Why we as Writers MUST Look at Trashy Stories to Learn to Make Art
For one of my final papers as a student, I have to write about an apocalyptic film or movie or–thankfully–anime. Prior in this semester, we wrote essays on Grave of the Firefly and Barefoot Gen, discussing the intellectual merits of anime! For a humble literature student, I was in heaven. Rarely having the option to write academic papers about anime, I seized the chance. At first, I knew exactly what I wanted to write about: Neon Genesis Evangelion. One of my all-time favorite anime, if not my all-time favorite.
However, I found I was not the only one who had this idea. Being someone who wanted to avoid looking unoriginal, I searched through the trove of apocalyptic anime that I could write about. There were the obvious choices. Akira and Nausicaa are two of my favorite anime movies, but both were a little too obvious. I caught wind that other students were writing about them, the teacher talked about them–too obvious. I wanted to be original.
So I burrowed deeper and deeper into the library of apocalyptic anime, hoping for a gold mine. I dismissed a lot of mainstream anime. At one point, I was going to write about Berserk, then Fist of the North Star, but a part of me wanted to talk about something that no one else would touch.
I’m going to be writing my paper on Violence Jack and Legend of the Overfiend.
These two are examples of some of anime’s most vile, repugnant nightmare fuel. They aren’t particularly good anime, nor are they fun to watch. I saw both years ago, and, while I have little desire to rewatch either anytime soon, I am not upset at the prospect of revisiting them.
For the longest time, I didn’t know why. There aren’t any particularly great characters I’m excited to revisit. The plot twists aren’t fun. There are only scenes that remain embedded in my brain that will never go away. There are moments that manage to transcend the limitations of the dull plot and characters.
They manage to remain memorable because they are shocking.
Take for example other examples. The Gor series, by all respects, are repulsive novels. They glorify sexual slavery in a way that makes me queasy just thinking about. I am really disturbed that this series has fans, and yet I cannot ignore it. It’s simply too appalling to ignore.
Or take A Serbian Film–
No? Too extreme? Look at Salo. While the director would probably want people to believe that this film was an artistic achievement in dissecting the way the government and corporations exploit their people. The shit-eating sequences? How industry force us to eat garbage and processed foods–the kind of stuff so unhealthy that it might as well be our own shit. I will not argue how good of a metaphor this is, but, as you will soon see, the effectiveness of the metaphor is not why this scene is so memorable.
Most critics dismiss this sort of stuff. It’s schlock. It’s pornography. It’s exploitation. It’s draining. True, that is all true. We are talking about trash here. And yet, at the same time, this trash managed to do what so many labors of love fail to do: remain memorable.
They transcend their limitations. They don’t shy away from their dark subject matter. They exploit all the way. They don’t just half-ass it. They go all out. They unleash whatever grotesque and unsavory images they can muster, and, in doing so, become infamous. In many respects, infamy is far more preferable than obscurity.
As writers, we cannot forget this. Far too often, we restrain ourselves. We fear what others might say. We might be labeled as schlocky, as devious, as repugnant. However, I argue that if you are criticized for leaving an impact, even if it is repulsion, then you are doing your job right.
Too many writers come and go, leaving barely a ripple in their wake. Take Pier Pasolini. Many critics claim his Biblical epic The Gospel According to St. Matthew is one of the most superb Bible films ever to be made. Most modern audiences remember Pasolini thanks to Salo, a movie where people eat shit.
Now, does this mean that we as writers should throw out everything we know about our craft to make trashy stories about ultra-violence? No! By no means, no! But what we should take away from the darker underbelly of cinema, writing, etc, is that, sometimes, we need to be shocking in order to be effective. Good characters and good plot just aren’t enough. One shocking scene is all it might take to make a film stand the test of time.
If you are still skeptical, think about it. Imagine The Godfather without the horse’s head in the sheets. Imagine Fatal Attractions without the boiled bunny. Imagine Akira without that grotesque ending scene at the end. Imagine Oedipus Rex without the revelation that the king has been sleeping with his mother the whole time. Bringing this whole thing back to the beginning, the anime Neon Genesis Evangelion, which despite its reputation among anime fans is sorely under-appreciated by mainstream Western audiences, would not nearly be as memorable or powerful without its intense, mind-screwy ending.
The lesson? Never forget how effective a good brutal scene can be in your story. Or something shocking. Don’t be afraid to go all-out. The worst that can happen is that people will talk about your writing.