[This is a guest post by r042 from the awesome Ideas Without End blog. It should be obvious that this essay is riddled with dead bodies (read: spoilers). You’ve been warned!]
Killing off a character for dramatic purposes is a stock-in-trade cliché of mecha anime – from the grizzled veteran buying time for the young to live on to the inglorious assassination and the villain-turned-good going out in a blaze of glory, it’s hard to find a series now that doesn’t have a tremendous body count. Indeed, the second episode of Muv Luv Alternative Total Eclipse has almost the entire cast summarily disposed of by aliens of various sizes in a number of unpleasant ways – and yet this whole sequence is quite dispassionately depicted, which makes it stand out within the genre. The casualties are shown to be simply casualties of war – inexperienced pilots against a numerically superior, better-equipped force with all the advantages struggling to survive. This doesn’t make scenes like the protagonist missing her chance to put her wingman out of her misery before she’s eaten by aliens any less harrowing, but it avoids a lot of what many series fall prey to – wallowing in mawkishness or celebrations of stupid heroism.
In this article, I’ll lay out in broad strokes some of the cliché character death archetypes, and suggest which ones work and which ones are the Little Nell’s death of giant robot cartoons.
[EDIT: Here is the spoiler list in no particular order;
- Super Dimension Fortress Macross/Do You Remember Love?
- Macross Frontier
- Macross Plus
- Macross 7
- Mobile Suit Gundam 00
- Mobile Suit Gundam
- Mobile Fighter G Gundam
- Mobile Suit Gundam AGE
- Mobile Suit Z Gundam
- Mobile Suit Gundam SEED
- Mobile Suit Victory Gundam
- Space Runaway Ideon
- Eureka SeveN
- Fafner the Azure
- Neon Genesis Evangelion
- Martian Successor Nadesico
- Legend of the Galactic Heroes
- Muv Luv Alternative Total Eclipse
- Aim for the Top! Gunbuster]
The Glorious Sacrifice
Example 1: Shoko (Fafner of the Azure)
Fafner is an attempt to make a grim, gritty and pessimistic spin on the “woefully inadequate mecha with awful human beings in the cockpit and in command fighting eldritch horrors” genre popularised by Neon Genesis Evangelion (in the form Fafner homages, anyway). Evangelionhad a couple of hard-hitting scenes of defeat – the episode with the dummy plug-controlled Eva Unit 1 wrecking the possessed Unit 3 with its pilot trapped inside, for one – or Asuka’s last stand and Rei’s self-destructing. However, these came quite a way into the series and worked because they were well-contextualised; especially the latter, where Rei (introduced in the series as a character who is exploited and expected to fight and die no matter the odds) apparently dies while Shinji watches.
Fafner‘s spin on this is the crippled, socially-inept, reclusive Shoko, a character so pitiful and broken as a human it is a wonder she can put one foot in front of the other. Already the problem is becoming evident; she is not so much a character as a collection of cliches that were popularised by Rei Ayanami – just with none of the things that make such a character relatable or interesting. As soon as the viewer sees her, it’s clear things won’t end well for her because even the able-bodied Fafner pilots are on the back foot against the Festum (Fafner‘s Angel-like enemies).
Nevertheless, six episodes in, Shoko drags herself from her bed, limps tragically to the cockpit while her mother screams for her to stop, and takes off half-cocked against a Festum that’s threatening their base. She unloads every weapon her mech has against the enemy to no avail, and in the end in a remarkably overwrought scene sacrifices her mech to destroy the enemy in an episode called Sacrifice. The series lays it on thick; the music swells with strings and piano as we see her mech, now an angelic light flying into the sky, drag the enemy with it. We see constant cuts to the timer for the explosives. There are cuts to the frantic base crew forced to watch the crippled girl die – and above all, there are flashbacks to her childhood. It’s not just showing a likeable character dying, it’s relishing in Little Match Girl saccharine narrative sludge and becomes laughable.
Example 2: Goa Bowman Guld (Macross Plus)
If Fafner laid the melodrama on thick enough to build houses with, Macross Plus is a far more restrained and exciting spin on this concept. The viewer has, throughout the series, grown to dislike Guld – he is an abusive boyfriend and an arrogant, violent bastard who has done little to endear himself to anyone. Yet, at the end of one action climax – the epic final dogfight between the YF19 and the YF21 – he finally does an unexpected thing; he shows genuine contrition. Thinking he has finally killed his former friend Isamu, he suddenly realises he has been lying to himself and others all along, and blaming them for his own crimes.
