The “Character Development” Crutch

In response to recent shows such as Kill la Kill and even Dokidoki! Precure I’ve been seeing a particular criticism thrown around lately:

“These characters are bad because they have no character development.”

In a way, it’s pretty much the go-to question for a lot of things, because when we traditionally think of a character-driven narrative, a character starts off in one place and ends up in another. Sometimes it’s a physical displacement, sometimes it’s an emotional one, and often times the two go hand in hand. When it comes to basic storytelling, it’s about as reliable a structure as it gets.

Reliable, yes. The formula by which all characters should be judged, no.

I understand that character development can be a powerful thing, and seeing a character grow can be a tremendously satisfying experience, but when “character development” is bandied about as doctrine it comes across as a Beginner’s Guide to Criticism. People end up being so eager to establish the “right way” to construct a story that they effectively throw out the baby with the bath water. “Static” characters, or even static elements of characters, have their own place, and are capable of being part of great stories. However, the narrative arc need not be about them in particular.

There are many ways to portray characters, and not all of them need to have the hero go through the typical kind of character progression. Does anyone watch Akagi asking, “Where’s Akagi’s character development?” Is Kenshiro an issue because he doesn’t have “character progression” beyond getting angrier and sadder as the series goes along? Raoh’s “development” is more a retcon which turned him from just an Evil Guy to someone who wanted to bring order to chaos. Yet all their characters work for what they are and what they need to be. That’s not to say that character development shouldn’t ever matter at all (and both Kill la Kill and Dokidoki! Precure have more character development than either Akagi or Fist of the North Star), but it shouldn’t be held up as holy doctrine that a story can only succeed if its character progression is sufficient.

I think this is why people are so often eager to point out that some character is a “Mary Sue.” This character who is on some level larger than life or a product of wish fulfillment is assaulted by the big book of how narrative tropes are “supposed” to work, and the attackers don’t care about anything but the idea that stories should adhere to it.

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Ogiuevolution: Thoughts on Genshiken II

As the premiere Ogiue-themed blogger, I’ve had quite a few people asking me about my feelings on the all-new manga sequel to Genshiken, or as I like to call it, the “best surprise ever.” I have a lot of thoughts to lay down, so put on your hats and let’s go for a ride.

I recently picked up the second and final volume of Genshiken author Kio Shimoku’s child-raising manga Jigopuri (the first volume of which I reviewed), where I kind of expected to see the one-chapter continuation of Genshiken that fans generally refer to as “Chapter 56.” After all, the Kujibiki Unbalance manga featured additional Genshiken chapters, so I figured this was no different. As it turns out however, there was no Chapter 56 at the end of Jigopuri Volume 2, which left me kind of curious as to where the continued adventures of Chairman Ogiue would end up. Upon hearing the news of Genshiken II (alternately “Genshiken Nidaime” or “Genshiken the Second” to differentiate it from the second anime TV series, Genshiken 2), I realized that Chapter 56 would probably simply end up as the first chapter of the new series; all Kio has to do is change the chapter number from 56 to 1. It’s not the first time the chapter numbers have been modified in Genshiken, either. Volume 8 of Genshiken featured chapters which weren’t published for the initial run in Afternoon, and so the numbers were changed accordingly.

Whether or not Genshiken II is a response to Jigopuri‘s lack of success (as far as seinen manga goes, infants are a particularly unorthodox subject, and the way Kio handled it even less so) or an attempt to regain popularity, I think it’s clear that Kio doesn’t simply want to rehash the original formula even if it is a sequel. Just at the outset, there are two major differences between the new Genshiken club and the old. First, whereas the club back in Volume 1 of Genshiken was populated primarily by guys, five years of time have transformed it into one filled with mostly women, which is something probably no one expected from the club for years and years since its original founding. Second, Ogiue is at the helm, but her importance in this role isn’t simply that she’s their new fearless leader. She’s carrying the increased momentum set by Sasahara when he first became chairman and decided that the club should participate at the doujinshi event Comic Festival, and is taking it further by leading the charge with her own artistic skills and experience. These two aspects alone will provide plenty of differentiation from the previous series, and even if it is a bit of a cash grab, I think Kio will likely try to make it more than just that.

