Socrates Meets Reki Kawahara (Part I)

Socrates: So, Kawahara-sama, I watched the anime adaptation of your legendary light novel series, Sword Art Online, and I must say, it was quite the fascinating experience.

Kawahara: Subbed or dubbed?

Socrates: Subbed, of course, Kawahara-sama. I might not be a master of high art like you, but I’m certainly no pleb. As I said, I was fascinated by the story you crafted, but, since I know nothing, especially with regards to literature and the art of crafting fiction, there are quite a few questions I have for you, regarding a variety of different aspects of this story which you crafted. Would you mind answering a few of them?

Kawahara: Of course not, buddy! And I’m glad you loved my story, I take a lot of pride in it.

Socrates: Really? I see… Well, before I get to those questions regarding Sword Art Online, Kawahara-sama, I have a question about you. I believe you’re familiar with the maxim, “give a woman a fish she eats for a day, teach a woman to fish, she eats for a lifetime.” Tell me, do you agree with that?

Kawahara: Absolutely, though I think I’ve heard it phrased, er, a bit differently. But yeah I totally believe that… Haha, I often like to say, “give a man a light novel, he eats for a day, teach a man to write a light novel (and it’s not very hard, trust me), he eats for a lifetime in his parents’ basement.” In fact, I made a point of making this idea a theme early on in Sword Art Online. In the first episode, our great hero, Kirito, teaches Klein (who is actually my favorite character, to be honest) how to play the game. Initially I was using it as an excuse to take care of some exhibition, but then I was like, let’s be all literary and shit and make this a theme! I’m sure you remember the scene, which was adapted in the second episode of the anime, where that one asshole interrupts the council held before they took on the first boss. He says that the Beta testers have to pay for allowing 2000 players to die because they went on ahead and left the noobs to fend for themselves. Then Egil comes in and reminds him about the strategy guide compiled by the Beta testers using all the information they had learned in the trial period. Everybody in SAO was given an opportunity to learn how to fish. There are other examples too, y’know, I actually really put my heart into this bit

Socrates: Truly brilliant, Kawahara-sama. I suppose that’s what you consider a theme, but I’ll have more questions about those later.

Kawahara: Woah woah woah, now that was definitely a bit sarcastic

Socrates: My whole point with bringing up the teaching-to-fish analogy is that it seemed to me, surely the lowest common denominator of your audience, that Kirito often distributed free fish. He has to fight Heathcliff to get Asuna vacation time. Isn’t she the vice commander? Wouldn’t it have better for her to learn to assert the authority that should accompany her position? Or does this guild take vacation time that seriously? It seemed out of character that she wouldn’t just be assertive on the basis of her position. Maybe my mind was just too feeble to accurately gauge your characterization of her up until that point.

Kawahara: Yeah yeah yeah, I’ve heard that a million times before, it was a way to get Kirito and Heathcliff to duel.

Socrates: Of course, what a fascinating way to push your story forward. I mean, I have more questions for you regarding that later. What about the dear loli? Even though Kirito warned her about the dangers, that didn’t keep her from getting tentacle groped on two separate occasions, or is it just that these poor women find themselves in these dilemmas regardless of the decisions they make?

Kawahara: Yeah, no, the situations these women find themselves in aren’t brought about by themselves, but, like, let me argue my case a bit, will you? It’s not just relegated to technical skills, the way the teaching-to-fish theme is applied in Sword Art Online. Kirito and Asuna’s relationship (y’know, the greatest love story ever told), is built upon the ways, you could say, that they taught each other to fish, right? Okay, so in the murder mystery vignette, it starts out with Asuna nagging Kirito…

Socrates: (As women are accustomed to do)

Kawahara: … because Kirito is slacking off while the rest of the front liners are working hard, but Kirito points out that it’s Aincrad’s nicest weather setting, so it’d be a waste to stay inside playing video games. Kirito teaches her to make the most out of her time in Aincrad. Asuna’s berserk focus on escaping was stressing her out so much that she was reaching her breaking point

Socrates: Was it? I hadn’t noticed, of course, as I mentioned, I am but merely the lowest common denominator of your audience. Technically speaking, with regards to screen time, there was only one scene with her between the end of the second episode and the scene you’re describing.

Kawahara: …Anyway, Kirito teaches Asuna to stop and smell the roses, and Asuna teaches Kirito that investing yourself in a relationship is worth the risk, right? I mean, he was never one to be social, but when he first tried it, well, it didn’t go that well, did it?

