Shamelessly swiped from Beta-Waffle¹
In my last entry on GAR, I suggested that, through a (usually unconscious) process of emulation, watching an anime laden with GAR can be good for one’s character. In the process of replying to those who kindly commented, I began to feel the need for (yet) another GAR entry rather than my usual ‘epic-length’ [‘Of arms and the GAR I sing’] reply-comments. Sadly, therefore, this is less a coherent argument, and more a set of musings.
Iniksbane made me consider whether I was talking about conscious or unconscious emulation. I think that the emulation which I was discussing is usually unconscious, although it is possible to observe it happening or (more likely) to notice that it has happened after the fact. Lying behind my argument is the belief that anime – well, storytelling – isn’t a safely neutral thing but something with force enough to change us, for better or for worse. The emulation of characters whom we have taken as role models is one important way that his happens, because humans are built to emulate role models as part of growing up.
Conscious and deliberate emulation is a rather different process, and perhaps it’s hard to maintain one’s inner dignity while making the conscious choice to behave a certain way because an anime hero did. But dignity – especially dignity in one’s own eyes – is not, perhaps, the most important thing in the world.
* * *
Shiri pointed out that it’s hard to reconcile my suggestion that GAR’s humbling effect can be good for us with the fact that Akagi is GAR. This is correct: it is hard. The easiest way out is of course to say that Akagi’s not GAR, but (unfortunately for myself) I declared in my first entry on the subject that I’d be descriptive rather than prescriptive; fans call Akagi GAR and I must therefore fit him into my image of GAR. So here goes . . .
Akagi is considered to be the epitome of cold-blooded GAR. When comparing him to Kaiji, I suggested that Akagi’s actions are amoral (though not, I think, immoral): he steps outside of normal human behaviour and constraints. (Akagi’s termed a ‘genius’, and this translation is apt as a genius was originally a kind of attendant spirit or essence rather than something human.)
It is illuminating to compare Akagi to two recent anti-heroes who are considered ‘cold-blooded’ but whose GAR status is disputed, Light and Lelouch Lamperouge (‘yuppies with broken dreams‘). Both Light and Lelouch believe that they can safely step outside of normal human scruples but Death Note and Code Geass actively invite the audience to judge them: an alternative paradigm (L, Suzaku) is presented. Akagi never suggests that there is any alternative to Akagi’s amoral approach; all we ever see opposed to Akagi are individuals who are immoral rather than amoral.
Since Akagi is acclaimed as GAR, I can only conclude that the admiration we feel for a GAR character isn’t necessarily connected to the morality of his or her GAR. It is certainly possible to admire Akagi’s ability to plan forwards and deceive others without condoning his actions as a whole and indeed (as I argued above) Akagi doesn’t encourage us to approve or disapprove of its hero.
The reason I argued that GAR could be good for the viewer was because it has a humbling effect and I’d say this effect doesn’t have to be produced by ‘moral’ [those frightened inverted commas again] actions. It should be possible to admire Akagi’s serpentine cunning without rejoicing when he smiles as he shoots a punk in the leg.
But it may be that we’re inclined to admire and emulate the bad as well as the good. GAR doesn’t have to be good for you. I suppose the process of feeling GAR for a character can blind us to his or her faults; Will referred (I think) to iniksbane’s recent study of Koi Kaze, which used the film Secret Window to look in more detail at the way we can be lulled into admiration for someone who does despicable things.
So perhaps conscious emulation, vetting our admiration before unleashing it, is safer.
* * *
Will’s comment had me thinking more about the sheep – sheepdog – wolf distinction.
It would perhaps be very confusing to seriously think about Akagi’s actions. What happens if you set a wolf to catch a wolf, in the way that Alucard hunts vampires and Akagi destroys crooked gamblers? Is it just the sheepdog’s postion (between the sheep and the wolf, facing the wolf) which makes him or her a sheepdog, or is there something in the sheepdog’s methods too? Or, to put it more succinctly, where does The Punisher fit?
