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