To belong is to feel complete. Either belonging to someone or some place, to have something where you know you belong is to feel joy, true joy. As people, we are always looking to belong somewhere whether it be with friends to laugh with, a home to return to or a family to love. Turns out, dragons do too.
If there is one thing I look for in a good manga, it’s a good story. A series can feature some of the best art I have ever seen on a manga page and still fail to captivate me if the story itself fails to deliver. I will still appreciate the craftsmanship that goes into an incredibly detailed image, but I won’t be thinking about it as much as some of my favorite manga series. One such series that I often think of is Tokyo Ghoul, because it tells an interesting story of characters living in a strange world that just isn’t fair. It isn’t just the overarching plot of the series that has lead me to thinking about it in my spare time though. What really interests me with this series is the authors use of symbolism and foreshadowing throughout the story, that help bring deeper meanings to single images and scenes.
SPOILER WARNING: I will be discussing heavy spoilers for Tokyo Ghoul (the original manga series). There will be no discussion of Tokyo Ghoul: RE in this post though, so if you have not read it you can read on freely without fears of being spoiled.
I think my ability to feel empathy may be broken. I just watched a series that consisted of nothing but cute characters absolutely murder each other and not a single string in my cold heart was pulled. Perhaps the problem doesn’t lie with me and my inability to feel human emotions. I think the problem lies with the series itself, and its inability to make me feel anything. Yeah. Lets go with that…
The specific series that I am referring to is Mahou Shoujo Ikusei Keikaku, but honestly this isn’t the first series to bring these thoughts to the front of my mind. There have been a good few shows that have tried to make me pity their poor, innocent characters as they are brutally murdered. Just last season, Re: Zero finished its adventure through
Suzuki Subaru’s newfound life. Again, I was hardly fazed when characters would drop dead in front of Subaru’s eyes. I will give Re: Zero’s episode 15 a pass on the fell-o-meter though, as there was a great scene where Petelgeuse plays with Rem in front of a helpless Subaru that I found to be quite saddening, but more on that some other time. For now, lets start with what makes a meaningful character death.
The most important thing a show needs to do for maximum impact of a characters death is to make the character relatable. This isn’t even a fact that I believe can be contested with “Well that’s just your opinion!” because if you don’t know the character, why should you care if they die. When I say “relatable” I don’t just mean likable either, since the death of a hated character can be just as meaningful and fill you with emotion (though, the emotions felt are probably going to be vastly different than that of a likable character). All I am talking about is making sure the audience has a good grasp of what that character is like, and some sense of likeness of dislike towards the character.
This is where shows like Mahou Shoujo Ikusei Keikaku fail, and it mostly has to do with its large cast. An anime that has a handful of characters has a distinct advantage over a show with a large cast when it comes to getting to know the characters. Each character is going to get more screen time in general, and more time can be spent on developing these small casts over the series run. Take a show like Cowboy Bebop for instance, and its cast of four main characters. If you were to shorten it down to just 12 episodes to put both series on par, I have no doubt in my mind that we would still know much more about Spike Spiegel and his dark past then we know about Koyuki Himekawa (“Snow White”). Most of Spike’s personality could be seen in the first few episodes of Cowboy Bebop, and his past was expanded on throughout the series in multiple flashbacks and conversations. Since Mahou Shoujo Ikusei Keikaku has to try and fit 16 characters into its series, we just never get a chance to look into Koyuki’s past or really anything about her outside of her love for magical girls. Her personality is then limited to a single dimension for most of the show (loving magical girls and wanting to do whats right). Near the end of the series when there are less characters to focus on, we get to see Koyuki more and some of the growth she has undergone, but by then it is too late in the series to make anything feel like natural character progression. The problem is much worse in the rest of the cast, since some are not introduced until a few episodes into the series and some die early on. These characters don’t even get the courtesy of letting us to get to know them aside from some basic details, making it even harder to care that they are not continuing on in the story.
