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.

Tired Tropes: It’s Only A Flesh Wound

You’ve seen versions of the scene a hundred times before. Our Hero is engaged in a gunfight with The Villain. The Villain takes a potshot at Our Hero. Our Hero staggers. When his sidekick catches up with Our Hero and asks after him, Our Hero declares, “It’s only a flesh wound”. In the next scene, Our Hero is patched up and good to go. If the creator even bothers with medical treatment.

In a creative work that treats deadly violence with deadly seriousness, the flesh wound trope is a cop-out. It is a cheap way to increase tension in the scene by showing that Our Hero isn’t invulnerable and that The Villain isn’t incapable, while simultaneously preventing Our Hero from receiving a wound that would prematurely retire him from the story altogether.

To be clear, I’m referring to instances where a character can shrug off an injury as though nothing happened to him, not instances in which a character insists he can keep fighting even though it’s clear he’s gravely wounded. The latter is drama, the former is cheap. Ten seconds on Google would rob anyone of any delusions that a ‘flesh wound’ isn’t serious.

When weapons are involved, there is no such thing as a ‘flesh wound’. It’s like being pregnant: you can’t shoot or stab someone a little bit, and you can’t pretend there won’t be long-term consequences. Once weapons come into play, there are just two questions: how much damage is caused immediately, and how much functionality you recover.

Functionally like this, with more bleeding and screaming.

The human body is amazingly resilient and incredibly fragile. It is resilient in that the major critical organs—the brain, the heart, the lungs—are protected by thick, hard bone, making it difficult to immediately kill someone, and most bodily functions are duplicated, allowing someone to survive the loss of a limb or eye or some other organ. It is fragile in that it is ludicrously easy to shatter bones, sever nerves and destroy muscle if you know what you’re doing—and there is no easy way to undo the damage.

Let’s take the classic example of the bullet to the arm. If the round strikes the forearm, it could break the radius and/or ulna, potentially disabling the arm. If the bullet hits the hand, it would produce an explosion of blood and pain, crippling the hand and potentially severing fingers. A round to the elbow or shoulder will destroy the joint and require reconstructive surgery. And a large enough round will blow off the limb altogether. Even with reconstructive surgery, there is no guarantee the limb will be saved, and there will usually be some degree of permanent loss of function.

Blunt weapons don’t offer much relief. They are technically less lethal in that the user can choose not to kill someone, but it doesn’t mean it won’t cripple the target either. Many stick striking techniques target the head and the joints. A club or cudgel, used properly, will cause fractures, concussions and traumatic brain injuries. A knockout blow to the head might still kill someone if it strikes with with enough force or if he lands on a hard surface.

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The most effective targets are no-go zones for law enforcement…but not for bad guys.

Police officers are specifically trained to target muscle groups instead of bones with their batons—not because these are effective techniques, but to minimise harm to the suspect. This is also why police baton striking techniques create the appearance of police brutality: they are striking the least effective targets on the body, and a subject high on drugs or adrenaline may not feel the pain. When striking with a club, you get to choose between causing pain—not effective against an adrenalized target—or shattering bones—not conducive for allowing Our Hero to continue his adventures. The only time a blunt weapon would inflict the equivalent of ‘flesh wounds’ is by striking muscle, which is not usually in a bad guy’s repertoire.

What about edged weapons? A core concept of Filipino martial arts is defanging the snake, in which the practitioner disarms an aggressor by disabling a limb. When applied to knives, this means targeting the major muscle groups of the arms and legs, leading to an instant stop. Surely, then, this is a flesh wound?

No.

In Martial Blade Concepts, a key technique is the quadriceps cut. The practitioner moves to the target’s side, then stabs the quads and cuts out. There will be little blood and relatively minor nerve damage…and the target will no longer be able to stand unaided.

In Libre Knife Fighting, a tactic is to circle around a target’s weapon side to gain his back, plant the knife next to the spine and cut down. This would sever the major muscles in the back, including the latissimus dorsi. Little blood, minor damage…and the target will no longer be able to lift his arm.

