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June 6th, 2016, 5:14 am

How Not to Write: Manga/Anime Edition

It takes a lot of effort to be a truly great writer, regardless of your medium. And even then, there's a lot of subjectivity that goes into what it means to be "great". Some people, like me, consider J.K. Rowling to be one of the greatest prose writers of her generation for her impressive and casual world-building, engaging characterization, and witty voice. Other consider her use of adverbs amateurish and dismiss her as a phenomenon, but not a distinctive talent. Many people revere Alan Moore as a genius of comic writing, whereas I see him as a delusional, self-righteous curmudgeon who does not know how to blend art and prose into something digestible. But whatever your taste, you can surely identify your own personal definition of "good" writing, and gravitate towards that.

We're not going to talk about that.

Instead, we're going to discuss bad writing. Not writing that is wholly reprehensible ("My Immortal", I'm gazing longingly at you), but writing that suffers from an array of poor decisions that bog down what could have been an excellent character study or epic drama. Today, we're going to focus on a number of issues I've noticed during my second phase of manga.

A quick backstory: I got heavy into manga during my middle school years. Naruto, One Piece, Hikaru no Go, Yu Yu Hakusho--if Shonen Jump pushed it, I read it. I made some bad decisions during this period, not least of which being a collection of manga volumes that cost me upwards of $1500 (which, coming from someone whose sole income was a weekly allowance, is no small feat). You see, I keep forgetting about the concept of libraries, and tend to buy everything I want to read. It adds up.

At some point around my sophomore year of high school, I realized just how deep I'd gotten. I was actively reading around two dozen series, none of which had completed their American publication runs. That meant I was constantly playing catch-up, never reaching a single conclusion, and all the while spreading my time between series so thin that I was unable to truly appreciate any of them. In the end, I sold every one of my manga volumes with the exceptions of Death Note and Pokemon Adventures, both of which I still have to this day. I made back a paltry sum compared to what I'd shelled out, but I'd learned some good lessons about time and money management. From then on, I completely disregarded all manga.

Cut to six months ago, when I was hired at my local Half Price Books. I get a 50% discount on all used material, meaning I effectively pay 25% of the cover price for any book, movie, or CD I want. This includes items that are in any other HPB location nationwide, and during my breaks I've gotten in the periodic habit of looking up items that would normally cost far too much elsewhere, either due to their intrinsic value (Sandman ultimate edition hardcovers) or scarcity (Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends: Season Two, for whatever reason) and snagging them. It's been, for the most part, an excellent way to build my home library.

About a month ago, I decided to revisit some manga series I remembered being particularly interesting (Shaman king) and try some series that I'd been "too young" to read (Attack on Titan) during my first manga phase. So began my second phase, which is characterized by more conservative buying decisions and more care in how many series I actively read. My more exciting purchases recently have been a couple box sets, including One Piece and the complete Claymore series. I'm currently thirteen volumes into the twenty-seven that comprise Claymore, and I've recently begun to piece together a string of thoughts about (mostly shonen) manga writing that I vaguely recall noticing in middle school, but are far more apparent now that I'm approaching manga from a more experienced and singular perspective. So, without further ado, I would like to dissect several problematic tactics employed by even the best manga artists (and, to a degree, the writers who adapt series into anime), and explore some alternative strategies. Keep in mind, this is all coming from a twenty-two-year-old retail worker, so take everything I say with a massive salt lick.


1. Super Saiyan Syndrome

The Super Saiyan Syndrome, as I'm dubbing it (which I assume has already been coined elsewhere, but we're not here to discuss plagiarism), is the process by which limits are established within a story, only to be exceeded and replaced with a new limit, which is then later exceeded in an ever-bursting series of metaphorical ceilings. The most obvious example of this is, of course, in Dragon Ball Z. In the original Dragon Ball series (which, manga-wise, is the first sixteen volumes of the American series), Goku turned into a great ape form as a sort of parody of werewolves, but did not display any human-like transformation until the Z series proper, when Goku first manages to achieve Super Saiyan form, a temporary overpower mode that comes with a nifty Slim Shady-style hair bleaching.

