Star Wars Rebels

I’ve noticed many people who are more casual Star Wars fans aren’t familiar with the animated series, Star Wars Rebels. There’s a lot to love about this series, so I’m going to do a break-down of it and why I think it’s worth checking out!

 Overview: 

Star Wars Rebels begins five years before the events of A New Hope and before the Rebellion has fully formed. We see it’s slow growth through the eyes of Ezra Bridger, a cocky, force sensitive pickpocket and orphaned teenager named Ezra Bridger. After Ezra has a run-in with a small band of Rebels who come to the outer rim planet of Lothal, nothing is ever the same again for either party.

The characters:

Ezra Bridger:  

A force sensitive kid who joins the crew at the beginning of the series. Amusingly enough, his weapon is the Star Wars equivalent of a pea shooter. Ezra acts tough and cocky at the beginning, but he’s really insecure, kind-natured and a huge dork. He gets excellent character development throughout the series. 

Kanan Jarrus: 

The Team Dad. One of the few Jedi knights left. He’s snarky yet still compassionate and he has ~chemistry~ with the crew’s pilot. His master was killed while he was still an apprentice, so being thrust into the role of teacher when Ezra shows up is daunting for him. His journey is central to the themes of the series.

Hera Syndulla: 

The Team Mum, a Twi’lek, and talented pilot of the crew’s ship, the Ghost. Hera is brave, determined and compassionate. She is not only the heart of the team, but one of the driving forces in the Rebellion. She brought the crew together, and is a strong and capable leader.

Garazeb “Zeb” Orrelios: 

The muscle of the team. Zeb is a Lasat, a species based on one of the earlier pieces of concept art for Chewbacca. He’s a gruff warrior whose home planet was overrun by the Empire. Zeb has a chip on his shoulder, and takes an almost immediate disliking to Ezra. But, of course, he’s not quite as cold as he seems and like most of the guys around here, a big dork. 

Sabine Wren:

A teenage Mandalorian (the same race Boba Fett and his father is) with a love for art and explosions. She is my favourite. Sabine is a tough and guarded warrior, with a tragic past and a deeply poignant, satisfying arc revealing that past. She was cynical and self-serving, but is now heroic and idealistic and surprising ways. 

Chopper: 

A mouthy and snarky droid with personality that’s based on a cat. You can’t help but love this angry murder droid!

What makes it great?

Found Family: 

Every member of the main crew has been disenfranchised by the Empire in some form. They all have rich, complicated pasts that gradually unfold throughout the course of the series. 

We find out what circumstances led them to joining the crew, and why they have the various hang-ups they do. Separated from their own family and society, the five crew members learn to trust and depend on one another, helping them to move beyond the trauma of their losses. 

The Ladies:

Star Wars Rebels has a diverse and awesome cast of ladies, with backstories and arcs that are just as rich and deep as the male cast members. It’s also refreshingly free of objectification/fetishization. 

The female Twi’leks, for example, have traditionally been used as background slave girls, i.e. fanservice. But the staff for Rebels deliberately wanted to subvert that with Hera, giving her a practical pilot’s outfit and allowing her a sense of agency. There’s even an episode in the first season that essentially flips the bird at the voiceless slave woman trope, and it was excellent. 

Hera carries on the tradition of women being major figureheads in the Rebellion, helping to shape it into what we see in A New Hope. 

Sabine has one of the most compelling arcs, not only in Rebels, but in Star Wars as a whole. On the surface, she’s an explosives expert and artist who uses both her skills to stick it to the Empire. Underneath, there’s a lot going on that I can’t talk about without revealing major spoilers. 

The two main women aren’t the only ones who are amazing. There are more ladies from multiple Star Wars continuities who have a major impact on the plot. And that leads on nicely to my third point.

The Lore and World-Building:

Rebels intersects with many different Star Wars continuities, including the Prequel Trilogy, The Clone Wars, The Original Trilogy, and Rogue One. 

The great thing about this, is you don’t need to have an in-depth knowledge of all these continuities to know what’s going on. I haven’t watched all, or even that much of Clone Wars, but the narrative makes sure you’re up to speed with everything that happened. 

Rebels is very good at filling in the gaps in this franchise. We learn more about Anakin’s apprentice, Ahsoka Tano, and how an organized Rebellion against the Empire formed. We also learn more about Saw Garrera’s motivations and later falling out with the Rebellion.

The series features many classic Star Wars characters such as Lando, Leia, Darth Vader and Mon Mothma among others. And they generally serve a purpose in the narrative. They’re there to impact the characters, plot and action in meaningful ways, and not just fleeting cameos there to please the fans.

Conclusion: 

If you have any interest in Star Wars at all, even a passing one, then I’d recommend this series. It has memorable characters, well-paced storylines and great action. Star Wars Rebels is on its fourth and final season. It finished in March last year. Season 1 consists of 15 episodes, while seasons 2 and 3 have 22 episodes. The 4th and final season has 16 episodes.

Fullmetal Alchemist’s Use of Eyes

*Major spoilers for the FMA manga and FMA: Brotherhood*

Eyes are literally everywhere in FMA. From the gigantic eye that means the Gate of Truth is open, to the multitude of creepy red eyes Pride possesses, eyes feature prominently in the show’s visuals and themes. There is an incredible amount you can say about the use of eyes in the series. But for now, I’m going to look at how Hiromu Arakawa uses eyes to convey humanity or a lack thereof.

As a rule, the eyes are the most expressive part of a character in FMA. They do most of the work when telling the reader/viewer about the character’s emotional state. 

Ed’s gold eyes are very expressive and usually clear to the viewer. As the main character we’re introduced to the story through his perspective, so we naturally need to feel a sense of empathy for him. We can easily understand and connect to Ed’s thoughts and feelings through those piercing gold eyes. He’s a passionate guy with a can-do attitude! 

Al on the other, hand, doesn’t have this. Alphonse’s “eyes” are naturally more limited in their emotional range. The eye holes in Al’s armour eyes glow white with a red tinge to tell us his soul is in there. He’s experienced sensory deprivation for years, watching everyone experience the world in a way he can’t.

Even if Al can’t express himself through an organic body, the lighting, background and framing complement his emotions. They express his anger, doubt or sadness vividly. 

