Friday, 19 December 2008

"Your racism's worse than my sexism!"

Some of the discussion about 2channel's moefication of Mirror's Edge has been instructive.

To summarise, the video game Mirror's Edge features a female central character who appears to have some kind of East Asian background. The game's producer, Tom Farrer, claims that his team:

"...really wanted to get away from the typical portrayal of women in games, that they’re all just kind of tits and ass in a steel bikini. We wanted her to look athletic and fit and strong [enough] that she could do the things that she’s doing."

The blogger Artefact over at Sankaku Complex counters that:
"Possibly, he should have considered looking at what passes for beauty in the East Asian markets prior to actually designing his orientalist vision of what a gritty Asian women should look like, but never mind."

Neatly playing the "How very dare you!" card by implying racism on the part of the Swedish development team, and in the process, bizarrely, linking to a parade of pouting submissives in order to illustrate the point.

The battle lines are then drawn. On the one hand we have those cultural imperialist Swedes with their arrogant refusal to understand Asian cultures, and on the other we have a bunch of otaku and Japan-fetishists whose idea of a girl is something you can keep as a pet rather than something that can climb walls and leap the tops of high buildings.

Down in the comments, these two straw men continue to battle it out furiously:
"Everyone who’s ever seen an Asian of any ethnicity on the street knows that no one looks like that."

Well, I live in Tokyo and you don't see many people here looking like either of the different versions of Faith. The question that hangs over a lot of these arguments is whether creating a strong-looking female character justifies twisting Asian features to fit your ideal, and similarly whether authentically representing Asian (for which we can read "Japanese" in this context) ideals of beauty justifies inflicting degrading sexism on the character.

For what it's worth, my answer to the first part is "yes" and to the second part is "no" since the first part is done in service of the character, in order to make her more convincing in her interaction with the world of the game, whereas the second does violence to the gameworld and setting. The "moe" Faith puts strain on the fourth wall and damages our suspension of disbelief. Through the disconnection between what the character does for a living and how she is portrayed we can see an audience being pandered to and we are forced to see her as a two-dimensional cypher overlaid on top of the world, which itself then loses depth and seems unrealistic through its interaction with an implausible main character.

Did someone just say "superflat"? Damn you, otaku culture!

Monday, 24 November 2008

Anatomy of a Villain

A true villain...
...humiliates his victims...

...always gets what he wants...

...and then kills them anyway...

...finds no pleasure greater than the fear of others...

...especially small children...

...does not tolerate failure in his subordinates... practically unkillable...

...laughs in the face of death...

...revels joyfully and loquaciously in his own wickedness...


Twilight of the Heroes

In my writing about anime I often find it difficult to hold back on criticism of otaku culture, especially the third generation (post-Evangelion, Densha Otoko akiba-cool types) and its influence on recent anime and manga. The emphasis on "fan service" is a lazy, self-indulgent substitute for detailed, careful plotting, characterisation and world building; the frequent self-referential jokes that rely on knowledge of other anime shows often break the fourth wall and damage the audience's suspension of disbelief without bringing any real insight or comedic value of their own to the table; finally, the portrayal of female characters in a lot of otaku-orientated anime is something I think I'll always have problems with.

What I always try to do, however, is step back every once in a while. Even as many aspects of current otaku culture annoy me, it is often fascinating trying to understand them, even where I'm unable or simply disinclined to defend them. Secondly, it's important to remember that 95% of any genre or art form is unmitigated crap and that it should be judged primarily on the best of what it has to offer rather than the stagnant sludge that clogs up its wider, shallower channels. With this in mind, one area that the G3 otaku can claim to have made real progress in is the breaking down of archetypes among male characters.

Evangelion, Gundam and the treatment of angst:

The roots of this, of course, run far deeper than 1995 megahit Evangelion (such is the postmodern nature of Gainax's masterpiece that there probably isn't anything truly original about it really) but, as with so many things about modern anime culture, it is nevertheless a key starting point.

One of the most frequently commented-on, imitated and mocked points about the male lead Shinji is his angst: his paralysing fear in the Eva's cockpit, his tortured cries of "Father!", the recurring visual motif of his clasping and unclasping hand. This alone is nothing particularly new; the melodramatic nature of much anime lends itself to angst, with Gundam (1979) and numerous other 70s and 80s shows having plenty to go round, and many of Evangelion's immediate imitators clearly thought this alone was enough, hence the profusion of whiny, self-centred anime heroes in its immediate aftermath. The really radical thing that Evangelion did was in its psychological deconstruction of the Giant Robot genre boy hero archetype. Shinji experiences angst in the form described by existentialist philosophers and director Anno Hideaki uses it as a wrench to prise open both Shinji's mind and the genre's own conventions rather than simply as an end in itself.

Kierkegaard defined philosophical angst as being fear of failure in one's responsibilities to God; conversely, Sartre describes it as being (although not limited to) an emotional response to the non-existence of God. What both views have in common is that they hold angst as a function of the conflict between freedom of choice and our fear of the consequences. In the case of a character like Amuro from Gundam, he experiences a relatively simple form of angst, where he must balance his own emotional fears and desires against those of his comrades on White Base and the people he must protect. His path to maturity lies in putting aside those emotions or desires characterised as "selfish" in order to "be a man" and fight to defend those weaker than himself (women and lower level or non-newtype males).

Shinji from Evangelion experiments with this ideal but is unable to reconcile it with his own internal motivations. In episode 4 (Hedgehog's Dilemma -- the title itself another manifestation of angst) he wearily tells Misato he will fight because he's the only one who can do it, a motivation that Misato violently rejects. She won't accept Shinji fighting merely because he feels he has to in order to protect others: she wants him to find a reason that means something to him. The comment that Shinji reacts most strongly to is when Misato angrily tells him that they don't need him to protect them.

Kierkegaard talks about fear of failing God, but in a largely irreligeous society like Japan, a person's main external responsibility is to the people around them. In Christian societies the idea of "God" replaces the social group as the arbiter of morality and good behaviour, which is all very useful as a way of controlling the Roman Empire, but the more localised Japanese society's emphasis on responsibility to "the group" offers the same function in most practical senses. In Gundam, Amuro's angst takes the form of the conflict between his own selfish desires and his need to protect "the group" and, while Gundam is more complex than most preceding Giant Robot anime, he is driven by a sense of destiny that fits in neatly with the meta-narrative of sacrifice, hard work and responsibility to others that Japanese society constructed for itself to deal with the rebuilding and recovery process in the wake of the Second World War.

By the mid-1990s, as I've said before, the reality of life for young people in Japan was quite different. In Evangelion, Misato denies Shinji the sense of responsibility and direction offered by "the group", and as with Sartre's non-existence of God, the removal of this external motivator leaves Shinji confronted with the dilemma of his own freedom. The look of horror in Shinji's eyes isn't just his shock at Misato's angry outburst: it's his existential dread at the cutting away of the whole meta-narrative of responsibility and destiny that older shows offered. Misato forces him to analyse and deal with his own feelings and in the process denies him the option of "being a man" in the traditional sense.

Ironic treatment of "the cult of masculinity":

Jennifer Kesler discusses what she calls "the cult of masculinity" over at The Hathor Legacy. The "man" as constructed by the media... something that does not occur in nature. It is a supernatural creature of extraordinary emotional, physical and mental resilience. It can withstand enemy torture for years on end without ever giving out the codes; it can somehow magically love its family, God and country without actually being distracted by normal human feelings; it has no moods and is always perfectly even-tempered, except when roused to fight for good. It can get over abuses and wrongs done against it, even in its most vulnerable formative years, without sorting or processing its feelings and experiences.

The traditional anime bildungsroman, which experiences its highest male form in the Giant Robot story, requires that boys become a variant of this "supernatural creature", although an important difference is that the Japanese anime hero is far more emotional, with fire, passion and impulsiveness valued as key character attributes. Nevertheless, a shared ideal of masculinity is that the hero should make clear his intentions by acting decisively; "sorting or processing its feelings and experiences" is not encouraged.

These types of passionate, masculine leads didn't disappear by any means, but as a result of the self-consciousness and genre-awareness of the G3 otaku (by this time important as both a target market and as creators working within the industry), the narrative had changed. In Kido Senkan Nadesico (Martian Successor Nadesico), the Shinji-like main character Akito is put opposite a fiery anime hero type called Daigoji Gai but the show subverts Gai's character on many levels. His real name is revealed as the more mundane Yamada Jiro, he is ridiculed by his comrades and, inevitably, he is an anime otaku. He is also killed in episode 3, prompting Akito to embark on a personal quest to live up to the anime-inspired ideals that Gai espoused.

