Saturday, March 30, 2019

Blog News: April Blog Hiatus

Hi all!

First off, thank you so much for checking out my blog. Every view I see warms my heart. It's so exciting to know people are interested in my brain-doodles. It's been so much fun working on the blog and seeing it grow.

That said, life's been throwing some curveballs at me lately, and I've really been struggling to catch them. Focusing on the blog and other important non-writing personal matters have left me playing catch-up with some of my other projects, namely completing Book 2's draft of The Victor's Blade. Putting something that important to me on hold has been cramping my creativity on the blog, and I've noticed. I'm sure you have too.

That said, to better focus on TVB and giving myself a much-needed emotional and creative reset, I'm going to be taking a month-long hiatus from normal content on the blog. But not to fear! You'll still have posts to look forward to. Each week in April you'll be seeing posts that will point you to a YouTuber I'm particularly fond of, each one putting out the kind of analytical content you'd normally be seeing from me. You'll also see links to some of my older posts that you may not have read before, especially if you're a newcomer.

Once May is here, you can bet I'll be back refreshed and kicking and with lots of regular content for you!

My apologies for any inconvenience, but I hope you enjoy the content you'll be seeing in April!

Friday, March 29, 2019

From Pilot to Product - Little Witch Academia


TV show pilots are a curious and wonderful thing.

One of the few things I love more than enjoying media is seeing what happened behind-the-scenes. I love to see how they got the special effects to work for Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings. I love watching animators scribble away at frames for my favorite shows. And seeing how Star Wars transformed through the editing process? Crazy flipping brilliant. (RocketJump did some incredible research on that topic, if you’re interested.)

It’s like magic, getting to see how a story I love transformed over the course of its creation. And that’s exactly what pilots let us do.

Pilots are like buds on a branch, glimpses of a flower before it’s had the chance to bloom into its final form. It’s fun to compare and contrast the pilot to its show, to see what changed and what remained the same from that early concept to the final product.

Netflix 2017
Take Little Witch Academia, for instance: a fun, goofy, heartfelt, colorful anime about a young girl named Akko who is determined to become a witch, just like her childhood hero, a performing witch and has-been star, Shiny Chariot. Along the way, Akko has to deal with her woefully inadequate skills (and attention span) as she struggles to show the world the wonder of magic... and find out just what happened to Shiny Chariot. The show is equal parts Harry Potter school shenanigans, slice-of-life comedic adorableness, and action adventure delight.

The Little Witch pilot and show (both available for viewing on Netflix, if you’d like to give it a watch) contain the same general world, key characters, and basic plot. But how those things were presented changed a great deal from the pilot to the final product.

Some of those changes were unfortunate ones: things that got left on the cutting room floor that I would’ve liked to have seen in the actual show.

Netflix 2017
For instance, the witches’ long-range transportation system and/or power source, the ley lines. While the pilot only takes one small scene to explain them, it does a far better job of doing so than the show itself. Yes, they’re used for transportation over long distances. But how do they function as a source of magic? What are their exact limitations? I think an entire episode devoted to the ley lines—or one lecture, as occurred in the pilot—would’ve cleared up my confusion.

Netflix 2013
Another aspect of the pilot I preferred was how the girls’ brooms and wands had different attachments. For instance, the school darling Diana and her two friends pop a couple of paintbrush-like attachments onto the ends of their wands, granting them the ability to slowly float down a cavernous hole. Diana also later combines hers and her friends’ three paintbrushes to make a complete broomstick. It’s a clever idea that made for some interesting worldbuilding and could’ve created some funny and zany scenarios in the actual show.

One other idea I’m disappointed got left on the cutting room floor was the theme introduced in the pilot that “[t]hose who use... magic only for themselves will be destroyed by [it].” Though you can argue this theme is still present in the arc of one of the school professors, Croix, it’s hardly a factor in Akko’s growth. If the show had really zeroed in on this theme, I think it would’ve really strengthened the narrative... and would’ve made the purpose for and progression of Croix’s arc much more clear.

Professor Croix’s arc felt a little lackluster without the pilot’s theme at the forefront.

I understand some things have to be left on the cutting room floor; things change as a project progresses. It’s refreshing to know, however, that many of the less-stellar aspects of the pilot were indeed changed for the better in the final show.

Wowww. Never would’ve noticed
if she hadn’t said something.
For one, the pilot contains a lot more exposition; characters will outright explain what’s going on. In fact, there’s one scene in the pilot where Akko is basically radio announcing, “The magic power is pouring into it [the magic wand]!” Granted, this spoon-fed exposition is no stranger in anime, but it can be done in far more interesting or entertaining ways. Fortunately, the show learns from the pilot’s mistake, opting to show how the world works more often than not. And for those moments where there is more traditional exposition, it’s delivered in a natural and succint way that doesn’t insult the viewer’s intelligence.

Much of this exposition problem could be attributed to the length of a pilot versus the time the entire show has to set up the worldbuilding. This isn’t the only storytelling aspect that suffers from the brevity of the pilot; the pilot also contains awkward pacing issues that result in head-scratching moments clearly shoved in just to serve the narrative.

For instance, there’s a moment in the pilot where Akko rides a dragon like it’s a bucking bronco. But almost immediately after she lands on its back, she begins whining dramatically that she “can’t hold on.”

That’s weird... looks like you’re doing just fine to me.

This isn’t played for laughs; it’s meant to be a dramatic moment where we’re concerned for her wellbeing. But Akko has barely tried to hold on at all; the drama of the moment isn’t earned. The awkward pacing is further compounded by the scene’s resolution, in which Shiny Chariot’s famous catchphrase echoes in Akko’s ear, inspiring her to push through—when, again, Akko hasn’t really done anything to earn this moment. This kind of awkward build-up with immediate and unearned payoff leaves parts of the pilot feeling forced. Fortunately, things are paced out far better in the actual show: in fact, I’d argue the set-ups and payoffs are one of Little Witch Academia’s greatest strengths.

