What anime can teach you about ending a story

Warning: the following contains spoilers for the endings of Cowboy Bebop, Fullmetal Alchemist, Neon Genesis: Evangelion, Avatar: The Last Airbender, Battlestar Galactica, LOST, Supernatural (current) and The Prisoner.

I’ve noticed an alarming trend in television finales, lately: God.

The presence of God in television finales alarms me for a number of reasons. Culturally, I think it reflects the general shift toward conservatism in the West. Most stories that involve the presence of God (or at least a divine entity of some sort, whether it’s Krishna in The Bhagavad-Gita or The Furies/Eumenides in The Oresteia, are about characters finding their path at a moment of confusion, or coming back down to Earth after reaching too high. In both cases, the Divine re-establishes the “natural” order. Arjuna steps into his role as a virtuous prince. Orestes accepts that vengeance is not his to take. These stories come from an inherently conservative point of view: everyone has a place to stand and a part to play, and attempts to step outside those boundaries can only result in pain and suffering. You’ll notice that stories about God commonly involve triumph over the self, not triumph over an oppressive regime — Arjuna never once thinks that he should share his riches with the lower castes, or that he’ll unseat the monarchy once he wins the battle. Doing so would overturn the “natural” order of his environment. Arjuna’s kingdom, once he wins it, will continue to rely on slavery to sustain itself — because that’s how Krishna wants it. God’s role in these stories is a conservator, one who might snip off poisoned buds or gently nudge humans in one direction or another in attempt to preserve that which is good and right, without radically altering anything. God conserves the status quo, and we’re supposed to take comfort in that: a place for everyone, and everyone in their place.

Recent American television finales have embraced this logic. The endings of Avatar: The Last Airbender, Battlestar Galactica, and LOST all involve a divine figure returning balance to an earthly equation by repeating an ancient pattern. The Avatar achieves his final state and the four nations again live in harmony. Humans create Cylons, battle Cylons, and become Cylons. The Island calls people in need of personal change, gives it to them, then lets them go (to Heaven) before calling another group. All of this has happened before, and will happen again. The pattern doesn’t change, it simply repeats.

Another word for “repetition” is “letdown.”

As far back as Aristotle, critics and audiences have measured the quality of a story by (among other things) whether it has a discernible beginning, middle, and end. Things must change. The characters must be in a different place than before, and the audience must feel for them. Traditionally, this comes about as a result of the character making a choice or taking an action that has consequences, and then suffering through them. Agamemnon sacrifices Iphigenia so that his ships might sail to Troy, and Clytemnestra retaliates by murdering him. Hamlet refuses to kill Claudius when he has the chance, and he (and everyone else) dies. Rochester lies to Jane about his marriage, and loses her. Meursault kills the Arab, then awaits his execution. Consequences follow actions. Stories progress. Circumstances change. Characters grow.

But lately on American television, they haven’t. Lately, all tension has been drained from their actions, and all opportunities for choice have been robbed from them by fate. Does it matter that humans created Cylons? Not really. They did it because God wanted them to. Does it matter that the Losties all had issues with their parents that they needed to overcome before they could be whole? Nah. They were all in Purgatory, anyhow. Does it matter that Aang had lost access to the Avatar State? No — apparently stray rocks can unblock his chakra. (That’s right, kids: Aang works like the Millennium Falcon — a well-placed punch can bring his circuits back online.)

Notable exceptions exist: Supernatural invokes God as a character who allows humans to make their own decisions and suffer the consequences. At the end of this season, Sam and Dean did their best to flout Heaven’s will, and God essentially tousled their hair and said “You crazy kids…” before consigning one to the flames and leaving the other a soulless wreck of a man. He threw in a couple of freebies, like re-integrating Castiel, who then gave Bobby his life back. But as Castiel says, Dean and Sam worked hard to achieve exactly what they desired: no hell below us; above us, only sky. They rebelled against God’s plan, and God responded by washing his hands of them. It’s a sad story, but it’s an eminently satisfying one. Pity and fear, the two emotions that Aristotle said make up the crucial narrative element called catharsis, are not pleasant feelings. But they are powerful, and they teach us the things we listen to stories in order to learn.

Stories where God fixes everything? That’s the narrative equivalent of a nutritionist saying that you can eat nothing but McDonald’s and not get fat.

Perhaps this is why I like anime so much: anime lets characters suffer the consequences of their actions. The classic example is Cowboy Bebop. Spike flees the Red Dragon crime syndicate rather than killing Vicious, and Vicious chases him across the stars, snapping at his heels until their final, mortal meeting. This theme, the futility of trying to outrun one’s past, repeats across all the characters: Jet wants to forget how he lost his arm, but he’s forced to confront the man who betrayed him; Faye wishes she were always the tough woman she’s sculpted herself into, but eventually her memories of childhood return and she realizes just how much she’s lost. In all three cases, unfinished business comes back to bite the characters. The decisions they made in the past have meaning in the present.

