The Use and Abuse of “Deconstruction”: Togashi’s Writing Philosophy

Disclaimer: This has been the hardest I’ve ever worked on a post so far. I don’t say this to brag but to let you know as the reader this means the post has ALOT of links/sources. You don’t actually have to read any of them since all the relevant info is in the post itself, I just go above and beyond (perhaps too far) when it comes to HxH.

Additionally, I’m not here to tell anyone how to talk about anything. I’m not even here to suggest people just stop using deconstruction all together like some have. Hunter x Hunter and Togashi’s work in general just mean a lot to me so I don’t want it being unfairly misrepresented. I’m still totally for using the term to have an intelligent discussion. Also, there are no direct spoilers for HxH surprisingly but the video I link stating that HxH is a deconstruction does so watch out for that.

“Truths are illusions, whose illusionary nature has been forgotten, metaphors that have been used up and have lost their imprint- That now operate as mere metal and no longer coins.”- Friedrich Nietzsche

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Deconstruction is a notoriously vague term(1). So when it’s used in the anime community so much to describe basically anything that defied expectations people understandably get confused(2). It has gotten to the point where the term has lost all usefulness(3) if it had any in this context begin with. Debates about it continue to rage on(4), however. In particular, I want to look at how Hunter x Hunter is sometimes talked about as a deconstruction. To make a few things clear:

  1. I’m not the first to talk about this nor will I be the last.
  2. I’m no expert in literature, linguistics, or philosophy. I’m not the end all be on this matter, this is just my opinion based on how I understand and define these terms.
  3. Hunter x Hunter is Not a genre deconstruction

That last point is what we’re here to discuss today.

Defining Deconstruction

From my research and understanding of the term, a deconstruction in its original meaning was as an antithesis/counter-argument to the western metaphysical tradition of logocentrism which seeks a single, timeless, and fixed point of origin for truth. In English, that means the point of “deconstructing” something philosophically speaking was to show that the center of any idea wasn’t stuck to anything grounded in an objective reality so to say, but was placed there through perception. This can be a bit hard to wrap your head around so to use a metaphor imagine an idea is a piece of candy on a lollipop. The stick that holds the candy can be thought of as the fixed truth. It’s the logical center from which you can bite off the candy! The problem was people in the past saw the stick as a necessary part of the candy to the point where if some took the candy off before eating it the other kids (in this case philosopher’s) would get mad and say “THAT’S NOT HOW YOU EAT IT!” Forgetting the stick is just a useful tool. So you can think of deconstruction as another kid coming along and popping all the lolis from their pops and putting them in a bag or something to prove a point (wow that sounded wrong but this is the anime community so it should be fine~).

Ok, so what does any of this have to do with storytelling? Well simply put, from my understanding this is what it means for a story to deconstruction a genre (in this case genre is the idea being deconstruction). It’s an author (a kid) coming along breaking down the components that make a story in a certain genre (lollipops of a certain flavor you could say) and exposing it to everyone to make a point (putting the candy in the plastic bag). Obviously, it’s much more complicated than my metaphor may suggest but this is more or less how I understand things. Which brings us to…

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Intent

For me what is and is not a deconstruction is completely dependent on authorial intent. This provides some issue naturally (what happens if the intent is unclear) however it fixes the fundamental issue of these debates of people not being on the same page. Under this view, while a series can have some deconstructive elements (think of it as the candy breaking off) if the intent is not to prove a point it doesn’t count. By shifting the focus of our conversations from mere subversion that the work indulges in to the critique that the author seeks to put forward we can all at least begin to come to an understanding instead of talking past each other (that’s the hope anyway).

This, however, doesn’t make things any easier for me as now the burden of proof is now on me to show that Togashi has no intention of deconstructing shounen. Thankfully I think I can manage it! So there are primarily 3 reasons why I say this.

