Friday, May 17, 2013

Editorial -- What's Love Got to Do With It?

Sorry it took so long to get this post written. I had an idea about where I wanted to take it but decided at the last minute to completely overhaul/rewrite the post because even though I felt good about what I'd written, I didn't feel comfortable posting it in a public space.

So I had to write what I'll call the "Lite" version of this post. If I consider you a close enough friend and are curious about what this post was supposed to look like, please shoot me a text or an email and I'll send you the original.

So what could possibly be a difficult enough subject to broach that I would have to re-edit the whole thing? What on earth could be complicated enough to require something like that? Find out after the break

I want to talk about love. Real romantic love. I've hinted in another post at the issues I have with the handling of romance in anime, but I'd like to further drive the point home before I say what I want to say.

I've seen very few anime series that have what I would call a satisfying ending to a romantic subplot. I could count on one hand the number of shows I've seen that haven't either shied away from committing to some form of romantic closure or completely abandoned any hint of intimate relationships mid-series. Case in point: Steins;Gate. As much as I love the series and was ultimately okay with how it ended, the possible love interest in Mayuri was seemingly abandoned in favor of simply turning her into a human plot device. Nothing wrong with a save-the-girl style plot, but in the end it felt like the only reason the two didn't end up together was only because Mayuri wasn't the female lead, Kurisu was.

Again, not that I'm complaining. I liked Kurisu as a character and the chemistry between Okabe and Kurisu was phenomenally written and acted. I just think it was a bit of a cop out to downplay Mayuri's relationship with Okabe in favor of transmuting her into a human MacGuffin.

Compare that with the ending of Toradora, which had an ending that I disagreed with but ultimately respected for committing to the love story that it had been hinting at since episode one. Despite the fact that Taiga and Ryuuji's interactions were believable and well-written, this show is guilty of the same narrative cop-out. Ryuuji and Taiga finally recognize their feelings for each other thanks to the input of Minori, Ami, and Kitamura. I'd like to focus on Minori in this instance, because the exact same thing happens to her, only she doesn't even get to be a MacGuffin.

Instead what happens is Minori admits to having loved Ryuuji from the very beginning but didn't act on her feelings because she recognized that Taiga needed him more. She helps the two in their attempt to run away from their lives so that they can be with each other, and this is what leads to the kiss that had been in the cards for 24 episodes between the two lead characters.

So where does that leave Minori? Crying in the foyer of Ami's house, that's where. She's lost her best friend and the boy she loves... TO EACH OTHER. This has to be the rawest of raw deals I have ever seen in the history of fiction.

This brings up an interesting question: Why are writers so often afraid to commit to any sort of romantic closure? To illustrate what I mean, let's talk about the greatest anime ever made:

I had the privilege of rewatching the first five episodes of this show, and it turns out this show perfectly encapsulates how not to write a compelling romance. For those of you just joining me, Amnesia is easily the funniest anime I've seen this year, and it's not supposed to be. The funny mostly stems from the various instances of narm and bad writing, which all in all makes for a fairly inoffensive, mediocre show.

If it weren't so gosh-darned funny, though, everything about how this show is structured would tick me off to no end because for an anime that centers around The Heroine's journey to regain her memories by kissing every boy in her life, this is one of the worst romance stories I've ever seen. For starters, everyone in this anime is a total prick. Nobody is nice to The Heroine, and there's absolutely no chemistry between any of the characters.

Every male character in this show has exactly one role: act like stereotypical male leads in a shoujo anime by being as cold and tortured as possible while spouting exposition as The Heroine sits and does nothing. Then they kiss and then time resets and then she moves on to the next one. But even that's not the issue. You could almost ignore the poor characterization and stupid dialogue if the show committed to its supposed story and gave some kind of conclusion.

But it doesn't. Spoiler warning: in the end you never find out if the Heroine gets her memories back. All that happens is that the various cards representing the different story arcs are set in front of her and she chooses one. In effect, she's just choosing which story she liked best and deciding that the corresponding card is what her reality is.

This is a cop out in so many ways. Leaving out the fact that it completely invalidates everything that the viewer wants to see resolved, making the twelve episodes they spent on this show completely pointless, it shows fear on the writer's part to make an unpopular decision. An unfulfilling romance story is millions of times worse than a bad romance story, and Amnesia is both.

This brings me back to the original question of why shows seem afraid to commit to romantic closure. In Amnesia, it comes across as the writers not wanting to upset fans of one beautiful male character by choosing to have a different beautiful male character be the "true love" of The Heroine so they just made her be with everyone and let the viewers decide which story was canon.

