Friday, May 9, 2008

Madlax and nature versus nurture

So recently I finished watching Madlax again. Now, I was really tempted to try to apply some overarching "industrialized world versus less-industrialized world" theme on it. (Personally I'm not a big fan of the phrases "First world" and "Third world" and I think "Developed world" and "Developing world" are equally bad.)

But I found that I couldn't. I mean no matter how I struggled with it, I kept coming around to the fact that the show was pretty plain about what it was talking about.

It was talking about a different duality all together. Whether or not ethics are a natural thing for humans or if they're an artifice that should be stripped away.

Now, I will probably go on as far as that point, but it's got me thinking a lot about duality and anime. I mean as far as story structure it makes a lot of sense. You have two competing ideals that the hero has to struggle with, so it provides an internal tension. So I get why it's fairly common in anime.

But I think there's something more to it. It's not that dualities aren't common in Western Literature and other thought. I mean we have The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Frankenstein, more recently, Aragorn in Lord of the Rings, Thomas Covenant in Stephen R. Donaldson's books. In religion, we have Calvin and Arminius, Perseverance of the Saints and Good Acts. In psychology we have Freud and Skinner (granted there's a whole lot that I left out there.) But in the end, there's a whole lot of opposition going on.

But I'm going to start with Madlax because in a lot of ways, I think that gets at the roots of a lot of dualities.

(Please note: I am about to completely spoil Madlax, thus guaranteeing that no one will finish this blog post. If you ever had any intention of watching this show, then I'd suggest watching it first. If you don't, then by all means keep reading.)

All right you have been warned.

So anyways, the two main characters of this show, Margaret Burton and Madlax, were once the same person. They split at the moment when Margaret's father pointed a gun at her. As the main villain pointed out, they represent two competing desires in the girl at the time – the animalistic need to survive and the need to uphold social mores. Basically they're a duality brought to life, and representative of the larger duality question of the piece: Are ethics an artifice or are they natural?

Trust me, that question is going to come up again.

Now in a lot of ways, this reminds me of the basic nature versus nurture debate that goes through social science circles. To be honest, it's a tricky question at best. But for all of its other faults, Madlax does provide an interesting answer. A bit of both.

When Margaret initially answers this question, she states that these things may be artificial but people still need them. In and of itself, that's a satisfactory answer. I agree that ethics are an artifice that humans have created so what we can survive in groups (in lieu of fangs and claws.)

But I don't think that's the true answer Madlax was going for. The big answer comes in the form of Madlax's own duality: she's a kind killer. Granted, the first time I watched the show I wasn't really all that interested in that duality (or rather I didn't really notice it.) The thing is that no matter that she started as a manifestation of Margaret's will to live, she also took on part of her ethics too. So that even though she killed often, she still felt bad about it. Basically, the show is hinting at the fact that empathy is a natural human emotion.

So why have I prattled on for 700 words about this? Mostly because I'm trying to get at the root of the idea of being a monster in anime. And I think Madlax provides a good starting place for that discussion. In essence, a basic question, from which I hope I can form other questions.

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