He looms over Ed with lots shadows and the animators make his eyes narrow. There’s also a black and purple backdrop to add to the comic air of intimidation. And poor Ed sweat drops profusely in response!

When Al questions his humanity after Barry tries to make him doubt his own existence, we get a visual of Al in his own mind.

The manga completely fills the eye slits in a white glow, while making his body black in contrast. There’s no trace of the human Al inside the armour that we’ve come to know. The background static adds to eerie, non-human feeling. Here is FMA: B’s take on the panel:

The animators use colour to full dramatic effect, making his blood seal glow red to complement his eerily glowing white eyes. He’s bathed in black and red, with a white and bluish-purple background for contrast. Al’s perception of himself brought about the doubt Barry put in his mind, is very different from the sweet, determined, and very human Al we’ve come to know. 

Al’s eyes flare up with passion, with Arakawa making them wide and making the white around the edges comes off like sun rays. He’s ironically displaying a lot of passion for someone who worries that they’re just an empty husk.

Al’s look of surprise and befuddlement when Winry tells him to go talk to Ed is wonderful! Arakawa makes a suit of armour look innocent and adorable, with the closest thing he has to eyebrows curving down, and his eyes wide in amazement. His expressiveness may be limited by his lack of facial features, yet the illustrations and animation find ways of expressing his emotions. The narrative (as well as Ed and Winry) never forget that Al’s human. 

Now we’re going to look at the definitely non-human characters. Al isn’t the only character with blank white eyes. Out of the seven Homunculi, only Sloth and Gluttony have inexpressive white eyes in their usual forms.

They’re also the only ones who immediately stand-out as non-human. The only exception being Envy, who’s a shape-shifter and can take any form to blend in among humans. They were the only two of the Homunculi Father created not to have interactions with human society. 

Greed is mistaken for a sharp-toothed human at first glance. Pride appears to be a normal child on the surface. Lust is a spy who can blend in when with humans she needs to gather information, and Wrath was a human turned into a Homunculus for the purpose of having someone at the head of the country carrying out Father’s will. The only thing distinguishing Wrath from a human is his Ultimate Eye that he keeps concealed under an eyepatch. 

Gluttony on the other hand, is just the heavy-hitter, meant to act as extra muscle for the other Homunculi when needed. And Father uses Sloth to dig tunnels underground, non-stop for years! 

 Gluttony and Sloth are the most one-note of the seven Homunculi, which is reflected their wide eyes. They’re far more limited in their expressiveness than even Al’s. Where Al’s white and red eyes vary from wide to narrow, Gluttony’s eyes stay simple, blank white orbs, even when upset. 

Sloth only has one visible eye, and it also lacks any expressiveness. Like, Gluttony, he comes off as a monster with no free-will or agency. All he does is complain, dig and smash in the direction he’s told to.

The closest either Sloth or Gluttony’s eyes are allowed to emote, is when they glow menacingly. White or red glowing eyes are usually used as shorthand for dangerous and/or non-human being. The effect is creepy and reminds us that they’re the muscle of the team, nothing else. 

And of course, this is all part of Father’s design. He has a completely utilitarian view of the Homunculi he created. They’re just a way for him to reach his goal of surpassing God. Although all of the Homunculi are limited in their free-will, Lust, Greed, Envy, Wrath and Pride at least had some opportunities to interact with humans and discover more about themselves (for better or worse). 

Al feared that he was a “fabricated little brother,” but Father really did create artificial beings to serve him in some way. Ed put Al’s soul in a suit of armour to save his brother. Father doesn’t see the value in humanity and has no desire to. He not only sees humans as resources, but his “children.” By creating the Homunculi, he expelled the part of himself that wanted attachments (Greed). 

The way the manga and FMA: Brotherhood uses eyes, tells us about the characters in subtle ways, that really stand out. The art and animation complement the humanity of characters who are human despite initial appearances. It also shows the forced limitations of characters who are never given the chance to explore their personhood. 

Now, we’re going to turn to characters who are human in appearance, and how their eyes are used to convey ideas about them.

When we first learn about the conflict in Ishval, this is how the Amestrian’s are depicted: 

All colours are muted, except for their detached blue eyes. The soldiers are a cold, relentless, monolith, marching forward to carry out genocide against the Ishvalan people. The soldiers’ eyes aren’t obscured or made to look monstrous. Because FMA wants you to know that humans carried out these atrocities against other human beings.

FMA uses a different effect for when they show Ishvalans as a group:

Again, everything except the colour of their eyes is in a muted, gray pallet. However, their eyes are vacant and haunted by the trauma of the military’s brutality. They are advancing forward for the sake of survival. This is a powerful contrast showing oppressors and the oppressed.

Arakawa explores trauma through the eyes of the soldiers deployed in Ishval. 

Roy was an idealistic young man with dreams of using alchemy to better the country. He didn’t realise that he’d become a human weapon. Riza also joined the military and was ordered to participate in the massacre while still a cadet. 

Riza’s eyes are cold, wide and focused as she does the job of a sniper. Even with her menacing appearance,  Maes reminds us that she’s “a little chick.” When she steps out of the role of sniper, we see the eyes of a broken young woman. The drastic change in her eyes, emphasises the devastating impact war has on individuals. 

Riza and Roy recognise that even though they were manipulated, they still took part in the destruction of Ishval. They have to take responsibility for that.  The best they can do is never forget the lives lost, and work to build a country where atrocities like that can never happen again. 

The only time the haunted look leaves Roy’s eyes is when he decides to become Fuhrer so he can change the country for the better.

Roy’s eyes are fixed on where the Fuhrer is standing. He is responsible for decreeing the massacre of the Ishvalans and he dictates the culture where this kind of atrocity could happen. In a line that was sadly cut from Brotherhood, King Bradley notes that Roy isn’t looking at him, he’s looking past him. Roy is looking past the military dictatorship of the Fuhrer, to a new era of democracy, where he and others can be seen as war criminals. It’s no accident that Truth takes Roy’s eyes. He envisioned a better future for Amestris, so they are the “toll” he had to pay. 

The Ishvalans’ red eyes are often present in the visuals of FMA: Brotherhood to reinforce the devastation they experienced.

