“Dying For Nothing” A 20 Question Anime Essay About The Importance of Meaningful Character Deaths

This post contains some spoilers for Magical Girl Raising Project, Made In Abyss and Buffy: The Vampire Slayer.


So, a 20 Question Anime Essay? Huh… Branching out are we? I felt like talking about a subject rather than just one anime.

Fair enough, what are we talking about today? Death in entertainment, specifically how character deaths hold a different meaning to the viewer depending on the circumstances around their death.

Heavy. What got you thinking about this? Well I recently finished ‘Magical Girl Raising Project’ and a lot of characters die in it, 14 out of the 16 main and supporting cast in-fact.

Yikes! Getting all Game of Thrones up in here! And the thing that struck me the most was how for a lot of these deaths my main emotion watching them was annoyance. In fact with the exception of a couple of the deaths I wasn’t ever sad—like the show wanted me to be—I was just ticked off. I found myself with my arms crossed, sitting there going, “really, another one?” This didn’t start happening until about episode 4 but continued until episode 10, when finally the narrative revealed the all important ‘thing’ I had been waiting for all along—a reason!

A reason for what? A reason why all these characters were dying, yes the show gave the characters reason to want to kill each other, it was literally a survival of the fittest, a battle royale. But there wasn’t a narrative reason for them to be killing each other and so what started out as a dark(er) take on the magical girl genre ended up feeling like it was just indulging itself in a self-satisfying excuse to kill off cute girls all for the edgy spectacle of it.

But it was fine once the narrative gave purpose to their death match? Pretty much. It validated the character deaths that had come before as not just being for the sake of the audience and rather that they served a point to the narrative. I fully admit that not realising there was actually going to be a ‘larger picture’ sooner was a failing in me the viewer, but a part of that was due to my emotional reaction and dare I say “being triggered” by the sight of so many adorable and nice characters die without an explicit reason given.

And why do you think that is? That you got triggered I mean, and aside from the surface level reaction of not liking cute things having harm done to them. I blame Hollywood.

Oh? Care to elaborate? Even if you haven’t watched that many Hollywood produced films, or even network television dramas, you should at least have seen a typical ‘Hollywood’ death. Regardless of the genre, they more or less play out the same way, a character we’ve come to know over a period of time is killed, usually while in the service of the hero, probably doing something heroic. And it’s always a ~big~ moment in the film that’s supposed to either serve as inspiration for the hero, or set them on a path of revenge or simply highlight the importance of their character in having risked their life for the greater good. In Hollywood, more often than not, death has a purpose.

But that’s seldom the case in real life. Oh, I’m well aware of this, I’m under no illusions that 99.9% of people—myself included—will die for nothing. Hollywood knows this too but they’re not in the business of selling reality, they’re in the business of selling dreams.

So what point are you trying to make here? Are you annoyed that an anime had initially betrayed your expectations in regard to how death’s are supposed to serve a purpose in the story? But as you said they did end up serving a narrative purpose towards the final episodes, where’s the issue? I’m more interested in my reaction, maybe it’s nothing noteworthy but I nonetheless found my growing disdain through the middle episodes of ‘Magical Girl Raising Project’ at least passingly similar to the feeling I had while watching the later episodes of ‘Made in Abyss’.

Okay, so what happened in that show that triggered you? It wasn’t a death, but rather what I saw as cruelty for cruelty’s sake. For anyone who’s seen the show, ‘the elevator’ is all I need to say, but for anyone who hasn’t seen the show and doesn’t mind the vague spoiler; two side characters are subjected to unimaginable torture at the hands of a nondescript villain character who’s only introduced at the start of this flashback scene. The scene is darker in tone than anything that had come previous and in the moment only serves the purpose of showing how two characters came to be how they are. Important, perhaps, but at the time I was so angered and disheartened that I couldn’t marry what the show had shown me and its importance to the narrative. I was ready to quit the show then and there so strong was my reaction.

Sounds like you’re just too sensitive for some things. But I don’t think I am! I’ve watched so many graphic and disturbing movies in my life, graphic horror films like the Hostel films, the Human Centipede films, even a film considered among the most harrowing ever made; Irreversible—while all impactful in their own way—never affected me the way ‘Made in Abyss’ did.