Another awkwardly-handled element relates to Chariot’s legendary magic wand, the Shiny Rod. This item is important not only to Akko personally but also to the overall plot and should get the proper fanfare. However, in the pilot, Akko just stumbles across the wand in a dump. Though perhaps more realistic, this introduction to the Shiny Rod is quite lackluster, especially compared to its introduction in the show, where it appears mystically before Akko when she finds herself lost in the dangerous and forbidden Forest of Arcturus.

Netflix 2017

Netflix 2013
And it’s not just the Shiny Rod that gets treated differently in the pilot; the way magic works is very different, and I’m glad it changed for the better in the actual show. For one, magic in the Little Witch pilot is a less restricted and a lot more powerful. The girls pop off spells from their wands without any prep or magic words—like firing laser guns with purple blasts. They also have a powerful shield spell that negates a lot of damage and takes no effort to put up. This removes much of the tension when they’re facing a dangerous challenge.

The girls’ everyday assignments at school also feel much less academic in the pilot, which while providing more action than a typical episode of Little Witch Academia would, also loses some of the charm the actual show contains: the irony of these zany, death-defying problems that occur at a location that should be as structured and rigid as a school. In the actual show, each task they complete at least feels like something they would do at a school that teaches magic. But the pilot’s class assignment just feels like an RPG video game, as Akko’s friend Sucy even states.

The irony of this is that while the assignment feels like a video game, what happens there is nowhere near as benign as a game. The pilot has moments that are much darker than the show, and I’m glad they opted for a far lighter tone in the end.

One of the most notable changes from pilot to show, however, involved the characters.

Netflix 2013
For instance, though Akko’s personality remains largely the same between pilot and show, there’s one major difference: Akko can use magic in the pilot, shooting off spells and flying on her broomstick. Compare this to the show, in which she struggles with even the most basic of maneuvers and spells. This change was likely because they couldn’t justify their protagonist being completely inept at magic in a show about witches, but it’s obviously far more entertaining and rewarding to see Akko get better at magic over the course of the show. Seeing her go from spells being spoon-fed to her in dire situations to quickly casting a series of transformation spells is incredibly satisfying.

But at least Akko still acted like herself in the pilot; not so for Professor Ursula and Diana, both of whom clearly benefitted from the rewrite that occurred between pilot to final product!

The pilot’s version of Professor Ursula outright irritated me at times. She could come off as a bit burned-out and snippy, just like every other teacher at the school seemed to be. She also took charge of situations much more, but often had a bossy air to her. This was not at all the Ursula that I got to know and love in the show: the one who is caring and bumbling, but whose heart is always in the right place and who selflessly protects her students.

Netflix 2017

Netflix 2013
But the character who benefited the most from extra revisions after the pilot was certainly Diana. In the pilot, she’s nothing more than a cliché bully. She’s cold and mean-spirited, openly mocking Akko in public and calling people names. She even acts this way to her two friends, showing little concern for them. When they’re both too afraid to push further into a dungeon the three are exploring, Diana just shrugs and condescendingly says they can wait around with “the slowpokes” (Akko, Lotte, and Sucy) before she heads on without them. And if you thought that wasn’t bad enough, Diana is totally full of herself in the pilot, proclaiming how the huge hoarde of treasure she and her friends have unearthed for their school assignment are all just “common items,” that the monsters she’s defeated are “not even worth [her] time.” And there’s nothing they need to fear during this assignment, Diana says, because her magic is “invincible.”

The Diana of the show would have never acted in this way. She may look down on Akko, but it’s not because of Akko’s lack of pedigree; it’s because Diana misunderstands Akko’s intentions. In fact, Diana has a protective nature in the show. She would never abandon her friends if they were fearful or in danger; she would fight and get them to safety. She works to protect the dignity of the world of magic as well as the dignity of her family name—not because she’s a snob, but because she’s proud of the genuinely good things her family has done. The final version of Diana is complex, refreshing, and endearing: and, thank goodness, a far cry from the cliché school bully we received in the pilot.

Netflix 2017

And this demonstrates the value (and fun) in comping a pilot to its final product. Some elements of Little Witch Academia went from annoying issues to some of the most endearing aspects of the show. Though certain creative elements had to be dropped from the pilot, overall, the changes made were good ones that helped shape Little Witch Academia into the product it is today. Without these changes, Little Witch Academia would have been a far inferior show and may never have become such a treasured memory of mine.

---
All photos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. Unless otherwise specified, all photos are taken from Netflix.

Little Witch Academia and all related terms are the property of Netflix. And I am not affiliated with them.

From Him, To Him

Friday, March 22, 2019

Theme Talk: Expanding Horizons in Kingdom Hearts


This post will contain spoilers for


The Kingdom Hearts series, including

Kingdom Hearts III



You have been warned.



“This world is just too small,”1 mutters a young man as he stands on the sandy shore of his island home, staring off into the horizon.

Square Enix 2010

Thus begins Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep, and thus begins the arc of Kingdom Hearts’ main villain, Xehanort.

Kingdom Hearts is a story about boundaries, whether it’s relational barriers keeping people from understanding each other or physical barriers separating one world from another. It’s also a story about the characters who seek to bridge those gaps, to break those barriers. Look no further than Xehanort’s humble beginnings: he feels his world, Destiny Islands, is too small and decides to expand his horizons, breaking the barriers between worlds by crossing over into a new one. And Xehanort is hardly alone; two other characters exhibit this same desire: the protagonist Sora and his friend Riku. Just like Xehanort, the boys wish to leave their homeworld and venture to new lands.

But despite the desire these characters share, one stark contrast divides them: both Riku and Xehanort become villains (at least temporarily), falling to their darker impulses. However, Sora is only ever portrayed as a hero. Why is this? What makes the difference between Xehanort and Riku’s desires and that of Sora’s when, at least on the surface, they all seemed to want the same thing? Why did seeking to expand their horizons cause Xehanort and Riku to fall while Sora remained on the path of light?

Considering the Desire

Perhaps the answer to this lies in their motives: why each wishes to leave their home and explore other worlds.

Xehanort’s Desire

Xehanort makes his reason abundantly clear: his homeworld is far too small for him.2 He requires broader horizons. He isn’t content to simply sit and wait out his life’s end; he wants more. Xehanort is a highly intelligent person, and he finds the islands intellectually stifling, too small for his great mind.

