In Search of Tragedy

If They Come To It
Yup, young men will do’t, if they come to’t; / By cock, they are to blame.
[Warning: today's captions may contain gratuitous quotation]

There is a special kind of feeling which certain stories can provoke. It is a kind of nausea, a sick feeling in the pit of the stomach, combined with a tightening in the chest and tearfulness (though actual tears are not required).

I’m writing here about tragedy, tragedy not in the strict or the loose sense of the term. The strict definition of tragedy is a thorny question which need not concern us. The loose idea of tragedy (‘tragic equals sad’) is inadequate for my purposes: there are many sad things which are not tragic (why, Key, fancy meeting you and your Keychés in this paragraph).

For the purposes of this entry, tragedy portrays the suffering of a character who is neither good nor bad, often through a mistake on their part. Tragedy provokes cleansing pity and fear. I should at this point give the customary spoiler warning (for School Days and Code Geass), and also point out that this post contains two bloody images which may disturb readers of a sensitive disposition.

[This was written some time ago. Reading over it now, I don't think it's especially tightly argued, and it feels more like the work of an enthusiast than I'd like. But I think it has merits nevertheless.]

I: Love in a Calvinist Climate

There were a lot of things I liked about School Days. It was well animated – nothing earth-shaking, but everything was nice and shiny (I know, I know, that’s the not height of incisive evaluation). The animators had used various recurring locations very well – the trains, for example. There was also some nice use of symbols – red wool, boiling kettles et cetera – not always being used very subtly, but I think that can be forgiven.

This a Dagger?
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible / To feeling as to sight?

The series as a whole seemed to be critical both of excessive emotion (viz. Kotonoha et al.) and also of a lack of feeling (viz. Makoto . . . possibly the least empathetic character ever to grace my laptop’s screen, et al.), leaving an impression that, when it comes to relationships, the good old Golden Mean is best.

I don’t wish to cover up the series’ flaws, but I won’t be listing them here. This is because in my case School Days had one critical flaw. It wasn’t suitably tragic. Why wasn’t it tragic? After all, it portrayed its hero’s downfall, featured violent emotion and emotional violence, and was certainly dramatic.

School Days failed to be tragic because its characters were irredeemable. In that sense, deep and rounded as they may or may not have been, the characters were unrealistically evil people. With irredeemable characters, a show is unable to produce the required reaction to tragedy – indeed, it’s unable to produce much emotion at all. We can’t feel pity for characters which the show itself portrays as inhuman and inhumanly predisposed to evil; we can’t feel fear seeing their fate because we know that we, unlike them, are not irredeemable.

Indeed, it’s the series itself that condemns its characters. Calling the hero ‘Makoto’ (‘sincerity’, ‘loyalty’ or ‘honesty’) and then having him act as he does is a crushing statement; we might point to disloyalty as Makoto’s defining characteristic. And I’m not just talking about our hero. Practically the entire cast’s actions form a neat catalogue of unpleasantness – bullying, gossip, brutal insensitivity, betrayal, intrigue, obsession, probable rape (I sure didn’t see any informed consent) and of course a couple of singularly violent killings.It’s a world where the mobile phone is wielded like a stilleto in vicious emotional strife.

Only Kotonoha seemed at points to be able to elicit any fellow-feeling at all, and she exhibited spadefuls of self-delusion and a complete mental collapse; any sympathy she had garnered was swiftly lost via several of her speeches in the final episode.

I tried to feel for these characters. But as the final episode closed with the animators’ last blunt comment, Kotonoha sailing off into the sunset clutching Makoto’s severed head, I merely had a sense of detached emptiness (leavened with a chuckle at that ridiculous sunset image). There was no sadness, no tragic feelings, nothing.

I didn’t even feel any anger at Makoto, something a lot of viewers have expressed. He was such an insincerely unpleasant person that he felt unreal. Indeed, the cast as a whole simply felt unrealistic. No realist person can demonstrate such consistent moral collapse. As another blogger puts it, ‘School Days was a show where nearly all characters were developed to be equally detestable’.

As I Suspected
There’s no tragedy inside you

In fact, I’d say School Days is set in a world which runs on a debased form of Total Depravity – an inherent predisposition to evil, but (since it is in its debased form) without any escape routes. There is no ‘possibility of victory’ for these characters. It’s much easier to read School Days as a kind of morality tale (what assembling a harem in real life will do to you) or almost an allegory like The Pilgrim’s Progress. The Pilgrim’s Progress may or may not be instructive, but it’s hardly fun reading; School Days might or might not be a useful How Not To guide, but it’s hard to enjoy like a good tragedy (beyond a certain ghoulish desire to see how the much-spoiled ending comes about).

II: Pizza and Fear

From one show which seemed built for tragedy but failed to achieve its grandeur, to another which provided it, to the surprise of many: the first season of Code Geass.

