Sunday, 3 August 2014

Legend of Korra: the perils of making fantasy "relatable"

There are a lot of reasons to really love Legend of Korra. Compared to the anime it takes so much of its inspiration from, its fight sequences are really nicely handled, with a balletic wuxia film style that few Japanese anime have ever even attempted to match. Its avoidance of moé character tropes in favour of a female lead who is strong, muscular, independent and beautiful, with a female supporting cast who are all treated as human beings rather than doll-like objects of male fantasy, is also a refreshing change after a lot of time spent in the otaku hell of most anime of the past 10-15 (20?) years. Legend of Korra, like Avatar: The Last Airbender before it, is also refreshing compared to a lot of American TV for its basis in non-European culture and ethnicity.

And yet is it really?

There are a lot of visual signifiers of Asian culture, and the show obviously has a lot of fun with them in its pagoda skyscrapers and junk battleships, but in those things what we're really seeing is the familiar trappings of Western (in this case American) civilisation done up in the exotic embroidery of the Orient. Where it comes across most strikingly, however, is in the characters themselves. Yes, Korra, Mako, Bolin etc. appear Asian, but they speak and behave just like contemporary American teenagers.

The world of Legend of Korra also adheres to a very American sense of history's march. There are monarchies and empires, but the show expects us to understand that a presidential republican democracy in the American model is the only natural and just progression. Other models of governance exist to be taught that they are wrong.

Even the problems with democracy reflect the common straw-man complaints Americans have of the system in that it is sometimes subject to the capricious whims of the crowd – in essence that democracy is too responsive to the wishes of its people, a bit like going into a job interview and saying, “My main fault is that I sometimes work too hard.”

Now I'm being a bit unfair here, I know. That the show even deals with the issues of governance and flaws in democracy at all is a sign of its thoughtfulness, and it's ridiculous to expect a kids' show to suddenly turn into The Thick of It or Veep, but it's worth recognising just how limited a range of views it expects from its viewers. At heart, Legend of Korra isn't really doing much more than reflecting back at its audience the core values their own society professes.

Of course given my earlier comments on Legend of Korra's representation of women, in a way I'm praising it out of one corner of my mouth and criticising its broadly American political ideology out of the other, despite both being reflections of the same thing: the show's adherence to Western, broadly liberal values. Look at international gender equality rankings and China's lingering ideological remnants of Communist equality mean that it tends to do OK (but not brilliantly), while patriarchal capitalist oligarchies like Korea and Japan prop up the bottom of the table alongside places like Qatar and Kuwait. Would we really want a kids' show that accurately reflected the gender inequality that's rife in so much of Asia?

I think there are two points here. Firstly, that such social constructs needn't be a barrier to creating strong, believable characters. Characters can live in a very conservative society and by good writing that shows them as rounded human beings in their interactions with those rules, we can still sympathise with them and root for them. The problem is when we simply assume a set of values in our viewers and lazily broadcast those values back at them.

Inherent in this is the misconceived idea that in making narrative art, it should always be “relatable”. Why should we as the audience expect to be able to relate everything back to our own lives? The human capacity for empathy and imagination is an incredibly powerful tool that allows us to step into the shoes of people with quite different lives to us and understand them and their struggles. This is also an idea at the core of the fantasy genre, which exists to do precisely that. Legend of Korra is a fantasy drama and by cleaving so closely to behaviour, language and values familiar to American teens, it fails to credit its audience with the imagination to empathise with anything more than an Orientalised version of themselves.

Once again, Legend of Korra is in the fantasy genre. It doesn't need to painstakingly recreate the Asian cultures that it draws its aesthetic influence from any more than it should be simply recycling contemporary American culture. It has a free rein to pick and mix from all over the place or just simply invent stuff of its own out of the ether. Fantasy can employ satire to reflect back elements of its reader's own culture, but it is never a straight reflection: rather it is a funfair hall-of-mirrors distortion that in its very absurdity shows up the foibles and pretensions of its target.

Yeah, I get it, there are commercial reasons why anything more complex than what it already is would have difficulty getting made, and audiences are trained these days to expect their TV sets to behave like little more than a mirror. Sure. You're right. But on a literary level, what Legend of Korra does is still limited and fails to fulfil the fantasy genre's remit of taking its audience to a truly different place, denying us the joy of exploring a new world with its own rules by simply transplanting our own.

It's still an enjoyable show, and well worth watching. Similarly, Japanese anime is often every bit as ideological in its own, often rather more unpleasant and disturbing way. Just read this as a plaintive, selfish cry from a fan and an admirer for a greater degree of anthropological rigour in my animated TV fantasy drama.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Artists and the machines of death: The Wind Rises (2013) and The First of the Few (1942)

Hayao Miyazaki's The Wind Rises was pitched as the director's final film, and as such has an extra weight of expectation attached to it, as if it should not only match up to the rest of his celebrated oeuvre, but also somehow act as a coda, a definitive statement, a portrait of the man as an artist. It tells the heavily fictionalised tale of Japanese aircraft designer Jiro Horikoshi, creator of the legendary Second World War fighter the Mitsubishi A6M “Zero”, and given Miyazaki's love of flying machines of all kinds, it's easy to see it as a metaphor for the man himself.


