Tease Your Audience By Not Giving Them What They Want

Anyone who’s knee-deep into the anime industry has undoubtedly spotted the name Reki Kawahara floating around. For those of you who are just getting your toes moist, he’s the original creator of Sword Art Online, that one anime everyone and their parakeet loves to hate, and Accel World, that one anime no one remembers exists. But if you’re like me and have swum so deep into the anime marshland that you’ve discovered the burrow that leads to the source material subterranean lake, you’ve probably also come across a third series of his known as the Isolator.

For those of you still wading in the bayou, the Isolator’s synopsis goes something to the tune of, protagonist Minoru Utsugi is your typical melodramatic teenager with the ability to dispel memories from his body via his sweat. He also has a life goal of being completely forgotten by anybody and everybody, which he believes requires active vigilance, when he probably hasn’t come to the realization that he can’t name all four of his grandparents.

He becomes infected with an alien parasite that doesn’t understand what parasitism is, so instead of sucking his blood or replacing his tongue with itself, it gives him superpowers. With his newfound ability of casting that invincibility shield every playground kid used to use, he fights other superpowered hosts whose parasites require them to periodically murder people.

It’s packed to the hull with the usual Reki Kawahara trademark tropes, from cartoonish villains, conveniences that sound convincing at first but don’t hold up under scrutiny, and female characters being introduced to fill in the role of waifu, one of whom is the topic of this post, but I’ll get to that in the next paragraph. While it would be nice to rip this series apart the way I did Square One, I’ve committed to not letting my violent alter ego type up any more blog posts, at least for a minute. Besides, I kind of like the Isolator. It’s far from perfect and is in some cases an example of how not to write a novel, but it’s sort of like the kiddy pool. Not too much depth but plenty warm and fun to splash around in, so long as you stay clear of the yellow bits.

On the topic of warm things: girls. There’s a waifu who debuts in volume 3 of the Isolator by the name of Suu Komura. I call her a waifu, but that’s a term I best avoid, unless I want the FBI knocking at my porch step due to her being a middle schooler.

Further discussion on Suu Komura requires spoilers for volumes 3 and 4, so this is your spoiler warning on how she puts herself into a coma at the end of the third volume.

Suu’s superpower is invisibility, and she’s paired with Minoru so that they can combine their powers for a mission to steal enemy intel. They meet, have dinner together, Suu explains her teenage melodrama, they lie in bed together in what’s to them a non-sexual interaction but is perceivable as sexual to the reader, so it’s ambiguous if erections should be had, and then they’re off on their co-op mission in enemy territory.

They acquire what they’re after but literally fall into an enemy trap when they fall through the second-story floor while reading a sticky note. Unluckily for them, the trap they fall into is a giant blob of wet cement filling up the ground level of an entire apartment complex. Luckily for them, Minoru’s super indestructible shield protects them. Unluckily for them, the concrete hardens and they can’t get out. So, Suu comes up with the smashing idea to kill herself.

Whenever a Third Eye User (that’s what the hosts are called, bee tee dubs. And more specifically, Minoru’s teamed up with the Jet Eyes, while the antagonists are Ruby Eyes) dies, their Third Eye blasts off at into the sky like the Falcon in the final scene of Final Fantasy VI, destroying anything and everything in its path, with Suu’s hope being that her Third Eye will punch just the hole Minoru needs to bust out of the oddly meticulous booby trap.

So, she tries to kill herself by ejecting herself from Minoru’s shield, which sort of acts like a railgun in this instance, but instead of propelling magnetic objects at high speeds, it launches suicidal waifus into hardened construction materials. Her plot to shuffle off her mortal coil doesn’t read as well as she had hoped, because Minoru deactivates his shield in time, which saves her from death, but she still bangs herself into a coma.

