Anime Retrospective: Record of Lodoss War

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Record of Lodoss War belongs to a different era of Japanese anime, and indeed of storytelling. There are no obligatory fanservice moments, no in-jokes aimed at the audience, no audience surrogates in the form of bland high school otaku protagonists, no injections of unnecessary modern political messaging. Record of Lodoss War does one thing, and one thing only: tell a story.

The World and the Characters

An adaptation of replays of Dungeons and Dragons gameplay sessions, Record of Lodoss Waris richly steeped in the traditional Western fantasy canon. The land of Lodoss is vast and mysterious, the magic is fantastic and frightening, the monsters are evil and deadly. The story also makes a sharp ethical delineation, with the heroes suitably heroic and the villains clearly villainous. The art direction reinforces this attitude: civilised areas tend to be bright and colourful, while places controlled by monsters and enemies are dark and bleak; heroic characters dress in vivid, distinctive clothing while villains favour black.

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The star of the story is Parn, the son of a dishonoured knight, who knows little of his father save for the sword and armour he left behind. Driven out from his village, he seeks to investigate the evil befalling the land. He is brave but reckless, often needing rescue from the rest of his party, until he learns to balance offense and defense. Accompanying him is his childhood best friend, Etoh, who is a priest of the supreme god Fallis. Their paths intersect with Ghim, a veteran dwarf adventurer looking for the missing daughter of a priestess who saved his life; his friend Slayn, a powerful wizard; and Deedlit, a female high elf who is learning about the world outside of her homeland. Rounding off the cast is Woodchuck, a thief they found imprisoned in a dungeon.

You can clearly see the D&D influences in the party. Parn is the fighter-cum-party leader. Ghim is the party’s frontline combatant, and serves as Parn’s mentor. Etoh is the party cleric, Slayn the wizard, and Woodchuck the rogue. Deedlit is a shaman with some knowledge of swordplay, and doubles as the obligatory love interest.

What isn’t present are modern-day anime archetypes. There are no tsunderes or yanderes in sight, no fanservice characters, and most definitely no high schoolers. Instead of drawing on the same exhausted well of tropes and behaviours, the creators strove to grant each character their own personas and histories, influencing their words and deeds. Parn always rushes into the thick of things, and always gets beaten back; Etoh is the emotional and spiritual heart of the group; Ghim dispenses advice and handles the fiercest foes; and Woodchuck is driven by his criminal impulses, which blows back on the entire party. Instead of attempting to appeal to the audience, the characters stay true to themselves, the story and the setting.

Simple Story, Well-Told

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From the opening narration to the closing credits, every moment of the anime is shot through with earnestness. There is no attempt to snark at or with the audience, no enforced awareness of the fourth wall, no contrived situations leading to predictable ecchi moments. Every scene is played straight, driving the story forward.

True to the genre, the story has an epic scope, covering the entire continent. There is intrigue and high adventure, battles large and small, epic quests to save the world, and an undercurrent of romance. Among the principal cast are warrior kings driven by honour and justice, a dark emperor and his knight corrupted by the powers of darkness, ancient dragons of terrifying power, a sorceress manipulating events behind the scenes, and an evil goddess waiting to be reborn.

This isn’t to say the story is perfect. There are moments of cheesiness and predictability and the major battle scenes recycle stock footage. The anime itself begins in media res, and it’s unclear which episode is the transition point between the true beginning and the first episode. It packs too much story into too few episodes, requiring a second season to complete Parn’s tale. And Parn, of course, is utterly oblivious to love, always repeats the same failed offensive tactics, and always loses his sword in battle against humans.

Nevertheless, Record of Lodoss War is a simple story, well told. It possesses a clear moral compass and unambiguously heroic protagonists always ready to do the right thing, contrasted powerfully against vicious villains and the horrors of war. Instead of scoring cheap points with the audience with predictable tricks, it places the audience front and centre through its focus on the story. Its sweeping scale, diverse cast, exotic locations and powerful magic exemplifies the breadth and depth of imagination that is the hallmark of the genre. Most of all, it is refreshingly free of the stale tropes that weigh down modern anime.

Record of Lodoss War is the progenitor of all sword and sorcery anime. Its skillful employment of the storyteller’s craft enables it to hold its own against many modern anime. It is a hallmark of the fantasy genre, tracing its lineage to the seminal Dungeons and DragonsRPG, itself inspired by the great pulp masters of the previous century. Record of Lodoss Wardemonstrates that modern stories don’t need flashy visuals, otaku appeal or fanservice moments; they just need to be simple stories, well told.

Anime Analysis: GATE – Thus the JSDF Fought There!

 

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GATE – Thus the JSDF Fought There had all the ingredients for awesomeness: modern military technology, high fantasy setting, magic, politics, war.

And squandered everything.

The anime started promisingly enough. A mysterious gateway opens in Ginza. An army of legionnaires, orcs and dragons pours out. The Japanese Self Defense Force responds decisively, defeating the invasion. The government declares the region beyond the Gate the Special Region, and sends the JSDF to explore the world that lies beyond the gate. The Japanese encounter the Romanesque Empire, setting the stage for a

Then it fell flat on its face.

I wanted to like the anime. But shortly after beginning the series, I couldn’t muster the interest to watch it regularly. I couldn’t bear to watch more than one episode at a time, and as the story progressed I found myself reaching for books instead of following the story. I was, quite simply, bored. And here is why.

Itami Youji is Boring

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Slacker.

Second (later First) Lieutenant Itami Youji’s claim is the very model of a modern major otaku. He is a slacker, obsessed with his hobbies, and has a penchant for being extremely friendly with his male subordinates.

He is also Ranger-qualified and a trained Special Forces operator.

First reaction:

It’s hard to believe that Itami has what it takes to be a Ranger or an S. These individuals are unmistakable. SOF selection screens for people with specific traits. As described by SOFREP, among these traits are stress resistance, extreme competitiveness, self-reliance, self-criticism and stoicism. Other traits include confidence, adaptability, resilience, and others useful to their mission set.

Itami is a slacker and a coward who runs away from tough assignments and difficult emotional decisions. He doesn’t show any particular tactical acumen, and in fact allows his subordinates to endanger each other (more on that later). He doesn’t pick up on his inter-team friction or the dynamics of the girls surrounding him. He isn’t seen training as hard as an SOF-qualified soldier would. He doesn’t demonstrate the hyper-competitiveness, self-motivation or stoicism needed for long-term operations. He has heart and treats the people of the Special Region with compassion, and occasionally demonstrates a grasp of politics and insight, but otherwise there is nothing that marks him as an SOF-trained soldier. In his own words, he’s a soldier only because he wants money to support his hobbies. (And, really, there are better and safer ways to do that.)

The key issue is that Itami is an otaku first and an S second. Itami perfectly fits the otaku stereotype, except that he is a bit more social and happens to be a soldier. He is a Potato Protagonist, allowing the otaku in the audience to insert themselves into his shoes. Itami is an S only because the creators needed to justify how he has the skills he displayed in the series — and to create the fantasy that otaku can also be heroes. The creators of the franchise elected to pander to the audience, and in doing so created a dull and unbelievable character.

What they should have done is to make him an S first and an otaku second. They should have either explained why he’s with a conventional unit, or made him an S performing special missions inside the Special Region. By giving Itami the character traits of a special operator, he would immediately stand out from the other generic protagonists that populate Japanese media. Making him an otaku would be the icing on the cake: nobody really expects an S to be an otaku, but since everybody needs hobbies, this little detail would humanise him.

Itami the S could have been amazing. Itami the otaku is flat.

So is his harem.

The Harem is Boring

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10000% zanier than their actual portrayal.

For a harem series to work, every female in the harem has to leave an impact on the other characters and on the world. Their characters need to be memorable, their interactions hilarious, and their presence significant. If a harem character doesn’t leave a mark on the world, and thus on the viewer, she is a flat character and can be erased. When everyone in the harem fails to leave an impact, the story has failed.

Lelei La Lalena is a 15-year-old sorceress with a knack for learning and for magic. She is among the first named characters from the Special Region to become fluent in Japanese, and to apply modern scientific principles to her studies. She could have been a major player in shaping the world beyond the Gate. However, she spends most of the anime as an interpreter and casts the odd sleep spell. While interpreters serve a vital role, they do not merely translate: they explain and smooth over cultural differences, facilitate transactions, develop a network of vital contacts and help both parties get what they want. Lelei does none of this. Likewise, in the major combat scenes, Lelei doesn’t provide magical support until the plot demands it. (Which is another knock against Itami: an S would want to know what the people under his command can do, and deploy them appropriately.) Aside from translating conversations, Lelei leaves little impact on most of the anime.

Rory Mercury is an immortal demigoddess with the body of a 13-year old and carries a massive halberd. She has a penchant for gothic lolita wear, and is inexplicably attracted to Itami. She is allegedly the Apostle of the war god Emroy, but she serves no religious functions or duties in-story. Rory is seen slaughtering soldiers of the Empire, but nobody contemplates the full implications of an Apostle of Emroy siding with the JSDF. There is no discussion of how, exactly, she became an Apostle. Aside from fanservice moments, Rory doesn’t add much to the story.

Tuka Luna Marceau is a High Elf who happens to be the Team Load. Prowess in archery aside, her sole contribution to the story is her mental breakdown and subsequent treatment of Itami as her father. This catalyses the Fire Dragon arc. Otherwise, she essentially fades into the background for most of the story.

Yao is a Dark Elf who is the other catalyst of the Fire Dragon arc. Other than being marginally less incompetent than Tuka, she leaves little impression. Which is a shame. She was chosen by her people to recruit the JSDF to destroy the dragon, and demonstrated some ability in psychological manipulation to force Itami to come to her aid. But after the arc is complete, that part of her personality goes out the window and she becomes Generic Battle Harem member #1847.

None of the harem members in GATE have a sense of personality or history, none of them employ their full range of skills, and indeed none of them serve any major purpose other than fanservice. While an action-oriented story with poor characters can be salvaged if the action makes sense, the action also fails.

Action Scenes are Boring

The signature of GATE is the clash between a modern military and a fantasy Roman Empire. Every major combat scene ends in a curbstomp — but the curbstomps are unsatisfying to the educated viewer.

Observe the following scene.

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It’s one thing for an immortal demigoddess to recklessly enter the fray. It’s quite another for a mere human to do so.

The JSDF’s chief advantage is their technology. If Itami were an S, he’d immediately understand that the best tactic is to maintain distance and gun down the attackers. Instead, he allows Kuribayashi to perform a suicide charge on the enemy with her bayonet.

