Friday, July 14, 2017

The Normal Hero and Revolutionary Girl Utena

I've been mulling over a few different thoughts about the necessity of reading outside one's genre and having hobbies outside of writing for a while. An outward focus rather than the self-copying inward focus.

As an example, I've been reading over at Deus ex Magical Girl lately on a rather...niche...segment of anime, manga, and light novels aimed (mostly) at girls.  D. G. D. Davidson has been discussing Revolutionary Girl Utena, a shoujo series aimed at teenaged girls, bringing a more balanced and thoughtful analysis of the anime and themes than the gloss of surface-level feminism that normally passes for shoujo criticism. Utena's an...acquired taste, but the lessons Davidson pulled from the show have echoed certain conversations that the PulpRev community has had about the heroes of weird fiction.
I’ve previously compared Revolutionary Girl Utena to Neon Genesis Evangelion, which it immediately succeeded. One of the many reasons I think Utena is the superior show is that it achieves a balance that Evangelion doesn’t. Evangelion makes all of its characters sickos; nobody is mentally healthy. Utena, by contrast, places all of its neurotics in orbit around a protagonist who is well-balanced, and who serves as a vehicle of catharsis for everyone else. Utena is an anchor for Revolutionary Girl Utena, a psychologically normal and resilient heroine who provides, as it were, the measure to which the other characters fall short, or the bulwark against which they uselessly buffet. Evangelion has no such anchor, because it contains not a single character who isn’t a basketcase.
Somewhere or other, G. K. Chesterton once wrote about this tendency in modern fiction, the tendency to make every character a neurotic, and he contrasted it with older works, especially fairy tales, in which the hero was usually normal while everything around him was twisted and weird. Chesterton considered the normal hero an essential element for weird fiction because he served as the story’s anchor point, a straight line that gave everything else in the story freedom to bend and twist as it willed. Comparing these two works, Evangelion and Utena, I think Chesterton is correct. There is a reason that the “straight man” is a standard character in comedy or fantasy, who provides a refuge of normalcy in the midst of the weirdness. Utena works in large part because Utena is the straight man. Evangelion does not work in part, I believe, because it lacks a straight man.
The emphasis here is mine.

Chesterton's advice here is the rationale for isekai alternate world fiction and Amazing Stories' particular brand of pulp science fiction. By anchoring in the familiar, these stories made their weirdness accessible as well as magnifying the impact of the weirdness. After all, contrast is key.

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