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?