In Gainax's own return to the genre, Gurren Lagann, Kamina and Simon's relationship is similar to that of Gai and Akito, with main female character Yoko left as a pragmatic voice from the same set of realities that the audience occupies. The over-the-top macho antics of Kamina and his and Simon's phallic obsession with drills are the subjects of wry humour. Despite the irony the characters and situations are sympathetic and frequently moving, but again the emphasis has changed. Kamino is sympathetic as a kind of Walter Mitty character, living in a fantasy within his own mind, cut off from the reality represented by Yoko. Simon's character development is given pathos as, while we identify with his desire to live out a boyhood dream of heroism, we can clearly see the path taking him further from common sense and indeed sanity. The irony here is clear and surely intentional: the path towards "being a man" is a road into a childish dream, and it is Simon's more mature, feminine side that occasionally holds him back.

In both Nadesico and Gurren Lagann the appeal of those heroic ideals now lies in their value as nostalgia rather than as something relevant to modern society; the modern audience can hold them close for warmth against the chill of the existential void, but there is a shared agreement between fan and creator that they are something to be affectionately mocked rather than wholeheartedly embraced.

Masculinity under the microscope:

The arrival of more complex, believable male characters in anime, whose existences recognise the dilemmas (the angst, if you will) of modern life, and whose growth through their story's narrative is characterised by some degree of self-awareness and reflection, is one of the great achievements of the 3G otaku generation and one that goes far beyond the Giant Robot genre.

One example is in the treatment of issues such as bullying. In the past, bullying was treated as a fairly black and white issue. Bullying was character-building and bullies were either weaklings-at-heart to be stood up to and defeated or they were hard-but-fair teachers, who were only doing it for your own good. In either case, the victim's response was tied up inescapably with their masculinity. Over the past decade or so there have been several cases of anime shows that have delved into the more complex nature of bullying in Japanese schools, dealing with the relationship between victimiser and victim and even questioning the whole nature of the society in which these incidents occur. Shigofumi, as I mentioned before, includes one particularly good example of this, and Kon Satoshi's excellent Paranoia Agent also touches on the subject powerfully. No longer a simple matter of standing up and "being a man", there is often no easy solution and the audience is left with an uncomfortable sense of moral ambiguity.

Another phenomenon that has been gradually developing over time has been the way previously female genres have been co-opted into the male otaku world. The appeal of magical girl shows featuring leggy teenage girls in idealised versions of the traditional Japanese schoolgirl uniform to shy men on the fringes of acceptable society is I think obvious, as is the yuri romance, begun as a subgenre of shojo manga in the 1970s but co-opted into the male otaku world. While often simply played for cheap titilation, male-targetted yuri sometimes has interesting things to say about male gender.

The comedy drama series Kashimashi: Girl Meets Girl deals with a very feminine young boy called Hazumu who is accidentally turned into a girl by visiting aliens and how this switch of gender affects his relationship with Tomari and Yasuna, the two girls in his life (clue: it doesn't much). So far, so Ranma, but Kashimashi has a bit more to say than simple comedy. The story takes the form of a traditional male-orientated love story or dating simulator game, with Hazumu being a fairly blank central character. What is interesting is firstly how easily he adapts to being a girl, and secondly the fact that such a character is presented as the point of identification for the male audience. Sure, plenty of men have fantasised about what it would be like to have breasts and dress up in girls' clothes (not that I ever, err... did), but through the process of presenting the audience with a male character as an avatar and then switching their gender at the end of episode 1 the show also takes the audience through the process of transformation and expects them to continue to relate to the character.

By allowing the character's gender to switch so easily, Kashimashi denies the relevance of gender labels in the pursuit of a character's emotional needs. It's not just that Hazumu can adapt so easily to being a girl, it is that the audience itself is able to adapt with him. A similar idea, although less central to the plot, exists in .hack//Sign, where central character Tsukasa appears in the online world (and to the audience for most of the series) with a male avatar and falls in love with female character Subaru. It is later discovered that Tsukasa is a girl in real life, but in the end that is no barrier to her relationship with Subaru. Again, the obvious caveats about male fans' predeliction for girl-on-girl romantic action apply, but as with many aspects of otaku culture, lower motivations on one level don't necessarily preclude higher considerations in the execution.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Looking Inward / Looking Outward: Part 2

In part one, way back in August, I wrote about a trend within anime that derives from the inward-looking nature of a lot of modern, third generation otaku culture. By third generation, what I'm really talking about here is the generation that grew up in a world rehabilitated by the media, free from the shadow of "otaku murderer" Miyazaki Tsutomu, and spoiled by the rush of more intelligent and mature anime that Evangelion kicked off in the late 1990s.

Where the first generation of otaku were viewed by mainstream Japan with confusion and disdain, if they were noticed at all, and the second generation were treated with outright revulsion, the third generation are accepted and even celebrated. A clear example of this is the 2005 TV series Densha Otoko, which took a setting centred around otaku culture (Akihabara, anime fandom, Internet message-board 2channel) and crafted a schmalzy love story around it*, starring make-up commercial/mobile phone campaign girl Ito Misaki and targetted squarely at mass consumption. If that's not enough for you, the new prime minister of Japan, Aso Taro, is a self proclaimed nerd, who talks of anime and manga exports being used to boost Japan's economy and increase its soft power abroad.

Marxy over at his old Neomarxisme blog posited the theory that otaku were being rehabilitated because of the economic role they play as consumers and that they were being held up as an example to remind Japanese people what a good consumer looks like.
So the media shifts all attention to Akihabara, because they still purchase items, go the extra mile to find rare artefacts, and show an envious loyalty towards their heros and icons. It's not that anime or manga are "cool" all of a sudden but they are the only ones to show up on the field.

Certainly the rise of the third generation of otaku has gone hand in hand with the idea of the "media mix", where the anime, comic, light novel series, computer/video game series and drama CD are produced and marketed hand in hand. With this overwhelming influx of product, is it any surprise that, as I said in part 1, the modern otaku's frame of reference turns further and further inward? Compare Densha Otoko's opening sequence with the 1983 original (by the team who later formed Gainax). The original pulls in references to a wide range of both Japanese and Western pop culture -- the song is ELO, for fuck's sake! -- whereas the focus of Densha Otoko's parody is entirely inward.

But let's get back to Aso's comments for a moment. Regardless of how seriously you take the idea of anime reviving the Japanese economy (a 2006 estimate puts the total world value of the anime market, complete with all associated goods, at around $23 billion; in contrast, electronics giant Sony posted revenue of over $88 billion all by itself in 2008), there is only so much saturation that the Japanese market can take and so as otaku turn inwards, the industry itself increasingly has to turn outwards.

As a result, we are seeing increasing amounts of anime being made with overseas audiences in mind and the results are interesting. Generally speaking, it seems that most attempts have followed one of two strategies, looking either to the influence of Hollywood, or to the overseas success of directors like Oshii Mamoru and Miyazaki Hayao (or some combination of the two approaches).

Films like Vexille and Appleseed take the Hollywood approach, bringing in supposedly hip electronic artists to do the sountrack, chucking in sexy-looking action scenes, and writing shitty scripts. Vexelle makes an interesting inversion of the "anime nationalist" meme with its portrayal of the Japanese government as corrupt isolationists and the focus on an American heroine. One wonders if this decision was made particularly with the motive of selling the film to Americans. Is this the assumption that Americans will simply not watch a film where they aren't the deliverers of justice to poor, backwards foreign countries? If so, it is perhaps tempting to suggest that those in the West, and Hollywood in particular, might want to reflect on the image that they present to the rest of the world.

Foreign sales are also probably something that Studio Gonzo had at least half an eye on with their sumptuously animated steampunk/fantasy adventure Last Exile. Again the script is rubbish, but this is probably less down to the studio's low expectations of a foreign audience than it is their own more mundane deficiencies. Never let it be said that Gonzo don't spread their mediocrity around evenly. Like Vexille, Last Exile reaches out to the overseas audience with extremely high production values (far higher than any TV series could normally command) to give it a more Hollywood-like cinematic sweep, but also references Miyazaki's Laputa with its flying ships and cheerfully stupid child leads.

