Tuesday, July 31 2007

Shingu, Luck, and Plot

It's always fun to go back after a well-written book or anime series and note things that you missed on the first go through, especially things that are meaningless when first seen but only important in retrospection.  This goes double for a mystery or techno-thriller novel or a good conspiracy-plot anime such as Shingu.  Stephen den Beste has gone through and done a wonderful job of trying to piece together the backstory for the series.   There's no real way for us to be certain he's right;  it was a pleasant surprise to find a series with a story written with both no gaping logical holes in the plot, a satisfactory conclusion, and still a number of questions that it would be nice to have an answer to (and a series that doesn't presuppose or even call out for the existence of a sequel, to boot.)

I came to a different conclusion about what I believe was going on behind one of the mysteries of Shingu's plot, but that's my perogative as a viewer, and his explanation both fits the facts and satisfies the characterizations.  As a warning:  this post contains minor spoilers including brief synopsis of the major plot and characters, about the following series:  Shingu: Secret of the Stellar Wars, Ranma 1/2, Irresponsible Captain Tylor, Ah! My Goddess.  The More section below the fold has my plot analysis of Shingu: Secret of the Stellar Wars, including major spoilers of crucial plot elements.

I have been thinking about the role of luck in plot for both anime and role-playing games.  This is separate from probability in games, even fluke probability.  While I have had interesting thoughts on the role of probability in gaming, there's a big difference in luck as a role in plot and the role of probability in action.  To keep the discussion focused on luck in plot, we'll start with a look at anime, a non-interactive medium.

To start with, luck as a role in plot is specifically not a random factor.  The anime writers and director have to plan in advance what happens to his characters in order to drive the story.  Anything that happens has to be specifically written to happen, so there's no real chance involved from the perspective of the writer or viewer.  I am instead talking about luck from the character's perspective inside the imaginary world created by the writer.

My belief is that in anime, crucial plot elements should not be explained by a factor of random chance.  There should be a deliberate action by the main characters or by the series antagonists driving major plot points.  The main characters have to be responsible for what they do.  If the bad guy needs to be stopped, he needs to be defeated by a good guy or by himself.  There's no satisfaction to places where the bad guy is defeated by circumstances under which neither he nor the main characters have any control.  Likewise, if something seriously bad happens to the main character, it has to be caused either by enemy action or the heroes own hubris for it to have emotional effect.  If it's enemy action, it's time for the hero to affirm his dedication to overcoming the enemy.  If it's hubris, the hero needs to overcome his own shortcomings before he can truly move on.

There is an exception, and that is characters that are specifically defined by the plot as lucky or unlucky, even if this status is never vocalized.  As an anime example, Irresponsible Captain Justy Tylor is lucky;  in fact, he's lucky to the point where his luck can be reasonably counted on to get him out of a jam and get the crew of his ship, the Soyokaze, through problems if they are acting on his behalf.  At this point with the plot, improbable events that benefit Tylor or the Soyokaze can be justified in plot with relation to Tylor's luck.  The luck is Tylor's, so the sense is that Tylor defeated the problem, even if he didn't do it consciously. 

Likewise, Ranma Santome from Ranma 1/2 has a very specific case of bad luck due to his curse: when he gets splashed with cold water, he turns into a girl.  How often do random people get splashed with cold water on a daily basis?  Not often.  Yet it happens to Ranma all the time.  It's acceptable in plot for this to happen because of the curse's unstated component, namely that it's not a proper curse unless it seriously inconveniences the one cursed.

In a sense, the System Force that protects Belldandy and Keiichi in Ah! My Goddess is luck given an explanation as to why it's not a product of chance.  Keiichi wished that he could have a goddess like Belldandy at his side at all times, and the System Force is the computer-like universal system's way of keeping that wish by basically stopping anything that looks to interfere with that wish in the most direct route.  To mere mortals, however, it just looks that whenever someone tries to separate the two, something unlucky happens to that person.  To someone in the Ah! My Goddess universe that's not familiar with the real ways of the universe, it is luck or chance as there is no consistent explanation of what's going on, but Goddesses and readers are privy to the mechanism that makes these events products of deliberate action (even if the events themselves are semi-random).  (It brings to mind another, more recent, series involving a "god" with the ability to distort reality to her whims in a subconscious fashion.)

