Choosing the setting and characters to explore the theme of your story is a task in itself, maybe as important as finding the theme. These choices will ultimately define how your ideas become the narrative, the elements also by which the audience will hold on (or not) to the journey you’re proposing as a writer. And although many themes have been explored similarly throughout narrative history, some of them becoming tropes reutilized to exhaustion, there’s always some space for original interpretation. Something rare these days, I know.
Klara and the Sun is such a story.
This magnificent novel, by Nobel prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro, follows the adventure of one Klara, a robot designed to be a companion of humans. An AF or “artificial friend” built to address a growing problem amongst the human population, loneliness. But the story only uses loneliness as an anchor to talk about something else, for this story ultimately talks about “the human heart”, which some believe is a synonym for love. I’m not sure about that myself, maybe love is a too general topic, especially for a theme. In my view, the author is searching for that capacity that goes beyond self-interest, which is assumed to be an “only human” characteristic. Yet, he cleverly gives it to the protagonist of the story.
Yes, the artificial friend.
Klara is a robot who, as I said before, has been built to accompany humans. To help them. She starts the story impatiently waiting to be chosen by a human, at the AF store. From the beginning, we notice her personality traits, conveyed because she’s the one telling us the whole thing, as she acts as the narrator of the novel. We quickly get her curious and insightful personality as she tries to make sense of the world she experiences, not unlike we as humans would do but far more conscious about the process. Patterns and intuitions appear in her mind, prompting her to make assumptions in an ever-enduring necessity for understanding.
And yes, she gets picked by some Josie, a girl who falls in love with her and wishes to have her as a companion. And from this point forward, Klara gets to experience the world of a dystopian human society where extreme and cold rationality seems to have taken all places of society, leaving almost no place for feelings and higher callings (aka. spirituality). A place where children are genetically modified to perform better, with serious health implications for them, and a place where human labor is secondary to machine efficiency. All contrasting ideas merge into the spinal plot line of the story; Klara wants to help Josie, who’s currently dying because of ill-used genetic modification and she believes something incredible, the Sun can help her recover. With the little knowledge Klara has about the world, she believes the Sun to be a sentient being looking out for us, having magical powers that can heal the ill. She believes this so much she makes her life work to convince it to help Josie.
The plot gets quite complicated by the midpoint of the novel, turns out the mother of Josie wants to make Klara copy all of Josie’s manners and then when the time comes for Josie’s departure, take her place as the daughter.
I don’t think the idea here is for me to tell you the story, I think you should read it. And that ending… oh God…
If the capacity for love is the capacity to selflessly care about those whom you love then it doesn’t matter if it’s a human or anyone else who has it or does it, right? Just as long as it still exists in this world, which seems to be something were forgetting so fast. I hope many people have the chance to read Klara and the Sun, just to remember what it feels like to go beyond oneself, to go beyond getting something out of it, you know, to love.
The titanium alloy builded cabine of the interstellar rollercoaster vibrates upon warp speed entry as Johnny, a teenage pulsar dj practitioner, changes tracks once again, undecided about the atmospheric melody which he would like to listen upon death by suffocation, tossed imaginarilly into space and time after loosing the incoming dj battle he’s about to face. Yet, the rollercoaster arrives to the nearest star at lightspeed, alongside the new beat in Johnny´s playlist; “excitement of a burning star”. The tune hits the cabin, some dude in the back starts moving his head with a smile that fastly spreads to more and more, increasingly excited, people.
I bet they won’t toss me into space after listening to this killer track.
Johnny accomodates his vintage headphones and let’s himself be carried away by the melody, but he’s quickly interrupted by the harsh bass on Azeroth, his contestant, hit track; “Cry of a pulsar”. The battle is on.
Johnny turns up the volume, along with the rising laser melody which welcomes the audience into the sudden fall of the rollercoaster and manages to take them away from the sad tunes of his adversary. But at the end of the fall, the melancholic pulse on the bridge of “Cry of a Pulsar”, pushes them back into the sadness of oblivion, conveyed by Azeroth’s feelings. Johnny concentrates on his previous sentiments, on the warm rising of the sun in the summer, but the melody only manages to upset the audience, completely caught up in sadness, and they love it. The rollercoaster spirals, taking Johnny off from concentration and giving Azeroth even more sad feelings to feed upon. Hanging in despair, Johnny notices Azeroth is looking right at him, probably feeding of Johnny’s desperation to add to his sad tune. And so, Johnny opens his safebelt and lets himself go in the middle of the rollercoaster spinning. The sudden fall of Johnny makes Azeroth laugh and the sad tune he’s conveing changes into an uprising beat, following his own feelings, and more so than that, merging with another rising tune, the hopeful arrangement that comes from Johnny’s heart, grabbing the side of the dj table and not letting himself go in the middle of the chaotic movement of the rollercoaster. Fighting for his own life, Johnny’s heart fuses with the melody from “excitement of a burning star”, transforming it into a new song; “Explosion of supernova feelings”. And the entire audience let’s themself go from their seatbelts, and the rollercoaster travels through space with a multitude of people hanging from their chairs, fighting to stay alive and not letting go.
The spiral tracks are behind and the rollercoaster stabilises near the heart of a gigantic galaxy, purple mist and the birth of new stars accompany Johnny´s triumphant coda, as “explosion of a supernova feelings” hits the end. The audience goes back into their sits, a couple rejoice by the window, kissing passionately. Azeroth´s song has stopped for some time now, not that anyone notices it and Johnny is the only one to say goodbye to him, before the floor opens and tosses him out into space, to die.
