Sunday’s Wisdom #399: Honor and Freedom

“A prey that has provided such an intense and noble hunt has earned its right to run free.”
– The Imakandi Hunters, Samurai Jack
Season 2, Episode 9, “Jack vs the Five Hunters”

The hunters say this at the end of the episode, after they have caught their most challenging prey: the samurai called Jack. They were summoned to hunt him by the evil Aku, to whom Jack is a constant thorn in his side and the only true threat to his person he knows of. Having seen Jack captured, he comes to take him, and end him. But the hunters of the Imakandi live for the thrill of the hunt, and they love the challenge of worthy prey. To their mind, the hunt which Jack gave them proved his worth in their eyes, and proved that he is worthy of keeping his life and his freedom, and they could not keep their honor if they took it from him. So they deny Aku, and leave that evil creature screaming in frustration as they spirit his enemy out of his grasp just in the nick of time.

It strikes me how honor and freedom go hand in hand so often, especially as we often think of honor as something which binds and limits us. But gravity limits us as well, yet it enables us to move instead of just float aimlessly. The experience of it makes us stronger, while its lack makes us weaker. And learning how it works has enabled us to fly, even to soar amongst the stars. That which limits us also enables us.

Even more, I believe that all of us inherently have the right to be free, but it does not come free. Obtaining, enjoying, and keeping our freedom often involves doing things which earn it. There’s a tremendous irony there, that we must earn by our actions what is naturally ours by right, or else we won’t have it at all. And yet, the he right to freedom is what makes it worth paying for, and that is why there is honor to be found in the earning of it. Which, in turn, demands that the soldiers and patriots who do the earning be honorable people, to not sully their sacred cause.

Thus do honor and freedom support one another.

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The Easy Imbalance of Too Much Virtual Living

This is one of those posts that is born from a bit of an epiphany which, in turn, is born from some honest self-reflection and self-recrimination. I have seen something which needs to be addressed, a growing imbalance in the world that we need to talk about, and I see that I am part of it. Thus, I confess my part and hope to add to a discussion, that we all might do a little bit better, live our lives a little bit more productively. I begin with myself, or, at least, I try to.

When I get off work in the afternoon, I go home, take care of my dogs, see to my nephew, get dinner at some point, and usually spend my evenings online, until I go to sleep. That’s a number of hours every day, not counting weekends or whenever I get online while on break at work. You won’t find me agreeing with anyone that talks about how we spend too much time online. No, not too much time. But it seems to me that I and others are spending a little too much living online. As in, too much time, money, attention, and passion devoted to a virtual reality instead of actual reality, such that is not balanced with real-world living.

I came to this conclusion when I suddenly realized that most of my evenings were being spent on YouTube, and most of that was being spent watching reactions. Meaning, instead of doing things myself, I was watching other people react to trailers, movies, TV shows, anime and cartoons, music videos, playing games, and more.

Now, I want to quickly emphasize that there is nothing wrong with reactions! Not in and of themselves, at least! Indeed, I would say there is nothing wrong with most things in general, on their own. And there is nothing wrong with being online. Nothing wrong with the internet itself.

It is merely a question of moderation, of balance, and I fear that the world is becoming more and more unbalanced, and that I am doing the same, in regards to our virtual reality.

Who wouldn’t be drawn in by a pretty face?

I can’t recall the first reaction I ever saw, but, as with everything that becomes far too consuming, it started with just one. It was this attractive, young girl watching something I enjoyed, and I enjoyed her reaction to it. She smiled, she laughed, she cried, she squealed, she commented. I liked it.

It’s probably no psychological surprise that it made me feel good to see a a pretty girl smiling and laughing as she watched something I already knew and liked. There’s an inherent validation in that, in someone agreeing with our view, in enjoying what we enjoy. That’s what friendships are all about, enjoying the same things together, and it’s all the more impactful, most likely, when they’re a highly-desirable member of the opposite sex. Someone more familiar with brain chemistry would probably be able to explain something about endorphins and dopamine or whatever. For myself, it’s enough to realize that this is simply part of human nature and a human need which was being met, but not in real life.

I recently heard another young lady on YouTube answering a question from a fan about if they could hope for a date with them. Her answer was to talk about “parasocial relationships.” These are the relationships that fans have with the object of their fandom, like celebrities, stars, and fictitious characters, that sort of thing. We see them, in their best, most idealized forms, on the screen in front of us, and we love what we see. But who they are in the spotlight is not all of who they are. They’re real people, not dolls, not limited to what is shown to a camera. One does not generally date one’s idols because there is a distance which needs to be maintained, or the illusion crumbles.

A parasocial relationship, then, is one that is defined by not being real. Not truly. But, it can feel like it is, and it does so without the risks of being ruined by real-world interaction. And that is how we come to devote far too much of our passion to it, and to put far too much stock in the behavior and perspective of someone who we don’t really know, and who does not know us either.

Her answer was, no, she would not date a fan, because that would be reality, not virtual reality.

It can look appealing, but it’s not real.

In brutal self-examination, I notice that my virtual life bloated significantly in close proximity to a significant decline in my real-world social interactions. Not to say that the two are inseparable, but, well, if I’ve nothing to do real life, then what else is there for me to do but be online? If I have, well, very few friends in real life with which to share the things I like, then of course I would be drawn to the virtual simulation of such. Thus did my YouTube subscriptions to channels that showed reactions increase from one, two, and then three… to over two dozen.

I have a problem. I seriously, seriously have a problem. I mean, I would recommend each of the reactors I follow for a good, enjoyable, vicarious experience in place of actual socialization, but I really must admit that I really do have a problem somewhere in all of this.

And I’m not sure what is more unsettling: to know that I have this problem, or to know how mild this problem is for me in comparison to others.

To explain that, well, remember, for many of these reactors – and there is a veritable army of them across the wide world of the internet – this is a significant source of income. For others, it is flat-out their job. They have subscribers on YouTube, patrons on Patreon, followers on various other social media and crowdfunding sites, and some of the girls – I know because they mention it at the beginning of every video – are also on OnlyFans. (Did I mention how “pretty girl” seems to be an important factor?)

Reactors spend a lot of hours viewing, experiencing, editing, and uploading content, unless they have an editor to take care of most of that. Many of them stream online, letting their audience watch them play a video game for hours on end, and people come and watch them. They have full, uncut reactions to entire movies and shows on Patreon. They comment in dedicated chat rooms, too, a community of voyeurs watching other people having fun, and donating to them.

And there are enough people spending enough hours and enough money on this to keep all of these reactors afloat.

Twitch’s most successful streamer.

One doesn’t even need to be reacting to things to get followers and an income. As the tale of Amouranth demonstrates, as she became a multimillionaire with her Twitch streams, girls and others are able to stream themselves doing pretty much anything, and enough people come to watch and chat with them that they make a living off it. Twitch, TikTok, Twitter, Instagram, the list goes on! They just put themselves out there, and people gobble it up.

So when I say this is relatively mild for me, I mean that I do not go and spend hours and hours on end every day watching people react to one thing or play games or whatnot. I do not pay them for the privilege, either. I just catch highlight reels, so to speak, on YouTube. I know that’s not much of a distinction. I just mean that where I know I have some issues to deal with, I can also see clearly that others have put a shocking amount of time and money into experiencing this virtual reality instead of doing (fill-in-the-blank) in real life. It has their attention. It has their passion. It has their lives. At least as much as it has mine.

And now virtual reality has been pushing back into the arena of real life. Young women – and men, too, but mostly girls, for the audience appeal – have been producing all sorts of content streamed online, including reactions, gaming, painting, talking with each other and with their followers, musical performances, and more… but not as themselves.

They do this – the same things, and more, as these other reactors and social media streamers – with a completely virtual persona, sometimes even including lore in the crafting of their character, complete with an avatar brought to animated life in real time.

They’re called VTubers, short for Virtual YouTubers, and they’re all the rage online right now.

Someone produced a program that could create a virtual avatar for a real person, one that makes expressions in real time and gives an illusion of three-dimensional depth. It’s not quite lifelike, of course, but dang if it isn’t quite the artistic imitation! The popularity of Vtubing, much like reactions and socia media streaming, absolutely exploded in the last few years. I’m sure that was only enhanced by the entire fracas of COVID and government lockdowns – hey, as I said, where else can we go when we’re not going anywhere? – but either way, it has been astonishing.

The international cast of Hololive.

There is an entire community, a sub-culture, of VTubers online, just as there is among musicians and artists and tradesmen of any kind. There is a community among their fans, too, much like everyone who avidly follows sports. But unquestionably the epitome of it all, right now, has to be a group known as Hololive Productions.

