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Monday, 29 April 2013

Hyakka Ryouran and Character Dignity

Giving a character some semblance of dignity is essential if you ever want people to take them seriously. Without the sense of worth that dignity provides there is little reason for an audience to have any respect for or connection to them.

I recently began a series, however, which made me really think about the purpose of a character's dignity, how to sustain it, and how to completely remove all of it. At the beginning of this season I picked up Hyakka Ryouran: Samurai Bride, the sequel to 2010's Hyakka Ryouran: Samurai Girls. Now, anyone who has read my thoughts on Vividred Operation might wonder why on Earth I watched Samurai Girls, due to the large dose of fanservice and it's unerring way of getting in the way of any story at every turn almost as reliably as the abysmal Queen's Blade. The answer to that is quite simple... the first two minutes of episode one hooked me. Everything about that scene was stunning, the striking art, the beautiful animation, the stylistic use of the ink splatter across the screen with each strike all supported by the brilliant theme Arata na Master Samurai that steadily builds its earth-shattering crescendo.

Unfortunately, I dragged myself through the rest of the series desperately hoping to see even a glimpse of the grandeur of that opening again. Admittedly, once the first season was through and finished I could have easily decided that Samurai Bride was going to be an equally large waste of my time and just not watch it... but I started it anyway in a naive hope that something interesting might emerge. My hopes were quickly shattered. The first episode begins with a scene not dissimilar to that of the first series, epic music and a memorable introduction for the new antagonists. Of course, after that it quickly crashes downhill at breakneck speed.

Why not? Need to pay them bills somehow.

This is all really to expect with a series like Samurai Bride, however, ridiculous plot points that work as road signs toward fanservice. So what does this all have to do with dignity anyway? I mean, opening by turning a dojo into a maid cafe, clearly the series has none to begin with. It revels in every opportunity it can find to sexually exploit its characters for the sake of fanservice, how are they supposed to have dignity

Picking up the scent to catch the panty thief.

Surprisingly, that's not what I'm planning to talk about here. I'm looking at a particular aspect of the first episode, the scene during which our hero and his harem meet this seasons' antagonists, the Dark Samurai. The four characters come to the dojo turned maid cafe looking to do battle with our protagonists. The battle begins and none of the characters that we as the audience are supposed to be rooting for last more than a couple hits before being thrown into utter and humiliating defeat. This is clearly done to demonstrate the new enemies' strength and the significant threat they pose if even the most powerful of our heroes are tossed aside as if nothing... But is there not a better way to do this?

True, this scene does demonstrate the new villain's power and define them as a clear threat, but it does it completely at the expense of the main characters dignity. There is no respect left for these characters by the end of the scene. How am I supposed to get at all invested in these characters when all they can do is talk big, but then prove their own ineptitude. When introducing new villains into a series where you've already proven the strength of your characters, how do you make those villains a clear threat without reducing your heroes' current power to something meaningless? After that scene that Master Samurai title and rank that was so coveted during the first season means absolutely nothing as they posed no more challenge to the Dark Samurai than the comic relief character did.

Kanetsugu's ill-fated attempt to take responsibility for her mistake.

In fact oddly enough Kanetsugu, the character who spends most of the time being treated as the series' doormat and running joke by the rest of the characters is so far about the only character to earn any of her dignity back after she becomes a Master Samurai and stands on even footing with one of the Dark Samurai, even earning a respectful comment from her foe in the process, significantly more than any other character has managed thus far (and it doesn't hurt that she looks totally awesome throughout the encounter).

No, but seriously she's calm, she's collected, she's confident and her power really shines through in this scene.

There are numerous ways to tackle this question of dignity, however, which I'm sure many of you will have already considered or seen before. Providing tiers of villains, giving your characters the opportunity to at least stand up to some of the weaker ones can work well. Through this you don't necessarily even need to bring the stronger ones into the fight directly, their strength can simply be implied which often works even better in setting them up as an imposing threat. Giving your hero/heroine a notable disadvantage in their first encounter can be effective as it then invests your audience in seeing your character succeed. It creates a scenario where you want to see the protagonist fight them again but when they're at full strength, as you know that the protagonist is better than that battle implied and you want to see them prove that to this new antagonist. Samurai Bride had none of this, and I thought it was shocking how poorly the first episode handled this scene.

There's much more that can be said on the topic, and it would be interesting to hear any one else's thoughts or opinions on the matter, whether they agree or disagree with my own, but that's my personal thoughts on how Samurai Bride handled the introduction of its new characters.

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