A Character as Loco as Esdeath: A Theory on the Inspiration behind Akame ga Kiru’s Most Beloved Character

As my dear readers know, drawing connections between anime and other works–whether it be Arpeggio of Blue Steel and the Bible or Beowulf and Grendel with Shiki–stands as one of my favorite hobbies.  But, anime more often references itself, and part of the joy of watching anime is discerning various allusions and appropriations within the medium, e.g. Kill la Kill and Blazing Transfer Student.  Rather than destroying creativity, such borrowing can add to the intellectual pleasure one gleans from a story by creating another perspective.  Classical authors, for example, did this all the time–even in fashions which would be thought of as plagiarism nowadays–and were admired for it.  No one is going to toss aside a copy of Virgil’s Aeneid, complaining that Virgil borrows too much from Homer!  What is considered most original is often just a refreshing combination of old ideas.

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This understanding of creativity applies very well to the character Esdeath, who combines various traits which may be seen as contradictory.  While musing about Esdeath’s character, I pondered whether she had any equivalents in anime.  I found various similarities in other characters: Erza Scarlet (overwhelming power), Shishio (Social Darwinism), and Maestro Delphine (contempt for the weak and poor).  However, these all have one or two similarities to Esdeath rather than approximate personalities.  Esdeath may still be considered sui generis.

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However, I have hit upon a character who shares many similarities to Esdeath.  She has so many parallels to her that the direct contrasts in their characters just further highlight their connection.  I’ve kept my dear readers in suspense long enough!  This character is Koko Hekmatyar of Jormungand.

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Of course, the first thing one notes is the similarity of their features: pale complexion, blue eyes, and frost-colored hair.  (A quick google search shows that I’m not the first to notice this, but I don’t think anyone’s written a proper article on the two yet.)  Koko hails from Sweden, and Esdeath was born in the northern climes of the empire.  Both lead a squad of highly trained soldiers and become very attached to males younger than they are–though, it must be confessed that Koko’s passion for a child soldier is more creepy.  They are also highly attached to their subordinates–even when they discover that their subordinates have failed or betrayed them.

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With those similarities out of the way, the real fun begins.  Koko, a merchant of death, sells weapons for the sake of world peace.  Esdeath, a suppressor of rebellion, uses her office to incite the whole empire to war.  Both have no qualms about using insane methods to achieve their goals, as the lives of unknown human beings mean nothing to them.  This disregard for the value of human life drives both Tatsumi and Jonah away from their love interests–and it remains a question whether the former shall escape his love interest’s madness.

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Into their respective plans, however, a wrench named Cupid is thrown.  Love threatens to undermine both their schemes and worldviews, and the conflict revolves around whether they shall suppress love for the sake of their misguided goals or shall amor omnia vincit?  Both seem unbending, yet Koko bent to the desire of her beloved.  Will Esdeath do the same or is her heart too hard?

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Well, you need to read the manga in order to find out!  At any rate, do you think that I make a good case for Esdeath being based on Koko?

How Not to Animate Sword Fights: Episode 8 of Akame ga Kiru

I have remarked on Twitter that watching Historical European Martial Arts and Oriental Martial Arts videos has made it more difficult to enjoy anime sword fights.  Either the fight needs to be outlandish enough for me to completely suspend my disbelief–like the fights in Jubei-chan II–or bear a significant degree of realism–like those of Carried by the Wind: Tsukikage Ran.  (No, I’m not going to spoil any of the fights for my dear readers.  You must watch the show if you haven’t seen it!)  On the other hand, the eighth episode of Akame ga Kiru went to neither extreme, which left me cringing at their bad techniques and scientifically impossible feats.  The bad techniques went far beyond General Liver and Bulat standing in place and exchanging lightning fast cuts and parries in a manner reminiscent of the later fights in DBZ.  I know that Akame ga Kiru is fiction and that I should not expect moves out of the Codex Wallerstein–as awesome as that would be; but, bad swordplay will detract from anyone’s enjoyment of the fights.  A friend of mind who cares nothing about HEMA even noticed that the fight was badly done!

