A Violent Battle Between Head and Heart

I had a jumbled idea of what I wanted this post to be about beforehand, but ghostlightning’s great — and well timed! — post yesterday had me thinking a bit more about what I wanted to express. Definitely give his post a read, because it is very interesting; I haven’t read the manga he writes about, but it’s not completely necessary to understand the post.

A necessary warning: I try to keep spoilers to a minimum, but there are a couple from Now and Then, Here and There‘s final episode that I believed were necessary to make my points clearer, so if you want to avoid all spoilers for that series, then tread carefully or avoid the post altogether. Sorry. And no images in this post because, frankly, writing this has wiped me out, and I don’t have the energy to get images right now, haha. Maybe I’ll edit some in later.

When I watched Now and Then, Here and There a few weeks back, I wondered how the series would end. It is not an easy show to watch — it pushes the boundaries of suffering, cruelty and violence in ways many anime do not dare, both in content and presentation. I wondered how the finale would top this; now, I never thought there would be some large-scale bloody battle with both sides duking it out, because it seemed to me that this would run counter to the series’ message, but still, I wondered what would happen. Well, there is blood shed — plenty of it — and the situation resolves itself through a Deus Ex Machina of sorts. And the survivors are left with what they have.

My initial thoughts on the finale (not written here, but elsewhere) were not great. I thought that after spending so long not being another anime story where THE POWER AND WILL AND HARD WORK AND LOVE triumphs over horrific evil, that the series betrayed itself by ending the conflict with such a swift, sure, quick stroke. As much as I believed Hamdo to be an over the top clown (and I still do believe that), I thought the final victory against him and his Hellywood war machine came a bit too easily. And I didn’t give it much thought beyond that.

Then, a few days ago, I read chii’s devastating post about here experiences with Now and Then, Here and There, specifically with the character Sara. And it got me to thinking about the series again, reconsidering how I looked at the ending. My thoughts had already been trending in a certain direction when I read ghostlightning’s post, which added an extra layer of thought to what I had been thinking about. And when I finished thinking, I realized that not only was I completely wrong about Now and Then, Here and There‘s finale, but also that my thoughts on it were patently absurd, and, frankly, an insult to the characters and story.

Too easy? Really? Look at the body count! If anyone deserves a Deus Ex Machina, it is the characters of Now and Then, Here and There. Their collective suffering is so great that it moves Lala Ru — someone who had become so embittered by human behavior that she practically lets Hellywood continue on its merry way, even though she can pretty much stop the madness at any time — to sacrifice her life so that the cruelty can come to an end, and the world can be restored, even if it is a broken shell of what it once was. Not enough sacrifice? I can’t believe I ever thought that!

But more than being wrong about the series and writing absurd thoughts, my former beliefs about Now and Then, Here and There highlight something in me — and, possibly, many other people — about violence and suffering in fiction that both fascinates and disturbs me (and that I addressed briefly in my comment on ghostlightning’s post): That maybe I don’t have a cohesive value system for what is “acceptable” and “not acceptable” in terms of violence in fiction. The question on my mind right now is whether there is an “acceptable” amount of suffering characters must endure before they achieve their goals.

When we read/watch most fictional stories, we implicitly accept that the characters within are going to go through a certain amount of suffering (or, perhaps, hardship is a better word) before they achieve their goal, resolve whatever situation they are in and so on and so forth. That’s where the drama comes from, right? If some character lackadaisically saves the world without any sense of hardship involved with the saving, wouldn’t we feel cheated? We want our characters to find themselves smack in the middle of difficult situations and endure, even if there is violent suffering (or the infliction of violence) involved. And I don’t think there is anything really “wrong” with that in and of itself, in terms of how we view fiction.

Ghostlightning suggests that one reason the audience may want to experience violent stories — even when they go to extremes — is a desire to empathize with the suffering of others. I think this is definitely true to an extent. Writers often speak of fiction as a “dream”. Their goal is to immerse the audience into the story — the dream — to the point where the audience forgets that they are on the outside looking in. In reality, we are like voyeurs, but most stories are written in a way that puts us side-by-side with the characters. We want to sympathize with the heroes; we want to root for them to endure, and to take part in their victories. In a weird way, when the characters endure these hardships, we feel as if we have endured them ourselves and are brought closer to the characters. But ghostlightning also brings up the problem of what if the characters don’t endure? Or what if there is no real “point” — no real goal — to their endurance, their suffering? What if our empathy falls on deaf ears in this cold, cruel fictional world?