Their horror-stricken red eyes stand out vividly as Kimblee rises to cause an explosion. We see Kimblee’s from the perspective of his victims. Unlike, Riza, whose eyes transformed from cold to devastated, Kimblee’s eyes literally light up. They take on the glow that usually represents maliciousness. 

Since eyes are generally the most expressive part of a character in FMA, it’s meaningful if they’re out of in some way. Obscured eyes usually represent a sinister or uncertain motive, or to hide the character’s emotional state.

Ishvalans are the underprivileged minority in Amestris. Scar and his people are outsiders to the country, and exist without a home. In his despair, Scar hunts the State Alchemists down and kills them out of revenge. And he fully expects this to end in his death. He hides the greatest signifier of his identity under a pair of glasses. 

It’s only through the experiences he has with people such as Miles and Mei Chang, does Scar abandons his self-destructive quest. He decides to change the country for the better. He looks to his brother’s research so he can find a way to stop Father’s country-wide transmutation circle. 

So, it’s appropriate then that the final shot of Scar in the series is of him looking ahead alongside Miles. He’s going to live and work for a better future for his people. 

 FMA cleverly uses eyes to tell us about a group, and the state the individuals in that group are in. We’re taken on a journey from the status quo of Amestris, to the future that those individuals work towards. 

Now, we’ll looking at the visual and thematic use of eyes in the FMA manga and Brotherhood. This time, we’re going to look at eyes as truth/Truth (the character.)

Whenever the Gate of Truth opens, a large creepy-looking eye appears before the person who will be dragged into it.

Interestingly enough, we never see Truth with eyes. Only as a white being with no discernible features. Who is Truth?  

Truth defines themselves this way: 

“Who am I? One name you might have for me is the world, or you might call me the universe, or perhaps God, or perhaps the Truth. I am All, and I am One. So, of course, this also means that I am you. I am the truth of your despair, the inescapable price of your boastfulness.”  

Truth, from the view of the audience and characters, is like a cipher, taking on the attributes of those who come before him, such as the arm and leg Ed sacrificed.

Truth reveals, well, truths to those who enter their realm. The truth, as in real life, is often painful and brings despair. But as Ed says in his summarisation of the series, “a lesson without pain is meaningless.” Truth is higher being beyond our comprehension. Anyone who tries to bypass what is in essence, the universe, receives the consequences. No one is above those consequences. Truth’s eye leads humans to their judgment.

However, the main conflict of the series is fueled by the character who wants to go beyond any limitations.

This creepy little ball inside a flask is responsible for triggering off the most devastating events in the series. Born as the result of a scientific experiment, the being inside the flask says he just wants to leave the confines of his flask. But he wants to go far beyond just have the ability to engage with others freely. As we established in part 1, the being in the flask has no interest in achieving humanity. He even tells Hohenheim this towards the end of the series. His goal is going beyond the “lowly humans,” and achieving godhood.  

This is what becoming a god means to the being the flask, or Father:

He uses humans, the homunculi and eventually even Truth as a resource for achieving that. While Truth is a being beyond comprehension who takes on the traits of others, Father forcefully takes from others. He even appropriates the idea of family without having any real desire to understand what it means. Everything is artificial and borrowed with Father. 

When Father is brought before the Gate of Truth, this is what his gate looks like:

It’s completely blank with nothing inscribed onto it. Every other gate we have seen, has the something represents something about that person.

Ed’s gate has the type of alchemy that he’s studied on it. It represents everything he knows about alchemy and how it works. Roy’s represents the flame alchemy he has studied:

By contrast, Father has achieved nothing on his own, so that’s what his gate reflects. Father even tries, and fails, to replicate the gate of truth through Gluttony:

A major sign that this isn’t the Gate we know, is that the eye on GLuttony’s stomach is Father’s eye, and not the large grey eye that signals the Gate’s opening. It shows Father doesn’t know what he’s doing in his arrogance and his willingness to only take from others, instead of learning from and work with them like Ed did, Father ensures that he will never gain his goal.

Because as much as he tried to co-opt Truth, he sure couldn’t see it.

In conclusion, eyes are used in FMA to represent truth on a thematic level, and how we choose to process that truth. 

Difference Between Villain and Antagonist

The word villain traditionally summons up a certain image. We often think of someone in a black cape. Someone laughing manically while swirling their red wine from a comfy chair. They order the death or banishment of anyone who even mildly displeases them.

Many of them are more complex, with deep, tragic backstories and insecurities. They can, and should to at least some degree, be actual relatable characters. One of the most basic elements of villainy, no matter how complex or sympathetic, is antagonizing the heroes in some way. If the villains aren’t firmly standing between the heroes and their goals, then they’re just not doing their job!

Although, any character who gets in the way of a hero is not necessarily a villain. To put it in a straightforward way, villains are always antagonists, but antagonists aren’t always villains. What’s the difference between the two? Well, to answer that, we need to look at what makes a villain.

One of the most iconic characters in popular media largely fits with the above description of a villain.

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(He’s wearing nothing but black, and his cape is the ominously in the wind. That’s how you tell he’s the bad guy. Image from Soul Caliber 4.)

In 1977, audiences first heard that deep, rasping breath as Darth Vader sauntered into the aftermath of a space battle and casually took in the destruction. Since then, the black-clad figure who is “more machine than man” has become one of the most iconic villains in pop culture.

Throughout the Original Trilogy, he is known for killing of subordinates like flies and choking even the higher-ranking members of the Empire over philosophical disagreements. He killed countless innocent people, tortured many, and cut off his own son’s hand. He represents the treat the Empire poses in marketing materials.

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George Lucas once said in an interview that children enjoy Darth Vader’s character because he represents power, whereas children have very little. So, we’ve established that the two things that make Darth Vader a villain is that he’s powerful and malicious. However, this imposing figure of doom becomes a little more complex throughout the trilogy.

It isn’t until the second act of The Empire Strikes Back, (1980) that we see a less threatening, subservient Darth Vader. This is when the audience gets their first glimpse of Emperor Palpatine. He bows low in reverence, and for the first time, he is not the (or at least one of) the most powerful people in the room.

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(Like Darth Vader, Palpatine isn’t what you would call a good boss. Image from the remastered version of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.)

