Deus Ex Machina for Making Characters Out of Nothing and Into Nothing
Media critics of every shape and size look upon the literary device known as deus ex machina and pity its users like the small children that never learned to stop walking into walls. Anime and manga creators of all shapes and sizes, on the other hand, have no such concern. In a right and proper anime, deus ex machina isn’t so much a literary device as it is the lynchpin upon which all story machinery turns.
So, before we get fully into this, let’s get a definition in place so we’ll all be on the same page. And, yup, we’ll take this straight out of Wikipedia because life is too short to not be lazy about that kind of thing. Deus ex machina is:
“A plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly resolved by the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability or object.”
In other words, if you want to be cynical about it, deus ex machina is a cheat that lets the writer save the hero or advance the plot in a very specific way, even though, until now, there has been absolutely no hint that this resolution was even a possibility.
So if it’s a cheat, why do it? Why is it practically an intrinsic part of anime?
The simplest answer is that anime and manga depend on this device because of their serial nature and visual medium. They’ve got to do something within a very few pages or minutes to keep people coming back to see what they might do in the next few pages or minutes. They can’t rely on those hints in volume 23 or episode 17 to tell the audience what’s about to happen in volume 57 or episode 187.
But the thing is you don’t have to be cynical about it. When it’s done right, deus ex machina is a valid tool to create a sense of wonder and excitement in every 10-page or 20-minute installment. It’a there to make you hope that the every new spectacle will be bigger, better, and more fascinating than the one before it. Characters have to become faster, stronger, better, or we might end up losing interest.
What’s the Alternative?
Since we’re talking about magic and supernatural things, shouldn’t the unexpected be exactly the right thing for the situation? Wouldn’t we just watch Star Trek if we wanted rules and regulations to explain why every little thing is possible? Not necessarily.
Brandon Sanderson is one of the most popular fantasy authors right now, and one of his “things” is his use of “logical” or “hard” magic systems. He’s able to keep readers engaged because they feel like they know how magic really works. His magic is not magic. It’s a different kind of physics.
He’s accomplished this by developing and following three “Laws of Magic,” and in this context, they’re good to look at as a counterpoint to the deus ex machina cheat.
Law 1: An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.
This is the law of anti-deus-ex-machina. It posits that the more the reader understands the magic system, the more satisfying the resolution will be when the characters stick to those rules. He draws the line between hard and soft magic, where hard magic is there to explain the rules of the game while soft is there to make the game look cool.
“So, if you want to write soft magic systems,” he says, “I suggest you hold yourself to NOT letting your magic solve problems for your characters.”
This is the law that anime doesn’t so much break as it does ignore. Or possibly cast aside… out of a moving vehicle… underneath the bus in the next lane.
Law 2: Limitations > Powers
The example he uses here is Superman. We all know what his powers are, but he argues that that’s not what makes him interesting. The man can very literally do almost anything, the only question is whether or not he’ll be in time to do it. What makes him really interesting, he says, is his weaknesses – in this case, kryptonite and an inflexible moral code.
In some anime, we’ll see the limits, but they lend heavily toward discovering and expanding greater powers.
Law 3: Expand what you already have before you add something new.
There is a bit of a deus ex machina flavor to this one, or at least it can open a system up for some surprises without going too far out of bounds. It’s also safer to expand instead of add because then the system won’t become overly complex too quickly. A lot of anime can solidly fall within this law.
These are solid laws, and they can certainly create a satisfying resolution – you feel pretty good about yourself when you “saw it coming” or even when you realize that you should have seen it coming because all the clues where there.
So is there any literary value to avoiding rules like this? Most anime goes the route of soft magic, so maybe there’s an example here of how to do soft magic right.
A Quick Example
Let’s take a look at some of the early episodes of Fairy Tail (because these happen to be the ones I recently watched) – specifically, episodes 7 and 8. By this point we’ve pretty much seen Natsu’s powers (which is to say we’ve reused the “powering up” animations several times), and we’ve seen that he’s basically the ultimate bruiser who uses his magic in some very specific ways.
In episode 7 Natsu chases down the wind mage guy, Erigor, and has it out with him on the railroad bridge. The mage summons up his wind armor, which Natsu can’t get past and ends up getting knocked off the bridge. Happy can’t help him, he’s in the process of falling to his death, and… we flash back to Macao teaching Natsu a special way to use his fire magic.
Up until this point, we’ve had no reason to think he could use fire like this at all. But it was a magically convenient way to get out of a problem. And it really looked cool.
It should be important to note, though, that these kind of “power ups” or new developments don’t have to be cheats (Law 3). In the very next episode, Natsu goes on to defeat the wind armor problem. He can’t punch his way through it, and in his anger he begins to use his fire in a new way… but it’s not a new way. Not exactly. It’s just fire. Fire needs oxygen, and if the fire is big enough it will draw in and use up all the oxygen in the area
This is expanding his power. If we had been thinking about their powers in terms of fire and air from the beginning, this is something we could have figured out ourselves. It is an evolution of something we know he can do.
One is a “cheat” and the other is totally fair – but that does not make one more valid than the other when it comes to character development.
