From the very beginning, Tales of Zestiria has presented a variety of issues that have compromised its ability to match its stunning visuals with an equally engaging narrative and cast of characters. While the issue of pacing plagued the first 12 episodes of the show and continues to haunt the new season, what has made Zestiria’s most recent episodes so incredibly dull are the ideological principles upon which it is built. From Sorey’s search for truth, to Alisha’s noble conviction, and Roses’ pursuit of justice – Zestiria’s story and characters are inexorably linked to what they believe. What hamstrings this otherwise promising aspect of the show are Zestiria’s own incredibly vague concepts and meaningless implications.
The central question which the first 5 episodes of the new season revolve around is whether or not it is right to kill somebody. Is disposing of someone in order to save the lives of many other people still considered an act of Malevolence? Does accepting a necessary evil make that person Malevolent? This ideological dilemma is examined through the contrasting characterization of Sorey, who believes that killing is wrong regardless of the circumstances, and Rose, who fights on behalf of the weak and attempts to mete out justice to those who truly deserve it. To be clear, my point isn’t to come down on one side or another, it’s to explore how Zestiria’s confused messages cause its dialogue to be boring and inconsequential.
It’s important to note that, in the way that the characters think about it, the question of whether or not killing another person can be justified can only be explored within the context of Tales of Zestiria. This is specifically because Sorey’s own conviction stems directly from the presence of Malevolence in Zestiria’s world. Though the concept itself is pretty vague, Malevolence is a kind of impure energy or aura birthed from the negative emotions of humanity which can corrupt both humans and nature alike. Those who become too corrupted by its influence become Hellions – terrifying beings born from Malevolence. As the Shepherd, Sorey acts as the medium between the humans and Seraphim however also possesses the unique ability to purify Malevolence and Hellions.
Only in the world of Zestiria does acting upon ones negative impulses and the killing of another give rise to natural disasters and monsters. Similarly, the ability to purge these things as the Shepherd does is an answer which only exists within the story and so whatever philosophical implications or ideological convictions the show arrives at don’t really have any relevance beyond themselves. Furthermore, because of the ambiguous nature of Malevolence and Hellions, a lot of the situations in which they are involved feel arbitrary and unique in what they mean for the show. If the show is going to blame practically every event and occurrence on the effects of Malevolence, it’s important that the concept makes sense. Yet, after 17 episodes, it still remains woefully hard to distinguish.
Before delving further into why none of what Zestiria discusses makes any sense, it’s worth quickly characterizing exactly what the dilemma is. As the Shepherd, Sorey believes that killing is wrong because it causes hatred which leads to a cycle of Malevolence. He’s also innocent and virtuous and seemingly believes that killing is wrong on principle alone though is unable to find the conviction within himself to justify this perspective. What’s more, he doesn’t want his friend Rose to turn into a Hellion. Sorey himself has no reason to kill because of his ability to purify Malevolence however he believes he must impress his ideals upon others in order to save humanity. Sorey’s own naivete plays a big part in all of this and he doesn’t know whether Rose’s actions were meaningless or not however stands firmly by his belief that nobody deserves to die. Given that the show is about him traveling to different locations and figuring out what he himself believes, it feels pretty grating for him to continuously state his opinion without any real justification.
Rose, along with the Scattered Bones, kill only those who they find to be truly corrupt and irredeemable. They spare the lives of guards and onlookers however will kill for the sake of protecting the week and ridding the world of malicious, manipulative people. Even within the context of Zestiria’s Malevolence, this seems to be a pretty good reason. With the exception of Rose’s quest for revenge, the Scattered Bones kill without emotion – they merely act upon the justice they believe is right and attempt to make the world a better place.
There are a bunch of utilitarian principles that can be factored into this dilemma but at the very least, whatever hatred would be bred by killing wicked people in such a way is obviously outweighed by the grief and malice that would be birthed had they been left alive to kill and manipulate indefinitely. She is also probably killing these ‘evil’ people before they turn into Hellions themselves. So even within the context of Malevolence, Rose’s methods seem to be perfectly justifiable and Sorey seems to be whining needlessly. However, the show’s vague concepts muddle this so much more.
What stops Rose from turning into a Hellion herself? If killing is inevitability Malevolent, then why hasn’t Rose been corrupted after taking so many lives in her pursuit of justice? The answer the show provides us with is extremely troubling. Rose hasn’t been corrupted because she believes in what she is doing. She is able to justify her actions to herself and thus doesn’t feel negatively about the lives she takes. This is really bad… for so many reasons. There exists an enormous hypocrisy within this understanding. If all it takes is for one to believe in what they are doing and not perceive their own actions as evil or having to do with their negative emotions, then people can get away with just about anything without accumulating Malevolence. How much injustice has been brought about through self-righteousness? How many of the people that Rose would deem deserving of death were acting in such a way that they saw what they were doing was good – if only for themselves?
One of the most ominous aspects of Zestiria’s world is war. To Sorey, it’s the culmination of people’s hatred and we see an explicit example of this in the battle of Glaeivend Basin at the end of the first season. Malevolence is everywhere. Many of the soldiers fight because they despise their enemy but what of those who fight on behalf of lord and land? If the actual root of Malevolence is people acting against their own convictions, then are these people Malevolent? This all gets far too semantic but the point being is that Rose, within the context of Zestiria can never really be wrong, and that Malevolence is an overused bit of jargon that means effectively whatever the story needs it to mean. This disrupts the ideological groundwork of the show which hinges upon all of these things having concrete meanings.
To top everything off, it’s the answers which the show provides which are the most tiresome and meaningless parts of its presentation. Sorey, with the knowledge that everyone has some Malevolence inside of them, must determine for himself whether killing an individual for the greater good can be justified. What is Mayvin’s advice to him? Rather than principles, reason, and enlightenment – it is to be true to oneself. Be true to oneself? Have you seen Sorey? He’s the most bland, wide-eyed, amicable protagonist you could conceive. When has he ever not been true to himself? Furthermore, being true to oneself just means pursuing what you believe which is the same exact quandary that we ran into when discussing Rose’s conviction and Malevolence. The very same advice would justify Rose’s actions which Sorey condones. It’s a nebulous and unhelpful bit of dialogue.
When Alisha’s noble conviction is near failing and her ideals of truth and justice seem out of reach, what inspiring words from Sorey come to her? “I just have to become strong”. Become strong enough for what? Strong enough to overcome criticism and hardship in order to persevere? Strong enough to impress your own ideologies upon others and help them see your perspective? It’s a vapid realization and it doesn’t really mean anything. All these vague answers do is reinforce that people should keep doing what they are doing and that regardless of whatever others think, that they are in the right.
The point of all of this is that so much of Zestiria’s screen time has been put to sussing out these details and so much of its casts’ characterization is dependent upon what they believe. When none of it makes sense – when they all pursue their ideals for the same reason, and when killing births Malevolence but only sometimes, these scenes and characters fall absolutely flat. The strengths of Zestiria’s presentation undoubtedly lie in its action scenes and visuals. So when the bulk of the show is spent reaffirming that Malevolence exists and that none of the character’s idealism means anything, the whole show is rendered boring and dull.