The Illusion of Menuing in Heaven’s Feel

Well here we are again, back in Heaven’s Feel. During my previous excursion into Fate’s third route, I got basically no distance into the story itself, because, well, visual novels. I powered through a long expository conversation with Kotomine and a long expository conversation with Rin, and that was about as far as I got. Given that, I spent most of my article running through all the interesting meta-textual concepts and narrative conceits of Fate, leaving very little room for present Nick to do anything but comment on the current text as experienced. Poor form, past Nick. Poor form.

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Ashes and Embers in Heaven’s Feel

Alright, I’ll confess: I wasn’t able to get a meaningful distance into Heaven’s Feel. I got through all of the pre-route scenes that involved Sakura, and I had a nice long chat with Kotomine at the church, and then I got nearly murdered by Ilya, and then Rin finished me off with an interminable conversation about magical energy. All of that took several hours of clicking through, but it didn’t really accomplish anything narrative-wise – I’m still basically in the introduction phase of the route, and there’s no indication that that’s going to end any time soon.

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Gahkthun of the Golden Lightning

Everyone has heard that “doing the same thing and expecting a different result is the definition of madness” cliche, but as a critic, I don’t always have the luxury of learning from experience. When I don’t think I’ll like something, I generally just stay away – I’m not a big fan of hatewatching, and feel that if you go into something expecting to dislike it, you’re not likely to learn anything from the experience. But when it comes to the Current Projects, sometimes my life is a sequence of touching a hot stove, burning my hand, hearing someone say “I’ll pay you fifty bucks to touch it again,” and then doing exactly that.

I’ve had difficulty getting into visual novels in the past. I started with Katawa Shoujo, which in retrospect probably gave me some unfortunate preconceptions about the medium at large. I know VN aficionados likely see Katawa Shoujo as an “entry level” piece, but it’s not a bad thing to possess qualities that makes your art accessible to a wider audience. And in Katawa Shoujo’s case, those qualities seem to be things like pacing, a believable interior voice, dialogue that sounds like human beings, and stories that respect the reader’s time and investment.

My experiences since then have been somewhat less positive.

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Brief Aside – The Point of School Days

Question:

What’s up with School Days?

Bobduh:

It’s an uncomfortably scathing and cynical commentary on the nature of most harems and dating sims. Not a fun ride, but a pretty necessary one.

Most harems exist as sexist power fantasies, relying on the relative inoffensiveness, blandness, or obliviousness of the protagonist, as well as generally a lot of not-taking-themselves-that-seriously, to (theoretically) avoid coming off as creepy and narcissistic. School Days doesn’t do that – School Days plays it straight. It takes a callow, nebbish male protagonist with a weak moral center, and surrounds him with girls with such significant personal issues and such weak self-image that his realizing he can have sex with people just by wanting it and pursuing it makes it actually happen. It’s a relentlessly negative show, but that’s the point – it’s saying that harems are pretty ugly things, and that the circumstances of a harem require a lot of shitty behavior on the part of the guy and a lot of psychological dependency on the part of the girls. By mapping the escapism of harems to characters with actual issues, it acts as a scathing critique of the idea of “winning” girls.

That said, the writing is suspect, the pacing is sluggish in ways that don’t support the material, and the show never actually grapples with its themes, it just exists as a representation of them. The points it makes are a lot more interesting than the package they’re wrapped in.

On Katawa Shoujo as a Theoretical Anime

Question:

Which work from another medium would you like to see animated?

Bobduh:

People ask this question pretty regularly, enough so that I eventually decided to do a little thought experiment for whenever it came up again. So here’s my unrealistic, fantasy-world proposal. I guess there’s light spoilers regarding dramatic structure? Anyway.

Design Proposal for a Katawa Shoujo Adaptation by Kyoto Animation

Pitch:

Katawa Shoujo, the recent English-language visual novel, has managed to develop a substantial and passionate fan base in the Western world. It’s distinctive in the thoughtful treatment of its concept, the acuity of its writing, and the diverse and relevant themes presented throughout. Though there are significant hurdles presented in successfully adapting this work, I believe an adaptation which captures the spirit of the visual novel would further bolster KyoAni’s reputation as a creator of emotionally resonant and deeply personal young adult stories.

