Happy to be back on the air in some capacity, and felt it right to go ahead and address a defense that has appeared more than once via Twitter. Now this social media platform, as much as I have loved how it has become a groundbreaking means of blurring lines between users from the most influential celebrity to the most isolated blogger, it does contain a blind spot within its character limit. The big stumbling block of it is that context can get lost in between posted statements, retweets, and so on. And one that caught my eye this week was one regarding the often incessant derision from many fans regarding the almost endless use of character archetypes, particularly in current anime. (I myself can count as one of these many voices decrying the use of this practice) And the oft used Devils Advocate statement states that the use of said character types is a practice common to even literature, and has been so for ages, so why is it a problem?
A fair statement, however, being that this is Twitter we are talking about here, such a complex subject should not be highlighted without acknowledging something even more obvious…That archetypes function as templates, not as a means to an end. I believe I brought this disconnect up recently, and i will do my part to illustrate what makes certain characters more memorable than others. And yes, this is clearly a subjective viewpoint I’m coming from here, but hopefully this will help visualize what some anime fans are trying to say when they see stock types rule each oncoming season.
For this experiment, I will go ahead and break out an older series that helped establish one of anime’s most tired premises, the high school love comedy/drama.
The Control: Kimagure Orange Road
Now before proceeding, I must admit to a little bias at the offset. And I do acknowledge many a blogger/ fan who considers this show to be the beginning of a sort of downhill trend of character idolization, and even the birthplace of many one-dimensional romantic/slice-of-life works. The animated version of Izumi Matsumoto’s coming of age love triangle tale with a dash of psionics has its issues, but it also does offer much in the way of what makes stories like this work. (Even in a prototypical sense) Even as the show establishes its characters, and prepares us for an extended ride through the smiles and winces of young love during the latter days of Japan’s bubble era, the show falls victim to what so many other shows made afterward have, and is only made worse when the show was renewed for a second season. (and let’s not start mentioning the arbitrary OVAs either) As much as I love the show, the ensuing frenzy for the show’s focal love interest was merely a symptom of other forces at play. A phenomenon that grew out of the show’s need to make this character an ideal led to some of the more leery moves made by the anime producers, including Kenji Terada.
So let’s look at the main characters of the series, shall we?
The show’s central lead & narrator, Kasuga Kyosuke is something of a variation of the ever-typical loser hero, who’s fortune takes a turn when he becomes entangled in a volatile love triangle between childlike & oblivious Hikaru Hiyama, and mature & often mysterious Madoka Ayukawa. Newly moved to the city, Kyosuke is something of a country bumpkin in many ways, which only makes his strangely grafted on ESPer abilities (coming from a family complete with psychic power wielding little sisters!) all the more unpredictable. And this is where, at least for this writer, the tacked-on issue of being young, and having psychic powers makes for both story fodder & curious subtext. (Fans of Brian DePalma’s CARRIE, take note) As empty as this character should be, he is strangely interesting in how he is set up as this completely clueless lead, and yet has to worry about his lack of understanding about his own inherited ability. Where it comes into play is when he is faced with at times the most domestic problems, and comes face to face with the corruptive possibilities of being empowered. (IE- Library Study with Madoka, or Pool Party with Hikaru & pals-At The Same Time) In fact, a lot of what transpires in the series is borne out of his “hidden” talent. From this point on, the ethics of being empowered comes into play as Kyosuke is now on/off dating the bubbly, and often caustic Hikaru, while quietly pining for her more level-headed best friend, Madoka. It is this central internal conflict that gives the show its juice for better or worse. But it is in Kyosuke’s unflagging, bright-eyed naivete that the show relies on to help viewers better understand the story’s examination of latter Showa-era feminine roles. He’s as much an archetype as he is a classic 1980s male audience surrogate.
