It’s an almost spooky truth of storytelling that there’s only one hero. There is, by definition, just one protagonist, just as there can be only one narrator and point of view at any given moment. The Hero’s Journey is a path that has been tread by countless heroes over thousands of years — and though heroes may be joined at times by allies, rivals, and villains, each hero ultimately walks alone.
In my last post, I discussed the first half of the Hero’s Journey, a theory of the universal myth developed by Joseph Campbell in the first half of the 20th century. This time I’ll use some examples from the historical fantasy series Saiunkoku Monogatari to illustrate the last half of the hero’s journey. Along the way I’ll address some questions, such as: Why do anime series so often fail at endings? How can you use a series that’s still airing to demonstrate the “end” of a story? And aren’t you reading too much into all of this?
The end of the quest
The last half of the Hero’s Journey follows the hero as he* approaches the end of his quest and gains his reward for entering the Special World. In an anime series, the introductory steps of the journey might occupy just one episode at the beginning, followed by a royal slew of “Allies, Tests, and Enemies” encounters in Act II. Similarly, the conclusion of the journey might consist of the last story arc at the end of the series. We can use the phases of the Hero’s Journey as a way to analyze an entire series, a story arc within a series, or even a single episode.
Saiunkoku Monogatari, the anime I’ve chosen this time around, is based on a series of novels. This means the anime consists of a set of story arcs that flow very naturally. The first arc consists of episodes 1 – 7. Our heroine, Kou Shuurei, enters the imperial harem as temporary consort with a burning desire to reform the lazy Emperor Ryuuki and earn some much-needed cash. But as the young Emperor adjusts to the presence of our headstrong heroine, he finds his rule (and Shuurei’s life) threatened by a mysterious conspiracy. Ryuuki is forced to set aside his facade of laziness and assume true power in order to bring the plot to an end. Although Shuurei is the protagonist of the series as a whole, for this arc she is relegated to the role of damsel-in-distress. Ryuuki becomes the active force; his are the actions that resolve the story. With that in mind, let’s dive into the last half of the Hero’s Journey — the conclusion. Once again, I’ll be following the version outlined in Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey.
7) Approach to the inmost cave
The “inmost cave” is the most dangerous place in the Special World. It’s the location of the hero’s goal and it’s often the center of the enemy’s power. Entering the inmost cave sometimes requires passing a second threshold. The cave may be guarded by additional enemies or traps that the hero must outwit. The Approach stage includes any preparation the hero undertakes to get ready for the coming confrontation.
Different anime series approach the Approach in different ways. In Hikaru no Go, Shindou Hikaru visits Touya Meijin in the hospital to beg him to play a match with the mysterious Sai. In the latter half of Fullmetal Alchemist, Edward Elric heads into the beseiged town of Lior, where Scar intends to create the Philosopher’s Stone in a terrible massacre. Saiunkoku Monogatari uses the motif of a kidnapped loved one to get the ball rolling.
The prize: A woman in need of rescue….
Ryuuki approaches the tower in which Shuurei is held captive. To enter the tower, Ryuuki must face his fear of the dark.
8) Supreme ordeal
The supreme ordeal is an order of magnitude greater than all the tests the hero has undergone so far. During the Ordeal, the hero comes face to face with death. This could be literal, as in a sword duel in which defeat is all but certain, or metaphorical, in which the hero faces his greatest fear or confronts the death of his dreams. The Ordeal is the most “harrowing moment” for the audience in the story to this point. All appears to be lost; “the hero or his goals are in mortal jeopardy”. For romantic stories, Vogler notes that the supreme ordeal represents the second part of the “Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back” formula.
In Hikaru no Go, Fujiwara-no-Sai finally faces Touya Meijin in the one-on-one match Sai has longed for since the series began. In Fullmetal Alchemist, the clock ticks down while Alphonse’s armor transforms into an explosive. Meanwhile, Ed comes face to face with the homunculus he and his brother created when they committed the “indelible sin” of trying to resurrect their mother.
Ryuuki fights the assassins who have captured Shuurei. Their lives, both hers and his, are at stake.
9) Reward (seizing the sword)
In the Reward stage, the hero receives exactly that — his reward for passing the Ordeal. In romances, the reward usually involves reconciling with the romantic interest. The reward could be something literal — money or magical treasure — or it could be wisdom or knowledge. There’s usually a moment of celebration at this point for both the hero and the audience. This step concludes Act II.
In Hikaru no Go, Hikaru’s reward for undergoing the Ordeal is the special insight he gained into the game played by Sai and Touya Meijin while he witnessed the game firsthand. In Fullmetal Alchemist, the Elric brothers have finally, incredibly, gained the Philosopher’s Stone.
Ryuuki has defeated the assassins. Overjoyed to find Shuurei alive, he rushes to embrace her.