Darth Vader suggesting they turn Luke to their side seems like an oddly merciful suggestion for someone who makes a habit of choking anyone who so much as annoys him. Then, (Spoilers?) we learn that Darth Vader was Luke’s Father all along! He was the hero of the Clone Wars and close friend that Obi-Wan spoke so highly of in A New Hope.

Luke (and the audiences) perception of Darth Vader is turned upside down. Both the characters and movie-goers have time to come to terms with this revelation. It becomes clearer than ever before in Return of the Jedi (1983) that Darth Vader is actually a sad, lost man. He’s trapped in slavery to an Emperor who grants him power over his Empire while he’s absent.

“It is … too late for me.” He admits mournfully as Luke tries to save the former Jedi from his current life of enslavement. After a lightsabre fight and a lot of electricity is thrown around, Darth Vader decides to turn on his master and save his son, sealing his redemption.

Of course, no look at Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker would be complete without turning to the heavily criticised Prequel Trilogy. Its entire purpose was to contextualise the fall of Anakin, and subsequent transformation into Darth Vader. In The Phantom Menace, (1999) we meet an innocent child makes robot and asks pretty girls if they’re angels. He was born into slavery and acts disturbingly casual about the fact any attempts to escape a life of slavery result in being blown to pieces.

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(Shadows of things to come. Image from Star Wars: The Phantom menace official poster.)

The later parts of the Star Wars franchise go out of their way to make Anakin a relatable, sympathetic character. He is fleshed out far beyond just a threatening mechanical figure, showing that his life bound to the Empire and Palpatine has broken him.

Does this make him any less of a villain? His actions as Darth Vader make the answer a resounding … no.

Even though Palpatine manipulated Anakin, he still chose to serve the Empire. He made the choice to throw away the ultimately good-hearted person he was and followed a ruthless dictator in creating an imperialist regime. It might be a limited power, but he’s still powerful enough to make underlings quake in their boots, and malicious enough to kill even innocent people.

So, we’ve established that Darth Vader fits the role of villain because of his power and malice, even though his situation is more complex than we first thought. Then what makes a character an antagonist/someone who gives the protagonists a hard time, without actually being villains?

To answer that, we’re now going to turn to an anime/manga, and look at one of the most complex, well-developed characters in a series that’s full of them. I’m of course talking about Scar from Fullmetal Alchemist (manga: 2001-210)

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(The power of destruction. Screenshot taken from FMA: Brotherhood.)

For a man known as a serial who chases down our hero and nearly murders him, Scar’s first scene makes him surprisingly sympathetic. After he kills the State Alchemist, Shou Tucker, Scar stumbles on the sick alchemical experiment he performed on his own daughter. 

Disgusted and angered by the cruelty of this act, Scar decides to commit a mercy killing. While harsh, it was clear this action came from a real sense of pity. When Scar does chase Ed and Al into a dark alley, he agrees to let Al live as long as he doesn’t interfere. Again, not the most stellar of actions, but he’s already shown that’s he’s capable of some semblance of restraint, nobility and compassion.

And it’s not long until finding out the backstory of this nameless, sunglasses-wearing man. His people, the Ishvalans, were massacred during the Ishval Civil War. State Alchemists were at the vanguard during King Bradley’s campaign to eradicate all Ishvalans. They were responsible for the destruction of his home, the death of his brother, and the gradual death of his culture.

Going after State Alchemists who played no part in the Ishvalan massacre isn’t exactly moral, but he is kept in check by some sense of nobility. He shows a great deal of compassion towards others who are alone and struggling to make life better for their people. He takes to the lone Xingese girls searching for a way to provide for her clan very quickly, empathising with her situation and going out of his way to help her.

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(He just wants to pet the cute panda. Image taken from FMA: Brotherhood.)

Scar stands in the way of the Elric Brothers’ goal of regaining their bodies by seeking revenge on all State Alchemists. But he lacks the traits that made Darth Vader a classic villain: malice and power. 

Scar is deeply conflicted over his vengeful actions and is capable of showing mercy before deciding to abandon revenge altogether. As a disenfranchised warrior monk from a dying culture and people Scar doesn’t have a great deal of power. He’s a member of a race that was subject to a brutally methodical attempted genocide. He was hopelessly lashing out at the imperialistic system responsible for it. “Nothing can bring my brother and Ishval back.”

Even if he had unexpected limitations, Darth Vader was still a figure of great power. The Empire is cold and mechanical with Darth Vader as a representative of that system. Ametris’ representative, King Bradley is a seemingly kooky and kindly old man. However, Bradley is not entirely human either, in fact, he embodies the sin of wrath. His power is also limited when you scratch beneath the surface, and he has absolutely no moral reservations about committing atrocities in the name of the authority he serves.

Scar abandons revenge altogether eventually and fittingly taking on Wrath. He uses both sides of his brother’s research to Amestris from the head villain of FMA, the murderous and controlling Father. He learns to use reconstruction alchemy alongside the deconstructive side, showing that he’s in a much better, much healthier place as a person. At this point, I think we can safely say that Scar falls into the category of antagonist, and not a villain.

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(Scar takes on the personification of Wrath, who ordered the genocide of his people so he can save everyone. Screenshot taken from FMA: Brotherhood.)   

For our final example of antagonists, we’ll turn to dark magical girls. Yes, we started at Darth Vader and finished with the magical girl genre. Dark magical girls are there to stop the good-hearted magical girls from achieving their aims, which usually start out as collecting MacGuffins and end in trying to help the Dark Magical Girl.

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(The girl on the right just wants to help the girl with the sad eyes on the left. Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha official art.)

These dark magical girls have nothing in particular against the magical girls. They might even be tempted by the idea of a friendship with them. However, their villainous, abusive parental-figures prevent their children from having a life outside the mission they’ve been assigned. 

And dark magical girl’s are always children, which makes them powerless and without agency by default. They haven’t had the chance to grow up and decide the kind of person they’re going to be. Fate and Rue from Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha (2004 – Present) and Princess Tutu (2001) respectively, are children who persistently made to feel as though they are unloved and unlovable.

Fate is a clone of a girl who died in a tragic accident, and couldn’t be as perfect a replica as her Mother wanted. The girl is forced to collect magic relics for her Mother that will grant any wish, and Fate obsessively pursues this goal, thinking she will be accepted once she’s collected them all. Of course, this never happens.

