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Sunday, 26 February 2017

When Light Meets Dark - A Case of Juxtaposition

One evening (23 February) I was experiencing the melancholy charm of NieR:Automata, a video game from the weird and moving mind of Yoko Taro (or Taro Yoko, depends on how you read his name into English). And it really struck me - how well a juxtaposition of light and dark elements can create an engaging narrative experience. You can have some of the darkest content possible, but throw in some levity or lighter themes in the right place, and you'll have a killer combination that'll keep drawing in readers who want to see the next episode. Satisfying both needs without saturating either taste - the best of both worlds. When you have the time and - in the case of visual media - the budget.

So what kind of juxtaposition could you find? I'll give you an example. It's a family scene - a man is having some quality time with his family, showing that he is a loving and caring parent to his children, and a loving husband to his wife, who returns that love in turn. During the next part, he heads out for his job - it's as a soldier who is responsible for killing hundreds or perhaps thousands of people on a side that isn't his for a purpose that isn't his own. Love and war, family and combat, compassion and coldness. These two starkly juxtapose each other, showing the twin sides of humanity and enabling both the sweet show of love and the brutal thrill of death. Of course, that's a rather gratuitous example, but it establishes the theme. This type of juxtaposition isn't restricted to scene changes, as it can take place within a single scene or sequence. Also, this narrative tool has no specific genre, and can even hybridise with other genre tropes and writing tricks.

In books, this type of thing can be unrolled at a variety of paces, and can apply to both the protagonist and the antagonists (I won't say heroes and villains as that concept, while a storied classic, is more than outdated in real life and fiction). An example from my own bookshelf is Ursula le Guin's fourth Earthsea book Tehanu. The opening acts of the narrative sort of takes place parallel to the the events of The Farthest Shore, and focuses more in how the former priestess Tenar tended to the abused child Therru. Her gentle care first got Therru and then for the weakened Ged, and the everyday of her life on the farm clashes with the fact that she is tending to two broken people. The quest isn't one that offers itself well to juxtaposition like this, and thus things like Paolini's Inheritance cycle suffer considerably from an overly dour or focused tone. Tolkien does something in this regard through the earthly concerns of his Hobbits, although the other faults I find with his books mean it doesn't count for much.

Films have this hard due to time limitations. Aside from the real two hour+ films, or even the large epics that saturated the cinema during the 50s to 60s, there aren't so many opportunities to balance darkness with light. It doesn't help that the way films are made and have been made for a long time doesn't really allow for that - it pushes its theme into your face a lot of the time, allowing for little variety unless it's in the service of said theme or themes. Some films that try it fall completely flat, while others can seemingly jerk and judder along to the point that you feel disoriented. A good example would be The Fifth Element, which has amazing action scenes and a pseudo-mystical narrative combined with scenes of calm and scenes that make you laugh.

Television both live-action and animated can end up using this type of juxtaposition as a kind of get-out clause if they're running a little short on story, or want to drag out the course of events just that little bit further. This type of thing is more often called "filler". An example can be taken from Blood-C, where the clash of a fluffy everyday high school existence is juxtaposed against the brutal reality of protagonist Saya Kisaragi's nighttime slaying of the Lovecraftian Elder Bairns. In live-action television, this is used in almost every episode of the Crime Scene Investigation franchise - specifically CSI:NY - and NCIS. Since both shows are based around murder and other similar crimes, playing it straight would quickly send the series into a very disturbing and depressing place. The levity born from the interplay between different characters - or domestic scenes of what have you - pulls the viewer away for a much-needed rest from tales of murder, mutilation, rape and psychotic desires.

Video games, that oh so young and often clumsy narrative medium, have it a bit trickier in this regard as many of them are relatively short and have a highly focused approach. Also the state of the gaming industry is such that there isn't much creative freedom for a lot of studios to do what they might want to outside of a few notable exceptions. One of these is NieR:Automata and by extension the entire Drakengard franchise, but another more mainstream example is the Persona series, most notably Persona 3 onwards; each subsequent entry's unique combination of social simulator and deep role-playing game allows for that kind of juxtaposition. Beyond Good & Evil also demonstrates this with instances of whimsy and calm punctuating a dark sci-fi thriller.

I could go on and on and on forever listing various instances where juxtaposition was handled or mishandled in all possible story-telling media. It's heartbreaking to see a story fall flat without that flavour of mixed levity and horror. But it's also wonderful to see it used skillfully, or with enough flair to make even the dullest kind of narrative or setting engaging. Got your own candidates? Please share...

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