10) The road back
All actions have consequences. Whether you’re rescuing a princess or fighting homunculi to save your brother, you can count on the fact that there will usually be some remnants of the enemy to chase you from the Special World back to the Ordinary World. This stage frequently contains an exciting chase sequence.
In Hikaru no Go, Hikaru is pursued by Ogata Seiji and Touya Akira, both of whom demand to know Sai’s identity. In Fullmetal Alchemist, the story has taken a dramatic turn. Now that the Elric brothers have found the Philosopher’s Stone, they are declared traitors and pursued by both the homunculi and the military.
Ryuuki retrieves Shuurei, but danger follows them from the tower. Shuurei has been poisoned and is now near death.
This is a second life or death moment; Vogler compares it to a replay of the Supreme Ordeal. It is necessary for the hero to undergo one more act of purification before returning to the Ordinary World. The Resurrection seems to be more of an internal event than the huge, showy struggle of the Supreme Ordeal. In horror movies, this stage is almost a cliché — the hero has defeated the axe murderer, but there’s always one more scare before the villain actually dies.
In Hikaru no Go, Shindou Hikaru awakens and finds that his teacher Sai has vanished. In Fullmetal Alchemist, Edward faces Dante in the underground city and… dies.
In a replay of the life-and-death fight for Shuurei’s life in the Supreme Ordeal, Ryuuki makes a desperate bargain in exchange for the antidote that will spare Shuurei’s life. This time the price tag is a promise.
12) Return with the elixir
The final stage of the Hero’s Journey is the return to the Ordinary World. Of course, some heroes prefer to stay where they are, and sometimes the return is more of a metaphor than a journey to a physical location. The key to all these variations is that the hero has passed the tests and returns to the community with an “elixir” — usually, the wisdom he’s gained as a result of his journey. Vogler notes that unless the hero brings something back from the quest, he’s usually doomed to repeat the ordeal again. This happens sometimes in comedies where the hero “embarks on the same folly that got him in trouble in the first place”.
In Hikaru no Go, Shindou Hikaru comes to accept the departure of his mentor and, in a dream, receives a fan to symbolize the passing of knowledge from one generation to the next. Fullmetal Alchemist ends on more of a questioning note, but both Elric brothers are made wiser by their experiences. Their understanding of alchemy and its true meaning has deepened.
Ryuuki returns with the elixir. He has a literal elixir, the antidote to the poison, and a metaphorical one, the promise he has made to act as a wise emperor in the future.
Some thoughts on bad endings
When we reach the end of a story, all the confusion and turmoil of the opening chapters are boiled away. We finally see a story for what it is. Is that why so many anime series seem to fail when they reach their conclusion? Maybe the episodic nature of anime storytelling and inelastic budgets result in the slapdash endings we see in series such as Ouran High School Host Club. The problem seems to be partly related to the limitations of anime as an artform. Anime series tend to be based on source material such as manga or novels, which may still be ongoing. In addition, an anime series can run for hundreds of episodes if it’s successful, not to mention OVAs and movies, so production teams are probably reluctant to create a conclusion that concludes too much. If the source material does not itself provide a conclusion, the anime producers are on the hook for devising an ending that’s neither too final nor unsatisfying. A difficult needle to thread!
Chicken vs. egg
All this discussion of the Hero’s Journey might raise the question: When we analyze stories according to Campbellian principles, are we reading into them things that aren’t necessarily there? After all, every story has a beginning, middle and end. Otherwise it wouldn’t be a story! Just ask Wikipedia: “American novelist Kurt Vonnegut satirized Campbell’s views on the monomyth as being excessively complicated by offering his interpretation, called the ‘In The Hole’ theory; loosely defined as ‘The hero gets into trouble. The hero gets out of trouble.’” Not every story follows the Hero’s Journey. Stories and myths from Eastern cultures frequently contain concepts not found in Western literature. For example, in Western cultures, stories generally end with a recognizable wrap-up and sense of finality, but you’ll frequently find the opposite in stories that model themselves on Zen or Buddhist themes. Minimalist and surrealist stories toy with the concepts listed above. Maybe it doesn’t make much sense to analyze all stories the same way.
While there is some truth to these arguments, it’s also true that compelling stories generally follow a common structure. There may be wide variations among cultures, but throughout all civilizations, human houses generally possess walls to keep out the wind, a roof to keep out the rain, a human-sized opening through which to enter or egress, and so forth. The things we humans have in common seem to include story structure just as they do houses, cooking with fire, or bad teenage music. Why should it matter whether we call something “Act I” or “the Ordinary World” or “The Beginning”? The hero’s journey provides a framework by which we can discuss stories, and that’s all that matters.
A well-deserved kiss
* Note on language
I occasionally use the masculine pronoun (he/him/his) for convenience, but a hero can be a man or a woman.
Vogel, Christopher (1992). The writer’s journey: Mythic structure for storytelling & screenwriters. Michael Wiese Productions: Studio City, CA.