But then I hear people asking, “What if it’s too different?” In the original 2channel thread which revealed the news to the internet, a number of commenters voiced such concerns, talking about the different gender balance of characters, how the series appears to have become populated with moe harem character types, and simply that they could no longer relate to the series with its relative lack of “typical” otaku.  While I don’t agree with everything said, I can definitely see where they’re coming from. When you compare Chapter 1 with Chapter 56, it can feel like night and day even when you ignore the drastic art difference. It almost makes you feel like saying, “What happened to Genshiken?”

The answer is, chapters 2 through 55 “happened.”

While the themes of growth and change are much more prominent in the second half of the series, Genshiken has always featured them to some extent, right when Sasahara decides to check out the clubroom. Along the way, each new club member influenced the old ones and vice versa, with the final result being characters who are different from when they started, more confident about themselves and a little less worried about distinctions betwen otaku and non-otaku. So yes, the Modern Culture Society is no longer filled with anime fans who can’t talk with girls to save their lives, but it didn’t happen out of the blue, it isn’t unrealistic, and Genshiken isn’t a series with static characterization.

The more negative responses about Genshiken II seem to imply that success is less realitic than failure, that pain more of a truth than pleasure. While I simply cannot agree with that, it kind of puts things into perspective. Perhaps some of the fans feel that as the characters and the story of Genshiken progressed, they ended up outgrowing the fans themselves to the point that the series no longer felt like it spoke to them. But even then, I think that fans can still relate to the new cast of characters, regardless of gender differences, and it can feel just as close to home, if not closer. After all, I relate to Ogiue, and this is where it’s taken me.

Additional thoughts:

Of course, I recognize that at least three of these characters are entirely new, so they don’t have the same emotional attachment as the previous club members, but I say give them a chance. At the very least, I received a good impression from Yajima, Hato, and Yoshitake in Chapter 56, and remember that the old characters were once unfamiliar too.

If I were responsible for Kio Shimoku creating a new Genshiken spinoff, it would have to be Angela Burton’s American Anime Club.

As for the “harem” complaint, I think that’s just an exaggerated complaint about the mostly female cast.

On Relationships in Genshiken

Genshiken walks a dangerous line by having almost all of its members end up in romantic relationships throughout the course of its run. I have seen the occasional criticism from both English-reading and Japanese-reading people that perhaps the tale of Ogiue is too idealistic, and that at that point Genshiken moved from being a realistic portrayal of otaku to being a sort of wish fulfillment for otaku. While I think that there is a good deal of optimism within Genshiken, I don’t think it’s unrealistic for these incredibly hardcore otaku who comprise Genshiken to have boyfriends and girlfriends, for one important reason: All of them put effort either before or during their relationships.

Saki and Kohsaka are the most normal couple by far, but Saki’s acceptance of otaku has largely to do with her interaction with Kohsaka. They got together fairly simply, and largely due to physical attraction, but the fact that they stayed together through 4 years and their interactions when on-panel show that a lot of progress is made that we are not immediately aware of as readers.

Tanaka and Ohno, even disregarding the anime’s interpretation of how they got together, have a relationship that was fostered through continuous friendship and time spent together. Tanaka not only has good qualities about him, but he has shown these good qualities to Ohno.

And finally Sasahara and Ogiue. While I understand very well the difficulty of a relationship with someone who is into primarily boys’ love, I also understand that Sasahara and Ogiue make a concerted effort to understand and support each other. The entire build up to Sasahara alone with Ogiue in her room was made up of sweat and tears and painful amounts of soul-bearing. And even after that, they know that a relationship isn’t that easy, but to them it’s well worth it.

Otaku being in relationships with attractive individuals isn’t unrealistic, but being in relationships without putting forth any effort IS unrealistic. I’m not saying that romantic relationships are a must for otaku, but then again I am. Otaku are people too, after all.