Saturday, January 3, 2009

The Power of a Gentle Heart:
Part I: To End a War

So due to the many references to Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha on the TVTropes website, I started thinking that it would be nice if I could watch it myself. And thankfully, it was finally released on this side of the Pacific back in December. I bought it as soon as it came out, and have watched it several times since, both in the dubbed English and the subtitled Japanese. (Hopefully it goes without saying that there are about to be spoilers for that series.)

Now, this is not at first glance a series where the battles are resolved through love and kindness, the powers that one generally associates with the phrase “gentle heart.” Nanoha Takamachi’s preferred solution to most actual combat is much more reminiscent of the ideal of peace through superior firepower. With the several different ranged attacks she employed throughout the series, culminating in her only use of the mighty Starlight Breaker in the eleventh episode, it’s all too easy to think that she focuses on overpowering her foes.

And that view, while it has some valid points behind it, is ultimately wrong. The reason for that lies is the use of the phrase “most actual combat.” The battles themselves, taken individually, are never really resolved through anything other than firepower. (Or in later duels, the flight of one side or the other.) From Fate’s first knockout of Nanoha with her Photon Lancer, all the way to their final fight, the battles ended with one side or the other being knocked out or driven away.

But any competent strategist should be able to see that individual battles aren’t what really matter. There’s a reason why the saying “lose the battle, win the war” exists, and that’s because it’s the overall victory that matters. And it is the power of a gentle heart, the power of kindness, that brought about that overall victory in Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha. When we look at how Nanoha conducted her little personal war with Fate Testarossa over the course of the series, it becomes much more clear just how powerful kindness can be.

Nanoha didn’t want any harm to come to Fate. At first glance, such a position would seem impossible to maintain, considering the number of times they had to fight one another. But the key concern for Nanoha was never to kill Fate. Rather, Nanoha’s goal for most of the series was to re-secure the ancient artifacts that were causing havoc in her area. The only reason that she fought Fate at all was because they were both trying to take possession of those artifacts.

And as the series proceeded, it became abundantly clear that Nanoha was never solely devoted to defeating Fate in battle. It became ever clearer that all Nanoha wanted was to break through the walls of solitude that Fate had put up around herself. In the seventh episode, she insisted on getting only one thing if she actually defeated Fate: a chance to talk to her. In the eighth, she stood in the way of a newcomer about to fire on Fate. Neither is consistent with the idea that Nanoha solves her problems through superior firepower alone; if that was the case, why would she take so little from Fate in victory or intervene to protect her?

The ninth episode of the series confirms once and for all that Nanoha truly possessed the power unique to a gentle heart. When Fate overstressed her power and was about to burn herself out, her more pragmatic superior ordered that they do nothing, and wait until Fate went down before moving in. Nanoha proceeded to refuse that direct order, and moved to aid Fate rather than watch her die. In a truly stunning act of kindness, she went to aid the person she had fought with several times already and agreed to evenly split the artifacts gained, rather than fight over them.

At this point, though, the war between Nanoha and Fate had not been concluded. Neither the firepower of Nanoha’s ally nor the kindness of Nanoha herself had truly solved the conflict once and for all. Again, however, it certainly does appear that the final conclusion was settled by firepower, by the knockout blow delivered by Nanoha’s Starlight Breaker. And again, the battle may have ended in that fashion, but the kindness and respect that Nanoha showed to Fate was far more important.

After all, Nanoha didn’t kill Fate. Even after hitting Fate with her final attack, she made sure that Fate wasn’t killed as a result. And when Fate finally recovered, it was that kindness and that respect that she remembered. It was that kindness and respect that not only kept Fate from striking back at Nanoha but also led her to go and help Nanoha. It was superior firepower that ended most individual battles in their war, but it was a different kind of power that ended the war entirely.

It’s as true anywhere else. Unless one side or the other is completely and totally annihilated, there are still going to be people on both sides of the divide when all is said and done. And those people are going to remember how they were treated, both during and after the conflict. Individual battles will never end a war until those battles become apocalyptic. It is the power of a gentle heart, the power of kindness, respect, and honor, that ends a war. And far more importantly, it is that power that acts as a shield against a future conflict.

If at the conclusion of a war, one side feels slighted or mistreated, future conflict is all but inevitable. If nothing else, the path from the First World War to the Second demonstrates that fact. But if the victor has acted with respect, honor, and even kindness throughout, defeat does not have to be humiliation and does not have to lead to future conflict. This is why the power of a gentle heart, all too often ignored or dismissed, is such an essential part of even a nation at war.

That said, though, some argue that this power is actually a luxury or even a weakness… but that’s an issue for next week.

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