happens in this scene: two characters fight monsters (for the explicitly stated purpose of gaining experience), and one (Leone) talks about how the other (Tatsumi, the show’s protagonist) has grown stronger since the beginning of the show.

If the correlation between this scene and fighting random monsters for XP in an RPG wasn’t clear enough, the fight ends when Leone stops the Danger Beasts from respawning by killing the level boss:

Boss Fight 1 Boss Fight 2 Boss Fight 3

And after Leone and Tatsume return to base, this is Najenda’s response:

Leveled Up 2

Anyone who has played an RPG will recognize this sequence of events: move to a new stage, then grind for XP to raise your characters’ stats. In a video game this progression of events makes sense: in order to progress in the story, the player’s character(s) have to reach a high enough level that they can survive increasingly difficult stages.  Where it doesn’t make sense is in a serialized television story (or even in Akame Ga Kill‘s original medium of manga). Characters training in order to grow stronger and overcome challenges is a common plot element in non-video game stories, but unlike with video games, where the purpose of these beats is for the player to play as the character and gain the experience points necessary to then allow them to reach later beats in the story, in non-video game narratives these sequences are supposed to also include character or story growth. The character who’s training in a TV show or a movie doesn’t just go through the motions of training or fighting, they also learn something about themselves: they overcome some personal fear, learn to look at something from a new perspective, or at the very least they have to accomplish something else in addition to working out or beating up random enemies. This is as true for Rocky as it is Akame Ga Kill‘s shoenen-action brethren like Hunter X Hunter and Naruto.

In Akame Ga Kill‘s “leveling up” scenes, none of this scene-justifying character growth is present. Instead they all play out the same way. Characters talk about how they should kill monsters to get better at fighting. They then kill monsters, and they also talk about how at some point in between these scenes of them killing monsters they got better at killing monsters. Any Danger Beast scenes that don’t involve characters grinding for XP are instead about characters gathering food to recharge their energy (another element taken from video games). Like the “leveling up” scenes, these events have no consequence to the story other than “characters gather food to regain energy.” All the dialogue in these scenes involves either the characters talking about how they are collecting food to regain energy, or characters discussing things that are happening or have happened elsewhere and that aren’t being dramatized through their current actions.

The result of this is that large portions of Akame Ga Kill‘s running time is taken up by pointless, tensionless scenes that advance neither the narrative nor the characters. These kind of narrative beats make sense in a video game, where they take place between the points in the actual narrative progression. In video games the player is an agent in the narrative, and their playing ability and decisions on how to use the characters they control affect whether or not the story gets to progress. In a television show, however, there is no player; there is only a viewer. Viewers don’t have that same agency, and the characters and plot develop completely independent of their involvement. As a result, what are necessary stages in the progression of a video game become dead air on TV.

This is made all the worse by Akame Ga Kill’s nonexistent character development, another symptom of its slavish adoption of video game formatting. The show’s character’s don’t really learn anything or grow in any meaningful sense; even Tatsumi’s decision to become an outlaw in the first episode isn’t a change in his personality so much as it is him gaining knowledge that he didn’t have before and then acting accordingly. The characters make decisions and learn new facts, but there’s never any sense that there’s anything more to them than what they were at the moment they were introduced: an incredibly broad personality coupled with a set of special abilities.

This is another case of what works in video games failing to translate to a different medium. Akame Ga Kill‘s characters are formulated and introduced according to the information a player would need to know about them if they were playable characters in an RPG: by their abilities, and by them having just enough personality to have a place in the game’s framing story. Because video game characters are played and not just observed, the player experiences the characters’ growth by acting as those characters. The player moves the characters through an interactive environment, and exercises their agency in the game’s narrative through those characters. When this element of control and participation is removed and the characters are required to exist inside the narrative independently, the criteria of what makes strong and functional characters changes. Akame Ga Kill‘s characters have the features they need to be the starting point of a playable RPG party, but not ones that allow them to stand on their own in a non-playable narrative.

Talent For Killing

Once you realize just how beholden to video game tropes Akame Ga Kill‘s storytelling is, many of its questionable plotting and character decisions become clearer. They certainly don’t retroactively become better, but they do become explainable. A good portion of the story beats in an episode of Akame Ga Kill don’t happen because they make good televisual storytelling, but because the writer has obviously played a lot of video games and often doesn’t know how to translate that inspiration into another medium beyond simply copying the narrative beats as they would play out if the story actually was happening in one of those video games.

