I’ve been thinking a lot about subtlety and nuance lately.
Yes, I know that isn’t the most exciting topic, but this is my blog, and I like to think about how people use words and what they mean.
When bloggers, reviewers or critics use the terms subtlety and nuance, it’s often together. For example, I might say the presentation of a theme in a scene is subtle and nuanced.
But they have some pretty significant differences. When something is subtle, that means it doesn’t call attention to itself. One of my favorite examples of this comes from the Tachikoma episode of Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex. That entire episode is an examination of the Standalone Complex. It’s a series of AI who share a common source of information, but they show differences because one becomes curious.
What is essential is the episode doesn’t call attention to its connection to the theme. Sure, you can piece it together, but it’s not apparent why the creators are doing what they’re doing. It’s only after repeated viewings that it starts to make sense.
On the other hand, a nuanced presentation gives you several possible readings of a situation. It’s a little harder to describe, but the definition, according to Bing is, “a subtle difference in or shade of meaning, expression, or sound.”
In the earlier example, I’m not convinced that the episode of GitS: SAC is nuanced. Once you see the pieces, you are meant to draw a singular conclusion out of them. This is how humanity avoids the standalone complex.
Nuance is a little harder to tease out when I’m talking about anime. For instance, I would argue that Asuka from Evangelion is a character with a surprising amount of nuance. She is presented as a brash, confident and demanding person, but really that’s just the show she puts on over her deep pit of despair.
We also see this a lot in anti-heroes. For instance, Kaiji is a nuanced character. He fights for what is right, but a lot of times, he does it because he has to. He’s also easily led astray.
I’m going to pull out another example from an American film. Is Kevin Spacey’s character in American Beauty morally right? That is a difficult question. On the one hand, the film presents him as a hero for the middle class in many ways. But he’s also just given up on life.
Galaxy Express 999 is about as subtle as a two-by-four upside the head. It’s pretty easy to figure out the message you’re supposed to take away from each episode. Though sometimes, the narrator at the end of the episode can lead you astray.
But strangely, it’s a show with a lot of nuances, and I have the perfect episode to talk about that.
The Angriest Planet
So I’m going to be talking about Episode 31, and I’m going to have to get into spoilers. This show is always worth watching, and you don’t need a lot of context for this episode. The episode fills you in on the pertinent backstory.
That said, let’s start. The episode begins with Tetsuro and Maetel going to the Angry Planet. Look, you just have to get past Matsumoto’s naming conventions with this show. They are what they are.
But like you might have guessed, the Angry Planet is filled with really angry people. How angry, you might ask? Well, they’re not off of the train for more than a few minutes when one of the locals punches Tetsuro.
They also notice an older couple just wailing on each other and yelling and pitching a fit.
We’re told two things pretty quickly. The first is that they don’t use weapons, which is probably good since they punch each other a lot. The other thing is that they might be quick to anger, but they’re also quick to cool off.
This is not true for the group of assassins who are out to kill Tetsuro and Maetel. They have been hired by Duke Mech, a friend of Count Mecha — the cyborg that Tetsuro killed in episode one.
Evidently, Duke Mech has a long memory, and an even longer reach because he’s sent four killers. Throughout the episode, Maetel and Tetsuro get separated because of an attack from one of the killers. After being injured, he ends up with the same old couple we saw at the beginning of the episode. They run a tofu shop along with some children.
This is where we see the show start to turn in their presentation of the people on the planet. They may be angry, but overall they care about each other. As the show describes it, “They’re frank. They fight merrily. Laugh merrily. They cry, and they enjoy their lives on this planet.”
The assassins, led by a debonair-looking guy in an eye patch, don’t really fight with each other. In fact, they seem mostly dispassionate. Eye patch guy just has a smile most of the episode.
Well, an assassin finally tracks Tetsuro down, and they have a fight in the tofu shop. Eye patch guy grabs the old woman. There is a standoff, but thankfully, through the power of tofu, they chase him off.
Here is where we get the final important note. Tetsuro tries to leave the family money. We later learn (after the last assassin is defeated) that they yell at Tetsuro for attempting to do that. Because people shouldn’t need to get paid to do the right thing.
So the final assassin gets killed because of Secret Agent Maetel, and before we leave, we are left with this line from Tetsuro, “If Earth was like this planet, my parents wouldn’t have to die.”
The Angriest Nuances
This episode is not subtle in its message, and that line from Tetsuro is an excellent place to start. He basically says that if people were as honest about their feelings and cared as much, Earth would be a better place.
But it’s also a good point of comparison to where we started in the episode. We initially see Tetsuro get angry because someone just out of the blue hit him, and by the end of the episode, we see him laughing, playing and having fun.
This is the kind of nuance that I expect from Galaxy Express 999. Many of the episodes start with Tetsuro getting into a confrontation with someone or something and then learning that it was different from what he initially thought. For instance, in Episode 25, Chromeria destroys Tetsuro and Maetel’s hotel. Then they learn about their struggle and side with her and her rebels.
What makes this episode special is that we have a group of characters that act as foils to the rowdy people of the Angry Planet — Duke Mech’s assassins.
First, they’re the only people we see with normal weapons. Sure. The dad throws food, but the other people on the planet (beside Maetel and Tetsuro) don’t have guns.
What we see here is a nuanced presentation of what is healthy anger and what is unhealthy anger. The violent but short-lived anger of the people of this planet is portrayed as a healthy way to live. While it’s not necessarily the most inviting to strangers, the people there are mostly happy and content with their lives.
Meanwhile, the assassins are not having any fun. Even Eye Patch Guy, with his sardonic smile, isn’t thrilled. In fact, they’re all mostly emotionless. Well, except one guy when he comes face to face with Secret Agent Maetel.
Because, really, she is the scariest person in the Leijiverse.
What makes this combination really interesting is that it gives me a framework to understand how Matsumoto sees anger as different from wrath.
What do you think? Is this nuanced enough, or would you expect more? And what are your favorite examples of nuanced shows?
And, as always, thanks for reading.