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.
17 thoughts on “My Thoughts on Deconstructions in Anime”
I think “deconstruction” often gets tossed around too quickly and too broadly. In general, I agree with the points you’re making here. Especially that dark or subversive definitely do not equal deconstructive (I’ve been having that argument with people for years).
In terms of whether any given show is a “deconstruction” or not, I think it’s almost always more productive to look at specific tropes used by the show, rather than a genre in its entirety. Genres are enormous, and a show can very easily deconstruct one trope or set of tropes (as in your Eva example) to make its point, without having to take the entire genre apart. Toradora, for example, isn’t the first show most people would label “deconstructive,” since it plays most of its Rom-Com tropes pretty straight. But look closer and it actually does deconstruct a few tropes and examine them more critically, like the ubiquitous “underage kid living alone,” for instance. If we apply your question, “Does Toradora choose to explore realistic consequences of that?” the answer is seeing what happens to Taiga when her parents make her live alone but don’t bother teaching her any basic life skills first. Breaking down a series in a multi-pronged way – What does it play straight? What does it subvert? What does it deconstruct (and why)?, etc. – often yields more insightful analysis of its underlying themes and structure than just looking at deconstruction as a binary, “Either this series is or it isn’t” kind of thing.
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The term really does get tossed around too often. Sorry to hear that you have had those sort of arguments over the years.
You make very good points here that I’ll have to consider. Thanks for that.
This was a good article. Genres can be deconstructed and reconstructed in different ways. I also agree with a show with darker storytelling and content doesn’t automatically become a deconstruction, nor is it always good. I do like deconstructions and subversions when done right, but it seems to be when it’s done unintentionally like how I mentioned Hikaru no Go doing stuff like that when I talked with Scott on his article on that subject.
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Mmm, thank you! Glad to hear you agree with me on those points.
Hikaru no Go does sound like an interesting series.
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You’re welcome. I feel that deconstructions and subversions are frequently abused words when it comes to reviews or excuses for people to like shows for the wrong reasons. Sometimes people need to mention who did stuff first or showing how something isn’t as new as expected. It could be great writing when someone does something completely different or something ahead of its time.
It is. I do wish they would’ve animated all of the manga, but HnG is still a quality series and an underrated one at that.
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This post. I love the idea of a “reconstruction” as a revision. Acknowledgement of that makes an anime so much more meaningful. Personally, I’m not someone who gets too fussy about categorizing these things. Subversions make me very happy already (anything that surprises me is entertaining and has the potential to be thought-provoking) – I often consider those to be incomplete deconstructions or deconstructions of a moment.
Deconstructions get so much hate these days…thank you for this piece!
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Thanks, moyatori. It’s an interesting concept for sure!
No worries. I think your way of thinking is probably to be preferred to be honest. It’s sounds very straightforward.
Glad you enjoyed it!
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I found this to be a very insightful and enjoyable read, and it maybe even made me reconsider a few things about my stance on the subject as a whole.
A very well constructed post with plenty of solid reasoning behind its points.
I especially have to agree with you “dark” not being synonymous with something being a deconstruction. That’s a meme that really needs to be put to rest, and as a fan of “dark” (for lack of a better term” fiction, it’s a little tiring to see all of my favourites being labelled as deconstructive when they’re just… Really dark stories… *sigh*
I have more to say, but I’ll save it for our future discussion on the Innominate Cast!
Overall, a very enjoyable read. Keep doing what you’re doing!
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Oh, I’m glad to hear you enjoyed it.
But yeah, people need to be mindful of that word, “dark.” Sometimes a story is just that and isn’t a deconstruction!
I’ll try! Thanks once again.
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So there’s a big problem I think I personally have here that a lot of other people don’t with the idea of a deconstruction, which is that this idea of deconstruction is not some serious word born out of the fires of old time, it’s like literally a philosophical shitpost. Primarily I want to focus on this paragraph here:
“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. ”
If you use a word like ‘destructure’ in replace of ‘deconstruction’ in this paragraph you get closer to the truth of what Derrida was going for. Derrida had a lot of ideas that were very sort of strange in this sense. His ideas are related to a sort of more poststructuralist understanding of the world, in
the sense that dichotomies are not real and that everything is more interrelated in how it exists, so stuff like the ‘sub’ and the ‘dom’ or the idea of virtues religiously like say ‘vice’ and ‘purity’ being in opposition to one another needs to be decentralized as a notion. A lot of his ideas in part have to do with this sure, although even this is debatable, because even though he helped those people in his ideas a lot, he also noted that poststructuralism maybe should not be in opposition to structuralism or maybe even relied on all the time which could be argued to be the most poststructural idea at the same time. Derrida did not want to be associated as a poststructuralist when the branch was really starting to take off because he believed that sometimes ideas and dynamics could theoretically be in opposition to each other.
