The sound of Caribbean music bounced its way through the air, popping life into a vibrant décor of menus, neon lights, and red counter-tops. Across from me was my father confessor, listening intently to my debacle. I had recently just played the game Bayonetta, and while the violence itself didn’t get to me, its throwing around of religious symbolism did Having angels as enemies bothered me too greatly, though by no means was I trying to judge anyone who felt differently. However, upon putting down the game and going online to actually read how others felt, I had come across one poster who greatly berated video games for their excessive violence, and that merely viewing, not to mention participating, in such things could not be good for the soul. Whether they said this next comment or not (I don’t remember) I left the computer with the following dilemma: it is, for Christians, undeniable that viewing and watching pornography is a sin. However, the act of killing another, whether murder or not, is also a sin, but so many of us have no problem watching this, let alone play a video games where we commit the act ourselves. This felt like a double standard, but at the same time there was something wrong with the comparison, but I couldn’t quite figure out what.
The term ‘pornoviolence’ is a term from the same titled essay by Tom Wolfe in which he essentially argues (at best as I can remember) that violence had become a new kind of pornography for our media, that it was used as a means to excite and gratify its viewers, and to entice them. Scenes of bloodbaths, of evisceration, of death is what sold and thus what was crafted. I personally find it hard to argue against such a critique; how many games can we all call to mind where the objective is ultimately to kill someone or something? Now, this may not of itself be gratuitous as even a game as tame as chess has the routing of the enemy as its primary objective. Yet, how many video games are saturated with visceral and gruesome scenes of death? God of War, Manhunt, Grand Theft Auto, Team Fortress II, Diablo III, Doom, Quake, Unreal Tournament, etc. Again, that’s not to say all these games are equal in this facet: Diablo III and Team Fortress II are not even close to the level of sheer brutality as something like God of War or Manhunt, but nevertheless your still seeing enemies – whether it be a ‘Heavy Weapons Guy’ or some infernal beast from the pit – get blown up into a pulp of sinew and ‘gibs’. I’d like to reiterate that I’m not passing judgment in writing this: I’ve played all of those games listed above, bar Manhunt, and many others, and I still continue to play most of them. To me, as long as violence stays a relatively low level (and I stress the use of that word since I have that the feeling that today’s ‘tame’ is yesterday’s ‘excessive’), it doesn’t bother me. Get to something like God of War, and I start to find it hard to enjoy.
I’ve been focusing so far on video games, but this same phenomenon is in anime; violence permeates almost every show that I’ve watched, and is almost always the modus operandi for solving a problem. But this is where violence need not be as negative; my favorite part of any story is the theme, the central ideas that weave throughout the plot and characters, and ultimately deliver some of kind of deeper message than what is on the surface. As such, violence can often be a metaphor that represents the conflict between good and evil, of light and darkness.1 Christian authors have often used violence in this regard, I need only mention the names of C.S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. But there is always a fine line; while violence can represent this conflict, the temptation is to focus too heavily on the violence, having the means become the point, and thus descending into a glorified view of violent acts – pornoviolence.
This is how I felt about last Saturday’s episode of Sword Art Online. I’m going to assume that those reading the post have seen the episode, and thus already have some idea of what I’m talking about. Asuna’s being hung up like a doll while Sugou rips off her clothes and taunts Kirito, sexually harassing our heroine while taking delight in the tears shed by both (to the point where he actually licks Asuna’s tears. What is this, SouthPark?). Kirito curses him, Asuna cries as she’s being violated, and Sugou is laughing just as you would expect this one-dimensional, really superficial villain to do (crazy eyes included). I know that there are some themes going on here, the idea of sexual anonymity in the internet, and that Sugou’s rape of Asuna may act like this on some level (though its hardly explored if so at all). But in reality it was nothing more than shock, nothing more than using sexuality as a way to make the viewer see Sugou as a deranged pervert and nothing more.
Rape in a story can be used to make a powerful point, to discuss the horrors of our world and examine them (and hopefully learn how to overcome them). I posted awhile ago on the show Now and Then, Here and There, and how the character Sara was used as a sex slave for the soldiers of Hellywood as an allusion to the use of young girls as sex slaves for guerrilla armies. There is an incredibly powerful scene where she, about to be raped again, fights back and actually kills her attacker. There is blood, there is screaming, there is violence – and yet the result is a far cry to what happened in SAO. The music, the expressions, the entire direction of the scene is highlighting the horror of what is happening, and that it happens all the time in the world. The viewers reaction is almost to look away, to not want to acknowledge it because it is so sad, so terrifying, and so brutal. Yet at no point is there a sense of gratification, a sense of filling one’s lust for pornoviolence. Asuna’s rape on the other hand is nothing more than a kind of plot device, a way to artificially make up for the fact there was no tension at all during the ‘Rescue Asuna’ arc. It works as fanservice, and a pretty twisted version of it at that.
The episode did have something to say thematically: the triumph of the human will (whose profoundness is loss since we live in a culture who assumes such a theme, as opposed to the more fatalistic mindset of the Japanese). However, it seemed to do nothing more than repeat what happened in the finale of the first season, which is entirely unfortunate given the memory altering technology Sugou espoused, and how that could have brought the theme to a new level of depth – imagine Kirito rescuing Asuna, just to discover that she loves Sugou instead, albeit artificially.
Understandably, Kirito’s resolution to the problem was also gruesome; he dislodges multiple appendages of Sugou’s body before flinging his torso into the air, and impaling it as it falls, cybernetic blood spewing forth from his wounds. He saves Asuna, and then heads off to see her at the hospital (I’m sure there’s some twist awaiting us in the epilogue). At the end of it all, this was just a poor way to wrap up the season, a quick fix job that had no tension, no real depth, no real emotional power – just scenes of pornoviolence that did little other than flaunt sexuality and brawn. The only words that came to my mind where those of Asuka: “How disgusting.”
1 This is essentially the answer my father confessor gave me. Pornography is perversion through and through, but violence – in it’s proper context – need not be so.
1 – http://www.wallpapervortex.com/anime-sword_art_online-wallpapers.html