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But, let’s start here in my highlight reel of bad swordplay:

Three on OneIf you remember the fight, Bulat takes out the fighters behind him with kicks and bisects the opponent before him simultaneously.  There are many problems with this nonsense: 1) One does not stay in the middle of multiple opponents, but attacks the closest one and attempts to tangle up his foes by out-positioning them (e.g. 4:40 into this video); 2) Two side kicks delivered simultaneously would have no power; 3) the bearded enemy to Bulat’s front, being closer, should have been struck down first no matter how you look at it.  Tatsuki ogles at Bulat’s awesome technique, but I look at this scene as pure laziness by the animators.

Next one’s a doozy:

Ridiculous High JumpRemember how high Tatsumi jumped to deliver this strike?  Akame ga Kiru loves showing these ridiculously high jumping attacks, but they should all be epic failures.  Remember when you caught fly balls in little league?  Essentially, that’s how devil kid should have approached this situation and taken Tatsumi out with a strike to his back.  Who in their right mind would block a strike that started a hundred feet high?  Also, Tatsumi misses his first chance at slicing off devil kid’s fingers.

The third one stands as the worst shot of the whole fight:

Bad BlockIf you watched the footage carefully, you’ll notice that Tatsumi blocked well ahead of the strike, and the devil kid obligingly attacks his sword.  Why?  Tatsumi’s arms are actually ahead of his weapon and a much easier target!!!  This was just wrong, I tell you!

And we have a good parry from Tatsumi, but…

Great Parry…he neglects the obvious counter-cut and the fight continues.  Nevermind, this is a terrible parry.  See how far Tatsumi needs to extend his arms?  They’re even locked, which is a huge error!  How much easier to simply draw back a little, let the strike pass, and deliver a solid cut in the opening left by devil kid’s attack?

Three things need to be said about this picture:

If Tatsumi was competent, that awed expression would be the last one on that villain's face.

If Tatsumi was competent, that awed expression would be the last one on that villain’s face.

Lindybeige has an excellent video on this very common position which we see in movies and TV shows.  There’s an additional point to make here that the devil kid’s fingers have no protection whatsoever.  Tatsumi could easily slice them off!  Then, let me reiterate two more points Lindybeige makes: 1) This is a very bad and unnecessary position to be in–whoever moves first wins; and 2) Tatsumi should have half-sworded into his foe’s neck.  Yes, you can grab a sharp sword with your bare hands–you really can!

The following pictures suffer from the same defect:

vlcsnap-2014-08-24-15h29m03s250 vlcsnap-2014-08-24-15h29m38s89Neither of the fighters’ swords have proper hand guards.  Bulat’s cut should have traveled down the blade and through Liver’s fingers.  In the second, either opponent has that option.  A guard of some kind, even a simple cross guard, must be part of a sword if one means to bind with it.  Ancient swords had no guards because they were always used in conjunction with a shield.  And no, it is not unchivalrous to cut your opponent’s fingers off!  We see it in European manuals, and the world of Akame ga Kiru has no chivalric code to speak of!

What the...?  Send that sword back to the Kung Fu movie set where you found it, Bulat!

What the…? Send that sword back to the Kung Fu movie set where you found it, Bulat!

That concludes the glaring defects I found in this battle.  Did anyone like the fight?  Sheele’s final battle in episode six is so far the best fight in the series.  It followed my rule of being so outlandish as to suspend my disbelief.

Terrifying words, but at least one character believes in having a proper guard on their weapon!

Terrifying words, but at least one character believes in having a proper guard on their weapon!

