November 12, 2015

Make 'em laugh, make 'em cry

Tracing the provenance of an anime title can get tricky at times. Anime titles often originate in manga and light novels, though sometimes the anime comes first and the manga follows. A third important source is the visual novel.

In the U.S., the visual—or interactive—novel is the medium of the future, and always will be. But it's been well-established in Japan for twenty years (there's a lot of cultural information in that fact that deserved a Ph.D. dissertation). One of the big players in visual novels is Key VisualArts.

Co-founder and scenario writer Jun Maeda is largely responsible for Key's first three titles, Kanon, Air, and Clannad, which established Key's own sub-genre of magical realism fused with operatic melodrama.

Kanon and Clannad (that's the two-part anime series, not the New Age Irish band, though they're not bad either) are two of my all-time favorite tear-jerkers in any medium. Hope Chapman does a good job analyzing how  Jun Maeda pulls it off in "Why Clannad Made You Cry."

The paradoxical reason, Chapman points out, is not because "life sucks and then you die." Even done well, that approach is only depressing and ultimately silly and self-indulgent.

If a likable character dies in a story, that's sad. If a likable character dies and their loved ones suffer for it, that's sadder. If a likable character dies, their loved ones suffer for it, and then they get killed in a freak accident right after a messenger runs up to tell them that their family dog has also kicked the bucket, you've started spinning a bad comedy routine.

Rather, the exact opposite. "Make 'Em Laugh," as Donald O'Connor argued. And so, "For every five minutes of weepiness in Clannad, there's at least twenty minutes of comedy (and that's a conservative estimate)."

This joy—far more than suffering (Tolstoy was largely wrong on this point)—draws us into the lives of the characters and builds the expectation that more good things can and ought to keep on happening.

Just as importantly, though, when the good things stop happening, they can't stop happening forever or we're right back to nihilism. As Chapman puts it, with Maeda, "Karma Always Comes Through." The scales of justice balance, even if it takes a bit of magical realism to make it work.

Maeda uses magic to express his own feelings about the unfairness of reality, by "breaking" it just enough to give his characters what they've earned. If tragedy is usually absurdly unfair, why can't triumph come from equally absurd fairness?

C.S. Lewis noted the ("educated") human propensity to infuse more "authenticity" in the negative than the positive, even when the one is no more factually substantive than the other. And when it is that essential faith in the "happy ending" that accounts for the human will to exist in the first place.

The joy of the happy ending, or more correctly of the "good catastrophe," the sudden joyous turn (for there is no true end to any fairy tale)—this joy, which is one of the things that fairy stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially "escapist." It does not deny the existence of sorrow and failure, but it denies universal final defeat, and thus is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy.

Tolkien's word for this was eucatastrophe, "the sudden turn of events at the end of a story which ensures that the protagonist does not meet some terrible, impending, and very plausible doom." Like Lewis, Tolkien applied it not only to fiction but to theology.

The universality of the eucatastrophe has fashioned it into a framework on which solid storytelling can be constructed. It shows up across the spectrum of style and genre, from thoroughly westernized fairy tales like Disney's excellent Tangled to anime like Scrapped Princess and Madoka Magica.

The pervasiveness of the form and the formula is easily criticized as "convention." But the key word in the "same only different" is the "same." That sameness exists for a reason: ignoring convention is a good way to create uniquely bad art.

His respect for, and mastery of, the formula is what makes Jun Maeda a storyteller whose work always deserves a second look.

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