But I mean even definitionally the word is sort of silly, it has no definitive meaning, to construct means to make, to destruct means to destroy. To deconstruct means to make by unmaking? Or does it mean to make by destroying? Aren’t those ideas in opposition to each other? Does that even make sense? Well, not really, I mean all you have to do is read the ‘difficulties of definition’ in the wikipedia article to understand this is more a weird complex nonsensical to a certain degree. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deconstruction
To him and to me all dichotomies are in a certain sense in threat. I mean all you have to do is open up a dictionary and you can follow a theoretical rabbit hole of seeing every word individually relate to every other word (in that you could try to ‘learn’ all the words in a definition’, to not fully explain the original word anyway (as no set of words can ever fully explain the potential of an idea especially), and being either intuitively understood or more scientifically or axiomatically precise (Oxford dictionaries are incredibly dry and unintuitive in comparison to Merriam Webster for example ((Oxford dictionaries are shit and bad at their job tho lmao)) so you have different levels of usability in a colloquial sense depending, and a lot of the semantics arguments over words come from shit like learning from 2 different dictionaries and treating yours like gospel subconciously). And sure you can do that, but dictionaries aren’t prescriptive they are primarily DESCRIPTIVE, words exist to describe other words but if all the words JUST DESCRIPTIVE then no words would have meaning when I mean there is a long historical background and and ‘intuitive axiomaticism’ to this (if I point at an ant and say its an ant you could also get the ‘scientific name’ of the ant which is that long jumbly mess you get, a lot of medicine is based on similar ideas, that’s why they are so long). So as you can see this is a huge mess. What does this have to do with anime tropes? Well…nothing (outside of theoretically handshakers which I don’t think is trying to be derridian so much as just post-structuralist in general). Tropes and subversion is not deconstructive, art is not deconstructive in itself the interpreter of art CAN ‘deconstruct’ the images shown to them surely but only in so far as you could ~verbify~ an abstract philosophical idea in the fist place.
At the end of the day, I just have a problem with the use of the word ‘deconstruction’ as a way to describe this when destructure or subversion can explain it just as well and not incur the wrath of derrida. You guys (because it’s not just you doing this) are being silly in taking this complex abstract and treating it like a flippant verb like at all. It doesn’t matter if you think cosigning evangelion as an example is BETTER than Madoka if this isn’t what the idea is about in the first place. After all you wouldn’t want to be the type of person to have this happen to you: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TNOXuurUODE
I think you could argue that I’m being a prescriptivist snob (saying ‘waaah you aren’t allowed to use a word like this’) but well maybe the dynamic/dichotomy of prescriptive and descriptive in itself in language is just another falsification like this. However, I rather like to see people use words with a sort of tonal correctness if that makes sense and incurring like I said this dense philosophy word for a cute little thought experiment on anime tropes in general is tonally weird and makes you look a bit dumb to people who know this sort of stuff. At the end of the day I’m just trying to help you. It doesn’t mean your thought experiment in general is wrong it just means you need to re-tweak some words and ideas to compose a better argument for how to look at something that doesn’t collide with this annoying philosophy bullshit lmao. I’m glad you are thinking about art in a more critical sense regardless and I hope you the best in understanding why some people avoid this word in your circles and deride it entirely! Keep up the good work!
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Thanks for the insightful input. I’ll try to keep this in mind!
There is certainly a bit to digest in this post, but you do a good job explaining your stances on the shows quite well and what you consider deconstruction. It was interesting to see Madoka as kind of being this reconstruction of the beliefs that affirm the trope of literal wish fulfillment. It certainly makes me want to, even though I did not find myself engaged with the tale, go back and watch Madoka Magica for that reconstruction outlook.
I am glad you brought up Evangelion and its deconstruction of the Super Robot subgenre of mecha. Hopefully more people won’t just say it is a blanket deconstruction of mecha elements anymore and instead realize what it really is criticizing, Power Rangers. The true evil is Zordon!
Of course jokes aside I agree completely with the Evangelion portion and want to see your Madoka discussion upon a rewatch. I think the post modernist stance of taking apart pre-established elements in genres will always be a tantalizing thing for people to undergo even as new standards are made. I mean it is only a matter of time before people create the video game trapped in another world deconstruction due to that genre’s growing popularity.
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Thanks, Schizoid. Sorry to hear that you didn’t particularly care for Madoka.
Oh, yes, Power Rangers are definitely what’s being addressed by NGE. Down with Zordon!!
Mmmm that would be interesting to see. Sounds exciting!
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I’ll have to admit that I got completely confused about the whole topic nii-san. I just read three different(?) views about deconstruction and I am… lost?
BUT, I sort of got what’s going on so, yup,now this makes sense. Especially that bit about Evangelion. *nods thoughtfully*
*goes to research more*
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Sorry, Auri. It’s a very subjective matter and topic.
But thank you!
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