I Love Pulp Characters

Many people who have shown disdain for movies made in the past decade or so have made the complaint that there are less memorable characters and especially less memorable villains in modern movies. While I’ve never been a particularly big fan of old movies, I will agree with the sentiment that there were better characters in the past, and it’s not just that they’ve been around long enough to acquire a greater status.

The problem lies with one of the biggest problems that I have with movies that were made in the past decade, which is one that I thankfully predict that we will be moving away from as we enter the next decade. The trend is that people started demanding a misguided ‘realism’ from their movies. To many people, ‘realism’ just seems to mean being excessively dark and edgy, which has lead to a flood of movies that are in no way realistic, but pretend that they are. The problem is that this has lead to movie characters excessively needing ‘humanizing’ qualities. Nowadays, characters have to have some kind of fault or weakness it seems, and I see this as a problem.

The bottom line is, you can only develop a character so much in the span of a movie. Some movies are more successful with it, but if you are making a blockbuster action flick, you’ve got no business trying to make a realistic character. The point is to make one who is unforgettable. In general, I think one way to put it is, it’s not about how many one-liners your character spits (as no doubt modern characters still spit them) but it’s about how badass the last thing the character did before saying the line was.

What I want to see is characters who are beyond reason, beyond weakness, and totally larger than life. I want the villain to be so unstoppably badass that if the hero actually takes them down, it’s only because the hero was even more unstoppably badass. You don’t even have to be making an action film for this to be possible. Quentin Tarantino has consistently made all of his films by filling them with way-larger-than-life characters. Take the recent Inglourious Basterds, wherein face-offs between The Jew Hunter and Aldo the Apache are so big and tense that when the former talks about having the entire war in his hands, you don’t even start to doubt him.

What stirred me to talk about this (and how it ties into anime) is that Ryougo Narita, creator of Baccano! and Durarara!!, is a veritable god of creating memorable characters. He fills his stories with people so otherworldly and amazing that you don’t even feel like normal life stands a chance against them. The clashes between Rail Tracer and Ladd Russo in Baccano! had an enormity about them that was incredible because you felt like this was a true clash of titans. Durarara! has already shown that it will have similar situations, as was felt in the second episode’s meeting between Orihara Izaya and the Dullahan rider. The show uses it’s insane cast and overpowering atmosphere to create a unique and interesting world for things to play out in.

Really, I could say that this is what the Faust-type light novels are all about. Writers like Kouhei Kadono (Boogiepop) and NISIOISIN (Bakemonogatari) are the forefront of modern pulp literature with their dark and overpowering stories about completely incomprehensible characters. I also think that the trend could come back in the US with the success of films like 300 and The Dark Knight, which had almost the ultimate pulp villain, the Joker. (And yes, there were a lot of other super hero films in this decade, but once again, they all tried to humanize the heroes and villains – those are the problems I’m talking about.) I love that movies and anime like these are being made, and I can’t tell you how happy I’d be if the trend came back in full force in the coming decade (which I can see happening.)

10 thoughts on “I Love Pulp Characters

  1. While I wouldn’t throw Bakemono into the same mix (all of its “pulpiness” seems to be concentrated in Senjougaraha and Meme, with everyone else playing to other tropes), I gotta agree with you. And between Book of Bantorra, COBRA, and Durarara!, there’s a good amount of pulp goodness playing right now. Hardly a change in trends, but it’s a welcome change of pace.

    I don’t see this sort of stuff coming back in full force, though. I remember Quentin Tarantino making a comment recently where he accused audiences of “out-sophisticating” themsevles from enjoying stuff that falls along these lines. A lot of audiences laugh at these “big” characters because they don’t fall into their lines of what’s “believable,” and it’s kinda sad that people can’t dig this sort of stuff ALONG with the more “serious” stuff. He’s talking about more than pulp, but the idea’s there.

    There we go, found the youtube clip where he says that. The quote’s early in the clip.

    • Mm, I wouldn’t put Bakemono in there either, I just wanted a NISIOISIN example that people have actually heard of lol.

      The thing is, that’s how people have been, but I think people are finally going to start migrating back to crazy pulp characters. I think that the realism thing has finally gotten so overdone that it’s getting to be passe and a decent amount of the new movies coming out will, I think, bring back the big characters. A great example would be Avatar – James Cameron has always been great at creating the most memorable villains (Terminator 2 containing one of the greatest after all), and Avatar had one of the most badass villains I’ve seen in a long time, the crazy-ass general who refused to die and did all kinds of crazy-ass shit. So maybe other movies will take away from this awesomeness.

  2. I can definitely sympathise with the irritation of a token fault being tacked on to every character in a gesture at realism, but nevertheless I am (as always) at odds with you here.

    Obviously different approaches to character writing go wrong in different ways, but pulp characters can piss me off even when done fairly well. Like Baccano – fifteen designer quirky ubermenschen per square feet just makes me facepalm. What I like in Durarara so far is the way the core narrative is arranged around introspective personalities within a world of pulpy buggers.

    I’d be inclined to characterise this in terms of the Gun/Diebuster divide: most anime fans clearly do get the emotional pull from the former, some of us find L’alc the best thing in the franchise. Probably worth noting that in terms of live-action the trend has been pretty gradual over the last 50 years, and hasn’t really worked along a pulp/realist divide. Back when There Will be Blood came out, some critics were noting Day Lewis’s as a return to the big, shouty, theatrical acting of the [em]seventies[/em].

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