Even if you can inflict an actual flesh wound on someone, if done properly that person will not be able to walk away from it—in some cases, literally. It will take long weeks to recover, if at all. Once weapons are thrown into the mix, the question is not how to ‘safely’ harm the target, but rather how much harm you are willing to do, starting with merely disabling a limb and climbing all the way to death.

And all this is assuming that the story takes place in a setting with modern medicine. In a historical setting or an austere environment with limited access to healthcare, a mere flesh wound would become infected, quickly becoming a horrific pus-filled wound leading to a terrible and painful death. Before the advent of penicillin, anesthesia or even germ theory, there were precious few methods of treating injuries that were not immediately fatal. There was no point trying to save an injured limb if it would inevitably become septic. The preferred method was to amputate the limb to prevent the spread of disease—and even then, prior to the development of sterile surgery people still caught diseases and died. In the American Civil War, one in four patients died from post-surgical illnesses. In such a setting, even if a character survives a non-fatal injury, he is in for a miserable time.

In a creative work where violence is played straight, it would not do for characters to walk off flesh wounds. It flies against the aesthetic of the work, revealing the scene for what it is: a cheap trick to artificially induce tension. And yet a character who routinely prevails in deadly encounters without a scratch appears invincible, inducing audience boredom.

The Art of Safely Injuring Our Hero

For better or for worse, an easy way to increase tension and retain audience interest is to prevent the perception of invulnerability. Our Hero must be seen taking a blow. But he must also survive his injuries without being too damaged to continue his career. There are four ways to do this.The first method is to take away the weapons. Without weapons, it will be more difficult for people to grievously harm each other. By focusing on body shots, slams, throws, chokes and the occasional head punch, both parties can whale on each other without necessarily causing permanent injuries. Fight-ending shots like throat strikes, eye rakes and joint breaks can be evaded, parried, blocked or countered, prolonging the scene while ratcheting the tension until the time is right to end the fight. Using clever fight choreography, a creator can disguise the fact that neither party is trying to kill or cripple the other while still increasing suspense.

Look past the wire fu and you’ll notice that they are not using or landing lethal or crippling techniques.

Chinese martial arts films love this trope. In the above clip from Ip Man 2, Ip Man fights three kung fu masters in succession. Here, Ip Man is fighting to prove his calibre as a teacher and earn the right to run a martial arts school in Hong Kong. Since this conflict is inherently a social one, the combatants will want to avoid lethal techniques, but this implicit rule does not shield Ip Man from failure. The audience may be assured that Ip Man will survive the fight (Ip Man is, after all, a historical character), but not necessarily that he will win, thereby maintaining suspense.

The second method is to use the setting to mitigate the damage. In a fantasy setting, you can have healers with the power to reattach severed limbs and cure terrible wounds. In a science fiction story, a crippled character may rely on prosthetics or cutting-edge medical regeneration technology. Such a setting gives you the best of both worlds: you can still play serious battle wounds straight, leading to loss of blood and limb function, but as soon as the character receives medical care he can be restored to full heath, allowing him to continue the adventure.

During Luke Skywalker’s duel with Darth Vader on Cloud City in The Empire Strikes Back, Darth Vader cuts off Luke’s hand. This demonstrates the disparity in skill between them and allows Darth Vader to reveal that he is Luke’s father. Luke later receives a prosthetic hand, allowing him to participate in Return of the Jedi. In this instant, the science fiction setting makes the prosthetic hand believable, maintaining suspension of disbelief while averting the flesh wound trope.

This would naturally be more difficult to do in a modern setting. Armour is the easiest way to do it, if you can justify its inclusion in the scene. Armour may stop bullets and shrapnel from penetrating flesh, but it would still feel like a hard punch and possibly leave deep bruises. To maintain drama in such a situation, focus on pain, shock, surprise and other psychological effects. In effect, the character knows he’s been hit, but since he took it on the armour, he can keep fighting—even if it hurts like the devil, forcing him to slow down. Wounds to unarmored limbs will still disable the limb, but by applying a tourniquet, the character will still survive – and now he must figure out how to survive despite the loss of a limb. Which is a rich vein to tap for more drama, if you know what you’re doing.

