How did Tatsuyuki Nagai use direction to make one of the most despicable villains sympathetic?
WARNING: This article contains huge spoilers for the Index/Railgun franchise. It explains, in detail, events from important moments in the story. There are major spoilers for the Sisters arc of the franchise and minor spoilers for events thereafter. Just a heads up. You’ve been warned!
I wrote about “A Certain Magical Index” a year ago and why you should watch it and in that article I went over some of my favorite story arcs as a reason why.
Part of what makes the Sisters arc in particular so great is the character Accelerator and how he develops throughout the story. I’m going to cover that here with how the series visually presents how this character transforms from villain to hero throughout the story of “Index.”
To recap the arc, Level 5 electromaster esper Mikoto Misaka discovers that a research firm she gave DNA to has used that DNA to mass produce clones of her for military purposes after breaking into a facility. After hacking into the systems, she sees that the clones were not able to match the original’s abilities, and the project, titled Project Radio Noise, was frozen in perpetuity.
Relieved at seeing the project frozen, she relaxes until she discovers clones of herself in the city. The clones have been repurposed for Project Level 6 Shift, where Level 5 esper Accelerator would kill 20,000 clones to advance to Level 6, and Misaka watches in horror as Accelerator kills the 9,982nd unit.
She desperately tries in vain to stop the experiments until the project is discovered by Touma Kamijou. Kamijou fights Accelerator in the middle of the 10032nd battle and wins, proving Accelerator to be too weak to advance to Level 6 since Kamijo is only a Level 0 (a non-esper) and the project is shut down.
But let’s back up for a moment. A big part of all of this was Accelerator’s willingness to participate in this experiment in the first place. He could have refused to participate if he wanted. As the strongest esper in Academy City he could have easily refused and couldn’t be forced because he is far stronger than any kind of restraint or blackmail could contain, and he said himself he was in it for the power. Surely that makes him a sadistic bastard who’s lusting for power and enjoys the misery of the clones, right?
Well, it’s less clear if you consider that Accelerator wasn’t being honest with the researchers, the viewers, and himself. While it’s true at the onset that he is after power, his motivations and intentions begin to differ from our initial perceptions once we delve deeper into the story.
Take the scene from episode 12 of “Railgun S” where we see the first experiment take place. Accelerator easily overpowers the clone and attempts to leave, thinking he’s already won.
Bored and disappointed, he heads for the door, but it won’t open. The researchers above stop him and tell him the experiment isn’t over yet, telling him he can leave once he has “dispatched of the subject.” For a brief moment, Accelerator realizes that he is being asked to kill.
After a last ditch effort bullet reflects back at the sister, Accelerator is struck for a moment.
“That’s what you meant?” He mutters to himself. “Oh, yeah. That’s what we were looking for,” replies the researcher.
“Just remember you’re not really killing people. Think of them as wind-up dolls, synthesized with chemicals and protein.” This frame here is significant because it shows literally and figuratively how dark the doctor’s words and actions are. The lights above him are positioned at the top of the frame and even then you can see the ceiling is dirtied with what looks like blood. His motivations are clear and we, the audience, can see them. But lower in the frame, deeper, the lights are off and the room is dark, illustrating the deep darkness beneath the surface. There’s a darker motive underneath that deceptive smile; a goal sinister enough that it’s preceded by a bloody objective. And of course, his hair is red to match, and his eyes are obscured behind his glasses, which are reflecting a bright color. The doctor sees golden opportunity in Accelerator, literally. Someone who might be able to achieve “Level 6," and also lots of profits for the researching firms as a result.
Notice here, too, the illustration of the hierarchy of the characters. Not of physical power, but intelligence and authority. Accelerator is at the bottom while the researchers are at the top. They command a higher authority than Accelerator. They’re clearly using him to meet their own ends. Accelerator is naive. He’s being manipulated by these scientists and proof of that is their positioning within the frame. It doesn’t matter that Accelerator is ranked first in Academy City. He lacks the understanding to see that these people are calling the shots here.
