Sunday, December 23, 2012

Characters with Character: Shiki Tohno and Roa

Characters with Character: Shiki Tohno and Roa
            The hero and the archenemy, this is a character relationship that we see time and time again when following the ongoing adventures of a heroic figure. The archenemy can sometimes be the complete opposite of the hero such as Mario and Bowser or Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham, but in a lot of cases that character can be portrayed as one who is so similar to yet also so very different from the hero such as Harry Potter and Voldemort or Solid Snake and Liquid Snake. I have to admit I favor the latter relationship mainly because it tends to add more complexity to both sides, and the two (technically four) characters that we’ll be looking at in this special “Characters with Character” segment are certainly of that category. I present to you, Shiki Tohno and Roa of Tsukihime.

            Warning before we continue, there are major spoilers for  Tsukihime’s story, so if you want to enjoy this game’s story first then go download and play or youtube it (reminder, game’s out of print) then please do so. I’ll even help you with the latter with a look at the game’s opening:
            Almost everyone in the VN community knows who Shiki Tohno is as a result of the well told story of Tsukihime and the narrative from his point of view throughout the game helps in establishing him as a character who manages to be likable, believable, and badass. Out of all the MCs I’ve ever come across in the visual novel game genre, Shiki would be in my top three favorites, and to be honest one could easily make a CwC article about him alone. However, I’ve noticed that the subject of his enmity with Roa rarely comes up aside from explanations about the events of Tsukihime. Now don’t get me wrong there’s plenty about the character as his character history has been well expanded over the years, but it seems Roa gets pushed aside in Shiki and co.’s rogues gallery in favor of the more over the top powerful vampires like Nrvnqsr Chaos (it’s pronounced Nero) or TATARI/Night of Wallachia. While it is understandable why, it is a shame considering the two make a fine example of hero and villain who are both alike and different. This article will be my attempt to examine that with as much detail as possible.
            Now at first glance, Shiki and Roa could not be more different; Shiki is a high school student who has been living a mostly normal life until his fateful encounter with Arcueid ends up drawing him into the hidden world of the supernatural while Roa is an ancient vampire, formerly a powerful member of the Church named Michael Roa Valdamjong, infamous for his ability to reincarnate and avoid permanent death. However, once you start taking a look at them, one of the firsts in this strange combination of similarity and difference is that both characters have something about them relating to death. Shiki has the ability to see the death of living and nonliving things, meaning their eventual fated destruction, expressed as small points on them with lines connected to said points that spread out from them. Tracing these lines results in (according to Type Moon wiki, who can explain it a lot better than me) “…realizes the fated destruction, and the victim is cut or cracked or broken along those lines. Because this destruction is destined, this method of injury ignores any of the victim's defenses; armor, magical protection, regeneration, and so forth are useless. While a line symbolizes "damage" along that part of the body, a dot symbolizes the totality of that body's damage, and by extension, "existence". When a dot is pierced, the victim's concept is destroyed.”  On the other end, Roa has the ability to reincarnate as a result of having altered his soul so that after death it can retain itself in Akasha (Kinoko Nasu’s take on the Akashic records) and from there he can revive in a new body after a period of time.
            With these two death associated abilities that are also opposites (Shiki’s to end life, while Roa’s is to continue it), we also get two different outlooks on life and death from these two. Shiki discovers his ability at a young age, but guidance from a sorceress he meets by chance named Aoko Aozaki results in him not only learning that his death dealing ability isn’t something to be used on a whim but also that there’s a value to life. This is coupled with his having unstable health as a result of an injury in an accident he can’t remember which not only helps him appreciate living but it also gives him a more accepting regard to his own death because for a while his bad health made it very unclear if he would live for very long after the accident. That’s not to say that Shiki isn’t afraid of dying as events throughout the game do show moments where he’s close to dying and does indeed feel fear, but he’s always able to find some sort of drive to help him pull through. It’s this value of life that is a central part of Shiki as a character from his appreciation of the normal everyday life he’s able to lead with his friends to his willingness to go the extra mile to in some way save those close to him, the best example being in Akiha’s route in which it’s revealed that the main reason Shiki survived the “accident” that occurred all those years ago is because Akiha gave him half of her life force to save him. Unfortunately this leaves her susceptible to the cursed bloodline of