I’d like to start this post off by having us some storytime. I call it Gaudy Statue.
Once upon a time, there was a man named Bob who had a friend named Alice. One day, Alice bought a gaudy statue that weighed 19 kilos and for some reason thought it would look best high up on a shelf she had to use a ladder to reach. Bob tried telling her that putting such a heavy statue up so high was dangerous, but Alice didn’t listen to him and kept the statue on its precarious perch.
Bob, worried for his friend, waited until she left for work a few days later and brook into her house to steal the gaudy statue. A week after that, an earthquake hit the area, and Alice happened to be sitting beneath the shelf where she had kept the gaudy statue. But because Bob had stolen the gaudy statue the previous week, it didn’t fall on Alice’s head and crack her skull open. Alice lived a long and happy life after that. The end.
Now that we’ve had our entertainment for the evening, I have but one question to posit: Was Bob’s theft morally justifiable in this story?
This is more or less the plot of Time Paradox Ghostwriter. Details differ, obviously—Bob is Teppei Sasaki, Alice is Itsuki Aino, and the gaudy statue is the manga White Knight—but by the manga’s final chapters, spoilers, this is what the plot transforms into. But regardless if you or I think Bob was in the right, Japanese audiences, and the CBR article which inspired this post, don’t see us eye to eye, hence the manga’s premature end. Their stance is thus: Plagiarism is bad, no matter the justification.
Generally speaking, no one’s arguing that plagiarism is a morally upstanding deed. In a contemporary setting, you’d have to perform some serious mental gymnastics to convince yourself and others that filching another scholar or artist’s work was the utilitarian option. But here’s another morally reprehensible wrong: fighting*. Going up to someone and beating the holy hell outta them will land you in the slammer, but Shonen Jump’s biggest series have hinged their entire identities on the protagonist’s prowess at burying his knuckles in his opponent’s face. Yet we cheer this on because that asterisk transforms an immoral no-no into an upstanding hoorah: fighting is bad, unless you’re fighting for peace or to protect someone.
The protagonist of Tales of Zestiria is a young man named Sorey, and for the most part, he’s what you might expect from a Japanese Hero’s Journey protagonist: kind, compassionate, but unafraid of a scuffle if it means protecting others. Looking out for the common good is what Sorey’s all about. And the one thing he absolutely opposes and denounces without hesitation is killing. This puts him at odds with another of the major characters, Rose, who’s a merchant guild leader by day and an assassin’s guild leader when no one’s looking. She doesn’t just kill willy-nilly, however. Her marks are always people of power exercising said power to oppress or harm others. Usually, this gig introduces her to politicians, but after teaming up with Sorey, this includes hellions.
On the whole, Tales of Zestiria’s story is much less than spectacular, but its strongest point is Sorey’s growth from an obdurate “killing is bad” mentality to accepting that killing is sometimes a necessary evil. It doesn’t just do what the second season of its anime adaptation does, where Sorey tells Rose, “Killing is wrong,” and she exclaims, “Oh my god! I’m a murderer!” while they’re riding horseback through a random forest, but instead shows, or at the very least suggests, what would happen should a hellion or a dragon or what have you make it to a public sphere. When you get down to it, the game’s narrative is just a fluffed up thesis with accompanying arguments on why killing is right under certain circumstances, so it’s up to the player to decide if they stance with game Sorey or anime Sorey, however poorly the latter frames his argument.
Establishing the basis for its moral dilemma in its earliest chapters is where TPG fumbles. To the audience, it seems like Teppei’s plagiarizing for the sake of plagiarizing. But even before it drops the bomb that Aino’ll kick the bucket if she starts work on White Knight, there’s still an interesting scenario, I think, revolving around the setup of a mangaka copying a manga from the future already baked into the story, just not extrapolated upon.
Sasaki does find success in the canon, but it’s not for another ten years. In the meantime, he’s just living as an ordinary citizen, paying the bills with part-time jobs. But imagine if he found his long-desired success without having to whittle the decade by. Pilfering someone else’s work so that you can start racking in the big bucks earlier isn’t an action I would advocate for, but what turns this scenario on its head is how Aino shows him no antagonism for his theft. In fact, she finds something of a soulmate in him in how he’s a fellow mangaka who has nothing to say to the masses but just wants for them to enjoy a damned good story. So she signs off on him continuing with a 2020 White Knight run and eventually discovers her own success with a different series. A win-win for them both, except when Aino ends up working herself to death with that different series, but that’s another matter.
A positive examination of this scenario is easy with 20/20 hindsight. If Alice shoots Bob dead, she gets sent to prison for first-degree murder. Even if it turns out that Bob’s death meant he wouldn’t go on to be elected president of his home country, shuffle the branches of government around to establish an autocratic rule, and then commit the worst genocide of the 21st century, the absence of that information just makes Alice out as a murderer. When we’re grading the moral fabric of an action, what we’re judging isn’t the consequences of that action, but the intention behind said action.
