Yes, I know…School Days is long over and we should let Nice Boats be Nice Boats. But I conceived of this column’s content not long after I’d seen the final episode, as an expansion of my original review, and had been patiently waiting my turn to do the audio column about it….and otherwise out of ideas, here it is anyway!
In many ways it’s less a reflection on the show in particular than on the use of emotion in fiction and where (Christian) morality enters into it. Or, to put it another way, I felt both giddy and guilty that I had enjoyed anticipating Makoto being sliced up, and felt horrified when the final moments of the ending happened…so much that I had to reconsider everything I had felt about the show up to that point and what the show was doing. Yes, I know it’s fiction, and not particularly realistic fiction at that. I still thought there was something profoundly unsettling about it though, a feeling worth exploring in more detail before at last laying it to rest.
A transcript of the article follows below the cutaway.
Issue 3: The Christian Ethics of Stabbity Stabbity Stab in School Days
O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us. Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy litttle ones against the stones. (Psalm 137: 8-9)
He that sittith in the heavens shall laugh: the Lord shall have them in derision. Then shall he speak unto them in his wrath. (Psalm 2:4)
Those of you who follow my writing on Anime Diet are aware that I’ve written quite a bit about School Days, that lurid high school soap opera that ended in a famously pre-empted bloodbath. You’re probably also aware that I expressed more than a little unease with the ending, and it made me reconsider whether I had been wrong to join in the chorus for Makoto to be punished by bloody stabs.
Which is, of course, what happened, and more; and the more really made me wonder whether the feelings I publicly indulged in and encouraged in my blog posts regarding Makoto and Sekai’s demimse were morally justifiable, particularly from a Christian perspective. I was, in short, wondering whether I had something to repent of. The uneasiness was compounded by the contest we held shortly thereafter, in which we invited you to submit your wittiest “demotivational poster” from a scene in the show. Our winner captured with savage humor the gratuitousness of the ending in ways that were both funny and horrifying. And again, the very real satisfaction I felt at the ending and the shock from how nasty it was began to tussle side by side.
My question to myself, then, as a Christian is–is there something wrong with all this? Should I have posted that post with the country song so gleefully, and held that contest? Should I have typed STABBITY STABBITY STAB in all capital letters with such relish?
I begin this exploration by stating something perhaps surprising: Biblically speaking, the desire for vengeance is not wrong in itself. In the beginning I quoted some of the more famous expressions of bloodymindedness in the Bible: specifically Psalm 2 and 137. Of course, this needs to be balanced by other verses which proclaim that God takes no pleasure in the death of a sinner, and that he is quick to forgive and slow to anger. What’s clear though is that in the face of injustice, the figures of the Bible have no compunction in at least calling for bloody retribution.
In the New Testament, Jesus tells his followers unambiguously that they are not to wreak personal vengeance on others and that they are to love their enemies. Paul instructs similarly–“never avenge yourselves”–but he suggests instead to leave it up to the wrath of God. “Vengeance,” God says, “is mine.” There will be vengeance; there will be hell to pay. The martyrs cry out for it: “how long, O Lord?” Vengeance in itself is not wrong if it is enacted justly. It’s simply that only God can enact it perfectly justly, and thus as human beings we have no business doing it ourselves. Anger and a desire to see injustice corrected by any means necessary is a proper and natural response to evil. And what Makoto and secondarily Sekai do in the show is manifestly evil, especially in the way lives are damaged in such a cavilier way. We want it to stop; we want the perpetrator to be brought to justice, and perhaps in the gospel-less, parent-less world of School Days, there may have been no other way for even the roughest approximation of justice to be done.
Of course, the elephant lurking in the room is this: isn’t this just a fictional story? Aren’t these not real people? And, indeed, none of the characters are particularly realistic; they are caricatures, ridiculous ones at times too. Makoto is especially drawn manipulatively by the writers to be loathsome, a combination of unrepentant, heartless cad and passive wimp. I have to admit that was how I consoled my uneasy conscience about feeling like Makoto deserved stabby stabby stab: hey, this guy isn’t real anyway. Why does it matter? After all, I’d like to be able to say that if these kids were, say, my youth group kids, that my desire would be to awaken Makoto’s conscience in some way (and have Sekai act on hers), and work very hard toward reconciliation. That would be my duty as a minister, and one of my beliefs is that no one is truly beyond redemption if God is involved. That’s how I would try to treat real people.
