Mortality in anime and manga

Two things have me thinking about death: Ray’s commentary on  the unappealing nature of sentient, disposable objects, and Kabitzin’s review of Kishimoto’s latest round of killings. (SPOILER ALERT for both that article and this one.)

Ray’s already put Akikan in a coffin, but bear with me while I drive the nails in.  You know, I can’t help but think of an old Garfield strip whenever I look at this show.

Jon: What if our appliances could talk?  That would be great!

Garfield: No it wouldn’t.  Every time a lightbulb burned out it would be like a death in the family.

This is largely what is wrong with the idea of sentient disposable objects – to wit, if they really are sentient, your characters have exactly two options: either love them and care for them and be heartbroken all the time, or be callous bastards.  (Or, you know, psychotic satsujin angels. I was assuming they weren’t doing the killing themselves, but the world of anime is large.)

Dokuro-chan: more terrifying than a yandere.

Now, that’s not to say that a show can’t work like that.  It totally can.  Characters who can’t take care of themselves are moe in their own right.  But a show with lots of death would have to be a black humor or a farce, or else it would have to take death lightly.  Sakura dies left and right in Bokusatsu Tenshi Dokuro-chan, and the immortal Dokuro’s repeated failure to understand that death is unpleasant (or care) forms the bulk of the comedy in the show.  When Faust dies in Shaman King, it’s funny because it’s nigh-meaningless: his undying soul is immediately summoned back so the team can continue to benefit from his medical expertise.  Death in those shows is inherently absurd, because it isn’t lasting.  Thus, it’s okay to show a lot of it.

Death: the revolving door

What about shows where death is lasting?  Let’s take the wildly popular Naruto.  Author Kishimoto saturated his world with detail, populating it with hundreds of heroes and villains.  Now, finally, he is whittling the list down again to better concentrate on storytelling.  To this end, he killed off Hakate Kakashi, one of the show’s most recognizable ninja, as well as a slew of more peripheral characters.

Kakashi’s death was meaningful and necessary. His utter coolness kept overshadowing Naruto, and frankly it wouldn’t be plausible for Naruto to suddenly jump ahead of him, as even though Naruto has more raw power, few are craftier than the copy ninja. To kill him off via valiant sacrifice was a very shrewd move.  His death had great purpose and was – in its own sense – “cool” and believable.  Hopelessly outclassed, he used the last of his energy to pursue an option that both saved lives and improved the chances of victory for his side.  The demands of his character were satisfied, and he was gracefully retired.

But Hyuga Hinata? After ages as an ineffectual ninja, Hinata is finally coming into her own, so killing her off would be a cruel move. Getting killed right after she confesses her love only heightens the tragedy.  Sadly, absent a convenient miracle, her survival is very much in doubt.

What can we say about death in such cases? Well, what narrative purpose is served by this? It shows the terrible cruelty of the villain Pein, and it produces an opening for Naruto to wage war, transforming him once again into the berserk Kyuubi.  Could this be done without killing off Hinata?  Certainly.  If nothing else, Pein nuking the village and sacrificing the mythic beasts to his statue has already demonstrated his callousness and disregard for life, and between the deaths of his friends and mentors, and Pein’s claim to honor Jiraya, Kishimoto has already provided ample reason for Naruto to rage.  (Naruto found out Kakashi was dead in the same scene – that alone could easily and plausibly have served as the trigger.)

So is there any relationship between Hinata, who comes from an illustrious family, has a long backstory, and is clearly a living character, and the artificial, aluminum girls of Akikan?  I would argue yes.  Though the author may not have meant it when he conceived of the character, consider what her death at this juncture would mean.  If Hinata dies now, she will turn out to be every bit as much an object as a can-girl in Akikan or a talking lightbulb in a Garfield strip: a disposable nonentity who can be killed off at any time.

More important than power or speed: metaplot.

In a sense, all characters ultimately exist for the sake of the tale their authors want told.  However, characters whose existence extends only as far as narrative convenience do not make great stories.  Suppose Kaname Chidori had died in mid-season because Sagara Souske used too much C4.  Would we enjoy watching that?  What if Ed and Al had died trying to transmute their mother back to life, and all of Fullmetal Alchemist consisted of Hoenheim running around?  Would the show be as interesting?

Death can be handled any number of ways, but when it is lasting, mortality is serious business.

4 thoughts on “Mortality in anime and manga”

  1. At the very least, when character death is used sparingly, it’s pretty potent stuff, convenient for character and plot devlopment too.

    Damn, you  just made me remember Maes Hughes. FUCK.

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