It’s an international organization that brings together several girls from across the entire world to work both together and independently as VTubers. They do their own thing on their own channels, they collaborate often, they have events entirely dedicated to them, and they form friendships, all under the veil of their respective avatars. They sing, dance, chat, produce albums, or anything else they like, and even have concerts! Most of the girls are multilingual to some degree, and there are branches in Japan, South Korea, North America, Indonesia, and their used to be one in China. One of their most popular groups draws from Australia, Germany, Canada, and everywhere in between.

It is… staggering… to think of that! An international business based solely on having real people parade around behind virtual avatars! Organizing those concerts and events, creating and selling related merchandise, sponsoring all of their activities, and that is how they make their living.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve found them to be adorable, engaging, and hilarious – which is why I am subscribed to nearly a dozen of them – but, still, I find myself stunned by everything that has gone into this.

A particular note about their concerts: the technology has apparently progressed to the point of 3D holograms. Not necessarily of anything especially realistic, for the most part, but enough for artistic three-dimensional representations of fictitious characters. Hololive used it to bring the avatars of these girls onto the stage to perform for their fans, and their not the only ones. It’s also been used by Riot Games to show characters from League of Legends on-stage, singing and dancing alongside the real vocalists in the opening ceremonies of tournaments. Consider that for a moment. Not only are entirely fictitious people and the avatars of girls being brought to the stage instead of the girls themselves, but entire halls and stadiums of people are there to cheer it on.

That is a huge number of people investing a great deal of their living in something which ultimately isn’t real, even as what isn’t real is brought one step closer into the real world. Is that not a powerful blurring of the line between the real and the virtual?

We’ve been making fake things look real for a long time, haven’t we?

How much of what happens online, in a space that isn’t anywhere within the real world, influences reality?

Want to buy something? Amazon.

What to research something? Wikipedia.

Want to find something? Google.

Want to watch something? Netflix, Disney+, Hulu, and a million other streaming sites.

Want to sent someone a note? Texting and email.

Want to do all the social interactions without actually doing them? Facebook.

Want to have some fun? Video games, of every kind.

Want a more immersive, realistic gaming experience? Virtual reality games, complete with headsets.

Want to keep up on sports? ESPN.

Want to be part of a sport? Fantasy leagues.

Want to find someone to date? Online dating sites.

Can’t get a date but have an itch to scratch? …ok, not touching that one!

The list goes on. And on. And on.

He was right about one thing.

How can we call ourselves or our lives balanced when we do this much living online, enjoying and paying for a virtual simulation of life instead of the real thing? How long can we do it before something gives?

I recently read about a man in Japan who married a girl that doesn’t exist. She’s a fictional character, completely made up, not even the avatar of a VTuber. The internet allowed him to come into contact with a company that provides interactive programs for various such characters, catering to people who want to bring their favorite fictitious people into their real lives. The company has ended service for the specific character that this man is “married” to, but he still considers himself married and intends to be faithful to her, and hopes that, somehow, someway, someday, he might see her again. Especially if robotics and AI should happen to develop enough to recreate her.

There’s a term for it now: fictosexual, to be attracted to entirely fictitious characters.

I can see a certain appeal, especially in terms of what little I know of Japanese culture. Not only is this, in someone’s mind, a “perfect” person, but one that will forever be so. This girl that never existed will never be corrupted by the real world. She will always be pure, including sexually. She will never say mean things, never say no, never tell hard truths, never be unfaithful, never break up with those who set their hearts on her. It is the ultimate virtual simulation of an important relationship, with none of the pitfalls of real life and real women.

There is… so much about that which is disturbing to contemplate.

To stay on track and keep to my point, I mention only one: whatever his life and his circumstances, this man who married a character has clearly spent far too much living – too much time, money, attention, and passion – in a virtual reality, and he is paying a price for the assertion of the virtual into his reality. If he stays true to his intention, he will never marry a real woman, never have children, and he may never know the joy of having his own family.

…which is not so dissimilar to myself, a lifelong bachelor nearing four decades of time on this Earth, with very few friends or other connections in real life anymore, who also spends far too much of my life enjoying simulated experiences in instead of the real thing.

What was it Dumbledore said? It does not do to dwell on dreams, and forget to live.

My life is not balanced.

I need to change that. I’m going to try to change it.

“Don’t be fooled by the internet. It’s cool to get on the computer, but don’t let the computer get on you. It’s cool to use the computer. Don’t let the computer use you. Y’all saw the Matrix. There’s a war going on. The battlefield is in the mind, and the prize is the soul.”

– Prince, musician

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“I’m Quitting Heroing!” Quits Being Interesting

This is one of those anime that started off strong and successfully hooked me in the first episode – heck, the way it had me laughing, it hooked me in the first five minutes – but then just kind of… failed to keep me invested, ya know?

I’m Quitting Heroing is a shorter anime, only twelve episodes, and it begins just after the stereotypical final battle between the hero and the ruler of demons. The demon army is in shambles, but the hero, Leo, is so strong that he terrifies the humans he has protected. They exile him, so he goes and joins the demons. The demon queen, Echidna, refuses at first, because she hates how badly she lost to him. Hilarity and poignant thoughts follow as her generals hire the hero behind her back and make use of his services to repair their forces without her finding out, at least not until they can indisputably argue for how useful he is.

The first half or so of the show is actually quite amusing and endearing, as Leo gets to know each of the generals, and Echidna herself, helping each of them with their assigned tasks as best he can. He makes fun of the sorceress Shutina even while he manages to lighten her workload; he tries to teach the beast-girl Lily how to work better with others, and ends up learning that his methods were far too convoluted; he educates Edwald the dragon warrior in the amateurish mistake of assuming that everyone can do what you can do if they just work hard at it; he teaches the Melnes the assassin how to connect with people, and is one of the first that Melnes connects with; and he has dinner with Echidna, learning of her hopes and dreams and kindness in the process.

I particularly liked that part, showing how these demon generals were like real people, and not bad people, and the things they have to think about in order to run an entire army.

Leo also learns about each of them and opens up enough to tell them who he truly is. He is a bioweapon, meaning a living creature that was created by human scientists back during the Age of Machines, some three thousand years ago – which turns out to be our modern day – for the purpose of protecting humanity from the encroaching evil of the demons. He is the last of his kind, the other eleven bioweapons having all died in battle, and he has grown very strong… and very unstable.

The show, which was mostly lighthearted and fanciful, suddenly goes into a sudden climax with the sudden revelation that Leo the Hero is being driven insane by his ancient programming, that he is aware of what is happening to his mind, and that he needs to be killed before he, himself, destroys humanity and demonkind alike. That is why he wanted to join the demon army, to see if Echidna was worthy of the priceless treasure he must leave behind, and to get her and her generals to kill him.

“This plot is really a mess! Goes everywhere, way too fast!”

So, it starts out fun and goofy, then drags out a bit with the hero’s prolonged backstory and self-reflections, and then, with no warning whatsoever, it’s a dire, potentially apocalyptic, emergency with severely high personal stakes.

Now, nothing against that in and of itself, but it was a bit off-putting, and… well… to be honest we hadn’t spent nearly enough time with these characters or gotten to know and love them nearly so well in order for me to feel invested in the outcome of this surprise showdown.

Which got drawn out. It began in one episode, occurred in the next which ended in the use of a desperate final move, and then the episode after that took the entire episode for that one attack to actually happen while we waited through yet more reflections from both Leo and Echidna, and finally, at long last, they ended the showdown with a cheap cop-out to avoid the tragedy that they just spent three episodes building up to.

Is it terrible of me to have felt a little bit cheated by that?

First we’re goofy, then we’re suddenly tragic, then the problem just goes away. It was like feeling the storytelling version of whiplash.

So it started out pretty good, but then went all over the place, with very little structure to it. It slammed us with a tragic climax that ought to have rent our hearts, but did a poor job of it, and then let us down at the end just to get an ambiguous happily ever after without any price paid for it.

It’s not all bad, but it’s certainly not so great, either!

Rating: I give I’m Quitting Heroing 6 stars out of 10.

Grade: C-Minus.

…I did enjoy the character designs, though.

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Sunday’s Wisdom #398: Spirit of Freedom

“Greed? Deception? Abuse of power? That’s no plan. …See, according to Cocteau’s plan, I’m the enemy, ’cause I like to think. I like to read. I’m into freedom of speech and freedom of choice. I’m the kind of guy who likes to sit in a greasy spoon and wonder, ‘Gee, should I have the T-bone steak or the jumbo rack of barbecue ribs with a side order of gravy fries?’ I want high cholesterol! I want to eat bacon and butter and buckets of cheese, okay? I want to smoke a Cuban cigar the size of Cincinatti in the non-smoking section! I want to run through the streets naked with green jello all over my body reading Playpoy magazine! Why? Because I suddenly might feel the need to, okay pal? I’ve seen the future, you know what it is? It’s a forty-seven-year-old virgin sittin’ around in his space pajamas drinking a banana-broccoli shake and I’m an Oscar Mayer wiener! You live up top, you live Cocteau’s way: what he wants, when he wants, how he wants. Your other choice: come down here, maybe starve to death.”
– Edgar Friendly, Demoliton Man

It was only a few weeks ago I used another quote from this movie to comment on the perils of trying to govern others too much, to dictate everything about their behavior to realize some ideal that can only exist in our heads. But this week, in the spirit of my country’s celebration of our Independence Day, I thought I’d comment more directly on the spirit of freedom itself.

