Personal Failures in Fiction

Written by K. Arsenault Rivera

If you’ve watched a shoujo anime within the past decade, the odds are strong you’ve come into (at least) second hand contact with Revolutionary Girl Utena. The phenomenal cult classic show from famed anime director Ikuhara—now nearing its twentieth anniversary—has even left its mark on the current fan-favorite cartoon Steven Universe. And for good reason! With its striking visuals, powerful themes, vibrant characters, and subversive fairy-tale trappings, there’s a lot to love.

Set in an enigmatic and flamboyant private academy, the core of this school is the Student Council. “Smash the World’s Shell!” is a thing you’ll hear more than once in Revolutionary Girl Utena, as the absurdly powerful and stylish youths obsessed with dueling parrot this line ad nauseum. It’s a little funny how obsessed they are with breaking eggshells, considering not a single one of them ever breaks their own.

Personal failures are a big part of Utena. The Council know exactly what they’ve got to do if they want to improve their lives, they never make the choice to follow through. They could be free whenever they wanted—but they just don’t want to…at least not yet.

And that’s what makes Utena so compelling to me. So often in epic stories the hero always makes the right decision, so often they act in the interest of the greater good. To me, it’s always been far more interesting—more human—when they choose to wallow a little instead. We might all like to imagine ourselves winning duels and pulling swords out of our loved ones, but we can all relate to making bad decisions. Part of the reason I so deeply love Juri, the intimidating captain of the Academy’s fencing team, is because I’ve also found myself frozen by my own loyalties, unable to sever myself from even the most toxic relationships.

It’s also why, in The Tiger’s Daughter, I chose to juxtapose O-Shizuka and Shefali’s divine antics with their own personal failings.

Convinced she’s a god from childhood, O-Shizuka drags Shefali into all sorts of dangerous situations—and not once does Shefali escape unscathed. By all rights, Shefali should probably strike out for a nice, safe life of her own. But here’s the thing—Shefali loves O-Shizuka too much to abandon her. And so a tiger tries to fly like a phoenix, time and time again, even when she knows it’s only going to end in pain.

O-Shizuka’s got to deal with the ramifications of her actions, too. When we first meet her in The Tiger’s Daughter, she’s already taken the throne. We meet an empress at the height of her power, surrounded on all sides by splendor—and yet more miserable than she’s ever been. Whatever happened to her, between Shefali’s letter and now, O-Shizuka is wallowing in it. And she is alone.

Have the horrible decisions of her youth finally come back to haunt her? Will the Empress smash this eggshell she’s put herself in, the way Shefali’s seemed to smash her own?

O-Shizuka will have to choose to do so herself, and there’s no telling if that choice will even be the right one. That’s the trouble with being a hero. Even gods can be slain, after all, and so certainly—even gods can fail.

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Follow K. Arsenault Rivera on Twitter and on her website.

1 thought on “Personal Failures in Fiction

  1. What I loved about N K Jemisin’s The Broken Earth series is that the characters often make the ‘wrong’ decision in terms of their own welfare and that of their community.
    The fact that those decisions were based on love, despite often making a mess of those same relationships, is so much what reality is all about.

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