Summer Death Frenzy

The Protagonist always wins in the end.

That is an unwritten rule in fiction that most people unconsciously accept.

For if the protagonist died or suffered some major harm, the story would simply end and could not continue any longer.

The few fictions where the protagonist do suffer death or loss, only serve to highlight the truth of the above statement.

For if The Protagonist didn’t win or achieve success in the majority of cases, then in those few instances where he doesn’t, wouldn’t feel half as shocking or effective as they do.

Therefore, exceptions only serve to prove the rule true.

Once this rule is consciously acknowledged, any battle or struggle in any kind of fiction can become predictable and thus boring via predictability.

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The Nature of the Protagonist: A self fulfilling prophecy.

Movies like The Matrix, Star Wars or Dune 1984 make it quite clear that the protagonist is going to succeed quite early, by simply dubbing them as the “chosen one”, who are destined or fated to perform some kind of task in their life. Such protagonist are the worst type of protagonist in my personal opinion, as they do not really have to struggle to achieve something, since they are simply fated for it, the events will all fall into place as if ordered by some higher power.

Chosen_One

Nor do these characters have much of a choice in things, after all, man is not in control of his own fate, they will walk their fated path whether they want it or not. Battles and Fight scenes with such protagonists are entirely pointless most of the time, as by fate itself they are unable to truly perish before they accomplish their destiny, thus fight scenes with “chosen one” type of protagonist are most predictable and dull.

One would think that this predictability would end with the chosen one protagonist, but they would be wrong, as by simply being the protagonist, a character is by default a chosen one. The only difference is that in works like The Matrix, the creators outright tell you that the protagonist is a chosen one, making it obvious. But in reality all protagonists are equally chosen by their creator.

They are chosen for the role of a protagonist, which is probably the most restricted role in fiction. The Protagonist cannot be put the sidelines, nor can he be allowed to die before the story comes to completion, those are just a few of the many restrictions placed upon the role of the protagonist. The fact that most writers try to keep their protagonist alive until the end of the story, is exactly what makes fights and battles with the protagonist so boring, as the outcome is irrelevant, seeing the protagonist will manage to live to the end anyway.

In short all protagonists by default of being the protagonist have some degree of plot armour.

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But I must remark that even though the fight scenes are completely predictable, movies like The Matrix are still good, due to the fact that they are carried by the other elements, such as the story and plot.

However there is a genre within the medium of anime where this cannot apply, as this particular genre is entirely about mindless battles upon mindless battles, yes I am talking about the battle-shounen genre. It is a genre where if the battles fail to be interesting or exciting then the whole show will fail as there is nothing that can carry it. And this already mentioned predictability is exactly what makes them boring and uninteresting. Yes, sadly 90% of the battle-shounens are extremely predictable and obvious right from the beginning.

So now that I prepared the subject, its time for me to introduce what I actually wanted to talk about in this article.

Learning from the Anime called Shigurui:

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There is a relatively unnoticed but not completely obscure anime called Shigurui. The anime itself is not really that great in the departments of story and characters, as it is really just your standard revenge story except this one is about samurai and there are multiple revenge lines going on at the same time. But what Shigurui actually does right are battles and fight scenes. In fact I would say that it represents what should be the ideal in a battle oriented anime.

The first thing that Shigurui does right is that there is no protagonist. Instead of having a single protagonist that the story would center around, we instead follow the events that unfold at Iwamoto Kogan’s dojo and its several main characters whose fates are entwined. The main characters in the anime include Irako Seigen, Fujiki Gennosuke and Iwamoto Kogan. Each of them are equally important to the story.

Since there is no single protagonist, each of the three main characters get equal amounts of development. Additionally this takes out the so called plot armour out of the equation since these characters fight against characters of equal importance, therefore as a result the whole predictability is thrown out of the window. You don’t know whats going to happen, and you don’t know who will die if these characters face off against each other.

There is no real moral high ground here either, which would allow one character to shine as an example of good virtues and morality. No, in Shigurui all characters are equally gray and full of human faults. Shigurui itself is unique in the manner that it doesn’t portray samurai and swordsmen in the romanticized and honourable fashion. Shigurui instead is the portrayal of samurai who cut down the peasants they came across as a method of testing their techniques. Most of the characters are ‘monsters’ in the sense that the average guy fears them and their terrifying techniques as well as methods and strange rites.

