Your Story is Infinitely More Interesting Than Asuna’s and Rukia’s

I like to think that I’m a sophisticated viewer, one who not only appreciates but genuinely enjoys art house anime. But the reality is, while I do like some series that are unknown to many viewer, I also enjoy a number of popular shounen series, which is perhaps why the biggest disappointments I’ve had in anime have in how two such shows went off the map. I loved the first seasons of Bleach and Sword Art Online when they came out. I was addicted to them, waiting at baited breath for each new episode. For each I thought, “This could be my new favorite series!”

And then for both, season two came along. The series went from among my favorites to massive disappointments, not least of all for how each treated their really interesting and well-designed heroines. Season two of both shows put these characters—Rukia and Asuna—in prisons, waiting for their knights in shining armor (or black cloaks) to come rescue them, undoing all the work of establishing strong and capable heroines in season one of their respective series.

What a waste of interesting characters.

asuna jail prison alfheim online
Stuck in prison without a whole lot to do (art by Cloudy.R | reprinted w/permission)

I don’t know the reasons behind Reki Kawahara and Tite Kubo’s decisions to do this to their characters, but I have to think it had something to do with control. It’s scary to go somewhere unique, somewhere beyond the tried and true of shounen tropes, and neither Kubo nor Kawahara were willing to go there, to give voice to Rukia and Asuna. They’d rather walk the straight and narrow of the shounen path, keep control over their narratives, and avoid letting creativity veer them off course, which ultimately resulted in boring, boring stories with flat heroines.

I’m ridiculing these two, but I have to say…I relate to them, too. I want control. I want to lay out my life in a very normal, “successful” pattern, one that avoids creativity and the chance of failure that comes along with it. But that’s a mistake, too, because failure is what shapes our lives and makes them interesting and, I think, ultimately more successful.

In my life, for instance, I’d long ago woven a tale where I would earn an M.D. or a PhD or some similar degree, make lots of money, receive a ton of praise, and live out a comfortable existence. Not so fast, though! As I made my way through college, I learned, “Hey, I’m not really good at these science classes,” and “Hey, I’m not really interested enough in anything to get a post-graduate degree.”

I switched majors away from the sciences and at first, I felt like a failure. That feelings returned multiples times as I moved along the path of career—I wasn’t where I intended to be, where I expected to be. And yet, these failures helped me grow in ways that were out of my control, giving me skills and experiences that led me down a path to become a director at an agency, a place I never intended to go but where I feel I belong.

I had been content with my own safe, lame story, but was shaken out of it by God’s plans. My hope for you is that you are not content with being like the Kawahara and Kubo, like myself, that you’ll search for something more interesting—better. Doing so means taking chances. It means feeling uncomfortable and even failing. But I think the consequences of not doing so are much harsher than what we receive in failures along the path of growth, because in living a life of safety and control, we end up becoming like Asuna—trapped in a sky prison and not part of the bigger, more interesting, more engaging tale, looking pretty while the real adventure passes us by.


7 thoughts on “Your Story is Infinitely More Interesting Than Asuna’s and Rukia’s

  1. Poor Asuna. She was on her way to becoming one of my favorite characters and a sure-fire Final Four in my annual Anime Bracket when that second half of season 1 trapped her in a birdcage and made me fall in love with Leafa instead. I feel a lot like Asuna sometimes. Lots of things are hampering me from fulfilling my potential. But my hope is that someday I’ll escape my cage and become the Asuna we saw in the movie.

    1. That’s a good comparison, Tommy, and maybe we all feel that way sometimes (and certainly some more than others). I haven’t seen the film yet, but I’ve heard good things—looking forward to watching it!

  2. You’re right I agree that our attempts at control lead to a suffocating prison. I know in my life that risk management takes over in my relationships then I end up avoiding difficulties and withdraw but soon boredom and a kind of mental claustrophobia sets in. It requires vulnerability and the possibility of failure to trust God and take risks. When we don’t allow ourselves to be open to something unexpected, it’s impossible to be caught by wonder or awe. Exploration by nature is an adventure where we will encounter new joys and unexpected “good” even in the face of great perils.

    In art as well, if “creatives” don’t take a chance because we are too worried about It’s target audience and sticks with familiar “tried and true” stuff( in this case shonen tropes/ genre expectations) then nothing revolutionary or interesting breaks out. It’s stuffy and falls flat, especially when a story becomes almost formulaic and unsurprising

    The Art of War Sun Tzu talks about the Orthodox and the Extraodinary.

    “In sum, when in battle,
    Use the orthodox to engage.
    Use the extraordinary to attain victory.”

    The idea is that every battle is to engage the enemies expectations on the surface but secretly build a curve ball into the structure that will slowly form something that will catch the enemy off guard. Even though this is a book about the adversarial attitude, I don’t mean to imply that storyteller artist and his audience are necessarily at odds with one another or antagonistic but we as consumers we aren’t easily dazzled or captured by merely, cover art, a preview or even a couple of episodes. Contemplative consumers are always a bit hesitant about praise after a number of promising stories that lead to disappointments, so the people who produce the anime are required to seduce us with the “familiar”/ orthodox and wow us with the strange/”extraordinary”, i.e.the surprising.

    Personally I always thought Rukia’s character in Bleach wasn’t given the chance she should’ve. She is a rare strong female character. One of my favorite anime pictures is a more representational version of Rukia with her sword, looks more like a painting than a cartoon.

    I write a bit recklessly and loosely. Well I just enjoyed the essay.

    1. I don’t think your response was loose at all—thank you for digging even deeper than my post went. I love the comparison with Sun Tzu’s words! And I think maybe as with battle, too, the unorthodox may lead to defeat more often than it does to victory (after all, the tried and true is tried and true for a reason), but when it works…the amazing occurs and a victory for the ages is written (I immediately think of Madoka in anime terms).

  3. You know, i think it’s interesting that you compare Rukia and Asuna with each other, because i actually think they’re quite different, at least in theory.

    Asuna’s imprisonment was against a force of nature, something she couldn’t fight because he was a “god” of that world, exerting total control over her, and, well, everything else in it. It’s the type of typical storytelling that we see a lot, where the heroine is trapped in a cage by the untouchable baddie, and only the hero has the power to mysteriously stop them, somehow. Pretty much relies on some leaps of logic to get there.

    Rukia, on the other hand, isn’t bound by an immeasurably powerful force; she’s bound by society. Soul reaper society is largely consistent with ancient, feudal japan, the shinigamis akin to Samurai. Following their codes of honor, a samurai that has betrayed the trust of their lord is sentenced to death, and they can choose to go willingly and retain their honor. Rukia doesn’t fight against her fate because she is a part of that society; in essence, only Ichigo perceives her slated execution to be wrong.

    I think there’s a huge difference between being bound in a literal birdcage waiting to be saved, and being tied down by the preconceptions of the society you’ve lived in your whole life.

    1. Hmm…that’s an interesting point. While I still would say that both shows use their heroines as damsels in distress who are ultimately rescued by the more important male hero, I’m totally intrigued by your comments about the role society plays as Rukia’s captor. There are so many more layers there, so much more substance. Thank you for pointing that out!

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