When he sees Isamu survived an apparently inevitable death, the pair share a moment of genuine, as-old-times, friendship before he goes off to die – leaving the true glory and narrative resolution to Isamu. He buys his partner time to stop the rogue AI Sharon Apple by getting into an unwinnable fight against the Ghost X9, and realises the only way to win – and also to redeem himself – is to crash his plane into it and destroy both. While Fafner had Shoko’s terminal ascent be unsubtly compared to ascension to heaven, Macross Plus is more visceral – in the feature film version, the viewer sees Guld’s body give out from the stress of pushing his plane to the limit in a quite brutal scene. The showdown is intense, and while the YF21 is at a disadvantage there is still a back-and-forth that is exciting to watch. Compare this to Fafner where we just see a frail girl take a woefully underequipped mech against an enemy that barely does anything in an attempt to show futility.
Guld’s redemption and death is a great scene in a great OVA, coming as it does at the end of the character’s journey; while he initially appears to be a bundle of clichés (the arrogant ace looking down on others) the viewer is given an insight into his history and he develops before dying in a way which does not feel overdone.
The Sticky End
Example 1: Gai Daigouji (Martian Successor Nadesico)
Nadesico is a loving parody of mecha anime, and so it is only fair it includes some parodic character deaths; a scene where the unlikeable admiral flies to his death singing a children’s TV theme as his mech explodes in a frantic attempt to atone for his crimes has an almost ironic power, evoking Guld’s death in a ridiculous way.
However, it is the sudden and unexpected end of the polarising Gai that is if anything more interesting; Gai is a character who the viewer may even like while the rest of the cast hate him because he is childish, an outsider and to be frank a fool. He defines his life in mecha anime clichés and hopes to fight as his fictional idols do – and ends up getting shot in a hangar by the mutinous crew. The death is not simply inglorious – it is not even in battle, or caused by the enemy. It is the most underwhelming end for a powerful presence that could happen within the show, and fits Nadesico’s themes perfectly – that “real life” (within the lens of parody anime) is nowhere near as fun as fiction. Some viewers hate this, wishing that his antics had continued – but this is missing the point. The untimely, inglorious end of a character is used in mecha anime to force rapid development of the hero – they lose someone they look up to and have to learn what their legacy is. Protagonist Akito does this, eventually rationalising his obsession with Gekiganger 3 and becoming his own hero.
Example 2: Mami (Madoka Magica)
Madoka is not a mecha anime but instead a magical girl one, but the two genres are structurally similar. Mami is the cool-headed, experienced magical girl who impresses Madoka with her skill – and who then dies in the third episode almost as soon as a fight begins, because she makes a mistake. This has the expected effect, driving Madoka’s friend to become a magical girl in order to keep Mami’s legacy alive, but then the series turns that all on its head by suggesting that actually doing this is a bad thing and it was all planned to happen. The ignoble end in this way is thus similar, but functionally different, to the heroic sacrifice; both are intended to mark character development and force the survivors to move on, but cases like Mami’s are more of a double-edged sword; the lessons to be learned are often bitter ones rather than simple attempts at vengeance (as Kamina’s death in Gurren Lagann apparently shows).
While Madoka is a very unsubtle show, laying its themes on thickly in a fashion almost similar to Fafner, it nevertheless works quite well; Mami’s death is a surprise and does shock with its suddenness. Indeed, the massacre of the TSF squadron in Muvluv has a similar intent; to provide a motivation for the protagonist through sudden loss and a loss of innocence through reminders of mortality.
Example 1: Mobile Suit Victory Gundam
V Gundam has a ridiculous death toll of heroes. From the Shrike Team, a collection of pretty, likeable women who get chewed through in a variety of sadistic ends and noble sacrifices, to the heroic end of the Reinforce Jr. and its crew of pensioners, the series runs the full gamut of character deaths and shows how they all affect Usso. While many of the deaths are as overblown and protracted as Shoko’s, or as ridiculously underwhelming as Gai’s, the overall effect is a comparatively powerful one because it is fitting with the pessimistic tone of the series.
