(spoilers for Hanachirasu and Kikokugai maybe)
An interesting thing I was thinking about today is the notion of predictability.
This was sparked off by me reading up about some reviews of Hanachirasu which stated that the plot was, more or less, completely predictable. It got me to thinking about the interesting mechanics of what determines predictability and what doesn’t.
Now, of course, Hanachirasu sets itself up as a revenge tale and ends with the fated battle between its two protagonists. I guess you could call that predictable.
This can be used to set up a first definition for the idea of what predictability means.
Definition 1: If a plot’s premise promises a conclusion, based on knowledge of tropes in other works, and sticks to that conclusion, then it is predictable.
So if you watch a romcom and it ends with the budding romance between heroine and hero, then that can probably be defined as ‘predictable’.
Now, to me, this definition seems pretty inadequate, though.
For example, what if you have a romcom that begins like a romcom, then turns into Muv-Luv style space battles for 500 hours, then ends back in the romcom setting with a budding romance between heroine and hero?
If a critic had read the first few hours, then he was drugged for 500 hours in the middle, and then he regained his consciousness the moment when the ending happened – he could still describe the story as completely predictable, when anyone else who had read it probably wouldn’t.
So there must be some kind of consistent flagging in the middle to indicate that a work is, or isn’t, predictable
Definition 2: If a plot’s premise promises a conclusion, based on the knowledge of tropes in other works, and sticks to that conclusion, and the route leading to that conclusion also hits on various flags indicating that conclusion – then the work is predictable
So, in other words, you have to have a whole lot of other elements as well, like a romcom has to have that slow passage of getting together, and pulling away, and confessions, and missed confessions, and misunderstandings etc… etc…
But this brings up another problem. What about parodies or genre twists?
If you had a slasher story that had extensive knowledge of other slasher stories, and it kept the exact same framework, but it kept making nods to methods that other slasher story heroines used to escape – and yet all of these methods failed – then would that be predictable? By the end, if the final girl escaped with a method that failed for tons of other slain girls out there – then would that be predictable?
A person who wasn’t a slasher fan would find the structure the same – the people all get killed by the slasher and the final girl escapes. But the person who understood the tropes of horror would be able to see, again and again, that these past methods were all going haywire, and he would probably be kept on the edge of his seat. The first would think that the story was predictable, while the second wouldn’t be able to think that the story was predictable.
By this point you’d realize that the critique of something being ‘predictable’ is a very very very bad critical term to use. To use it, you must explain every single flagging point that made the work in question ‘predictable’ to you. Even then, it doesn’t necessarily guarantee that the work itself is a bad work.
For example, famous autobiographical stories can be considered predictable, if the exploits of the subject are well-known enough – but if it’s done in a realistically raw way, or a poetically lucid way, then it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.
Furthermore, disconnect in event and narration can make things very different, even if the events follow a standard set-up. Shakespeare plays are plain examples of works where the psychology is dense despite the plot being simple and predictable (by our standards).
From this we can probably guess that predictability is completely different from originality.
Another thing about predictability is predictability of mood – which is completely different from the events itself.
This is why I believe that even a writer like George R. R. Martin, who bases his plots on the convoluted and complex events on history, cannot even get within 500 metres of something like Hanachirasu – which uses tonal shifts and mood changes to create a greater meaning, while the plot itself is still a traditional one.
As I noted in my earlier post, Hanachirasu is perfectly okay with turning into random slice of life comedy, or spending reams of pages on explaining the intricate mechanics of sword-fighting styles – simply to outline this idea of History and Inevitability in a way that pushes the genre into something completely different altogether. It dives in between various character mental states, dives out to history, turns to poesy, dives back in, turns to comedy – with a pastiche of styles that not only shows a diversity of voice, but also works in creating some of the most emotionally powerful scenes and characterizations in the world – even while its ironically and playfully laughing at these characters.
On the other hand, although I couldn’t see the ending of Kikokugai coming, I could well expect that it would stay on the same tone the whole way – the gritty Wuxia vengeance tale tone. While the contents were different, the narration was so steady that you could feel a general tendency as to where the ending would lead. Of course I’m not saying that Kikokugai is bad. It’s one of the most technically competent stories out there in the genre, and that was Urobuchi’s full intention. But by my definition, Kikokugai would be more ‘predictable’ than Hanachirasu.
I can also understand why people would prefer Kikokugai than Hanachirasu. Half of the important parts comes in the full appreciation of the swordplay dynamics which are long and ridiculously dense. Once I fully internalized and slowly read through all those parts – Akane changed from being a cipher to one of the most relatable and human protagonists I have ever seen.
That may sound a bit sociopathic of me, considering that Akane also happens to be an unapologetic mass murderer/rapist, but his struggle to come to terms with his own style of swordfighting, against a world where talent and randomness determines most of the winners and losers, is one of the greatest depictions of obsession out there. His self-destruction at the end is the painfully logical conclusion to his character. You can parallax his struggles, and joys, onto any hobby that you have an intense love for and feel like you’d want to pursue at any cost. That places him in about the same league as Taichi from Chihayafuru, which is another character chasing after a role model ‘genius’ that is greater than himself (hah-hah).
And after Narahara spent so long going into detail of all of that – then the plot becomes wholly unpredictable. You cannot process whether Akane will, or will not, win. History and everything seems to be completely against him. Pure luck seems to be the only thing that determines his victory. You only get a foreshadowing of the ending at the denouement of the last battle in the 4th chapter, which shows him receiving insight into the Maken. Even then, there’s always that constant tension.
Which is why, when he actually wins, even though you feel bad for Igarasu – it’s an amazing cathartic triumph. And his suicide is one of the heaviest things in the world – mirroring the fates of all those artists like Van Gogh who were destroyed by their obsession. A victory and a defeat – the ultimate bittersweet conclusion, but so true throughout so many moments in history itself.
If fantasy writers out there actually bothered to internalize the methods and tricks that Hanachirasu applies to its narrative – then you can fully expect a complete revival of the action/worldbuilding etc… genre. In fact, it’s a mere step ahead of Lord of the Rings’ worldbuilding techniques – but it combines micro and macro in a way that shows every single joy, pain, and struggle of life in the process. I have never seen a story where the plot events, historical detail, character, battle tactics, and themes so perfectly mirrored one another (maybe some Russian heavyweights? But those aren’t nearly as fun or intense). It’s really the kind of work that you read and feel so completely disillusioned that you want to point to every writer in the genre of fantasy or action or thriller out there and shout “THIS IS WHAT YOU GUYS SHOULD BE DOING GODDAMN”.
Maybe that will happen if Muramasa is ever translated, or something like that – but ah well.