9 Things Writers Can Learn (or Relearn) from Japanese Media

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Previously, the ways being a fan can help – or hurt – an author were discussed here at Song. This and the article on fan fiction primarily focused on Western entertainment and its effect on aspiring storytellers. While fundamentally important and formative for all prospective novelists, present day Occidental fiction is not the only storytelling milieu from which one may learn. Oriental fiction, specifically the media available from Japan, has much to teach aspiring artists as well.

While it is often dismissed by critics as childish, Japanese fiction remains tremendously successful in the West. This is due to their willingness to utilize many techniques which current Western producers have abandoned within the last few decades. Not every Japanese anime or RPG is an exemplar of the craft of fiction, of course, any more than every Western story – contemporary or otherwise – is a gem without price. Like everyone else, the Japanese have their lackluster authors as well as their genii. This does not lessen the value their stories have for authors, however, any more than our poor storytellers degrade the masterpieces of Western writers.

Though I am not a connoisseur of anime, my experience with various series and investigation into other media produced in the Land of the Rising Sun has allowed me to appreciate and learn from their storytellers. It has also enabled this writer to recognize and employ methods of storytelling rejected in Western literary circles but which are still pertinent to the craft. It is possible to apply these specific items to a Western author’s work, even if he or she has only a limited familiarity with these forms of fiction. While only nine of these items are listed below, studying one’s favorite films, anime, and JRPGs will give astute Occidental writers an aesthetic and technical edge over their competition.

One of the most noticeable aspects of Japanese media is their use of humor. Though some of it seems over-the-top in the West, one cannot deny that it usually adds to the story. A good illustration of this fact is the absurd antics of the cast in Fairy Tail. While exaggerated for effect, they accentuate the point that the members of the Fairy Tail guild are broken individuals who cannot function in normal society. However, their mutual brokenness is what allows them to coexist with one another (albeit in a relatively violent manner) and work together for both their own benefit and the good of those who hire them.

Unlike the Occident, where overstated humor is often used to gain cheap laughs, the Japanese tend to correctly inflate comedy to advance the story while entertaining their audience. Tension has to be broken, and watching the heroes or villains land up in embarrassing circumstances is one of the best ways to offer viewers and/or gamers some needed relief. It also makes the characters more relatable, endearing them to spectators who have been in discomfitting situations themselves and thus can sympathize with the protagonists.

Another area where Japanese narratives make an impression on modern audiences is with their depiction of so-called “action girls” or women in combat roles. Oriental writers have no trouble creating characters in the categories listed previously at Song. They excel at writing not only Passive Heroines, such as Fiona from Zoids: Chaotic Century and Chihiro from Spirited Away, but in creating female characters in more action-oriented roles.

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From Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood to Final Fantasy VII, these heroines display a feminine grace that is almost extinct in Western media. They do not carry grudges against men for being men, either in general or on a personal level, and fight primarily to protect the people and things they love. Even the women who prefer conflict to the domestic life, such as Aranea Highwind from Final Fantasy XV, retain a certain amount of femininity long after they dedicate their lives to the craft of war.

The lesson to be found in the repeated success of this trope could not be clearer. If one wishes to have an “action girl” within a story, then said girl should be permitted to preserve her feminine qualities. She need not be a homemaker or love interest in order to do so – she simply needs to be who and what she is. Attempts to make her less feminine are ultimately detrimental to the heroine and the tale in which she appears, leading the audience to rapidly lose interest in both.

Fans of anime and JRPGs will find the third writing element on this list fairly familiar. This is the Japanese understanding of man’s connection – or lack thereof – to nature. Today, fiction in the West generally presents man at odds with nature, usually by casting him as a greedy violator or parasitic interloper in a virgin world. Having abandoned the belief that man is a fallen steward and member of creation, authors of current Western fiction embrace the opposite conviction that he is an alien who needs to be removed for the environment to flourish.

Similar to J.R.R. Tolkien in his Middle-earth tales, Japanese writers typically espouse the natural view of man in their fiction. Man is a part of the ecosystem, as are the stars, the flowers, and the rivers. Building homes, mines, cities, and vehicles is not anathema to him or detrimental to nature. It is when these devices are used for purposes other than the benefit of mankind and the world he lives in that issues arise.

