When Kyoukai no Kanata (Beyond the Boundary) ended in late 2013, I wasn’t terribly pleased with it. Beyond anything else, I thought that it could’ve easily been better, if not in terms of poor directing in its last two episodes, and its mismatched tones, and other issues, then at least in terms of emotional investment in a certain event, and thus in one of the two main characters of the story. It felt frustrating, that a show missed its mark with what could’ve been an easy change. And that in turn led me to solidify my thoughts on why I wasn’t as invested in Fate/Zero which I watched a couple of years prior – I felt that the show, which wasn’t bad, could’ve been so much better.
This post is going to cover an assortment of topics, as they all tie into one another. It will mostly revolve around and use Fate/Zero, both as the object discussed, and as an example for these other topics: Series composition, the act of deciding which part of the story will go where in the story, and how much space it’ll receive. Story structure with regards to revelation, character involvement and emotional attachment, and Urobuchi Gen’s specific quirk in this regard, and some thoughts on how it might tie to Visual Novel writing, as well as thrillers and tragedies. Hopefully these topics, and how they’re interwoven, will all be interesting.
(This is a Things I Like post, it’s not a review, but more a discussion of the show and of ideas that rose in my mind as a result of watching the show. There will be spoilers for Fate/Zero, and as Fate/Zero spoils Fate/Stay Night, that will be spoiled as well. There’ll be meta-structural spoilers (I’ll discuss the form of the storytelling) for Gargantia in the Verdurous Planet, Madoka Magica, Kyoukai no Kanata (Beyond the Boundary), and Psycho-Pass’s first season.)
Fate/Zero’s Characters – Kiritsugu’s Presence:
In some ways, Fate/Zero is an ensemble show, not unlike Sound! Euphonium, where we revolve around different characters, and each character or pair of characters gets their time to shine, some background and characterization, and interaction with other characters. As is often the case with stories authored Urobuchi Gen (the writer behind Madoka Magica, Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet, and others), the accusation that some of the characters exist more to stand for an ideological position than as flesh and blood people is not entirely without merit. This is especially true in this show, as each character pairing, of master and servant, comes from a different magical tradition, and has a different position on what a “true mage” should be like, and what one should wish for. As such, even the interaction between some characters tells you far less about the people involved, than it is a clash between ideologies.
I wonder if the cause for the biggest “problem” I find with Fate/Zero stems from it being a prequel to the Fate/Stay Night visual novel. Oh, I’m getting ahead of myself. Although it’s an ensemble show, it’s pretty clear who the main characters of Fate/Zero are, and those are Kotomine Kirei, corrupt priest, and Emiya Kiritsugu, mage assassin. Both of which are characters that are important to Fate/Stay Night, and so part of their characterization, of Kirei as a charming yet corrupt priest, and of Kirsitugu, as a broken man who dreamed of being a hero, is set in stone. And unlike the other characters, who can bring joy into their scenes, these two tend to drag down their scenes, and rarely, more than any other character, except for the other two Fate/Stay Night mainstays, Gilgamesh and Saber, seem to embody ideologies more than be complete people.
And the worst offender of all is Kirsitugu, who unlike the other 3 recurring characters doesn’t actually get a real role within Fate/Stay Night, but is a memory haunting Shirou, his adopted son, and story protagonist, so he’s given less room to be played with, and sadly, the story does not take the time to give him a fully-fleshed personality for most of its run. Or rather, it doesn’t seem to, which we’ll get to soon enough. And since he’s the main character of the story, even more so than Kirei, his deficiencies as an engaging character affect the entire show.
