Since before beginning this series, when I was compiling an amalgamation of possible buzzwords and phrases that are popular within anime communities and circles, I was suggested to cover a phrase that has become very popular and, frankly, severely overused within the last few years. Lately it has become so easy for an anime to be considered something like this just by subverting viewer expectations, even only slightly, and it has gotten really out of hand. The problem with correcting individuals when they use this term incorrectly is the severely misunderstood nature and background of this term, as well as it holding different definitions across different mediums. This only serves to confuse people even more, and urges them to continue to throw the word around. This word is deconstruction.
Before we can get to anime though, we need to briefly discuss the origin of the deconstruction movement. Let’s take a moment and jump into the seat of an English Literary course for university. When a professor teaches their students about literary deconstruction, they first begin by discussing structuralism, which was a literary and philosophical movement that began to be challenged largely in the 1960’s. Structuralism is, in a very watered-down and basic sense, the idea that the inherent differences between a word (signifier) and the idea it represents (signified) is what grants us knowledge through language, ie. the difference between the word “cat,” both phonetically and visually, and the animal that we use “cat” to describe. Furthermore, it declares that there is a need for a specific structure in terms of narrative and text in order to be understood. The classic Freytag’s Triangle we were taught in school is a good example of this.
Deconstruction, however, serves to dismantle Structuralism by asserting that the supposed “structure” in narrative isn’t necessary, and that the assumed meaning behind a text is not without contradictions, including the link between signifier and signified. In philosophical and narrative literature, a deconstructionist will pick apart phrases and the declared meaning behind the text and point out inconsistencies, usually to the point of reversing the original meaning of the text (e.g. turning a poem normally thought about letting go of the fear of death and embracing life, to fearing living and embracing death.) This includes inferred ideas behind words and what it is they truly represent (or, as Jacques Derrida coined, “différance”.) For instance, a deconstructionist would ask what makes up a “cat” and how you would go on to explain what a cat is to an alien species that doesn’t understand your language or mannerisms to show that the links in language are not inherent.
If you think all that sounds complicated and really in depth, it’s because it is. Reading a deconstructed essay of a previous work is difficult, especially when it comes to following the line of linguistic loops and reversing select phrases and words in regards to what they mean. Although I’m not able to find it (and that’s a real shame,) in university I attended a class where we read a deconstructionist essay of a poem, and the essay served to completely reverse the intended meaning (it was very similar to the poem example I gave earlier.) It was fascinating and really interesting to read the author’s thought process, but it was also incredibly difficult to make any true sense of it if you yourself didn’t take the phrasing slow and try to unpack it line by line.
Deconstruction operates almost the same between philosophy and literature with the main difference being in philosophy it works to subvert a person’s argument by picking it apart and pointing out holes and contradictions while in literature it does something similarly, but usually with the goal of some kind of reconstruction, or putting it back together again. This is probably mostly due to it deconstructing a “full” work with a conclusion and meaning, so the deconstruction to some degree normally makes some sort of assertions to an opposing idea.
What about anime, or any fictional media that’s visual? Deconstruction can’t work the same in the previous sense because there isn’t a body of words to pick apart aside from dialogue. There’s a “text” to any work, but it can’t be pulled apart in the same way here due to the absence of description by written words, so it has to be deconstructed in a different way. Well, it still works in the most basic sense: you are taking things apart that are supposed or assumed to be connected, and you are filling the holes that those assumptions leave. That is to say, you are taking apart tropes in a piece, be they attributes of a character, genre, narrative, or something else. The most effective way to pick apart a fictional aspect is to apply it to real life to show the consequences of that aspect while at the same time attempting to show the impossibility of the original trope.
Let’s list a few examples of the different types of deconstructions that are commonly seen in anime:
- Trope Deconstruction: Any aspect of a show that is assumed to be one way, but is deconstructed during the show. This can range from characters, to weapons, to even plot devices and expected turns. One decent example that even has implications towards the audience is the villain in Pokémon 2000 who seeks out the legendary birds so that he can capture them and keep them as trophies. This is played straight in the games as well as the first series of the television show, but is depicted as malicious and selfish in the film despite it being the main idea behind “Gotta Catch ’em All!”