In watching The Wind Rises, I decided to take it in as a double feature with another film about an aviation designer, the British wartime drama The First of the Few, which told the story of Reginald J Mitchell, the designer of the Supermarine Spitfire. Between the two films, there are a number of interesting points of comparison relating to their portrayals of the engineer as artist, of the creator who makes machines of destruction, and of relationships and obsession.


Both films make it explicit that they regard their protagonists as artists, somehow above mere engineers, and they do this partly through portraying Horikoshi and Mitchell's interests in and appropriation of natural forms. Horikoshi's admiration of the elegant curve of a herring bone that he picks out of his lunch isn't of any real practical use, since the curve of a wing for maximum aerodynamic efficiency is a matter of mathematics, but his appreciation of this natural form tells us that he is not just an engineer: he is a man of inspiration, who searches not just for engineering efficiency but also for elegance.

Similarly, when we first meet Mitchell in The First of the Few, he is birdwatching during a seaside picnic with his wife. The circumstances of both Mitchell's and Horikoshi's moments of inspiration come during moments away from work, but both find their attention drawn from their food and companions by the power of sublime nature. In Mitchell's case, the focal point of his inspiration lies in the simple elegance of the bird's form which he seeks to emulate in contrast to the ungainly network of struts and wires that make up most aircraft of the early 1920s.

One big difference between the films is in the relative weight placed on dreams and reality. Horikoshi is portrayed as a dreamer and The Wind Rises frequently disappears without warning into his (and by extension Miyazaki's) fantasies. The First of the Few, however, explicitly anchors itself in reality. This contrast is exemplified by the opening scenes of the respective films.

The Wind Rises opens with a dream of the young Horikoshi taking to the skies in a homemade flyer, soaring over the peaceful countryside of early Taisho period Japan, only for the peace and purity of his airborne antics to be shattered by the arrival of a vast, German airship (Japan was Britain's ally during the First World War and fought against Germany, although this also foreshadows other aspects of the film) and a fleet of idiosyncratic flying bombs.

The First of the Few, on the other hand, rubs your face in reality. It begins right in the thick of The Battle of Britain, with newsreel footage of German conquests, genuine footage of German bomber squadrons over southeast England, and the words of Hitler, Goebbels, Goering, Lord Haw Haw and Churchill. The acting of the extras who trade quips and banter between sorties may seem unnaturally awkward and stilted, but that's largely because many of them were genuine RAF pilots who had been drafted into the film for propaganda purposes.

And that's a core difference between the films. Made in 1942, right in the middle of the war, The First of the Few is essentially a propaganda film, while The Wind Rises is divorced from the most immediate implications of the war by nearly seventy years. The Wind Rises has an ambiguous relationship with the war, reflecting the work of a director who hates war but loves its machinery, and Miyazaki feeds that attitude into his central character. Horikoshi experiences the destruction of Tokyo firsthand near the beginning of the film, as the Great Kanto Earthquake hits in a terrifying scene just as his train is approaching Tokyo, and this is a clear foreshadowing of the destruction from the air that is to be visited upon Tokyo from the kind of machines he is set on creating. Later on, Horikoshi's befriends German dissident Castorp, who warns him of the destructive path Germany and Japan have set themselves on, and Horikoshi must wrestle with his love for his art and the knowledge of the ends to which his work is being put. He does this primarily by doubling down on his work, immersing himself in it to such an extent that he doesn't even think about the war. Basically, he decides that art supersedes all other concerns.

The First of the Few is, in a way, by its very nature far more honest and direct in how it confronts the issue of war, but it deals with the same conflict between art and the destructive purposes to which this particular art is put. Rather than have Mitchell wrestle with it as a moral dilemma, however, the film is divided into two parts, each reflecting a different side of aviation technology. The first part deals with the Schneider Trophy and how Mitchell's Supermarine S5 and S6 designs first won and then permanently retained the trophy. The romance of the high speed air race is something Miyazaki had touched upon previously in Porco Rosso, which references the Schneider Trophy and in the name of American pilot Donald Curtis references the same Curtiss R3C biplane that is shown in The First of the Few beating Mitchell's prototype Supermarine S4 to the 1925 trophy. The second part of the film kicks off with Mitchell's visit to Germany to see one of Hitler's glider clubs. His awe at the purity of the German gliders, so close to his own vision of birdlike simplicity, soon gives way to the realisation of the Nazis' ambitions for their own military airforce, and like any true patriot, he is from then on fully invested in making machines of war.

Part of this reflects the circumstances and timing of each film's creation, but it also reflects the contrasting natures of each country's involvement in the war. Britain could easily justify its military air programme as the island itself was under immediate threat. The Spitfire was a short range, land-based interceptor, designed to shoot down enemy bombers attacking the homeland and their escorts. The Zero, on the other hand, was a carrier-based fighter, whose role included escorting bombers and projecting Japanese power far overseas, while Japan's own role in the war was offensive before any need for defence of the homeland came into play. Miyazaki acknowledges this when Horikoshi is inspecting a new bomber aircraft built by his friend Kiro Honjo and asks who it's going to be used on. Honjo rattles off a list of countries including America, China, Britain and the Netherlands that makes it abundantly clear that Japan's intentions lie in expansion. The differing circumstances are also reflected in the differing attitudes of the respective establishments to money. While Horikoshi's Japan labours in poverty during the Depression, the expansionist government pours money into the aviation industry; meanwhile Mitchell's Britain, still war-weary after the trials of 1914-18, is unwilling to fund new aircraft development during such straitened times.