Fate/Zero is a story about a contest, about a conflict, material and ideological, over the nature of power: What it is, how it should be employed, and for what purpose. Here it’d serve to look at a couple of “pairings”, and how Kiritsugu’s character fares in comparison. Irisviel’s ideological theme is “I will sacrifice myself for others’ happiness. I will be a tool.” Saber went for “I will be others’ shield, and protect them from harm, and from the need to sacrifice themselves.” Saber complemented Irisviel’s character, and they had conversations that could revolve around their differences and similarities, as their themes run counter to one another, but they tried to resolve them by convincing one another. Kiritsugu’s theme in this context was, “I will use up others to achieve my goals.” He “complements” Irisviel, but there’s no conflict here, nothing to actually raise interest. And while Kiritsugu and Saber’s themes run counter to one another, he just flat out ignores her and doesn’t engage with her within the story.
It’s not that the show lacks in other one-dimensional characters, such as Caster and his master, a pair of derpy GrimDark serial killers, but they’re thankfully pushed to the background, for the most part. It’s also not the case that the show’s other main pair, Kirei and Gilgamesh are that much more fleshed out as characters, but they have two big things going for them. The first is that they are engaging to watch on a spectacle level, as whereas Kiritsugu is the epitome of the “Silent Brooding Protagonist” who is too cool for school, Kirei and Gilgamesh look as if they’re having fun (which is part of their theme of decadence and hedonism), and are greater than life, as if they’ve been lifted straight out of a soap, or Richard the Third.
Series Composition and Emotional Attachment:
However, the other difference between Kirei and Kiritsugu goes beyond the superficial level, and go into how they’re characterized, and when, which is a big part of my problem with the show. Series composition is important for the success of a story. Pacing clearly affects storytelling and emotional resonance, as it can decide whether we’re kept on the edge of our seats, or end up looking at the ceiling, withdrawing from the material as it bores us. But where certain events occur within the narrative, regardless of their temporal location within the narrative, is also of utmost importance.
We see Kirei interacting with his biological father, or with his adoptive “father” early on. We see what motivates him, we see what he’s aiming for. He also speaks about it all the damn time. Then we have Kiritsugu, who for most of the show is a collection of tropes, as covered in the previous episode. But, 18 episodes in (and over the course of two full episodes), we finally learn what made Kiritsugu into the person he is today, someone who doesn’t share how he’s feeling, who bottles it in, who keeps others at a distance, even as he uses them, and why he wishes so much to be a hero. We learn how he became the way he is now. But it comes far too late.
I discussed this in my Sword Art Online piece about the nature of emotional attachment, and this is indeed a tricky point, as you need to hammer the watchers with the “sad” early in order for us to care for the “sad” later on. And through the sad moments, care for the characters. The sad early on feels unearned and reeks of emotional manipulation, which it is, but it’s what makes the later segments feel earned. I’ll give the show this, that Kiritsugu is an understandable character. Certainly after you watch episodes 18-19 and cast your mind back, but I understood his taciturn nature and what might lie underneath even beforehand, but while understanding a character has a sensible background and acts as a sensible person (in that they have believeable reactions based off of their personality make-up, not in their decision to become a mage assassin using his own bones to murder other people, mind), it doesn’t make them (emotionally) relatable. And while Rider and Waver are the true beating heart of the show, and while it’s also true that the show is an ensemble show, the show makes it clear that Kiritsugu is its main character; its protagonist, if you will. And when the character that is set up to be so damn tragic elicits no empathy or care on the part of the watcher, then the whole show suffers for it.
I intimated it at the start of the piece, but discussions revolving around Kyoukai no Kanata helped me form some of these thoughts, back in late 2013. Kyoukai no Kanata for most of its run is a pretty fluffy and comfortable semi-comedy slice-of-life action-drama. Yeah, that’s a mouthful. Regardless, though you can tell there’s some Stuff™ going on in the background, it’s a pretty comfortable watch, and the confrontation comes from outside. Until, when the series is almost over, a Capital-R Reveal happens, and changes the form of the story. While some of the feelings of pity we should’ve had for the character whose backstory and hardships were suddenly revealed were indeed earned over the course of the show, the overall atmosphere the show has been going for up to that point (of mostly light entertainment) left it feeling disjointed. Which is also how the last two episodes felt in general, both from a plot perspective, and in how the directing fell to pieces. But I digress.
