Angst in Animé

One of the subjects you’ll see come up for discussion from time to time is angst. Some viewers claim to hate it, and others revel in it. But what is angst? Why do people disagree over it in animé? Obviously, some of it has to come from difference in tastes, but as I read back-and-forth arguments, it often seems to me that no two people are working from the same definition. So let’s get our terminology out of the way, first thing.

Angst: The sense of inner conflict and often, inadequacy, suffered by a person who is faced with a situation they find overwhelming, or an inability to decide between options, or sometimes, both.

Some people demand that there be no angst in a show, but I suspect that’s not what they mean. The reason being, angst is internal conflict. Granted, movies and literature are replete with characters who feel no angst. Often they are villains — and rather poor ones. Gauron of Full Metal Panic wouldn’t know angst if it bit him on the ass. Made him rather one-dimensional and boring. (It’s a trait he shares with most of the FMP villians, sadly.) Sometimes, the hero doesn’t know angst. James Bond, up through the Roger Moore years, anyway. Most of the characters in Those Who Hunt Elves are ignorant of angst. Well, and just plain ignorant, but I’m not going to start a rant on that show. (My favorite character? The tank! Frackafrissenstupidcharactersmumblemumble….)

Assuming we’re talking about a drama of some sort, a character that has zero angst has nothing to make them interesting. The only thing that can be done is to “gimmick” them with snappy dialogue or give them gadgets, or a bevy of beautiful women to distract the viewer; something of that sort.

Wait, I think I just described James Bond again.

Without angst, a character has no ability to grow by overcoming their conflict. So it’s not a good idea (or entirely accurate for me) to say, “I hate angst in shows!” Does that mean it’s wrong to say, “I hate angsty shows?” I don’t think so, since I’ve said as much many times. So why one, and not the other? Why was I a huge fan of the absurdly angsty drama Simoun (early on at least), but blew up over the somewhat comedic Karin?

Well, it has to do with the character’s reaction to angst. The girls of Simoun fought bitterly, often with each other, always with the enemy, and usually to do what they thought was right for Choir Tempest. With just enough exceptions to prove they were human, the priestesses kept slamming their heads and hearts against events that seemed designed to break their spirit. Every time they’d start to make progress, another tragedy or heartbreak hit them, until at last they were hammered down to a hardened steel core that was destined to have its day in the sun. And then the story cheated, and didn’t give it to them.

Storywise, Tempest should have had a glorious triumph to match their fall from grace. It’s an old, old literary tradition: Triumph, tragedy, death, rebirth, greater triumph. Done right (Misaki Chronicles) it can be a powerful experience for the viewer. Only Tempest never got their day in the sun, because that wasn’t the tradition the writer was following. Their nation surrendered, their final battle unfought, and instead, the best they could salvage from the rubble (and that with the help of those among their enemies) was for the two best pilots to escape, not to fight again, but just to be with each other. To me, it was an unforgivably poor payoff for the angst I experienced with them. In the end, I found that to be worse than the failure to explain many of the weird things about the world (such as the yuri-powered fighters).

So angst is a necessary part of the story, and it isn’t bad if it spurs the character to greater accomplishments. Gurren Lagen has received high marks for using that technique. Contrawise, if a character lets their angst paralyze them; if they wallow in it, what good are they? Just how interesting can series full of Shinji Ikaris be? The original NGE may have its rabid fans, but it also has its many detractors who find the characters repulsive and weak. So excessive angst has its market — perhaps among goth girls, goth wannabe’s, alienated tweens, and so on — but I’m not a part of that demographic. I can’t stand characters that prefer to wallow in guilt, indecision, feelings of inadequacy, and all-around negativity. (I do enough of that for them.)

Therefore, my definition of (bad) angst is: The feeling I get when I just want to slap the shit out of some imbecilic animé moron who can’t make up their friggin’ mind to crap or get off the pot.

Which is why I say Kyoto Animation’s Kanon is not an angsty show. It is a ‘three-handkerchief tearjerker’ — It’s got all the heartbreak of psoriasis, but only half the calories. If you’re among those who missed all the hoopla, this show was Kyoto’s first attempt at a 26 episode series. Because of that, it suffers from uneven pacing, dragging too much in the early going, and rushing the final episode. It was a remake of an earlier version, which was itself drawn from a popular (multiple-release) dating sim, at least one version of which was hentai. In it, high-school senior Yuiichi returns to a town he’s not visited for several years, in order to attend school for the last few months before graduating. For some reason, he’s developed amnesia about his earlier visits, and there are hints that the reason is not a happy one. He interacts with several girls (most are also students), having different relationships with each in turn. Each has her own secret, and several knew him from before — although they may not remember it either.

Unlike most dating-sim adaptations, Kanon makes no effort to invent a series-long plot to hang the action on. In fact, other than a stretch from episodes 12-15, there is no action. The show is about nothing more and nothing less than Yuiichi interacting with each of the girls. Four of them have their own arcs; the fifth is omnipresent through the series. But even though I’m not normally the type for that kind of series, I was enthralled by it. Partly because Yuiichii’s snark appeals to me but mostly because he never got hung up on the curve-balls life started throwing him when he returned. That’s not to say he didn’t get down — he came really close to completely cracking up. By rights, he probably should have been catatonic by the next to last episode. But he wasn’t, and when he learned a key fact that invalidated his major assumption that he’d held for years, he jumped on it instantly.

Whereas in the KyoAni series immediately following it, Clannad, the protagonist had obviously given up and settled into a life of angst and not giving a damn. Of course, the story was all about his crawl out of that state, mainly due to the girls that took an interest in him, but I just couldn’t stay with it beyond the opening episode. He revolted me, and I couldn’t fathom all the girls taking an interest in him. My experience is that moody self-centeredness doesn’t excite that many girls anyway, and the ones it does have their own issues.

Maybe that last sentence cuts close to the real reason. Maybe the reason I hate angsty characters is that they remind me of myself. I don’t know. I just know I’d rather watch a Kyon or Yuiichi instead of a Shinji Ikari at any time.

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