The Asterisk War Sucks [Part 4] OR, What Are Cliche Characters? (and why do they suck?)

If that video disappears, catch it on Google Drive.

Text version:

Over the course of the last three videos, I’ve complained a lot about how the characters in The Asterisk War seem like nothing more than walking cliches. Now I’d like to take this video to explain exactly what it means for a character to be a cliche, and why it bothers me so much to watch a show that’s full of them.

Almost every character in every story in existence can be slotted into some kind of archetype; which comes as a result of the limited number of thoughts and ideas which humanity is capable of experiencing. We write characters that make sense to us and who reflect our perception of reality; and as such, there tend to be a lot of commonalities among our expressions–because, as human beings, there are only so many things that set us apart from one-another.

Moreover, it’s almost impossible to be a creative person without being influenced by other creative people. Almost everyone who makes art is a big fan of art, whether their scope of influence is very broad, or very narrow. As such, any writer’s sense of characterization is most likely informed by the work of other writers–be that in the way of direct inspiration, or in the way of giving them ideas about what to avoid and subvert in their own writing.

When you look at the landscape of storytelling from a bird’s-eye perspective, by consuming as many works as you can and relating them to one-another in a complex web of influences, then the trends among those works become increasingly apparent. Once you understand that Hideaki Anno is a huge fan of Mobile Suit Gundam and Space Runaway Ideon, then you understand why he might construct a story about a young man being thrust against his will into piloting a giant robot for the sake of a cause that he doesn’t necessarily believe in–and why the film conclusion basically involves everyone dying and the nature of the universe being rewritten. Once you know that Attack on Titan author Hajime Iseyama is a big fan of Muvluv Alternative, then you understand why he’d construct a story about humanity making a desperate stand against an overwhelmingly monstrous force, in which major characters are regularly eaten by giants. It’s a chain of causality and influence that allows you to view culture as one big, grand metanarrative.

A cliche is what happens when a scenario is written not as an emergent result of being influenced by other work, or of the author translating their understanding of the world around them, but instead as a result of making an observation about the types of scenarios which can be found in the greater cultural consciousness, and then creating a scenario based around that idea.

Take, for example, the tsundere. The term “tsundere” began as an observation: people noticed that there was a tendency in visual novels for one of the main female characters to start off acting abrasive towards the male character, and then to eventually develop feelings for them and end up acting lovingly towards them. The moment when tsundere became a cliche is when authors started going out of their way to create characters which would fit into the tsundere archetype.

Now, I don’t think it’s impossible to write a good tsundere character while being aware that you are, in fact, writing one [Senjougahara]; it’s more a matter of your approach. To me, the biggest way to tell a good character from a cliche one, is to ask yourself the simple question: why does this character act the way that they do?

For example: Louise from Zero no Tsukaima starts off acting abrasive towards the main character, because she’s generally a prideful, insolent, angry, and sensitive rich girl who spends most of her time pissed off at everyone. Her personality gradually changes as a result of the main character’s influence, and she finds herself falling in love with him; but let’s take a step back and ask ourselves why she acted that way in the first place.

We understand from the beginning that even though she comes from a noble and important background, Louise is possibly the weakest magician at her school; and this disconnect between her prideful upbringing and the constant source of ridicule that is her powers causes her to understandably develop a complex about it. As the series continues, the more that we learn about her family and her past, the more her attitude just sort of makes sense as the result of her surroundings. Whether you find her personality to be tolerable or not, I think that Louise is a pretty well-done tsundere character for this reason.

Now, let’s take a look at Julis from The Asterisk War. Like Louise, she’s known for acting abrasive and insolent towards her classmates and getting into fights; and we see in the first episode that she’s very sensitive and prideful. Likewise, her personality is changed by the main character, and she very quickly begins to develop feelings for him. So let’s ask the big question: why did Julis act the way that she did in the first place?

In episode three, we learn that when Julis was a kid, living as a princess in another country, her life was saved by a bunch of kids from a local orphanage; and she spent a lot of her time hanging out with them afterwards. She decided to come to Asterisk City so that she could win money and put it back into the orphanage, and she seems to harbor a deep grudge against the world, and against this city in particular, for its callousness and reliance on money. However, while this explains her motivations, it doesn’t really tell us anything about how she became the kind of person that she is today. We don’t really get a sense of what she was like before or after meeting these orphaned kids, or if she might have changed after coming to the city. We really don’t know much of anything about her besides the surface-level details of her personality and the broad strokes of her endgame motive.

Now, I don’t think that every character needs to be given an extensive backstory in order to sell us on the idea that they are who they are for a reason; another method is simply to reinforce the character’s personality throughout the narrative. It isn’t until episode nine of Toradora that we learn some of the reasons for Taiga’s bad attitude and solitary, clumsy living experience; but we get a pretty firm grasp of her character by the end of episode two. We more or less understand who she is and what she’s going through and the difficulties created by her situation, so that even if we don’t know exactly how she became this way, we can appreciate how much she changes when she starts being influenced by her friends.