Overpowering is not a new concept, and has taken forms as varied as Mario's invincibility star and the new-ish Mega Evolutions in Pokemon. The issue is not inherent to the concept. Where we run into problems is the central conceit of the Super Saiyan mode: in the series, it is described as a legend, something that has not yet been achieved until the events of the series take place. When Goku first goes Super Saiyan, it comes across as something amazing and unique, a total game-changer that swings the tide of battle back his way and ensures his victory. He is, in this form, all-powerful.

So, where do you go from there?

There are, unfortunately, only two options.

Option one: that's all there is. Goku can now become an overpowered being in times of desperation, and all his epic fights will be solved with this power. If he somehow cannot defeat an enemy in Super Saiyan mode, he loses, and we finally see the hero taken down permanently. It would be a heart-crushing defeat for teenage fans and investors everywhere, and if not handled with grace would feel hollow and disrespectful to the reader's commitment to the series.

Unfortunately, option two is disrespectful to the reader's intellect. Instead of capping the power levels (more on that later) at Super Saiyan, Akira Toriyama chooses instead to have other characters attain the same heightened form, forcing Goku to reach for even greater strength. This is where you get Super Saiyan 2, and Super Saiyan 3, and Super Saiyan God mode, and on and on ad nauseam. With each successive form, the concept becomes less novel and less rewarding, and you lose sight of the fact that, only a short while ago in the series' history, the original Super Saiyan mode was considered little more than a fable. It becomes a tool with which to artificially extend a series that has run out of story to tell, or has written itself into a corner that it itself seems to use a sort of Super Saiyan mode to escape. It's like a personal deus ex machina for the characters, a saving grace from on high that defies logic and repercussions. It's been replicated in scores of other series (most recently in my readings, Claymore), and it's frankly painful to see. There's so much more that can be done with these war-torn worlds than pitting all-powerful characters against each other and forcing them into ridiculous one-uppmanship to create more artificially-extended action sequences, and I wish more writers would be willing to explore something other than the upper echelons of their warriors' strength.

2. The Tournament Technique
Another artifact from Toriyama's cliche'd magnum opus, the Tournament Technique is a way in which manga writers (primarily for shonen series) use the idea of an in-story competition to create tension. Tournaments have built-in drama. There can only be one (Highlander), and everyone who enters truly believes they can reach the top and has some sort of stakes in the competition. There's nothing wrong with a tournament, and in some series--sports dramas like Prince of Tennis--it fits in naturally. The problem is when the concept is applied to less-relevant situations, tournaments that don't really make sense and seem to just be there as a quick way to provide something for the protagonist to strive for and struggle against.

And, let me tell you, it happens a lot.

Dragon Ball: Tournament to become the Universe's Greatest Fighter
Naruto: Tournament for advancing in ninja rank
Shaman King: Tournament to become the next Shaman King
Yu-Gi-Oh!: Tournament to become the next King of Games
One Piece: Tournament to find the greatest pirate treasure
Yu Yu Hakusho: Tournament of supernatural beings put on by humans
Knights of the zodiac: Tournament to obtain the most powerful armor
Dragon Drive: Tournament in virtual reality

"Tournament" doesn't even look like a word anymore. You see what I mean, though? It's not a viable source of storytelling because it forgoes so many critical aspects of storytelling. With a tournament, you don't really need interpersonal drama past match-ups, or character arcs outside of ranking (more on that later), or any real goals excluding first prize. It's a complete and utter cop-out, and even when it's executed well, it's still a massively-overused trope that should not take up such large portions of stories that, without it, could be far more exciting. I would much rather replace nearly every Shaman on Shaman battle with globe-trotting exploration of international Shaman culture and the implications of death in this world. It would keep me more invested than whether or not Yoh becomes the Shaman King, because, having not finished the series, I'm pretty sure he does. There's not much surprise when the main character in a tournament-centric series wins the tournament, because it's expected they do if there's no other goals present for them to strive for.

3. "Impossible!"
I'm going to keep this one short. Never use the word "impossible" when something isn't really impossible. An astounding number of manga series are guilty of throwing the phrase around the same way someone would say "Wow!", and it goes through three stages of reader comprehension: first, it's an exclamation of actual magnitude; second, its meaning is lost and it becomes just another phrase uttered in surprise; and, finally, the sheer repetition of the word makes the reader physically disgruntled and agitated.

