As one of those universal human experiences, death occupies a rather key position as a narrative device or event in, well, basically all media. Despite being so dynamic of an element, however, depictions often take on the same nature. These become simultaneously an anchor of comfort in trained response and a point for exasperation. Those that defy our normal experience may be balked at or celebrated. Audience reaction to a particular death can be some of the most mixed responses received when it comes to fiction. It can make skeptics champion a show or move fans to drop one out of disgust.
Unfortunately (for me) a pretty awesome catalogue of how deaths often function already exists. It mainly deals with mecha but the archetypes it specifies are general enough that you could say I was beaten to the punch. So bear with me as we charge much more into the recent and the technical. Spoilers for Mobile Suit Gundam AGE 38 and Muv-Luv Alternative TE 02. Mild spoilers for Sword Art Online 01-02. Any other possible spoilers discussed are beyond old (but probably younger than me) and mindfully telegraphed.
Business As Usual
The deaths we’re used to in media aren’t tough to find and examples surround us in any fiction willing to broach the topic of death. To illustrate, let’s pluck out a couple of recent examples, the first being the death that occurs in Gundam AGE 38: Lu.
The death of Lu is a fairly condensed example of the functionally ideal death that most media will put focus on: emotional, narratively expedient, and meaningful. Developed across a mere 2 episodes of 37-38, Lu’s story is a shortcut to embody the sympathetic portion of the Vagan people and to be the primary “shock” to protagonist Kio Asuno to ultimately upset the status quo and develop the plot further towards climax. Her death also seeds future conflict by way of her brother, develops Kio into a position of conflict with much of the major cast in ideals, and is achieved within time-constraints by 1) using a child, 2) killing her through incurable illness, and 3) highlighting the resultant loss of future potential (tied to the first mechanic of course!) ruthlessly through her diary of future imagined, causally linked to the major grievance of the Vagan whole. Bolstered by emotional BGM and an even-paced, earnest, post-humous narration/monologue, the subplot caps itself off to be compact, powerful, and efficient.
In this way her death is excellent example of the sort of narratively efficient, poignant, meaningful, and mourned death that most “good” deaths we experience in media are. Perhaps the victim is not a child, and other times is entirely willing to embrace expiration, such as “glorious sacrifice” deaths like the one early on in Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann; regardless, the marking properties are strong emotion, meaning (either immediate or eventual), and narrative relevance. These deaths are stellar examples of Chekhov’s gun in the sense that the narrative expends all possible utility from the element–in this case a character–without any waste. The introduced character becomes an object against which a major character can develop or be characterized against, or otherwise introduce important plot elements and give it a human face. That they are killed at the end of this, when their narrative relevance is extinguished and an emotional investment by the audience has been properly built, is a simple means of extracting the maximum mileage each discrete character can offer, adding emotional shock and status quo destruction to their mechanical repetoire. It is this that drives the extremely high death rate of “guru” characters–those that appear to expose the protagonist to the conflict and train them for their journey–such as Star Wars‘s Obi-wan Kenobi or Puella Magi Madoka Magica‘s Tomoe Mami.
This is the death we assume to happen for our important characters when we watch or read fiction. Whilst the devices used to raise the emotional impact are conspicuous ones, such as saturated lighting, sentimental music, and bevies of close ups upon faces, the circumstances try to be valid and venture to stay within the confines of suspended disbelief. They straddle realism and formalism, venturing to be both genuine enough to be believed and rich enough in calculated cinematography to cause the expected reaction. The deaths are presented to emotionally shock but also to never question that death can be anything but notable and meaningful for those that witness and experience it, whether in catharsis of slaying a major antagonist or in grief created from loss.
As such, Lu’s death can be considered one well-executed, though some may complain that it is rushed or forced. Clumsier in comparison, though fulfilling many of the same roles, is the death we see in Sword Art Online 02.