Albeit personally I would say that Irako Seigen is the most ‘relatable’ of the bunch as he loses his entire future and career as a samurai when Iwamoto Kogan blinds him, which is a shame as he was a really talented swordsman. This is what sets Irako on his path of revenge, but again this doesn’t make him any better of a human than the mad Kogan and Gennosuke who commits evil out of loyalty to the Kogan school, as Irako happily sacrifices anyone for his ambition and revenge.

Defeat itself is actually a thing here for our main characters, but this anime wisely realizes that defeat itself doesn’t necessarily have to lead to death. As Irako Seigen despite being blinded does not give up the path of the sword, as he learns a strange, new technique that allows even a blind man to triumph over skilled samurai, and thus he comes back to take his revenge on Kogan and his dojo.

Likewise Fujiki Gennosuke survives a number of defeats and he comes back to take revenge on Irako even after losing his arm.

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This is in contrast with the usual battle oriented anime where the protagonist and his sidekicks never suffer any kind of serious defeat or loss. (for example Katekyo Hitman Reborn.) And also the other end of the spectrum like Akame ga Kill where characters are dying in droves.

By being in the middle, Shigurui manages to be better than the fiction where the protagonist never loses and better than the fiction where everyone dies. This is because if a character never loses then that character doesn’t change, there is no reason for him to change. He is just like a man who has fallen into a successful method, he has no reason to act any differently as long as doing the same thing grants him victory. Because of this, characters who never lose also remain static in their personality, since nothing traumatic happens that would influence their behavior and persona.

The other end of the spectrum, where characters constantly die is even worse. For the simple fact that if a character dies, then that character naturally cannot progress or evolve into anything, since dead characters obviously cannot receive character development. Shows like Akame ga Kill and Attack on Titan constantly kill underdeveloped characters in order to create drama, but in reality all they achieve by doing this is making death seem meaningless and trivial.

Now look at Shigurui, characters actively suffer defeat and also change as a result of their defeats.Both Fujiki and Irako were influenced and affected by the defeats they suffered in episode 2, which had an effect on their character. And I already mentioned how characters came back even after receiving some horrifying injuries. Despite being a violent and overly gory anime, death itself is strangely used sparingly, as no one from the Kogan dojo dies until the latter half of the anime. Death holds some meaning here, especially when one of the “monster-like” characters is finally killed despite his incredible strength and skill. The anime manages to make the viewers feel as if something really powerful has just been defeated, which is rare.

Now that we seen how Shigurui established the ideal conditions for battles to be unpredictable, we should now look at the battles themselves. While the average anime battle across the medium is loud, flashy and overly exaggerated, Shigurui is the exact opposite. Since we are talking about fight scenes, it is fair easier for me to just show you a segment from Shigurui rather than talk about it:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bEyQ0AjggLk

 But in case you cannot watch the video at the moment or wish to avoid spoilers, allow me to explain what techniques Shigurui makes use of in words as well. If you had watched the video, you would have noticed that despite the scene being a fight, the two samurai are barely duking it out with each other, they don’t make clashes like it is common in fighting anime.

Instead the fight is slowed down to the extreme, this is done so the viewers can see every precious moment that will eventually lead up to the kill, this is also done as a means of fueling the viewer’s anticipation for the said kill. The two swordsman instead of charging right at each others throat, calmly wait in their stances and measure their opponent as they try to gain the utmost advantage over the other warrior. They know that if they make the slightest mistake their opponent will simply use that opportunity to kill them.

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In the video, to regain his advantage and equalize the field, the blind swordsman Irako jumps out off the closed and narrow room they occupied in order to give himself more space for fighting, but also to eliminate the elements that obstructed his senses, namely the blood trickling down from the ceiling and the smell of the said blood, which together would make it harder for him to locate his opponent.

He just barely manages to avoid a fatal strike from Kogan as he is doing the said maneuver, but still ends up injuring his feet in the process by cutting during the landing. Obviously this means that his mobility has been vastly reduced and that he wouldn’t be able to repeat the jumping maneuver he did earlier. It becomes clear to him that he has to commit himself to the battle or he will die, so he enters his stance.

