Black Bullet and the Difficulty of Expressing Noble Sentiments

While watching Black Bullet last night, the hackneyed quality of some of the lines in episodes three and four struck me.  Don’t get me wrong: I find the show very enjoyable.  It boasts likable characters and some brilliant animation, especially in the way they draw the characters’ eyes.  Seitenshi has some of the most brilliant blues I’ve seen anywhere in anime.  (Yes, I’ve fallen in love.)  Still, the hackneyed quality of some of the lines and impossibility of surviving certain wounds bother me: having both kidneys pierced and a hole as wide as the Grand Canyon made in one’s abdomen are lethal even in most other shonen anime.

Kage_confronts_Rentaro

Which brings us to the question of the difficulty of showing noble deeds and sentiments in a way which does not strike the audience as corny.  The difficulty is actually quite extreme: authors must be as noble as the ideas they wish to express.  Otherwise, these ideas come across as trite–rather than the writer being an authority on nobility, he thieves from the annals of heroes.  For example, those lines and scenes concerning the ostracism suffered by Enju, Rentaro’s insistence on her value and the value of other cursed children, and the gratitude for Rentaro’s acceptance shown by Kayo struck a chord with me.  Those times where Rentaro exclaims his zeal for saving the world, his condemnation of Kagetane’s actions, his perseverance in suffering through essentially mortal wounds, and risking transforming into a giant monster did not.

I had to fit her in somewhere. :)

I had to fit her in somewhere. 🙂

Everyone would like to write an epic; but those who have not suffered agony, strove nobly, or found their hearts aflame with great ideals cannot be expected to produce epics.  Emperor Augustus asked many poets to write an epic for the glory of Rome, but most excused themselves.  This developed into a tradition where Roman writers would publish their first work of poetry with an apology for not writing epic.  Only Virgil undertook the task, painstakingly composing an average of two lines per day.  And then, as Virgil lay dying, he begged his friends to burn the manuscript, because he thought that the manuscript lacked polish and stood as an inferior work–Virgil’s magnum opus, the Aeneid!

Rentaro

Virgil’s self-doubt points to the second thing necessary to generate sublime thoughts: humility.  As we see Rentaro shrugging off mortal wounds or ripping off an artificial arm bound to his nervous system without hesitation, we become vexed at seeing the unreality of these actions.  These heroic acts lacked the aura of heroism because Rentaro does not display human weakness.  A good shonen anime does show that its characters struggle to overcome human weakness whether it be Kenshin’s temptation to give up living toward the end of his duel with Shishio, the doubts constantly assailing Kiba’s mind, or Inuyasha’s self-hatred and thirst for power.  And we cannot forget the hero of the greatest modern epic, Frodo Baggins, whose determination would have been vain had he not been supported by so many and Providence saved him from his own folly at the critical moment.

Rentaro_tries_out_the_item

One has difficulty identifying with Rentaro as a warrior.  He’s at his best while he supports Enju; but, in combat situations where he should have to struggle with human weakness, he proves to be an Übermensch having no weaknesses to overcome!  Would that the authors have added their own experience of physical suffering into Rentaro’s battles!  They would have been far more moving!

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9 comments on “Black Bullet and the Difficulty of Expressing Noble Sentiments

  1. Cytrus says:

    I feel like the anime does an exceptionally good job at painting Rentarou as a weak human being in the spiritual/moral sense (not so much in the physical sense).

    In ep. 2 we see him choosing to turn his eyes away from the cursed child they encounter on the streets, because “there’s nothing they can do anyway”. Rentarou only chooses to act when Enju, his good conscience, prods him to.

    When Rentarou went chasing after the police, I felt that the anime might be going in a very artificial direction. Had he acted immediately, offering to pay for whatever the child stole and acting as a mediator etc., there might still be the possibility of resolving the situation peacefully. But what was he planning to do after rushing after the police car? Stop the police, beat them up and run away with the girl?