Meanwhile, our entire understanding of what kind of person Julis had been before the intervention of the main character comes from a couple of accidental pervert scenes, and one little explanation from Classmate Guy. In fact, we’re only informed of the idea that she’s known for being hard-nosed towards her classmates AFTER we’ve already seen her softening up towards the main character as early as their first interaction. Her dere is built directly into her tsun! We never once get to see what Julis was like before the beginning of her transition into the person that she is by the end of episode four–oh, and yeah, the transformation only takes like four episodes; but we’ll talk more about that later.

All of this gives the impression that Julis was written as a tsundere first, and as a character second. She was built from the ground up to be a girl who would start off with an antagonistic demeanor towards the main guy, and then to eventually soften up and fall in love with him. Any other aspects of her personality feel like window dressing to the core idea of her being a tsundere; and as a result, nothing about her character resonates with the audience. The only appreciation that you can have for her is on the database level–by recognizing her place within the tradition of the tsundere archetype, and possibly having a categorial attraction to that archetype as a whole.

This problem of recognizing the characters as cliches first and as characters second is pervasive throughout the entirety of the series, and is why it’s so baffling and hilarious that Claudia reads off her own TV Tropes entry during her first on-screen minute in episode one.

At the start of episode two we finally get our proper introduction to Ayato’s older sister, Haruka, in the form of a flashback to his childhood. This scene only manages to establish Haruka as yet another walking cliche: Dead Family Member Type A: The Maternal Guardian. This is a character whose only apparent trait is their nobility in protecting and educating the protagonist to become the kind of person that they are today. The best way to handle this kind of character is to show them as little as possible: to have them mostly exist in the form of the protagonist talking about how influential they were from time to time so that we know what they meant to said protagonist. As soon as you start actually showing this character dispensing lessons and declaring their desire to protect the protagonist, the character becomes too good to be true.

It’s understandable for Ayato’s memories of his older sister to pertain mostly to her influence over him and her desire to protect him; but the presentation of this scene does not suggest that this is from Ayato’s perspective. If it were, then lingering on the face that Haruka makes after Ayato says that he’s going to protect her would seem out of place, since he obviously doesn’t interpret any meaning out of her making this face. The delivery of this scene really makes it out like Haruka’s entire life was all about protecting and guiding her little brother; which, if true, makes her an incredibly boring character.

In Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood, the mother of the main characters was dead from the beginning, and the brothers often remembered her as a caring and kind mother whose death, and their attempt at resurrecting her, were the inciting incident of the story. However, what eventually made Trisha Elric interesting was that she never quite got over the departure of her husband or was able to be completely happy with her life as a solo parent. It was in recognizing how hard her life had become and trying to maker her happy again that the brothers began developing their alchemy powers and learning to become stronger as individuals. Even though we barely knew anything about Trisha, we had some idea of the fact that she had a life and feelings outside of taking care of her children, and that realizing this was a huge part of those children coming into their own as responsible people.

In contrast, what Ayato remembers about his sister is that she was always trying to protect him; and what he takes away from that is that it’s his job to protect someone he cares about as well. Like the Elric brothers, Ayato wanted to protect his maternal figure; but unlike them, he doesn’t even know yet that he failed to do so. Whereas the Elric brothers had to confront the real meaning of being a protector and the sacrifices that come with caring for someone before the death of their parent and the beginning of their journey, Ayato only learns the basics–that protecting someone is the way to go–and doesn’t even know what his sister eventually sacrificed in order to protect him. He will never have the opportunity to see his sister in another light, and neither will we. Moreover, the narrative has no intent of punishing him for the shallowness of his ideals–Ayato is so fucking overpowered that protecting the people he cares about is the easiest thing in the world.

Like everyone else in The Asterisk War, Haruka’s existence seems like it was intended to fulfill a narrative purpose more so than anything else. She exists so that Ayato can have a guardian figure who was responsible for his sense of morality and even possibly for his combat abilities, as well as to facilitate a mysterious connection between Ayato and the school. Her personality is only revealed inasmuch as what is necessary in order to fulfill these narrative goals. It’s entirely possible that we may one day learn about Haruka’s personality and motivations in more depth, but given the overall dearth of creative ideas in this series so far, I would be absolutely fucking shocked if such a thing were to happen.

Episode two is also our introduction to Saya, and I don’t think it’s even remotely exaggerating to describe her entirely in TV Tropes terms. Deadpan Loli. Childhood Friend. Hammerspace. Done.

