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.

Jiraiya-sensei is NOT “Commander Tanaka”. Or perhaps, for you, he is?

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?

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About R86

R86 is a chemistry professor, which is the sort of job that probably made you stop reading already. He lives in Minnesota during the cold months and Texas during the hot months (true story). In his spare time, he enjoys music (flute/saxophone/clarinet and MIDI/Vocaloid synthesis), drawing, writing, and watching anime. Besides his posts here at Beneath The Tangles, he also keeps a deviantART journal, updated roughly once per week.

Posted on 09.05.2012, in Christianity. Bookmark the permalink. 22 Comments.

  1. Ok, I’m totally confused here. I have no idea what you’re referencing. For all I know it sounds like you’re talking about a real person here.

    But I totally understand using the death of a larger than life character in a story as a plot device. It can do all kinds of amazing things for a story, in spite of fans’ reaction to the loss. Usually it helps free up space for the other characters to find themselves. Or it can deliver a message as grim and matter-of-fact as, “You never know when your time is going to come, so live every day to the fullest and expect the unexpected.”

    I can’t say that I’ve experienced a formative loss like that personally, though.

    • From my end, it sounds like you got my meaning just fine. I especially like the way you mention “fans’ reaction to the loss” of an anime character that made a strong impression, since this is exactly what I find so remarkable — that we feel it as a “loss” to begin with. But I couldn’t agree more that the death of such a character can be a powerful vehicle in the story, especially regarding character development.

      However, I will keep the fake names in my post, because those who have already seen The Space Opera already know that “Commander Tanaka” dies; and I don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t (like TWWK). ;)

  2. Gosh, there are probably too many for me to mention. The deaths…er…erasures from existence in the finales of two of my favorite shows from last year, Madoka and Mawaru Penguindrum, affected me particularly. The first demonstrated grace and both showed sacrifice – they each made me think deeply upon my relationship with Christ and stirred a gratefulness that I don’t often enough feel.

    By the way, the mentions below, I guess, are SPOILERS for Naruto and Trigun, though they’re pretty well known ones by this point.

    I’ve written about Wolfwood’s death a few times. He finds a measure of salvation as he passes, coming to realize the futility of doing things HIS way.

    In Naruto, I’m not sure I learned anything by these deaths, but I was impacted by both the passing of he Third Hokage and Jiraiya, since each was heroic and each was for such a significant character in Naruto’s life.

    Finally, the death of a young lady in RahXephon was also a powerful moment. I think this was because though of course we can’t relate to her Mu phase whatever, I think it was easy to relate to the alienation and longing she felt. The entire episode featuring her is terribly full of angst and sadness.

    Thanks for the post – and the lack of spoilers, too! :)

    • As you know (and I’m not proud of this), Madoka and Mawaru Penguindrum are both shows that I’m glad I endured — but also glad I watched as I think they were both important. There is still a drawing of the three Mawaru Penguindrum “siblings” (?) somewhere in that head of mine too. ;)

      Naruto
      seems chock full of powerful deaths, and I can’t help adding Asuma-sensei to your list. I wonder if that death taught me more than any other that good anime characters die, and somehow, life goes on for the survivors. Certainly it made me realize that Shikamaru is my favorite anime character ever.

      As for RahXephon, I have the box set and need to rewatch it sometime. It was one of the first series I watched and I have fond memories of it, though I admit I don’t remember the death to which you refer. But it doesn’t count as a spoiler because I did technically see it already. :P

  3. I can’t really say I’ve learned that much but there were definitely some deaths that impacted me more than others.

    In recent memory, I’d have to say the Refrain section of Little Busters, a visual novel would be my pick. Without going into details, we say goodbye to characters that have been essentially family for the whole story. In their absence, from the perspective of the main character, the feeling of absolute isolation and sadness really resonated within me. Especially because of how the events happened.

    In other anime, I’d have to say Clannad for sure. It’s kind of hard to talk about it without spoiling it so I guess I’ll just say everything here. Nagisa’s death, after going through a hectic journey from the beginning of the first season, and watching her grow emotionally, it was a sad scene to watch. But really, I could only feel the impact when I put myself in Tomoya’s shoes.

    • Clannad sure is an excellent example — I can hardly imagine anyone watching it without being affected by the tragedy that unfolds. The lesson I took from it was that loving is always worth it, no matter the results — although I could imagine someone watching Clannad and coming away with the exact opposite conclusion.

