Friday, August 8, 2014

Lessons from Anime: Baccano and Elfen Lied

This is a new segment I’m doing about lessons I’ve learned about writing from watching anime. I have a lot of influences on my writing but I’ve come to realize that some of my greatest influences are my favorite Japanese cartoons, more so than American fare. There’s something about the tropes and characters of Anime. They can get away with a lot more. Take more risks. And they have a lot of zany plot lines that would never fly in American TV shows. I like them for their creativity and they can teach a lot of things about pacing, tone and character.

In this case I want to talk about violence and tone. Violence is one of the more accepted pieces of shock value in America. As a result, it seems we’re rather desensitized to it. Violence is sometimes handled in an interesting way or used for commentary. Other times, blood and gore is used for horror and shock value. One of these methods is more effective than the other, as shown by these two very juxtaposed shows.

Elfen Lied, a show about young mutant girls known as dicolnyus, cursed with horns on their heads and invisible arms that can tear through just about anything. The show is presented as horror and tries to shock and scare with great fountains of blood.
This picture looks pleasant doesn't it? It is a lie.
And there is a lot of blood. Rivers worth. So much that it completely desensitizes you to the death of humans and loses the effect it is intended to have. It is a horror anime that fails at horror because it assumes that gore is somehow scary no matter how many times you show it (It also has nudity and other creepy, sexist things by the truckload but that's something for another time).

Then there’s a little anime called Baccano, an action anime set in the great depression era.
Look at that beautiful cover :)
It’s about a lot of things, including but not limited to: turf wars between mafia families, alchemy and the people it happened to make immortal, an assassin called the Rail Tracer and a mute, knife wielding girl he falls in love with, a crazy guy named Ladd Russo who really just wants to have fun (and by that I mean murder), a newspaper that takes their job very seriously (seriously enough to keep guns in the office), a group of bomb makers led by an adorable wimp named Jacuizzi (No, really) and two thieves who are notoriously bad at stealing but who have enough heart and laughs to get them through. This is a packed story told over three different timelines. And there happens to be a lot of blood. The show seems to have an odd obsession with de-fingerings in particular.

It also has this cutey :) Never drop the fedora, Firo

But what makes Baccano better than Elfen Lied? It’s not trying to shock you. The feeling I get while watching Baccano is like that of a kid watching Saturday Morning cartoons. It’s loud, it’s fun, and it’s completely insane. It’s bloody, but that doesn’t matter. You’re not watching for the blood. If it was just a bunch of shocking deaths, no one would care. You’re watching because the characters are hilarious and interesting and you want to know what happens to them. It also has an awesome, jazzy soundtrack.

And that right there is the kicker. Shock value alone cannot carry a story because eventually it stops being shocking. If you don’t have a strong plot and a likable cast of characters, you have nothing. That’s the lesson I take away from these animes. No matter the level of blood, it’s the characters that shed it who count.

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