Which brings us to conspiracy anime such as Shingu.  One of the hallmarks of a good conspiracy plotline is a series of seemingly random events that all come together to form one coherent plot.  Ideally, anything attributable to luck should be able to be explained away as deliberate action by one of the conspiracies by the end of the story (or at least hint at another, greater conspiracy just beyond the reach of the story).  Shingu accomplishes this very well.  Although there are a number of questions left deliberately unanswered, including one big question, the sense is that nothing has happened purely by luck.

Applying these lessons to games, especially the more plot or story focused roleplaying games, is hard, because no one has complete control of the plot and you have a truly random element thrown in in the form of dice or other random number generators.  You have at least the GM, running the story as one faction with the party of players running the second faction.  In more complicated games, the GM is trying to script the actions of two or more independent factions such that each has a coherent motivation and plan, while the players are each a separately motivated faction.  Ironically enough, most of the rule-based roleplaying games put down on paper the difference between plot luck, which is a rule, and random chance, the rolls of the dice.  Most rule systems have a way to designate characters as lucky or unlucky, subject to luck in the imaginary world of the game which takes the forms of rules in the real world of the players.

When plotting a roleplaying game as GM, I tend to rely on luck only in the here and now of the characters.  Any actions outside the direct view of the players are scripted for the most rational actions of each faction I control.  The only random chance that can affect this script is direct action by the players.  On the other hand, the factions I control have to act as if there was luck involved in their actions.  It's a tough balance to work.

Caution:  The following contains some major spoilers for Shingu: Secret of the Stellar Wars.

One thing that Stephen Den Beste covers only briefly with regards to his backstory for Shingu is Hajime's father, Kazuo.  My take on the matter is as follows:  how lucky is it that the guy who has just been thrust into the public light as go-to guy on first contact with aliens happens to have his family living in the one part of Japan where the aliens have already covertly been living for quite some time.  In fact, how likely is it that his son has probably become more involved in the whole picture than any other outsider ever?  What kind of luck is that?  My answer is that given the size of the conspiracy, luck is not at play here. 

By the time we meet him in the series, we know Kazuo is aware that aliens have covertly contacted Earth and that a diplomatic deal is in the works.  His position seems to be mid-level manager, but he's on a decent basis with the Secretary overseeing the government ends of things.  His job is classified, and his family does not know what he's doing. He's surprised when violence erupts at the spaceport and by the series of assassination attempts on the Secretary, and more surprised when he's appointed PR guy for the whole shebang, but does a very good job for one thrust unexpectedly into that amount of media attention.

My take on this is that he's largely unaware of the significance of Tenmo, although he has his suspicions, and he's not aware of the role his son is playing in the whole deal.  He's also being used by the government and the Galactic Federation.  The Galactic Federation knows about Tenmo, and the Galactic Federation reps know about Hajime's role, but Hajime's role wasn't a deliberate development on their part.  Kazuo got promoted to press secretary for the whole operation deliberately;  the Secretary's minor injury is just a convenient excuse.  He's a relatively minor pawn in the whole game that suddenly got promoted because he was in the right place at the right time.

The overall picture involves five conspiracies:
1) The people of Tenmo keeping the secret the powers they have to protect the Earth.
2) The government and the Galactic Federation negotiating some kind of recognition for Earth and protecting it from the Cosmos Alliance.
3) The conspiracy within the defenders of Tenmo to negotiate with the Cosmos Alliance to get the best deal possible.
4) Jitosh, Setsuna, and Asougi (and their village) and the true secret of Shingu, and keeping the galaxy in one piece and preventing a war with the Cosmos Alliance.
5) Muryou, a conspiracy of one.  (Also, five's a nice number for conspiracies).

Posted by: Civilis at 08: 25 PM | Comments (6) | Add Comment
Post contains 1756 words, total size 11 kb.

1

I just now found your post. I don't agree with you about Kazuo; I was just thinking about this today.

Kazuo is not a middle manager; he's the line boss for the entire project. He's the operational manager, the guy in charge, and he's been dealing with Mr. So and the other two guys from the Galactic Federation for a long time now. I think he was introduced to them and let in on the secret of the existence of the Federation when he took the job.