It is interesting that in both films a trip by the protagonist to Germany proves an important turning point for the characters. For Mitchell, his it is what resolves him to invest himself fully into making machines of war. True to the film's propaganda origins, the Germans are portrayed as arrogant and megalomaniacal, making use of all the contemporary stereotypes that still to some degree form the core of British prejudices towards our Teutonic cousins. Significantly, the practical, unsentimental Germans also gently mock Mitchell's romantic notions of the poetry of flight as being essentially British sentimentality. In The Wind Rises, Horikoshi and Honjo's visit to the Junkers production facility in Dessau demonstrates the junior status the Germans consider Japan to hold in their partnership, and the two Japanese engineers are constantly being barred from inspection of certain pieces of technology. The only place where The Wind Rises could be called explicitly patriotic is where Horikoshi and Honjo are forced to assert themselves against the arrogant Germans, again reinforcing the film's conflicted attitude towards its protagonist's work and what it represented.

Another interesting moment from the scene at the Junkers yard comes when Horikoshi is involved in a fracas with a German guard over his wishes to more closely inspect one of the new all-metal aircraft. In that moment, the elderly Hugo Junkers himself intervenes on Horikoshi's side. This moment of solidarity from a fellow artist is given greater significance later on, when Castorp reveals that Junkers is not on good terms with the Nazis (he was a socialist and a pacifist who hated the Nazis and ended his days under house arrest). A much bigger relationship with a fellow aircraft designer is the friendship that Horikoshi strikes up in his dreams with Giovanni Battista Caproni. Caproni was prone to plenty of errors and failed experiments himself, and his bizarre Ca.60 Noviplano makes a brief appearance in one of the dream sequences, wobbling and warping as it flies. Caproni takes on the role of a sort of spirit guide, representing unfettered creativity, the dream of aviation as a peaceful technology, as well as the compromises an artist must make to pursue his dreams.

In The First of the Few, there is no fellow designer or engineer with a comparably large role, but again during the visit to Germany, Mitchell encounters one of his opposite numbers in the form of Willy Messerschmitt, designer of the Messerschmitt Bf 109, the plane which would be the Spitfire's primary opponent during the Battle of Britain. Mitchell and Messerschmitt's encounter is terse and brief, but lasts long enough to give the enduring impression of two opponents sizing each other up in advance of a fight. Other than that moment, Mitchell's only encounters with his contemporaries are in his encounters with the likes of Robert McLean and Henry Royce, both of whom are allies, who assist Mitchell in creating his masterwork.

Mitchell's primary confidant is his test pilot, the debonair ladies' man Geoffrey Crisp, whose role can perhaps best be explained by the need for a sizeable role for the eminently bankable David Niven. Nevertheless, Mitchell's wife Diana also plays a key role in supporting her husbands dreams while at the same time keeping him grounded. Diana is portrayed as an archetypal domestic goddess and dutiful wife, willing to sacrifice her own happiness for the sake of her husband's dreams. In one poignant moment, as she begs her sick husband to stop his work and go away with her, he confronts her directly with the idea that the looming war and the work he is doing is “more important than us”.

While Mitchell and Diana are presented from the start as a fully-formed couple, Horikoshi's relationship with Naoko is shown from their first awkward meetings, gradually blossoming through their courtship at a rural holiday retreat, and their eventual marriage. Like Diana, Naoko is self-sacrificing to a fault, eventually leaving for the mountains to avoid distracting Horikoshi from his work.

Both films follow the traditional pattern of studies in artistic obsession by interweaving the artist's passion for his work with the notion of death. The sacrifices the women make for their men are also harbingers of death, symbolising the victory of art and its eternal legacy over life in the present and now. In Naoko's case it is her own death from tuberculosis, while in Diana's case, it is resigning herself to Mitchell's own self-destruction via an unnamed disease (the real RJ Mitchell died of cancer, although for dramatic reasons this is not stated in the film, in order to keep the possibility of his recovery open).

Also, in both films this relationship between obsession and death takes on a mystical significance. In The Wind Rises, the wind itself takes on a metaphorical role, with Horikoshi and Naoko's meetings always accompanied by strong gusts of wind. It is the appearance of one of these gusts as he watches the successful test flight of his new plane that tells Horikoshi that Naoko has died. In The First of the Few, it is Diana who is present to see the Spitfire's test flight while the now very unwell Mitchell watches it fly over him in his garden. After the flight, Diana returns with the news and leaves him to rest in the garden, surrounded (perhaps significantly) by birdsong, and as she enters the house, she is struck by a similar psychic realisation of a life passing from this world.

These mystically-inflected moments of death link back to the mystical nature of the inspiration that Horikoshi and Mitchell themselves are portrayed as having discovered at the start of their stories. Just as the word inspire, to breathe in, can also mean breathing in the life of creativity, so its opposite, expire, can also mean death. In each case, a life must be traded for the creation of a work of art.

