Killing Intent: Finding Truth in Violent Stories

If I were to come up to you and tell you that I enjoy playing the occasional match of Halo or Fallout: New Vegas, you’d probably have one of three responses:

  1. “Ugh, he plays those violent games? What kind of anti-social masochist is he?”
  2. “He plays those games? AWESOME! I’m not the only one!”
  3. “Huh?”

The first response is a bit exaggerated, but I do find that a lot of people, especially Christians, take that stance towards media with any form of violence. Violence in visual media is often seen as mindless brain-numbing trash at best, and indoctrinating propaganda at worst. It’s an especially common mindset towards games and anime in particular, especially in our increasingly interconnected society. With easy access to all forms of media, the more edgy and mature types of entertainment are increasingly available to everyone, and stereotypes about various mediums of entertainment are formed faster than they ever were.

Berserk

Berserk is an anime that shows the horrors of war and doesn’t shy away from depicting violence. 

So what is the role of violence in media and storytelling? What should it be? And how does all of this relate to Christians? I mean, the Bible is against killing, right? How can we approach stories that contain violence with a good conscience?

First, we need to recognize that violence, while a product of the Fall, can be used for good. God created the world perfect, free of conflict. When Adam and Eve sinned and were cast out, suffering and death entered the world, and violence with it. But God always find a way to use even the bad for our good and to bring glory to His Name. He used warfare to punish nations that rejected Him, both the heathen nations (see the Book of Joshua) and Israel themselves. Jesus Himself violently drove out the money-changers from the Temple when he saw the focus on material possession that was becoming prevalent in His people. God uses violence and warfare as a means of punishing the wicked, not as a means of expressing dominion over another culture or people group.

CaptainLevi

Attack on Titan is known for its violence. 

Attack on Titan is a good example of violence used well in storytelling. The premise of the story revolves around a war between humans and mysterious giants that want to kill and devour them, so there is a good amount of violence as the story depicts the actions of both man and Titans. People have limbs torn off and are eaten whole; Titans are slain with swords and cannons from various angles, and the series does not shy away from showing every spray of blood and every cry of pain as these events happen.

But this violence is used for a purpose: Attack on Titan wants to drive home one main point, that war is not fun. It is not empowering. It is a means to an end, and that end requires a lot of pain and suffering. The depictions of violence in the series are not made to say “look all this blood, see how mature we are?”, but rather to sober the viewer. I never watched Attack on Titan and thought “Man, I wish I lived in their world!”, but rather “Whoa. So glad I don’t live there…”. While the response to a story is in the hands of the person who receives the story, the intended purpose for the story is always apparent, and in the case of Attack on Titan, it’s violence was intended to show the viewer that violence is not something to be taken lightly.

Tatsumi

Akame ga Kill always has the best finishers for its villains. 

So, is every depiction of violence that is used for a purpose good and wholesome? No, not in the slightest! There are many different purposes for violence in stories: sometimes it’s used for good, sometimes it’s used for bad. There are countless games and shows out there than only use violence as a means of promoting pride and empowerment in the consumer, rather than careful consideration and contemplation. The purpose of the violence is extremely important in a story, as well also as the context.

Akame ga Kill is an anime that is known for being violent, and that’s understandable as it centers on a group of assassins whose aim is to take down a corrupt government and the evil people that inhabit it. One of the things that struck me the most about the story is how easily we as humans can make excuses for the depraved and evil things we do. One of the first villains we meet in the series is a rich young woman who captures and tortures people from the country just for fun. She views them as less important than her, as mere cattle, and she treats them as such. Needless to say, she meets a swift end under the blade of one of the main characters.

That episode in particular used images of the people she’d killed and the pain they’d suffered as a means of conveying to the viewer how evil she was. This is a running theme in the show: as more and more villains are introduced, we as the viewers learn what makes them so evil and why. We see their victims, the cries of pain and anguish, and the cold-hearted glee the villains have as they inflict pain and suffering.

It’s not easy to watch. But that is the point.

Storytelling is a unique medium that allows for deep themes and complex ideals to be conveyed in a way that is understandable and relatable to many. Rather than simply reading off a checklist of what we should think and feel, stories allow the consumer to experience what it is like to be another character; we learn about their lives, their habits, their ideas, their worldview. And that allows us to learn from them in a deeper, personal way.

