Opinion: Anime’s Focus On Themes Provides Better Storytelling Than Hollywood’s Preachy Use Of Allegory

The imposing Colossus Titan from Attack on Titan Season 3 (2023), MAPPA
The imposing Colossus Titan from Attack on Titan Season 3 (2023), MAPPA

A significant warning sign for screenwriters poses a threat to the overall quality of their writing. While diligent effort and study can solve issues like grammar and punctuation, there is no remedy for a writer who believes their writing will change the world.

To illustrate this point, consider that Dostoevsky’s writings did not change the world. Yet a mediocre Hollywood writer, driven by inserting ‘The Message’ (you may take a whiskey shot), envisions their work as a catalyst for change. This overtly preachy era of Hollywood provides an opportunity to explore the difference between allegory and theme.

Jennifer Walters (Tatiana Maslany) confronts the series' writers room in She-Hulk: Attorney at Law Season 1 Episode 9 "Whose Show Is This?" (2022), Marvel Entertainment
Jennifer Walters (Tatiana Maslany) confronts the series’ writers room in She-Hulk: Attorney at Law Season 1 Episode 9 “Whose Show Is This?” (2022), Marvel Entertainment

RELATED: How Modern Hollywood Writers Abandoned Their Moral Duty

Before we embark, I acknowledge that these concepts are not mutually exclusive. Every allegory encompasses themes, and every theme can transform into an allegory. But both allegory and theme demand equal care. Otherwise, your allegory risks devolving into a mere tool for expressing your political biases.

Given that politics emanate from personality types, they often limit the scope of perception regarding the human condition. This is a critical difference between Hollywood and anime. Allegory, rooted in Old French, Latin, and Greek, literally means “a speaking about something else.” In the case of storytelling, the hidden meaning or moral of a story. However, it often becomes a platform for hacks like Alex Kurtzman to expound on subjects with limited comprehension.

Giving rise to oversimplified tropes, such as the misguided notion that sci-fi is exclusively about the present. Star Trek: Picard season 2 demonstrates this vividly with an absurd depiction of Picard collecting the skulls of conquered races as an allegory for America’s immigration policies. It is mere speculation, but it appears Kurtzman thinks Donald Trump’s shadow likes taco bowls so much that he uses — I am not finishing this sentence.

John de Lancie as Q and Patrick Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: Picard Season 2 Episode 2 "Penance" (2022), Paramount+
John de Lancie as Q and Patrick Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: Picard Season 2 Episode 2 “Penance” (2022), Paramount+

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This is also why allegory opens the floodgates for the ‘missing the point of the movie’ meme. If you express even a hint of sympathy for the Joker, Travis Bickle, Tyler Durden, and Barbie’s Ken, the immediate assumption is that you must have fundamentally misunderstood the movie.

That is the only explanation (because the writer insists on it). It couldn’t be the fact that the human condition is vast and that people identify with tragedy, using it as a narrative elixir of what not to do in life. This way such characters turn into tragic heroes.

Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) kills for the first time in Joker (2019), Warner Bros. Entertainment
Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) kills for the first time in Joker (2019), Warner Bros. Entertainment

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Allegory also tends to oversimplify economics, as seen in movies like Elysium. Besides its visual appeal, Elysium is just a rollercoaster of economic illiteracy. All wealth generation devalues human labor. That is something writers cannot ignore; the hockey stick of wealth is real and the result of human ingenuity.

So why is Matt Damon assembling androids per hand like in some chop shop in downtown LA? Don’t know, don’t care because neither does Neill Blomkamp. But the expectation is to treat Elysium seriously as an allegory for contemporary inequality, even though it gets the most basic economic fundamentals wrong.

Matt Damon as Max in Elysium (2013), TriStar Pictures
Matt Damon as Max in Elysium (2013), TriStar Pictures

On the contrary, anime serves as a counterbalance with its reliance on theme. Derived from Greek, theme means proposition. What does proposition invite? Argument! That is what John Truby emphasizes as the purpose of theme in Anatomy of Story: a moral argument.

Your theme permeates every aspect of your writing—dictating scenes, shaping dialogue, and influencing character choices. The characters weave the fabric of arguments that support or counter the overarching theme. As a writer, it’s crucial to be capable of exploring every facet of the argument.

Have you ever noticed how in recent Hollywood productions the accused party rarely defends itself? When Falcon berates a senator, the response is passive acceptance to “do better.” Yet regardless of the evil, most individuals think they are doing what is right and become defensive about their actions.

Falcon/Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) in Marvel Studios’ THE FALCON AND THE WINTER SOLDIER exclusively on Disney+. Photo by Eli Adé. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.

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Similarly, characters in the MCU seldom challenge the nonsensical beliefs of villains like Thanos. Not even the industrial capitalist pointed out that Thanos’ view of scarcity is just nonsense.

That is because there was never an argument for the writers. They aligned with the axiom, just not with the methods to address it. However, challenging the axiom itself, as at least one character should do, is crucial in preventing your writing from becoming preachy and eye-roll-inducing.

Thanos (Josh Brolin) tortures Thor (Chris Hemsworth) in Avengers: Endgame (2019), Marvel Studios
Thanos (Josh Brolin) tortures Thor (Chris Hemsworth) in Avengers: Endgame (2019), Marvel Studios

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Consider Black Clover with themes of inequality, injustice, and class but also compassion, grit, and adaptation. In a magical world where one’s social standing is determined by mana levels, the show recognizes the complexity of its hierarchy. Black Clover understands that improvement is not as simple as Falcon’s “do better.” It explores the innate need for hierarchy and poses the question: how should it be structured?

In this narrative approach, the hero’s lack of any mana becomes an argument on the theme. Various characters advocate different views, such as the belief that only the strong should rule, or an unwavering compassion for the weak. Or the conviction that merit and competence should dictate hierarchy. The show challenges the notion that individuals without mana cannot rise to prominence, emphasizing the importance of grit and hard work.

When a villain threatens to destroy the world and rebuild it from scratch (a familiar trope), Black Clover does not offer just flashy fight scenes but engages in a genuine argument. Labeling such storytelling as merely ‘political’ is a shallow perspective. There is no political solution for the human condition. A compelling story must cut deeper than mundane politics.

Asta (Gakuto Kajiwara/Dallas Reid) saves a defenceless old man in Black Clover: Sword of the Wizard Kind (2023), Netflix
Asta (Gakuto Kajiwara/Dallas Reid) saves a defenceless old man in Black Clover: Sword of the Wizard King (2023), Netflix

And when it does, like Bioshock Infinite, activist types will come to love and hate the writing within ten years as politics change, but the human condition remains. Case in point: Attack on Titan. This show is a masterclass on the human condition.

It prompted me to create a comprehensive video breakdown of its intricate storytelling, which you can check out down below:

A cursory viewing of Attack on Titan might reduce it to a mere allegory condemning nationalism. However, this perspective disregards the show’s core message: how an innate human proclivity towards tribalism can turn time and war into a flat circle with dire consequences. The idea that ‘an eye for an eye will make the whole world blind’ is not a consequence of nationalism but of humans.

This is precisely why I humorously refer to it as ‘muh allegory.’ Some writers do not observe the world as it is but as they would like it to be, shaping their stories accordingly. But, in a world where one person’s vision of paradise is another person’s hell, relying solely on ‘muh allegory’ will hurt the story. Something Doctor Who is finding out the hard way.

NEXT: ‘Doctor Who’ Dives Off The Progressive Deep End As Latest Special Sees The Doctor Lectured On Pronouns, Chastised For Being “Male Presenting”

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