The Significance of Foils

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What is a foil? This is a literature term where it defines a character trait contrasting to another character, usually the protagonist in this case. The contrast can be acquired in a number of ways – by showing extremely different designs, personalities, ideals, mindset and mentality between the two of them. However, even though they are very blatantly different, both of them have a few similar qualities that will help tie both of them – so that, we, the third-person viewers, can compare them in the first place. Basically, in order to create a foil pairing of characters, they obviously had to be different so as to contrast, yet, possessing a similar foundation beneath their character design. Evangelion plays with this concept a lot, and chances are, if you had watched Death Note, Kira and L as well, is a prime example.

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Togami: That is… the truth? But, Naegi… how could you…? How could someone worthless like you reach this truth…? A truth… I couldn’t reach myself…!
Naegi: Eh? No… I didn’t mean…
Kirigiri: …You still don’t get it, do you? Humans don’t always act in calculated and logical ways. That’s why dealing with human beings is difficult. You never understood that fact. That’s why you couldn’t see the truth.
Togami: Keh…!!
Kirigiri: I did warn you before, didn’t I? Holding people’s feelings in low esteem could come back and bite you…
Togami: …………

I’m always fond of character contrast, as you can see, I’m always fond of how the characters I was really engaged in some shows, yet, were actually so different when I compared them with each other. A while ago, I wrote a post about Dangan Ronpa, a character analysis and comparison between Naegi Makoto, Togami Byakuya and Kirigiri Kyouko.

In my opinion, Naegi and Togami are foils to each other, while Kirigiri is somewhere in the middle ground. Naegi is an optimist, he is incredibly trustful of everyone – in such a gruesome setting where a single misstep would cause you your life, Naegi is surprisingly human. In contrast, Togami is a skeptic, he is not one to trust people easily. Cold and merciless, he treats the dangerous trials as games. He is very arrogant and prideful, and is also very ignorant of other people’s feelings – effectively contrasting Naegi’s kind and humble personality. Ironically, these traits are also their very own weaknesses. Naegi, while being the most “human” struggled the most when making choices between life and death of his so-called comrades – his emotions always trying to take over his logical approach. As for Togami, he can easily lose his cool when his own confident logic and conclusions were proofed to be false, since he only investigated with his own cynical approach.

Kirigiri, on the other hand, is aforementioned somewhere in the middle ground, or perhaps to be more precise, her character was constructed combining both Naegi and Togami’s traits, effectively obliterating the flaws that originated from both of them. Like Togami, Kirigiri is cool and calculated, but not to the extent of being merciless. Like Naegi, she can understand and relate to human empathy too. These traits make Kirigiri a stoic but very excellent character and investigator – it is indeed easy to see why Kirigiri is so well-liked.

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Satoshi: You could’ve taken the easy way out. We were all helping solve the mystery. No one would’ve complained if you said you didn’t know. So why did you lock yourself in the bathroom and think about it? Did you do that for Chitanda too?
Houtarou: I’m tired of being a gray person. Chitanda’s energy efficiency couldn’t be any worse. She’s working as a club leader, on the anthology, on the exam, and now solving mysteries of the past; I’m surprised she doesn’t get tired. Same goes for you and Ibara, you guys live such an inefficient life.
Satoshi: Maybe so.
Houtarou: Still, the grass is always greener on the other side. I get restless when I watch you all. I want to be able to rest.
Houtarou: But I still… don’t find excitement in it. That’s why I thought… I should at least participate and test the waters, by trying out your way of life.
Satoshi: ………
Houtarou: ……Say something.
Satoshi: Houtarou… did you envy those with a rosy lifestyle?
Houtarou: …Perhaps.

Another example I would pin-point here, is Hyouka. I love Hyouka, and a big part of it is the character cast and their contrast to one another. The main character, Oreki Houtarou is an apathetic individual with a life motto: he won’t do the things he deemed unnecessary, but if he had to do it, make it quick. The basis of Houtarou’s character was constructed as if to mockingly contrast every single character on the show. In fact, I can say even Houtarou and me are foils to each other – we possess a lot of similarities, yet under that mask, a key difference is present.

In the anime, the main foil to Houtarou is obviously Chitanda Eru. Houtarou is lazy and indifferent, his life is an embodiment of a “gray” life while Chitanda enjoyed a “rosy-coloured” life. Although Chitanda is shown to be very friendly and polite, she has a very inquisitive altitude – curious at the most mundane of mysteries. In contrast, Houtarou’s led a very detached lifestyle. Both of them are so different that it is ironic that the two of them met, and even joined the same club. Participating in Chitanda’s curious antics, Houtarou is “forced” to solve the almost commonplace mysteries that existed in everyday life. Although complaining, Houtarou never showed any signs of dissatisfaction, in fact, Houtarou was even in awe of Chitanda’s outlooks of life. Perhaps it may be fate that the two managed to met, and under Chitanda’s awe-inspiring influence, Houtarou slowly and gradually changes into a better man. Chitanda acting as a foil, served as the perfect catalyst for Houtarou’s development as a character – it is one of the highlights of Hyouka character-wise.

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Kagami: I’ve decided.
Kagami: I’ll crush all of them and become Japan’s best player.
Kuroko: I don’t think that’s possible.
Kagami: Hey!
Kuroko: If you have hidden talent, I wouldn’t know. But, from what I’ve seen, you wouldn’t even reach their feet… You can’t do it alone.
Kuroko: I’ve also decided.
Kuroko: I’m a shadow. But the stronger the light, the darker the shadow, and the more it accentuates the brightness of the light. I will be the shadow to your light and make you the best player in Japan.
Kagami: Heh. Look who’s talking. Do whatever you want.
Kuroko: I’ll do my best.