Square Enix 2019

The proof of this lies in a line Xehanort delivers to Sora when they first encounter one another, when Xehanort has seen many worlds but before Sora has had a chance to venture forth on his own journey:

“You understand so little,” Xehanort comments to the naive Sora.

“Oh yeah? Well, you’ll see. I’m gonna get out and learn what’s out there!” Sora proclaims.

“A meaningless effort. One who knows nothing can understand nothing.”3

Square Enix 2013

Xehanort believes that he began his journey with knowledge, otherwise he would have never been able to learn more—about the world, about history, and much more. And in some ways, Xehanort is correct: he grew up with far more information than Sora did.

Unlike Sora, Xehanort left his homeland sometime during his youth, eventually finding himself in an entirely different world. This enabled Xehanort to learn a great deal about ancient history and the part keyblades and keyblade wielders had in shaping it; quite unlike Sora, who even after years of adventuring remains largely ignorant of such things.4

This scene also shows that Xehanort and Sora are both curious souls seeking experiences beyond what their homeworld offers. However, what this scene does not detail is that Xehanort has taken his desire for knowledge too far; he worships it. And this worship of knowledge leads to another way Xehanort’s reasons for traveling are similar but different from Sora’s: Xehanort believes he possesses more knowledge than others and that therefore, his way of thinking—and he himself—is superior.

Xehanort believes that light and darkness should exist in equilibrium, that too much of either is bad for the worlds.5 And because he believes his way of thinking—and only his way of thinking—is correct, he feels it is his duty to force this “knowledge” on the world by correcting the world’s balance of light and darkness, which he learns he can do if he obtains the series’ namesake, a legendary artifact known as Kingdom Hearts.6

Square Enix 2014

Riku’s Desire

It’s interesting to note that, like Xehanort, Riku’s desire to expand his horizons is tainted by a sliver of pride as well, as displayed when he stares down the open maw of a portal that will take him to another world. Though Riku makes it clear he knows there will be consequences to his decision to travel, and one could make the argument he even sounds a bit hesitant to leave, he still decides to go through the portal, declaring into the abyss, “We can’t let fear stop us. I’m not afraid of the darkness!”7

Square Enix 2013

This lack of fear may seem like courage, but in truth it contains a grain of pride. Riku believes he is superior to the forces of darkness, that he can control them. In a scene far later in the game, Riku has obtained the ability to literally control monstrous embodiments of darkness known as Heartless, and he proudly proclaims:

“The Heartless obey me now, Sora. Now I have nothing to fear.”

Square Enix 2013

But Sora protests, “You’re stupid! Sooner or later, they’ll swallow your heart!”

“Not a chance. My heart’s too strong.”8

How ironic, then, that this lack of fear proves to be Riku’s downfall, as he later becomes a puppet to that very darkness. As the old adage says, “Pride goeth before a fall.”

But Riku’s desires weren’t always tainted by pride. Much like Xehanort and Sora, Riku’s desire to leave his island home is initially propelled by curiosity.

In one scene in the original Kingdom Hearts, Riku, Sora, and their mutual friend Kairi discuss their plan to travel to another world by raft.

“So... Kairi’s home is out there somewhere, right?” Sora asks, looking out across the ocean that disappears into the horizon.

“Could be,” Riku says coolly. “We’ll never know by staying here...”9

It’s notable that Riku isn’t completely certain. They are fairly confident Kairi came from another world, but Riku knows that they’ll never be sure unless they see other with their own eyes.

Later in that same scene, Kairi pipes in: “So, suppose you get to another world. What would you do there?”

Riku is unprepared for this question. “Well, I... I haven’t really thought about it.”10 The “what” had never been his focus. It was the why that has caused Riku to yearn for other worlds.

“It’s just... I’ve always wondered why we’re here on this island,” Riku says. “If there are any other worlds out there, why did we end up on this one? And suppose there are other worlds... Then ours is just a little piece of something much greater. So we could have just as easily ended up somewhere else, right?”

“I don’t know,” Sora replies.

“Exactly,” Riku says. “That’s why we need to go out there and find out.”11


Square Enix 2013

Riku wants to know why they’ve begun on Destiny Islands. He’s seeking purpose and meaning in his life. He needs to explore other worlds because he doesn’t know the answers to those questions.

This is key, but there are a few more elements to Riku’s desire to see other worlds.

“Just sitting here won’t change a thing,” Riku points out. “It’s the same old stuff. So let’s go.”12

Riku is bored of Destiny Islands, bored of the status quo, “the same old stuff.” Destiny Islands no longer holds any wonder or adventure for him; he needs to know why he ended up in this rut and what other opportunities await him in the outside world. He knows he will never shake the “same old, same old” until he ventures to another world. We can hear Riku’s desperation to break this status quo in his proclamation to Sora as he stares into the portal to leave their world:

“Once we step through, we might not be able to come back. We may never see our parents again. There’s no turning back. But this may be our only chance.”

And this is where Riku shouts, “We can’t let fear stop us. I’m not afraid of the darkness!”13

Riku refuses to allow fear or the threat of doing something terrible get in the way of him learning more about the outside worlds. And though this level of commitment is admirable, it is not necessarily commendable, as players of Kingdom Hearts know all too well, as it begins Riku down his descent into darkness.

Xehanort wishes to gain more knowledge by broadening his horizons. Riku wants to escape the status quo by seeking other places, other opportunities, and forging his own path. But why does Sora want to leave Destiny Islands and see other worlds?

Sora’s Desire

Sora’s desire to leave the islands is somewhat less clear than the other two. He possesses the desire to increase his knowledge like Xehanort (“I’m going to go out and learn what’s out there!”). One could argue he also feels, like Riku, that Destiny Islands has become boring, as evidenced in a small scene he shares with Kairi.

Unlike the boys, Kairi was not born on Destiny Islands, arriving there one mysterious night during a mystic meteor shower. As aforementioned, Kairi and the boys are fairly certain she came from another world, though Kairi doesn’t remember anything about it.14

“Ya ever wanna go back?” Sora asks her.

“Hm... Well, I’m happy here.”

