Thursday, 2 December 2010

The Exciting and Predictable Adventures of Kira Kiken

Teaching can sometimes be a boring job, especially essay-writing classes, where students are as a matter of necessity sitting silently and writing for large parts of the class. Fortunately, the dedicated geek can always find constructive things with which to occupy his time. The result of one such explosion of ennui-induced/inducing creativity was The Exciting and Predictable Adventures of Kira Kiken (shading and text obviously added on the computer afterwards).

Page 1:
Page 2:

The idea was initially to do a quick comic that crammed as many moé clichés into as small a space as possible -- yeah, I know, satire -- but to be honest, there are dedicated otaku out there doing that kind of thing day in, day out, and they know and care way more than I ever will about manga and anime, so it ended up just being a pretty straight, idiotic gag strip. Enjoy!

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Me: in Japanese Media

Quick bit of self-promotion here:

I was interviewed by journalists from the Japanese magazine ASCII a couple of weeks ago, and the article is online here. A lot of what I'm talking about is music (my lazy, critical comments about crap Japanese music magazines Snoozer and Rockin' On were apparently controversial), but I also spend a lot of time talking about the similarities in the behaviour of fans between punk and indie "DiY culture" and otaku "doujin culture".

Oh, and it's all in Japanese.


Tytania: Documenting the Slow Death of Anime (Part 478)

Abandoned midway through episode 18.

The makers didn't seem to care, so why should I?

Seriously, there seemed to be this weary attitude of, "Oh, this'll do," permeating every creative aspect. The battles were dreary and one-dimensional, the animation cheap and crudely rendered, the voice acting cliched and grating, and the script... oh, the script...

Pyuu! Pyuu! Blip! Zap!: a typical battle in Tytania

Fan Hyulick is a Reluctant Hero, which puts him at the end of a noble tradition that includes Harrison Ford's Rick Deckard from Blade Runner, Harrison Ford's Han Solo from Star Wars, and, erm, Shinji from Evangelion. However, Fan is reluctant to the point of being practically catatonic, lacking any of the coiled intensity that is needed to provide tension with his happy-go-lucky exterior. The audience really needs to see this tension in a Reluctant Hero in order to emotionally engage with his reluctance. In Deckard's case, there is a brooding intensity about him that suggests a capacity for ruthlessness and violence that the character himself despises; Solo is in some ways the reverse, his reluctance to fight masking a romantic instinct that he is embarrassed about showing; Shinji is wracked with Oedipal traumas and insecurities that he tries to suppress. In all these cases, there is something sympathetic about the character revealed in his reluctance, be it Deckard's unwillingness to return to his violent past, Solo's roguish charm, or Shinji's sheer smallness in the face of what he is being asked to do. However, what the audience is really looking for is the moment when the hero casts away his reluctance and his repressed inner self is revealed in a blaze of cathartic glory: the violence of Deckard's conflict with the replicants, the excitement of Solo's rebirth as a hero of the Rebel Alliance, or the increasingly raw, primal emotions released by the the gradual exposure of Shinji's subconscious.

Fan Hyulick gives us none of these things. It is as if the writers were afraid that compromising his easygoing exterior in any way would make him less cool to whatever idiotic audience they were trying to appeal to, when in fact it just makes him seem two dimensional and immature. He forms an attachment to the girl Lira, although she's drawn in such a scattershot way that it's hard to see why; the only reasons we are given are that she's pretty and she can make good omelettes. Perhaps if your only meaningful contact with a female other is with your own mother, then perhaps cooking might be the first thing you reach for in your assessment of female characters, but for most of us not still living in the 1950s, this is not only extremely poor writing, but actually actively insulting.

In anime, women develop new personality traits entirely for the convenience of men.

In any case, it's soon clear that Lira only exists so she can be killed to give Fan his needed motivation. Not only that, but just in case you were moving into any sort of engagement with or immersion in the plot, there is another, equally irritating character on hand in rebel strategist Dr. Lee, to explain precisely this to us. Literally, Dr. Lee actually comes out and says something along the lines of, "Fan doesn't have the motivation to fight now. He needs something dreadful to happen to someone he cares about so that he'll be angry enough," just before Lira dies (in predictably contrived and clumsily handled circumstances) and then, hey presto, motivation (and, two for the price of one, woman character and hero's sole emotional connection removed from story).

