[In this video I analyse Death and its thematic/narrative uses within popular story mediums.
Warning: Contains spoilers for episode 1 of Akame ga kill, which is shit, so don't bother watching it anyway.]
Death has been of interest to humanity ever since the first man poked his friend with a stick and asked “Are you alright?”
Humans have always had an unhealthy obsession with death, subconsciously fearing the end whilst at the same time trying desperately to think about anything else. Even more interesting are the tales civilisations have told themselves about death, leading to some of the greatest myths of human history. And seeing as death has been apart of stories in the past, so the concept is present in today’s stories.
The most common use of death is to create an atmosphere of tension within the viewer which keeps them invested in the story. This is usually done by taking a bunch of characters, killing them in a horrifying way and then turning your gaze threateningly upon the main characters. But then the issue persists in that the more you threaten the main characters with overwhelming odds and the more these characters survive whilst others drop like flies, the more it seems that the main characters are invincible.
Game of thrones managed to resurrect this fear of death by introducing a wide cast of characters and leaving the identity of the main characters ambiguous. It then proceeded to decimate its cast, getting the viewer’s hopes up only to stomp it into the ground. But the issue with this method I've found is that over time it becomes easy to tell the signs and when you've gone through enough tragedies you become rather emotionally hardened to the experience.
It is also worth pointing out that a story can't be good by just putting a bunch of characters into a world, making them all play Russian roulette.
Akame ga kill was an Anime in which you never knew who was going to go next. But it never really mattered. Every character was an insufferable stereotyped dipshit and the main protagonist was the shittiest of all the dipshits in the dipshit universe. There were so many flaws with this anime that I would need an entire video to explain it (stay tuned for next week). But the point is that one cannot live on bread as the characters in a story cannot live on .44 calibre rounds.
Of death as a means of creating tension in a story; I can only think of nutella: quite good when applied correctly but nonetheless cheap. The fear that your favourite character might be offed in a battle is good but can never compare against old fashioned intrigue.
Asides, there are many more ways death can be used in a story; so many, in fact, that I was not entirely sure how to make it clear while writing this.
I made my decision, that instead of drowning in a sea of ambiguity that I would look at specific stories from popular culture and point out how they handled death in an interesting manner. And so as to make things interesting but mainly because I get to take the piss, I'm dividing them into those that handled death well and those that did not.
So to start with the good news....
As I have mentioned, Game of thrones is most definitely the current champion of character deaths. So much so that there have been several strikes at the actor's union over the occupational guarantee. Game of thrones has been able to arouse such a fear within my mortal soul that I no longer need to attend Sunday mass.
And in Game of Thrones death is not simply a character leaving the story. When a character leaves, they leave a void that must be filled. Hence like some twisted game of musical chairs all the players move their positions and the environment changes. A king dies and suddenly the power vacuum brings out contenders for the throne, a lord dies and his children face the burdens of leadership, a peasant dies and no one gives a shit because George R. Martin is possibley a little classicist.
This sort of consequence adds weight to death and creates a dynamic, living world to which viewers may laugh and cry about......but mostly cry; to be honest.
I suppose crying is the default reaction to death. The Walking dead is on its sixth season and even then its made me cry (cry is that thing that happens when you leak fluid from your eyes right? What's this about water?).
Death is everywhere in the walking dead; literally. Especially in the earlier seasons, the squishy domestic meat sacks have a hard time surviving day to day life without being able to tweet about their toilet roll giving them a rash.
Danger is present everywhere and because it only takes a scratch to turn, there is an ever perilous situation any time the biters show up.
But with the introduction of walkers, death takes on a new dimension as the death of a character in itself poses a danger as more death follows. The real fear that comes from the walkers is that they are themselves people; your friends, family. They are mortality incarnate. As our characters stare down the Walking dead, they stare at their own futures. You can take this as many ways as you like, literally or metaphorically.
As humans we strive to ignore death. We eat. We sleep. We fuck. We play. We drink. We talk. We listen. All of this is merely a means to which we fill the gap between birth and the inevitable dark. Laymen and Kings all die clutching whatever feckless gods they clung to in life. Until then, they do whatever they do, hoping that thought never crosses their mind like a mouse living in the shadow of a cat.
In the Walking dead, characters can never look away in the manner we do. Every day, the dead are there to remind them of their own mortality.
And it is because these characters cannot escape from this truth that the question arises of why resist? Suddenly, the question of death becomes a question of life. If all there is but death, then why fight and suffer? If you are inevitably going to die and there is no meaning at all to what you are doing in the meantime; if whether you are a good man or bad is inconsequential, then why should you not just skip to the end? Why stall the inevitable state you shall remain in forever?
