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

Book Unreview: The Gatekeepers by Nuraliah Norasid

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I try not to review books I don’t finish. But some books are so terrible that they serve as a prime example of how not to write.

The Gatekeepers by Nuraliah Norasid was the winner of the 2016 Epigram Books Fiction Prize. The prize ‘promotes contemporary Singapore creative writing and rewards excellence in Singapore literature’ by awarding the winner $25,000. While it seems to be an impressive achievement for a debut author, when I read the story it felt like I was jamming a block of dry granite into my mouth. I had to drop it after 45 pages.

Worldbuilding, not Worldbreaking

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You don’t want your story world to look like this, do you?

The story’s most immediate failure is worldbuilding. The setting resembles Singapore with fantasy creatures.

But a Singapore with fantasy creatures living openly alongside humans will not resemble Singapore in the slightest.

The Gatekeeper blends Greek and Malay myths, featuring a range of non-human species, such as the cat-like Feleenese, the dog-like Cayanese, and medusas–in other words, gorgons. Like the gorgons of Greek myth, the medusas in-universe have the power to turn people to stone.

And nobody cares.

Medusas are living weapons of mass destruction who stop themselves from petrifying people simply by wearing scarves that cover the snakes mounted to their heads. All they have to do to petrify someone is to take off their scarves — and the potential of even an accidental mass petrification is astoundingly high. Yet no one, not even the Government mentioned in the story, seems to care. There are no inspections or cultural practices to prove one’s humanity, no special military or police units to regularly sweep rural villages for dangerous creatures, no special gadgets to securely hide a medusa’s snakes, not even regular census-taking to ensure there aren’t any criminal medusas or other monsters hiding among people.

Further, because reasons, protagonists Ria and Barani, both medusas, live with their grandmother in a human village.

Why would the people allow such dangerous creatures to live among them? Why would the Government allow the possibility of medusas turning people to stone, deliberately or otherwise? Why would the medusas even want to live alongside people if they pose such a threat to humans but do not want to subjugate them? Why would the medusas take the risk of the Government finding out who they are and obliterating them?

These issues irrevocably break the story world. It demands that the reader assume that the Government has no interest whatsoever in the continued survival of their nation, that people are perfectly willing to live side-by-side with creatures that can turn them to stone and treat them as little more than humans with funny hair, that there have never been cases of medusas even accidentally turning people to stone, and that nobody thought of how to protect themselves from petrification. These are utterly absurd notions. It doesn’t matter how excellent the worldbuilding is later on; when the introduction of a story fails common sense, the story fails.

She Said, She Said, She Said

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Still a more interesting conversation than nearly everything in the book.

Everyone in the first 45 pages speaks a mix of colloquial Malay and English. This may seem charming, but everyone uses the same emotional register, vocabulary and sentence structure. Everybody sounds alike, even the village Cikgu, or teacher. Without speech tags and without knowing what ‘Abang’, ‘Nenek’ or ‘Cikgu’ means (words which the text doesn’t explain), it’s hard to tell who is talking to whom. Making matters worse, there is barely any dialogue. The first 45 pages averages one or two lines of dialogue per page, if at all. There are people talking to and at each other, but there is no meaningful two-way interaction that brings out their personalities until page 37. The overall effect is that none of the characters, not even the protagonists, stand out from each other.

The prose of the story is not much better. It is as dry as rock and soft as curd. A major character dies early on, but there is no emotional weight to the text. When the Government announces a modernisation programme it is simply dumped on the page without elaboration or context. The early pages features more infodumping explaining the fantastic creatures of the land, even though they have no bearing on the story at that time. It is so very tempting to simply skim over the dull parts — but it means skimming over essentially the whole story.

Our Heroines, the Monsters

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In the story world, if you can see this you are already dead, but nobody cares.

Greek and Malay myths have one thing in common: heroes slay monsters. Be they evil gorgons or malicious swordfish, the monsters are universally evil creatures that prey on humans and must be put down. If a writer wants to make a monster the protagonist, then the writer must ensure that the monster protagonist is sympathetic in some way.

The Gatekeepers does not feature sympathetic monsters.

When the Government’s modernisation programme finally gets underway, it is revealed that the authorities want to demolish the medusas’ home and replace it with paved roads and modern housing, and relocate the protagonists to a government shelter. A government representative teams up with the local police and Barani’s suitor to convince the medusas to accept their offer. Barani refuses the offer, since her suitor said he wanted to marry her and turn her into an ordinary human. The situation breaks down in a lovers’ quarrel.