As with Fan, the writers constantly seem afraid of immersing Dr. Lee's character emotionally in the story, with him constantly referring to the rebellion he is organising as his "research project", in a way that comes over more like teenage fanfiction than the sort of thing you'd expect from a professional writer.

As for the antagonists, the Tytania clan, they are certainly the more interesting side of the story, but not by much. Red headed Duke Jouslain is clearly the writers' favourite character, which perhaps explains why Fan Hyulick's side of the story seems to have been dashed off with such obvious disinterest. He is a likeable enough combination of sympathetic, intelligent and ruthless, and plays off well enough against his cousins, the Prim & Proper One, the Angry & Aggressive One, and the Sinister & Scheming One. Also of note is Prim & Proper, who is the only character in the whole first 75% of the series who displays any character progression at all, going from arrogant in episode one, to hurt and ashamed in episode 3, to wiser and somewhat improved in all subsequent episodes. To this, I offer the writers a hearty "well done," and append a humble, "more, please."

Evil and homosexual? What a shit!

Rather worse is Angry & Aggressive's gay younger brother, with whom the writers manage to play every sickeningly homophobic card they have to hand, portraying him as a vain, effeminate, cowardly, sadistic, sexually predatorial paedophile. This opens up a curious question about the moral universe Tytania's writers inhabit. On the one hand, they seem the think the idea of "freedom" and the culturally familiar environment of liberal democracy alone are enough to make us sympathise with the rebels, but on the other hand, their portrayal of women and homosexuals, not to mention the constant forelock tugging of the servant classes towards their social betters, remains trapped in the pre-war years. If this were simply a case of them showing how the social order of the Tytania universe is aligned, that would be admirable (a good science-fantasy should portray a world with different culture and values to our own), but there has clearly been so little thought, care and attention put into its construction that this view is hard to credit. More likely, they felt that making Angry & Aggressive's younger brother a homosexual was a handy way of "punching up" the script, making him seem more sinister; more likely they simply felt that making Lira good at cooking was the most natural way of showing that she's at heart a good woman despite her spunky exterior; most likely it seemed obvious to them that when a planet's old set of feudal overlords is overthrown by a new set of feudal overlords, the servants should remain loyal to their rightful rulers -- anything else would be sneaky and treacherous.

Unfortunately, generally speaking, there's not really enough to dislike in the Tytania clan to make Fan's rebellion anything you can really root for, and the whole story is far too simplistic and half-arsed to work in any other way. Tytania creator Tanaka Yoshiki's better known Legend of the Galactic Heroes exceeds Tytania by presenting a world where two likeable and sympathetic heroes, Reinhard von Müsel and Yang Wen-li, are driven into deadly conflict with each other, manipulated by forces outside of their control. Tytania, with considerably fewer episodes in which to tell its tale, simply has none of this sense of grand, overarching events influencing the story.

The way Tytania unfolds is equally uninspiring. Fan is presented to us as a tactical genius, but all his schemes seem to involve simply creating a diversion and then somehow breaking into/out of whatever armed compound he's currently stuck in/trying to rescue someone from, and simply trusting in his plot shield to help him carry it off. Ocean's Eleven this ain't. The space battles play out like video games, and 1970s video games at that, with the spaceships just lining up to zap each other with death rays a la Space Invaders. Das Boot this also ain't. The plotting and intrigue among the Tytania royal family is marginally more diverting, but only in the sense that being less diverting would mean multiplying a base interest level of zero. Every Tytania plot runs like this: A plots against B -> A moves against B -> B is revealed to have already known about A's plot -> A dies/is killed. Defence of the Realm, this most assuredly ain't.

Three men with crap haircuts: plotting (also scheming).