And somehow, she wins.

Modern infantry barely spend time training for close combat. They have to be proficient in an array of skills, such as marksmanship, signals or first aid, and martial arts is the least important among them. The primary purpose of bayonet and martial arts training for line infantry is to develop aggression. After basic training, bayonets in most militaries are kept permanently scabbarded. For regular troops, the utility of hand-to-hand training lies in capturing people when it is too inconvenient to kill them, or to fight off a close-range ambush. Kuribayashi is a recon trooper: her training would be focused on reconnaissance and breaking contact. She isn’t an SOF type who may have to eliminate threats in close quarters, so she wouldn’t receive the kind intensive training needed to become a true human weapon.

Contrast this with the brigands. They are deserters of the Imperial army, which are based on the Roman legions. They would have spent their entire careers training to fight in close quarters in tight formation. Team tactics and melee combat would be second nature to them. They may not know what a rifle is, but with a bayonet a rifle resembles a spear, and these brigands would know how to handle spears. The enemy would have far more training and experience with melee combat than Kuribayashi would ever have.

Instead of utilising the Japanese firepower advantage, Kobayashi insists on trying to fight the enemy at their own game — in the process entering everybody else’s arcs of fire. This is, again, suicidal: if the JSDF troops needed to bring on the hate, she would be hit in the back.

Warriors fight alone, but soldiers fight in teams. Combined arms, teamwork and discipline are hallmarks of modern small unit tactics. They spell the difference betwene life and death. Kuribayashi’s impulsiveness jeapordised her own survival, and with that the rest of her team, simply to satisfy her ego.

Watch this scene in the Imperial Palace, where you see the same dynamic playing out.

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In both action scenes, when Kuribayashi shows up, the enemy conveniently forgets their armor, their weapons and tactics. Instead of swarming her from all sides, they fight her one-on-one. When the guns come out, the enemies just stand still and let themselves be massacred. They don’t take advantage of reload times and won’t attack until Kuribayashi has finished mounting her bayonet. Kuribayashi, in turn, does the biologically impossible: she is seen bulldozing a massive brigand out of the way, manhandling larger and stronger opponents with single blows, and moving much faster than trained swordsmen who aren’t laden down with gear.

The action scenes are unbelievable because they follow story logic. In stories, you begin with small scenes and build up the intensity to hit the climax. Likewise, the action scenes start with Kuribayashi engaging the enemy in single combat, then escalating into massacres.

In combat, you want to do the opposite. Start with maximum firepower to shock and overwhelm the enemy, then dial down the violence to finish off the survivors. Doing it the other way around, like Itami’s team, would give the enemy time and space to react. Worse, by allowing Rory and/or Kuribayashi to charge ahead of the group, the team is guaranteeing fratricide. Once again, this tells me that Itami is an idiot.

The action scenes are all about Girl Power, undercutting the pseudo-realistic tone the anime is going for. By employing Strong Female Action Characters instead of proper military tactics, the anime continues to pander to the lowest common denominator.

This is a shame, because there is an easy fix to the situation that satisfies both story andmilitary logic.

Start with firepower. Have Itami and the team mow down the enemy with automatic fire. Nonetheless, the enemy continues to hurl themselves at the Japanese, closing in to melee range. They let their rookies and new meat eat the bullets, allowing the veterans to engage the Japanese at their preferred range. The combat quickly descends into a desperate life-or-death struggle at close quarters. Of course, in a realistic setting it means Itami and his team will face the real risk of severe injury or death, and that would be a bit inconvenient.

With his poor tactics and inability to control his subordinate, Itami should have died at the Battle of Italica. His survival tells us something critical: the enemy is incompetent.

The Enemy is Boring

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Overconfident inflexible goons in Roman dress, proudly sponsored by TropeCo

The Empire is supposed to be a powerful human polity whose influence is felt across the Special Region, boasting the most powerful military and richest treasury among the known powers. But their actions tell a different story.

Whenever the Empire encounters the JSDF, they are soundly defeated. Yet the Empire continues to adopt the same strategies and tactics, sending armies to the meatgrinder with hardly an eyeblink. Other factions that know of the JSDF do the same thing, with the same results.

This is the definition of insanity. And incompetence.

The Japanese are not invincible.

Magic is not unknown to the people of the world, so why doesn’t the Empire have magicians? Why aren’t these sorcerers being put to work reinforcing body armor, destroying the JSDF from a distance, studying the Japanese technology or otherwise nullifying their firepower advantage? Since everybody knows you can’t face the JSDF in a stand-up fight, why won’t the Empire send spies, terrorists and assassins to wreak havoc at the Japanese base-cum-refugee camp in Alnus? If regular troops can’t kill dragons easily, why won’t the Empire investigate how to tame them?

Sure, the Emperor is supposed to be arrogant and stubborn, but one does not become an Emperor of a vast Empire by being a military idiot. At the very least, he’d have advisors and generals who would suggest and test other strategems, making full use of the Empire’s resources instead of attempting conventional battle.

This stupidity isn’t limited to the Empire either. When the harem visits Japan, nations jealous of Japan’s access to the Special Region attempt to kidnap the harem. They begin by disrupting the travel schedule, then deploy wetwork teams to kidnap them at a hot spring.

Once again, this sequence follows story logic instead of military logic. In a story you’ll want ominous foreshadowing and brief tastes of the adversary’s power to set the stage. In GATE, the enemy does this by shutting down trains and sending a thief to steal Rory’s halberd. In reality, you do not want the target of a deniable operation to know that you’re coming for him. Demonstrations of power aren’t merely wasted effort; they tell the target that he is on a hitlist. It’s far better to gather in secrecy and strike only when the time is right.

Of course, if GATE did that, it wouldn’t have an excuse to reveal Itami’s ex-wife.

It gets worse. The battle at the hot springs begins with Japanese Special Forces taking out threats with suppressed weapons. But suppressed weapons aren’t whisper-quiet. They eliminate muzzle noise and dampen the report. Threats downrange can still hear you; they just can’t tell where the shots are coming from. The wetwork teams would have heard the gunfire and reacted accordingly. Instead, they continued blundering about in the dark. Later, the survivors run into each other, in the open, in front of the bathhouse, completely violating all military tactics.

They are supposed to be hardened SOF troops, but all I see are rookie airsofters playing with guns.

The adversaries in GATE do not pose any significant threat to the Japanese. Not tactically or strategically. Their sheer ineptitude is the only reason the JSDF is unchallenged and, more to the point, why Itami continues to draw breath.

What Could Have Been

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The greatest knock against GATE is that it could have been awesome.

All the ingredients were in place. An Empire divided between hawks and doves, complicated by the hawks using high magic and low tech to credibly challenge the JSDF, the doves being arrested as traitors, and the fence-sitters wondering how to preserve the Empire. A Japan that has to fend off the ambitions of rival nations and deal with domestic pressure as the casualties mount. Rory Mercury being used by the Japanese for anti-Empire propaganda. The JSDF learning the same lessons the Americans did, that technology is no guarantee of victory. An Imperial Sorcerer Corps and Dragon Force taking to the field in desperate battles against the JSDF, while Imperial spies and terrorists stalk Base Camp Alnus to study the Japanese, steal their weapons, incite the refugees, assassinate their leaders, and poison food and water. The JSDF struggling to adapt to new tactics. Cultural and religious clashes in Camp Alnus flaring into dissatisfaction, resentment and conflict. Lelei saving her people from Imperial conscription. Tuka and Yao trying to convince their respective races to take sides in the war. Itami and his battle harem fighting fires all over the Special Region, utilizing firepower and diplomacy to save the day and bridge both worlds.

The world of GATE was rich with potential, but it was all wasted. Instead of exploring the evolution of war, GATE had simple curbstomps. Magic became a curio. Religions and culture have little bearing until it’s time to trot out the gods. Politics is defined by simple dichotomies of peace/good and war/evil. Action scenes are about Girl Power instead of emphasizing the differences in technology, tactics and procedures.

GATE could have been great. But by pandering to otaku, GATE remarkable only for its fanservice and utter lack of depth.

Anime Analysis: Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash

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Party wipe in the first five minutes.

If the anime adaptation of Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash were set in a realistic and unforgiving world, the main cast would have been slaughtered in the first fight scene. Fortunately for them, they somehow blunder their way out and live to fight another die. Unfortunately, the sequence underscores the unreality of the series, placing Grimgar in that nebulous zone between fantasy and realism.

In contrast to most fantasy stories commonly seen in Japanese media, Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash adopts a mundane approach. There are no grand quests or epic adventures, powerful villains or magical weapons, just a band of young people trying to make their way in a strange new world by hunting monsters. Driven more by character drama and interactions than by plot, the anime explores loss and grief and emotional bonds between people.

Alas, its attempts at emotional realism doesn’t translate to the realism in the rest of the story.

So-called Setting

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Pretty pastel colours won’t compensate for a lack of sense.

The setting makes no sense. The tiny slice of Grimgar that the characters inhabit do not exist independently of the characters. Once the party leaves town, it’s as if the town, and everything and everyone in it it, ceases to exist.

When the cast arrives in the world of Grimgar, they discover they have no memories of the past and no idea how they got there. They decide to serve as ‘Volunteer Soldiers’, the world’s equivalent of adventurers, to make a living. Starting as trainees, they must hunt monsters, sell their remains, and earn enough money to become full-fledged Volunteer Soldiers. This is where the setting runs into issues.

In true RPG fashion, the characters sign up at various Guilds to learn a job. After paying a membership fee, they enjoy seven days of training before being left to fend for themselves as trainee Volunteer Soldiers. The Guilds themselves serve no major purpose: they do not represent the interests of their members, they do not participate in politics, and they do not organise expeditions. It’s as if the only reason the Guilds exist is to make money off membership fees and provide skills training.

In such a setting, you’d think the Guilds would treat their members as investments instead of expendable spear fodder. Seven days isn’t anywhere near enough to turn someone into a competent fighter, and it shows. The cast of Grimgar are the leftovers people nobody else wants to party with. In their initial fight scenes they are hopelessly outmatched and utterly incapable of fighting. In a realistic setting, this means that the Guilds will be sending people off to die in droves. They aren’t going to make much money, if at all.

Likewise, while there are religions in Grimgar, they don’t seem to serve any purpose except being the functional equivalent of Guilds. The one time a temple is shown, it’s for a funeral. The priests do not seem to serve any religious purpose except for casting healing magic, in which case they might as well be white mages. There are no holy books, no divine teachings, nothing that marks them as religions as opposed to guilds with funny rituals.

