Genre Flexibility

Picture unrelated, but once again from Kekai Kotaki.

I noticed something slightly frustrating during my university study – something possibly prompted by my position as a digital age, post-modern, 21st century kind of student. I flatted with other students who all took different subjects, but we would sit around in the evenings and discuss our readings and our work. When a subject came up everyone would draw on their own specialties to offer a different perspective or report what they had been taught; the same names would come up, and occasionally two people would excitedly realise that a concept from their discipline was being taught over the other side of campus, too. From these discussions, I would often find myself thinking – how did my lecturers not seem to know about these other sides of the discussion? Surely my flatmates and I couldn’t be that much more insightful than those learned men and women?

The answer, I decided, was that these other ways of thinking belonged to other disciplines, and thus may as well have been behind a solid wall. Media lecturers did not discuss their subject with scholars of religion, or psychologists, or anthropologists. Sure, there were obvious points of cross-over, and inter-disciplinary research is growing in popularity and trendiness, but the kinds of casual conversation we students were having in the course of griping about our essays didn’t seem to happen in the higher echelons.

I was reminded of this frustration while reading about Madoka Magica this week. Mystlord’s continuing disappointment with the show has been the source of much interesting discussion, which after all is what blogging is all about. What interested me was his reaction to “this sudden sci-fi introduction into the show.” Let me quote him (selectively):

“On the one hand, what we’ve seen up until now is essentially a completely fantastical and magical world … But with this sudden introduction of space-faring, highly civilized races, suddenly the show is placed in this strange vortex.”

Personally, I don’t see how the fact that a certain character started talking about entropy, energy and space dramatically changes the nature of this story. When magical girls save the world solely by the power or love, it’s not sci-fi; if someone stated it as a thermodynamic energy process, would it be? Are genres really purely by content, so that if it has elves or magic, it’s fantasy, but it if has spaceships and technology, it’s sci-fi? That strikes me as more of a preference, like the difference between ‘dark’ and ‘high’ fantasy, and all the variations in between.

This is fantasy, and everyone knows it – that’s why all ‘fantasy’ book covers look the same. (Image found by Googling, I don’t know the book)

As is so often the case in matters of literature, I tend to agree with Neil Gaiman. “One of the most interesting things about being here at the beginning of the 21st century,” he says in an video, “is the idea that genre no longer exists and no longer matters, except possibly as a kind of marketing thing in bookshops just to allow you to know what floor, what section the books you like may be shelved.” He is introducing the short story anthology he and Al Sarrantonio edited, which is titled Stories. The idea of the collection was to bring together good stories by good authors, without regard for conventional genres. Fantasy, in the sense of non-realism, need not be shelved in a corner where only people who claim to like fantasy will ever see it – fantastic stories can be mainstream, and why not? The whole point of the anthology, which Gaiman reiterates in the video, is that storytelling is the most important thing.

Like many of the tales in Stories, good science fiction takes a leap of belief and runs with it. If the imagined situation was real, what might really happen? A good story is good regardless of how speculative or imaginary its content may be, and refusing to like anything set is space or a pseudo-medieval fantasy or, for that matter, the real world is just limiting yourself. Note – I am not saying this is what Mystlord is doing! Nor am I even implying that Puella Magi Madoka Magica is one of these excellent stories which transcends its content. The discussion simply prompted these thoughts.

Mystlord is probably right when he says that the sci-fi turn bothered a lot of people (I admit I have not surveyed a wider range of anime blogs). Still, I think it’s the wrong thing to get hung up on. A story can be about space and aliens and also emotions, growing up, choice and identity – in fact, the best ones should be.

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6 Responses to Genre Flexibility

  1. Mystlord says:

    I don’t think I ever once said that Madoka Magica CAN’T be both a story about mahou shoujos and about sci-fi elements, but the issue that I have is that it doesn’t NEED to be a story with both these elements without more significant interplay between the two elements, and that adding in the sci-fi so abruptly just turns the series in the wrong direction.

    From episode 1 all the way to episode 8, we had these questions of “what effect does the truth have on these characters?”, and “what does this specific construction of mahou shoujos signify?”. With the introduction of the sci-fi elements, suddenly for part of the episode, our minds turned to “is what Kyuubey doing right or wrong in the context of the big picture of the universe?”. And suddenly, our judgment of the series was colored by this question. Suddenly, the entire first two questions vanished from our minds, and even at this point, they’re fighting with the third question for dominance in our minds. That’s what I have issue with, in that this sort of “big picture” idea really contributes nothing to the discussion of mahou shoujos or why these characters act the way they do.

    Genre may have disappeared, but themes most certainly haven’t. And in the case of Madoka Magica, this entropy idea doesn’t mesh well with this emotions idea. They just aren’t connected in any way, shape, or form, and it looks like Urobuchi has no intent of making them connected. This entropy idea is instead just this floating island in a sea of character analysis, especially when considering how episode 10 pulled the audience back towards the character analysis side of things.

    • Curuniel says:

      I guess we just had different reactions to Kyubey’s explanation scene – I should probably go back and re-watch the episode if I’m going to debate this further (which, don’t worry, I’m not really intending to – you have enough debate on your hands, I just find your views interesting). When I watched episode 9 I did feel like the entropy thing was really disconnected from the main story so far, but to me that signaled more that we weren’t supposed to dwell on it than that we were. More like a token explanation that would go over Madoka’s head and leave her even more alone and confused rather than illuminating anything. Madoka is the centre of a Break The Cutie extravaganza after all. I thought the way that the scene was composed reflected this too, with Kyubey speaking and Madoka barely reacting.

      Of course, even if this was the writer’s intention, there’s no excusing it if that’s not the effect it had on most people. I can only speak for what I thought when I first watched it.

      • Mystlord says:

        Hm it’s certainly possible that we’re just reacting differently to the scene. Because Madoka made several impassioned comments during the exchange, I took the scene to mean that Madoka was essentially a sort of representative for humanity. She is, after all, the most “moral” out of any one in Madoka Magica. I mean she basically cried out: “Is this what all my friends died for?” and “You really are the enemy of humanity” (or something like that). It might just be me though.

      • alexrc55 says:

        i find it amusing that on the page you link to detailing break the cutie uses this series as as the picture example

      • Curuniel says:

        Haha, I don’t think it did when I originally posted, but it is one of the stand-out recent examples!

  2. Pingback: A Game of Thrones: For Men Only? | Psychopomp

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