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October 20, 2016

On Characters as Commodities


I’m not mad, anime.  I’m just…disappointed.

Okay, let’s be fair here.  What I’m going to say in this post goes well beyond the bounds of Anime Land; it’s a problem you can likely find in any story, whether it’s in a book, a movie, a TV show, a video game, or whatever.  But I’ve been mulling over this subject for a while, and it just so happened that a recent anime premiere acted as the catalyst.  It opted to play a little Russian roulette, but clearly didn’t understand the rules and pulled the trigger six times in a row.  So here we are.

Even if I don’t watch a ton of anime, I do read about it on anime blogs.  It’s vicarious living; true, it’d probably be better for me to experience as many shows as possible firsthand instead of being influenced by others.  Still, posts and reviews are a good gauge of a show’s quality, so I can avoid wasted time or unpleasantness.  The same goes for previews -- and it just so happened that previews for a show called Occultic;Nine crossed my path.

I don’t know every anime under the sun, but I know enough about it to link Occultic;Nine to other tales with semicolons jammed into their titles -- Steins;Gate and Robotics;Notes, for example.  I’d heard some good things about them, so I thought, “Hey, maybe this could be a thing.  I should check it out.”  Ah, what blind naiveté!  For you see, the story of nine people dealing with the occult, murders, supernatural mysteries, blogging, intercommunication, and the impact of the internet have barely registered as a story in the eyes of some.  Posts, reviews, comments and more across the board have been fixated on one thing.  Or rather, two things.

So there’s this character named Ryoka Narusawa, and as far as I can tell, she’s just a slot or two below top billing (which in turn goes to fast-talking blogger Yuta Gamon).  Very few opinions I’ve seen have been able to get past the size of her chest -- which to be fair is an absolutely legitimate concern, and I’ll get to that in a second.  But it almost seemed like people were willing to dump on her, and Occultic;Nine at large, just because she’s busty.  You know the drill: it’s just stupid fanservice, it completely ruins the show, it’s otaku bait, et cetera et cetera.  Seeing it scribbled all over the place didn’t sit right with me.

I’m not exactly what you’d call a breast sommelier, but I tend not to share the usual reaction people do when confronted with a busty character (i.e. acting like she’s an affront to their deity of choice).  A busty character is still a character, capable of carrying all sorts of meaning and impact in a story.  Beyond that, it’s an element of character design that can help her stand out, as well as give her persona specific points to rally around and develop from (how does she feel about her looks, how do people treat her, and so on).  And beyond that?  Looking a certain way isn’t a crime in the real world, so we shouldn’t judge or hate because there are no repercussions to slamming fiction.  It’s the first step on a slippery slope.

And if you know me, then you also know that I’m also in the trade of writing improbably buxom characters.  Not all of them are, of course, but some -- some I’ve already made up, some I’ve got in dormant files, and some I plan to write in the future.  I’m not backing down on that front, because they’re more than just objects to be lusted over; I’m pretty confident that they’re all characters with distinct personalities, arcs/progression, and a heaping helping of agency.  Granted I’m in a better place because story-crafting strips away some of the immediate audiovisual responses, but if I’m doing my job right, my characters will stay striking and memorable from start to finish -- because of how they look, or act, or anything.

As a guy (and an afro-headed featherweight), I don’t have much of a horse in the race when it comes to defending women of any shape or form.  But whenever I see a rejection of a female character just because she looks a certain way, I end up seeing it as a challenge.  It makes me want to prove the naysayers wrong, and make sure that we can keep the creative canvas as wide as possible.  And that brings us back to Ryoka. 

And thanks to her, I ended up putting my foot, my leg, and 42% of my pelvis in my mouth.

It’s been a good while since I’ve seen a character in anything that’s so spectacularly annoying.  Her presence in the show is utterly deal-breaking, irrespective of her bra size.  She’s supposed to be in her first year of (Japanese) high school, so that’d put her at around 16; despite that, virtually every scene she’s in has her acting like an infant.  But Ryoka is that special breed of anime infant -- a manufactured, cloying childishness -- that makes her seem incapable of knowing where she is at any given moment.  She’s a squeaky-voiced teenager (one pushing toward adulthood, mind) who speaks almost exclusively in sugary songs, with the random dancing and goofing around to match. 