Oh, you don’t know how long I wanted to talk about Gantz, something like since I finished reading the manga, I don’t know how many years ago (actually since June 20, 2013). It’s just that this manga/anime/live action created and drawn by Hiroya Oku has a tremendous story that is worth remembering. And I tell you sincerely that this manga goes to the last instances within its own plot, but I also feel that it explores what many have described as the essence of the conflict, the why of existence, because isn’t the goal of all stories a process of liberation? Something like the protagonist’s struggle to break the chains that bind their desire, which often translate into mundane devices like a tyrannical boss or an evil witch, but in Gantz this doesn’t happen, rather the protagonists struggle so much to find the answers that they end up meeting God and their answers (and their behavior!) end up justifying all the killing that characterizes the series.
Let’s go back to the beginning of the story to see how we end up meeting God at the end. The protagonist is Kei Kurono, a young student with few ambitions in life and a rather apathetic attitude towards existence. In the character’s initial dialogue, we can notice his lack of courage, when he explains how unpleasant and ridiculous he finds all of human life and that, unfortunately for him, is intertwined with a sexual desire that is difficult to keep at bay. We don’t know exactly why Kei Kurono has this attitude towards life, but we can intuit that it has something to do with the sexual frustration he experiences. After this, Kei meets an old childhood friend on the subway train, but doesn’t decide to talk to him until the friend asks for his help in rescuing a homeless man who has fallen into the train lines. This moment is particularly important for the protagonist because of two important points. The first is that Kei is surprised when his friend Katou recognizes him and asks for his help, although he obviously doesn’t show it because he doesn’t want to be a sissy. The second point occurs during the climax of this scene, when the train runs over Kei and Katou, in the seconds before he dies, Kei reflects on the futility of life, pointing out that dying at that moment really doesn’t matter. Both characters die during the train sequence, however, they reappear in the room of an apartment in Tokyo, although they quickly notice that they cannot leave the place. Other people are waiting next to a large black ball that tells them all that they have to go hunt an alien known as the “onion alien”.
So is the beginning of the story of Gantz, which can be summarized as “a group of deceased people are chosen by a machine to fight alien invaders in an attempt to stop a large-scale invasion”. However, such a summary glosses over many important points worth naming. One of the things that always caught my attention in Gantz is the dramatic arc of the protagonist, Kei Kurono, who, as mentioned above, starts the story in a state of utmost apathy. But it is this encounter with Katou that changes his vision completely, when this character reminds him of how he used to be, in the past, when both children played in the street. It turns out that Kei Kurono was Katou’s hero, a brave and risk-taking person, who was not afraid to take on rivals even bigger than himself in pursuit of doing whatever he could think of doing. A personality very different from the one the protagonist shows at the beginning of the manga (completely opposite). And it is this childish personality that allows Kei Kurono, after recovering it little by little with each mission he faces, to survive more than any other person in the story of Gantz, thus becoming a legendary hero in the conflict. And I want to emphasize this attribute of the character because, as we see throughout the first arc of the story, the way Kei recovers his courage is by facing fear over and over again. And it’s not just any fear that he faces, for if there’s one thing that jumps out at you in Gantz, it’s the amount of deaths and the brutality of them. Kei Kurono survives countless missions, losing everyone he meets in between, even striving to earn enough points to revive them! (something I didn’t mention is that this black ball in the middle of the apartment, where the revived appear, has a point system for the participants, if you earn 100 points you can revive another person).
Now, we are left with the issue of the nature of the conflict and the appearance of God within the story. Well, the thing is that this Gantz (which is the machine that revives people) is a device that was designed in Germany and is being used in different parts of the world to fight aliens, but the problem is that it is inevitable that the fight escalates until an enemy appears so powerful that it is very difficult to defeat it. In this aspect, Gantz maintains the classic structure of increasing the strength of the adversaries. Towards the end of the story, the last war is unleashed against the giant Aliens (which are actually beings very similar to humans, although gigantic). The humans and these aliens face each other in a bloody war that ends with the victory of the humans. It is at this point that some characters are transported to the “room of truth”, where they meet two “God Aliens”, who indicate that they are the ones who have actually designed Gantz and that the whole thing was only due to their wish for things to be like this. Now, this point and the point that follows it, which is about what happens when one dies and the value of a human being, are the most important points to understand all this about the origin of the conflict. Let’s go by point; first the desire of the Aliens God is the force of destiny, we could also say that it is the brush of the creator (in this case of Hiroya Oku), in the sense that the story is the product of the desire for the story to exist and the conflict is the mechanism by which the story moves in time. Second, the idea of death, which in Gantz takes inspiration from Buddhist philosophy on reincarnation but gives it a modern twist, pointing out that human beings are dust and particles, but that 21 grams of “data” or information are lost at the moment of death and it is this information that produces reincarnation. This brings us to the third point, the value of human life, which in Gantz is described as these 21 grams of information that reincarnates throughout the history of the universe.
What is the big lesson that Hiroya Oku is presenting to us? I feel that his version of the origin of conflict is based on the idea that all conflicts arise from desire, which is also one of the Buddhist doctrines. Taking into account that Kei Kurono sets out on this path to regain his courage under the desire to fall in love with Reika (one of the people who appears in the Gantz department) and that the result of it all is a battle between two planetary civilizations, I think it is fair to conclude (and I suppose this is a lesson for anyone who wants to write stories) that at the core of all conflict lies a strong uncontrollable desire that sets the protagonist on a path of destruction of the established order, and that such destruction is only justified in the end (depending on which end it is obviously! ). In short, thanks to Hiroya Oku and Gantz, a series that stands out for the originality of its plot and that has earned the place it has in the history of manga, without any doubt.
Hiroya Oka’s drawings are simply mind-blowing.
The main character’s arc is extremely interesting.
The ending with the crude speech of the Aliens God is unmissable.
The last story arc can feel abrupt, especially considering that many secondary characters don’t have a satisfying ending.