Oh, it seems I've neglected to make a joke for some time now. Hold on.
(BLOW LONG RASPBERRY)
And now on to the Anime portion of this analysis and if you haven't guessed what Anime I'm going to explore the theme of death in, I'll give you a hint: it has the word death in the title.
Guessed it? Yep, that's right.
So any way Tokyo Ghoul embraces death in some very interesting ways, (I lied by the way,) for one thing it uses character death correctly. The consequences of a character dying are usually quite profound and like a stone thrown into the ocean, these consequences can ripple into some phenomenal waves. I can speak of one occurrence within the series in which death results in what I would consider a tsunami of development to which not only impressed but took me completely by surprise. I don't think an entire essay would do the characters of this Anime justice, I would simply suggest watching it and from that I think it would become quite clear.
Apart from being a catalyst for character development, death in Tokyo Ghoul is used as a means to explore some difficult questions about humanity and the limitations to one's right to life.
Take for example a ghoul's eating habits. Much like the common EA executive, a ghoul consumes the flesh and organs of human beings. A ghoul does this not for pleasure (unlike the EA executive) but because they have to; in order to survive.
Consider that concept: in order to live you must be an instrument of death. And this isn't a simple “take a life to save many” conundrum. A ghoul must eat at least one person per month and so every year of your life would cost twelve lives. That is twelve thinking, breathing human beings that have their own families, expectations, memories. If you wished to live a full lifespan of 80 years; 960 lives would be lost over the course of your own.
A ghoul's entire life is central to death and as a result there are some serious moral implications of continued existence at this expense. Different ghouls through the series approach this dilemma in a number of different ways but none have been able to fully wash away the sins their very biology force them to commit and so its no wonder that many go insane.
Then we have the CCG. Initially, the CCG are presented as a force for justice and many members consider themselves to embody this very thing. The CCG hunt ghouls because they are the cause of much death and suffering in world. And yet it is through some of the CCG's “exterminations” that we begin to see the hypocrisy and even the moral fallibility of an organisation that hunts “monsters”.
The CCG are like themselves reflections of the ghouls. They essentially need to hunt people in order to survive, though not through sustenance but through livelihood. A successful CCG investigator is one that has taken the lives of many and this will include both the psychotic ghouls and those that are trying to live without inflicting pain on others. A CCG investigator is themselves an instrument of death.
And so it is through death that Tokyo ghoul not only provokes existential questions but also creates a moral dilemma that is not easily resolved.
And with that rather profound analysis I am afraid we must move on to the retards of the subject at hand. I have given you a taste of how death can be used very well in narrative and now we will see how death can fall down at the match stick jumps and run itself over.
I suppose there are some general rules about how not to handle the subject of death. For one thing death is usually seen as the highest possible stake. It's not.
If the highest possible stake of your story is your character dying, you are doing something that would usually be considered shit and though it is quite possible your story is the first to do it right, you may want to apply some introspection.
Or if its the case that you are the creator of Akame ga kill then you can skip right ahead to the part where you realise all your work was meaningless and drive off a cliff.
Seriously though, I know I touched on Akame ga kill above but I seriously can't stress enough how bad this thing was. Just imagine everything I've said about Tokyo Ghoul and Game of Thrones above except done incorrectly. It's actually kind of impressive.
The main character suffers from a high level of pratdom (oh and if you don't know what a Prat is then look back my episode on the subject or if I haven't covered it yet just get into your time machine and skip ahead a few weeks or alternatively look upon every Anime protagonist ever made ever) and specifically the level of Pratdom where his entire motivations for doing everything hinges on a fatal moment where his loved ones were all killed. The only issue is that it isn't very long before he forgets all about them and he suspiciously bounces back very quickly. There is an actual scene where the dopey Bastard is laying flowers at a grave and then some girl touches his shoulder with her tits and suddenly he's forgotten all about the fact he's literally mourning at a grave and suddenly its another cliché attempt at mammary gland related humour. So I think the lesson learned here is that if you have a “hero inspired by death of loved one plot” then you might want to make the hero out to be a little bit more emotionally affected given this is the foundation that influences every action the character ever makes lest your character appear to have the emotional depth of a Python cc script.
Now, in Akame ga kill there's this novel idea that every time two characters with special weapons meet, one must die.
And due to this law, a lot of characters die. This certainly ramps up the stakes, even if the stakes pretty much amount to a coin toss every time there's a fight.