Which leads us to looking at Kyosuke’s clueless girlpal, Hikaru. As my previous words have described, she is the smaller, cuter, and hopelessly immature foil for our leads, who functions as a sort of safety net since he can never seem to tell her how he really feels. Having fallen for Kyosuke after accidentally seeing him using his ESPer abilities to make an impossibly perfect freethrow in the school gym while thinking he was alone, she sees him as the coolest guy around. Her lack of knowing the truth behind the shot makes for a lot of the show’s at times tiring humor, but it also sheds light on certain character traits that allude to the classically immature high school girl with a love of artifice, rather than with anything substantial. What makes Hikaru so interesting to me is that even as the show establishes her as an unrealistic, and at times agitating person, she also begins to display an unexpected amount of caring and resilience that even the show’s ideal seems incapable of exhibiting. There is a well hidden maturity to her character that is only made apparent in specifically timed moments. Even under all that sugary kawaii, there is a young woman tearing at the seams, and this is the element that becomes the show’s central ticking clock; how long can any of this last before Hikaru realizes how Kyosuke truly feels? Again, as far as archetypes go, she is kind of a classic (Knives Chau, anyone?), but it is this deceptive hint that she knows exactly what is happening that makes her worth continuing to watch.
And finally, rounding out the triangle is what has always seemed to be KOR’s main selling point, the enigmatic & beguiling Madoka. Now I won’t go into too much about what makes fanboys all over go nuts for this character, but I will state here that she offers more than what some detractors have stated. As the quiet, and beautiful delinquent-turned ideal good girl, Madoka is something of an archetypical break, especially in regarding anime which at the time was largely only placing female leads in pulpy male fantasy & science fiction roles. What makes her interesting to me is how deceptively “perfect” she is. While she exhibits musical talent from the getgo, and over the course of the series, seems to be good at just about EVERYTHING, it is interesting to note that the show also exhibits a darker side to this character than some fans would rather acknowledge. From her never-truly-established checkered past, to her sneaking out and drinking, to even encouraging Kyosuke’s duplicitous nature toward her so-called “best friend”, there is more to this romantic ideal than meets the eye. In a broader context, she is a break in how the average japanese male in the mid 1980s viewed females, and therefore represented an oncoming paradigm shift that continues to take place today. She is on the surface, an independent young woman, while still tending to some deep-seated abandonment issues, perhaps even leading to her stringing Kyosuke along, and possibly even betraying her lifelong friend. Madoka defies not only cultural “norms” of the time, but also of the very concept of an ideal altogether. For every talent she miraculously pulls out of the red hat, there always seems to be a more mundane psychological trade off of some kind. She is only “perfect” in Kyosuke’s mind.
So does the show come through with all of this character complexity intact? Well, no. And this isn’t a matter of character so much as it is of stretching out a series beyond credulity, which is what ultimately hurts KOR as a whole series. However, what does work is a cast of characters that while on the surface may look like a test-type model for any other high school romantic comedy anime, serves to pose some dynamic enough questions by mashing worldviews against one another. And this is indicative of many a classic show. Sometimes, it is this kind of love for characters that allows it to last in the mind of viewers. But it takes work, and craft to make this happen. And in the era of 13 episode show lengths, and amped visuals, it has become hard to settle into a character’s shoes to see how they operate as themselves. Shows today often have to just get things over with, which is a shame.
And yet, when all is said and done, KOR still works for me because the blueprints for what made the leads was well established in the source material. Had Matsumoto not have gone out of his way to make these characters not only interesting, but representative of the time in which they were created, the show may not ever have had made such an impression on me all those years ago. And even as we have become much more sophisticated as anime views and collectors over the years, it can’t be disuputed that far too many shows made in the mold of an animated visual novel, often resort to mass produced concepts as opposed to real characters. One thing that the Kimagure Orange Road series did so well was find the varying character dimensions and played them against one another in sometimes sneaky ways that undermine what we think we know about them. In short, archetypes are the standard when it comes to populist entertainment, but it doesn’t have to stop there. In fact, the more that is played with in between the lines is what makes characters leap from the page and or screen. It isn’t enough to have a “type”, and leave the viewer scraping to add their own two cents in to make them seem more human than what they actually are- moppets for making products out of. People are more multi-faceted than this, and nothing is more reductive of character than lazy, underthought-by-committee writing. Even a little extra effort on the parts of anime & film writing can go a long way in making a cast stand out amongst an ever expanding crowd.
Because it is a lot like what Miles Davis once said, “Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there.”