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.
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’.
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: 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.
‘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.]
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.
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.