So I given examples of how foils help with underlining characterizations-a basic and general example with Dangan Ronpa, and an example with Hyouka that even helps with character developments. Other than that, having good foils can also create a lot of interesting effects. When done right, it can sometimes create remarkable chemistry between said characters, which brought us to my next example – Kuroko and Kagami from the new basketball anime: Kuroko no Basuke, the metaphorical shadow and light pair.

Their personalities aside, their very appearance are already contrastingly designed. Kuroko is short and pale, and had below average stamina and strength, he is not someone one would normally associate with basketball. In contrast, Kagami is tall, and has a more sturdy build and tanned skin tone. Their personalities are just as you had guessed; befitting his timid nature, Kuroko is quiet, polite, weak, and almost feminine. His redeeming qualities is.. ironically his lack of presence. Kagami on the other hand is crude, flashy but on the bright side, he’s bold, confident and daring. In terms of basketball capability, Kagami possessed raw talent, and is especially good with dunking; while Kuroko is restricted to his very own limited, but unique style, which involved a lot of swift passing. By themselves, they are limited, but together, they are unstoppable. By assisting with each other, they effectively eliminated each other’s flaws and limitations – their chemistry became one of the Seiren Basketball Club’s main weapon. After a while of partnering with each other, they could understand each other with minimal conversation, almost telepathic, bringing about the most sudden breakthrough victory in the midst of a match. This is one of the magic of foils – sparking chemistry between characters.

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Casca: Because you left! It’s because you left Griffith…!!
Guts: Wait!!
Guts: That’s impossible. It’s not that……
Guts: It’s also because of Griffith..? That guy… Griffith.. Why would he be depressed because I left… He couldn’t get that depressed because of me… It’s impossible…
Casca: ….You’re a really stupid jerk…
Casca: At that time, I said it already! A good leader must have patience more than anything else!
Casca: Griffith needed to be stronger than everyone, but Griffith… is not God!! You can’t live on hopes and dreams alone! It was you who made Griffith weak and sad! Griffith, he..!
Casca: Griffith.. can’t do anything without you!

Indeed, foil creates very interesting dynamic rapports between characters. One other dynamic that foils are able to bring out exceedingly well, is rivals. A lot of rivals in media are created through foils – Naruto and Sasuke, Alucard and Anderson, Lelouch and Suzaku, Kira and L – the rivaling relationships these pairings had of each other, were crafted using foils and contrast, and yield very interesting results. When done right, it’s as if these shows are featuring two very different main protagonists at the same time.

One noteworthy example, and a very classic one at that, is Guts and Griffith from Berserk. From their personality to their very looks, they differ from just about any direction. Originally good friends, and later on commander/trusty subordinate, their relationship ironically turned downhill a little later. Their relationship is of misconceptions and tragedy – from Guts leaving the Bands of Hawks, from Griffith losing himself with Guts’s “betrayal”, to the impending Eclipse that directed Griffith into the dark path.

Griffith is extremely ambitious, to the point that he even made use of his charismatic abilities to manipulate his own men. Furthermore, he didn’t even mind sacrifices as long as he could achieve his goal in the end. Guts live a pained past, and he had guilty conscious from several bad choices he made. To the contrary of Griffith’s charisma, his appearance instead brought fears to everyone, due to his infamous nickname ‘The Black Swordsman’. He avoided companionship so that he wouldn’t hurt them in his quest, but deep down, he longed a place for him to belong to.

The two had TOO MUCH of a history going on for me to fully express the dynamics between Guts and Griffith. If I really were to do it, I will need one full post, or perhaps even several posts. However, the two characters are no doubt foils to each other, in fact, both of them feels like totally different characters emerging from different dimensions. You can also certainly feel that these two are being led to a battle against each other of ultimate bloodshed.

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The titles I mentioned here, are all great titles filled with an interesting array of different characters. By now, I’m sure you are all aware of what factors I take into account when grading a character score in my reviews; one of them obviously being-foils. Character contrast to me, is a very fascinating thing, and creates a lot of interesting effects in terms of characterization – at their very base, it creates a distinction; and the contrast helps highlight particular qualities of said characters, for some, the distinction is a catalyst for character development and for some, the distinction is so contrasting that it creates a rivaling effect.

Foils really help a lot with highlighting characterizations, when done right, it could allow us, the viewers, to immerse into the protagonist’s views and to connect with him in a much deeper level than without a foil. What do you feel about foil characters? And do you have any contrasting pairings or groups you are fond of?

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This entry was posted by Kai.

4 thoughts on “The Significance of Foils

  1. Nice analysis of foil characters, it’s something I really haven’t paid much attention to in watching series but foil characters really do wonders for character dynamics and highlighting the characteristics of the important members of the cast. The foil characters you discussed are fantastic examples and, luckily for me, all from series I’m familiar with. Guts and Griffith in particular make for a very interesting case. With a lot of those, the contrast is obvious with the base personalities, but Guts and Griffith are indeed a more complex example and like you mentioned, it would take a whole lot to really express the full depth of their relationship in a meaningful way.

    • I noticed that in a lot of media where I felt very connected with the characters; not just anime, in most cases, it had a lot to do with foils. I wanted to use examples not present in TV tropes, so I’m glad you’re familiar with all of them. Well, with the exception of Guts and Griffith though as that was in TV tropes, but still, when I think about “contrasting rivals”, I just can’t NOT mention Guts and Griffith. Those two is such a dynamic and complex pair.

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