While The Wind Rises is an antiwar film that appears conflicted in its love for its subject matter, The First of the Few has no time for pacifism and is unambiguous about the necessity of war. Still, both films make a point of contrasting their artist-heroes with the warmongering Nazis, in the British film's case quite explicitly, while in the Japanese film's case more subtly, using Horikoshi's encounter with the Germans to define Japanese national pride against an enemy everyone can agree on. It's tempting to see this as an adoption by Miyazaki of the postwar Allied consensus of who World War II's goodies and baddies were, but it also serves to draw attention to the confused and troubled nature of Japan's involvement in the war, as a partner to a regime that saw Asians as inherently racially inferior. While The First of the Few is a propaganda film and The Wind Rises is essentially a personal work that could be seen in some ways as a partially cloaked autobiography by Miyazaki, they both follow certain generic patterns of the obsessive artist subgenre, and both are films about men who sacrifice their marriages, albeit ultimately with their women's active consent and support, in their obsessive pursuit of creating machines of destruction. In the end, Mitchell sacrifices his life with Diana for the Greater National Good, while Horikoshi sacrifices his life with Naoko for something far more abstract and intangible. Miyazaki attempts in the final scenes to show some sort of cosmic balance between the horror of the war's destruction and the beauty of the planes that Horikoshi built. The First of the Few ends where it began, in the midst of the war with the RAF pilots fighting for their lives in Mitchell's planes.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

My troubled relationship with Joss Whedon

I have a problem with Joss Whedon.

I find his work pretty much universally enjoyable, ranging from at worst (early episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) acceptable timewasting visual chewing gum to at best (Firefly, the whimsical and experimental bits of Buffy The Vampire Slayer) genuinely impressive, eye-opening television, but there's always something nagging at me.

I think part of it is simply that he's so established and has such a large body of work that his interests and habits now show up too easily. Characters behave in the ways they do because they are Joss Whedon characters, not because they are themselves. In that sense, Whedon -- like other writers with easily recognisable sets of tropes and concerns, for example Haruki Murakami to name but one) is a victim of his own success.

Another part of it is his insistence on working with a big network like Fox, where every idea he has must live or die on its ability to capture a sizeable mainstream audience. It was this environment that guaranteed Dollhouse would fail before it had even begun. The idea was just too weird, and Whedon's attempts to appease the network feel like they hobbled the show and prevented it from doing justice to its own concept.

Whedon's treatment of female characters is one of the most talked-about features of his work. A lot of this comes from a feminist perspective and rightly so, but it's also clear that Whedon is not a feminist in the full-on theoretical/ideological/political sense of the word. Whedon's feminism comes across as more like the video gamer who prefers to play Mass Effect as the female Shepherd, or the anime fan who got a kick out of the way Priss could casually blow off the advances of Leon McNichol before crushing the skulls of some rogue boomers in Bubblegum Crisis. Joss Whedon's feminism feels like that of a nerd who finds it easier to identify with female comicbook characters than the butch masculinity of male heroic archetypes. A lot of other fans, both male and female, feel as he does, and the way he recognised that and persuaded the network to take a chance on it with Buffy shouldn't be underestimated.

Watching Joss Whedon's shows from a feminist perspective can sometimes make uncomfortable viewing though, both for good reasons and bad. His women get brutally beaten about, often by men much larger and more physically threatening than they are. His shows invite us to be entertained by this, and that should make anyone pause for a moment. In any real life situation, that man punching that woman in the face that hard, would be an act of sickening violence and the reinforcement of a deeply troubling power dynamic. In the context of Buffy, Dollhouse or S.H.I.E.L.D., however, the point we need to take away from it is that in the world he is showing us, where women have the power to take on men in their own traditionally action and violence-orientated roles, the flipside of that is women must take as well as dish out the beatings. Every time you see Buffy, Echo or Agent May (or indeed Black Widow as written by Whedon in Avengers) take a boot in the gut or a fist in the side of the head, and every time they shake it off and come back with a leg sweep and a spin-kick of their own, they are asserting their equality with, and as heroes this really means superiority to, their male counterparts. This isn't the kind of feminism many people want, and certainly not a sort of feminism that has a great deal of relevance in most people's daily lives, but in the limited milieu of Joss Whedon's comicbook-inspired action universe, it's at least consistent. It's an environment where the highest virtue is badassery, and the women are the baddest-ass there is.

The way Whedon treats sex is one that seems to have evolved, and he seems to have taken onboard criticisms that emerged in response to Buffy. He admitted himself that Willow's coming out as a lesbian proved so popular a move that there was no way he and his team would have been able to have her just announce, "Hey guys, I'm cured!" It's very easy for writers to say that values, ideology and "political correctness" shouldn't be allowed to impinge on narrative, but what political correctness really means in its best sense is to question why you are choosing to say one thing rather than another. Often, ostensibly positive portrayals of homosexual characters in dramas still resolve themselves along the arc of a tragedy, and that's what Whedon did to much criticism with the Willow-Tara storyline. Sensitive as the portrayal was, Tara was still "punished" for being a lesbian. Whedon obviously didn't intend it to play out like that -- he was just playing the standard comicbook card of killing off the love interest of a central character to give a narrative boost to the story -- but the rarity of lesbian characters on TV gave extra significance to Tara's role, and her demise was consequently freighted with far more significance than Whedon had intended. He seemed to recognise this as a mistake and took measures to make it good later.