Her infantilization helps create a GIGANTIC tonal clash with the rest of Occultic;Nine.  This is a whose first episode ends with a discovered body -- scalped and left to rot inside a university office -- but it gets crammed into the last few minutes.  More time is given to Ryoka acting like an idiot baby; there’s a brief flashback that shows how she and Yuta met, and what could’ve been a good way to characterize them both ends up becoming an excuse to have her chirp her way across a playground…and give Yuta a chance to lodge her face in her chest.  Most damningly, she never feels like an active participant in or reactive to the story.  She may pass on information to help Yuta get where he needs to be, but she acts as if she has no stake or interest in anything going on.  Also, she has a working ray gun for some reason.

I still believe -- and firmly -- that big breasts don’t automatically equal a bad character, but execution is important no matter what she looks like.  Indeed, Ryoka’s chest is absolutely a problem here.  Given the GIFs above, you can bet that it leads to some more tonal clashes with the overall story.  But from a visual standpoint, she’s a mess.  She has to be one of the most disproportionate anime girls in recent years, with breasts that -- depending on the scene -- are either as big as her head, bigger than her head, or devour the majority of her torso.  For a medium that basically has every reason to tweak styles and dimensions, anime as a whole is much too wary of altering any part of the figure besides bust size -- and so we get Ryoka, who looks like she has the frame of a K-On! girl but the figure of one of the girls from Eiken

Voltech pro tip: if you don’t know what Eiken is, DON’T GOOGLE IT.  You won’t like what you find.

Anyway, there’s just something unsettling about the character.  While she’s hardly the worst example out there, she has a childish face -- big eyes, small nose, gaping (if vacuous) smile at all times.  The bigger issue is that the juxtaposition of Ryoka’s childish qualities grinds against her mature qualities.  Her official profile may peg her at 16, but she comes off as six or younger -- so basically, it means that I’m forced to watch (or confront, maybe) a show with a giant-breasted kindergartener.  So I hope you’ll forgive me for tapping the hell out.

To be fair, it’s not as if Occultic;Nine is an absolute wash because of one character -- and indeed, it’s hard to write off the whole show because of one episode.  There’s always the possibility that Ryoka will get fleshed out in the weeks to come; honestly, I kind of expect that to happen in the wake of the sheer nothing she’s offered so far.  Beyond that, there’s a mystery that needs solving, supernatural elements that need uncovering, and the nine characters need to have more interaction than just having their names flash onscreen for half a second.  The potential for some good content is definitely there.

But DAMN, this first episode makes a bad impression.  I don’t think it was apocalyptically horrible or the prelude to an unsalvageable mess, but there are problems here that didn’t have to exist.  For starters: whose bright idea was it to compress 400 pages of source material into 23 minutes?  It leads to a situation where they not only have to cram in a dozen fractured scenes with barely enough context, but also have to force several of its characters to talk at warp speed.  There are some good scenes and moments mixed in there -- an investigator named Touka struck my fancy -- but there are also moments that seem like they were there to be “artsy” or “deep”…and just end up annoying the crap out of me.  But since the whole first episode’s basically on fast forward, I guess there’s no point in worrying about it.

Things will get exponentially better once people can get a firm grasp on what’s going on -- which by extension means that they’ll get better once the show calms the hell down.  But you read the title of this post, didn’t you?  This is about characters, and right now there’s no better show to turn a skeptical eye on.  Ryoka doesn’t feel like a character to me; she just feels like an assemblage of attributes designed to get the cheapest, most immediate thrills from an audience.  And sure, maybe that’s the point.  Maybe it’ll turn out that she’s a traitor, or the one behind the murder, or all set to pull a Gone Girl-level scheme on the others.  But as she is, I sincerely doubt it.  Even if she’s better-handled in the source material, it’s no stretch to assume that the anime adaptation decided to distort the character (such as she is) for their unholy machinations.

And to what end?  I don’t want to assume the worst, but I’ve already done that before.  So I guess the dark specter continues to hang over the industry, and every creative medium out there: in the worst case scenario, characters aren’t being made to advance through stories, evolve over time, or offer audiences some bold new ideas.  They’re only made to fulfill mercantile functions.  To pander.  To be products.  To satisfy as well as a bag of chips pulled from a vending machine.  In the worst case scenario, characters become commodities.

