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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.