To give another example of how this manifests, let’s look at the subplot involving Night Raid member Bulat deciding to train the then-newcomer Tatsumi. Bulat announces that he is going to teach Tatsumi to become stronger. There are then one or two scenes in the next few episodes showing the end of training sessions, and even more instances of characters talking about how Bulat’s training is helping Tatsumi level up (once again this is the terminology that is used). In episode 8, Tatsumi and Bulat are involved in a fight in which Bulat is mortally wounded, but Tatsumi is able to put on and use his mentor’s high-level magic armor, Incursio, something that it was earlier stated that Tatsumi would not be able to do with the experience and strength he had at the beginning of the story. Bulat then dies, but not before commenting that Tatsumi has grown stronger.

The way this subplot plays out feels less like a television character’s dramatic arc than it does a series of cutscenes or between-fight dialogue exchanges from a video game with all the actual gameplay (and thus character development) cut out. Without that connective tissue, Tatsumi’s progression from newbie to badass feels completely unearned. The audience is told what’s going to happen, and is then later told that it has already happened at the point the story required it to have occurred. In the same way, Tatsumi being able to use Incursio doesn’t feel like an accomplishment for the character that the progression of the show’s narrative has been building to. Instead, it feels like what happens when an RPG party member dies: another party member picks up the fallen character’s items and uses the ones that his class and experience levels allow him to.

There are even more examples of this kind of badly translated cross-media storytelling, going back all the way to the first episode. Not only is the first scene of the show a random monster encounter, but the way the plot of episode one plays out is incredibly similar to what a player would expect to find when their characters enter the first city in an RPG. Many of the interactions Tatsumi has when he reaches the Capital (that’s the city’s actual name, by the way; just the Capital) involve him running into incidental characters who simply decide to start describing the country’s history, who the important people are, and what the show’s themes are going to be. Using incidental characters to give establishing information is another storytelling device that isn’t unique to video games, but the sheer number of these characters (travelers, guards, barkeeps, etc.) and the graceless way these characters dump unsolicited information through dialogue feels distinctly like the kind of thing you usually get through NPC encounters. Once again, it’s the kind of thing that makes sense in a video game, where the player has to move their character to these encounters and often perform their own exploration/investigation through an interactive environment in order to get information, but makes no sense outside of that specific context.

The most egregious example of this NPC-ification of the background characters and explanatory dialogue comes in what is still Akame Ga Kill‘s most awkward bit of storytelling. It comes at the end of episode one, during Tatsumi’s first encounter with Night Raid, when said group of outlaws stages an attack on a corrupt aristocratic family. During the attack, a guard (who is never given a name and is only introduced in this scene) is killed. As he dies, the guard gives the following monologue:

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This kind of dialogue, where a character offers up random facts about themselves without solicitation, isn’t uncommon during encounters with video game NPCs. But once again, this kind of information delivery doesn’t work the same across different mediums. When they happen during gameplay, the playable characters often choose whether or not to run into the NPCs and thus hear the information they have to share because the player has to actively guided them into the encounters. It’s debatable that this particular bit of scripting wouldn’t be awkward even in the context of a video game, but it would certainly make more sense coming from a dying NPC that the player can choose to have their character speak with. What in one medium could be a passable bit of background flavor and discoverable content becomes an example of laughably incompetent storytelling in another.

Because of its faulty and misguided adherence to storytelling methods that don’t translate to its medium, Akame Ga Kill has a fundamentally compromised narrative structure. It may not be the show’s only major flaw, but in terms of storytelling at least it’s the most important. This one problem has been present throughout the show, will likely be present throughout the rest of it, and will be one of the biggest roadblocks in the way to it ever becoming a properly functioning story.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Hannibal,” “Millenium,” and the Macabre as Art Design

The currently airing NBC series Hannibal took many people by surprise. When it was announced, there wasn’t much excitement around it and most people assumed it would just be another unremarkable entry in this entertainment era’s remake, reboot, and reimagining craze. But once the show debuted, it immediately started generating strong buzz and attracted a cult audience. And for good reason.