  1. Togashi’s own words
  2. The existence of ACTUAL shounen battle(genre) deconstructions (not One Punch Man ya git)
  3. The content of HxH and Togashi’s other works

Realism and Subversion

I’ll start by vaguely addressing the content of HxH along with Togashi’s other works to show why people get the wrong idea. Deconstruction seeks to destabilize the supposed fixed truths that make an idea, in this case, a genre, what it is. One of the best ways to do this is through subversion and realism which are trademarks of Togashi’s writing style (parody and satire are interrelated). You can have series deconstruct a trope like the shounen hero or solving problems through violence as the mostly incorrect video by FourStarBento (5) but where I feel it goes wrong is to say that Hunter x Hunter is a deconstruction because it deconstructs some tropes. It’s best summed up by a comment a friend of mine left on that very video- “The issue people take isn’t “Hunter x Hunter is deconstructionist”, the issue [is] with people saying “Hunter x Hunter is A [Genre] deconstruction”. The nuance in those statements is different. One implies Hunter x Hunter has deconstructionist elements, which is true. The other states that Hunter x Hunter is ONLY a deconstruction which belittles the content to something it isn’t.”

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Togashi has said in interviews: “After getting “Hunter x Hunter” serialized, one of my goals was to aim for a “long-term serialization”. When I thought about this, it meant I would need to create an extremely simplified protagonist.”(6) and  “If I implement it, it’s as if I am casting away my readers.”

This doesn’t sound like someone who has created a story to meticulously set out to a deconstruction of shounen. But beyond that quotes like “Even when I’m aware that fans are going to scrutinize it, sometimes I’ll just continue with the story not worrying about it.”(7)(referring to abilities) & “I think manga is more interesting when the characters aren’t under control. When I write manga, I first think of a rough outline. But when I actually write the characters, sometimes they say things that are completely different from the storyline I thought of. But I think “This line really fits them!”, and then I have to give up on the original story. But I think it’s much more interesting when that happens.”(8) clearly show that Togashi does not intend to write his characters for the express purpose of deconstructing them nor does he care that much about what the audience thinks about certain elements he has in his story, elements he would HAVE to care about if this was a deconstruction.

While I could end it there, I want to go even further into the writing philosophy of Togashi in order to thoroughly eliminate the idea that deconstruction is his intent. While he does like to bring attention to tropes it’s not for the sake of criticism or change as you will see. Togashi’s philosophy on writing can be broken down to 2 core ideas: Media doesn’t shape actions but a worldview and the ideal worldviews to be adopted and promoted are those that inspire optimism and empathy (whatever specifics they may have). He’s writing in order to promote the ethics of shounen jump and shounen in general, as he feels the need too because of his upbringing and the context(9) in which he’s been writing for years.

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While empathy is never shown to be required to achieve goals or even necessarily to be happy, empathy is consistently framed as beneficial, a lack of empathy is shown to be evil. This is standard shounen fair which makes sense considering Jumps motto is “Friendship, Effort, Victory”. What’s really interesting is that despite friendship being the first, effort and victory which are strongly correlated with optimism makeup 2 spots on the motto. And for anyone whose seen Hunter x Hunter you’ll know how surprisingly optimistic it is as a whole considering the depths of darkness it can sometimes reach. Beyond that, optimism itself gets the main characters as far as they do. Gon is self-explanatory, Killua wouldn’t have even been in the story if not for the optimistic idea that he could escape his family (and it’s shown time and time again that it’s the belief in this idea in itself that allows him to do so and save his loved ones), Leorio’s whole character is based on optimism, and even for saddest boy Kurapika there is hope(9). For Togashi’s other stories aside from Hunter x Hunter he focuses less on how ideas like Optimism and Empathy effect and reflect the individual characters and more so how these ideas play out on a grand scale (likely due to having the series take place in our world). In Yu Yu Hakusho, for example, the story is all about overcoming the dark side of humans and demons, and Level E continuously suggest that coexistence and understanding with thousands of other alien species is possible and likely. The point is while empathy and optimism are not required in the worlds Togashi creates, they are not only preferred but inevitable on a grand scale. And this is really important because for Togashi it’s not about their world, but ours and he emphasizes that through making us aware that this is, in fact, a story. Allow me to explain.

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Togashi’s great contribution to the shounen aesthetic is his understanding that a story is not just about ideas and content but the way in which you communicate your ideas. He recognizes the importance of form as well as content. He understands that for the desired results of having people understand the manga’s message, You must change how people think rather than what they think. Science says(11) that while media isn’t good at influencing people to take any one specific action, it is extremely effective for shaping worldviews and Togashi knows this and capitalizes on this to great effect. While you may argue that this idea is basic and that other Shounen Jump authors clearly understand this too, you have to realize that not only was Togashi one of the pioneers in this regard among mangaka but he also clearly does it the best.

