First of all, my apologies for a long, looooong layoff of six months since I last posted here. That was in large part due to inspiration simply not striking for me over that span of time. But now, thanks to an anime awesomely trainwrecking, intensely invigorated inspiration has struck anew! And since this triangular trainwreck is mainly due to a love triangle gone horribly awry, I feel inspired to talk a bit on the topic of love triangles.
Love triangles (and other various love shapes, even ones that would make The Pentagon proud) are a frequent staple of anime, and so I think that how well they’re written can go a long way to determining how good (or bad!) many anime shows will be. So without further ado, let’s delve into the topic of love triangles! I’ll start by referencing one of my most memorable meetings with an anime-style love triangle.
A long time ago, on the old outstanding original PlayStation (outstanding for its time, in any event), I played a game called The Granstream Saga. It was both one of the first JRPG-style games I’ve ever played, as well as a game that gave me a clearer glimpse into the style of anime, due to its anime-style cutscenes and plot.
The Granstream Saga was a rather good game for its time, and even now, well over a decade after I first played it, I have many good and vivid memories of it. Perhaps none of those memories are clearer than a key choice you, as the player character, have to make near the very end of the game. (Spoilers ahead, so you have been warned!)
Near the end of the game, you are faced with a situation where one of your two female companions (both of which have been given some nice romantic and/or sexually charged moments with the player character) will have to sacrifice herself in order to defeat the Final Boss. And it’s made clear that your character will likely end up in a romance with whichever girl doesn’t sacrifice herself. And you, the player, have to choose which girl sacrifices herself!
This ended up being a truly agonizing decision for me (until it dawned on me that I could simply make “both” choices due to save points and restarts – yes, I had a breathtakingly bad braincramp moment). But until this dawned on me, I had a hard time choosing between the cool, tall, bluish-hair tomboy and the shorter, sweet, shy purple-haired girl. Both had their distinct charms, which contrasted nicely with each other, and both had been carefully built up to be good, viable romantic options for the player character. And so this made the choice feel very raw, real, riveting.
It wasn’t an easy choice, because both girls were likable (albeit for very different reasons), and both girls had been well-developed characters.
And as I think back to this old PS game, it dawns on me what the key element to a good love triangle is.
“It’s romance, isn’t it?!” some readers may say.
While romance is very important in a love triangle, that’s not actually the key element. The key element is…
True Tears probably has the best anime love triangle of all-time. And the reason is because it involves a fierce and pretty evenly matched conflict between the two girls who are competing over the same guy. The love triangle in True Tears is unpredictable right up through the 11th hour of the 11th episode. It’s only in the final episode of True Tears that the victor of this conflict is made clear.
What I think some anime writers (and manga/LN/VN writers as well) forget is that the rules that govern good love triangle conflicts are not that much different than the rules that govern good conflict in general.
What are these rules? Well, here’s some of them…
1) The occasional curbstomp can be fun, but usually only if short, fast, and flashy (you see some of this done very effectively in Fate/Zero). Conflicts between evenly matched combatants tend to be the better conflicts because they have more “give-and-take” and unpredictability to them. But there is an exception to this…
2) People, by nature, like underdogs. This is why overpowered antagonists (like Gilgamesh) tend to work better than overpowered protagonists. People tend to instinctively feel sympathy for underdogs, particular when they’re not a villain (and even them, viewer sympathy can abound – see Team Rocket).
3) It helps if the strengths and weaknesses of all the key combatants are carefully explored and utilized.
Now, this applies to Hiromi vs. Noe (for Shinichiro’s love) just as much as it applies to Ichigo vs. Aizen. So if a love triangle is going to be a core aspect of your show, then it’s probably a good idea to leave it at least a bit unpredictable with the combatants within it being ‘evenly matched’.
And here is where Aquarion EVOL has resulted in a tremendously tumultuous trainwreck.
Zessica (the green-haired girl) is thrust into the underdog role in this love triangle, due to how Mikono (the purple-haired girl) got off to a great relationship with Amata (the male lead) before Zessica even entered the picture. Couple this with how the reincarnation focus of the show makes Amata and Mikono seem literally fated to be, and it makes Zessica’s confession seem like a hopeless cause.
Now, remember what I said about how curbstomps work best if they’re short, fast, and flashy? Well, that’s sadly not the case here in Aquarion EVOL, as Zessica’s defeat (as obvious as it is – so obvious that I can confidently speak about it like this even when Aquarion EVOL has one episode left to go) is focused on, lingered on, even obsessed over. We see scenes of her in heartache and angst, much moreso than we see scenes of Amata/Mikono looking cute as a couple together.
This is frankly disastrous romance triangle handling.
But do you know what makes this even worse, good reader?
The same person who wrote True Tears – the incredibly indelibly (in)famous Mari Okada – is now the person writing Aquarion EVOL!
This would be comparable to watching Saki Miyanaga all of a sudden not be able to win a single hand at mahjong (although, if that was against her sister, it might be understandable ).
I can only hope that Okada’s talent for writing compelling love triangles hasn’t disappeared to that extent.
But there is one other problem with the Mikono/Amata/Zessica love triangle. One that goes beyond too much predictability and kicking an underdog while she’s down. The problem is that “the strengths and weaknesses of all the key combatants” are not carefully explored and utilized. No, even though she’s “winning” the love triangle effortlessly, Mikono’s strengths (when it comes to ‘why does Amata love her?’) have never been properly developed or utilized.
So the final picture looks like this: A proud highly-talented sports team uses an unappealing defensive system to trap the plucky and tireless underdog into defeat, she hangs back doing next-to-nothing and just wins by sheer fortune.
Now, does that sound like a great sports narrative to you? If not, why would it make a good narrative for a romance conflict?
It would be better if Mikono and Zessica were like these two…
Okabe, of Steins;Gate fame, expresses plenty of love, caring, camaraderie, and friendship for both of these two lovely young women. Hence, both sets of shippers (one for Kurisu and one for Mayuri) have something to hang their hats on. Okabe works tirelessly to thwart the seeming Catch/22 of at least one of these girls being fated to die. He refuses to let either of them die, and that takes this love triangle even beyond where it was in Granstream Saga.
So if you want a love triangle to succeed, here’s the three keys of the triangle:
1. Have real even-handed conflict between the two corners of the triangle that are in competition with each other.
2. Have the character at the middle of the love triangle show strong feelings for both of the characters that love him or her.
3. Let the strengths of both competitors come out, and don’t make it seem like an easy choice for the character at the middle of the love triangle.
These three keys made the tears shed in the wake of True Tears, true tears indeed. And these three keys are also ones that Aquarion should have EVOLved to, before it was too late. Unfortunately, now it probably is too late for that show, but I hope other anime writers will learn from the experience.
So what do my readers think? What do you think constitutes a good love triangle?
I’d love to hear from you.