Then comes the question of the economy. Volunteer Soldiers make money by hunting monsters and selling loot, including monster parts. Why are these parts useful? Why is there demand for these goods? Who uses these items and for what purpose? Ranta the Dark Knight offers monster parts in exchange for a Vice, but that is the only time a monster part is seen to have utility. There is no sense of a living economy in Grimgar; for all intents and purposes the scavenged monster parts might as well be vendor trash.

As for the monsters themselves, why are humans hunting them? Why are they roaming the world? What do they want? If they pose such a threat that humans are incentivised to kill them on sight, then why isn’t there a formal military hunting down and destroying these monsters? Why is the task of defending humans from monsters left to roaming packs of Volunteer Soldiers who lack skills and experience?

It becomes painfully obvious that the world of Grimgar runs on role playing game tropes to the exclusion of authenticity. Everything that exists serves the characters, and by extension, the viewer. The monsters create a sense of threat. The economy grinds down the party, forcing them to make tough financial choices. The Guilds teach skills, but nothing more. This is the kind of worldbuilding you expect from a game.

In a game, the player engages the mechanics first and story second. The player doesn’t need to worry the things that don’t concern his party; he just needs to breeze through the storyline and the world so he can get on with slaying monsters and picking up loot. While it would be nice if the game lore talks about monsters, politics and the economy, it is not necessary to enjoy the game or even run a game.

In a story, however, the setting must hold together as a coherent whole, as the characters will be doing more in the setting than just hunting monsters and picking up loot. Indeed, the Grimgar anime tries to show this by following characters in their off-time as they haggle in the marketplace, enjoy meals, and do other mundane things. Beyond the superficial level, though, you’ll quickly realise that Grimgar’s setting simply doesn’t hold together.

To create the feel of a living, breathing world, a fantasy setting must exist on its own, independent of the characters. The characters may change the society they live in, but the setting itself must justify and sustain its continued existence without the characters’ input. Otherwise, the society wouldn’t exist without them, which is ridiculous if the characters are newcomers to the world.

Contrast Grimgar’s setting with Danmachi. In this world, there is an enormous labyrinth under the town of Orario that spawns endless numbers of monsters, which possess magic stones at their cores. These magic stones are inherently valuable, as their stored magic can be used for cooking, water purification and other necessary activities. This generates demand for the stones, which justifies the existence of adventurers who brave the dungeon to kill monsters and recover stones, and the existence of an Adventurer’s Guild which trades these stones for money and regulates the activities of adventurers. The Guild can sell the recovered stones to merchants for a tidy profit, ensuring its continued existence, and the merchants can conduct commerce with these stones. Such wealth would naturally create the conditions for a dungeon-based economy to spring up around Orario. Orario itself doesn’t need a formal army to fight monsters, since the monsters are usually confined to the dungeon, some adventurers are one man or one woman armies, and the most powerful Familias are small armies unto themselves.

The setting of Danmachi feels more coherent than Grimgar because it is justified and self-sustaining in-story, much like real-world societies. While Grimgar deliberately poses many questions and leaves them unanswered, there must be a rational explanation for settings and institutions, even if they are implied instead of explicitly stated. Otherwise, what we have is a half-baked world, fit only for D&D games.

Empty Violence

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GOBLIN uses EYE POWER! It’s not very effective…

I don’t watch anime for action scenes. I’m invariably disappointed if I do. Grimgar is no different.

Grimgar tries to use many tricks to portray the party’s lack of skills and the impact of violence. Under the Scope talks specifically the use of weight, both physical and emotional. In my view, though, the weight makes the action scenes fail.

Let’s start with physical weight. Knife-wielding characters move and strike swiftly. Characters with swords move a tad slower and swing their weapons through large arcs. Moguzo with his oversized longsword swings his weapon with the awkwardness and authority you’d expect from a heavy weapon. It appears intuitive, but to people who practice weapon-based arts, this portrayal of weight falls flat.

As a rule, weapons are closer and faster than you expect. Watch this clip of a knife back cut. Blink and you will miss it. Likewise, when facing a sword cut thrown with full power and intent, you’ll only have fractions of a second to react. A polearm, wielded properly, isn’t much slower. As Metatron points out, great swords aren’t enormously heavy.

Contrary to anime portrayals, weapons can’t be clumsy and heavy: such weapons are hard to wield and will leave the user vulnerable. We see this in the early episodes, when Moguzo’s swings are clumsy and throw him off-balance. Weapons must be light enough to allow the user to recover and reorient after a swing. Heavy weapons will kill their users — they can only exist in a fantasy setting with superstrong users who can wield such weapons with ease or in a world where enemies that don’t know how to take advantage of awkward blows. Grimgar chooses the latter approach, degrading the perception of the threat the monsters pose.

Other tired tropes show up. Characters block sword blows with knives, never mind that the velocity, mass and inertia of a sword would batter the knife away. Limb shots don’t count: characters with wounded limbs can continue fighting with that limb. Characters clash swords and push away at each other, turning a contest of skill into one of plain brute force.

In visual media, viewers have to be able to see the action. This probably explains at least in part why the awkwardly heavy weapon trope has endured for so long. However, the knowledgeable creator doesn’t have to rely on imagined weight to pull off exciting fight scenes. Junketsu no Maria has accurate portrayals of Historical European Martial Arts, with characters using proper techniques and tactics to defeat their opponents.

The psychological aspects of combat in Grimgar are also lacking. On The Scope makes good points about how the camera work, character portrayals and the like feel like the party is in a life-or-death struggle, but life-or-death fights go beyond that.

Throughout the fight scenes, especially early on, characters stand around and yell encouragement, make speeches or banter with each other. They stare at wounds and weapons in the middle of a fight. The goblins in turn stand around and make noise or wait until the humans act. Occasionally, after dodging an attack, goblins actually jeer instead of counterattacking. There are huge gaps in the action and too much hesitation on both sides.

This may be fine if you want to portray a group of incompetent characters, but the monsters suffer from this too. Nobody exploits the speeches, the in-party arguments and other gaps in the action. In a realistic world the monsters would press the advantage — especially the combat veterans. Without anyone displaying a killer instinct or at least training, there is no perception of killing intent. These gaps are counterproductive: instead of emphasising the emotional impact of the fight scene, they suck intensity from it. Indeed, Minato’s early speech on fighting comes off as the producers trying too hard to convince the viewer that it’s a real fight.

Properly portraying incompetence requires knowledge of what it actually looks like. It’s more than just missed shots, awkward movements and bad plans. It’s clumsy footwork, resulting in trips and pratfalls and self-injury. It’s charging in recklessly and being flanked or surrounded by enemies. It’s falling for feints. It’s awkward body mechanics and poor posture, leading to reduced power, poor recovery, telegraphing and openings. Absolute newbies may even cut themselves with their own weapons.

Likewise, fights are governed by more than weight. They are about range, timing, footwork, beats, body mechanics, openings, lines and angles, teamwork, and avoiding fratricide and self-injury. Nobody — not the humans or the monsters — demonstrate more than a passing familiarity with these concepts, not even the more dangerous kobolds near the end of the series.

In a realistic world, a single mistake in combat is fatal. Yet characters keep recovering from these mistakes without penalty. This makes the major fight scenes feel fake. It’s as if both sides are just taking turns to exchange blows instead of actively trying to kill each other. This in turn makes the fight scenes feel artificial: the human characters aren’t actually at risk since they’re fighting unskilled threats, so whenever they are wounded it becomes a plot contrivance instead of an organic consequence of fighting skilled foes. Likewise, there is no sense that the characters actually improve their fighting skills, instead relying on planning and sheer luck to compensate for poor combat ability.

At the strategic level, the monsters show their stupidity. While they eventually adapt to human tactics, they have no grasp of higher-level strategy or even basic security. Early on, when the heroes are observing a party of goblins, the goblins are busy drinking without anyone pulling security. The goblins know that humans are hunting them, but some insist on traveling alone. When the humans raid a ruin occupied by goblins, the goblins don’t increase security, hunt for intruder or even react to assassinations of their kind until a significant plot point–making that point feel artificial instead of an organic consequence. Likewise, when the humans go hunting in a mine filled with kobolds, the kobolds have no security measures in place, no quick response force, and instead of stationing their elites near the entrance so they can efficiently fight off invaders, they are positioned deep inside the mine because…reasons.

You’d expect this from a game. Game designers need to give the player a chance to win and explore interesting settings in depth. To this end, game designers have to create a difficulty curve for the player, and create moments of drama only when the player is familiar enough with the setting and the monsters to be victorious. But in a story, this makes the monsters appear no smarter than a pack of dogs.

The characters are bad at fighting, and the monsters are only slightly worse. It’s the only reason there wasn’t a party wipe in the first five minutes.

Alleged Characters

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Band of LARPers

It’s clear why the main characters of Grimgar are at the bottom of the heap. The real wonder is how they are still alive.

The anime is marked by its slow-paced character-development. This might make sense if the story takes place under ordinary circumstances. But venturing into monster-infested ruins and forests to kill goblins for money is not ordinary, and the anime fails to account for this.

The characters lack curiosity about the world. They don’t research the world, they don’t investigate how society works, they don’t even talk to other Volunteer Soldiers to discuss the monsters. Even the notion of going to a pub to socialise with other Volunteer Soldiers is an alien concept to most of the party until halfway through the first arc of the series.

The party also lacks imagination. When funds are low, the party decides to take risks to hunt more monsters. Never mind that the party has a hunter, a thief, and a warrior talented in cooking or sculpting. The hunter doesn’t hunt game animals to ease their food expenses. The thief won’t engage in thievery, not even stealing from goblins instead of humans. Nobody talks about scavenging the monsters’ equipment, or at least explain why they won’t or can’t use them — and nobody discusses selling the monsters’ gear as well. Likewise, nobody pressures Moguzo to sell his carvings for spare cash, or at least to not waste time and money buying and carving up wood when they don’t any money to spare. You’d think that people who are desperate for money would rack their brains to think of how to make more money and reduce expenses — but our party is evidently too stupid to do so.