Ria responds by turning everyone except her sister to stone.

Then she turns everyone in the village to stone.

This is the point where the novel lost me. By crossing the moral event horizon, Ria has irrevocably become a monster.

Up to this point, the medusas have not faced unjustified discrimination. The other inhabitants of the village are noted as staring openly at the medusas and warning their children not to interact with them. This may seem racist — but the protagonists are not simply humans with funny hair. The moment her scarf comes off, accidentally or otherwise, everyone around a medusa will be petrified. What parent would not want to protect their children from accidents? You cannot deal with medusas the same way you deal with humans.

The medusas have not experienced any actual harm. They have not been bullied, cheated, robbed or attacked. Nobody tried to lynch them either. In fact, the Cikgu offers to teach Ria at home and a villager tries to woo Barani. Nothing Ria did is justified. Nothing she did is worthy of sympathy.

Barani believes that Ria petrified the government representatives because it was her way of protesting against the authorities. That may be so, but why petrify everybody else in the village? It is not revenge against oppression; they have not been oppressed. It is not self-defence; nobody was attacking them at that time. What Ria really did was to vent her frustrations against a faraway government on innocent villagers near her.

In other words: she threw a temper tantrum.

And in so doing, became a monster.

Barani joins in the atrocity by petrifying policemen who were trying to neutralise her sister. Instead of stopping the madness, Barani chose to perpetuate it. While this may be understandable, by choosing to aid a monster she has herself become one.

What made the whole sequence so maddening was that none of the visitors in this pivotal chapter was wearing personal protective equipment. Barani’s suitor already knows that she and her sister are medusas. If he didn’t tell the government men, that makes him an idiot. If the government men knew and didn’t take protective measures against a breakdown in negotiations or even just plain accidents, they are even bigger idiots. If there are no PPE in this world that can defend someone against a medusa’s stare, then why are the medusas even allowed to live alongside humans? Why aren’t medusas shot on sight, or at least forced to live only among their own kind? Why are humans and medusas not locked in a state of perpetual conflict or at least a tense truce? Why do medusas not rule the world with their petrification powers, and why aren’t humans more wary of medusas? The chapter that has the medusas turning an entire village full of innocent people into stone is exactly the reason why humans have to treat medusas as highly dangerous creatures — but the humans in this story are too stupid to care about their own survival.

This is a failure of worldbuilding, characterisation or both. Not that I care — this was the point where I lost all interest in the book. Why should I care about protagonists who destroyed an entire village just because they were upset? Why should I care about a world filled with idiots? Why should I care about a story that fails so badly at the beginning?

How to Fail SFF 101

If a story contains fantasy tropes then it must explore them to the fullest. If a work has fantasy creatures then the impact of those creatures on people and the world must be accounted for and built upon, all the more so if these creatures threaten all of humanity simply by existing. Without careful worldbuilding, a fantasy story falls apart from the start.

The Gatekeepers may have a modicum of literary merit, but as a fantasy story it is an utter failure.

To see worldbuilding done right, you can study my novel, NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS, whose worldbuilding has been praised as ‘plausibly created’ and ‘logical’. You can find it on Amazon and the Castalia House ebook store.

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

Behind the Story: WE BURY OUR OWN

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Writing stories is a gruelling experience. Mostly it’s like mining: you show up, you punch away at the keyboard, and you keep at it until the task is done. Sometimes it’s like squeezing blood from a stone, and most of the blood will be yours. And sometimes, the words flow unceasingly from a source higher and deeper and truer than anything the naked eye can perceive.

We Bury Our Own is most definitely the last.

The genesis of the story was an odd one. In late 2015 I stumbled across a strange manga:Shuumatsu no Maristella. It was the most surreal manga I had ever seen. It featured soldier girls with assault rifles sworn to the church who take drugs to spawn angel wings to fight sea creatures spawned from the information sea and copulating with certain monsters to produce valuable materials, in an attempt to retake the world.

I’m probably understating the craziness of the whole affair; that’s how strange it was.

But it stuck.

It bounced around my head, merged with my martial arts training, the omnipresent Mist of Final Fantasy IX and the monsters of the entire franchise, the Kabballah and other concepts. From there came the spark of an idea.

But inspiration alone isn’t enough, of course. The first time I tried writing a story based on those ideas, nothing came of then. There was too much Shuumatsu no Maristella, too little of myself.

Then came the 2016 Baen Fantasy Award I started pondering the possibilities. Baen wanted heroic fantasy. Tales of warriors solving problems with weapons or wits. Not boring allegories, talky political drama, angst or any draggy stuff. It was right up my alley. And I had a concept ready for it.