The basic setup of Demolition Man is that one man’s efforts and technology brought peace and prosperity to the world, but only for those who behave as he wants them to. Every last thing that could be called “bad for you” was soon labeled as “bad,” including proper meat with cholesterol, bad language, gasoline, chocolate, and more. People are forbidden to have kids without a license, and even sex itself has become taboo. It’s a nanny state, all for the benefit of its ruler.

And then there’s the people in the sewers, led by Edgar Friendly. These are the people who, despite having little food, little education, and little of anything at all, they just can’t take living under such absolutely tyranny. So they scavenge and steal to survive, and they have the only real burger left in the world, albeit one made with rat meat instead of beef.

Most everyone who has ever fought for freedom could attest to how uncomfortable it gets. When one defies the powers that be, it can be as if the entire world is the enemy. Enemy commanders, enemy soldiers, spies and traitors, neighbors and friends and perfect strangers who sell you out, cancel you, feed you to the wolves and the gallows, there’s no end to the people who turn against those who stand up. The pains and hazards are unending, including open warfare, starvation, disease, injury, and the brutality of the elements. The soil of American liberty has been watered with the sweat, the tears, and the blood of patriots from the very beginning, even before our forefathers broke free from the Great Britain. They gave their all and suffered every kind of deprivation because they wanted freedom.

They wanted the freedom to think whatever they might, read whatever they liked, and speak their minds frankly. They wanted the freedom to prosper as best they could by their own sweat, without some distant crown coming and taking everything from them on a whim. They wanted the freedom to improve themselves, their circumstances, and the world itself, by their labor. They wanted the freedom to eat better, more delicious food. They wanted the freedom to not take any crap from anybody, not a soldier, not a governor, not even a king! They wanted the freedom to not have their wealth pillaged, their industry smothered, and their spirits stifled by anyone or anything on this Earth.

They risked everything for it. They suffered and endured much for it. Many died for it, and those who were left had to bury their comrades. From the common soldier to the men who signed the Declaration of Independence, from the most ordinary citizen to the President, all sorts of people from all walks of life have had to step up and bleed for the normal, mundane, everyday things that others want to take away from them.

Such is the spirit of freedom – the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – the maintenance of which requires unending vigilance, generation after generation, to break the chains that are forged even from their first link.

Happy Independence Day!

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Eren Jaeger: The Anatomy of a Devil’s Birth

I will start this with a SPOILER ALERT! If you want to be surprised by anything in this story, then you do not want to read this! Fair warning! 😉

I have a confession to make: though I was avid in my viewership of the first two seasons of Shingeki no Kyojin, or Attack on Titan, and I still love it, I stopped watching early in the third season. Reason being that it was just getting to be too much for me. Too much death, too many complications, too much intrigue in a plot that was getting far too convoluted.

That said, I’ve still stayed fairly abreast of things. I am generally aware of the overarching conflict with the Marleyans, with the tragic origins of the titans and their spine-eating ways, and with the world-shattering revelation of Eren’s incredible power to influence the past. Most pointedly, for this post, I am aware of his endgame, his ultimate goal: the absolute annihilation of his homeland’s enemies, consisting of the brutal extinction of all life beyond their island’s shores, every man, woman, and child, right down to the last, with no exceptions made anywhere for any reason. It is the terror of the Rumbling.

To accomplish this, Eren enacted a scheme of his own, a plan which gave him absolute command over an army of colossal giants that dwarf even most of the other titans. When he finally gained that power, he announced his intentions loud and clear for all of his people, his comrades, to hear. The reaction was almost universally one of horror and opposition, culminating in the uniting of those who have been both friends and enemies, to each other and to Eren himself, to stop him.

It’s easy to see why they were all so horrified. Who today would be happy if they were told that the only way to be safe is if almost everyone in the world was killed off? Who could even stay sane at the thought of going about your happy little life atop the corpses of nearly seven billion people? Soldiers and even zealots who understand the importance of killing an enemy before they kill you would reflexively shrink away from such total, absolute genocide.

It’s part of how we define being a decent human being, to not accept anything so horrific as that. Not even when it’s exactly what the rest of the world – which, Marley is, compared to the Eldians – have been trying to do to you and your people. We aren’t supposed to return evil for evil. We are supposed to be better than our enemies, not become the same and worse.

And that’s just on the side of Eren’s people. His Marleyan enemies have long since had reason to fear him. He’s gone out of his way to strike terror into their hearts before, and now he can really dish out the devastation! When terrified enemy soldiers saw his massive form looming over his army of giants, it was, for them, very much like looking at the Devil made manifest, come to claim the souls of those whose sins have forfeited them the protection of God.

Eren has become the Devil of his world.

I once heard someone say that heroes act, but villains react. I’m still trying to puzzle out the sense of that, but I think part of what it means is that heroes choose to act in the face of evil, while villains are made out of lower, petty, reflexive reactions to the unfairness of the world. A hero sees someone in trouble, sees injustice in the world, and acts to help, to make things better. A villain experiences injustices, sometimes real and sometimes imagined, and reacts at the basest of levels, to return hurt for hurt, death for death, evil for evil. “I’ll show them! I’ll show them all!”

And yet, almost everyone is the hero of their own story. So how does a story like Eren’s go so wrong? How does the initial hero of the story become its worst and final villain? How is such a devil born from the heart of a good boy?

I was actually pretty shocked when I realized how simple the equation is, and how obvious.  It’s all there for us to see, and I have to applaud the author of this work for creating something so true and simple within such layers of subtlety, parading it in front of our faces without most of us noticing it.

Mind you, this may be something of an oversimplification, and this is entirely my own perspective on it, but it only took the combination of two or three major elements, which are shown throughout the story, for Eren to become a monster.

Beginning: Eren is the Hero

He was so innocent.

Eren grew up in a place of safety and peace within the walls. He was surrounded by people who were complacent, but idolized the scouts who ventured beyond the walls to fight the man-eating giants, called titans. His was a soul that yearned for freedom, such freedom as to see all the wonders of every corner of the world. And he hated bullies. He refused to tolerate them, always fighting them, even though he almost always lost the fight unless his friend Mikasa was there.

His refusal to tolerate bullies and his desire for freedom made him brave when others were cowards, bold when others were timid, and ruthless in the face of evil. That last was shown when Mikasa’s parents were murdered by a trio of human-trafficking bandits. He happened to find the men who, right then, were going to have their way with Mikasa, just a little girl. He defended her, using his wits and a knife to kill two grown men when he was just a little kid. Even more, he inspired her to stand up and fight for herself, killing the third evil man just when he was about to kill Eren.

So, by any definition, Eren was a brave, forward-thinking – hah, the irony of that now – hero, bold and loyal and a clumsy sort of leader, the kind that blazes trails and happens to be followed by others along the way. He was beloved by his friends and family, and possessed an unconquerable spirit from a young age.

In short, he was a good boy.

Then the enemy came.

First: The Enemy Are Monsters

Everyone within the walls knew about the titans outside the walls, but for everyone except the scouts and their families, it was a safe, distant sort of knowledge. They simply could not, and would never, breach the walls, so most people were largely unconcerned about them. They had problems, but they weren’t in a war for their very survival, so far as they knew. The walls kept them safe and separate from the monsters.

Then the Colossal Titan and the Armored Titan made their debut. They shattered the outer and inner gates alike, and titans immediately flooded in, eating everyone they could get their hands on.

Eren’s mother was among the devoured dead. His home was destroyed with her still inside it. She could not escape and she could not be rescued. Eren was pulled away from her, carried on the back of a man who was a friend. He saw everything, as the titan came, picked her up out of the rubble, and lifted her towards its mouth as she screamed and cried and beat her fists against its hand in futile resistance. The giant snapped her neck as casually as a man would break the neck of a bird or a rabbit. And it swallowed her whole.

Eren saw everything. It was seared into his mind, his heart, and his soul.

The horror of the uncountable dead that day was only enhanced by those who could be counted later: the refugees who fled from the outer region of the walls into the the interior, behind another wall. With so much territory lost, the kingdom just couldn’t grow the food to feed so many mouths anymore. So over half a million people who came looking for protection were sent out to die at the hands of titans, with some bogus political posturing that couldn’t have screamed any louder, “We’re sending them to die, but we’re all going to pretend otherwise… aren’t we?”