Beyond their intellectual failings, it’s clear the party isn’t serious about their profession. Many scenes in the anime involve the characters talking about mundane, everyday things. The party is never shown practicing with their weapons, rehearsing new tactics or discussing how to defeat the monsters. They get better at planning, to be sure, but planning alone isn’t enough. No plan survives first contact with the enemy, and if the party isn’t familiar with each other’s roles and actions on target they will trip up each other and die. They are counting on live battle experience to get better at execution, which is pretty stupid: you always practice new tactics, weapons and ideas in a safe environment so that when you make mistakes people won’t die and you can correct them without having to adjust on the fly.

Somehow, the party outlives their mistakes and gains battle experience, but they are not changed by the violence they have inflicted. Veterans quickly learn how to adapt to war. It’s in the little things: readjusting their gear for better fit and speedier deployment, taking up tactical formation while travelling to better respond to ambushes, warily scanning for threats everywhere they go. None of this happens. The characters don’t even suffer any lasting psychological stress or trauma from killing or from being wounded. They do experience grief, but after the initial episodes they themselves are not affected by the violence they personally deliver.

The characters treat combat lightly. They approach it like a job or a game instead of desperate life-or-death struggles that don’t seem to serve any larger purpose. The first couple of episodes tries to lend emotional weight to combat, but this tone is not maintained throughout the series. The party is incredibly casual about violence, not caring about training or rehearsals — because in a world of poorly-choreographed action scenes, there are no penalties for ill-preparedness until the plot demands it. This lack of seriousness contrasts sharply with the earnestness of the emotional scenes delivered throughout the anime. Instead of sympathizing with the characters, I felt myself wondering why they care so little about their own lives.

Once again, these aspects can be overlooked in a game, since players want to get on to the exciting bits and skip the boring parts. But in a story, where characters have to appear authentic, the main cast of Grimgar come off less as Volunteer Soldiers and more like teen LARPers.

Conclusion

Grimgar tries to be realistic, but it’s too heavily wedded to unjustified and inexplicable RPG tropes. Instead of being a hybrid RPG / fantasy story like *Saga of the Shield Heroes * or an outright RPG-esque or fantasy story, it occupies a nebulous middle ground with the worst of both worlds.

If a story world is meant to be realistic, and if characters don’t respect the laws of the world, then the characters must be severely punished. It is simply cause and effect. Failure to uphold this law of storytelling undermines the perception of realism, and with it, the entire story. Conversely, if a story world runs on casual gaming tropes, then this must be made explicitly clear as early and as often as possible, so that the consumer will apply game logic instead of real world logic to the story. If a story wants to walk the middle ground between realistic fantasy and RPG fantasy, then it must strike a delicate balance while remaining internally coherent and believable.

If Grimgar were a video game, none of these issues would have mattered. But since Grimgar is a story, the clash between realism and RPG tropes fatally undermines it.

All images from the anime Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash

Space Opera is about Opera

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Tor launched #SpaceOperaWeek to promote and discusse space opera. In 24 hours, the Pulp Revolution launched a memetic revolution and claimed the hashtag for its own. Now, practically every hashtag and Internet discussion about #SpaceOperaWeek is dominated by the PulpRev folks. This stunning success exposes a hard truth: Tor has no idea what space opera is about.

Tor says ‘Space Opera is at its best when it merges the sweeping, big stakes stories with ordinary human drama‘. That is a laughable notion.

Space opera is about Opera: enormous stakes, huge conflicts, sweeping scope, massive drama, larger-than-life characters. Readers do not want to read page after page of mind-numbing tedium; they already live that in everyday life. They read fiction, especially science fiction, to escape reality, not to delve deeper into it.

David Weber’s Honor Harrington series is a classic example of space opera: interstellar diplomacy and warfare, grand strategy and fleet tactics, conspiracies and drama, high technology and higher stakes. The series doesn’t have Admiral Harrington spending entire novels caught up in mindless staff meetings and tedious paperwork; that’s not the point of space opera. People don’t want to read boring stuff, and ordinary, everyday life is boring. If they want to read about ordinary human drama, that’s what literary fiction is for.

Tor’s assertion to the contrary demonstrates a lack of awareness of what readers want. But that’s what you get when you bring aboard a writer who admits she is “not really a Space Opera kind of girl“.

Space opera is about, well, fun. As John Del Arroz points out on the Castalia House blog, space opera doesn’t have to realistic; it just has to be fun.

Not that there isn’t room for realism if it doesn’t subtract from the story. It just has to be done right.

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Science fiction celebrates the vasty deep of the galaxy, marvels at the strange wonders born in the light of alien suns, and lauds the power of the imagination. Today, sci fi is split into ‘realistic’ hard science fiction and ‘unrealistic’ soft science fiction, with works assessed by how closely they hew to known science. The old pulp masters would have laughed at such a notion. But it doesn’t mean that it’s not useful.

Hard science fiction is the fiction of probability. It celebrates the glory of science today, showing us what we can do with what we already know. It is not about fixing your imagination into tedious todays and stagnant yesterdays, or locking your brain into the realism box. Science constantly changes; a hard sci fi story cannot possibly remain completely accurate forever, nor should it. Instead it should strive to show what humans can achieve simply with what we know today, and build a ladder for us to reach for brighter and more glorious tomorrows.

Starship Operators is perhaps the hardest science fiction anime today. There is no sound in space; the sound is explicitly described as dubbed in for viewers. Battles take hours or days, with ships jostling for position. The only artificial gravity aboard a ship comes from rotating wheels. Light-speed lag significantly affects tactics and combat.

Yet at its heart, Starship Operators is about a group of plucky space cadets waging a one-ship war against an interstellar superpower to free their country while being sponsored by a television company. It doesn’t let science get in the way of the story. Hence there are stealth ships, plasma weapons, faster-than-light travel, and a disturbing lack of thermal radiators. The science in the anime are simply the props that allow the story to be told.

For ultra-diamond-hard science fiction, bar none, look no further than Children of a Dead Earth. It’s a space warfare simulator, designed with the express purpose of exploring what warfare in space would look like. Everything in the game obeys the laws of the universe: thermal stress and radiation, orbital mechanics , the rocket equation, Young’s Modulus and more. To fully appreciate the game you need to have an in-depth understanding of lasers, nuclear reactors, thrust and a dozen other fields. No fantasy physics here – at least, until you unlock the black box design module.

Children of a Dead Earth succeeds because of these limitations. The creator produced a compelling story universe in which humanity has colonised the planets, asteroids and moons of the Solar System. It is a universe riddled with superpower conflict and interfactional rivalries, culminating in a shooting war where fleets of atomic rockets attempt to destroy each other with high-intensity lasers, hypervelocity projectiles and nuclear missiles. While this isn’t strictly space opera, a setting like this demonstrates what can be done today — so imagine what can be done tomorrow.

Soft science fiction is the fiction of possibility. It’s not completely accurate, but it doesn’t have to be. Instead, soft sci fi sets the stage for epic tales of tragedy and heroism and sorrow and hope. It takes the readers to journeys to far-off worlds, fires their imagination with depictions of Super Awesome Tech, and the very best stories point the reader to greater truths about the nature of humanity.

Star Wars (the original trilogy!) is an enduring classic of soft science fiction. It has Space Magic, wandering samurai with energy blades and mind powers, galaxy-spanning polities and world-killing superweapons. It’s not realistic and pretend to be. It doesn’t bother with ‘ordinary human drama’, focusing instead on the high drama of good versus evil and the struggle between the Light and Dark sides of the Force. The original trilogy focuses on being fun, and that is why its legacy endures to this day.

Looking further into the past, we see the old masters of pulp writing space opera with an emphasis on opera. E. E. Smith’s seminal Lensman series exemplifies this: elder alien races manipulating younger ones to achieve their ends, superweapons and psionics aplenty, massive space battles with the casual destruction of worlds, and titanic struggles between the forces of civilization and tyranny. Compared to such luminence, mere human drama means nothing.

While it may sometimes be useful to divide science fiction between hard and soft, it is merely a paradigm, to be adopted when useful and discarded when not. Consider the case of John C. Wright’s Superluminary. It features all manner of ‘soft’ sci fi technology–casual biomodification, psionics, the titulary faster-than-light travel mechanism–but the story universe is carefully constructed, with the technology obeying the rules of the universe as faithfully as any other piece of high technology in a work of hard science fiction. With these sci fi elements, Wright tells a story of a young man who must seize the throne of Humanity and lead mankind in a desperate war against a star-spanning race of vampires who have conquered the universe and seek to consume everything. Nowhere near ‘realistic’, but it is an epic space opera told in the grand tradition of the old pulp masters – and vastly more enjoyable than stories of mere human drama.

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Science fiction is about *fiction* and space opera is about *opera*. If people want to read about science or space, there are plenty of non-fiction books, magazines and journals to choose from. If people want to delve into ordinary human drama, they just have to live ordinary lives or pick up lit fic. The science in science fiction makes the fiction *fun*, and the space in space opera is the setting for the opera.

Science fiction is not about dragging readers through muck and demanding they derive pleasure from it. Science fiction turns their eyes to the stars, and space opera takes them there. Space opera is about opera: the glory, the terror, the joy, the horror, the sorrow and the wonder that awaits the intrepid starman who dares to brave the infinite expanse.

Thoughts on the Isekai Genre

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Fantasy writers need to solve two problems. They need to create a believable fantasy world significantly different from ours that allows for fantasy elements. But this world and the people who live in it can’t be so fantastic that they alienate their audience.

The isekai story offers a neat solution.

‘Isekai’ is Japanese for ‘other world’ or ‘parallel world’. In this other world, the author is free to dream up societies, fantasy races, magic and other fantastical elements without being hemmed in by such minor things as history or the laws of physics. To create a connection with modern readers, the author plucks a character or a group of characters from the real world (typically 21st century Japan) and plunks them into the parallel world. Adventures and hijinks follow.

At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work.

Three Kinds of Isekai Stories

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I’ve noticed three different types of isekai stories: transportation, reincarnation and video game.

Transportation stories involve traversable gateways or abductions. The protagonist may be mysteriously transported to an alternate world by means unknown to everyone. He may discover a portal, accidentally or otherwise, that leads into a parallel world. Or someone from that parallel world forcibly transports the protagonist to that world using summoning magic. Examples of such stories are Now and Then, Here and There, featuring a boy who is transported to a hellish dystopia, and Gate – Jietai Kare no Chi Nite, Kaku Tatakeri, in which a gateway to another world mysteriously appears in Ginza.