It’s not enough for us to understand the characters, when you intend for us to care about them and what happens to them, it’s hard to decide where to place the sob-story. If you place it in the end, we should hopefully care about the characters by then, but if we don’t, then though we’d understand everything, especially in retrospect, then it’s likely to fall flat. And if you place it early, you guarantee that we’d understand the characters’ actions, and find the nuances in what they say or don’t say, but run the risk of people crying about “Emotional Manipulation!” early on, though frankly, emotional manipulation is to be expected, but that’s a topic for another day.
Urobuchi and Generalized Thriller Story-Structure:
I alluded to it slightly in my piece on flashbacks, but also above. This sort of method is common in thrillers, where you’re being kept in the dark on purpose, until a big reveal comes and drops information. But thrillers usually don’t work around the expectation that you’ll form an emotional connection or attachment to the characters involved. But there’s another thing going on here, and that’s tragedy. When you know bad (sad) things are going to happen, you sometimes prepare yourself for them in a way that heightens the impact, similarly to how you might tear up just before an emotional moment occurs when you rewatch a favourite film. A tragedy, to a degree, takes the build-up towards the emotional reveal/events and imbues it with some emotional weight of its own. It is as if you “feel” before the events occur, because you know they will (And I certainly think part of When Marnie Was There’s emotional weight comes from this fraught atmosphere it generates). But it’s a pretty fine balancing act.
Fate/Zero takes a very specific place in these discussions, because it is a prequel. If you come to it after reading/watching Fate/Stay Night, then you know that Kotomine and Kiritsugu will survive. You know most others will not. You know Kirei is a bastard, and that Kiritsugu will end up as a broken man, as a result of the events of the series. And perhaps, you already care for Kiritsugu before ever watching Fate/Zero, and know everything that will happen to him, more or less, so to you he’s not an emotional blank, but a character you’re invested in from the get-go, and so it works for you. And that brings us to an interesting topic, one of Visual Novels, and Urobuchi Gen’s writing in general.
Urobuchi Gen, who wrote the light novel Fate/Zero is based on got his start writing Visual Novels, the most (in)famous of which is probably Saya no Uta. Saya no Uta, from what I know, certainly has a reveal of the thriller sort, that alters what you think of it. If you look at some of his anime from recent years, such as Madoka Magica, we have an episode later on dedicated to revealing the background of the situation, and which also serves as a certain character’s “Sad Moment,” Gargantia on the Versurous Planet saves a setting-altering reveal for the final moments of its run, and so does Psycho-Pass. I think in visual novels, this type of writing might be expected and cherished, so I wonder if Urobuchi is drawn to this type of writing and was thus a good fit for visual novels, or whether he picked it up from his start in visual novels?
So, why do I think this sort of writing is not only common but encouraged in visual novels? Because many if not most visual novels these days seem to promote multiple playthroughs. The first playthrough isn’t even designed to be the end-all be-all. So, in the first “story” you get the sob story reveal in the end, and you don’t care all that much for the character, or the events. No biggie. But then the visual novel is designed to make you “rewatch” the content again, or different content, but also use the material you’ve already consumed to establish understanding and an emotional connection to the characters involved. It is sometimes used in such a way that a later arc, even though it undoes the events that led to you caring for the characters by that point, will bank on you understanding them as if they did do and go through events that have been undone. So you get to a new story, but it’s banking on you caring for the characters before it earned it, because the previous “story” did.
I have some general issues with this sort of storytelling, but that’s a different kettle of fish. I have an issue with how it’s used in Fate/Zero, where I don’t care for Rin’s father, Tokiomi, or for Kiritsugu, just because I cared for their children. And I think the story falls flatter when you don’t know where it’s going to end up, because it keeps pushing this uninteresting and unsympathetic character to the center, and takes way too long to actually convince you he’s worthy of your tears, even if you understand him, because while he’s a well-constructed character, he’s still a bunch of tropes, so he doesn’t feel fully-fleshed out, fully real.
