Tales of Zestiria and Problematic Idealism

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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.

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11 thoughts on “Tales of Zestiria and Problematic Idealism

  1. “Malevolence” is rather unfortunate translation of “kegare”, which is a shinto term that means something like “impurity”. Accumulating “kegare”, in shinto, isn’t only about what you do, but also about what you come in contact with, and it’s not really tied up with moral judgement of right and wrong. It’s more like a spiritual disease. Going with that metaphor, “believe” is something like a collection of spiritual antibodies. Killing’s a means to contract an illness, but if you’ve got the antibodies you can take a certain amount of it. (The metaphor only takes you so far; but it’s really a better metaphor than, say, a judicial system.)

    The game and the anime have vastly different takes on the concept, if the anime has any at all and isn’t just running with empty pathos. I, too, have trouble figuring out what the anime wants to get at. The game was a lot easier to understand, but knowing the game’s story doesn’t help with the anime at this point. They’re effectively different stories now.

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  2. While I’vd been enjoying Tales of Zestiria, your point is well made particularly about Sorey’s conviction lacking justification. That’s probably why the show has been entertaining it lacks depth and is ultimately fairly forgettable. Thanks for sharing a thoughtful post.

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  3. Cauthan, my dear boy. There’s something you must understand. Something I, as an experienced Japanese media connoisseur, have already realized in my twenty-something-year lifespan.

    In the world of JRPGs, what matters is the emotions. The power of one’s goodness and purity based on those emotions to do all that is good and right based on what is understandably good and pure are all one needs to have a fulfilling and ravenous adventure. These feelings, that grow and sprout the essence of everything and everyone, are the key to understanding all that is necessary to understand with the narrative of these works. Logic is but a confusing tangle of different sorts of unnecessary hesitation to putting forth what one truly knows to be the ultimate goodness. This purity, if not for the extreme dedication by the country’s blitzkrieg-like embellishment of the power of one-dimensionally pure characters would allow the world to suffer upon the effects of said “l-o-g-i-c” and create a sort of distance from what truly matters in the general scope of all that which humans are required of: to feel and to be good. Sorey must be true to himself because he is true to the justification that his kind heart and persona are stronger than the Malevolence that he must deal with, and as a mighty Shepherd, it is his goal to parade the ideals of purity to those who fall for the trap of “overthinking” or “differing philosophies.” See to it that you study things in other like this series; Final Fantasy, perhaps. Custom Robo. Bravely Default. Other games in the “Tales” series. All exhibit a general line of exhibiting the purity and goodness of a certain, central character for the rest of the world to engulf within their almost divine emotional whiteness. It is the will of the way, it is…

    THE POWER OF EMOTIONS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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    • That was a trip. There are so many standout lines but my favorite has to be ‘…their almost divine emotional whiteness’. It’s all so clear now. Sorey isn’t bland and meaninglessly opinionated at all! He’s just right. Everyone else in the show is bogged down by their logic; beset upon by the trappings of reasoning and philosophy. In killing her emotions, Rose has shut herself away from the greatest truth of the world and therefore cannot possibly justify her actions. Killing people is bad because nice people have emotions! Rose’s truth and justice are but beguiling shadows in the wake of Sorey’s pure and innocent belief in himself. How could I not have seen it before! How foolish I was to toil with rationale and ideology when the answer was right in front of me the whole time. Thank you for your enlightening insight.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. What an elaborate and great post. I have enjoyed reading this one very much. It’s always nice to read something thst makes you truly think about important aspects. Even though I have not seen this show, it makes me very interested to quickly start on this one. Keep up the great work! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Tales of Zestiria’s animation is top-tier and probably among the best nowdays. The character designs are awe-amazing though the character development is really dull. The music are quite catchy and really cool. What this anime really lacks or at disadvantage is the slow pacing of the story and it’s hard to distinguish the main plot. In this scenario the viewers may lost along the storyline and may not understand the direction or where the story is heading. The fight scenes are massively mesmerizing with those stunning visuals. Nonetheless, I’ll give this show a 6/10 but it really occupy a big place in heart due to my liking to many of its characters, it’s astoundingly vibrant animation and fantastic songs. I guess Leila stole my heart too. Thank you for sharing your thoughts about this amazing, decent anime though it seems that people may actually forget about it after several months.

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    • At least it’s pretty I suppose. Based on the two-episode plug for Berseria, I’d watch that show, haha. Then again, I’ve dealt with enough Malevolence for a lifetime and Zestiria isn’t even over.

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  6. Yeah the only thing that kept me going through this idealistic trainwreck is the animation and fight scenes at this point. I’ve never met a protagonist I wanted to hate more than Sorey with all this vapid talk about what is right and what isn’t. I love the line about Sorey being the “most bland, wide-eyed and amicable protagonist ever conceived”. Truly sums him up to a T. This show for a long time seems to be about him justifying his own ideals yet you are completely right when none of it is ever explained or executed competently enough to feel “right” to the audience.

    Everyone else in the story to some degree starts to believe in such hollow rhetoric spouted by Sorey which makes it even more baffling.When you look at the seraphim attached to Sorey they undoubtedly have less interesting tales to tell especially since they only seem to adapt Sorey’s idealism for the most part and only have different personality traits to make them feel different. At the very least Dezel seemed to have something he wanted to do that separated him from the usual cast of cookie-cutter doubles of Sorey. In the first season it seemed like this last comment wouldn’t come true, but the more we go through this anime the more these seraphim start to lose their potential vigor as characters because they attach themselves to the doughy Sorey and his annoying trite idealism.

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    • Yeah, that’s a good point. There isn’t much individuality between the Seraphim in Sorey’s party. They each have their own personalities for sure but, with the exception of Dezel as you say, they kind of just act like yes-men and reinforce whatever perspective Sorey holds. It would be far more interesting if there was some amount of disagreement between them but I suppose the show is looking externally to challenge his perspective even though this leaves the Seraphim feeling a little uninteresting. At this point, I’m having a hard time even remember a time when Lailah wasn’t saying something akin to “Do what you think is right” and leaving it at that. Mikleo just kind of nods his head in agreement nowadays and even Edna seems to be on the same page as Sorey despite her bored and apathetic attitude.

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      • Lailah, despite having a nice design, feels like you said the only one of the three that almost never seemed to have her own persona. I think the problem is that this is an interesting idea with just a lack of thought put into how to execute them. The seraphim feel god-like in a mortal realm, yet for the most part are left to support Sorey. They come out every now and again and do something really awesome, like Lailah and that fire, but are essentially left to nothing for the rest of the time. Mikleo literally follows Rose for like a few minutes then immediately goes back to Sorey, so why was Edna there? There are moments that Sorey is completely baffling in logic, but the more I think about it the seraphim feel more like glorified power-ups for Sorey. They’ve lost the initial intrigue to become something he picks up and uses like an item whenever he needs to, hence the transformations. I know its a video game adaptation, but that is some lazy writing to not at the very least make them feel like they are contributing as characters to the series.

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