I tore down the old story. Re-examined every assumption, every concept, every pillar of the story. Created an overarching storyline, characters, concepts, settings, and more. There was enough material in there for a novel, maybe a series. And from there I fished out just enough for a short story, a snapshot of life in the Order of Saint Joshua.

Thus was born We Bury Our Own.

It was unlike anything I had written to date. It was a story of pride and consequences. Of men who tried to be like gods and fell prey to their hubris. It was about men with unusual powers, seen as angels and monsters, who had to venture into the all-corrupting mists of the world and wield the powers of creation to save humanity without falling prey to the mist. It was nothing more and nothing less than a battle between an angel who saw himself a men and a man who saw himself an angel.

Or, in simpler terms: a story about sci fi battle angels armed with blasters and swords versus mist monsters spawned from thought.

Writing it was…strange. It was as though my consciousness had stepped back, letting something else, something greater, take over the keys. I only had the barest inkling of a plot and characters, yet as I went along I saw the story take shape before my eyes. In the prose I saw bands of gold and gray, streaks of steel and silver, thunderbolts turned solid and swords fading into mist.

Normally I would discuss the hows and whys of writing this story but I don’t think there was much of ‘me’ writing it. Not this time. I only made a few conscious decisions: incorporating sword and gun, how the world was set up, how the characters were seen and what defined them. Everything else…

Call it God, intuition, the muses, whatever, but I got out of its way and let it do the writing. The resulting story was unlike anything I had ever done before. But it felt right. It was clean. Beyond a few edits for typos, no further changes were needed. When I sent it in to my writer’s group, there was nothing but praise.

When I sent it to Baen, I received new response. Then I sent it to Silver Empire’s Lyonesse project.

And it was accepted.

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Lyonesse went online three days ago. For the price of a single ebook, Lyonesse will release one science fiction or fantasy story a week for a year. It’s practically a steal — and if you’re a writer, Lyonesse is still looking for fresh material.

When I read We Bury Our Own again, I did so with fear and trembling. Never before had people praised my work so highly. By publishing it I had set a new benchmark for myself. A new standard I had to meet and surpass. I don’t know if I can ever do it, but I have to try: in this business you’re only as good as your last remembered work.

And yet…

Everything about the story was different from what I had previously done. The themes, the abstract concepts, the vocabulary, the aesthetics, even the cadence of the dialogue and narration. It’s so vastly different that I don’t know if I could do it again, much less replicate it if I ever revisit the universe.

And yet…

In this business you’re only as good as your last remembered work. You cannot settle for being good enough, for being mediocre, for plateauing out. You have to keep getting better. It’s the only way to master the craft and stand out from a market deluged with self-published wannabes and pretentious pseudo-literary message fic. You have to be the best you can be, and I know that I’m nowhere near there yet.

If there is one lesson I need to learn from this story, it’s that I shouldn’t think too much. I found that after a certain point, when the worldbuilding is settled and the characters understood, rational thought gets in the way. Thinking through every tiny detail becomes a waste of time and energy. I just need to show up, set my conscious mind aside, and write.

Time to see how that works out.

Artwork by Andy Duggan

Lyonesse picture by Silver Empire

‘Gritty’ and ‘Realistic’ SFF Isn’t

Today it is all the rage to label a specific brand of modern science fiction and fantasy as ‘gritty’ and ‘realistic’. Championed by writers like Joe Abercrombie and George R R Martin, these stories star villain protagonists and antiheroes, oceans of blood, torture and treachery, and all manner of depredations. Every time such a dark story is published, critics declare them as masterpieces of gritty, brutal realism.

I don’t know about those critics, but such stories don’t match my experience of ‘gritty’ and ‘realistic’.

I grew up reading thrillers. The first time I encountered ‘realistic’, it signalled an impeccably researched story. Every important detail—tactics to terminology, dialogue to descriptions—reflected reality. ‘Gritty’ stories starred indomitable heroes who confronted overwhelming odds with charm, intelligence and firepower. Through force of will they overcame obstacles, identified and neutralised villains, and achieved their goals. The protagonists weren’t perfect, and many of them were not good people, but they held fast to their own code of honour. They might be hardened street predators, but even they had standards. Barry Eisler’s John Rain would never hurt a child, while Andrew Vachss’ Burke took one step further by punishing those who preyed on children. These protagonists demonstrated grit in story worlds that reflected reality.