But by taking the fight outside, another advantage tips the scale into Irako’s favour, the simple fact that its night outside and thus its harder to see. This eliminates the vision advantage that Kogan had earlier in the previously relatively lit room, now his previous advantage of having functioning eyes turns into his disadvantage, as unlike Irako, he isn’t as proficient with his other senses.

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It is rare in anime for the environment to actually influence the battle, as most of the time the only thing that matters is the power, equipment, willpower, skill and plot armour of the characters. Meanwhile in Shigurui, the “fighting arena” can equally bring advantage and disadvantage to the characters.

The way the fight scenes in Shigurui are extremely slowed down perfectly correlates with the fighting style of the characters. For all of the 3 main characters of Shigurui mastered a deadly technique that can kill in a single strike, they aren’t the type to fight prolonged battles. If the fights were processed in real time, they wouldn’t even last a minute as the fight is usually over the moment the blades leave their owner’s hands. Needless to say showing instantaneous kills in real time wouldn’t be really exciting or enjoyable, so by slowing down time, anticipation can be built up for that single killing strike, and it can make us admire the ridiculous but feasible techniques these characters have come up with.

Most of the characters themselves understand that they can die in an instant, but Shigurui’s brilliance lies in the manner how it makes use of this fact to further enhance and build up anticipation. For example in this video we suddenly hear a cutting sound, the screen turns to white, and we see the heads of Irako Seigan, and his mistress, Iku’s head depart from their neck, slightly flying upwards.

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Kogan seemingly ended the match in an instant, and the viewer is shocked into thinking that Kogan won just like that, but it isn’t unfeasible to think that way, as the previous events of the story all laid down the fact of how much of a monster Kogan was, so his victory was completely believable to the audience.

But then the screen cuts back to normal, the two character’s still have their heads intact, and Iku winces and closes her eyes. The viewer then realizes that it was all an illusion of Iku, produced by the deep fear and terror she feels towards Kogan. The tension was already high before this moment, but it skyrockets after this, this was only another preparation for the moment when the strike will come for real.

Illusions like this aren’t limited only to this particular fight, they generally happen throughout the course of the anime, especially whenever the blind swordsman, Irako fights. For despite the fact that his 4 senses are much more accurate than a normal human’s, they still deceive him on numerous occasions. He can experience illusions that come from having his eye-sight deprived, especially when things don’t go his way and paranoia creeps into his heart.

Anyway, after the sufficient anticipation has been built up, the two techniques eventually clash, Irako’s technique which slew so many members of the Kogan dojo, and Kogan’s technique, which blinded the young Irako. We see the sword of Kogan draw blood from Irako first, but it is not a fatal wound, then we see Irako’s sword cut into Kogan’s chin, as he is having flashbacks of all the people he murdered this way.

Irako falls to the ground with a thud, and while he could not see it, he felt that his sword bit into the Kogan. He eagerly awaits the signs of his victory, and raises his head, waiting for the sound of Kogan’s body falling down. But as the sound of Kogan falling never comes, terror soon comes to Irako, as all the fear that he had bottled up regarding his old master comes back to him in an instant.

His fear was justified though, as he had little to no means of defending himself now that he was on the ground, while Kogan was still standing. He succumbs to cowardice and starts crawling away in cold sweat. Once more we are put into a situation where the outcome of things become unclear, it is hard to tell who would die after such an exchange. The tense situation is only broken up with the arrival of Mie, the daughter of Kogan.

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She presents herself to her father, which makes him turn his back on Irako, he then speaks some words to her, and the next thing we hear is Irako’s sword piercing his chest, who could now locate Kogan due to the usage of his voice. Kogan falls forward, and it is only then revealed that Irako’s previous strike was also successful, as 1/3 of Kogan’s face was cut off. As he is falling forward, his brain flows out of the wound he received from Irako, he uselessly slumps to the ground at last.

The Monster has been defeated.

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3 comments on “Summer Death Frenzy

  1. “The first thing that Shigurui does right is that there is no protagonist”…

    Wait, so you’re saying that the ideal story must have no protagonist? Because, like, the huge majority of every story in every sort of medium has one main character… I know, there’s the law of “90% of everything is crap”, but that might be a step too far…

    …Of course I might have misunderstood this line, and probably did, but that question came to my mind.

