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?