So now we’ve established that the researchers roped Accelerator into participating in their experiment. But how? What could have motivated Accelerator to join up with them? Why go through with the killing? He clearly was visibly shaken by it, with the researchers possessing the motive of profits so much they were willing to kill the sisters without a second thought. Was it really just power?
No, it wasn’t. As the story progresses, Misaka finds herself unable to confront Accelerator as he is too powerful. As a last ditch effort, she intends to skewer the data collected by fighting him herself and then dying. The damage to the calculations required to lay out Accelerator’s path to Level 6 would be irreparable. But not before Touma Kamijou catches wind of the experiments and heads in her direction to stop her, and after a touching moment between the two of them, he heads off to fight Accelerator himself as a Level 0.
A fight happens, and Kamijou nearly succeeds when Accelerator reflects on the experiments again. Kamijou says the sisters really are living. Not just “wind up dolls” like the researchers said. He realized he’d been duped. “They’re…living?”
We get a soliloquy from Accelerator as he narrates his thoughts and this is what comes to mind. He’s a child in this scene even though he is 15 or 16 (according to light novel 3 when this takes place). This is done to literally illustrate Accelerator’s naivete. His child-like desires allowed him to be manipulated. The suits he’s looking at are the same people he talked to before but now they’re faceless on this stage. They repeat the same lines they had told him before. “It’s not like any people will get hurt.” “Just think if you could have greater power than you do now.” These were the lines it took to get Accelerator to agree to the project. He didn’t know they were lying through their teeth so they could get him to agree.
He’s looking at the clones, taking in the researchers’ words. Accelerator is uneasy. He doesn’t look convinced, but he believes them anyway, because he’s a child and his desires are simple (we’ll get to that in just a minute). Ironically enough, the clones in this scene aren’t silhouettes. They aren’t faceless like Accelerator and the researchers who are natural born humans. The sisters have color to them even though they aren’t naturally born; a sign of their humanity. Even though they were developed in a lab and given mental training, they still have individuality and are living human creatures.
What Accelerator says in his mind next is the key. “I just wanted to become so strong no one would think of challenging me again.” This is where his true desire is revealed. He had said these words in the series before, but this time he adds “then maybe…” and suddenly we’re out of a dark place and someone reaches out to grab Accelerator’s hand and he’s led to a playground.
This is what truly motivated Accelerator. He didn’t want anyone to challenge him, not because he cared about being intimidating. It’s actually the opposite. He thought if no one wanted to challenge him, they’d forget about fighting him and want to be friends instead. If others knew how overwhelmingly powerful he was, he could be secure in knowing they had no intention of fighting him, and that they would approach him for something else, obviously something more friendly.
That’s the killer. Accelerator was lonely. He had always been afraid because his power would push away people who’d want to be his friend and invite chaos by people who thought he was a threat. He always faced the world alone, and what he faced was much more than any person should take.
Suddenly he’s not a kid anymore and he realizes that was just a fantasy. And now that he’s grown, his naivete as a child is gone too and now that he realizes the clones are all individuals with life, his actions all catch up to him. He’s back in a dark place. It’s a sudden, abrupt change made to point out the harsh reality of Accelerator’s life. He’s not a kid who can play with other kids. He’s a teenager in a dark place and he’s all alone, and to top it off, trying to reach that goal of ridding himself of loneliness meant he had to kill 10,000 sisters to get there, and he’s still not any closer to it than he was before.
A sea of blood of his own creation. All he can do is watch as the sisters’ bodies turn up around him. This mental image will come back to haunt him in later story arcs in the series and spin offs. Accelerator lets his guard down against Kamijou after this mental scene and is knocked out and left defeated and the project comes to a close.
Things have mostly returned to normal for Accelerator but he’s still haunted by his actions, and he’s given the chance to make amends when he encounters another, different sister…
Now we need to roll back the production clock a bit to the original “A Certain Magical Index” series to see what happens to Accelerator after these events and the new sister he comes across on the street, unit 20001: Last Order.