Socrates: I kind of thought Kirito kind of figured that out on his own, since he decided not to push her away, right?

Kawahara: Well, yeah, but I figured Kirito was willing to take the risk with Asuna because he knew she was strong…

Socrates: …Not as strong as Kirito…

Kawahara: Ha, of course not, but strong enough for him not to push against the kind of momentum their relationship was gaining after the murder mystery.

Socrates: So it’s better to invest yourself in relationships with people that are strong?

Kawahara: Well, I mean, at least in a death game, right? Just look at The Hunger Games! That being said, as cold as it sounds, I can’t say it’s the kind of principle I disagree with. Doesn’t it make more sense to ally yourself with somebody strong, strategically or romantically? Survival of the fittest, right?

Socrates: I mean, Kirito looked pretty emaciated at the end of the Aincrad arc, but I’ll give that to you.

Kawahara: Leafa recognized Kirito’s power and was quick to ally with him, despite him being “one of them (a race that exists only in the game)”

Socrates: What about Shinon?

Kawahara: Ah, good point, Kirito was able to seduce her by playing innocent and pretending to be a woman, but I think she helped him out ‘cause she saw a bit of herself in him.

Socrates: Anyway, back to the fish thing, I’m glad to hear you value that maxim, and your comment about how you so skillfully incorporated it into Sword Art Online actually transitions perfectly into my next question. Would you rather read a story about a character who is given a fish or a story about a character who learns or has learned how to fish? Which premise do you think would make for a more compelling story, Kawahara-sama?

Kawahara: Hmm, well, of course, as I’m sure you’ve already assumed, I would much rather read a story about a character that knows how to fish. I guess you could say that, for me, the key to making a great character is to make them a great fisherman, like Kirito is!

Socrates: I see; a great character must be a great fisherman. So then would learning to fish be what you consider character development, Kawahara-sama?

Kawahara: Character development? Ummm… yeah, well, I guess that fits pretty well with the whole metaphor, especially considering the examples I gave before regarding Kirito and Asuna… Wait, but it’s not like I can limit it to that, I mean, anything is possible in a story, right? The teaching-to-fish method is just one that I used quite a bit.

Socrates: As expected of your literary brilliance, Kawahara-sama, but I have a strong aversion to such open-ended answers as that one, y’know, they cause me to hurt myself in my confusion. There’s another anime light novel adaptation that I’ve watched and enjoyed, called Bakemonogatari. I think it might be able to give us some direction as we explore the idea of character development. Are you familiar with it?

Kawahara: Oh yeah, the Monogatari series is like my favorite harem anime… Lol, just kidding. Yeah, that’s one of my favorite anime, and definitely my favorite light novel series. I remember reading the first Monogatari novels as soon as they came out. I don’t know how Nisio Isin manages to write stories like those, where the characters feel so special and real. He’s actually quite a bit younger than me.

Socrates: I agree! Let me try to apply that show, at least its first five story arcs, to the fishing metaphor. Would you agree that in Monogatari, characters dealing with personal problems is the fishing?

Kawahara: Uhh, yeah, actually, well, not really in the case of the snail but I don’t know… Well, of course, I mean, that’s what Monogatari is all about, ain’t it? I guess since all of the apparitions are really just representations of whatever emotional baggage each character is dealing with, yeah, being able to deal with them would be like knowing how to fish. Actually, now that I’m thinking about it, Oshino’s mantra, “only you can save yourself, but I’ll lend you a hand” isn’t too different from the teaching-to-fish analogy we’ve been discussing. In Monogatari’s case it takes quite a bit of mental fortitude and humility for each character to actually go fishing. Nisio Isin really is fantastic, especially at writing great characters. Go on.

Socrates: So you’d say that character development in the Monogatari series is, like it is in Sword Art Online, when the characters “learn how to fish?”

Kawahara: Yeah, I’d say so, I think. Wait, no, but that… That’s way too specific, I mean, I’m not even sure that applies to Sword Art Online, to be honest, but we can run with that for the time being.

Socrates: Now, it may have very well gone right over my head, but how does that fit with Shinon’s character arc?

Kawahara: Lol, actually, now that you mention it, I’m reminded of the ending credits sequence from the Gun Gale Online arc.

Socrates: Oh yeah, I loved that, it was always my favorite part of the episode, and not just because it meant it was over.

Kawahara: Ouch. Anyway, that ED basically illustrates how Shinon taught herself to fish in that arc, right? Still, I don’t feel comfortable settling with that specific definition. I mean, this whole dialogue has gotten much messier than it was ever supposed to be.