So the enemy was a horde of man-eating monsters, the complete inhumanity of which drove humans to do inhumane things just to survive, just a little bit longer.

But for the entire series which has followed that inciting tragedy, the titans have been ever more humanized.

We saw a titan that killed other titans. We saw Eren become a titan for a time. We saw that other people can become titans at will, and these people served an enemy that existed beyond all the titans. We saw that all the titans in the world used to be human, that what they have become is something that was done to them by this greater enemy, one far more vile than titans ever were, called Marley.

At the start, humans were the victims of titans. It has now been made clear that titans are, in fact, the victims of humans. Human hatred. Human intolerance. Human greed.

The first titan.

Right from the beginning, the titans were forced to obey the will of a human king, who shoved onto his own descendants the burden of monstrosity. The first who had the power to be a titan was a woman, now called the Founder, and the king used her without limit even while thinking nothing at all of her. Neither did he hesitate, when she died, to enslave her very soul, to have their three daughters eat their own mother’s spine. This was the origin of those compulsions which have tormented them and their victims ever since: going into war, and eating people. All for the sake of power and conquest.

It worked, for a time, but not for long. The king’s vision of invincible, gigantic warriors, the Eldians, was fulfilled, but he underestimated the response of the rest of humanity, who eventually coalesced under the banner of Marley.

However, the Marleyans are not “good” just because their enemy was once terrifying. They didn’t just defeat the Eldians. They shoved the Eldians under their heels and took control of the titans’ power. Those who were not driven out of Marleyan society, to hide behind the walls of Paradis, were forced into the slums, and they’ve been preyed on for sport ever since. They’ve been tortured and murdered for fun, their youth exploited by a greedy, grasping military, and their people turned into the titans which infest Paradis. And still the Marleyans seek nothing less than a complete and absolute Eldian genocide.

This, despite every reasonably mitigating factor: the passage of thousands of years, the innocence and submission of those Eldians who are alive under Marley’s heel, the pacifism of the coward king who took his people to hide behind the walls, the ignorance of those within the walls, and more. The Marleyans are cruel for their own amusement, tell themselves lies as propaganda, and will never give peace a chance. They are an entire people that actively seeks genocide, murders innocent little girls while wearing a kindly smile, and sleeps well at night.

They are directly responsible, in every possible way, for the death of Eren’s mother, which they wouldn’t care about anyway because she was Eldian.

The enemy are indeed all monsters, and it’s only made worse for how they’re still human.

Marleyans: the real monsters.

Second: Cast Your Humanity Aside

“Those who aren’t willing to sacrifice everything will never be able to change anything.”

That is a comment made by Armin, if I recall correctly. Poetic then, that he is the first one to balk at Eren’s use of the Rumbling against civilians as well as military targets, but I digress.

The general meaning is that, in order to achieve an objective, you have to make sacrifices. Sometimes you must even sacrifice your own humanity.

Accomplishing a mission involves soldiers sacrificing their lives, and their commander knowingly leading them towards death. Even more, the endless, apocalyptic war they’ve been fighting demands that humans get sneaky, hit below the belt, so to speak, and do things that others would quail at doing.

There’s no time for being nice, civilized, and orderly when the end of the world is at stake.

To evacuate a town, Mikasa has to strike down the self-important ego of a greedy merchant.

To stop the bandits who murdered Mikasa’s parents and were going to use her as they saw fit, Eren and Mikasa had to kill them without hesitation, pity, or mercy.

Commander Erwin. The Devil’s teacher.

To capture an enemy, Commander Erwin and his subordinates have to sneak, lie, set traps, use their comrades as pawns and let them die, put their own bodies on the line, stand against the military police, and even bring trouble straight into the heart of their society, leaving dozens of dead civilians in their wake, all for very little obvious gain.

To keep everyone fed, the government had to send hundreds of thousands of their own people to die horribly.

To gain the power to strike down an overwhelming and relentless enemy, Eren had to become responsible for more than one travesty, including the deaths of children.

Is it any surprise he did so, with lessons such as these drilled into him? How many times did he see his leaders and friends sully their hands, not in the slightest bit refraining from low-down, dirty tricks which earned them the hatred of everyone bound by the status quo? It’s the only way anything ever got done. That’s the only reason they ever made any forward progress in the war. It’s how they discovered the truth of Marley after their people had been made to forget.

Yet, for espousing this ideal so much, the story often shows the peril of it. When humans let go of their humanity, after all, that’s when they become monsters, lacking that most basic element of humanity: compassion.

That merchant Mikasa threatened? He prioritized what was important for his own benefit over the lives of his people. It’s not so dissimilar to Commander Erwin prioritizing his own agenda over the lives of soldiers and civilians alike. Much like the local monarchy destroying anyone it wants to, for its own interests.

To forfeit one’s humanity is to forfeit basic compassion for others and even for ourselves. That’s how people are able to betray and abandon each other when the titans come calling. That’s how an entire swathe of a population could be sent to die, just to relieve the burden of a strained food supply. That’s how tyrants violently suppressed dissent and murdered anyone who happened to be the slightest bit inconvenient to them, ignoring how their entire kingdom was already a sinking ship. And that is is how Marleyans committed atrocities against innocent Eldians for centuries.

That is how Eren was able to do every despicable thing that was necessary to further his goal. Which brings me to the final point.

Third: Eren’s Unyielding Resolve

He said it, and he meant it.

Eren has had  two particular desires which have dominated his character: to be free, and to wipe out the titans.

Initially, both of these were presented in a one-sided light, but, by this point, Attack on Titan ought to be famous for twisting that around.

Freedom was Eren’s first desire, before atrocity fell upon his family. That’s why he idolized the scouts so much. He and Armin read of things in books, wonders of the world they couldn’t comprehend at the time. The endless blue waves of the sea. Regions entirely covered in ice, where lights danced in the sky. Brutal lands of burning sands. They read about these, and wanted to know them, to see them, to experience and touch them!

Eren never liked being confined in the walls. He never liked how people were able to just go about their everyday lives without ever leaving, without moving around, going out there and seeing the world. And he never liked when one person chained another, not even in something as simple and mundane as neighborhood bullying. People weren’t meant to live beneath others, stuck in walls they could never leave. Freedom was his North Star.

How many times has the story talked about such freedom while showing the terrible cost of it? The brutal reality of humanity’s subjugation, and especially Eldian subjugation, has been on flagrant, bloody display for years now. When Eren rises from a stupor to carry a boulder, he is accepting a huge burden that threatens to crush him. All around him, the scouts are screaming and dying in his defense as he tries to bar the gates and stem the slaughter. He is driven by a need to be free, as everyone has the right to be, and it is for this that people are dying. It is an incredibly powerful, moving scene.

The reward for such is shown much later, when Eren and the scouts finally make it to the sea. And they just stand there, absorbing the wonder that was there all along, but which they have only now been able to obtain, at great cost. After all the horror and loss, they have at last inched closer to freedom.

Right to the end, it remains one of Eren’s most defining aspects. That is how he gains the power to kill all of his enemies, the power of the Founder, in the first place: by offering freedom to a soul crushed eternally under a limitless burden which was unjustly shoved onto her thousands of years ago.

Freedom unleashed the Rumbling.

How often does the Devil promise freedom and deliver destruction?

Her humanity was finally acknowledged by ONE person.

So, even with Eren’s best and most noble motivation, there are two sides, and there is no escaping that horror. However, Eren’s all-consuming wrath is much, much worse.

Of course we applauded, as we were meant to, when Eren pledged to kill the titans, to wipe them entirely from the world. He was both mocked and admired for it, but he always held true to it. And why not? They killed his mother, and so many other people, and were a terrifying threat to everyone who remained. How could a desire to kill them all be anything but good, anything but beneficial to humanity?

However, what Eren was pledging to destroy wasn’t simply a bunch of giants. He wanted to destroy everything that killed his mother. When he learned the truth of things, that the titans are victims, that it was Marley all along, a nation full of monstrous humans, his resolve did not die. All that happened was a mere shifting of targets, from one that could eventually be cut down, one by one, to one that was just way too big to do anything less than crush them all, the entire lot of them, in massive numbers.

Others sought peace. Some sought to hide safe behind walls and armies, and kept trying to hide no matter how many times they failed. Others sought to serve, giving their lives for Marley while not even having the resolve to stand up for their own oppressed people. Even when the Rumbling got underway, there were people who tried to say that they could just limit the destruction to Marley’s military, ignoring the vast mass of humanity behind them who, having already been indoctrinated to hate Eldians, would undoubtedly find some way to strike back as soon as possible.

But, really, all of them do so simply because they quail at the thought of such a massive slaughter. For all that they’ve talked about sacrificing anything and everything, the only one to actually possess the resolve to do so is Eren Jaeger. Because he, alone, is still driven by the insane need to “wipe them all out, every last one of them.” That is how he is strong, and how he is weak.

