Questions of Empathy and Emotional Unavailability in Aldnoah.Zero

[HorribleSubs] Aldnoah Zero - 02 [720p].mkv_snapshot_21.57_[2014.08.08_15.30.14]

[Warning: Spoilers for Aldnoah.Zero and Zetsuen no Tempest]

I felt a lot of things when my first pet rabbit of three was euthanized. Loss and loneliness were some of the emotions I felt when the vet returned the body, wrapped neatly in a towel. I remember how my lungs contracted with the unease I felt as we buried him in our backyard. Of these feelings, however, anguish is the one I felt the most. Not necessarily at my dear pet rabbit, however, but moreso at how my mother would cry endlessly into the night, for weeks. I see people do this in movies and TV shows so often, people laying out their emotions when it mattered to them most, and for good reason. Witnessing death is painful. Witnessing other people in pain is painful, as well, and I had no choice during that time to feel that pain alongside my mother.

Although I say that I felt the pain and anguish of losing a treasured pet (it was meant to be my rabbit, after all), I certainly didn’t show it. Is this weird of me, to not visibly react to my own pet’s death? It was my pet. People around me were crying about a dead animal that wasn’t even theirs, and here I am calmly laying his body into the ground and smothering him with dirt without shedding a single tear. Even after the fact, I do not remember grieving his death, or crying myself to sleep, or any of the normal things you do when grappling with loss. I loved my rabbit to death. I treasured him for the 6-1/2 years he’s been in my possession. And yet the thing I wanted the most after his death was to bury him and move on.

This isn’t an isolated case either, and it certainly isn’t restricted to pets. Deaths in the family weren’t too out-of-reach for me to feel nothing. I was particularly close to my great-uncle and grandfather from my mother’s side, and with their passing I had trouble feeling the, well, correct reactions out of my own body. I was certainly sad about it, but I didn’t let it show. Look deeper into my history and you’ll find more cases with similar conclusions: a middle school friend who died young due to testicular cancer, a high school teacher who got killed by a car while jogging one morning, and a middle school teacher who suffered a heart attack and passed peacefully in the middle of the night. I felt those emotions. I could empathize with how everyone else around me felt, but if you were to look at me square in the face you would see nothing.

[HorribleSubs] Aldnoah Zero - 01 [720p].mkv_snapshot_16.00_[2014.08.08_15.28.09]

And I’ll ask again: is this weird? Inhuman? Wouldn’t it be strange to see someone not react to personal tragedy? Wouldn’t you want to know what made them tick, what reasons there might be as to why I’m so incapable of expressing my emotions when it mattered most? Did I partake in a horrible experiment gone wrong? Is my mental fortitude a superpower? Do I have some sort of tragic past by which I bottle up my emotions? Or would you accept my personality as natural and move on to more interesting things to talk about?

This is what keeps me from joining in on the speculation surrounding Inaho’s personality in Aldnoah.Zero. You might know him as Eggs-kun, as he is derisively named by the English-speaking anime community, because of the story’s quite silly way of demonstrating how unexcited he is in general: when a sale on eggs grabs his attention more than a Martian ambassador’s arrival on Earth. Inaho’s stoicism confuses us. His seemingly blank demeanor is impossible to resonate with and as a result alienates the audience from understanding him. What really got people talking, however, was how Inaho reacts when a friend of his literally disintegrates before his eyes. To be more specific, it’s about how he didn’t react.

[HorribleSubs] Aldnoah Zero - 02 [720p].mkv_snapshot_20.23_[2014.08.08_13.59.22]

We believe that stoicism has a breaking point, and how we view Inaho is no different. We believe that a man who does not react emotionally at first will eventually be broken down or deconstructed by the story. So when Okisuke dies so suddenly, we expect Inaho’s stoicism to visibly show its cracks. I believe this to be a key point in how the discussion is framed around Inaho: emotional developments supposedly have to be visible in order to happen. So, when you see his face not contort in despair, not yell out Okisuke’s name, and not twist into anger,  it feels like he’s not reacting at all. Impossible! There is no way Inaho can feel nothing even after all of that. There has to be a reason for Inaho to be this way. There is no other option to accept. As a result, Inaho shall be victim to this kind of scrutiny for the rest of the anime because viewers look forward to the moment that he, to put it lightly, “explains himself”.

