Note: This post will contain spoilers for “Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid,” “Danganronpa,” “The Devil is a Part Timer,” and “Lucky Star.”
As much as we like to tell ourselves that the people around us make no sense, this is rarely the case. A person tends to be molded by what they know, what they feel, and what they can trust. If we wanted to be more technical, we can refer to this as the use of appeals (logos, pathos, ethos) to determine the core of a person’s judgment (look up the “Rhetorical Triangle” for more information).
A good bit of care must go into conveying the judgments of fictional characters, due to the nature of us to take after them (and if you need any proof of that, simply look to all of the comparisons between “Harry Potter” and the Trump Administration). When we witness a character navigating a scenario, we often compare our own ideals and even our own actions to theirs. There’s a deeply-held desire among readers to resonate with at least one character in any story.
There are times, however, that a character might deviate from what the reader considers to be a rational thought process. Critical thinking tends to lead us toward the realm of two distinct possibilities: the first being that the character is privy to a knowledge that we have yet to be given, and the second being that the writer has inadvertently forced the character’s hand somewhere along the line.
If that sounds a bit too harsh, then allow me to clarify – there is nothing wrong with a character contradicting themselves when the story calls for it. That as it may, such contradictions must absolutely be accounted for before the story can move at all forward. Failure to do so leads to a drama that feels manufactured, one which detaches and disengages the reader. So, let us talk about two series in particular wherein the latter unfortunately takes the helm.
“Danganronpa” is a murder-mystery series and probably one of my favorites in the genre, but in an open discussion, I must admit to its many contrivances and faults. The original (“Trigger Happy Havoc”) was a game for the Playstation Portable and eventually the Playstation Vita. Its initial success warranted a sequel (“Goodbye Despair,”), a spinoff (“Ultra Despair Girls”), an anime retelling of the original, and an anime double-feature which served as both a prequel and sequel (“The End of Hope’s Peak” – Despair Arc & Future Arc). An additional spinoff game is in the works and should be released around autumn of 2017. Needless to say, this series has been a commercial success worldwide.
Much of its success can in fact be attributed to a truly vast array of characters, most of whom maintain clear motives no matter how good or bad. In-series, the characters are generally given the distinction of being “Ultimates” – students who contain miraculous gifts capable of pushing humanity forward (examples include Ultimate Chef, Ultimate Detective, and even Ultimate Lucky Student). As this is a murder-mystery series, their reasons for killing and their methods of committing said crimes are often tied to their talents – and in the event they are not, the story moves forward by alluding to mysterious organizations which those characters are suspected to be affiliated with. Simply put, if a character becomes contradictory, the justification is usually made known by the end of a given murder case.
And yet, the most damning exceptions to this rule are found in some of the most important characters of the series – Nagito Komaeda, the AI “Usami,” Monaca Towa, and even Junko Enoshima (the main villain). Nagito was considered the rival to protagonist Hajime Hinata in “Goodbye Despair.” He is the first to learn the truth about the island killings and the secret of the students’ memories being erased. What that doesn’t explain is the way he sabotages events for the sake of a “hope” which is never truly defined. He is then re-introduced in “Goodbye Despair Girls” and in “The End of Hope’s Peak,” and these questionable motives continue to remain unanswered to this day. He is considered to be one of the most frustrating characters in the series.
The other characters are not off the hook, though. Usami was meant to be the game’s moral compass turned comic relief, but we later learn that she was hacked by Monaca Towa, the main villain of “Ultra Despair Girls.” It was never made clear when the switch was made, leaving it open to interpretation that Monaca may have been involved in events predating her introduction. As for Junko Enoshima, let’s just say that many people were not happy with her having continued prominence in the story long after her death.
The point I am trying to get across is thus: even in a series where impossible things happen on a regular basis, the ways in which the characters orient themselves remain constant, except for when they don’t. It is the latter segments which are the most controversial and dividing for fans of the series, and as a fan, it made it rather difficult to recommend the series to others. Now, I know what you’re thinking – “How does this apply to a series where the characters are not to be taken seriously?” Allow me to divert your attention to a genre known as “slice-of-life.”
If you were to go to TVTropes and search for the slice-of-life anime/manga article, you would find that it is quite the exhaustive list. These series tend to follow a set formula: characters are introduced with most of their traits and quirks already known, and the episodes which follow tend to revolve around putting them in zany, off-the-wall situations. If there are hidden depths to these characters, their backstories are usually reserved for the most critical of moments in order to avoid unnecessary changes in tone.
Recently, a slice-of-life series began to air in Japan which took the world by storm due to its overabundance of cute (“moe”) characters. Yes, I am talking about “Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid.” I will admit that I had some preconceived notions about the series before going into it, but fans of the series insisted that the core of the narrative was actually very profound and introspective.
Beyond Miss Kobayashi herself, the first few episodes introduce us to four dragons – the aspiring maid Tohru, the childish Kanna, the mildly-aloof Lucoa, and the hardcore Fafnir. Their interpretations of humans stem from interactions with humans in their own realm (you can guess how that turned out). Tohru and Kanna move in with Miss K for the bulk of the series, forming a mother-mother-child dynamic rather early on. It’s here that things begin to rapidly fall apart.
For example, Kanna’s initial backstory is that she was banished to our realm after pulling a prank so bad it angered the powers-that-be. To allow that lesson to sink in, her powers were also taken from her, which left her stuck in a demi-human form. Tohru advocates for her to be taken in, because obviously she would be left to die on the streets of Tokyo what with Abenomics and all that, right?
She gets her powers back in a single day. It turns out she can use her tail to absorb electricity, so she was never really in any danger to begin with. So, what would have stopped her from waking up near a nuclear power plant and getting the necessary power to go back home? What would have stopped her from simply taking that power and conquering Earth? She’s a child; children dream of world domination. Taking all of that into account, what exactly was the lesson here? Does she really have to learn anything as a result of all this?
It only gets worse as the series progresses. When Miss K’s apartment becomes too cramped for three people, she takes it upon herself to lease a new, three bedroom unit on the other side of the city. She then enrolls Kanna in elementary school, which includes a scene where she purchases for Kanna a three-hundred-dollar randoseru (a backpack meant to last all six years, and would normally start around fifty dollars if converted to US currency). What bothered me most is that the series made a point of this by portraying Miss K as more of an “uninformed parent,” when only moments prior she essentially uttered the phrase, “School supplies haven’t changed at all since I was a student.”
Argue all you want that as a programmer, Miss K was practically sitting on her earnings as a bachelorette otaku. That doesn’t explain how she had become so chummy with the dragon girls – in under two-months – that she would completely retool her life around them, or what it is they’re supposed to gain by having everything they could ever want given to them.
…Which brings me to Tohru. As our resident maid dragon, she prides herself on catering to Miss K’s every need, though it’s more than obvious that she’s doing this for her own selfish reasons (mainly sexual ones; more on that later). Despite knowing nothing of the world she now finds herself in, she is quick to disregard humans as illogical, selfish and demeaning. Before long, other characters take notice and begin to accuse her of acting the exact same way. It is her response to this that caused me, after only five episodes, to drop the series completely.
As she’s walking home with Fafnir one afternoon, he tells her that she’s grown far too accustomed to this new realm after only a few months. He then asks her if she intends to stay in this world forever, since it was already established that she faked her own death in the other realm. As soon as it became clear that was the route she was deliberating on taking, I stopped watching because another slice-of-life tackled this exact same issue – and a lot better at that.
“The Devil is a Part Timer” is exactly what you would expect it to be: Satan (“Sadou Maou”) comes to earth and gets a part-time job at the fictional equivalent of McDonald’s. He is pursued by the hero Amelia (“Emi Yusa”) after their previous fight ended in stalemate. Emi wants nothing more than to finish what she started and return home, but over the course of the story, she discovers that Sadou has no intention of returning back to their old world. She completely loses it on him, asking him why he’s so compassionate now when his demon generals totally annihilated her village during the war. He responds that he knew not the compassion of humans when he allowed his generals to run rampant, and Emi begins to see him for what he really is – just a spoiled and inept manchild thrust into power who never really intended to hurt anyone at all.
The story moves forward because Sadou can now work to fix his mistakes and educate his generals (and other foes) on how a true man is supposed to act (lessons he typically chooses to instill by way of ass-beating). The difference here is that TDIAPT took only four episodes to reach this pivotal moment, while MKDM was primed and ready to drag this across its entire twelve or thirteen-episode run, leaving no room for further character development.
I am well aware that I am going to receive a lot of flak here. Some readers might even argue that I’m unfairly judging a slice-of-life series which for all intents and purposes shouldn’t need a cohesive plot. While I have every intention of rebuking that argument, I should probably mention that lack of clear motive was far from the only issue I had. This series, at its core, was made for fanservice. Tohru, Lucoa – hell, even Kanna – are all obvious fodder for the run-of-the-mill moe/cute/sexy tropes you’d expect from series leaning much further on the ecchi/hentai scale. Seriously, there is more fanservice here than in “Keijo,” and if you recall, I did do an article defending that series from accusations like this one.
Now, in terms of series which lack cohesion, “Lucky Star” is arguably the one which started it all and deserves honorable mention. It’s the story of four high school girls and the antics they get into during the 2006-2007 academic year. They move on from junior year to senior year, meet a bunch of cute underclassmen, apply for jobs and colleges, and ultimately give commentary on being a teenager in today’s society. The first twelve episodes showed little to no deviation as the girls moved from topic to topic with reckless abandon.
The latter twelve episodes changed this up quite a bit, but it was done in a way which complemented the work. It was at this point that one-third of each episode would be dedicated to a day in the life of the main characters. One segment might discuss Konata’s love for her job at a maid cafe (otaku culture is frowned upon even in Japan), while another might discuss Kagami’s struggles to really stand out among a family of six. There’s even a segment dedicated to Konata’s late mother, and it’s perhaps the most heartwarming scene of an anime I’ve watched that is also absolutely hilarious (here’s a hint: it involves a digital camera and fire).
“Lucky Star” stands as one of the greatest slice-of-anime of all time, and sadly, “Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid” cannot possibly hold a candle to it. As things stand, I cannot bring myself to finish the series, and fanservice notwithstanding, I cannot bring myself to recommend it to anyone. When all works boil down to their words – explicit, or implied – it’s important to remember that consistency is key. A character with nothing to orient them is not a character the reader can trust.