Anno, Evangelion, and the Fleeting Intersection of Creators and Trends

The story of Neon Genesis Evangelion is partly one of a creator who tapped into the zeitgeist of his viewers, who then began to travel along a path divergent from the very people that called themselves his fans. Anno Hideaki is not an isolated incident. Any time a creator makes a sequel and it’s considered to do more harm to the series than good by some (J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter, Tomino Yoshiyuki and Gundam), there’s a sense that ideas and sensibilities did not align as well as they could have.

Of course, fans are individuals too. What one might call the general fan reaction to something is akin to an aggregate or a median of all of the different values that exist, and one might even argue that there’s no such thing as a singular “audience” or “fandom.” However, I think that’s a significant contributing factor to why it’s so hard for so many characters to achieve great success more than once, why there are so many flashes in the pan. Even when they’re attempting to chase their audience and please them, it doesn’t necessarily work out as they might hope. How likely is it for one person to tap into the collective feelings of a group, and do so consistently over a period of years?

Love ’em or hate ’em, this I think this situation is why production by committee/audience testing exists. If you want lightning to strike twice, why not try to find out as much information as possible? Why not try to approach the group mindset with a smaller group of your own? It’s safer and arguably more reliable.

The issue with this approach is that it’s more likely to discourage risk and experimentation. This doesn’t mean it can’t ever result in strong works, but the Mr. Plinkett review of the current state of the Star Wars franchise explains it well. Disney knows exactly what the fans love about their beloved far, far away galaxy, and will keep tapping that well for as long as they find if feasible. These can be favorite characters, changing trends in how people perceive media (gender and racial diversity), or something else, but rarely would a work like this try to challenge or anger its audience.

This, I believe, is the danger zone that Anno saw all those years ago as fan response to Evangelion became one that encouraged an objectification and consumption of its characters. That conversation is more complex than this post is going to get into (and keep in mind that I’m not necessarily against either side), but it keeps me thinking about the divergence of creators and fans.

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On the Fanfiction Origins of the Mary Sue

The term “Mary Sue,” originally meaning a kind of overly perfect self-insert character in fanfiction who would be dropped into a story to solve all of its problems, has been a battlefield of sorts in popular culture. Characters are called Mary Sues if they show even the slightest bit of wish fulfillment, and in response there is a feminist movement to reclaim the term, fueled by the idea that idealized male characters are the norm and similar female characters are unfairly maligned. This is what is fueling discussion concerning the character Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. However, I feel that, as the discussion over which characters are and aren’t Mary Sues due to their perfect (or perfectly dramatic) natures, the fact that the term derives specifically from fanfiction gets lost in the shuffle, and that it is crucial to remember that its origin comes not from big blockbuster movies but from fans of popular culture navigating their chosen works and worlds.

Before I go into greater detail, I want to make a few points clear. First, I do not think wish fulfillment characters are inherently bad, whether they’re male, female, or something else entirely. Second, I believe fanfiction does have merit as a space for active participation, as a source for good and/or interesting stories, and everything else in between. Third, I understand that the meanings of words can change over time. Basically, this isn’t a criticism of fanfiction, or lack of originality, or a stubborn refusal to acknowledge the natural evolution of language.

The earliest known use of the term “Mary Sue” comes from Star Trek fandom, specifically from Paula Smith’s parody of a common trend in Star Trek fanfics at the time. Essentially, many stories would involve a young girl (most Star Trek fanfiction was written by women in the 1970s) who would become the center of attention, would have some unique visual identifier that instantly screamed “unique,” and would have just enough tragedy to emphasize how special they are. While you can think of many characters in fiction who fulfill these categories (Uzumaki Naruto, Bella in Twilight), I think the real key to the “Mary Sue,” and why its fanfic origins are so important to remember, is that by being the center of attention they were viewed as 1) drawing focus away from the world and characters that form the basis for that fandom 2) their idealized natures, rather than feeling universal, felt overly specific to the point of making it difficult to empathize.

To expand on both points, when we look at anime and see the generic shounen hero with a unique and special power, or the generic shoujo heroine who all the boys fall in love with, they can be seen as attempts to have a broader, more general appeal. Even if they end up being cliches, and even if they’re considered by more hardcore fans as being “boring”—though I think this comes from a time when fandoms were more niche and the deepest fans tended to prefer the subversive/evil/morally gray characters—there is a desire for broader appeal. When a character’s quirks or backstory or overall qualities make them wish fulfillment for people at large, that is different from when those same traits make them inaccessible to a reader due to being overly specific. In other words, when a character feels as if they are designed solely to appeal to only the author and no one else, then the term “Mary Sue” comes to light.