In such transportation tales, the protagonist must learn to adapt to his new environment while taking on quests and other missions. Heroes summoned from our world are typically selected to defeat a demon king or some other evil being, and must survive perils and overcome obstacles to achieve his goal. Heroes who pass through a gateway that allows free two-way travel typically serve as a bridge between this world and the other, passing back and forth to exchange or transfer technology, goods and knowledge. More realistic tales have the hero learn the local language and/or the locals learning Japanese; in others, the transportation process mysteriously grants the hero the ability to speak in tongues or the locals mysteriously speak fluent Japanese.

Reincarnation tales involve protagonists being reborn in fantasy worlds, usually retaining or recalling their memories of their past lives. This neatly sidesteps the question of how the protagonist can understand the natives of the fantasy world, since he would have grown up learning and speaking the language. Reincarnated protagonists will tend to use their knowledge to single-handedly spark an industrial revolution, drive themselves towards excellence, or otherwise gain an advantage over others. Moshuku Tensei features a NEET who decides to make the most of his new life after being reborn in a parallel world, while Isekai Tensei Soudouki has a protagonist with three souls in his mind, all of whom use their respective knowledge to build a commercial empire and drag the rest of the land into modernity.

In video game stories, in addition to being plopped into a fantasy world, the protagonist discovers that the world runs on video game logic. Status windows, levels, unique skills, and health and mana points abound. In some stories, the protagonist was heavily involved in the game, perhaps as a player or game developer. In others, the protagonist doesn’t have such an advantage. Sword Art Online is perhaps the most well-known of this time, starring protagonists who have their consciousnesses transported to a game world, and quickly learn that death in the game means death in the real world.

As these worlds run on video game logic, realism tends to fly out the window. Either the transportation process grants the protagonist the ability to speak in tongues or everyone speaks Japanese. A person’s ability to fight, craft objects, recover from wounds and other such matters are governed largely by his stats. The transportation process may even grant special powers. Reading video game isekai stories can become the equivalent of reading a role playing game.

Cheat Characters

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Common to almost all isekai protagonists is that they possess a special power or knowledge after arrival, or the protagonist is already special prior to arrival. These cheats, as they are known in the genre, automatically elevate the protagonist above everybody else.

At the far end of the scale, the protagonist becomes stupendously overpowered early on. In Death March kara Hajimaru Isekai Kyousoukyouku, protagonist Satou is transported to a parallel world based on the game he is developing, and discovers he can cast a meteor shower three times. He promptly utilises the meteor showers to wipe out an army of orcs. In that instant, he hits the level cap and secures useful gear and vast treasures, effectively turning him into a walking god.

At the lower end, in Isekai Tensei Soudouki, protagonist Balud Cornelius shares his body with the soul of Warring States commander Oka Sadatoshi and otaku high schooler Oka Masaharu. None of them have any special powers, but commander Oka is an apex warrior while otaku Oka retains his knowledge of the twenty-first century. Together, the trio accomplish such wonders as inventing shampoo and treating cholera, leaving their mark on the world.

In the case of Gate, Itami Yoji is a First Lieutenant in the Japanese Ground Self Defense Force. He is a mundane human, but behind him is the might of the JGSDF. Through the gate, the JGSDF can funnel troops and resources into the parallel world, allowing them to dominate the land. Thus, the might of the all-powerful Empire easily collapses in the face of modern combined arms, and nigh-invincible dragons fall before explosives and Panzerfaust 3 rockets. Here, modern military technology is the superpower.

A superpowered isekai protagonist, when mishandled, turn the story into a clumsy self-insert power fantasy. The reader can put himself into the shoes of the protagonist and imagine that he is now the lord of the story universe. However, when the protagonist is so hilariously overpowered that nothing in existence can stand up to him, action scenes lose all drama. There is no suspense, no doubt that he will lose, no possibility that he will ever be defeated in battle. Boredom follows.

If an isekai story must have a superpowered MC, there are three ways to get around this. The first is to make the protagonist powerful enough to evoke the feel of a superhero fantasy, but not so much that he becomes a Boring Invincible Hero. Tate no Yuusha no Nariagari, Naofumi Iwatani has unmatched defensive ability, but thanks to the world’s video game logic, he has virtually no attack power and he is still not invulnerable. As he is forced to rely on his squishy companions to do the fighting, there remains the element of drama and suspense.

The second is to reverse the superpowered MC trope: give the protagonist a seemingly useless power, if at all, and force him to make his way in the world. Arifurte Shokugyou de Sekai Saikyou features Nagumo Hajime, a luckless young man transported to a parallel world only to find that he was granted mediocre stats and a useless class. After plummeting into the depths of a monster-filled dungeon, Nagumo must rely on all his wits to survive.

The last approach is to play the overpowered character trope for all its worth. Hellsing got away with starring an immortal and invincible vampire as the protagonist through his force of character. In the case of Jaryuu Tensei, the protagonist is reincarnated as a dragon. In his dragon form, he is so overpowered that nothing his enemies throw at him can do so much as leave a mark on his scales. The story becomes defined by his empathy towards everyone around him in spite of being an evil dragon instead of how he steamrolls over his enemies. While the outcome of action scenes in such cases are preordained, a flashy, cocky or humorous protagonist can inject emotional beats into the sequence, staving off boredom.

What’s So Special About Isekai?

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What’s the key difference between a standard fantasy story and an isekai story? The presence of someone from the real world. Isekai stories need to explore the fantasy world through the lens of the modern-day character. However, handled improperly, the isekai trope becomes a clumsy tool.

In *Isekai Houtei – Rebuttal Barrister*, Yuuto Shiba is a washed-up wannabe barrister. After he dies in a traffic accident, he is transported to a parallel world. In this world, the god has decreed that the Kingdom of Luanolde shall implement the law of Japan, and that Yuuto shall be a barrister. Quite mysteriously, everyone speaks Japanese (or Yuuto is suddenly fluent in the local language).

Such a forced introduction makes it transparently clear that the author is basically writing Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney WITH ELVES! Fortunately, the author ensures there is a clash of cultures to fuel drama and make the isekai elements relevant. In his first case, Yuuto must defend a half-elf, in a land that persecutes elves, against criminal charges laid by a noble, whose life and dignity the kingdom views as greater than that of a commoner. Later, he discovers more unpleasantness, such as the actual age of majority in the kingdom, that forces him to use his wits instead of just rote regurgitation of the law.

Without this collision of cultures, an isekai story just becomes a standard fantasy story. The isekai element becomes just a tool to lure in the reader and artificially create empathy.

By contrast the manga adaptation of *Tate no Yuusha no Nariagari* makes almost no references to Naofumi’s history as a displaced 21st century Japanese male. Aside from the occasional reminder about where he and the other heroes came from, Naofumi’s history plays no part in the story. We do not see him struggling to learn the local language or customs, no confusion over social protocols, no dietary incompatibilities or taboos, no significant employment of modern knowledge and technology, no indication that Naofumi came from a different world. If the Naofumi’s backstory were changed to ‘wanderer from a distant land’ or ‘teenager from the frontier seeking his fortune’, there would be no significant impact on the plot or character. The isekai element here is used simply to justify the fantasy elements, the video game logic, and to handwave Naofumi’s shield and defensive abilities – and even those can be justified using other tropes.

Isekai stories comprise of two key elements: a parallel world with fantastical elements distinct from our own, and a protagonist or protagonists who come from our world. For stories in this vein to realise their full potential, they must balance both halves to create a whole, while avoiding the pitfalls that lead to self-insert power fantasies. Done right, an isekai story shows the reader the best of both worlds.

Anime Analysis: Demi-chan wa Kataritai

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Cute monster girls doing cute things.

It’s tempting to summarise Demi-chan wa Kataritai (Interviews with Monster Girls) with that line, but the anime puts a fresh spin on an otherwise well-worn trope. An adaptation of the manga of the same name, Demi-chan wa Kataritai is a slice of life anime that posits the existence of demi-humans and explores the lives of four demi-humans in a high school in modern-day Japan.

As a slice of life anime, Demi-chan wa Kataritai has no overarching plot, no villains to defeat, no extended conflict to overcome. Without any of the elements that drive a plot, the franchise relies on its characters to sell the series.

And it does that in spades.

Four Monster Girls Walk Into A School…

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Takahashi Tetsuo is a high school biology teacher whose dearest wish is to meet demi-humans and learn more about him. By a stroke of fortune, when the school year begins, four demi-humans enter his school. He seeks them out and talks to them, leading to the titular interviews with monster girls.

Genki girl Takanashi Hikari is a vampire who drives much of the story’s comedic moments. By contrast, Machi Kyoko is a quiet and intelligent dullahan who secretly wishes for more human contact. Being a yuki-onna, Kusakabe Yuki represents Japanese folklore in the series. The final monster girl is Sato Sakie, a shy and awkward succubus who joins the school as a math teacher.

In this world, demi-humans represent a minority of the population (Machi is just one of three dullahans in existence), but at least in Japan they are accepted as regular people with special needs. The conflict between the demi-humans’ natures and their needs drive their respective arcs.

Hikari is the most well-adjusted demi-human, and she is the glue that bonds the rest of the cast. Her drama arc centres on her relationship with her twin sister Himari, who is a regular human, and her interactions with her fellow demi-humans and teachers. Machi, being a dullahan, has her head constantly detached from her body (it’s suggested that her neck is a wormhole joining her head and body), requiring her to learn how to adapt to the modern world. She longs for more social contact, but people feel awkward around her because of her head. By contrast, Kusakabe believes that she can accidentally harm people around her, and avoids getting too close to anyone. Sato’s arc is a variation of that theme: being a succubus, her body produces aphrodisiacs that drive men wild. She wonders if she will ever have a romantic relationship, and comes to believe that Takahashi is immune to her powers. (Spoiler: he isn’t.)

Demi-chan wa Kataritai finely balances the monster girls’ dual natures, highlighting both their monster and girl selves. Throughout the series, the audience is constantly reminded of their biology, expressed through their human selves. Hikari and Kusakabe are susceptible to heat, and as the story moves into summer, they start complaining about the sun and retreat to Takahashi’s air-conditioned biology preparation room. Kusakabe herself has a constantly cool body and needs to manage her body temperature. Being a dullahan, Machi feels safe and comforted when someone is holding her head. Sato wishes to be a responsible adult and teacher, so she dresses plainly and avoids touching males — and her lack of experience interacting with males comes painfully to the forefront when interacting with Takahashi.

This tension between the monster and girl selves drives the story, allowing Takahashi to shine.