Writers who understand this are able to use the medium to its fullest extent, and draw out of the viewer new emotions and ways of thinking that would have been hard to find on their own. Each element of a story contributes to this, and fighting and violence play a large part in how we as consumers perceive a story and its characters.

Gilgamesh

In this shot, everything from his posture and look tells you that Gilgamesh is a villain.

When we see a valiant hero fighting on despite his many wounds, when we see a villain torturing an innocent just for his own amusement, we feel something. We understand and empathize with the hero’s struggle, and we despise and hate the cruel behavior of the villain. We instinctively know that it is wrong to inflict pain on another person for no reason, and that it takes great strength to overcome pain and to keep fighting for what is right. As Christians, we know that this innate knowledge is due to the conscience that God has given to each and every one of us. And a good story can help us to solidify our convictions and understand why we believe what we believe all the more.

So, in conclusion, I don’t believe that stories that contain violence are inherently bad or wrong. It is wholly dependent on the purpose and the context of the violent acts that are depicted in the story. Whether the violence is graphic or not, all facets of a story serve a purpose. That purpose may be to empower the consumer, desensitize them, or sober them. Our job as Christians is to use the lens of Scripture and the discernment of the Holy Spirit to determine what a story is trying to convey with its violence and what we can learn from it. Even stories that use violence for the wrong purposes can serve as a teaching tool for us to learn the consequences of using violence in the wrong way.

I hope you enjoyed reading my thoughts on violence and its use in storytelling; it took me a while to finally express the thoughts in my head into a Word document in a somewhat cohesive way. I’d like to hear from you: what stories have you seen or read or played that used violence in a way that made you think? Leave a comment down below, and as always: God bless, and happy watching.

Sam

I'm a student who loves God and manages to balance school, games, books, anime, and Asian culture while staying slightly sane.

  • Peter B.

    I agree violence in media is just another tool used in story telling. But like any other tool it can be abused. (not always the case but thought I’d put it out there) And another thing…If killing people is always wrong… why is there SO much of it in the Bible? Apparently killing “bad guys” is an exception.

  • everEsther

    Funny thing is, my reaction to your first statement wouldn’t fit into any of those categories. 😛 I’ve heard of those games (Halo anyway), so it wouldn’t be “Huh,” but don’t know enough about them to have a definite stance on the topic of their violence.
    I really enjoyed reading through your thoughts. Violence isn’t necessarily wrong – it all depends on its role in the story. I agree. It makes me think of Les Mis – some of the stuff in it I didn’t like to read about/see on screen, but they were needed, to illustrate the theme of redemption.
    Thanks for sharing!

  • Great post. I too agree that violence can absolutely be used to show important themes and demonstrate valuable lessons in a story. At least, the presence of violence. I think that a story is more impressive when it masters the ability to drive home a lesson without resorting to explicit or gratuitous shows of violence. I sort of feel the same way about lewdness or profanity in stories. For example, if two characters deeply love one another, a good story could show that without making you watch them have sex or make out for two minutes. That’s just my humble opinion though. I realize that everyone has a different “scale” for how much is too much. And I’ll admit that, personally, my own scale for appreciating violence in a story is higher than my scale for appreciating lewdness/profanity. Maybe that’s only because I haven’t seen much work that uses the latter for any purpose other than viewer indulgence or cheap laughs. What are you thoughts? How do your views on violence in stories compare with your views on lewdness/profanity/etc?

    • Thanks for commenting! I hold a very similar view to yours: I tend to excuse more violence in a show than anything lewd because it’s more often used in a constructive manner to advance the story or convey a point, such as in Parasyte: The Maxim or Black Bullet. Sexual content is more often used either as a cheap gag (‘he touched her chest! Funny right?’), or as a way of trying to titillate the audience, neither of which are constructive in any way.

      I think there is a lot of room in most media as a whole to show good, developing romantic relationships without the need to push the characters into a wholly physical relationship just for the “benefit” of the audience. The romances of Avatar: The Last Airbender and Plastic Memories immediately come to mind: both series had couples who had to get to know each other before they developed a relationship, had to come to a mutual understanding about their feelings, and had to work through those relationships together. It was touching and relateable without having over-the-top gratuitous sexualization, and when we finally got to see Aang and Katara kiss at the end of the Airbender series, it felt right because we’d seen them grow together as characters, and we knew they could support their relationship for the rest of their lives.