Of course, even that criteria is subjective, as different people will connect to different characters, whether they come from fanfiction or not. Also, if the “Mary Sue” was such a problem that Paula Smith had to address it, perhaps it could be argued that there were enough people with that same fantasy that it could be considered a broad enough desire to not be thought of as “overly specific.” It also needs to be pointed out that the Mary Sue derives from an amateur space, where writers do not have editors or marketers or even the need for a coherent narrative. These sorts of stories tend to happen naturally from those who do not consider common “good story rules” such as conflict, character depth, etc., and in a way we all have our Mary Sue stories inside of us where everything just goes right.

However, the idea of the Mary Sue did not originally come from an explicit connection to women, narratives, and society, but rather an implicit one. Because Star Trek fanfiction was the domain of women, it is possible to argue that its values developed in a feminine space, which when expanded to also include men to a large degree made Mary Sues a target for criticism and conflict in ways that trivialized the wish fulfillment of women more than men. Perhaps the biggest issue with the “Mary Sue” is in her name: chosen to be generic, and to reflect a recurring type of character in fanfiction, the doubly feminine nature of the moniker infuses it with gender values. Even though alternatives have been created for males (Gary Stu, Marty Stu), they simply never caught on as much. It’s also interesting to note that criticism of the Mary Sue originally took place between women.

I have one last question to ask: does the term Mary Sue even need to be reclaimed? Have men really seized it as their own, or has it never really left the grasp of women at all?

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Can You Watch Gundam AGE Without the First Half?

As the final part of the generation-themed Gundam AGE begins, I’m reminded of the “Machete Order,” a way of watching the Star Wars movies which supposedly introduces all of its elements in the best ways while cutting away some of the excess. Specifically, “excess” means “Episode 1,” as the entire adventures of a very young Anakin were deemed unnecessary and even perhaps detrimental to enjoyment. While I don’t think any of the parts of Gundam AGE are awful, it does make me wonder if it’s actually possible to watch the third and fourth Gundam AGE arcs without having watched the prior two.

While it would be sad to lose characters like Woolf and young Emily, I feel like the third part introduces you enough to the returning characters that someone who got into the show right at that point wouldn’t take long to fully grasp the story, and perhaps because the ratings were so low they actually made it with this in mind. While you don’t get to see Flit go from idealistic young boy to supportive but crotchety old man, you also get to immediately see the differences between him, pirate Asemu, and noble Kio. Obviously as someone who’s already watched the previous parts I can’t simply use my own experience to judge the effectiveness of omitting the earlier parts, at least not without much scrutiny and testing on willing subjects, but I would be interested in hearing thoughts on this matter.

And Then Emperor Palpatine Fell Into an Explanation

The other day I went to see the movie Fanboys, about a group of Star Wars fan one year before the release of Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. I won’t say much about the movie itself except that I thought it was hilarious, but it reminded me that there’s a lot of Star Wars “lore” out there. I had borrowed a Star Wars character guide from a friend long ago, and I enjoyed it thoroughly, so I decided to hop online and take a look at the compiled information on the universe that is Star Wars. Upon reading I began to feel this sense of dread.

One of the very important lessons then Western Art took from Eastern Art was the concept of negative space, that leaving spaces blank can be just as effective a tool as filling in every detail. Essentially, it means less can be more. When applied to storytelling, it means that not every detail has to be explained and that in many cases the more explanation that arises the less effective the storytelling becomes. This is what I saw with the information on the  Star Wars Universe. I saw unnecessary explanation after unnecessary explanation, as if making sense of the world and filling in the gaps is far more important than maintaining the feel of the story and characters.

The idea of fans filling in the gaps is not something that’s necessarily bad. In fact many times I consider it to be a good thing as I feel it’s a very important foundation of fandom, whether it’s imagining stories in between major events, inventing new characters, or even fleshing out one-dimensional characters. One can argue that having these complex technical explanations is one type of fan’s way of exploring the universe of the story, but once it reaches a point where it becomes some kind of hybrid canon/fanon that influences or restructures the original story, I can’t help but feel that it is done at the detriment of core vital elements of a story. Obi-Wan and Yoda learned how to maintain their identity in the Force. Why does this need an explanation? Obi-Wan is a magical old man, and Yoda is an even more magical and even older man. There, that’s your explanation.