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Listed in the credits as being based on Red Dragon, Thomas Harris’ first book to feature his famous cannibal psychiatrist, Hannibal takes place in the time before Dr. Lecter’s unmasking as a serial killer and subsequent arrest. Aside from taking place during a period that none of the other Lecterverse (do people call that? I don’t actually know) material has covered, the show has quickly established a unique identity for itself. The show overcame its first obvious challenge, finding a new Hannibal that can replace the iconic Anthony Hopkins, by casting of Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen, whose detached and cooly aristocratic Hannibal contrasts with Hopkins’ famously snide, sneering portrayal yet still manages to capture the character’s weird, off-putting charm. It also managed to escape the dual trap of being just an exercise in brand recognition and yet another network police procedural, using the familiar characters and scenario of the Hannibalverse (still not sure what to call it) and the recognizable format of cop shows as jumping off points to tell an engaging, long-form story of psychological torture and the darker side of human behavior. And perhaps most noticeably, developer/executive producer/writer/director Bryan Fuller and his production team gave the show a unique, striking design that makes it one of the most interesting looking TV shows currently airing.

All of the previous entries in the Cannibalverse (fuck it) had distinctly different looks from their counterparts, and this newest one is no different. Hannibal makes excellent use of set design and staging not just to establish it’s own a visual identity but also to very effectively enhance atmosphere. The team making the show obviously pays very close attention not just to having a wide variety of looks to the sets, but also to how those sets affect the blocking and placement of actors, which in turn affects the mood of a scene. Hannibal has some of the best use of space in a television show. As just one example, Lector’s psychiatry office seems to be designed so that characters often seem to be just too close or just too far away from each other, creating a visual representation of Hannibal’s duel settings of aloofness and intruding into others’ personal space. And of course there’s the show’s most noticeable visual feature: a shocking amount of beautifully rendered gore.

When Silence of the Lambs introduced Hannibal in 1991, it was with that famous slow pan across the lower levels of the insane asylum that finally stopped when Hopkins’ smirk and unblinking stare were in center frame. In the television show, Mikkelsen is introduced quite differently: the first part of him to appear is his hands. Specifically, his hands as they chop, massage, season, and otherwise lovingly prepare a tender looking cut of meat as he stands in his kitchen, preparing what by all appearances will be an incredibly sumptuous meal. The food is the main focus of the scene, and it is filmed with a gourmet’s eye, every shot further accentuating the impression of a truly mouthwatering meal in the making. The show never tells us exactly what it is he’s cooking. It doesn’t have to. Any audience watching Hannibal already knows about Lecter and his dietary habits, and the horror that comes with knowing that we’re almost certainly watching a murdered human’s carcass being prepared for consumption stands in vivid contrast to the alluring presentation. The scene is inviting and grotesque at the same time. It not only introduces the show’s title character, it also introduces Hannibal‘s main visual modus operandi: turning the macabre into the beautiful.

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It’s not just Lecter’s meals that have this dichotomous element. The murder scenes that the show’s cast of FBI investigators find every episode are presented in the same way: horrifying yet alluring. Murdered and mutilated bodies are staged in increasingly disturbing but strangely beautiful ways. Corpses hung on antlers like hanging pictures, a tower of dismembered bodies, bee hives growing out of emptied skulls. Hannibal‘s gore content is surprisingly high, especially for a primetime network show. Yet it’s presented in a way that’s not just meant to be shocking, but also intriguing and in many cases uncomfortably pleasant to look at, even as viewers recognize it for what it is. This not only increases the horror value of the show, but it also mirrors the storyline of characters entering the mindset of the deranged, murderous, and twisted in order to catch them only to find that they can’t quite make their way back out.