The third method is to play grievous wounds straight but allow a long time for rest and recovery. It’s no coincidence that heroes in realistic thriller series suffer their most debilitating injuries near the end of the story. From the writer’s perspective, since the hero won’t participate in any more combat later in the story, the hero need only survive the scene. By the time of the next story, the hero would have recovered fully—or at least, to the point where he can continue his adventures.In Barry Eisler’s Winner Take All, John Rain almost bleeds to death. By the time of the next book, Redemption Games, Rain has recovered and is ready for his next contract. By contrast, in Tom Clancy’s Patriot Games, Jack Ryan suffers the classic shoulder wound in the beginning of the story. Ryan spends weeks in hospital, and weeks more in a cast. He also loses some permanent use of his arm. Despite that, by the time of the climax, Ryan is fit for action. This makes sense because Ryan is an analyst: as a desk jockey he doesn’t have to run around and chase bad guys, allowing other characters to participate in action scenes until it’s Ryan’s time to shine.

The last method is the riskiest: inflict the lowest amount of damage possible while justifying it in-universe. This requires extensive knowledge of tactics, techniques, technology and procedures. This method should only be relied on if you do possess such knowledge—or if you know someone who does.

In swordfighting, medium range is the range where both parties can reach each other with their weapons. This is the realm of the double kill. Blade styles that specialise in combat at this range demand mastery of timing, footwork and body mechanics. For instance, when facing a thrust, an exponent may sway back to evade the blade, then launch a riposte along the open line. Such a subtle movement minimises the distance and time the swordsman needs to deliver a counterattack, but it also demands perfection. When dodging an attack, Our Hero may slightly misjudge the distance and receive a shallow wound. Likewise, the villain may evade Our Hero’s slash and launch a sudden riposte; Our Hero shields with his secondary arm and tries to step off, but the offending blade still takes him in the arm. In both cases, Our Hero doesn’t receive a fight-ending injury, or even necessarily a serious one, but the narrowness of his escape emphasises just how close he is to dying and the seriousness of the situation. When played straight, these apparently-shallow wounds will begin to degrade his combat effectiveness, forcing him to take risks. For instance, a seemingly-superficial forehead cut may bleed into the eyes, creating an avenue for reversal and tension, while the arm wound might lead to loss of blood pressure and later consciousness.

With live weapons, a small error in timing and footwork will lead to injury. Notice how narrow the dodges are, and how slim the margin of error.

It is much harder to pull this off in gunfights. In Stephen Hunter’s Point of Impact, a villain shoots Bob Lee Swagger twice in the chest. Swagger survives and escapes. It is revealed that the villain missed Swagger’s heart and had loaded his weapon with hollow point bullets that had failed to expand. The latter is plausible because the story is set in the early 1990s, and hollow points were not a mature technology then. Even so, Swagger is still critically wounded. He struggles with his injuries and requires medical attention (and recovery) before he can continue his investigation. Without knowledge of firearms, ammunition and terminal ballistics, it is very hard to plausibly pull of flesh wounds from a firefight. The old standby, of course, is to have Our Hero grazed by bullets or be struck by fragments from bullets disintegrating against hard cover, but with such minor wounds Our Hero (and therefore the audience) may not even notice them until after the fight.

Flesh wounds are impossible wounds. In a work that plays violence straight, downplaying the effects of injuries contradicts the feel and tone of the work. Instead of going for transparent theatrics, see if you can use the setting to plausibly mitigate the effects of injuries, or play the violence straight and force Our Hero to roll with what he has left. By respecting the consequences of deadly violence, you can maintain dramatic tension while respecting reality and the audience.


Image credits:

Baton target: Original image by Monadnock, first retrieved here.

Tired Tropes: The Superpowered Loser

Everybody knows That Guy. He’s in the corner in the dorky clothes, his eyes always trained on the floor, either mumbling in hesitant whispers or holding court in long droning tirades. He holds a dead-end job and lives in a dead-end home, either in a tiny danky apartment or his parents’ basement. He’s got no obvious skills, no aspirations, no desire to rise above his lot, and no idea how to handle himself or how people really see him. He lives a life of bitterness, envious of other people’s success and maybe obsessed with the One Perfect Woman.