- Character Trope Deconstruction: Taking a well known character archetype and applying their behavior and the consequences of their actions to real life. A great example of this would be Light Yagami from Death Note who takes on the role of a chaste, moralistic hero whom discovers magical powers through a “spiritual” friend and applies the stubbornness and “constant high-ground” mindset of that trope to a genius teenager in a modern setting with the power to kill those he deems as “unworthy.” A lot of the directing exaggerates actions and thoughts in the show, but the manga is very serious in terms of tone and illustrates this better.
- Genre Deconstruction: This is a broader example that takes well known tropes of a particular genre and attempts to subvert them by adding real life consequences. Probably the most famous example of this would be Neon Genesis Evangelion that takes character tropes and aspects of the Super Robot anime genre (child pilots, seemingly conscious robots, whiny hero with daddy issues, destruction of the city, mysterious alien baddies, etc.) and applies as many real world consequences to them as possible, creating a severely broken cast of characters, robots that are really organic that can feel pain and bleed, and throws out winning “by the power of love and friendship” completely.
- A less obvious example that could still fit, just not to that extreme, could be Rurouni Kenshin and it’s deconstruction of the Jidai Geki genre. This is after the Warring States Period, where swords are outlawed and the “coolness” of a samurai is not longer really valid. Rogue sword wielders are typically flagrant bullies or old samurai who can’t give up their old ways, and what makes Kenshin “cool” in this context is his refusal to kill anyone with his blade. Even then, when he does get into a fight, he either runs into people stuck in the past with a sword or someone that can just shoot him. However, some believe that this is less of a genre deconstruction and more of a trope deconstruction, since it can go either way.
- Reconstrution: Though not a kind of deconstruction, it is important to know what a reconstruction is. In this case, it would attempt to piece something together (that was typically disassembled in some way, usually by a previous work) in order to use the trope but usually with a more grounded sensibility. Anime examples typically include Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagaan, which reconstructs the evolutionary timeline of the Mecha genre throughout its story (starting with the “manly” 70’s) along with a multitude of anime that attempted to reconstruct aspects of the Mecha genre, primarily in response to Evangelion‘s decimation of it. Other non-Eva focused reconstructions include DieBuster.
- Deconstruction Reconstruction (Decon-Recon): Represents a type of deconstruction of a trope or aspect in a show that then goes on to reconstruct that aspect, trope, or idea right back up into a “better” or “more realistic” example of itself. Although explaining anything in detail would contain spoilers, Puella Magi Madoka Magica does this with what TvTropes dubs the “Power of the Heart” trope  typical in Magical Girl as well as shojo and shounen series. (Then the movie goes to deconstruct it right back again.)
One of the largest misconceptions when it comes to deconstructions is that an entire show can be defined as a “deconstruction.” When you hear individuals talking about deconstruction, they almost exclusively use it as a way to describe that show to someone, which is very rarely ever an accurate description. Many many shows will deconstruct one or three tropes or ideas, sure, but that does not by any means make the show definable by that one narrative action. Calling Code Geass a deconstruction because it applies consequences to Suzaku Kururugi’s painfully extreme moralistic hero archetype would be ridiculous, not only because the show isn’t focused on his deconstruction as a trope, but also due to the show’s message and themes not pertaining to that particular break down at all. An entire show can really only be classified as being labeled “a deconstrution” is when the entire body can be attributed to that narrative outlook, i.e. a genre deconstruction. Otherwise, it would be extremely difficult if not incorrect to describe a show using that particular word.
