The most surprising show of the season ends with more surprises. We thought it was slice-of-life, it turned out to be magical girl combat, and then it got dark. The question is: how did it fare in the end, and how does it measure up?
Yuuki Yuuna wa Yuusha de Aru makes me think of a lot of things, but one of the biggest is a quote from the Lord of the Rings movies, which I think most of you will recognize:
Frodo: I can’t do this, Sam.
Sam: I know. It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.
Frodo: What are we holding onto, Sam?
Sam: That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo… and it’s worth fighting for.
Yuuki Yuuna is, at its core, a classic-style story. It almost turned into a classical tragedy, but it says what it is on the cover, and it remains that all the way through: a story of heroes. And in those great stories Sam was talking about, the heroes don’t have an easy time. Full of darkness and danger, they were, and through the fires of hell they went, which makes their victory all the sweeter. That’s what Yuuki Yuuna gave us.
Another story it makes me think of is Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica, because it too is a magical-girls-everything-turns-dark story. And it is heir to the Madoka tradition, in the same way Madoka took inspiration from the stories that came before it. More interesting perhaps is to compare it to the other series that always makes people scream Madoka: WIXOSS.
Full disclosure: I haven’t seen the second season of WIXOSS, nor the Madoka movies, so all Madoka comments will be drawn from the TV series. I’ll get to the Madoka movies eventually (so no spoilers please), but as for WIXOSS, the first season bored me half to tears, so I didn’t bother with the second. It took Yuuki Yuuna to make me realize why. It’s not, as some people may think, because I’ve seen it before; there’s nothing new under the sun, even if we don’t always know the influences. The reason is because it had no edge.
Author and former ad executive Ken Segall—whose book, Insanely Simple, I highly recommend—recently wrote a blog post about this year’s holiday Apple ad. Compare this year’s “The Song” to last year’s “Misunderstood”. The difference between the two of them, Segall argues (and I agree), is that Misunderstood had an edge. You spend the first part of the ad going “Get off the damn phone and spend time with your family!” … only for the eventual message to use that to tell its story all the better. That edge enhances the uplifting nature of the spot, and makes it effective.
This is instructive because marketing is storytelling for business. Back in the land of storytelling for pleasure, what WIXOSS lacked, and what Madoka and Yuuki Yuuna had, is an edge. It was nakedly clear from the first episode that WIXOSS was all about piling the pain on its cast of kawaii characters, so I dissociated with them immediately. And without that emotional connection, the emotional gut punches slid right off. We humans don’t often choose to open ourselves up to pain and loss when there’s no chance of a happy ending. It’s as I said on a recent discussion about why I reject the use of rampant fanservice in my own work: if there’s not a point to it, and if it doesn’t serve the story, then it’s just porn. That holds true for tragedy too. (Read the whole commet thread for the whole picture.) In this case it would be tragedy porn instead of sexual porn, but that’s porn nonetheless. And that’s fine, but porn isn’t the most emotionally rich of experiences. It’s about as superficial as you can get.
The key difference is that chance. Hope. What Madoka had from the very beginning was ambiguity about not only the outcome, but the course the series would take. And that’s extremely important. Uncertainty of outcome is always there, if rarely realized, but uncertainty about how the story will progress is more valuable in these kinds of stories, because it gets us to the end while keeping us emotionally involved. If we’re not emotionally involved, it doesn’t matter what happens. It will slide right off.
Where WIXOSS lost it was in making it nakedly clear that the entire series would be full of tragedy for its heroines. That’s a trap Yuuki Yuuna wa Yusha de Aru avoided, because it wasn’t clear until late in the series that it was going dark. We always suspected, but wasn’t until episode eight that it really sunk in, and hope held out that the darkness wouldn’t come until the tragedy of Itsuki’s lost voice in episode nine. By then, they had laid the emotional groundwork, and we were in, baby. They kept us coming back with slice-of-life bits long enough to lay the groundwork, and then we were in for the run, bound to see how the story would play out.
One thing I especially love about Yuuki Yuuna is that the characters all do what they do of their own volition. This is something all three series did, but while WIXOSS seemed to use it primarily for more tragedy porn, Madoka and Yuuki Yunna harnessed it to amp up the pain in order to make the payoff all the greater. Granted, Madoka still wins the award for the despair-to-payoff desparity, because it dipped lower and ascended higher … only to smack us back down into the (not quite as bad) mud with the epilogue.
But Yuuki Yuuna was more of a hero story, not going for quite that degree of emotional catharsis, and what it got was still effective. The characters went through hell, so when they won, it was great … and I was immediately worried. “Are they going to heal? Is she going to wake up? Are they going to be all right?” Like I said—by that point, we were in. This one was more character-driven than Madoka, and though it will draw the critics less for its differences, it’s no less good … or if so, not by much.