Another criticism of Buffy was the way that the sexual agency of female characters often seems to be punished with tragedy. Buffy having sex with Angel in the second season precipitates a string of tragedies, and throughout the show, sex is shown to be a perilous adventure for girls. Again, it's doubtful Whedon had any particular anti-feminist agenda here. Buffy was a show as much about being a teenager as it was about monsters and demons, and the mystical significance sex takes on is a metaphor Whedon uses for the fear and confusion surrounding sex when you are a teenager. He also perhaps less consciously locks into a tradition of vampire stories as religious metaphors that paint sex as explicitly sinful. I don't think he really intends this to be the primary message, and the way the religious aspects of the story are treated elsewhere reinforces my belief -- the cross has no particular significance beyond its power as an anti-vampire superweapon, and holy water is bottled and branded like it was Perrier or something -- but it's a tradition that Buffy nonetheless falls into at points. Anya/Anyanka partly rectifies this by being a female character with a strong sense of sexual agency, although she is denied a happy ending. Faith is a more complex proposition, who goes through plenty of her own ups and downs over the course of the series. More significantly, as time has gone by, characters such as Zoe and Inara in Firefly, and May in S.H.I.E.L.D. have presented women who, whatever else we might say about their characterisation, are completely in control of their own sexuality.

What Whedon is very good at doing is anticipating a cliché, leading the audience down the road towards it, and then diverting it at the last minute. You can see this in the Firefly episode The Train Job where Mal leads the audience along the traditional track of the merciful hero before kicking Russian gangster Niska's man-skinning henchman Crow (a reference to Murakami's The Windup Bird Chronicle there?) into Firefly's engine intake. It's a surprise and by showing both that Whedon is aware of the trope and willing to subvert it, he winks to the audience that he's on their side. It also allows him to get away with letting Mal act as the traditional merciful hero for most of the rest of the series simply by showing us that he's willing to break with the trope once on a relatively minor character. Another example is in Avengers where Black Widow's interrogation of Loki follows the path of the hero whose personal demons are easily exploited by an unscrupulous villain before turning the tables and revealing that she was manipulating him (as had been foreshadowed in her first appearance in the film). And by nodding to and then subverting this cliché, it again allows Whedon to then go ahead and have Loki's plan work out more or less flawlessly anyway.

And this is perhaps one of Whedon's problems, and one that relates back to his position working in network TV and Hollywood rather than blue-chip grownup channels like HBO: for all his awareness of conventions and clichés, he still remains tied to them. Many of the things that made Buffy seem so ahead of its time were tricks that disguised an essentially fairly conventionally structured teen drama, albeit one characterised by some incredibly good writing in places, apt to fly off in all sorts of exciting diversions in form, and comparatively bloodthirsty in its attitude to killing off main characters. In S.H.I.E.L.D. those same habits are at play and seem far more dated.

The way Whedon characters often suddenly and unexpectedly reverse their personalities for the sake of a surprising twist (Boyd in Dollhouse was one of the silliest examples of this, which is ironic in a show that's almost entirely about people's personalities being changed and edited) reveals a writer who sometimes puts keeping one step ahead of the fans before narrative consistency and plausibility. Whedon also has a compulsive need to explain everything, where leaving it unexplained might make for a more satisfying experience. The way the film Serenity wrapped up the mystery of the reavers was anticlimactic, and the awakening of River as a ninja ass-kicking superweapon made her less interesting as a character than when she was this unexplained, potentially perilous enigma. These little writerly habits nag at me.

But at the same time, watching a Joss Whedon show satisfies me in a way few other things do. There's an easygoing drive to the storytelling, and the way he delights in showing you the nuts and bolts of the narrative, while often making him like he's being a bit cleverer than he really is, lends a reassuring air that he's fighting the same fight as us fellow nerds. More importantly perhaps, there's an air of attainability in what he writes. Read Thomas Pynchon or watch The Wire and you're just constantly being blown away by how rich, layered, intelligent and downright brilliant the work is. Watch a Joss Whedon show and you think, "This is good, but it's also within reach: I could do this!" This might sound like rather faint praise, but in a way, it's still further testament to Whedon's ability to show his fans a vaseline-lensed, rose-tinted vision of themselves, not in the characters and situations but in the behind-the-scenes machinery that creates and controls them.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Kill Your Sempai 2

As part of an event I sometimes organise with my friends Gotal and Ralouf from the band Lo-shi, I did a set of illustrations under the title Kill Your Sempai 2 (there was a part 1 a couple of years ago). Most of the models were just taken from album covers and photo shoots from old Japanese pop stars and models, although there's one of my friend Ayako in there somewhere too. The text is just stuff I was thinking about at the time: satirical cheap shots mostly.

It's a Guided By Voices song title, but a wonderful phrase regardless.

The life of a writer these days -- fuck you, Huffington Post. Also, not sure what happened to the right strap of her bikini.

Physical goods for virtual currency.

