When Bad Things Happen To Good Anime Characters
I guess I’m mostly over the mourning period. After all, even though it’s always hard to bear the loss of a great man whom one admired, knowing that the man in question never actually existed does make things a little easier. But only a little.
Out of respect for TWWK’s dislike of spoilers, I will make the announcement only that “Commander Tanaka” of The Space Opera has died in the line of duty. He was only in his early thirties, his meteoric rise through the ranks being attributable to a combination of quirky charisma and dazzling intellect, held simultaneously in a self-effacing, almost awkward humility. Certainly he never wanted such fame or such a position, but then again, great people are like that. They rise to the occasion regardless of personal desires.
Earlier I surmised that the main reason we anime fanartists do what we do is for love of the characters. Encountering real personalities in fictional characters, we are sometimes surprised by the depth of our feelings towards some of them. About eight months ago, I surprised myself by commenting that it had been an honor to draw Edward Elric, and I still won’t recant this statement. But it was an honor even to know Commander Tanaka.
Of course, it is by no means necessary to be an artist in order to have strong feelings about anime characters. And characters like Commander Tanaka are by no means rare in anime. No doubt each of us who watch anime can name several characters whose death or misfortune touched our hearts. Which begs the obvious questions: what is going on here? And what are we to make of it?
One theme I hear repeatedly amongst anime fans of all stripes is that anime touches the emotions like no other medium. No doubt some of the credit goes to the producers, who take on the difficult job of giving color and motion to black-and-white still images from manga (at least for those anime that are derived from manga). I think credit also goes to the voice actors, who really bring the characters to “life.” None of this is to say that other media don’t touch the emotions, whether movies or music or poetry or the fine arts, or of course American animation. It is just that there seems to be something powerful about the frankness of anime, and oftentimes its unwillingness to whitewash. Bad things do happen to good anime characters, after all, perhaps especially so.
When we feel moved by an anime character’s death or misfortune, it is tempting to explain it away as quickly as possible, or even to ignore it. (“Come on, R86, it’s just a cartoon. Let it go already.”) But I think we need to resist this kind of reaction. I’ve tried to learn not to be afraid to ask myself questions at those times. What is it about Commander Tanaka that makes his “death” feel almost like a loss of a real person? Is there something I need to learn from him? Does he remind me of someone I know? Or does he have qualities that I need to consider trying to emulate?
In my case, it might be that Commander Tanaka teaches me that all the talent and brilliance in the world cannot make up for an ounce of unselfishness, of putting the needs of others before one’s own, and of trying to see things in the long view rather than just one’s immediate surroundings. I don’t know whether he would have studied Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, but I can’t help thinking that Commander Tanaka would have come to the same conclusion: that if he gave up everything he could, in the end, if it weren’t motivated and energized by love, it would amount to precisely nothing. Commander Tanaka was also a lifelong student of history, and never failed to put things in a historical perspective, or to ask what future historians would say about his era. People like Commander Tanaka do not have to seek out power: power comes to them — if we are fortunate at least.
What about you? Can you think of a Commander Tanaka whose death or misfortune had a particular impact on you? And if you’d care to share it, what did you learn from the experience?