    You’re right about the stuff you say at the beginning. We unconsciously accept that the protagonist will be fine in the end of the story, and that for every fight the MC gets in, he will get out alive. However, if you treat this as a flaw, it will make you incapable of enjoying like 99% of all existing works, as you will always have that “the MC will win in the end so who cares” thought in your mind.

    Shigurui might be good at its own merits, but I don’t think all anime should follow this standard of “no protagonist so that we never know who will make out of the show alive”. And this coming out of someone who dislikes excessively kill-happy shows like Akame ga Kill and Attack on Titan, and is mostly unable to enjoy stock battle-shounen anime like Reborn or Naruto, whose fights often never have stakes high enough to be enjoyable. I do like One Punch Man tough.

    I don’t think the “Protagonist always wins in the end” universal rule is a bad thing. After all, the ending is not everything that matters- We don’t engage in fiction because we’re curious about if the protagonist will make it or not, we engage because we want to see -how- they will get to their goals and what sorts of challenges lie in the way. The journey is more important than the destiny.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Alma Elma says:

      Wow. I see that you commented a lot, enough that I cannot reply to everything in two days, much less one. I’ll start with the one that needs the longest reply, Shigurui.

      “Wait, so you’re saying that the ideal story must have no protagonist? Because, like, the huge majority of every story in every sort of medium has one main character… I know, there’s the law of “90% of everything is crap”, but that might be a step too far…”

      I think you misunderstood me. I wasn’t trying to talk about stories in general, but more specifically about stories and genres that are centered on battles, such as your typical battle-shounen and death battle in anime. Most stories are not centered on battles, so the things I said in this article obviously do not apply to genres such as romance, comedy, tragedy, drama, mystery etc. I focused on specific subgenres of action that are battle centered and I argued why having a protagonist is actually a big minus for them. And even in the case of action oriented stories, I explicitly stated that they could still be carried by other elements such as the story, the message and the themes. In short I wasn’t talking about the ideal story, but the ideal battle-centered story in my view, after I was inspired by the method of Shigurui.

      “We unconsciously accept that the protagonist will be fine in the end of the story, and that for every fight the MC gets in, he will get out alive. However, if you treat this as a flaw, it will make you incapable of enjoying like 99% of all existing works, as you will always have that “the MC will win in the end so who cares” thought in your mind.”

      99% is too big of a percentage here; I would say it is 10% or less. The only thing it makes me incapable of enjoying are your average battle-centered stories after all, which only compromises of typical action flicks, fantasy adventures, death battles etc. A big reason why I wrote this article was to express why I become unable to enjoy things that I loved in the past, and why Shigurui was such a pleasant surprise, because in the present time I just usually prefer to stay away from such action oriented shows and invest my precious time in other genres.

      “Shigurui might be good at its own merits, but I don’t think all anime should follow this standard of “no protagonist so that we never know who will make out of the show alive”.”

      I certainly did not intend to say that every fighting anime should just copy Shigurui note for note, rather I was saying that they should take some inspiration from it so we could get more anime like it. I wouldn’t want every anime to be like Shigurui, because if every battle centered anime was like it, then I would be complaining about the sameness, rather than complimenting the uniqueness and difference. Quality and quantity are two things that never go together, if every action anime was like Shigurui, then that would result in the formula itself becoming cliché and the loss of its quality.

      “And this coming out of someone who dislikes excessively kill-happy shows like Akame ga Kill and Attack on Titan”

      The problems with those two have nothing to do with being excessively kill-happy. Akame was a mess because it had way too many characters that existed for no other purpose than to suffer and be slaughtered, and the anime itself did not want to do anything more than just shock the viewer. Shigurui is just as kill-happy as Akame ga Kill if not more, but it does not have the same problems because it has fewer and more focused characters, and more importantly it is not a shock factor heavy anime. Remember when in this article I talked about stories heavily focused around a protagonist, such as the chosen ones? Well, Akame ga Kill is actually in the opposite extreme, it has too many characters and it is focused on none, which makes it impossible to care about any of them, and subsequently this makes their deaths trivial to the viewer. Shigurui just managed to be on the middle road between these two extremes, which is why it is good.

