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.

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