Why do I not have issues with this form of storytelling elsewhere in Urobuchi’s stories, or thrillers in general? Because it’s not the lynchpin. Fate/Zero relies on you knowing it’s a tragedy, and not just knowing it’s a tragedy, but caring for the characters involved before you even start watching. While it being set up as a death game frames it as a form of a tragedy, but not in the way I meant, with how everything turns out wrong for everyone involved, and especially the so-called protagonist. It’s more of a given that sidesteps the emotional side, more of an action set-piece.
In Urobuchi’s other works, the tragedy is either present, or the core conflict and emotional attachment lies elsewhere. In Madoka, the show opens with the promise of tragedy, as it flat-out tells you where things are going. Furthermore, the emotional core, while certainly moved and heightened post-reveal and upon rewatching, actually still exists, both in atmosphere, and in other characters’ presence and interaction before said reveal. While the show would be much diminished without said episode, which is by far its best, it’d still work.
Psycho-Pass is a thriller, and it has some philosophical undertones that run alongside its main story, so while the reveal serves as further commentary on the philosophical question it raises, it doesn’t change what the thriller was about all along, nor does it really change our opinions on most of the main characters in any significant manner. Likewise, the interpersonal struggle in Gargantia isn’t at all affected by said reveal, and it mostly serves to underline one of the show’s morals – but how we feel about the characters, or the events within it, don’t really change.
Not so with Fate/Zero. Fate/Zero is built around us caring for a character that’s honestly, quite an asshole. Even if you understand why he is an asshole, it doesn’t make him any less of one, or more sympathetic. The story would’ve been better served by relegating Kiritsugu even more to the background, as he actively harms the ideological conflicts the show likes to present us with, or by actually placing the explanation for Kiritsugu’s understated emotes and interactions at the start of the series. As it is, I can’t help but suspect that Fate/Zero is indeed intended as what it was written as – a prequel to a visual novel, or as outlined above, a story where you don’t care for characters, but which serves to make us care for them in a later arc. And as such, the emotional heart of the series isn’t missing, just misplaced, twice over. Both in placing so much emphasis on Kiritsugu and Kirei, and on placing Kiritsugu’s far too late.
Now, one can’t have a discussion on Fate/Zero without addressing “Should I watch Fate/Zero first, or Fate/Stay Night first?” so let’s deal with this – this post is not a review, and assumes you’ve already watched Fate/Zero. Furthermore, it spoils the Fate/Stay Night events that Fate/Zero spoils. As such, it’s too late to ask that question if you’ve read this piece, and as such, utterly useless. Since it’s utterly useless to answer the question here, I won’t. If you still feel the burning urge to discuss this question, please read this post first. And then keep it to yourself, for reasons outlined there.
Funny enough, most of your F/Z criticisms are things I usually use against Madoka, especially “understanding does not equal caring”. Honestly, I find the visual is the best part of Madoka. The characters aren’t interesting, and the theme, the world, the plot are not engaging. Of course, there are many ways for a work of fiction to be interesting. For example, Asimov characters are boring as hell, but his stories are smart. They invoke a kind of wonder and amusement without conventional emotional attachment. Madoka does nothing for me. It has a kind of theater play style, but it is no where near Shakespeare or Greek tragedy level.
My favorite Urobuchi work is Kamen Rider Gaim. With 40 plus episode, the characters and story have room to breath, and there are some more humorous Waver-Rider style moment, which is the best part of Fate/Zero. However, it is hard to recommend, since it cater to a very specific taste. I really love it though.
I think that Madoka is certainly aiming for emotional attachment with that episode, but the reason I think the show works even without it “working” for you is that it’s not what the show is mostly about at that point. Then again, if you find the theme and the plot to not be engaging and interesting, and neither do you like the character, then there’s not much that can be done. Yes, if you don’t care about any of these by the time you reach episode 10, then it’s unlikely to change your mind. Heck, once we set our minds, it’s unlikely anything will change it, at least not without a lot of run-time, or distance from it.