Great Teacher Takahashi

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Lesser studios and creators would have treated the series as a harem story with a perverted pushover as the protagonist. Instead, both the anime and manga portray Takahashi as a teacher who is genuinely concerned about his students. He thinks, talks and acts like a teacher, offering counselling when they are troubled and scolding them when they underperform. In Sato’s case, he treats her like a colleague, going out of his way to hide his reaction to her aphrodisiac.

Like the rest of the cast, Demi-chan wa Kataritai constantly reminds the audience of Takahashi’s physiology and character. Takahashi is buff and strong: he is occasionally seen carrying heavy loads, and among the cast he carries Machi’s head the most. When interviewing the demi-humans, he showcases his knowledge of biology, and sets up impromptu experiments to learn more about them. When interacting with Sato, we see his iron will in resisting her aphrodisiac — and he actually succeeds. Mostly.

Takahashi’s portrayal as a competent, (literally) strong male is refreshing in an industry marked by bland and/or weak and/or perverted male protagonists. The default Western approach of having a Strong Female Character demonstrate her ‘strength’ by tearing down a male is conspicuously absent — the one time this happens the male was a creep who got was coming to him. Indeed, everybody is portrayed positively in the series, supporting each other instead of tearing them down. In modern-day entertainment, this is an unusual approach, and all the more refreshing for its positivity.

From Character, Tone

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The worldbuilding and character-building lead to a relaxed, light-hearted tone. None of the monster girls are monsters; they simply have biological quirks. Vampires don’t need to feed on human blood, yuki-onna can’t cause fatal cold spells, succubi don’t need to seduce men to survive, and dullahans aren’t innately dangerously. None of the demi-humans face widespread societal discrimination; indeed, all of them receive help from sympathetic authority figures.

Because of this approach, the drama in the series is heavily character-focused, revolving around how the main cast interact with other people. As the setting is limited to a high school context, there are no wider conflicts with higher stakes. With every character doing their best to accommodate and support each other, the moments of drama and teenage angst are easily and plausibly resolved within the length of a chapter instead of being drawn out. There are also plenty of comedic moments, further softening the tone and reinforcing Hikari’s role as the joker of the crew.

Demi-chan wa Kataritai demonstrates how character-building and worldbuilding influences the tone of a story. The story minimises opportunities for discrimination, oppression and physical conflict, focusing instead of social interactions and relationships. The series deftly balances the characters’ physiology and personality to produce a cheery, leisurely slice-of-life story punctuated with moments of drama and humour. It is highly recommended for people who want to see light-hearted slice-of-life tales and for creators looking to study the intersection between worldbuilding, character-building and story-telling.

Image credits:

  1. https://myanimelist.net/anime/33988/Demi-chan_wa_Kataritai
  2. http://elvortex.com/guia-de-animes-invierno-2017-parte-1/
  3. https://www.animenewsnetwork.com/news/2016-09-10/interviews-with-monster-girls-demi-chan-wa-kataritai-tv-anime-teaser-introduces-characters/.106315
  4. https://myanimelist.net/anime/33988/Demi-chan_wa_Kataritai/pics

Can post-cyberpunk fiction be superversive?

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“The important part in Cyberpunk is just that: it’s not the technology, it’s the feel. It’s getting that dark, gritty, rain-wet street feeling but at the same time getting that rock and roll, lost and desperate and dangerous quality. Cyberpunk is about that interface between people and technology, but not in that transhumanist way where it’s all about the technology changing or improving them. It’s about how people use things… Cyberpunk isn’t about saving humanity. It’s about saving yourself.”
Mike Pondsmith

Cyberpunk is the literature of subversion. There are no clean, shiny and prosperous utopian futures promised in old-school science fiction; here you find the dirty streets of dystopias born from the unholy union of untrammeled megacorporations and state power. Technology doesn’t elevate people; it twists them into man-machine hybrids, exposes their secrets for all to see, and creates fresh prisons for the mind and body. Heroes are dead and forgotten; in their places are marginalised, alienated loners at civilisation motivated only by self-preservation. Where the best of science fiction tries to take humanity to the stars, cyberpunk drags humanity into the gritty, nihilistic underbelly of the world.

By contrast, superversive fiction is fiction for a more civilised age. Where subversive fiction undermines, superversive fiction builds back up. The best superversive fiction is a celebration of the values and ideas that underpin civilisation: family, law and order, morality, religion, tradition. To quote from Russell Newquist, superversive fiction is marked by at least some of the following:

Heroes who are actually heroic. They don’t have to be heroic all of the time, or even most of the time. But when the time comes, they must actually be heroic.

People are basically good. Not all the time, not in every case – and certainly not every person. But basically.

Good Wins. Not every time – a good story always has setbacks in it. But evil winning is most definitely not superversive.

True love is real. Again, maybe not for everybody. But it’s real.

Beauty is real. It’s ok to show the warts. But show the beauty, too.

The transcendent is awesome. There’s no obligation to show any particular religion, or even really religion at all. But superversive literature should show the glory and splendor of the wider universe around us, and it should leave us in awe of it.

Family is good and important. Not every family, sure. But those are the exceptions, not the rule.

Civilization is better than barbarism. This doesn’t mean barbarians are evil, or that they aren’t fun. But in the end, they’re… well, barbaric.

Strength, courage, honor, beauty, truth, sacrifice, spirituality, and humility are virtues. This can be demonstrated by showing people breaking the virtues. But they must be recognized as virtues.

There is hope. Superversive stories should never leave the reader feeling despair.

Cyberpunk is opposed to superversive fiction at every level. There are no heroes, only blackhearted characters either performing fell deeds or manipulating people into performing them. Love and beauty are either alien or transient, and functional families are unheard of. There is no hope of transcendence, except maybe as a ghost in a machine. The primary characters reject civilisation and its virtues, instead living by their own codes at the edge of society. Cyberpunk fiction rarely has happy endings, and those that do tend to be bittersweet or temporary.

Blend everything together and you have a recipe for darkness-induced audience apathy.

Meaningful conflict is the heart of drama. Readers need to empathise with characters. Actions should not entirely be in vain. Evil is punished, good prevails, civilisation endures or evolves. Without these elements, it becomes exceedingly hard for a reader to care. Why should a reader care about a self-destructive misanthropic loner who remains a self-destructive misanthropic loner? Why should a reader be concerned about the fate of an oppressive dystopia? Why should a reader cheer on a traitor, a liar or a murderer with no redeeming traits? With such societies and characters, it takes great skill to hook a reader and keep him invested in the story — a skill few cyberpunk writers, if any, have. Indeed, it is telling that the authors once associated with cyberpunk no longer write cyberpunk.

Is there room for superversive cyberpunk?

Probably not, but that’s what post-cyberpunk is for.

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Epitomised by works like Ghost in the Shell, post-cyberpunk draws upon the cyberpunk ethos and places its own spin on things. Shaped by the technological development and societal attitudes of the 21st century, post-cyberpunk represents an evolution of cyberpunk without necessarily retaining its nihilistic post-modern attitudes.

As Mike Pondsmith says, cyberpunk isn’t about the technology, but the feel. It’s the contrast of high tech and low life, of desperate struggles in the dark, of how people use and abuse technology. Even with this aesthetic there is room for superversion.

Ghost in the Shell (the anime and manga, NOT the live-action movie) features a secret police officer who protects a future Japan against terrorists and corrupt bureaucrats while exploring heavy philosophical themes. Psycho-Pass stars an idealistic police officer who struggles to retain her humanity as she defends a dystopian police state. Deus Ex: Human Revolution and its sequel Mankind Divided features Adam Jensen, a former police officer and later counterterror agent who uncovers a conspiracy to rule the world. Watch_Dogs features hackers fighting a powerful megacorp and the omnipresent surveillance system it has created.

These stories are all called cyberpunk in the popular press. They certainly share the same ethos as older cyberpunk works. But instead of descending into the depths of nihilism, at the end of these stories their worlds are just a little better and brighter, and the characters emerge with their spirits tested but unbowed. Victories may be small, but they are meaningful to the characters and the story world.

Post-cyberpunk fiction can be bent to the ends of superversion without sacrificing the core aesthetic that defines it. In a dark, oppressive world, kindness and virtue shine brilliantly. Tsunemori Akane’s humanity and idealism stands in stark contrast to the inhumanity and utilitarianism of the Sibyl System. Adam Jensen can choose to spare every enemy he meets. By creating sharp contrasts of virtue and vice, humanity and alienation, idealism and cynicism, post-cyberpunk is able to unmask the heart of darkness while still making a stand for truth and beauty and justice.

Like cyberpunk, post-cyberpunk is still dark and gritty and dystopic. There is still plenty of chrome and tech, and there are no end of villains scheming in the night. But here, there is also room for hope. Ruthless megacorporations, politicians and criminals are held to account or punished for their misdeeds. Civilisation chugs along, and ordinary people are better able to live in peace. The Leviathan may not be slain, but you still retain your soul, and even an all-powerful state can be convinced to reform itself for the better. You may not be able to save humanity, but you can still save yourself and everyone else around you, and lay the foundations for a better tomorrow.

Post-cyberpunk may be as black as pitch, but the darkness accentuates the brilliance of a candle.

And the flame can be passed from candle to candle, fiction to consumer, heart to heart.


First image: Cyberpunk 2077 trailer
Second image: Psycho-pass anime poster

Retrospective: Ghost in the Shell (1995)

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When I first watched Ghost in the Shell, I was impressed by the fluid animations, the detailed visuals, the melancholic atmosphere and the slick action scenes. A dozen years later, after watching it again, I picked up the finer points my teenage self didn’t: the post-cyberpunk ethos, the characterisation, the tight storytelling, and most of all, the reversal of emphasis on philosophy and action.

When put together, Ghost in the Shell is a philosophy film disguised as a sci fi thriller.

(Spoilers ahead!)

Post-Cyberpunk, NOT Cyberpunk

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It has often been claimed that Ghost in the Shell is a cyberpunk franchise. It’s more accurately described as post-cyberpunk. Major Kusanagi Motoko and her colleagues at Section 9 are members of a secret police agency. Their job is to uphold the current order. They may face corrupt government officials, terrorists and cybercriminals, but they act under the colour of the law — even if the government cannot officially sanction their deeds.

Cyberpunk stories depict amoral, nihilistic underworlds populated by unscrupulous hackers, slick corporate representatives, hardboiled cops, well-heeled businessmen. Cyberpunk media such as William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Neil Stephenson’s Snow Crash or the Cyberpunk 2020 tabletop role-playing games, emphasise the punk of cyberpunk. They focus on high tech and low life, powerful megacorporations and corrupt governments, and the people caught in the games of power and wealth. Cyberpunk is about how money and politics and technology conspire to degrade the human soul — and how people scrape out a living at the ragged edge of an increasingly dystopian society while trying to retain their sense of self.