Immediate thoughts:

The title would obviously have to be changed, as it’s by its nature offensive in the original Japanese. More critically, I believe an adaptation of this title would have to address the fundamental narrative failing of most visual novel adaptations – the consolidation of multiple storylines into a single linear narrative. In order to maintain romantic pacing and integrity of character writing, I propose a new solution – separate the central protagonist, Hisao, into five separate characters to reflect the five separate routes, and reorganize the five narratives so they interweave with each other while all progressing as separate love stories.

I believe there are generally two hurdles that prevent this approach. First, the tendency to characterize visual novel protagonists as blank slates, in order to aid audience surrogacy. I believe Katawa Shoujo lacks this problem – in fact, in my experience, the five routes each make use of a substantially different Hisao, with different desires, hangups, and personalities.

Secondly, it requires substantial rewriting and reorganizing of the visual novel content. This cannot be avoided – I believe it is the necessary price to pay if we wish to make a show that will stand the test of time.

One last thought – the broadening of the story into one larger narrative presents a few opportunities of perspective, with the largest being the potential to shift the Shizune narrative closer to Misha’s perspective. Considering her emotional arc is already the key conflict of the route, I believe holding closer to her perspective would improve the dramatic consistency of that line, along with offering the opportunity for a more meaningful exploration of gender identity. Something to consider.

Further planning:

As a strict adaptation is not advisable for this work, further thought must be put into the successful transfer of the original’s strength to the animated medium. A brief outline of those strengths might contain:

Organic Writing: Perhaps more than anything else, the core emotional resonance of Katawa Shoujo is derived from the utterly believable and naturalistic dialogue of the protagonists. Not all this writing can be conserved, nor should it – but the need for subtle and naturalistic pacing to match this dialogue’s emotional rhythm necessitates adapting this work as a two-season show. Consider the pace as slightly more propulsive than Hyouka, but applied to a work that’s attempting to fully execute five separate love stories.

Thematic Resonance and Acuity: The deft treatment of disabilities, as well as the way the source moves beyond that to actually be more concerned with themes of human connection, power structures in relationships, our various ways of dealing with our pasts, and emotional honesty, is another remarkable strength of the source. Here, we simply should adapt the best we can – these strengths underline the core conflicts of the narrative, and are virtually impossible to lose in translation.

Frank and Empathetic Depictions of Relationships in All Stages: Here we run into a more difficult question. Can the adult content be excised from the text without diminishing it? My response is a resounding no – not only are the game’s frank treatments of sexuality one of its greatest strengths, but the ways these events are woven into the narrative make them virtually unavoidable in the majority of the storylines. Only Shizune’s route contains adult content that seems to veer into titillation – all other such scenes further our understanding of the characters, provide crucial narrative turns, and exist as some of the most honest and touching moments of the narrative. They will be handled tastefully, and with much greater restraint than the game, but they will stay.

Regarding “depictions of relationships in all stages,” the game’s narrative actually provides some assistance here. Not all the stories operate on the same timeline – for instance, the narrative arc of Hanako’s route concludes in the interim between acts two and three of Lilly’s, and the scattered events of Shizune’s route could be rearranged virtually at will to better enable a steady rise and fall of the various dramas throughout. The various narrative experiments of the text (the even-handed positivity and maturity of Lilly’s route that is only rarely interrupted by narrative conflict, the continuous rise of narrative tension in Hanako’s route to one single emotional peak) will hopefully lend themselves well to the intermingling of narrative arcs this adaptation will require.

