December 20, 2010
The static hero
The story structure of Yashakiden (I'm finishing the translation of volume 3) reminds me of The Hidden Fortress, the Kurosawa samurai actioner that helped to inspire Star Wars.
The Hidden Fortress was for Kurosawa a commercial effort (movie studios do have to turn a profit). He would reportedly arrive at work every morning, present his protagonists with a seemingly intractable situation, and charge his writing staff with getting them out of it.
The result is quite enjoyable, but believe it or not, Lucas actually improved on it (the last time that would ever happen) by giving Han Solo a compelling character arc.
In The Hidden Fortress, General Makabe (the great Toshiro Mifune) is pretty much cool, smart and heroic, like a 1950's superhero who is ultimately unaffected by the consequences of his daring-do, and who might catch a bad case of cooties hanging around girls too much.
Series television used to avoid character arcs, with the protagonist resetting at the end of each episode. Think of the original Star Trek and even TNG. And while too much character arc produces soppy melodrama, none results in plots summed up as, "And then a bunch of stuff happens."
Which is fine for a ninety-minute actioner. But what the hero does should affect him, hence the tried and true rule of fiction writing that the main character is the person who changes the most. (In Star Wars, this means the main characters are Darth Vader and Han Solo.)
Actually, I'd argue that Star Trek has what I'd call a "steady state" character spiral, a relationship between the three leads that grows and matures as the actors and writers settle into their roles. So might the Setsura/Mephisto pairing in Yashakiden, but at this point I can't tell.
For now, Setsura is an impassive superhero of the old school, a kind of aloof and detached Peter Parker taking arms against an uninvited sea of troubles. As in The Hidden Fortress, these conflicts present themselves as an obstacle course, which he will eventually and inevitably overcome.
At the end of volume 3, he does dispatch a vampire in a very clever way. But most of the fun for me is generated by the supporting characters.
To start with, the sidekicks, including the wily mayor of Shinjuku, an animatronic doll with a soul, a wisecracking crow (a direct descendant of Poe's raven), and a fat witch who will only save you if it pays well.
Then the victims, some of whom have very compelling mini-arcs of their own before getting bumped off like the red-shirts on Star Trek (don't get too attached to them). Lastly, the villains. Hideyuki Kikuchi has done an excellent job making the bad guys as fascinating as they are bad.
Through Kikuchi's best character of all is the setting itself, Demon City Shinjuku. More about that later.