This weekend I started watching SHINGEKI NO KYOJIN (ATTACK ON TITAN) Season 3. I love anime. I’m not a crazy nerd anime lover (i.e. otaku) who knows everything about any anime that comes along, but I know a few and love a few. I think Japanese writers and in particular Japanese manga and anime writers are excellent at plotting and character development. Character development in particular is something I want to talk about today. I’m not particularly interested at this point on a Truby Web, describing Weaknesses and Values and Desires and other things. Let me look at other related but simpler things. In particular, let us look at Ambivalence.
So, one of my favorite anime is NARUTO, a franchise that spawned over 700 television episodes and several movies. This is the story of a young boy living in a world of ninjas. Once, his village was attacked by a giant monster called the Nine-Tail Fox. To save his village, his parents gave their lives to seal the giant monster inside the belly of their small baby. So Naruto lives his life without his parents and grows up ostracized by the whole village that hates the monster sealed in him. He acts out and becomes a delinquent until he is accepted in young ninja’s school and meets his friends and teachers. Including the solitary dark mannered Sasuke who will become Naruto’s best friend. Now Sasuke also has a tragic story: his big brother murdered all his clan except for Sasuke himself. Sasuke vowed revenge so he is trying to become the best at ninjutsu. And this is what makes it so interesting. Let me spell it out for you:
In the 20th century, a woman named Melanie Klein elaborated upon the work of Sigmund Freud and created a school of psychoanalysis in Britain starting with children therapy. Her work became very important and her doctrine is still essential, propelling names like Donald Winnicott or Wilfred Bion. Winnicot, in fact, said a particular sentence that applies perfectly to NARUTO: «It is a joy to be hidden, and disaster not to be found.» But let’s go back to Klein. In her work with children she found some very interesting concepts. One is that we actually learn Love and Hate. In the first few months after we are born our experiences of Love and Hate will form our character. But something else happens. We also learn that it is possible, even absolutely common, to love and hate the same person. Things are very seldom black and white, most of the times they are grey.
So, in NARUTO the name character has an incredible ability to love and to share love. His whole life is one of optimism and looking for Love. On the other hand, Sasuke holds on to Hate – his whole life is one of consistent Hate. So in theory, this is a very straightforward story, but this is where the Japanese excel: they work with ambivalence. When Sasuke (SPOILER ALERT) turns to a criminal life to become stronger and go after his brother, Naruto’s self-appointed mission becomes one of being strong enough to bring his friend back to a good life. At the same time, he will have to contend with the monster inside him always alert to corrupt him. On the other hand, Sasuke will learn that his brother’s story is also complicated and that there was a good reason for his clan to have been murdered. More than that, the fate of the whole world seems to hang in the balance of the two friends/rivals: only if they work together will they be able to fight Evil itself. So… will Love (Naruto) be stronger than Hate(Sasuke)? Nothing is obvious or simple.
The Japanese do this over and over again. Anime series often start with what looks to be a very simple Good vs. Evil story, but soon all that was thought to be goes out the window and becomes more complex. We soon start to find Evil in what appeared to be Good and Good in what appeared to be Evil. Unlike many Western stories, Japanese characters always have difficult not so straight-forward decisions to make. And we ourselves may become in love with characters that are corrupt and the other way around.
This happens in SHINGEKI NO KYOJIN (ATTACK ON TITAN): the story happens on a world where Humanity lives inside a fortress of extremely tall walls aimed to protect humans from the Titans: enormous dumb giants that roam the Earth and eat every human they can find. Yes, exactly: they pick up human beings and take them to their mouth and eat them. So here’s the interesting part (SPOILER ALERT): we follow a group of military elite recruits as they train to hunt these giants… only to find out that one or more of these recruits actually will turn into giants. And also that some of the giants are not so Evil themselves. And here we go again. We’re thrown into ambivalence again.
Ambivalence, the co-existence of opposite and apparently incompatible feelings are the building blocks of our inner struggles. And they might not be just Love and Hate. How about courage and cowardice? Strength and weakness? Happiness and sadness? If you can bring these ones against the others inside the same character, you can have a huge white canvas in front of you. You can paint whatever you want. Remember Sun Tzu in THE ART OF WAR? He says this: «Order or disorder depends on organization and direction; courage or cowardice on circumstances; strength or weakness on tactical dispositions.» So these distinct feelings, like chaos and peacefulness, can actually be manipulated by extreme events. And this is what the Japanese writers do: they propel their characters into extreme events and make them extremely ambivalent.
Or not: maybe what makes a hero, in the end, is his/her clearness of mind. Maybe everything is confused and the only one that can make a clear-cut decision is the protagonist. And that’s what makes him/her a hero. Think about that!
As for me, I’m still learning a lot from Japanese animation. It features some of the best writing around. Forget about tropes and clichés: focus on the dialogues and the character development. It’s superb most of the time! Let me go back to my TV.