Yet, I have to wonder exactly what people expect when they say that Inaho’s personality needs a reason, because I hope they’re not expecting some outlandish, supernatural phenomenon to be the reason Inaho behaves like he does. Because it might only be because, well, that’s just how Inaho is. As a human being. If you find issue with Inaho’s personality because of how the story demonstrates it, that’s fine. However, Inaho’s personality is not inherently unnatural.

The core flaw that is made towards analyzing his behavior is that we conflate how he reacts with how he feels.  If a character were to not show any visual distress after a tragedy, it does not automatically mean that the character felt nothing about the tragedy. Just because Inaho does not cry about Okisuke’s death or become visibly enraged at his sister’s battered state like anime people usually do, that does not mean that Inaho is unaffected by what just happened. He is, in fact, shaken by it. Shaken enough to exact revenge on the mech responsible via slicing open its armor plating and firing rounds into the wound. That’s not a characteristic of someone who truly feels nothing; what it is characteristic of, however, is Inaho’s reluctance or perhaps inability to showcase his feelings. They are, instead, demonstrated. And that should not be considered inhuman of him. In fact, it shouldn’t even be considered a meaningful flaw for the story to wrap around and address. His emotional unavailability should not be treated as a sickness or a disease to be checked on and cured in due time: it is something you must work around when understanding Inaho.

[HorribleSubs] Aldnoah Zero - 04 [720p].mkv_snapshot_08.52_[2014.08.08_15.23.44]

Yet, stoicism shall be considered unnatural for the sake of general audiences. I know this. My mother and various friends have commented upon my own behavior and wonder how I can feel nothing. That’s wrong. I feel everything. I just don’t show it. I could show it, but what’s the use? If I find it difficult to cry, it should be of no surprise that I just prefer not to. Is that understandable? I doubt it. That sounds more fascinating than understandable. People who don’t look like they feel a thing aren’t actually people: they’re interesting creatures to study, especially in storytelling. When we’re presented with a stoic character in a story, we are conditioned to expect some sort of contradiction to arise about his behavior so that we can appreciate the irony that ensues. It’s that much more rewarding to see a cold person act out than an emotional one. It’s that much scarier when a good man goes to war. This is why Yoshino’s breakdown in episode 18 of Zetsuen no Tempest feels so compelling as a result.

(Hi10)_Zetsuen_no_Tempest_-_18_(720p)_(Commie).mkv_snapshot_07.07_[2014.08.08_13.36.52]

After a season and a half of him not reacting to things (and there’s a LOT of things to react to in Zetsuen no Tempest), we’re finally given some reason as to why he is the way he is.  What do you know, this emotionless guy does feel emotions! His desperate attempts at hiding his past have cost him his ability (and permission) to feel sad about his own loss. So he rationalizes it. Showing that he’s sad about Aika is both a useless and dangerous gesture, so he figures that he’s better off hiding it, no matter what the cost. And when he is confronted about his emotions and pressed to the brink about actually feeling them visibly, he finally snaps about how unfair his own behavior is to his own health and cries in his frustration. Storytelling frames crying and feeling sadness as cathartic, as an important reaction that facilitates character development. Yoshino having his moment in this scene resonates with us as an audience because we both witness a development as well as experience the irony of an emotionless man breaking down in despair.

But Yoshino’s stoicism is given a reason for the sake of his character devlopment and makes sense in the context of the story, while Inaho’s stoicism feels more like he just grew up with it much like I did. I doubt you’ll ever see the story reveal anything terrifying or sad about Inaho’s past under some pretense of justifying Inaho’s behavior, because there might be no need for the story to justify anything about Inaho’s behavior. Emotionless people usually don’t have a compelling reason to be emotionless, as they certainly do in real life, and Inaho as of now should not be subject to that kind of scrutiny. Who knows, though? It’s very early into the season and perhaps the story will come up with a way to “explain” Inaho. But I feel that this isn’t the focus of the story Aldnoah.Zero is telling to us, and I’ll be sorely disappointed if the show decides to focus on Inaho’s behavior as some sort of flaw in his character. Because it tells me that people can’t appreciate or understand stoics in anime unless they have some tragic past to be conflated with. My stoicism is a reaction to the tragedies I experience in my life and not the other way around; I did not have to be instigated into emotional submission by my past. And it should not have to be any different when it comes to Inaho.

