While on the Superversive Sunday Livestream, Anthony Marchetta and I discussed the differences between Japanese anime and modern Western storytelling. One of the items that came up was the sincerity with which Japanese writers portray their characters. Although I wanted a stronger word for the phenomenon at the time, in hindsight, I think Anthony hit upon the right term. There is an earnestness or honesty to Japanese fiction that contemporary Western fiction lacks.
Once upon a time, in recent memory, this was not the case. Forgive me for returning to the standby example of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, but the fact is that there are many scenes and moments in the movies which evoke genuine emotion in the audience. They may not do it to the same degree viewers of anime have come to expect, but this does not mean they are not present or cannot be studied.
By far, I would say the MCU films with the most authentic emotional beats are the Captain America* trilogy, followed by The Avengers* and Avengers: Age of Ultron*, with the first two Thor* films taking third place. Granted, The Dark World* misuses Malekith, but we do feel the loss of Frigga rather intensely. And though many of us knew the trickster god Loki was not actually dead, Chris Hemsworth sold us on Thor’s reaction to it. The heartfelt sense of loss that Black Widow displays when she reveals to Bruce Banner that the Red Room sterilized her had even this fan, who knew that the character had been rendered sterile in the comics, empathizing with her keenly. And no one who saw The Winter Soldier* got through the scene on the Helicarrier where Cap tells Bucky that he is with him “to the end of the line” with dry eyes. It is a well-remembered tableau for a reason.
All of which leads us to the question which Overgrown Hobbit asked in the comments beneath the Livestream: Why? Why are there so few sincere scenes in the West that are played straight by the writers (and the actors, when the story is filmed) for emotion? Is it simply due to cultural differences, or is there more going on behind the scenes?
To a degree, I do believe culture plays a role in the distinction. Present day Japanese writers put their hearts into their work fearlessly, wearing their characters’ emotions on their sleeves precisely because they want their readers to feel the impact viscerally. But then, in modern Japan, at the moment writers do not suffer under the heavy hand of censorship which has taken hold of their American counterparts’ industry.
If a Westerner wishes to be a storyteller supported by a large publishing house, then he must abide by that house’s rules. Likewise, if a Westerner desires to be a screenwriter, actor, or director, he must follow the trends set by those with power in Tinseltown. Should the American writer somehow transgress the “laws” set down by these monolithic industries he will be cast out, to be forgotten and lost in obscurity for eternity (or so it is hoped by those in charge of Tinseltown).
More than a few of the people in command of these industries have agendas that run counter to good storytelling and good acting. One of these agendas, from what I have observed over my lifetime, is to mock, deride, and/or misconstrue the genuine emotion expressed by characters on the silver screen. It is somewhat easier to do this in writing via industry-paid critics or by encouraging film writers to aim for the wrong emotion in their stories. Sometimes they simply re-shoot a scene, such as this moment from The Force Awakens.
This scene was originally meant to be more serious, in keeping with the tone and setting of a Star Wars film, but it was altered to add humor to a scenario that demanded sincere respect for the subject matter. And as I said in the livestream, the Russo brothers fought with Marvel Studios not to include Captain Marvel in Avengers: Endgame at the eleventh hour because doing so would upset the balance needed to make the film a better send-off for the characters and actors whom the audience had come to know over the prior ten years. The Western entertainment industry has joined the Mad Hatter’s tea party, and it is currently upsetting even that absurd world with its attempts to remake reality to match its bizarre visions.
We can see a similar trend in chain bookstores across the country. Pick up two YA novels in a Barnes & Noble store at random, then read the back covers. If you can find any two that have a male protagonist rather than a female one and do not include some recent fad in the mainstream consciousness, not to mention show some originality beyond being a paint-by-numbers retread of The Hunger Games*, I will be impressed. That is more than I can find on the shelves of my local Wal-Mart, which has even less to offer than B&N.
Manga – Japanese comics – are outselling American comics. Moreover, they are outselling YA novels at B&N. The reason for this is that Japanese writers have not been forced to write to a market that does not exist, nor have they had their minds hemmed in by public fads that come and go every five years (if we are lucky). They write romances, romantic comedies, war stories, sports manga (there are manga focusing on golf, readers), and fantasy/sci-fi mixtures of various kinds. Two manga or anime in the same genre may follow the same story plot, but you will be hard-pressed to find too many that are paint-by-number reprints of one another. Their market – in Japan and the West – rewards them for doing their best to differentiate their stories one from another.
