Multiple Universes and Character Canonicity

Sheryl Nome in the Macross Frontier TV series and the Sayonara no Tsubasa film

There are roughly two types of compilation films in anime.  There’s the straight retelling/clip show, typified by such works as Space Runaway Ideon: A Contact and Mobile Suit Gundam 08th MS Team: Miller’s Report.  The second type is a movie that covers similar narrative ground as its source material but changes character motivations, plot events or both to a greater or lesser degree.  Paradigmatic examples of this second kind of compilation film are the Aim for the Ace movie and the Macross Frontier movies.

I find that a fan conundrum often comes along with the creation of this second kind of compilation movie, namely the question:  “What is canon?”  What counts as the “true” story of series X?  To outsiders, this may seem a trivial inquiry, but this is, in fact, a vital question for a fandom.  I understand the need to make an either/or canonical distinction between a series and its compilation movie, or between any two fictional, parallel universes,  if one changes character motivations found in the original work.   However, in the case of an alternate/parallel universe  that changes plot elements only, I will argue that the questions “Which has the characters that are canon?” is a bit misguided.  In this case, both universes offer canonical “tracks” or “paths,” for their characters even if both sets of events could not occur simultaneously in the same universe.

Suggested Soundtrack for Reading – Ronald Jenkees “Canon in D Remix” (you knew I had to do it)

Oka Hiromi, from Aim for the Ace TV and Movie

Let me state the problem in more precise terms.  In a given TV series T1, a character C1 initiates actions, is the recipient of others’ actions and is a player in the string of happenings that comprise the plot of T1.  The term “actions” is inclusive and can refer to verbal acts and inner acts (i.e. an internal monologue, resolving to make a decision, etc.) as well as physical, outward acts.  We will call the sum total of acts and happenings within T1 that involve C1 an event series E1.  Though there is likely an extremely large number of items that make up the content of E1, for the purposes of making a useful example let’s pretend the set E1 consists of only the following:

A1 – Contracts a terminal illness

A2 – Sings a song on her own near the end of the story

A3 – Loses  competition X to her rival

Now, suppose a compilation movie M1 is created from T1.  C1 will appear in M1, but the director has made several changes to the story.  The sum total of acts and happenings within M1 that involve C1 comprise event series E2.  Again, E2 would likely be quite a large set, but, for the sake of argument, let’s just say that it consists of only the following:

B1 – Pays for the services of C3’s mercenary group

B2 – Wins competition Y over her rival

B3 – Sings a song with her  rival near the end of the story

B4 – Dies at the end of the film

The above scenario raises a cluster of questions which are at the heart of the canon-and-multiple-universes problem.  These boil down to: Which C1 is the “real” (canonical) one?  Fans often sanction one”version” of C1 as canon and denounce the “other one” based purely on the events which surround C1, which does a disservice to the fiction.

A distinction should be drawn here between what a character does, the content of her event series, and who a character is.  Of course, there is no way for us, the audience, to become acquainted with the latter but through the former.  Characters reveal their personalities through their actions.  However, these actions are manifestations of the underlying strata (essence, if you will) of the character.  Character identity (even if it is ill-formed) and its interaction with the world inform a character’s event series.

With this in mind, let us return to the case of C1, and let’s say that a fan of T1 is insisting that T1’s version of C1 is canon.  I think the appropriate question to ask is, even though T1 and M1 are parallel universes, does each contain a distinct version of C1, or is the true C1 present in both?  “Of course!” they argue, “All this different stuff happens to C1 in M1, and at the end, she dies!”  Our fan has a point if and only if E2 is inconsistent with what we have learned C1’s identity to be from E1.

I will flesh this out.  As previously stated, a character has an identity that manifests itself through the character’s interaction with the world.  This manifestation, the content of her event series, is the only way for the audience to discern the character’s identity.  So, having already seen T1, we can draw some conclusions about the identity of C1.  Once we have a firm(ish) grasp of her identity, we can form a set of characteristics/attitudes, C1-I, that represent her identity.  Now, through a reflective process we can check the consistency of E2 with C1-I, which is an indirect way of ascertaining the consistency of E2 with E1.

What does that process look like?  It is helpful here to introduce the notion of counterfactuals.  These are conditional (if-then) statements whose consequent, everything after the word “then,” describes what would be the case if its antecedent, everything after the word “if” but before the word “then,” was true.  Counterfactuals are not making definitive statements about what is actually the case; they simply claim that if X is true, then Y is true.  I will now show how these apply to the matter at hand.

Our T1 fan cannot accept that M1’s depiction of C1 is canonical because different things happen to C1 in M1 than in T1.  For him, E2 shows that the character in M1 is not “really” C1.  We can employ our process here to show him otherwise.  Say that the circumstances that leads to B3  are:

S1 – C1 has respect for her rival, C2

S2 – C2 is with C1 near the end of the film

S1 occurs in both T1 and M1, while S2 occurs only in M1.  Given all of this, we can deploy the counterfactual

F1 – If character C1 is in circumstances S1 and S2, then B3 is true.

The Macross Cannon from SDF Macross

This states that if C1 has respect for her rival C2, and she and her rival are together near the end of the film, then C1 will sing a duet with C2 near the end of the film.  Another way of posing the counterfactual is asking, “How would so-and-so act in these circumstances?”  To answer that question, as well as ascertain the veracity of F1, we can examine the contents of C1-I (in other words, we can think about what we know about C1 and decide if F1 is accurate).  As long as F1 is true, then item B3 of E2 is consistent with E1, and the charge of non-canonicity cannot be level at that particular part of M1.  Then, we go on to the next item of E2 that the fan has an issue with…

OK, we covered items that E2 adds to the character, but what about items found in E1 that E2 lacks?  Could one argue that A1 is crucial to C1-I, and the fact that A1 isn’t in E2 invalidates it?  I suppose, but I would maintain that how C1 reacts to getting a terminal illness will be a function of the content already found in C1-I a.k.a. the person she is prior to gaining knowledge of A1.