And one day, by an Act of Rob, he is imbued with a superpower.

His life suddenly turns around. Villains crumble at his presence. Beautiful women throw themselves at his feet. Powerful men are overwhelmed with jealousy but fail to topple him. Riches rain from the heavens. But at heart, he is still a loser in word and deed.


Only in Manhwa Land

This is not about the Super Loser trope, where the loser is acknowledged and portrayed as a loser in-universe despite his powers. Stories featuring superpowered losers as protagonists are adolescent wish fulfilment fantasies. It is a reassuring delusion that even losers can find wealth and women without needing to put in the work to overcome their weaknesses and insecurities. All he has to do is to have a convenient superpower fall into his lap.

The superpower itself comes in many forms. A supernatural boon that allows anyone to instantly feel pleasure through skin contact, a suit of high-tech powered armor, a sudden ability to use magic or extrasensory perception, or some other plot device. Whatever this superpower may be, its key feature is that its insertion into the story automatically elevates the protagonist into an untouchable, desirable being head and shoulders above everybody else. He doesn’t have to learn how to charm or think or fight; the superpower automatically takes care of that. He may encounter challenges and rivals, but thanks to his superpower, he will always prevail.

The superpower itself serves only to fulfil the loser’s greatest desires. When activated, it is an unstoppable instant-win device. In Korean webcomic Love Parameter, hopeless nerd Young Hoon receives a special pair of glasses, allowing him to read the parameters of everyone around him. When he wants to seduce a woman, the glasses tell him exactly what to say. All he needs to do is follow the script, and every woman he meets falls into his bed. Likewise, in Sweet Guy, Go Ho-Sang develops the miraculous ability to make anybody instantly feel good at a touch. He is the very model of a modern Korean loser — dead-end customer service job, unfashionable clothes, zero social skills — but after developing the power, no end of sexually aggressive women pursue him day and night.

In these stories the superpower is a crutch. Young Hoon doesn’t have to dress well, exercise or make himself more desirable; he just has to follow the script on his spectacles, and all the hot women come running at his beck and call. Ho-Sang never has to learn how to speak to women; he merely needs to ‘accidentally’ touch his target, or at most cook up an excuse to touch her, and a neverending stream of beauties will rush him into bed. Quite conveniently, they are all aggressive go-getter types, so he never needs to learn how to talk to women — not even his love interest. Take away their superpowers, and they will still be losers.

In traditional superhero stories, we see heroes using their powers for a higher and nobler cause, such as justice or protecting civilisation from world-eating monsters. They use their powers for a cause higher than themselves, face and overcome incredible challenges, and emerge as heroes worthy of the title. Superpowered loser stories are an inversion: they are about the loser relying on his superpower only to feed his ego and place himself above other men. There is no higher cause, there is no challenge to be a greater man, there is only the bacchanalian celebration of the ego.

Stories about superpowered losers are weak because the protagonists remain losers. Actions transform people. Events give people the impetus to choose to be better. Losers choose to remain static, to maintain the core traits that kept them as losers and instead lean on their superpowers. As their superpowers will never fail, they have no incentive to get better, no obstacle they have no doubt of overcoming, no reason to do anything with their powers other than feed their ego. As a result, there is no drama, no tension, no believable conflict — only the boring certainty that things will go his way and the inevitable pain of watching the loser stumble through the rest of life.

Rehabiliating the Loser


Yes, that means you.

To make a story about a superpowered loser work, the writer has to do two things: the loser must choose to use the superpower for a greater good, and the superpower cannot be a crutch. By pursuing a higher purpose, the protagonist has the motivation to become stronger, and will encounter supervillains that force him to keep honing his skills. The combination of internal and external desires combine to catalyse the loser’s transcendence. There are two ways to do this.

The first way is for the superpower to transform the protagonist. In DICE: The Cube That Changes Everything, Dongtae is a loser who is constantly bullied and shunned by everyone. One day, he picks up a mysterious die, becoming a participant in a game that allows players to complete quests in exchange for more dice. When rolled, these dice grant dicers points that can be invested in their stats or exchanged for goods. Dongtae uses the dice to become stronger, faster and more intelligent, and roundly chastises the bullies.