Ergo Proxy carries distant echoes of The Matrix (which in itself borrows heavily from anime going back through Ghost in the Shell and Akira to Megazone 23) and couples that with a script by Sato Dai, who gained a lot of kudos in the West for his work on Cowboy Bebop and various other well received shows. To polish things off, the closing theme is Paranoid Android by Radiohead, although the inclusion of opening theme Kiri by Monoral (at the time unknown outside Japan although both members are mixed race Japanese/other) suggests that the producers might have been cultivating an image of "foreignness" as much for the benefit of the Japanese audience as for an overseas one.

The list could go on, but the last show I'm going to mention here is the currently running Bonen no Xam'd (Xam'd: Lost Memories) by Bones. I interviewed the director, Miyaji Masayuki, for The Japan Times last month, and while there's no way that my editor was ever going to allow me to indulge in the sort of interminable navel-gazing I get up to on this blog, but it's worth reading over in relation to what I'm writing about here.

Xam'd is radical largely in how normal it is. It is remarkable for just how old fashioned and classical the story is, recalling shows like the older Gundam series' and movies like Gainax's Royal Space Force: Wings of Honneamise. It panders to foreign audiences with its blatant Miyazaki references, and the inclusion of Boom Boom Satellites' song over the opening credits is probably partly an attempt to latch onto some idea of "cool Japan". I shan't talk about the series in detail here because the article says enough itself, but there are some points that are worth expanding on a bit.

First is the decision to release the series through Sony's Playstation Network rather than broadcast it on normal TV. By selling it episode by episode, they can target their audience more directly and are less beholden to advertisers' wishes or TV companies' own broadcasting restrictions on violence/language/sexual content etc. (presuming of course that Sony's own restrictions would be more liberal in that regard). Second is the decision to sell it in America first. The staff from Sony and Bones were hesitant to talk about the reasons for this but I think they must have been at least partially considering the greater numbers of Playstation Online users in America and the saturation of the Japanese anime market, perhaps hoping to make a splash in America and then sell it back to Japan on the back of overseas success. Also, I think Miyaji's point,
"I want to be able to reach out to a different kind of audience — video game, movie or film audience rather than just anime fans"
is interesting. By breaking away, at least partially, from the commercial restrictions of the Japanese anime world, releasing the show to an overseas audience through a games machine, Xam'd is representative of the dying days of the third generation of otaku.

Already the Internet has made Akihabara relevant more as a tourist spot like Harajuku than a place of crucial importance to otaku culture, and the creative peak of the third generation's "database type culture" has probably already passed (Haruhi, Lucky Star, Higurashi no Naku Koro ni, Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei). The Playstation Network style (although perhaps not PSN itself) of release structure, like iTunes is doing for music, will probably have the effect of fragmenting the anime world. Diversity of genres and styles aside, otaku culture nevertheless relies on a series of reference points and conventions that are universally understood amongst those within that particular society but not necessarily by those outside. The colour-coding of female characters' hair or Sentai series characters suits, the meanings of bizarre visual signifiers such as the ahoge, the increasingly deformed and disconected-from-reality characterisations that form the nebulous creation that is moe, the list goes on. Western anime fans won't automatically understand all the semiotics at play here, and as they become a more and more important market for anime, clever studios will learn to adapt their work to appeal to increasingly diverse range of subgroups. Japanese otaku culture as it is now will command influence over a narrower and narrower range of work being produced, and under the influence of this more targetted, less homogeneous release and marketing structure, increasingly fragment as well.

What we are seeing now is partly just one of the natural periods of directionless meandering in the industry that comes after a boom has started to subside. Shows like Strike Witches push moe culture to more and more absurd extremes whereas shows like Xam'd step back and focus on more classical cinematic views of storytelling, characterisation and structure; other shows stick to tried and tested formulae and try not to rock the boat. Nevertheless, the shifts in the industry that we are seeing now, as it moves in a more globalised direction and immerses itself more and more in digital distribution make me think that this fragmentation is something more than just a lull and one of its early repercussions will be the death of the 3G otaku.

*Yes, I know it's supposed to be a true story, but surely no one actually believes that, right?

Friday, 17 October 2008

Shigofumi ~ Letters from the Departed ~

Shigofumi ~ Letters from the Departed ~ is an anime and light novel series created by Amamiya Ryo about a typically emotionless, silver-haired moe archetype called Fumika, whose job it is to deliver letters from the dead (the titular shigofumi). She has an annoying talking staff called Kanaka and a faintly fetishistic retro postal worker's outfit that, intentionally or otherwise, makes her look a bit like Boogiepop.

In terms of content, most episodes are hamstrung by the kind of cliched character archetypes and cookie-cutter sentimentality that plagues a significant proportion of anime and light novels, as with the fourth episode, where some heavily yurified schoolgirls go on a training camp with their tennis club while one girl, Ran, deals with her feelings about the death of the mother who abandoned her as a child. As pulp genre fiction it works fine, but given how seriously the series takes itself, as viewers we should expect and demand more realistic characterisation. Why did the mother never contact Ran after leaving even though she'd been secretly going to all her daughter's tennis matches to support her? Why, when discovering this via the mother's (very long) shigofumi, does Ran react in the way she does? Unfortunately, without letting Ran's feelings for her mother step beyond broad strokes melodrama, the script is unable to breathe life into the premise.

The series' main plot thread involving Fumika is similarly rubbish. Her father, a supposedly genius writer called Mikawa Kirameki (it translates as something absurd like "beautiful glittering river") is a ridiculous character and impossible to take seriously. Once more, if Shigofumi was going for overblown camp, he could have been brilliant -- a mad writer who drafts his novels by inking them with a glass calligraphy brush onto his young daughter's naked body (further abuse, either sexual, physical or both, is hinted at but not directly shown) would have been camp melodrama gold (melodrama can be brilliant if done well) in the hands of someone like Ikuhara Kunihiko* -- but the po-faced seriousness with which it approaches all situations means any potential enjoyment on such terms is strangled at birth.

The purpose of Kirameki and Fumika's equally self-absorbed mother Kirei (meaning "beautiful" -- subtlety not welcome here) is unclear. Is it a satire on the way artists obsess over creating physically attractive characters that they use and abuse, objectifying them as items of beauty, treating as a blank slate on which to paint their stories, and denying them the free will to look after their own destiny? If that's the case, it could be seen as a criticism of the moe phenomenon as a whole, in which characters are blank, puppet-like constructs created from a database of superficial fetishistic elements and lacking in any of the driving emotions and motivations that genuinely good writing requires. The trouble with that is that Shigofumi is guilty of precisely these crimes, with its awareness of the world beyond genre cliches only accentuating its inability to abandon those selfsame cliches.

On other occasions, Shigofumi's limitations are imposed by its audience's own lives, as in the stupid and self-obsessed episode about the thirty-something otaku who learns he has terminal cancer, gets beaten up by thugs, mistakenly arrested for child abduction (by comically abusive police) and suffers the disapproval of his family, before finally bravely sacrificing himself to save a small girl from a truck -- the absurdity of which is accentuated by the script's utter, straight-laced faith in its own gravity.

The episodes that show the series at its best are conversely the ones that attracted the most controversy. Episode 3, which deals with the suicide of a seemingly happy schoolboy, hangs on the casual thought (or sometimes temptation) that crosses everyone in Japan's mind once in a while when standing on a railway platform: "It would be so easy to just jump." That it interweaves this simple and easy to relate to thought with a devastatingly accurate parody of the kind of hand-wringing nonsense spouted by rent-a-quote TV "experts" whenever these kinds of situations occur imbues the episode with a layer of biting realism that seems, in part, to have led to the episode being partially censored for its initial broadcast.

Episode 6 is even more hard-hitting with its harsh portrayal of bullying in school and the unpleasantness that results. The episode concludes that humans are social animals, and that when we remove one of our own from society (i.e. by singling out and bullying someone), we also remove an important part of what makes that person human. One boy can't take it and commits suicide. His successor as the target of the bullies responds with violence. The role that web forums like 2ch can play in these situations is also captured with striking accuracy (giving the episode a blackly comic Densha Otoko vibe) and again the episode got into trouble, being banned by at least one TV station.

There's also some good stuff going on with the music, which is atmospheric in a way that recalls the darker end of Kanno Yoko's instrumental work on the Macross Plus soundtrack. Despite the fact that there are only two out and out good episodes (detailed above), the deeply flawed remainder offers up a lot of interesting ideas and directorial flourishes as well, albeit fewer and fewer as the series progressively loses itself in futile attempts to make worthwhile drama out of largely worthless characters. In these moments, Shigofumi reveals its best side where it satirises how the media trivialises and cashes in on people's suffering, as well as the way that we as consumers are complicit in this.