But whether it’s in the best or worst case, aren’t they all commodities?

The answer to that is a resounding “Yeah, I guess so.”  In case you haven’t heard, fictional characters aren’t real; they’re the creations of men and women out to tell a story.  Or, to put in more practical terms, they’re the means to help convince people to buy into a product (however much of an artistic endeavor it might be) and fund the creator so he/she can keep living.  It certainly doesn’t help that there are so many products to consume these days.  If a creator wants to succeed, it’s a matter of standing out from the crowd -- which means that there needs to be something to draw in audience loyalty (and money).

As an example?  In the anime industry, it looks like a solution’s been found (however slipshod).  Give the loyal otaku base something to fawn over, and they’ll respond by spending whatever money they’ve got to keep a story afloat.  Or, alternatively, appeal to a specific demographic with approved tropes and concepts, and enjoy the figurative bouncy house they slide you into.  It’s a matter of giving the people the exact flavors they want, in the exact form they want, in the exact packaging they want.  Don’t challenge them.  Don’t upset them.  Just cater to their whims with the commodities they’re willing to slap down cash to get.  They’re hungry and need their chips.

So what’s more important when you’ve got such a heavy burden to carry?  What do you do when you’ve got a show like Occultic;Nine, doomed to compress huge amounts of source material into a dramatically shorter run?  What happens when an anime has to win over tons of fans in its first episode, and has to keep them hooked despite being saddled with a mystery full of obtuse paranormal concepts?  The answer this crew came up with -- and an answer that plenty of other creators have come up with, too -- is to offer up characters as commodities.  As tribute.  Even if the source material says or does one thing, the anime staff -- directors, animators, et al -- likely have enough leeway to render things as they see fit.  It’s no small wonder, then, that the leading lady of the bunch was played up -- went from “a busty high school girl” to “BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOBS!”

I guess I really shouldn’t be that angry about it.  It comes off as a dirty tactic, but it’s a dirty tactic that works.  Wikipedia tells me that Occultic;Nine got its start as a light novel in August of 2014.  How many people had heard about (or cared about) the story in the time before the anime’s first episode, preview trailers, or even announcement?  I don’t know.  But in the time since the first episode, the fan art has started rolling in.  Featuring what?  Featuring Ryoka, of course -- acting like a child, in a state of undress, or with breasts as big as (or bigger than) they actually are in the show.  I’d be lying through gritted, cracking teeth if I said that that didn’t bother me.  First off, there’s not enough of the character to grasp in just one episode, so the idea that she would get a wave of fan art regardless says bad things -- either about the audience, or about the industry at large.

Second, doesn’t it come off as unflattering to gear a character in such a way that the only thing they should care about is the size of her chest?  Even if she does develop into a fully fleshed-out character later on, the first impression given is that she’s an elementary schooler in dire need of orthopedic underwear.  The expectations have been set in a rut that bores into the center of the earth, and it’ll be a hell of a time running that back.  They sold the character as a product to be hungered for and consumed; now that the “fans” are satisfied, what reason do they have to look for or enjoy anything else?  If all they want to see are big boobs, and all you’ve given them are big boobs, then why would anyone expect them to still be hungry after their expectations have been met?  It’d be like:

Anime Studio: All right, we’ve gone to great lengths to convince you that there’s nothing to this character besides a giant rack and the brain of a sugar-addled toddler.  Now just keep watching so you can see what this character is really about!
Fans: Nah, that’s all right.
Studio: What?  But we worked super hard to help bring this character to life!  Don’t you want to see what makes her tick?  Don’t you want to learn about her past, or her circumstances?
Fans: Nope.
Studio: Will you at least keep watching if we make her breasts bounce 83 more times?
Fans: (beat)
Fans: You play the game well.