That third stage is where I'm at with Claymore, and here's the real reason: I like the series. I'm having a lot of fun with the world, and the art is astounding. At the beginning, it even did its best to avoid many of the issues I've noticed in other manga titles. Somewhere around the tenth volume, though, the writing had noticeably dipped in quality and is now somewhere between disappointingly average and actively upsetting. The overuse of "impossible" at this point is the least of its worries, but is nevertheless a terrible habit to get into.

Writers out there, don't use "impossible" in more than a couple situations. Think of it as the vocabulary approximation of Super Saiyan. If every new development is referred to as "impossible" (the hero survived that battle? Impossible! The villain's power is more than we imagined? Impossible!), then nothing is surprising or exciting. "Impossible", like tournaments, is a way to tell us why we should care, instead of showing us. It's saying "hey, look how crazy this is! You should be astounded!" And guess what? The more you say it, the less astounded we'll be, and the less we'll trust you as a writer.

Furthermore, if every development truly IS impossible, like someone managing to even exceed Super Saiyan in strength (gotta reuse these examples for emphasis), then maybe you're relying too much on excessive circumstances to create drama. Try pulling back and exploring what can be gained or lost within the confines of the existing world, instead of throwing us wrenches of surprise. We're tired of getting our heads bruised.

4. Everything about villain battles. Literally everything.
Japanese artists have created their fair share of iconic villains, and many of them are found in their comics. What they tend not to be able to do, though, from my experience, is write a single good interaction between the hero and the villain. This stems from several sub-issues that all work in tandem to derail these supposedly-climactic moments.

a. Talking instead of fighting.
Presumably, we have an understanding of the villain's motives and strategies before the protagonist confronts them. There are obvious exceptions, but typically the "big baddie" is made clear to the reader before the final battle. Why, then, is every battle littered with dialogue instead of violence? I mean, I know, it's not just a manga thing. The Marvel films, which I adore, are littered with one-liners and intimidating exclamations. The difference, however, is these are more often asides than soliloquies. Manga villains seem far more interested in explaining their philosophies than actually crushing their enemy, presumably out of massive ego. Why, why, why? Why are you telling your mortal enemy about your plan instead of just crushing them with your massive dragon fists or incinerating them with your laserface? It's not out of strategy or psychological warfare, but pure ego and loving the sound of their own speech bubbles. It invariably gives the protagonist some sort of advantage, either due to exposing a weakness or giving them enough time to develop a plan. Again, it really isn't unique to manga, but it's certainly not helping their case. (And, yes, I know, I do it too. Never said I was a perfect writer.)

b. Narrating the battle.
This is one of the most egregious errors in manga fight sequences. Comics are a semi-unique art form, where both words and pictures are working together to tell a story. When two different storytelling mediums are in use, they should play off each other naturally and aid each other, taking turns as the centerpieces as the story dictates. Manga, however, loves to double down instead of sharing the load. While some of the more simplistic action sequences are still told solely through images, too many of the subtle moments are explained by the fighters, or inexplicable bystanders who are often allies of the hero but don't get involved because I don't know pride or something? (Seriously, why does everyone insist on fighting one-on-one instead of stacking the deck in your favor with allies?) When an unexpected move is executed, someone has to explain exactly how it worked after the fact, because the art apparently wasn't enough to convey it, or the artist genuinely wasn't capable of demonstrating the action properly (which, at that point, becomes a more overarching concern for their career). These moments litter so many battles, and they disrupt the flow of the fight. They also completely derail the reader's sense of time, since every battle seems to be riddled with moments of sports commentary, but that can be chalked up to the single-focus nature of the medium. (Just kidding, it's ridiculous and needs to stop.)

c. Naming moves.
Stoppit. Stop naming your attacks. Stop naming your styles. Stop announcing what you're about to do to your opponent. Stop, stop, stop. It's ridiculous, repetitive, and exhausting.

d. Taking turns during battles.
This goes along with the previous points. With the way manga constantly stops the combat to throw in various dialogue points, it becomes remarkably apparent that the combatants are actually taking turns in the fight, Pokemon-style. Why? Why aren't you just clobbering you opponent mercilessly? Be a well-written character and try to get it over with.

e. Not going "full power".
The classic "I'm not even using half my strength to defeat you!" moment, when the villain laughs after slamming the protagonist to the floor. Why aren't you using your "full strength", exactly? It would really make your job easier. Who are you trying to impress? You're one of the most powerful beings in this universe (they always are), everybody knows that. So why not just squash this pest beneath your godly feet and get back to world domination? Who the heck cares how much effort it took you if you won out in the end? The only narrative purpose it serves is to provide incremental increases in challenge when the protagonist manages to gain a footing in battle against this half-power opponent.