It's also interesting in the way it represents the recurring theme of how people deal with abuse and in the process makes plain a lot about the way Japanese society discourages victims from speaking out. The girl whose father forces her into pornography, the boys being bullied at school, the man with cancer all feel they must suffer in silence. At the end, when the physical Fumika (rather than the spiritual mail carrier Fumika) awakes from her coma and announces that she wants to press charges against her abusive father, it comes as a shock to the audience and to the other characters. One character even rebukes her for being disrespectful to her father.

Ultimately, however, it fails because the creators are tragically unable to reconcile the maturity of their real-world social and philosophical awareness with the unrealistic caricatures that comprise the standard pick-and-mix anime characterisation to which they cleave so closely and with such misguided loyalty.

*Interestingly, Shigofumi scriptwriter Okouchi Ichiro was responsible for two novelisations of Ikuhara's camp, gender-annihilating masterpiece Shoujo Kakumei Utena (Revolutionary Girl Utena).

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Allison & Lillia

Watching Allison & Lillia, Madhouse's anime adaptation of Sigasawa Keiichi's Allison light novels, I was drawn in absolutely by the idyllic and beautiful, yet also strangely bleak, depiction of the not-quite-1930s-Europe fantasy world in which the story is set. Coming from the pen of the author who wrote Kino no Tabi (Kino's Journey), that the world is whimsical and faintly unreal is no surprise, but it's nevertheless pleasing.

The other intriguing aspect of it is the detailed recreations of real aircraft of the era, from Allison's beautiful yellow DeHavilland Tiger Moth to the Sikorsky S-42 flying boat and Focke-Wulf 190 fighter that appear later in the series -- also credit to the show's makers for showing a visible and believable development in aeronautical technology from the biplanes of the Allison segments to the WW2-era planes of the Lillia episodes that occur 15 years later.

What throws this care over the show's atmosphere and attention to the show's detail into sharp contrast is the lack of care and attention over the characterisation.

That the plot is also utterly ridiculous could also be a source of consternation, but taken in the context of the way the world of Kino no Tabi defiantly clung to its own internal logic throughout, I think there is a sort of consistency in Allison & Lillia too. Almost no one is ever killed, pilots shoot out the engines of opponents and destroyed planes are always accompanied by gently billowing parachutes. Villains are almost never considered beyond redemption, and deeply rooted feuds between families or even nations are easily solved by what seem like the most absurdly simple reasons. This is Sigasawa's world, and he decided with Allison to create the kind of charming, dreamlike world where these situations are everyday reality.

Now in a simplistic world, the characters should also be simplistic, and few could be more simplistic than feisty blonde air force pilot Allison herself. Allison is one of the loveliest and most likeable characters you will ever find in anime and woman-loving (but not womanising) enemy pilot Carr Benedict is as dashing a fighter ace as you could ever wish to meet -- of particular note was a wonderful scene after the time-skip where a palace retainer accidentally catches Benedict and his wife Fiona (by now Queen of the mini-Russia Ikstova) in a passionate embrace. They simply continue kissing until they have finished, and then turn to the retainer and continue their business completely unabashed. In an anime world where the slightest hint of outward affection or an honest display of one's feelings usually results in furious blushing, laughter and frantic rubbing of the back of one's head, their lack of shame is truly refreshing.

The problems with characters begin with Allison's childhood friend Wil. He is in many ways a typical Japanese male character in that he is utterly, ignorantly oblivious to Allison's feelings for him, to the point where she eventually has to wrestle him to the floor and demand he kiss her to make her feelings clear. However, this is mitigated for the most part by the fact that in other ways he's obviously pretty intelligent and many of his actions reveal an obvious affection for Allison, and partly simply because Allison likes him and her being such a likeable character herself, it naturally rubs off on him. He makes one particularly selfish decision just before the time jump, but again mitigates it just enough that you can keep liking him.

Wil and Allison's daughter Lillia and her pathetic boyfriend Treize are the shitstorm that ruins the series though. Replacing the lovable Allison and the flawed yet just about forgiveable Wil as the main characters after the time jump, they turn the story from a whimsical and faintly surreal meander through a 1930s fairy tale into a predictable run-through of anime romantic comedy's worst cliches.

Where Allison was fiesty, direct and forthright in her desires, Lillia is like every ditzy anime schoolgirl -- selfish and cruel in her treatment of Treize, and prone to acts of unbelievable stupidity. Treize is no better, constantly dithering about the "right moment" to tell Lillia the truth about himself (he's the secret "backup" prince of Ikstova, dontchaknow, and darned if he doesn't want Lillia to be his princess!) but instead breaking into fits of nervous laughter, blathering inanely, and, yes, furiously rubbing the back of his head. Needless to say this brash, loudmouthed pandering to cliche is kryptonite to the fine balance of the show's charm.

There seems to be a subtext in the presentation of male lead characters that being emotionally retarded and suffering from a crippling inability to express yourself is somehow a desirable character trait and evidence of one's inherent integrity. If the love you feel for a girl is deep and true enough, goes the thought process, you should be unable to express it without the most unbearable trauma. If it's the kind of thing you can say easily, then you can't mean it enough. Since we're in the business of making drama here, this argument carries some weight, but only if the characters are otherwise believable and well-written. If the characters have no obvious depth in any other aspects of their characters, how can the audience be expected to suspend its disbelief and accept that there is depth in this one?

It's telling that the two most refreshing characters of the series, Allison and Benedict, are the two who are most emotionally self-assured. Allison's strength also serves to make her moments of uncertainty, where she lets flickers of the 15 year-old girl beneath the impetuous air force pilot show through, all the more touching and believable, and it's largely the lack of any of the traditional character conflicts that is what makes Allison's half of the series so much the superior of Lillia's.

Saturday, 30 August 2008

Mahou Tsukai ni Taisetsu na Koto (Someday's Dreamers) is Crap

Just watched the first episode of 2003 anime Mahou Tsukai ni Taisetsu na Koto (Someday's Dreamers) and within 10 minutes the main character, Yume, has fallen over twice while trying to cross a road and tried to run away in fear from the sight of a man with no shirt on (he didn't even have his bits out). She later gets given a free pizza and only eats one piece before going to bed because she's so just so gosh darned dainty.

How, for either a female or a male audience, can this kind of feebleness be considered a desirable character trait in a female lead? I'm trying to think back over old anime and wondering if things were always thus or whether I should be blaming moe for this phenomenon. The girl-falling-over-when-running thing has been there since time immemorial, but the girl-falling-over-when walking-somewhat-briskly thing seems like a new extreme.

I know raging against this kind of insipid characterisation is pissing in the wind but this is just plain insulting to both men and women. It's even more insulting, of course, to the presumed target audience (male, no girlfriend) because the message it sends to them is, "You can't deal with real women. You are such sad losers that you can only cope with even the idea of women if they are presented as grotesque parodies of the most sexist ideals of femininity."

The setting of Mahou Tsukai ni Taisetsu na Koto is around Tokyo's hip and rather pretentious Shimo-Kitazawa district, which sets the scene for some gently amusing character conflict between the cringeworthily awful Yume and the laid back bohemian types she's likely to encounter there, with some semblance of character development presumably involving Yume being brought out of her shell somewhat (oh, but not too much, understand -- let's not get crazy here). This is the escape clause. The fig leaf of self awareness that the show flashes in front of its misogyny, that says, "Hey, I know she seems pathetic, but look how we acknowledge that fact thus proving that we aren't the sort of people who get a boner over emotionally retarded male fantasy chicks."

The representation of Tokyo is interesting, with actual real, recognisable shop fronts and billboard advertisements in the backgrounds, and it's always nice to see subculture districts other than Akihabara portrayed, but whatever good this show might have to offer, it's already lost me.

Friday, 29 August 2008

Looking Inward / Looking Outward: Part 1

I've mentioned before about the inward-looking nature of the modern otaku mindset. Original "OtaKing" Okada Toshio recently criticised this tendency in his book Otaku wa Sude ni Shindeiru, enraging hordes of angry nerds in the process, and in that point at least I think he's right. Okada's criticism dovetails with Azuma Hiroki's idea of the "database culture" where designs are "based on the large accumulation of anonymous types and elements". At one extreme it's ironic self parody, as with this scene from Lucky Star, where Konata breaks the fourth wall by remarking on the unwitting fan service that Miyuki has provided. The gag itself (Miyuki wins the race on a photo finish because her breasts were bigger) is cliched and unfunny, and it is Konata's acknowledgment of the trope that is the real joke in the scene. This kind of postmodern humour has itself become a cliche in much media now, but it is nevertheless popular with otaku because it parallels the kinds of discussions and analyses of tropes that they have themselves. Lucky Star's success was in large part because of the way it reflected the otaku's own lifestyle back at him, as in the scene when Konata finishes watching an episode of Haruhi Suzumiya no Yuutsu (produced by the same team as Lucky Star), makes her own snide judgement of it and immediately turns to the ensuing online flame fest.

