I’ve decided I’m going to focus on the negative. Quite literally. I’m going to focus my features this month on exploring types of conflict in stories using examples from anime. To start off with I decided to go with the most straight forward: Man vs Man.
Or Human vs Human.
Or Alien Robot Thing vs Interstellar Goop.
Man vs Man is as straight forward as conflict gets.
Whatever works for you. What’s important about this type of conflict is that there are at least two sides each represented by a character or group of characters. Pretty much every Gundam series ever nails this type of conflict by setting up different factions with conflicting agendas and then the story sits back and waits for the inevitable chaos.
Man vs Man works to create conflict for a few simple reasons.
01. Generally the goals fo the opposing forces are known and clear. This guy wants to save the girl that the other guy kidnapped. That army wants to overrun that land and the army over there wants to stop them. This girl is going to hunt down the guy who killed her father and return the favour, meanwhile the guy doesn’t want to die. Whether the audience sees all perspectives or not is irrelevant. We pretty much know who is who and what they want.
02. Because the characters have opposing goals, they are moving toward each other and the story pushes them into conflict adding excitement and tension to the story. Basically, because they all want things, they are actively seeking them out and this gives plenty of opportunities for interactions, skirmishes, surprise ambushes, negotiations, or any of dozens of other things that could make the story interesting.
03. People get it. They face conflict with other people every single day so when they see a character getting blocked from achieving their goal they can relate. They also get really happy when the ‘bad’ guy gets taken down because it gives them some vicarious satisfaction that somehow their obstacles will eventually get mowed down.
How does this work in anime?
Like most medium for story telling anime has done pretty much everything imaginable with this particular theme however where we see it most obviously is in action anime.
Case 1: Bleach (Not yet reviewed)
While there are other types of conflict driving the events of Bleach from time to time (with over 300 episodes you would hope it was more complex than he stole my chewing gum), the story continues to come back to the idea of man vs man.
In the early seasons, Ichigo literally works his way up through increasingly stronger opponents to reach his goal of saving Rukia. It’s why the first seasons of Bleach are incredibly satisfying. After a season of learning how to kind of be a shinigami, Ichigo has a simple goal placed in front of him. Save Rukia from execution in Soul Society. The audience gets this, they respect that goal, and most of the viewers want to see Ichigo succeed.
However, the various shinigami of Soul Society don’t want Ichigo to succeed (and yes we do cross a little into Man vs Society but for the most part Ichigo isn’t focussed on bringing the society down, just the next opponent standing in front of him). The shinigami he faces have a variety of motivations, which ultimately keep the story interesting, but their goal is simple. Stop the intruder. Once again, the audience gets this goal. Ichigo has barged into a world he doesn’t belong in and is disrupting things. It makes sense that those who live there are choosing to defend it.
Ichigo vs Ikkaku is a great example of this. While Ikkaku isn’t exactly the hard working drone of society, he does love a good fight and Ichigo more or less falls into his lap (which results in the lucky dance, and please let us never remember that). I like this battle for a few reasons. Ichigo isn’t yet ridiculously overpowered and it really is just grit and determination that keep him from being seriously killed (that and Ikkaku isn’t really being too serious which costs him).
I also like Ichigo’s logic as to why he chooses to fight rather than run, as a certain other character did. His decision to stand and fight wasn’t totally pig-headed for once but rather a simple understanding that if Ikkaku was stronger than him, running was not going to help. Ichigo essentially has to cut Ikkaku down in order to continue his quest to save Rukia because Ikkaku is not going to back away from this fight.
Man vs man conflict almost always needs a good reason for the conflict to exist. Unlike some other forms of conflict, generally speaking characters could choose to avoid it but there’s always a cost. There has to be a reason they choose to stand and fight.
However, it is Ichigo vs Byakuya that most clearly expresses this idea of opposing goals. Byakuya is 100% convinced that he must follow the law and so has personally made it his absolute duty to ensure Rukia’s execution is carried out in accordance to the law, even though she’s his adopted sister. This fight is one of the best in Bleach and comes as Ichigo’s power is really coming into its own.
What really works about this conflict is that we’ve seen these two characters coming toward each other for quite some time and we knew by this time that neither character could or would back down. While the outcome is kind of obvious, it is definitely a fight worth watching, although you are advised to watch out for cheesy shounen dialogue being shouted mid-battle.
Case 2: Death Note (Not yet reviewed)
Alright, let’s take the swords, bows, and other pointy weapons away and look at man vs man in a more modern setting. Modern but with a note book that can kill you. Arguably, Light and L absolutely define the man vs man conflict. From the contrasting blue and red colours they are painted in during the opening to their declaration that they both represent justice (and cannot both be right) everything about Death Note pits these two against each other.
There are other characters hunting Kira down but we all know that this story revolves around these two characters and the mind games they play with one another.
