Mechafetish here, and while I don’t post nearly as often as I want to, I get to practice modern finance which is a great passion of mine. Ghostlightning is also a practitioner when he’s not test-flying the latest variable fighters on Fokker Base back on Eden (or dicking around on twitter). An important idea in finance right now is that of the Black Swan. Simply put, these are moments of SPECTACULAR DISASTROUS FAIL.
A Black Swan event is an idea presented by the trader-turned-philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb. He’s a favorite of ours since early this year. Similar to how we feel about Macross Frontier, ghostlightning is a retarded fanboy and is totally gay for Taleb, while I keep my head a little bit more. Do check his works out, as they’re quite a mindscrew.
During the beginnings of the age of modernity and enlightenment, the scientific method (empirical) was becoming more fashionable than the deductive method or the use of pure reason to get at facts and truth. It wasn’t enough that a theory was reasonable or logical. It had to be demonstrable and observable. Thus, naturalists started making all sorts of conclusions based on observable data.
The concept of the Black Swan is taken from the discourse that involved a scientific claim that after many many observations of swans, it is concluded that all swans are white. The thing is, it only takes the observation of one black swan for the whole ‘truth’ to be proven false. True enough, a species of swan with distinctively black feathers was discovered soon enough (in Australia if I’m not mistaken). The scientists who made the original ‘white’ claims had more than pie on their faces.
A Black Swan event is defined as a highly improbable event with three principal characteristics:
- It is unpredictable
- It carries massive impact
- After the fact, we concoct an explanation that makes the event appear less random and more predictable than it was.
Taleb offers these examples: the success of Google, the events of 9/11, and the current financial crisis. No one really predicted (1) the how a company with a good search algorithm will change the business of advertising and the way people live their lives (2). But the historians explain it as some kind of inevitability due to how the mass of information on the web needed to be organized (3).
So what does this have to do with anime?
Let’s begin by framing anime as a world with rules constructed by the creator(s) and assumed by the audience. It is when the intended rules of the creators and the assumed rules of the audience do not conform, or even conflict with each other, that we get an black swan event in anime.
A Black Swan event in a narrative may be a plot twist, but is not limited to that category. This will depend primarily on the execution of such a plot development relative to the rest of the strory. This is because, random events in a narrative are not analogous to real world random events in that they are still part of a structure designed toward a particular purpose, which is to tell a story.
Plot twists or developments (events) in fiction are created in the service of telling a story. Real life stories are told to make sense of real life events (see #3 above). As such, a well executed plot twist, no matter how unpredictable (1), or important (2), allows us to retroactively rationalize it (3) relative to our expectations with minimal discomfort.
I feel this is relevant in light of the most recent events as portrayed in episode 7 of Gundam 00. Although I’m not as interested in arguing on the virtues or flaws of this particular episode (suffice to say that I RAGED along with most of the blogosphere), for those of you who are interested, the pros and cons of the episode have been argued extensively here, and here.
What I want to talk about is how jarring and unexpected this particular plot development was owing to its execution. Honestly, did anyone expect Soma and Hal to get together because of brainwave Haxx this early in the series? Yes, we always suspected that they would either end up together or kill each other. Indeed, for many of us for whom Soma had become a favourite character, the resolution of this conflict was anxiously awaited.
I think this is the reason this plot development is generating so much antipathy on the net. The suddenness by which it happened does not seem to conform to our (the audience’s) assumed/expected rules governing the 00 verse.
But what rule was violated here? Clearly, as Kaioshin says, we know that Marie would regain her memory and that she was being brought closer to Hal with every flashback even as early as the first season. The two characters were being drawn inexorably towards each other with every headache, scream and “boku wa-ing” (mostly entirely by Al). Let us look into this using a thought experiment:
Imagine that this particular resolution of the Soma/Allelujah storyline happened in episode 23 instead of episode 7 of the series. During the course of the resolution, a pattern of events goes this way:
- Hal and Soma meet (on the battlefield or otherwise)
- Awesome fight or emo “look into your feelings” stuff
- Brainwave Haxx
- One of them walks away with a new recovered memory, or other ammo for their emotive displays.
And this continues until episode 23 when one or both of them undergoes Brainwave Haxx and makes them fall in love with each other.
Would this resolution be as bad? Would the same amount of RAEGHAET be harvested from the forum denizens, the anons of /m/, and the comments sections of the blogs that cover the show? Assuming the writers never planned any other plot twist for this storyline (my guess based on the the early timing of its resolution), this is precisely what we would have gotten had they conformed to the audience’s timing expectations for such plot resolution. It’s hardly compelling as a storyline, but what would this timing difference have done for the audience?
I believe it would have allowed us to more clearly distinguish the rules governing the Brainwave Haxx plot device and align our expectations accordingly. The whole Alellujaj x Marie thing did not become a become a Black Swan event because of the actual plot items, but because of the timing of/in their presentation/execution.
