Continuing my focus for March on conflict in stories, today I want to look at Man vs Nature. If you missed last week I had a quick look at Man vs Man conflict so please be sure to check out the post.
Right from the start I know I’m probably going to get some corrections to this post because when I talk about Man vs Nature conflicts I include all natural disasters, monstrous creatures and unstoppable supernatural forces. I don’t however include supernatural creatures that have high levels of human characteristics such as vampires. While some of the vampires from the past may have met my idea of ‘nature’ most modern vampire stories just have slightly strong and occasionally sparkly protagonists and really they interact with the plot in the same way a man vs man conflict should. I also know that some people classify man vs supernatural as its own category of conflict but again, due to the way it works in stories, I kind of lump them both together.
With that said, let’s jump into Man vs Nature.
I think the main element of this story is that the source of the conflict is an unavoidable and unreasonable force. The characters can’t negotiate with hurricanes or asteroids or giant man-eating lizards or whatever other natural phenomenon is coming their way. That doesn’t mean that the characters don’t make the situation worse or don’t stir up trouble (you know by destroying the habitat of that sleeping horde of whatever and setting them loose). However, Man vs Nature is distinctly different from Man vs Man because there is no will or motive on the opposing forces side. It just is. Deal with it.
But this conflict works so incredibly well (particularly in major Hollywood movies that have increasingly used them in a flimsy attempt to portray the togetherness of the human race). Why does it work?
01. Most people understand the fear, anxiety, concern of natural disasters even if they’ve never directly been in one. Whether it is flood, fire, storm, earthquake, volcano, natural disasters are pretty much a fact of life and as kids we learn disaster drills and lessons about prepping for storm season. We watch the news and see the tragedy and the helplessness. And even if it isn’t a large scale thing, we all know that sometimes animals act unpredictably. Sometimes stuff just happens and we have to deal with. This type of conflict strikes a real chord with pretty much everyone.
02. This type of conflict can easily be scaled up or down. It can be a wolf terrorising a single farmer or it can be a world ending sun explosion. The basic story remains identical as does the effectiveness of the conflict allowing a diverse range of scenarios. Of course, that leaves this open to some incredibly poor writing when the characters, which are the only part of the story that can really allow the audience to connect, are not well crafted. In that farmer and wolf story, that farmer better be one compelling individual or your audience will check out quick no matter how many chickens the wolf slaughters.
03. Awesome visuals. Whether it is a monster, animal, or natural disaster, you can do some very cool things visually with this type of conflict. It lends itself to spectacle and when done well can certainly deliver.
How does this work in anime?
Interestingly enough, while there are some anime that have natural disasters in them, they aren’t as prolific as you think. Kaze no Stigma has a short arc focussed on an eruption because the family that were supposed to perform the ritual to prevent it were unable to. And of course there’s Tokyo Magnitude 8.0. However, despite the lack of world ending storms in anime, there are some excellent monster and other unstoppable forces of nature stories to choose from.
Case 1: Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash
Grimgar is an odd anime when you think about the conflict of the story (mostly because for large parts of the story the characters are simply dealing with survival). While there are moments where we see Man vs Self issues arise, the real killer in Grimgar is the world these characters have found themselves in. They don’t know how they got there and they don’t start out with the skills they need to survive but they need to learn them fast.
What makes Grimgar particularly effective is that almost all the conflicts take place in the woods, in ruined cities or in a network of underground tunnels. The civilised locations, the town where they have their ‘home’, is relatively safe and other than the occasional inner-party squabble they don’t really face any danger there. Grimgar plays on fear of the unknown. Of venturing further out of your comfort zone and confronting enemies that you may or may not be ready to take on. It’s the excitement of exploration mixed with the fear of death lurking around every turn. In short, it plays with this core conflict and really uses it to keep the audience on edge whenever the characters aren’t in the town. It makes you aware of all the dangers you would face if taken out of the comfort of the modern world.
Case 2: Another (not yet reviewed)
In terms of supernatural forces that are untouchable and certainly unreasonable, the curse from Another is probably the clearest cut force of nature that can be found. Like a storm it has a mappable path and you can see the trail of destruction it has left, but you can’t do much about it other than take shelter and hope you are one of the lucky ones once it has passed.
It works well because even before the audience is let in on the particulars of the curse, there is a tangible weight on all of the members of the class. You can see that something is effecting them but you don’t know what or why. Even once our main character learns more about the curse, there’s still nothing he can do about it as his classmates and the occasional family member die one after another, month after month.
Unlike Grimgar, Another has a clear end point, at least for the characters we are following. In Grimgar we never know when, if ever, the characters will escape the world or whether they are just stuck there for life. In Another they just have to survive the year. Just one year. And then it turns out there is another way to stop the curse as well which is ultimately the path taken (admittedly the price was pretty high by the time everything was done).
I’m going to be honest, I love disaster movies. Yeah, they are formulaic and mostly filled with one-dimensional characters and trite writing, but occasionally you’ll get one where the cast really just manages to have some real chemistry and they sell the situation they are in. Besides, regardless of bad acting and dialogue, most bad disaster movies are still entertaining as you play count the cliché or laugh at poor special effects. In anime, I find that this type of conflict tends to be treated a bit more seriously. Less flippant one liners and throwing beer bottles at storm clouds and more introspection about what it means to be a human and alive.
Your turn: I’d love to hear what your favourite Man vs Nature conflict in an anime is and why.