Rationality versus Irrationality in Aldnoah.Zero
Aldnoah. Zero‘s a funny anime for me. Although I was only ever capable of taking the narrative half-seriously at best (as my dumb shipping posts should attest), I actually did find the themes interesting on paper. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I found how others reacted to these themes interesting. After watching A.Z and reading the reactions on Twitter, Reddit and MAL, two questions have remained on my mind ever since: firstly, what does it mean to be rational? And secondly, is rationality an ideal worth pursuing?
I have never formally studied philosophy, so what I write here is no doubt a very truncated understanding of the subject. My understanding of rationality is that it is based on logical reasoning and provable fact. A rational argument is cohesive and – perhaps most importantly – falsifiable. By that, I mean the rational argument can be proven wrong if further information came to be known. This is in opposition to the faith-based argument, which is not falsifiable by its own logic, for otherwise that would invalidate the existence of faith.
This all sounds very cut and dry – and what does it even have to do with Aldnoah.Zero? Well, as it turns out, rationality versus irrationality is the core conflict in the story. It’s highlighted very clearly by the traits of its two protagonists, who act as foils for one another. The audience’s response to these characters is shaped by their understanding of rationality. To me, it says a lot more about how people perceive rationality than what rationality actually is. And that’s the great thing about fiction – people will always respond to it differently.
Just a picture like this (which I found on 4chan, by the way…) says volumes not just about how fans perceive the characters, but also about how they perceive themselves. I’m pretty sure the above picture was drawn by an Inaho fan, for instance.
The implication is that Inaho fans identify with Inaho’s rationality and that Slaine fans identify with Slaine’s, uh, irrationality (to put it mildly).
Of course, identifying with a character is a way more complicated affair than that. People do tend to identify with characters they perceive as similar to themselves, but the extent to which that is wishful thinking or projection is harder to make out. In the case of Inaho, I’m sure projection must play at least a significant role – even for anime standards, Inaho is a very unrealistic character.
This isn’t to say that people who are generally calm in highly stressful situations like Inaho don’t exist. Appropriant makes a great point that some people are just naturally like that, no tragic backstory necessary. But Inaho’s calmness is more than just a natural reaction – in the context of the story, it’s idealised, glorified behaviour. I’ll quote Lemur here:
His competence is such that he comes off as a 1-dimensional badass godlike hero who can solve everything via the power of planning magic and general protagonistness. His solutions aren’t particularly inventive, mostly because the writing behind the scenarios he must solve is very poorly constructed, and very little is done to obfuscate this.
Overall, Inaho’s character strikes me as a power fantasy. In the face of death and destruction, he doesn’t whine or complain, but rather he just gets on with it. One oft-cited reason for liking Inaho is that he doesn’t act like the usual “whiny” MCs from mecha anime. To the “SHINJI, GET IN THE FUCKING ROBOT” school of viewers, he comes across as refreshing.
It’s very similar to how audiences have responded to Code Geass. Like Lelouch, Inaho invites the audience to project themselves onto him and to live vicariously through him. And just like Suzaku from Code Geass, Slaine is judged much more harshly for daring to act like a flawed human being. (There’s a subreddit called r/fuckslaine, just for reference.)
Of course, Aldnoah.Zero isn’t as successful as Code Geass at sustaining the power fantasy. Inaho is an extremely polarising character at best, perhaps because he comes across as so flat and emotionless. Still, he certainly does have his fair share of fans that side with him because they believe he is a rational thinker.
Rational or Just Lacking Empathy?
I’ll get my personal stance on this out of the way first. I don’t particularly dislike Inaho’s character. I find his nonchalance amusing for the most part, and I actually agree with his basic philosophy that wars are instigated primarily for the material gain of a small and powerful few, not necessarily out of ideological reasons or because humans are terrible.
But to me, there is a difference between being rational and wrapping up shaky assumptions in the language of rationality. In other words, you can be rational, or you can merely believe yourself to be rational. The problems start to occur when you place rationality on a higher pedestal than emotion. Rationality vs emotion is a false dichotomy to begin with, considering that logical thinking is prompted by emotion. But when you convince yourself that strong emotions are inferior, you construct a worldview that systematically marginalises all those who have not achieved the same degree of enlightenment. Those slave owners and colonialists were some of the most rational and civilised people of their time, but they sure as hell weren’t racist, eh?
And the thing is, that’s not just a thing of the past. The language of “rationality” and “objectivity” is still used today to stifle emotion and dissent. One form that it takes is the Devil’s Advocate, a kind of parlance that in theory attempts to look at both sides of an issue, but in practice feeds into the myth of false equivalence. You can also see it in the anime fandom when a fan demands a review to be more “objective”, whatever that’s supposed to mean.
Naturally, I approached Inaho’s character with a healthy dose of skepticism. Is his character really that rational-thinking or does he perpetuate problematic ideas about what “rationality” is?
To his credit, Inaho is not portrayed entirely as an unfeeling robot. He does have emotions, as episode 12 shows very clearly. But (and this is a big but) his actions take place in the context of a narrative that punishes others for acting out on their emotions (see: the Slaine torture). Nearly every character besides Inaho displays lesser thinking capabilities. When everyone else is incompetent, Inaho’s ideas must be accepted as right.
Overall, Inaho really does suffer from the show’s tendency to “tell” the motivations of the characters instead of “showing” them. Other characters exist to tell us what Inaho is thinking or feeling. Although we are told that Inaho mourns for his dead friend and wants to protect everyone who is left, we do not get any sense of how his emotions and his logical thought interact – we are only left with his conclusions. In context, his “rational thinking” may as well be superpowers. It performs the same narrative function.
Slaine, as the show’s example of a hyper-emotional character to counteract Inaho’s hyper-rationality, comes out looking more like a plot device than a real person. Rather than his impulsive nature leading to actions that would make the most immediate sense in his context, he makes inconsistent decisions which are retroactively explained as being a result of his impulsiveness.
When the plot of A.Z doesn’t really respect its characters or the philosophies they hold and instead gleefully and sadistically manipulates them for cheap drama, what we end up with is a view on “rational thinking” I really don’t agree with. Stories are supposed to operate on emotional logic rather than cold logic, but A.Z failed to stay true to either logic. There’s really no point to a lot of what it does.
Since I also operate on emotional logic, it’s no surprise that the meat of A.Z‘s narrative failed to resonate with me – even if I did find the show highly entertaining for other reasons. Oh well.
In the end, I’ll put Aldnoah.Zero down as an interesting failure. As much as I primarily enjoyed this show for the hilarious memes that came out it, I did want to write a more critical piece too, so here we are. To its credit, A.Z did get me thinking a lot about the nature of rational thinking. I personally got a lot out of it, especially through interacting with the fandom. I’m still looking forward to season 2!
(Note: ZeroReq011 wrote a review a while back that covers some similar ground to this post, but takes a much broader perspective. You should check it out if you want to see some discussion about rationality, justice and war, as well as how all these concepts intersect.)
Posted on October 27, 2014, in Anime Analysis and tagged aldnoah zero, code geass, fuck slaine, Inaho, neon genesis evangelion, ntr, SHINJI GET IN THE FUCKING ROBOT, slaine. Bookmark the permalink. 25 Comments.