But there are more dicers out there. As gamemaster ‘X’ spreads the dice across the Korea, Dongtae’s school is thrown into chaos. His schoolmates will do anyything for more dice, including hunting and harming other dicers or innocents. Dongtae vows to challenge X and end the madness once and for all.

This story works on two levels. First, the proliferation of dice ensures that using them does not automatically lead to an effortless win, at least not against other dicers. While dice-granted abilities are powerful, none of them render the user invincible; a dicer must still use his powers intelligently or he will be defeated. Further, dicers who invest points in the wrong stats quickly pay the price when facing more skilled opponents. Second, Dongtae’s powers catalyse his character evolution. His motivation for using the dice stems from a desire to not be a loser, but as the story progresses, he chooses to use his powers to protect his friends and confront X. By using his power for a cause greater than himself, he leaves behind his adolescent wish fulfilment fantasies and takes on the mantle of a hero. As he encounters ever-more-powerful villains, he must strive to get better and attain more skills just to survive –- yet the dice quests force him to choose between expeditiously gaining more dice and doing the right thing.

The second way to rehabilitate a superpowered loser is to have other characters build him up. In Zetsuen no Tempest, the Tree of Genesis threatens to destroy human civilisation. Halfway through the series, Hanemura Megumu makes his debut. Hanemura is a weak-willed and wimpy construction worker who just broke up with his girlfriend…and who was incidentally chosen by the Tree of Exodus to defeat the Tree of Genesis.

As the Magician of Exodus, Hanemura may be the avatar of destruction, but he is still a loser. The other main characters train him to become worthy of his powers. He is beaten black and blue repeatedly, and keeps whining whenever that happens, but he still comes back for more. At the series’ end, Hanemura saves the world from catastrophe, and prepares to reconcile with his ex-girlfriend.

Once again, we see the superpowered loser choosing to use his powers for the greater good and to put in the effort to overcome his failings. Here, instead of the superpowers catalysing his growth, other characters force him to grow. Where superpower-as-catalyst brings out the protagonist’s innate drive, this approach uses characters to catalyse the loser’s development. The former approach makes for a story that allows the protagonist to dig deep and find himself, while the latter has plenty of opportunities for character drama.

The third way of reversing the superpowered loser trope is simply to play it straight. The superpower is a crutch and the loser is still a loser. Sure, he can elevate himself above others for a while, but there are always better men — and when reality hits, it hits hard. A villainous example of this are many of the evil vampires in Hellsing. They believe that their vampire powers make them unstoppable, but Alucard curbstomps them without breaking a sweat, usually by showing them the error of their ways through absorbing their most powerful attacks without even a scratch.

This approach knocks out the superpower, revealing it for the crutch it really is. Assuming the loser survives the fall, he now has the impetus to become stronger and stop relying on his gift. To complete the transformation, the sudden shock causes the loser to re-evaluate his life and strive to become a better man.


You ready to be a hero?

Zero to Hero

The superpowered loser is a tired trope because it is mere wish fulfilment. Instead of pursuing transcendent goals, it is all about elevating and preserving the ego. This inevitably leads to a boring story without drama, tension or opportunity for character development. Instead, give the loser a reason and a drive to be great, and watch him become a superhero.


Photo Credits:

Sweet Guy cover: original image from Baka Updates
Hanemura Megumu: Zetsuen no Tempest anime episode 15
Blast of Tempest Volume 10

Tired Tropes: The Potato Protagonist

If a potato has more personality than the protagonist of a story, the writer is doing it wrong.

The best stories are driven by their characters. The best characters aren’t two-dimensional constructs of excessive verbiage, but a reflection and amplification of the myriad facets of humanity. Characters must resonate with readers, acting, talking and thinking the way people in their situation would do. Shaped by their background, genes, personality and networks, these characters take on a life of their own, and in doing so become distinct people in their own.

Character creation is complex. The more complicated and technical a person is, the more likely a creator will make a mistake somewhere, creating a false note that jars a reader’s sensibilities. If there are too many mistakes, or if the mistake were too serious, the reader would drop the story there and then. Creators must give their all when building characters; at the very least they must try their best. But the ones who reach for the potato protagonist don’t even try.