Rue is a prima donna ballerina admired by the student body but has no real friends. Rue begins to form an awkward and tentatively sweet friendship with Ahiru/Duck, the main protagonist. However, she’s the daughter of the evil Raven, and the enemy of Princess Tutu, Ahiru’s alter ego. Or at least, that’s who she’s told she is by Drosselmeyer, the man who wrote her story, and her Father. Throughout the series, Rue struggles with her identity, asking on more than one occasion, “Who am I?”

It’s only with the help and care of the protagonist, as well as the other heroes, that they come to see their own worth. They eventually leave their abusers to discover their own identities, no longer forced to do things that go against their natures.

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(Is she the grumpy star ballerina, or the raven princess? It’s a trick question. Screenshots are from Princess Tutu.)

Unlike villains, antagonists aren’t sadists and don’t perform evil acts because it’s in their nature to do them. They lack the kind of power a villain has. Their actions won’t likely be entirely ethical, but they’re not coming from a place of pure malice or moral depravity. The moniker of villain implies evil and that there is real and unfettered intent to harm, kill and oppress.

It’s important to have both villains and antagonists in our stories. Both of them can reflect a depth and realness that resonates with people if done well.

Villains must have the ability to make the protagonists lives hell with a wave of their hand, and a willingness to do just that. Your antagonist will make life difficult for the protagonist, but not out of any desire or inclination to do so.

What is Focalisation

Some say that focalization is the same thing as point of view. But I think it’s actually a bit more subtle than that.  

Third person limited is a really good perspective for explaining how focalisation works. Harry Potter is a classic example of third-person limited, where the world of witches and wizards is presented to us through Harry. But, we also see the other characters strictly from his perspective. This means that the audience is as ignorant about the true intentions of Snape, Dumbledore and many of the adult characters. 

The mysteries unfold in a way that’s intriguing because we only have Harry’s very limited point of view when it comes to the characters motivations and history. And the limitations of his perspective become clearer throughout the book series as we learn about the complicated past of the characters. Their pasts and reasoning don’t fit into his simple, straightforward view of people and morality in the first book.  

In contrast, third-person omniscient allows for exploration of many perspectives. The writer can look into the thoughts of any character, so the gaps in one characters knowledge and worldview, can be filled by another character. Little Women uses third-person omniscient, with Louisa May Alcott exploring the thoughts of the sisters, as well as others to tell the audience information the sisters aren’t privy to at the time. 

So, focalisation is more defined by the limitations of a character’s point of view, rather than just their point of view. 

First person can function in a similar way to third person limited, in that we have the perspective of a person, while getting through the plot that their perspective is flawed in some way. But in first person, we are even closer to the character’s thoughts. They’re the narrator, but in a plot where character complexities exist, they shouldn’t be an impartial one. In other words, they should be an unreliable narrator. 

The children’s book, Pagan’s Crusade by Catherine Jinks sees the crusades of Israel through the perspective of Pagan, a cynical, sixteen-year-old boy seeing war for the first. His reactions to the adults are meant to be humorous and rather sad in their naivety. The reader sees the war through the limited perspective of a teenage boy growing up in a hostile environment. And that’s the effect focalisation. 

Focalisation can easily be called point of view. But it’s more complicated than that. It’s what takes the story from an impartially told documentary, to a narrative exploring the flaws in the characters worldview. It allows for the progression of both character and themes. 

To me, focalisation is really just good characterisation. And good characterisation naturally fuels the themes as a result. 

Show Don’t Tell

Shine a spotlight on story elements

Yes, I know this is some of the most cliched writing advice, but I found there’s a simple way to distill this idea down to one phrase. Just one thing to keep in mind that helps me show an emotion, idea or theme. 

Be specific. 

That’s it really. If you feel like you’re summarising events rather than telling a story, think about how to bring descriptions to life for the reader in more detail. It’s not a report or a list. Writing is one of the most difficult and satisfying things in the world because you’re creating images and new worlds with words.

Telling: 

It was too cold, so Jeremy went home.

Showing:

Jeremy pulled his thick calico jacket tighter around his shoulders. He trudged through the snow, his apartment in view. Jeremy imagined the warmth of his heater surrounding him as a shiver flew throughout his body.

Okay, so the second one builds a character and shows him going home. We know what the cold was like now. It doesn’t feel like we’re just giving a description of what a friend did earlier today. We’ve got the components of a story here.

Being specific when creating a story builds interest, but too much detail can make them lose interest, and fast.

Stay on target. I remember when Carl Sagan decided to spend two and a half freaking pages ruminating over the contents of an airplane ticket in Contact. My eyelids started drooping a lot at that point. 

What’s the colour of Jeremy’s coat? What brand of shoes is wearing? How about the colour of socks? What exactly is the temperature that day? I could write several paragraphs about those things. But that just bore readers (and me) to tears. 

When you’re diving into a description, ask yourself if it contributes to the story or character-building in some way. 

Showing that it’s cold, get us to empathise with Jeremy’s reason for going home. We get enough detail to understand why he makes that decision. The colour of his socks doesn’t contribute anything to the story, so it’s not necessary. 

Writing often requires you to do a balancing, and showing is no different. The “Be specific” rule is great when you remember to keep it focused on the things that matter most to the narrative.  

What Men Want


With the endless stream of Hollywood remakes, one film that comes as a surprise is a gender-swapped twist on the film What Women Want (2000) starring Mel Gibson .

Directed by Adam Shankman, (Hairspray) Taraji P. Henson (Hidden Figures, Empire) carries the film with charisma and endearingly over-the-top performance as Ali Davis, a non-nonsense sports agent. Ali, frustrated with how the ‘boys club’ of an agency she works for has passed her over for a promotion in spite of her high-achieving status. But, she finds an unexpected advantage when an eccentric psychic gives her tea that allows her to read men’s thoughts. Things become even more complicated when a handsome bartender, and his son enter her life.


“That’s just Jasmine tea. If you don’t count the weed, and the peyote, and the crack.”