(Note: I don’t mean to bash WIXOSS too much, especially since I haven’t seen the second season. I’m attempting to suss out why it’s more polarizing than the other two, and I think this is the reason. Even if it’s not as objectively “good” as the others—as if such a thing can be objective—I enjoy plenty of “bad” stuff, so don’t take it as a slight against a show you love. I’m just trying to dissect the phenomanon, for myself as much as anyone.)
The central conceit of Yuuki Yuuna is done well, and that makes the show work. But there are many other things that are done well besides. The art is beautiful and surreal; the first half is genuinely funny, and occasionally touching; the pacing is fast in the good way, not wasting a full season to dispose of twelve Vertex, as the usual tropes demand; the foreshadowing is just right, in that “Ohhhh, now that makes sense” way that’s clear in retrospect, but left us rightly unaware through the initial watch; and the transformation of Tougo into the final villain (of sorts) was a superb twist. I say superb because, with everything we knew about her, everything she learned, and everything she has already endured, her turn to despair was understandable, but you don’t expect it. Most heroes don’t go omnicidal, even in the defense of their friends.
(On the foreshadowing, go back and watch the OP. It was telling us what was going to happen the whole time. And I don’t just mean the mook-vertex from the final battle—watch how each girls’ flowers are shown … and then wilt. Clever bastards.)
But what may have been my favorite part of Yuuki Yuuna was the tone. That was one of the points that was centrally different in all three of these series. I’ve already criticized WIXOSS for going too dark too quick, whereas I would characterize Madoka as being an exercise in slow, building despair from which there was no escape … which made Godoka’s rejection of that reality all the more effective.
Yuuki Yuuna wa Yuusha de Aru, on the other hand, felt like the constant striving of hope in the face of mounting despair. That might not seem like a huge difference, but the key is in the struggle, and the seeming likelihood of that struggle paying off. Only Tougo gave into despair (and Fuu-sempai, though only for a while), but she did it with shaking arms and tears in her eyes. She never accepted despair like Sayaka did, she never let it grind her down—even in her outright refusal of the Shinju-sama’s construct, she was still fighting back. And like Fuu-sempai, the reason Tougo despaired was not for herself. It was for her friends.
As for the other Yuusha-bu members, all the way through it still felt like they could still win. It was a determined struggle in the face of despair, rather than futile struggle despite despair, as Homura repeatedly endured in her time loops and confrontations against Walpurgis Night. There was a sense of optimism, even in the darkest of days.
This could have been a tragedy in the classical sense, if the whole thing went to hell at the end. Was it better that it wasn’t? Happy endings don’t tend to stick with us as much as the bittersweet, but I think the ending is defensible at least, and jived well with the message of the series at more. That message: friendship. Okay, so it’s not exactly a unique one, but in this case it was more of “Friendship, plus fuck the gods.”
Though honestly, I’m still processing the finale, trying to decide if I liked it. They recovered from their impossible injuries because the gods basically fired them—they showed what could go wrong if the Shinju-sama kept abusing and worshiping their warriors like this, so they axed the system and moved onto something else. (Or maybe they felt bad, but we don’t know, so either guess is valid.) That’s about what you have to do to get through to a bunch of gods, so it makes sense to me. Is it an ass pull, though?
Well, no more so than Madoka’s Godoka incident. So it was, and they tripped into it instead of planning it out, but it’s at least a reasonable reaction to what they did and what happened. Maybe it doesn’t get full marks—that would have required them bringing about their own happy ending, as Madoka did—but it gets a passing grade. I’ll have to think on it some more, though.
Final Impression – The Question
The final episode ended with a screen that said, in the bottom right corner: “Yuuki Yuuna’s Chapter.” So does that mean we’re getting more? While I enjoyed this series, I can’t imagine there’s more story to tell, not unless they genre shift to Itsuki’s singing career or do another huge shift. I enjoyed what we got, and I wouldn’t have that ruined by an unnecessary, ill-advised sequel. Studio Gokumi has long been a studio that I respected, for doing extremely good slice-of-life adaptations … you know, what KyoAni used to do … but now they showed they have original series chops as well. Their stock is on the rise for me, and it was already fairly high.
Either way, I enjoyed this series. I wish I had blogged it, but the same misconception that probably kept many from watching it—is this just a slice-of-life show, or a monster-of-the-week magical girl series?—fooled me until it was too late. Ah well. Either way, I suggest it to anyone who likes a little slice-of-life, and wants to see their heroes earn their happy ending. These girls did.
I wrote a book! My first novel, Wage Slave Rebellion, is available now! (More info) My personal site has also moved. Last four posts: Mind meld, Interview with Little Red Reviewer, Sneak Peek: Wage Slave Rebellion prologue, and Action Politics—a FREE short story.