The SFF Establishment has no idea what ‘grit’ and ‘realism’ really mean.

What is Gritty?


Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean…

The Oxford English Dictionary defines gritty in this context as:

  • Showing courage and resolve
  • Showing something unpleasant as it really is; uncompromising

The difference seems simple: the thrillers I read used the first definition while dark SFF insists on the second. And yet this is not so.

The thrillers of my youth weren’t about pleasant things. Vachss’ stories had unflinching portrayals of child abuse, murder-for-hire, gang life, sexual assault and more. Dennis Lehane had stories about murderers, mobsters, kidnappers and other monsters in human skin. These and other stories dive into the darkness that dwells in the hearts of men and rip off the gilt to reveal the maggots squirming underneath. Yet they also show courageous and resolute protagonists who are willing to confront these villains and bring them to justice.

In the dark SFF style championed by Abercrombie and Martin, we only see the unpleasantness. A Song of Ice and Fire is marked by murder, betrayal, rape, intrigue, incest, rape, atrocities, war and of course, rape. SFF books in a similar vein feature unsympathetic protagonists with no redeeming traits, wanton cruelty and sadism, and temporary or hollow victories by the more sympathetic characters—if they indeed secure victories at all.

While the real world is unpleasant and unforgiving, these ‘gritty’ SFF works overexaggerate this bleakness to the point where the discerning reader cannot but disbelieve the stories. If the protagonists are cruel and sadistic murderers, why would everybody else still permit them to live and walk freely? Better to kill them before they cause more harm. If churches serve no purpose except as dens of iniquity and intrigue, why do they still exist? They certainly aren’t elevating humanity and have no positive impact on the story world, so people would not tolerate their existence. If oathbreakers and monsters consistently seize and maintain power, why has civilisation not already fallen into a barbaric free-for-all? This is the final fate of societies shattered by the weight of the Kali Yuga or the Twilight of the Gods, where brother turns on brother and all makes war on all.
A gritty work is harsh and uncompromising. It does not blow up the evils of the world well out of proportion. Writing must reflect the truth of the world to maintain verisimilitude. Allegedly ‘gritty’ SFF does not.

What is Realistic?


Man has two selves

The key part of ‘realistic’ is ‘real’. A realistic story must reflect reality. On the surface it simply means that the story must be well-researched. In my view, though, it is merely a basic requirement. Thrillers and SFF may be different genres, but the best examples of both fields have at least one thing in common: believable characters. And characters can only be believable through accurate portrayals of human nature.

Everybody knows the darkness of the human heart. Open a newspaper and you will see terrorist atrocities, gangland wars, murderers, child abuse and lying politicians in abundance. Evil lurks everywhere in the world. Humans can be beastly, cowardly, bloodthirsty, vicious and covetous creatures. This is reality.

Yet humans can also be noble. Churches have sponsored universities and hospitals, opposed tyrants and freed slaves, and propagated virtues and values. Ultra-rich people give away millions or billions of dollars every year to charitable causes. Strangers have banded together to help people in need. Troops and civilians demonstrate valour on and off the battlefields of the world. This, too, is reality.

Every man has two aspects. One is craven, power-seeking, vengeful, petty, and self-centred. The other is selfless, kind, virtuous, determined and undefeatable. A truly realistic work would reflect both sides of human nature. ‘Realistic’ SFF works shun this holistic approach, seeking only to amplify the former.

This approach does not make for good fiction. Readers need a reason to invest themselves in stories and characters. They must see themselves in the stories, or better yet, the people they aspire to become. Readers have no reason to care about story universes filled with nihilistic bloodshed and unsympathetic villain protagonists. They do care about characters who face struggles that resonate with the readers.

John Rain is a stone-cold hitman, but his conscience haunts him and he tries to redeem himself throughout the series. Burke is a career criminal, but he is loyal to his family of choice and targets monsters even worse than him. In their own way, these men embody honour and ethics in worlds that reject such values. They represent both the best and the worst of humanity, resonating with readers who live in the light and want to peer into the darkness. Contrast this with blackguards and torturers who revel in death and destruction, so far removed from conventional norms of good and evil that they have no common frame of reference with regular people. Readers have no ability to sympathise with such characters, and no reason to. If such people are the protagonists, it becomes very difficult for most readers to invest themselves in the story.

Make SFF Great Again


First the Hugos, and then, the industry!

I don’t understand why the purveyors of dark, dim fiction are pleased to call these stories ‘gritty’ and ‘realistic’. I wonder if they truly understand the meaning of the words they use, if their experience of reality is so small that they have experienced only corruption and depravity, or if they are simply projecting their beliefs about reality into fiction.