“Really...”15 Sora’s response is almost a question, and he clearly sounds unenthusiastic and, potentially, unconvinced. Perhaps he, like Riku, felt as though he could never be fully happy here on Destiny Islands and finds it hard to believe anyone else could had they seen other worlds.

One thing is certain: ever since meeting Kairi, Sora has wanted to see more of her world—and any others out there.

Square Enix 2013

This is the beacon that guides us to Sora’s true reason for wishing to leave Destiny Islands. Sora’s desire to leave is filled with bright-eyed, childlike wonder. He wants to see Kairi’s world. He wants to know what these other places are like. It’s a simple curiosity, a desire to see and experience new things and meet new people. This is made apparent in the frequent delight Sora experiences with each new world he visits. He thrills at seeing new things, not so much for the intellectual stimulation like Xehanort nor to see other courses his life could have taken like Riku, but for the sheer enjoyment of seeing things he’s never seen before.

Square Enix 2014

While Xehanort, Riku, and Sora all desire to leave the islands because there’s more beyond their home they feel they simply must see, Xehanort and Riku differ from Sora in that they wish to see other islands primarily out of a desire to grow themselves: arguably, out of ambition. Contrast this with Sora. Though he wishes to improve himself (see how offended and defensive he becomes when Xehanort proclaims he “understands so little”), Sora primarily wishes to see other worlds out of curiosity and exploration. To learn more, see more, and meet more people.

Both Xehanort and Riku are willing to make great sacrifices for the sake of their journey, and little wonder why: they’re journeying out of a desire to improve themselves. Theirs is, inherently, a self-focused desire... and self-focus always teeters on the edge of healthy self-improvement and destructive selfishness.

Does this mean Kingdom Hearts presents ambition—and self-improvement—as inherently evil? No, not necessarily. Kingdom Hearts never condemns the desire to improve oneself. Sora proclaims he’s going to “get out and learn what’s out there,” so he has this desire to grow as well, even if it isn’t his primary desire for travel. No, Kingdom Hearts doesn’t have a problem with ambition in and of itself. What Kingdom Hearts sees as truly evil is when someone no longer cares if their ambition harms others.

Considering the Consequences

Sora is one of the most conscientious characters in all of Kingdom Hearts. He frequently sacrifices his good for the sake of others and is always concerned about their happiness or wellbeing. He would never do anything that would hurt people.

Xehanort, on the other hand, never considers how his journey may affect anyone else. In fact, in his later years, as he gets closer to expanding his horizons further than anyone ever has, he seems to take pleasure in harming others should they attempt to get in his way.

Square Enix 2014

Riku’s case is only slightly different. Unlike the lone wolf Xehanort, Riku cares about how his journey will affect his inner circle of friends (Sora and Kairi). He wants them to accompany him on his journey, as evidenced in a scene where Sora and Riku meet up as monstrous beings of darkness called Heartless are threatening to take over their world.

“The door has opened, Sora!” Riku proclaims. “Now we can go to the outside world!”

“What are you talking about?” Sora retorts. “We’ve gotta find Kairi!”

“Kairi’s coming with us!”16

Riku doesn’t want to leave Kairi behind. It was Riku’s plan to build a raft and leave Destiny Islands, but he purposefully extended this invitation to his two closest friends. However, this same invitation is not extended to the other children from their hometown.

Riku never once asks what happened to his home after Destiny Islands is swallowed by the Heartless, unlike Sora (“What happened to my home? My island?” Sora demands in one scene).17 Instead, all Riku cares about is finding Kairi. It almost seems Riku could care less what happened to the rest of the island’s inhabitants, to those outside his inner circle of friends.

Riku’s tale displays the danger in this limited concern. Ultimately, his concern for only his inner circle of friends is inherently selfish. And this selfishness eventually degrades even his concern for his friends, as evidenced by the fact that later on, Riku has no qualms about betraying Sora in order to advance his own agenda.

Caring only for your inner circle is truly little better than only caring for yourself if it comes at the expense of others’ happiness. Kingdom Hearts makes this clear as it shows that the less Riku considers his friends and the more he pursues his own goals, the further he descends into darkness.

Betraying friends, harming others—these are the things Kingdom Hearts portrays as inherently evil... and the things it warns are the inevitable conclusion if one fails to consider how their desires may affect other people. Riku’s limited concern (only for his inner circle of friends) results in him losing sight of how valuable his close friends were to him in the first place. It leads to him literally losing control of himself, and it forces him down a year-long process of fighting his inner demons.

Xehanort inflicts pain and suffering on many others, even betraying his life-long friend and brother-in-arms, as well as outright killing innocents. Though some fans felt Xehanort did not receive appropriate punishment for his sins, the series never shied away from portraying just how terrible Xehanort’s choices truly were. This is nowhere more evident than in Sora’s final battle with Xehanort, which takes place in the very world where Xehanort lived and trained after he left Destiny Islands to begin his journey: a world called Scala ad Caelum.

This pristine city of polished white stone islands floating in a crystal sea is lovely to behold... but alarmingly empty when Sora arrives to fight Xehanort. There are no bustling people to populate its streets, though there clearly must have been at some point, given how vast the place is. It fills the city with a sense of eerie, painful loss. What happened here to reduce such a beautiful city to a ghost town?

Square Enix 2019

And of course, as Xehanort wages his final battle against Sora, warping the very streets with his magical abilities, the beautiful city becomes twisted, distorted... and destroyed. In the end, Xehanort stands at the summit of the city... looking down at the wreckage he made, at the world he destroyed single-handedly. It’s a striking visual reminder of all the other worlds and all the other lives he had destroyed getting to this point. And it was Xehanort’s wanton grasping for his own desires with no concern for others that brought him here.

It’s a stark reminder of the warning Kingdom Hearts presents: beware when chasing after your desires and pursuing your aspirations... making sure they never come at the cost of others’ wellbeing.

---
Notes and References:
  1. Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep, Directed by Tetsuya Nomura and Tai Yasue, Written by Masaru Oka and Daisuke Watanabe, September 7, 2010, Square Enix.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 Remix, Directed by Tetsuya Nomura, Written by Jun Akiyama, Daisuke Watanabe, and Kazushige Nojima, September 10, 2013, Square Enix.
  4. Kingdom Hearts III, Directed by Tetsuya Nomura and Tai Yasue, Written by Tetsuya Nomura and Masaru Oka, January 29, 2019, Square Enix.
  5. “Xehanort Reports,” Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep, Directed by Tetsuya Nomura and Tai Yasue, Written by Masaru Oka and Daisuke Watanabe, September 7, 2010, Square Enix.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 Remix.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid.
All photos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws.