His comrades are unable to carry out the Rumbling, or tolerate the totality of it, because their resolve is weak.

Eren himself is able to enact the Rumbling because he is weak, his mind and heart broken.

Deep down, in his heart of hearts, Eren is simply a boy who was driven mad by the sight of his mother’s awful murder.

Seared into his mind, his heart, his very soul.

The Rumbling truly began, the first spark given to its ignition, the moment he was made to see her die.

The Equation:

Enemies which are truly monstrous
The need to sacrifice anything to defeat them
The resolve to get it done
Total Genocide

To pursue the annihilation of another people is to invite it onto your own. Or, in other words… karma’s a bitch, Marley!

Thus was born, quite simply, the Marleyans’ personal Devil, Eren Jaeger, the Attack Titan. “Shingeki no Kyojin.”

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The Pure, Beautiful Delight of “Ya Boy Kongming!”

The first season of this anime just ended, and I. WANT. MORE. 🙂

The premise is one of those that, at first glance, it ought to have simply put me off, ya know? I mean, how ridiculous of a concept is it? A famous Chinese general of centuries past is, at the moment of his death, transported into modern-day Japan, whereupon he becomes the manager – or, rather, the “tactician” – of a promising young musician, using his many devious tactics to support her in her dreams of success as she competes with various other musicians for the favor of their audience. It’s a ridiculous, I say! Absolutely RIDICULOUS!

and yet!

I found myself enjoying, appreciating, and even loving it!

…you would think, by now, that I would have become accustomed to being surprised by titles which, at first glance, one would think I wouldn’t like, but which prove themselves to be charming, enchanting, and even endearing. Spice and WolfSnow White with the Red HairAh My GoddessSilver SpoonMy Dress-Up Darling, and now Ya Boy Kongming! All of them, anime that I would not have expected to love so much, but I most certainly do! Oh, well. If nothing else, I can egotistically proclaim my own obvious wisdom in always giving anything at least one fair chance, per my one-episode rule. Mwahahah. 😉

Ya Boy Kongming starts by following its titular protagonist, Kongming, but the spotlight does not stay on him. He arrives in and adjusts to the modern era, becomes enchanted by the heartfelt singing of a girl named Eiko, and pledges his services to help her dreams come true. Those dreams are to make it big in the music business, that her voice might help to save someone, the same as she was saved by another musician at a low point in her life. Kongming’s devious schemes and tactics are adapted surprisingly well to the business of musical performances, yet he is but a humble guide. It’s Eiko who is truly the driving force of this anime. She puts in the work, and shines brilliantly as she bares her heart and soul on the stage. Hers is a liberating, uplifting, wholesome influence, and this first season of the show could easily be called her origin story: the who, the where, the how, and the why of her entrance into professional show biz, and the chronicling of her early triumphs.

Eiko’s triumphs do include singing before large crowds of people who enjoy her work, but a good amount of time is spent on her efforts to improve herself and her craft. She’s not alone in this, as Kongming recruits a partner of sorts for her in the form of a rapper, a young man who goes by Kabetaijin. Both of these promising artists are nurtured by Kongming’s influence, and they both dig deep to develop themselves, and to rise to the challenges presented to them. But most of all, and best of all, is when their work touches the hearts of those around them. That is the point of it all, of all this music that they make, not just to make money and stand in the spotlight for awhile, but to help those souls that are lost be found again.

This may sound presumptuous of me, but that, right there, is my idea of what is beautiful. Beauty, as I see it, is a force which uplifts the soul itself, and I find it here, in this anime. This is a big part of why I am craving for more.

Speaking of more physical kinds of beauty, I have to say, this anime is exceptionally well-crafted. The visual design and personal style of each of the characters speaks to who they, are. The animation is top notch, fluid and appealing without trying too hard, and without any obvious reliance on cheap tricks like CGI. It’s tricky making animated characters look appealing when they’re dancing, to make them look alive instead of robotic, but the style of Kongming pulls it off nicely, and that is no small thing. One could even say that every movement is part of expression of who they are and the journeys each of them is taking, such as when Kongming draws the rapper Kabetaijin up onto the stage, it’s clearly a powerful moment for the younger man. Every visual aspect of this show is, quite simply, excellent.

And the music! Oh, the music! I don’t know if there’s any English dub out yet, but whether there is or isn’t or ever will be, my most singular hope is, quite simply: do not ruin the soundtrack!

Yes, it might get a little tiresome when they have Eiko sing the same song so many times, but, even so, this is still a fantastic soundtrack, made all the more potent for how it does what stories are supposed to do, most of all: show us the characters in their defining moments, and show us how they grow. The characters are what truly drive the show. The visuals and audio design are the vehicle. And what a vehicle it is!

His tactics plus her music equals a great time.

Speaking of, I have to wonder at the exact knowledge base of the people behind this anime. One moment, they’re referring to Kongming’s previous military strategies, and the next, they’re talking about the nuances of live musical performances. There is actually a great deal of thought, planning, and effort that goes into every aspect of stagecraft and the entertainment industry, so it actually feels natural for a renowned general to excel at such. There are ins and outs of music as an artistic form of expression, as a trade and craft, and as a financial business venture which are discussed and displayed with an intriguing amount of insight. And that, too, serves the story and the characters as it delves into the theme of every entertainer’s struggle to succeed, to become more than they were before, without losing themselves in the process.

I particularly like how the antagonist of the story is basically a dark version of Kongming, one who runs his music stars like a tyrannical general. Under him, he commands a trio of talented girls whose dreams for success swallowed them up into a darkness which they need help to climb out of. And that is the importance of Eiko’s work, her journey, and how her success is found in polishing, rather than changing, herself so she shines all the brighter.

About the only thing I might have changed, besides adding another dozen or so episodes, is having some scene where Eiko and Kabetaijin are performing for the audience together. I really like the two  of them, and they could definitely make any crowd go wild. But, well, I suppose I’ll just have to hope they do that in the second season I am hoping for! 😉

“Come! Join us for a second season!”

In summary: we have an anime with lovable, interesting characters, powerful themes, wonderful music, awesome animation, a demonstrated knowledge both of Kongming’s military strategies and the modern music business, and a well-considered plot, all coming together to create something uplifting, something beautiful.

Yeah, I really like this show.

And I really want more! 🙂

Rating: 9 stars out of 10.

Grade: a solid A.

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Sunday’s Wisdom #397: Food vs Gold

“Food’s worth more than gold.”
– Bronn, Game of Thrones
Season 2, Episode 8, “The Prince of Winterfell”

Bronn says this as he explaining to his superiors why he and his men rounded up all the known thieves of the city. He knows that a city under siege is a city that gets hungry, and he wanted to prevent the city’s thieves from stealing all the food for themselves, and for the fortunes that others would pay them for it – diamonds in exchange for potatoes – while the poor starved and ate each other. That’s the contextual meaning of this, but it touches something much more profound.

The value of food and water is found in the life it sustains. The value of a house is found in the shelter and comfort it provides. The value of plumbing is found in the water it delivers. The value of a sewage system is found in cleanliness, hygiene, and the prevention of various terrible illnesses. Indeed, the value of almost everything is found in what it can do for a person.

The value of money is found in how much of everything else it can be exchanged for.

People covet it so much, but what they grasp for so hard is only worth anything when they let go of it. Money alone, on its own, is perfectly and completely worthless.

I’ll always remember a scene from One Piece, where two people are trapped on a small island with no food. They have a pile of gold and jewels, but all that is utterly worthless in the face of their starvation.

A man with money and nothing else will soon starve, while a man with food and nothing else may survive and even get fat. And who will other hungry people do business with first? Which of them has the truly greater wealth?

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Vegeta: Redeeming a Villain. Or, How to Make Everyone Forget He Slaughtered Planets for Fun

Vegeta. A proud Saiyan prince. One of the greatest and most powerful warriors in all the universes. Antihero. Bad boy. Tough guy. Redeemed villain.

If there is one thing that people like more than a hero, and even more than a villain, it’s a villain who becomes a hero.

It’s no great wonder why that is, of course. It’s nice to keep such entertaining figures around instead of killing them off. It’s interesting and inspires hope to watch them transform and become better people. And, as Jim Butcher once pointed out via his most famous character, Harry Dresden, it is incredibly reassuring to have something which once frightened you suddenly be on your side. A threat becomes a protection, like the ravenous wolves that ancient humans turned into man’s best friend.

In all of fiction, there are few more singularly iconic villains-turned-hero than Vegeta, of the exceptionally long-running Dragonball franchise. His popularity caught even his creator by complete, baffled surprise, and after several decades of exposure, Vegeta’s place in fandom’s hall of fame is undoubtedly secure. The girls want him, and the boys want to be him.