Most of all, however, Tytania just isn't Legend of the Galactic Heroes. This wouldn't be so bad if it wasn't so transparently trying to be, but it is, and it fails pitifully. In every single respect it is its illustrious forbear's pale imitation, the writers, artists and directors failing to imbue it with even a glimmer of what made Legend of the Galactic Heroes the flawed but nonetheless impressive and well crafted work it remains to this day.

Friday, 25 June 2010

Railway Etiquette and the Lighter Side of Virtual Dating

An article I wrote was published today in Tokyo-based English magazine Metropolis on the subject of the DS dating simulation game phenomenon that is Loveplus, or more accurately Loveplus+, in view of the latter's release tomorrow.

Read that?

OK, now first up, Metropolis' "Pop Life" column isn't the kind of place that encourages long, rambling discourses on sociological and postmodernist topics, but some of the stuff that came up in this article touched on one of my pet issues, and I think intersects interestingly with some aspects of modern Japanese life.

In his 1997 book The Plague of Fantasies, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek says:

The need for the phantasmic support of the public symbolic order (materialized in the so-called unwritten rules) thus bears witness to the system's vulnerability: the system is compelled to allow for possibilities of choices which must never actually take place, since their occurrence would cause the system to disintegrate, and the function of the unwritten rules is precisely to prevent the actualization of these choices formally allowed by the system. In the Soviet Union of the 1930s and 1940s -- to take the most extreme example -- it was not only forbidden to criticize Stalin, it was perhaps even more forbidden to announce this very prohibition: to state publically that it was forbidden to criticize Stalin. The system needed to maintain the appearance that one was allowed to criticize Stalin, the appearance that the absence of criticism [...] simply demonstrated that Stalin was effectively the best and (almost) always right.
In other words, it is the peeling back of the facade, by revealing the true process that underlies the lie, even though we all know it to be a lie, that is the crime.

What has a piece of Nintendo dating simulation software got to do with Josef Stalin, one might well ask? Let's think about these "unwritten rules" here.

Every culture has its unwritten rules; they are the foundation stones of what makes our society function. An example most of us have experienced at some point is the dilemma of what to do when offered a free meal. If someone offers to pay your half of the bill, you must make a quick calculation as to whether this is an occasion where you are to insist on paying your share, or one where you must merely make a show of insisting before relenting; the option to accept right off the bat, applies only to certain people in certain relationships, and you must be aware of these rules (these unwritten rules) in order to function smoothly in this situation.

In Japan, many of these unwritten rules are breaking.

The Tokyo Metro has been running a series of advertisements in its stations to educate passengers on the finer points of train etiquette. To an outsider, these "Please Do it at Home" posters probably seem like a mixture of common sense and outright weirdness, but there are some key signifiers that tell us what they are about.

Firstly there is the recurring character of the gentle, unfairly harassed old man who is the victim of all this bad behaviour. Secondly, the perpetrators of most (although not all) of these crimes are young people. Generally speaking, I think it's fair to say that there is a generation gap on display here. Young people either do not know, or simply disregard the unwritten rules.

Yet by producing these posters, hasn't Eidan Line themselves done damage to the system? By writing down the rules, the rules are no longer unwritten. By displaying the rules, they actually reveal more clearly the breakdown of the system, and by showing up the generation gap, they accentuate the differences.

One clear early memory of my early time in Japan is of an older middle-aged student that I was teaching telling me, "The good thing about a homogeneous society like Japan is that you can sit on a train and look at the person opposite you, knowing that they're thinking the same way as you." There was a great deal of comfort to be found in knowing that society shares the same values and rules. Now, how does he feel stepping into the Metro and seeing those posters? Perhaps he is comforted, but not in the same way as before. The poster comforts him by saying, "While the people opposite you may no longer think the same way as you, be assured that the system is on your side of the cultural division."

A more recent discussion I have had, this time with a group of middle-aged women, centred around the phenomenon of young women doing their makeup on the train, and this is where it gets really interesting for me.

