Dedicated to my best friend Wesley Washington aka Cherryboywriter on this, his 24 birthday. Thank you for always helping me and others be their unabashed true selves.
Disclaimer: Spoilers for all of Level E and a very minor spoiler quote for Persona 5. The source for all the Epicurus quotes is the book “The Essential Epicurus: Letters, Principal Doctrines, Vatican Sayings, and Fragments” published by Prometheus Books and translated by Eugene O’ Connor. A few of them I mixed translations from this(1) website so that they read better. Subscribe to Shonen Ronin because you’ll want to check out the video version of this post when it comes out: https://youtu.be/yFYl0jwRrPI
11/10 HOLY SHIT GREATEST COMEDY OF ALL TIME!!!!
ToGODshi is the King of Shounen, we all know this. Time and time and time again ToGODshi just completely dominates the magazine whenever he releases chapters and even when he doesn’t via his influence, both direct via his editorial roll(2) or indirectly through the mark he’s had on other mangaka who then go on to inspire even more mangaka. What makes ToGODshi special though is that he has not been surpassed in anything except in sales and that’s literally only because he goes on hiatus so goddamn much. No one he helps or influences surpasses him, no one can compete. In gaming terms, he is the uncrowned king of the tournament arc that is Shounen Jump.
However, after Yu Yu Hakusho his health wasn’t in the best shape as we now know(3), so when it came to writing another shounen battle series, there was simply no way for ToGODshi to not struggle to live up to the impossible level of expectation. And why should he when again, not struggling is the entire reason he left; a very epicurean choice. But just how much is Epicureanism related to ToGODshi’s philosophy truly, and why did ToGODshi come back with a comedy about aliens? Well, boot up your brains cause I’m going to complete this mystery game!
Gaming and Pragmatic Epistemology
Just when you think ToGODshi is done he always comes back to reclaim his throne. And when we talking adaptions you know the anime industry is always going to bring their A-game when adapting his works. Immediately in the first episode, you’re hit with the full package crashing from right out of the stratosphere. You get Jokes, you got mystery, you got likable characters & zany dynamics. And by the 4th episode you get the craziest Brechtian plot twist in the history of Brechtian plot twist I mean COME ON HOW ARE YOU NOT REWATCHING THE SERIES RIGHT NOW?!! The series reviles in variety not just in its stories but in its themes, tones, and even characters with each one being unique and distinct from the last while still being memorable in a way that I can only to his later work Hunter x Hunter and My Hero Academia. You will remember EVERYONE you see in this series and it is not a small amount. I even remember everyone on the baseball team. THE ENTIRE BASEBALL TEAM.
It just goes to show that even the less inspired characters have something different about them that distinguishes them from near all other fictional characters outside of ToGODshi’s body of work. And that thing is Prudence. It will become a defining character trait of nearly every character of his from this point forward, and the reason has to do with the same thing that put ToGODshi on the Epicurean path (in theory, he also could have just got into it because of his natural tendencies). Gaming. But in order to understand how we first need to understand how we know what we know, in a grand scale sense. In other words, we need to talk about Epistemology.
Now the link between gaming and Epistemology is yet another thing I’m sure someone else with a ton more resources and time has covered better than me. But I’m the only one who’s gonna connect it back to the stuff that actually matters at the end of the day: Shounen! So a quick rundown for the uninitiated. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that asks how we know things. Skipping over unimportant stuff the general consensus is that there is a distinction between external reality, our sensory perspective of reality, and our capacity to understand reality. We receive information about the external world through indirect sensory perceptions. We then use language to describe that information. “Truth” is the label given to statements that a subject perceives as successfully describing reality. Because of how subjects can define this success differently there is no universal epistemology. This is not to say necessarily that there is no universal absolute external reality, just that we cannot perfectly describe or understand it from within it. We are not omniscient after all.
Games can give us an interesting take on philosophy, and I think that’s one of the many reasons Togashi decided to title the series “Level E” besides the more obvious fact that he likes playing games so making a series about something he likes is a good stress reliever. You could say an escape. Just what does that phrase mean anyway? How can one “escape” to a different reality? In my favorite video game “Persona 5” one of the major messages is “There is no such thing as the real world. Everything is a product of cognition.” More than just a mere “life is what you make of it” message the game challenges the very notion that an external world that’s outside of our perception is even relevant. This aligns well with the stories themes on justice, friendship, and individuality. In yet another famous Japanese title “The world ends with you” the main theme of the game is that the limit of your world is your own thinking and so the more you expand your experiences the more you expand your world (this is not a spoiler btw it’s literally in the title of the game).