Kingdom Hearts and all related names and terms are the property of Square Enix Holdings Co., Ltd. And I am not affiliated with them.

From Him, To Him

Friday, March 15, 2019

Excerpt - The Misadventure of Donovan and Aevyrn, Part 1


You guys thirsty for an excerpt? I know I am. I happened to be going through some of my old files and found this baby. Gave it a little polish (as it's a bit of an oldie) and voila.

This sucker features characters and a fictional universe I developed alongside my friend Mitchell Anderson through an original fantasy roleplay we'd done. It started as a one-off and ended up becoming an entire book (and, of course, by the time I was done with it, plans for a series of books).

Donovan Luka is Mitch's character, though this particular "misadventure" is of my own creation.

Note (8-26-19): Noticed a mistake while reading back through these. Revised for consistency in later sections.

---

Branches snapped and leaves crackled beneath our feet as we stumped through the forest. We were two young men on a quest—handsome, dashing, fearless—and absolutely, positively knowing exactly where we were going. Naturally.

Donovan was a few strides ahead, as always, wading his way through mountains of leaves. As we walked, he pushed his way past whatever branches hung in his way—which were many, since my fellow elf was a good six and a half feet tall. I myself was on the shorter end, standing a few inches below him, but I still ducked every so often to avoid the drooping limbs.

“Are we nearly there?” I panted.

Donovan stuck his hand in the air, the signal for quiet. Without a word, he continued his lunge through the wood.

I snorted crossly but followed in my friend’s shadow.

Despite my exhaustion, hunger, and growing irritation at Donovan’s silent march, I had to admit that the forest was a lovely sight. Tall, thin saplings rose around us in every direction: their bared branches scraped the forest sky. Muted, mottled autumnal colors swirled around us: dusky brown, dim orange, and golden yellow. The crisp breeze that blew through the trees was nothing like the bitter winds of home.

Nevertheless, when you have been tramping for hours and have not eaten in three more, any forest—no matter how lovely—is going to lose its enchanting qualities quickly indeed.

“Donovan, since you insist on leading us straight into nowhere,” I finally huffed as I clapped my hands on my knees, panting for breath. “Then I hope you don’t mind if I take a well-deserved rest.” At that last word, I dropped my seat to the cushion of leaves on the forest floor.

Donovan paused where he was and slightly tilted his head in my direction, a ghost of a smile lurking on his features.

At least I’d gotten his attention. And gotten him to stop.

I remained as I was, staring at him, mustering up all the miserableness I could. Indeed, I was quite miserable without the mustering, especially as I was frying under my woolen overcoat and hat. Not the best clothes for a forest hike, as I now knew. I yanked my hat off my head and fanned myself with it.

Donovan shook his head, chuckling as he pressed onward.

“Oh, Donovan, come along!” I scrambled to my feet, scattering leaves in a swirl of crisp chaos. “If you’re going to drag me on an expedition on our holiday, you have to at least tell me where we’re headed!”

Donovan mounted a log and shoved a low-lying branch out of his face. Still perched like a bird on the log, he shot me another glance over his shoulder before replying with a shrug, “Anywhere.”

I adjusted my cap as he passed the flexible branch to me, and I in turn pushed it aside. “Donovan Luka, of all the horrible things you’ve done to me in the past, this must be by far the worst!”

He laughed as I followed after him in a huff. I may have been only half serious, but I was angry nonetheless.

“You know, when you suggested we go exploring, I nearly thought you’d get us tumbling into some terrific adventure again.”

Donovan passed me another branch, and still regaining my breath I had no choice but to pause as I accepted it and shoved it out of my way.

“Now an adventure is one thing, Donovan—I’ll be the first to sign up for one, as you know. And a nice walk on a holiday, well that’s an entirely other thing—but just as pleasant and just as well-received—

“But this, my friend, is neither an adventure, nor a holiday. This, Donovan Luka, is absolute madness, and I’ll have you know that I would far rather be sitting at base right now drilling with the Commander than be wandering around aimlessly, for all practical purposes, quite lost.”

“We’re not lost for all practical purposes,” Donovan said in his deep, carefree voice that fetches all the ladies’ attention. “We are quite lost.”

Needless to say, a hundred years of training side-by-side with Luka had still not trained me for that. Incredulous, I stared at him, speechless and momentarily immobile. “Lost?!” I clutched my head, bellowing to the sky in my frustration.

Neither the sky nor Donovan cared.

“I could be quaffing a brew, playing cards with the lads! Why oh why did I have to follow you in hopes of an adventure?” I moaned while staggering after Donovan, who simply continued to chuckle.

I was laughing myself on the inside, though I’d never admit it to him. He’d played quite the trick on me, but we both knew I’d follow him to the ends of the earth—whether I was missing training or holiday or a visit into town to dance with the prettiest ladies in the land.

“It was such a lovely holiday, too…” I mounted a rock, pursuing Donovan as he jumped from crag to crag like a doe.

The terrain was growing steeper, and we could hear water in the distance. Rocks, great and small, began to jut from the forest floor like gems studded in a necklace.

“Come on. Don’t tell me you didn’t think it was dull,” Donovan said as the ground began to level off again.

With no more acrobatics to perform, I was able to catch up to him at last. We walked side by side now.

“I mean,” he continued, “nothing further from an adventure than staying on base, Ave. I’m just rescuing you from boredom!”

“You interrupted my nap for this!” I scoffed, still unwilling to take the blame for my part in this impossible march.

“Ah, right, your nap. Like an unused hound who’d leap at the scent of fox again.” Donovan cast me a very wise and irritating grin, and we both knew he was right. Despite my reputation as a home man, I really was an adventurer at heart, one of few qualities we both shared.

“All the same,” I remarked as I hopped over a thick rotten log, “I gave up my precious holiday to meander! We don’t get many holidays nowadays, what with graduation approaching.”