The timing was unpredictable, the consequences are considerable, and the inevitability can be easily explained away in hindsight. This is how I frame Gundam 00 episode 7 as a Black Swan.
Let’s take a look at another event in anime that can be considered a Black Swan, but one that at least as far as I know, was considerably more well received than the previous example. The “Bloodstained Euphie” episode (Ep. 22) of Code Geass (R1) was, arguably, one of the best plot twists in all anime. Like the previous example, there is NO WAY anyone saw this coming. Even if there is every indication that Lulu intends to do something untoward hinted at by the preceding episode, these were immediately dispelled in the minutes leading to the fateful event. Lulu and Euphie were enjoying an intimate honesty, Lulu could be himself and it was quite a beautiful moment. Then comes the massacre. Code Geass is so much fun in that it really plays with the audience’s expectations to a greater degree than most anime.
Here’s what’s interesting, I along with anyone I know who has ever watched the show, was thinking “it can’t possibly end like this” the whole time, particularly because of the where the narrative was at that point. Since it was just a few episodes away from the perceived ending of the series, the audience is automatically conditioned for an escalation of the existing conflicts, or the creation of a new and even greater conflict. We were expecting this kind of shit to hit the fan, and it did.
So we see here that in this instance, the creator’s (perceived) intentions and execution were aligned with the expectations of the audience, insofar as the narrative flow of the story is concerned. No rules are violated and the Black Swan is created by the unexpected nature of the event.
The fundamental difference in the two examples of Black Swans In Gundam 00, a black swan event occurs because an expected event happens at an unexpected time, while in Code Geass, an unexpected event occurs at an expected time. And I think this is the reason for all this RAGE.
When the creators begin presenting his work to an audience, they are explicitly or implicitly laying the rules underlying its narrative structure. The audience, then begins to formulate expectations based on what the creators initially convey. Are the physics realistic? Do the characters behave like children or adults? How does all this newtype Haxx work? Further, the creators are also working with rules and conventions established within the particular genre he is working in as well as those they have established in their past works. By following some of these rules and conventions, the creators are able to bring together a particular audience as well as maintain a delicate suspension of disbelief. On the other hand, by bending these rules or breaking them at certain points in the story, the creators are able to establish narrative tensions. This way, the creators are able to carefully manage the expectations of the audience and align them with what they want them to feel during different parts of the work. Naoki Urasawa in particular is a master of this.
A black swan comes about when the creators orchestrate random events within the framework of the rules they have set (note: not necessarily the rules the audience is aware of). However, the explainability of the event is critical to the audience maintaining its suspension of disbelief. A black swan that occurs so far from the framework of the rules as to be non-explainable may break such suspension of disbelief for the audience. When the creators do something seemingly random with nothing more than a handwave and a “Yup! Didn’t you know? Brainwave Haxx really works that way!” It seems like they’re not playing the game fairly with the audience.
So in the end, are Black Swans in Anime necessarily bad writing? The answer of course, is no. Black swans encompass many of the tools necessary for the author to diferentiate his work and keep it fresh. A well executed black swan within carefully controlled circumstances allow a work to transcend its genre, and an author’s body of work. It is all too easy however, to miss-time or miss-execute a black swan event. When an audiences expectations are violated too far, disinterest, or even extreme RAGE may follow.
Gundam 00 may have resolved a plot point too far away from the audience’s expected time of resolution. I think it would be interesting to do a statistical study on the amount of hate-posts/hate-comments generated for a similar plot resolution with varying times of execution approaching the end of a series. I suspect that the closer you get to the end, the less hate we will see.
But here’s a final question? Which of these two events is more realistic or likely to happen in the real world?
Sad to say, but the instant, ready made romance of Gundam 00 is more likely to happen to you than accidentally causing the death of your sister as a cruel subversion of the confluence of events that conspired to give you everything you ever wanted in life.
When 9/11 happened, there was no slow build up of events, climax or poetic irony. There was only instantaneous sound, noise and horror. Then, we made stories to explain to ourselves the nature of what is truly a random and senseless event. Real life is like that. You go out to have coffee then BAM brainwave Haxx.
However, the stories that we do write to make sense of these events, as well as the stories that come after, like the heroism of 9/11 or the philanthropy and dynamism of google, are truly very interesting. Although their occurence may be random, true narratives can be precipitated by black swans. In this sense, there is hope for Gundam 00. Rather than give us the monotony of 17 or so further episodes of the Al v. Soma dynamic, the creators bravely opted to cut their losses and start with something different. It may not have been the best or most literary black swan (okay, it was pretty terrible), but it certainly resmbled black swans in real life. As such, maybe it can lead to something new and better for all of us gundam fans.
Hoping for the best till next time.
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