I keep looking at characters, because characters are a critical part of storytelling. It’s not an accident that the start of a narrative is supposed to (among other things) introduce the setting and characters: in principle, the characters introduced will create the conflict that drives the plot.
A lot of the time I’ve been looking at character relationships, because that’s where the conflict arises. If Gene Starwind doesn’t promise Melfina to help her discover the leylines, Outlaw Star has no plot; if Nauta doesn’t fall in love with Haruko FLCL goes nowhere, and so on and so on…
How about this time we look at individual characters to see the potential of their roles? Nah, you don’t get to say “No, thanks” at this point.
Mongolian Chop Squad is about five Japanese boys who form a band, and go from barely starting out to having some success, to the point where they do a US tour. There’s also an outside love interest and a mentor, so you have seven roles:
Koyuki is a high school age kid who wants to play in a band.
Maho is the girl.
Ryusuke is the mysterious guitar player who is Koyuki’s hero and Maho’s brother. At the start of the series he’s looking to start a new band, for which he particularly wants
Taira, the bass player.
Then there’s Chiba, the singer…no, he’s not a singer. He’s a vocalist.
A school chum of Koyuki’s, Saku, becomes the drummer. Boom. We have a band.
Finally, there’s Saito, a perverted middle-aged man who gives Koyuki guitar lessons in exchange for moving boxes (full of porno magazines) around.
Mongolian Chop Squad plus WAGs: (from left) Saku, Taira, Chiba, Maho, Ryusuke, Koyuki. I forget who the other girl is but she’s Saku’s girlfriend. The dog is Beck. Not pictured: Saito.
That’s not the story, of course. What we have is a set of characters, and now we can take a look at what they bring to the story. For instance:
Koyuki is the protagonist or Hero. As a character he’s a lousy Hero because he’s badly developed by the series, but he still manages to fulfill two Hero functions: he drives the meta-plot to conclusion (when Mongolian Chop Squad is on the verge of falling apart he goes on stage alone to pull out the win) and he gets the girl. Those are things a Hero is supposed to in a bog standard narrative.
What else is a Hero supposed to do? Beat the bad guys, but there really aren’t any in this series, and I don’t have a sense that he could if he needed to. See Chiba, below.
Saku, as above, is the drummer and Koyuki’s friend. He is a classic Sidekick in the sense that he fulfills two Sidekick roles. One is that he supports the hero. This isn’t an action series, so it’s not like Jet with his gun out covering Spike’s back; the support is largely moral and emotional, but it’s support nonetheless. The second Sidekick role is to give the hero someone to talk to, so s/he can explain what’s going on. (You see that A LOT in Doctor Who.) There are times when the writer needs to advance the plot, and sometimes it’s easiest for the Hero to just tell the Sidekick, because when they tell the Sidekick they tell the audience as well. Look at how often Lupin tells Jigan what’s going on (not that Jigan’s listening).
Maho is the Girlfriend (as in Hero-Sidekick-Girlfriend). As a Girlfriend she is a prize to be sought after by the hero. Fortunately she’s never a Princess in Peril, since it’s unlikely Koyuki would notice.
Saito is a classic Mentor. This isn’t a traditional Hero’s Journey…man, if they had gone that route Koyuki might have been more interesting…but that’s what Saito is, a traditional Mentor, Yoda in a perv suit. (He also has elements of the comic Sidekick.)
It gets a little more interesting with the other three, I promise.
Ryusuke is the Idol, the goal state that Koyuki wishes to attain. Ryusuke is there to remind the audience of where Koyuki is headed.
Idol is a role you don’t see too often. Usually goals are abstract: Gene wants to find the Ley-lines or Fuu the samurai who smells of sunflowers. But Ryusuke is right here in front of Koyuke; they play together and hang together and are friendly to the extent that Ryusuke is capable of it.
If that was all he did, the character would be fairly pointless…you could give Koyuki a picture of Jimi Hendrix to do the same thing…so fortunately Ryusuke has two other functions. One is that he acquired his fabulous guitar by means of the notorious five-finger discount: he stole it. Since he stole it from somebody rich and important, that drives a plot arc where someone rich and important wants his guitar back. So they managed to get about three episodes out of that one item in Ryusuke’s back story.
He’s also Maho’s step-brother. Something could have been done with that…it’s there to be used, but unfortunately all they managed to accomplish with this was to bring Koyuki and Maho into contact. (Ryusuke’s brotherly feelings extend to giving Koyuki a condom when he’s going to see Maho and not a thing more.) (No, Koyuki does not use the condom, or need to. Booooriiing.)
Chiba is where we finally start to get into really interesting characters. He is dark and has a scruffy beard, suggesting to me that he is Ainu, the Japanese equivalent of a Native American, and I have a sense that there’s a hint of racism in his portrayal (his performances tend to be ape-like).
More importantly, he fulfills the physical Hero role. Part of Chiba’s back story was that he was beaten up a lot as a kid and so he studied karate. When Koyuki and Saku (who are only about 14 and not large for their age) get picked on by bullies, it’s Chiba who comes to their rescue. He may not win the fight, but he’s willing to step up and protect the others.
Of course, because of his background as a bullied child, when things start to go south for the band emotionally, Chiba bugs out. This is what makes Chiba interesting: he’s quick with his fists but he’s quick with his feet, too. He is all reaction: flight or fight. Emotionally he seems younger than even the kids, and that creates a tension in the character in that you don’t know which way he’ll run: toward the action or away from it.
I keep hoping that’s not some sort of stereotype about the Ainu.
I found Taira the most interesting character from a storytelling standpoint because he, like Chiba, has multiple roles, but unlike Chiba they are perfectly straightforward, suggesting a well-thought-out character. Taira is a working musician, and quite a good one, and therefore highly sought after. He makes it clear that if Mongolian Chop Squad is unable to get gigs, he will have to move on; that’s a constant source of low level tension through the series. It’s always hanging over them: if they do not succeed, Taira will leave and the band will fall apart. That’s both natural and sensible. It’s just a simple and perfectly consistent way of creating the sort of tension that drives a plot.
At the same time, Taira has a lot of Big Brother characteristics, being both older than Koyuke and Sako (and Maho) and wiser than Ryusuke or Chiba. At the same time he threatens the band in the long run, he has a calming influence in the short run.
What that does is temper the tension he creates; if all he did was threaten to leave, he would be unlikeable and intolerable. But by giving him a Big Brother role, it creates the sense that he is willing to do what they need…professionally or emotionally; he’s not a physical hero…to succeed, and so creates the impression that he is fair and willing to give the others a chance.
He is constructed almost exactly like Suzuka from Outlaw Star: long term threat, short term calming effect.
I think this is at the heart of the flaws in this series: the Hero, Koyuki, has good qualities (he is determined and loyal), but he is also immature (and never really grows up) and seriously stupid.
The most interesting character, Taira, is one of the least used.
Maho could have been a great character: she is a fine singer, better than Chiba by a long ways; lived for more than half her life in the US, which could have brought in elements of culture shock (but didn’t); is clearly in love with Koyuki. But she ends up just being the pot of gold at the end of Koyuki’s rainbow, wasting her potential.
Ryusuke has a prominent flaw (he’s highly self-centered) but we’re expected to accept it because he’s a genius.
Some of them are good characters and some less so, but as an ensemble the more poorly drawn characters end up having to do the most narrative work.
Lesson: Think not just about who your characters are, but also what they bring to the story. What story? The story you’re trying to tell.
I always look at comments and feedback, and I’m sure I’m not the first to see what I’ve seen, so have at it. Just keep it clean and keep it on target…no personal attacks, okay? Thanks.