the Tohno family and over the course of her route it starts to drive her insane and the only sure way to return her to normal is for Shiki to either return that life force to her and the only way that can happen is through his own death or keep her bloodlust brought on by it sustained by letting her routinely bite him (a very painful process) in order to drink blood from the wound and hope she eventually returns to normal. While the former choice is considered canon to Akiha’s story, either choice shows just how much of a personal sacrifice he’s willing to make for a loved one’s sake. Nasu even made sure to write the scene following making the canon choice to show as noble a sacrifice as Shiki is making he doesn’t have any illusions about making this choice: he knows killing himself would be one of the last things he’d ever consider, he realizes what he’s about to do is only the lesser of the two evils as it may save Akiha but it will also hurt her, and despite knowing what he has to do he still feels fear at his impending demise but is able to pull through as he focuses on the person he’s making the sacrifice for. Surprisingly, this scene is pretty short, yet it really is an effective one.
 On the other side is Roa, whose ability to reincarnate came about as a result of research on a way to obtain eternal life as he believed that eternity was the only thing worth attaining. This belief stemmed from a view established when he was very young that all living things, including himself, were pitiful in how no matter what they did nothing about them could last forever, that they were all destined to break down or degrade over time in almost comically repetitive series of cycles. To obtain his goal of eternity, Roa ends up sacrificing his humanity and countless human lives over the course of his many reincarnations. Ironically though, Roa’s personality fades with each reincarnation and by the time Tsukihime takes place, Roa’s goal has become simply to continue his cycle of reincarnation. We also get a second irony relating to the loss of Roa’s original personality over the course of these reincarnations in that it counts as one of the very degradations that he was trying to avoid. Finally, one more ironic twist is that even though one of the things he disdained about mortality was how repetitive it seemed, once Roa gained the eternity he sought through reincarnation, each reincarnation would follow the same course of gaining power in his new body until Arcueid confronts and kills him, making his view of life by the time Tsukihime takes place simply a means to an end so he can keep meeting the vampire who he became obsessed with from the moment he saw her (we’ll talk about that later).
 This is where we see the opposing viewpoints of Shiki and Roa on life and death, for Shiki life is something to be appreciated for every moment there is and death is something to be acknowledged as something that will happen eventually and while it’s natural to fear death that fear shouldn’t be allowed to consume you. For Roa, originally, life was a series of the same degradations from birth into death that he wanted to break away from, and by the game’s time it’s just another phase until death. Roa’s view of death was initially just as something that he was to surpass in order for him to accomplish his goal and by the game’s time it’s simply the equivalent of pressing a reset button after a game over. Interestingly though, despite these differing viewpoints, at the near end of Ciel’s good ending we see the only scene where we get to see Roa’s thoughts on finally dying for real and he simply says that nothing is interesting at all even all the history of his reincarnations represented in a large book before disappearing. It gets you to wonder, did he reach the same conclusion Shiki did (or a similar one) about death or was he simply giving up and acknowledging that he couldn’t surpass death in the end?
            Now when talking about Shiki and Roa to fully analyze them, you’re also going to have to address the other Shikis and to do that I’ll need to explain more backstory. The Shiki Tohno we know is actually the child of a different family, the Nanayas, a clan of demon slayers massacred by the Tohno family as they were part demon and would be hunted by the Nanayas. Shiki was spared due to his being very young and after erasing his memory he was adopted by the Tohnos. He’s raised alongside the head of the family’s children, a boy also named SHIKI (the name’s written with different kanji so the English speaking fanbase write it as SHIKI) and his younger sister Akiha. Not long after, SHIKI ends up succumbing to his demonic blood, goes insane and attacks Akiha, Shiki ends up protecting her and is nearly killed in the process, so the head of the Tohno family has SHIKI imprisoned and Shiki’s memories of the incident and SHIKI are erased and he ends up taking SHIKI’s place in the Tohno family. Roa ends up reincarnating into SHIKI and that’s the body he’s using throughout the game; during the Near Side routes Roa is the dominant personality while in the Far Side routes SHIKI is the dominant one. SHIKI also possesses eyes similar to Shiki’s but can only see the aforementioned lines and not the dots and only on living things and not inanimate objects. This is because he’s more perceiving the life of something rather than its death, which makes for an interesting match with Roa considering his only regard for death is a step into another life for him.