Here we have a man that was introduced into the story during the same episode he dies in: a one-off. Effectively, he dies for the same reasons Lu does: to set up the protagonist to make a status quo changing decision, to write away a character introduced for a simple function without “wasting” them, etc. The issue here of course, is the time is even further compressed and the show has given next to no reasons for any emotional investment in this man outside of his apparently noble death, punctuated by the protagonist eulogizing the probable deeds of the man and drawing the event out in slow motion. All in all, the sequence evokes very little if any emotion and is done in a rather casual manner.
Despite all this, however, Sword Art Online still insisted on spending time to dramatize the death, give it meaning, and otherwise sentimentalize it in concert to its mechanical function for the story in casting doubt on the protagonist, forcing him to take a severe (or badass, some may say) route of embracing infamy, and taking the path of a lone wolf. What could have been quickly brushed past was instead drawn out to give mourning to this casualty; it was found necessary to build up some last minute sympathy.
In this typical ecology of deaths, the only ones spared the treatment of emotion, sentiment, and drama are those suffered by those lacking human traits: abstract evil, monsters, “redshirts”, and many more. Those who have not earned the dignity of being bequeathed a name or personality, maybe not even any human traits, may die for little reason or even mechanical effect. For the audience, it is like seeing a tree cut down or a can trashed: painless.
People often talk about that thing where a single death is mourned but many is a statistic, or however it goes, and that concept applies all the more to fiction. In becoming merely a number or a string of letters on screen, the death becomes meaningless in terms of emotional impact unless contextualized in character reaction. At best, a feeling of dread can be affected or a brighter atmosphere can be darkened, but the artillery of mood music, dramatic lighting, and sympathetic close-up are rarely leveled for the sake of these forgotten, dead penstrokes. To die faceless and characterless can be treated without fanfare or tragedy, just as the opposite requires tragedy or fanfare, if only as obligatory with function. These are the standard natures of fictional deaths that we are given and have learned to expect. It stands, then, that occasionally we are treated to an outlier, whether we embrace that or reject it.
As earlier described, the kinds of deaths we see are usually a moderation between realism and formalism. That is, a compromise between presenting the death in a way that mimics reality to maintain a link to genuine emotion and presenting it with techniques the medium allows that heighten the emotional effect despite being unworldly. Without the former, the suspension of disbelief is destroyed, robbing any sense of consequence from the act, whilst the latter is necessary to manufacture that particular combination of human drama, sentiment, and punctuation that is called for in death. What then, happens when one veers very strongly to one side of the axis? Anime already favors the formal side of it fairly heavily, being a medium where the unreality of the subject matter is constantly evident, so what does bolstering its adherance to methods of realism look like? One way of conceiving this lies in Muv-Luv Alternative TE 02.
As r042 aptly identifies in the post I linked earlier, MLA:TE 02 runs a full gamut of deaths that may resemble the deaths we often see in situation, even if presentation is worlds away. Similarly, r042 identifies that there are those who cry foul in regards to the lightly characterized cast that surrounds Takamura Yui being so quickly killed off to grab sympathy. Finally, he also accurately identifies the fact that the deaths were not in fact meant to evoke sympathy, sadness, or inspire sentiments towards those characters, but as necessary fodder in exposing the nature of the war with the BETA.
Building on this, I will go further to say that the episode proceeds in with this “militaristic cynicism” because it is striving to bring neither sympathy nor glory into the subject matter; it wishes to give the audience a representative view of the events of Yui’s past through Yui’s eyes in a mostly genuine fashion: no melodrama, no poignant music, and no angelic halos or saintly glow.
Many elements of the episode, the first to feature hard fighting against the BETA alien threat in the show, stick out. One major element is the omnipresence of blood; this combat is not clinical. When a grappler-class BETA uses its dull spike to kill one of the pilots, it is not a clean stab; it is a brutal crushing of the cockpit that causes blood to ooze out a little. When a BETA is gorged by rapid-fire, blood gratuitously splatters out and covers nearby units, leaving stains that carry from scene-to-scene. There is a physicality to the fighting when it happens at short-range and the humans who use only solid weaponry cause the most mess. When a unit flies over a building at high speeds, that building explodes. When a gun is dropped after being emptied, it crushes a car. This is in contrast with many other mecha shows, especially the newer ones, in which violence happens for thrill but brutal, viceral violence is left at the door. Where MLA:TE is seen championing grueling combat with clumsy movements we see in the Mobile Suit Gundam 00 The Movie -A wakening of the Trailblazer- dextrous robots with immaculate chasses battle to portray a spectacle without cost. For a point of comparison, Break Blade is also a series that recently championed this intense sense of physicality and brutality.