      I am not familiar with the visual novel you mention, but the impact sounds especially strong in part because of the ease with which one identifies with the main character. Which I guess means that the artist did well in envisioning and developing the character. :)

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

      • Little Busters was made by the same company that made the original visual novel version of Clannad. Key Visual Arts. I’d definitely recommend that you read it or watch the upcoming anime adaptation (which will hopefully be a good adaptation).

    • *Bit of spoilers warning ahead I guess*
      Refrain is awesome. It really teaches us how strong friendships can be, even when isolated from each other, they are still one way or the other bonded with each other.

      Of cause, Clannad is a no-brainer. It’s impossible not to feel the impact and tragedy of Nagisa’s death. I can certainly relate to Tomoya’s emotions and his struggles with his familial hardships.

  4. You are indeed right. Last few months ago, I made a similar post comparing about “real” and “fake”, how anime emotions seem to be portrayed much more genuine then real life movies ever could, but that’s discussion for another day.

    Personally, I don’t think I could relate to an anime character’s death as heavily as you could, but there are some anime deaths which had left me with quite an impact. Most of Fate/Zero’s deaths are at times pitiful, but the characters who had underwent such struggles in their journey only to end up in their deathbeds leave quite an impression to me. Sacrificing deaths in the ending of Code Geass and Madoka are also ones worth mentioning.

    • I think you may be on to something here about how emotions portrayed in anime can seem to be more genuine than in live action movies. I wonder if it has something to do with the way anime voice actors are forced to “project” themselves into an animated character, rather than using their own bodies as well as their voices to portray emotion? I’m not sure about this and I will need to read your post, as this topic is one of the main things that fascinates me about anime.

      Regarding your suggestions in your other comment, the only “Refrain” I could find is a 3-episode OVA called Refrain Blue. But I will keep looking as it sounds interesting.

  5. It’s amazing how we can connect to characters to the point that we feel our hearts drop when we watch their struggles and feel a real loss when characters die. It’s hard to imagine — crying over a fictional character? But the reality is, when the anime’s good, the characters become so much more than moving pictures. They represent hopes and dreams and so much more for people. I’m not an emotional person, but I can pick out a few key times when I’ve been moved to almost tears just by watching an anime (I won’t name specifics, so as not to spoil any series for anyone).
    And I think you can definitely broaden this outside of anime. Be it characters in books, movies, TV drama, we’ve all at one point or another felt a strong connection to the media to the point we experience the same emotions along with the characters. For those people who think it may be silly to cry or feel so attached to an anime character, I can guarantee you’ve been upset over some book you’ve read — just look at all the fan’s who cried over the multiple deaths in Harry Potter (yes, I was one of them).
    Anyways, spot on post, as usual! (R.I.P. Commander Tanaka! And that picture of Naruto and Jiraiya…! T^T </3)

  6. I think you’ve encapsulated the experiences of a lot of people who watch anime, including myself. I just don’t remember feeling so down because of an anime character’s death recently, but I’m sure it’s happened before.

    Of course, I used to mist up just thinking about a certain heartbreaking loss in a certain baseball anime… ;)

  7. Was just bored and trolling through and decided to chime in if that’s ok.

    To the best of my recollection I can only remember four very specific “erasures” as an earlier poster termed, that have not been hit on, as well as one generic setup that kinda “get me.” Three being in: e.f. a Tale of…, Moshidora, and H20. They all share in common a character who was the main catalyst for the development of the protagonist. Then there’s the generic situation of an older, generally a parent or grandparent character who dies as a form of self-sacrifice, or as a plot device to really shake the protagonists world. I think the generic situation is in play for all of us, as we will be in a real life situation like that one day or another if we haven’t already where the death of an older family member is imminent. The most touching erasure to me was the death of the Brigadier General, (I don’t believe I have to name names *avoiding spoilers as much as possible) and for the life of me it still gets me anytime I see it. I believe his family side and the fact that he was a lifeline to most of the main characters helped increase the feeling of loss despite his somewhat “bit part.” It was also one of the first real serious dark moments in what had been an otherwise mostly comedic and slapstick show. I think the first version of his death was probably the most emotional as the second existed in a much darker version so it lost some shock value.