They are sad benighted souls who praise only the dark side of man and cannot or will not acknowledge the light. They flee from the brilliant splendour of creation for the nihilistic emptiness of unending atrocities. It is as if they dwell in the dark alien chambers beyond space and time where they spend their days playing accused flutes and vile drums to the nameless blasphemous bubbling nuclear chaos at the heart of nothingness.

Grit and realism means more than just stark portrayals of evil. It also acknowledges the bright side of human nature. The great SFF works of the past understood and explored cravenness and courage, villainy and heroism, good and evil. Thrillers today still do. Now is the time to study the lessons of these stories and make SFF great again.


Photo credits:

Sam Spade: The Maltese Falcon
Drama masks: Pixabay
Rabid Puppies 2016 logo: Vox Day

To 2017: Write Less to Write More

If you’re a writer, nobody cares about how many stories you’ve written. Only about the stories you’ve published.

Ideas and stories are meaningless if they are locked away in a hard drive or scrapbook. They only hold value when they are shared with the world. You’re not an author if you don’t publish your works.

In 2016, I wrote the most number of stories I ever had. In 2016, I also published the fewest number of stories since I became a published writer.

How did that happen?

Half of the answer is that a couple of stories I submitted this year would, with any luck, be published next year. WE BURY FOR OWN, for instance, will be published when Lyonesse goes online in 2017. The other half is that I wrote too much stuff that had to be thrown out. On the order of 500,000 words.

Five. Hundred. Thousand. More than enough for a trilogy and then some.

Those words comprise of a novel, its sequel, and assorted deleted scenes. The deleted parts overwhelmed both stories combined. Worse, I cannot in good conscience publish either story at this time. Despite the months I’ve thrown into them, the hundreds of thousands of words committed to the page, they’re not good enough.

The reason for this is simple: my old writing style just isn’t good enough.

I used to write like a classic pantser: little if any pre-planning, just open the story and pound away at the keys. It worked, mostly, allowing me to create scenes that organically built upon events in previous chapters.

The problem with that approach is at the meta level: there was little time and space dedicated to worldbuilding, setting and character planning. Exactly the wrong thing to do for the stories I was working on.

The stories are hard science fiction. Diamond hard science fiction. Every piece of technology inside the story would be entirely within the realm of modern understanding science. Everything would be an extension of what is known and possible today. That kind of undertaking required copious amounts of research — and ensuring that everything remained consistent.

More than that, the story was a space opera driven by a romance. A completely new genre of writing. One that demanded in-depth knowledge of the human heart, and how every human and faction within the story would believe, feel, think and act.

Pantsing, I’ve discovered, isn’t adequate to the task. I found myself revising scenes over and over and over again, and at the end of it all, feedback from my writers’ group indicated that it still wasn’t good enough.

In 2016, I found that my old style of writing wouldn’t work anymore. Not for the standard I aspire to.

For 2017, I have to do things differently. Writing less to write more.

I went into pantsing because I wanted to write as much and as quickly as I could. That approach won’t work. I intend to spend less time writing and more time planning. More time on worldbuilding, researching concepts and technologies, understanding characters, planning events.

In other words: I plan to spend more time building the foundations and getting things right before I commit to paper.

That should lead to less time spent on revisions and edits down the road. Which means more time working on the next story, and the next, and the next. In the end, what matters isn’t so much the act of writing as writing excellent work, publishing it, and maintaining the drive.

The same approach applies to blogging. For the past month, I’ve been planning my posts, researching them, focusing them on a single topic. My new posts are between 50 to 75 percent shorter than my old ones. The time and energy savings allow me to post more often, leading to more pageviews.

I’ve already experimented with the new approach for a certain story I wrote this month. Initial feedback has been positive, and next year I hope I can share it with you. I also have other writing plans for 2017. More will be revealed as I execute them.

2016 was a year for learning the hard way.

2017 will be the year the writing bears fruit.

Plan Your Antagonist First

People read fiction to escape reality in pseudo-reality. They want to immerse themselves in the protagonist’s adventures, marvel at his derring-do, and cheer as he overcomes the obstacles in his way and attains his goal.

But where would the protagonist be without the antagonist?