However, this type of thinking can often rub some people the wrong way. A fun way I like to phrase their objections is “Why isn’t life just the matrix then? I want to bend bullets!” which is a fair point. Where games have a leg up on other media when it comes to dealing with this question, however, is by calling attention to how belief is formed by the mere act of engaging with the medium. Why do you “believe” anything? Simple, we use beliefs as a guide for our actions. In a game, there are rules and restrictions and even though if you’re tech savvy you could change the code within the “game world” itself these laws are as inescapable as the laws of gravity are here on earth. Games are about learning rules and then working within those parameters to achieve an objective, while also being something we actively hop into consciously and thus are aware on some level we are participating in a construction of a reality. In other words, games are the ultimate case study in pragmatic epistemology. Pragmatism is the maxim which states that “Truth” has no meaning unless it is tied to our actions. There is no point in knowing how many angels can dance on the head of a pin if it will not help me beat this level. With this as a foundation, of course, it makes sense to say that you should trust your own experiences and the experiences of those you trust, lest you have no basis for even doubting the very sensations you or an authority claim to be false. In short, games teach you how you need to believe what you experience, and use your friends to help you the reason.
And this, of course, leads us back to Epicurus.
Levels A-D: Living Wisely, Honorably, Justly, & Pleasantly
“It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and honorably and justly, and it is impossible to live wisely and honorably and justly without living pleasantly.”- Epicurus
Epicurus was an ancient Greek philosopher who lived in Athens in the period after the conquest of Alexander the Great. He was a man who was completely antithetical to the society he lived in, heretical, anti-populist, and right about absolutely everything when it comes to ethics. While his focus was natural science he didn’t have to tools we have today to understand the nature of the universe as clearly as us. However, more important than that is the reason he wished to understand the natural world and the way he went about doing so. ToGODshi can be considered the modern Epicurus, and it shows in many ways, from shared pragmatic epistemology to their focus on prudence as the highest virtue. For both the goal of life is Ataraxia: A joyous peacefulness characterized by meditative bliss. He returns to this theme time and again in his stories.
For them to live joyously is to live wisely, as to do so allows you to fall more in line with the pragmatic maxim. The opposite is also true, as in order to live happily you must act in accordance to what will get you results you desire. Both these things are thus intertwined with justice, for as Epicurus stated: “There never was such a thing as absolute justice, but only agreements made in mutual dealings among men in whatever places at various times providing against the infliction or suffering of harm.” This also lines up well you’ll notice with Persona 5’s perception of justice which I hinted at later. And in order to be trusted by those around you so that proper justice can be carried out one must live honorably. This is what people mean when they say justice is dependent on trust. As you can see we’ve developed very quickly from the initial amorality we started with. Though we in the west traditionally try to separate these concepts out, much like the hidden passages in the Mario games, it can be demonstrated how they are all firmly interconnected.
Based solely on pragmatic epistemology, which in practice is all our epistemology, we’ve derived a completed ethical system. Centuries of people claiming to be philosophizing have been reduced to unnecessary exposition before the might of the one true God. We have finished the tutorial Levels A-D, but now we must move on to Level E, where we shall learn to understand gods, the literal intellectual genius of ToGODshi’s characters, and that useless, funny history of mankind.
“The beginning and the greatest good of all these is prudence. For this reason, prudence is more valuable even than philosophy: from it derive all the other virtues.”
The God & The Cold Finger Girl: Dealing with Human Stupidity
Prudence allows you to decide on various courses of action. It is defined as “sound judgment”. Naturally, a philosophy with pragmatism as its base would value such a skill highly. Finally, it is time to return to the show Level E proper as to show how ToGODshi demonstrates his philosophy through the story.
