Anime Philosophy: The Morality Question

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Since I haven’t been posting regularly on the blog as of late and don’t feel quite up to catching up to all of my reviews right away since there’s a pretty huge pile of series I’ve completed in the past half a year (more than that probably), I decided I might as well go ahead and try something new.  So basically, every once in a while (ideally it’d be once a month, but I’ll have to see) I’ll make a post about different aspects of anime, be it the themes, community, presentation, or perhaps something else that catches my interest.  I figure this could explain more of how I think as well as what I personally value in anime and I hope that I can bring up some interesting discussion topics.  I decided to start with an element that I find very valuable and one that certainly piques my interest: the issue of morality.

The morality question is an intriguing one that I feel carries a lot of potential and could add much more depth to a series.  While I can certainly enjoy a series where the good and the bad are clearly defined as long as it’s carried by other storytelling elements, I greatly appreciate one that can provide a more ambiguous take on right and wrong.  Stories that present the moral question do not exclusively point to one side as being right and do not demand the viewers believe in one set choice but rather present clashing beliefs and ideals and allow the viewers to interpret them on a personal level.  On top of this, many of the characters that I find interesting aren’t exclusively heroic saints or detestable villains, but rather a mix of elements from both that can create a much more complex individual with multiple dimensions.  While characters clearly defined as good or evil can still be well written, there is a great deal of potential involved with a character that can’t be labeled so easily and that makes choices that can be interpreted in a variety of ways.   Ambiguous morality can be great from both a story and a character perspective and, if used properly, can make for quite a memorable series.

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The morality question is often tackled in a series that presents a society surrounded by crime, resulting in conflicting ideals between multiple parties.  While some stories may opt for a simple good vs. bad approach in the context of police or heroes vs criminals, I find a series that takes a much more ambiguous approach to the matter of morality to be far more intriguing.  Perhaps one of the most easily recognizable and widely known anime that focuses on the morality question in this manner is Death Note.  The series is centered around the idea of morality and this is evident from the very beginning as Light first comes across the Death Note and contemplates whether or not it is truly right to use it.  Rather than clearly labeling one side as heroic or evil, the series presents two sides of the coin as Light represents vigilante justice whereas L and the detectives support the law and disapprove of arbitrary killing by a single individual’s judgment.  What makes Death Note particularly interesting is how Light is the protagonist in a position that would conventionally be reserved for a character more akin to an antagonist.  This element may be one of the strongest in reinforcing the moral ambiguity of the series, as putting Light in the main character’s seat allows the viewers to directly view how he thinks and understand why he makes the choices as he does, whereas shifting the perspective into Light as an antagonist would take a great deal away from the narrative and make it far more difficult for viewers to connect with his ideals.  Light’s characterization and the nature of DN make for not only a thrilling psychological watch but also a series that allows viewers to pick a side and make their own decisions about who is in the right and who they feel should win the battle of ideals.  DN, and other similar stories, are not content with drawing a line and declaring good and bad, but rather examine both sets of ideals in depth through an intricate cat-and-mouse game to flesh out the humanity (or perhaps inhumanity) of the players involved.

