Monday, 26 March 2012

Shounen Deaths and Their Impacts

Before I start, given the title of this post, expect that there will be spoilers ahead, BIG spoilers, for Bleach, Naruto, One Piece, and Fullmetal Alchemist.

As anyone who reads or watches a fair bit of mainstream shounen will know, the mortality rate is generally pretty damn low for the amount of carnage that goes on each chapter. Maybe the occasional bad guy will shuffle off the mortal coil once in a while, but other than that, death is a rare occurrence in this genre and for the most part, enemies just get roughed up, knocked out and generally end up bloodied but alive. So, when a mangaka does decide to kill someone off, the implications tend to be much larger and there's generally good reason behind it. Particularly, as much as I love it, one of the biggest culprits of not letting people die is One Piece, though in certain cases - namely Buggy, Crocodile and several Baroque Works members - they've returned to play an important role later on, so really it's best that they didn't head off to meet their maker after all. That being said, both Bleach and Naruto have bumped off a few baddies, but since they're enemies, you kind of don't care so much, or at least expect it (I'm still pissed that Kubo didn't kill of Aizen in the end). However, I'm not really here to discuss the killing of antagonists, my main concern in this post is that of deaths of shounen characters who, for all intents and purposes, are good guys.

Killing off your protagonists is a fairly rare occurrance in shounen and while, with all of the insane battle, it may seem a bit unrealistic, I actually believe it to be a good thing for one simple reason: it allows for any deaths to have a much larger impact on the audience. If good guys dying off were a more regular thing, then you'd get somewhat de-sensitised to it all, but when you're led in to a sense of security that no one dies and it's all hunky-dory, and THEN someone gets suddenly wiped out, it can be a devastating and emotional experience.

My first encounter of anything like this was Fullmetal Alchemist. I was happily watching away falling in love with the story and characters - in particular, my favourite of all the protagonists was Maes Hughes. So when all of a sudden he was killed off for getting too close to the central conspiracy, I was utterly devastated. I remember watching his funeral scene through a veil of tears and to this day any glimpse of his face on screen leads to a yelp of "HUUUUUUUUUUGGGGHHES!!!" Looking at it from a storytelling point of view though it was a genius move. He's a likeable guy. He's not an alchemist, he's relatively ordinary, has a family that he adores and is one of the more comical people in the tale.

To this day, Hughes' funeral remains one of the most heartwrenching scenes I've encountered in any anime series.

Having him die is an immediate and powerful way to show just how serious the situation is. Additionally, that there's no warning of his death and that it's so sudden subconsciously puts the viewer on edge, after all, anyone could be next...

More than any mainstream shounen I've encountered, there's one series that seems to be more at home with killing off protagonists (and antagonists, but I'll save that for another post), and that's Naruto. Out of the main shounen mangaka, it seems that Kishimoto is more willing to dispose of some of his protagonists in order to further the plot. He starts off with the Third Hokage, and while he's old, killing off the head of the village - and its most powerful ninja - is a bold, yet necessary step. He's not a central protagonist, so there's not too much emotional attachment, but it still goes against the general philosophy of shounen manga: that the good guys always win out. It throws Konoha into turmoil and, while not necessarily in the way he'd planned, makes part of Orochimaru's plan succeed. It isn't an instant defeat, more a partial win, but it takes away that feeling of security, that all will be OK and continue as ever, and THAT is one of Kishimoto's biggest strengths.

While the Third Hokage's is the only significant death in the first part of Naruto, Kishimoto continues to bump off some of his other protagonists in Shippuuden. In particular there are two demises that I wish to look at. The first, is that of Asuma, which has the least implications, but still remains poignant enough. That Asuma was taken out by one of Akatsuki, not only cements their position as the central antagonists of the piece, but also facilitates some maturation in Shikamaru by making him step up and graduate from being a lazy genius, to a full-fledged konoha ninja with a true "Will of Fire". Likewise, it also proves that the jounin ninja are fallible. They may be close to being the pinnacle of ninja strength (only being outshone by the kage) but they are not immortal. What they do is dangerous and they can in fact die, and it's this realisation that often makes Naruto seem more realistic than some of its shounen bretheren.

However, while the Third Hogake and Asuma's deaths held some importance in the plotline, the most significant death in Naruto by far is that of Jiraiya

Death of a Konoha legend, Jiraiya's end summed up the leaf village's "Will of Fire" to a T.