Hayao Miyazaki’s films deal with this question most frequently and ably, but other Japanese material touches on the subject as well. In each case, when this question is posed to the characters and audience, both come to the conclusion that man does belong in and is part of the world. In some mysterious way, he is both child and guardian of the planet whereon he lives, along with those worlds he may yet travel to and colonize. But because of some inherent flaw in his being, his position as defender can degrade into an aggressive stance that results in the destruction of that which he is charged with preserving. It is this flaw – this concupiscence – that needs to be fought in order to preserve the created world. Man himself can be an agent for Earth’s survival or destruction, depending on his choice.

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This leads to another aspect of Oriental storytelling that is often misread or misunderstood by modern Westerners. Japanese entertainment has a high level of moral complexity that much of Occidental media today lacks. Although critics like to claim that an ill-defined moral sensitivity is the reason anime and JRPGs have this density, they manifestly have the equation backwards. Japanese tales resonate with Western audiences precisely because their writers habitually demonstrate that good is good and evil is evil.

An example of this is found in Zoids: Chaotic Century. The primary villain of the first season, Gunter Prozen, attempts to win the hero – Van Flyheight – to his side using relativistic rhetoric. Arguing that he and Van are the same because their actions have led to suffering and that the only way to save the world is to sacrifice others to achieve power, Prozen succeeds in temporarily confusing the boy. It takes the courage of Van’s companion and love interest, Fiona, to set matters straight when she forces the villain to prove how different he and the hero truly are.

Final Fantasy XV’s antagonist, Ardyn Izunia, epitomizes both the Japanese appreciation of morality and the West’s current bewilderment with it. Many fans of the game misinterpret this villain’s position as the embodiment of darkness to be a burden placed on him by the Astrals. However, the Astrals only insist Ardyn accept the consequences of a choice he made and refuses to abandon. By absorbing the darkness to solidify people’s belief in his conviction that he is the messianic figure Eos needs, Ardyn sealed his fate long before the Astrals “appoint” him to the position he holds in the game. His claims to the contrary only reinforce this fact, as he vehemently refuses to see or admit to his own wrongdoing whenever someone reminds him of it.

Point five ties in well with the above. I have yet to encounter a high-stakes Japanese story that does not illustrate how continuously choosing evil strips one of his/her humanity. Zoids: Genesis offers an excellent illustration of this truth. In this anime the power-hungry leaders of the Digald Army actually remove souls from civilians – young and old, hale and disabled – to serve as Bio-Zoid pilots. One Digald officer willingly undergoes this procedure after suffering severe injuries so that he may kill the hero who defeated him. His new mechanical body perfectly reflects the empty, hate-filled soul which animates its limbs, illustrating what vengeance and the quest for one’s own gain at all costs will do to the human spirit.

In a similar vein, Final Fantasy VI’s villain undergoes experimental enhancement to gain power only to lose his reason in the process. Zoids: Chaotic Century also touches on this theme when its two greatest antagonists undergo horrifying transformations in pursuit of their own aggrandizement. Meanwhile, Miyazaki’s film Howl’s Moving Castle explains that the wizards who answer the king’s call to fight an unjust war eventually turn into mindless blob monsters lacking any resemblance to the people they once were.

The link between malevolence and corporal defacement or decay is no accident. Traditionally, it has been understood throughout the world that to consistently choose evil is to surrender one’s humanity piece by piece. It is for this reason that villains in fantasy and science fiction – Occidental and Oriental – customarily become physically hideous in pursuit of their goals. Their despoilment is not proof that evil is present, but of their rejection and growing lack of what made them good, natural, and ultimately human.

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From here it is easy to appreciate the sixth memorable theme in Japanese media: the argument that the ends do not justify the means. The popular anime and manga Death Note encapsulates it best, but other tales from the Land of the Rising Sun follow the same pattern. Final Fantasy VII makes it clear that while the second incarnation of AVALANCHE is pursuing a good goal (saving the Planet and the people they care about who live on it), their methods are wrong and lead only to greater evils. And in Marvel’s Avengers: DISK Wars, when one of the Avengers’ teen partners tries to save his younger brother using a powerful artifact of darkness, the evil overwhelms and nearly destroys him.

In each case it is made clear that the means used to achieve a good end must be good, or the chooser will succumb to the malevolence he seeks to stop. While an endangered motif in the West, Eastern storytellers thrive on presenting this theme to their viewers in and beyond the Pacific. Western writers hoping to make their stories more compelling for Occidental audiences would be wise to follow their lead.