This scene from Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei takes what Lucky Star is doing a step further. Here the trope being parodied is the cliche of the onsen resort episode which always involves one tedious example of someone going into the wrong bath and getting embarrassed. Here the situation is turned on its head as only the male teacher is embarrassed whereas his female students are uniformly unbothered. It ends with him feeling that his masculinity has been debased by the unflinching response of his students (foreshadowed cleverly by the distinctly feminine way he is shown getting into the bath to begin with). They top it off with Kafuka actually parodying Lucky Star itself and by parodying something that is in itself a parody, Studio Shaft stake their claim to being teh no.1 133t p05tm0d3rn15tz, until someone can parody them.

Of course, the critical rejoinder to this is that regardless of the irony and self-parody, knowing that your gag is cheap and lazy doesn't make it any less cheap and lazy. The creators also can't stop fans from consuming their work unironically if they choose to. A friend of mine who I usually trust to give me the heads up on any new trends or memes in otaku culture alerted me recently to what he called "the most dangerous anime ever" (NSFW) and suggested that he felt that the show in question, Strike Witches, represents the birth pains of a fourth generation of otaku. Whether this is true or not is hard to say, but at least it represents the extreme development of much of what third generation moe culture represents. The characters themselves are designs constructed directly from the moe database complete with cat ears and tails. None of them wear trousers or skirts ever, for reasons spuriously rationalised as having something to do with the mechanical propellors that they attach to their legs in order to turn them into anthropomorphised representations of World War 2 fighter aircraft.

In Gainax's Otaku no Video from 1991, based in part on Gainax co-founder Okada's own life, an early scene showing the main character, Ken, undergoing his otaku training specifies Star Trek, Doctor Who and John Wyndham's Day of the Triffids as required knowledge. On the other hand, in Strike Witches every aspect of the show is designed to reflect some recycled aspect of Japanese anime culture. The story is entirely subservient to the database and the database is something that has been compiled purely by refining fetish elements from previous anime. Inevitably, as fans turn inwards, the creators of the shows follow them and in all creative aspects Strike Witches shows precisely the kind of inward looking tendency that Okada seems to be criticising in his book.

The otaku's rejoinder to that would be that Okada is criticising them for failing to do something that they never intended in the first place and that he is merely confirming that he is out of touch with what is really happening in fan culture. Putting aside the disturbingly extravagant panty fetishism for a moment, the whole girls=aircraft aspect is a radical and interesting reassembly of two standard base elements. Otaku aren't confusing these girls with real live females and would think you were weird if you implied otherwise. These girls aren't even meant to represent human females: they are a nominally female creation from an entirely different evolutionary model -- children of the database, if you will. In the modern otaku's view, Okada is like Tem Ray, the scientist who created the Gundam Mobile Suit and witnessed its birth, but who ends up a madman, crawling around a junkyard and making useless suggestions to improve a machine he no longer understands.

Part 2 is now up.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Children and The Unknown

I've been watching an anime from a few years back called Mujin Wakusei Survive (Uninhabited Planet Survive) recently and finding a lot to like about it. Partly due to the way it generally avoids letting itself get defined entirely by moe cliches (is that tautology?) and the refreshing accompanying lack of fan service, but mostly because of the sense that it actually feels like the kind of thing that would have had a big effect on me had I watched it as a child.

A lot of recent anime (basically post-Evangelion) has been created by otaku from the first and second generation, who grew up watching classic shows of the 70s and 80s and there is a nostalgic tendency towards revisiting these shows or trying to recreate some of the atmosphere of these shows. Now I have nothing against this, and few pastiches and parodies in the history of irony and postmodernism have been as spot on as Gekiganger 3, but on the other hand I never grew up with this kind of stuff when I was a child, and this kind of melodramatic, cliched action, where heroes of good do battle against evil never really affected me. The works that have stuck fast in my memory since childhood have been those that dealt with a journey into the unknown.

A lot of the appeal of fantasy literature clearly comes from the way it describes unknown worlds, and the purpose of a quest is in many ways simple a pretext for taking the reader on a package tour of a world that the writer has created. Miyazaki Hayao's work resonates because of the strength of his world building whereas something like Final Fantasy: Legend of the Crystals fails to resonate because the world building is ill thought out, even compared to the game (FFV) it was based on. Obviously it's made worse by the fact that the main character is both a Pure-hearted Hero of the most obnoxious type and a classic Mary Sue, but these are both symptoms of the same dearth of imagination on the part of the hacks responsible for its creation.

Esteban from Mysterious Cities of Gold was a Pure-hearted Hero and re-watching the series he's undoubtedly annoying at times, but it remains easier to empathise with him because the world itself draws you in. The designs of the architecture, the mecha, the costumes and the soundtrack work together to create a consistent atmosphere, evocative of the place, the time and the emotion (is there any child alive in the 80s who didn't want to ride the golden condor?) And finally, the structure of his quest, stepping constantly further and further into the unexplored unknown, can't help but drag you along with him.

Likewise, another fragment of my childhood that couldn't help but have a powerful effect on me was Stewart Cowley's Terran Trade Authority book series. In particular the second half of the book Great Space Battles, which dealt with short stories based mostly around the colonisation of new planets. What made these tales (and others in the follow-up SpaceWreck) so powerful was again down to the world building. The fascinating, detailed, evocative artwork, even though the pictures were compiled from numerous unrelated sources, was eerie and wonderfully alien, and the writing maintained a single viewpoint throughout, never allowing us to know the whole picture, always holding the truth just out of our grasp. After each story we are left with a real sense of the unknowable vastness of space and of the unimaginable dangers and wonders it contains.

Coming back to Mujin Wakusei Survive, its this sense of the unknown that makes it so involving. The story is a sort of Lord of the Flies meets The Breakfast Club kind of thing with a bunch of mismatched classmates crashing on a small island on an unknown planet during a school trip (it makes more sense in the context of the show, OK?) and struggling to survive its perils. There's no attempt to be deep, philosophical or "edgy" and it's perfectly likeable as a solid, unpatronising children's cartoon. Some of the characters are problematic -- does Howard really need to be such a twat? Why does the sickeningly pathetic Sharla sound like she's about to burst into tears with everything she says? Could Bell please open his eyes? Oh, and Kaoru, your angst is annoying and self-indulgent so just stop it, OK? On the other hand, in Luna and Menori there are two strong, independent female characters who both consistently take on leadership roles and handle them believably. Menori in particular is flawed and aware of her flaws, but also strong enough to overcome them and is by far the most well-written character.

Throughout, however, it is those memories of Cowley's tales of the colonisation of space that I'm constantly reminded of. Whereas Mysterious Cities of Gold portrayed the adult characters as either outright evil or at least somewhat unreliable, thus forcing the child leads to be self-sufficient, Mujin Wakusei Survive takes the Narnia route of removing adults from the picture early on -- in fact from the start adults are rarely seen, with Luna living alone and Menori taking on many of the adults' roles during the school scenes. The early episodes where the children are mapping out the island, searching for food and fresh water, and trying to build a home are particularly good. The island is presented as a real place that rarely tests the audience's suspension of disbelief too close to its limit (at least for a children's show it doesn't) and if I were a child watching this, I think this is something that would have carved a firm place in my memories.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

Blade of the Immortal anime - first impressions

Hiroaki Samura's Mugen no Junin (Blade of the Immortal) has hit TV screens. Difficult to see whether it's going to be any good or not, but Studio Bee Train and Koichi Mashimo at the helm suggests that it will be flawed with moments of inspired brilliance.

A few quick observations:

No Yuki Kajiura this time. This is a bad thing.

Unlike previous Bee Train shows like Noir, they don't have a problem showing blood in this one (it's on TV Tokyo's cable subsidiary rather than the main channel so presumably not subject to the same censorship). This is clearly a good thing.

The "death murals" of Samura's artwork are obviously impossible to recreate fully in animated form, but Manji's death strokes are sometimes stylised in an interesting way. This may turn out to be a good thing.

While it focuses mostly on Manji's background and motivation, the story manages to interweave the beginnings of Rin's and Anotsu's story threads and hints at the Mugai-Ryu arc as well. This is probably a good thing.