A certain philosophical proposition is entailed by reliance upon the process outlined above , namely the belief that characters are essentially extractable from their stories.  This could be seen as a problem.  The circumstances given in a counterfactual could basically be anything, right?  Yes, but that doesn’t mean that just any counterfactual holds true.  I purposely constructed the sample event series above to be simple, but a character’s event series would likely be much broader and deeper.  Not only would there be more items, but each item would probably be tagged with numerous indexicals such as “at time T” or “in place P.”  So, for instance, say circumstance S3 were added to the counterfactual above, and S3 was

S3 – C1 lives in the 1950s

Now, if B3 were fully unpacked, it might read like this:

B3.1 – Sings a song with her  rival near the end of the story, in the year 2145, on board the  spaceship Discovery in the Y Galaxy

Thus, the following counterfactual would be false:

F2 – If character C1 is in circumstances S1, S2 and S3, then B3 is true

and the character shown as non-canonical.

I’m not sure that I’m committed to the idea that characters are able to be inserted into just any story, for their identity is surely partially constructed from their native environment.  C1-I would look pretty different if C1 was a Himalayan-dweller than if she was an idol singer from the future.  However, I do think that there is a range of stories that a character may be inserted into without fundamentally altering her identity.  In those cases, the event series from the second story can be checked for consistency with the character’s identity as revealed by the original story.

Another potential issue is:  who decides what are the scope and content of a character’s identity?  Who’s to say what the bounds of C1-I are?  Well, while there is potential for disagreement over character identity, I believe that most reasonable people can come to similar, if not the same, conclusions.  A degree of agreement can be reached, I feel, that will allow the counterfactual check to be a fruitful process.

A really cool benefit of all of this is the expansion of characters.  What I mean by this is that we get to see how a character would respond to different situations than her original ones.  We get more of her identity revealed to us.  Through the process outlined above, we can ascertain how a character would act in certain circumstances, in other possible worlds.  This goes beyond mere a what-if; the process calls for examination of the essence of a character.  In this way, we can be certain in our conclusions about whether or not parallel universes contain the actual characters from their original stories rather than different “versions.”.  If the characters remain true, then we can say that the parallel universe offers a canonical alternate path that allows us to learn more about who they are.

EDIT:  The upshot of this post is that the Sheryl Nome of the Macross Frontier movies is the very same Sheryl Nome of the television series.  Each iteration of Macross Frontier represents a possible world that presents a unique set of circumstances to Sheryl, which her essential self acts upon.  I think the same is true of Oka Hiromi in the Aim for the Ace series and movie, but that is less contentious.

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Multiple Universes and Character Canonicity

4 thoughts on “Multiple Universes and Character Canonicity

  1. I very much like the idea of a retelling/alternate version of a story presenting the same character responding to different situations; it’s especially apparent in the Macross continuity where there is no definitive portrayal of a character, so to speak.

    (Macross spoilers past this point)

    As a good example consider Kakizaki in SDF and Do You Remember Love; in the former he dies as I recall failing to outrun an explosion while in the latter he is unceremoniously killed by Milia. In SDF, I don’t believe Skull Squadron ever fight Milia in the way they do in DYRL but yet the DYRL version of the encounter (where she splashes the canonically inept one) would fit within the SDF telling (where he isn’t any more competent).

    (Spoilers end)

    It’s also interesting considering this in the light of Star Trek Into Darkness as a retelling/adaptation of The Wrath of Khan. I’m no Star Trek expert but having seen both films there’s quite the opposite sort of situation. The Kirk and Khan in the original film are quite differently presented to the Kirk and Khan in the newer film, and so the story (similar as it is) is written to go in entirely different directions. There you don’t have a definitive Kirk, as perhaps you do have a definitive Sheryl Nome.

    1. Thanks for braving this post =). Also, thanks for bringing up Kakizaki! The neglected man is grateful for a mention, I’m sure.

      Your Star Trek example makes me think of an anime-related paradigmatic example of the opposite of what I’m writing about: Evangelion. I’m referring specifically to Shinji Ikari as depicted in the TV series vs the End of Eva movie. As I’m sure you know, each of these works has Shinji responding differently to perhaps the most philosophically pivotal question in the franchise. In one story he says “Yes,” the other, “No.” The consequences of this decision are enormous for both stories.

      This is a difficult case because it is difficult to discern any differences in the identity of the Shinji Ikari character as shown in the movie. In fact, one could make a case that either choice is “so Shinji” or a choice of his that makes total sense. I have a few half-thoughts on the matter, but I’m not exactly sure what to do with such a case.

      1. I’ve not seen End of Eva but I have seen the first two Rebuild movies and there you don’t just have an alternate personality for Shinji but an entirely different setting with the growing implication that the context that created Eva TV’s Shinji hasn’t happened and will not happen; the divergences begin as simple setting and tone ones in 1.11 and through 2.22 and what I hear of the third film as well drive the story in a different direction; thus if you factor in End of Eva as well you have three retellings of the story that each set it in contexts different only on subtle levels at first and the explore how a changed environment (technology base, geography and so on) can change the story’s course.

        Perhaps it is the same Shinji across all three and the divergence goes beyond simple events into a completely new framing of the events.

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