Framing is everything when it comes to Level E. ToGODshi will trick you with narrative and guide you with moral frames throughout his collection of works but no more is this more the case than in the insanity that is Level E. We’ll establish the prudence and framing of some of cast:
Captain Kraft is a man quick to anger but is otherwise a great leader and is more than able to control himself to get the job done. His lack of wit causes him to get teased by Prince Baka alot but he’s still shown to be a generally admirable guy which goes to show how in Epicureanism wisdom is not the highest virtue in itself like with say Aristotle. That all said the reason I start with him is because besides Yukitaka he’s probably the one in the reoccurring cast who suffers the most because of his shared ease to upset. This ironically makes him the most relatable character in the series, in regard to most normal people at least. Also his name is a pun and might also be related to food much like another character ToGODshi would introduce later in HxH and I find that funny.
The first human we’re introduced to he’s a pretty great guy all things considered. Often his self sacrificing nature is portrayed as a result of his lack of intelligence and hence he suffers, such as when he thinks he may have accidentally stumble upon the princess in the bath & so covers his eyes only to discover it’s actually Mohan (which is also the best subversion of that trope I’ve seen). That said he also comes across as lovable as evidence by the fact that even prince Baka took a liking too him, and he’s not so self sacrificing as to become a doormat. By the end of the series he has absolutely no problem telling the prince screw off, and only helps him because by that point they are good friends.
Miho is the meditator between the Prince and Yukitaka and is ultimately the reason they’re able to become friends. She herself is also a bit of an alien enthusiast due to her father researching them. She’s also our primer to seeing how humans will generally respond to aliens in this series; shocked but quickly accepting it and always keeping her wits about her in any situation. As a rule of thumb the more a human is acting like Miho the better off they are and the better they are framed and vice versa.
The Color Rangers
The color rangers are the friends that many WISHED they had. Each kid plays of the others in interesting ways that compliment each other and make up for the others weaknesses. the boys learn the true value of friendship and honor, while also learning how utterly disgusting humans and aliens can be alike. They’ll for sure grow up to be the most well round people in this new alien filled and I almost wish we could get a whole spin off series about their adult years. I’d dive into every single member but suffice to say they all got growing to do but they’re all amazing.
Don’t forget about the actual assassin who is framed as a “Good-Guy”, the precursor to Killua (traveling the world goal, sharp claws and all), the teacher Miss Tachibana. She’s a minor character to be sure but I mention her because she is the absolute perfect example of the complete amorality of Epicureanism, and demonstrates that this will be the standard from here on out. Yusuke saying he wouldn’t judge the fact that demons ate humans was no one off thing meant to show his depravity as a demon descendant as Kuroko would have had you believe. ToGODshi never moralizes against killer (Professional or otherwise) out of hand. He mainly looks at the consequences and how it affects other characters (who again usually exercise prudence so it’s rarely a big deal). This woman is literally an assassin just so that she can get money to travel the universe and this isn’t portrayed as an inherently a bad thing at all.
Side note that I will expand on in Part 3 but this in some ways explains one of my key issue with the visuals of the 1999 adaption of HxH. That “amazing direction” people always hype up as being better kind of misses the whole point. While it does look good it falls into the trap of portraying certain characters as “Dark” or “Evil”.
Desires & Politics
“Understanding that chance is neither a god, as the majority think (for nothing is done by a god in an irregular fashion), nor an unstable cause of all things, the wise man does not think that either good or evil is furnished by chance to humankind for the purpose of living a happy life, but that the opportunities for great good or evil are bestowed by it.”
We had to save the best for last! Let’s talk about Prince Baka himself and the lowkey mastermind of the entire series Princess Luna.
Like human history dealing with Prince Baka is a cyclic process of constant crisis management and adaptation which has known no clear-cut answers that work in every location or time. This is the nature of a meddling trickster god, and a surprisingly light-hearted look at humanity’s potential. See to understand Prince Baka properly you have to understand Epicurus’s view on the gods. (So that he wouldn’t be killed most likely) he said that the gods do exist with the hitch that they want nothing to do with human beings. The reason he says this is 2 fold. For one if the gods exist to mess with us fear enters, which is bad for Ataraxia. To have to appease a being we cannot understand and holds our lives in his hands is soul killing and makes a man less than he should be(4). Second if a being so powerful did exist it would be nothing like us. “The blessed and immortal is itself free from trouble nor does it cause trouble for anyone else; therefore, it is not constrained either by anger or by favor. For such sentiments exist only in the weak.” But the prince messes with people all the time, most notably with the Color Rangers but also in how he generally uses peoples unnatural desires (baseball, knowledge on aliens) to mess with them. “Of the desires some are natural and necessary while others are natural but unnecessary. And there are desires that are neither natural nor necessary but arise from idle opinion.”
