There is a staple in stories, whatever there form, where a protagonist is called to save the world. They might be a trained soldier, some randomly strong hero, a random nobody chosen by destiny, or just someone who happened to be in the right/wrong place at the right/wrong time, but they are called and one way or another they answer. The different types of protagonists would each need their own post to deal with and eventually I might get around to that, but my focus today is more on the notion of saving the world itself and how this operates in stories.
While it might be argued that high stakes make for a more intense and dramatic story, you have to wonder about all the times our little blue-green planet manages to become imperilled for the sake of kicking a narrative into gear (admittedly, a lot of the stories I’ll refer to aren’t actually set on earth but whatever the planet you have to wonder how they manage to find so many world ending catastrophes to face off against). Put into context, even though individuals, cities, and countries face devastation fairly regularly, our world tends to keep on spinning and the majority of people go about their lives relatively unhindered. Whether this can continue (and scientists will tell us that is a resounding no), it has continued for a fairly long time yet we write stories full of disasters that end life as we know it.
Some of these are cautionary tales. When overpopulation was the scary flavour of the month we had stories that looked at how we would deal with this in the future. Logan’s Run and Soylent Green both have some fairly interesting things to say about population control even if the message has largely been ignored. More recently we have had a round of environmental awareness stories with The Day After Tomorrow and its ilk attempting to scare some common sense into us by showing us just how bad things might get without action.
While these stories are awesome in their scope when showing us the problem, what they all do, and need to do, is focus on a protagonist. There may be other groups and characters addressed, but they narrow the focus to a single protagonist for the majority of the run time. Why? Because the audience needs that someone to relate to. The idea of saving the world is legitimately too big for most people so while having such a grandiose problem in the story might add to the drama, it actually makes it fairly hard to relate to. What we usually end up with is a protagonist trying to save an individual or group and as a by-product of saving them they might save the world. Even Armageddon understood this where ultimately Bruce Willis gave his life to ensure his character’s daughter would have a future. The fact that this also saved the world was almost inconsequential by that point in the story.
But let’s move away from movies in Hollywood and look at anime.
Spring 2017 brought us WorldEnd, or the anime that asks us in its title ‘What do you do at the end of the world? Are you busy? Will you save us?’
There’s no obvious direction for these questions so as an audience you have to wonder if the show is asking you to consider your own actions if the world were coming to an end. Even more peculiarly, the story itself takes place nearly 500 years after the world essentially ended. The fact that there are ‘people’ still clinging to life on floating islands that are apparently not going to last much longer is more of a happy accident than good design and the peril is still very real. So if you were Willem, protagonist of the story, would you lend a hand or would you accept the inevitable ending that has been coming for a very long time?
Despite having watched the show through, I still don’t really get Willem’s motivation. Early in the story he really is just drifting. He tried to save the world (or those near to him) and he failed. After waking up in the new world he realises he is completely alone because of his failure. The world he knew is already gone. Despite that, he inevitably gets drawn into the new world through Chtholly and ultimately decides to help keep her alive even though once again he’s clearly fighting a losing battle. So what should he have done?
And actually, this is where anime hits such a major snag. I’ll admit to finding a lot of anime endings unsatisfying, but that’s probably because of how conflict is set up in so many stories. How exactly do we expect the protagonist to get out of that situation or save the world? The problem facing them is massive and usually unsolvable so the narrative is faced with only a handful of options. Either the protagonist loses and is swallowed by whatever world ending force they’ve been pitted against, or against all odds they win. The first option leaves the audience a little bitter about having been made to care about a character who didn’t succeed (though I must admit I don’t mind the occasional tragic end), while the latter leaves us rolling our eyes as they pull out a magic power up, combination attack, or just break the established rules of the story in order to succeed.
So do we just expect too much from the conflict in the first place? Does the world really need to be endangered before we understand the stakes are high?
I don’t think so. If we look at something like Food Wars, as much as I found the second season a little bit wanting, the first season was pretty engaging and the worst thing faced by any of the characters was expulsion (admittedly, most of the characters seemed to think that was a fate worse than death). This didn’t stop the audience from getting drawn in, from wanting to get behind the characters, and wanting to see them succeed. They were cooking. All that was on the line was a place at the school when there are other cooking schools and for the most part they could probably have found a job with their skills regardless. Yet because the characters believed in the conflict and the consequences, the audience were able to believe it mattered. This was high stakes viewing even though the reality is that the story didn’t endanger the world. No one needed the perfect cake to stop some alien race blowing up Tokyo to get the story going.
However, that isn’t actually me saying that I don’t want stories where the world is in peril. I think mostly what I want are stories that think about the appropriate level of danger and the appropriate way to build drama without just trying to one up the dangers other stories have introduced. More importantly, think about how they intend to solve those issues before they throw them in front of an audience. If the Spring 2017 anime season has taught viewers anything it really should have reinforced that shows live and die by how they resolve and while a deus ex machina ending is better than no resolution, it is right up there with the ‘it was only a dream’ ending. Audiences today expect more and probably deserve more.
So you want to save the world? You think that would be nice and dramatic? Great. Now get to work figuring out the details of what exactly is the peril being faced and how it can be overcome and lay your ground work fairly precisely. It isn’t enough to throw flashing lights at the audience and tell them it is scary.
What do you think? Is the world coming to an end an overused problem? Are you tired of seeing characters pull off an impossible save just because plot demands it? Or do you love these kinds of stories and get a real thrill out of watching characters beat impossible odds? I’d love to know so leave a comment below.
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