Graduation. The topic gave me pause. “What exactly are you planning to do after the Academy, Donovan?”

“Oh, I’ll figure something out. There must be need for a good soldier somewhere.” He shrugged.

It still boggled the mind: him going to the illustrious Academy and yet with no ambitions. Not that I was much better; there was a reason Donovan hadn’t repeated the question to me. Everyone in the Academy knew where I was bound.

“That’s the way, Aevyrn,” the boys would say as they slapped my back, chuckled, and nodded. “Royal Guard, that’s the post for you! No need to wish you luck; you’ll get the spot for sure.”

Their confidence was kind, but not reassuring. I had my reservations about my qualifications for the Guard. Still, it was the only post I’d ever wanted to hold, for several reasons.

Mainly, I had nothing else to which to aspire. I had no inheritance; my elder brother would take over the castle and the surrounding land. The only money I had to my name was the gold my parents had sent with me to put me through the Academy. Indeed, the sizable income of a Royal Guard should be a very attractive alternative to a boy with no inheritance, but I knew I was after something more than money.

As I mucked with Donovan through the woods, it was more clear than ever: the reason the Royal Guard attracted me was not simply my loyalty to the crown nor even my mild interest in politics, but the fact that the Guard might offer me the taste of adventure that I’d always pined for growing up in Castle Torrinway.

And it was while these thoughts filled my head that I bumped into Donovan’s outstretched arm with an unsuspecting grunt. Donovan quickly hushed me.

I blinked as I glanced from him to the surrounding forest, and though I could see nothing, my hand flew to my side—

I resisted the urge to spit with disgust as I recalled, too late, that I had left my blade back at the inn. All that met my hand was the pommel of my father’s hunting knife.

Well, Ave, looks like we may be getting your adventure, after all… came Donovan’s voice in my head.

What is it? I asked, still unable to see anything between the trees that here grew quite dense and formed a tight circle around us. It had gotten so dark. How long had I been lost in my musing? I resisted the urge to curse. Had I so quickly forgotten my century of training?

As if to redeem myself, my hand wrapped around the hilt of the knife that stuck out of my belt. Better it than nothing.

Donovan’s voice brought me back to the situation at hand. Not sure what it is exactly. Heard some rustling that-a-way, he wagged his head ahead and to our left. Too big to be a raccoon or fox.

Deer?

He shook his head.

We stood, uncertain, glaring into the creeping darkness of the evening forest.

From Him, To Him

Friday, March 8, 2019

An Unabashed Love Letter to Gurren Lagann


This post will contain spoilers for


Gurren Lagann



You have been warned.



There are few anime that have nestled their way into my heart as quickly as Gurren Lagann.

Aniplex of America 2007

To this day, I’m not entirely certain what specifically won me over to this show so quickly. Was it the characters? The interesting world? The premise? The kicking theme song? The almost self-aware, ridiculously over-the-top stakes that continue to push further and further out of the realm of possibility while cackling madly? Maybe it’s a combination of all these things and more.

All I know is that immediately after watching Gurren Lagann, I felt like I’d seen it during my childhood, like it was an old friend: it made me feel nostalgic after viewing it for the first time.

Aniplex of America 2007
Gurren Lagann displays everything I love about anime, everything that sets it apart from so many Western shows. It’s quirky, over-the-top. Its animation is stylized; its character reactions are absurdly dramatic and expressive, taking full advantage of what 2D animation has to offer. It gets you pumped up... and inspires you in real life.

The Characters

My favorite aspect of Gurren Lagann is by far its characters. The designs are excellent: striking, unique, and memorable. Who hasn’t seen an image of bikini-clad sniper Yoko or sunglasses-donning, bare-shirted Kamina?

 
Aniplex of America 2007

But the characters go beyond their designs. They’re well-written, lovable, and unforgettable.

These characters grow and change. They exhibit realistic emotions in a setting that continually goes over-the-top. Maybe that’s part of what makes the premise and plot stay firm: the grounded characters.

It seems funny calling the colorful cast of Gurren Lagann grounded, but they are—at least emotionally. Even one of the arguably most flamboyant characters, Kamina (despite his outbursts of bravado and unrestrained confidence) has moments that ground him. He genuinely cares for Simon, who he treats as a little brother and mentee. He earnestly throws his whole self into whatever project he needs to in order to lead the team forward, but he’s not selfish about it; Kamina sacrifices himself for the team. He may seem like a goofball, but he takes his relationship with Yoko quite seriously

Aniplex of America 2007

So losing him leaves a hole in everyone’s hearts.

The Themes

Much like Kamina, Gurren Lagann—despite its boisterous, loud, and brazen nature—is a show that matters. Not just to the anime community, but to the people who watch it. It proclaims important themes and life lessons that we take for granted.

Like the importance of not letting yourself stay in a rut but of pushing forward.

Aniplex of America 2007

Or the value all people and life, no matter how different they may seem from us.

Aniplex of America 2007

Or to cherish the good things in life, because we’re all mortal and someday, we may lose them.

Aniplex of America 2007

And when we do experience those losses, to not wallow in misery and pain, but to accept those feelings, work through them, and move forward.

Aniplex of America 2007

It teaches us that there is inner strength in even the most feeble, benign, docile-looking person, and to embrace that strength because other people are relying on it.

Aniplex of America 2007

It teaches us the value of friends and how two or more people can accomplish what might have seemed impossible.

Aniplex of America 2007

And speaking of the impossible, Gurren Lagann laughs at the notion, because its main message is to never stop trying just because the odds are stacked against you... or because no one else has ever done it before.

Aniplex of America 2007

Now, can the characters do everything and anything? No. There are still stakes. There are still failures. But that makes the successes and sacrifices all the more valuable.

Aniplex of America 2007

Because Gurren Lagann teaches us that life can and will change; that it must; and that we can overcome the pain that comes with that change and become better, stronger, and happier for it.

Aniplex of America 2007

Gurren Lagann has romance, comedy, tension, and drama. It has strained family relationships. It has painful loss and how to overcome it.

And, most importantly, it has heart.

