Significance of “Madness” in anime

We’ve already established in other posts about significant emotions and concepts in anime or specific media before. The Significance of losing or the one of visuals and metaphors in Haikyuu!! are some of those I would love to mention here, but today we shall delve into a broader topic that goes more along the lines of Makii’s thrilling post about Danganronpa and the Significance of Despair.

Today, our topic of interest is madness.

To ease your mind, in this post we will be talking about the representation of insanity and madness in some anime characters and how that reflects on the story and ourselves as an audience.To make one thing clear, a lot of the times we see overexaggerated versions of unstable characteristics in anime that aren’t realistic.

This is in no way a discussion about actual mental illnesses and not a professional approach to analysing them to our real life standards, but maybe a start to an interesting discussion about how we portray and handle what one may colloquially call “craziness”.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s start!

Artists, and no matter for example if they write or draw, use their platforms to deliver messages in cryptic ways. As humans, we have the innate ability to look at something and consume the facts through entertainment which makes us crave new media to follow and analyse.

We love to question things instead of just taking them as they are, and that is why most writers out there will play around with the perception of their audience.

You may be familiar with the common question that ghosts through your head as you enjoy the latest episode of your favorite anime.

Why did he do that? Is she a traitor? What makes them think that way?

Although one might always do it consciously, we most definitely analyse whatever media we consume and decide for ourselves if it is important enough to keep in mind for future reference.

What the writer or founder of the anime ultimately wants from the reader is a reaction.

No matter what they intend to do with it, if they enjoy the viewer getting excited or traumatised is not of importance, but a reaction is evidently one of the goals.

And as strong emotions always evoke an even stronger reaction, anime characters are often very idealized and have ideologies that make them want to do one particular thing.

Be it save the world or destroy it, we focus and look at these characters and root for them if they give us a reason to do so.

Both sides of good and bad can have deeply rooted admiration drawn out of us, and it sometimes doesn’t even matter because the more interesting part is the lovely grey area in between.

We need a balance of good and bad to enjoy both.

Empathy makes us viewers want to relate to the characters, and if the author gives us the possibility to learn why someone does something, it gets harder and harder to dislike them. That’s why tragic backstories and flashbacks are such an overused tool in anime, because with the extreme behaviour some characters show they also need equal amounts of redemption.

We attach ourselves emotionally to characters depending on our personal tastes as well.

If someone likes and relates to a strong and independent protagonist who would drop anything for the sake of justice, you will find a lot of resembling characters in shounen for example.

On the other hand, if a darker or more obsessive character manages to take over a special place in a viewer’s heart, putting them on a pedestal gets more and more interesting, because you’re not supposed to.

Contrary to that, characters with insane or dark personality traits are often very popular, again tracing this back to human instinct of emphasising with wronged characters and curiously inspecting the fully deranged ones.

As this isn’t something that should be put into vague concepts, we’re instead going to look at examples of characters and entities that are seen as ‘mad’ and how they’re interpreted.

It’s not just about villains being unreasonably immoral in this post, as we look into what madness entails and how it’s shown, we also have some examples of corruption to look at.

So of course there are the typical evil-thinking evil-doing villains out there.

Some of them have an actual backstory to make them more realistic and believable, some others are just pure evil. While they are often called mad for their actions to achieve their goal, the reason why they are put into that light is the stark contrast between the protagonist and the villain.

If the protagonist loves to save people and always has a smile on his face, of course he will differ from his counterpart when he finds out that his methods are a bit more vicious.

The protagonist perceives the villain as insane most of the time, but what does the viewer think?

We seek to look not only at characters that are enjoyable to watch, but also try to find similarities between us and them or draw lines in their behavior to understand them better. As mentioned before, empathy plays a huge role here as well, since whatever happens in anime doesn’t have actual repercussions, we can forgive characters more easily.

For example when they are taken by Insanity as a side effect rather than being insane due to trauma, we often get an ‘ally turned traitor’ trope through hypnosis or brainwashing, which is just as interesting to look at.

If a person did something horrible under the influence of something they had no control over, are they still to blame?

Does Insanity only involve a separate entity that comes from evil, or are we also looking at the gradual descent into darkness when life just isn’t the same anymore?

Insane and with no fear: Soul Eater

A great example of how insanity plays with characters be they good or bad is Soul Eater.