What is kind of frustrating with Mahou Shoujo Ikusei Keikaku is that it had the right idea, it just didn’t execute it well. The creators obviously knew that to get the audience to care for these characters (and then fall in despair when they were gone) they had to make you feel like you really understood them on some level. Looking at Sister Nana and Winter Prison for instance, we get a series of flashbacks and present day scenes throughout a few of the episodes that show how they met and how they interact with each other. During these scenes, we can clearly see how much they mean to each other. This isn’t really shown in their magical girl forms (you could assume they might be good friends based on how they are always teaming up together, but their relationship is obviously much more than that), so scenes like these are essential to get the audience to understand these characters. If we had gotten more screen time with these two characters earlier on in the series, I could of easily fallen in love with them because of their strong bond. The fact of the matter is that the show rarely got much time to explore their characters, with most of their appearances being in random conversations or fight scenes that didn’t tell us much about them. The same is true for other characters as well, who we only got to explore in short flashbacks that were shown much too late for a connection to be made.
I think if the series had take more time in the beginning to introduce its characters and really let us get to know them I would have enjoyed it so much more. Sadly we never did get to know most of the characters, so I ended the series not really caring about anything that had happened. This had to be my biggest complaint about the show, which is why I wanted to focus in on it. My overall opinion of the show was that it was pretty mediocre, so I wouldn’t really recommend it to anyone. Watch Madoka Magica instead, I hear that one is pretty good.
The Naruto series has always held a special place in my heart, being the first anime that I fell absolutely in love with as well as the first manga I had ever flipped through the pages of. It is because of this nostalgia that I have for the series that I felt the need to talk about this world, since it was the first manga to ever captivate me in its world. Naruto is not a perfect manga by any stretch of the imagination, but if there is one thing it excelled at it was creating an amazing world. If there is any one place that I think shows this the best in Naruto it would have to be Konoha.
From Naruto’s opening pages we get to see a great deal of detail about Konoha. For starters, we can see its buildings have a distinct traditional Japanese design to them. Tiled rooftops and multi-layered buildings sit in close proximity to one another, to the point where most buildings are sitting on top of one another or are completely joined. We can see that most buildings have multiple levels to them, making some of them stand tall above others. One of these buildings that catches the readers eye is the Hokage’s office, as it stands tall above the smaller buildings in front of it and the Japanese kanji for “Fire” boldly written on a sign in the front. Behind this building is a large mountain side with four faces carved into it, showing us some of the important figures in history. A single panel has already given Konoha an incredible amount of personality and history, something that I absolutely love about the village Kishimoto had created. Each shot of Konoha is packed with detail and personality making it completely stand out compared to other similar settings.
Not to long after our very first glimpse of Konoha, we get to see another feature of Konoha that fans will recognize in a heartbeat. That feature is none other than the Ichiraku Ramen shop, a place that makes an appearance throughout the entirety of the Naruto manga. Ichiraku Ramen is perhaps one of manga’s most famous ramen restaurants of all time, as it has played a key role throughout the series. In chapter one when we get our first look at the shop, Iruka is giving Naruto a lecture after he defaced the mountainside (as you can see in the above image). Although at first glance it seems to be just a teacher giving his student a bit of a lesson, its really a scene about bonding and characters becoming closer to one another. Throughout the manga the Ichiraku Ramen shop is used as a setting for characters to interact and get to know one another more, as well as a place to relax between story arcs.
Its amazing how flushed out the village of Konoha feels, since we get to familiarize ourselves with so many different locations in the village. Most series would probably just forget about a place like Ichiraku Ramen as the series went on, but in Naruto we continuously revisit the shop and become just as attached to it as the characters. Later on in the series when Naruto and the crew visit Ichiraku Ramen, the scenes feel almost nostalgic as we remember everything the characters have gone through and what times were like the last time they visited. Its feelings like this that made me fall in love with Konoha when I was reading Naruto growing up.