On the subject of brothers, the Oriental emphasis on the male role in society allows them to portray male relationships with magnificent skill. Japanese writers never treat the brotherhood of men as toxic or a pall on society. Their depictions of male fellowship and family ties is one of the items that makes their fiction so memorable for Occidental audiences.

Final Fantasy XV and Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood are the most ready examples of this, but there are many others. Dr. Akatsuki’s strong love for his sons in Marvel’s Avengers: DISK Wars is moving in its humanity, particularly after he is infected by darkness so that he is forced to hunt down his boys and their heroic partners. Zack Fair and Cloud Strife’s friendship in Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core is another fine example, as is the fraternal bond that develops between Van Flyheight and the mercenary Irvine in Zoids: Chaotic Century.

The friendships formed between Transformers and humans in series like Robots in Disguise, Armada, Energon, and Cybertron are also worthy illustrations. Who can forget the tragic, tortured relationship between Hot Shot and Wheeljack in Armada, or the bantering amity that underscores the strong tie between Optimus Prime and Jetfire in Energon? Landmine’s paternal relationship with both Optimus and the human boy Coby are highlights of Cybertron, as is the father-son dynamic between Prime and the human boy Koji in Robots in Disguise.

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Removing these relationships from these stories would absolutely destroy them. Unfortunately, far too many writers in the Occident currently exclude or ignore such profound friendships in their own fiction to follow modern fads. This is a mistake that aspiring artists would best shun. Emulating their Japanese counterparts’ depictions of male protagonists will more likely add depth and breadth to a tale than ignoring or belittling them ever could.

Another area where Oriental writers excel is in their depiction of children and the heroes’ relationships with them. Japanese stories often show children in a realistic light, seeing both the joy and frustration of dealing with them. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the reactions of the adult protagonists to the younger characters within a given series. In almost every tale I have seen, the heroes are marked by the kindness and understanding they show to those younger than themselves.

Conversely, the villains stand out because of their complete disregard for the juvenile members of the cast. Kang’s exploitation of Inhuman children in his scheme to conquer the present in Marvel’s Future Avengers contrasts sharply with the concern shown to them by the Avengers. Muska’s threats and abuse of Sheeta in Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky highlight the depths of his evil, showing that he values no life except his own. The Decepticons’ chilling desire to harm the children partnered with the Autobots in the Transformers series emphasizes their lack of honor and virtue in an artistic manner.

This leads to the final and most important point about Japanese fiction – the fact that their stories are written primarily for a mature and/or maturing audience. As others have noted, most fictional tales from the Land of the Rising Sun include at least one teenager, young adult, or child in the cast. This is not an extreme example of “Peter Pan Syndrome,” as some contend, but a mechanism for passing on and reinforcing the lessons learned in adolescence. Children discover the values and duties of adulthood by watching their favorite characters grow during the course of the story, while adults are reminded of their obligations to the generations which will follow them.

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Of all the items on this list, this is perhaps the most important. An immature tale will not appeal to either young or adult audiences. By tailoring their material to answer the needs of the previous and following generations, Japanese writers teach and remind viewers/gamers that virtue is the only thing worth pursuing because it is what makes life worth living. All else is a lure designed to kill the spirit, if not the body, and should be shunned because of that.

There is much more that can be learned from Japanese fiction, but these nine tropes and themes are the most pertinent to Westerners today. If you are a fan of Japanese media or are interested in learning from it, the stories listed herein are invaluable aids to studying your craft. Not every Japanese story one discovers will be perfect or even good, but each has something to teach the aspiring artist.

Don’t be afraid to enjoy and pull ideas from your favorite Japanese media, future writers. And where you can, add an “Arigato” or two for the writers there who helped you learn your craft. There’s no telling how high you can go if you don’t care who gets the credit, after all. 😉

If you liked this article, friend Caroline Furlong on Facebook or follow her here at www.carolinefurlong.wordpress.com. Her stories have been published in Cirsova’s Summer Special and Unbound III: Goodbye, Earth, while her poetry appeared in the now defunct Organic Ink, Vol. 2. She has also had stories published in Planetary Anthologies Lunaand Uranus*. Order them today!
*These are Amazon affiliate links. When you purchase something through it, this author receives a commission from Amazon at no extra charge to you, the buyer.

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