Despite her small role, the way Machi's madness is presented is handled pretty well. Key moment is the way she awakes from nightmare recollections of her husband's death with the screams of the dream segueing into her hysterical laughter upon waking. This is undoubtedly a good thing.

The Villain Of The Week deploys the Crazy Voice as a substitute for believable characterisation. This is a bad thing.

Manji's character design has become a bit less of the lean, wiry Sid Vicious-in-a-kimono nihilist punk samurai that he was in the manga and taken on a slightly more conventional square-jawed beefcake look. This is not a good thing.

Has Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei started a new wave of kinbaku-themed opening credit sequences?

Has Shinreigari started a new wave of Shiina Ringo-styled opening songs?

Monday, 28 July 2008

Anime Cliches #01: Pure-hearted Hero

His voice has a volume range that starts with a shout and increases depending on the amount of emotion he needs to express. Often for additional emphasis he will shout the same thing over and over again. He is particularly fond of shouting the name of Ethereal Girl. During the rare moments of confusion and uncertainty, for example when speaking to a girl, he will entirely lose the remains of his primitive ability to construct full sentences and resort to meaningless, directionless interjections like, "But I..." and "It's not like that. It's...", and "...[girl's name]...". This is not a problem though. It is a well-established fact that inability to express complex emotions is regarded as a sign of sincerity and is considered an extremely desirable character trait by women.

Fortunately, as the main character he is protected by the most powerful kind of plot shield -- one that not only protects him from physical harm but also shields his brain, a tiny object as small and hard as a walnut, from any consideration of the consequences of his behaviour or any doubt as to the righteousness of his every action. He reacts to moral ambiguity with confusion and shouting but don't be fooled; as we already know, shouting=emotion and it is a well known fact that reason is obliterated when the emotion index reaches approximately 85dB. If your words don't fit in with his worldview, he will stick his fingers in his ears and shout "lalala" until the narrative is able to contort itself around his narrow moral absolutism and teach you a lesson.

As a rule, the more serious the story and the more real the dilemmas faced, the more infuriating he is.


Romantically compatibile with:
- Ethereal Girl

Natural Allies:
- Wise Old Woman
- Annoying Mascot Creature
- Impressionable Child

Natural enemies:
- Relativist
- Utilitarian
- Misanthropic Villain

Plot Shield:
- 10/10

Saturday, 28 June 2008

1950s Graphics

I ended up this afternoon at the print museum in Iidabashi enjoying an exhibition of what were mostly pretty fantastic 1950s Japanese advertisements. Obviously, one has to recognise that the exhibition was compiled from a modern point of view, but nevertheless one of the most striking features about it was damn cool Japanese poster art was back then.

There's a debate over at the excellent Neojaponisme blog at the moment about what constitutes "Cool Japan", where one major divide seems to be from those who feels that anime had a large role to play in the development of Japan as something hip and those who prefer to see it as something that appeared in the 90s and 2000s as a result of pop and fashion culture with anime as a quite separate issue. Part of the division seems to be between the American and British commenters -- as a Brit, I seem to remember that cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk anime like Akira and Ghost In The Shell were extremely cool in the 1990s and the whole image of dystopian Shibuya neon tracking right back to Blade Runner and William Gibson made Japan seem like very much the place to be.

Part of the context of the Neojaponisme discussion seems to be the antipathy between America and Japan in the late 80s and early 90s and the way that dissolved as Japan's economic situation declined and America's strengthened during the Clinton era. Some comments suggest there was less of that in the UK and Europe since Japan wasn't an economic competitor the way it was with America at that time (us poor Brits in the midst of the darkest days of the Thatcher era were more worried about recession and the poll tax than east/west willy-waving). Nevertheless, I'd be surprised if the alignment between the aggressive modernism of 80s~ Japan and the dystopian futurism of Gibson et al didn't have a major impact on Japan's cachet in the 90s.

I'm not au fait enough with the ins and outs of current trends to begin to explain the undoubtedly extremely detailed and complex background behind why Japan now has major cultural cachet whereas in the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s it didn't. However, what the 1950s Japanese Graphics exhibition shows is that regardless of the caprice of Western fashion and the often selective attention it pays to Japanese arts over time, there was still some extremely modern, extremely hip, extremely fashionable work going on in the Japanese commercial mainstream more than 50 years ago. It's easy to look at elements of the design and style and point to the influence of French or American artists, but there is also obviously something distinctly Japanese going on that enhances rather than diminishes the clean, stylish, essentially modernist lines of the designs.

What it also might show is the way the post-90s, post-"Cool Japan" filtering process can dig out articles of Japanese retro design that support and consolidate current trends in visual style. Bearing in mind that most modern Japanese visuals would generally be categorised under the loose bracket of "post-modernism", what does this say about the 1950s visuals shown at this exhibition? Are we being treated to a simple localisation of America/European modernist themes, or is this actually a precursor to the post-modern absorption and reconstitution that we have all come to know and love and that has come to define so much current "cool" Japanese art and design?

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Anime Cliches #012: Unhinged Villain

Rarely a primary antagonist, Unhinged Villain (example here -- there's a lot going on but watch the guy with they funny eye) usually takes the form of a Villain Of The Week or a sidekick, with his role often overlapping with that of Snivelling Henchman.

His demented, sociopathic behaviour, hammy overacting and tendency to lash out, often with fatal consequences, at innocent bystanders and expendable underlings alike may occasionally make the casual observer wonder how he ever rose to a position of power and influence in his evil organisation in the first place without getting done in, Joe Pesci-in-Goodfellas-style, by his colleagues.

While he will sometimes behave in a deceptively calm and composed manner, he is generally easy to distinguish from colleagues such as Misanthropic Villain and Philosophical Villain by his deployment of the Crazy Voice. This, coupled with his advanced case of Battle Loquacity, makes him one of the more annoying antagonists. If you ever come across a fight between Unhinged Villain and Pure-Hearted Hero, the volume control is an invaluable tool for the dedicated sailor of this most infuriating of anime seas. Failing that, a heavy boot to the TV screen usually suffices.

Anime Cliches #007: The Darth Vader Gambit

A technique deployed by villains in order to disable the hero, the Darth Vader Gambit involves imparting a piece of traumatic exposition at a crucial moment in battle, immediately precipitating an emotional crisis that will cause the hero's weapon to clatter to the floor and the hero themself to fall to their knees, clutching their face. Often this is accompanied by violent trembling and repeated utterances of the phrase, "No... it's not true... it CAN'T BE true..!" At this point the villain may choose to respond with, "Look deep within yourself... you know it to be true." at which point the hero will reply, "NOOOOOOOOOO!"or some other variant on the template.

Watch out for phrases such as, "Have your friends not told you what they are truly planning?", "Do you know who really killed your brother/sister/parents/teacher/wife?", and the evergreen "You and I are alike..."

The only known countermeasure to the Darth Vader Gambit is the Tuco Defence. As far as I know, however, no anime hero has ever tried this.

Note that it is even more infuriating for dedicated Tuco acolytes when the Darth Vader Gambit is used in a video game, since the computer will wrestle control of your character from you and force you to sit, helpless, spitting obscenities at the screen, as your character flops about on the ground like a recently caught salmon.

Anime Cliches: An Introduction

Much of this ongoing series of featurettes is self-explanatory and in any case, I'm sure a quick search of the web will reveal numerous other sites expressing similar ideas. Anyone with an interest in anime will know how cliche-ridden it can be and indeed there is an element of otaku culture that revels in the cliches. Some believe that the way the interchangeability of constituent elements is increasingly coming to be the primary creative driving force of anime and manga is in fact a revolution in media and fan culture.

I'm not trying to do anything so dramatic here. As I watch shows, I often come across elements or character types that I have seen numerous times before. Sometimes it annoys me, sometimes I just find it funny, sometimes I feel it points to social or political attitudes that could do with exposing, and sometimes I feel it's just bad writing. If I occasionally come over all Gramsci on you, that's just the way I am and I make no apologies.

Although I'm labelling it "Anime Cliches", most of these elements are equally applicable to Japanese video games, particularly RPGs, and many of them you will find across the whole spectrum of fantasy and SF.

Monday, 16 June 2008

On bad fantasy lit. and losing my innocence

I was lurking around a secondhand English bookshop in Tokyo last week with the firm intention of getting myself some big, chunky fantasy literature. It wasn't an idea I'd thought about much; it was just one of those whims that sweep across you like a powerful, raging storm and seize you with their enthusiasm. Going into the store, I had this image in my head of picking up a great thick doorstop of a book and losing myself in it for days as its beautiful and richly imagined world swept over me, immersing me in its details and nuances.