      As for Attack on Titan, it actually only has an illusion of being “kill-happy”, because in reality all the major characters (read important to the plot) such as Eren, Mikasa, Armin, Christa, Levi, Hanze, Reiner, Berthold, and some others whose name I forgot have massive plot armour that excludes them from being killed. The only people who ever die in Attack on Titan are the meaningless nobodies and those with the least amount of screen time. Take the new season for instance, we got a bunch of nobodies, characters that haven’t even been properly established being violently eaten by the titans few episodes in. If the creator of Attack on Titan had any balls, he would have actually just let Eren die instead of reviving him, that way the show could have kept being a survival horror focused on the remaining cast and how they cope with the loss of Eren, but noooo, Attack on Titan had to be a shitty shounen about meat-mechas.

      Excuse me for the divergence.

      “I don’t think the “Protagonist always wins in the end” universal rule is a bad thing. After all, the ending is not everything that matters- We don’t engage in fiction because we’re curious about if the protagonist will make it or not, we engage because we want to see -how- they will get to their goals and what sorts of challenges lie in the way. The journey is more important than the destiny.”

      The ending certainly isn’t everything, I’ll give you that. But my exact problem is the fact that these battle oriented anime, such as Naruto or Gundam have hundreds of battles in them, and 99% of these battles have an outcome that is predetermined, that the protagonist will win the end. The point of the journey is entirely defeated because these anime do nothing but meaningless battles that follow the same old pattern for hundreds of episodes. That pattern typically being: 1. new villain is introduced and initially has the advantage and is capable of beating the protagonist in some way 2. The protagonist manages to recover and fight back 3. The villain powers himself up or shows a new ability and catches the hero off guard once again 4. The hero manages to collect himself and inevitably defeat the villain once he has exhausted all his powers and abilities.

      Such a journey isn’t exciting for me. Imagine if you decided to go on a journey, but you keep passing by the same houses and locations over and over and over again, with very minimal variation, such as the colour of the houses changing. This is how I feel when I watch these battle-centered stories unfold. No matter how much they try to present it as if the protagonist is having a great struggle and try to hype that up, I will still know that it is only an illusion and will be unable to get into the mood that the anime is trying to bring me into. Out of all the hundred Naruto fights I have watched, there was only one that genuinely surprised me, and that was the last segment of the pain fight, mainly because I genuinely did not expect that huge fight to come down to talking (which usually fails), and for the villain to actually do a heel-face-turn and resurrect everyone. Is it worth getting through 99 repetitive and predictable fights just to get to that 1 that is different? I do not think so. In comparison to this, Shigurui had a few dozen fights, and almost all of them managed to keep me at the edge of my seat and trying to guess the outcome.

      Lastly regarding the whole “journey”, I would like to repeat something I said earlier in the article. Failure and defeat are necessary for character growth, without failure and defeat the characters of any battle oriented anime fall into a routine and do not improve as a result of this. And what is point of a journey, if the journey does not change the person who goes on it? One Piece had 700 or more episodes, and the personality of the main character is the same as ever, meanwhile Shigurui had 12 episodes and 84 manga chapters, and the characters were continuously changed and affected by their short journey, unlike the characters in those longer running stories I mentioned.

      Thank you for commenting!

      Like

      • Oh, yeah, looking back at my comment now I’ve made some misconceptions. When I said things like “99% of every work” I forgot to say that I was referring to action-focused franchises, not every genre.

        I do dislike most battle-shounen anime mostly because of what you’ve said. The fights might look cool and all, but they frequently have little to no value on actual plot progression or character development. Taking the example of Naruto, the Akatsuki didn’t need to have so much members. Hell, I think it could still work perfectly if it was just Pain and Itachi working together.

        If you put too many characters in the show just for the sake of it, like Akame ga Kill did, it gets harder and harder to develop them properly, and the fact you will need to give a resolution for each of them in the end (kill them, in the case of most villains) ends up forcing you to stretch the plot, making it less interesting (or maybe you do this on purpose because it makes money, oh well).

        If the story has fights as an essential part of it, I want each battle to cause enough change in the combatants’ personalities/relationships/health to justify it even happening, and I prefer when it only has one main antagonist and the story ends once they’re defeated, rather than introducing a new one and starting all over again until even the writer gets fed up with it (happened to Fairy Tail). And I prefer it when the hero fights only once the villain and resolves everything that’s left in this one battle, although they can meet multiple times before this happens.

        Well, you’re welcome.

        Liked by 1 person

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