The Melancholy of Kiryu Zero: Why We Want Our Characters to Suffer

In an attempt to broaden my anime horizons, my sister convinced me to try out Vampire Knight. While I’m a fantasy/supernatural buff, I tend to stay very far away from vampire shows, especially since the shojo demographic raised my skeptical radar to assume that the show was going to have Twilight-esque overtones. Considering that my sister is also not a big fan of Twilight, I figured if Vampire Knight was one of her favorites, it would at least be somewhat tolerable.

Damn, I am glad I watched Vampire Knight, which was actually quite good. Not a masterpiece by any stretch but for what it sets out to do, it does pretty well on all fronts. Good art, great music, and a surprisingly decent amount of gore, with enough plot twists to make your head spin.

Kiryu_Zero_VK

I have a penchant for tragically heroic characters that suffer. And let me just say that Kiryu Zero, a main protagonist, suffers. A lot. Seriously, my whole reaction while watching VK was something along the lines of, “Dear God, this show’s primary premise was to screw this guy over repeatedly. What a sadistic bunch of writers.”

Don't worr
Don’t worry…I won’t hurt the characters…much.

Which got me thinking. Man, this isn’t anything new. Lots of characters get screwed over a lot (perhaps not as frequently as Zero). Makes sense, as conflict is the bread and butter of a good story. And for some reason, we get a kick out of watching our characters despair.

Why exactly do we enjoy conflict in our narratives when we detest (in general) it in real life? Are we all just secretly sadists? The answer is actually a little more involved (though not as complex) than we might intuit. Suffering is an excellent venue for exploring characterization and is a visceral method that strongly appeals to us emotionally. By looking at Vampire Knight’s Kiryuu Zero’s gauntlet of sufferings, we can draw some conclusions on why exactly we revel in the suffering of our beloved characters and explain the role stories play in our own emotional development.

Characterization, Shaped By Circumstance and Action

What is characterization? In general, it refers to the way in which the writer fleshes out the personality (or character) of a character. You can do this is a bunch of different ways. Typically when a character is introduced, there’s some form of description involved, or an initial action or event that gives us a “snapshot” or a first impression of what a character’s personality is like.

“True” characterization comes in when we either make characters do things or change the circumstances they’re in to get them to react in a particular way. The former method works with “active characters”—characters that actively move the plot along, as opposed to “passive characters”, characters that are whirled about from plot twist to plot twist. As one can imagine, the latter method tends to be more contrived, and is a method that Vampire Knight relies on heavily for our protagonists.

Zero_VK
Believe it or not, this is actually one of his happier expressions.

Putting aside that Cross Yuki is possibly one of the most passive protagonists (unfortunately not terribly surprising in the anime world) ever, it’s easy to forget that Zero, similarly lacks agency in his actions. This is due primarily to the writer’s choice to shape Zero’s initial characterization by circumstance, rather than action.

While Yuki’s childhood trauma remains largely in the shadows for the first season, we are quickly brought to speed on Zero’s fairly early on. Zero, the son of a prominent vampire hunter family, had his family slaughtered by a vampire in front of his eyes at the tender age of ten. As if being an orphan wasn’t bad enough, the vampire was also kind enough to leave him a lasting gift that ensures he’ll never forget her.

Shizuka_and_young_Zero
Stay very far away from strange, white haired ladies…they bite…

That’s not enough punishment for Zero, our prickly silver haired tsundere. We have to make the pain last. We have to make it clear that Zero’s life is no cakewalk but a thorny path of intense suffering. Apparently, Zero had the misfortune of not getting bitten by just your run-of-the-mill vampire, it had to be one of those extremely rare purebloods, who have the power to turn humans into their kind with just one bite. How inconvenient. So you have the irony of a vampire hunter becoming the very thing he’s supposed to hunt.

Zero_Eyes
I’m sure there are benefits to being a vampire but bloodlust is definitely not one of them.

Crappy circumstances force Zero to adopt the passive course of resistance. For four agonizing years, Zero, through sheer force of will, suppresses his growing bloodlust. But, of course, that’s not even the least of his problems.

No, the supernatural inclination to bite people’s necks isn’t enough suffering for our silver-haired hero. We need to throw in your standard high school teenage romance wrench into the mix, with Zero nursing an unrequited love for his best friend who happens to be absolutely smitten with the school’s hottest vampire student.

