Zetsuen no Tempest: Anime as Shakespearean Theatre

Apologies for grammatical mistakes – it’s late! If anyone finds some let me know.

To answer your question (or preempt it) – yes, I spelled theater with theatre with an ‘re’ (and I’ll be doing it for the rest of the post!) to be even more British. It’s like I’m a mother-effing level 20+ Human Bard hailing from Stratford-upon-Avon or something.

Anyways, this post is going to be focusing on the aspects of Zetsuen no Tempest: The Civilization Blaster that make it theatrically consistent with its ‘source material’. I’m going to point out where/how Tempest draws inspiration from its Shakespearean origins (both explicitly and implicitly) and then how they impact the show. I’m a bit torn on whether to encourage reading on, since the show does hinge on some ‘revelations’, but ultimately, like a play, you’ll watch it for the theatrical experience over the plot…right?

Cast

The characters are mostly supposed to be modeled on the cast in a Shakespearean play, both individually and as a whole. The main characters, Yoshino, Mahiro, and Hakaze, are all based explicitly (so we’re told) on characters from Shakespeare’s work and function very much like lead roles in a play, whereas the others are very much in supporting roles. Note that this is less like secondary characters, who appear infrequently and often are at the fringes of the action surrounding the main protagonists, but more like supporting actors: they are present throughout and take part in subplots that are tangential yet intertwined with the main plot, yet never emerge to the forefront. If we also include Hanemura’s appearance as characteristic of the ‘minor role that later crucial to the plot’ character (think Laertes from Hamlet).

Aika is the sister of Mahiro and secret girlfriend of Yoshino. She functions as a sort of Juliet  who experiences a tragic love and drives the men around her into tragedy, minus all the family drama. It is her death that instigates everything, which is very characteristic of a Shakespearean play, where a past death frequently is a precursor to the action on stage.

Aika

Mahiro, best friend of Yoshino, is supposed to be similar to Hamlet. He had a sort of incestuous vibe with his family (here with his sister instead of his mother), acts impulsively, and is very callous/aloof. There’s where the comparisons end though, for Mahiro is extremely logical even while being quite emotionally intense (everyone in the show is enamored with logic), while Hamlet largely acts on impulse and takes advice from a ghost. However, thematically he has a very similar motive: he wants revenge. It’s also largely hinted that such a drive will likely result in tragedy, although he notes that the secondary results will probably be saving the world, a comedy.

Mahiro

Yoshino, best friend of Mahiro, is supposed to be similar to Romeo. This works well with Aika being seen as a Juliet figure, as their relationship is very much intense and star-crossed. He also is seen as a bit of a romantic/idealist willing to ignore reality. However, Yoshino doesn’t exhibit Romeo’s tragic flaw of acting rashly/impulsively – or at least not yet. He tries very hard to draw inspiration from The Tempest to try and make the outcome a comedy, but personally suffering a tragedy. As such, his situation parallels and contrasts with Mahiro’s.

Yoshino

Hakaze is most clearly meant to be based off Prospero. I mean, they make it pretty obvious: not only is she a magician, but for the first half of the show, she’s on an island. Plus, she has an unruly subordinate who attempts to seize power, Samon (sort of like Caliban?), and is also saved by the random intervention by strangers, making Mahiro and Yoshino’s appearance like a metaphorical shipwreck, although that could be taking it too far. Regardless, she is also obsessed with avoiding a tragedy, much like The Tempest is.

Hakaze

In : We have not only a cast similar to that of a play’s, with lead and supporting roles, but also main characters partially modeled off those from Shakespeare’s most famous works.

Plot

The plot revolves around the idea of a tragedy and comedy, drawing parallels between the similarities between Hamlet and The Tempest, and how they end almost diametrically opposed to each other. (I honestly don’t know where Romeo and Juliet went – I guess it just didn’t make the thematic cut).