I think one of the many reasons why I like anime so much is that it seems to understand this idea of effectively using the gaps in storytelling. It’s not just about fueling imagination so that we the viewer may fill in the blanks, but using that sense of ambiguity to excite and drive us forward. Gurren-Lagann is an excellent example, because the characters utilize this vague, ill-defined power to achieve victory after victory. They are literally powered by a lack of common sense that keeps them from questioning if anything they’re doing is truly possible. “Do the impossible, see the invisible,” as the saying goes. One does not need to explain what doing the impossible entails or how it works other than that it was driven by the hero’s desire and the support of his friends.

A more apt comparison might be Star Wars and Gundam especially given the way they’ve influenced each other, but for all of the detailed explanations and added material that has been placed into the Gundam Universe, I feel that Gundam has handled it far better than Star Wars. What even its most hardcore fans ultimately enjoy appears to be more the story and the characters and the way great tales are told, rather than little details.

Wasn’t Star Wars once in its own in a way similar to Gurren-Lagann? There was the Force as a vaguely defined aspect of the universe with vaguely defined skill sets available to its users. What’s the difference between a normal man and a Jedi? That one is a Jedi and one is a man.

Fan-generated Fiction as some call it

I recently listened to the Ninja Consultant podcast concerning the sexualization that occurs among fangirls, and the fact that this has become more prominent in recent times, with not only yaoi becoming a common sight at conventions but also modern works such as Dr. Who and Avatar: The Last Airbender being consciously aware of this fanbase. The topic of fanfiction comes up in the discussion, which is to be expected given that fanfiction and fangirls practically go hand in hand, but it reminded me of the fact that at the beginning of my own internet-based fandom I too was into fanfiction.

When I first began using the internet, my first fandom was a NiGHTS into dreams fanfiction site. I loved the Sega Saturn game to death (and still do), and I sought out other fans of NiGHTS. It was there that I found a site called “Nightopia on the Net” which would later change its name a few more times. It was here that I not only discovered other people with a passion for NiGHTS, but also stories that expanded upon the few plot details we were given as players of the game into a rich and vibrant (at least in my young eyes) universe. I’ve never read the Star Wars Extended Universe books, but I suspect the feeling was similar to anyone who is a fan of those, a feeling that the world given to us in these initial stories is so vast and unexplored that one can’t help but wonder what else is out there.

At some point, a few years down the line, I read fanfiction less and less. By this point I had been checking out fanfiction from various sources based on all sorts of series and would even actively seek out more unusual titles and concepts. Something in me began to sour, and I could no longer take fanfiction until I almost stopped reading it entirely. Back then, my reasoning was that I disliked the stories being produced for my fandoms, feeling that more than any sort of technical errors the problem was that the writers did not understand the characters. The characters’ actual personalities as displayed in their respective shows were nothing like the personalities displayed in fanfiction, and I asked (no one), “What’s the point of using these characters if you’re not going to actually use them?”

As mentioned in the Ninja Consultant discussion, it seems as if some works these days are simply there as fan fodder. Characters are given basic traits which appeal to the “shipping” side of fandom, and fans are free to ignore or cultivate any “evidence” as to whether or not their “One True Pair” could thrive. Setting aside any original creators’ desires to actively engage this line of thought, by all rights these are the people who are responsible for me leaving fanfiction in the first place.

But really was I, and am I, all that different?

Why do people enjoy pairing unreasonable characters together? To put it simply, it’s because they find the pairing to be hot. No big mysteries there. It’s what makes the Zutara pairing in Avatar so popular: a conflict of emotions, the fire/water dynamic, the idea that “if only they would get together, they would be great.” Of course, the conflict comes from actually getting them together.

Is there something wrong with this? Wanting to dive deeper into a world, to prove through fanfiction that there is so much more to a story, one can say that trying to find deeper subtext in the relationships presented is its own form of exploration. Hell, I can somewhat relate to making unreasonable pairings. I have a rather straight-laced friend who I would like to see date girls that would be all over him 24/7. Why? Because it would entertain me to no end.

Perhaps there is a threshold, and it is crossed when fans begin to believe that their opinions constitute the truth about a work, or even what should be true. This isn’t about creator’s vision vs spectator’s vision or anything of that sort, but rather to what extent people and groups begin to believe their own hype. Other than that, I think people are free to believe in whatever they want.

Even then, such a statement borders on the idea that there’s such a thing as a “right” fan and a “wrong” fan, and really, even if I find certain fans or their reasoning distasteful, I am just one person and I am not a judge of fanfiction. More importantly, I am not a judge of the heart.

After all, as Sasahara once said to Ogiue, no one can stop you from liking something.