Socrates: I agree, I was surprised with how poorly thought through my inquiries have been, it’s turned into more of an interview than a dialogue, really. Maybe we’ll do better in part two.

Kawahara: If there ever is a part two, I mean, does this writer ever not leave things half finished?

Socrates: Lol, good point. Anyway, back to the central question: what constitutes good character development? It may seem like a dumb question, but somebody asked the author to explain it the other day. What definition would apply to all the examples we’ve discussed from Monogatari and Sword Art Online?

Kawahara: I mean, character development, in my experience primarily as a consumer of stories, can be defined as a character changing over the course of a story or portion of a story while still being recognizable as the character they were established as in the beginning, but, I don’t know man, I’m just a light novel author. In my opinion, the characters and their development are the most fundamental substance of a story, especially in this genre, which is dominated by coming of age stories. Character development in light novels and in much of anime can really be understood as just growing up, y’know? Light Novels are written for angsty teens to read and escape reality while also affirming their way of viewing the world from which they seek to escape, so it’s not like there are many light novels that illustrate what it means to grow up… But what do I know, I was just minding my own business having fun writing light novels and shit, *sigh*. To the reader, I suppose I’ll see you in part 2, if it ever comes, I hope you were at least mildly entertained by this clusterfuck.

Monogatari and Me

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Y’know, I’ve watched a lot of anime. That is an understatement, especially since I could have seen at least twice as many as I’ve seen by this point if I hadn’t spent so much time watching and rewatching the Monogatari series. Although I just used the past tense, this is an ongoing process. I’m in a perpetual state of rewatching Monogatari, to the point that there is very little rhyme or reason to it. For the most part, now, I just jump randomly between the various story arcs from NekoKuro on. I’m not going to call Monogatari the greatest anime of all time, but it is certainly the most special to me.

There is so much going on in Monogatari, and that is yet another understatement. Monogatari means ‘story’ in Japanese, but exactly what is this story about? A lot of things. Now I probably sound like a dumbass, with my consistently ambiguous answers. I’d say that Monogatari captures the essence of the two most prominent dilemmas that arise in the human experience: the struggle to face and deal with our problems and the struggle to be together. And also a boatload of other things, including the relative merits of little girls, proper toothbrush etiquette and, quite prominently, the art of the stupid pun. I recently finished reading the first volume of Bakemonogatari, and in the author’s note, Nisio Isin basically says that Monogatari was an excuse to make a lot of stupid puns (the one he had in mind was the tsundere/tundra pun from Hitagi Crab). It’s a testament to Monogatari’s capacity to captivate its audience that it manages to be so popular overseas, given the fact that Isin’s puns fall apart in translation, for the most part.

Instead of trying to put together a cohesive essay on what Monogatari means to me, I’m going to ramble on until I have to go to class and take this test for which I haven’t studied. That’s in 38 minutes, so let’s see what comes to mind in that period of time as I type and listen to the 1984 album “Let it Be,” by the Replacements, which has really been growing on me. As soon as I finished typing the first sentence of this paragraph, I knew exactly what direction I’d be taking my charismatic rambling.

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The choice I’ve made, to dedicate this time to blogging about Japanese cartoons rather than take control of the reins of my life and try to live up to my full and fantastic potential and study for this test, is precisely the sort of choice that tend to set the average Monogatari characters down the path to an apparition. If you’re not familiar with the series, Nisio Isin, the author, uses these apparitions to represent the psychological turmoil of the character they are afflicting. Almost every Monogatari arc involves a character avoiding their problems the way I am. I’m sitting here avoiding studying for this test because the task of trying to cram a month’s worth of reading into forty or so minutes is quite daunting, although I’m sure I could somehow manage to get something out of it that will help me on this essay test.

It’s actually just a quiz, and I’m sure there’s no way I’ll get under a B-. I totally BS’d my way through the first quiz and was able to pull off an A-, which surprised even me, I could probably manage to do it again. However, there’s a reason I’m sabotaging myself like this. If I do well in all my courses this semester, I’ll have to make the choice between returning to the University from which I withdrew just over a year ago on the eve before I first watched abrasive in your face panty shot that opens up the first episode of Bakemonogatari.

That was the lowest point in my life. Anime was my means of escape at the time, but Monogatari, which I was watching then for the first time, wasn’t going to let me off that easy. Instead of being able to forget about my problems with the sort of power fantasy I had been expecting, I found myself watching the most endearing cast of characters I’d ever seen be forced to face their own problems, often after doing everything in their ability to avoid them. Senjougahara avoids her feelings about her mother by repressing them, or in the literary framing of Monogatari, by dumping them upon the weight/emotion crab.