…which is kind of messed up, when you think about it.

I mean, yes, he turns over a new leaf, becomes a member of the main cast, becomes a hero, defends Earth and the universe and such. And, yes, he exudes raw, aggressive masculinity, proud and violent, which, say what you will about women, they like strong, powerful, handsome men. But somewhere along the way, it would seem that everyone, both the characters within the story and the audience experiencing it, managed to forget how genuinely villainous, how truly evil, Vegeta really was.

The man slaughtered an entire planet for fun.

He stopped there, on the planet Arlia, on a lark. He got to know the locals just enough to see they were under the rule of a tyrant, deposed said tyrant, and received the praise and thanks of a liberated people. Then he simply killed them all with a wave of his hand. All for a little bit of amusement. And, just to rub it in, the moment of planetary destruction came just as a pair of star-crossed lovers, separated by the tyrant in question, finally held each other once again. And they all lived happily ever after… for one millisecond. Then they died. All of them. Wiped out. Extinct. Murdered on a whim.

I’m sorry, but that’s at least as bad as any other villain in the story, or in any story. At least when Frieza destroyed Vegeta’s planet and race, he was trying to maintain his regime by mowing down a population of powerful, violent upstarts who were anything but innocent. But it would seem that the devastation of planets and populations in general is something that they just don’t worry about in that universe, given the later introduction of Beerus, and the even later tournament wherein entire universes were wiped out without a trace. It has become something that people can overlook and completely forget about, just as long as it doesn’t happen to them.

That’s pretty twisted for a bunch of otherwise-saintly heroes.

Dragonball in general seems to make a habit of having bad guys become good guys, and nobody has any problems with what they did before. Yamcha was a bandit in the desert. Tien and Chiaotzu were cruel, brutal bullies in the service of a petty master. Piccolo was a murderous, would-be despot. The android siblings 17 and 18 would have destroyed the entire human race if left to their own devices. Each of these soon found a place among Earth’s most stalwart defenders. Even Frieza, whose evil is never forgotten, becomes a comrade for a time when the fate of the universe is at stake. Time and time again, the franchise takes its most cruel, long-running villains and turns them into nice guys. And everyone just accepts it.

Neither is this remotely limited to Dragonball, or to anime! There are such famed examples as Spike and Faith from Buffy and Angel, Adalind Schade from Grimm, Aeryn Sun from FarScape, Teal’c and Tomin, Inigo and Fezzik (remember, they were going to murder a girl and start a war?), Zuko, Catra, Loki, Magneto, Emma Frost, Regina Mills, Crowley, even Darth Vader (albeit only at the end), and most of the cast from The Vampire Diaries and The Originals. All of these villains and more, like Hiei from Yu-Yu Hakusho, like Anubis from Ronin Warriors, like Pixie from Monster Rancher, and like Vegeta, went about doing evil, raining hell on the heroes, leaving bodies behind them, and nearly destroying the world… and nobody has an issue with this once they join the good guys. In fact, we love it! We love it, and we love them!

“Everyone forgot we were bad guys.”

How? How is this done? How do you take someone who did so much bad, and make everyone forget about it?

How do you redeem a villain so thoroughly as that?

Well, it’s actually not that complicated. Indeed, from what I can see, the formula is bizarrely simple.

Mind you, the points I’m about to go over are not remotely set in stone. There is a great deal of flexibility to be found in how one does this. They don’t even need to be set in this exact order. This is less of a road map and more a set of very general guidelines, like a tourist guide. Every storyteller is perfectly free to tinker with them, in fact I encourage it! 😉

Step One: Establish Their Villainy


Not only is being a villain intrinsic to becoming a redeemed villain, but the audience needs to see them that way, to understand what makes them a villain in the first place.

Zuko served the Fire Nation and was the first character we saw pursuing the Avatar and his friends all around the world, trampling everyone in his path. Catra led troops against peaceful villages, and her madness nearly wiped out the entire planet, which was only stopped by the sacrifice of the mother of one of the heroes. Adalind Schade tormented and tried to kill both the hero and those around him, beginning with his elderly aunt. Spike, Faith, Klaus and every vampire around him, they all left blood-soaked wakes behind them. Loki schemed and murdered for power. Teal’c and Tomin both served unworthy masters and slaughtered many innocents, as did Aeryn Sun.

As for Vegeta, I refer you to his stop on Arlia, that planet I mentioned him destroying for fun. Anime villains can be especially cruel, but neither Hiei nor Anubis destroyed an entire planet just for kicks and giggles. Neither did Hiei ever once turn on an ally, which Vegeta did several times, first when he killed Nappa, his last remaining Saiyan comrade, and then when he turned against Frieza’s army and killed those who once called him a friend, and then yet again when he so desperately wanted a rematch with his rival, Goku.

Vegeta came from a bloodthirsty race and was always proud of it. He very much went the extra mile to live up to that legacy.

Step Two: Make Them Interesting

This is just part of good storytelling: the characters must be interesting. Especially in a cinematic format, this is what keeps the audience most entertained and invested in the outcome. However, it’s even more important when it comes to redeeming a villain, because once their villainy has been established, we need a reason to care about what else they do and what happens to them.

This is easily the most flexible part of the recipe, as the ingredients of interest can be added at any time during the villain’s journey. However, they are also the most important, and need to be added constantly. If they’re not interesting, then the audience will… well… lose interest.

There are any number of tricks and tropes that further this in specifically a positive manner, rather than one that just makes us hate them even more. To just mention a handful:

Charisma and Humor
Because these are naturally attractive forces in any human. They speak to wit and force of will both, to the virtues that make us gravitate to leaders and appreciate any presentation. Who can ever forget Loki, both when he is loud, a’la, “I am Loki! Of Asgard!” and when he is quietly mocking, “Are you ever not going to fall for that?” And let’s not forget the rhyming jokes which first endeared Fezzik and Inigo to us! “Anybody want a peanut?”

Vegeta might not be especially charming, being not at all interested in subserviently ingratiating himself with others. But that, itself, adds to his masculine charisma: he does what he wants without caring what others think of him for it. He speaks with will and acts without restraint. He might not have much sense of humor, but, well… he is still the center of a good deal of humor, isn’t he?

Again, this is generally more entertaining to see, especially as the hero must often figure out the villain’s weaknesses in order to triumph. But as for redeeming a villain, change comes most naturally for humans when we come up against something that we can’t simply go straight through. A limit to our power, our strength, our arsenal, our precision, something that requires adaptation and evolution. Zuko is a fantastic example of this, not only because he loses a lot early on and throughout the entire series, but because he demonstrates courage, tenacity, cleverness, and even humility, which humanize him and make us like him. Heck, he’s an exiled prince out to reclaim his honor, which gives him both a quest and a limit that can hardly be defined.

Dragonball Z and successive additions to the franchise tend to rely most on brute strength and power, losing much of the subtle artistry of martial arts as is found, albeit in an exaggerated form, in the original Dragonball. Thus, the limits which Vegeta and other characters face are largely those of raw power. Their enemies simply possess so much devastating, destructive power that the only way to keep up is endless, exhaustive training. There are only a few times where plans and strategies using the materials at hand actually come into play. Still, once Vegeta, who is introduced as this mega-powerful bad guy, is driven to his limits, well, from then on, he is right there alongside the rest, forever coming up against that wall, and forever pushing against it.

Cunning Schemes
Those limits and wits come into play here, especially. For most characters, limits are something that one has to use one’s wits to compensate for, and we get to see how they really think and feel. There is something very satisfying on a primal level when we see anyone overcome something with the use of their brain. We weren’t always at the top of the food chain, after all, and overcoming something that seems invincible is always a rush, even when it’s a diabolical villain doing the scheming, because that just makes them all the more dangerous to the heroes. That’s how Adalind was such a fearsome foe even after she lost her witchy powers, let alone when she got them back!

I’m always going to remember when we saw Vegeta scheming against Frieza in their race for the dragonballs on the planet Namek. There’s not much scheming that goes on in the franchise, really, but that was a most entertaining exception. First he snatched one dragonball and hid it in a very simple place where no one else would think to look, and which required a piece of specialized technology to locate. So long as he could keep one, after all, he would hold an advantage. Then he infiltrated Frieza’s ship in a manner which no one suspected, found five more dragonballs, and caused a careful distraction which bought him just enough time to steal all of them and make his escape. Then he found the seventh, and almost won the entire contest right there and then, if not for a few mitigating factors. Time and again, he proved to be one of the smartest characters. Which, goes into the next point.

Badass With a Point
If you’re going to have a character with a brain, they’d better be using it. The beauty of intelligent villains is that they can contrast with the hero’s point of view, offering a perspective that the hero may have never considered before. And for a villain-turned-hero, they can complete or even, in the eyes of fans, surpass the hero’s viewpoint, making them all the more easily beloved. Spike, for instance, had one the sharpest wits in fiction, and in every argument he ever had with anyone, he always had a point which he could verbalize perfectly. Poetic, for a guy named Spike.

