It seems there is a lot of confusion to be had when it comes to deconstructions in anime. I am not going to claim I have all, or any, of the answers, but here are my thoughts on the subject matter at hand.
But before I get into that, I simply must bring up my peers and friends who partially inspired this post, Scott and Lethargic Ramblings. They both wrote interesting articles on this particular topic, so check out Scott’s piece and Leth’s piece if you want to read dissenting opinions.
I also have to draw attention to another friend and peer, Zeria, who did an excellent job explaining how YuYuYu isn’t a Madoka “rip-off” in one of her articles (and who has a different opinion on Madoka as a whole compared to both Scott and Leth).
This post contains spoilers for Puella Magi Madoka Magi and Neon Genesis Evangelion.
What is a “deconstruction?”
If we opt for a literal definition, the term means “to reduce something to its constituent parts in order to reinterpret and analyze it.”
But when it comes to theory in regards to analyzing media, it means to take apart a genre (or a trope) so we can explore its hidden assumptions and/or contradictions. As a result, we can then compare how a particular series play outs to how other series, which loosely fall within the same general and overarching genre, develop or how these particular situations and concepts would work in real life.
If you want an easy (albeit imperfect) way to see if a series qualifies as a deconstruction, ask yourself: “Does ___________ choose to explore realistic consequences of this or that?” More likely than not, the answer will show you the way.
Deconstructions are not “subversions”
Subversions, in short, are a sort of bait-and-switch. A work will make you think something will happen due to the inclusion of little hints and common tropes that an experienced viewer will pick up, but then the anticipated event does not happen.
On that note, subversions are generally limited to events or situations. Deconstructions can also apply to said events or situations but can and do encompass entire genres as noted above.
There are many examples of subversions, but I’ll just mention one that occurs in Sangatsu no Lion. The name of the protagonist, Rei, uses the kanji for nothingness and/or zero. Note that in anime, video games, etc, characters who are named “Zero” or have “zero” included in their name usually stand out in a significant way. They are usually special.
Think of Lelouch from Code Geass. Think of Zero from the Megaman X franchise. Finally, there’s a certain character in the Kingdom Hearts franchise who was exiled to Realm of Nothingness, from which he escapes by using the power of darkness. He then takes the moniker “DiZ,” which stands for “Darkness in Zero.” The list could really go on, but I think you get the point.
As for Rei, Kyoko scoffs at him and retorts, “Your name is Rei? What a weird name! But it suits you…No home. No relatives. No school. No friends.”
In her opinion, Rei has nothing and is nothing special. That could be considered a subversion of the aforementioned trope, but Rei has proven that he’s still special in his own way (and that he does have a home, a family, and friends) which in turn subverts the subversion. But you wouldn’t call this a deconstruction since this only involved a character taking note of the meaning of a character’s name. Realistic consequences and/or deeper meanings are not explored and thus this is not a deconstruction.
What about Puella Magi Madoka Magica?
This is the series that is often hailed as a deconstruction of the magical girl genre and the series I’ll be focusing on this post (but I will “briefly” address why Neon Genesis Evangelion could be considered a deconstruction towards the end. I’ll be happy to elaborate on other series in the comments section within reason, too).
And in a vacuum, perhaps that is true. From one particular point of view, one could consider Puella Magi Madoka Madoka to be a deconstruction of the magical girl genre since the magical girls become liches and eventually turn into the witches they fight which is, bluntly, unexpected. But in my personal opinion, the series was more about deconstructing what it means to make a wish (if one does indeed consider the series to be a deconstruction), which usually plays a big part in the magical girl genre.
The series accomplishes this by emphasizing how the girls’ desires and wishes are not as “pure” as many other magical girl shows would imply (think of Cardcaptor Sakura, which paints Sakura as such a girl. It’s not a coincidence she’s often wearing white, as seen in the OP for Cardcaptor Sakura Clear Card-hen). This is a more realistic approach to this common assumption considering how these magical girls are young girls who are flawed humans. And thus tragedy befalls them and others largely because of their selfish desires and dishonest wording.
It’s not that making a wish is inherently bad. The problem lies in how the girls aren’t wishing for what they truly want. And upon realizing that they weren’t honest and thus didn’t received what they really desire, they are thus driven to despair, which plays into Kyubey’s hands.
But there’s this little thing called “reconstruction”
So, many viewers are calling Madoka a deconstruction or are claiming that it isn’t. But in my opinion, Madoka could be considered to ultimately be a reconstruction of the magical girl genre. Compared to the other girls, who put on airs and attempt to ask for selfless wishes that would indirectly benefit them despite not being what they truly want, Madoka makes genuinely selfless wishes as seen in the original timeline, in which she wishes for a cat to be kept alive, and when she wishes for the happiness of all magical girls in the finale.
Thus the power of heart is shown to be an extremely powerful powerful force as Madoka is able to rewrite reality through her selfless wish, which is more in-line with what most people associate with magical girl series. Admittedly, the magical girls end up having to fight demons and wraiths instead of witches and the setting is still rife with tension and drama since they can actually die. But any magical girls who do die in combat are whisked into some sort of peaceful afterlife by Madoka, which is a much better fate than before.
In my book, that would possibly qualify as a reconstruction since the magical girl genre (more specifically, the concept that a wish is a powerful thing which is very much relevant to many magical girl series) is rebuilt. After most of the series is spent deconstructing this concept, the aforementioned trope is reinforced due to Madoka’s shining example. It’s not all hopeless, after all. This is a conclusion drawn without accounting for the Rebellion movies, of course, but that’s something that is still ongoing, as it were.
Simba, it’s the circle of (de)(re)construction
I was careful to note that Madoka could be considered a deconstruction under certain circumstances or from a certain point of view earlier. That’s partially due to how deconstructions are intrinsically defined by cycles.