Ichiraku Ramen is not the only locale in Konoha that we familiarize ourselves with during the course of the series. During the beginning chapters and through flashbacks later on, we get a good idea of what the school in Konoha looks like and what a typical classroom would have in it. We also get a look at the Hokage’s office (not just the building) throughout the series. Though these places may not be able to invoke feelings of nostalgia and peace like Ichiraku Ramen, these details still help define the world of Konoha. For instance, it allows us to get a look at how Konoha is able to run its society when we look at the Hokage’s office. We get to see how young children are raised and trained to fight when we look at the academy. These small details add up to create a world we can believe in, since it is much easier to believe in something that we can understand the underlying workings of. There are hundreds of other notable locations that each add to Konoha and its history in unique and memorable ways, such as the once sectioned off Uchiha’s and the training grounds used during the chuunin exams (such as the Forest of Death). To go over them all would take an entire blog in itself, which should help bring to light just the sheer amount of detail Kishimoto put into Konoha as he wrote Naruto.
The last locale that I feel really stands out is the iconic Valley of the End. Though technically not a part of Konoha village proper, this iconic battle ground sits between the borders of the Land of Fire and the Land of Sound. Though not in the village itself, this location brings so much history and emotional weight to the series that it is hard to talk about how awesome the village of Konoha is without bringing it up.
The Valley of the End is the location where Naruto meets up with Sasuke just before Sasuke slips away into Orochimaru’s clutches. The battle that follows here is one of Naruto’s, if not all of Shonen manga’s, most iconic clashes between rival characters. This setting is so amazing because of its history that lends itself perfectly to the battle that takes place, along with the future battles that happen there later on in the series.
The valley itself was artificially made by an incredibly powerful attack from Hashirama Senju during a battle with Madara Uchiha. Hashirama stood victorious in the battle and went on to continue leading his new found village of Konohagakure. The statues were placed there after the fact and represent Hashirama (on the right) and Madara performing the seal of confrontation, a traditional protocol used before starting a duel. Madara stands on the opposite side of the border, representing his desertion of Konoha.
During the fight between Sasuke and Naruto, the confrontation starts with Naruto standing on the statue of Hashirama and Sasuke standing on Madara’s statue. It should be quite easy to see that this is to mirror the fight between the founders of Konoha, as Sasuke is trying to desert the village (which could possibly lead to its destruction) while Naruto tries to stop him. When you look at the history of the setting where the battle is about to take place, it brings so much more dramatic tension to the fight. It makes the fight seem like it was an epic fight against fate itself, as if the day Naruto and Sasuke would clash was foretold and inevitable. The Valley of the End made the perfect setting for the clash between Naruto and Sasuke, and is easily one of the most memorable locales in Shonen manga for me.
Not only is Konoha visually appealing with its densely packed buildings that are full of detail and its unique take on traditional Japanese architecture, but there are so many locations in and around Konoha that are full of rich histories. These locations are able to invoke unique emotions with their designs alone, from the quite and peaceful ramen shop known as Ichiraku Ramen to the epic and vast Valley of the End. When you add the in the context surrounding these settings, such as epic battle between heated rivals that happens at the Valley of the End, and you have some unforgettable settings.
For now I am going to have to end my post here. I could probably write paragraphs more on why I love the design of Konoha’s architecture or how through years of reading and exploring Konoha I almost have this nostalgic feeling whenever I go back and read through it. The history behind Konoha itself and some of the buildings that lay within it could be its own entire post. Hopefully I made it clear enough with the examples I gave as to why I think Konoha is one of the coolest settings in manga. If you liked what you read, feel free to leave a comment with your own thoughts, as well as manga series you think have some really great settings.
Before ending off this new post, I thought I would give credit where credit is due. This idea stemmed from Digibro’s video series “Cool Character Designs” and was heavily influenced by those works. After watching his video Cool Character Designs: Gurren Lagann I immediately thought of this idea, and have been working on figuring out how to approach this post since then. I finally put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard in this case) and got my thoughts out there, so thanks Digibro for being an inspiration for this blog. Check out his own blog over at my sword is unbelievably dull or his youtube channel Digibro for some quality content on anime. You won’t be disappointed.