Not every villain encounter features all five of these points, but they're common enough in manga that I'm starting to dread every protagonist/antagonist interaction in action-oriented manga for fear of encountering some or all of these tropes.

5. Pride
This may be the Westerner in me talking, but not everything needs to revolve around pride, honor, and ego. Revenge is not nearly as necessary as manga makes it seem. If someone disgraces you, so what? Get over it. These are often very singular, shallow motivations that don't hold up to logic or the fact that, over time, these feelings often fade when you realize how irrelevant they are to day-to-day life. So don't embark on a seven-year quest to restore your name or whatever. Realistically, you're not going to be nearly as invested in that goal by around the two-year mark, and will instead be wishing you'd just opened a coffee stand or something.

6. Quantification
This is the thing that I noticed most recently, and what prompted me to put these thoughts into words. It's also the most interesting to me, possibly because it's so new to my brainspace. Put simply, this is the idea that everything important in a manga series can be reduced to numbers. This most commonly comes in the forms of rank and power.

By rank, I mean the idea that characters are organized in some sort of hierarchy based on skill, strength, seniority, or some other trait. It's sometimes represented by a title, but commonly (and obnoxiously) comes in the form of a numerical value. For example, in Claymore, the main character Claire is ranked forty-seven out of forty-seven warriors. Numbers one through five are considered the most elite, and no more than one single-digit-rank warrior is present in any squad. Now, obviously, rankings are a real thing. They occur in the military (here's lookin' at you, Master Chief Petty Officer John 117), in tournaments (hello, point #2), and in classes (top ten in my high school, mofos!). But, in manga, they become shorthand for "root for the underdog". If you tell the reader that the protagonist is a low-ranking whatever, they're being told, "you're going to want to see them become a high-ranking whatever, and that's their goal right now". Then, they don't need to really show you exactly why they're so low-ranked. Indeed, when ranks are introduced in like volume six of Claymore, there's nothing to indicate that Claire is less powerful than anyone else, and she almost immediately proves herself, through virtue of being the main character, to be one of the most powerful. It's a frustrating shorthand, to be sure, but it's not quite as unforgivable as the second form of quantification: power.

I'll spell this out for you simply: IT'S OVER 9000!

What, exactly, does a power level mean? We see it all the time. In fact, if you're here, chances are you're intimately familiar with power levels in Pokemon. We see a Pokemon's level, their stats, their remaining PP for moves, their overall HP, and their experience points. In many ways, Pokemon is just a numbers game. That's the difference, though: Pokemon is, first and foremost, a game. Those numerical values are vital for us to figure out how to convert these elemental creatures into things we can pit against each other and objectively determine a winner. There's no grey area in a video game, it's either win or lose. Because of that, we need the certainty of numbers.

Manga doesn't need that. Manga is storytelling. There's absolutely no interactive factor to it. The story is going to unfold how the writer dictates, regardless of how the reader engages with the piece. And because of that, numbers have no place in manga. I mean, think about it. How would you know if you were attacking with fifty percent of your power? Can you, as a human being, reduce your understand of yourself to numbers, to percentages and statistics and ratios? Can you determine just by observing a situation the exact odds of something occurring? Do you know some sort of inherently-understandable numerical metric for anything that you experience as a living creature? The answer to these questions should, hopefully, be "no". Why, then, do so many manga characters seem to be able to reduce aspects of humanity to mere numbers?

