Stories I’d Like to Write: Nakama

I first found the term “nakama” in one of my favorite anime/manga: Bleach. Back when I was really into the series, I followed this website, where the community would translate the chapters into English as they were released in Japan, instead of waiting until they made it over State-side. Since the translators were volunteers, there was some variation between terms, and sometimes they would leave Japanese words and add a bullet to explain what it meant in English.

Nakama is a Japanese word that means comrade, friend, or compatriot, technically someone working toward a shared goal with you. But in many anime/mangas, it means something more than that, something along the lines of Found Family, but even more than that.

Found Family is the idea that you can make your own family, by finding people around you who share the same values, and who support and understand each other. Basically, you can’t choose your biological family, but you can build a new one.

Nakama is not quite the same idea. In Bleach, for example, people who consider each other nakama do not necessarily get along. They don’t even like each other. But that doesn’t mean that, in another character’s hour of need, the first character won’t be next to them, willing to sacrifice their own life to protect and help them.

There is grudging respect. An acknowledgment of shared goals and perhaps values. A willingness to protect and help no matter the differences between characters’ attitudes, beliefs, and whatever previous conflicts the characters have had before. In Bleach, at least, characters that were, at one time, mortal enemies, people who had tried to kill one another, eventually become nakama.

There is something very satisfying to me about this concept. I’m not sure if it’s the idea that enemies can become, well, not friends (though sometimes!), but at least people willing to fight beside you, or if it’s something more primal, something that draws on the idea of belonging to and fighting for your clan, for lack of a better word.

Don’t get me wrong. I love found family too–the idea that a group can come together and be what they need, what they didn’t get from their biological families–but I like nakama better, perhaps because there’s built-in tension, or perhaps I just like the idea of someone who dislikes someone else still being willing to do the right thing by them.

But, how to build this into a story?

When I see nakama in anime/manga, it’s often something that happens over time. Episodes, or even seasons, dozens of chapters. Theoretically doable in a series, if it’s long enough, though I don’t tend to write series. But I often want to skip over the build-up and just drop the characters in, already nakama, and I’ve found that that doesn’t work. If you can’t see the change in the relationship over time, it’s not really the same thing.

The examples I can think of in anime/manga (and other books where the idea comes up) almost always involves fighting. There’s a war going on, or they’ve got to fight their way to their goal, whatever it is. The main character defeats another character, who eventually comes around to their way of thinking, either by learning more about a situation (i.e., someone who was following orders blindly before who learns that there’s something shady about what their side is doing) or by having some other reason to join up with the hero(ine). Or the second character realizes they have a common enemy, or something. I wonder if it could be done without the fighting aspect, or if the “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” is an essential part of the whole idea.

This isn’t really a plot idea, nor a structure. It would be something to add into another story, a way for the characters to relate to each others. I’d like to do it someday, bring a group of characters together, willing to fight for each other even if they don’t like each other. I’d just need to figure out a story to put the idea into.

What do you think about nakama, squiders? Got good examples that aren’t anime/manga (other than Bleach, I’ve seen this concept in One Piece, Naruto, and Fairy Tail)? Thoughts on how slow the build has to be?

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