From this we can gather that Prince Baka is sort of supposed to be an avatar of what humanity would look like if all its collective power was embodied by 1 dimwit. He’s incredibly smart, but he’s also a freak and always causes trouble for himself, which is exactly what Epicurus disliked about humanity and why he developed his philosophy. His actions make alot more sense when viewed from this lens. To quote Pascal “All man’s problems come from the fact he can’t sit quietly in a room”. However, by sheer power Baka is almost equal to that of a god, and his antics while hey get people in trouble also allow for evolution, which is showcased by the closest character in the series to an actual god, Princess Luna.
“The benefits of other activities come only to those who have already become, with great difficulty, complete masters of such pursuits, but in the study of philosophy delight coincides with knowledge. For enjoyment does not come after learning, but learning and enjoyment come together.”
Not only is Luna a goddess physically but she trained herself to have the intelligence equal to or even surpassing that of the prince. Nearly everything which happened in the series was being guided by her and she ended up being the only one to prank the prankster. We begin to see the themes of politics being a game that’s played by the higher ups of society being introduced for the first time in ToGODshi’s work. While it is not showcased as nearly as dark as it will be in ToGODshi’s next series it is still not gone unmentioned that the entire earth could have been wiped out over a small schism that had nothing to do with humans had the aliens not liked the place. The transition of Togashi from writing about demons (fictional, man-made, demonstrates our place at the center of the universe) to aliens (could likely be real as per Fermi’s Paradox, demonstrate our insignificance, rarely interact with us) is an important one and not at all an accident. Even so the obvious crown jewel of the series is still Luna and the ending she created. It was an incredible elaborate happy ending, filled with twist and turns and a lot of implications both for many of the characters and the themes. And it all culminates in an event that will go down as one of the most uplifting sequences ever in an anime.
The most fascinating thing about Level E is it’s the most positive a light ToGODshi has ever shown on humanity. I think it’s encapsulated best by the quote “Remember that you are mortal and that, although having but a limited span of life, you have entered into discussions about nature for an eternity and forever, and seen ‘all things that are and will be and were before.’ “. This is what the ending where aliens finally reveal themselves and humans at last become part of the intergalactic conversation really means. Level E was not at all what I expected but I loved it anyway. Even after you think you’ve seen everything it has to offer the surprises continue to pile up. It’s equal parts comedic and wondrous and clearly set the ground work for what came after it in so many ways. It not only brings 100’s of ideas to the table, but also delivers on them with a flair and whimsy that you would mistake it for being written by a child if it wasn’t so masterfully crafted. This is a comedy where I actually feel bad even trying to be funny after watching it and it is undoubtedly a fantastic showcase of the Philosophy of Togashi Yoshihiro.
I have one last call to action. I beg of you if you care about this series even a 1/5th of as much as I do please spread the word on this series so that both the fandom and actual wiki can be update. The reception section on the actual wiki is complete ass and entirely misses the point of the series (I only checked the wiki after I finished writing this piece as I save sources for the end) and the fandom wiki doesn’t even give the alien teacher her own character page like wtf you give a stub to the goddamn clive but can’t spare a f…
As stated all the Epicurus stuff not from the website comes from the book “The Essential Epicurus: Letters, Principle Doctrines, Vatican Sayings, and Fragments” published by Prometheus Books and translated by Eugene O’ Connor.
- Epicurus.net- http://www.epicurus.net/index.html
- Fujimaki Tadatoshi (Author of Kuroko no Basket) x Togashi Yoshihiro Interview-http://hunterxhunter.wikia.com/wiki/User_blog:MrGenial11/Yoshihiro_Togashi_%26_Fujimaki_Tadatoshi_(Kuroko_no_Basket)_Interview
- The Philosophy of ToGODshi Part 1: Yu Yu Hakusho’s Spectre of The Political
- Wes Cecil Lecture- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M_GIIN4iEK0&t=246s