Idle Observations about Japanese Pop Fiction
The Far Side of Type-Moon
For my thesis this year, I’m translating a section of Nasu Kinoko’s 1998 novel Kara no Kyoukai. Nasu is probably best known for writing Fate/Stay Night, the visual novel that sparked the now-massive Fate media franchise. Nasu is an interesting author whose works straddle the line between “serious” and “popular” literature—historically two very different categories, particularly in Japan. He’s somewhat similar to Murakami Haruki in this regard. Nasu is not, however, a particularly approachable author, and it can be difficult to understand the significance behind his recurring ideas and concepts without having read him widely. To help alleviate that, I’m going to use this post to briefly outline the central thematic conflict that informs all of Nasu’s work to date. For those who have already been exposed to Fate and/or Nasu’s other works, hopefully this will be enlightening. For the rest, it’s an introduction to an absolutely fantastic living author.
Nasu’s first major published work was the aforementioned Kara no Kyoukai. Kara no Kyoukai draws heavily on Taoist thought, starting with its title. Kara no Kyoukai literally translates to “Empty Boundaries” referencing the Taoist concept that distinctions between things are all ultimately psychological constructs and therefore nonexistent. The simplest way to explain this would be to ask, “How high is high?” We might look at a balloon soaring away and say it’s “high,” but there isn’t a clear threshold at which point it transitions from being “not high” to being “high.” Our distinction between “not high” and “high” is a relative, psychological one rather than a concrete one, and consequently Taoism holds that there is fundamentally no difference between something that is “high” and something that is “not high.”
This gets much more abstract, of course, with the Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi’s writings containing phrases like “There is nothing in the world bigger than an autumn hair.” If you’re familiar with the relatively famous quotation about a Chinese philosopher dreaming he was a butterfly and then wondering whether he was actually a butterfly dreaming it was a philosopher, that also comes from Zhuangzi. When I say distinctions between things don’t exist, I do mean all distinctions, and not just the arbitrary ones. It amounts to an “everything is one” concept, though it’s not quite as simple as that distillation makes it sound.
Kara no Kyoukai is filled with paradox, with characters who are both alive and dead, shadows so novel they’re boring, outfits that are simultaneously traditional and Eastern and modern and Western. Nasu uses paradox to break down distinctions between things, forming a foundation of Taoist thought that runs underneath everything in the novel and that helps to establish who is “good” and who is “bad.” The characters who adhere strongly to rigid, Confucian societal structures are “bad,” or at least nearsighted, while the seemingly lazy, eccentric, whimsical characters who accept the world as it is and go where their natures take them are “good.”
Confucianism is consistently cast as a very bad thing in Nasu’s work. It roughly corresponds to the concept of materialism, though not so much materialism in the traditional capitalist sense as in the literal sense. In Nasu’s writing, a focus on the physical world and on societal approval is connected with moral and spiritual decay and often obscures the truth. The alternative to this, which usually uses Taoist or Buddhist concepts as something of an objective correlative, is a focus on the mind and on one’s internal world. Pursuing knowledge out of personal curiosity is good; pursuing knowledge for societal approval is bad. Collecting things for a love of the collection is good; collecting things out of a desire for material wealth is bad, and so on.
All of this holds true more-or-less throughout the Nasuverse. Nasu sometimes draws on Buddhist concepts or images in place of Taoist ones, but the concept of paradox holds strong, along with the sense that distinctions between things do not exist, and regardless of whether Buddhism or Taoism is the framing system of thought, Confucianism is thoroughly negative.
Connection to the Root
Nasu’s core thematic question, though, extends beyond this use of Taoist ideas. Rather, Nasu’s basis in Taoist thought is the framework against which his core internal debate is set.