How he does this is through making it clear through metatextual elements that the audience is reading/watching a story. Not a slice of life, but a story being told for a reason and from particular perspectives. While this is less the case for HxH which is perhaps ironically the most “slice of life”y any of his works gets on account of him establishing such a massive and amazing world primarily through the characters, his other big works take place in our world and so it is more clear to see this process. We see this most clearly in Level E with it’s “story within a story” plot lines and the opening narrator of each episode. This all, along with his complexity, forces the reader/watcher to be more critical and pay closer attention, thus allowing Togashi’s ideas and themes to be consciously thought about to a greater extent than typical. And the more you think consciously about something, as Cognitive Scientist George Lakoff(12) likes to point out, the more the frame is established in your mind and the easier it is to activate later (kind of the opposite of the idea of subliminal messaging). It is for these reasons that ToGODshi want’s people to be really passionate and engaged in what they’re reading/watching, and why Hunter x Hunter tops the sales charts(13) every time a volume is released.

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This brings us to the topics of realism and subversion once again. I think that many confuse ‘Estrangement’ of tropes with ‘deconstruction’; however one is dependent on the experience of the reader, “and the other in the purposed domination of the author” to use Tolkien’s language(14). Togashi uses realism and subversion in order to estrange us from tropes and call attention to them for the purposes of making us conscious of them. This is even further evidenced by the fact that, when looked into, Hunter x Hunter is usually not as subversive as people might at first make it out to be(15) typically. But he’ll make an archetype seem strange so we have to start thinking about them, perhaps see how they relate to empathy and optimism. Now those are just 2 of Togashi’s many themes but these 2, in particular, fit throughout his entire body of work.

And it isn’t just tropes either, common assumptions and ideas are constantly under fire by Togashi. A good example of estrangement from a common idea is how Togashi often tackles motherhood. He often asks important questions about what we understand motherhood to be. Are you a mother just because you’ve given birth? Is it what you give to the child? Is it protection, and if so to what extent? Making ordinary ideas and concepts seem strange so we start to question them is what makes ToGODshi unique as a writer. Other elements in the text Togashi likes to use for this is messing with the 4th wall and prudent characters, but it’s all to serve the same purpose in the end; to challenge us to think about the way we live in the real world and most importantly not to take anything for granted- a challenge to hope and work for something better.

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The Queen of Shounen

To finally seal the deal I’m going to quickly examine and explain an actual shounen battle deconstruction- Medaka Box.

While Colonels Journals Blog post on the series(16) does a good job of describing what makes Medaka Box such a good deconstruction of shounen (and where I got the title from, though I’d argue Hunter x Hunter is the King of Shounen obviously) and we even have post delving into how specific characters(17) reflect the deconstructive themes of the series, we’re here to talk about intent not process. And to that end, we have a quote from Nisio at the end of one of his works which contain his thoughts on genius from back in 2002, which shows that he has been thinking about and wanting to explore the idea of “genius” for a long time, a concept that needless to say plays a big role in shounen and is reflected in Medaka Box:

Let’s imagine for a moment(18) that what you hold in your hand is an extraordinarily enthralling work of fiction of the highest order. As you know, that’s not truly the case, but let’s pretend. Now let’s say you finish reading it, and in that very instant, you scream: “This writer is a genius!” I don’t know if you would really scream that sort of thing, but let’s say the writer of this book is oft the subject of such praise. But such expressions sound not unlike excuses of the common man as if claiming, “That person is a genius; in other words, he’s of a superior race totally separate from you and me, so of course he can do things we can’t do” or something to that unseemly effect. “We’re not to be looked down upon, we’re simply looking up.” And indeed that statement is correct, but I can’t shake the feeling that something is off there. When it comes down to it, I don’t think it’s a very good thing to rely too much on this word genius. Moreover, not all geniuses are so evaluated. Or rather, most genius goes unnoticed. Meanwhile, those who achieve some sort of result are arbitrarily given the label and people forget that it’s really a complex issue based on factors such as effort and environment, none of which should be written off as “genius” if you ask me. Now, it really is a complex issue so I won’t get into the nitty-gritty of it, but when a person sets out to do something, you’ve got to consider natural-born talent, skill, and effort, not to mention luck and fate as well, so it seems to me that the term genius is putting it all too simply.”

