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.