To me, the speculation surrounding Inaho is born not because it’s a useful aspect of Aldnoah.Zero’s story but instead because people fundamentally do not understand what it means to be “emotionless”. As it is used right now, it’s not a literal term: all people certainly feel emotions, but it’s the degree of which we are able to show them that matters most. Some people like myself are physically able to hide more about themselves than others through their body language, and because of that I find no problem with how Inaho behaves in the story. Of course, I have no idea how I’ll react if a war ever breaks out where I live, or if I actually experience someone dying in front of my eyes, or if someone were to beat a close family member to the brink of death. But I would imagine it would be very similar to how Inaho acts. Well, without the superior intellect, of course.

Addendum

  • I do have my issues when it comes to liking Aldnoah.Zero as a whole, but my point is that Inaho is not one of them. I think he’s fine the way he is because it’s very similar to how I behave.
  • If you’ve listened to the podcast, you’ll notice I once was in the “Inaho must explain his behavior” bandwagon before thinking about it a lot more and concluding that this line of thinking was messing with my expectations a lot. I’ve since changed my stance to what you read here.
  • I didn’t really address how Inaho is eternally blasé even in daily life. I think it’s done more for humor than for characterization’s sake, or else you get sentences like “Inaho’s parents died in a horrific car crash and that’s why he thinks the eggs sale is more important than Princess Asseylum’s peace mission”.
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9 comments

  1. This is a really good post, and I think it pinpoints a lot of frustrations I have with Eggs-kun/Inaho as a whole despite being somewhat like him in real life (I too have problems with emotionally distancing myself from a lot of situations, and that is perhaps why Inaho and I can work in high-stress environments).

    As an EMT-B, I think rationalizing death and loss is inevitable. You are to treat a patient who is suffering from some life-serious injury, whether it be visible or not, and have to operate in under a very emotionally demanding situation nearly constantly. There is no break; once you finish transporting a patient to the ER, you go back, and wait again. The wait becomes something like a hell in itself, because you can’t go to sleep after such an adrenaline-induced event, and you can’t work yourself up, because that compromises your future evaluations of future patients. It’s why I notice a lot of paramedics and EMTs to be very calm even under the worst situations. One of my most vivid memories of being an EMT is having to hold someone’s skull/brain together for forty minutes and not cracking a sweat and coming home to tell a terrified sister of what I did. I ate dinner, watched some TV, and even today, I don’t find myself bothered or scarred by those events. I’m not boasting about these things – on the contrary, I feel like keeping a calm demeanor in these types of situations is hazardous because it eventually leads to burnout, which has happened to people around me. The point I’m trying to get is that eventually, you DO crack. Rationalizing only gets you so far in these kinds of events. The end result is something more devastating than letting it out ever so often. (I do not mean ‘cracking’ in a sense of emotional breakdown; people release their emotional distress in a lot of different ways)

    I think that’s my issue with Inaho – we’re not shown WHY he rationalizes the situation, and thus the rationalization comes without reason and some unhealthy connotations. In the case of Yoshino in ZNT, we clearly can see that things bother him. He keeps a laid-back attitude, but he too has his personal demons – he cannot tell his friend that his girlfriend is his friend’s sister. You say that “emotionless people usually don’t have a compelling reason to be emotionless, as they certainly do in real life” but I do think there is a point where rationalization CAN be a compelling reason alone. We react apathetically to emotionally distressing situations because we rationalize. Our mind prioritizes our health over the situation, and so we don’t get affected. That to me, is compelling, because it’s a very human thing, to conflict your own personal desires with the primal instinct of survival.

    The issue is that for me, Aldnoah Zero does not present that rationalization as compelling. It presents it as an innate part of human nature, and people that DO react emotionally – Inaho’s foil, Slaine – are to suffer whereas Inaho does not ‘suffer’ and that is portrayed heroically. /That/ is why I have an issue with Inaho’s lack of emotion. It’s not isolated as natural or unnatural – its the connotations that come along with that lack of emotion and how that is glorified as how people /should/ react to situations like this, rather than acting on emotion. In other words, so far I feel like Inaho’s character is being presented as a lack of humanity rather than a suppressing of humanity through constant rationalization because war is here, war is happening, and if Inaho cracks, then he can’t save the people cares about. There is no sense of danger to Inaho maintaining his calm demeanor, whereas with Yoshino, we could see that it was a way of keeping himself together. Of course, this can change – and not necessarily through a tragic backstory or something – but through focusing on how Inaho views things around him rather than having him as a device that saves people. It’s why I’ve commented on why Inaho doesn’t seem to have a personality – it’s not because he emotionally disconnects from situations. It’s because we don’t see how he reacts or sees anything.

