Listening to: Blumenkranz– Hiroyuki Sawano (Kill la Kill OST)
Minor spoilers follow for: Tangled, The Dark Knight, Death Note, Watchmen, The Lord of the Rings, and Attack on Titan.
Last week, while I was listening to Blumenkranz, I decided that it was high time I figured out what its lyrics actually meant. While I learned that the German was not, technically speaking, particularly accurate, there was one lyric in particular that caught my attention: “Diese Welt ist grausam, es ist traurig aber wahr.” Roughly translated it means “This world is cruel, it’s sad but true.” And that got me thinking.
One of the first rules of dramatic storytelling is that there must be some form of conflict to draw the interest of the audience. Without conflict of some kind, the story does not exist. According to Wikipedia, there are four main types of conflict; according to TV Tropes, either seven or eight. For the purposes of this post, I’ll be concentrating on the third and fourth main types of conflict, Man* vs. Nature and Man* vs. Society.
*(In the context of this blog post, Man refers to humankind as a whole rather than being a gender-specific pronoun. Please excuse the political incorrectness.)
Both of these conflict types have Man* struggling against something that must be survived or overcome: in the case of Nature, a primordial force that is natural to the world, and in the case of Society, a construct of Man* imposed upon the world. The idea of “human nature” fills both of these conflict roles quite nicely.
With that said, I’ve broken down three types of approaches to the perception of the world, with handy examples attached.
Type One: The Idealist Approach
“Mother knows best
Listen to your mother
It’s a scary world out there!“
– Mother Gothel, Tangled
The Idealist approach is most commonly used in works directed at children. The Disney movie Tangled is a notable example. While there are, of course, villains, the implication of the setting is that humans, by nature, are inclined towards good. The best illustration of this in Tangled is the “I’ve Got A Dream” musical number, which subverts the usual idea that Beauty Equals Goodness by showing the softer sides of all of the thugs in the Snuggly Duckling. Despite their frightening appearances, all of them are ultimately eager to help Rapunzel follow her dream, and in the end they rescue Flynn despite their dislike of him. This goes sharply against Mother Gothel’s assertions from “Mother Knows Best”, where she effusively and exaggeratedly describes what a terrible place the world outside is. Of course, this being a Disney movie, it doesn’t take more than 90 minutes of runtime for Rapunzel to decide that such a view is wrong, and subsequently reject it–much to Mother Gothel’s shock and anger.
While such a revelation may seem like it would be out of place anywhere but in a children’s movie. the same revelation is used similarly at the end of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. The Joker, attempting to spice things in Gotham up and vindicate his belief that anyone can be corrupted, rigs two ferries–one filled with civilians attempting to evacuate the city, the other filled with criminals from the prison–with explosives, and gives each ferry the detonator for the other with the ultimatum that, unless one of them has destroyed the other before a certain time, he will destroy both. What follows is an affirmation of the inherent goodness of human nature. The civilian with the detonator, despite his assertions that he would feel no guilt over killing criminals to save innocent lives, is ultimately unable to force himself to take the lives of others. The audience is given a scare when an intimidating-looking prisoner threatens to forcibly take the detonator and “do what you should have [done] ten minutes ago”, but expectations are wonderfully subverted when, upon being handed the detonator, he immediately throws it out the window, removing the prisoners’ chance to save themselves at the expense of others’ lives. Even in a movie as grim-looking as The Dark Knight, the final point made is that humans, by nature, are good.
Type Two: The Cynical Approach
“This world is rotten, and those who are making it rot deserve to die.“
– Light Yagami, Death Note
This approach is the polar opposite of everything that the previous approach stood for. Here, human nature is portrayed as something ugly and frightening, and to characters in these works, belief in the world’s corruption is prevailing rather than uncommon. In Alan Moore’s graphic novel Watchmen, the vigilantes make their disgust with the Cold War-era world quite apparent. Rorschach, the most bitterly cynical of the Watchmen, has come to the conclusion that humanity deserves to suffer for their actions. Ozymandias, the world’s most intelligent man, has a different plan. By setting up the destruction of an entire city, he hopes to intimidate the world’s superpowers into making peace with each other–peace made out of fear of a common enemy (alien invasion in the original graphic novel, Doctor Manhattan in the film adaptation). Upon learning that his plan has already been carried out, most of the Watchmen reluctantly agree to keep his secret for the sake of preserving the tenuous peace, but Rorschach refuses to submit, even when confronted by Doctor Manhattan. The confrontation culminates with Doctor Manhattan’s assertion that “I can change almost anything… but I can’t change human nature” before he kills Rorschach to keep the secret safe. The implication of this scene is a far cry from the one in The Dark Knight: it suggests that, if left to their own devices, humans will invariably choose evil.
Another notable example of the cynical approach is in the anime Death Note. Light Yagami, a brilliant and ambitious high school student, discovers a notebook–the eponymous Death Note–with supernatural powers. If he writes someone’s name in the notebook while picturing their face, they will die. Light first uses the notebook to kill criminals, but after initial doubts he very quickly decides that he will use the Death Note to re-make the world in his own image, becoming its God, and subsequently begins using the Death Note’s powers to kill the police and detectives attempting to stop his killing spree. Light’s conviction that the world was corrupt and in need of redemption was what ultimately led him down the path of a killer. In both Death Note and Watchmen, the corruption of the world is presented as a problem that needs to be solved, and the implication of both works is that moral means will simply not be sufficient.
Type Three: The Realist Approach
“There’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for!”
– Sam Gamgee, The Lord of the Rings
The final approach is a much broader category, which I have dubbed “Realism” for convenience. Realist approaches to the nature of the world and humanity can be found in a variety of different works. The realist approach acknowledges that both good and evil are natural parts of the world. In Attack on Titan, the newly trained soldier cadets are thrown into a desperate defensive battle as they attempt to evacuate the civilians of Trost District. During a lull in the battle, Mikasa (one of the cadets) reflects on the cruelty of the world. Having witnessed her parents’ murder as a child, and still living under the threat of the Titans, she has an understandably dim view of the nature of the world. However, even after all that she still maintains close ties to her foster family, saying that as long as she has them, she can do anything. (Surprisingly enough, making such a remark does not immediately doom all of them to horrifically gory deaths… though it helps that one of them is the protagonist.)
The Lord of the Rings also takes a realist approach, though it is somewhat modified. In the Valar and Sauron, proof is given of the existence of both absolute Good and absolute Evil. Human nature (as well as Elven and Dwarven nature), on the other hand, is shown to be a variable thing. This is best exemplified in The Silmarillion. the collection of Tolkien’s mythos set prior to The Lord of the Rings, where the lust to gain the Silmarils causes the Elves and Men to fight with each other as often as they fight with their true enemies. This is echoed with the corruption of the Ring later on in the story. However, there is always a possibility of redemption: Boromir repents of his actions at his death, Sam stalwartly resists the Ring’s corruption despite the temptation to use its power to do good (Light Yagami could learn a thing or two from that), and even Gollum shows remorse over his actions. Not all of the commentary on morality is linked to the Ring, either. While journeying through the forest of Ithilien, Frodo and Sam run across a battle between Gondor’s rangers and a group of men traveling from the South to reinforce Sauron’s army. During the battle, one of the southerners falls near where Frodo and Sam are hidden. Sam wonders “what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace–all in a flash of thought which was quickly driven from his mind.” (The Two Towers, “Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit”) From this passage, we can see that Sam at least believes in both sides of human nature.
As I am already late in posting this, I won’t bother with a drawn-out conclusion. Hopefully this post has been food for thought, and should help you gain a greater appreciation of how various works deal with morality. Until next week!