Listening to: The Heady Feeling of Freedom – Shirō Sagisu (Neon Genesis Evangelion)
Minor spoilers follow for Neon Genesis Evangelion, Attack on Titan, and Knights of Sidonia.
I’ve always enjoyed the type of shows that put protagonists through the wringer. My preference for this type of show is so overwhelming that I’ve been asked if I ever watch anything lighter. (The answer is “rarely.”) However, there are several criteria that need to be met if a show of this type will be able to hold my interest; merely tearing apart the protagonists’ dreams and stomping on them is insufficient. I have to be made to care first; only then will what they go through truly have an impact.
Take, for example, one of the quintessential “depressing anime,” Neon Genesis Evangelion. The setting is a post-apocalyptic Earth that could turn apocalyptic again at any moment. The protagonists are a dysfunctional group of children who gradually break down mentally as the story progresses; their mentors are adults who have already been through the hell of the Second Impact and aren’t particularly keen on going through another. The plot, as a whole, is intensely melancholy, reflecting the fractured psyches of the characters and their belief that failure is inevitable. The fact that the creator was going through a period of deep depression at the time, and the show itself was on a shoestring budget during the finale, adds the bleakness of it all.
Despite that, however, the anime remains compelling. The protagonists manage to beat the odds over and over again, surviving–though saying they’re thriving would be a bit much–and managing to hold out hope that, somehow, things will come to a good end. Then, of course, there’s the main reason: the viewer is made to care about these characters. We see them in contexts other than the battlefield–relaxing at home, squabbling at school, standing around awkwardly on elevators for minutes at a time (no better way to save on animation, after all), and reminiscing about friends and family they’ve lost. Even if the main character, Shinji, is the poster boy for whiny protagonists that accomplish next to nothing, he is relatable, because most viewers wouldn’t react particularly well to having the fate of the world dumped on their narrow teenage shoulders, either. The characters matter because they are characters, rather than mere plot devices.
On the other hand, there comes a point when the suffering of the characters fails to draw interest or sympathy at all. To borrow a popular term I’ve seen around TVTropes, this is the point where a show stops being dark and becomes GRIMDARK. (n. 1. both grim and dark; 2. darker and edgier than practically everything else; 3. overwhelmingly saturated by depressing themes and plots; “In the GRIMDARKNESS of the future there is only War.”) A show that is GRIMDARK is trying too hard.
Contrasted with this, we have Attack on Titan, a show with fantastic animation, an interesting premise, and a top-notch musical score that, nonetheless, falls entirely short of its promise. This failing comes from multiple directions, not least of which is the plot structure. Unlike Evangelion, which breaks up its protagonists’ descent into despair with occasional glimmers of hope, Attack on Titan is a slip’n’slide straight into GRIMDARK from the get-go. Minor characters are constantly dying, frequently for no good reason other than to reinforce the fact that the setting is GRIMDARK. The biggest victory that anyone achieves is managing to not have a city’s population entirely wiped out, while sustaining military casualties approaching sixty or seventy percent. When that’s your standards for “victory,” it begs the question as to why anyone even tries anymore.
All of this would be forgivable if the characters were interesting. Unfortunately, most of them seem to have a range of about one note. Eren is angry and determined. Armin is smarter then Eren. Mikasa, an otherwise strong and capable female character, has a character arc that revolves entirely around Eren, which is a waste of a perfectly good character. Captain Levi, though he’s considered one of the “best” characters in the series, has two settings: angsty jackass and angstier jackass. “This GRIMDARK world is GRIMDARK indeed,” he monotones constantly. There are interesting and complex characters–Jean and Ymir in particular–but they get far less screen time in comparison.
What’s more, Attack on Titan makes liberal use of Plot Armor, the unfortunate tendency of long-running shows to eliminate all tension in dire situations by making the core cast of characters immune to death. It’s fairly easy to tell what a minor character’s life expectancy is by how many episodes they’ve been around. If they’re a main protagonist, on the other hand, you’re pretty much stuck with them. (Yes, I truly have developed a distaste for this show.)
Knights of Sidonia has a similar premise, but they employ significantly less plot armor. In its run of twelve episodes, it does far more with the premise than Attack on Titan, giving more information about the world as well. However, it does so without being overwhelmingly GRIMDARK: even when main cast members are killed off, there can still be hope for things to turn out all right. (In other words, if you’re thinking of watching Attack on Titan, watch this instead.)
Well, that’s about all. Signing off, until later! (Hopefully I can get over my schedule slippage…)