The potato protagonist is as blank as a potato and has the personality of one. Everything about him is dull, flat and humdrum. His skills, backgrounds and talents don’t matter; his core is empty, his thoughts and behaviours utterly predictable by anyone familiar with standard storytelling tropes. There is nothing about him that makes him stand out from other protagonists, nothing that draws and retain the reader’s attention.

A classic example of the trop is Ichijo Raku of Nisekoi. Ichijo is allegedly the son of a yakuza family at odds with a rival gang. To prevent a gang war, Ichijo must pretend to date the daughter of the rival gang boss, Chitoge Kirisaki, during his high school years. This couldhave been a fascinating setup, but the creator wasted the potential of the main character.

(Unmarked spoilers ahead!)

Ichijo’s background has minimal influence on him. He is supposed to be the heir of a nation-spanning yakuza group, with an army of servants at his command and a fortune to his name. But from the get-go he spurns the notion of inheriting the group, and insists on getting an ordinary job in the real world. This is a thin excuse to explain how and why he goes to a regular school, but this falls flat.

Someone who grew up surrounded by wealth, luxury and (allegedly) murderous yakuza acts, talks and thinks differently from a regular person. He would have a cavalier attitude towards money and possessions, yet he would act and talk with grace and refinement. He would be mindful to act in a way that would not bring dishonour to his family, because the yakuza are allowed to exist only because of the goodwill they have built in their community, and because in the underworld, careless words leads to deadly violence. He would have been groomed to study people, keep track of favours and relationships, network with the children of the rich and powerful, and influence people. Depending on how violent the underworld is at that time, he would also have trained in martial arts and learned how to use illegal weapons.

Instead, Ichijou comes off as an ordinary high school boy. Indeed, his background is almost never referenced until a story arc demands it. For much of the story, you can replace ‘scion of a powerful yakuza family’ with ‘ordinary high school student’ and it would not affect him one bit. Ichijou fits the mold of Bland Shounen Harem Protagonist to a T. Nothing about Ichijou makes him stand out from any of the thousands of high school student protagonists out there…except for his utter inability to notice how the girls around him feel about him until the manga draws to a close.

Fundamentally, the potato protagonist is not meant to uphold a story. He exists to solve a marketing problem.

The primary target audience of shounen anime and manga are Japanese high school boys. The easiest way to reach out to them is to have a protagonist that vaguely reflects them andallows them to project themselves into the character. By granting the main character the personality of a potato, the audience has an empty vessel to pour their own unique selves into.

The same applies to other audiences of other categories. Want to write a trashy romance story for women? Create a blank ordinary everywoman. Drawing a shoujo manga? Have a fluffy emotional girl as the protagonist and a cool, handsome boy as the love interest. Writing a men’s action adventure novel? Make the protagonist a cold killer and play up the guts and gore.

The Potato Protagonist is easy, but writing is about truth, and most of the time, when employed this trope does not reflect the truth of the world. High school students do not embark on grand adventures; at least not without coming through unchanged. People do not exist to reflect the quirks and desires of other people.

And for characters to be realistic, they must pass as people.

The Potato Protagonist Done Right

(Mass Effect 3 wallpaper, http://www.hdwallpapers.in/female_shepard_in_mass_effect_3-wallpapers.html)

The point of Tired Tropes is not to deride a targeted trope, but to see how it can be employed effectively. And even potato protagonists can be redeemed.

Potatoes are bland lumps. They absorb the flavor of the foods, spices and oils they are cooked with. They can be steamed, fried, boiled, stewed, roasted, grilled or microwaved. They can be cooked as is or cut up into different shapes. This essential malleability is key to properly understanding this trope.

Potato Protagonists lend themselves well to choice-driven games, especially role playing games. The point of such games is to allow the player to shape his experience in the game world with the protagonist as his vehicle. As such, a protagonist without any unwanted baggage is excellent — the player is free to act however he likes within the confines of the game, without having to experience dissonance between a protagonist’s actions and his supposed background.