Goku and the heroes are… well… idealistic. To put it very mildly. Goku is so innocent and naive even as an adult that it’s honestly annoying. His insistence to not kill gets almost unbearable at times. Cue Vegeta and his brutal zeal for bloodshed. He takes far too much pleasure in it – witness: destroyed a planet full of innocents for fun – but he also has a point when he defends the choice to kill their enemies. What if they returned? What if they gained some advantage? What if they took Goku’s son hostage? Goku thinks of none of this, enjoying the fight and even the drama every bit as much as Vegeta, only without the death. That is, except for those villains who won’t be stopped any other way. Which is Vegeta’s entire point, that they have to stop their foes permanently, and it is a valid one.

Connection to the Hero
This is an obvious and pervasive trope. It creates an automatic personal stake in any conflict, enhancing both the tragedy when a villain dies and the joy when they are redeemed instead. Faith is automatically connected to Buffy as both are Slayers, Catra is childhood comrades with Adora and obsessed with her, and who can ever forget, after killing his mentor and supposedly killing his father, the moment with Darth Vader says to Luke Skywalker, “I am your father!”

Goku and Vegeta are the last two full-blooded Saiyans of note in their universe. The rest are either destroyed along with their planet, exiled somewhere far from their enemies for being too weak, or killed in battle on Earth, as with Nappa and Raditz. They are effectively the last survivors of their planet and their race, which makes for an inherent, immediate, and powerful connection, one which comes to define both of them as enemies, rivals, and friends. It’s really the first thing we ever knew about Vegeta, before we even knew his name.

Make Them Hot
I mean… duh! Humans can be petty, shallow creatures, ready to forgive far too much if the object of their forgiveness is hot as hell, exuding power and confidence, the things we crave on subconscious, animalistic level. And out of everyone I’ve mentioned thus far – with the exception of Darth Vader – I think we can agree that they are designed to be quite attractive.

Vegeta being quite definitely and definitively not an exception to the rule!

Step Three: Confrontation

To emphasize again: this is not a process that is written in stone. Many villains are introduced as evil, confronted, and then made more interesting as a means of fleshing them out and showing how they are redeemed. However, it is an absolute: the hero must, at some point, face the villain, and one or the other must be defeated. For a villain that is later redeemed, however, there are at least two key points to keep in mind: how powerful they are and how they are defeated.

Comparable Power
Victory can’t be impossible, but it can’t be too easy either. Easy is boring. The hero and villain must be a match for each other. Magneto and Professor X are both powerful, albeit in separate ways, and Emma Frost is absolutely the Professor’s match in telepathic strength. Faith has the same Slayer strength and resilience as Buffy. Hiei and Anubis both start out, in their respective anime, as being notably stronger than their respective foes, making for a huge upset when they lose.

Vegeta follows that last pattern most closely. Not only does Goku require intense training to match him, but doing so still pushes him to within an inch of his life. And all this after Vegeta had gone a few rounds with Goku’s friends. Heck, if I recall correctly, Goku actually needed his son Gohan to step up towards the end, because he just couldn’t quite do it all himself. It was only in later years that Goku became truly stronger than Vegeta, and Vegeta was never truly very far behind!

Defeat Without Killing
This may be the trickiest part of any confrontation, let alone one that has such life-altering significance. When the hero wins – if the hero wins, because they don’t always – it can be a tightrope walk to avoid killing off the villain so that they can be redeemed later. Sometimes it isn’t even deliberate. Buffy did her best to kill Faith, to feed her blood to Angel, and that was before Faith threw herself off a building and into the back of a moving truck, to deny her the prize. It was just sheer Slayer tenacity which kept her alive long enough for a hospital to get her on life support, and she still lingered for months in a coma. And Klaus Mikaelson talked his way out of death by the very skin of his teeth on The Vampire Diaries, second season finale, when he was surprised by a collection of brutal enemies who had no qualms with killing him.

Vegeta’s continued life, however, was a very deliberate choice. He was quite nearly dead, lacking the strength to do more than drag himself into his ship and flee Earth with his life. But there was one warrior of Earth left standing: Krillin, able to stand and wield a sword. He could have finished Vegeta off right then and there, with no further fanfare. But Goku pleaded for his life, as he was the only other living Saiyan. The connection between hero and villain came into play at a pivotal moment, and it altered the course of the universe’s fate.

Step Four: A New Quest

So, once the villain has been introduced, made interesting, and defeated without being killed, there is the obvious question: what comes next? Well, if they keep being evil, then they just move on to the next scheme, the next evil thing they do. If they are to be redeemed, on the other hand, then their path eventually needs to pass through a few necessary stops. Not necessarily in any particular order, mind you, but, still, they pass through them.

A Greater Evil
Naturally, for the villain to join the heroes, there must be something for them to unite against. A mightier force, a deadlier foe, a greater evil against which neither can prevail alone. Often, these are their former masters, as in the cases of Teal’c, Tomin, Zuko, Pixie, and Anubis. Sometimes they are outside forces that are simply much more terrible than themselves, much as the Mikaelsons both are, when introduced, and face, including Silas, the Hollow, and their own relatives. Inigo and Fezzik became heroes because they needed their former foe’s help to get revenge for Inigo’s father, so they helped rescue a princess in exchange.

Vegeta gets both. Not only is Frieza a great tyrant whom Vegeta once obeyed, but successive villains seem to come from nowhere, including the Androids, Cell, Majin Buu, and more.

Brought Low
I believe I already mentioned a few times how change comes in response to hardship. A villain’s redemption is no exception. In order for them to be turned from their darker path onto a better one, they need a reason to change course. Facing a greater evil goes a long way towards that, as does their defeat at the hero’s hands, but there’s more.

They might be brought low in humility. They might face the futility of their previous existence up to this point, or suddenly feel the weight of their sins falling onto their heads. The latter is much more the case for Teal’c, Tomin, and Aeryn Sun, two of which joined the heroes early in their respective shows and came face to face with their previous sins later on. Faith and Regina Mills both had to suffer for the sins we saw them commit in order to be redeemed. As for facing futility, Crowley becomes the King of Hell and even enslaves Lucifer himself, only to be deposed and then rise again and be brought low and rise again, in a cycle that proves exhausting to his spirit.

Humility is not exactly Vegeta’s cup of tea. He doesn’t exactly feel guilt for anything he’s ever done, but there are moments where we see him reflect on how he has been so utterly surpassed by Goku, and then by Gohan.

And then there’s how it might truly not be entirely their fault. I’ll always remember how Goku said that while burying Vegeta’s fresh corpse. He was revived with the dragonballs, but it was a gesture of respect and sympathy towards a foe whose evil path was not entirely his own responsibility. He was raised to it by his people and driven to it by his master. He never had a chance, really. Not until he was defeated, spared, and his ambitions to overthrow Frieza were ignited.

There is a certain measure of forgiveness to be found in that. Zuko was a product of his family, as was Regina. Magneto was driven by the horror of being a Jew in Auschwitz. Tomin was indoctrinated from a young age, alongside his entire people. Teal’c was aware of his master’s evil, but knew nothing else he could do but slightly temper their fury, to spare an unknowing handful of innocents here and there. Anubis and others were literally controlled within their own minds. Speaking of, the journeys of these various characters brings me to…

Human Development
This is where the villain truly begins to shine as a human as well as a hero. They really change, to leave behind “evil,” though they remain “dangerous” to the very end. Zuko is my favorite example here, with one of the best, most wayward journeys from despicable villain to honorable hero in fiction, through all the mistakes he made. Klaus and Adalind both become protagonists when they gain daughters that they are driven to protect. Teal’c gains friends and experience on planet Earth. Hiei becomes comrades with his former enemies.

And Vegeta? Well, he, himself, comments on how he realizes that he’s settled down, married Bulma, and had a son named Trunks. He became less prone to instantaneous violence and casual murder. He began to live for something other than his pride. And that brings us to the final step.

Step Five: The End…?

Every story and every journey has an end. Hollywood would very much like to avoid such as long as they can make money off it, but, sooner or later, one must always say goodbye. Everything comes to a head, and here, at the ending, hero and villain and redeemed villain alike can all go the way of the dodo. And, really, what better seal could be put on a villain’s redemption than to give everything they have, even their life, to see it through?

Zuko almost dies to save Kitara’s life. Faith eventually turns herself in to police custody and confesses her murders, and then almost dies to save Angel. Aeryn Sun almost dies several times. Teal’c is ready to give his life to atone in one of the earlier episodes of the series, and that’s just the beginning of his journey. Klaus eventually dies to see his redemption through to the end, to protect his daughter. Crowley ultimately sacrifices himself to stop a terrifying enemy, as does his mother, Rowena. Darth Vader is defeated, then saves his son at the cost of his own life. Anubis dies to save Lady Kayura, the last living relative of the Ancient One who rescued him from the darkness. Inigo almost dies for his revenge.