So I can see where you’re coming from, but my disagreement beyond the mere taste level also stems from thinking the show isn’t actually aiming for or relying on the reveal in the same way. Then again, with Waver and Rider being in the show, I can see the counter argument that you’re not supposed to care all that much about Kiritsugu in Fate/Zero, but see my reply below to Lorpius Prime about that.
I also took the liberty to remove your last, throw-away line that was bringing up what I specifically stated I don’t care for. I’m sure you won’t mind.
Huh. Reading this was a bit of a critical/emotional rollercoaster.
Started out slightly disappointed, since you seem to have a very different read of Kiritsugu’s role/purpose/theme in F/Z than I do. I doubt that kind of fundamental difference is really reconcilable, so I was a bit sad that you’d just never be able to appreciate the character the way I do.
Then you got into the pacing issues. And again, I see the show differently than you, but the whole time I was reading that portion, I was wondering if our differences might be down to the whole watch-order issue, and F/Z’s nature as a prequel.
And of course, you go on to identify and speculate upon exactly that issue. So then I was impressed that you knew exactly what you were doing the whole time, and pleased that you were open to the idea in the first place.
Regarding the larger point, I don’t think I have the same general problem with stories paced in this way as you do. Perhaps I share Urobuchi’s conceits. I do think I like stories about issues and great, sweeping questions more than stories about people. I tend to view relatable characters as a tool to draw an audience into thinking about whatever other point a story is trying to make. In contrast, I have the impression you prefer the reverse construction: building a plot and issues which can serve as an effective vehicle for getting the audience to care about individual characters.
Good essay, tcaps, thanks for sharing it with us.
For me personally, I treat each show differently. Some shows I think highly of that put characters second or third to theme or world-building. I’m a big sucker for plot-driven stories where characters go second and themes are a distant third. It really depends on the show.
The “issue” here is that I feel that Fate/Zero really did want us to care for Kiritsugu, and put a lot of weight on it. I just think Kiritsugu’s character and the way it was handled in the show could’ve supported this weight.
And I think the above is the kinder reading. Because if I think that the show did not want us to care for Kiritsugu on an emotional level, then it sure wasted a lot of time on his small interactions with Maiya, and Illyasviel, and those two flashback episodes.
But sure, I can see that I might care for such things more. And it’s not exactly pacing, but structure – if the show doesn’t want me to care for these things it’d be one thing, but all these cases are very much cases where the show does want you to care, but fumbles it. In thrillers, it’s to force you to “rewatch”, as it were, everything that happened in the show thus far, without actually rewatching it. I just think that for emotional connection, it’s a faulty tool.
P.S. Not sure why you’d be disappointed that I have a different read on Kiritsugu’s role/purpose/theme in the story than you do, unless you think only one of us could be right, and the other (not necessarily me ;-)) has to be wrong. And even so, “disappointed” feels like a weird way to feel about it. Though you do say, “That I won’t feel about it as you do,” but if I did, would this piece really be of interest for you? Doesn’t feel that way to me.
Oh I certainly believe F/Z wants you to care about Kiritsugu, I just think he’s meant to be an avatar for his ideals/worldview as the first priority above being a sympathetic person for his own sake. And I do agree that the structure (I see I did say “pacing” before; I meant structure, you’re right) of F/Z makes any amount of investment in the character more difficult, since much of the heavy lifting there comes from the F/SN stories. To some extent, audience sympathy is simply assumed because this is the guy Shirou viewed as a father figure/mentor. But if you haven’t experienced F/SN, or if it also fell flat for you, that foundation may not be there. If all you’ve known of Kiritsugu is he’s a generic edgy-dark-assassin dude for 2/3 of the show, then I’m not at all surprised that his suddenly-sad-backstory drop would be awkward and ineffective.