Moving on to Shiki himself, unbeknownst to him until later in the game, Shiki has another side of himself that emerges when the supernatural are about that is more adept at fighting and seems to revel in killing. This other side is basically the result of the training Shiki received from his blood relatives the Nanayas before the Tohnos attacked. It’s debatable if this other side is truly another personality or just a result of his memories being erased, though Shiki does at some points refer to his other side as if it were another person, and the fanbase tends to treat it like one (dubbing it Shiki Nanaya) so I’ll count it as one.

Having explained all of this, I’ve covered the similarity of regardless of which version of Roa that Shiki faces they both have a second hidden personality. The contrast though is that Shiki never gives in to his other side completely, even in fights where it emerges usually as a result of nearing death, while SHIKI ends up becoming Roa or vice versa. With Shiki and Roa we see a sub theme of succumbing to/giving in to vs. not succumbing to/giving in to quite a bit throughout the game: Shiki is always able to resist attempts to either drive him insane like we see in the Far Side routes (though that is mainly a side effect from his connection to SHIKI) or control him like in Ciel’s route where Roa tries taking him over after his body is destroyed and aside from his first major encounter with Arcueid he doesn’t give in to his desire to kill brought on by his Nanaya side; conversely Roa is unable to fully maintain who he originally was in any of the routes as a result of his reincarnating and SHIKI can’t resist the madness brought on by the demonic part of his bloodline. Another example would be how Shiki never gives in to despair from the apparent hopelessness of a fight like when Nrvnqsr Chaos tries devouring him to when he has to deal with getting over having to kill Satsuki Yumizuka in self-defense when she’s turned into a vampire by Roa all of which helps in leading to a drive to continue moving forward and living, meanwhile Roa gives in to his despair towards life’s having an inevitable end. Shiki’s struggling and prevailing against these rather than giving in shows us the value of inner strength while Roa’s cycle of giving in provides us a look at a villain that lacks the inner strength of the hero but is able to manage without it even if it does bring him lower, which is certainly interesting to see.
Finally, the last major area of similarity and contrast with Shiki and Roa comes from how both have some connection to the heroines of the game; Shiki’s being positive and Roa’s being negative. The best example would be in Arcueid’s case: while at first there’s the more  obvious part of Roa being responsible for Arcueid having to live a monotonous existence of killing each incarnation of Roa and then sealing herself back into the Brunestud castle in order to sleep until the next incarnation (though admittedly that’s only half Roa’s doing since Arcueid was created by the True Ancestors as a weapon to kill the True Ancestors who had gone insane from blood drinking) as Roa tricked her into drinking his blood in order to become a powerful vampire as Arcueid wasn’t aware of her nature as a vampire (and yes I’m aware of Roa’s being associated with the snake due to his reincarnating so queue this), while her relation towards Shiki results in her experiencing a life outside of all that and subsequently some of his value of life rubs off onto her, there is a slightly less apparent one in the area of romance. This basically covers the root of Roa’s obsession with Arcueid; basically when a then human Roa (here’s a bit of trivia Roa also wore glasses, originally) first saw Arcueid he essentially felt feelings of love for her as he saw her as the embodiment of eternity that he was seeking, however since he didn’t understand what he was feeling was love having not experienced it before he instead interpreted it as his first feelings of hatred, blaming her for changing his goal of attaining eternity simply for the sake of attaining it to a means for him to keep reaching out to her. On the other end, Shiki does start feeling an attraction to Arcueid soon after helping her with Nrvnqsr Chaos, which he does recognize but has a hard time admitting until their relationship develops further, and it does give him an interesting perspective when he sees into Roa’s soul and finds out his initial feelings of Arcueid, leading Shiki to ponder what would have happened if someone had just explained to Roa that his feelings were actually love. Now I could write about the other connections as they’re all very fascinating such as Ciel’s being Roa’s incarnation prior to Tsukihime and how Shiki’s influence affects her similar to Arcueid, Roa’s incarnating into Akiha’s actual blood brother and how that affects her relation towards Shiki, and how Kohaku’s cooperation with against the Tohno family SHIKI affects her and Hisui, but if I discuss those in detail I’ll probably have written enough to fill a National Geographic magazine. However I can say that these arrangements of both Shiki and Roa having ties to the heroines adds depth to them both in how it fully rounds out Roa’s role as a villain not just for Shiki to overcome but for him and the main heroine of the route (though this significantly less so for Hisui and Kohaku) to overcome together after Shiki plays a role in helping to fix the negative influence brought upon said heroine by Roa.

Finally this leads into one final aspect concerning these two, companionship and what they take from it. Both Shiki and Roa have or have had companions over the course of their life, for Shiki it’s the friends he’s made and for Roa it’s the allies he makes from the people he worked with when he was a member of the Church, Kohaku, and Nrvnqsr Chaos. In Shiki’s case these are genuine bonds and from those bonds he learns things that help him grow as a person such as with Aoko Aozaki it’s why he needs to control his power and the value of life or why his continued living is more important to those close to him than he realizes over the course of Akiha’s route. With Roa his allies are mainly just associates he can rely on for aid without any real attachment between them; while there is some indication that some of his allies from his days in the Church may have regarded him as a friend (much of this is from Nasu’s published notes and Melty Blood rather than Tsukihime), I can only really talk about Kohaku and Nrvnqsr Chaos for sure. For Kohaku, it’s mainly an alliance of convenience with both using the other for revenge, Kohaku against the Tohno family and SHIKI/Roa against Shiki. Nrvnqsr Chaos is the closest to an actual bond since the two do call each other friends and have helped one another out, though there seems to be a line for as to how far this friendship goes since even Nrvnqsr Chaos won’t accept him as a numbered member of the Twenty Seven Ancestors of Dead Apostles (who basically the most powerful vampires in the Type Moon universe) because even though the Church has declared him one of them they won’t accept Roa as such because they view him as a heretic for his methods as a vampire, and in Roa’s case he never seems that upset after Nrvnqsr Chaos dies at Shiki’s hand.