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Death Note was a clash of ideals revolving around the idea of justice and crime, but gave little attention to the overall society, leaving it largely as the typical modern society distinguished only by the supernatural elements that impact the events of the story.  Other stories may also focus on the aspect of crime but focus more on the society itself and the beliefs surrounding the system more than about strict morality.  A good example of this is Psycho-Pass, which does hold some parallels with Death Note but revolves primarily around a dystopian society run by the Sybil system, which scans citizens to determine their mental state and the probability that they will commit crimes.  While Psycho-Pass is also a story about the clash of ideals between the police force and a vigilante criminal, the main conflict lies in the issues surrounding the Sybil system more so than justice or morality.  The issue of morality is certainly present but revolves largely around the inherent biases and flaws of the system.  While the system appears logical and sound on the surface, it quickly becomes clear that it is far from perfect.  To begin with, is it truly fair to incarcerate or perhaps even eliminate human beings strictly because a mere calculation deems them as psychologically dangerous?  And what happens when the system fails to evaluate a dangerous element and allows its own demise as a result?  Psycho-Pass’s take on morality focuses largely on these elements, and while the series begins as a more episodic case-by-case story, these pieces later connect into a story about the flaws of Sybil and how the characters respond to what they know as a result of their own ideals.  The sense of “good” or “evil” becomes far more complex as the series progresses.  While the main characters are largely sympathetic, they suffer from their own traumas and flaws as they contemplate how to deal with the flaws of the Sybil system that they support.  On the other hand, the antagonist can be cold and ruthless, going to terrible extremes to destroy the system, yet has understandable motives and becomes much easier to support as more is revealed about him.  The characters are all driven for very different reasons and while some of their actions are questionable, there is at least a semblance of reason for why they act as they do even if it’s difficult to agree with their choices.  Even a story about a dystopian society so far removed from the world we know has a lot to say about the human condition, making viewers contemplate the issues of crime prevention, punishment, societal functions, while also presenting the issues of individuality and acceptance in the midst of a skewed world.  I’d also like to add that not only Psycho-Pass, but most other Gen Urobuchi works (such as Saya no Uta, Fate/Zero, and Madoka) do explore the issue of ambiguous morality, or at the very least provide conflicting ideals that blur the distinction between heroism and villainy.

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The issue of crime, however, is not the only vehicle for a morality-based story to progress.  Another trend that can often be seen is the humans vs. other species type, and while some of these may be mere fights for survival and one-sided in nature, others may explore both sides in an attempt to flesh out the characters.  One such example of this type of story is Elfen Lied, which I finished reading not too long ago.  While the first half of the manga is riddled with lighthearted comedy and excessive fanservice, the story later takes a much more serious direction as the conflict between humans and diclonii becomes the central focus of the plot.  The cruelty of humans and diclonii alike are shown multiple times throughout the manga, and it is difficult to point to any one side as the sole “guilty” party because members of both have wrought destruction in some form and shattered the happiness of others.  At the same time, however, it is also made clear that both sides are capable of kindness and that both humans and diclonii are capable of loving others.  Elfen Lied is particularly tragic at times because the characters display both the best and the worst possible in terms of morality, and characters that may do horrible things remain sympathetic because of their pasts and the harshness of the world they live in and the circumstances they must deal with.  Some stories may opt to offer a more action-oriented experience that focuses largely on the human perspective by dehumanizing the opposition, but taking this sort of story and expanding on the other side’s perspective through the lens of ambiguous morality results in a series like Elfen Lied.  This is not to say that this type of story is inherently superior, as other stories may provide more emphasis on the psychological aspect on the human side (as, say, Evangelion does), but there’s something interesting about a series that presents an inhuman opposition that, in truth, may be more human than they seem.