Another example is Fullmetal Alchemist. Although the original anime series had to make up its own ending because the manga that inspired it was unfinished, that ending is still fairly satisfying, if not necessarily happy. Edward and Alphonse have spent the entire series trying to get their bodies back without paying the price demanded by the alchemical laws of equivalent exchange, and they do — somewhat. For Edward, that means being stranded in another universe where alchemy is impossible, without an arm or a brother. For Alphonse, it means gaining back his body, but losing all his memories of the brother he spent the last four years with. It’s an ending, yes, and it’s the ending Edward wanted for his brother. But doesn’t make it painless.

This isn’t to say that anime always gets it right. The ending of Neon Genesis: Evangelion so thoroughly confused viewers that it inspired its own TV Trope. Much like The Prisoner, NG:E ends a convoluted plot not by tying up loose ends, but by swerving into an extended stage-performance-as-life metaphor. When I watched it with Peter for a Mechademia review of the series, he sat calmly for a minute, then asked me what the fuck had just happened. I rose quickly from my seat and said something about starting dinner.

I should note that the ending of NG:E should function as a warning on multiple levels: not only should writers fire all the rifles resting over the mantelpiece, and not fire the rifles that were never there to begin with, but they should accept defeat when the trigger jams. To this day, Hideaki Anno has yet to create a series as enduring or profitable as NG:E, primarily because neither he nor his audience (myself included) could leave that ending alone. We kept picking at it its rough and ragged edges, slowly enlarging the wound by sticking two sequels, three manga series, and an entirely new sextet of films inside it. If Anno had ended the series satisfactorily in 1996, his career might look very different in 2010.

But by and large, I notice that anime is better able to end a story than live-action television. I suspect that this is because anime producers contract with studios for a set number of episodes within which to tell the story. No one worries about the “back nine” being picked up to complete a season, or whether a second or third season will be asked for. Those questions are answered before the animator ever lights up her table. Granted, in cases where an anime has to sync up with a manga, there can be problems with filler. (I’m looking at you, Bleach.) But even a six-episode mini-series like FLCL can tell a complete story where the world changes and characters grow. That’s more than some series can do in six seasons.

I write this as a person routinely stymied by endings. When I’m in my workshop, my most frequent question is “How can we fix this ending?” Normally, I need someone to tell me what the story was about for them before I understand how to bring it all together. Perspective is just harder to achieve at the end of the game, when you’re too tired to keep your eye on all the balls you have in the air. All of the mistakes I’ve written about here are ones I’ve made myself, before. I just got back Peter’s line-edit on my manuscript last Tuesday, and our discussion (with Caitlin) of the ending was not a pretty one. (I believe the words “cheated,” “squandered,” and “lazy” were used multiple times.) But a few hours and three bottles of wine later, we had worked out a few tweaks that might accomplish what I’d been trying to do all along. The next day, I went over these changes with both my husband and my best friend Dave. The former is a far more logical thinker than I will ever be, and the latter a far better writer. They both agreed that these changes would improve the re-write. So maybe this little essay isn’t a dirge for American drama, or a paean to Japanese anime. Maybe it’s just a meditation in praise of re-writes. Maybe it’s an acknowledgment that we all fail the first time, and that the first draft should never be the final one.

Speaking of which, I need to get to work.

16 thoughts on “What anime can teach you about ending a story”

  1. Hope you know that even in FMA manga, a notion of ‘god’ has been (re-)introduced in recent chapters. Though, it is in a slightly different context than the one you mentioned here. Just after reading the first few lines of the post, I was worried that you clubbed FMA along with the others! Anyway, would like to read your views about FMA’s god too (maybe in some other post)…

  2. Was thinking of the ending of Wolf (the Pfeiffer, Nicholson, Spader film). The writer set up everything (I thought) but the end didn’t happen at all the way I expected based on his threads. There was a strange kluge.

    Happened to also see an interview with the screenwriter. He apparently wrote it by himself in a cabin in the woods. (Warning: dimestore psychology coming). The advantage was I think he got the lone hunter/predator thing down just right. The problem, being isolated he could not figure out how to bring it back to being human.

    It’s sufferable when we learn from the mistakes of others, though.

    BTW, my spawn is a CB fanatic. One day I’ll drag him to a con and introduce you. My personal fave: when Ein and the kid hallucinate (forget which episode… Halloween involved?).