As a brief initial proposal, Emi and Hanako’s storylines might possibly hit more of their narrative beats in the first season, with Lilly’s and Shizune’s stretching from this period throughout the second season (though obviously not removing Emi and Hanako’s arcs – as I said, a positive portrayal of already-existing relationships is one of the great strengths of this work, and the anime adaptation offers further opportunity to explore a romantically healthy slice-of-life emotional space), with Rin’s progressing the slowest and her art exhibition and the aftermath perhaps offering a final gathering of the characters and last dramatic resolution.

Final Thoughts:

Obviously, successfully adapting such a sensitive text is always a risky proposition, and both the changes necessary and the changes that can’t be made further complicate this adaptation. However, I believe that in light of the source material, the final result could easily stand as an artistic pillar of both our studio and the medium itself. This challenge is a risk worth taking.

Clannad – A Critical Overview on Character Development, Dramatic Structure, and Thematic Dissonance

Question:

What’s your problem with Clannad? Have you no soul?!?

Bobduh:

Quite likely. However, my main problems are that up until halfway through Afterstory, it’s a combination of cliched, one-note characters, repetitive slapstick, and maudlin sub-Angel Beats melodrama. Then it gets very interesting and unique for about ten episodes, then it flips the audience off with an ending that invalidates all the good parts.

Question:

But isn’t that just, like, your opinion, man?

Bobduh:

Let’s take this one item at a time.

Cliched one-note characters and repetitive slapstick, I don’t think you can really defend against. It’s hard to dispute that for the greater part of the series, most of the characters are defined by one core attribute – Kyou is a tsundere, Kotomi is the Rei-clone, Nagisa is straight moe, etc. The “repetitive slapstick” is even less arguable, since that just is true – some people find this more funny than others, but the fact is this show repeats its jokes constantly, and most of them are of the broad physical comedy variety. Easy, broad humor is a problem common to a lot of anime, but that doesn’t make it less of an issue.

The problem with the drama is that the show doesn’t give you a reason to care about the characters before telling a sad story – it introduces them as their character type, and they remain that type, but sad things happen around them. Fuko is only ever “ditzy girl who likes starfish”, but we are expected to feel sorry for her because life is sad. That’s not really how characterization and empathy work in storytelling – this is clearly subjective (I mean, a lot of people think Angel Beats is good), but I can pretty confidently say this show hasn’t learned the give and take of characterization and drama that Disappearance of Haruhi or Toradora have a mastery of. A tragic backstory doesn’t create character depth unless you see that depth in the characters themselves, and the side-arc characters are pretty uniformly shallow.

Then there’s Afterstory. For the second half of this season, I was actually extremely impressed with the show. It went beyond the usual high school daily life experience, showing things like the pressure/pride of personal responsibility and the tiring but satisfying honor of a manual blue-collar job. What other anime covers this stuff? It was also handled with much more grace and subtlety than the prior arcs – it felt like the show had an entirely new, much more talented director. The death of Nagisa actually struck me, since the second half had been full of great character-building moments between her and Tomoya, and the episode where Tomoya doesn’t know what to do with the daughter he’s abandoned is in my mind one of the strongest episodes of any anime. Even the stuff with his father is deftly done.

When Ushio became sick, I figured the show was finally pulling its strands together – the themes of nostalgia, of embracing the past while accepting sadness and moving forward, and the recurring references to the hospital/hill that saved Nagisa were all going to come together, and Tomoya would just barely save Ushio by getting her to the hospital, the “place where dreams come true” – this would be Nagisa’s last gift to him. It would be bittersweet, since Nagisa would still be gone, but life is full of sadness, and you have to learn to cherish your past without being captured by it.

Instead, all of that raw character building and sharp reflection on the earlier themes of the show turns out to be a dream because magic, and everyone lives happily ever after. Not only is this literally deus ex machina (god just decides to save them because they’ve been good all year), which is never good storytelling, but it also undercuts the themes of the show. The entire strength of the last act had been built on mono no aware and the idea that unlike high school, life doesn’t have any easy answers… and then it concludes with an incredibly easy answer. Not cool.