Code Geass has its detractors, and it is indeed a series with (many) flaws. But it occured to me after watching the twenty-second episode that I was feeling a genuine sense of catharsis. Strange as it may seem for a show which panders unashamedly and honestly to the lowest common denominator, Code Geass provokes pity and fear in a viewer who feels any connection at all to the characters.

Pizzamimi

Pizzamimi: a tragically under-appreciated moe mode

How does it do this? Well, at its most basic level, it portrays the suffering of a morally grey character (Lelouch) through a series of mistakes (fuelled, I feel, by pride: Lelouch is boasting when he Geasses Euphemia, for example). The necessary grandeur is augmented by the high status of the characters (royalty, et cetera) and the wide-ranging effects of their actions (however unrealistic this may be).

Rewatching Code Geass through the lens of tragedy, a number of things become clear. The role of coincidence in the plot – often something the show is criticised for – is explicable because the story is making no attempt to be plausible. Tragedy is the realm of heightened emotion, heightened action and heightened coincidence (or fate). Consider the pirates whose pleasant vessel returns Hamlet to Denmark in the nick of time, or the unfortunate dispute over right-of-way in Oedipus’ back-story.

I mention Oedipus, and it is possible to spend a diverting ten minutes picking out the links to Freud’s influential theory; one might begin with Code Geass‘s focus on a wannabe patricide (Lelouch) and an actual patricide (Suzaku), move on to Lelouch’s dedication to the concept of his mother and finish up by considering the importance of Lelouch’s eyes.

Oedipus
‘What’dya mean “overreacting”?’

A reading of Lelouch as a tragic hero in a broader sense also becomes possible. One might want to consider his inability to either cut all his emotional ties (as Death Note‘s Light is able to) and entirely assume his Zero persona, or to give up the persona entirely. Putting it more simply, his failure to choose between his revenge and his sister.

The inhuman or blank appearance of Zero’s mask is a significant external symbol of Lelouch’s desired emotionless state. Mysterious masked men usually have at least some facial features on their diguise. And the name ‘Zero’ itself is a piece of absence rather than presence. Lelouch would like it if there was nothing behind the mask, no person to suffer. Unfortunately the world doesn’t function like that, and so he is repeatedly faced with these choices between persona and feelings – and Lelouch doesn’t want to have to choose.

Makoto and Lelouch are both plagued by indecision, but Lelouch’s indecision is properly tragic.

[All this is very adolescent, of course. And Code Geass is a show for adolescents. But I do wonder if the angst-riden teenager is the modern world's diminished evolution of the tragic hero. As though the gecko is a scaled-down version of Tyrranosaurus Rex like the bulimic proto-poet self-harmer is a scaled-down version of Oedipus (Rex!) But I digress . . .]

We can also note the way that the series plays with Gundam SEED by setting up childhood friends on different sides and a pink-haired pacifist, and then giving us a very different outcome. In fact it is instructive to contrast the settings of Code Geass and Gundam SEED (and, for that matter, Mobile Suit Gundam). The Gundam franchise usually finds its settings in warfare, which is (the occasional atrocity notwithstanding) a suitable place for heroism. Code Geass is situated after a war, in a bloody extra- or para-military clash between imperialism and nationalism. Such a situation makes it difficult to maintain moral integrity, and is ripe for tragedy.

[I might also note that the moment that Gundam reaches tragic heights - War in the Pocket - is also set in a colony which is removed from war, and features the actions of a paramilitary team rather than regular soldiers.]

Evil, be thou my good
So farewell, hope; and with hope farewell, fear; / Farewell, remorse! all good to me is lost; / Evil, be thou my good

Code Geass is, if not a full-blown tragedy, at least playing with concepts and tropes from tragedy. Its world is, unlike that of School Days, a world where things could have gone differently, where tragedy is possible precisely because happy endings are also possible. School Days, by contrast, presented us with a world where each character was seemingly predisposed to evil. This was an interesting experiment for the genre, given the multiple-ending nature of the source material, but I am of the opinion that it was an evolutionary dead end.

Blogiography

External blog entries either relevant or involved in the composition of this entry, which are not linked in the above.

  • Michael used Makoto from School Days to explore the ethical issues surrounding hating a fictional character, at Anime Diet.
  • This fine post at In Search of Number Nine deals in part with the concept of the tragic hero in Fullmetal Alchemist.

12 responses to “In Search of Tragedy

  1. Thanks for the link. I pretty much agree with everything you said in your bit about School Days; real tragedy has more texture and pathos, while what we got in School Days is really a kind of story not far from propaganda–moralistic and loathesomely one dimensional.