It’s a deconstruction! It’s a reconstruction! It’s a …
Let me give a quick run-down and/or recap so we’re all on the same page.
When a genre is “born,” it usually establishes a few key and simple conventions and others are quick to follow (in an attempt to cash in on the success of the leader). This is what allows tropes to emerge and what allows viewers who are well-versed in media to have some sort of idea of what is to occur despite never having watched the series. In any case, this would be considered the construction.
Deconstruction emerges when (an) author(s) want(s) to explore or expose how these conventions are infeasible or rely on unrealistic assumptions.
And from the ashes, a series, which acknowledges the criticisms of the earlier deconstruction, serves as a reconstruction and emerges. The shortcomings inherent to the initial construction that were made readily apparent due to the deconstruction(s) are accepted yet the reconstruction still decides to accept the previously established conventions and claim them to be a net positive. And in that sense, Madoka manages to be both within a single series due to its complicated stance on what it means to make a selfless wish.
A pattern thus emerges. Different series will deconstruct, reconstruct, deconstruct, reconstruct, etc. Through such a cycle, the very meaning of deconstructions and reconstructions fades. As the initial construction was rooted in assumptions and expectations, both deconstructions and reconstructions break down these suppositions in order to analyze its implications and consequences. Now viewers will be less certain how a new series within the specified genre will play out. Deconstructions may become the new norm, the standard protocol, as other series aim to replicate the trend-setter’s success.
“Dark” does not equate to deconstruction
Although the two words start with the same letter, a series isn’t a deconstruction solely because it contains “darker” or more cynical elements or tropes. Admittedly, I have a particular and fussy stance on the word, “dark.” But in my opinion, a series that is dark yet doesn’t try to elaborate on or explore its realistic consequences behind situations or conventions that are taken for granted simply is not a deconstruction.
To be fair, a lot of series which could be considered deconstructions do make use of cynical, “dark” tropes. But they’re deconstructions because said tropes are used with purpose and carefully analyzed and not because they include the aforementioned tropes.
“Brief” thoughts on Neon Genesis Evangelion
When it comes to anime mecha genre, there are two subgenres: the super robot subgenre and the real robot subgenre.
The super robot subgenre emerged first and consisted of fantastic and, well, super robots. The robots are typically created by (a) mad scientist(s), is essentially the best weapon against monsters by a landslide, and the inexperienced pilot is usually a relatable audience surrogate who just lands inside the cockpit and discovers they have a natural talent for piloting a giant robot. Said robot ends up becoming an enabling device that is powered by the pilot’s emotions and is capable of feats that would be near impossible to replicate in real life. Such series are typically more idealistic.
The real robot anime subgenre is a reaction to super mecha anime in which the robots are more drab and dull in comparison and are treated as just yet another weapon that (usually) are not inherently superior to tanks and ships and such by default. In comparison to the super robot subgenre, series which fall within the real robot subgenre lean a lot more heavily towards the science side of things with a lot of technobabble given to explain why or how such a mecha works. Such series are usually more cynical.
Gundam is essentially the franchise that defined the real robot subgenre. Meanwhile, Neon Genesis Evangelion was considered a deconstruction of the super robot subgenre when it was first released. Therefore, comparing the two series makes little sense to me, but Evangelion admittedly goes so hard on the deconstruction that the series ends up resembling a real robot anime.
Evangelion initially comes across as being very formulaic. But it wastes no time establishing that relying on child soldiers to fend off monstrous lifeforms is very traumatic for the young pilots. It also becomes readily apparently that it is not a idealistic series in which emotion would allow the protagonist to surmount any and all obstacles, which was what essentially defined many super robot anime as noted earlier. In other words, the convenient conventions are defied in other to more closely adhere to reality despite its fantastical elements.
It doesn’t stop there. Many super robot series feature a teenager who pilots a mecha which was designed by a missing father. Evangelion goes and shows exactly how troubling it would be for an actual teen to fight in a giant robot and what kind of father would abandon his son in order to design a robot.
Furthermore, the female characters are also deconstructions of typical anime archetypes. Rei starts off seeming like a submissive and emotionless girl (so she seems like she’s a simple kuudere), but she turns out to be working as a pawn for the main villain. In the end, however, she breaks out from that role and causes Third Impact by her own choice in order to help Shinji. As for Asuka, she initially comes across as a skilled pilot who is both haughty and harsh (so she appears to be a simple tsundere), but she’s actually very very insecure, has low self-esteem, and grows more and more powerless as the series progresses. Meanwhile, Masato starts off as a competent adult who just happens to act sloppy and drink a lot at home (so she is likened to a carefree, foolhardy hard drinker), but she ends up falling apart due to personal trauma and her own failures.
What I particularly enjoy, however, is how the series chooses to explain the common convention of having the inexperienced main character suddenly turning into (one of) the best pilots out of nowhere. The fact that the Evangelions usually contain the souls of the pilots’ mothers means that EVA-01 is special largely because of Ikari Yui and her own will whereas Shinji just happens to be related to her and is unremarkable for the most part.
The irony, of course, is that Neon Genesis Evangelion initially started as a deconstruction of the super robot anime subgenre but is now the most referenced, well-known mecha series in general. At this point, can the series be considered a deconstruction anymore?
That’s why it’s important to consider the context and timing of a series. If you were to go back and rewatching Love Hina, for instance, it would labeled as a cliché rom-com. And by today’s standards it is. But it also more or less established/constructed the conventions that can be found in modern rom-com series.
Well, those are my messy thoughts on deconstructions (and reconstructions) in anime. Do you disagree? Agree? Please let me know in the comments section down below!
Thank you for reading.