Skip to volume 4 and girly’s still in a coma. The expectation is that she’s gonna be conked out for quite a while, because comas are uncertain things. Some people fall into one and don’t wake up for years. Some fall into one and don’t wake up at all. She’s not dead, but as far as the plot’s concerned, she is. So for her to wake up in the very first scene she’s in in the fourth volume is absurd beyond absurd. Almost as absurd as my trying to be cheeky with this actual plot point. So to set this in not-so-cheeky terms, Suu effectively dies at the end of the third volume and comes back to life in the middle of the fourth, which begs the question of, what was the point in killing her off in the first place?

This completely mitigates the risk the characters face in their ongoing battle against the Ruby Eyes, is pointless since Suu contributes absolutely nothing to the plot after her extended sleep-in, and the method used for pulling her out of her coma is its own can of worms I can’t be bothered to do with, but all these writing issues aside, Suu’s rebirth left me ultimately with a sense of disappointment, and it wasn’t for the issues listed above or even that I disliked her character. I actually wanted her to come back to life, but in getting her back so soon, there was no real sense of fulfillment. It was like the difference between having yourself a bowl of ice cream now versus telling yourself that you’ll have your ice cream after mowing the lawn. In one scenario, you have your ice cream, but in the other, you earn it.

There’s this fancy term in psychology known as Delayed Gratification, which is frequently expressed as a test where you take a person, sit them down in front of a plate with a marshmallow or a chocolate chip on it, and tell them they’re allowed to eat it whenever. But if they wait 10-15 minutes for the researcher to return without eating the first treat, they’ll get a second marshmallow. That’s delayed gratification—it’s putting off a reward now for a better reward later.

Delayed gratification is everywhere in our lives. How many of you sit on your lazy asses all day watching Netflix despite having more productive, pressing matters to attend to, such as working out at the gym so you don’t die from a heart attack, putting out the fire in your kitchen because you forgot to turn the oven off, or writing a college essay? You know you should get to those other matters, and you tell yourself you’ll do them, but, man, that Netflix Castlevania series is looking so fine. So you binge-watch it because you wanna feel good now. Your brain is telling you it wants to feel good, man, because the human brain, sophisticated as it is, is a lazy piece of shit. But if you delay the temporary gratification you’ll get from watching it, you’ll get a more permanent gratification in the form of a healthier body, not dying in a raging inferno, or not flunking college so you avoid working as a gas station clerk.

The gratification to be had with Suu’s coma, which I shall from henceforth be referring to as the Suu Wakey-Wakey Plot for the one time I do need to refer to it several paragraphs from now, is to have her come out of it. The reader should want her to be reborn simply because she’s allied with the good guys, but there’s little satisfaction to be had from witnessing her rebirth so soon.

If you’re catching my drift with what this post is suggesting, it’s that the Isolator would’ve done better to delay Suu’s revival till the eighth or ninth or twentieth novel, if Kawahara ever remembers to work on the bloody series. It probably also would’ve done better to hold off on kicking her off the cliff, while we’re in the mood for delaying things.

There’s another element of sticking Suu in a hospital bed, and that’s that we’re teased with her eventual discharge. She’s not dead, and she was a major player for an issue, so we can presume that she’ll be reborn somewhere down the line. How many of you have ever browsed an anime’s wiki or read from a forum post that your favorite character Bob dies in episode 87 of a show you just watched episode 24 of? Even though you’ve been spoiled for that plot event, it creates some anticipation. So you watch the next 63 episodes in complete suspense, watching Bob like, “Are you really gonna die?! Say it ain’t so, Bob! Say it ain’t so!!” The fact that you have to blow through those 62 episodes in between to get to the one with Bob’s death is, in a way, an act of work for the viewer. I’m not saying that those episodes can’t be or won’t be enjoyable, but there’s a reward for the viewer to look forward to, even if that reward makes them cry like a grown man who stubbed his toe on the coffee table.

Romances run on delayed gratification. People like to complain about how those shows and manga and whatnot end when the main couple get together, but them getting together is the reward. It’s what the viewer or reader is viewing or reading for. As soon as they get it but the story keeps rolling, you’re just padding things out, unless the creator can come up with a new, bigger reward for the viewer/reader to get googly-eyed about, like, I dunno, an alien invasion.