A Show that Sticks With You

When I first finished watching Gurren Lagann, I felt that familiar bittersweet feeling I get every time I complete a story I have adored. But while that was certainly unexpected, what truly surprised me is how the show has stuck with me long after that initial bittersweet delight. While I can point to many shows I’ve watched and say, “Wow, that was a good show,” oftentimes I need to rewatch them to remember just exactly how much I enjoyed them and why. This is not the case with Gurren Lagann. Every time Gurren Lagann has come to mind, I remember exactly how much I’d cherished it. Every time, it fills me with a sense of warm memories: “Ah, Gurren Lagann. That was a great show.” Despite its shortcomings and quirks, it lodged itself in my heart as one of my forever favorites.

I never need to remind myself how good Gurren Lagann was. I remember. And that alone sets it apart as one of my favorite anime of all time.

Aniplex of America 2007

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All photos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. Unless otherwise specified, all photos are taken from VRV.co.

Gurren Lagann and all related terms are the property of Aniplex of America. And I am not affiliated with them.

From Him, To Him

Friday, March 1, 2019

In Defense of the Damsel


Photo by Hailey Kean on Unsplash

For a long time, the “damsel in distress” has become almost as much a death sentence for a character as calling them a Mary Sue. Critics sneer at female characters who need help or—heaven forbid—are captured. And goodness, if your character is kidnapped more than once, well, that’s just poor writing (just look at the criticism leveled at Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy).1 Clearly that must mean the character is only there to “serve as a trophy”2 for the protagonist and has no personality of her own. Clearly she’s a terrible character just because she needs saving.

I’m not a fan of this argument.

A “damsel in distress” is, by definition, a woman (a damsel) who’s in some sort of trouble. But that’s not how most people use the term.

Most people use this term derogatively, to point out a character who they consider poorly-written because she is in trouble, in need of saving, and—they argue—thus is an objectively weak character. These people argue that damsels are inherently bad because they suggest women need men in order to be safe, that women who are captured are weaker than their (often male) captors and rescuers.

I’ve got a few problems with this line of thinking because I don’t think damsels in distress are inherently weak characters.

Now, before I get too far, let me define how I’ll be using the term “weak character”—that is, what I think people mean by “weak” or “strong” characters.

While I do think the quality of writing is part of what people mean when they talk about “weak” or “strong” female characters, I don’t think it’s the main aspect people are criticizing when they claim a woman in need of rescuing is a “weak” female character. I think what most people mean when they use this term is closer to what the word suggests—a character who is weak, that is, insufficient in some way, shape, or form. Either they lack agency (that is, control over their own lives), they lack power, or they lack respect—either respect from their peers in the story or respect from the audience. A weak character is one that does not deserve respect because they are deficient somehow. A strong character, by contrast, typically does not have this “deficiency,” whatever that deficiency may be.

(I also think failing to define what we find lacking in “weak” female characters to be part of why we have so many discussions about needing “strong female characters” and yet allegedly nothing seems to change—or it doesn’t change the way people want—but that’s a topic for another day.)

For now, let’s talk about the problems I have with the idea that all damsels in distress are bad.

1. The trope itself isn’t inherently bad.


As YouTube writing analyst Literature Devil reminds us, writing rules are pretty much made to be challenged.3 Tropes that are supposedly inherently bad are never inherently bad. For instance, many say that overpowered protagonists are the product of bad writing, but One-Punch Man and Mob Psycho 100 totally throw this idea on its head with their absurdly-overpowered protagonists who still remain interesting.

Again, as Literature Devil points out, anything that seems like a bad idea can become a good one if executed properly.4

So of course, I argue that if done right, a female character in need of saving can be a good storytelling tool for building drama and tension. And I’m not the only one who feels this way.

Overly Sarcastic Productions is known for their discussions of writing tropes, and their video covering damsels in distress echoes my sentiments exactly. “I love this trope...” Sarcastic says. “[F]rom a purely logical standpoint, damseling can be super useful.”5

How? Plenty of reasons.

If a character we care about gets captured, it immediately creates tension. Sure, we know they’re probable going to get rescued... but how? “How are they going to get out of this one?” is a powerful question. If your audience is asking it, you’re on the right track.

“Damseling,” as Sarcastic calls it, is also an excellent tool for “all kinds of interesting character interactions and subsequent character development.”6 Again, Sarcastic outlines why:
“Rescues are fun, villain-hero dynamics are fun, distressing your characters is fun, and I think that one of the most entertaining ways to elaborate on your established characters is to drop them into a new and dangerous situation and watch how they react...”7
Throwing characters in situations where they’re challenged and in danger is always a fun time. You get to see sides of the characters come out that you wouldn’t have otherwise. You get to see them at their worst, and it often brings out their best. It’s always satisfying to watch a plan come together as characters each bring something to the table to stage a daring escape or rescue.

And more than that, it’s interesting to watch the villains talk to the captive in the meantime. Think about it: in what other situation does the villain have such a perfect opportunity for one-on-one time with one of your heroes? This is a situation that brings out aspects of the villain and the hero we wouldn’t have seen otherwise. For the villain, we get to see them at a time when their plan is going well, in an indisputable position of power over the hero. This gives them the chance to show what kind of character they are: will they gloat? Are they largely ignoring this temporary success in favor of focusing on the long-term objective? Will they attempt to win the hero over to their side or are they largely disinterested in the hero? This is also, of course, the prime time for the villain to explain their side of the story. While we’re used to villains monologuing, it is a trope for a reason: it’s a great way to show the villain’s viewpoint and motivation, as Nerdsync points out in their excellent video “The Incredibles: The Art of Supervillain Monologues.”8

Villain-hero dynamics are also a good reminder of how powerful, intimidating, horrifying, and terrible the villain is... and why it’s not really such a surprise that the hero could fall to their devices in the first place. Because...

2. Just because a character needs rescuing does not make them a weak, useless, ineffective, unadmirable character.


First off, let me point out the obvious double standard: do people complain about a male character being a “damsel” or “weak” if they get captured, subdued, or find themselves in need of rescue? Sometimes. But ordinarily, no.

Do we consider Harry Potter a “damsel” and weak character because Voldemort got the jump on him during the Triwizard Tournament? No.

