The Effects of Visual Falsehood

In the Anime World Order review of Nobody’s Boy Remi, Gerald Rathkolb discusses the way in which the narrator plays with the expectations of its viewers by saying things that turn out to be completely false a short while after. If the narrator says that Remi found some money and spent it happily, there would likely be a scene shortly after where he accidentally drops the money down a sewer.

Generally, identity-less narrators are seen as omniscient, so either the narrator does not actually know everything, or is actively deceiving the audience. A similar effect happens with misleading episode titles. How many times does Chiba Shigeru in Hokuto no Ken declare in the next episode that a major character is definitely going to die but actually doesn’t? It makes a person begin to doubt the authenticity of words in fiction.

But words are easy to ignore as lies. The very idea of lying is tied closely to the use of words. If someone says you’re lying, it usually has to do with what you’ve said and not what you’ve done. What happens then, when the lies are not words but pictures?

Ambiguity in a given scene is a common technique used in anime and manga to create a sense of tension and drama. In Dragon Ball Z, a character attacks an enemy with so many energy projectiles that a giant explosion occurs where the target was standing. This ambiguous moment is meant to leave the viewer in anticipation as to whether or not the attack worked, though the explosion itself begins to take on a symbolic identity as a red herring and leads the viewer to assume that the opponent did not in fact die. What I’m referring to with visual falsehood though is something far more sinister.

While I cannot speak for everyone, I tend to believe that what is presented to me on the screen or on the page is what has happened in the story. In other words, there is a certain degree of “truth” to the visuals of a manga, because without them how are we supposed to know what has or has not happened?

One prominent manga author who uses visual falsehoods to their utmost advantage is Fukumoto Nobuyuki, creator of gambling series such as Mahjong Legend Akagi: The Genius Who Descended into the Darkness, Gambling Apocalypse Kaiji: The Suffering Pariah -The Ultimate Survivor-, and Gambling Emperor Legend Zero. In Akagi and Ten for example, mahjong hands are displayed right on the page and presented as what a given character has to work with. In the anime for Akagi, the hand is generally displayed by itself floating in a space, as if to say that this is an objective view of the mahjong hand. Of course, it turns out not to be, and we are presented with what is really there.

This is a scene from Zero where the main character is faced with a scenario where he cannot see who is behind the wall. Fukumoto lets us the readers take a peek at the person behind the wall. Then he reveals the truth!

What are we to believe? Reveals like these are downright disarming.

A non-anime/manga example of this comes in the form of Megaman 9. In this game, there is an enemy that disguises itself as a 1-Up icon. Attempting to get a free life will of course result in an unpleasant surprise.

Though the enemy is not difficult to defeat, it creates some paranoia in the player. Just which 1-Ups are real? Does that 1-Up seem too good to be true? The game has challenged your perception of what “should” be.

I do not believe these visual lies impact these works negatively, but when the images themselves are untruths, it can create a sense of imbalance, a distrust for what is in front of you. Keep in mind that in Fukumoto’s case, this never damages the “gambling” or “mystery” aspects of his stories, so you are also unable to just doubt everything and view his works from a position of absolute superiority. It adds a new layer to reading manga, one where you are in a sense competing against the creators themselves.

3 thoughts on “The Effects of Visual Falsehood

  1. Visual and audial lies can be a real bitch, but do an excellent job of keeping you on your toes. You have to remember that the author can do whatever they want, and you can always be completely getting fucked with. Dream sequences that turn out not to have happened are often like this when you really think the dream is going on.

    I wonder if this would be considered a lie – the novel All Quiet On the Western Front is told entirely in first person, until the last paragraphs wherein it switches to third person to tell us that the main character/narrator died at the end of the war. I was highly pissed because I had assumed that the guy would survive, as he would need to to tell this story, but then he died.


  2. I think, if we’re going to chalk up “visual lies” here, it might fall under the “unreliable narrator” clause. Unreliable narrators (generally first-person, but not always) are a time-honored technique wherein a significant part of the story is told through the unreliability of the narrator–in other words, the narrator presents truth as he perceives it, filtered through his own biases. Gene Wolfe is the first example that pops in my head; The Book of the New Sun starts off with Severian telling the reader that he is “plagued with the curse of never forgetting a single detail of his life”; a few chapters later he almost casually mentions that he has a habit of lying and distorting the truth (and then tries to play that down, obviously lying in the process); a few chapters later a character asks him if he remembers why they’re going to town and, after a pause, admits “I forgot”.

    In the context of visuals in manga and anime, although it’s hard to pin down a specific viewpoint to the mangaka (I literally have never been able to tell POV in most manga or anime, even less so than live-action TV or film, a fact which single-handedly freaks me out–they tend to play out more or less along the lines of third-person limited). This issue is complicated by the question of whether there is an implicit understanding of the “narrator” in a visual medium at all. If there is understood to be one who theoretically exists as a separate entity from the mangaka, then the question of who is lying comes up: is it the mangaka (throwing us a red herring or conveniently positioning the camera so that important mise en scene information will be withheld until the opportune moment), or the narrator (exposing his bias by being visually deceitful) or

    I think my head just exploded I don’t even know if I make sense anymore. Somehow this issue is much less mind-destroying in pure text.


  3. In Stephen King’s Misery the antagonist ranted about how, as a child, she felt cheated whenever at the end of an episode of a TV show a car is seen driving off the cliff with the hero inside (or whatever), but then in the beginning of the next episode the hero is seen jumping off the car right before it plunges. This seems to be a different way of cheating, however – playing it straight while you do it, so to speak.

    I guess when people say something and their body language indicates otherwise we tend to belive the latter, too?


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