Bastards.

AKB48 general manager Tomonobu Togasaki's excuse after being caught at a love hotel with a teenage prostitute.

The hard right, nationalist former military general is very popular with the youth of today. Although this girl looks like something from the 80s.

It's the look of disdain on her face that does it for me.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

The Japan Society for Artificial Intelligence and its "gynoid" servant girl


Some quarters of the Japanese and overseas media got themselves into a flap recently over the Japan Society for Artificial Intelligence's decision to spice up their rather dry in-house journal with an illustration rather than the usual raw text adorning the cover. Let's have a look at the illustration in question first and see if you can work out what the problem is:




It's an android servant girl with a typically manga-esque sweet, gentle expression, holding a broom in one hand and a book in the other, with a cable plugged into her back. The core issue behind the outcry is the cleaning robot = woman equation that the image seems to suggest, although the fact that it's in the form of a pretty girl with a subservient, submissive expression is a subsidiary but related issue that to some brings to mind a sort of dubious Stepford Wives male/female power dynamic.

First up, let's make clear that the illustration was drawn by a woman. Some people think this is significant, although I'm not so sure. Women are just as capable of expressing and embodying regressive ideas, something to which anyone like me who grew up in Thatcher's Britain should be able to testify. Nevertheless, that fact should be a warning against reading this debate on too much of a superficial level. We're dealing with embedded assumptions here, not something that can be claimed or dismissed without a bit of unravelling.

So let's take a look again at the picture and think a little about what it represents. The interior decor of the room suggests a rural cottage and this is combined with the faintly retro garb the android girl is wearing and the old fashioned broom (not to mention the fact that she's reading a book, which when you think about it would be a pretty pointless activity for an AI brain that could download and digest a book in a matter of seconds) to evoke without directly depicting times past. She is a modern equivalent of the domestic servants of times past, with the man-machine interface replacing the class relationships that lay behind master-servant interactions of the past.

But she's not simply carrying out her function like a robot, she's reading a book, an action symbolic of (if not always synonymous with) learning. She is upgrading her functions independently, and just as education has been posited as a springboard to transcending class boundaries, the image holds out promise of the android girl becoming more than simply a machine.

Now this is an interesting set of signifiers the image is sending off, and I'd hazard that this was the artist's original intention with the work. People dismissing it as a work of straightforward sexism are not giving the artist credit for her ideas and imposing a probably unintended set of meanings on it.

However, that's not the end of the story, much as I suspect a lot of people would like it to be. Look again at the girl's face. She may be demonstrating an independent capacity and willingness to learn and transcend her base functions, but there's nothing overtly threatening in it; her gaze remains blank and inscrutable. There may be some specific intention behind this, but given what a common trope it is in manga and anime depictions of femininity, chances are that the main rationale behind it is simply "because kawaii". This goes for the clothing and decor as well to a certain extent, it builds towards constructing the girl as a fetishistic object of desire, or to put it in otaku terms, it's moé.

Viewed through that prism, we can see how the image has internalised a great deal of the unthinking assumptions of the manga/anime world, most of which are socially and culturally conservative, especially in their depiction of women. There is no reason why the android needed to be depicted as an attractive young girl, but it wasn't a simple coin toss that could have gone wither way: there is no alternative universe where someone with a background in manga/anime fandom wouldn't have depicted a cleaning android as a young woman (a man would have been a butler).

The blank expression suggests a passive nature in contrast with the independent mindedness suggested by the book. In another context, this could set the book as a subversive item, undermining her submissive programming, but in the context of the moé, where (usually feminine) weakness is the key to unlocking fetishistic desire, it's more a statement of, "Aww, it's trying to learn, bless it's little cotton socks!"

So context is the problem. In the context of anime or manga, where those sorts of assumptions go unchallenged, this image would be a very effective one. However, in a wider media context, those assumptions can't be relied on. Another Japanese artist, Sputniko! (her exclamation mark, not mine), whose life's work also deals with the interactions between technology and our daily lives, describes the image as, "a gynoid robot with hollow eyes" and noted that, "A black cleaning robot featured on the cover of a US academic journal would cause an uproar."

The reaction to Sputniko!'s comments on Twitter was highly abusive from some, and the anger generated by her criticism suggests that the image does indeed touch on issues of patriarchy and privilege, as well as providing yet more evidence, if any were needed, of the rage with which many people respond to statements that make them question why they are attracted to things that they like. Japan not being a nation that tends to equip its people well for such deconstruction of the semiotics of art and pop cultural images, many people here have responded with bafflement that something so self-evidently cute could ever be a bad thing, and it's hard to say whether that makes the issue less or more of a problem.

Another aspect of context is that the illustration appeared in the context of an academic journal, and it's clear that lots of the criticism from within academic circles has centred not on the gender issues so much as the appropriateness of using a comicbook style illustration on what is supposed to be a serious magazine. It's depressing in a way that even criticism of the work has to come from another side of Japanese conservatism, but in any case, it's important to note what other factors are in play. The poppification of science and academia includes a whole world of discussion all by itself.