In MLA:TE , the setting and context of the fighting takes precedence over the personalities in combat. The attention is paid to the objective grain of the ordeal, eschewing attention to subjective elements such as psychology. Combat does not become an extension of a battle of wills nor is it a metaphor for an inner struggle. One just sees a war proceed and the actors it happens to–from the outside.
In terms of death, it is of course exciting to see the BETA explode and splatter, but that is still pedestrian as they are monsters lacking in obvious humanity. Instead, what really sets MLA:TE apart is how it treats named character death: impersonally. To give closer inspection is to realize not a single death happens away from Takamura Yui’s viewpoint, when it comes to any named characters carried on from the previous episode. Regardless of the nature and circumstance of the death, the presentation always aspires to simulate Takamura Yui’s view of the conflict, only cheating to animate unseen, allied faces during moments of communication.
In all cases our ability to see the death derives from the character Yui. If the casualty happens while an ally is still in their unit, you are treated merely to the sight of the unit being incapacitated or destroyed. If the death happened without Yui around, we only find it after the fact with Yui. And if the death happens face-to-face, with her ally torn out of cockpit to be eaten, then we see it with Yui (censorship for gore notwithstanding). None of these deaths grant the victims any dignity nor are they drawn out for emotional impact. In fact, many are not even accompanied by music and when it does play it is a theme evoking dread and terror, played at the mildest volume. The only deaths available are ignominious, ugly, or out-of-sight. The deaths merely happen in view of Yui and the audience. There is no distortion of time to allow for a dying breath to communicate wishes or regrets nor is there time spent to communicate the characters’ grief; indeed, the characters never have time to feel grief until it is just Yui alone, conscious again after medical treatment, and time is given to her to gather her thoughts. The deaths that pass happened suddenly, but not any more quickly than they should in the given situations.
Like in Martian Successor Nadesico‘s case with Daigouji Gai, the deaths are unflattering and almost devoid of meaning. Even worse, these deaths even lack the bitter sadness of Gai’s example in that the majority of them happened instantly, as if they were redshirts, stormtroopers, or a grunt mobile suit in an AU Gundam. Yet, these were characters given a foundation of character in the previous episode, emotional ties to the protagonist, names, and distinctive character designs. If Chekhov’s gun is a principle of wasting no element, and a red herring is creating an element to distract from what ultimately happens, then what MLA:TE has done is to include a surplus of elements for the sake of being able to waste them.
In the pursuit of portraying intense and fatal combat in a genuine way, many characters are established only to be killed without fanfare to prove a point: that the reality of the situation does not suffer someone to live merely because they have something to live for, and leaves no time for any passing of legacy nonsense. More time is spent mourning the fall of Kyoto than the death of Yui’s Gunbuster-esque rival and that is the evident reality that MLA:TE 02 attempted to communicate. When Takamura Yui asks when was it that the living stopped counting the dead, she is summarizing that reality: a world where human costs have become so great that the only thing that moves people any longer are the patriotic costs. It is in this context that she is a soldier.
To Defy Another Way
If one way to change the dynamic of death is to eschew cinematic elements to bring greater grain to the realism of the situation and let it stand on its own, then one can also shake things up and hollow out the tension by completely negating the reality of death itself. As modern anime continues to embrace the rising popularity of softer, less fatal narratives, more and more anime also struggle with the desire to use death as a device while atmosphere and demographics tie their hands. These show must in fact refuse to deal in death. As such, it’ll have to wait for a separate post. Tune in next post for an overview of these conspicuous methods of death-like undeath!