Once upon a time, the West had a surplus of these types of stories, in film and in print. It is not hard to cite examples of scenes with strong emotional resonance in movies from years gone by. Boromir’s death in The Lord of the Rings* is a moving moment, as is Gandalf’s passing earlier in the same movie. I nearly wept when reading about Sirius Black’s death in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and reading about Finnick Odair’s demise in Mockingjay felt like the tide retreating from my heart. Effective emotional scenes exist in the West, as they do in the East.
They are simply not permitted to be the norm.
Why is this so? There are as many reasons as there are agendas at the present. Among them is the fact that storytelling teaches empathy, something I mentioned in this article here. For a man to read or absorb a story that moves him, particularly at a young age, is to teach him how to empathize with his fellow men. It helps him to “grow up straight and clean inside,” to paraphrase a famous line from Jack Schaefer’s book Shane.*
Watching Steve Rogers reach his lost brother on the Helicarrier almost at the expense of his own life reminds viewers of the value of brotherhood, friendship, and loyalty with nary a direct word on any of these subjects. Seeing Deku and then Shoto Todoroki stand up for their fallen friend, Tenya Iida, does the same with a somewhat more intuitive cut. The katana, after all, is meant to slice more succinctly than a broadsword. Japan maintains an instinctive sense of reaching for the jugular in a precise fashion that differs, subtly perhaps, from the West’s reflexive thrust for the same vital area.
None of this is to say that Japanese or Eastern storytelling is better than that in the West or the Occident. It is simply different, and that makes it seem more innovative and intriguing than it may appear otherwise. The novelty of seeing a story through a different cultural lens will likely remain for all time, and there is nothing wrong with that. It has gone on throughout history and will likely continue into the future.
At present, of course, it does leave Occidental authors in a bit of a pickle. Those of us determined to be good writers want our emotional scenes to be effective – perhaps as gut-wrenchingly successful as those found in the anime and manga flying off the shelves around the country. Studying this medium, learning what works, and incorporating it into our own Western heritage is a good method for doing this, as is going back and reading or watching the most emotionally resonant scenes in Western canon. Sometimes, though, it helps to find stories where West and East meet to form something new.
My Hero Academia* is one good place to start. The anime and manga combine the superhero genre – an inherently American type of fiction, as Professor Geek and others have observed – with Japanese shonen tropes very effectively. It is this blending of two different styles that makes MHA so popular among Western and Oriental youth, as both recognize aspects of the story from their own cultures while seeing a different tradition through a familiar medium.
As Anthony has said, My Hero Academia is a standard shonen story. Now standard is not the same as “paint-by-numbers”; to adhere to a standard of some sort is to give the art one is creating a recognizable form, an outline that readers or viewers can recognize. One that remains flexible, allowing the author or artist to add, subtract, or otherwise play with the figure to make something original. Anyone who has colored or painted a picture by numbers knows that there is no room for creativity or innovation in that type of “art.” Even if you reverse the numbers and paint the wrong colors in the wrong places, the result will not be novelty. It will be a blurry mess no one will find appealing – including the artist.
Thus it is clear why My Hero Academia is so successful in the West. Where many Westerners tend to the “paint-by-numbers” patterns for superhero stories, Kohei Horikoshi adheres to the shonen storytelling format while incorporating the superhero genre’s tropes, character types, and strengths into the form. He takes the American canvas and stretches it over a Japanese frame, whereupon he paints his own ideas and characters upon it, creating something new.
Has this been done in the West? In fact, it has. And it was done in Hollywood under the direction of Guillermo del Toro with his solid B movie Pacific Rim*, which is considered a kaiju movie by many when it is not. The kaiju in the movie have no real personality and little presence when they are on screen. They are not meant to be anything other than terrifying alien monsters, unlike Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra, King Ghidorah, and company. So as a kaiju film in the tradition of Godzilla*, it fails to meet audience expectations.
