Wednesday, October 6, 2010

All the Best People Have to Be Ghosts

For a long time now, I have wondered why it is that I like Utena without loving it. On paper, Utena seems like something I should love. I've described Angel Sanctuary as "all these people who don't fully understand each other always hurting each other inadvertently" with Gnostic overtones implying that "the physical world is evil because it separates us, divides us up into these beings that can't touch and careen about and hurt each other" and, of course, weird gender and incest issues. Given this description, there's almost no distinction between AS and Utena. So, given that Utena is obviously the more intellectual of the two, and AS is clearly sillier by far, why is AS the one I adore and Utena the one I coldly admire?

While I was walking around doing nothing for an hour today, I came up, for the first time, with an answer that makes sense - if it is clearly not the content, then it must be the structure! This is slightly hard for me to accept because the structures do seem superficially similar (well, those aspects of the structure that seem relevant - I do not think the reason I don't love Utena is because of the Rose Bride duels). Both of them feature a main plot in the present and a lot of backstory, which is revealed gradually during the course of the main plot, up until the final, most important, extremely Gnostic backstory that gets revealed at the end. However, the difference between the two of them is, I think, in the balance of the backstory and the main story. It's true that in Utena the backstory is the motivation for the entire present story. It's also true that almost every important individual character has his or her own different backstory, and even that the backstories connect (to some degree - Utena's, Saionji's, Touga's, Akio's, and Anthy's obviously do). However, first of all I feel that less time is devoted to backstory in Utena and the focus is more clearly on the present. Even if I'm wrong about this (and I haven't measured it to find out for sure), I think that it's still true in the sense that people in AS spend a huge amount of time talking about the backstory with each other even in the present, whereas although we see a lot of the backstory in Utena, it seems less common for characters to be discussing it with each other in the present, such that it still makes for a time differential. Secondly, the backstory in AS is far more convoluted and interconnected; all of the characters have motivations that stem from the motivations of other characters who are connected to still other characters, whereas the backstory of Utena seems (if you don't mind my saying so) far less incestuous (as for whether or not this is literally true. . . ummm. . . that's a hard one). These two features contribute to my sense that, despite the many similarities between the two works, the backstory plays a more significant role in my experience of AS than my experience of Utena.

And of course it's very likely that this would, in fact, be a reason for me to love one far more than the other. Because I love stories where a lot of the story time is devoted to figuring out what went on in the past - in fact, that's among my favorite things. If you look at the works of art I have fallen in love with, whether it's Hexwood, Lost, Xenogears, PSME, or Hitherby - these are all stories where a lot of the narrative drive and suspense comes from trying to figure out what's already happened rather than momentum forwards. The big climactic moment of Utena isn't finding out the truth about Anthy and Akio, it's Utena's duel with Akio and the aftermath. It's something that happens in the present. But, although it is the end of the series, it would seem odd to say that the big climactic moment of AS is in fact Setsuna killing God; it seems to be more something along the lines of discovering the true relationship between Alexiel, Lucifiel, and Rosiel and the catharsis for Alexiel and Rosiel of Rosiel's death. So the climax is the reveal of the ultimate truth behind the plot; the death of God is more like a necessary afterthought (as part of the climactic reveal is the revelation that God is to blame for EVERYTHING!). This is the kind of story I love, where the whole point is to discover the truth about the past - it's the reason I fell madly in love with Absalom, Absalom! the moment I read it - because it's a book where the entire plot is laid out in the first chapter, and the rest of the book is just characters researching and then making up an explanation for it.

I don't know why this kind of narrative appeals to me more than other structures when the content is so close - but there you have it, it does. And I think that's a very helpful explanation of my heretofore inexplicable reactions.

Yay walking around doing nothing for an hour!

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