I’m probably less flexible than you about the types of stories I appreciate. There are a handful of character-over-everything works that I enjoy, but not many, and even those never quite on the same level as themes/ideas-first stories. I still want to have good characters in those stories; but if exploring characters is the focus to the expense of other things, or especially if that’s the only purpose of a story, I tend to get bored and move on quickly.
I like F/Z and Kiritsugu because I admire idealism, and he’s a committed idealist. I like stories (and I suspect this is Urobuchi’s thing as well) that explore the costs of high-minded principles, and the plot of F/Z is constantly punishing Kiritsugu for pursuing his beliefs (and the other characters, they’re all idealists in their own way, but especially him). The story may have deep or even fatal flaws when it comes to building emotional investment in its characters, but if so then I’m willing to forgive them simply because it’s one of a very few stories that does a solid job of exploring those conflicts and issues I care about. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I think that may be part of the reason I personally feel a bit defensive over criticism of F/Z and associated media. If you’re looking for stories with respected, well-constructed, and relatable characters, there’s a huge wealth of them out there to turn to. But if I want stories contending with these particular themes, I haven’t got many options; and for better or worse, F/Z is probably one of the best of what’s available. It’d sure be nice if that changed, though.
With regards to disappointment: I was afraid that you were going to be building up this whole essay from that early observation. While I had no doubt that it would be logically sound and well-analyzed, I despaired of being able to engage with it in any very interesting way simply because I expected we would disagree at such a fundamental level that there would be nothing to talk about. Even if that had been the case, I would never have said that you were “wrong”, I do believe it’s possible to have incompatible but equally valid perspectives and interpretations of art; but it still would have been less interesting to me, and thus disappointed my expectation that you would be writing something I could really dig into. As it turned out, I needn’t have worried even for those brief moments, since you were going in a different direction with this piece.
I like Kiritsugu as a solid Unfettered character; he has one goal (end war) and everything else in his life, from his wife and child to his mentor to his own body, can and will be sacrificed to further his goal. He’s efficient, short-circuiting problems; I can’t think of a single case where you could raise “why didn’t he just do X” as he actually does just blow up the dungeon and shoot the guy. It is immensely satisfying to see a character take their stated objective and always work towards it without making mistakes for sake of drama. I also really like his “I hate heroes” quote, objecting to the idea of ever associating violence with something good. He finally faces a fitting end when the Grail outright tells him that nothing he knows how to do can actually make things better, so his plan to get this wish (through heroic violence!) was flawed for the very reasons that drive him.
As for emotional investment, there’s none. The ending of Fate/Zero didn’t feel very good, and this post is good at pointing out reasons why; the predetermined results are an easy scapegoat, but despite calling Kiritsugu’s interaction with the Grail a “fitting end”, that’s only the case on reflection. In the moment, it fell flat. I wanted Kiritsugu to win the Grail War for his single-minded dedication to this one task, and he did. I didn’t care about him, so everything after that moment wasn’t important.
Thanks for pointing out the late reveal as a VN thing, it makes perfect sense as a tool for replay value. Madoka was possibly the best implementation of this, as 12 episodes are relatively easy to rewatch and it does make sense the first time in addition to feeling different the second time.
To clarify, this is a hypothesis. Is it a VN tool? I certainly think it lends itself better to that medium, and it’d be interesting to look at more examples.
Reminds me of Filmcrithulk’s essay of John Carter. Specifically how showing John Carter’s backstory and motivation in the middle of an action scene hours into the movie undercut all the drama. Essentially it was too late to make us care, which is why those scenes are supposed to be in the beginning.
I do suspect I like Kiritsugu more than most people though. Mostly because I like superheroes as a concept and Kiritsugu pushes that theme. Also I watched Fate/Zero after Madoka, and kinda spoiled myself on the later scenes first (I remember the scene that convinced me to give the show a shot was an out of context scene of Kiritsugu ordering Saber to destroy the grail, didn’t understand what was happening but it looked dramatic). And Kiritsugu using guns against magic is cool (Yes, I’m completely shallow sometimes).