  3. You missed one, a British genre drama (not mentioning the title because for spoiler reasons) which not only finished on the same weekend as Lost but also had the same conclusion: The whole show was set in some kind of purgatory and all the characters were dead, some had been dead for decades. It was well acted, well written (unlike Lost), very emotional and apparently the story the creators had wanted to tell from the beginning. I hadn’t expected a happy ending, it wasn’t that sort of story. But this ending left me feeling betrayed. Because nothing that had happened to the characters mattered, their actions didn’t matter, since they were all dead anyway. There also was the repetition element, because at the very end yet another new dead person stumbled in, which made me absolutely furious, because at the very least someone could have tried to stop the cycle from happening over and over again.

    So I very much agree with you. And I prefer my speculative television without religion, thank you very much. I don’t mind, if the religious aspects are out in the open from the beginning. In that case, I can take it (Supernatural) or leave it (the new Battlestar Galactica). But religious content sneaking in via the backdoor bothers me. It annoys me to watch what seems to be a science fictional show, only for the story to take a left turn into “Surprise! It’s heaven/hell/purgatory and that character is God/the devil/an angel” territory in the last few episodes.

    I’m actually close to the point of giving up on arc-driven television shows altogether, because the ending always disappoints. Either there isn’t one, because the show is cancelled on an unresolved cliffhanger, or everything is dragged out until the show is no longer plausible and no one cares anymore what the ending is or it’s revealed that some kind of divine power was behind everything that was going on all the time.

    Here via Charles Tan’s blog BTW.

  4. I think you have really misunderstood some aspects of the Bhagavad Gita and I don’t think it is the best tool to use to illustrate your point. This religion is far from asking anyone to ‘fall in line’. And secondly, it is certainly NOT a ‘story’, let alone even an epic? It is a dialogue.

    “You’ll notice that stories about God commonly involve triumph over the self, not triumph over an oppressive regime – Arjuna never once thinks that he should share his riches with the lower castes, or that he’ll unseat the monarchy once he wins the battle. Doing so would overturn the “natural” order of his environment. Arjuna’s kingdom, once he wins it, will continue to rely on slavery to sustain itself – because that’s how Krishna wants it.”

    For your edification:
    1) Arjuna never had a kingdom during the war. Him and his brothers were in exile without riches. 2) The present-day IDEA of caste is not the same as what is expanded upon within the Bhagavad Gita. The Gita does not judge a persons caste based on wealth at all, and Arjuna is not meant to exemplify charity – his elder brother Karna is.
    3) Krishna’s request (request being the operative word) is far less sanctimonious than some of what I have read from Judaist texts. I am curious as to why you haven’t used them to illustrate this point?

    Overall, a nice article, but please be more respectful when using such heavily-weighted comments.

    1. Thank you. I will try to be more meticulous in the future.

      I suppose I wanted to use the Gita because I imagined (perhaps incorrectly) that fewer of my readers would be familiar with it, and that they would not bring so many of pre-conceived notions when considering the role of the Divine in a fictional or mythical story. The whole entry has to do with what God means in fiction, and I was trying to address that. It seems I may have gotten my facts wrong, though, and for that I apologise. I should have taken more time in my research.

    2. ” I suppose I wanted to use the Gita because I imagined (perhaps incorrectly) that fewer of my readers would be familiar with it, and that they would not bring so many of pre-conceived notions when considering the role of the Divine in a fictional or mythical story.”
      AFAIK, author seems to be guilty of the pre-conceived notions, she wanted her readers to not have and Thanks GRV for putting the clarification on the Bhagvad Gita.

  5. Does it matter that humans created Cylons? Yes, it certainly does matter, because humans and Cylons were stuck in an endless cycle of self-destruction. The cycle that supposedly robs the characters of choice is what the characters choose to escape from. Lee convinces everyone in the fleet to abandon technology and then the humans and Cylons become one people. This breaks the cycle.

    Does it matter that the characters on Lost had issues? Yes, it definitely does. First, they were not all in purgatory in the Island universe. The Island is real, the choices the characters made on the Island mattered. Jack’s choices (to become the new protector and to send Desmond into glowy cave) lead to his own death. Sawyer’s choice to not trust Jack led to Sayid, Sun, and Jin’s death. Second, The flash-sideways were visions of prugatory/limbo/in-between. The thing about the flash-sideways is that they showed the characters dealing with their issues and letting go. So whether they were in purgatory or on the Island, the characters had to make choices and develop in order to move on.

    The rock freeing Aang’s Avatar state is just unimaginative writing, but who cares? Aang entering his Avatar, I guess, was necessary for him to win the fight with Ozai, but it was certainly necessary for Aang’s character development. Aang entering his Avatar allows him to choose to abandon it, to choose to not follow the path that the past-Avatars said he had to. Aang chooses to not kill. Aang is the Avatar and as such it is his responsibility to keep the harmony between the elements. He is told by authority that he must do two things the fulfill his responsibility: kill Ozai and give up his love for Katara. He refuses to do both.