    But fast forward two minutes, and you have Rentarou hiding behind a pillar and waiting for the police to finish shooting the girl to death, right back to his “cannot be helped” mentality. “No point in me getting hurt, too, now that the girl is done for.” He gets away easy this time around, with the girl surviving, but there is little doubt what his priorities are when it comes to choosing between self-preservation and doing the right thing.

    While tragic, it is also very satisfying to have him be the one to pull the trigger on Kayo later on, because it proves plot armor won’t always be saving him from responsibility for his choices, actions and lack of power. For someone strong, outwardly confident and proactive like Rentarou, the number of times you can see weakness and cowardice guiding his actions is really unusual,but that makes him so much more believable as a character.

    But as you mention, the battles Rentarou goes through are not quite up to par when it comes to externalizing his inner conflicts. Here’s hoping the show can make full use of that element in the coming episodes.

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    • I remember being particularly frustrated by those scenes. It is interesting to note that Rentarou has plenty of martial courage, but little societal courage or the courage to resist authority. Tolstoy commented that this was especially an affliction of men, who generally had no trouble marching through cannon and grapeshot, but found it difficult to defend someone’s good name if they were in the minority. I wonder if this also might be a comment on the Japanese character, which is known for extreme bravery in combat but an almost slavish obedience to authority.

      Whether Rentarou can increase the societal side of his courage to equal the martial side will certainly make for an interesting show. But, I suppose that he already has improved to some extent in the way he has supported Enju during her struggles.

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      • Cytrus says:

        In a sense, that combination of courage and slavishness is exactly what is expected of a soldier – somebody who is supposed to think his orders through only to the extent necessary to carry them out. But despite his military training and upbringing, I hope Rentarou can improve in the areas you mentioned.

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      • True, but the best soldiers are obedient, not slavish. They will do what their commanders really want them to do and without injustice. I remember a story from WWI were British officers ordered some Gurkhas to bury about a dozen German dead. The Gurkhas found that one of the Germans was still alive and were about to kill him when a British officer shouted for them to stop. They exchanged surprised looks with each other and asked the British officer: “You want us to bury him alive?”

        As brave as Gurkhas are, I’d say that they’re a little wanting in discretion!

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      • Cytrus says:

        Be careful of the Gurkhas xD.

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  2. […] anime sticks like glue to the manga’s story line, though it is fun to see it animated.  My last anime post pointed out a flaw in the action of Black Bullet, but for all that it well deserves the number three […]

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  3. […] or peeves in the last three episodes, which I watched on Crunchyroll.  I already wrote an article accusing Black Bullet of feeling trite or corny.  There were a few examples of that in these three episodes, but I prefer to concentrate on some […]

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  4. […] brushes with death.  It also had many things one could make fun of: examples may be seen here and here.  The Joker-like villain was a great foe for Rentaro, though I must confess to disliking our […]

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  5. Luminas says:

    This is an interesting commentary for a number of reasons, but one of them is that it neatly explains why young writers seem to have so much trouble writing tragic backstories. The fact of it is— It’s not quite that they’re self-centered enough to believe that the character’s tragic backstory justifies their actions. It’s that they have no frame of reference for what real tragedy is, and yet they’re trying to understand it. They expect the hero or protagonist (Which they think their self-insert is) to have such a backstory from years of watching TV. The same defects tend to crop up in the writings of adults who have never known phenomenal pain or suffering. It’s also why people who *have* been through hell (Whether external or ‘self-inflicted’ depression) make such good writers.

    It also may go some of the way towards understanding why the Joker-like, insane villain was so much more effective than the protagonist was— That’s the other defect that arises. You can’t really write nobility you’ve never felt, but it’s easy enough to get at what the villain is feeling: Detachment, amusement, and excitement at the idea of another that shares his nature. You can delve deeper into darkness if you’re already starting from a place of peace and indifference.

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