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If Hannibal‘s gore-as-art approach has any direct antecedent on network TV, it’s the late 90s Fox show Millennium. Created by The X-File‘s Chris Carter, Millennium was a much moodier, gorier affair than Carter’s other, more famous show. It also didn’t last nearly as long and never attracted anywhere near the same audience numbers as The X-Files, probably due to both it’s incredibly bleak style, subject matter, and content, as well as its schizophrenic nature. Millennium lasted for 3 seasons, and each one could have been from a different show. Season 1 was the closest in content to Hannibal, a nominal procedural that was really an exploration and meditation on the darker side of human nature, but with a focus on the vaguely occult as well as the cultural anxiety that permeated the late 20th century. Season 2 switched to an ongoing storyline that made it something like a much bleaker, focused, and ambitious X-FIles, with religion and apocalypse cults instead of aliens and an and incredibly pessimistic outlook on the future (technically, Millennium took place in the same fictional universe as The X-Files, but the concrete ties between the shows were few and tangential). After the experimental Season 2 failed in the ratings, Season 3 tried to have the middle ground. It kept the shadowy religious cults in the background while largely reverting back to a case-of-the-week format, but failed to do as well creatively as either of the previous seasons or to pull in the ratings needed to keep the show on the air.

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Hannibal and Millennium are two incredibly distinct series, yet they share many things in common. Though they were created nearly 20 years apart (Millennium debuted in 1996, Hannibal in 2013), they are both very much products of transitional times for television, and as a result were both able to push the boundaries of what could appear on network TV. Hannibal comes at a time when the old networks are facing declining ratings due to both a rapid increase in the number of available channels and the subsequent increase in quality (and edginess) of the content available there. Millennium ended in 1999, the same year that The Sopranos first started airing, and was part of a crop of shows that were forerunners to the HBO era. Shows like Millennium and Homicide: Life on the Street (another supposed police procedural that, with its Baltimore setting and participation of David Simon, can be seen as a direct ancestor of The Wire) may not have gotten away with what the HBO, FX, and AMC shows of today can get away with in terms of content and breaking standard TV show formula (or, in some ways, what Hannibal can get away with on modern day NBC), but they were constantly pushing against the constrictions of what network shows were allowed to do.

Like HannibalMillennium was sometimes shockingly grotesque in its depiction of murder and mutilation, yet also brought a strong sense of presentation and art direction to its gore and violence. Also like with Hannibal, Millennium gleefully forced its main character to explore depths of the human mind that are better left unvisited knowing full well he might not recover from doing so.

At first glance, Hannibal‘s protagonist, the neurotic and jittery Will Graham, might not seem very similar to Millennium‘s older, morose family man Frank Black. They both share a profession as psychological consultants for the FBI (Millennium has the distinction of coming from a time when the criminal profiler was a new and novel thing to have in a TV show), but in age, looks, and personality they’re quite different. But the journeys that their respective shows put them through are very similar.

Top: Will Graham (Hannibal)
Will Graham (Hannibal)
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Frank Black (Millennium)

The overarching story of Hannibal‘s first two seasons has been Dr. Lecter’s systematic mental manipulation of the psychologically vulnerable Will. Will’s ability to wholly empathize with any mindset, including those of deranged killers, makes him incredibly adept at analyzing and catching psychopaths and serial killers (it also makes him a subject of Hannibal Lecter’s curiosity, whose interest takes the form of a months-long campaign of mental torture). This ability to slip into dangerous and homicidal frames of mind makes him psychologically unbalanced and unable officially join the FBI, and he instead has to settle for a teaching position and being hired as an independent consultant. In Millenium, Frank Black is a former FBI agent who now works for an independent investigative firm, after years in law enforcement that ended with a mental breakdown. Able to adopt the point of view of serial killers and other deranged people, Frank quit his job after a stalker began threatening his family. Obsessed with finding the stalker and unable to shut off his ability to think like him, Frank’s inability to catch the man led to a nervous breakdown, and then a move across the country. He’s since returned to investigations, but tries to keep his new, ideal suburban yellow house a sanctuary from the horrors that he deals with on a daily basis (with less and less success as the series goes on).

Exploring the similarity between the criminal mind and those who investigate it is hardly unique to either Hannibal or Millenium, but it’s not hard to see the similarities between the two. An older Will Graham would probably share a lot in common with a Frank Black. Both shows also represent the way both characters see the violence and horror that their mutual job subject them to, and how they find it both repugnant and familiar.

The two shows share another common element in the use of fantasy sequences to represent when their lead characters are peering into the minds of others, and how the experience of doing so affects them. Both shows use this dramatic technique, but have differing approaches that highlights the ways each use the gore-as-art aesthetic. Will’s visions are long, clearly lit, and usually involve recreating every detail of a scene in slow motion. Frank’s, on the other hand, have a dark, grainy look that wouldn’t be out of place in the music video for Nine Inch Nail’s “Closer.” They’re also quick, usually lasting less than a second. They’re impressionist flashes, rather than Will’s detailed reconstructions.