Vegeta, being a warrior in Dragonball Z, gets to die multiple times for his redemption. First he’s killed in battle by Frieza, purchasing time for Goku to heal and return to the fight. He gets brought back, and years pass before his redemption becomes complete. He walks a darker path again, for a moment, but then turns round again and gives his life in an attempt to stop Majin Buu. He’s brought back again, in time, but his transformation from bad guy to good guy is finally completed.

…which, goes into the next part. For those who sacrifice and then are brought back from the beyond, what is next?

Faith gets out of prison, eventually, survives the process of saving Angel, and stands with Buffy as a true comrade against the First Evil, becoming one of the main cast members at the last moment.
Zuko does much the same, surviving and becoming a lifelong friend to the heroes, and the lord of his nation.
Inigo and Fezzik get what they’re after, rescue their allies, and escape.
Teal’c devotes his life to safeguarding the galaxy and building a free nation for his people.
Tomin leads his people in peace and liberty.
Spike also dies and comes back after a great transformation of himself, and he joins the eternal fight against evil.
Magneto and Emma Frost both join the X-Men as steadfast allies.
Loki… has a very confusing ending that both has and hasn’t actually happened, but he basically becomes a hero who gives his life and doesn’t.
The Mikaelsons and their counterparts on The Vampire Diaries either die or live in peace as humans until they eventually die.
Adalind raises in peace the children she had with her former enemies.
Darth Vader finds peace in death as Anakin Skywalker.
Aeryn Sun stands by her husband to raise their son in peace.
Regina Mills outlives many of her friends and keeps saving her son.
Catra sacrifices herself to save a former foe, and then is rescued, coming to be one of the family of heroes and the love interest of Adora.
The Androids find peace, one of them having a family with Krillin and the other protecting animals on an island.
Hiei lives a long life, watching over his sister from afar, watching over the effort to keep demons from causing mischief in the human world ever again.

And Vegeta? Well, he raises his children alongside his wife, defending them all and saving the universe.

In short, after a long journey through the dark, the redeemed villain’s story, like the hero’s, may end sadly, but also triumphantly.

And they all lived happily ever after.

Past sins and destroyed planets forgiven and completely forgotten.

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Sunday’s Wisdom #396: A Father’s Guardianship

You can’t let a young’n decide for himself. He’ll grab at the first flashy thing with shiny ribbons on it. Then, when he finds out there’s a hook in it, it’s too late. Wrong ideas come packaged with so much glitter that it’s hard to convince ‘em that other things might be better in the long run. All a parent can do is say ‘wait’ and ‘trust me’ and try to keep temptation away.”
– Andy Taylor, The Andy Griffith Show

I must confess that I am pulling this quote from a post on Facebook. I haven’t seen enough of The Andy Griffith Show to know exactly what episode this is from, but it speaks clearly to my heart, and is perfectly fit to share for Father’s Day.

From what I understand, Andy Taylor is saying this to a hobo or something like that when the latter asserts that he should let his young son, Opie, decide everything for himself. To be clear, Opie is something like ten years old, and certainly not even a teenager yet. Mind you, in those days, there tended to be much greater expectations for a youth, back before we locked them in schools, said they were too young to work, and handed them everything, including allowance they didn’t earn. Even so, a child is still a child, with innocence that should be protected and ignorance that must be gradually enlightened. Many children have had to grow up too fast, but, even then, there are burdens that they simply cannot carry with an adult’s strength. For one thing, in their inexperience, they tend to go for the first thing that even slightly appeals to them, completely unaware of how it could hurt them. Thus, the role of a mother and father, to restrain them from those things that they do not know would do them harm.

I know that nobody is perfect, and no single parenting style fits every kid, but let’s be honest: children have way too much power in our society today. They get so much leeway for behaviors that would have gotten the children of previous generations practically punted across the lawn, and, as a result, they have little respect for the experience of their elders, and they dive headlong into dangerous waters filled with predators. More than any generation before them, I would say, thanks to the technology which surrounds us. They have these shiny phones that connect them to the world at large, with everything that looks so scintillating and pleasurable, but veils a host of very real dangers the likes of which come out of parents’ nightmares.

Social media connects everyone to their friends, yay! It also connects them to bullies who don’t think twice about leaving diatribes of the most vicious nature plunged like daggers into the flesh of the soul, for any cause, any reason, or not even needing a reason.

The internet connects people looking for love, yay! It also opens the door to stalkers and predators of the most vile sort, spinning honeyed webs of words to ensnare unwitting children.

You can buy all the latest cool toys and gadgets and must-haves that you did not need before but do need NOW! And, also, every one of humanity’s filthiest, most twisted fantasies is for sale, and someone is telling you that you have a human need for it despite having never experienced it in any way, shape, or form before now.

You can build a worldwide network of like-minded friends to do good, share ideas, help people, and work to make the world a better place! Oh, and the ever-grinding machine of media which is vomiting out truths and lies interchangeably, trying to tell you what good is, what ideas are good, which people should be helped, and how the world must be save by you… RIGHT NOW, or all is lost!

Children and adults alike make the mistake of going for the first pretty looking thing to cross their path, and pay severely for it. Who can possibly believe that children don’t need their parents to be there to guide them through the unending hazards that life and the world have to offer? More to the point, who can rationally argue that children should not be limited in order to be protected?

I am glad… so very glad that I am tearing up as I write this… that I have a father who was there for me! My dad put up with a lot from each of us, and certainly from me. He did his very best to teach me about hard work when all I wanted to do was laze around and watch cartoons. He tried to teach me the things I would need in order to survive, when I didn’t want to learn them. He protected my life and safeguarded my mind and my soul as he strove to teach me right from wrong, and I was rarely in the mood to listen. He kept me from wandering off into paths that look pretty at first but lead only to misery.

All this he did while keeping clothes on my back, a roof over my head, food in my belly, books in my greedy little hands, the lights and the heater on, the car working, and so much more. He worked so hard for us, and made so many sacrifices for us, and was not always appreciated for it.

Oh, my father, you did so much for me, and I am thankful for it. I am glad for it. I thank God in Heaven that you are my dad. You, with all your flaws and frustrations and your love for me and my sisters. You gave us your all. Thank you.

Thank you, Dad, for being my dad. I love you!

Happy Father’s Day!

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Sunday’s Wisdom #395: Not Everyone

“It’s funny, every crook I meet wants to tell me how much I’m just like them.”
– Edward Elric, Fullmetal Alchemist
Episode 10, “The Phantom Thief”

When Ed says this, he’s talking to a thief who, like every other foe he’s faced thus far, starts talking about how they’re so similar. He’s fought a renegade former soldier who talked about how they got a cybernetic arm in order to be stronger, a fiendish alchemist who did monstrous things to his own family simply because he wanted to know that he could, a serial killer who went on about how people really want to kill others, and now a thief talking about obsession with what doesn’t belong to them. However, Ed got his cybernetic arm so he could continue to function and help his brother, not for power; he committed a taboo out of love, albeit a selfish love where he wanted his mother back from beyond death; he takes care not to kill because he truly doesn’t want to hurt people; oh, and what he pursues is something intended for his brother’s sake, not his own.

There are always similarities between heroes and villains, but the differences are what make each of them what they are.

Most pointedly, heroes are heroes because they stand up above their worst impulses, while villains surrender to them, sink into them, and see the world through them. Villains rationalize their actions by saying that everyone is the same, they’re just ahead of the curve. Heroes do not accept that, not in the world and not in themselves. This is why villains hate heroes so much, because they prove the lie that they tell themselves so they can keep living with what they do.

One of the lies I have always hated most is, “Everyone’s doing it.” This blanket statement is always used to excuse someone when they know they’re doing something they shouldn’t, something that isn’t right and they know it. “You would have done the same,” they say, trying to drag others down to their level, so they can feel better about not rising up and doing better.

Now, I want to rush and make it clear, I have made enough mistakes in my life to learn that I should not judge others for theirs, and I don’t mean to judge anyone now. At the same time, there certain points on which I will call BS. This is one of them.

Hiding behind the line, “anyone would do it,” is wrong. It’s a surrender to our worst selves, which is always a travesty, made all the more tragic by how it tries to pull others down at the same time. It is profoundly hurtful to ourselves and those around us, which is my line, my one rule above all: nobody gets hurt.

Some people lie. Others tell the truth.

Some people are unfaithful. Others are forever faithful.

Some people hurt others. Others are healers.

Some people steal. Others give everything they have for others.

We all make our own choices, and not everyone chooses the same.

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