Last Order is Unit 20001. As mentioned before, Accelerator was to kill 20,000 clones, so the existence of an extra puzzles him. Last Order serves as the “control tower” for the Misaka Network, the link that connects the minds of all the Misaka sisters. However, since the experiments ended early, Last Order came out of the incubator before she was fully grown, so she isn’t as tall or developed as the other sisters.
She follows him around to his annoyance and he reluctantly allows her to stay in his apartment and takes her to a diner the next day to get food.
Though grateful for taking her to get food, Last Order explains to Accelerator that he didn’t actually want to take place in the experiments. She shares the memories of the other sisters as a part of the Misaka Network and knows how the fights turned out. Accelerator would always strike up a conversation to delay the fights and if that didn’t work, he would chip away their strength a little at a time in hopes that they would run away scared. But they stayed, so he bottled his uneasiness with the experiments and pushed on, hoping to achieve that goal of never having to fight again.
And Accelerator is quite surprised by this. Notice how in the frame above, Last Order’s body is almost entirely within view while in the frame below, we only see Accelerator’s face. The audience is taking Accelerator’s point of view. Not just in this shot, but in many of the others as well, the audience is meant to identify with Accelerator. The position of the camera indicates how close an audience feels to a character. It represents emotional distance. We feel close to Accelerator because we understand him. Loneliness is something we all experience at some point, and if we had the chance to ease it, we might take it even if it meant harming others. But we still have hearts. We wouldn’t want to ease our suffering by causing more of it. But just feeling guilty isn’t enough. For Accelerator, he needs to make amends, and he wants to start with Last Order.
Accelerator, ticked by their chat, leaves her at the diner after she falls unconscious. She is later kidnapped by Ao Amai, a researcher from the experiments and injected with a virus that will eventually spread to the entire Misaka Network. To stop it, Accelerator tracks down Last Order with the help of Yoshikawa (trying to stop it), another researcher from Level 6 Shift.
He manages to track down Amai with Last Order and knocks him out and is now on the phone with Yoshikawa. He discovers he can wipe the virus if he concentrates and uses his esper powers. When he nearly finishes, Amai gets back up and shoots a gun.
In this split second, Accelerator has a choice. He can finish the job at the cost of his own life or he can stop and use his ability to reflect the bullet. He’s trapped, caged in, illustrated by the actual cage behind him where he fits almost perfectly within the frame.
His monologue at this moment is notable. “What was I thinking?” He asks himself. “Did I really think I had a chance to make things right?” He reveals to the audience that during this scuffle, he really was trying to make amends by saving Last Order.
In this crucial moment, the audience sees where Accelerator’s path leads. Will he save himself or the girl? Ultimately, he chooses to save the girl, and is shot opting to finish wiping the virus. Luckily he manages to use his reflection at the very last possible moment before the bullet gets too far into his brain and he survives. After treatment in the hospital, he is given an electrical device that allows him to still use his powers despite his brain injury by allowing him to connect to the Misaka Network. Ironically the one thing he fought against is now helping him use his powers.
It’s been a long road since that incident, but throughout the series, Last Order and Accelerator form a true bond with each other. Accelerator, still traumatized by Level 6 Shift, decides to care for and protect Last Order. She’s even helped him as well, and he’s proven unable to lay a hand on her even when he goes berserk.
While not giving too much away if you haven’t made it this far in the series, Accelerator goes mad with rage, his eyes red. But he still can’t bring himself to harm the girl he’s sworn to protect. An indication of his development.
At this point it’s no longer fair to call him a villain. That’s what he was before. But it’s different now. He’s an anti-hero (despite what he intends to call himself).
All that aside, Accelerator was just a boy with a lot of power who got manipulated because he was lonely, and a little girl connected to it all saved him. That’s what makes him a sympathetic villain.
Thanks for reading, everyone! A special thanks to my Patrons on Patreon, Sean Dillon, Anarka Akaza, and Michael Potin-O’Brien. If you enjoy my work please consider joining them as a patron for just $1 a month.
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