In the tradition of a mecha story, however, Pacific Rim soars. While this author is more familiar with happy-go-lucky or hyperactive mecha anime protagonists, that does not mean she cannot recognize the familiar mecha tropes in this film. Raleigh Beckett is an exceptional Jaeger pilot who is also a maverick – one who can talk his older, more law-abiding brother into following his lead. The two are sent on a routine mission where they break with their orders and seem to win regardless, only for their adversary to reappear and kill Raleigh’s brother, leaving him alone in the cockpit to pilot the Jaeger solo, a feat no one is supposed to be capable of surviving. Yet Raleigh does live, though scarred for life in mind and soul by the loss of his brother, to whom he was psychically connected when he died.
This and much of the following story is standard mecha fare from Japan. The Drift is a very good interpretation of the Japanese portrayal of telepathy, Rinko Kikuchi plays an excellent female compatriot and love interest in Mako, and the movie does not retreat from the emotional impact of the scenes meant to stir the audience’s feelings. The battles are also very well-orchestrated along typical mecha lines. If one has watched mecha anime and paid close attention to the coordination of those fights, the variation seen in Pacific Rim will be familiar and something of a dream come true for him.
Yet at the same time the film borrows so much from Japan, it is unquestionably an American story. Raleigh is not a typical Japanese protagonist, either one who is depressed or hyperactive. His unorthodox fighting style, while it benefits from Mako’s strict perfectionism and sharp strikes, remains Occidental rather than Oriental. His attitude is also distinctly American in the way that he challenges authority and walks his own path with the sheer confidence of someone born and raised in the United States. It is a Western story based on an Eastern framework, and it achieves its ends admirably.
Now, there are some flaws with Pacific Rim. It suffers from Hollywood’s penchant for inserting agendas into the flow of the story, the pacing is a touch slow for a film, and the scenes exposing us to everyday life with the kaiju’s presence on Earth tend to be a bit too long. However, even with these faults, the movie succeeds in its aim to be an American mecha story paying homage to the country that invented the genre. A meeting and cultural exchange takes place here, one that is synthesized within a single story.
The same occurs in reverse with My Hero Academia. Here it is a Japanese author producing a medium for communication between East and West, bringing a unique Occidental genre to the Orient. The end result is a little more obvious and has, at the moment, a greater impact on the world than Pacific Rim. But that does not change the fact that blending Eastern and Western storytelling to make something new is not impossible or even verboten.
In each case the key to these authors’ success is simple: They are sincere in their appreciation of the other’s cultures and in how they present their stories. They seek to portray genuine humans with real emotions in situations which, while they may be fantastic, nevertheless depict true motivations, reactions, and truths for their audiences to consume. By being honest with themselves and the audience, they make their work sing and stand out from the crowd.
Do you want to tell stories that capture the imagination, future authors? Do you want your audience to cry over the death or maiming of a character? Or have them put the book aside and be inspired to pick it up again immediately afterward? If the answer is yes, then study anime. Study manga. And for heaven’s sake, study Western canon; even if you can only do it by researching the story itself, look it up.
They say honesty is the best policy. In fiction, dishonest constructs can ruin a tale. One does not need to look further than the atrocious Masters of the Universe cartoon by Kevin Smith on Netflix, which is as fraudulent a piece of “storytelling” as one could hope to find. Five-year-olds tell better stories than this, in no small part because they tell them without the least bit of guile. A five-year-old may make mistakes in presenting his narrative but at least those errors are sincere misunderstandings he is making due to lack of experience and knowledge. The writers of many pieces of fiction these days have no such excuse.
Let there be “nothing but sincerity as far as the eye can see”* in your works, future authors. Not only will your audience thank you for it but you will be grateful for it as well. There is nothing worse in the world than putting up a false front. Falsehood is time-consuming and exhausting, while the truth will truly set you free.
If you are willing to let it do so, of course.
*These are Amazon affiliate links. When you purchase something through them, this author receives a commission from Amazon at no extra charge to you, the buyer.
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 Organic Ink, Vol. 2. She has also had stories published in Planetary Anthologies Luna, Uranus, and Sol. Another story was released in Cirsova Magazine’s Summer Issue in 2020, and she recently had a story published in Storyhack Magazine’s 7th Issue and Cirsova Magazine’s 2021 Summer Issue. Order them today!
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