What this is, really, is the final nail in the coffin for the overarching issue of manga writing: telling, not showing. I don't even mean showing with literal visuals, though that should be remarkably easy considering the medium. No, I'm referring to how peoples' actions, reactions, and core characteristics can and should say far more than the words that come out of their mouths. I don't want to know that the hero only has twenty percent of their strength left in a fight. Just show me their face, battered and bruised. Show me their heavy breathing, their wavering bodies as they stand to face their opponent. Twenty percent means nothing to me, except as a way to shorthand a situation. It tells me this character is at a disadvantage without showing it, without making me believe it.

Numbers are absolute. If you say someone is at twenty percent power, there's no way for my interpretation of the situation to alter my perception of that fact, because you've already given me the absolute of the situation. It's lazy and, frankly, shameful. It insults the reader and spells it out like a math equation. I don't want to be able to write out your story on a chalkboard as a series of numerical match-ups of ranks and power levels and chances of success. Give me the grey area. That's where the story thrives. That's where emotion and imagination lives, and it's where the truly brilliant stories come from.

In conclusion
I want to end this on a positive note. Despite everything I've said, I have a special place in my heart for certain manga. Death Note is still one of my favorite comic stories, regardless of country of origin. I'll finish Claymore, and I'll keep the pretty box set as a testament to the high points of the series, regardless of its quickly-aggregating lows. And, most importantly, I'm not disinclined to experience new manga. What I am, however, frustrated that so many of these stories could be far more engaging and powerful if some care was taken to avoid the glaring issues spelled out here.

For the manga readers/anime watchers here, don't take this to mean I hate what you like, or that you should change your mind about anything. I do, however, encourage you to look more critically at these stories. Think about what works and what doesn't. Learn from what you read and what you watch, and use that information to make more informed choices throughout the rest of your life exploring Japanese storytelling. Selective art consumption is one of the best ways to affect the entertainment landscape, and the more we make choices based on quality instead of promise, the better the options we'll have in the future. And, if you have series that prove me wrong, please send them my way. I'd love more examples of manga done right.

For those of you who are creatively bent and have your own stories/comics to tell, please keep working on them. Never stop creating. However, be more conscious of what you put on paper. Don't look at just what you're presenting, but how you're presenting it. Are you employing the most effective strategy? Does this dialogue feel true to real conversation? Is the action speaking for itself? The more you experiment, the better your storytelling will become, guaranteed. I have no delusions of changing the world with this post, but I hope I've helped contribute to the dialogue of good and bad writing, and how everyone (including myself) can improve going forward.

Thank you for reading, and I'll see you around.


, June 7th, 2016, 9:30 am

After reading this, I'll definitely take quite the number of notes. Since I wanted a multi-generation battle story of mine to thrive, I would definitely try to avoid anime cliches as well.

One big example are anime episodes taking place at the beach or a hot spring. If anything, those episodes by themselves really feel pointless other than unnecessary fanservice and/or minor character development.

Ian Evans, November 24th, 2016, 3:02 pm

This is a pretty dope post imo. Although I pretty much agree with your analysis, I think if there were a flaw to be pointed out in your approach it would be that you are reading too much shonen. Personally I don't read that much Manga, but I will watch an anime on occasion. A lot of the errors that upset you (and me) that you mention are tropes. Tropes are a big part of what defines a genre. So a shonen without powering up and breaking your limits suddenly might not really fit the shonen genre anymore. And shonen sells. It sounds like you got caught in that a little bit. The arcs keep going and going because people keep buying and it becomes less about telling a story than it does meeting standards, monetarily, the audiences tastes. SO yeah, if you're looking for great writing in Shonen, you won't really find it cause it is not an element that is necessary to the genre. A lot of the great moments are found in between the lines. I mean, these series have teams of writers working on these things, it's never just solely one guy.

Once a genre is defined by tropes, or clichés, or whatever, the real talent is in how you approach those tropes or clichés, and what the audience is expecting. Some people call this a "deconstruction," which is really prominent in some single season animes: Neon Genesis Evangalion and Gurren Lagan in the mech genre, One Punch Man in the shonen/ super hero genre, Madoka Magica in the magical girl genre, and Kill La Kill is a quasi combination of magical girl/shonen/high school drama.... well the list goes on for Kill la Kill. Any way, loved what you said and totally agree, but it's important to remember what you said in the first paragraph that there are a lot of different ways to be good at art, especially writing.

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