Of course, when I got to the fantasy section reality hit me. It's not that it wasn't well-stocked (it was), it's just that faced with the reality of what fantasy literature is actually like, I felt my enthusiasm drain from me, to be replaced within seconds by a kind of frustrated, tetchy bloody-mindedness. I would find something to inspire and lift my imagination. Nothing would stand in my way. It was my quest. My destiny.

But honestly:
In the aftermath of the brutal murder of his father, a mysterious woman, Kahlan Amnell, appears in Richard Cypher's forest sanctuary seeking help... and more. His world, his very beliefs, are shattered when ancient debts come due with thundering violence.

In their darkest hour, hunted relentlessly, tormented by treachery and loss, Kahlan calls upon Richard to reach beyond his sword -- to invoke within himself something more noble. Neither knows that the rules of battle have just changed... or that their time has run out.
Who can read crap like this without retching? Perhaps I'm being a bit unfair here by picking out Terry Goodkind as an example, since from what I can gather he's a particularly odious example of the sort of hack bollocks that seems to comprise most of the pantheon of fantasy literature, but honestly, almost every single book I perused slapped me in the face with some similarly flaccid blurb, similarly self-assured and pompous in its own blatant mediocrity.

My hunt continued...

There was a complete set of Tad Williams' Otherland series, and I seem to remember finding his Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series satisfying, with likeable enough characters and just enough playful nudging of the genre stereotypes to occasionally tip them over into unexpected flourishes of near-originality. The premise of Otherland does not fill me with dread and I had good times with the similarly-themed .Hack//Sign anime. Still, Tad Williams is the place where another of the harsh realities of fantasy literature must be confronted. His work suffers from a terminal case of stuffy over-writing.

I stumbled through the first four lines of the first page of one of the books [Edited Jun 25th 07: initially I thought it was the first book but I checked again and the first book actually opens pretty well] and nothing interesting happened. If Williams has already started padding it out at the first line, I thought to myself, what hope for the rest of the four gargantuan telephone directories that await? I foresaw interminable descriptive passages of tangential relevance to the plot, I foresaw frustratingly drawn-out setups to long-foreshadowed events left dangling ad nauseam as the word count piled up behind them, I held the book open before me in the one-handed reading pose and weighed the pressure on my little finger. I backed down from the challenge. I was not ready. Not yet.

Part four of George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series was dismissed out of hand. I thought book one was excellent when a friend forced me to read it, but I refuse to touch the series further until all seven volumes are complete. Plus, what's with all that "R. R." stuff? Plain old George Martin not good enough for you? Or did your publishers think the old "R. R." in the middle gave you a bit of Tolkienesque cred that lifted you above the pack?

By this point, I was becoming more and more crotchety and cynical with the whole trashy business of fantasy fiction. I remembered that anything that reminds me of Tolkien makes me want to puke. Nothing turns me off a book better than those endless pull quotes from lazy reviewers who call every new piece of cookie cutter genre trash the "best fantasy novel since Tolkien". I remain impressed with the obsessive detail he put into the mythological and linguistic background of his world, but the casual sexism and racism, the unquestioning adherence to a system of feudal patriarchy turns me off, particularly when I see the same kind of bilious goo vomiting forth from contemporary writers who should know better. I felt my blood running a little redder and my inner Trot began to awaken.

According to China Mieville, who I admire but don't necessarily agree with as both a writer and as a revolutionary socialist, Ursula LeGuin is a full-on anarchist so her books might be politically acceptible for me. There weren't any in the book shop though so my search continued. I'd read all the Iain M. Banks that they had and the same went for the Philip Pullman.

I could go on, but Alec Austin has already outlined most of the pitfalls in his excellent Strange Horizons essay Quality in Epic Fantasy.

Nevertheless, there is a little nugget of self-discovery that came out of this whole, honestly rather small and insignificant episode of my life that I have so zealously overdramatised above. Something in the conflict between the feeling that I used to get from fantasy writing and cartoons as a child and my increasing difficulty accepting such things at face value as an adult. When people say to me, "It's just a story" and I tear my hair out and scream vile obscenities at them, this is the internal conflict that lies at the heart of the external drama. The frustration from applying grown-up critical standards to work that prefers not to recognise those standards.

So in the end, the call of the familiar drew me away from the fantasy section and into the comforting embrace of Graham Greene. Within half a page of Our Man in Havana, I was overwhelmed with a sense of joy that cancelled out the bitter sting of defeat. Why do writers of fantasy literature so rarely employ such clean lines in their sentences, such elegance and order in their structure, such beautiful, almost mechanical simplicity? Why can't such simple tools be applied to the construction of extraordinary worlds and situations?

In fact, I'm pretty sure that they can be. SF writers don't seem to feel quite so bound by the need for archaic linguistic tropes or figures of speech, and are far less prone to overwriting. Arthur C. Clarke is an endlessly readable author and there are plenty of others. As LeGuin (herself admirably economical in her prose) points out in her essay From Elfland to Poughkeepsie, fantasy works with a more old-fashioned setting, which naturally requires that the writer adopt a voice appropriately distanced from his present time and location, but there is no reason why that can't be done within a stylistic and structural framework like Greene's.

As Austin points out in his essay above, a lot of the problems with fantasy literature stem from the nature of the market, which requires sequel after leaden sequel. Such an environment inevitably benefits talentless hacks like David Eddings, and I would imagine the likes of Goodkind, Brooks and Jordan (R.I.P.) all fall into the same category. SF tends to be friendlier to the standalone novel and the science aspect of the genre naturally draws the focus towards neat concepts and ideas to the benefit of the genre, whereas fantasy, based on the creation of worlds, is more abstract, its focus less clearly defined. Perhaps this aspect, with its less obvious conclusion and greater scope for reader to become lost in the world and writer to become lost in his or her own ego, makes it more vulnerable to the dictates of a greedy market.

The greatest fantasy writer of all time, Jorge Luis Borges, never wrote a story over twenty pages and one flicker of a great imagination can say more than a thousand shelf-bending sagas.

Kamichu! Part 2 - Japanese National Identity

In my last post I talked about the way stories about confused, alienated teenage girls gifted with godlike powers could reflect certain changes in Japanese society and within the world of anime creators and fans. I focussed in part on the TV series Kamichu! and I'm going to stick with that show with this post as I focus on some observations about national identity.

One of the awkward things when discussing these kind of issues is where the relatively neutral term "national identity" becomes a little too neutral to be useful and where you have to start playing around with more politically charged terms like "nationalism" and dealing with the can of worms that then gets opened up. I'm going to stick my neck out here and say that anime can be very nationalistic, but I'm going to add some caveats here.

Firstly, I'm not talking about the kind of jackboots and swastikas, goose-stepping racist type of 1930s European nationalism here (although anyone who spends much time hanging around Ochanomizu Station in central Tokyo has probably seen exactly these kind of black-shirted fascist scum harassing students from the supposedly lefty-biased Meiji University). What I'm talking about in the context of anime is generally a kind of loose cultural nationalism. An attempt, not necessarily confined to what we would traditionally label as right or left wing, to define and untangle a kind of distinctive Japanese culture from the tangled threads of foreign influences that form much of modern Japanese life.

For all its emphasis on the mundane details of daily life, Kamichu! expresses a remarkably consistent socio-political worldview, on some occasions more explicitly than on others.

In episode four, a female alien visits to return a broken NASA space probe and is imprisoned by the Japanese government with the intention of handing her over to the Americans for experiments. The main character of Kamichu!, Yurie Hitotsubashi, is called in to act as an interpreter for the alien and then tries to rescue her when she discovers the prime minister's plan. There are two things going on here.

Firstly there is an implied criticism of what many regard as the Japanese government's craven acquiescence to American demands. This is an ongoing point of debate in Japan as President George Bush puts pressure on Japan to amend Article 9 of its pacifist constitution to allow the Japanese Self-Defence Force to engage in overseas military action. The issue is a conundrum for the traditional nationalist right in Japan since they are by their nature militaristic, yet they are also opposed to foreign influence in Japanese affairs. As a rule, the right tends to focus its criticisms on Russia and China while quietly supporting the United States. This relationship dates right back to the early postwar years, when the U.S. occupation government and CIA cut deals with extreme right wing POWs, mafiosi and war criminals in order to gain access to their information networks in the fight against communism. The most unified objection to the influence of the United States in Japanese politics seems to come from the left, who share with left-liberals the world over a suspicion of American foreign policy and who, like a majority of Japanese, are extremely proud of Article 9. Kamichu! makes its own position clear when Yurie deals with a platoon of gun-toting soldiers by reminding them that they aren't allowed to use their guns except to defend against a foreign invader and since the alien isn't invading, they are constitutionally obliged to leave them alone.