    So, where’s the lack of choice? Where’s the divinity robbing these characters of their development? Where’s the lack of consequences for the characters? ‘Cause all I see are characters having a cycle or path laid before them and choosing to either follow it or to find their own way and then dealing with the repercussions (like dying, like no longer having the luxury of living in a technologically advanced society, like rebuilding the world). What’s more, they’re often making other choices that have nothing to do with the cycle/path. You might not like the spiritualism in television today, but the notion that it’s taking away from the characters just isn’t true. At least, not in the series discussed here.

  6. I’m not sure if your dislike of the Lost finale is fully informed. Just so we’re clear, these are the implications of that finale:

    “The whole show is not purgatory, and the island events are not fake. Here’s what happened:

    – every single solitary event from S1-S6 happened, with the exception of the S6 flashsideways
    – Jack died in the jungle, Kate/Sawyer/Miles/Frank/Richard/Claire flew away, Ben and Hurley stayed on the island
    – Kate and Co. went home, led their lives, grew old, died
    – Hurley and Ben eventually died
    – Once they all died, they arrived in the flashsideways, which is your purgatory
    – They all needed to find eachother and be together again before they could move on
    – They did at the end”

    The Island didn’t call the Losties. Jacob started calling more people than normal, first to prove a point to Smokey about humankind and then because he realized he needed help to put down Smokey, so he called those who were flawed and could be given meaning in such a task to be candidates. Of course, he went about things in a screwed up way, and his eventual death pretty much confirmed that his haphazard style of management was far from perfect, but, in the end, the group he called did succeed, albeit very messily. The “purgatory” universe/dimension was created by the Losties themselves when Juliet blew the Jughead in S5 – it turned out to be impossible to exist in two places at once, so they created a bubble ‘verse removed from time instead – and that actually makes the drive to detonate it in that season all the more powerful.

    Overall, I certainly don’t think the ending or the entire series was flawless, but I also think a fair amount of the criticism thrown at the finale so far has been unfounded in substantive reasoning.

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  8. I really enjoyed the bulk of this article. However I need to point out one contradiction. You said “The Island calls people in need of personal change, gives it to them, then lets them go”. In this statement, you clearly infer that the characters go through change, and then you talk of Aristotle’s “need for change” in a story. But just as you said, there was change. Perhaps not for the state of the island, but for the characters, and in a character driven show this is extremely important.

    I am not a fan of Lost, I find it’s confusing plot and lack of answers to be frustrating, but that doesn’t mean change does not take place.

    Still, as a whole I enjoyed the points you made about Cowboy Bebop, and the good points of such harsh endings. I feel like Gundam Wing and Gundam Seed both did this as well, ending with massive change, some of them painful.

    I think the reason why many stories on this side of the earth, avoid such harsh endings is because many people don’t like to reflect, and there’s the fear of an audience not understanding a painful ending. Sure, Cowboy Bebop had a marvelous ending, but how many other shows ended in a down note, or with a major change and sucked? 100 Bullets, a comic book series ended with nearly every character dying, and a major change in the status quo. But it was awful.

    I think the difference, in movies, games, comics, and tv shows, between the east and the west, is that one side focuses on profit, which means pleasing the greatest number of people and selling tickets. And the other side focuses on art, which means making a statement. It’s the reason why Avatar is the #1 movie and District 9, got mixed reviews.

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  10. I was so pissed off at the end of Lost, both as a writer and as a fan. As soon as I hear someone saying, “It’s really been about the characters all along,” I now know that there will be nothing but narrative disappointment up ahead. All those mysteries, all those questions, none of that mattered because Jack and Kate just lurrrrve each other…feh.

    1. I think I’m going to take a picture of my next good meal and layer text over it: starch = characterization, protein = plot, vegetables = worldbuilding, fats = nudity/violence/moneyshot SFX/whatever. Because think about it: that’s how it should go. You *can* balance that plate. You *can* build something smart. But an all characterization ending is just a big plate of mashed potatoes — tasty, yes, but of little nutritional value, and shame-inducing later on.

  11. This was an excellent article. My wife just blazed through lost, all seasons, in the past 4 months and she absolutely loved the ending. From what I have heard it was wretched, and now I will never watch the series knowing how it ends.

    Same reason why I can never revisit BSG… It’s quite lame how it’s becoming this rote “let’s end the series by invoking a bunch of stupid supernatural BS.” Quite disheartening.

    I for one have never had a problem with killing off characters, that’s what they exist for. My puppets, my string, to be cut when necessary. I mean there’s always prequels, after all.

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