The increased mortality rate is supposed to create an air of dread and fear, as many characters have explained throughout the show. But this air of dread is constantly pierced by the ludicrous comedic scenes and the equally ridiculous characters. Seriously if you are really trying to create an atmosphere of hopelessness and danger then it really doesn't help when one of your characters are hauling around a giant pair of safety scissors.
And even though this will ruin the punch line, I just want to point out to those who may misunderstand that I am not embellishing. There was literally a character who fought with a giant pair of scissors, it even had a hello kitty sticker on it.
Death is usually best when it is unexpected, this is a general rule. There are times of course, when an expected death can be a good thing. This usually involves the audience knowing something that the character does not, and results in the character edging ever closer towards tragedy while a hapless audience are forced to watch.
Halo reach, I can safely say, was not one of those times.
Now, It may seem strange that I would be wary of spoilers around such a narrative wasteland as Halo. But for the sake of principle and due to the possibility I might be wrong and hundreds of years from now the apes that inherit our world may praise this game as the Shakespeare of our time, I will not disclose any plot details.
Unfortunately, Halo reach happens to do that for me at the very start of the game.
The characters in Halo have a martyrdom syndrome worse than the early Christian church. Characters almost compete for the most heroic death and its both frustrating and hilarious to watch these jar headed buffoons knock each other over to be the first to die in a pointless manner. Most if not all of the deaths in Reach are pointless and could have been avoided had the characters half a brain (preferably the half that includes self preservation).
And when the characters are offed, nothing really changes. A random stray bullet could kill the squad captain and everyone would just shrug their shoulders, look heroically into the camera while a violin plays and then continue the mission as usual.
To finish up the freak show I am putting forward a sort of hybrid of the good and bad uses of death. Its the Anime no doubt inspired by the moment you pulled down the pants of a ken doll when you were young and saw what he had instead of a penis: Attack on Titan.
Attack on Titan starts out good. Its main use of death is to create a sort of absurdity that represents the hopelessness of mankind's fight against the Titans.
It does this by pitting a large number of human beings against Titans and then promptly slaughtering them all in horrific ways, going to lengths to show their wide eyed mixture of disbelief and terror as they are chewed up by a gaunt faced, dopey, giant moron for absolutely no reason. Attack on Titan is the sort of Anime that builds up your hopes that this will be the time where the heroes finally win against the Titans only to cut off the happy music and kill off most of the characters and even some you wouldn't have expected to be killed off.
This creates some of the best absurdity I have seen in an Anime. The pointlessness of mankind's doom at the hands of such meaningless creatures is pure gold.
It's a pity that it manages to ruin it all later in the series.
You see, when I said they are quite trigger happy about killing their characters, I neglected to mention that there are a number of characters that happen to always dodge the bullet every time there is danger. As the series moves on, these characters become all the more identifiable and soon you have the case where only new or minor characters are at risk of dying. But all in all, the series could still bring about a perfectly good atmosphere by killing off characters were it not for one single character that ruins everything. You see, there is a clear theme about the helplessness of mankind. The series makes it very clear that Titans are very hard to kill and I believe it has even been said that it takes an average of thirty human lives to kill a single Titan. This concept does not seem to apply to this one character who seems to kill Titans like they are insects. Now if the character was simply just really good at using manoeuvre gear or using their blades, that would be one thing but apparently this person is brilliant at everything.
No joke, it is actually recognised that this person is the best at everything. Now, when one is trying to create an atmosphere of hopelessness and haplessness in the face of an ever approaching enemy, it really doesn't help to have this unphaseable, unstoppable super human, leaping about the place wiping out Titan after Titan, looking cool.
Even worse, is that the story goes out of its way to point out that this character is Japanese. Now, it may just be a coincidence that this character is superior to everyone else and is also one of the last of the Japanese people but then you realise that the only character who is can match them in skill also happens to share the same design the artist used to show Japanese traits.
Now, I thought we all learned our lessons about using narrative to promote eugenic nationalism back in the 20th century when it caused two world wars and the ceaseless slaughter of imagined inferiors.
But bringing this back to the subject of death, it seems that all of the good work that was done to create such a poignant atmosphere was destroyed by some silly choices. It really goes to show that if one paints with oils in one hand and then jam with the other, it just ends up ruining the fresco, and attracting wasps.
So, I suppose what we should all take from our learning experience is that death has many uses not only that of providing a source of tension: although death can be used to create a brilliant atmosphere or explore some interesting ideas; it can be easily ruined by a simple a thing as poor character development and of course the clearly exquisite irony of Attack on Titan's message of Japanese supremacy within a world full of Nuremberg architecture.