Do we consider Tony Stark weak because he was kidnapped and held prisoner by terrorists? No.

I don’t remember hearing anyone complain when Mr. Incredible had to wait for Helen and the kids to come release him from Syndrome’s prison in the original The Incredibles. Bob didn’t do anything to facilitate his escape; he’s just hanging there in the electric stocks. But nobody says his character is weak (at least not for needing to be rescued).

So why is it okay to automatically classify a female character as weak just because she needs to be saved?

Look, here’s the thing: as Overly Sarcastic Productions points out, “damseling can realistically happen to anyone... ”9 —even Batman in the animated Justice League TV series—Yes, Batman, the caped crusader who, as Sarcastic puts it, is “crazy prepared and pretty much entirely self-sufficient.”10

“But,” some might argue, “the difference is that those characters still had agency: they had an active role in rescuing themselves. So of course they’re not weak! It’s the characters who just sit there waiting to be rescued who are the real problem.”

Firstly, this isn’t true of Batman’s situation; Batman actually requires Flash to free him in order to make his escape. And secondly, while this is a better argument to make, I still don’t think it’s wise to claim all characters who don’t get to help themselves are weak. For example, what if a character was beaten to within an inch of their life and needs weeks if not months to recover to the point of being able to rescue themselves? Are they still a weak character? What if a character has some sort of weakness or even disability that makes it impossible for them to participate in a plan to rescue themselves? Are they a weak character now?

No, of course not. Not due to that, at any rate. Whether a character is able to help with their own escape or not doesn’t necessarily define whether they’re weak or not. Just as with the age-old discussion about morality (“Is killing people always/inherently morally wrong? What about in self-defense?”), it depends a lot on context. See the previous example of a character who was beaten to within an inch of their life. They’re not a weak character just because they’re barely conscious during the rescue attempt.

I get it. We don’t want clichés. We don’t want to see female characters with the personality of a cardboard box who only exist for the hero to come and save them. But that doesn’t automatically make every woman who needs saving or help from time to time weak. It makes her human. Because...

3. Being a woman who needs help isn’t a bad thing.


Needing help doesn’t mean a character is poorly-written. Again, if we used this kind of logic against a character who’s male and must be rescued, we start to see this logic fall apart.

The fact is, no matter who you are, sometimes we’ll come across problems we just can’t handle. Sometimes we need help from others. There’s nothing wrong, unadmirable, or shameful about that. And saying otherwise by claiming anyone who can’t help themselves is a “weak” character is doing a disservice to people who truly can’t help themselves and need someone to lend them a hand now and then.

In fact, Sarcastic laments the fact that damsels in distress are seen as such a negative these days, “because I live for characters relying on and helping each other, and in my experience, nothing brings characters closer together than rescuing one another from the clutches of a diseased maniac or two.”11

The fact of the matter is, “damseling” a character actually serves to highlight a very important truth, Sarcastic says.
“[T]he characters are damseled because they lack total self-sufficiency. They need people because they can’t do everything alone. This becomes tangible when they are alone and can’t do something that they would really, really rather do, like beat the supervillain or escape the tower. ...[A] lack of self-sufficiency is central to the damsel trope... because that qualification applies to literally every character in existence.”12
(And not just every character, but also every person in existence.) Which makes it realistic... and relatable. Sarcastic goes on:

“See, at its heart, this... reinforces one specific message: you can’t, and should not be expected to, do everything alone.”13 Rescue attempts allow other characters in the story to proclaim: “‘You aren’t alone, and when it counts, we’re here for you,’ and that is a sentiment that everyone can stand to hear. It’s just about the most heartwarming thing a person can hear.”14

This kind of message resonates with people. It’s something I think we all need to hear at least once in our lives. And it’s only possible to deliver this message if our characters are vulnerable enough to need help.

4. It’s okay to have vulnerable female characters.


In fact, PLEASE have vulnerable female characters: vulnerable emotionally and/or physically with some weaknesses or flaws.

One of the main reasons many people don’t like Mary Sues—or the prototypical “strong female character” is because they lack vulnerabilities of any kind. They are not weak in any area of their lives, and they are certainly not emotionally open and honest.

But here’s the thing: when you create characters like this, they’re not realistic, because they’re flawless. They’re being praised for being perfect, “superhuman”15 when nobody wants to see even superheros with no weaknesses.16

It’s not inherently wrong—your character isn’t necessarily poorly-written—just because they’ve been captured. Or need help. In fact, writing characters who don’t ever find themselves in need of help makes it very easy for them to get started on the path to becoming Mary Sues.

Yes, of course we want to see characters dig deep, push themselves beyond their limitations, and get themselves out of scrapes.

But once in a while, it’s okay to need help.

I just wish more people decrying alleged “damsels in distress” would realize that.

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Notes and References:
  1. Vishal Y. R, “Why does everyone hate Spider-Man 3?” [sic], March 20, 2015, on Quora.com, message board, accessed February 26, 2019.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Literature Devil, “STAR WARS: PALPATINE VS SNOKE [sic]),” YouTube video, 9:30, May 12, 2018.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Overly Sarcastic Productions “Trope Talk: Damsels in Distress,” YouTube video, 12:52, September 14, 2017.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Nerdsync “The Incredibles: The Art of Supervillain Monologues,” YouTube video, 22:00, June 19, 2018.
  9. Overly Sarcastic Productions “Damsels in Distress.”
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Melissa Anelli, Podcast, PotterCast, quoted by IAMA_dragon-AMA (sic) in “Book Hermione vs. Movie Hermione,” December 29, 2014, on reddit.com, message board, accessed February 26, 2019.
  16. Sophia McDougall, “I Hate Strong Female Characters,” NewStatesmanAmerica [sic] (blog), August 15, 2013, accessed February 26, 2019.
All photos are used under US “Fair Use” laws. Spider-Man, Tony Stark, and all related terms property of Marvel Entertainment, LLC; Mr. Incredible and all related terms property of Walt Disney Studios; One-Punch Man property of Viz Media; Mob Psycho 100 property of Funimation; Harry Potter and all related terms property of Bloomsbury Publishing; Batman and the Flash and all related terms property of Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.. And I am not affiliated with any of them.

From Him, To Him