    Rather than “Calvinist” (I’m something of a Reformed person theologically) I’d say, in theological terms, the world of School Days is Law without Gospel. Only judgment and condemnation pretty much await everyone, with no real source or chance for redemption. That’s why it ends so violently and grotesquely. Flannery O’Connor sometimes wrote (much, much better) stories in that vein.

  2. Yup, young men will do’t, if they come to’t; / By cock, they are to blame.
    I’m sure that has a different, Old English meaning, but it’s kind of scary how much it can be applied in a completely-out-of-context manner to School Days (namely, Makoto), if you read the words the right (wrong) way. Maybe you meant it that way, I don’t know, but it’s amusing either way.

    I can’t speak for Code Geass myself, but I agree a lot with what you said about School Days, in that it pretty much is a twisted fable full of nearly flat characters. Neither can I go on about all the theological terms or quotes, but I can say that I don’t really think that School Days was ever meant to be a tragedy in the first place. It kind of seems to me like a sort of bitter fanservice (in the literal sense of the word), a ‘damn-it-all’ by the animators. “You want your bloody ending? We’ll give you your bloody ending, you sick pigs,” or something like that. I doubt many wanted to see a tragedy, or anything tugging at the heartstrings; the main draw was to see trains wreck and heads roll. Simple stuff.

  3. @ Mike: No need to thank me for the link, your entry merited it, after all! Rather thankyou for the theological input. As you may be able to tell, my own knowledge of theology is a little rough and ready.

    @ CCY: Actually, I wouldn’t be surprised if Shakespeare meant exactly what a modern reader gets out of that line. It’s part of a series of ribald songs that the maddened Ophelia sings in Hamlet (Act IV, Scn 5), most of which which suit School Days:

    Then up he rose, and donned his clothes,
    And dupped [opened] the chamber door;
    Let in the maid, that out a maid
    Never departed more.

    Makoto’s doorstep is another recurring location, one which most of the girls pass through at one point or another. And I don’t know if any were maids before they went in, but I think we can be pretty sure that few of the female cast left Makoto’s flat as maids.

    You have a point that School Days viewers weren’t expecting tragedy. Another way I like to describe the show is as a brutally practical or logical take on the harem genre. Like all harem heroes, Makoto has plenty of women throw themselves at him. However, rather than being embarrassed and taking 12 episodes to pick one, he sleeps his way through the lot.

    With violent results.

  4. I think ultimately what I hate (yes, hate) about Makoto isn’t the character himself, but rather the effort put into the character.

    He doesn’t win you over with an idealistic vision of love, and then crush your hopes and dreams by succumbing to physical lusts. Nor does he sinisterly manipulate the women around him to dance to his every whim. Instead, it sort of feels like he’s just…. there, taking in the world around him, like a child at a carnival, watching the festivities pass him by. Hey, you’re offering me your body? Sure, I’ll take full advantage of that, with no thought at all to any possible psychological or social consequences.

    I guess that insensitivity is something that can be hated about Makoto, but even that is sort of an afterthought that really requires reading, not just between, but beyond the lines, an interpretation that you almost have to graft on yourself. I think I’m just angry at Makoto because he could have been suitably tragic as a hero, or cruelly evil as a villain, but he winds up being neither, and when he’s finally off’ed, we just shrug and go on with our lives.

  5. I was apathetic when Makoto died. I was expecting it anyway.

    Yeah, I felt the tragedy in Geass. Some called it a ‘trainwreck approaching.’ :)

    I think you just inspired me about my next post. Thanks.

  6. @ Xerxes4158: Shrugging neatly encapsulates, in gesture form, my reaction to the series. It was just too grim a world to become involved with.

    @ Michael: I’m glad to hear I’ve caused any inspiration. As for the CG experience, it was a rollercoaster which some mistake for a trainwreck. Or so I feel.

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  11. I can’t speak for Code Geass, but as for School Days, you raise many good points. One thing I feel, but others seemingly don’t, was upset at Makoto’s death, not for his loss of life, but for Katsura’s love (for want of a better term). His actions to her close to the end did not redeem him, or show qualities which could have led to redemption. However it does serve to create an opportunity for his death to elicit some regret, that of Katsura losing him. She I felt bad for, pitying how Makoto had messed her up, though it may be my weakness to condemn her for falling for him so deeply, and reacting so extremely to him. To me she seemed a victim of Makoto’s infidelity, and was redeemable. To me her death was tragic, though I may be incorrect. As such, I feel that though you made an excellent point, it being more a morality tale, there is some level of tragedy to be felt for Katsura.

    • Hmm. You may have a point; I probably didn’t pay enough attention to the female characters. I find it hard to feel sorrow for Katsura’s state at the end of the story: she’s mad, and it’s hard to engage with the mind of a mad person. Thinking back to her position at the beginning of the story, though, I see what you mean.

      It’s been a while since I wrote this, and re-reading it now I feel that things might not have been as clear-cut as I argued they were.

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