Wednesday, June 30, 2010

On the Dynamics of Awesome

How much "awesome" is too much?  This is a question that's been bothering me for a while.

When I say "awesome," I am referring to moments in a narrative that blow the audience's mind in one way or another through the sheer audacity of what is being accomplished.  Essentially, the Holy Sh*t Quotient concept from Tvtropes.

(Thank you, TG, for this ludicrously awesome image, courtesy 1d4chan)

The obvious, slightly cheeky answer is that "there's no such thing as too much aweome."  And, since we're dealing with matters purely subjective, I have no doubt that for some people, that's totally true.  But I also know that isn't true for me.  I have seen and read works where my impression was that, honestly, the narratives would have been drastically improved by toning down the ridiculousness of the feats that the characters pulled off.  There's a reason that I find the Super Robot genre rather... unengaging.  I think this is also why there is a distinct limit on how often I can read Neal Stephenson books.  Stephenson's manic, over-the-top worlds filled with nanotech matter recombiners and katana-wielding pizza delivery boys in rocket-cars are fascinating, but also overwhelming and somewhat exhausting.  Such works are simply overflowing with "awesome," to the point that it ceases to be "awesome" simply because it is no longer surprising.  Even if the specifics of the plot or people's actions aren't predictable, the end result is that it no longer blows my mind within that work.

The ultimate example of this is probably Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, which I found fairly entertaining but would probably not have finished without the momentum of my group.  I certainly don't regret watching it - its memetic status alone warrants at least one viewing, and the music is fantastic.  But my mind often wanders to 'what could have been...' to parallel universes where the combat craziness and fanservice were replaced with a greater focus on character development and dramatic action scenes.  (It really doesn't help that Parallel Works 8 was basically what I just described, and is also set to the most badass tune in an outstanding soundtrack).

 (Screencap courtesy Google Images and an anime blog I have never read before with an... interesting... banner)

Of all the action scenes in the series, the only one that I felt was really successful was the fight against Lordgenome, half way through the series.  The rest were too obviously going to be solved with 'do something silly and then pull a bigger drill out of your ass' to have much tension.

On the other hand, Warhammer 40k is probably at least as ridiculous as many Super Robot series or Stephenson's works, if you consider it purely from a 'similarity to our own world' sense.  In the Warhammer 40,000 mythos, however, the better part of the "awesome" is directed at (aka trying to kill/eat) the closest thing to 'good guys' in the setting, who are really just 'mildly less bad guys.'  I have to wonder if the pervasiveness of 'grimdark' in Warhammer 40,000 (Fact: Many Imperial warships can glass continents, if not destroy entire planets.  Corollary: This power is most often used on Imperial planets, comprised largely of law-abiding citizens) doesn't shield it, to an extent, from the sort of "awesome overload" other works suffer.  Most gratuitous displays of power are depressing, so when someone does something that is both over the top AND uplifting, it's particularly impressive.  (I think it also helps that the Warhammer 40k universe is extremely wide.  As such, feats of badassery aren't centered on a few characters, but are extremely spread out.  As such, predictability is also reduced.)

But it's not just the fact that Warhammer 40k's universe is a gigantic sack of (awesome) crap that makes the ridiculousness okay.  I think that, for me, aesthetics are also a pretty critical ingredient in 'awesome.'  Perhaps the best case study here would be to compare my moderate enjoyment of Gurren Lagann itself to my significant enjoyment of Parallel Works 8.  It's worth noting that I think Parallel Works 8's art style is gorgeous, if somewhat impressionistic, whereas I find the standard art style of Gurren Lagann to be very much in line with the rest of the series - a bit too silly for my taste, and more often than not, overly elastic.  The silliness of the art style, while not necessarily a terrible thing in and of itself, often dampens the effect of the drama for me, especially in the fight scenes.  Parallel Works Eight is no closer to how I perceive reality than the series proper, and yet, the darker atmosphere of the animation contributes to the mood instead of disrupting it.

I will say that, almost necessarily, the series finale of anything is exempt from this rule, in no small part because, as the series finale, the series definitionally cannot disappoint me thereafter.  And I am generally of the opinion that the finale of anything action-oriented should be balls-to-the-wall action.

Ultimately, I suppose 'awesome,' for me to appreciate it, must either be used sparingly or delivered with sufficiently fitting style that I'm willing to look past its ludicrousness and simply say "Awesome."

(Now, I leave you with a picture of a Sniper Bear from the manga Biomega, which I have not read, found on another blog I have never read.  Awesome.)


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