An Apology for Savagery: Explaining the Crime-Ridden yet Pure Soul of Esdese

I’ve been pondering the character Esdese from Akame ga Kiru for a while now, because her character eludes explanation.  It seems impossible that such a bad character can appear so innocent when the manga takes us away from her job.  Her terrible crimes seem to call for judgment, and yet one almost wishes her to get off scot-free.  I described her worldview as Nietzschean in my prior article, but the more I read the more apparent it becomes that she does not base her worldview in a philosophy.  Rather, her understanding of right and wrong derives from her coming from a savage society, and having these ideals rather confirmed by living in a “civilized” society which has been reduced to a state of nature.  I would recommend reading Adam Ferguson’s An Essay on the History of Society if any of my dear readers find the points I am about to make interesting.

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When we are first introduced to Esdese, we hardly come off with a good opinion of her: she subjugates some rebels with fierce reprisals, forces a certain rebel to lick her boots, and later she gives pointers to some torturers on how to increase human suffering.  Shortly after the last scene, she greets the king and prime minister in the throne room.  Upon being asked whether she has any new goals, she declares–in complete incongruity with her prior actions–that she wishes to fall in love and produces a ridiculous list of  desired traits for her lover.

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Seryuu actually disturbs me quite a bit more than Esdese.

I must confess, I did not much care for Esdese until she produced that list.  At the same time, I did not know what to make of it.  Love should be the last thing a person of this sort wants.  None of the other hardcore villains desires love!  And yet, outside of the scenes where she inflicts pain on others, she can be heartwarming and cute.  Which brings me to the point I made earlier: how can cruelty and kindness exist in the same character and appear authentic?

Pardonnez la fanservice.

Pardonnez la fanservice.

The solution to the enigma of Esdese lies in her being a savage.  (Kudos to the mangaka for making an blond haired, blue eyed savage!) She dresses like a Nazi, which perhaps first led me to compare her ideas to Nietzsche, but perhaps a deerskin shirt and breeches would suit her character better.  She hales from the frigid north of the Empire and was raised to believe that it was natural for the strong to do whatever they liked to the weak.  Her father tells her not to feel sad that her mother was killed–’tis natural–nor to feel pity for the live animal they harvest some organs from–’tis natural.  (I’m sure she first develops a taste for torture here.)  Lastly, he even tells her not to grieve for his own death as he lays dying with their tribe annihilated!  That’s quite natural too!

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In the movie Ulzana’s Raid, Burt Lancaster’s character claims that hating an Apache because he is cruel is like hating the desert because it has no water.  Similarly, Esdese was brought up in a state of nature and displays its values: “Life is nasty, brutish, and short,” as Thomas Hobbes says.  In the above named essay, Adam Ferguson writes that Native Americans tortured those of their enemies they found brave.  It was actually an insult to be killed quickly!  In certain cases, they would even remember fondly the guts a certain warrior displayed under torture!  (Couldn’t resist the pun.)  One wonders whether Esdese believes that she is showing regard for her defeated foes’ bravery when she shows them the same treatment.

Here's a scene from when she picked up her special weapon.  She overcame these temptations without losing her mind.

Here’s a scene from when she picked up her special weapon. She overcame these temptations without losing her mind.

Her person reminds one of the part in the Gospels where Christ says that someone who ignorantly does something worthy of a severe beating will be beaten lightly (Luke 12:48).  Esdese’s simplicity (she was an incredibly docile child) and ignorance of civilized morals–which are even more obscured due to the present state of affairs–make one think of her as a lion: beautiful, strong, graceful and yet would think nothing of mangling any animal smaller than it.  We don’t blame lions for ferocity.  Nor can we blame Esdese that much even though she does things truly horrible.  Instead, we wish for this savage to become civilized–or at least to metamorphose into a knight.  Tatsumi concludes that there is no saving her, but plenty of other violent races have become gentle through religion or philosophy: Christianity made the Vikings and Native Americans gentle and Buddha’s teachings changed Tibetans for the better.  So, one hopes that Esdese can realize that there is a better way to live than in the state of nature.  At any rate, I find it impossible to hate this cruel, charming, bloodthirsty, cute savage.