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There’s a clear divide between the sides in Elfen Lied, and even though both humans and diclonii interact constantly and share a great deal of similarities, there is always a clear distinction between the two and I’m sure that Elfen Lied is not the only series in which this is the case.  But what happens when you get a bystander and toss them right in the middle of the two?  You might end up with a story like Tokyo Ghoul.  Tokyo Ghoul revolves primarily around Ken Kaneki, an ordinary human who through bizarre circumstances finds himself part ghoul.  Kaneki is initially terrified about his new transformation, horrified at the idea of becoming a monster and determined to retain his humanity at all costs.  As Kaneki goes about his new life as a half ghoul, however, he discovers that there is much more to the ghouls than he realized, coming to understand their humanity and accepting them as individuals much as one would acknowledge fellow human beings.  With a few exceptions, it’s hard to label Tokyo Ghoul characters as strictly good or evil, as they are all driven by their own ideologies and the worlds they grew up in.  Some of Kaneki’s allies will kill in an instant for the sake of survival or revenge, whereas those who hunt down ghouls are often driven by a desire to protect those close to them and to rid the world of a dangerous threat.  One episode directly juxtaposes the emotions and pain the characters feel as they fight each other in both a battle of ideals and of strength, showing that in spite of the cruelties these characters are capable of, they all have their reasons for acting as they do and are not strictly evil for the sake of being evil.  Though the morality issue in Tokyo Ghoul is already rather compelling, it is Kaneki that truly holds it together.  Kaneki is the balance between the two sides that wants to understand both sides as well as allow both to understand each other, and seeing how he develops as a character when confronted by the two worlds he lives in adds a great deal to the narrative.  Tokyo Ghoul is not exclusively a human vs. ghoul story, but also one about mutual understanding from the perspective of a character who can understand both sides more than any other.  This sort of story is refreshing because it doesn’t rely entirely on contrast and doesn’t separate the two sides so much.  A story about ambiguous morality shows that it’s never just about pure good or pure evil, but may not display this in the same way as far as species distinction.  Opposing opinions are rarely limited exclusively to one side or the other, as perspective is about considering information in a balanced way and acknowledging multiple possibilities while affirming one’s own opinion.  Kaneki is the embodiment of this and the middle ground that helps connect the humans and the ghouls that may seem distant otherwise.

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One more type of series that I’ve seen explore the issue of morality is the psychological game genre.  One such series, and one of my favorite manga at that, is Liar Game, which explores morality in this context.  While Liar Game has a very thrilling psychological element and is incredibly entertaining largely due to the battle of wits that take place, the series also explores trust vs. doubt and whether honesty or deceit is a better approach.  Nao, the protagonist, is one of the most honest manga characters out there (to a horribly naive extent early on) and struggles with the ordeals she faces as many find it easy to trick her for their own benefit.  Though she is deceived multiple times and encounters some greedy and perhaps even cruel individuals, the story maintains an optimistic view as Nao stays true to herself as the manga progresses.  While she does develop and steadily gets better at using her wits without falling into blatant traps, it should be noted that Nao remains a kind and optimistic person that truly wishes to help those around her, even as some of them plot to ruin her to avoid the same fate.  Though Nao makes multiple mistakes, it is clear that her honesty is essential and there are times when it saves her in circumstances that would otherwise have led to her defeat.  Liar Game emphasizes how (for the most part) the characters are victims just as much as aggressors, and while some of them are willing to get rid of others for the sake of survival, they suffer too as they are generally good people who have no other option but to act this way, particularly because they themselves have been deceived and follow such a path as they see no other way to escape from their dreadful circumstances.

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Similar to Liar Game is Kaiji, another psychological series that focuses on the protagonist’s participation in gambling and various other types of games to get out of debt and escape a grim future.  While Liar Game is a largely optimistic series, however, Kaiji takes a far more cynical approach in examining morality and greed.  Many of the games in Kaiji drive the participants to despair and some even run the risk of death itself, causing the characters to make desperate choices for the sake of survival, often even more so than in Liar Game.  Adding on the fact that such games are run by a wealthy company filled with corrupt individuals who pleasure in watching the destruction of the hopeless players who try to win money, Kaiji is a series that displays some of the worst humanity has to offer and the sheer cruelty that comes with desperation and desire for money.  Betrayal, deceit, violence, and half-truths are abundant in this series as the characters struggle to survive and are forced to conquer others in the process.  In spite of the rather pessimistic tone of the series, however, Kaiji (the protagonist) rises above his circumstances and proves to be an incredibly respectable character as the story progresses.  Kaiji has no delusions about being a hero and constantly tries to resolve himself to avoid making excuses and to fight exclusively for his own interest, yet makes some of the most heroic choices conceivable for those select few who truly value him.  While Kaiji is no saint and often lapses into undesirable behavior when he can afford to, he often comes through when he truly needs to and it is incredibly satisfying to see how he can rise above his circumstances.  While the series is undoubtedly thrilling for the games and how Kaiji outwits his enemies, the series (season 1 more than season 2) also has much to offer as far as the human condition and the effect of greed and necessity on one’s choices.  Interestingly enough, Kaiji also shows how ordinary, generally good people will make horrible choices to survive and suffer from the guilt of their actions as Liar Game does.  However, the philosophy of the antagonists is much more strongly emphasized through the cynical philosophy they have on greed, the insignificance of human life, and the weakness of morality when there is no room to follow it.  This is one of the main reasons why Kaiji shines as a character, as many around him to succumb to their circumstances and falter, whereas Kaiji proves his worth as a strategist and as a human being in even the most bleak situations, showing that even one who seems like a hopeless, pathetic bum as Kaiji started out could very well aim for a better future.