I’m still not sure what point you’re trying to make. One of the tortured characters in ‘Made in Abyss’, the one most physically affected by the torture is given a mercy killing by the male protagonist. It’s a powerful scene, but it’s only as powerful because of all the context that was given from the flashback scene of their torture. This ties into the idea that suffering and violence and death, like in ‘Magical Girl Raising Project’ is only palatable, or perhaps a better word is “understandable”, if there’s sufficient context to justify their suffering. And the context for the death and suffering in ‘Magical Girl Raising Project’ came almost too late.

Right. I think I understand what you’re saying now. You don’t like death unless it has a narrative purpose and the more impactful and traumatising the circumstances around it the more immediate the reasoning has to become apparent through the story? Yeah, something like that. I’m reminded of when Buffy’s mother died on ‘Buffy: The Vampire Slayer’, here we were in the fifth season of the show and certainly characters had died before, but always as the result of something related to the narrative. But then suddenly we have a character who’s more or less removed from the immediate dangers of Buffy’s dangerous ‘slaying’ lifestyle and she dies, and not only does she die but it’s without warning and due to a brain aneurysm. There’s no-one to blame for it, no ~thing~ to get revenge on, no urgency to be addressed. It serves to immediate narrative purpose, she just dies. And yet, it’s all the more powerful because it’s so real and unexpected and pointless.

Umm, I feel like you’ve just contradicted your whole point you were trying to make with this essay? Why did you bring that up? Because I didn’t want to suggest that there isn’t power and purpose in an occasional pointless death. As I said earlier, 99.9% of us will have a pointless death and yet to those who love us and care for us it will be every bit as important as the cinematic deaths that saved innocent lives or inspired the hero to destroy a great evil. The reason the ‘Buffy’ example worked so well was because it was so different to not only other character deaths we’d seen on the show thus far but different to what any kind of show was doing at the time.

So a pointless death is okay if not all the deaths in the show are pointless? I don’t know, I haven’t watched every anime and the anime where people die “pointless deaths” generally aren’t on my radar. I’m not pretending to be an authority on the subject, despite me calling this an “essay” this is still very much a narrow opinion based on a few examples.

Fair enough, probably should have prefaced this “essay” with that… Well take this as forewarning for future essays’ I may write like I know what I’m talking about but I’m far from the authority on any subject.

Don’t sell yourself short, you’re an expert pervert after all. Come on now, I thought we could go one post without reminding the readers of that…

So how’d you want to wrap this thing up? How do essay’s ‘normally’ wrap up? I don’t know, I suppose I could reiterate my points in a succinct manner?

Do that! Right… So at the end of the day, a character dying in any media, be it a flashy Hollywood picture, or a gritty indie horror flick, a long-running live-action TV series or an anime filled with cute characters—needs to serve a purpose. But why? Well, regardless of whether something fancies itself as ‘realistic’ or not, it’s still entertainment. Yes the media we consume can sometimes be messy and problematic and imperfect but it should always strive to serve a meaningful purpose, especially with something as permanent and powerful as the death of a character.


This is my first proper essay style 20 Question post, let me know what you thought of it, if you think I should do more or if you have any suggestions for topics I should cover in the future. Thanks for reading!

If you liked my post and want to support my content, please consider supporting my Patreon page, or donating by buying me a coffee on Ko-fi!

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17 comments

  1. As you may know – I pretty much completely disagree with the specific of everything yu said here. But I really enjoyed reading it! I mean…you’re wrong but in a very eloquent and entertaining way….
    Because sometimes people can’t tell, I’m joking, there’s no right or wrong here but I do disagree as I’ve already posted about.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I like your 20 Questions-esque format, but if I’m being honest, I didn’t really notice a difference between this one and previous ones haha.

    I feel like I, for the most part, agree with you. I almost always end up liking when a character’s death gives me an emotional response, whether for plot purposes or even just to remind me that life sucks and sometimes you just get unlucky.