Nasu’s works grapple thoroughly with existentialism, and particularly with the existential idea that there is no true underlying self. Existentialism holds that “existence precedes essence” which essentially means that individuals are defined entirely by how they act and that they are fully responsible for the actions they take. Individuals are free to take any actions whatsoever, and they are not bound by any externally or intrinsically imposed labels or identities. This leads to existential dread, which is the awareness that one can take any action, even if those actions have mortifying or unrealistic consequences. Imagine sitting in a crowded theater during a play and suddenly having the impulse to stand up and shout something to interrupt the show and draw everyone’s attention. You would never actually do it, but the awareness that you could is inexplicably terrifying. That’s existential dread.
Kara no Kyoukai in particular is a strongly anti-existential work. It insists that individuals do have fundamental, underlying selves and are therefore not entirely free to make decisions. It holds that existential dread is a false fear, as truly dreaded actions fall so far outside the underlying self that they are, in fact, impossible.
Kara no Kyoukai’s central conflict involves existential dread. One of the two protagonists, Ryougi Shiki, has violent thoughts and fears she will one day snap and become a murderer. The other protagonist, Kokutou Mikiya, insists that Shiki is not capable of doing so. Shiki espouses an existentialist view—that there is no underlying self, and that she is right to fear her own free will—while Mikiya holds the anti-existentialist view.
The novel ends up supporting Mikiya’s viewpoint, gradually deconstructing existentialism and building arguments for why it cannot be true. The novel ends with Mikiya meeting Shiki’s “underlying self” in a completely literal sense, and the underlying, fundamental personality informs Mikiya that the ordinary, projected Shiki he knows is nothing more than an outgrowth of the “real self” underneath.
After Kara no Kyoukai, though, Nasu’s writing began to exhibit signs of rethinking that view. Most of Nasu’s post-Kara no Kyoukai works have been divided into two halves, which Nasu refers to as “Near-side” and “Far-side” sections. The “Near-side” sections nearly always mirror Kara no Kyoukai, to the extent that some even reuse characters or names, and nearly all of them reuse concepts and plot beats. The “Near-side” sections espouse the same argument Kara no Kyoukai makes: that existentialism is wrong, and that individuals are bound to their underlying selves.
The “Far-side” sections, though, flip this. In the “Far-sides,” central characters strain against and often break from their underlying selves. Where in the “Near-sides,” the villains assert the non-existence of the self, the “Far-side” villains (typified by Fate/Extra CCC’s Sessyoin Kiara) strenuously insist there is a binding underlying personality and claim that attempts to break from that personality are futile.
Where the “near-sides” are deconstructions of existentialism, the subsequent “far-sides” are reconstructions. They accept as fact the arguments made in the “near-sides” and piece existentialism back together in spite of those arguments. Even if it is impossible to break away from one’s origin, it might be possible to change one’s origin. That sort of thing.
Interestingly, many of Nasu’s “Near-sides” were conceptualized very early in his writing career. With Fate/Stay Night, for example, Nasu had the “Near-side” planned even before he published Kara no Kyoukai, while the “Far-side” did not come into being until Nasu revisited the concept to turn it into a full visual novel. I think it is likely that Nasu’s views on existentialism have changed over time—that when he wrote Kara no Kyoukai he fully believed it’s ideas to be in the wrong, but that as time went on he grew less satisfied with his simplistic answer
The ongoing Fate/Grand Order is particularly notable in that it combines elements of both the “Near-side” and “Far-side” arguments. It is, in many ways, the synthesis to the thesis and antithesis that are the earlier arguments. It seems as if Nasu has come to something of a conclusion here—a way to break down the “distinction” between his existentialist and anti-existentialist works and to meld both philosophies into a cogent whole.
I will be interested to see whether Nasu moves on to a new set of thematic and conceptual ideas once he has finished with Cosmos in the Lostbelt, the current arc of Fate/Grand Order. With his existential question nearly resolved, he may be preparing to shift to a new topic.
I’ll be anxiously awaiting whatever he decides to write.
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A Japanese Lit major and aspiring game designer with a passion for storytelling and music composition