It is also somewhat divided into the format of the five-act play. Note that the big events here take place in both Act 3 (so in the middle of the play, not at the end) and in Act 5 (where the consequences of Act 3 come to a head). Events in Act 4 usually involve a couple resolutions of subplots (such as a mystery or love affair). The standard format of a five-act play is outlined below:

Act 1 — Exposition. We meet the majority of the cast, establish the setting, and learn about the past events that lead up to the story. Attention is directed toward the seeds of conflict and dramatic tensions.
Act 2 — Rising Action. The course of action becomes more complicated. Interests clash, intrigues are spawned, events begin to move in a definite direction. Tension mounts.
Act 3 — Climax. The development of conflict reaches its high point, for better or worse.
Act 4 — Falling Action. The consequences of Act 3 play out. Momentum slows, but tension is heightened by hopes and fears. If it’s a tragedy, it looks like the Hero can be saved. If it’s a comedy, then it looks like all may be lost.
Act 5 — Resolution. The conflict is resolved in either tragedy (downfall) or comedy (success).

Five Act Play

Seen in this light, we can see that the plot of Tempest plays out like this:

Act 1: Introducing the main characters and motivations.
Act 2: Journey to Kusaribe mountain HQ, Yoshino’s secret dealings, flashbacks.
Act 3: Resolving the time paradox, Aika’s death takes center stage, partial revival of the Trees plus the destruction they incur, danger to our Heroes.
Act 4: Figuring out what the Trees are, the truth of Aika’s demise, Hakaze’s affections.
Act 5: Breaking the news to Mahiro and Yoshino, defeating the trees, fighting against tragedy (both personal and global).

The biggest climax of the series is definitely meant to be the battle underneath the Tree of Exodus – even the big ‘Aika Reveal’ in the most recent episodes pale in comparison to that segment. It is when our protagonists experience the most visceral danger, and where the Tree of Genesis single-handedly kills billions of people. And Mahiro and Yoshino nearly die – nowhere else afterwards has that happened. Furthermore, the second half of the show has a clear divide from the first (which builds up to the revival of the Tree and the return of Hakaze), focused as it is on an emerging tragic romance and resolving subplots/mysteries that appeared in the first half.

Ouch

I mean, we can also view the narrative in a more traditional fashion, where we build up to a climax (the battle for civilization against the Tree of Genesis, the Civilization Blaster) much closer to the end and resolve various subplots leading up to it. But I think that I’ve made a case for a more ‘theatrical’ plot.

Usually such diagrams have a much smaller falling action phase, but there's only so much a quick search on Google can do.

Usually such diagrams have a much smaller falling action phase, but there’s only so much a quick search on Google can do. Notice the resolutions of the subplots leading up the climax, rather than following it.

In ∑: The narrative structure in Tempest resembles a five-act play more than a traditional story.

Plot Elements

Many of the plot elements in Tempest are more commonly seen in plays, especially Shakespearean ones, than typical anime (or even literary) works. I’ll list as many as I can remember off the top of my head.

  • Blatantly quoting lines from Shakespeare’s plays. I mean, it’s a bit blunt just quoting (sometimes at a stretch) lines from The Tempest and Hamlet, but whatever works man.

Quoting

  • Excessive amounts of over-dramatic dialogue and actions. This is a trope commonly used in plays, where very verbose and repetitious dialogue, extensive monologues/soliloquies, and slow (but deliberate) pacing is used to dramatize the events taking place on stage in the absence of many special effects. Just read almost any Shakespeare play to get a sense of this.

NANI?!

  • Giving the audience information and then dancing around obvious conclusions. Although much more prevalent in the second half than the first, this is a common element used to entertain the audience.Whiteboard
  • Jumping to conclusions that are not fully supported. On the flip-side, plays also frequently have characters jump to conclusions (frequently major ones) without justification. These are then somehow accepted by the larger cast or at least some supporting characters. This is most visibly seen in the jump from Trees -> Snake -> Aliens -> Civilization Blaster by Evangeline, which is then accepted without much debate.

Civilization Blaster

  • Tragic relationships. We see this from 3 angles: Mahiro x Aika, Yoshino x Aika, and Hakaze x Yoshino. These show up everywhere in Shakespeare’s work.RomCom
  • The Jester. In some of Shakespeare’s work, a character (usually comic) manages to break the fourth wall. Here it’s Hanemura, who does so on multiple occasions, either revealing the use of devices mentioned above or substituting the audience’s supposed reactions into the show.Hanemura
  • Excessively dramatic music. Okay – so this isn’t really a thing in plays, where music is more often used for transitions between scenes. Still, in a television format this works quite well to raise the drama level.BADUHDA
  • Comic relief frequently much at odds with the supposed tense mood. This for some reason characterizes a bunch of plays, and is prevalent most often in the 2nd and 4th acts (which are the very places we find them).HakazexYoshino
  • Fighting against inevitable tragedy. From the outset of most plays, this is an overlying theme that colors the rest of the plot. This is definitely present here.Aika's Death

The flip side to these is that several elements are introduced that are specific to anime/manga. Among these anime elements, we notice foremost the focus on Hakaze’s and Evangeline’s assets, as well as the standard romantic tropes.