What works particularly well about this story is that both characters have strengths and weaknesses. L has the power of the police and large information networks for much of the story meanwhile he is missing the crucial bit of information he needs. That is, he doesn’t know about the existence of the Death Note and even once that is revealed he is given false information as to how it works which throws him off. Light on the other hand has access to police information, knowledge of the notebook and death gods, but has a massive ego and tends to act rashly when provoked.
Watching these two manoeuvre around each other and manipulate situations to try to get more information is truly fantastic and one of the best man vs man conflicts I’ve watched. What is really fascinating is that you honestly don’t know which side you want to see win. Yes, Kira is a mass-murderer and Light progressively becomes more unhinged as the story goes on (or was always unhinged and finally revealed it). But, he is taking out criminals and the world is changing.
More importantly, we spend time with Light early on and he’s a charming character. While you probably wouldn’t want to meet him in real life, as a character you are sympathetic to his cause and as he is arguable the protagonist of the duo he is kind of the one you are positioned to stand behind. L on the other hand is introduced later and it takes a fair while before he becomes anything more than an intriguing idea in the story. By the time you warm up to him, it is hard to really want his victory even though technically you know Light should be stopped.
I won’t spoil how this ends for those who haven’t seen it but it is definitely a story to check out.
While man vs man might seem like an overused plot line, when used well it can be highly effective and entertaining. That doesn’t stop lazy writing from causing some big problems. Like what happens when there is no opposition worth noting or the opposition exists but you don’t really know why they care about stopping the protagonist. We see this a lot in romantic storylines where a girl will declare herself a rival but other than being painful they serve no point in the story and mostly we all just wish they would go away so we could focus on the actual relationship and its genuine drama rather than plot contrived ones (not looking at Orange).
So let’s open this up. I’d love to hear what your favourite man vs man conflict in an anime is and why.
Thank-you for reading 100 Word Anime.
Join the discussion in the comments.
17 thoughts on “Man vs Man – We’ve Got A Problem Here”
Well, since it’s a la mode right now, Spike Spiegel and Vicious are a premier example of man vs man conflict, even if it is only overtly present in a handful of episodes and (obviously) toward the end. And speaking of Psycho-Pass, I think Tsunemori and Kasei is also a good example of man vs man (or man vs AI) conflict – not of the all guns blazing kind, but more a battle of wits between an all-controlling system and someone who lives within that system without being dominated by it.
I am hoping to catch the live action soon for cowboy bebop. Should be interesting to see how they’ve adapted the story.
Am watching it presently…would love to exchange notes with you at some point about it. 🙂
Well if nothing comes up I should get to watch the first episode in a couple of hours.
Hmm with fairy tail wrapping up the man vs. man conflict of Gray and Natsu is going to be real interesting. They’ve been friends this whole time, but with how the final arc that aired the relationship is about to change; and they don’t know why yet ( I read some of the manga so I kinda know) they’re eventually going to have to fight one another. And i think gray will have more of an internal conflict when that time comes. Fire and Ice. They’re also a great example I think of man vs. man
This is an interesting read. I’ve never actually analysed the types of conflicts in the stories I read/watch but what you’ve written about Man Vs. Man is certainly true. A couple of random examples come to mind: Lelouch and Suzaku (Code Geass), Saya and Diva (Blood+), Luffy and almost all of his opponents (One Piece)… and Harry Potter and Voldemort (not an anime, I know)
Thank you for the post!
Lelouch and Suzaku are an awesome example. They both want a similar outcome but their methods are so opposed they just can’t reach an understanding early in that series.
Glad you enjoyed the post. Hope you like next week’s.
The most recent man vs. man conflict I saw was the one on Psycho Pass between Kogami and Makishima. Ofcourse this was a conflict that really served a purpose, and in the end got resolved in a way that I found very satisfying. If I would have been in Kogami’s place I probably would have handled it in the same way. It is always great to see a revenge driven story in my opinion, and in Psycho Pass I thought that was handled in a very cool way. (But then again, the entire series was awesome 😀). Great feature this one, looking forward to the next one 😊
I get more into Psycho Pass when I look at man vs society (though Kogami and Makishima do make a great focus in the story with their conflict). Glad you enjoyed the post and I hope you do enjoy the rest of the features this month. I haven’t really done an ongoing theme before so I was just kicking around a new idea (I don’t think I’m going to even try it every month but when an idea takes me I might do another themed month).
i find it highly unfortunate that i have read many light novels and web novels where this kind of conflict doesn’t actually mean anything beyond getting in someone else’s way, ie the kind of lazy writing you mentioned
It drives me crazy when they put two people against each other but other than narrative convenience there seems no reason for the two to actually try to stop one another. It’s just dull when there are so many easy ways to make this conflict actually meaningful.
Thanks for reading.
on the other hand, that kind of makes me wonder; maybe one of the sides doesn’t have to have be a fully fleshed out character or have a very good reason for their actions if they’re more of a force of nature or representing insurmountable odds like in one punch man with mumen rider vs sea king or anybody vs one punch man