It really is a shame Roa fades into the background as a villain after Tsukihime and Nrvnqsr Chaos is more iconic in that aspect. He and Shiki make for an interesting hero and archenemy to analyze from the major points they have in common contrasted with their many differences, yet it’s this case of similarity and dissimilarity that ties in so well with their enmity making them such interesting characters with character. Each of their unique confrontations per route makes for one of the many pillars that has helped Tsukihime stand the test of time and be remembered to this day as a classic of the visual novel genre. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to fry my brain on the product of Kinoko Nasu’s decade long buildup of the Type Moon universe’s mythology coupled with his insanity, Carnival Phantasm, only those who have played at least Tsukihime and Fate/Stay Night may join…it’s the only way you’ll get the jokes.


  1. This is an absolutely excellent review of this; I'm exceptionally impressed. It covers just about everything of note and demonstrates exactly how brilliant Tsukihime's structure was in regards to its juxtaposition of living, death, and eternity. I agree completely about how disappointing it is that Roa became so obscure after Tsukihime, since he really is a superb villain and character in general. I feel like he got overlooked for not having any particularly overwhelming KOOL POWARS LOL in his appearance in Tsukihime's VN, especially compared to Nrvnqsr, which is just sad when you consider how Tsukihime's focus was less about fighting and powerlevels than Fate or even Rakkyou. Thankfully, the mangaka of Shingetsutan Tsukihime seems to appreciate Roa as well and gave an exceptional rehabilitation of his intimidation factor with Nasu's approval.

    Amazing catch with Roa's "alliance" with Kohaku. That's something almost everyone seems to overlook, since it really seems to be what pushes Kohaku over the edge into actually taking vengeance. Then again, Kohaku's character has become incredibly muddled after Tsukihime by people who incessantly perceive her as a moe character and, well, I suppose that's what Type-Moon has unfortunately turned her into now. I must say it somewhat bugs me how Nasu endeavors to turn all of his characters basically into big, unfunny jokes after the mainline releases, especially when many of his early works holds up absolutely perfectly to in-depth analysis like yours.

    1. Thank you, both for the comment and glad to see more appreciation for Roa too. I agree for the most part about Kohaku as while I find her Magical Broom Girl Amber and Mech Hisui plotline funny, it really is disappointing that the dramatic aspects of her character are ignored and she's basically regarded as a comic relief side character. Maybe the remake will help fix that if it ever gets made

  2. They contrast in pretty much every way. Shiki is highly naturally talented, with all his abilities either bred into his psychic ninja genes or through training he can't even remember. He's described as sharp by Arihiko, but he's supremely lazy and unambitious, just wants a bare minimum easy life. He sometimes acknowledges these abilities, but even after multiple life or death situations, he still rallies against them even when they're helpful, he's content to pretend they don't exist. Probably my least favorite thing about the various permutations of his character arc is that there's never a time where he wholly comes to terms and integrates that all into himself, and Kagetsu Tohya aborts the possibility of that when Kouma pulps the nightmare Nanaya, then Melty Blood externalizes that aspect completely and removes everything originally interesting about it while plopping Shiki into below-par paper-thin fighting game excuse plots. Meanwhile, the highly educated Roa who does hard research and spent multiple lives honing his abilities, values social status, and has ridiculous cosmic ambitions, honestly some of Roa's virtues make him out to be more admirable than Shiki in some areas.

    Some descriptions of the hypothetical "Satsujinki" Shiki in talk and Prelude refer to him as a degenerated shade, なれのはて, the absolute lowest point in his existence even if his raw power and ability are at their highest, and I find it interesting that it's loving Arcueid and wholly devoting himself to her that brings him to that level. A supposedly wholesome end with a heroine brings him to the same low existence as those bad ends where he snaps and gets stuck in his florid-talking maniac inversion impulse state. Between Shiki and Roa, I'm convinced that mortals acquiring a profound interest in Arcueid is a fast track to a fate worse than death, and Shiki did him a favor dotstabbing him. Better that than some day degenerating into little more than a cosmically inherited mild attitude problem like he was reduced to in Kohaku's ending.

    After Tsukihime's manga adaptation did a fair job at building Roa up, it's too bad the triple threat of Melty Blood/Carnival Phantasm/Some Fate Drama CD immediately went and decided to nuke his credibility again. Anyway, this blog seems pretty dead, but I loved this analysis of yours. Lots of overlooked stuff here that tends to get lost in the shuffle of powerlevel arguments.