You! Hands off my girl--err, friend, friend that's a girl but not actually girlfriend...
You! Hands off my girl–err, friend, friend that’s a girl but not actually girlfriend…

If the pangs of unrequited love wasn’t enough to pull at our heartstrings, the writers have to show that Zero really doesn’t get much love–of any kind–in his life. Sure, his adoptive father’s got his back, but blood runs thicker than water and he finds out (to our wry amusement or horror) that even his twin brother not-so-secretly hates him.

Just another fine example of brotherly love...
Just another fine example of brotherly love…

What’s the purpose for stacking the deck against Zero right from the get-go? Suffering, incidentally, is a key to empathy. We love protagonists that are flawed, precisely because we can often find these flaws in ourselves. Our emotional sympathy and empathy increases as we bear witness to our characters’ suffering.

The Negative Feedback Loop of Suffering and Empathy

“I couldn’t stop myself from devouring you. I may kill the next human I target as my prey. Shoot me. You’re afraid of me, aren’t you? Hold the gun with both hands, and aim straight. Aim for my heart. It’s not a crime to kill a vampire.” -Zero to Yuki

Seriously, this guy cannot catch a break. He is rarely allowed more than a moment of happiness before something happens to drag him back into the pits of despair. Not that anyone deserves to suffer, but it seems almost unfair that Zero always gets the short end of the stick in Vampire Knight. He is turned into a vampire against his will. It turns out that the brother he knew and loved actually harbored a deep resentment for him. He cannot protect the girl he loves without relying on the morally dubious influence of the pureblood prince Kuran Kaname. As a hunter, Zero is forever cursed, shunned by both humans and vampires alike, to walk the pariah’s thorny path, condemned to solitude.

Zero_Yuki_face
I love you but we can’t be together. I haven’t met my suffering quota for the week yet.

A protagonist facing insurmountable odds is the perfect set-up to get viewer buy-in into a character. We don’t need to have Zero go out on a hero’s journey or quest–his internal struggle is his journey. Though writers might comment that characterization shaped by circumstance is “lazy” (it’s certainly passive in the sense that stuff is done to the character rather than the character doing stuff), it’s easy for us to emotionally resonate with the character’s feelings. Not that our feelings are wholly sadistic (they might be), but suffering is something we’ve come to demand in fiction. Because, frankly, a story where everyone is happy and lovely just doesn’t make a very good one.

 “Because empathy requires that we approach our subjects from the inside. We try to enter into the emotions, thoughts, the very lives of those we write about. We try to imagine what it must be like to be them. Only by living in their skin at least briefly, by walking in their shoes, can we begin to see that person as he or she is. This requires moral imagination. It is what the good fiction writer does.” –The Moral Dilemmas of Narrative

In Zero’s case, his suffering enhances our identity formation of him as a hero. We celebrate him because of his suffering.  We empathize with his pain and see his dealing with it as a virtuous quality.

In short, the more a character suffers, the more we are able to identify with them. Of course, up to a certain extent. You see, it’s not the presence of suffering alone that defines a character–it’s also how the character deals with it, which usually follows along one of these lines:

  • endure/wait it out– typically for characters who are resigned to the inevitability of their fates as chronic sufferers but still bear a spark of optimism in a changed fate; tend to lean more on the passive side of doing things and tend to react more than plan ahead;
  • rebel/fight it out– for characters with strong fighting spirits and/or often have a precious person or cause that they deem worthy enough of coping with mentioned suffering. May take active approaches to pre-empt expected curveballs and stacked decks, to variable degrees of success;
  • give up/become fate’s punching bag– for characters who’ve reached the end of their rope, gone past the breaking point; typically drowned in throes of self-pity and despair.
vk_zero_fight
Nothing like staking a couple of vampires to work off the stress.

Zero spends a lot of time in the first path of endurance and vacillates wildly between rebelling and subbing in as fate’s punching bag. A volatile mix to be sure, but one that keeps Zero’s suffering from becoming too stale in the monotony of pain.  Though far from a perfect analogy, this presentation of suffering as a means of character identification works like a negative feedback loop for narratives. You have a character and make him/her suffer in some way. This suffering triggers the character empathy process, allowing viewers to emotionally relate with the character’s pain. This empathy in turn triggers the cultivation of an emotional investment in the character.