Where the protagonist does have a backstory, the intelligent developer would find ways to integrate that backstory into the overall choice mechanic to create a deeper gameplay experience. In Mass Effect, the player is free to customise his own Commander Shepherd , and can choose between three separate backgrounds. But these backgrounds exist independently of the player’s choice. If the player wants to play a Shepherd who ordered a massacre but later regretted his actions and is trying to be a better person, he can. if the player wants to play a Shepherd who survived a slave raid by hostile aliens, propelling him to become a ferocious war hero and twisting him into a ruthless xenophobe, he can. In games that allow players to deeply customise their experiences and see themselves as active participants in the story events, the potato protagonist is unmatched.

In print media, a potato protagonist is also acceptable…if he does not remain one. Events change people. Stories change characters. The reader must be able to compare a character at the beginning of the story with his future self and see how much he has changed. A potato protagonist facilitates character development, since there is no fear of violating established background or character regression. This also has the effect of making character development appear more obvious to the reader.

An example of this is Rosario + Vampire. Aono Tsukune is an ordinary high school boy who accidentally gets enrolled in a high school for monsters. Predatory monsters who feed on humans and who are learning how to blend into human society, starting with magic that makes them appear human. His innate humanity attracts the attention of a group of monster girls, leading to harem hijinks.

Not.

The story begins as a generic Monster of the Week manga. Then the creator delves into each character’s personal life, creating opportunities for drama and character bonding and deconstructing the Unwanted Harem trope. Soon, villains appear, threatening the fragile peace between humans and monsters, and targeting Tsukune and his friends. Tsukune, in turn, resolves to help his newfound friends and love interest, and embarks special training to grow stronger. At the start of the series, Tsukune is a high school boy well over his head, desperately trying not to be unmasked as an actual human; by the final arc of the second season, Tsukune stands alongside his friends to save humanity from a monster terrorist organisation.

Personally, I dislike potato protagonists. Such characters hold little appeal to me, and it takes a great deal of work for me to continue putting up with them longer than an hour. That is usually because they aren’t understood and employed properly. But done right, they can become icons in their own right. Case in point: Commander Shepherd.

The potato protagonist is the quintessential blank slate. In choice-driven games, he is a vessel for the player to shape his experiences. In fixed stories, he has maximum potential for evolution and development, pushing the story to greater heights. In both cases, the protagonist changes into someone better.

A potato protagonist is not enjoyed raw; he must be prepared and cooked through the events of the story. Or, like a raw potato, he could poison the reader and turn off the reader permanently.

Tired Tropes: the Tsundere

Welcome to Tired Tropes, in which I dissect popular tropes I find annoying. While tropes are tools, they can be overused or done badly, and Tired Tropes are especially gregarious examples of them. Here, I take on the tsundere.

The tsundere is a staple of Japanese media. She—for the overwhelming majority of tsunderes are female—is defined by switching between harsh (‘tsun’) and lovestruck (‘dere’) personalities, due to how she feels towards a love interest and her reaction to having these feelings. While Tropes are Not Bad, it takes great skill to properly utilise tsundere archetype, and many, many, many creators have failed to do it properly.

When people think tsunderes they think Type A tsunderes: harsh and aloof as her default setting, but sweet or vulnerable towards her love interest…eventually. And by ‘harsh’ I mean abusive. Examples abound in media: Louise Francoise le Blanc de la Valliere from Zero no Tsukaima, Ayatsuji Tsukasa of Amagami, Kirisaki Chitoge in Nisekoi, and so on.

Type B tsunderes, who have dere as their default setting, are also abound, but I haven’t encountered (too many) problems with their portrayals. This post will focus exclusively on the ultra-Type A tsunderes: the abusive types.

In the real world, abuse has consequences. It inflicts horrendous psychological damage on the victim over time. More assertive individuals would simply refuse to have anything to do with such people, or turn to the authorities (or arrest them, if they are the authorities). In fiction, for some reason, abuse is rewarded with love.

Louise physically and emotionally abuses Hiraga Saito throughout the entire series, including berating him, whipping him and punishing him whenever she gets jealous of another girl who talks to him—and they become the official couple. Ayatsuji blackmails Tachibana Junichi into helping her by threatening to accuse him of sexual assault when he accidentally picks up her diary—and in her route she becomes his lover. Kirisaki Chitoge is abusive, haughty and violent towards Ichijou Raku, especially in the early chapters—and he falls for her anyway.