So it’s clear to anyone who reads or studies his works that Nisio likes to deconstruct ideas and genres(19) to get people to think about them and in Medaka Box’s case most likely to get things to change in the future (though this is not direct statement on his thought process in creating Medaka Box specifically).

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Reconstructing “Deconstruction”

I mentioned how in the most ironic of ways the word “Deconstruction” has itself been deconstructed. It’s been broken apart by many in the community and put through the ringer as we try to extract the essential truth about the word. And this is ironic because the whole point of its creation was to show you can’t. Words at the end of the day are just things we make up with no inherent value in themselves. However, I’m not upset by this at all because it has lead to some great conversations. I’m glad the word exists and has been able to get so many people riled up, studying, and talking to each other. I hope I’ve been able to make the word useful at least for some of you again and regardless I hope I have spread some knowledge around. At the end of the day, that’s what words are: another way to communicate and connect with each other!

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(Also inb4 “reconstruction” becomes the next big word calling it now. Apologies for always taking so long with these, quality>quantity and all that jazz.)

Sources:

      1. “Deconstruction” by WattheWut https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yHMC3n27r1M&t=1s
      2. “I don’t think Deconstructions Exist (Take 2)” by  Scott of Mechnical Anime Reviews https://mechanicalanimereviews.com/2018/01/31/i-dont-think-deconstructions-exist-take-2/
      3. “What Actually Is A Deconstruction?” by Under The Scope https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qBuo4vi_A0s
      4. “The biggest problem with “deconstructions” in Anime” by Lethargic Ramblings https://wordpress.com/read/feeds/54475394/posts/1755165410

      5. “Deconstructing Shounen: Hunter x Hunter (Anime Editorial)” by the incorrect FourStarBento https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7lKRx3vAywo&list=FLjhkKZZoLtUGETfTX8EtWIw&index=22
      6. Yoshihiro Togashi & Fujimaki Tadatoshi (Kuroko no Basket) Interview (Very Important Interview) http://hunterxhunter.wikia.com/wiki/User_blog:MrGenial11/Yoshihiro_Togashi_%26_Fujimaki_Tadatoshi_(Kuroko_no_Basket)_Interview
      7. “Togashi x Kishimoto Discuss Creation” Viz Interview https://www.viz.com/blog/posts/togashi-x-kishimoto-discuss-creation
      8. “Togashi Yoshihiro (Hunter x Hunter) X Ishida Sui (Tokyo Ghoul) Special Talk & Release of Ishida Sui’s Treasured Hisoka Storyboard!” Interview http://chiggix.tumblr.com/post/145336753292/%E5%86%A8%E6%A8%AB%E7%BE%A9%E5%8D%9A-%E7%9F%B3%E7%94%B0%E3%82%B9%E3%82%A4-%E7%89%B9%E5%88%A5%E5%AF%BE%E8%AB%87-%E5%B0%91%E5%B9%B4%E3%82%B8%E3%83%A3%E3%83%B3%E3%83%9
      9. “Jump Ryu 21: Yoshihiro Togashi Interview” http://hunterxhunter.wikia.com/wiki/User_blog:MrGenial11/Jump_Ryu_Vol.21:_Yoshihiro_Togashi
      10.  https://elevenxheaven.wordpress.com/2017/05/24/hunter-x-hunter-persona-5-and-judgement/  “Hunter x Hunter Persona 5 and Judgement”
      11. “The Role of the Media in the Construction of Public Belief and Social Change” https://jspp.psychopen.eu/article/view/96/37

      12. https://georgelakoff.com/
      13. https://www.reddit.com/r/HunterXHunter/comments/6lddct/hunter_x_hunter_volume_34_has_sold_876566_copies/
      14. (it was supposed to be a picture of the quote)
      15. “Is there meaning in “Subverting” shounen tropes?” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DUQfInd0gLA
      16. “Medaka Box: The Shonen Queen” by ColonelsJournals https://colonelsjournals.wordpress.com/2014/06/19/medaka-box-the-shonen-queen/

      17. Insert New Kumagawa Analysis to replace old one here
      18. Nisio quote on Genius https://forums.animesuki.com/showpost.php?p=3985537&postcount=6842
      19. “Juuni Taisen: The Futility of Battle Royals” by Ember Reviews https://youtu.be/MoHrOupeyW8

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