Assets

In ∑: There are a bunch of plot elements common to theatre/plays that are present here, along with a few anime-related ones.

Does it work?

So I’ve gone to decent lengths to show that Tempest should really be seen as an anime in the spirit of a Shakespearean tragedy/comedy (I’ll find out when it finishes, although probably the latter), and that it does so quite well. So it gets props for that. However, it does so too well and sometimes quite awkwardly. Otaku pandering also gets in the way.

What do I mean by too well? The blatant Shakespeare references get grating after a while, especially when they’re inserted so clumsily into the scheme of things. Having mention of the thematic parallels explicitly is also being just plain lazy. While I’m more than happy to have the meaning served up to me on a silver platter, I don’t need it jammed in my face – repeatedly. Also, in spirit of maintaining faithfulness to the five-act play, we end up with a long string of falling action that really is not a effective at peaking our interest. Finally, the verbose, repetitive prose gets tiring. By emphasizing these elements too much, the show becomes more clunky, less streamlined, and ultimately more boring. This is especially true when you can predict major events in the second half (partially) by design. I’ve also never enjoyed the comic relief portions of plays when they don’t involve clever punning, so I wasn’t a big fan of the romcom aspect of the show.

The blatant otaku pandering also detracts from the show – while I’m fine with tasteful shots of Hakaze soaked and half-naked on the beach, I don’t need them constantly. I also don’t need shots of Evangeline’s cleavage every chance you get. They detract from the action, and in worse taste than comic relief, since they don’t alleviate tension but simply just thrust stuff in your face for no reason during important scenes of dialogue/action.

In ∑: Tempest succeeds very well at being an anime in touch with its Shakespearean roots. It fails because it tries too hard to emphasize this fact and because otaku pandering interrupts the pacing and atmosphere.

Massage Chair

Do I enjoy the show? Sure. Could it be better? Yes. Could it be a lot better, assuming it stays true to its Shakespearean roots? Probably not – the problems I have with it are inherent in the genre itself, and might just not be very adaptable to anime.

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7 responses to “Zetsuen no Tempest: Anime as Shakespearean Theatre

  1. Would you say that ZnT is worth giving a second chance? I dropped it by the third episode, but there’s been praise left and right about it recently when it comes to the second half.

    • Really? Huh – I had no idea. Honestly, I’m not sure. The overall style hasn’t really changed, but I think the content has improved significantly. So if you had problems inherent with the presentation/delivery, I’d say no; otherwise, feel free to at least attempt a second go. It’s probably not a great show, but it’s definitely not bad.

    • I wouldn’t really recommend it. The second half takes a different approach, but it’s all based off the same weak premise. I’ve invested too much time and energy to quit now, but it really is mediocre at best. Although I might just be bitter because I was promised a tragedy, but now it appears that it’s going to settle for a bittersweet ending.

      • Yea – having just finished the series I can say that I’m left with a bit of a hollow feeling. It pretty much said “omg we’re trying to avoid tragedy! Ahhh!” and then as soon as it tries to scare us, it’s like “oh – we were just kidding!”. So I would probably take back my recommendation.

  2. I like your analysis and your blog in general. I loved the Shakespearean atmosphere at first but the silly fanservice and the ridiculous plot made me drop it halfways (two trees fighting for the future of earth, one of them being accompanied by gigantic one-eyed rock balls with pinapple-tree-like ‘hair’ that make people around statues of metal… lol)

    • Thanks! I’ve been following your blog for a while, and it’s definitely introduced me to a lot of great material, so it’s cool to see you here. :)

      I found that I also disliked the same aspects of the show, but that the Shakespearean atmosphere (or at least how hard they strove for one) was just enough to keep me engaged. The fanservice was “silly,” and the completely shaky premise was a fundamental problem that the show tried very hard to gloss over. I know when the Fruit of Exodus first came on I couldn’t really take them seriously lol.

  3. I disagree about your statement of Hamlet being impulsive. He’s definitely not impulsive. Definitely an overthinker who takes to long to finally murder his uncle

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