I think there are many moments of this show that are well-directed, and I think when it’s working on the main Tomoya/Nagisa plot, it’s actually a pretty good and sometimes extremely good show, minus that ending. But I also think it’s a very flawed show, that it makes a lot of too-easy narrative and character choices, and that many parts of it simply don’t work storytelling-wise.

Question:

So basically you’re a heartless monster. But adapting Visual Novels is really tough, as you’ve discussed in the past. Are Clannad’s problems even solvable?

Bobduh:

The answer here is, “yes, but not easily.” Still, let’s see what we can do.

The main, huge problem is that by adopting all the paths of a Visual Novel, they destroyed the pacing of the storyline and added a huge amount of superfluous plot and very poor melodrama. From the first season, I would cut all episodes from the Fuko storyline up through the end of the Kotomi storyline. I would also cut those two characters entirely, since they’re the worst offenders on the “just exist to be moe” scale and add nothing to any other part of the series. I’d perform the same surgery on the second season, cutting out all the episodes from the second until when they finish the superfluous side arcs.

This would condense the series to roughly one 26 episode season, and do wonders for the pacing already. This would also indirectly help Nagisa’s character a great deal, as her character development would now be continuous, as opposed to randomly stopping for 10-12 episode stretches. Tomoya would also lose a lot of his generic VN protagonist Woman Fixer absurdity. There’s still work to be done, though.

Sunohara would have to be fixed. His character is two jokes repeated over and over (Sunohara likes girls LOL, Sunohara gets hit LOL), and his character development arc requires him to randomly become an asshole for several episodes and then be “fixed” by Tomoya. Cut his sister, give him one or two actually good traits, and set his motivation arc in place from the first couple episodes. The resolution of the baseball team storyline was actually one of the better moments of the early stuff, so focus on what made this strong – his temper, his convictions, his bond with Tomoya.

Nagisa also needs work – she eventually comes into her own as a character, but it wouldn’t hurt to have a couple more defining traits than “cute, helpless moeblob” for the first half of the series. No, liking the dango family is not a personality – but it might be the lead-in to one. Find something to make her stand out and have a better-defined character arc of her own – right now, character arcs happen around her, but her own agency is very minimal.

Tomoyo is fine. Kyou is a generic tsundere, but she also gets some of the most honest conversations with Tomoya, so she’s also probably fine. Ryou probably doesn’t need to exist… no, actually, it would probably be better if Ryou were Kyou’s male twin. This would kill any last vestiges of haremness, and delete the last unnecessary moeblob. I’d suggest something even more drastic, like give male Ryou a crush on Sunohara, but anime writers apparently can’t handle gay characters without making them into tasteless jokes, so I’ll just leave that alone.

Finally, we’d have to fix the ending. Adding a “magic fixes everything” ending cheapens the themes of honest work, perseverance, and helping to hold each other up that are present all throughout After Story. Bringing Nagisa back to life destroys the significance of Tomoya’s character growth in the last, best act of the show. Instead, have that scene where Tomoya questions if he should have met Nagisa at all simply inspire him to get back up. Tomoya runs to the hospital on the hill, cradling his (unconscious, but not dead) daughter as he reflects on his time with Nagisa and all the people he’s met in this city. He wants to hate this place, but he can’t; like Nagisa said, this is where they were born, and there’s too much of him, too much of Nagisa in this place. He reaches the hospital where Nagisa was saved and begs them to save Ushio; she just barely pulls through. Nagisa is still gone, but his memories of her helped him save the daughter they were meant to raise together, in the city he’s come to love.

This maintains the strength of the last act while actually tying together the earlier themes and foreshadowing. Plus, by cutting the magical glowing balls, Tomoya’s early helpfulness can be resolved by something that actually helps the story – have it be his way of attempting to be the opposite of his father. If Nagisa makes him realize this, it would even help her character, too.

There’s an incredible show hiding somewhere in Clannad, but the humor, pacing, and early melodrama make it very hard to find. I think as a one season show that abandoned directly adopting the VN and instead attempted to tell a single story well, it could be something truly great.