Silly and corny in a way that comedy-driven Hollywood movies typically are; the critic’s reactions have been unsurprisingly harsh. It garnered a meagre 45% on Rotten Tomatoes, and Internet Movie Database (IMDB) gives it 4.0 out of 10. The film is a little too ridiculous at times, and it has a very typical ham-fisted message about finding balance in life. The film isn’t a very deep or original twist on the old movie. Instead of taking a misogynist and giving him the ability to hear women, it focuses on a tough woman trying to make it in the corporate becoming less ruthless, while never losing her drive. Neither film reaches levels of greatness, but the retold version is more compelling.

The performances and overall comedic timing makes What Men Want work. Ali’s dynamic with her hapless assistant Brandon, played by Josh Brener (Max Steel) is well-developed and written. Brandon’s romantic subplot with another man is one of the most genuinely charming points in the film.

“I can hear your inner thoughts!”

What Men Want has surprisingly striking photography, with scene transitions that are smooth and creative. From the lighting to the costume designs, the film does its best to stand out with bright, bold colours. Both, the presentation and the performances can border on coming off as too much. The only thing restraining it from crossing the line, is a resonate commentary on bigoted workplaces, and the comedic moments that do hit home. And there are more than a few of them. One moment, in particular, earned the film an R rating in the U.S.A for a hilariously confusing sex scene. Other highlights, include a wedding that goes horribly wrong, resulting in a brawl more befitting a bar scene.

What Men Want might not tackle any new ideas when it comes to the Hollywood comedy formula, but it’s nevertheless, a fun romp with lovable characters and some memorable comedic moments.

What Men Want is currently showing in cinemas. You can watch the trailer here:

Figure Skating and Romance: Yuri on Ice

Licensed by Crunchyroll and produced by studio MAPPA, Yuri on Ice is a twelve episode sports anime about the world of figure skating. It first came out in 2016 to a receive a widely positive reaction from anime fans. After spending over a year with it on my “to watch” list, I finally got on Crunchyroll and started watching. 

Yuri on Ice follows the life of figure skater, Yuuri Katsuki, a shy 23-year-old from Japan, who’s just experienced a major loss at a competition. After falling into a funk at this blow to his career, Yuuri is uncertain about where to go from there. That is, until his idol and figure skating legend from Russia, Victor Nikiforov, unexpectedly shows up at his family’s hot spring, declaring himself Yuuri’s coach. The two spend the rest of the series discovering unexpected things about themselves and each other as their relationship grows. 

Yuri on Ice is a great character-driven that draws you into the ups and downs of Yuuri’s journey as a figure skater and person. One thing that struck a chord with me, was the show’s honest and poignant portrayal of anxiety. In the first episode, Yuuri apologises to his mother for losing over the phone in a bathroom stall, uncontrollable tears pouring down his face. It’s a raw moment that sets the foundation for Yuuri’s character arc. 

He revisits that scene numerous times during flashbacks. Yuuri tends to dwell on any setbacks and withdraw from others, refusing to let them help.

With the help and support from Victor, Yuuri stops holding everything inside, and begins to grow as a figure skater and a person. One of the defining moments of their relationship shows the two of them opening up about their desires and the future of their relationship. Victor treats Yuuri with respect and dignity, and never like the burden he feels. It allows Yuuri to open up more because he no longer feels so alone in his struggles. 

It’s that kind of heartfelt frankness that makes Yuri on Ice unique and compelling. Yuuri’s anxiety never completely goes away. He’s never “cured.” Yuuri backslides into old ways of thinking, unintentionally hurting those closest to him along the way. But he learns to cope with it through his support system. It’s such a refreshingly realistic take on what it’s like to live with anxiety.

When it first it aired, the show received a lot of praise for its LGBT+ representation, and with good reason. Director Saya Yamamoto (Michiko to Hatchin and Lupin III: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine) fought for the relationship between Yuuri and Victor to be depicted as a blatantly romantic one. 

After working through difficulties in their relationship, episode 7 had Victor run up to Yuuri post-performance to kiss him on the lips. Victor’s shiny lips and adoring expression, make it clear what’s happening, even if the kiss itself is obscured by his arms. 

In the official Yuri on Ice visual fanbook, GO YURI GO, Yamamoto admitted that she faced censorship with this scene. So, even if the animators had to obscure it somewhat, it’s still clear what’s happening. 

Romantic aspects such as a marriage proposal in episode 10 are downplayed at least a little due to Yuuri being oblivious to the fact he was even proposing in the first place! But the subtlety and slyness which the romance is sometimes handled, doesn’t mitigate the overall impact of this deep and beautifully developed relationship. 

Yuri on Ice actively pushes the boundaries in terms of representation in media and figure skating. In episode 7, a younger Victor deliberately dons the same look as openly gay American figure skater, Johnny Weir. He had this to say about the series in an interview with Geekiary:

“I think all positive imagery of LGBT themes in sport are good. Unfortunately, the majority of people that rule the skating world are conservative and more business minded. I think many of them, while they may love and appreciate the art and the sport, are more interested in the business side of things or power trips. I don’t know if Yuri on Ice will be able to change the perception of gay athletes to a 60 year old businessman, but I am of the school of thought that every little bit helps”.

                                                   A younger Victor and Johnny Weir

Yuuri and Victor’s relationship feels real in its gradual development, while the environment it takes place in is safe and accepting. Everyone from family and friends to strangers, accepts that two men are in a loving relationship. Some have critisised its lack of realism in that regard. 

But this is a slice-of-life show about personal growth and positive relationships. It’s not about bigotry. One of the appeals of Yuri on Ice is that it’s unashamedly a “feel-good” show.  

Discrimination is a reality that Johnny Weir and other LGBT+ people know well. Depicting a setting where their love is treated as valid, where they are accepted and loved for who they are? That is important, even needed in a world where they frequently face the opposite. 

The depiction of figure skating itself is impressively detailed and enjoyable to watch. You can really see just how much effort the staff put into portraying figure skating accurately. All the detailed performances are brought to life with the help of series choreographer Kenji Miyamoto. As a former figure skater and now coach, Miyamoto uses the sequences and the characters interpretations of them to develop plot and character. 

                                                                    Kenji Miyamoto

The series impressively explores its many characters, even minor characters through their routines. It balances multiple subplots in a way that never feels rushed, or takes away from the main storyline. While women are not the main focus of Yuri on Ice, they do get to have subplots where they assert their independence and break away from harmful ideas and people.  