A typically defining feature that makes it fairly easy to determine whether a show is a possible deconstruction is when it masquerades as something else in the beginning. NGE, Madoka Magica, and School Days all pretended to be their normal, straight genres in the beginning before making the break down of their characters/world/themeing more obvious in later episodes. This is mostly in reference to genre deconstruction (which is why there’s debate around Rurouni Kenshin) because, if a show starts out with a dark premise with broken characters and generally different aspects, it’s usually not a deconstruction. At best, it’s a fresh idea with a depressing or brooding atmosphere, and at worst it’s trying to be edgy to get people to think it’s deeper than it actually is, or to shock people with gore and brutality. Elfen Lied is not a deconstruction because it has gore and nudity and is shocking in dark and nihilistic ways. It touches on the incestuous cousin/adopted sibling and cute monosyllabic girl archetypes to the point of deconstruction of those characters in particular, but the show’s goal isn’t to deconstruct those characters nor make a statement about a genre. Also, Higurashi no Naku Koro ni is not a deconstruction because it plays moe straight at the beginning and gets dark by the end of the first episode. Many times throughout the show moe scenes and humor come into play, and the tone get subsequently more horrifying and mysterious as the story progresses. This is an effective method of writing horror and making the audience both terrified and curious, but does little beyond that.
So where’s the line between a show deconstructing enough things to be able to hold the title of deconstruction? That’s where the misconceptions really come in, and tend to be the reasoning behind using the label so often. Typically if the purpose of inverting the original meanings behind tropes is a clear purpose to the theme and message of a show, it should be safe to call it by that label. Beyond this, there are rarely exceptions as long as the show can meet that criteria.
For a show to deconstruct something, it doesn’t have to be the first to do it necessarily, but it should be fairly unique in how it goes about it or it will just be called a “clone,” due to it copying only stylistic and certain narrative choices without the original purpose or theming behind them. Mobile Suit Gundam deconstructed the Super Robot genre before Neon Genesis Evangelion did, but just because Gundam did it first doesn’t mean the label can’t be used for another show that attempts the same thing. Both of these shows go about their own deconstructions very differently, and with different ideas in mind that would be addressed (Gundam tends to focus on the scientific plausibility of the machines as well as more realistic training necessities for the characters while NGE focuses on how a pilot and robot could respond to one another as well as the psychological ramifications of the world resting on the worker’s shoulders) and it would be ridiculous to discount one due to the other’s existence. Also in the case of Mobile Suit Gundam, which spawned its own anime genre (Real Robot,) any show can come along and pick those now established tropes apart and become a deconstruction of that genre as well if it so desired. Just because it started out originally as a deconstruction of a different genre does not make it immune to being picked apart by someone else.
Deconstruction is a chaotic spiral into a typically harsher, realistic, and certainly a unique area of media. As an audience it tells us to look at narrative choices in a critical and out-of-the-box way and demands our attention. Even if a member of that audience doesn’t wish to scope out the particulars of a deconstruction in an anime or film, they are still sure to at least have their perceptions challenged at the very least. Despite the origins of the deconstructionist movement in literature and philosophy and the changes the style had to undergo in order to be effective on the screen, the goal of a deconstructionist author still remains the same, albeit with varying levels of fine-toothed combing: to challenge and teach the reader/viewer to always question what they are shown and to never be afraid to look deeper into the media that they consume.
As with deconstruction, tropes along with other narrative tools, and industry-centric wordage will always be present in any form. Buzzwords are everywhere, from the niche forums of the internet to wide-spread literature, news articles, and advertisements. In certain aspects, these short and easy to grasp terms are essential in being able to spread a more complex message quickly and efficiently. On the other hand, and as we’ve seen, they can be detrimental to a more complex idea that the word at hand does not adequately cover and define. This is where confusion and misinformation stem and ultimately serve to hurt the facts that are attempted to be circulated. The best we can do as anime viewers, as well as lovers of any kind of media, is to be responsible and open-minded when it comes to forming and accepting criticism that you hear from your fellows and being as honest and deliberate as you can be when recommending anime to others.
A sincere thank you to everyone who encouraged me through this series. It was trying at times, and I still have sparse leftover words that I didn’t feel could make a complete article in and of themselves. I sincerely thank you to those on reddit as well as my friends on Hummingbird that critiqued and assisted me and will continue to do so. Love & Peace everyone!
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For further readings on Structuralism and Deconstruction:
– Language and Linguistics – The Structuralist Era
– Structuralism and Poststructuralism – Jacques Derrida And Deconstruction
– Literary Criticism – Deconstruction And Beyond
– Deconstructionism in Literature (w/o a membership you can only access the first part)