Now as a man, and a foreign one at that, this is something I had never previously cared about, and the way the Eidan Line posters complained about it baffled me. How does a women doing her makeup harm anyone? Who cares? Sometimes I worried that a sudden jolt might send a line of mascara skew whiff, but that seemed to me a matter for the girl to deal with. Nevertheless, these three women were horrified by the trend towards girls doing this in public. To them, the act of showing oneself doing one's makeup on the train was equivalent to getting dressed in public. Viewing the process of transformation was what disgusted them. You may wear makeup -- and Japan is a culture that practically demands that its women spend a fortune on the stuff -- but you may not show yourself applying the makeup.

Perhaps significantly, or perhaps by happy coincidence, the Japanese term for "making up" literally means "changing" or "transforming" oneself, which brings us back to Stalin: by revealing the process, you shatter the illusion, and even though everyone knows it is an illusion, it is necessary for society to maintain the pretence of not knowing; to peel back the facade is forbidden.

This is where the real division between generations lies, and the crux of the matter comes in Japan's transformation into a postmodern society. The truth of these girls on the train is that they don't care about the illusion. The makeup is accepted on its own terms, not as a way of tricking people into thinking they are more beautiful; similarly, the elaborate art girls plaster onto their nails has no purpose in creating the illusion of beautiful nails: it is the art itself that they wish to display as beautiful.

Now, finally, let's return to Loveplus. A well worn theme when dealing with otaku culture is the division between reality and make-believe, and a well-worn criticism of otaku themselves is that they become unable to distinguish between the two. Reporting on Loveplus often focussed on the blurring of reality and fantasy, but what I would contend is happening here is very similar to the girls on the trains. The issue of whether the girls in Loveplus are fake or real is irrelevant; the chap I interviewed for the Metropolis piece, Endo-san, is an intelligent person and it's very clear from talking to him that his interest in 2D girls is made with full awareness of what distinguishes them from real women, simply that he accepts the distinctions on their own terms, and actually prefers 2D ones. Perhaps the real controversy with games like Loveplus is not that they blur distinctions between reality and fantasy (this has been the purpose of art since for ever), but that they reveal how easy it is for fantasy to substitute for reality, and that they ask questions of reality that it cannot answer except by reflexively replying "but I am real!" The game's reply to that is simply, "I know I'm not real love, but I argue that I am an improvement on reality. I am not love, I am Love Plus."

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Murakami Haruki: Godfather of Moé

Yes, I've touched on this before, but lately I've been thinking it deserves expanding upon. Nevertheless, before I begin, some caveats. Firstly, I am a fan of Murakami Haruki, although (as will no doubt become clear) I think his writing has several limitations. Secondly, I am not a fan of moé, although (as readers of this blog will perhaps already have figured out) I remain open to being impressed by shows touched with its fell mark. Now onto the meat of the piece...

One of the key recurring themes of Murakami's female characters is the way that all of them are presented as a mixture of quirky and vulnerable, in just the right balance that lets the (male) reader admire their unique and independent mind, but also fills the (male) reader with the desire to protect and care for her. This is a fundamental quality of moé, and Murakami codified a lot of these characteristics while anime was still struggling, lobe-finned, out of the prehistoric swamps of 1970s/80s kids' cartoondom.

Murakami's women appear in various shades of male fantasy, but the main types have traditionally fallen into three basic categories:

First, there is the whore with a heart of gold. She is usually a college student who sells herself willingly, which is a neat way of circumventing a lot of the less pleasant aspects of the trade, and she uses sex in a therapeutic way, healing the metaphysical wounds of her clients. She is probably the most well-balanced of the Murakami femmes, and her vulnerability stems from the fact that for all her independence, she is nevertheless being exploited (by bad, or at least morally ambiguous people, not by good people like the guy actually fucking her). The girl with the ears (Kiki) from A Wild Sheep Chase, Creta Kano from The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, any one of a number of characters from Dance Dance Dance, and the girl Colonel Sanders provides for Hoshino in Kafka on the Shore are all variations on this.

The second type is the ethereal beauty, disconnected from our reality, but who hints at vision beyond our realm. She is often vulnerable through an innate fragility and an inability to relate in a normal day-to-day manner with our world. Naoko from Norwegian Wood is the archetype for this character, although variants on her could include Shimamoto from South of the Border, West of the Sun, Sumire from Sputnik Sweetheart, and the "End of the World" librarian from Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.

Thirdly, we have the spunky, boyish, inquisitive, female take on Holden Caulfield. Her brash, self-confident exterior usually masks a sensitive, easily damaged soul. She will invariably mock and feign scorn for the main character, but gradually come to care deeply for him. In some of Murakami's books this character is presented as a child, explicitly out of the hero's sexual strike zone, and on others she will be of equal age and a valid romantic partner. Midori from Norwegian Wood, May Kasahara from The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, Yuki from Dance Dance Dance, and the "Hard Boiled Wonderland" librarian from Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World all fit the bill here.

Finding a foreshadowing of moé in this is not a chore. One could loosely summarise these three character types as (1) Misato Katsuragi, (2) Rei Ayanami, and (3) Asuka Langley Soryu, although Misato is a rather more well-rounded character than Murakami ever managed, and no Murakami heroine ever scaled the heights of melodrama that Asuka attained. Looking more deeply into moé as developed through the 2000s via the media of visual novels and light novels, you nevertheless find Murakami's character formulae cropping up again and again.

The Naoko type is frequently re-conceived as the terminally ill girl that forms the mainstay of visual novel trauma-porn, and the May Kasahara type is a simple variation on your boilerplate tsundere. The Kiki/Creta Kano type is a rarer proposition thanks to moé culture's inability to deal with the idea of sex in any post-pubescent manner, but she is nonetheless present in some form, often in the "big sister" role.

A recent, explicit example of Murakami-as-moé is the incorporation of the 12 year-old Yuki from Dance Dance Dance into the dating simulator/girlfriend tamagotchi phenomenon Loveplus as the character Rinko. Yuki was introverted, Rinko likes books; Yuki was a fan of Talking Heads and, erm, The Police (and, most tragically, Genesis), Rinko likes punk; Yuki doesn't mention anything about fighting games, but, hey, you gotta keep up with the market. What it says about the Loveplus creators that they chose Murakami's most utterly un-sexual character as a template for one of their date-models I humbly leave up to the reader's imagination (clue: either (A) they think their customers are paedophiles, or (B) they think their customers can't deal with a character with any sexual motivation of her own).

Another example of Murakami's world intruding directly into the land of moé is in Abe Yoshitoshi's Haibane Renmei, which recreates "End of the World"'s mysterious walled town (sadly sans library) and puts its heroine down a well for a couple of days a la Wind-up Bird Chronicle (there might be some debate about its moé credentials, but the fact that my wife hates it with a passion puts it very powerfully in the moé category). Here none of the characters particularly fits any of the Murakami archetypes, but the format of the show fits each girl up with her own hidden weakness or vulnerability, from something as simple as Nemu's sleepiness through Kuu's loneliness, to Reki's more complex issues. This is essential to the progression of the plot, and the viewer's task is to dig up and reveal the source of each girl's vulnerability throughout the series.

The existence of the specific character types Murakami created is in many ways irrelevant. What matters is the combination of quirkiness and vulnerability, and the protective response that they evoke in the reader. What Murakami makes clear, and what moé culture shies away from (or rather pretends to shy away from), is the explicit sexual appeal of these characters. Even where the narrator of The Wind-up Bird Chronicle distances himself from any sexual feelings for May Kasahara, May herself is undeniably a sexual being, and by in this way making her existence independent of the male protagonist's gaze, this is partly why she is Murakami's best female character.

Monday, 5 April 2010

Nakagawa Shoko Sings the Greatest Hits of Anime... Again and Again

In my secret double life as a music journalist, I occasionally come across things that cross over with the ever-vibrant world of anime, so anyone going crazy with excitement over the news that otaku idol Nakagawa Shoko has released yet another collection of anime cover versions might want to check my review of said album over on The Japan Times' web site. Given The Japan Times' word limits, there's a lot more I could have said about it, but suffice to say most of the songs are from mainstream anime of the 1990s, with a few from the 80s or more recently (all of which sound like 90s anime songs anyway). This is a good thing, in that 90s anime music pre-dates the sickness of moé that swept the nation after the world ended in 2000 and we all started living in an endlessly looped Ouroboros vision of ourselves, but if the fact that it's re-digesting a slightly different period of recent history is the best that can be said about it, then I hardly think one can call that a ringing endorsement.

Obviously Nakagawa Shoko has no particular duty to be in any way different to how she currently presents herself, and the choice of songs is actually pretty reassuring in the way it shies away from really obvious courting of the moé demographic and generally just fixes on songs that Nakagawa herself would have probably watched as a kid. But then, this is probably because Nakagawa's audience isn't really otaku anyway. She's a proper pop star, so the audience she needs to sell her product to is the wider ranging, casually nostalgic anime fans, who would probably vomit into their own scorn at the idea of being held in the same category as real otaku.

Monday, 22 February 2010

Self-promotion Corner

I generally try to keep my music geek activities separate from my non-music geek stuff, but I'm going to break that rule for now since this here CD includes some of my own real music what I actually played on.

This album is a CD/R of cover versions of the legendary Japanese idol pop trio the Candies featuring 14 Japan-based underground artists. Track 6 is a cover of "Heart no Ace ga Detekonai" on which I played some very simple synth and which I flatter myself to suggest I "produced". The band goes by the name Trinitron, and it's possible to hear the song, along with Yamaco's far better cover of "Sono Ki ni Sasenaide" (if you ever wondered about the basis of the idol trio from Perfect Blue, just check out the linked video) on my label's Myspace.

As I said, it's only a private CD/R release, so if anyone's crazy enough to want it, your best bet's either directly from me or via Koenji's premier purveyor of weird, self-released avant-garde unusualness, Enban.

Valentine's Candies (CAR-91)
01. その気にさせないで / Yamaco
02. 春一番 / TE☆SY (From Cand☆es)
03. ハートのエースが出てこない / Umbrella-X
04. 春一番 / 春風堂
05. 年下の男の子 / cottonioo
06. ハートのエースが出てこない / Trinitron (N'toko+Ian Martin+friends)
07. あなたに夢中 / Puffy Shoes
08. 危い土曜日 / 地盤沈下
09. 二人だけの夜明け / うるせぇよ
10. 春9000 (「春一番」のカバー) / やまのいゆずる
11. A muk aihsa say (plaque translation therapy) (「やさしい悪魔」のカバー) - snip n` zener
12. 年下の男の子 / Jahiliyyah
13. 暑中お見舞い申し上げます / ruruxu/sinn
14. 微笑がえし / Killer Condors

OK, that's that done, and now back to the more comfortable business of writing about why everybody else is wrong.

Friday, 19 February 2010

Summer Wars: Not as Good as They Say

I don't think I've ever seen any kind of anime receive the kind of universal acclaim afforded to last year's summer smash hit Summer Wars, Hosoda Mamoru's follow-up to the genuinely very good Toki wo Kakeru Shojo. Review after review and analysis after analysis hailed Hosoda as the successor to Miyazaki Hayao, the Japan Media Arts Festival picked it out for the Grand Prize (the absolutely masterful Kemono no Souja Erin, surely!), and fans queued up round the block for weeks to watch it.

I know what you're thinking: so what's wrong with it that makes it so popular?

Summer Wars certainly has its moments. There's some snappy dialogue, some larger than life characters, and some nicely-played dramatic interaction early on, but it also can't help diving too far into abstraction in the latter part, and that's primarily where it falls down.

Nationalism and patriotism (and whatever you say, there really is no practical difference) in film or television tread a fine line. Within a film -- diagetic patriotism, if you will -- it can be an effective way to represent a particular character's personality, and it's fine or even admirable. Where the film itself is pushing the patriotic buttons (non-diagetic patriotism) then it's more troublesome. Old war films like In Which We Serve sometimes get away with it by being brilliant, and The Green Berets gets away with it nowadays because the gift of hindsight (and preferably a handy pair of irony-shaded glasses) makes it seem endearing and naive. Others, such as Takahashi Tsutomu's hilarious women's baseball manga Tetsuwan Girl, get away with it simply by being so unbelievably absurd (intentionally or otherwise) that there is no other option than uproarious laughter at least twice a page. Still others, like Itami Juzo's Tampopo, tread a more complex path between sending themselves up and retaining a perverse pride in their own eccentricities.

Summer Wars attempts this latter path, perhaps largely succussfully. Again and again it plays up to an imaginary past of traditional Japanese values, uncorrupted by American culture, with every family member representing some patriotic (yet never humourlessly so) ideal of Japaneseness, from the stern yet kind-hearted, nagitana-wielding matriarch to the family history buff/karate teacher/fisherman uncle, to the teenage video game champion, to the baseball-fixated fat woman whose position in the family I couldn't determine. Only black sheep illegitimate child Wabisuke has a troubled side, and you know he's bad news because he's been in America. Still, even he lets us know early on that he can be saved when he mentions that for all its inferiority to the US, Japan still does better beer.

The scenes with the family are, as you can imagine with such two-dimensional characters, desperately cliched, but they are nevertheless the most effective and enjoyable parts of the film, working as an affectionate sending up of Japanese life (or at least Japan's image of itself, which in these postmodern times can often seem more like reality than the dreary truth does,) as well as pushing a lot of the right dramatic buttons. For the first forty minutes or so, Summer Wars is, while by no means reaching Itami's level of quirky social satire, nevertheless a top notch film.

The second half/two thirds of the film, after the grandmother dies (old people in Japanese films exist primarily to die so that their troublesome family members can weep a bit and reflect on their lives) shifts the focus from the family drama more fully towards the problem in the online world of OZ, and this is where Summer Wars goes completely off the rails.

The presentation of OZ is fascinating, with designs clearly influenced by Japanese artist/fashion whore Murakami Takashi (who also provided the visual impetus for Hosoda's short film/Louis Vuitton commercial Monogram). This is also interesting in the way it shows how Murakami's work has gradually come to be accepted and incorporated into anime culture, despite initial resistance from otakudom at the way he (many at the time felt) exploited otaku culture through his work. Not just through Hosoda's work, but also in many of the designs in last year's Kūchū Buranko anime, it seems that the anime world is increasingly coming to accept Murakami as one of their own.

The problem with it is that while OZ is an interesting visual concept, it's difficult to sustain emotional engagement in such an abstract world. By showing us the real characters behind the avatars during the first part of the film, and by regularly cutting back to events in the house, Hosoda presumably hopes to give us a "real world" starting point to latch onto, but he fails. The final hour of Summer Wars basically amounts to watching people sitting around a computer screen, and it's boring.

The fact that the villain that they're fighting against is an entirely impersonal, motiveless computer programme called "Love Machine" makes it even more difficult to care, and by the denoument, when Natsuki enters OZ for the final confrontation with Love Machine, all possible interest I had in any of the characters or events had been stripped away.

Azuma Hiroki spends a whole chapter of his book Dobutsuka-suru Postmodern (Otaku: Japan's Database Animals) discussing the ways otaku culture fetishises a self-congratulatory and imaginary image of Japanese history, particularly the Edo Period, and then warps and twists them to incorporate their own, more recently developed fetish objects. With the image of Natsuki's avatar during the final confrontation, Hosoda appears to have lifted (or paid tribute to) as many of the traits that Azuma identifies as he possibly can, fixing her up with a miko's outfit, fluffy animal ears, and later a pair of angel wings (to show she's levelled up, natch). This is interesting, but self-referentiality isn't what the film needs at this point. The whole final portion of the film becomes completely tied up in rules: the rules of the games, the rules of the computer world and the network, and the rules of otaku culture. Humanity, irrationality, emotion, and character lose their power to influence the plot, and are relegated to a reactive role, the characters' faces telling us when we should be caring about a particular lump of pixels moving around on a computer screen.

People claiming that with Summer Wars Hosoda has unseated Miyazaki as the king of anime filmmaking are deluding themselves. 2008's Gaki no Ue no Ponyo demonstrates that Miyazaki is still miles ahead in terms of originality, clarity of vision, character writing, pacing and emotional engagement. In fact even the Hosoda who made 2006's Toki wo Kakeru Shojo is miles ahead in those respects too. Summer Wars is an interesting premise that starts off by no means unpleasantly, but quickly gets eaten up by its own concept.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Holden Caulfield, What's it All About?

Obviously every time a famous writer or other artist dies, there's the usual round of sentimental tributes as people fall over themselves to say just how much Dick Francis or whoever means to them, although for most people, their death is more likely simply an opportunity to remember the work of a writer you might recall being forced to read at school, or perhaps whose book you read and kind of liked a long time ago. Deaths, to most of us, serve as happy reminders that, yeah, that book that I hadn't thought about once for the last twenty or thirty years wasn't bad.

For me, J.D. Salinger was one of those writers, and more than anything I might have cared about his life or the minute body of work he could be bothered to publish, his death made me think, "Male lead characters in anime are rubbish, and Holden Caulfield gives us some hints as to why."

Without going into too much detail (Catcher in the Rye is a short novel and probably one you've pretended to have read on numerous occasions, so why not track it down and read it for real?) part of what I find appealing about Caulfield as a character is a combination of his knowing, often penetrating ability to size other people up, and his lack of knowledge and lack of understanding of himself (this is a trait you also see in the play/film Alfie, and a key factor in allowing the audience to feel pathos for a title character who really does some horrible things.)

Catcher in the Rye's most recent Japanese translator, and one of Salinger's most famous Japanese fans, the novelist Murakami Haruki, has drawn on these aspects of Caulfield's personality in the past, most frequently applying them to young, proto-moé female characters like Yuki from Dance, Dance, Dance, Midori from Norwegian Wood, and most strikingly May from popular metaphysical harem drama The Wind-up Bird Chronicle.

It's significant that in Murakami's mind the character of Holden Caulfield maps most closely onto a female character, whereas his male characters more often drift through his stories in a state of weary passivity. Sure, part of this is derived from the insouciant cool of Raymond Chandler's classic detective Philip Marlowe, but where Marlowe was quick off the hip with a wisecrack or a punch to the guts, Murakami's heroes are a bit more, you know, bland. They are, he seems to be trying to tell us, ordinary guys, trapped in this dizzy maelstrom of crazy women.

Many anime heroes, like Holden Caulfield, have a protective relationship with their little sister, but, like Murakami's male heroes, they are also overwhelmingly bland. Caulfield is brash, frequently out of control, and self-destructive, and Salinger isn't afraid to show Caulfield's flaws leading him into dispiriting, humiliating situations; however, in his flaws he's also charming and vulnerable, as well as pro-active and driven. Caulfield operates at a higher level of reality to us, he is his readers' strengths and flaws magnified, he is extraordinary. Now look through a few character summaries of most popular boys' anime and count how many times the lead character is introduced with the hateful phrase "XXXX is an ordinary high school boy". The only weaknesses a typical anime hero is allowed to have are shyness around girls, a lecherous streak, and weakness of nasal blood vessels. All he can do is react to external stimuli, either in the form of more active (often female) characters around him, or the anime scriptwriter's favourite deus ex machina, destiny.

Time was that every disaffected teenage boy/celebrity assassin in the world carried a copy of Catcher in the Rye in his pocket, so closely did Holden Caulfield's travails resonate with the trauma of youth. Nowadays, anime (and in Japan the light novel) has eaten up huge chunks of the offbeat, faintly alternative youth culture party cake, but the level of its male character writing has still to see its voice change, grow its first pubic hair, and take the first step out of its perpetual pre-adolescence.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Death and Motivation

J.D. Salinger just died. I don't do sentimental tribute posts, but expect a post on quality character writing soon, with a relevant amount of time devoted to why current anime screenwriters are such phonies. Natch. Sometimes it takes the death of a hero to make me get off my arse and write something that I'm not getting paid for.