While the animation is fairly standard anime fare, the art direction is fun and creative, with looks into the imaginations of the characters while composing their dances. 

Another feature of Yuri on Ice is that it is very funny! The humour is a delight, with facefaults, exaggerated animation and risqué situations between the characters leading to some sitcom style antics. 

Yuri on Ice is a charming and sweet series about personal growth. It’s masterfully paced to make the character development gradual, yet always engaging. The characters are dynamic and lovable, spreading its attention over a large cast while never spreading itself too thin. I highly recommend it! 

Review: Children of the Whales

In 2017, new, yet prolific animation studio, J.C. Stuff, released a 12 episode anime adaptation of Children of the Wales. The Children of the Whales is a short yet popular manga series by Abi Umeda. Seeing advertisements for this boldly coloured and uniquely designed looking series, I decided to check it out, and see if it was as good as it looked.

It turns out that, the series is something of a mixed bag, with standout caharacters, yet horribly muddled pacing. Children of the Whales follows the inhabitants of the Mud Whale, a huge vessel that’s travelled on an endless sea of sand for centuries. Among them are people with the power of Thymia, known as the Marked. For unknown reasons, the Marked have much shorter lives than those who are Unmarked. One of the Marked children and archivist for the Mud Whale, journeys to an island on a supply run. There, he meets the first person that the people of the Mud Whale have ever seen outside of their community. From there on, they start to learn about the wider world, and the threats it possesses.

Children of the Whales’ main strengths are in its (generally) endearing and well-written characters, intricate world-building and unique art direction. The animation style resembles that of an old map or picture, giving the sense that the Mud Whale is something mysterious and ancient.

It also employs a lot of strange, surrealistic imagery to enhance the sense of spirituality and mystery of this ancient civilisation. Each of the central characters struggles with how to make sense of the culture and environment they grew up in. They gradually learn about the history kept from them as people from different lands come to their shores. The small details of the Mud Whales culture and how it functions gives off a feeling of realness to the world that draws the viewer in.

This is an ambitious series, which deals with an expansive world and tackles themes such as war and free-will. It might be a little too ambitious, considering its short length. And The story feels somewhat constrained by its short run and suffers in terms of pacing and fleshing out many of its supporting cast. It introduces us to many compelling and fun character we don’t get to spend nearly enough time with because of the compact nature of the story.

While it’s an overall powerful and touching story, the series tends to become overdramatic to the point of ridiculousness, especially in the latter half of the series. Forced subplots plots complete with hammy acting overshadow the main plot. One of the central villains is so over-dramatic, that he’s almost impossible to take seriously.

Children of the Whales is surprisingly bloody and violent series, with some unexpectedly graphic death scenes. It serves an overall, purpose, but there is an element of shock value that takes the audience out of the story. This twelve episode series feels incomplete, due to the ambitious ideas it tackles in a short space of time. The source material was vast, and cramming it into so few episodes makes little sense. A second season would be very welcome. But we do get is a bold, beautiful tale with some flaws in its execution. Overall, I would recommend checking it out for the glimpse into a fascinating world with deeply lovable characters and a (generally) moving story.

The Children of the Whales English dub is available on Netflix. You can watch the subbed version (which I think is much better performed) on Anime Dao.

Land of the Lustrous Review/Analysis: Minerals and Buddhism

In 2017, an animated adaptation of a little-known manga series came out, and it made a big impression. The series utilises CG animation in a unique fashion and has a character-driven story that’s striking in its depth and level of detail. Produced by the up-and-coming animation company, Studio Orange, Land of the Lustrous builds a strange and fascinating world.

The narrative built around it, stands-out for its creative art direction and sweeping storytelling.  Land of the Lustrous takes place in a world where humans no longer exist, and instead, beings based on a different gem or mineral live in a tight-knit community.

They are hunted by beings called Lunarians and are split into fighters and administrators. The Lustrous’ role in life is often determined by their level of hardness.  The youngest Lustrous, Phosphophyllite or Phos has a hardness of only three and a half, making her the weakest and therefore limiting their options. However, after meeting an outcast Lustrous named Cinnabar, they become determined to help them, and as a result, starts a long, difficult journey of change. 

Based on a manga series Haruko Ichikawa, this twelve episode anime paces itself out far better than most adaptations of long-running manga. Even though the anime creates an expansive world with an unfolding arc that takes place over several mini plotlines, it never feels rushed. Ichikawa discussed how to adapt the story within a short time frame with director, Takahiko Kyogoku. Haruko took part in the story development and ensured that the series struck explored some key concepts while still leaving hints about the central mysteries. (1)

This more thoughtful approach to adapting a work from one medium to another is rare and makes the series a series a joy to watch. The writer for the manga and anime crew put far more care and effort into every aspect of this adaptation than most manga to anime adaptations.

The visuals complement, even enhance the storytelling on a thematic and emotional level. The original manga uses a simple art style that contrasts black and white to create a sense of ambiguity. Anime isn’t a medium where ambiguity works. So Takahiko Kyogoku and the animators decided to use a lush colour palette to convey atmosphere and emotion. 

 The manga creates a sense of isolation through a lack of detail, using white backgrounds to highlight a character’s mental state.

But the anime uses colour to full effect. It builds a clear sense of atmosphere with the contrast between soft blue and green hues with dark shades of red and black. The lone figure of Cinnabar emerging from their dank cave surrounded only by small bubbles of mercury. 

The combination of traditional, hand-drawn animation and CG, vividly brings the world of the Lustrous to life. The traditional animation renders beautiful backdrops, while the CG gives the Lustrous their luster. Land of the Lustrous is an intricately researched series.

The different Lustrous’ traits are informed by the minerals and rocks they are based on. For example, Phosphophylite is known for its fragility and brittleness, and Cinnabar is a mineral that’s composed of mercury. The series borrows heavily from Buddhist iconography.

