Haven’t you ever had that moment watching an anime when a character does something unbelievably cool or powerful and you think, just for a moment, how awesome it would be if you could do that?
That moment is usually followed by the next moment of realising how unbelievably awful that character’s life would really be when you look at the physical or mental toll that the cool power takes on them or the price they have to pay in order to use it.
This post takes a look at anime powers that come with a price. We’re moving away from superheroes who are born with power or gain it through some cosmic accident and looking specifically at those who choose power and how they pay for that choice. And oh, do their narratives make them pay. And pay. And pay.
Be aware: Spoilers ahead.
The obvious example of an anime that puts the price of power as a central theme would be Madoka Magica.
Keep in mind that in the anime series, Madoka is not a magical girl for the vast majority of the run time. She dreams of being a magical girl, accompanies Mami Tomoe on her jobs (with tragic results), works to save Kyubey from Homura Akemi but it isn’t until the very end that she makes her wish. And why put in hold for so long? A magical, white bunny creature that can call you telepathically just promised you that it could grant you any wish you liked and that you would become a magical girl in the process so that you could fight evil witches. Sounds like a great deal; like something straight out of a story book.
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But Madoka is being warned by Homura not to make a wish. She directly witnesses the end of another magical girl. She also has to watch as her friend, Sayaka Miki, loses her sense of self and purpose after having her own wish granted. To put it simply, the price of gaining power in Madoka Magica is not to be taken lightly. When the wish is finally made, it is a wish on such a grandiose scale no one could have seen it coming and it changes everything. Madoka sacrificed herself and her future, and did not save Sayaka Miki (as we see her apologising to her after the wish was made) to prevent others from being forced to make such choices in the future.
Madoka is absolutely a cautionary story about relying on wishes to solve your problems. Moreover, it clearly explores that while you will get what you wished for, the price the girls pay goes on long after the effect of their original wish. In Sayaka’s case, the boy she healed fell in love with another. Other characters felt isolated, cast out, lost, alone, burdened by knowledge and power. Ultimately none of the magical girls we see in Madoka would believe that the power was worth the cost, save Madoka, whose wish removes her from our reality entirely.
So you’d have to ask yourself whether you ever wanted something badly enough that you would risk a Madoka Magica style wish?
Pandora Hearts sees Oz being forced to make a contract with Alice after being cast into the Abyss in order to escapes. Everything that follows after would indicate that being a contractor in this world is very much not worth it. Whether it is the incredibly short life expectancy, the constant attacks, or just the fact that once you die you are headed straight back to the place he was trying to escape all make it seem like it wasn’t worth it. Throw in that the people that banished Oz in the first place are still out for his destruction and really the power Alice grants him is hardly going to be enough.
While the various contractors we meet in the series certainly have significant power, their lives and ends are pretty messy and within the anime almost none of them accomplish anything they truly wished for. The bleak world they live in and the dangers they seem to face definitely seem like a steep price for borrowed and temporary power.
Unfortunately, the anime remains incomplete leaving those of us who never went and read the source, left to speculate as to whether Oz’s price was ultimately worth it. What I know is that none of the contractor’s here really seem happy. I also can’t see how they could possibly end up winning in the scenario set up. It really looks like a system that provides very temporary victory but then extracts a significantly higher price.
So, when faced with certain death in an awful place, would you make the deal even though your life will still end sooner rather than later and you’d be unleashing a creature of the Abyss on earth?
Darker Than Black
Lastly I want to look at Darker Than Black, although technically the contractors in that series didn’t actually choose to become contractors. While there are some very cool powers in this show, the price tags attached are varied and strange and you have to wonder who or what decided on the method of payment, though a number of characters in the show also muse on this as many times the price seems directly linked to some event in the contractor’s life.
November 11’s power to freeze liquids is amazing and use well in combination with April’s power. However, his need to smoke after using his power, when he clearly finds the habit disgusting, just seems a little cruel.
Then again, Paul’s price of eating a flower is just plain weird no matter how you look at it. Jean’s obsession with laying out a pattern of stones seems tedious. And Amber, well her price is deadly if she over uses her power.
Obviously there are plenty of other characters who have paid dearly for their powers. Edward Elric in Fullmetal Alchemist lost an arm, a leg, his brother’s body, and any hope of resurrecting his mother. Kind of a steep price for a kid who just wanted to see his mum. And of course, Ciel, in Black Butler making a literal deal with a demon. And the list goes on and on.
Maybe we should also keep in mind how unhappy most of these characters end up being and how few achieve their goals – though I guess Ed in Fullmetal did eventually succeed (he might be the exception to the standard here).
So all of this leads me to the question of what power or wish would you want and what would you be willing to pay for it? Or, which anime character do you think paid the worst price for their power?
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