Writing is about truth. Tropes are a tool to point the reader towards truth. And the truth of the world is that if a woman were arrogant, abrasive, manipulative and outright violent towards anyone, she is not girlfriend or wife material. This is a clear indicator of intimate partner violence—better known as domestic violence. And yet the relationships described above are portrayed as loving relationships.

Consider what would happen if the gender roles were flipped: if male tsunderes abuse their female love interests. There is no expectation that the relationship would end well. Yet this portrayal of female tsunderes endures. After all, Abuse is Okay if it’s Female on Male.

This is not to say that the tsundere archetype should be abandoned, rather that it should be deployed with skill.

Instead of playing abuse for laughs, especially in a serious work of fiction, it should be explored to the bitter end. Unflinchingly explore the consequences of being around someone who switches between harsh and sweet at the drop of a hat. The result is confusion, a tendency to walk on eggshells around her, and a dysfunctional relationship. More assertive characters will stand up and put a stop to such nonsense, or ruthlessly cut out these people from their lives.

If the tone of the story is comedic or light-hearted, downplay the violence or abuse to the point where it won’t actually harm anyone. Imagine the female lightly punching a male’s arm or softly bouncing her fists against his chest without actually hurting him, or limiting the use of insults and retorts. This provides insight into her character without crossing the line. Or, as in the case of Kaze no Stigma, the female may be lashing out at the male with full force, while the male easily avoids or no-sells the attack with boredom or amused mastery. In either event, it is immediately clear that what happens isn’t abuse, as it doesn’t actually affect the target in any meaningful way.

If the male does have a background in martial arts and/or a profession that requires the regular use of force (soldier, mercenary, police, etc.), show the real-world results of attempting to abuse that person. Force will be met with force, dodged or redirected. These are survival mechanisms, so deeply ingrained that they cannot be turned off so easily. Such people will also have no tolerance for abuse: either the tsundere shapes up or is dropped.

Steins;Gate.full.742594.jpg

An example of the Type A tsundere romance done right is Steins;Gate. Makise Kurisu is a classic Type A tsundere, who developed her acerbic tongue after being looked down on for being the youngest scientist in her lab. Okabe Rintarou roleplays a mad scientist all the time, to the point where nearly everyone thinks he acts like a twelve-year-old, and also displays classic tsundere characteristics. Unlike other media, the character dynamic is both hilarious and realistic, thanks to the way it’s handled.

While Makise and Okabe bicker over literally anything, their interactions showcase both chemistry and growing respect for each other. Makise maintains her tsun side by talking in scientific terms when annoyed, acting cynically towards Okabe, and (in the Japanese version) by using rude forms of address, while reserving her ultra-tsun moments for times when it’s justified—such as reacting to a perverted joke about her, usually with a sharp remark. And she doesn’t abuse people who don’t annoy her, like Shiina Mayuri. Okabe, in turn, feeds off her energy, responding with aplomb and genuinely hilarious comebacks.

Most importantly, when the chips are down and push comes to shove, Makise drops the tsundere act. She demonstrates her brilliance as a scientist, supports Okabe through difficult situations, and acts as a loyal member of his lab team. In this sense, Makise is more than just a two-dimensional character; she is a complete character who drives the story. And in the end, she (mostly) drops the tsun act and acts more affectionately towards Okabe.

Looking at Steins;Gate we see an instance of effectively deploying a Type A tsundere without alienating the audience. She doesn’t go overboard with her harshness, or when she does it’s met with resistance. She shows character development over time instead of flipflopping back and forth. Most of all, she is more than just an archetype: she contributes meaningfully to the story, becoming more than just a set of clichéd behaviours.

The tsundere archetype in of itself is not bad. But when poorly handled, it is a portrayal of female abuse and generates violent dissonance with the truth of the world. Properly crafting a Type A tsundere requires careful calibration of her character, showing her harshness without crossing the line into unchecked abuse, while giving her opportunities to be more than just a cliche.