Good Stories. Not-so-Good People Behind Them: Morality and the Viewer’s Dilemma

MMO Junkie characters

A few months ago police charged the creator of Rurouni Kenshin, Nobuhiro Watsuki, with possessing child pornography. This past week, various anime news outlets pegged the director of Recovery of an MMO Junkie, Kazuyoshi Yaginuma, as an antisemite and Holocaust denier. His antisemitic views appear on his Twitter account. This creates a dilemma for viewers: how can we support a story that comes from not-so-good people?

The question lacks a clear-cut answer. On the surface, the answer seems to be a no. After all, every time you purchase a Rurouni Kenshin manga or purchase a DVD copy of MMO Junkie, some of your money goes to support Nobuhiro Watsuki and Kazuyoshi Yaginuma in royalties or wages. Watsuki had bought some of his child pornography on your dime. Your support also gives Yaginuma a larger platform for his ideas. Whenever a director sees success, their studio is that much more likely to book them for another project.  Because of this, it appears the best, moral course of action is to shun these works.

Tweet by Yaginuma

But it gets a bit more complicated.

Watsuki’s work supports the families of those that produce it: animators, editors, layout artists, marketers, etc. Likewise, MMO Junkie supports the livelihoods of the staff that created the work under Yaginuma’s direction, including the original author of the story. By cutting your support, you cut off the finances of these people who are innocent of the problems associated with Watsuki and Yaginuma. Of course, Rurouni Kenshin is an older work, but the funds produced from its continued sales rolls into the projects of the companies that hold its rights. In turn, these funds go toward new manga stories and anime. So when you avoid supporting either of these works, you reduce your support for future projects these companies may pursue.  Avoiding MMO Junkie (which is a great modern romance) hurts its original writer Rin Kokuyo, who is innocent of Yaginuma’s antisemitic tweets.

How separate can a work and its author (or director) be? It’s more of a direct question with Rurouni Kenshin than MMO Junkie. Authors can (but not necessarily will) work their proclivities into their works. I haven’t read or seen Rurouni Kenshin; I can’t comment on its content. But authors can’t help but subconsciously add parts of their views and personality to a story. However, that doesn’t mean a work written by a pedophile is full of pedophilia. Directors influence the work (that is, after all, their job), but they still have writers and the source material that limits that influence. MMO Junkie doesn’t have anything antisemitic about it. It would be different if Yaginuma used it as a platform for his views, but he didn’t. I enjoyed its relatable view of modern romance. Couples have met on the Internet and on MMORPGs. And modern culture makes it difficult and awkward to connect to people. Yaginuma uses all kinds of visualizations and scenes to develop this idea and show how the characters struggle with being social. His work and his team did a great job with the small budget they had. Despite Yaginuma’s tweets, I recommend you watch the anime if you like romantic stories.

Rurouni KenshinBut I still haven’t answered the question of separation. Honestly, I don’t have an answer. The problem appears in American media with all the sexual abuse that has appeared in the last year. The actor may be excellent, but what of his poor, exploitative behavior? Film and animations requires vast teams of people to create. Someone on the credit list has done something exploitative or has a view they shouldn’t hold. But when it comes to ethics it comes down to knowledge. Can you knowingly support a work with controversy behind it?

As I’ve mentioned in many other posts, stories matter. They shape who we are. Rurouni Kenshin resonates with many people.  At some point, fans take over a creative work, not just through fan-fiction writing and fan-art, but also through the personal meaning fans attach to it. Watsuki’s charge doesn’t change the fact that his story shaped the lives of many of its fans. The work lives beyond the author’s conception of it. Likewise, MMO Junkie lives beyond the direction Yaginuma took it. Sometimes stories stand on their own merits, despite the behavior of its creators.

The dilemma extends to literature. Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice in Wonderland, photographed nude children. Yet, his story stands on its own long after his death. Patricia Highsmith, author of the novel Strangers on a Train among many others, was racist and leaned toward antisemitism. Yet Strangers on a Train became a heralded movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock.  William Golding, author of Lord of the Flies, attempted to rape a 15-year-old girl as a teen. As an adult, Golding used his students in psychological experiments that ultimately lead to Lord of the Flies ( Wainwright, 2009). J.D. Salinger, author of The Catcher in the Rye, dated a 14-year-old girl when he was 30 (Konigsberg, 2013). H.P. Lovecraft was a well-known racist. T.S. Eliot wrote antisemitic poetry (Julius, 2003).

Despite the issues with the authors, people read and study and enjoy these works. Lord of the Flies and The Catcher in the Rye appear in high-school English classes. Watsuki and Yaginuma follow in a rather common tradition in storytelling. Of course, this doesn’t absolve them, but it does mean viewers and readers often consume and love stories created by people with views and behaviors that aren’t savory. Authors, directors, actors, and animators are, after all, human. From a Christian perspective, their actions don’t surprise (They can still disgust but not surprise.) because we live in a world distorted by sinfulness. Sinful people can create good works of art. If The Catcher in the Rye and Alice in Wonderland can stand on their own merits, Rurouni Kenshin and MMO Junkie can as well if you decide to enjoy those stories.

Recovery of an MMO JunkieThe dilemma comes down to you and how you feel. Of course, if you don’t like Rurouni Kenshin or Yaginuma’s various works, then you don’t have a dilemma. However, if you do, you will have to make a decision, knowing no matter what you decide you will sit in the gray. If you turn away from works with questionable creators, you also won’t be supporting the families of those on the creator’s team who are innocent of the creator’s views or behavior. If you support the works, a part of your funds will support views and behavior you find distasteful. If enough people decide one way or the other, either animation studios and their employees will feel a pinch, or the creator will benefit. Piracy doesn’t provide a third option. It only hurts the ability of studios to produce and their willingness to do so. If you decide to support the work, your decision falls in line with what fans of literature do. It comes down to your conscience.

Reviewers have it a little more difficult than a viewer with this dilemma. Anime reviewers must watch everything so they can have a framework to make their comparisons and understand anime’s storytelling, character, and animation trends. That means shows like Rurouni Kenshin that has influenced other creators need to be watched and understood (I plan to watch it eventually). Yet, here again, writing about such can go against the reviewers sensibilities. However, reviewers can hedge the issue by explaining the circumstances of the author, director, or other people involved in questionable behavior. While writing, reviewers can separate the work from the creator and explain how the work influenced other creators (as opposed to the original creator’s questionable behavior). While a reviewer may not want to advertise or recommend a work, they cannot deny the place the work has in the greater body of anime or literature. It takes some writing tact, but you can discuss a work without endorsing something you dislike. For example, a review of Mein Kampf may be able to explain how the writing style and content fits in its time period without endorsing its message.

These types of problems will continue to happen. In fact, they will appear more often with the popularity of YouTube. YouTube viewers well know the problems with enjoying content created by people of questionable behavior. It’s up to you to decide if your conscience can bear supporting creators in such situations or not. You decide what messages you want to support and consume.

References

Julius, Anthony (2003) The poetry of prejudice. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2003/jun/07/poetry.thomasstearnseliot

Konigsberg, Ruth (2013) A Portrait of the Artist as Predator. Time. http://ideas.time.com/2013/09/16/portrait-of-the-artist-as-a-predator/

Wainwright, Martin (2009) Author William Golding tried to rape teenager, private papers show. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/aug/16/william-golding-attempted-rape

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