I think why I like Kiritsugu is why I like the series. Madoka is a masterfully structured story, made with skill and maturity. Fate/Zero is Madoka’s angry adolescent brother. Very flawed, very rough, very raw, trying too hard to be edgy and mature. But also incredibly passionate, earnest and idealistic. I like that Kiritsugu despite the badass self-serious veneer is still an over-idealistic child, angry at how unfair the world is.
I disagree a bit with Irisviel’s ideology being that of a tool used for sacrifice. That what she seems to be for most of the show, until you see her final talk with Maiya. Irisviel was born as a tool (you can almost see her as a Rei archetype, except much further along in her development than the typical ones) but she’s a person, she has her own personal desires entirely independent of Kiritsugu. She doesn’t understand Kiritsugu’s goals and that’s not the reason why she wants to win the war. She wants to win the war primarily to spare her daughter. That’s why I like Iris as a character despite the short time frame of her development. She has hidden depths, secrets and an interior life. Her story is one being trapped within her role but said role not crushing her very human desires of self-determination.
Which makes Kiritsugu’s actions inside the Grail a betrayal of Irisviel’s desires. He’s betraying and killing his family not just metaphorically but literally. Irisviel doesn’t get what she wants, her daughter will die in the next war, the grail won’t revive her from her imprinted personality, the family she desired is lost forever. Unpacking it, it is an old and a tad sexist trope. But it makes the grail scene more than just a “smash the evil illusion”.
The last two paragraphs barely have anything to do with your essay, but I like the series and rarely get a chance to talk about it.
If you ask me, what you outlined of Irisviel actually supports my main argument, that she will sacrifice her for others. She’s still a tool, but not just Kiritsugu’s, and her family’s, but also her daughter’s. Heck, in the end, what it amounts to is, “I’m happy to be a tool” :P
And about Kiritsugu, if you like him, then liking the show is much more likely. Yes. If you like a character, doesn’t matter if it’s for being “Very Cool” or what, it can carry over to the show. Heck, a large part of this piece is about this topic, but from the reverse position ;)
The description of Kyoukai no Kanata strongly reminds me of Kishotenketsu. Learning about Kishotenketsu really illuminated why so many anime seem to fail to properly develop character investment, and have giant tonal and plot style changes midway through, abetted by reveals.
Western storytelling structure is all about fractal storytelling. The first episode should include all of the elements and atmosphere to expect for the rest of the show. It’s a microcosm. The show is five-act, each episode is five-act, each sub-plot is five-act, each scene is five-act, each conversation is five-act. OOC is a dirty word.
But the Japanese favor kishotenketsu, a four act structure in which the first two establish and reinforce a status quo, the third act is explicitly a twist and/or “world”-changing event, and the fourth is the aftermath/implications/reaction to the third act event.
This is why Mai Hime starts as a superhero-ish thing up through the Searrs invasion, and then turns into a death battle relationship study. This is why Kyoukai no Kanata is school life comedy shenanigans that turns into giant world-destroying battle. This is why romance visual novel adaptations start with emphasizing friendship and slow burn harem romance at first, before switching to SURPRISE EVERYONE’S TRAUMA BACKSTORY, EVERYONE CRYING for the last arc. This is why international fans often have to say “it gets good after episode X!” or complain that the show forgets what made it good in the early episodes. But from the original writers’ side, those shifts were intentional and literary convention.
If you google kishotenketsu, there are business seminars talking about how much westerners are put off by how that structure in presentations buries the lede, doesn’t get to the point fast enough, etc. because we’re so conditioned to western structures where paragraphs should start with the thesis statement, and end with a conclusion statement that reiterates the thesis, and this fractally translates up. For us, the same themes should be running throughout the show, not suddenly introducing it halfway through.
[…] and have us grow to care for the characters through looping, once we know their inevitable fate (the Visual Novel-esque/Greek Tragedy storytelling I discussed with regards to Fate/Zero), but it’s much harder. Well, making us care for characters is hard anyway, but it usually […]