The use of ‘righteous’ and ‘virtuous’ is interesting, although I’m not sure I entirely grasp it:
For a character to be GAR he must fight for a cause that we find righteous and/or virtuous. I have to include the “or” because to do otherwise would leave out a lot of anti-heroes. Vengeance can be righteous but is rarely virtuous, and there a lot of GAR characters that live simply for vengeance of a wrong. (And if they just happen to beat the big-bad and save the world in the process, righteousness is an added bonus.)
Certainly focusing on the righteousness and/or virtuousness of the ends and the idea of incidental righteousness are helpful: you could argue that Akagi lives for the thrill, challenge and success of gambling, but he happens to be incidentally righteous in his choice of opponents. Although perhaps Akaig’s opponents attract themselves by virtue (!) of their crookedness; if Iwao wasn’t such a bloodthirsty bastard, Akagi wouldn’t have had the inclination or the means to take him down. But the hypothetical intervention of Providence doesn’t have a role in Akagi’s own choices.
The fact that it is difficult ‘to come up with an example of virtuous fight that isn’t righteous’ may indicate that righteousness is a sine qua non for a fight’s virtue. And I do wonder if there isn’t a substantial body of stories about a hero who initially seeks vengeance for purely personal reasons but has his purpose gradually refined by experience until he’s fighting selflessly.²
I still think ‘sheep – sheepdog – wolf’ is very useful, though. Not only does it neatly encapsulate the appeal of Seven Samurai, but it also provides me with a way to describe Marlowe and Spade, as ‘sheepdogs in wolf’s clothing’. Though I’m not sure where to put the Continental Op; he seems, like Akagi, to be more troublesome.
1. I think. It’s a while since I acquired the image.
2. I am duty-bound to mention the Thief trilogy of computer games at this point, since the broad plot concerns the development of its (anti-)hero from small-minded pickpocket to willing inheritor of the burden of looking after the world, through a series of vengeances.
Out of interest, have you seen Berserk? I keep looking out for references to it in these articles, but none yet. It’s just that the protagonist of the story, Guts, is the reigning champion of Saigar and, for me, the epitome of the enigma that we now know as ‘gar’. Without wanting to spoil anything for you, in Berserk, Guts is raped, readily assassinates a young child, kills 100 men in a single battle and falls in love. By the end of the series, he has one arm and one eye; at some points, he’s the “cold blooded” GAR you’re describing above, but he’s also complex, thoughtful and romantic. It’s more than a superficial thing with him, unlike with, say, Akagi, where people are merely admiring his talent.
I’m afraid to say I haven’t seen Beserk. One problem I can’t quickly rectify is that I haven’t seen enough anime, and there never seems to be enough time to fit more in. Hence the repeated use of the same examples in this series (though that’s also determined by what I happen to have on hand rather than archived). I’ll jot it down as one to watch (. . . eventually, maybe) though.
I’d say Akagi’s GAR isn’t a superficial thing, though. It is important to distinguish GAR from mere admiration for competency, but I think Akagi’s ability to gamble with his life as a stake is more than just a talent.
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It’s a bit late but I just figured I should pop in and try to clarify what I think of when I talk about a virtuous or righteous fight.
A virtuous fight is one where the hero is fighting honorably against truly nasty people for an honorable ‘moral’ cause. Fighting the big-bad, saving the girl, saving the world even.
I underline “truly nasty people” to highlight where I think the embedded righteousness lies.
A righteous fight doesn’t have to be for any good or ‘moral’ cause. It doesn’t have to be honorable or clean. But it still requires a villain more reprehensible that the protagonist (or anti-hero).
Vengeance is considered a vice in most moral codes, but there’s still that voice in the back of our heads that makes us wish we could get our own back when we find ourselves on the receiving end of someone’s malfeasance. Fictional anti-heroes (and the GAR they bring out in us) allow that voice to vent its frustration without the violence of an “eye-for-an-eye” code of justice.
Wait a second…Damn… now I’ve got this other thought churning in my head…
GAR does more than just humble the viewer, and it may go beyond an impulse to emulate the character. By causing us to unconsciously reflect on our own failings, it allows us live vicariously through the protagonist. Maybe GAR-induced manly tears are a way of purging ourselves of all the times we’ve been weak and given up in the face of much lesser odds. We get a chance to shed all that “what might have been” from our system.
Bah… Sometimes I wish I’d taken a psychology elective to go with the engineering degree.