Of course, negative feedback loops suggest stability in the sense that they tightly regulate the inputs and outputs of a system. Too much suffering for the main character with no explanation can alienate or traumatize a viewer, reducing the empathetic connection. Too little suffering and we might get complacent in the character’s well-being and run of luck. It’s a careful balancing act to keep us emotionally involved with characters, to have them suffer but not excessively so.

Why? Because fiction is ultimately a “safe space”, a retreat for us to withdraw from the world, without fear of judgment, a place for us to battle out darker emotions, to engage in “forbidden play” that would be intolerable in real life.

Are we sadists then? There’s a theory that we seek out disturbing stories (whether told in books, plays or movies) so that we can experience fears without actually having to fear the consequences. Kind of like practicing your fear on a Boggart before going up against the actual thing. It’s a handy way of encountering the darkest, most violent parts of humanity without actually exposing ourselves to personal risk and danger. The dark becomes more familiar, the horrific more understandable, the suffering becomes more tolerable. Monsters are stripped of mystique’s armor, and become vulnerable.

Kaname_Zero

Kaname Kuran: It would be a problem if you die now. I’ve let you live this far because you’ve been useful to Yuki. I know that you will never betray her.

Zero Kiryu: It’s just like you, to decide things for me.

In my opinion, it is precisely for this reason why Kaname Kuran, Zero’s foil in Vampire Knight, is a particularly hard character to empathize with. He is so closed off from Yuki, from us, that we only catch glimpses of his thoughts and flashes of pain. Zero, regardless of whether or not you end up liking him, was made for us to empathize with, for us to read like an open book.

Kaname, in contrast, is as cryptic as they come. Even though Yuki is able to open him up a little, he still holds everyone at a distance, concealing his true intentions and manipulating enemies and loved ones alike as one might move chess pawns. While Vampire Knight (the anime at least) does a fair job of giving Kaname’s personality a little more fleshing out (pun intended), we never really see him as human simply because we aren’t as privy to his personal demons, to his suffering as we are to Zero. That isn’t to say that Kaname suffers any less than Zero, Zero’s suffering is just more perceivable, while Kaname’s is more out of reach.

Much like ho
Just like how we only see Kaname’s back as opposed to his face in this screenshot, we don’t get a clear picture of his motives, making it harder for us to empathize with him.

Which just goes to show how important characterization is to a strong narrative. We need characters to bond with, and having them suffer is a reliable way of pulling at our heartstrings. Pity can elicit a reaction but only empathy can move us to emotionally buy into a character to the point where we put ourselves in the character’s shoes, and experience a kind of cathartic release or sense of triumph when the character conquers the unconquerable. While the story itself may not be real, the emotional process we cultivate is real, and occasionally, if the story is good enough, we come out of the story as slightly more conscientious, sensitive people.

Tl;dr. Vampire Knight spares no mercy on our plucky silver haired vampire-vampire hunter but is well worth the watch!

Watch Vampire Knight...you know you want to...
Watch Vampire Knight…you know you want to…
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5 thoughts on “The Melancholy of Kiryu Zero: Why We Want Our Characters to Suffer

  1. Oh man, if you think being Zero is suffering, you should watch Aldnoah Zero. The Slaine suffering is just completely ridiculous and I am 100% okay with it, for all the reasons you laid out in this post.

    On the subject of Vampire Knight, I don’t really remember a lot of it, having watched it a few years back. I never thought much of Zero, though, because his frumpy face was his default expression. I can’t even imagine what he would look like smiling. And he seemed kind of possessive of Yuki in a way I was not comfortable with. I do admit he was a better character than Kaname, though.

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    1. I’ve heard mixed things about Aldnoah Zero so I wanted to wait until it finished before actually watching it. News of the Slaine suffering bit have reached even my lonely neck of the woods, so I’m intrigued.

      Vampire Knight was really popular a few years back but as a children’s-card-game-elitist, I avidly avoided it like the plague. Glad I watched it now, since Vampire Knight has a lot of interesting material. My friends are hardcore Kaname fans, which always puzzled me because he seemed rather cold and manipulative for my liking (he also basically treats Yuki like a doll or small child, which I guess makes sense given how old he actually is but it comes off as condescending more than anything else). Zero’s possessiveness towards Yuki is uncomfortable but also understandable. She’s basically his one strong tie to the human world and losing her pretty much unhinged him.

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      1. VK was pretty campy but it was an enjoyable watch. Will check out Aldnoah definitely before the year’s end, just because I can’t resist a half-decent looking mecha by principle.

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