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Akana ga Kiru: Love Makes the World Go Round

Well, my dear readers, Akane ga Kiru happens to be the latest manga to capture my imagination.  However, the villains are downright fiends.  Some of the atrocities they commit make it easier to think of them as demons or monsters than human beings.  The violence often reaches the level of Hellsing (and the artwork of Akame ga Kiru is incredibly reminiscent of that work) and occasionally the level of the Berserk manga (don’t read that for Pete’s sake!); so, I only recommend it to the thickest skinned of my readers.  I find myself skipping pages and examining each page for foreshadowing of the gruesome so that I can avoid scenes reminiscent of the worst passages of Terry Goodkind’s novels.

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Then, why read Akame ga Kiru?  Any lover of dark stories will tell you that one reads dark stories for the light contained therein.  The surrounding darkness makes the light seem that much more precious and lovable.  If dark stories contain no light, they fall to the level of trash or poison—the product of a diabolical or melancholy imagination.

Speaking of diabolical, the attitude of treating people as cattle is pretty much rampant among the upper class of this society,

Speaking of diabolical, the attitude of treating people as cattle is pretty much rampant among the upper class of this society,

The point of light which seems most precious because it shines most precariously is romantic love in Esdese, our heroes’ greatest opponent.  Objectively speaking, she’s a vile sadist, but I cannot help but be fascinated by her–nay, she’s actually my favorite character right now.  Her desire to fall in love separates her from the majority of the villains.  And who else should she fall for but the hero?  During a tournament instigated by her to find the sixth member of her Jaeger team, Tatsumi steals her heart, and she drags him from the field in a manner reminiscent of a caveman claiming a bride.  They pass the night debating philosophy–Aristotle vs. Nietzsche, you might say.  Like Thrasymachus of Plato’s Republic, she claims that Tatsumi’s notion of justice derives from weak people: the strong only need to act to their own advantage.  All the while, Tatsumi tries to convince her to defect from the Empire and join the Rebel side without admitting that he has already joined the Empire’s most infamous enemy: Night Raid.

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Esdese seems pretty cute until you get to know her.

During a hunting exercise, he escapes her grasp.  She tells the Jaegers that they do not need to offer Tatsumi mercy should they meet him in combat; yet, she still pines for him.  She even refuses the evil Prime Minister’s offer to find a similar man for her.

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Why should this be significant?  Even bad people love others.  That’s natural, isn’t it?  But, love is intimately bound with happiness, the chief end of human beings.  If love were not so bound with happiness, the family would not be the chief unit of society.  The most effective governments try to foster the health of the family through fostering peace and justice.  Essentially, Esdese, by desiring love, also wishes for the flourishing of peace and justice unless she wants a sham love–the mere indulgence of her feelings.  If she opts for true love, she must become the enemy of her current employers.  (Oh, what a beautiful moment that would be!)  The rampant cruelty and injustice infecting the country hardly fosters the creation of happy households.

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But, many things war against her defection: her vicious character first and foremost.  Her subordinates are incredibly loyal to her because she shows them affection; however, her show of affection is motivated by the desire to make them good subordinates, i. e. tools.  Aristotle claimed that the wicked can only have friendships of utility, and all of Esdese’s relationships belong to that category.  Her relationship with Tatsumi stands as the sole exception, but if she begins to view her relationship with Tatsumi according to usefulness or pleasure, that will shatter her ability to find real love, where the beloved is loved for his own sake.  Then again, the heroines have taken a shine to Tatsumi, and he could easily break Esdese’s heart by choosing one of them over her.  At which point, Esdese might forsake love altogether.  Thirdly, the Japanese concept of karma would certainly deny Esdese the right to real happiness.  The manga takes a grimly realistic view of humanity.  I’d have to say that Dostoyevsky’s underground man had a greater chance at salvation than Esdese.

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In the meantime, I shall follow with rapt attention Esdese’s standing on the fence.  Shall she fall on the side she naturally leans towards and snuff out the little bit of light in her soul?  Or shall amor, with all its demands, sacrifices, and true joys, truly omnia vincit?