I don’t claim to know the answers to every question, but another possible reason we turn to violent, dark stories is that they offer something we could not really enjoy — or, maybe more accurately, be riveted by — in “reality”. No matter how realistically written a character is, he or she is not real. There are no repercussions in reality for the violence and/or psychological torture endured by a fictional character.

In reality, I am a squeamish wuss. Real life blood, guts and gore fill me with nausea. I have friends who have watched the infamous Zapruder film of John F. Kennedy’s assassination (don’t worry, just a Wikipedia link :p) and the video of Saddam Hussein’s execution. I could never touch those in a million years. Seeing real life videos of war doesn’t leave me riveted, excited; they leave me cold, empty, terrified for soldiers in the middle of the war zone. But fiction is different. We can wince at the pain suffered by characters, become sad when they die and be quite happy at their survival and victory . . . but we can also be riveted during their darkest moments because we know, in the backs of our minds, that they’re not real.

How many of you have seen the scene in Scanners where that guy’s head explodes, and thought to yourself, “Holy shit, that was awesome!” Hell, how many of you actually saw the movie and were disappointed that there wasn’t more of that? I know I was. Or to go much further than that, a movie like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer that takes the viewer to the darkest corners of humanity for 80 minutes, where the violence isn’t so much entertaining as it is truly terrifying in the worst way . . . but how many people could tear their eyes away? Or even the various cruelties inflicted upon Sara in Now and Then, Here and There.

We can be riveted, I think, because we understand the inherently unreal nature of the stories, even as we’re drawn into their reality. For instance, I was often repulsed by the level of violence and torture in Higurashi . . . a couple of certain torture scenes pushed me to the brink. But did I ever quit watching? Of course not. I was repulsed, but I watched, nonetheless, even as I thought that what I watched may have been too much for me.

(But this train of thought is of course limited. After all, we can be as riveted by real life stories of people suffering unspeakable cruelties and indignities as we are with fictional stories. But maybe a part of that is because we know that the sufferer has lived to tell the tale. It’s only a part, though, admittedly, because it doesn’t really explain our fascination with stories of murder and serial killers and whatnot.)

We all have our limits, but what happens when the stories don’t meet our limits? This is where the question of “acceptable” sacrifice comes in. (And you thought this tangent would never end!) A relatively common complaint I have seen levied toward Eureka Seven is that not enough characters die at the end — I’ve seen this complaint bandied about in regards to certain Gundam series as well. It’s brought up in regards to other stories as well.

The head and heart are doing battle here, aren’t they? The head believes it is “unrealistic” that nobody (or very few) people would die in the scenario proposed by the narrative. But the heart desires survival for those to whom it has grown close. There’s no shortage of pain for the characters in Eureka Seven, physical or psychological. But it’s not enough for some people. Sacrifices must be made for the sake of the narrative. How many layers of Hell must be peeled back before we really believe we’re staring into Hell? The impact of fictional violence on reality is still being debated, but can fiction desensitize us to fiction itself, and continually cause us to demand more?

There is no real answer because it is of course different for everyone. The characters in Eureka Seven suffered more than enough for me. But it does make me think about the value of fictional life — do we value characters as more than characters? Or are they just tools of the work as a whole, even if they drive the plot? Or is it somewhere in between? This question is particularly interesting because fiction evokes so many feelings and reactions from people that we shy away from in everyday life. Does that suggest that they hold as much meaning for us as reality?

I could probably go on all day with this, but I think I have blathered on enough already.

8 Responses to “A Violent Battle Between Head and Heart”

  1. Maybe the guilt reflects the gap between the meaning of a work and the content, in that the existence of meaning is proof of artifice and unreality. In which case moments of meaning in a repulsive story might carry some sort of sense of absolution for the viewer – a reward, perhaps an undeserved one if, as you say, we find out in the interim that violence is intrinsically attractive.

    Coburn left this comment in that post, and kind of blew me away with it.

    It fits very well with the thinking that ‘meaning-making’ is intrinsic to the survival mechanism of human beings. Anything unpleasant, dangerous, — any thing that the mind ‘can’t be with’ has to be contextualized, made meaning of, for the mind to ’survive’ the encounter without prolonged suffering.

    I mentioned in response as well that I find this sinister. How many times have we overheard someone being told “It’s all for the best,” or “It’s part of God’s plan” after going through something bad.

    Here in conservative Catholic Philippines, rape victims are still spoken of as ‘deserving it’ (for being sluts — since they were raped, THEY JUST HAD TO BE SLUTS for it to happen). Also consider Pat Robertson’s statements about Haiti.

    • Agh, that view always makes me want to cringe. It not only strips away the victim’s humanity, but it also creates a convenient excuse for the perpetrator — that they give in to base desires because the victim’s actions put the rapist beyond human control. Just sickening.

