Monday, June 28, 2010

On Passive Characters (with Giant Robots)

I've recently watched a fair bit of mecha anime, mostly 'Real' Robot (which should, let's be honest, called 'slightly less willing suspension of disbelief required robot') stuff. Upon reflection, I think I've figured out my number one peeve with the genre.

I hate passive characters.

I don't mind them in theory, but every time I see one these days, it bugs me. It doesn't annoy me enough to stop watching the show, but it does reduce my enjoyment of the series. Perhaps it's because they're just so overdone in the Mecha genre. Amuro Rei, for all he is a one-man turning point in the One Year War, is basically a passive protagonist for all of the original Mobile Suit Gundam (interestingly, he is much more empowered in Char's Counterattack, largely because he's no longer just an elite grunt, but is now a veteran officer with the authority to give orders and even provide advice to his commanding officer, Bright). He's probably also the root of this whole problem, though he is FAR from the worst example. He gets orders, he carries them out, he angsts when things go poorly and people (that he cares about) die. He never really does anything that he wants to do, except in rare circumstances - all decisions are made for him. And he's a soldier, so it makes sense, as his only real choice is "follow orders or don't, and accept THE CONSEQUENCES (read: getting Brightslapped)."

(Tim Flanagan of Deviantart shows us THE CONSEQUENCES. With Domo!)

For Mobile Suit Gundam, it works. It's a war story, and however talented he may be, Amuro is a grunt, fundamentally. If, as a relatively low-ranking member of the military, he did have too much agency, my willing suspension of disbelief would probably be destroyed. Not that this has ever been a problem in the Gundam franchise (ZZ Gundam Spoilers).

I don't think the 'realistic' use of a passive protagonist in Mobile Suit Gundam (a kid swept up into a war, essentially drafted into service) would bother me at all if not for the fact that so many 'real robot' (and those that blur the line) mecha series thereafter copy the pattern AND that the pattern allows writers to be eminently lazy.

Writer 1: What should our passive protagonist do this week?

Writer 2: You're kidding, right?

Writer 1: Yeah, I am. Shit writes itself!

Here's my complaint: what does a passive character do? Nothing, definitionally. Hence, if you've see one passive character, you've seen every passive character. The the dramatic tension shifts from "what will he/she do" to"when will he/she do something?"

The reason some archetypes can be functionally overused but still entertaining to watch, I think, is that they DO different things. The Trickster archetype is perhaps the best example of this. Yes, people who screw with other people are an ancient and time-honored tradition. A good trickster, however, will still do unpredictable things, and hence keep the audience guessing, even though the audience is intimately familiar with the archetype. A passive character can't be anything but passive without violating its nature, however. To paraphrase a great line from Avatar: The Last Airbender: "You see [somebody do] nothing once, you've seen it a million times."

Now, most passive characters eventually become more active, but you can tell when that's going to happen by simply watching their romantic arc. As soon as a single love interest is determined and in danger, GOGO CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT. But main characters who are passive for 3/4ths of their own series still piss me off, even if they do eventually get better.

The series that stand out as the strongest to me tend to avoid quagmire of inactivity. The characters are empowered to act on their own, and in doing so, develop meaningful and relatable personalities and relationships. This extends beyond giant robot series, of course, but since passive protagonists are so hard to avoid in dealing with the genre, those series that DO give their protagonists more agency tend to stand out. Such agency doesn't necessarily mean winning the war singlehandedly, isn't precluded by standing orders. Vision of Escaflowne is still one of my favorite series, and although it has problems to be sure, lack of action on the part of the protagonists wasn't one of them. Macross Frontier was the same in many ways. Alto does what he does because he wants to or because he feels obligated, but ultimately, most of the decisions that he makes are his own. Through his decisions we learn who he is as a person. Interestingly, Alto is in a position where he too is a grunt in the scheme of the war, but even though he generally obeys orders, it is always clear that he has a will or his own, and that is what motivates him to act. We see it to some degree on the battlefield, but perhaps even more in his daily life. The type of passive protagonist that bothers me is just as detatched from the daily things as from their orders. Some of the Gundam OVAs capture this, too, particularly 0080: War in the Pocket, which centers on a Zeon infiltration team interacting largely with neutral forces, where their decisions have great weight not just regarding themselves and their enemies, but also the (relatively) uninvolved civilians. Bernie isn't so different from Amuro - a kid, essentially swept up in a war he has little personal investment in, acting under orders. The odds are even more stacked against him, too. But Bernie does things - he reaches out to other people, he makes his own decisions, he takes the initiative. He struggles with the standard passive protagonist question ('should I fight?'), but he also goes on to deal with a more interesting question ('how should I fight [these ridiculously insurmountable odds]?').

Code Geass features ludicrously empowered protagonists, and I think it was a breath of fresh air for me (particularly at the time - I hadn't seen Macross Frontier yet), and in the first season, it does it without sacrificing action (Escaflowne occasionally falls into this trap, particularly in the second half). By placing important characters in positions of command or independence within their respective military structures, it let them make meaningful choices on the battlefield.

I think I'd like to see another series that focuses on the battlefield commanders, someday. Special Operations and R&D Teams are a decent way to get around the military command structure's dampening effect on a character's options when faced with difficult choices, but so is simply embracing said structure and then heading for the top.


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