Despite being set in 1983, which sets Kamichu! during the tenure of Yasuhiro Nakasone, the political issues discussed above were current (and controversial) in 2005 under Junichiro Koizumi. Such direct referencing of current headlines, albeit hiding behind the fig leaf of the historical setting, is a relatively new feature in mainstream anime, perhaps showing recognition that an older audience is watching.

There is a second, more subtle, theme being explored in Kamichu! though, and it is one that recurs throughout the series, namely the idea of the loneliness of the person far away from home. The alien has a sweetheart on Mars who she wants to see again, and Yurie's comment that "Martians should be on Mars" while on one level responding to the simple fact that her alien friend is homesick, also reveals something about the series' attitude. Kamichu! is at heart very inward-looking and in the world it creates, foreigners are welcome guests and amusing diversions, but not permanent fixtures. The bottom line is, that everyone has their place and in the end it is expected that they will return.

In episode nine the same situation occurs in reverse when Yurie has to bring back the spirit of the battleship Yamato, which was sunk by American aircraft near Okinawa in 1945. Within the worldview of Kamichu!, the reunion of the ship and its home port is both natural and necessary. From a pacifist perspective, there could be the implied message that it should never have left. From the nationalist perspective, the return of the most powerful battleship ever created represents a revival of Japanese pride and the way Yurie must first study in detail every aspect of the ship before she is able to contain its spirit is a lesson for Japanese youth to learn about their history and culture. A curious, throwaway comment made by Yurie's local god Yashima-sama, that in addition to learning everything about the ship's physical dimensions she should also learn about "why it was built" seems to hint at a deeper examination of Japan's role in the war, (clue: it was built to kill people) but that thread ends up going nowhere as Yurie is far more interested in the fact that there was a room on the ship where they made lemonade. Presumably too deep an exploration of the war would have been deemed inappropriate for a children's show, although the end result, with its faintly unpleasant whiff of jingoism hardly seems an improvement.

Far more effective is episode twelve, where Yurie moves to Izumo for a month to attend a gods' convention. In that episode, she herself is forced to confront the loneliness and alienation she feels in a new environment, where she is treated differently by those around her. She is eventually able to make a connection with her temporary classmates, but in the end, as with when Yashima-sama runs away to become a rock star, when the cat Tama runs away to escape Yurie's mothering, and when Miko runs away to escape heartbreak, Yurie has to return home in order for balance in the universe to be restored. In all these cases, the ties that bind the characters to their homes are painful when stretched and the relief when equilibrium is restored is palpable.

One of the defining features of post-nineties anime is the way that the first, and now second, generations of otaku have moved from being consumers to being active participants in the creation of anime, either through effecting their own entry into the industry or through the influence they wield through the Internet (check the case of Takami Akai and the infamous "2channel incident" if you don't believe me). The postmodern critic and philosopher Hiroki Azuma wrote in his essay Superflat Japanese Postmodernity that "otaku culture is a sort of the collective expression of post-war Japanese nationalism" and with that in mind, it is perhaps natural that an increase in the number of otaku working in the industry has gone hand in hand with more explicit expressions of national identity and nationalism.

Within the otaku world many believe that a direct link can be drawn between modern (or postmodern) otaku culture and pre-modern Japanese Edo period culture, pointing at similarities in consumption patterns as evidence. Azuma dismisses this as a "cliche" and a "pretension", pointing to the postwar influence of America as the primary background of otaku culture. The result of this, according to Azuma, is a kind of twisted view of "Japaneseness" that tends towards self-caracature.

The clinging onto iconic nationalist images like the Yamato is one reflection of this but there are many more going further back into Japanese history. In the SF series Gasaraki, the mobile armour that forms the centrepiece of the series is a parody of Japanese Noh theatre and one of the main characters, somewhat ambiguous at first, but who occupies an increasingly sympathetic role as the series progresses, is a hard-right nationalist figure whose ideology is based on a very strict interpretation of Bushido.

In a more domestic setting, romantic and slice of life dramas like Kamichu! invariably place great prominence on the changing of the seasons. This is a fundamental feature of traditional Japanese art and literature, with precedents in Murasaki's Genji Monogatari (Tale of Genji) as well as the requirement for references to the seasons in haiku. From a postmodern viewpoint, however, this is merely appropriating imagery and motifs from traditional Japanese culture purely for superficial purposes or to support its own postmodern agenda. Modern Japan has been shaped by so many factors over the past 150 years since Western influences were first allowed in that the Edo period is like another country, thus the modern otaku claiming descent from this lineage in fact has more in common with French "Japonisme" of the late 19th Century than he does with the culture that he is claiming as his own.

The fact that it is blatantly unrealistic to expect Japan to turn back the clock to the 18th Century is of course obvious to most, and to return to Kamichu! for a moment, there is a neat recognition of this in the episode dealing with Matsuri' self-declared "War on Christmas", where she gets jealous of the popularity of this foreign festival when her own Shinto shrine lies empty for a day, and annoys a lot of gift shop owners in the process. The two festivals decide to coexist and Matsuri's rival "Japanese" winter festival is considered a success when she manages to bring in ten percent of the people she invited.

Another factor in Japanese society that is beginning to have an impact on the themes and issues dealt with in anime is globalisation. Despite still being a largely homogeneous society, foreigners in Japan are becoming an increasingly visible part of the tapestry of daily life, particularly in Tokyo but also in other parts of the country. Part of this is down to the decrease in value of the yen from the early nineties making foreign tourism easier, partly this is the increasing wealth of Japan's Chinese and South Korean neighbours, and partly this is the slowly but steadily increasing numbers of foreign workers, particularly Chinese, who are settling in Japan.

Politically conscious "hard SF" anime like Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex and the aforementioned Gasaraki pinpoint increased ethnic communities as possible hotspots for civil unrest, although regardless of whether or not they are "wanted" in the end, both shows try to paint the minorities in a sympathetic light. The 2000 comedy series Niea_7 portrays a run down bath house in a near future rural Japan where aliens have crashed on earth and have reached a point where their initially incredible presence has become mundane. It deals with the issues of integration faced by the stranded aliens who themselves are by now second generation with no connections to or even conceptions of their home planet, and contrasts their own internal squabbles and prejudices with the personal sense of alienation felt by the human main character Mayuko Chigasaki who is herself seperated from people around her by the remote location of her home, her extreme poverty and her lack of parents. As the series develops, the similarities between her predicament and that of her annoying alien roommate lead to an increasing empathy between them. It's a far more nuanced view of the polyethnic future that Japan might find itself in than most other shows and all the more powerful for the way it avoids making any of its main points directly.

Kamichu! avoids dealing with this issue by fixing the setting in a time and place where foreigners were unlikely to appear, which serves well the show's focus on maintaining the image of a utopian small-town Japan. Certainly it's the prerogative of any show to set the parameters of what issues it chooses to address, although it's hard not to come to the conclusion that by the values that the show expresses, the lack of any non-Japanese presence is because in a world with everything in its right place, foreigners would stay at home in the first place. In this sense, the kind of nationalism that Kamichu! expresses is a defensive response against the foreign influence on Japanese society and the feeling that modern Japanese people have lost touch with traditional values. Unfortunately, as Azuma points out, "traditional" Japanese values are difficult thing to define, with the definition having gone through a number of changes over many years in response to various changes in the world. Kamichu!'s reaction in the face of this is a curious mixture of resigned acceptance, as with the "war on Christmas", and the desire to turn away and to turn inwards.

There is an episode near the end of the series which most powerfully and persuasively expresses a much wider context into which the show's attitude to national identity fits. After her exertions over New Year, Yurie takes a "duvet day" underneath the cover of the heated kotatsu table in her house's living room. The lengths she goes to and the contortions she puts herself through in order to remain in the warm, comforting embrace of the kotatsu, safe from the January chill around her, perfectly captures the "five more minutes" feeling universal to anyone who has experienced winter in a Japanese house and underpins that with a deeper sense of ennui and reluctance to leave home and face the world. She knows, as we know, that she will have to get up, take a shower and get dressed sooner or later, but for now the world be damned and just let me sleep.

Ian Martin - June 16th 2008