The differences in the two styles of fantasy sequence also relate to each show’s individual approach to art design. Hannibal looks incredibly modern, and often sets its action in sleek-looking, well lit rooms and polished metal labs. Millenium has a distinctly late 90s approach to portraying its air of darkness and anxiety, with an emphasis on heavy blacks, smudged browns, dirty yellows, and nighttime settings, brought to life with a much more limited late 90s TV budget.

While still allowing that Millenium and Hannibal are in many ways distinct from each other, the two of them do share a common legacy in the use of the macabre as a key part of art design. Both came about at a time of transition in TV entertainment, and the freedom that allowed them resulted in leaps forward in the design aesthetic for mainstream TV.

“The Wolf of Wall Street,” Narrative Friction, and The Power of the Pitch

Sell MeThis Pen

The first thought I had when I walked out of The Wolf Of Wall Street was, “I want a smoke.” I had quit smoking months before and hadn’t felt the desire to light up again in some time, but Wolf tickled my hedonistic addiction center something fierce. The smarter part of my brain was louder than the part that wanted to indulge, but several hours later I still felt the urge. No matter how much I knew better, it wouldn’t go away.

Martin Scorsese’s new movie has attracted a lot of controversy, with many people decrying it as an ode to selfishness, hedonism, and immorality. To be fair, they’re almost right: protagonist Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) spends almost all of the movie’s 3 hour runtime bragging about how clever a scammer he is, to both other characters and the audience. The movie opens with Belfort smugly monologuing and puffing out his chest as he walks the the viewer past his mansion, his sports car, and his supermodel wife. Belfort’s ill-gotten wealth is so substantial, his chutzpa so galling, that it’s easy to focus entirely on his siren song and overlook how during this same monologue, he also mentions being under investigation by multiple federal agencies, recklessly bets stacks of money on dwarf tossing, admits to serious issues with drinking, gambling, drug use, and whoring, and is so high on cocaine that he has a near-drug induced panic attack while engaging the services of a prostitute.

That near breakdown stops the momentum of his posturing and blowhard pontificating entirely. His voiceover stops, the soundtrack cuts out and his cool, alpha male exterior vanishes in an instant. He quickly regains composure, but we’ve seen the truth: Belfort, Wall Street crook and spokesperson of the fortune-making power of jackassery, isn’t just a liar. He himself is a lie.

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While Wolf‘s detractors rightly pick up on the fact that the movie is not a simple morality play, where the narrative takes a righteous stance against the misbehavior of its characters and uses their story to create a cautionary tale of justice done, they are failing to notice that the movie shows a wide disparity between what narrator and central character Belfort wants his audience to believe about him and who he actually is. From that opening montage all the way to the movie’s conclusion, there’s a distinct gap between the image that Belfort tries to present and what is shown by the movie’s pictures and sound.

Wolf effectively tells two overlapping stories at the same time: the one in Jordan Belfort’s head, and the one that the audience actually sees. By itself, that second story, the one told by the moving pictures and the dialogue and the soundtrack, mostly takes a neutral stance on Belfort and neither interrogates nor speaks out against him. It simply tells his story, and lets him talk over it. But when those two versions of the story are played at the same time, the friction between them becomes obvious. The narrative doesn’t need to condemn Belfort, because Belfort’s lies do the condemning for it.

Belfort characterizes his wealth as righteous returns from a life of hard work and applied brains, while his actions paint him as a thief and a cheat whose only intelligence comes in the form of a cruel cunning for sniffing out ways to manipulate people. He describes his debauchery as if it makes him glamorous and enviable, yet it’s constantly driving him to new heights of idiocy. He clearly believes himself to be a true talent and an inspiration, when his only real talent is weaponizing his own greed and using it to whip other people into the same unsatisfiable frenzy for more, more, more that he lives his life inside of. And after he finally self-destructs, gets caught, and loses most of what he’s earned, he tries to pass off his story as something to be learned from, a teachable moment of reaching too far and getting burned by the sun. But that’s the biggest lie of all: that the story of his rise and fall has any value to anyone.

