Category Archives: Twelve Kingdoms

Franchising Abstraction and Open Endings

A simple existence

If you’re ever partial to nail-biting bickering about trivial nothings, we’re having a contest here. It’s on right now and have been for a little while, and will continue for the next month and plus some. The difference between this and SaiWhatever is that there’s promises of gift prizes at the end of the long, hard-fought road. Read the rules for what little details there are available.

But more pertinently, as people struggle to come up with every possible kind of incentive under the sun to get those swing votes, I’m just drawing out one point for further attention.

Let’s take Type-Moon’s Fate/Stay Night for example. It’s a good example because I have to remind myself of the pictures I still have yet to take (at least you don’t get snow in Singapore! lol. Jeff Lawson so should get a figure photo blog going…) and blog entries yet to be written about F/SN’s cast of characters. What do you get when you remove, say, Saber, from the context of the game/anime story? Who is Saber?

We know by the game/anime setting, that she is a magical being summoned to fight in a contest. She is also a heroic being, who died and now lives again for the purpose of this contest. We know it’s a she; we know she is a swordswoman. We know she has blond hair and blue eyes. We know she wears armor like nobody’s business–probably dating her to an age where wearing that kind armor was practical (disregarding anime’s crazy design licenses for impractical character designs). She speaks with a fairly solemn voice, and is a serious individual. Most of her official character art reflect that as well.

Now we look at Rin Tohsaka in the same way. Rin is a she, too; and also a serious individual. But beyond that the two quickly diverges. Rin is darker, and sports a design style that is a little gothic but also much more Japanese-schoolgirl. She expresses a variety of attitudes and feelings with her facial expression and body language that is missing from Saber. She has an attitude. In fact, she quickly reminds me (at least) of the Oujosama archetype.

The two of them, Saber and Rin, are characters in a franchise. We know a lot about them without knowing what happened to them in the anime or game. Such is sort of the mode of modus operandi of anime concept design and character design that we are used to and see in mainstream anime stuffs. Anime companies sell franchises, not just video on DVDs or ads on TV. They attach products to concepts, and be it story, character, or even just a name, this is how you make money selling from video games to cell phone straps to massager to maid cafe services.

And it is not so the case for every anime character under the sun. Take Youko Nakajima for example. To me Twelve Kingdoms is an awesome show that more people needs to watch because it captures the feel of a good high-fantasy with strong characterization. However it’s a fairly typical example how the characters don’t really live beyond the screen or pages of text that detailed their adventures. Sure, that doesn’t stop anyone from attaching stuff to these characters for $$$ (save maybe this), but in the minds of fans and readers, do these characters live on? Do they drive us into mad fans? Maybe. Is this the kind of fandom that makes us want to write slash fics and doujinshi? Maybe. Is the fandom dimension that makes all the difference between a character chained to the original work versus a character liberated?

I felt that Youko Nakajima is a character imprisoned by her story. Indeed the magnificence of her existence is really meaningful mostly in that context. And it isn’t like Twelve Kingdoms is lacking in interesting elements in the setting–it’s full of interesting stuff, in fact. The Shokei and Suzu arc, rather than building on an epic story of coming-of-age for a high school girl, puts it in the perspective of a life-long (in this case, could be hundreds of years) drama series serialized in juvenile fantasy novels. Could it be that Youko is chained to the serial nature of her story?

We want to know what’s up next with her. We want to take part in her character growth and the continuing discovery of the world of the Twelve Kingdoms. But to do that we can’t venture off on our own…

Alas. Is this yet another case to be made about the power of freedom of creative expression, a gift from creator to consumer, who in turn, become also a creator? It’s a content-layer concern that is very subtle and amusing at the same time.

So chalk one up for open endings!

When Character Development Pisses Me Off…

Sometimes a great story pisses me off because of one little thing. The fly in the ointment.

L stands for Lame

When we’re talking about a movie or a TV show, there is more room, more possibilities to annoy. With a written piece, at the very most, the pensmanship can get in the way. In an anime it can go from terrible music to voice acting to an odd character design.

But there is something worse than all of that. Something much more fundamental. In fact, nothing pisses me off more than a strawman that is not only not disguised, but obviously elevated, highlighted, and having neon lights pointing at it, saying “LOL WATCH MY CARTHARTIC MOMENT 20 EPISODES LATER!” that is typical of the mainstream, serious genre of action and drama. It’s like the show first kicks me in the groin and then reassures me I’ll feel better after I finish the show. Right.

What do I mean by that? Like Ed from FMA; or Light from the recent favorite Death Note. I’m going to use these two as examples, but there are many more out there. I’m also going to contrast it with an example to the contrary, like Yoko from Twelve Kingdoms.

Let’s look at Light first. He is passionate about his notion of justice and his notion of idealism, but obviously out of boredom he takes those ideas way too far. As the main character, his drama will drive the story as well as the various themes to the show. These motivations are fine and all, but I think every time when he mentions anything about crime, punishment, or justice, a little bit of me died inside BECAUSE IT IS SO DUMB.

To dwell on this point a little more, when I said strawman a few paragraphs up there, I mean it exactly that. The writer to the story sets up a character or a symbolic concept within the story that mirrors a position on a grey, moral issue. However when it’s established in a “round” character, this character has to grapple with this position and over the course of the story, change his opinion on this moral position and gain a better understanding behind the overall topic. The writer, knowing that there will be this change, will often set up the main character on a basis that is outright wrong, or overly idealistic or emotional, because this position is just a strawman for the story to attack and abandon later on.

Likewise in FMA, as the story progresses, Ed learns more about what his world is all about, and uncovers things that changes his understanding. Yep. OHNOES SCIENCE > J00? Give me a break.

On the other hand, Yoko Nakajima, as we all know, is kind of this sheltered girl with the same problems similar to Light’s problems. The differences in their abilities may give them different reasons to respond to the same, commonly critiqued Japanese school life experience, but both are annoying characters at first. I think Light goes as far as to embrace from one bad stereotype (the phony, perfect good-doer) to a worse one (a remorseless criminal), while Yoko goes from one common stereotype (whiny, irresponsible girl) to something that’s much more “well rounded”–a person who knows her place and has her moment of carthasis.

Of course, it’s expected that Light will run into the same, and Death Note is just building it up; but when the bulk of the story is about Macbeth fighting off his eventual fate rather than his spiraling down into corruption, to draw a parallel example, it acts as if the story is walking away from resolution and into the void. There is nothing that holds me to be sympathetic to Light. Yoko, on the other hand, is a mostly-helpless girl in a strange land and has to fight to survive, and she wises up accordingly.

To sum it up:

1. Hubris is to be realized over time, not explained from the onset.

2. Sympathy is important if you want the audience to care.

Of course, the fact that both Death Note and Full Metal Alchemist are very popular shows would suggest that my view is wrong, or a minority view. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case, of course, since both shows boast large marketing efforts, high production value, as well as interesting plots, set-up, and secondary characters. But I just can’t get past the highly artificial, semi-predictable, kick in the groin. It’s sooooo 3rd rate. It’s what you expect from crappy Hollywood summer blockbuster-wannabes.