The thing with fiction in general, though, is that stories are key in training our capacity for sympathy and empathy–for teaching us in a way what emotional responses we are to have when we encounter analogous situations in real life. How we react to characters in stories is training for how we react to people in reality. This is why tragedy was so important to the Greeks; the cathartic power of tragedy helped put words to the grief, anger, and pain that everyone must go through at some point. School Days superficially resembles a Greek or Shakespearean tragedy in that every major character either dies is is shattered by the end; in its gruesome excess, too, it is not without classical precedent. Think of Medea slaughtering her children or Oedipus putting out his eyes upon discovering his unwitting incest. The reaction we have to a lot of these situations is profound shock, pity, and sadness though–even while we understand why it happened. Good tragedy holds the simultaneous tension between the ugly truth of death and destruction and the moral structure (often only implicit) that helps us to make sense of that. Good tragedy helps us to recognize wrong and sin and still see the humanity of the wrongdoers.
The feelings I got at the end of School Days was different, though. In many ways School Days is a lot like 18th and 19th century exploitation novels. These novels would be filled with terrific scenes of lurid sexuality and violence, allowing the reader to revel in them before bringing everything to a tragic and violent end to somehow “atone” for it. They basically existed for the audience to have their cake and eat it too; you don’t really understand anything more about human nature or about life after you take in such a story. The “moral” of the story exists mostly so that the creator can depict the opposite of it with impunity. I noticed that in School Days the fan service didn’t stop until very late in the story, long after it had gotten emotionally heavy. I really don’t think that many viewers of School Days will take away the lesson “don’t cheat on your partner” to heart for very long after watching it either. Instead, what I took away from it was: gosh, Kotonoha is one crazy bitch. Makoto totally got what was coming to him. And poor Sekai. They didn’t quite seem like human beings at the end than like effigies. Even the quarter-hearted stirrings of a conscience in Makoto at the very end seemed mostly like a setup to provoke Sekai one last time, because it certainly had nothing to do with real repentance, which would take actual steps to make things right.
The terrible and complex truth of life is that even the worst adulterer, the kind they would have stoned in earlier ages (a fate Makoto surely deserved), is still a human being, as is his victim and his willing partner. Perhaps what is most morally problematic about School Days isn’t the degree of violence or the way the characters kept sleeping around. It’s that it was so calculated to essentially deny the characters their humanity, and when one takes that in on a steady basis it becomes easier to deny humanity to real people who are caught in similar situations. This is a question that is even apart from whether someone “deserves” to die or not. There are ways to acknowledge a person’s humanity even to the greatest evildoers without in the least condoning their actions, and the best way in the world of fiction is to tell stories that acknowledge that complexity. One of the most pernicious modern myths is the saying: “to understand is to forgive all.” Perhaps at some level if Makoto was made empathetic, the way Sekai was at some level, the creators felt that they would be condoning his adulteries. If their goal was to construct some kind of effective morality tale–and I still think in some bizarre twisted ways, that is what School Days is–it would have been far better if they had been able to believably trace the path that a seemingly shy, ordinary boy can turn into a heartless lust monster. Instead we are set up for hatred from nearly the start, and by the end it has all the appeal of a freak show.
Am I taking this too seriously? After all, after episode 7 or so I gave up on trying to give this show any serious thought because all of the ludicrous plot turns it had made, but here am I again being all serious about it. Oddly enough, that may be the best and healthiest reaction to it in the long run. At the end of the day, School Days is an exploitation anime fiction, not Shakespeare or Grave of the Fireflies or something that is destined to endure. Whatever danger it might have morally and spiritually becomes far less if it is simply accorded its true value–a memorable but ultimately fluffy piece of manipulative fiction. I suppose my reflections and memories of the show are so strong because, whatever else can be said about the show, it is certainly unique in its genre. It stirred up passions few anime have in recent years–not good ones, I think–and it managed to shock even fans used to blood in other anime. Like it or not, the show is a milestone of sorts. But, it probably deserves only to be a minor one, an example of what happens when you push a fanbase’s buttons and give them what they think they want–and more.
I said in my article that I repent of my schadenfreude. And perhaps the best way to repent, then, is to let this be the last word and say no more.