Today’s topic doesn’t exactly only pertain to anime. While this topic happens a lot in anime, it’s been popping up more and more in mainstream media and when a friend of mine suggested it as a topic, I instantly began coming up with endless amounts of ideas and what I could discuss for an editorial. Have you ever watched a movie or read a book when a character died and you felt absolutely nothing and felt as if the death wasn’t impactful in the slightest? Now compare that to a time when you watched a movie in which the death of a character moved you so much that it brought you to tears. Today, we’re talking about death.
Death is a powerful thing. Death is the end of a life, something that can never be undone. The power that death has to permanently change a person’s life by a loved one dying is what makes it the ultimate plot device in media. When a character dies, that ends their existence in the story from that point forward; it means that we won’t be ever seeing that character again and not only that, but that we can expect other characters to be affected in a drastic way. As a plot device it can be used to push the emotional tension up to 11 in no time flat, but simultaneously it can be one of the blandest plot devices available to a writer.
As a professional novelist who fails to understand the concept of the “happy ending,” I’m more than familiar with the use of death to move the story forward. For my greatest attempts to refer back to the use of death as both a good thing and a bad thing while avoiding spoilers, I’m going to eventually come back to the movie (and book) Marley and Me as well as the movie Flyboys to differentiate between the excellent and poor ways to use death. Since I’m 90% sure everyone knows how the former ends up and as Flyboys is a movie about the first world war, it should be a no-brainer to anyone that at least one character is going to die. This is just your warning now, in case you want to remain entirely spoiler free for both of the films mentioned.
In my opinion, there are several ways that death can be used as an impactful plot point to move the audience in one way or another. The first way is to give the main characters an attachment to the now-dead character and a fulfilment that they have to carry out now that someone they had a strong connection to has passed. Another way is to solidify a theme of inevitably, showing that even though you know that someone is going to die, it doesn’t make the event any less impactful and really shows how everything is on one strict set path; this is most notable in the anime Clannad or Another in which death is a staple that you can’t avoid but that never fails to affect you in some way. Lastly, death can be used to change the tone from something more positive to one more hopeless or depressing.
Death, when used poorly, makes you feel indifferent towards the loss of a character. This commonly happens when a character is quickly killed right after they’re introduced or when a character get no development or no exposure to the audience so their death meant nothing to you because of a lack of identity within that character. If the character means nothing to the audience, has no identity, and has not changed at all in the view of the audience, then the audience does not care; the audience has no attachment to the character so their death is meaningless. The anime that had the biggest problem with empty deaths was Black Bullet. In Another you know the girl who died; you know their importance. In Black Bullet the character just dies in a vain attempt to make you feel bad, but it fails because the audience has no idea who just died and why they should feel bad.
Going back to the aforementioned films, Marley and Me uses death the right way. When Marley dies you feel an impact. You watched that dog develop and grow and when you watch him grow closer to death it kills you inside. It successfully and permanently changes the mood of the show to one of much darker tone. I had friends who said they read the book before watching the movie and the death scene still affected them. Meanwhile in Flyboys it seems like every character is disposable. You don’t care about anyone, none of them are explained, and when each one dies you feel indifferent. You continue moving forward through the experience without any difference because you have no idea who they are. They’re nothing but cannon fodder to the audience.
This is quickly becoming a problem because it’s so much easier to write meaningless deaths with zero impact than it is to slug off a character that has been built up explicitly to die. Fans get attached and then you have trouble killing something that’d have such a negative effect. The option of easy, meaningless death is much easier than genuine impactful death even when meaningless death has the chance to lower the quality of the show.
Well, I hope you all liked today’s editorial. If you like what I do here and are interested in what I’m up to when I’m not writing for this blog, why not check out my Twitter? I hope you all are enjoying the week of me yelling my opinions at you for like…five minutes. See you all tomorrow!
The featured image for this post, while irrelivant to the post itself, was drawn by pixiv artist ﾌﾞﾚｴﾄﾞ.