Ghost in the Shell sets itself apart by making its protagonists members of a secret police organisation. This allows the protagonists to come into contact with the coterie of cybercrime archetypes, but it also charges the protagonists with upholding civilisation instead of eroding it. By being government agents, they will naturally have access to state-of-the-art tech and training, letting them plausibly have an edge over their adversaries, while giving them multiple opportunities to encounter black market tech. They see at first hand how predators use technology to hollow out the human spirit — but instead of dirtying their hands, they take a stand against it.

Post-cyberpunk contrasts those who use technology to uphold civilisation against those who abuse it for their own ends. The characters of Ghost in the Shell inhabit a world filled with corruption and dirty politics, but Section 9 still tries to serve and protect the people. Unlike traditional cyberpunk works that shows how technology dehumanises people, Ghost in the Shell aims to examine whether technology can elevate humanity, and the cost of doing so.

Merging Character and Plot

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In the original manga, Kusanagi was a vivacious woman who enjoyed practical jokes, had a casual approach to romance and violence, and had a wide range of emotional affect. Batou was a support character who played the role of comic relief, but otherwise sank into the background until the focus was no longer on Kusanagi.

The anime radically changed the characters. Kusanagi was now serious and focused. She rarely shows emotions, but when she does it emphasises the gravity of a scene. Instead of sticking her tongue at people behind their backs, she is more likely to exchange philosophical argument. Batou, in turn, was promoted to the role of her unofficial second-in-command, assisting her during key scenes and also voicing deep thoughts of his own. Now he is both a shooter and a thinker, able to match Kusanagi and drive both the action and the dialogue.

This character shift elevates the anime above the manga. Manga Section 9 comes off as a unit of cowboys just a few steps away from being loose cannons, who have no qualms turning their skills on their allies and superiors on a whim, and only slightly more skilled than the criminals they face. Anime Section 9 is an elite group of operators who take the time to ponder their humanity.

The anime characters created a somber, introspective atmosphere lacking in the manga, conforming with the anime’s philosophical core. With Anime Kusanagi and Anime Batou portrayed as intellectual cyborg shooters, it now makes sense for them to contemplate their navels when they’re not chasing bad guys. This, in turn, makes the ending believable.

In the manga, the Puppet Master abruptly launches into a pages-long exposition on life and transmission of information. It is a jarring departure from a manga otherwise filled with gunfire and cyberwarfare but little explicit discussion of higher concepts. In the anime, the exposition is reduced to a minimum — and since the characters are already established as deep thinkers who also act decisively, the concluding scene fits with the overall tone and direction of the anime.

The manga characters were action-oriented; the reader either had to tease out philosophy from the plot, or the mangaka had to break up the action to make the themes and philosophy explicit. The anime characters give voice to the philosophy explored in the franchise, showcasing their characters and explicitly drawing out the ideas the filmmaker is exploring. The latter approach makes the philosophy more accessible and digestible to the audience — and in doing so, raised Ghost in the Shell above other sci fi stories that merely used cybertech as stage dressing.

Lean Storytelling

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Ghost in the Shell does more in 82 minutes than what other films try to accomplish in over 2 hours. The anime achieves this through a minimalist cast and efficient storytelling.

The only extraneous scene takes place in the middle of the film, showcasing daily life in 2029 Tokyo. Otherwise, every sequence is tightly plotted, with ramifications down the line. Of great importance is the use of technology: every key bit of technology is used at least twice, first to introduce the audience to the tech, and then to facilitate the plot.

The opening scene has Kusanagi using thermoptic camouflage to assassinate a bad guy. It’s an iconic moment that defines the franchise, introducing the tech and the murky politics of the world. Later, while preparing for a mission, Kusanagi tells Togusa that she brought him aboard Section 9 because he has the least amount of cybernetic enhancements and Kusanagi values his different perspective. During that mission, their target uses thermoptic camouflage to evade pursuit, suggesting that the antagonists also have access to such tech, and showing that such camouflage can defeat Section 9’s sensors. When the Puppet Master appears, thermoptic camouflage plays a critical role in aiding the antagonists’ plans, and this allows Togusa to demonstrate his out-of-the-box thinking to detect the invisible intruders, enabling the final showdown later on.

In the movie, technology drives the plot and characterisation. We see this again in the use of high velocity rounds. During the chase scene, the target loads his submachine gun with high velocity rounds to disable Section 9’s truck. Batou later comments on how the ammunition damaged the weapon’s internals. Later, Kusanagi employs HV ammo against a spider tank, but takes the trouble to swap out the barrel of her rifle — and even so, the HV rounds don’t do squat.

The chase scene sets up the existence of HV ammunition and its limitations. This prepares the viewer for Kusanagi using them later and sets up the expectation that the HV rounds would tear the tank apart. Her taking the time to swap out her weapon parts solidifies her characterisation as an operator. When the HV bullets bounce off the tank, it undermines the viewers’ expectations and justifies the following scene which has her try to hack the tank’s cyberbrain, in the process ripping off most of her limbs. This in turn makes the climax possible, showing why she can’t simply evade the snipers targeting her, and ratchets up the tension further.

By compressing technology, characterisation and plot into as few scenes as possible, the director made the philosophy scenes work. When discussing the philosophy and implications of technology in the work, the characters don’t stand around and exchange lines in a context-free vacuum. They always talk philosophy in transitional scenes.

In these scenes, the characters are either on the way to somewhere or waiting for something to happen. One exchange takes place while Kusanagi and Togusa are on the road, preparing for a mission; another takes place on a boat when Kusanagi and Batou are off-duty and awaiting orders; a third is inside an elevator as Section 9 prepares to head out.

In other movies, these scenes would be short takes, empty of beats. Here, the director used the opportunity to fill the gap by delving into matters related to prior scenes, making the philosophy feel organic instead of being forced on the audience. It also eliminates the need to have separate talky scenes dedicated solely to philosophy.

Ghost in the Shell is an exemplar of lean storytelling and a masterclass in the craft of maximising the efficiency of every scene.

Reversing Action and Philosophy

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In most movies, action scenes are the highlight of the film. Scenes in between the action are crafted to lead up to the combat.

Ghost in the Shell reverses this logic: the action scenes lead to the philosophy.

Conventional films feature lengthy action sequences featuring kinetic gun battles, furious hand-to-hand combat and waves of mooks, creating spectacles that hook the audience and keep them watching. The payoff of the film is watching the protagonist overcome the antagonist through wit or violence (or both), saving the day and winning the girl. Any deep thought is incidental.

Ghost in the Shell, by contrast, treats action scenes differently, with long periods of building-up and short bursts of overwhelming violence. The action scenes are much shorter and feature a far lower body count than conventional action films, because they do not exist to create spectacle, but to set up the scenes where characters ponder their humanity and their place in the world. The assassination in the beginning reveal the political system of future Japan and sets the stage for the rest of the plot; the chase scene later on reveals the possibility of false memories, in turn leading to Batou and Kusanagi musing on what makes them human; the final showdown creates the setting for the actual denouement.

Unlike traditional movie logic, the true antagonists of Ghost in the Shell aren’t directly dealt with. Indeed, at the end Batou describes the resolution as a ‘stalemate’. This wouldn’t work in a film that places spectacle first: audiences would expect nothing less than total victory after experiencing one action extravaganza after another that consistently raises the emotional tenor and stakes of the story. However, in a story that places philosophy first, underscored by an introspective atmosphere, it is appropriate: the true resolution lies with the merging of the Puppet Master and Kusanagi to create a higher life form. It is the ultimate payoff for an audience already primed for a movie that promises to explore transcendental matters in the guise of sci-fi action. The stalemate is an afterthought, but it fits into the overall cyberpunk culture, in which there are no major lasting victories, just personal successes at the individual level.

Philosophy with a Dash of Action

 

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In an industry defined by visuals and spectacle, Ghost in the Shell dares to do something different. While it employs a high standard of visual quality, instead of relying on the Hollywood standbys of intense action scenes, Ghost in the Shell delivered philosophy with a dash of action. It made full use of its sci fi mileu, setting up scenarios that organically explore the implications of these technologies and characters who combine combat skills with intellect.

Lesser filmmakers would have stumbled, either by making the philosophy ultra-abstract and the action scenes boring, or by concentrating on action and neglecting deep thought. Ghost in the Shell finds the perfect balance between the two, cementing its position as a masterpiece.

All images from Ghost in the Shell (1996) and publicity materials.

Movie Review: A Silent Voice

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The anime Koe no Katachi (A Silent Voice) is an excellent movie marred by flawed execution. At its heart, Koe no Katachi is a story about redemption, friendship and overcoming social anxiety, covering childhood bullying, suicide and the psychic scars of isolation and ostracism. The anime makes excellent use of its heavy subject matter, creating a realistic and entertaining character study.

But only of the protagonist.

The Sole Driver

The story focuses on Ishida Shoya, a former delinquent trying to do good. When he was in elementary school, Nishimiya Shoko transferred into his class. Nishimiya is deaf, relying on hearing aids and communicating mainly through written notes on her notebook or through sign language. While she can speak, she is unable to properly articulate her words. Her mannerisms lead Ishida to pick on her, causing the rest of the class to join in.

Until one day, he goes too far.

In an instant, the entire class turns on him. Nishimiya transfers out. Nishimiya’s deeds haunt him through the rest of his days in elementary school. Guilt and regret set in, festering into crippling social anxiety. In high school, Ishida is unable to even look at most people, picturing a ‘X’ in place of their faces.

With no plans and no hope for the future, Ishida contemplates suicide. But one day, he meets Nishimiya again, discovering that she attends the same high school. Ishida reaches out to her, and begins his long journey to acceptance, recovery and redemption.

The anime’s critical weakness lies in having too many characters. Nearly named character from the manga appears in the anime. This leaves very little screen time for all of them. While a manga has the capacity to fully explore the minds and actions of supporting characters in depth, the two-hour anime adaptation can only do so much. The anime elects to focus on Ishida’s struggles to face his past, understand the meaning of ‘friendship’, and fight through the mental block that isolates him from everyone else. While it was masterfully done, it came at the cost of character development for everyone else.

Every supporting character is defined by their deeds and personalities, and remain static for much of the film. Aside from Ishida, only Nishimiya Shoko and Yuzuru enjoy character growth — the former by being more willing to interact with others, the latter by growing friendlier and less sullen.