So the illustration is an interesting one that I think successfully fills its remit of depicting an issue at the core of AI research and development in an attractive if rather limited way. It does have problematic gender issues though, which are issues inherent in manga and anime culture and reveal a wider problem in the way gender stereotypes are enforced through repetition in aspects of the media, leading to their unquestioning acceptance by many, including perhaps by the artist herself. The fact that the miniature storm over its publication happened at all is really reflective of the problems caused when otaku-dominated images (with their raft of moé signifiers) collide with a world from outside their closed circle of signs and signifiers.

Ikumi Yoshimatsu, talent agency "stalking" and women's rights


One of the big Japan stories in the English language media lately has been the case of Ikumi Yoshimatsu, the beauty queen who has taken the rare step of going public about a campaign of intimidation by Genichi Taniguchi, an executive of the talent agency K-Dash after she chose not to sign up with his company. Investigative journalist Jake Adelstein summarises the story very nicely here, but the specific complaints are detailed by Yoshimatsu as:

“Today I filed criminal charges against Genichi Taniguchi, a Japanese talent agency executive, who in December of last year grabbed me, forced his way into my dressing room and tried to abduct me. Since then, he has intimidated my family, sent private detectives to my home, tried to extort money from me and my company, slandered me in the press and has made threatening calls to my family, sponsors and business associates.”

Typically with these kinds of stories, the Japanese media has afforded it zero coverage. The main reason for that is that K-Dash is affiliated with the all-powerful talent agency octopus Burning Production, a company widely understood as an affiliate of the Yamaguchi-gumi yakuza syndicate and detailed as such in leaked police documents. News media in Japan rarely ever deals with scandals involving powerful talent agencies like Burning or Johnny & Associates for fear of being blacklisted from access to the bankable stars those agencies control.

Nevertheless, it's been reported widely in English language media, and Yoshimatsu herself has established a petition on change.org urging the Japanese government to revise the law to provide better protection for women against such harassment.

It's interesting that so much of the coverage, including the way Yoshimatsu herself frames the issue, centres around the idea of stalking and crimes against women.

Now the image we usually associate with stalking is of the lone weirdo harassing a woman he has a romantic obsession with, which is obviously a very different sort of case to the Taniguchi/Yoshimatsu case. The most obvious issue here is of the gangsterish business practices of the thugs who run still heavily yakuza-influenced talent agency system and the way the rest of the entertainment industry kowtows to them, collaborating in the blacklisting of performers who step out of line. This informal blacklisting can be seen in the way the female singer Ami Suzuki and the male rock band Glay were effectively erased from the entertainment world in the early 2000s after breaking from their former management companies, so it's not a practice that exclusively targets women.

However, there are I think good reasons why this way of framing Yoshimatsu's case makes sense.

Firstly, the international media has no context by which it can relate to the ins and outs of the Japanese entertainment industry. Readers would get that it's unfair, but it doesn't touch them and their lives. The issue of crimes against women is far more effective as an emotional hook to reel people into the story and give them a way of relating it to their own lives and experiences. Given the supine Japanese media's willful blindness to the thuggish, bullying behaviour of talent agencies, using foreign language media to shame the establishment into enforcing changes is an alternative way of putting the case (albeit one that I think overestimates the capacity of the Japanese media and entertainment worlds to experience shame) and one which is most effectively done by framing it in a way that international readers will best be able to relate to.

Secondly, there is a problem in Japan of inadequate protection of women from stalking and harassment, and relating this potentially high profile story to that issue both gives it more immediacy and also could do a lot of good by way of provoking much needed action. The case of Rie Miyoshi, stabbed to death by her ex-boyfriend Hideto Kozutsumi in 2011 after the police refused to accept that a thousand threatening emails could constitute stalking is a particularly horrific example of the feeble levels of protection offered to women. Even if Yoshimatsu's case is clearly being driven by a different set of circumstances, relating it to the issue of protection of women could be a more effective way of getting action and might result in an outcome that would benefit not only Yoshimatsu herself but many other women throughout Japan.

Lastly, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, despite being an evil warmongering, proto-fascist piece of shit, has officially at least stated publicly that improving women's position in society is a priority to him. His wife, Akie Abe, has come out in Yoshimatsu's support, so it makes sense that if any action is going to occur, pushing the women's rights angle again seems like the most effective course of action.

The truth is that yakuza involvement in the entertainment industry is simply an issue too few people care about, and the talent agencies' hold over public discourse is too great for any headway on that angle to be possible. As an entertainment journalist, and as a human being who hates thugs and bullies, that is a source of much frustration to me, but on this at least, Ikumi Yoshimatsu appears to be a smart operator, so good luck to her and let's hope she makes progress where so many others have failed.

Monday, 13 May 2013

Context is not a myth: Stewart Lee's "Carpet Remnant World", Tim Maughan's "Havana Augmented" and notions of society


I've been talking a lot recently about the values that writers impose on the stories they tell and what effect that has on the story, and I realise that part of my obsession with this idea comes not from narrative fiction but from stand-up comedy. Exploring the notion of idealised societies and how we behave in collective groups is a theme that runs through Stewart Lee's Carpet Remnant World, a two hour comedy routine in which Lee, in character, attempts to tackle a serious issue but serially fails to develop the idea in a coherent way because he's constantly being distracted by the day to day problems of touring and looking after a small child (no clips, you need to watch the whole thing for it to make any sense at all).