The Buddhist philosophy of impermanence is explored through beings who are defined by their changelessness.  The Lunarians that hunt them seem based on Buddhist mythic creatures called Apsara. The Apsara are described as magic, whimsical beings, “born of clouds and water.” (2)


The Angkor Wat Apsara Trio 

The Apsaras are said to rule over the fortunes of games of chance and gambling. (3) They are beings who known to entertain and sometimes seduce. The Apsara-like Lunarians of Land of the Lustrous steal the Lustrous and use them to amuse themselves as jewelry. The show implies that the souls of humans exist within these creatures, so caught in their attachments to material things, that they treat sentient beings as objects. 

The Lustrous themselves are closer to the Buddhist goal of enlightenment than the Lunarians that hunt them. But nothing is as it seems in this series. In the Mahayana branch of Buddhist thought, a bodhisattva is a person who has reached enlightenment. They have transcended attachments and concepts such as gender. While the anime draws the Lustrous with curvaceous feminine bodies, they are far more androgynous in the manga. They all present as non-binary in both versions.  

The narrative hints that the Lustrous are distant relatives of humans that have inherited only their strength or “bones.” But they still have remnants of humanity in their personalities. They can’t just be content to be, well,  minerals. They’re too complicated to live with the permanence that comes with being a rock or mineral. They all need some kind of purpose to drive them forward. Phos, in particular, wants to become more than just the weak Lustrous that relies on the others for protection. 

As a result, Phos experiences the closest thing to death that a Lustrous can, repeatedly. They come back each time stronger, but more world-weary.  “Even as the Lustrous have transcended gender like the peerless bodhisattva, their suffering connects them closer still to their flawed human ancestors.” (4)   

Phos goes through a type of reincarnation experiencing change on a level that organic beings normally do. 

“This is a first for me, watching winter fade away into spring,” Phos observes. “Living beings change at such a fast pace, don’t they? It’s frightening.”

“You do too,” The Sensei and leader of the Lustrous, tells Phos. 

“That … you’re right.” Phos agrees. “You’re very right … it’s scary.”

By the end of the series, Phos seems to have entered into samsara, the cycle of birth and rebirth. They have willed themselves to change through sacrifice and sheer determination. The series sees change as complicated and messy, yet ultimately worth it, with an ending that stays with you long after the final credits roll. 

Land of the Lustrous isn’t just a beautiful sweeping story about sentient minerals. It’s also wacky and fun. The series has random, bizarre moments that will leave in fits of confused laughter. Episode three, in particular, is charmingly goofy and strange. The show’s ability to balance deep character drama and poignant moments with off-the-wall humour makes it a joy to watch. 

The characters themselves are a joy, with fun and well-developed character dynamics. While story very much centres on Phos, the way their arc intersects with the colourful cast, gives a brief yet compelling insight into the Lustrous community. 

Land of the Lustrous is a gorgeous, inventive series with mesmerizing visuals that enhance the storytelling, instead of taking away from it. Critics are calling it the best anime of the season. I’d go so far to say that it’s one of the best animated series to come out of Japan, period. The rich characterization, themes of finding your true potential, and unique art direction, make this series really stand out. 

References:

(1) https://www.animatetimes.com/news/details.php?id=1507372073 Animate Times, October 7, 2017

(2) https://traceyrohrsheim.com/tag/apsara/ Cloud Writing, Tracy Rohsheim, February 26, 2012

(3) https://www.britannica.com/topic/apsara Apsara, Indian Religion and Mythology, Matt Stefon, October 20, 2009

(4) https://thereforeitis.wordpress.com/2018/02/24/identity-genderless-and-buddhist-transcendence-in-land-of-the-lustrous/ Identity Genderless and Buddhist Transcendence in Land of the Lustrous, ZeroreQ011, February 24, 2018 

Creating Character Arcs: Part 3

Act 3: Confronting the Lie and Conclusions

Traditionally, the hero is meant to overcome the things in their way. The heroes confront and overcome their Lie by facing their foil. In both Thor and The Prince of Egypt, their brothers are their biggest obstacles. Family dysfunction makes for good drama. Just ask Shakespeare.

Thor:

In Thor, Loki holds onto the Lie of kingship, while Ramses holds onto the Lie that the system he inherited must be upheld at all costs. Loki believes he can earn his adoptive family’s love by killing his people, the Frost Giants.

He wants to take the right of kingship and prove he’s worthy of his adoptive family. And he does this by taking on the same Lie his brother held about might making right. But by the time Thor confronts his brother, he’s rejected that way of thinking. He’s not the cocky prince out to start a fight anymore. He earned back his hammer and godly status by throwing putting aside his pride and acting selflessly.

The Prince of Egypt:

Ramses’ father pressured him to live up to his legacy as the all-powerful, “morning and evening star.” If Ramses failed to live up to these incredibly lofty standards, he would be the “weak link” that would bring down the whole dynasty.

Ramses defines himself by his status as Pharaoh and lives with his father’s admonition not to be the “weak link” in back of his mind. It becomes his driving force when Moses pleads for him to let his people go. Moses let go of the Lie of his own entitlement once his sense of identity was shattered but Ramses steadfastly holds onto it.

Thor and Moses’ brothers believe in the Lie, while they grow away from it. Having a foil who goes in the opposite direction to the hero is a great way to create compelling character drama. It also highlights how far your hero has come, while giving them not necessarily a villain, but an antagonist force who offers an opposing view.

The end of a positive change arc has the main character not just rejecting the lie, but overcoming it. Thor rejects his initial beliefs of might makes right by reaching out to his brother, both literally and figuratively in an attempt to help him. But Loki, unable to overcome his Lie, rejects his brother’s help.

Ramses loses his only son as a result of not letting Moses’ people go. But even as Ramses finally agrees to let the slaves leave, he plans revenge. The final hurdle Moses and his people must face is Ramses and his men, charging at them before leaving Egypt. This is one last show of power for Ramses while he’s grieving. Moses manages to start anew, guiding his people safely to a better life in a new land, while Ramses loses everything because of stubbornness and pride.

A positive change character arc shows the main character coming to a better place emotionally and often physically. And to highlight this, their foil often ends in the direction the hero could have potentially gone if they hadn’t changed.

All stories are based on a problem, often both internal and external, that the hero must solve. Building conflict and showing how they go about overcoming it is what gets people invested in a story. Writing a gripping character arc and weaving it into your plot can seem like a daunting task. But following a basic structure can make it flow naturally.