Except that they didn't even consider the pairing I most wanted to see.
What? I'm not being gross. Sawa and The Heroine had a hell of a lot better
chemistry than, say, The Heroine and Toma.
Actually, I believe that being too good at chemistry was part of the problem with Toma. That and the rape dungeon.

Anyway, what I'm ultimately getting at is that anime, in general, is really bad at telling love stories. In no other medium have I encountered more disappointing, incomplete storytelling than the one that I choose to write about ever week(ish). Anime has a lot of loud, obnoxious fans who like to have things their way with absolutely no flexibility. That's why a lot of these stories never have decent endings: fan backlash.

It's one of the reasons I'm so worried about how Hayate the Combat Butler will ultimately end. There are a lot of love interests in that show, and I mean a lot of love interests. I have to admit, I'm guilty of having a preferred pairing and I might feel a little cheated if I don't get the ending I'm hoping for.

I just noticed that the boutonniere on Hinagiku's tux is a daisy.
Nice touch, person who drew that.
But I'm being redundant. The fact of the matter is, it seems like so many creators with good ideas and an interesting story that they want to tell can't satisfy all the shippers so instead they decide to satisfy none of them.

Which brings me back to Ef.

I need to stop posting that picture. It's going to make it virtually impossible to ever have the thing I'm writing about ever again.

Over the course of Renji's story, the relationship between Chihiro and Renji grows more and more complicated. Chihiro has a short-term memory defect that causes her to forget anything that happened more than 13 hours in the past. To fill in the blanks, she keeps a detailed journal of events that happen in her life.

Where the brilliance of the tale comes through is how Renji handles his feelings for a girl who can't even remember who he is from day to day. How is he supposed to handle this? For one thing, Chihiro behaves slightly differently from day to day as a result of her previous experiences being overwritten.

Overall, it's a very touching and well-written tragic love story that hit me right in the feels. He shares a special day with Chihiro where they get to be boyfriend and girlfriend for that day. Side-note: Chihiro's favorite movies are Se7en and Silence of the Lambs and that really amuses me. They see a movie, grab lunch, and do traditional "dating things" before breaking into the school that evening and spending the rest of their time there.

It is there that they share their first kiss and have a very special moment together. It's romantic without being stupid, and it's one of the most best climaxes to a love story I've seen in anime.

But what makes it brilliant is what happens afterward. After their evening together, they decide to stay the night at the school so that they can be together for as long as possible. That's when Chihiro begins to forget. It's been more than 13 hours since their special day began, and now Renji can do nothing but watch as everything he did that day, all the love that he and Chihiro shared, disappears in front of him. She still remembers Renji, but the details are becoming fuzzy.

In the end, she gets rid of her journal from the past month, eliminating all trace of her time with Renji. Even though they both truly love each other, they have to recognize that there was no other way for their story to realistically end. It's tragic and meaningful without overselling it. This is how you tell a love story. The idea of loving someone who is unable to remember who you are has been done to death, but I've never seen it done as well as Ef was able to do it.

They didn't try to cop out by not having them have a relationship at all nor did they try to give it a "Hollywood Ending" by having Renji's kiss magically bring her memory back. There is no cure-all, no bandage they can put on Chihiro to give her back her time with Renji. Even though this ending might not have been satisfying to every player/viewer, they told the story on their terms and it was better for it.

Why can't others follow this example? Until writers and creators can put their work first and focus on telling the story on their terms, romantic relationships will always feel half-assed at best and forced at worst. I can't tell you how many times I've been frustrated by the habit most anime has of giving a "non-ending" to the events of the story. Maybe it's meant to partially satisfy every possible fan of a series instead of completely satisfying a portion of the viewers, but I think that a well-told story would make up for any disappointment that a rabid shipper would experience.

As I explained, there were aspects and implications of Toradora's ending and the love shared between Kurisu and Okabe in Steins;Gate that I didn't like, but the fact that they committed to a real ending was commendable and made the narrative feel more complete. That more than makes up for any nitpicks I may or may not have.

Besides, an ending to a story should never be exactly what you want it to be or what you expect it to be. Even though I knew pretty much from the beginning that Taiga and Ryuuji were going to end up together in Toradora, I didn't know how that was going to manifest itself. There has to be some aspect of doubt, and building up a concept for how you expect for a story to end or for a character to develop takes all the fun out of the story and only sets you up for disappointment.

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