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I’ve recently rediscovered my love and appreciation for a bit of a long-lost friend of mine, shounen battle anime. As the genre’s* eponymous target demographic suggests, this sort of anime doesn’t specialize in being particularly thoughtful or high-minded so much as it wants to wow the viewer with the spectacle of awesome fights and/or grand adventures, whose scope and stakes both increase as the series goes. Genres with clearly defined goals tend to contain titles with similar structures. In getting from point A to point B in these show structures, it can be easy for a given title to rely on a method that was particularly successful for another title. AniTwitter refers to these oft-repeated methods as tropes, but, in this piece, I’m going to charitably call them conventions. Shounen battle anime is inclined to stick to a number of conventions. Here, I’m going to be talking about one I’ll term “the fake out.”
What, then, is the fake out? Simply put, it’s when the show, through dialogue, visuals or both, leads the viewer to believe some (usually terrible) event has transpired when it actually hasn’t. The especially naughty shows will even display a few tantalizing frames of the thing seemingly happening before it is avoided at the last moment. Shounen battle anime prepare for these fake outs by explicitly laying out some supposedly-strict world mechanics in the early going e.g. if X occurs, then Y occurs; nothing in category A belongs to category B; hero H can only use power P for time length T; etc and so on. Enter the drama: When X occurs, the viewer has been told and/or shown that Y will occur…but then it doesn’t! These moments can be absolutely exhilarating if they are done well.
The whole doing-them-well bit can be pretty tricky, though! I want to scrutinize a couple of instances of fakes outs that I’ve recently seen and try to sort out if they’re done well or not. These examples come from Goku’s battle with Beerus in the early episodes of Dragon Ball Super.
In the late stages of the so-called Battle of the Gods, Goku’s red Super Saiyan God aura starts to blink out and eventually vanishes altogether. He appears as he did much earlier, as a garden variety Super Saiyan. According to Beerus, Goku’s striking red-haired, red-eyed look gives away to the familiar because the Saiyan’s body could only handle the energy requirements of being a god for so long. This idea is reinforced by Goku’s friends and family being able to sense his energy, despite the fact that the battle is occurring far, far away. Energy-sensing is a significant point here because, when Goku first becomes a Super Saiyan God, lesser beings can no longer sense his energy. Thus, it seems Goku is a god no more.
Then, BAM! Our hero punches Beerus right across the face, something he could never manage in his pre-deified form. Both Beerus and the audience look on in a state of shock. How is Goku doing this? How is he performing like a god when both his appearance and detectable energy would suggest he’s not one? The only explanation the God of Destruction can produce is that Goku internalized the power of the Super Saiyan God. He is no longer just taking on the form of some other being, he has become that being through-and-through.
I think this is a poorly implemented fake out. First and foremost, it contradicts its established world mechanics in an extremely unsatisfying way. Let’s be honest, most (if not all) shounen battle anime subvert the rules they set down; however, there are ways of skirting around these rules that preserve their integrity. For example, if a rule is subverted because another, more high-priority rule applies (we will see an example of this later), then the original rule isn’t totally compromised. It may still apply again later, and, more importantly, the audience believes that it can. A shounen battle anime which routinely demonstrates that any norms it establishes will be flatly contradicted might find itself having a difficult time getting the audience to emotionally engage in its payoff fights.** When a get-out-of-jail-free card exists for any given encounter, it’s tough to give much weight to its stakes. Dragonball Super subverts its rule by inelegantly breaking and essentially discarding it here.
This crude handling of the rule begs the question: Why have the rule in the first place? Three possible answers spring to mind: solely for dramatic effect, to enhance the story in some way or to make Goku sense-able again. So, take the dramatic effect argument. Not all world mechanics exist to be subverted, it’s important to keep in mind. But even if the creators did indeed design this scenario just to produce an effect in the audience for single moment, they sure squandered the opportunity. When Goku’s hair changes from red to blonde, it’s not clear to the viewer what is happening or why. Immediately after Beerus theorizes that Goku’s “god time” has run out, the Saiyan hero clocks him. The moment isn’t given room to breathe, to sink into the viewer’s brain. This show’s creative team can pull off drama, so it feels weird to suggest they created a scenario specifically for that and executed on it so poorly. Given that the dramatic effect argument doesn’t seem likely, let’s consider the other two.
A plausible case can be made that the off-again, on-again tactic is employed to introduce the concept that gods’ energies aren’t sensible to normal people. This makes storytelling enhancement argument true, but it also seems like an extremely inefficient storytelling move. If the goal is to show that gods aren’t sensible, just have some character say that after Beerus gets the drop on them! While the introduction of this concept does some worldbuilding work, on its own, it doesn’t seem like enough of a reason to make a plot point out of Goku blipping off the radar and then onto it again.