I’m not a woman, but that doesn’t mean I’m incapable of feeling bad for women whenever their gender gets shafted in fiction -- which is still horrifically often, even today.  On that note, it shouldn’t matter whether you’re a man or a woman; when a character of either gender gets misused -- or used solely as a pre-packaged, over-processed commodity -- then an audience member can and should note that that’s a problem.  They don’t have to write 4000-word blog posts to do it, but as long as they unpack and recognize that anger, and the understanding that something’s wrong here, then maybe we’ll be better off.

Because let’s be real here: even though it’s common for female characters to get shortchanged on the way to store shelves, male characters can meet the same fate pretty handily.  It’s not even remotely close to the same thing (or frequency), but the guys can be commodities as well.  Instead of trying to sell them based on attributes or appeals, men are sold based on affects and ideals.  What do I mean?  Here’s a random sampling of images I’ve stockpiled via this blog.  See if you can spot some trends.

To put it in broad strokes terminology, women are supposed to be “hot”, while men are supposed to be “cool”.  Men are portrayed as strong.  Stylish.  Stalwart.  They’re unflappable throughout their day-to-day lives, and always capable of facing off against any challenge.  The portrayal is true (enough) across the board, even with well-written characters or non-commodities.  The men are supposed to be taken seriously so as to peddle the idea of strength, and woe to those who would try anything different.

Can you get depictions of women who push strength or idealization?  Sure; it’s no stretch to conflate the women on comic book covers with a more estrogenic take on power.  But there’s still a big disparity, and one that seems fit to strip men of their characters while giving women the worst parts of it.  I mean, how many people are chomping at the bit to praise guys like Marcus Fenix or Kratos?  Can you even call them characters, or just vehicles for vicarious living and wish fulfillment?  Where do you draw the line between an actual character and nothing more than a cheap commodity designed to suck wallets dry?

I think that last one is an important question to consider.  Because at the end of the day, all characters are technically commodities.

Like all of the other parts of a story, characters are tools.  As much as people might wish otherwise, they’re not real.  In-universe, they exist solely to help propel the plot train from one station to another; that includes all the storytelling cargo built in.  Out-of-universe, they exist as the anchors we mere humans need to form an attachment.  Would the Harry Potter books have become a phenomenon if not for the presence, adventures, and progression of the titular boy wizard?  I have my doubts (even though resident badass Neville Longbottom could’ve shouldered the burden, but whatever).  It’s hard for me to imagine a single element more important than characters, so they need to be used effectively.

Even when they are, it’s hard to ignore the fact that they’re still just constructs -- agents of a creator’s agenda.  That by itself isn’t a bad thing, though.  If it was, then buying any commodity we have in the real world -- any food, any technology, any clothing, any vehicle -- would count as a cardinal sin.  Commodities come in many shapes and forms, with the quality to match (or at least consider).  So it doesn’t just come down to blindly scoffing at everything, or assuming the worst.  You just need to be wary of what’s on the metaphorical shelf.

Art and storytelling are basically the ultimate con game, after all.  Fictional media is unreal by default, so it’s the mission of the creator to make it feel real -- to feel important, and meaningful, and impactful.  It’s all about creating illusions; the better the creator is at building that illusion of importance, the better the story will be.  By extension?  The better the creator is at masking the natural faultiness of characters -- the fact that they are just commodities to be bought and consumed -- the stronger the story will be.

That’s a rule I shouldn’t even have to spell out, but…well, here we are.  Some people get it, and some people don’t.  I’m not about to give my blessing to the guys behind Occultic;Nine -- not just because of Ryoka, but because there’s also a borderline braindead idol randomly shoved into a serious TV broadcast to chirp at the audience.  Will that show get better?  Probably, but I can’t say I’m too eager to stick around and find out.  First impressions are important, and theirs was not great.

Did they learn a lesson?  Will they?  Depending on the sales and recognition they receive from here on, we’ll find out eventually.  But for now, it’s important that all of us -- you and me, fans and creators -- figure out where we stand in the world of fiction.  We don’t have to tolerate subpar stuff when there are so many options to choose from.  Still, we don’t have to blindly reject just because something is slightly below the ideal state.  It’s no zero-sum game.  It’s just a matter of making, understanding, and enjoying the best stories possible.

So there you go.  And now I can go back to watching JoJo.  I’m more than a little interested in hearing just what the hell this “Yoshikage Kira” is all about. 

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