This is my last feature for March and my last feature for now on conflict so I’m ending the month with Man vs Self. If you’ve missed any of the previous posts on Man vs Man, Man vs Nature, Man vs Technology or Man vs Society be sure to check out the posts.
I’m not going to lie, this is my favourite type of conflict. It seldom gets to take centre stage as normally this is a conflict that runs as a B Plot to the main action, but every now and then you get a story that puts a character’s inner conflict front and centre and does it in a relatable and entertaining way. Then there’s Tokyo Ghoul which has a perfect set up for a nice inner conflict and after a few freak outs early on just kind of dismisses any further inner conflict in favour of all the action focussed conflicts they can throw at you.
Anyway, Man vs Self is pretty much what it says. The character is their own worst enemy. The only thing standing in their way is themselves and their doubts, their fears, their confusion, their inability to take action. These stories are great because with the exception of the superbly over-confident, almost everyone can relate. Even if we’ve never gone through exactly what the character is going through we can feel their uncertainty and hesitation and inner conflict and we know how incredibly debilitating those feelings can be.
Why does this type of conflict work?
01. It pairs well with other conflicts. As I said earlier, there are only a few stories where man vs self is the only focus of the story. Mostly it sits as a character drama or side story as we wait for the character to overcome this personal block before they can take on other conflicts in the story. Its effective and doesn’t feel like padding because it is relatable. That said, when done poorly, it mostly just feels like a character flinging emotions around and dragging the pace of the story. A real understanding of nuanced expression is kind of needed to pull this one off and do it well.
02. Relatability. This is human drama at its most basic. Even if you don’t interact with others or have conflicts within your family or with the society you live in, even if you face no natural disasters or murderous robots, you do have to face yourself every single day. And very few people love who they are every single day. More importantly, we doubt ourselves, we second-guess are choices, we hesitate at crucial times, and we regularly create drama where none exists. This is real life and seeing it play out in stories where the hero doesn’t just grab his sword and run into the fray but actually looks at the situation and feels his own vulnerability have a great deal of appeal. Of course it kind of takes some of the wish fulfilment out of the story.
03. The emotional affect can be enormous. From watching March Comes in Like a Lion I know that each week I’m a little shell-shocked at the end of the episode. It isn’t that anything big has happened as in most episodes very little actually happens. But because of the relatability of Rei as a character (or at least his struggle to keep moving forward in the case of his own depression and doubts) and watching this journey unfold, I find myself remembering a lot of the moments where getting out of bed for another day just seemed too hard or I’ve wanted to escape from a situation regardless of the consequences. The story hits hard and admittedly this impact will be different depending on how well you’ve related to the character and the set-up and your own experiences, but when you find the story that you connect with, this type of conflict is the one that is going to get under your skin and become truly unforgettable.
How does this work in anime?
Case 1: Yuri On Ice
One of the really interesting points of Yuri On Ice as a story was the lack of antagonist. Even the other skaters weren’t really antagonistic. There was some rivalry but this was not something Yuri was trying to overcome. He was trying to overcome his own fear and lack of self-worth. He was never bad at skating (he made it to the grand prix the year before even if he came last – which still made him sixth in the world). He was never weak. He just couldn’t deal with the pressure and expectations of such a big competition and his perceived failure shattered what little confidence he had.
While Victor becoming Yuri’s coach certainly acted as a catalyst to Yuri turning things around, it can be clearly seen that Victor did not know Yuri well enough, or understand Yuri’s mental state well enough, to actually help him overcome it. Yuri had to find that himself. Admittedly, it was Victor’s arrival and attempts to coach that spurred Yuri into action.
However, because the conflict of the story was Man vs Self rather than Man vs Man, Yuri not winning the gold is still a perfectly fine ending. The point of the story wasn’t to crush the opponents. The point was to see Yuri finally skate the way he knew he could in a competition (and you have to admit taking out a world record is a pretty good consolation prize). Yuri has conquered his inner self and his final performance of Yuri On Ice shows that to the world.
Case 2: Soul Eater
For a show full of external conflicts, Soul Eater continually returns to the characters themselves and overcoming their own inner weaknesses. Maka demonstrates this type of conflict numerous times throughout the series.
Unlike Yuri, Maka comes off as confident. She studies hard, has a clear dream, and is determined to succeed. Yet, despite her hard work, Maka and Soul hit a real snag early on causing them to lose the souls they had so far collected and sending them back to step one. This gives Maka’s confidence a real hit early on in the series and the few times she is reminded of this failure we see her try to resolve herself but we also see her obvious frustration. Soon after her confidence takes another hit when Professor Stein easily takes down both her and Soul. She is forced to face her own weakness and again this causes frustration.
However it is Soul’s injury that he sustains while protecting her, after she’s engaged in a fight that she could have avoided and if she’d been a bit quicker thinking things through could have escaped, that really hits Maka’s mental state hard. For a long time after this, Maka is withdrawn and struggles to work with Soul or even look at him. It strains their relationship and their partnership as weapon and meister. Because mental stability is needed to bring out their full power, to resonate, and to fight, this inner conflict faced by Maka continues to dominate a lot of screen time as they face progressively harder villains in the story.
In honesty, it is this part of Soul Eater that I love. The fights are cool, the villains zany, the pace works well enough, but it is all pretty typical action anime. It is the character focus, and particularly Maka, that really drew me into this world. Without this inner conflict getting played out across the series, I doubt the show would have left much of a lasting impression on me.
Man vs Self can be highly satisfying to watch as a form of conflict. It doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom. As many characters have proven it can be highly entertaining when you are at war with your inner voices. However, this type of conflict does allow that exploration into some of those denser topics such as depression and anxiety and it is great to see some of these ideas get a little bit of screen time as it gives people a little insight or gets people talking about the ideas.
That is the end of this series of posts on conflict. I’ve certainly barely scraped the surface of any of these ideas so I guess I’ll revisit them at some point but for now I’m going to move on to other ideas for awhile.
What is your favourite man vs self anime or character suffering from inner conflict?