The antagonist is the yin to the protagonist’s yang. Without the antagonist, there is no drama, there is no conflict, and there is no plot. The antagonist catalyses the plot, and the protagonist drives the story forward. There can be no murder mystery without a murderer, no space opera without a powerful overlord. The events of the Bible could not have unfurled without the Snake tempting Eve, nor would Star Wars have became a galaxy-spanning epic without the institution of a Galactic Empire.

The antagonist is as important as the protagonist. Like the protagonist, he must be fully-fleshed. To the reader, he exists only in the shadow of the hero, but a poorly-crafted villain creates an unbelievable hero and a ludicrous plot. A hero receives no glory for beating up a wimp, nor would readers believe that a mere basement-dwelling computer geek would summon the dread forces of Hell to achieve his darkest desires of kissing a girl.

When planning a story, start with the antagonist. All stories must start from the beginning, and as the catalyst, his deeds start the ball rolling.

To create your antagonist, you must answer the following questions:

Who is he? What is his name, nationality and job? Who are his superiors, peers, and subordinates? How do they think of him, and does he care?

What drives him? What is his ideology? His motivation? Does he inspire others, and if so, how? What is he comfortable doing, what will he never do, and what falls in between? What does he want?

Why is he doing this? Why does he do the thing that starts the whole story going? What’s in it for him and his allies? How does it affect his enemies? How will it help him achieve his goals?

How does he do what he does? What special talents, traits or resources does he have? What skills does he posses? What are his strengths and weakness? How does he maximise his strengths while minimising exposure while dioing what he does?

Answer these questions and you will build up a complete dossier of the antagonist, making him a believable and powerful threat to the protagonist.

Sauron is the Lord of the Rings. Prizing order above all else, he is the equivalent of a fallen angel, intent on conquering all of Middle-Earth and bending it to his will. He has armies at his command, with a squad of Ringwraiths for special missions, and compared to mortals has overwhelming power. However, he has invested most of his strength in the One Ring, currently missing. He has dispatched his forces to find the Ring…but a lowly hobbit in the middle of nowhere has found it first. And without the Ring, Sauron will be crippled forever.

Walter Peck, by contrast, is a lowly inspector in the Environmental Protection Agency. He upholds the letter of the law and is utterly rigid. After learning of the Ghostbusters’ activities, he realises that they violated multiple environmental regulations–including improper disposal of toxic waste and possession of unauthorised and unregulated particle accelerators–and does everything in his power to stop them.

One antagonist is a supreme evil being, the other is merely an obstructive bureaucrat with a point. Antagonists don’t have to be evil; they just have to oppose the protagonist in some way. They do, however, have to be believable.

Sauron is a supernatural creature; one can ascribe supernatural motives to him, including a desire to dominate the planet. Such a being could believably possess supernatural powers and resources, including the ability to craft mind-control rings and raise armies of barbarian orcs. He also has a supernatural weakness: by investing his power in the One Ring, he has created his Achilles heel, allowing a sufficiently brave and resourceful team of heroes to defeat him.

Peck is a human with human motivations; he is simply out to do his job and prevent an environmental catastrophe in New York City. Being a human, and a minor bureaucrat at that, he only plausibly has access to the kind of power an inspector can possess. Magical powers and grand armies are out of the question. But he is an agent of the law, and since the Ghostbusters are clearly in violation of environmental regulations, he can shut them down.

Once you know who your antagonist is, you know what he can do and what resources he has available. You know what he wants, how he can get what he wants, and what he will do to get what he wants. This action of getting what he wants is the spark that sets the story into motion.

Know your enemy, know yourself, and you will a hundred battles. In this case, know your antagonist, know your protagonist, and you will craft a masterpiece.

 

 

 

Lyonesse: Make Short Fiction Great Again!

Lyonesse, a short story subscription service, promises to revolutionise the industry. Its Kickstarter is now online, within a single day, the campaign has already reached almost half of its funding goal.

Silver Empire has put in a great deal of effort making Lyonesse possible, and as I have described in a prior post, I believe that Lyonesse will provide a much-needed shot in the arm in the field of SFF. Unlike many mainstream ‘SFF’ magazines, Lyonesse does not elevate politics above story to the point of unreadability. Through a clever subscription model and regular delivery of stories, Lyonesse offers a much-needed alternative to print magazines that refuses to compromise the quality of storytelling.

Lyonesse’s authors include the inestimable J. Lagi Lamplighter, Dragon Award nominee Declan Finn, and of course, yours truly. The subscription fee is a mere USD $6.99. In exchange, you receive 52 stories, plus bonus stories during the holidays. It’s an incredibly generous offer.

If you have spare change, send some to Silver Empire, and together we can make short fiction great again.