Why is Saya in love with Ayato? Because she is his childhood friend. We are literally given no other explanation–in fact, after it’s revealed that they were childhood friends, it seems like the show just figures that we assumed she was in love with him and doesn’t even bother building up to it or stating it outright–she just immediately starts fighting over him.

Why does Saya attend this school? Because her father is apparently a sort of mad scientist who constantly comes up with new and crazy weapons, and she wants to help promote those weapons by using them in combat. Why is this relevant to the show? Because it would be really adorable and funny if there’s this little girl who’s always pulling out gigantic guns.

Why does Saya have this personality? I’m not sure–in fact, her personality confuses me a little, because it kind of fails at being the cliche that it sets out to be. I know that’s a strange and pretentious-sounding statement, but hear me out. The deadpan loli is usually a very strict and specific character archetype. These characters very rarely speak or react to the things going on around them–and when they do, their reaction is always deadpan. They may have moments of determination and jump in to protect their friends, but it feels like they have to muster up all of their energy just to do so–or otherwise, their priorities and abilities are so alien that we can barely comprehend them. They’re usually tired and noncommittal; and if they’re a part of the main character’s harem, then they act like the guy belongs to them just because he does.

Saya has most of these elements, but her deadpan act isn’t very convincing. In spite of her having missed a day of class due to oversleeping and then regularly passing out, she ends up being a lot more talkative and proactive in the following episodes, and is a lot more clearly motivated then a typical character of her archetype. Now, if you wanted to, you could view this as breaking convention–maybe this is the type of character that they wanted to make. But I can’t shake the feeling like this was just a really awkwardly failed attempt at making a deadpan loli character. The proactive and fiery attitude that she takes towards her competitiveness with the other girls just kind of seems at odds with the sleepy and noncommittal nature that she’s presented with at the start.

Maybe I’m reading too deep into all this–particularly as someone who’s a fan of the deadpan loli archetype–but that’s just how it comes across to me; not that it matters because Saya is completely fucking extraneous and you could cut her from the show entirely and it would change absolutely nothing, because she exists exclusively for the sake of being able to shoehorn a deadpan loli childhood friend hammerspace character into the story.

Here is a list of other, better deadpan lolis, just in the name of providing examples: [Ruri Hoshino, Chino Caffuu Renge Miyauchi, Remon Yamano, Yotsugi Ononoki, Hiiragi from Hanamaru Kindergarten, Korone from Demon King Daimaou, Chiaki Minami, Hitoha Marui, Shiro from No Game No Life, Limone from Simoun, Noel Kannagi, Guu from Hare and Guu, Nozomu Ezomori]

Now, I don’t necessarily think that a viewer needs to be able to recognize these cliches, or to be able to provide examples of other characters who follow the same archetypes, in order to recognize that these are cliched characters. Even if you’ve only seen a handful of different anime series, you will probably suspect that these are not the most interesting or unique characters in the medium, because all of them have so little in the way of personality or motivations. They aren’t the kind of characters that you easily connect with or understand; and if you’ve even heard the word tsundere before, then you could probably figure out that Julis is one of them. However, I do think that the more familiar a viewer becomes with these cliches, the more annoying they become.

I think if you challenged me to try and name one hundred tsundere characters in less then twenty minutes, then I would be able to do so with time to spare. I have seen tsundere who were the main characters of some of my favorite anime, such as Taiga from Toradora. I heard the term for the first time in 2007 when I was being disappointed in characters like Shana and Nagi Sanzenin; and I’ve seen characters following this archetype from before the term even existed, like Akane from Ranma ½, or even, to an extent, Yukino Miyazawa from Kare Kano–one of my favorite anime characters. I’ve seen decent tsundere like Asuna and Misaka, and I’ve seen terrible cliche tsundere from–fuck, nearly everything this season!

Every single time I see a new tsundere, that tsundere is going to be compared to every other tsundere that I’ve ever seen before. Is she as complex and interesting as Asuka Langley? Is she as cool and likeable as Makise Kurisu? Is she as hot as Haruhi Suzumiya? Probably not.

This is why it bothers me so much to watch a show full of cliche characters. Not only have I seen it all done elsewhere, but I’ve seen it all done better. I liked Claudia more when she was Tomoe Mami, I liked Julis more when she was Kashiwazaki Sena, and I liked Saya more when she was the last remaining original[Saya from Blood]- I mean, when she was Ezomori Nozomu. It’s bad enough that the characters in this show are a bunch of one-note, boring pieces of cardboard that I can’t relate to, but when you throw in that I’ve seen a million other characters exactly like them but better, it just becomes insurmountably tiring. And I haven’t even really talked about the main character guy yet– but we can dig into him a little more when we get back to following the show in a chronological fashion. Because apparently I’m still watching this shit.

Continued in part five.

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