The project at Tanegashima is a big one; it's not something that gets done in a few weeks. It's likely that Kazuo moved his family to Tenmo just after he took that job. So why Tenmo? That's where the alien ambassadors are based, and they offered to keep an eye on his family while he's away. What he's doing was clearly controversial, and there was definitely the possibility that his family could be threatened. The alien ambassadors have special abilities and could give him reassurance that they would try their best to keep his family safe. So he moved his family to where the ambassadors were based.

Which means Tenmo, because that's where the Sanemori clan is located, who control the Shingu. The ambassadors are there because they've been dealing with the Sanemoris, and Kazuo's family moves there to be near the ambassadors.

Remember the video phone call late in the series between Kazuo and his family? In particular, what Kazuo and Hajime say to each other surprises Kyouko and Futaba, but what Hajime says doesn't surprise Kazuo in the slightest. Why? Because Kazuo knows what Hajime's been up to. Mr. So and the other ambassadors have been giving him reports about it. And they're in on what's happening.

In fact, the reason Kazuo gave Hajime his cell phone was because he knew Hajime needed it, needed the ability to view the Galactic Federation's telemetry on what the Shingu is doing.

So there's no luck involved in this at all.

The one thing that did seem lucky to me was in the very first episode, after Moriguchi called out Muryou, that Harumi appealed to Hajime for help to stop the fight. That was what set it all off for Hajime, because he witnessed the unusual powers, and then Nayuta attacked him in the night, and on it goes.

So why did Harumi go to Hajime instead of going to Hachiyou, for instance? Or a teacher? That might well have been luck, but one of my readers provided me with a plausible explanation: Harumi went to Hajime because he was the class rep in Muryou's class and because Hajime was an outsider. Harumi hoped that if an outsider interfered in the duel, that Moriguchi would not use extraordinary powers. And as Muryou's class rep, he was the logical choice.

Of course, Moriguchi is an idiot and used his powers anyway, but that was in character because he tends to be blinded by rage. So even that is defensible as not being contrivance.

The story is amazinglyl tight. I can't think of a series which a story so complex, which is handled so well. This even tops Noir, which was the previous champion in that regard.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at Aug 08 20 38 (+rSRq)

2 I guess that to me, Kazuo doesn't radiate 'project manager', and that distinction seems to give me a different interpretation of events.  I'm probably overlooking a few plot points that you remember that set the backstory.

I agree with you that Shingu has a very tight plot, and your interpretation of the initial fight between Moriguchi and Muryou seems right on.  It's very rare that a conspiracy-based series can get to the point where all the behavior seems logical in retrospect,and it's something I love to see.

Posted by: Civilis at Aug 09 20 58 (qCWoW)

3

The strongest piece of evidence that Kazuo is the manager in charge is the fact that when the minister gets injured, Kazuo takes over for him at the press conference.

But there's also the fact that when the minister shows up at the Sanemori residence, Kazuo comes with him and it's Kazuo who primarily speaks on behalf of the governments.

Those things wouldn't make sense if Kazuo was just a low level manager like you suggest. They only really make sense if Kazuo is the boss, the guy in charge of the project.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at Aug 10 01 12 (+rSRq)

4 I guess I see the cause and effect backwards. I thought that Kazuo taking over for the Minister looked a little forced on the part of the Minister and the aliens. He's obviously not just some low level schmo, but he seems quite surprised to be ending up the public spokesman for the whole issue. I read into it as that Kazuo ended up being set up to be the spokesman because he had relatives in Tenmo and that the aliens knew his son was connected deeply into the whole sequence of events. Your way of looking at it looks a bit clearer, and some of the circumstantial evidence (the phone, the private jet) lends itself towards your interpretation.

One of the things I like about the series is that while the backstory makes sense even without the offscreen events clearly being explained in the series itself, that in addition there are a number of plausible explanations that all make sense.

Posted by: Civilis at Aug 10 10 09 (qCWoW)

5 Sorry, I'm not too smart to understand about the plot of a movie, be it anime, comics or movies. But something fun to learn about it from the experts, namely you. Two thumbs up for you. Btw, I like Ranma 1 / 2, although sometimes a bit boring to watch, too.penisverlängerung

Posted by: Anggit at Dec 05 15 21 (dGHQb)

6 The only comics I like is Detective Conan and Kindaichi. I love puzzle and logic, so that I really enjoy reading those twos. Edric at Allungare il pene

Posted by: Edric at Dec 14 21 01 (5bAIk)

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