But idealised notions of society are what writers in the realm of speculative fiction are all dealing with. What makes these visions utopian or dystopian is how humans collectively behave within those societies. In Carpet Remnant World, Lee gives us a few examples taken from the news, juxtaposing the hysterical, vengeance-fuelled celebrations of some Americans on the death of Osama Bin Laden with some observations on the religious rules of islamic societies. He roves around British prime minister David Cameron's idea of the "big society", the degeneration of the postwar social fabric under Thatcher (via the framing devide of an imaginary Scooby Doo movie), the shifting nature of development and regeneration of urban spaces, the effects of social media, in particular Twitter, and then finally, the more fantastical and abstract ideas represented by the titular "Carpet Remnant World". Within a lot of this are the questions what does this society or social structure stand for, and what does our behaviour within that social space say about us and how well we uphold those supposed values?

The problem with some of these films and stories like 300 and King Arthur that I've been talking about recently is that the values are pasted on, out of context and there is an internal contradiction between the stated values (i.e. freedom) and the behaviour we're actually presented with (often despotic) when a more interesting story would be to look at what you actually have and show us a bit about why those people are willing to fight for it.

A good example of a story that grapples with this is the story Havana Augmented by British writer Tim Maughan. The story is set in a Cuba that is even more than now a socialist island in a sea of free market capitalism. Freedom is still an issue here, as it is in the two other stories that accompany it in the Paintwork collection, but the implications of that freedom are more clearly explored. The kind of freedom Maughan is interested in manifests itself in the ownership of public space, something the kids in Havana Augmented engage with with their AR robot street battle games (and which the characters of Paintwork deal with via street art -- the other story, Paparazzi, looks at the romanticisation of medieval fantasy and reminds the reader of whose backs the freedoms of the privileged few are built on). Rather than simply being a battle against the communist establishment for the kids' right to, y'know, have fun'n'that, Maughan instead looks at how commercial entities exploit kids like his heroes in ways that are damaging to the wider fabric of society. Crucially, the protagonists of Havana Augmented reach the culmination of their arc not by embracing some nebulous notion of freedom, but by thinking in tune with their environment -- not just by their local knowledge of the battlefield, but by thinking like Cubans, protecting their shared values against an invading ideology that comes wrapped in the flag of liberty but promises only a new kind of subjugation.

In a larger and less benign scale, Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl pulls off a similar trick of getting int the mindset of a different culture and making decisions they make that run contrary to our own established way of thinking seem internally consistent and understandable. Having the larger canvas of a full novel to work with, he's able to draw more fully on the environmental and political world in which his characters live in order to sculpt their actions and reactions.

As I've said before, it's thrilling to be able to read something and see a person act in a completely alien way to your own way of thinking, yet at the same time have that decision completely logical. Speculative fiction is all about this kind of thing, but you see it just as much in contemporary drama that deals with cultures that you are unfamiliar with. The Wire is an excellent drama for a number of reasons, but one of them is that it presents you with characters behaving in horrendous ways but every one of them is scrupulously logical, and more often than not, David Simon & co. have a parallel example of the same logic in play in a different, perhaps more familiar arena. The viewer is never let off the hook.

Where foreign drama doesn't work, something similar is often at play. I often found myself baffled by the behaviour of characters in the Hong Kong films I used to watch as a teenager, because they were acting according to Chinese cultural conventions that had no traction in the West. Chinese audiences were clearly expected to understand this as natural, but the film gave me no context to understand it. The scriptwriter wasn't making allowances for outsiders, and looking back, this made me doubly conscious of the way American films presuppose American values without giving them context, especially given that American cultural products are made with the expectation of international consumption (something Asian works often aren't). Waving the word "freedom" in people's faces without giving them an idea of what that freedom is meant to mean is just as nonsensical as waving Japan-centric notions like honne & tatemae in someone's face and expecting them to get it immediately.

It's not impossible though. All cultures understand freedom, although they might have different notions of what it means, and the contrast between one's true feelings and the face you wear in public is far from unique to Japan. Cultural notions are often slippery, but there are usually ways into them if contextualised sensitively.

This idea of sensitivity is one that Stewart Lee returns to at the end of Carpet Remnant World. Given that he has spent the whole of his two hour show deliberately sabotaging his own attempts to discuss the concepts of idealised societies, he indirectly (and probably unintentionally -- Lee would perhaps shy away from such a trite observation) makes the point that all societies are imperfect, and his failure to discuss it in a coherent way is simply an echo of that. Against a utopian cityscape composed of rolled carpets of varying sizes, he delivers the line: "a ragbag of seemingly disparate and unrelated items, people, concepts, things, can, if stitched together in the correct order with an degree of sensitivity, give the impression of being a satisfying whole." And in a way, what Lee has done with his comedy show is the same as what a good speculative fiction writer would do. He's taken no concept for granted, he's broken down every idea into its constituent parts and left you with no room for lazy assumptions, and at the same time, by showing us the "Carpet Remnant World" in which his character lives, he's made sure that this arrogant, neurotic comedian living in fear of his own death (or worse, irrelevance) now not only makes sense to us but commands our sympathy.