The melodrama is a vital part of this – including the powerful insert songs like Ikutsomono wa Kasanete and the appallingly upbeat opening and ending themes with titles like Winners Forever and Don’t Stop Carry On – because it is consistently rejecting mecha cliché. Usso doesn’t conveniently see one likeable person die and from that get galvanised into a hero, as Simon may. He sees that constant war leads to constant sacrifice with no end and does his damnedest to make sure there’s going to be no more. It’s an overwrought superflux of death but this oppressive, at times even ridiculous tone works because it is unrelenting; Fafner had one mawkish scene that outdid previous attempts at creating sympathy – Victory doesn’t even try to build sympathy.
Example 2: Muvluv
And now we come full circle; Muvluv. The deaths of Yui’s squad are a cynical combination of all of the above – from deaths through complacency to deaths as a result of enemy superiority to a noble sacrifice of the grizzled instructor and then the shocking deaths of the pilots at the jaws of the BETA. However, it rejects Victory’s overwhelming melodrama and replaces it with a sort of militaristic cynicism. Yui’s illusions are shattered, and all she can do is become a hero – but this is not a hero in the fashion of Simon the Digger avenging his Aniki’s death, or Madoka and her friends guilt-tripped and duped into becoming magical girls by Kyubey – it is simply a soldier seeing the risks she faces, seeing the consequences of failure, and doing her best not to share that fate.
Yes, the overall effect is almost a superflux of trauma, and the almost total lack of characterisation of the characters who die can be seen as a flaw, but its intention is not to build sympathy for the dead – it is to present soldiers dying in the line of duty and provide exposition of the war with the BETA. I initially came into this episode of Muvluv fearing it would have melodrama and sentimentality to the extreme – it does not, and indeed rejects it. The characters are nothing but archetypes, like Shoko, but unlike Shoko we are not expected to feel the same sort of sympathy for them. They are not featureless ciphers the viewer is supposed to relate to, but featureless ciphers who represent the grunt on the front lines with an eight-minute lifespan.
I could have talked about many more series and examples in this article; I could have talked about the unfortunate Kakizaki in Macross: Do You Remember Love, plucked from the sky by Miria after cracking a joke about women pilots in a scene that would fit right in Muvluv. Roy Fokker, in either incarnation. Or Kamina, killed doing what he does best – giving a pep talk to Simon that defines the boy’s future. Indeed, there’s a whole subset of such archetypes I didn’t explore – the sympathetic antagonist, touched on with Guld. Characters like Four Murasame, Gigil, Corin Nander, Yurin, Anew Returner, Lalah Sune, Loni and so on – the character who has a last-minute epiphany, or is forced to fight against their will, and often dies by the hero’s hand or protecting the hero. These examples are sometimes excellent (episode 19 of Rahxephon) but at times can be as poorly-integrated as poor Shoko up there (e.g. Rosamia Badam). As with any archetype and narrative cliché, the character death is a difficult thing, and doubly so if it is intended to something beyond shock. Pulling it off very early on in a series, or in a shorter piece, without it seeming mawkish and overdone, is incredibly difficult – and it’s here that Muvluv stands out by utterly rejecting the “sympathetic” part.
Second Postcript (by ghostlightning)
While r042 took on V Gundam, I think it’s important to say a little more about the influence of “Kill ‘em All” Tomino Yoshiyuki regarding the phenomena discussed here. I won’t say much as his reputation precedes him, but allow me to share some media that communicate the point rather well:
Before V, Mobile Suit Z Gundam was the most well-known example of Tomino’s penchant for killing off named characters. Naming a character that’s about to die is the attempt of the material to make the death more meaningful, which mostly works for major characters, but there are many in Z that are inconsequential characters dying inconsequential deaths.
The other influence Tomino has is how graphic the deaths are. If you thought Muv Luv’s death scenes are something, then here is one of the eariler, and most certainly the best of examples in robot anime: Space Runaway Ideon.
Here is a graveyard of some anime characters to spoil you (we’ve foregone character names to reduce the spoiler risk, but don’t be fooled… this will not save you). The cold-blooded to sappy continuum isn’t a value judgment. Some of us really like sappy shit. Feel free to let us know which of these corpses left an impression and by all means share how it works in your experience of their respective shows: