Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Recommended reading on moé

Two excellent posts cutting to the bone of that mysterious beast that men call moé here and here. Very little for me to add here at this time, except to say that one should take anything that 3G otaku, however literate their writing appears, have to say about otaku culture with a big bag of salt. They are sociopathically sophisticated in the art of sef-delusion.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

A Tale of Two Paprikas

Kon Satoshi gained something of a reputation with his 1997 film Perfect Blue as a director who likes to take a, let's say, "liberal" approach to his source material when working on an adaptation. As a result, a read through Tsutsui Yasutaka's original 1993 novel Paprika also throws up numerous interesting differences with Kon's 2006 adaptation. These differences can be summarised under the categories of "structural" and "thematic".

Kon's film is structured more as a mystery and a thriller, with key information withheld or expressed only obliquely until more dramatically opportune moments. The missing DC Minis are introduced right from the get go, Osanai acts as a friend and an ally initially, and Inui seems to be a cranky and troublesome boss, but isn't revealed as the villain until later on. Parallel to this, the characters of Noda and Konakawa are combined into the single character of Konakawa, and his rank in the police force is reduced to that of a simple detective. As a result, the film presents a neat parallel between Paprika's investigation into Konakawa's dream and the evolving mystery of the theft of the DC Minis.

On the other hand, Tsutsui's novel makes it clear from very early on that Osanai and Inui are up to no good. The novel is still a thriller, but it is psychological rather than a mystery. Atsuko/Paprika's enemies are established from the start, and we follow her path through the developing series of plots and machinations at a far less frenetic pace.

Similarly, the connection between Atsuko and Paprika is established explicitly, even to the point of detailing how Atsuko changes her appearance, adding freckles and moving her voice to a more girlish register to complete the disguise, whereas in Kon's film the connection between them is a little more blurred. Kon hints that they are the same person, and eventually states it clearly, but he never explains exactly how two such physically different people could be the same. Is it a physical disguise, or is it a blurring of reality and dreams through the use of the DC Mini? By the end, the two have separated completely, appear alongside each other, and even argue over which one is more real.

How the two versions of the story deal with the boundaries of reality and dreams crosses over into the area of thematic differences. Kon, in the film version's stunning opening sequence, makes it clear that he views the boundaries as fluid right from the start, whereas Tsutsui breaks them down at a much slower, more measured pace. For Kon, with that opening rush through clips of The Greatest Show on Earth, Tarzan, Roman Holiday, and a spy thriller that might be From Russia with Love or possibly North by Northwest, the breaking of those boundaries mirrors the way the audience of a film set aside one reality and step into another, as well as the way the director of a film takes a world from his own imagination and recreates it as an entirely new reality on the screen.

In Tsutsui's novel, cinema is certainly a minor theme, particularly in Noda's dream, but he seems much more interested in the details of mental illness and psychotherapy (which Kon largely glosses over), and in particular issues of sex and sexuality. There are some sharp observations about the way Japanese society frowns on attractive women also displaying obvious intelligence in public, but mostly sex is portrayed as the battleground where the novel's competing philosophies slug it out.

The homosexual relationship between Inui and Osanai plays out as faintly abusive one, based on power, and throughout the story, Osanai shows himself unable to view sex outside of expressions of power. Atsuko, portrayed here as much more sexually assured than her equivalent in the film, has a much more empathetic attitude to sex. As Paprika, she often forms close attachments with the patients of her dream analysis, and on one occasion actually has sex with Konakawa in a dream as part of his therapy (compare with the slap across the face she directs at him after he kisses her in the film). Towards the end of the film, as the dream world and real world merge, she is happily engaged in concurrent sexual relationships with three different men, often all at once.

The collision between Atsuko's empathetic approach to sex and Osanai's power-based approach comes in a scene where Inui directs Osanai to rape Atsuko. Osanai, confident in his good looks and desirability, is convinced that all he needs to do is force himself on her and she will become subservient to him. That all he needs to do is "break" her. Unable physically to resist, Atsuko resigns herself and in fact decides to use it as a chance to work off some of the physical need for sex that she hasn't had time to act on because of her work. However, once she shows herself willing to act as a proactive partner, Osanai finds himself unable to sustain an erection and is forced to beat a humiliating retreat. Even then, Atsuko chides herself for mocking his sexual inadequecy and not empathising with him more.

Finally, with Inui, the main villain, there are key differences. Kon portrays him as an old, crippled man who wants to use Osanai's young, attractive body to renew himself. In the novel, there is an entire subplot that is absent from the film, dealing with Atsuko and Tokita's nomination for the Nobel Prize and Inui's jealousy after he lost out to a British scientist many years ago. The battle lines with Inui, however, remain the same as with his protege Osanai. Power and domination versus empathy and understanding, brainwashing versus therapy, and interestingly Christianity versus Buddhism. Inui's dreams are deeply infused with European, particularly Christian, imagery. As Tokyo descends into chaos, mythological creatures from ancient bestiaries do battle with Buddhist deities in the city streets. Inui takes the form of the demon Amon, quotes lines from the Jesuit training manual, summons griffins, and creates vast cathedrals from nothing, while the two barmen, Jinnai and Kuga, battle them as Acala and Vairocana.

Singling out which is the better of the two is a pretty much meaningless exercise and the two are different enough that you could enjoy both without one ruining the other for you. The fact that Tsutsui himself appeared in the film as the voice of Kuga (acting alongside Kon himself as Jinnai) suggests that he had no problem with the hatchet that Kon took to his story, and it's obvious reading the novel why the director of such films as Perfect Blue, Millenium Actress and the TV series Paranoia Agent would be interested in it.

There are definite issues (possibly on the translator's side) with the quality of writing in the novel, particularly the way it hammers away through the third person narration at points that could be better expressed more subtly through the characters' actions; but perhaps the most unusual point from the point of view of Kon's back catalogue and Tsutsui's novel, is the way the film version shies away from the most controversial aspects of the novel. Tsutsui followed the release of Paprika with a three year self-imposed strike in protest at the Japanese literary establishment's squeamishness around taboo issues like mental illness. However, despite Kon's track record of touching on controversial social issues such as suicide, homelessness, prostitution and Japan's militaristic past, the film version of Paprika is mostly shorn of the novel's most pointed aspects. As it stands, Kon's film is a superb fireworks display of postmodern cinematic trickery, in some ways influenced more by Godard and Truffaut than it is by Tsutsui's novel, but lacking a lot of the meat of its printed forbear. In a sense it can be said that Paprika (1993) is a triumph of the "what", while Paprika (2006) is a victory for the "how".

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Suzumiya Haruhi: The Case for the Defence

A harsh and well-aimed salvo from the ever-enjoyable Colony Drop at the moment which puts me in the hateful position of being by default on the same side of the argument as hordes of people for whom I feel nothing but disdain and a smidgen of pity.

Summary of Colony Drop's position: Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuutsu is shit.

Transcription of first comment beneath the original article: your a faget

Summary my feelings about typical Haruhi fans: Sigh.

My defence of Haruhi rests largely on four main pillars. Firstly, it is a postmodernist's paradise, not just for the wealth of references to other anime (Lucky Star has more and is a worse show), but also the way it uses genre cliches not as lazy "look at this, this often happens, now laugh" crimes of self-referentiality, but as metaphors that draw analogues between oft-repeated one-dimensional pop cultural tropes and the lives of the real people that were born out of the same culture.

Secondly and relatedly, as I have talked about at length before, it is a show with big themes that takes a sharp look at genuine contemporary sociological issues in Japan and other post-industrial societies. Yes, the members of the SOS-dan are stereotypes taken straight from Azuma Hiroki's database, but Haruhi is a distorted caricature that contains something real at her core. Similarly Kyon is an audience surrogate but he succeeds as an audience surrogate by actually being a character that not only articulates the superficial characteristics of his target audience, but also embodies their deeper concerns. Modern Japanese and other citizens of other post-industrial transnationalopolises emerge from childhood and face an adult world filled with employment practices that are either hangovers from previous generations (Japan's postwar work-all-the-hours-God-gives-and-never-change-careers lifetime formula) or dehumanised neo-liberal dystopias (free contracts with no benefits and you're fired at the first hint of economic bad times). There is a massive segment of society that is overeducated and immediately disenfranchised, and it clings to its memories of childhood as a response to its missing place in adult society, whilst at the same time being too clever and aware to be able to accept those memories on their own terms anymore. The tension between these two conflicting characteristics is represented by Kyon and Haruhi, and is what makes them real as characters, as well as what gives the show it's zeitgeist punch. Haruhi and Kyon are the only characters in the show that matter, because they alone embody the show's central dilemmas -- the intertwining strands that link childhood and adulthood, the known and unknown, the expected and the desired. One can find them irritating as characters and I can't help that, but in the context of the series, their motivations come across to me as as sincere and so I can be carried along by them.

The third pillar is Haruhi's mastery of structure, particularly in how it plays the plant and the payoff. The initial out of sequence broadcast was very carefully designed to drop hints in earlier episodes of things that wouldn't be explained until later ones -- the appearance of a pile of unused laptops in one episode, with the story of how they were acquired only appearing later, for example. The new series adds to this by each new episode coming in at a particular point within the chronology of the original series and illuminating details that had previously been left hanging such as the reason why Haruhi seemed to recognise Kyon on their first meeting. In addition, the show's non-sequential broadcast emphasises its own postmodern aspects. By cutting up the plot it shrugs its shoulders dismissively at the aspects of the show that are most open to criticism and by focussing on the key points in the relationship between Haruhi and Kyon, it nods its head towards the emotional meta-narrative that is the true heart of the drama.

The fourth pillar of my support for Haruhi is a little more (subtle pun alert) vaguely defined. In some ways it is just one of a number of cartoons that have appeared over the last dozen years or so that demonstrates the emergence in the world of anime of something resembling the Nouvelle Vague/New Wave movement in French cinema of the 1960s.

Like Haruhi, the classic French New Wave film takes delight in intellectualising trashy pop culture. In fact the origin of the Nouvelle Vague was the critics' journal Cahiers du Cinema, which was precisely that: a magazine where geeks over-analysed trashy Hollywood movies and took huge amounts of delight in aspects of the filmmaker's craft that the creators of those films themselves had likely never even considered. As a result, even when the Cahiers writers were directing films that played on traditional Hollywood themes, they were never simply repeating or pandering to Hollywood tastes, because firstly they were creating from the perspective of fans, which puts a layer between them and their source to begin with, and secondly they were creating from the perspective of critics, which meant that their own work could never take its source at face value.

The end result is a lot of clever-cleverness, which is undoubtedly a question of tolerance. A lot of people find Godard and early Truffaut unbearable because of the insufferable self-referentiality of their films, but they nevertheless represent something important in French cinema of the 1960s. Their fans would argue that rather than being a cold, introverted gang giggle, the self-referentiality is part of an exhuberant expression of their own generation, where the process of filmmaking and the romance of cinema's inherent deception is celebrated. The hero of French New Wave was often a faintly detached, bohemian, 1960s everyman who was dragged, half-interested, through a cinematic looking glass and then dumped at the end of it with a nonchalant Gallic shrug. Like Kyon, he was an audience surrogate (or at least a surrogate for what the audience wanted to be), but like Kyon he was also something seperate from the genre heroes he sometimes emulated. He could exist within the action whilst simultaneously being aware of the screen that framed him. In order to relate to him then, the audience too has to accept a world that is both within the frame, but also able to view the frame from a third person perspective. In essence, the audience becomes a participant in the events of the film rather than simply a passive viewer.

The most New Wave moment in Haruhi is the episode (Episode 0) that shows the film Haruhi directed for the school festival (Nooooooo! Heavy meta overload!) What it shares with its French cousins is a love bordering on obsession with the minor mechanics of filmmaking. It simultaneously indulges practically every cliche of bad anime and tokusatsu shows, whilst at the same time dissecting, critiquing and satirising them in a way that the Colony Drop writer would perhaps find deeply annoying; however, that argument only works if you take the position that firstly the indulgence trumps the critique, and secondly that these two aspects are the only things going on. The key aspect that makes this episode such a good piece of filmmaking and writing is really the attention to detail in the way it explores the whole filmmaking process through Haruhi's inept production. We don't see her physically on screen but we get to see Haruhi herself as a character by viewing the world through her own camera lens. She is made more human by the way she gets small things wrong like the many continuity errors and the appearance of boom mics in frame, and also by her unthinking adherence to meaningless directorial cliches such as the vertical panning shot at the end of a scene. At the same time she is recognisably herself by the manic and usually unexplained plot shifts that she forces on the viewers. There's something quite Spinal Tap about the way portraying something done badly can illuminate the process by which the good stuff is also created, and there's also a sense of postmodern romance and elation at seeing a character who is so into the process of creation that they don't care or even notice how bad it is. It was the first episode I ever saw of Haruhi and it provided the lens through which I viewed the entire series.

Of course I'm not saying that any fan of French New Wave would necessarily go for Haruhi because their frames of reference are entirely different, but structurally they are doing something similar. Part of what makes Haruhi so easy to hate is that it is wilfully of its own generation, in the process driving a wedge between itself and fans of the previous generation of anime fans (or fans of the previous generation of anime). Nevertheless, shows like the execreble Kannagi also do this, without any of the intelligence and attention to the minor details of plotting and filmmaking that Haruhi does.

Summary of this blog post: Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuutsu is good.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

We Are Puppets

First up, here's the opening credits sequence of the anime Sugar Sugar Rune, based on Anno Moyoco's popular girls' manga. If you haven't seen it before, watch it now.

Now for some of you, the tune may have set off all kinds of bells ringing, and the more eagle-eared (does that work?) will have twigged it as a thinly disguised pastiche of France Gall's 1965 Eurovision-winning Poupee de Cire Poupee de Son.

Now this similarity should come as no surprise. Chocolat a la Folie was written and produced by Konishi Yasuharu of the Shibuya-kei group Pizzicato Five, and French ye-ye music was pretty much required listening for anyone involved in the Shibuya-kei scene.

What's interesting about Poupee de Cire, Poupee de Son, apart from that it's an uncommonly catchy pop tune, is what it tells us when we open it up. It was written by one of Konishi's idols, Serge Gainsbourg, and like a lot of Gainsbourg's songs, the lyrics are multi-layered and subversive (later songs he wrote for France Gall had her singing entirely innocently about oral sex and LSD). In this case, the title, which Wikipedia translates as "Doll of Wax, Doll of Sawdust", contains two puns in French. Firstly "cire" meaning "wax" can refer simply to a wax doll, but also to wax in the context of a record; similarly, "son" meaning fibre or sawdust could also mean "sound", making the song a meta-analysis of Gall's role as a doll or puppet controlled by Gainsbourg.

Elsewhere the line "Voir la vie en rose bonbon" combines the phrase "voir la vie en rose" meaning "to see life through rose-tinted glasses" with "rose bonbon" meaning something that is "pink like candy", foreshadowing the "chocolat" references in Konishi's song and emphasising the singer's youth (France Gall was seventeen at the time) as well as the song's central irony, namely the idea that people listen to songs about love sung by people too young to have experienced it properly.

Interestingly, two years later British singer Sandie Shaw won Eurovision with the song Puppet on a String, albeit with a slightly different metaphor.

Returning now to Konishi Yasuharu, Chocolat a la Folie (the lyrics were by Anno rather than Konishi) projects a rather more self-confident and aggressive image than Poupee de Son, in keeping with the personality of the story's main character. The lyrics also don't indulge in any such meta-analysis, but scanning around some of Konishi's work with J-Pop idols, such as the defiantly 60s styled Route 246 by Fukada Kyoko, a lot of the work he seems to associate himself with is channelling elements of Gainsbourg.

The song Ne~e by Matsuura Aya (lyrics by Tsunku, produced by Konishi) centres round the question of whether she should be sexy or cute, and posits the question, "which do you prefer?" perhaps more at the audience than the unknown boyfriend who is the ostensible object of Matsuura's quandary. On top of this, the video portrays Matsuura as a wind-up doll in a box, perhaps playing on her robotic, doll-like persona. It still lacks the subtlety and multiple layers of Gainsbourg's music, but it certainly nods to the postmodern, meta-analytical theme that underlies much of his work with France Gall.

Sunday, 3 May 2009

Gundam, Nazis and Dramatic Potential

A good post by Sean at Colony Drop deals with the oft-noted similarity in Gundam between Zeon and Nazi Germany, and concludes that Gundam was,
"not establishing Zeon as the bad guys by using the World War II-era German aesthetic, but establishing them as the cool guys, devoid of the more proper historical associations that we might assume"

That some anime creators are enamoured with the German aesthetic should be pretty clear to anyone with a passing familiarity with Legend of the Galactic Heroes, suckling as it does so firmly on the teat of 19th Century Prussia. The first few Gundam series were less obviously Wagnerian in their imagery, but the similarities were nonetheless readily apparent; and, as Sean points out in his article, the parallels with the Nazis grew as the franchise developed. Now I'm inclined to agree here, and say that the use of Nazi imagery in Gundam (as with the aristocratic Prussian imagery in Legend of the Galactic Heroes) was done primarily to look cool. Japan tends to view the Second World War in terms of the naval war in the Pacific and the bombing of its own cities by America, with visual reminders of the horrors of the European war entirely non-existent. As a result, there's less of a defined social consensus on what constitutes a valid portrayal of the Nazis in Japanese media.

Brits enjoy mocking Americans who date the war 1941-1945, relegating the invasion of Poland, the fall of France and the Battle of Britain to mere footnotes in the war's history, but in dating the war from 1939, we do the same to the Marco Polo Bridge Incident and the invasion of Czechoslovakia. The point is that each country has its own embedded narrative of the Second World War. The British narrative is tied up with Dunkirk and The Battle of Britain, both of which position us as plucky underdogs, holding on desperately, alone in the face of seemingly unstoppable adversity, but to an outsider, would it necessarily seem like that?

The RAF's defence of Britain against German bombers is certainly a stirring tale, but when you think of the great fighter aces of the war, you have to scroll down a very long list of German pilots before you get to James Edgar "Johnnie" Johnson, whose 34 kills were impressive but no Erich Hartmann. Bottom line: Germany did fighter aces better than anyone, and fighter aces are romantic. The fact that Germany was on the losing side and that these pilots were fighting for a flawed cause just makes them tragic as well as romantic heroes.

The two battles at El Alamein are often feted in the UK as important turning points in the war, and rightly so, but a quick look at the figures reveals just how hopelessly outnumbered the German Afrika Korps under Rommel were in both battles. The British strategy was sensible -- wait until the odds are insurmountably in your favour and then grind the German army into dust -- but it wasn't daring or romantic. Rommel was underequipped and overachieved through his ingenuity. Montgomery was numerically superior and ruthless. Bottom line: Rommel is a more romantic figure. His execution by Hitler for his involvement in the July 20th Plot just makes him a tragic as well as a romantic hero.

The Atlantic naval battles between the Royal Navy and the Kriegsmarine were similarly one-sided. The Graf Spee was outnumbered three to one at the Battle of River Plate; The Scharnhorst was sunk by a fleet of fourteen Royal Navy ships; the Bismarck was sunk by fleet comprised of two aircraft carriers, three battleships, four cruisers and seven destroyers; the Tirpitz was just bombed to oblivion without ever getting to see action. The Royal Navy was ruthless in hunting down and destroying German ships, and even went as far as attacking the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir to prevent them falling into German hands. Compared to the clenched iron fist that the Royal Navy swung down on any challenge to its supremacy in the Atlantic, the German ships and U-Boats cut lonely figures. Bottom line: German warships operated in a more romantic milieu. The fact that they were outnumbered, outgunned and doomed makes them tragic as well as romantic.

Now imagine: you're a writer and you're planning to tell an epic war story. You have a love of tragedy, and the idea of depicting the lives of soldiers fighting for causes they don't even necessarily believe in, under leaders who don't necessarily have the noblest of motives appeals to you. You want there to be drama, and you want there to be pathos. You look to past wars for ideas, seeking not the most honourable and righteous causes but the situations with the most dramatic potential. It turns out that the protagonists of many of the most dramatic situations of the war also had the nicest uniforms. A big grin spreads over your face and you say, "Eureka!"

So to paraphrase Sean's article, I would posit that Gundam is not establishing Zeon as the bad guys by using the World War II-era German aesthetic, but establishing them as the tragic, romantic and dramatic guys, devoid of the more proper historical associations that we might assume.

Monday, 2 March 2009

Separate but not equal: Kemono no Souja Erin

The town of Ake, where much of the action in fantasy anime Kemono no Souja Erin takes place, is established early on as being isolated. It is described as being far from the battlefront where the touda lizards they raise are used to defend the kingdom; the marriage of one of the town's daughters to a man from another town requires that she leave home, with the prospect of future contact with her family unlikely; the appearance of a soldier from another clan with an injured touda meets with reluctant acceptance only once the Grand Duke's seal is shown; finally, the "mist people" of whom Erin's mother Soyon is one, are shown to be distrusted by the townspeople.

Soyon, having married the son of the town's chief and continued to work diligently as a doctor looking after the touda after her husband's death, is treated in a friendly way by most people, although in her first appearance in episode 1 she is pegged as being different by a passer-by in a short snippet of hastily-shushed backchat. This proves to be a theme underlying her relationship with the town. She and her daughter are liked but not accepted.

The primary antagonist in the early stages of the story is Wadan, another doctor in the town, although one of considerably less talent and considerably more self-regard, and it is he that provides the main voice for the prejudice and discrimination against Soyon and Erin. That despite Wadan's obvious asshattery and Soyon's clearly professional and gentle manner, her status in the village is constantly seen to be under threat while Wadan's appears unassailable, speaks of the high regard in which the townspeople hold the concepts of continuity, community cohesion and equilibrium.

No good deed goes unpunished

Soyon's attitude to her position as an outsider is to take a supplicatory stance at all times. In episode 5, when Erin protests at the townspeople stealing the touda eggs from their mother, Soyon goes down onto her knees to begs Wadan for forgiveness for her daughter's transgression. In the same scene, she shows no hint of pride or anger when Wadan lays the blame for Erin's behaviour on her mother's foreign blood. In the end, Soyon suffers for Erin's outburst and Erin suffers through guilt at having caused trouble for her mother. Within the context of the narrative it is Erin who is the villain for upsetting the equilibrium and Soyon who is the heroine for reasserting it. Even though the equilibrium itself is one that allows the bigoted Wadan to mistreat the two outsiders, the implication is that the greater good outweighs individual justice. Wadan must be pacified; the outsiders must take their knocks and feel thankful that they are allowed to stay at all.

In episode 6, when the senior townspeople gather to decide who should take responsibility for the deaths, by an unknown cause, of some of the town's toudas, Wadan uses this as an excuse to further press his vendetta against Soyon, and again Soyon's attitude is submissive. The audience is invited to hate Wadan for his arrogance, pettiness and vindictiveness, and on the flipside, we are asked to respect Soyon for the humble way she accepts her fate.

The sound that makes no sound

One of Kemono no Souja Erin's most striking features is the way each episode takes specific images and intercuts them with the main story in the form of visual punctuation, with each image providing a metaphor or a reflection on the main events of that episode. Central to this is the idea of the mute whistle. The mute whistle is inaudible to humans but has the ability to exert control over the touda, and it's tempting to suggest that this is a conscious metaphor for Kemono no Souja Erin's approach to storytelling, where what is unspoken is often of the greatest significance.

As Soyon is talking to Erin after throwing her mute whistle into the furnace, the camera cuts to the bath house, full of the town's citizens. The symbolism here is twofold. The whistle is the symbol of Soyon's position as the town doctor, and as it burns, it heats the water that enables the town's citizens to bathe communally together in peace. Soyon's sacrifice of her position therefore serves the greater good of the town's equilibrium. This image also serves to underline the isolation of Soyon and Erin, first sitting alone outside the bath house, and then bathing alone together afterwards. No one says any unkind words to them as they enter; the understanding that as outsiders they were never truly part of the community is merely accepted.

The way the evening is presented is ripe with hints and messages that are unspoken yet increasingly clear. Soyon's punishment is not described and yet everyone except Erin seems to understand what it is. After the meeting with the senior townspeople, Soyon is left free to continue her day as usual, and yet hints of what is to come abound. Soyon gives Erin a bracelet that she received from her own mother, which Erin instinctively understands as having been a parting gift for when Soyon left her home (although perhaps not seeing its significance in relation to herself now). While cooking the evening dinner, Soyon gently explains, step by step, how the dish is prepared. Finally, at night Soyon and Erin are shown sleeping together in the same futon; however, in a payoff to earlier scenes in the series where Erin is shown crawling under Soyon's covers, here Soyon is under Erin's cover. They symbolism here is the most significant moment of the whole episode: Soyon is positioning herself as the outsider in her own home, and passing ownership and responsibility for that home onto her daughter.

Armed men take Soyon away at dawn. Erin (for now) remains in the town, treated with the same kindness by the citizens that she always has. Equilibrium has been restored.

Monday, 9 February 2009

Xam'd: Notes on the Ending

Endings are difficult to write. Just ask Konaka Chiaki, who wrote Shinreigari (Ghost Hound), maintaining a brilliant script that unravelled catastrophically in its superlatively awful final episode. Seriously, ask him: why was that ending so bad, and what are you going to do to avoid similar travesties in the future?

The ending to Bounen no Zamudou (Xam'd: Lost Memories) isn't a travesty, but neither is it a triumph. This post should by no means be taken as an evisceration of what remains an extremely interesting and refreshing piece of work, but there are definite structural problems with its conclusion that are worth analysis.

First, there are niggling problems with the final episode specifically. Kudos to the team for having the balls to kill off Raigyo in an earlier episode, but in a number of other cases, they trivialise death with how easily reversible they allow it to be. Ishuu seemed quite clearly to have died in episode 23, and yet she appears in the final episode with just a sling and a haircut to show for her ordeal. Kakisu was shot in the face at close range and yet in the final episode he is revealed to be merely in some sort of coma. Akiyuki turns into stone after Nakiami descends into the Quickening Chamber, and yet he is able to reappear and reunite with Haru at the end in a dramatically and thematically satisfying, yet logically dubious fashion.

Rather than systematically developing all the various story threads and then tying them back together into a satisfying, unifying conclusion, Xam'd's plot, from about half way through the series, disintegrates into a series of scattershot story ideas and visual concepts that rain down, disconnected, like pieces of torn paper dropped from an open window.

It becomes pretty clear that this is what's happening from a long way before the end so it's difficult to say that the ending itself is disappointing. Flawed it most certainly is, but the sources of the flaws lie further back in the series.

Perhaps the problem with Xam'd is that the creators didn't know what the story was about. At first it is implied that the story is about Akiyuki's attempt to understand the Xam'd that has been implanted in him and help it recover its titular "lost memories", but that quest is never clearly developed and Akiyuki merely drifts from one set of circumstances to another in what are often interesting diversions, but never quite held together with the sense of forward momentum and sense of purpose that a story needs if it is to conclude satisfactorily. The other characters' subplots are similarly vague. Kakisu's role on Sentan Island and the role of Haru's sister, Midori, builds up interestingly, but it flatters to decieve. In the end it is nothing more than incidental to the rest of the story. The crew of the postal ship Zanbani write themselves out of the story half way through and, with the exception of Ishuu and Raigyo, do precious little else. Haru herself merely runs after Akiyuki -- she admits this to herself at one point, and it feels more like a desperate cry from a writer unsure of what to do with this character whose motivation has not been set deep enough; a tacit admission of the staff's own failings rather than the words of the character herself.

An interesting comparison is with Simoun, which is similar to Xam'd in the way the war is used primarily as a setting against which the character drama plays out. In both cases the cause of the war isn't deeply explored, and in both cases, the series ends realistically with the threat of war an ongoing issue. Both shows also feature plots that drift, with the characters pulled hither and thither by forces out of their control.

The key difference is the ending. Simoun has a very powerful ending, where each character reaches a conclusion that may not be what the audience wanted, but which has clear roots in the way their personalities, motivations and character development have been set up earlier in the series.

Both shows have elements of their endings that are enigmatic, but Simoun ensures that each of these elements is charged with a strong, clear emotional resonance which again has its roots in how the characters have been set up. In a sense, it is the simpler, more archetypal set of characters in Simoun that gives it this resonance. Passion, loneliness, religious fervour and love are the guiding emotions of most of Simoun's cast, whereas Xam'd's characters are more complex, more uncertain, and less melodramatic. It is to Xam'd's credit that it takes this more measured and mature approach to its characters, but in doing so they also deny themselves the dramatic options that Simoun so successfully exploited.

This brings another problem -- in fact perhaps the main problem of Xam'd. What made the early episodes so refreshing and believable was the way the characters' personalities were shown up through their interaction with the circumstances in which they found themselves, and as long as those circumstances were tangible things that the audience could relate to, there was a satisfying sense of solidity to them. As the end approached and more abstract issues such as the Hiruken Emperor and the Quickening Chamber became more central to the story, that solidity started to dissolve and the story became caught up in what I call "the spiral of hippy". Everything became winged beings of light, raining down balls of goo on the earth, ancient mechanisms that are powered by esoteric metaphysical principles, and glowing orbs that embody trans-human spiritual entities. Once a series starts trying to explain its mysteries by going along this road, it becomes contagious and starts infecting other elements of the story with the same disease. Characters are forced into either passive, observational roles, or heroic, superhuman roles, both of which distance the audience emotionally from what is going on. Nakiami will sleep for a thousand years in the Quickening Chamber, you say? Is that good? Is that bad? What does that even mean? Our bewilderment overcomes our emotional response.

By way of contrast, in Simoun Neviril and Aer's final departure to the "other world" is more emotionally powerful for its simplicity. We aren't urged to understand the mechanics of it; all we see is them fading in and out of reality, forever young, as the other characters age around us. They didn't save anyone by making this journey and its purpose isn't explored so their situation can only be seen on its own emotional terms. The key emotions of loneliness and love in its purest sense are what remain, and set against the increasingly complicated daily lives of the other characters as they grow older and become embroiled in more wars, these emotions become a reminder of what one loses as one grows older. Any kind of mechanism or psuedoscience would have complicated and detracted from the emotional power of that ending, and by retaining its grounding in the recognisable physical reality of those characters left behind it never steps off the precipice into the spiral of hippy.

In a lot of ways, Xam'd is simply a victim of what appears to be a congenital disorder within Studio Bones. Every anime I've seen from this studio is in some way hobbled by an ending that, while not rubbish, feels somehow patched together (bear in mind that I've only seen Eureka Seven and Scrapped Princess all the way through -- Rahxephon and Wolf's Rain pissed me off too much before I got to the end). Xam'd also contains the more adult worldview and mature characterisation that makes aspects of other Bones shows so interesting, and is by far the best thing I've seen out of the studio.

In October of 2008 I met the director Miyaji Masayuki and interviewed him about the show, then still in its relatively early stages. He was an extremely enthusiastic, intelligent guy, bubbling with ideas that would shoot off in all directions, and it's tempting to see the series' flaws in that context. One imagines that if he can learn to focus his ideas more clearly, his next directorial work will be, rather than wonderful-yet-flawed, merely wonderful.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Oh, those Russians...

I'm not entirely sure what to make of this frankly bizarre article by Gregory Clark in that ever-reliable quality newspaper The Japan Times recently.

By all means read the whole article and get the full context, but I'll only be quoting parts of it as I go along here.
Antiforeigner discrimination is a right for Japanese people
Yikes! What a headline! Well, to be fair here, my humble journalistic efforts occasionally grace the hallowed pages of the JT and I know that writers are rarely responsible for their headlines. Also, given that the paper has a reputation among some for being a bit of a moaning shop for foreigners, there's surely no harm in bringing a bit of thoughtful, well-written balance. Hats off to the editorial team then. So let's get started:
"Japan girai" — dislike of Japan — is an allergy that seems to afflict many Westerners here.
OK so far. No one likes a Moaning Michael, for sure.
Normally these people do little harm. In their gaijin ghettoes they complain about everything from landlords reluctant to rent to foreigners (ignoring justified landlord fear of the damage foreigners can cause) to use of the word "gaijin" (forgetting the way some English speakers use the shorter and sometimes discriminatory word "foreigner" rather than "foreign national.").
Surely getting turned down for an apartment on account of being foreign can be quite a serious problem though. In what way are these "justified landlord fears" and in what way do these fears balance out a human being's right to a roof over their head? As for the use of gaijin versus gaikokujin, well, the issue is surely more the intention behind the decision to use one word rather than another. Where the intent is to insult or belittle, it is natural to take offence. Where there is clearly no such intent, in the words of Wil Wheaton, don't be a dick.
A favorite complaint is that Japanese universities discriminate against foreigners. How many Western universities would employ, even as simple language teachers, foreigners who could not speak, write and read the national language?
There's a clear difference between universities "discriminating against foreigners" and "foreigners who could not speak, write and read the national language". Is Mr. Clark saying that Japanese-speaking foreigners aren't discriminated against by Japanese universities? It would help to know. But then perhaps what he is getting at is something a bit different. The complaint about universities is a pet project of everyone's favourite serial litigant-cum-freedom fighter Debito Arudou. Could it be that "many Westerners" and "these people" really refers to just one person?
Recently they have revived the story of how they bravely abolished antiforeigner discrimination from bathhouses in the port town of Otaru in Hokkaido.
Ahh, the Otaru onsen lawsuit, and a familiar face reappears. The plot thinnens. There's not much I could add to this sad case of an innocent onsen owner hounded out of his business by drunken Russian sailors and his terrible revenge on foreignerkind other than that it seems like something that could have been resolved with much less trouble if everyone involved had been a bit more civilised, although I did like this quote:
as proof I harbor no anti-Russian feeling let me add that I speak Russian and enjoyed talking to these earthy, rough-hewn people in their own language
I'm sure Mr. Clark has nary a Russophobic bone in his body, and he's written some fine articles about Russia, but this line still carries that dubious whiff of "Yeah, but, you know, some of my best friends are gay" about it. Perhaps he just thought we should know that he can speak a lot of languages.
The antidiscrimination activists say bathhouse managers can solve all problems by barring drunken sailors.
Sounds reasonable...
But how do you apply a drunk test? And how do you throw out a drunk who has his foot in the door? Besides, drunken behavior is not the only bathhouse problem with these Otaru sailors. I can understand well why regular Japanese customers seeking the quiet Japanese-style camaraderie of the traditional Japanese bathhouse would want to flee an invasion of noisy, bathhouse-ignorant foreigners. And since it is not possible to bar only Russians, barring all foreigners is the only answer.
Perhaps some kind of sign is in order, maybe reading something like, "Quiet, please". Mr. Clark could assist with the Russian if they asked. He certainly sounds like he wants to help. Mind you, those "earthy, rough-hewn" Russian sailors that he so enjoyed talking to really do sound frightfully scary.
The antidiscrimination people point to Japan's acceptance of a U.N. edict banning discrimination on the basis of race. But that edict is broken every time any U.S. organization obeys the affirmative action law demanding preference for blacks and other minorities.
This is quite simply an appalling argument. Drawing parallels between legislation designed to combat discrimination and behaviour that actively discriminates against people because of their skin colour is the rhetoric of the extreme right and an educated, seemingly liberal, man like Gregory Clark should be better than that.
Without it, U.S. President-elect Barack Obama would probably not be where he is today.
Malaysia has also ignored it, with its Bumiputra policy of favoring Malays over Chinese and other minorities. There are dozens more examples of societies deciding to favor one group of people over others in order to preserve solidarity or prevent injustices. A large chain of barbershops in Japan has signs saying service is denied to those who do not speak Japanese.
This paragraph is evasion, bordering on a particularly petty form of whataboutery. Malaysia's policy sounds pretty racist from what Mr. Clark writes here, but then I don't know anything else about it and I thought we were talking about an onsen. Or were we talking about moaning foreigners? Again, with the barbershop point Mr. Clark confuses discriminating due to a language barrier that clearly hinders the ability of the establishment to do its job and discriminating due to nationality or skin colour.
Non-Japanese speakers probably cause much less harm to a business than delinquent Russians. But we do not see our activists in action there
That is because they aren't the same thing.
The activists say there should be action to educate Russian sailors in bathhouse behavior. But do we see any of the activists in the friendship societies where worthy Japanese citizens try to ease problems for foreigners living here? Not as far as I know.
Greater cultural understanding for those lovely Russian sailors sounds like a great idea. Who knows, beneath the chrysalids of those earthy, rough-hewn exteriors there may be dozens of Lafcadio Hearns or even, in rare, lucky cases, Gregory Clarks just waiting to unfold their wings into the sunlight. Those friendship societies sound great too. Why are these two ideas presented in opposition here?
Presumably close contact with these citizens would also upset their Japan-girai feelings.
That's quite a big presumption to make, Mr. Freud.
Japan has long had a real problem of clever Chinese and Korean criminals taking advantage of Japan' s lack of theft awareness to pick the locks and pockets of unsuspecting citizens. But when the authorities try to raise this problem, they too are accused of antiforeigner discrimination. Even companies advertising pick-proof locks are labeled as discriminators if they mention the Chinese lock-picking problem.
In this case, though, why is it necessary to make a point out of these clever criminals being Chinese and Korean? Surely just warning people to look after their stuff is enough and doesn't have the side-effect of making the ninety-nine-point-whatever percent of non-criminal Chinese and Korean immigrants (many of whom are second and third generation) feel that they are all being treated as potential criminals.
Let me add that I also have no anti-China feeling; I speak Chinese too.
Tee hee. And George Wallace had lots of black friends, and simply loved jazz. It's strange why people still use this argument, but then it's not so strange that people become defensive when they're attacking others.
It is time we admitted that at times the Japanese have the right to discriminate against some foreigners.
By "some foreigners", it's tempting to suggest that Mr. Clark means rough-hewn Russian sailors and clever Chinese and Korean criminals, rather than Oxford-educated vice-presidents of Akita International University, but no, let us not carelessly throw around accusations of hypocrisy; he states that while he dislikes being fingerprinted at the airport, he accepts that it's needed so presumably he is willing to accept other forms of discrimination on behalf of those other, bad foreigners (some of whom can't even speak Japanese, dontchaknow).
If they do not, and Japan ends up like our padlocked, mutually suspicious Western societies, we will all be the losers.
Firstly, where did that come from, all at once in the final sentence? Secondly, how did he get from the problems of foreigners complaining about being called "gaijin" at the start of this article to Japan's metamorphosis into this hellish dystopia at the end? Thirdly, wasn't he advocating locks of some kind to protect innocent Japanese from clever Chinese and Korean criminals just a couple of paragraphs ago? This single point, tossed off at the end of the article is an interesting and serious issue that Japan is likely to face as its cities become increasingly multicultural, and if one tracks back to early last month, there is a rather better article by Paul De Vries that deals less hysterically with both this idea and the extremely important issue of the Russian onsen controversy, but Clark doesn't explore it.

As Marc Jones writes in the comments section of his blog here, "I think maybe Mr. Clark is out of touch with how those foreigners with lower-status jobs than heads of universities are discriminated against, including Chinese and Koreans but also immigrant residents and workers from other Asian countries."

Gregory Clark isn't an idiot. Judging from some of his other articles he has a wide range of experience on all manner of issues and doesn't habitually write from a perspective of transferred nationalism. Neither does he seem like the sort of person who writes simply to shock. Somewhere amid all this nonsense and flawed rhetoric, I feel Mr. Clark has a point to make, but I'm also pretty sure that point is just "Debito Arudou is a wanker". It's just a shame that he had to catch a glancing blow off of pretty much every other foreigner in Japan with his wild swipe.