    I’m glad you brought up Made in Abyss as an example. That series messed me up in a way I did not see coming. It’ll undoubtedly be one of the selections for my Top 5 Soul-Punching Anime when I eventually get around to making the list.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I also dislike a lot of deaths in shows, not necessarily just pointless ones, but because they’re frequently feeling like they’re cynical attempts to get the viewer to pay attention. I also totally dislike murder in shows, so there’s a whole class of show that I’m just not interested in because it’s just murder porn (things like the mentioned Magical Girl Raising Project, or Danganronpa). There are too many shows that are just “See how many people we can kill”, and it’s honestly something I think is vile, and my opinion of people who like those shows goes down as well (in a “they’re a good person, but they still like those murder shows, so they’re not as good a person as they could be” kind of way).

    In general, tho, a character death is one of those story devices that can be used well, or it can be used poorly. And personally I don’t like shows that hold character deaths over the audience’s head, even to the point that I don’t continue watching a lot of shows that I like many other things about, shows like Macross Delta (which I haven’t finished, even though I think it’s probably gotten its requisite Macross good-guy death out of the way), Yamato 2199, or especially Gundam shows. I’d personally rather be spoiled on the ending of a show than be surprised by a character death.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Oh, I liked this 20 Q essay. Keep em’ coming. Who cares if you just pretend to know shit, i believe you. 😎

    Well, I love pointless killing so we are on the opposite sides in this. I loved Kings Game for example. A lot of characters died in that one. What surprised me with that one was that I actually cried every time someone died. I am a pretty morbid person at heart. I’ve grown up with a father working as a crime scene investigator. You can only hear so many gruesome murder stories at the kitchen table before you get messed up in the head. 😎🤗

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Until today there is death I still don’t understand…
    Take the 1st season of Psycho-Pass, while I understand why some of the character had to die, there is one character I still don’t get why they killed him and I doubt I would ever understand it

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hey Matt, I think the style is great and makes me imagine that I’m arguing with myself as I read through the post! Since I’m new to your blog, I’ll probably find more things to comment on in the future, but for now let’s just say that I’m on the ‘agreement side’.

    I guess for the dying aspect, one may associate the meaning of deaths to its consequence on the stories of those who are still living. It’s kind of weird to be honest, because shouldn’t the meaning of deaths be associated to the life which said character had while he/she was living? So even if a character ‘died for nothing’ – it is the history, which the character (when alive) carved into reality, that couples with the events in the future.
    (I think that most of the time, we don’t get an elaborate background on each character – especially for movies – which is understandable that we would turn to the ‘effects of character death’ as a form of justification for their death sequences).

    Anyways (Sorry for a thoughts spam), your 20Q Essay format works nicely on miscellaneous topics like these! Really eager to read more of these topics, they make wonderful discussion posts! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for the kind words! I really appreciate it and will definitely be continuing with these essays.

      That’s a good point about a character’s history/life. I tried to get that part across with my reference to Buffy but that was a pretty half-baked comparison anyway. I tend to write these things on a whim and then post them quickly and end up with a dozen better points after the fact!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I understand that ‘instant regret’ (well not so much of ‘regret’…) after hitting the publish too (for comments as well) XD. I always write my stuff in a way that probably only I understand, and the meaning might sound different to others when they read/hear it.
        But its great to share our thoughts and ideas regardless, and certainly helps one to understand other bloggers as well and know how we all perceive things :))

        Like

  7. This was a good read 😀 also, I was surprised that it was Buffy’s mom you brought up instead of (~hello this is a Buffy spoiler everyone lalalalala I hope you watched all of Buffy because if not I’m spoiling big time~) Tara’s. That one I would actually put on the side of “pointless character deaths.” I guess it served the purpose of pushing Willow over the edge, but I thought that was a dumb, edgy plot line. So I agree that Buffy’s mom’s death was incredibly well done but just wanted to add a ramble about how That Other Big Sudden Buffy Death was on the bad end, in my opinion. I mean she really got shot through the heart two stories up…SMH!! Would you put that as a good death or a bad death, I’m curious to know??

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The thing about Tara’s death was that personally I thought it was more problematic than anything else, it was drama for the sake of drama and not smart at all. The only reason I didn’t bring it up in the essay was because it technically served a narrative purpose even if it was a kind of not very well thought out one.

      Liked by 1 person

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