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I was at the same place as Senjougahara when I first watched Monogatari, a deep depression characterized not by feeling incredible sadness, but by feeling nothing at all.  Of course I pretended not to notice the parallels between Monogatari’s characters and myself the first several times I watched the show, but that was just another example of me avoiding my problems.

 

If there is a single Monogatari arc that best captures the stubborn persistence humans exhibit in avoiding their problems, it’s Tsubasa Tiger, or Nekomonogatari Shiro, which might very well be my favorite arc of the series. This arc, wow. At first glance, Monogatari seems to be a show that has ten thousand things going on at once, but I don’t think that’s quite the right way to think about it, and NekoShiro makes a pretty great case for that. There are indeed dozens of layers to Monogatari. It is packed with explorations of a variety of struggles that all people deal with. However, Nisio Isin focuses his attention on different subjects in each arc, so the show never has too many ideas flying around within the same contained story. In Nekomonogatari Shiro, the primary focus is the nature of the way humans avoid their problems. Mamaragi, in her brief exchange with Hanekawa, provides the story’s primary metaphor for the way we avoid our problems, regarding it as “averting your eyes.” Hanekawa adopts this metaphor in her subsequent reflections.

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Hanekawa goes to ridiculous lengths to avert her eyes in Nekomonogatari Shiro. The key to Hanekawa’s success, thanks in no small part to Senjougahara, is that she realizes what she’s doing. Even once she has come to this realization, she still seems to subconsciously be making every effort to avert her eyes. She goes to the library (every book in which, according to the novel, she has read) for information to help her resolve the crisis she had found herself in, despite knowing very well that she won’t find anything useful. She doesn’t acknowledge the obvious implications of the fires burning down the places she’s slept until Senjougahara forces her to. She tries to get out of “playing cards” with Karen and Tsukihi as well. Its then that Hanekawa takes the next step toward facing her problems by discussing with the Fire Sisters what feelings they associate with fire.

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Alright, and twenty hours (actually days) later, that quiz for my anthropology class, of course, did not happen, because, y’know the universe is ridiculously easy on me and I rarely get what I deserve. Well, actually, that’s not really the case anymore. Yeah, that quiz I didn’t have in anthropology? It was not the only thing on my plate. I also had a Philosophy paper that was due today at noon.

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It was absolutely not my best work. As a matter of fact, I actually didn’t even make all the points I was supposed to make. I regret procrastinating it so much, I missed a great opportunity to make myself look cool by writing some cool shit about Substance-Attribute Ontology. I had a great analogy about the nature of substances in Descartes and Leibniz’s views and html addresses. I spent so much time avoiding getting started on this assignment. Why? And you know me, right? Writing and philosophy are like two of my favorite things.

Whatever, I totally bombed that paper. Maybe if I get the opportunity to fix my mistakes I won’t actually blow it. There is only one thing standing between me and returning to the University of Notre Dame, from which I withdrew a little over a year ago. I was supposed to return in the Winter but I bombed a class that I could have aced. In fact, it was a class I actually loved, so much so that I now plan on majoring in that field, anthropology. It’s not a reflection of my Idiot blood. My Father, God rest his soul, would never have let this happen. Maybe I’m like Araragi, and I’m doing all of this as some sort of punishment because I hate myself. I don’t know. If I want to fix everything and live happily ever after and follow my dreams, that’s still possible. I can still get my shit together. I suppose what will determine whether or not that happens is me, and whether I make the judgement that I deserve to be happy.

To be continued…

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Winter 2017 Outline: Essays, Lists and Sparknotes (senpai;notes)

  • One-off articles
    • The Case for Fuuko-chan*
    • Key/Visual Arts’ Visual Novel Adaptations and Manufactured Mysticism*

    Lists

    • Greatest Anime
    • Greatest Albums
      • Best albums of 2016
    • Top Monogatari OP’s

    Retrospect Analyses: senpai;notes (actual sparknotes-esque analyses)

    • 2016
      • Flip Flappers*
      • Yuri!!! On Ice
    • Shaft (No Fear Studio Shaft)
      • Monogatari (by the arc)
      • ef*
      • Sasami-san @ Gambaranai

    Shows to follow (Winter 2017)

    • March Comes in Like a Lion
    • Little Witch Academia
    • Scum’s Wish
  • Light Novel Reads
    • Kubikiri Cycle
    • Bakemonogatari