The Strange Case of Demon Detective Nougami Neuro
Majin Tantei Nogami Neuro (or: Neuro: Supernatural Detective), is the first outing of the guy behind Assassination Classroom. This is not just a case of deus ex machina to resolve a story, it’s practically the case of deus ex machina to resolve a story.
This is the first outing for the guy behind Assassination Classroom, and it starts off with demon-Sherlock-Holms (Neuro) going around and scarfing up mysteries. (He literally eats the resolution of a mystery.) He is basically as smart, fast, and strong as he’s going to get. (I mean, geez, the guy feakin’ catches a bullet in his eyelashes!) On top of that, he’s got 777 Makai Dougu (demonworld tools) that fit any situation.
Need to sneak a sample of some evidence and chemically analyze it in real time from another room? There’s a Makai Dougu for that. Surrounded by 20 gunmen and about to be shot to death. There’s a Makai Dougu for that. Need to find out what the cops know? There’s a Makai Dougu for that.
Basically, there’s a Makai Dougu to move any plot along.
So where does a character like that go?
When I first started watching this, I thought it was going to be a waste of a show. Who cared if he could solve a bunch of mysteries? He wasn’t really doing anything amazing other than using a new tool each episode to get the precise information he needed to solve the mystery. There was potentially 777 one-off episodes where Neuro employs some new tool to wow and amaze us with his ability to magically solve any crime.
Surprisingly, that’s not where they went. They didn’t give up on deus ex machina as a device, but they were able to balance it with something else.
Tear Down One Character
So, we’ve got a character who doesn’t really have super natural powers, he has deus ex machina. Since if he can do basically anything (well, 777 things), how can you make him interesting enough to keep watching?
The most obvious answer is that you take them away.
Which they do, but characters losing their super powers isn’t all that new. Spider-man practically relies on that kind of story line, and I’m sure everyone can think of examples of characters who thought their abilities were a curse, and then lose those powers only to find out that they actually did like or, in a more common turn of events, are forced back to their powers so they can continue to be a “tragic” or “destined” hero.
This is not the case for Neuro. The guy’s a demon. He can’t really lose his stuff. He can, however, become weaker the longer he stays in the human world and associates too closely with other humans.
Neuro is smart. He would have known this would happen to him when he left the demon world, but he chose to do it anyway.
So as the series progresses, he starts to get weaker. No more catching bullets in eyelashes or beating up rooms full of gangsters without breaking a sweat. Not coincidentally at all, he reaches his weakest point in the middle of his biggest mystery yet. He still has access to all his tools, but every encounter with Digital Hal leaves him weaker and beaten down.
Now he’s getting interesting. Now he’s facing real challenges. Now, at his weakest point, he digs deep to pull out some major weapons: the 7 Matei Dougu (Demon Empire Tools). And that’s fine for blowing a bunch of people away… but then there’s an even more powerful tool who does something even more important and interesting.
While Building Up the Other
Katsuragi Yako is the other half of this Sherlockian team. She is our main character and the one we get to see go through a more traditional story arc (from weak to strong instead of strong to weak). In the beginning of the series her job is to be little more than the girl who shows up and, under Neuro’s influence, points at the villain. Neuro then takes care of the explanation of the crime.
Neuro regularly belittles her and compares her to small bugs of all kinds throughout the series, but he isn’t doing that strictly to keep her down. In fact, the times that he seems actually annoyed with her is when she isn’t taking the chance to grow beyond what she has been.
And she does. Yako is a great, empathetic character and we get to see her develop and want to be able to do more and to do it on her own. And, as we go through the series, she does gain more confidence and more skills and insights and everything that makes her more interesting.
And when she comes through and solves a mystery – or the part of it that Neuro assigned to her because he was too weak to do on his own – he admits that he couldn’t find the information himself because he doesn’t have enough insight into human thought and behavior. Still, he asks her if she thinks it was something he could have solved. By this point she’s grown enough that she can tell him honestly that she doesn’t think he could have. It’s not pride, and it’s not a chance to gloat. It’s just the way it is, and Neuro takes it in stride. He doesn’t even expect her to prove she’s right. She says she has the answer, and that’s all he needs to know, because he knows that she has reached the point that she can do this.
She makes an interesting counterpoint to Neuro. They both have insatiable appetites – he for mysteries, her for anything edible – and they are both basically alone in this world. But as he grows weaker from spending so much time around her, she is growing stronger because of him. She doesn’t gain any super demon powers of insight. She simply watches and learns and tries.
In a way, you could look at her relationship to Neuro like she’s the 778th Makai Dougu. He may be incapable of dealing with humans on any real level, but he can respect and properly employ the tools he needs when he needs them. She’s the only tool that doesn’t fall into the deus ex machina category, because we see her build up to this point over the whole series.
You can’t say that these two characters ever reach any kind of equilibrium, but you can say very definitely that the classic character arc and the opposite character arc can exist in the same space and make a very interesting dynamic that’s engaging and worth watching.
And, in this case, it makes the question of deus ex machina a very effective device. At any time he could have busted out one of the other 777 tools, but he didn’t. By building creating a character who has access to 777 MacGuffins of great power, it makes it all the more important when he chooses to use the 778th.