With a premise that one needs a sound mind and body to inhibit a sound soul, we obviously know that people close to becoming Kishin-eggs will have a rotten soul drenched in bad deeds, but what about the good guys?

In this instance we have a lot of different types of madness and insanity that touches multiple characters at different times, and by far the most drastic would be the black blood.

The black blood being a synthesized weapon form of blood that can change form and harden into shape, is a weapon made by Medusa and introduced for the first time with Crona. He was melded together with Ragnarök as a weapon and used the black blood in his proficient fighting style.

Soul Eater as well as Maka and other characters later come into contact with the black blood, and the consequence of the immense strength that comes with it is debilitating madness.

As explained in the anime, the madness makes one deny the soul of oneself and others and takes away your fear. Now with no fear present, the person exhibits extremely erratic behavior and is not scared to hurt others or themselves.

This is an insanity that shows how essential a person’s fear is, shown by Maka in one of the latest episodes when she fights Asura. The fact that she learned how to accept her own fear and realise that humans need it to survive is why insanity in Soul Eater is merely a concept to differentiate between what is human and what is Kishin.

A Kishin kills and murders with no fear of anything.

A human protects and masters one’s own fear.

The power hungry insanity: Hunter x Hunter

In Hunter x Hunter we have a lot of characters that don’t exactly fit the norm of human action.

With people like Chrollo, Illumi and even Chimera Ants there is enough crazy to go around.

Still, the character we shall delve into to look at a different kind of instability is none other than Hisoka Morow.

Yes, in comparison to black blood madness Hisoka is an actual human being with no known influence outside of his own intellect. The contrary to another weapon or entity making someone insane is being shown in this anime.

Hisoka is just insane.

We have no means to see if there is anything that might have caused Hisoka to be the way that he is, but what we do know is that his character is almost too nonchalant for his own good.

His goal is to accumulate power and fight others that he seems worthy, as that is what attracts him. No person is spared if he believes he found a worthy opponent he will make that clear to them and pursue them passionately.

We could rule that the clown is just eccentric, but with the given information from the anime he definitely had some sort of mental difference next to his peers. Harming himself holds no problem to him, and his behavior is deeply rooted only to suit himself. He has no self-preservation except for when he needs to accomplish something, and he even enters the spiders just to get close to Chrollo.

Now we see a single person carry themselves throughout a story only to achieve one thing: a good fight.

After having looked at these two examples of insanity in anime, let’s look at how that insanity can be portrayed visually.

A famous way to show someone’s psychosis is the “Kubrick stare”. A directorial technique that got named after the director Stanley Kubrick who used a forward tilt of the head with eyes locked onto the camera to show the actors of his movies at their peak of madness. It became a very popular stylistic device and is used still very often in modern movies.

The character is supposed to look menacing, evil-plotting and absolutely unhinged.

Such devices, if used often enough, automatically invoke the message to the viewer.

If you’ve seen the Kubrick stare once in a psychotic character, you will definitely associate it with the same derangement again.

In anime we have a similar thing, and you might be aware of this already.

Familiar with the ‘eye angle just before a character goes insane’ meme?
It’s a running gag that shows multiple characters such as Asura from Soul Eater, Pain from Naruto, Light from Deathnote and Jason from Tokyo Ghoul in a frame where you can only see their eyes and it somehow looks extremely grotesque as if they were looking into different directions with their eyes.

As much as it is a joke, it is a perfect example of something extremely similar to the Kubrick stare used in anime culture. It goes so far that if any anime watcher would see a new character look like in a frame, one would assume they were about to go crazy.

Even Oikawa Tooru from Haikyuu!! was shown with a Kubrick stare in the last moments of the second Seijoh vs. Karasuno game, when his desire to win overtook him with incredible force.

Without loss there naturally can’t be any wins, and without sadness there will be no joy in laughter.

We need the different depictions of what one might call madness, to fill our stories with nuance that relies on our reality.

Be it an unknown entity, hunger for power, lack of fear or the good old fashioned thrive for world domination.

Madness is just another part of what we call life, and to be honest in healthy doses and for effect why not enjoy it in anime?

Now, do you guys know any other characters or concepts in anime that would be worth mentioning? I would love to see them in the comments!

Until then, stay sane!


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