Saying that The Wolf of Wall Street tells a person’s meaningless story makes it sound like a movie without a purpose, and that the the movie’s critics are right about it lacking morals. But just because Belfort’s story itself, especially the way he recounts it, doesn’t have any value on its own doesn’t mean the same is true of the movie itself. That lack of anything useful about Belfort or his tale is, in fact, the movie’s point. This is driven home by the movie’s final scene, where an older, post-disgrace and imprisonment Belfort is seen employed as a motivational speaker with a paying audience waiting to hear words of wisdom from him, a confirmed spin artist and fraudster. The movie shows Belfort to be a meaningless person with no worthwhile talents, but there he is, still being praised and, even worse, paid. By any metric that accurately measures logic, morality, or sanity, Belfort never deserved any respect in the first place, and he certainly doesn’t deserve to keep it. What The Wolf of Wall Street is ultimately about, what it’s real meaning is, is to remind us all that the world we live in, the one driven by money and sales and who can move the most product out the door, doesn’t care about any of those things.

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In one of Wolf Of Wall Street’s early scenes, a successful stockbroker (Matthew McConaughey) explains to  Belfort that the reason people buy a seller’s product is a simple one: people are addicts. It’s not actually a salesman’s job to find what someone needs and then give it to them, or to explain why what they’re hawking is necessary, or helpful, or good. They don’t even have to know anything about what it is they’re selling beyond talking points. Their job is to make the person they are selling to want what they’ve got and feel good about getting it. “We don’t create shit,” Belfort’s mentor says, in between bragging how his success is possible only because his total self-absorption and disinterest in anyone else. The people in Belfort’s world who are most successful aren’t those who provide the most valuable service, they’re the ones who pick a mark and make him or her feel the best about believing in the bill of goods they’re selling. And because Wolf‘s Belfort is a character based on a real man, one who found incredible success and whose name still carries enough respect that he is still employed as a financial guru, the truth of his universe is the truth of the audience’s, too.

Even if you’ve never worked with the masters of the universe in the financial sector, this is all familiar territory to anyone who has worked in sales. It doesn’t matter what the product you are selling is, your sales manager will hammer home the same lesson until you learn it or lose your place on the team: “make them want what you have” (whether they need it or not). Don’t look for signs that they need you, look for things you can use to make them think that they need you. Even accounting for those salespeople who make a living for themselves being honorable, the ones who are the most successful are almost always those who care the least about whether their clients need their service or not. You don’t talk to customers, you talk to marks. What you’re selling doesn’t matter, all that matters is your pitch. And the only pitch that matters is the one that makes the person you’re pitching feel good about being pitched.

When people complain that Wolf endorses Belfort’s immoral activities and lifestyle, they’re picking up the same vibes I did when watching the movie gave me the urge to smoke again. It’s the same urge that Belfort (and every other savvy salesman) taps into when they call your phone or knock on your door. Everyone knows on some level that that’s how the sales game is played, and yet people still fall for it all the time. The world is still filled with Belforts big and small who make their living making pushing things that no one needs, but that they’re still able to make people buy. There will always be a part of us that wants something. The scammers and disreputable salespeople of the world know how to give that something a name.

The real world Belfort sold stocks. Wolf‘s Belfort spends the movie actively pitching the audience on the allure and primal satisfaction of his success. “I’ve got all this, and it makes me feel so good. Don’t you want it too?” Even as his life of luxury is shown over and over to be filled with self-destruction and deception, even as it eventually collapses on itself, he can’t help but give his spiel. That’s his skill, after all: making you think you need something that you really don’t need at all. Even as we see him for what he is and watch as the life he’s been pitching is revealed to be a sham, we still can’t help but feel the appeal. We know it’s wrong, but we want it to be right. So we want the movie to tell us that it’s wrong for us, to “make it real,” as McConaughey’s character would say, so that we can wise up and “get off the ferris wheel.”

But instead of reassuring us, of giving us a helping hand and pointing a scolding finger at the liar who won’t leave us alone, The Wolf of Wall Street lets Belfort talk. It let’s him make his sales call, and refuses to tell us that it could never work on us, we know better than that. It lets him give his pitch, and refuses to reassure us that it doesn’t have any power.