Turns out that the storytelling enhancement theory isn’t much more satisfying than the dramatic effect one. But, I believe if is the sole answer here is that the creatives wanted to make Goku sense-able again, then it just looks like they are not planning well or are simply reacting to criticism. It seems crazy to posit that the original idea behind making Goku sense-less was to make him sense-able. Surely, those who think so also think that the decision to revert Goku to being blonde and sense-able was made after he’d already become a god. So, embracing this argument entails that you believe the staff is correcting a mistake, that someone decided they didn’t like the red aura or that Goku needed to be sense-able again after they’d already pulled the trigger on the changes. This is certainly possible, but I’m more sympathetic to the view that one of the two previous arguments is true. I’m more inclined to accept that Toei just whiffed on their execution than to believe that they are fickle.
From the theatrical, worldbuilding and storytelling perspectives, this fake out seems to have fallen pretty flat. But, let’s look at another one that occurs a few episodes prior to this one.
Red Rising Phoenix
Earlier in his battle against Beerus, Goku has to expend a great deal of effort stopping a whole bunch of planet-destroying energy bombs. While the newly-minted god is focused on this task, Beerus stealthily gets into CQC range and stabs Goku in the stomach. With his hand. We see the color fade from the Saiyan’s previously vibrant face, and poignant music plays as he spends nearly a minute of airtime slowly falling toward the ocean. His friends and family are aghast as they watch his limp body crash into the water. As he sinks deeper and deeper, Goku gives a monologue that sounds at first like defeated resignation. Then, the shift. All at once, Goku’s thoughts turn from the overwhelming power of his foe to the thrill of the fight as his body is enveloped by his own divine flames. This power both heals his wound and propels him back out into Earth’s atmosphere to once again face Beerus.
This fake out completely works for me. While clearly communicating its stakes, the scene itself is so compelling that my mind isn’t trying to think beyond it. Dragon Ball viewers will be familiar with the gang looking as shocked and afraid as they do here; however, I don’t recall hearing Goku make a concession speech before. If the other parts of the fake out don’t grab you, this one probably will. I mean, if I paused the episode and took time to reflect, I’d probably conclude that Goku wasn’t going to die. It’s Dragon Ball after all. Yet, when I am caught up in that moment, I’m not thinking ahead or trying to work out a logical guess about what will happen next. I am, as I say, caught up in it. My brain is only focusing on what’s in front of my eyes. Perhaps subconsciously, I am thinking that Goku would just be unable to continue, losing the fight while remaining alive. Maybe Vegeta will step in again or Beerus will spare the Earth so that his opponent would get stronger? Whatever the case, the scene playing out before me doesn’t allow me to think, “Yeah, Goku is just going to immediately power up and pop right back into the fight, immediately after being stabbed.”
Unlike the previously discussed fake out, this one doesn’t violate the show’s own rules in such a way that compromises them. Sure, when a person gets stabbed by a god, they will die. There’s another rule that trumps that one though, namely that Goku is himself a brand new god. The preceding episodes also make clear that he is still coming to grips with his powers, so the fact that some of them are either slow to manifest or lie untapped and dormant until necessary seems credible.
Narratively, this scene both further establishes Goku’s tremendous new power and also foreshadows his eventual defeat at Beerus’ hand. The Saiyan deity’s resurrection from the deep reframes the entire Battle of the Gods. This fight isn’t going to be about who can land a lethal blow. Instead, the outcome will depend on who has the greater amount of total energy. Which warrior has a larger reserve? Who can outlast the other? Surprisingly, Beerus proves victorious in this regard. After Goku expends all of his energy in a single attack, he once again plummets to the Earth, defeated and broken.
The fake out might be an old genre convention, but there are still ways of executing it that can captivate an audience. Conversely, there are plenty of ways to use the technique that will actively turn viewers off. Clear communication of what is at stake seems like a solid candidate for good-fake-out rule number one. An audience who doesn’t understand what is on the line is an audience who won’t feel the impact and subsequent exhilaration of a fake out. Second, the moment that the audience is being tricked should be allowed to breathe. Let the horrible event that is about to (not) happen sink in, and give people the time to appreciate the apparent outcome before making the hard turn. All shounen battle anime skirt around their established world mechanics, but a good fake out does so without leaving the subverted rule totally compromised. Not every fake out can be part of an amazingly directed scene or double as foreshadowing and/or world building, but, of course, these help!
Did I get this completely wrong? What are some of your favorite fake outs in shounen battle anime? Are you tired of this technique altogether, or do you think it can still be used well? Do you enjoy other conventions of the genre? Let me know in the comments!
* Though shounen isn’t technically a genre, anime fans tend to use the term in this way in informal conversation.
** I am talking about your traditional shounen battle anime here. Some genres thrive on rule-breaking. Shows in these genres entertain the audience by continually topping themselves by breaking more and more fundamental rules in more and more ludicrous ways.