In My View: The angsty angst of angst

Ahhh… angst. You are my only friend. Except when I see you with that other guy, the one with the looks and the money and the talent. Shit, why can’t I be like him? Oh my God, I can’t believe how miserable I am.

Okay, enough of that. So I’ve been chastised pretty frequently about using angst as a criterion for judging shows. And it’s a fair complaint. Much like pretentious or overrated, angst is one of those buzzwords that float around anime circles until it takes on a life of its own. Now my friends at Merriam and Webster define angst as, “a feeling of anxiety, apprehension, or insecurity.” That seems like a fair definition, so what’s wrong with that huh? I mean anxiety, apprehension and insecurity are all parts of what builds tension in drama.

And they’re also hallmarks of character growth. A character that is ALWAYS sure of themselves, and never doubts their place in the world is unlikely to ever do anything different. So without some angst, it’s unlikely that a character would change. And to top it off, even if the character did change, without at least a small period of angst, the change isn’t really going to be believable. So angst is necessary, right? To top all of that off, those three emotions can be a motivating factor for characters to do some pretty lousy stuff. They can cause them to lash out at friends. They can cause the characters to whine and cry and gnash their teeth.

The important word to note here is “some” angst. Because yes, there is such a thing as excessive angst. And this is where my first problem with angst starts. The thing is that angst by its very definition is an internal emotion. It pulls the viewer (and/or reader) into the character’s mind and away from the external going ons. And instead of leading to actual action on the part of the characters, it more often than not simply paralyzes the characters. In the worst cases of this, the character stops actually driving the plot and the plot starts happening to the character. Now short bouts of this can be okay. It can show weakness in an otherwise strong character. For any real length of time, it starts to get tiresome. Part of being the protagonist of any story is that they have to DO stuff.

But this leads to an even more crippling side effect. When the hero stops doing stuff, he distances himself from the audience. Now that’s not to say every character has to be likable. But even unlikable characters can be interesting if they’re doing interesting things. But once a character gets caught in the angst trap, they’re lost in a cycle of insecurity and fear. Personally as a viewer of fiction, I want the hero and heroine to be heroic.

Which leads to my main problem with excessive angst – it’s anti-plot. Essentially, it’s used as an excuse to stop the forward momentum of the plot and character development. While a little bit might push the character forward, too much stops the character’s growth all together. It drags out arcs that should only last one or two episodes and makes them into full blown seasons. It turns scenes that should be heart-wrenching, into long drawn out yawn fests. Essentially excessive angst is lazy storytelling.

And that’s my problem with it.

12 thoughts on “In My View: The angsty angst of angst

  1. Interesting read. But can you provide some examples from shows or characters that have “just enough” angst and excessive angst?

    One uber angst-y character I’ve come across in recent memory is Simon from Gurren-Lagann. He went from being an infuriatingly angst-y p*ssy to being super “GAR,” and the growth from one extreme to the other is what makes his character extrra awesome. In this case, I think the excessive angst was a useful gimmick instead of an impediment to the show.

  2. A couple of issues I always wonder about when faced with angst, and which this entry has helped me to crystalise, are:

    1) isn’t one problem with angst that a lot of anime is aimed squarely at society’s most angsty demographic (adolescents) and so seems overly angsty to people who aren’t in that demographic?

    2) because angst is such a widespread feature of storytelling, we can get sick from a lot of moderate doses piled on top of each other from completely separate stories – so you could argue that it’s not show X’s fault that shows Y and Z have left you craving forthright, confident heroes. But then I suppose in reply you could point out that this itself demonstrates how cliched and lazy angst can be.

    @ nckl: That’s a good point. I thought the angst in TTGL was handled quite well. Like much of the rest of the show it was larger-than-life, but it had well-defined limits, causes and solutions.

  3. @ nckl – I think ef actually has good examples of both too much angst and just enough angst. For example, when Miyako is on the phone with Hirano at the end of the show. Just enough angst. It raised the tension, caused misunderstanding, in a lot of ways moved the plot forward.

    Conversely, the scene when she’s leaving a thousand messages (or 99 messages), there’s too much there. It drowns itself out, rather than building it up.

    But on a more macro scale, I can bring up Eva. Which strangely enough has too much angst from all the side characters. Or at least they don’t effectively balance out the angst we get from Shinji. Although Shinji is pretty much the perfect example of a character where most of the plot happens to him rather than being caused by him (yeah I know there are points where he does actually drive the plot, but they’re pretty far and few between).

    Also, in the later episodes of Shana, it actually walks a pretty fine line. But Shana essentially gets paralyzed by the angst later in that show. And definitely in later episodes of SaiKano.

    Really the fundamental point where the angst becomes too much is when the character stops progressing because of it.

    @animanachronism – To your first question, definitely. But I think that can go a lot of ways. I mean I don’t have a problem with moderate angst. I mean the angst in a show like Code Geass almost becomes a motivating factor. Also in RahXephon. On some level, I like the larger than life aspect of anime (which I think is another factor of the demographic thing).

    As to your second question, I’d come up with a different thing entirely. And say no. It’s not angst itself that really bugs me. But the effect it has. I mean even the most GAR character is going to have a moment of weakness or indecisiveness (i.e. Guts from Beserk). I don’t think moderate doses or even large/short lived doses of angst are really all that bad. It’s when it stops the character from moving the plot forward.

  4. I think it’s fair to say that most anything taken to excess is probably a bad thing, and ‘angst’ is just another example. Nckl makes an interesting point, though…the line between too much and just right is a fickle one. As mentioned before, TTGL is a fine example of angst-oversaturation, yet it somehow hones it to a point where it’s a positive aspect of the show rather than being a drag.

    In this specific case, however, I’d say the fact that Simon got out of his slump and went into GAR-overdrive sort of mitigates his angst run. It still doesn’t make angst scenes any less painful to sit through though. In other words, I guess big doses of angst (or emo-ness) is tolerable, so long as there’s a rebound out of it.

  5. Agree, agree, agree… In my mind, angst seems to be different than drama. Drama tends to deal with the issues of interpersonal relationships whereas I view angst to be more about personal struggles. I find the problem with too much angst is the significant change in plot focus. When a character goes angsty, the plot focus shifts to that character for the moment giving the audience a chance to gain another point of perspective. Too much of it can degrade and damage the central plot.

    I will say though. Extreme ansgtyness (if that’s a word?) many times makes certain anime more memorable. Kaede in Shuffle! and Mistuki in Kiminozo while they might have gone a bit too far are still memorable. And we seem to still bring up Miyako and ef in this discussion, again.

  6. I agree that when the angst feels excessive it can be one of the telltales of not so great writing. The degree of angst the character feels is pretty irrelevant if done in a way that shows some kind of movement. A character with brief bouts of it can be annoying as well when it’s done for cheap reasons.

  7. Well maybe not irrelevant to likeability, since they can still be annoying, but I just meant they could in theory be angst ridden and not make me want to throw stuff at them if the story moves with it or it moves the story.

  8. Excessive angst often leads to overly melodramatic stories, whose likeability will depend on the viewer’s tolerance to such extremities. I, for one, never got to like KgNE, it seemed as if the characters were driven to the extremest of their angstiness, and I ended up hating much of the characters, instead of being able to sympathize with them.

    Angst becomes anti-plot, when it’s not used wisely, and not enough justification is given as to why the characters are being angsty in the first place. With angst that makes sense, you’ll see the character growing from his past troubled self to a renewed individual, as he gets to overcome the very problems contributing to his angstiness.

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