While everybody has believable personas and act entirely in line with their core beliefs and attitudes, the secondary characters exist mainly as a means to reflect Ishida’s progress in becoming more sociable. Indeed, characters like Mashiba Satoshi and Nishimiya Ito barely have spoken lines and almost no influence on the plot. Further, at times in the anime I found it difficult to understand why some characters did the things they do; only in the manga are these motivations revealed, such as why Ueno Naoka began bullying Nishimiya, why Yuzuru takes so many photographs, or why Mashiba joins in Ishida’s social group.

It is inevitable for lengthy manga to suffer major cuts when adapted to the big screen, but at least in Koe no Katachi, the core ideas and story remain intact. It is a testimony to the studio that they managed to deliver a powerful anime in spite of eliminating major story arcs and being forced to work with many shallow characters.

Almost-Amazing Cinematography

The major flaw of the anime is its cinematography. To be sure, Koe no Katachi has excellent visuals. Every scene is stylishly depicted, combining traditional anime iconography with beautiful background scenery and fluid motions. The art direction and soundtrack shifts at key moments, driving home Ishida’s mental and emotional state.

However, those key moments are also interrupted by flashbacks and surreal sequences. This is especially jarring in the opening segments of the anime, covering Ishida’s elementary school and early high school days. These shots distract from the main event instead of adding to it, making it more difficult to keep track of events and characters and muting the overall emotional impact of these scenes. The flashbacks could be cut from the anime without loss to the story — and should have been, to retain its overall coherence.

Final Thoughts

Koe no Katachi is a beautiful coming-of-age tale of friendship and redemption — but poor cinematographic techniques undo the key scenes. It stars realistically-portrayed characters suffering from deep psychic stories and personal failings — though the secondary characters are all static. Koe no Katachi is a few steps short of being a genuine masterpiece, but it is nonetheless an amazing story in its own right.

Photo credits:

Anime poster from Wikipedia

The Ethics of Piracy in the Digital Age

Ebooks, digital downloads, torrents and the Internet have fundamentally altered the nature of commercial transactions, but definitions of ‘piracy’ remains stuck in the 17th century, in the heyday of pirates at sea.

Maritime piracy is clearly evil. Maritime merchant shipping transfers goods from a supplier to a buyer. The supplier expects payment and the buyer expects goods. By attacking ships at sea, pirates deny the buyer his goods. If the buyer doesn’t receive his goods, the supplier either will not receive payment or will lose future customers. Many pirates also take the opportunity to rob the crew and passengers, and sometimes kidnap them for ransom.

Software piracy is far more ambiguous. It is the act of illegally reproducing a work of intellectual property. No physical goods are stolen; rather the original is cloned. No goods are stolen, no payment denied. No middlemen and no innocents are harmed.

The primary argument against digital piracy is lost sales. After copying the IP to physical media, the pirates sell the media at much lower prices. This undercuts the original merchant, translating into lost sales. The pirates are profiting from the creators’ efforts at almost no cost to themselves. The creators are not rewarded for their work, discouraging them from future work.

This argument might be true in the era of CDs, DVDs and printed matter. But that era has passed.

The Reality of Digital Piracy

Torrents and download sites are everywhere. If you have an Internet connection, five minutes on a search engine will turn up plenty of pirate sites. The authorities might squash one or two every now and then, but more will inevitably pop up. The cost of hunting down pirate sites, identifying the owners, obtaining court orders and serving warrants is far greater than setting up anonymous sites and obtaining proxy servers. And there will always be demand for piracy. Further, pirated digital goods — music, movies, games, ebooks — are freely available. There is no reason for consumers to buy pirated material if they can download them from the Internet for free.

The pirates do not normally profit from sales of software. Many pirates do not even sellsoftware to consumers. This indicates that the people who pirate software are people who would not have purchased anything from the creators. No sales are lost. This undercuts the primary argument against piracy.

If no goods are physically stolen, if payments are neither intercepted nor prevented, if no innocents are harmed, is piracy still unethical?

The Ethics of Digital Piracy

Here we see manga in their native habitat: a bookstore in Japan. Many Japanese manga are not translated into English, and will never be. Even if they are, the salacious covers of some of these manga will ensure they will never be imported into my home country. These linguistic and legal barriers will prevent the manga from reaching a wider English-speaking audience.

Enter scanlation groups. These groups scan and translate Japanese manga, posting them online for people to read. While many are amateurs, they provide a service professionals do not or cannot. Most scanlation groups do their work for free, covering their costs from out of pocket. Some will solicit for donations, but only to cover operational costs — including purchasing a legal copy of the original manga to scan and translate.

Scanlation groups make Japanese-language manga available to people who speak different languages free of charge. The author loses no sales; his books were never for sale in those languages to begin with. Nobody is harmed and no profits are made. While this is technically piracy — how does it harm people?

What about goods that are widely available, such as computer games? Here, pirates are consumers who do not want to buy a good at a certain price point. This is an argument for proper price strategy, not anti-piracy measures. This is why many game companies run sales regularly on outlets like Steam and GOG. With that said, we can’t expect publishers to constantly set a price that forces them to make a loss, and there will always be people who will never pay a cent for games.

There is no way to extract profit from people who won’t pay for a digital product. If piracy were not available to them, they would simply not consume the good. Going after these pirates would tend to generate bad press for the company, especially if people think the goods are overpriced. On the other hand, if these pirates are left alone, some of them will inevitably talk about the goods, driving brand awareness. So long as the pirates do not resell their copies for profits or attempt to pass off the creators’ work as their own, they are harming no one. Instead of wasting finite time and resources chasing people who won’t give them money, publishers should instead serve their paying customers and make more products.

Piracy doesn’t just affect publishers; it also undermines state power. In 2007, the Media Development Authority banned Mass Effect in Singapore for portraying same-sex relationships — never mind that the relationship in question was between Commander Shepard (who could be male or female) and Liara T’soni, a monogender alien who appears female to human eyes. Elsewhere, Germany bans anything that depicts Nazism in any form, while Australia has a dim view of games with graphic violence or sexual content.

In those countries, piracy of prohibited content is undoubtedly commonplace. If a product is widely and openly available everywhere but in a consumer’s home country, a consumer who wants the product will seek it out through illegal means. It is simply human nature. Since these goods are already banned in these markets, no sales are lost. On the other hand, the creators’ brand name continues to spread — and it is this brand name that makes or breaks artists. Through piracy, state power is undermined — but this is neither an unmitigated positive nor negative outcome.

Consider that Singapore also bans pornography of all kinds. If you believe that pornography is immoral and harms people, then obvious piracy of pornography weakens the moral fabric of the nation, making it evil. If you believe pornography is harmless, than this ban is excessive and piracy circumvents it.

But piracy is not just about immorality and mindless entertainment, either.

Singapore has banned a number of books, including The Satanic Verses. It is illegal to buy or sell any copies of The Satanic Verses in Singapore. But this book can be found freely on sites like Amazon. Similarly, you can find plenty of material on Amazon that would otherwise be banned elsewhere. Not so coincidentally, the Kindle store is not available in Singapore, making it nearly impossible to purchase many ebooks from the Kindle store. More often than not, if you are Singaporean you can only obtain Kindle-exclusive books through pirate sites.

It is easy to claim that piracy performs a social good by defeating censorship and supporting freedom of speech and expression. But consider this: Singapore is a tiny Chinese-majority nation surrounded by large Muslim-majority neighbours. Race and religion informs practically every political decision Singapore makes. By banning The Satanic Verses, Singapore arguably prevented any possibility of a race and religious riot in Singapore andanti-Singapore protests in Malaysia and Indonesia. If censorship could potentially prevent social disorder and unrest, is it necessarily an undiluted evil?

Beyond questions of state power, there is also the question of the publisher’s power. Many digital products come with some kind of digital rights management software. The idea is to prevent unauthorised use, sales or reproductions of the software. While DRM does a fine job in protecting a publisher’s profits at the point of sale, in practice it harms users past the point of sale.

DRM takes away control of the customer’s computer and degrades software performance. It requires the computer to perform actions not ordered by the customer. Unscrupulous publishers can insert spyware into a consumer’s computer under the guise of DRM, allowing them to gather or destroy the user’s private data. DRM that requires a constant Internet connection, especially to authentication servers, make the software fragile: the moment connection is lost or the servers are shut down, the game is gone for good. Ebook DRMs prevent the user from reading the same ebook on another personally-own device – which can be troublesome if you need to convert an ebook into another format before you can read it.

There is also another aspect of piracy: making old and outdated products available. When books and movies stop being profitable, when software is superseded by new hardware, these products are permanently taken off the market or relegated to distant specialist shops. This does not mean that they have no worth, only that they are no longer profitable to be placed in the market.

Piracy makes these products available to a fresh generation and ensures their continued circulation. Nobody makes a cent from this, but more goods that are no longer in the market are created. For companies that have a long and storied backlist, piracy of no-longer-available products allows their fans to see how far they have gone and introduces new ones to the company. While many companies these days are seeing profit in remastering, converting and re-releasing old products, these companies tend to come from the gaming, music and movie industries. Books, instructional videos and obscure artistes get the short end of the stick.

An Ethical Framework for Piracy

With so many issues to resolve, how does one create an ethical and legal framework to handle piracy?

The fundamental principle must be to do no harm. Laws are broad and uncompromising, and are enforced at the point of a gun. The broader a law, the more innocent people will be swept up into jails and morgues. Restricting laws to the harm principle means the state may only prosecute people who have caused measurable harm to a party.

From a digital piracy perspective, this means that publishers and creators must make a strong case for harm. They must prove that the pirate stole goods and profits. They must prove that the pirates discouraged creators from creating new works. They must prove that the pirates have harmed innocent people. If the pirate has not harmed anyone, they must not be prosecuted. This would mean a legal framework that is strongly in favour of individual liberties, freedom of expression and consumer rights.

As for DRM, the answer is simple: no DRM. If a publisher wants to introduce DRM, the onus is on the publisher to prove that the DRM cannot be used to subvert the user’s computer, will not gather private information, and will not degrade product performance. Any DRM that infringes upon the user’s property rights should be eliminated.

What about the individual? If a specific act of piracy harms no one, as we see in a number of cases, then the question is simply a matter of individual conscience.

Photo Credits:

  1. Mass Effect wallpaper by Suicidebyinsecticide
  2. DRM protest by Electronic Frontier Foundation