  2. I don’t think people liking to look at tragedy is limited to the realm of fiction. You can easily see this by looking at the nightly news in North America, which usually consists of endless somewhat pointless stories of gruesome car accidents and so on. Of course this extends to the non-media world, where people will slow down on highways whenever there’s an accident to gawk at what happened. People just like to look at other people’s misery, real life or not. I don’t quite know why, but it’s human nature.

    • I always tend to look at these things through the lens of fiction, just because it’s a bit easier for me to sort things out, and because the craft of fiction (and therefore the inclusion of violent elements for human consumption) is more deliberate and controlled. But you are of course correct when you write that this sort of thing isn’t limited to the fictional world alone (which is why I acknowledge that what I write doesn’t completely explain our fascination with real life crime stories, etc.).

  3. I think there’s a big difference between a real life story about pain and suffering and a fictional one.

    I get sick when watching the news because of how depressing and disgusting it makes me feel to be part of the human race with all the terrible shit that goes on all around the world. I get sick reading/seeing real stories about rape, murders, war, and torture. I have a hard enough time even watching movies about these things. Especially war movies… (which i love but they always make me cry and feel like shit afterwards…)

    For me I find that watching these rough tough stories animation helps me deal with the discomfort feeling of “gee this could happen” (depending on the story of course, and more on the human side of cruelty) I almost dropped Now and Then, Here and There because of what happened to Sara and how much I could relate to it…

    I think the attraction to see these things for people is they want to learn more and it is fascinating to them that have not experienced these things themselves. Some people just love to be grossed out as well. Animated gore is easier to handle than real life gore IMO because it is not a real person. It’s pen and paper. Sure the thought of what if it was real is there but to me this animation aspect helps greatly.

    I will NEVER watch a real life show about REAL people’s suffering and pain. It is way too much for me to handle and fucks with my head greatly. I’ll never understand how people can watch these things… Closest I have ever come is movies where things are depicted in the harsh truth of things but again you have that buffer of “it’s not really real but it could be”

    this is a tad jumbled for my racing thoughts sorry :P

    • It’s this kind of thing that sometimes makes me a bit cynical about working in the world of journalism. That’s the aspect I hate most — the sensationalizing of crime stories that simply dive into the gory details of crime without adding anything of “real” meaning, which just reinforces the perception that we live in a crime-riddled society full of complete monsters who are waiting to kill us all at the drop of a hat. It’s pretty rare that you see something that actually addresses the core issues of crime; it’s just quicker and more exciting to concentrate on stories about crime and capture people’s attention that way.

      But I identify with your feelings for sure. I can watch a horror movie and handle the gore because I know it’s not real (in fact, my experience with that is the genesis of one my major points), whereas any real life gore and whatnot is just too much for me to handle. Where I draw the line in fiction, I guess, is that there is something to get from the experience beyond the suffering portrayed on the screen. I don’t like to watch violence simply for the sake of violence and glorifying that violence.

  4. It’s true that there’s a certain “safety” in viewing something through the lens of fiction, whether it’s Straw Dogs or Now and Then, or even something based on reality like Grave of the Fireflies. Our tolerance is boosted because our brains just can’t turn off the “it’s not real” switch, no matter how cruel it is or how much we want to believe. Obviously most people have a threshold, and your experience will change where that is.

    Regardless, that safety net allows the creators of these fictional works to explore the darkness from a safe distance. Great fiction creators can be like scientists of the human experience, and sometimes you have to probe some really dark corners in the name of learning what we’re about.

    Ultimately I guess it depends on the execution. The ironic thing about that is that the more sensitivity something is portrayed with, the worse it can be. Schwartzeneggar mowing down enemies in Commando means a thousand times less than one person dying in Now and Then does, because the sheer number and the lack of airtime to each one just desensitizes you. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean I think Sam Peckinpah or Mohiro Kitoh or Hideyuki Kurata are doing a great service to victims or something like that, but they’re certainly doing a greater service to the viewer. If you feel like a monster for watching what you’ve watched, then at least you’re thinking.

    • You know, I really like that scientist metaphor — especially because sometimes you can have someone who goes WAY too far, and horrible shit happens, but there is an inadvertent positive side effect to the endeavor.

      And, yeah, definitely agreed with the last paragraph. Sometimes you probably need something that strikes you to the core and makes you feel like shit to drag you back into reality and remind you that, yeah, violence is awesome in Commando, but it’s not REALLY cool. I think you can have fun watching a stupidly violence ’80s action flick and still appreciate the value of human life, or whatever, but actually stepping back and thinking about the violence isn’t a bad thing, even if might be painful.

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