Every good story, nay, every story, has a question at its heart. A question that the story revolves around, a question the story not only seeks to answer, but presents itself as an answer to. Every story, except some ;)
Understanding this question can often shape the way you look at a story. Things that you did not understand their “Why?”, the reason they occured, and that had seemed meaningless, are suddenly seen in a new light. You construct the story and give it a theme, of answering the question, of resisting the question, and so on.
Most interesting is the analogy of coloured glasses, or a point of view. Many people see a different story being told, a different theme. And in many cases, there are many “legitimate” answers, and switching from one question to another can help you consider the story from different directions.
An anime I absolutely love is Code Geass. Many people have found Code Geass, and especially its second season to be lacking, in some way. I try to get them to look at this “question” that the series poses as its theme in order to help them see the series as I see it, and hopefully appreciate it as I do. The question Code Geass poses is this, “At what cost victory?”
The first season is quite light-hearted, in a way. We see what Lelouch is willing to do, who he is willing to quash, what he will do in order to secure victory, and the world he is looking to establish. The second series is where the question which the protagonist thought he answered decisively in the first season returns, and the protagonist is told that his answer is unsatisfactory, his resolve untested, and that he must demonstrate further conviction.
And so, the second season has Lelouch meet with hardships at every turn, and Lelouch suffers losses. The second season asks the same question, and shows us what Lelouch is not only willing to inflict upon others, but what he is willing to give up in order to win. The second season is all about “At what personal cost victory?” and Lelouch finally answers decisively, in a way that cannot be ignored.
Likewise, Mai-HiME, an anime that I love, has a relatively unsatisfactory ending, I agree. It might also feel like the first half of the series and the second are not in accord, but I disagree. The question this series poses is “What will I do for the sake of Love?” You can also pose it as “Which love is stronger, for my friends-comrades, or for my “Dear Ones”?”
Once you look at it like this, it’s pretty clear that the first half of the series is there for a very real purpose – not “just” so we’ll care for the characters, but so the conflict the question generates will be meaningful – if the choice is obvious, then the story falls flat.
In this case, the first half of the story serves as build-up for the characters to care for one another, and for us to care if they will sacrifice their relationships with one another. Thus, the ending, with Mai fighting her close friend, is part of the answer to this question. That they all end well, and previous “costs” are wiped away cheapens it, but the nearly-ending does fit with the story until that point, according to this question.
Yes, that’s another word for “Question” in this sense, “Conflict”. The question both drives the conflicts in the story, causes the main characters to clash with themselves, with their friends, and with the society that surrounds them, and is the engine that drives the story forth. If there is only one answer, it may be futile to resist, and the story can be about resisting the inevitable. If there is only one answer, and choosing it costs the character nothing, then there is little interest in the story.
Shigofumi, and “Science Fiction”, could be seen as having a big question, “When people die, and they get to send one letter from beyond death, what will its effects be?” Now, this is a situation. In the case of Shigofumi, it’s the premise of the story, but not the question the story answers. Being more of an episodic series, the series poses different questions every arc: “You’ve found out you have cancer,” or “You are bullied.” The original situation is the background of the series, and we see the issue explored, but it’s not the story’s question. Well, according to me.
Finally, if the paragraph above seems weird to you, as the “Questions” posed within Shigofumi are not questions, that’s because you can simply append “What do you do?” to them. A question need not be something we ask, but a situation that is present, demands action, and cannot be ignored.
Slice of life or SitComs also have such questions. We face questions all the time. What is “SitCom” if not a series where we have a “Situation” or “Question” (often two) in each episode to generate interest and friction?
In the end, stories are (almost) always about people.
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- Shigofumi – From Hello to Heart-Wrenching in 20 Minutes [TIL] (geekorner.wordpress.com)