    As to why I think we are shaken as much as we are by the erasures of anime characters I have come up with several theories which generally act independently or in unison to strengthen the affection we have towards a person who really doesn’t exist. This was actually something that I talked to a friend about several years ago though at the time it was more an arguement about realisticly drawn anime characters (kind of like Beserk) vs. more comic styled characters (FLCL). Some of the points are still valid and there are some new ones I’m thinking about on the fly as I type:

    1)They are mostly good-guys and we all generally mourn the passing of a good person even if they were an ass at times.
    2)Anime series(most) are relatively short. Emotions and feelings are crammed into short 20+ minute episodes and you may only get 10 eps a season or for an entire series. Some live action TV series run on so long that I wish people died just because they become tired and repetitive. Think of it in the sense that you can get to know an anime character from early life to death in a very short amount of time, much like having a puppy/kitty from early age till they get old and die.
    3)For the most part when an anime character dies, they die. Not to be reborn in some other anime, won’t be in season 2, gone forever and we know it. On the other hand if I’m watching a movie and the character Tom Hanks plays, dies, I’m liable to change the channel and find him safe and sound in another movie playing some half-wit at a bus stop offering people choc-co-lates.
    4)Anime characters with their exaggerated facial features seem more capable of showing “extreme emotion” far better than a human could, without seeming as overexaggerated. And while it may (and most of the time does) seem like emotion is overexaggerated in anime characters, it is done so much that you hardly notice it until something like extreme sadness makes you take notice.
    5)Most often you get to see the whole of an anime character, to the extent sometimes that you can almost feel what it’s like that character. You get to see their actions, hear their thoughts, hear what other people think about them, and see events in the characters life via flashbacks so private that if it were a friend in real life they’d probalby never tell you, and even if they did they couldn’t tell a story that paints a better picture than actually having a picture. So yes, it can be set up in say 13 episodes so that you know more of the deep personal details about a fake 17 year old anime character than you do a relative or friend you’ve known for years.
    6)A death in an anime that doesn’t primarily deal in death usually centers on or has major plot devices linked to that death. It could take the better part of the season or the series as a whole to set-up, play-out, and wrap-up a single death in an anime. So when it does happen it usually is designed to have maximum impact. The build-up, the setting, the music and especially the character relationships all play together for maximum effect.
    7)When a character dies you feel sad not only for the character but for the remaining characters as well. Being the viewer we have insights into the feelings that the other characters harbor for the deceased and so we feel their collective pain.
    8)There is a formula for body size/shape that subconciously acts on a humans baser emotions, with most anime characters fitting the build. I remember reading something on body/facial features that draw people’s emotions in subconsciously that was written about character development for the movie Avatar, and the same principles apply to anime.
    9)Unless you just watch drama based animes, death in anime as in life is less common than laughter and comedy (at least I hope so in your life, if not I apologize), so it strikes deeper and is more memorable than the times in an anime when you find yourself laughing. Think about it like this: In “random anime” how many people died?, now how many times did you laugh or smile. You might remember a handful or even most of the funniest parts of an anime but not all, but you do remember all, 100%, of the primary death or deaths in an anime.

    I could probably rant on for longer but I’m getting tired and I think my points are becoming scattered and straying off topic, and if you’ve managed to read this far I’m pretty sure you’re tired as well. Thanks for reading my rant and I’m sorry it went on for as long as it did.

    Regards,
    FFox.

    • What you may call a “rant,” I call fleshing out the ideas in my post better than I could have. So by all means rant on! :D

      I have often wondered about the degree to which the character art style is realistic and the degree to which we relate with the characters. It probably isn’t entirely cut-and-dried, but I do find myself gravitating towards those series in which the art style is realistic enough to make me “buy into” the characters, yet expressive enough to use them effectively as expressive vehicles. Clannad was the exception that proves the rule — I watched that series to the end, in spite of the dinner-plate-sized eyes and dots-for-noses, because the story was so powerful that I had to keep watching.

      I also resonate with your point about anime characters being “fully themselves.” They do have human voice actors, to be sure, but it’s as if they are freed from the limitations of their own bodies (I must sound really weird here) so as to be able to throw themselves completely into these animated shapes. This is something that I’d like to explore further one day.

      Another point that I’d like to explore further one day is the one I’ve made before, about anime characters that loom so large that they exceed their black enclosure lines and become concepts. In one of my journals at deviantART, I mused about what it would be like if (for example) Shikamaru took on real flesh and walked through my door. But by now I am sounding so weird that I really must stop. ;)

      Thanks again for commenting! :)

  8. Thanks for the thanks, I read it and your dA journal, indeed topics which require serious thought here are my thoughts regarding character art style:

    Character art style is something I find a bit of a difficult subject to approach with concrete rules and expectations. The series itself I think more than anything dictates the style and while I could break down individual series into art vs. depth of subject matter I’ll refrain as I don’t think there is enough time. The design of the characters changes with the tastes of the time and certainly if you compare early anime with the new, the execution has gotten simpler, but that may be a product of any one of thousands of factors. For any time period anime as far as I’m concerned there is an acceptable “vanilla” area where most series characer designs fall into, on one side of that there is the too comic-y like say Kill Me Baby or Dragonball, and on the other there is too realistic, something like the Escaflowne Movie or Appleseed. Not saying I don’t enjoy anything on either side, as the style was dictated by the purpose of the series/movie. I just find that characters designed too kiddish don’t really seem to capture my attention, while characters that are done too humanly seem to lose something in the process. The best way I can put it into context is think of it like a western movie. If all the characters look like the tough-gruff stereotypical 1800s old western style cowboy, dirty and unshaven, missing teeth the remaining teeth stained yellows and browns, with dingy tattered clothing you might think it a low budget affair or incapable of relaying real plot and pass it up. On the other hand if everyone in the movie is beautiful or handsome with clean rows of pearly white teeth and clean pressed clothes, it loses it’s effect. Nobody’s going to believe the gutter trash gang in some old west town has clean pressed clothes and teeth as white as a porcelain sink. The vanilla middleground might have some dirty degenerate side characters with the main characters being nicely dressed with cleaner teeth and appearances. To that effect I personally think animes done in more the vanilla style hold more because the characters appeal to us as being clearly human but not enough to actually be human, and in that sense i think these vanilla characters appeal to us more (perhaps subconciously) because we know that they are incomplete humans. There is no rule here however and series like Clannad/Kanon use what I think a more childish style of animation and like you said, draw you in with story. That’s not to say though that the art style doesn’t somehow have an effect as I believe emotions painted onto the faces of more childlike characters may evoke the protective… eh… parental (if you will) emotions of the viewer.

    If you want to see a series of animes that have a gradual progression in character design but keep most everything else the same I recommend 1.Voices of a Distant Star 2.The Place Promised in Our Early Days 3.Five Centimeters Per Second (Have to watch them in order). They’re not related but they’re by the same person and work as a visual log of design progression. These three films all draw on story, music, and I guess what I’d call “set” or “background” design which is awesome. But it is interesting to see as the movies progress how the character design influences your ability to “feel” them. The styling in the characters is pretty much the same but the level of design increases.

    That’s it for today, the second and third parts of your reply warrant their own replies so I’ll think on them for a bit and perhaps write something another time.

    Thanks,
    FFox

    • I just watched Five Centimeters Per Second about a week ago, and now that I think about it, I’ve watched all three of those movies, in the order you mentioned. Five Centimeters Per Second was my favorite of the three. :)

      In the meantime, I’ll wait for the remainder of your thoughts as you have time. ;)

  9. Sorry for the delay in posting part two-three, they both share some elements so it’s kinda morphed into a single point where characters fully inhabit the lines they’re drawn into, and some even break through the lines to become more of a character than possible for a real human to the extent that they become more of an ideal than the character drawn.

