My focus for March on conflict in stories continues as we look at Man vs Society. So far I’ve had a brief look at Man vs Man, Man vs Nature and Man vs Technology so if you missed any of those be sure to check out the posts.
Man vs Society just lends itself to dystopian futures, though obviously this isn’t the only way this type of conflict plays out. Essentially this occurs when a character, or group of characters, feel trapped or oppressed by the society they live in. Whether this is because of overt government or military control or whether it is simply because of societal norms not matching their personal views, the character feels obliged to rebel or escape from this oppression. It’s definitely a theme most viewers can relate to.
This type of conflict works well on both small and large scales. Whether the conflict is within a family and the child wanting to be free of their parents’ expectations, set in a school with students feeling oppressed by the rules of the environment, workplace, or even the entire country, most members of the audience can understand how a character might feel in the situation, even if they don’t directly relate to the type of control being exerted. However, as I said before, this type of conflict also works excellently in science fiction and forms the basis of a large number of dystopian texts. Fear of control and fear of losing freedom linked to events and trends that we already see around us is a great way to build relatable conflict into a story.
It’s pretty easy to understand why Man vs Society works as a type of conflict but let’s look at the main reason why it is effective.
01. People are constantly attempting to balance selfish desires with the basic instinct of connecting with other people. It is a conflict we face everyday as to whether we act fully as ourselves or act in a way in which others find acceptable. For some this is a major conflict because who they are is so vastly outside of the expected norms whereas for others it is a fairly minor conflict in most situations, but it is an internal conflict that everyone faces every single day. Seeing a character make choices to defy those norms and to act on their own desire (whether it is a good desire or not) has a real appeal to audiences. They see these characters as brave or as true individuals and whether their actions have merit or not they are associate with desirable character traits. The fact that a lot of these characters succeed at causing change in the society they are acting in (whether that be the smaller or larger scale) really plays into the wish fulfillment that people have for making a difference as an individual. In very rare cases we see these characters faced with failure but then they are still seen as noble for having made the attempt.
02. When played on the larger scale, this can lead to some very cool stories. Bring on the Hollywood movie where the single character rallies the downtrodden and brings down the government. It’s sensationalistic but it is so fun to watch play out even as you wonder what would happen on the day after when they now have to face the reality of a transitional government system? But that is not the point of the story. The point is the uprising and the success.
03. A lot of the time these stories challenge viewers to question what they accept as the norm. They make audiences think and reflect about the expectations we have of others. While they may probably won’t change too many people’s behaviour they at least start the conversation about why certain things are the way they are. It lends itself to being the starting point of a dialogue that might be badly needed.
How does this work in anime?
This is one type of conflict we come up against time and again in anime and it isn’t surprising. Japan is an incredibly ordered society (not overtly oppressive but there is a lot of social pressure to conform to expected behaviours).What is interesting is how characters in anime respond to the pressures they face as, unlike so many Hollywood movies, their first impulse isn’t usually to bring things crashing down but rather to work with people to bring about change. That isn’t to say there aren’t some characters reaching for the explosives.
Case 1: Psycho Pass (not yet reviewed)
This was probably an obvious choice for Man vs Society but what I find interesting about it is how many characters are trying to work within or outside of the social norms surrounding them. The three main examples are below but pretty much every character has some sort of conflict with the society in this anime.
Kogame is an obvious discussion point. Originally an inspector, after the death of a colleague he became obsessed with revenge and he became flagged as a latent criminal. Even after this he continues to pursue revenge for his friend regardless of whether that puts him in direct conflict with the Sybil System or his current colleagues. He literally throws away everything for the sake of bringing down his target. What makes this interesting is that it is hard to decide whether Kogame is actually wrong for this approach.
Makishima is similarly working outside of the Sybil System though in his case it is because the system does not actually recognise him in the first place. His crime coefficient can’t be measured and so the system cannot judge him leaving him feeling alienated from everything. I’m still not sure that is sufficient justification for intentionally helping other people beat the system to commit horrendous crimes, but it does highlight the dissatisfaction felt by those who feel ignored by society.
Though if both Korame and Makishima are finding ways around or defying the system, Akane is the character that honestly understands that the system is needed, even if it isn’t perfect. That doesn’t mean she accepts everything at face value and isn’t going to work to change things, but it does mean that she accepts her limitations at the time. While the end of season 1 may have seemed unsatisfying to some people, I preferred this ending to the usual blowing it up and thinking everything would be better approach. Akane understands that her society is not in a position where it can function if Sybil stopped immediately even as she has learned that the Sybil System isn’t the ideal solution that people have been told.
Case 2: The Devil is Part Timer
This is an interesting anime in terms of how it sets up the conflict. Originally Maou is the person in power apparently oppressing humans and generally doing all the things you would expect from a demon in control of a country. However, he is overthrown and forced to flee. He ends up in Japan with limited use of his magic and no authority. However, instead of surrendering to despair, Maou sets about conquering the new world through working his way up in a chain food store?
While this concept is played for laughs there’s quite a few moments when you are forced to consider what is really going on with this story. Could Maou actually succeed at rising to a position of power from part time worker? That’s basically the question they want us to consider. Because as kids we’re told hard work will help us move up and rise to the top. We are told this over and over. Yet the reality is most people won’t. Maou, a demon lord, succeeding at rising as fast as he does to shift manager raises some real questions about what it actually takes to get ahead (admittedly the anime isn’t really interested in dealing with the topic seriously).
Even then, the challenges Maou faces are regularly not from his home world. He faces challenges of rival shops, needing identification, paying rent, and even his housemate getting scammed online. All of these things highlight the way people get cornered and trapped everyday by the mundane functions within our society and given they at times stump a hero and a demon from a world of magic is both hilarious and incredibly telling of how complex life really is in the modern age. My number 3 reason why these sorts of stories work was because they challenge us to think about what we accept as the norm and The Devil is a Part Timer beautifully highlights some of the things that are considered everyday and yet create challenges and complications for people just trying to live. It doesn’t tell us to eliminate these things, merely asks us to look at them from a different point of view.
Case 3: Terror In Resonance
It would be impossible for me to visit the idea of Man vs Society without looking at this anime. This story tackles acts of terror head-on from the viewpoint of two would be terrorists. That said, it isn’t willing to really take on the role of terrorists, choosing instead to make the main characters opposed to actually killing anyone even as the commit various crimes and destroy massive amounts of property with explosions.
What is interesting is that the main character ultimately only want their story to be heard and believed but they know early on that even if they simply told their story and released it online it would be buried, covered up and denied. They had to make enough of a scene that it could not be covered up any more. Their actions and logic might be faulty but the actual criticism that stories that need to be told aren’t getting the attention they need, and that truth has become incredibly irrelevant to global discussions, is well made and quite timely.
This anime makes it clear that it isn’t about what is right or wrong. It isn’t even about what you can prove. It is all about how people perceive things that matters. Nine and Twelve take advantage of this and allow people to perceive them as terrorists because it suits their interests. The story isn’t perfect but it definitely has a lot to say and the journey is quite an interesting one.
There are so many other anime I could have gone into for this topic. Jormungand, Bleach, Sunday Without God, No. 6, and so on. Even My Love Story has the basic notion of defying expectations when Yamato is forced to defend her choice in Takeo to her friends. Basically Man vs Society is an inevitable conflict as we try to balance individual ideas and goals with overall benefit for the masses so these sorts of stories aren’t going anywhere and that’s probably a good thing.
What is your favourite Man vs Society focussed anime or what is your favourite dystopian movie?