Thursday, 08 November 2007

The Death of L. and Other Shadows

It is frightening how close one can come to the fictional realities encountered in stories…how keenly one can feel the loss of characters that were never ‘alive’ in the first place. Of course, given another blogging day I would be glad to take that idea up. It is my contention that probably most of the protagonists I’ve read about in fiction are more alive than most real people ever will be…in the sense that they embody so much of the spectrum of human life and meaning whereas most of the everyday people one meets are more mundane, more flat and one-dimensional than the heroes of the cheesiest cartoon.

It is of course a mark of good story-telling that we ‘feel’ the loss of the characters created especially for that purpose. Their deaths signify something because their ‘lives’ signified something that has crept intimately close into the inner realities of the emotional and spiritual components of our being. In the case of a significant number of recent stories, that emotional force seems to derive its primary vitality from its life as ‘half-self’ to the protagonist we are supposed to be identifying with. We feel the loss of the character more keenly in narratives where that character has been set up as our own underground, shadow self.

This idea seems prevalent in all the anime I’ve yet encountered, which admittedly is not by any count a representative number. And obviously it is a common reading of fantasy stories that everything in the story is an element in the protagonist’s psyche, so that the villain is always some version of a dark self. Yet still there is something peculiar about the shadow, to use Jungian terminology, in anime that I haven’t noticed any where else. And this is the sense of an essential bond between the two selves represented as protagonist and antagonist; the sense that the shadow is not only vital but profoundly beloved.
In the Harry Potter stories, Harry may see himself in Voldemort on numerous occasions, but he never develops an emotional relationship with him. In A Wizard Of Earthsea, the gibbeth may be an essential part of the protagonist but it still evokes nothing but thorough revulsion in Ged. Frodo takes pity on Gollum, his shadow self, but he never learns to love him.

In contrast to this, there is always some kind of intrinsic desire for the dark-self in anime. And the dark self tends to be more than a representation of what the protagonist despises in himself. In Naruto Orochimaru may be the story’s primary villain, later succeeded by Akatsuki, but neither of these threats represents the catastrophe to Naruto that Sasuke's fall does. The best thing about this series was that we never knew where the self ended between these two, where the hate stopped and the love began. In Blood+ the inner conflict had expression in a less subtle metaphor, between actual twins. Yet the most searing moment in the story is not where Saya recognizes her dark self in Diva, but at the end when she learns that to sacrifice her sister is indeed a terrible price to pay. She is horrified when, running each other through simultaneously with the blood-soaked swords that bring death to them, the sisters fall to the ground but only Diva dies. Implicit in the violence their existences mean to each other is a profound consolation, that in killing each other at least they can be together.

In my most recent anime excursion, Death Note, an interesting spin on the old duality is that we follow the story through the eyes of the ‘villain’, but the m.o. is the same. Light and L. are geniuses with opposing convictions, and at the heart of their perfect opposition is the old truth of a perfect equality. As such a friendship on a level outside the realm of belief develops between what are essentially cold and isolated positions. This ultimately culminates in L.'s downfall. There is something inconsistent with L’s genius in that he doesn’t figure out Light’s crowning manoeuvre before it’s too late. Just before his last appearance there is the uncharacteristic scene of him standing in the rain mumbling vaguely about things remotely connected to sentimental images of his childhood. His last conversation with Light has the sense of sloppiness, of him buckling under a growing intimacy with his nemesis.

Of course we never doubt in these stories that the protagonists will never allow their shadows to take flight and grow. Naruto would never allow Sasuke to destroy Konoha. There is never a question that Saya would let Diva be Diva and live. Given the smallest scrap of evidence, L. would have grasped at the opportunity to have Light arrested as Kira. But the sense of sacrifice accompanying the defeat of these shadows almost neutralizes any sense of triumph, always resulting in an irreparable void, an inconsolable sense of loss.