    I think most anime characters end up becoming more than the physical character, that is their characters end up exploding outside the drawn lines they’re given because anything is possible in animation. Certainly CG could match the graphic nature of what animation has the ability to show but at low budgets CG is cheesy and high budget CG could seem out of place in a light comedy series where something like “divine retribution for accidental infringement” is better done in a slapstick manner. Certainly a character who becomes so embarrassed that they turn red and steam pours out of their head as their eyes glaze over is something that performs better in an anime setting than in live action, I also think there are things that live action couldn’t possibly replicate as the anime setting is the only place where certain elements have context. The oversized “sweatdrop” on someones face or head when nervous/confused is something that I think allows anime to show a character’s feelings without requiring words or visible physical action. As I’ve said in a past post I think that the viewers ability to see all and hear all is the main key to characters seeming to be more than the sum of their parts. Being able to see the entirety of a person, id, ego, and superego (if I remember my psychology correctly) is something that opens up a realm of character personalization which is very hard to do in conventional live action series. Basically what I think I’m getting at is that anime is a more expressive form of cinema because it frees the characters from the bonds of our reality and shows us the whole reality that exists for the character all the while maintaining a link to something we resonate with. The link may be either defined, say in a series where characters are human and therefore share a bond with the viewer, or even undefined, say you watched cartoons as a kid and the animation in anime somehow relates to that nostalgia from childhood.
    Something else I’ve always wondered as I prefer subbed over dubbed anime is, does the action of reading subtitles over just listening to dialogue stimulate more of the brain in a way that it may be more enjoyable? I mean if a character is speaking english I take it for granted and can be doing a hundred other things and still pay attention to the verbal conversation, but I am possibly missing subtle bits and pieces that could give me more insight into what’s actually happening. Now if I’m reading subtitles I’m handcuffed visually to watching the screen and so perhaps more of my brain is alert to what’s happening. I know a little japanese so maybe when reading subs while listening to what’s actually being spoken perhaps I draw a little more information from the conversation, japanese is after all a language of subtleties. I think for anyone who has watched enough anime or knows enough of the language, reading subtitles allows us to logically follow the dialogue in the conversation while being able to hear the spoken content allows us to hear the emotion in the voice as well as catch things like plays-on-words or dialect specific jokes. As English is my first language I can only think of it as this: We take for granted the fact that most of what we see and watch in America is in English, it’s the equivalent of being fed the same meal day after day. Now we have the ability to watch something that is broadcast in Japanese with the ability to read English subtitles, you can think of this as being served two different meals and having the ability to compare the two and take what we like best from each of them.
    Could it also be it’s just this “new car smell” anime characters carry with them that allows them to seem like more than just characters to us. Could the tired old standards of American television have driven us to seek out and embrace something new as a form of entertainment. I will admit the sitcoms on the major stations seem bored and played out while “reality” programs have driven me to the point that I leave the TV off most nights. Even channels which were once informative and interesting have fallen to hours of gator-hunting-swamp-brained-rednecks (yes I’m from Oklahoma calling other people rednecks), and loose-moraled-millionaires running from marriage to marriage, party to party. While I believe that series like SAO and Accel World are interestingly original and entertaining with characters that seem to be more than just animated figures, could it be that the turds of American TV have made a dandelion seem more like a rose?

    Wow, I think I strayed off topic there for a bit at the end. Anyway that’s part of 2/3 I think I’ll save the rest for later, may post it to dA. If it seems a little scatterbrained at points it’s probably because I have more ideas than my brain can put to e-paper in a logical fashion without requiring several editions spread out over many posts.

    Anyway, Regards,
    FFox

  10. Continuing rant!

    No sooner had I pushed the submit button then a light bulb went off above my head! This also ties things back in to the original idea of the post

    I have watched a lot of anime, I mean a lot, and oddly enough I’ve just now come to realize that almost the entire library’s worth of anime I’ve seen has several things in common. Anime for the most part are “good” shows! I don’t mean good in the sense that they are well done, or entertaining, I mean they are “good” shows. Now some might show a little skin, or have a little violence in them but for the most part they are good shows. Shows whose themes or characters personalities are heavily built on friendship, love, honesty, kindness, etc. Most anime, or at least the ones I find myself actually watching, have characters who learn thoughout the series or have them from the start the virtues that make a good person. Perhaps it’s these good qualities which seem present in all anime that make the characters seem like more than just colored in black and white figures to us, especially when they die.

    • Eek! Sorry I forgot to respond! :P

      Your thoughts on anime characters as vehicles that carry emotions, and on ye olde sub-vs.-dub discussion, pretty much echo my own. Oddly, I’m now watching the second season of Code Geass, which is another one I have a lot of trouble with due to character design. But it’s an important enough show that I think I’d better see it through to the end.

      This is also why I probably don’t follow things like particular anime studios and creators as much as I should. It’s because of a deep-seated belief that I got somehow that some shows that come from mediocre studios can change my life, while others that are highly acclaimed and come from all the “right” people can leave me cold. I do pay a bit more attention to voice actors though.

      Something that I still can’t really figure out relates to when I first noticed that even Vocaloids, which are not really anime characters, can take on a meaning and a personality as well. This might be in part because there exists much less for them in terms of “canon” than for official anime characters, and so we the fans have wide latitude on what story (if any) we imbue this or that Vocaloid with. That being said, I remember quite clearly when Vocaloid Kagamine Len surpassed his black enclosure lines for me, and commented on that experience at my dA journal.

      It’s almost a shame that my field is chemistry, since I sometimes think there’s a book somewhere in here. :)

  11. Off the top of my head there is one character death that really bothered me. In fact, I’m always surprised about how much it bothered me. InuYasha was an “okay” anime for me, and I never much connected with any of the characters, and then suddenly one episode Kagura was killed.

    Kagura was not one of the “good guys”, but rather an unwilling servant of The Bad Guy. Unlike most of the bad guys she had some depth to her character and, at least to me, was morally “ambiguous” because of her circumstances. I didn’t particularly like her, so I still don’t quite understand why her death bothered me so.

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