    1. I don’t have much input on Inaho’s place in the story since it’s so early and the focus is clearly more upon the mech battles and how Inaho is going to “I’m smarter than you” the next person, and how Asseylum and Rayet and Inko all seem to be interested in him (oh dear where the hell am I going with this), but what you’ve said about him generally rings true to me. His personality certainly doesn’t contribute gracefully to the narrative and I doubt that they will invest that much time in fleshing out Inaho’s character when there’s explosions and CG mechs to be animating instead, And giving a compelling reason for Inaho to rationalize would certainly make the story more interesting as a result. I would just prefer it if it isn’t tied to some trauma or other dramatic situation like most of the speculation online seems to be implying. You can have an emotionless character be rational without having to resort to those kinds of gimmicks, but you have to at least give depth somewhere for them to remain interesting as characters. My post kind of addresses Inaho if he were a real person without any responsibility to adhere to the narrative, so.

      As an EMT-B

      PACK UP GUYS I HAVE BEEN OUTPLAYED

      THIS SHOW IS FUCKING OVER

      IM SO OUT RIGHT NOW

      GOODBYE

      but seriously that must be a valuable experience to have. As long as you don’t faint/vomit immediately.

  2. Reblogged this on Medieval Otaku and commented:
    This is a great post on two stoic characters. In particular, it states how their stoicism may be simply natural to them rather than the result of some traumatic event. And, as of the persons who likes Inaho, I enjoyed this discussion of his character.

  3. I’ve seen a lot of people complaining not only about Inaho, but about the general lack of emotion in the cast of Aldnoah.Zero. I agree that as far as Inaho is concerned, at least, the fact that his stoic personality is acknowledged ought to be enough to say that his apparent “emotionlessness” isn’t a flaw in the writing, it’s an aspect of his personality. It also really makes you take notice when something does make him flinch, like when he’s surprised.

    However, things like Magbaredge making chiding remarks to a fellow officer about “why she can’t find a boyfriend” while people under her command are dying make you wonder whether Inaho’s stoicism is just a cop-out for a writer who doesn’t know how to show people with strong emotional reactions to what’s going on around them. Especially since, as Kalm pointed out, pretty much everyone in the cast is a rookie when it comes to actual war.

    1. A valid point. Nearly everyone on Team Earth struggle with this particular problem in the writing, with the understandable exception of Lt. Marito and the handful who don’t actively participate in the fighting.

      At the same time, though, people like Magbaredge are a dime a dozen in mecha anime. That is, people who have command over masses of people who perhaps remain nameless both to them and to us as the audience. That’s what makes Inaho so special in comparison. He’s not forced to be hardhearted for the sake of the squadron’s morale because he doesn’t actually shoulder that responsibility. In that respect, he is allowed to feel emotional about his situation and his friend’s death. That’s the distinction I get between Magbaredge and Inaho.

  4. There are a few type of “Emotionless” people: The ones who are with disorders, the ones who are professionally trained for the sake of their career (For example, comedians. Imagine poor Robin, who used his humor works as a mean over his depression), and the ones who are willingly to get rid of it – Monks, Benedictines,… and other religion followers, etc.

    It’s hard to categorize Inaho, He is not the first, his place in a pilot cockpit isn’t that familiar, and I see no trace of religion in Aldnoah.Zero

  5. A bit more thought: Emotionless itself is simply another way to cope with everything. Humor, Crying, Screaming, Running, Eating,…

  6. Anddddd Inaho snaps. Not in a grand cracking way, Egg-kun never scrambled greatly. He merely chose a death by duel in the face of despair for his losses. Very interesting. It makes me conflicted both about this post, and about myself and my shared feelings of “IRL Stoicism..”

  7. […] say that people who are generally calm in highly stressful situations like Inaho don’t exist. Appropriant makes a great point that some people are just naturally like that, no tragic backstory necessary. […]

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