Since I just so happened to bring up romances and definitely did not plan this out so that I could segue smoothly into my next point, let’s talk about Tales of Graces. Specifically, let’s talk about the characters Asbel and Cheria. Specifically, let’s talk about their final scene together where Asbel confesses to her. Spoilers, by the way.

So, in Tales of Graces, you have Cheria, who’s the patient childhood love interest of Asbel, who’s your typical dense protagonist who can’t realize when their childhood friend is in love with them. The subplot of her crush on him has hints at an eventual confession scene, and there is one, at the end of the epilogue chapter after you beat what’s on average a 47 hour main quest. Personally, I spent over 80 hours on this game, because I’m the world’s 38th slowest player, so after a certain point, I wanted to just finish it so I could see those two kiss, dammit.

And did they kiss? No.

Did Cheria admit she likes him? No.

Did Asbel admit he likes her? Not really.

Their confession scene, spoilers, puts the two of them about seven meters apart, with Asbel monotonely asking Cheria to come live with him and Cheria monotonely agreeing. No happiness, no jumping up and down, no swelling music to celebrate their becoming a couple. Eighty hours of my life dedicated for that. Needless to say, my delay was not gratifying.

The point I’m oh-so coolly transitioning to is that even if you set up the perfect length of delay that stacks anticipation just enough that it doesn’t become annoying, you can screw everything up by having a crappy reward. Imagine if at the end of the first arc of The Rising of the Shield Hero, if instead of completely screwing over the king and whatshername bitchface in an act of revenge, he just spit on them and walked away, or if Saitama’s fight against the Deep Sea King was just him casually walking by and coughing on him rather than showing up at the very last second to save the day with an epic counter-punch (though coughing on him still would’ve been hilarious given the manga’s nature).

An important item to note here is that if you’re gonna delay a reward, you have to have actual substance in between the moment the reader/viewer/player starts wanting something until the moment they get it. If you just pad it out with the characters sitting around sipping on tea, that reward, even if it’s like unwrapping a Christmas present and inside is a katana that drops Hiroyuki Sawano every time you swing it, isn’t gonna feel so worth it; more like walking on barbed wire to receive a lemon and you’re allergic to lemons.

The elephant in the room with delayed gratification is that while the pages in a book or a manga create the delay, the time between releases also creates a delay, so there’s a disconnect in experience between someone keeping up with the releases and someone who binges the entire series down the road. It’s a tricky wire to walk, and the wind’s blowing good, and unless you release a stand-alone novel or movie or video game or finish all seventeen issues of a complete series at once, there’s no getting around it. And if you have a long-running series that has no hope of ending, receiving the reward can feel like a trek through a desert that doesn’t end. Whatever your case, you might want to make a sport of providing your audience sips of water to subside on along the way or else you’ll dry up their patience and they’ll die. Of impatience. This metaphor doesn’t work out as well as I’d hoped.

I don’t know the reasons why Kawahara rushed through the Suu Wakey-Wakey plot. I can only speculate, and my speculations speculate that he did it to add another asset to Minoru’s powers, since it’s his shell he uses to reincarnate the late Suu. But by doing this, he sacrifices a later reward for mystery now. Sure, there’ll be a reward later on when the mystery’s solved (probably in the fifth volume, if he ever writes it), but I think there were thousands of better writing choices. Like delaying the added mystery of his power for a later volume.

So, there you have it. Delayed gratification. It’s a lesson that applies as much to storytelling as it does to life. Have a wanted thing, hold off on having that wanted thing, have that wanted thing. Not much more so summarize, so not sure how I’m gonna end this. Probably drag this out to the point where it becomes awkward and I’m not saying anything funny or meaningful or witty so that I can throw shade at Tales of Graces, even though that game wasn’t the inspiration for this post.

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