There’s no debate that Sasaki blatantly plagiarized White Knight. Accidentally at first, and after learning what a thief he is, he expresses intense remorse over his mistake. He goes to drop it, but at his editor’s urging and all the fans the story touched, he decides to move through with serialization, copying the original chapters panel by panel as his microwave cooks them up.
This is, I think, the most intriguing benefit to this moral conundrum, and it’s something the manga only touches on without fully realizing it. In publishing White Knight a full decade before its official release, Sasaki is allowing the world to experience this terrific series before it otherwise would.
Here’s a friendly reminder of an unfortunate fact of life—people die. And some of those people will die prematurely. That means there’re fans of the Tales series alive today who won’t get the chance to play Arise or whatever entry comes after because they get into a fatal car accident or suffer a heart attack from an undiagnosed heart condition. Unfortunate, but that’s how it goes in our 21st century society.
Granted, none of us will get to enjoy whatever zany characters and plots our 22nd century descendants think up—unless someone invents a cure for death beforehand—but consider all of the great, incredible, and spectacular games, anime, manga, comics, t.v. shows, and movies which have come out in just the last few years. Just two years ago I was thinking about how platformers aren’t the stomping grounds for a decent story, then along comes Celeste, which proves that the genre is indeed capable of delivering emotionally resonating narratives. Imagine that Kaguya-sama is from the year 2136. No one alive today should be guffawing at what’s hands down the best rom-com manga in circulation, yet here we are, guffawing since 2015.
Taking this to TPG, say there’s a chapter where Sasaki’s reading fan mail and this one letter from a particular fan catches his attention for whatever reason. The fan gushes about how greatly White Knight touched her and how it gave her something to look forward to when her life had lost all other meaning. The fan even opens up about how she was contemplating suicide before she discovered White Knight. Is the weight of this fan’s life worth Sasaki stealing it from Aino? These are the sorts of questions moral dilemmas can answer or at the very least explore.
It goes without saying that the moral dilemma of plagiarizing time-traveling stories isn’t a societal issue politicians are debating thousand-page bills over, but neither are planet-destroying aliens, and Goku can teach us about summoning the courage to stand up to bullies or what have you. But that’s all an aside. When a character is presented with a choice between two options where one isn’t innately better than the other, they have to assess which is the less evil of the two and endure the consequences of their judgment. Things will rarely work out so cleanly as a work’s original author okaying theft of their product. Charlie could break in to Daniel’s house and filch his big-screen t.v. and pawn it at the risk of jail time, but it was that or let his diabetic son die because he couldn’t afford insulin. A decision in the moral dilemma is less about what’s right and more of what’s more important to an individual.
Discussing the morals behind plagiarism is simply one route Time Paradox Ghostwriter could’ve taken. Sasaki’s willingness to plagiarize simply could’ve been a fault which fuels the engine to his character growth. His chapter one struggle is that he can’t find success as a mangaka because the stories he writes are empty, saying nothing to the reader and nothing about himself. But through plagiarism, he can finally taste that success he’s been so desperately craving.
Fast-forward through many plot events, shouting matches, news scandals, and so forth, and Sasaki comes to understand the terrible mistake he’s made. He might’ve gotten to feel that warmth of the limelight of success, but doing so demanded he push Aino out of its rays. His carelessness cost one girl her dream, and what’s more, he still can’t tell a good story. When he puts his pencil to the paper, he finds that what he drafts isn’t worth three damns. The pages may be filled, but there’s nothing to them. His stories are empty.
Just like him.
As a last minute disclaimer, nothing in this post is to suggest that plagiarism could be morally gray in reality. I sat here trying to drum up a possible scenario but couldn’t, and the only reason TPG has an ethic conundrum regarding plagiarism is because of its unique setup. But that’s just it: it’s the context of that particular story and the omnipotent lens through which we get to witness it which decides the moral sway of an action. In a time-traveling story, a soldier murdering a future serial killer might be hailed a hero, but in any other tale, he’s just a murderer himself.
Morality is a sticky bog to traverse. Certain things in this world may seem shrouded in a thick fog of evil, but the application of conditionals to those actions, such as taking one life to save another, dispels that fog, which turns out to have been nothing more than an self-brought illusion. So sites like CBR put on blinkers when they lambaste Time Paradox Ghostwriter for what “goes against the moral compass of many,” forgetting that a person who chooses to do something bad isn’t necessarily themselves bad and that the other option available probably wasn’t ideal, either. Sasaki’s plagiarism was misguided, not evil. He was just doing what he thought was best for himself, for his readers, and later for Aino, even if others didn’t agree with his decision.