So where am I going with all of this, and what’s my point?  Well, I’m not sure if I really had a specific goal in mind when writing this post, as much of this is me explaining the morality issue in the context of some series I enjoyed a good deal, but I will say that the issue of morality is one of the reasons I value anime, and storytelling in general.  All too many times I’ve seen people dismiss anime as childish cartoons simply because they aren’t aware of what it has to offer, and while I’m sure anime is not the only medium that offers stories of this nature, there are quite a few that really do present their stories in a style of their own that can’t be conveyed in quite the same way otherwise.  Of course, some anime (as is the case with any form of storytelling) is just mindless entertainment, and there’s nothing wrong with enjoying those, but I really do appreciate a story that offers more depth or complexity with thought-provoking themes and meaningful substance.  Beyond this, I find that series that focus on morality reinforce viewer individuality, perspective, and choice.  To be fair, some of these series do lean more toward one side or another in terms of the morality issue, but for the more ambiguous ones, the decision is ultimately a matter of opinion and the true value is allowing the readers to decide what they feel is right based on their own thoughts and feelings.  Is there truly a right or a wrong when it comes to such stories?  Personally I feel that it’s far too arbitrary to label any one side as definitively “correct” or “incorrect,” and this is why I value these types of stories.  Viewers are definitely free to view one side as more right than the other, but it’s never a matter of objectivity as much as it is a matter of opinions and exchanging ideas, as there’s much less to discuss if there’s an obvious correct answer.

Of course, there’s a lot more I could discuss, and a bunch of other series that tie into this whole theme.  The When They Cry series (both Higurashi and Umineko) do a good job of juxtaposing the good and the bad between likable but disturbed or otherwise flawed characters, School Days offers a darker and more realistic (in some ways, and at the very least in comparison to most other anime) take on what happens in the event of a harem, and if we include video games and VNs in the discussion, the Zero Escape series (Virtue’s Last Reward in particular) offers a lot on the matter.  There’s no shortage of series that tackle this idea and the discussion really could be endless.  But to finish this post up, I’d like to present some questions for the readers on the matter.  What do you feel about the issue of morality as presented in anime?  Which series that focus on this issue are your favorites?  Perhaps there is another exemplary series that I have neglected to mention and should thus give a try myself?  Since stories that tackle morality are often interesting territory for me, I’d very much love to discuss them and I’d be glad to discover another series that could hit me the same way some others already have.

    • Kai
    • November 14th, 2014

    If anything, I think the type of stories that you mentioned, where it focuses on ambiguous morality, had been getting more common, whereas stories when good and evil are clearly defined, are getting more and more uncommon. Both have their pros and cons however, but I do agree that the concept of ambiguous morality can really make for a really compelling storyline. Usually in these types of stories, the protagonist will be a normal human character, nothing “cool-defining” about him, and having him face up against crimes, supernatural, systems and etc.. It really alleviates his characterization and helps us relate to his choice of actions on a personal level.

  1. September 26th, 2014

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