SUPERVERSIVE: The Perils of Backstoryitis

Tuesday , 7, November 2017 8 Comments

Image result for death noteSo as I spent a couple of weeks looking at “Justified”, I find myself going back to the Death Note well recently. Partially it’s because I’m impressed at how incredibly well executed and intelligent it is, and partially it’s how even its failures – and it isn’t perfect – are quite instructive. Plus, there are so many different versions of the story that looking at places where one succeeded and and another failed can also be enlightening. In a lot of ways “Death Note”, and its adaptations, are very interesting case studies.

“Death Note” – the original manga and anime at least – is free of one of the great banes of modern western fiction, what I call backstoryitis. This is the tendency to ruin a character with entirely unnecessary and generally unimpressive backstory (the most notorious example of this is with the Star Wars prequels, where we learn that Darth Vader became a horrific psychopath because his wife died and he was always kind of a jerk. Now it all makes sense?).

While Star Wars is indeed the most (in)famous example of backstoryitis in western fiction, I submit that the Netflix Death Note film actually had an even worse case.

In the original anime (as in the last article this is my catch-all term for both the anime and manga) Light (the protagonist) is notable for having no origin story. There is no “start of darkness”, no tragic loss, no past trauma that leads him on his quest for justice or drives him to become Kira (the Death Note killer). Why does anime Light decide to use the Death Note to become a god?

Because he thinks it’s a good idea. That’s it. That’s the reason. Light was incredibly intelligent and very bored and suddenly found himself with the ability to rid the world of violent criminals – and he decided to take the opportunity because, hey, if you can rid the world of violent criminals, might as well right?

The creators of the Netflix Death Note apparently didn’t consider this sufficient, so they added – you guessed it – backstory. This time, Light was bullied in school, so obviously he wants to get rid of the bullies, right? Oh, and his mommy was killed by a criminal who wasn’t caught.

Poor Light. Of course he wants to rid the world of violent criminals. Can you blame him? His backstory is so tragic. He’s really not such a bad guy. He just wants to help people.

…No. Nonononono. Here’s the thing. This is actually much less interesting than the anime version of Light. It doesn’t add depth, it takes away a huge aspect of his character – and it takes focus away from one of the most fascinating aspects of the story.

Anime Light is what he is. Take him or leave him. There is no question of whether or not Light is accountable for his actions, or whether we should sympathize with him because he’s not such a bad guy deep down. Light not only has no excuses for what he’s doing, he would be insulted at the idea that his motivation comes from any place but himself. He wants to do this. He decided to do this. Kira is his creation, and he’s proud of it.

So the question isn’t “Can we really blame poor Light for acting like this?” Of course we can blame him! He killed hundreds of people (anime Light has killed thousands within a few days of finding the Death Note)! And no matter how messed up your background is I draw my line at the 150 people murdered mark (149 and you’re okay in my book, naturally*).

No, that question is boring. If killing these people is wrong, Light is responsible for his actions and is a very, very bad person.

The important question is far more bold, but the anime Death Note tackles it head on by not giving Light any excuses. Whether or not you support Light does not hinge on any question but this: Is what Light is doing actually wrong?

This, of course, is the most interesting question of the Netflix Death Note as well…but the Netflix Death Note is not brave enough to face it without blinking. By giving Light his tragic past and Freudian excuse, the question becomes the very boring should we be feeling sympathetic to Light because of what lead him here?

What a dull, banal, pointless, cowardly question to ask. He killed 400 people! He is either evil, because killing those people was evil, or he is a hero, because killing those people was a service to society. There is no in-between there, or shouldn’t be…but Netflix tries to refocus the question.

This is gutless, and robs the story of much of its power.

This is what backstoryitis does. It changes genuinely interesting characters, characters who made difficult or evil decisions and lived with their consequences into Freudian messes. Instead of focusing on who they are and what they’re doing our focus is redirected towards how sorry for them we should feel.

How boring.

*This may or may not be sarcasm

Image result for death note

  • Your posts on Death Note have been phenomenal. It’s truly a masterwork and you’ve brought to my attention some things about it I hadn’t noticed. (And confirmed the justification of my rejection of the American live action adaptation.)

    The question this one raises is: what’s the difference between backstoryitis and backstory? When SHOULD backstory be used? What is its proper function and how can it be done well?

    • JD Cowan says:

      Sometimes background information is necessary to progress a story and add in clues and details, but most backstory these days only exists to soften the audience’s feelings towards certain characters: usually villains.

      There’s also the inability for modern creators to allow and mystery regarding the characters to remain or any sense of wonder about the setting. Everything must be explained because they believe the audience has no imagination to fill in the details for themselves.

      You can tell the difference by what a backstory actually adds to a story, and what it takes away.

  • Jill says:

    I’m generally irritated with this kind of back story, which tries to explain personality traits with environment. Writers who do this are lazy or don’t trust their readers. Or they really don’t fundamentally understand people.

  • Agreed. And if the backstory excuse wasn’t bad enough, Netflix Death Note has the girlfriend being responsible for the FBI agent killings, against Light’s wishes. She’s more of a psychopath than he is. Whereas in the anime she’s this naive hero-worshipper and we even feel a tiny bit sorry for her when Light betrays her — as we expected he would.

    • Anthony says:

      The interesting thing about Light and Misa is that it’s hard to call what Light is doing a betrayal exactly because he’s very upfront about his intentions with Misa from the start.

  • JE Hamilton says:

    Call me paranoid, but I have a very, very nasty suspicion that backstoryitis is *intended* to get us to have sympathy for the Monster. Movies like Maleficent come to mind.
    So that, in real life when confronted with genuine evil, we are tempted to give it the benefit of the doubt, when we should stove its head in with the nearest blunt object. Just a part of the social engineering which has seen so much perversity normalised (at least under the law).

  • Alex says:

    Probably my favorite bad use of backstory is Araki’s; it would seem like he’d forget to give characters enough development for readers to care about them when they died, so he went with the “punched-into-your-backstory” trope for several characters.

  • Ingot9455 says:

    A similar problem comes up in television’s ‘The Gifted’. The killer cop from Sentinel Services is motivated by having his 8 year old daughter killed in front of him by random fallout from a mutant-caused catastrophe.

    Yet, this is a guy who, theoretically in the employ of the US government with law enforcement powers, captures citizens, gives them no right to counsel or right to see their accuser or even any time in a court, puts them in electric-shock-torture-collars, and abducts them to what looks to be some kind of concentration-camp-brainwashing-mind-control facility.

    And when the heroes have captured him for a moment to question him on where he’s taking people, he has the gall to threaten them by saying, “You’re kidnapping a federal officer, that’s a big-time crime!”

    We are supposed to have some understanding of his motivations because of his tragic backstory, I guess.

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