Many who are following “Steins;Gate’s” latest developments are marveling over Okabe’s newfound depth of character. Some people love that he’s willing to break a few rules in order to save Mayuri. They call this character development; they praise Okabe’s three dimensionality. Similarly, though not quite parallel, some commentators are astonished to see that Nezumi of “No.6” is well versed in the humanities. It’s as if, somehow, an interest in the theatrical arts counterbalances Nezumi’s single-minded hatred of the walled city central to the anime’s plot. Here’s a young man willing to let an entire city full of innocent (albeit misguided) civilians die, but his ability to cross-dress as Ophelia nevertheless softens his character.
Contrast Okabe and Nezumi with their enemies: the faceless, nebulous agents of SERN and the faceless, nebulous agents of No.6. While on the other hand, our heroes are multifaceted do-gooders with rough edges and dark sides, our villains are nothing more than machines of oppression. SERN, previously an organization of physicists, seek only world domination. No.6, arising from the ashes of humanity’s own destruction, only wishes to dominate and control its people. We uphold complexity in our heroes and yet we paint our enemies in broad strokes. Isn’t there something cynical, manipulative and dishonest about this? What this goes to show is that good guys aren’t just complex, but that they get to be complex. They have doubts and worries — they get to be human just like us. That’s not usually the case for villains.
Here’s an interesting anecdote from Lars Von Trier:
My very first film, “The Orchid Gardener,” opened with a caption stating that the film was dedicated to a girl who had died of leukemia, giving the dates of her birth and death. That was entirely fabricated! And manipulative and cynical, because I realized that if you started a film like that, then the audience would take it a lot more seriously.
I’ve recently amused myself with the internet reactions to Mayuri’s multiple deaths. Here’s a paper-thin character with almost no relevancy to the plot whatsoever but she somehow unites the audience. They now follow Okabe’s mission with a heightened sense of earnestness. All of a sudden, the audience now “take it a lot more seriously.” But if we just think back a bit, isn’t this a bit odd? Okabe’s initial goal was to prevent the SERN takeover of the world and yet the story doesn’t gain a sense of urgency until a cute character dies. Somehow, the larger goal of saving the world fails to sufficiently humanize Okabe’s character. The mission to save one’s childhood friend, on the other hand, gains the necessary gravitas to make most of us sit up and pay attention. Even though Mayuri’s death is inconsequential in the larger scheme of humanity’s existence, it is ironically that which humanizes Okabe’s mission!
Some will argue that they prefer evil to be “pure evil,” whatever that means; they are tired of villains with sob stories and tragic pasts. They like an evildoer they can’t understand. They prefer evildoers to commit sins just because. Don’t make villains evil because their mothers died at a young age or that they were picked on in high school. People say that this weakens the villains and makes them less threatening. Isn’t this, however, exactly the problem? We prefer to hate on the Other — it’s much easier to justify as opposed to hating a fellow human being.
There’s a saying that goes, “An enemy is one whose story we have not heard.” The people behind “Steins;Gate” and “No.6” want to make it easy for the audience to identify with each anime’s respective protagonist. So how do we accomplish this? By only humanizing the heroes. Our heroes might like to read Shakespeare; perhaps they’re doing what they do for a childhood friend. On the other hand, the villains get no story so they are simply the Other. Of course, there’s a limit to this line of thinking. Slavoj Zizek astutely points out that no story could possibly humanize Hitler’s monstrosity. Still, there’s something to be said about our refusal, in Zizek’s own words, to subjectivize the Other; in our own stories, we have an ideology of good that we prefer to keep untainted. We don’t want to humanize the villains. We just want to hate them.
Why are we so surprised, then, when people in real life form baseless prejudices against one another? Why are we so astonished when we see bigots generalize and stereotype the targets of their hatred? Our practices start at the very core of human experience, i.e. human storytelling. In our stories, we rarely give an inch to our villains. We don’t often allow our stories’ villains to become anything more than a one-dimensional target of hate. Why, then, would we practice otherwise in real life?