Undoubtedly he is the most central character to kick the bucket in the entire series, and it certainly has the biggest impact on Naruto himself. As the series' loveable pervert, Jiraiya's death has the biggest emotional impact on the audience. We know him more than others and like his antics, as well as respect his position as one of Konoha's Three Legendary Ninja. What makes Jiraiya's demise the most poignant however, is not the emotion but the implications it has. On a more general note, it delivers a massive blow to Konoha's firepower. Jiraiya was not only a figurehead with his position as Sannin, but he was a valuable source of intelligence with abilities that allowed him to feed important information back to the village.

But it's the repercussions his end has on those left behind that is the most striking. In particular it serves as the catalyst for Naruto's evolution. By suddenly losing his beloved master who had become like a substitute family to him, Konoha's Jinchuuriki is able to access parts of himself that had previously been locked. During Naruto's battle with Pain, he not only manages to physically power up, but he learns more about himself. On top of that, he matures incredibly as he finally understands that needless hate and desire for vengeance is nothing more than a vicious circle. He tosses aside his desire for revenge and pledges to carry on Jiraiya's will to find a road to true peace. Ultimately, that not only helps him finally defeat Nagato, but also by solidifying his ideals and essentially leaving his heart open to everyone, it lays the foundations for his later power ups and realtionships with the Tailed Beasts.

Then of course there's One Piece, a series that goes hundreds upon hundreds of chapters and episodes before killing off any of its characters. But boy, when it finally does, it does it in style. While death plays a large part in practically all of the Straw Hats' backstories, it's not really until the Whitebeard war that any active characters actually shuffle off the mortal coil and then Oda dishes up not one, but two significant deaths in short succession, both of which have a distinct, yet different impact.

First up to bite the dust is Ace, and his death has much more of an emotional impact. The audience has come to know and love him from previous encounters with him, and when he dies, it ultimately leaves the viewer at least a little upset. However, with Ace, more than anything it's the effect his demise has on Luffy that really proves the most devastating blow. Seeing Luffy break down is what truly gnaws at the hearstrings. That the usually optimistic and bubbly pirate suddenly becomes little more than a broken and hollow shell is such a powerful thing, that anyone who has become even remotely emotionally invested in the series will feel that grief resonate through them. This heartbreak not only serves as the starting point for Luffy's next big power up but it signals a change in the wind.

As much as Luffy's incessant yelling of "AAAACE!" throughout this arc got a bit much, I found myself joining in with him during this scene.

The second of Oda's double whammy of death has less emotional impact but huge political implications for the world of One Piece. Whitebeard's end was fairly incredible, but that this towering presence in the pirate community that had maintained peace for years was now gone, serves as the end of one era and the beginning of another. Nothing will be the same after this. The balance of the pirate world has been shattered and with Blackbeard stealing the Whitebeard's Devil Fruit power, the die have been cast for what will inevitably become Luffy's final battle - well, unless Oda has another card hidden up his sleeve. Since the Straw Hats' next step is to head into the infamously treacherous New World, Whitebeard's death serves to make that already deadly journey even more perilous as the heirarchical system of the pirates has been thrown into turmoil. So, when they Sunny does eventually break into this new territory, not only will they have to cope with the natural dangers, but they will also face more fearsome pirates who are now not only taking over Whitebeard's territory and throwing peaceful lands into chaos, but are also vying for the now vacant position of one of the four Pirate Emperors. This is the perfect point to draw a line and commence with what will likely be One Piece's heavier and even more epic second act.

So, while it may get rather tiresome watching everyone get beaten to a bloody pulp only to have miraculously recovered a few pages - or episodes - later, the lack of fatalities in shounen goes a long way to making the more important deaths all the more poignant, and with this week's chapter of Bleach, I am reminded of this even more. It may only be the beginning of the arc, and he may only be a minor named protagonist, but I found Kubo killing off Vice Captain Sasakibe shocking. Even though I didn't particularly care for the character, that one fatality immediately shows that Kubo means business and that this final arc in Bleach is going to be a seriously big one. It just goes to prove that the impact of having a "good" character drop off the perch at an important moment is only made that poignant, by not bumping off your protagonists at every turn, since if Kubo had been doing so for the last decade, these recent events probably wouldn't have made me even bat an eyelid.

Sometimes less is more, and this is definitely the case with deaths in shounen.

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