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-moƩ 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.

11 comments:

omo said...

Not that you ought to dare to attempt, but this explains partly why I like Seitokai no Ichizon, lol.

dotdash said...

I'm too scared to look!

What I always liked about Ataru from Urusei Yatsura was that despite his obvious flaws, he always just went for it.

And let's not forget that "Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuutsu" is also "Catcher in the Rye", with Holden Caulfield an amalgam of Haruhi and Kyon.

Emily said...

one of the nicer tributes I've read of late. and it also started me on my Why I Hate Haruki Murakami rant to a bunch of GIs who have never heard of him, but that's why my job is fun.

I find Caulfield to be much different than Murakami's women because, honestly, I feel Murakami is quite misogynistic in a very passive-aggressive sort of way. To put it simply though I think I'll expand the rant: Caulfield controls his own prose, where Murakami's women are controlled by the opinions and feelings of the men who obsess over them and rarely given the opportunity for independent self expression.

And while Ryu Murakami might beat his women, murder and maim them horribly I actually feel he's a more articulate writer of autonomous and individual women.

dotdash said...

I remain fond of Murakami H, but yeah, he can't write women for toffee. As you say, they're all reflections in the eye of the male beholder. I think his work has an uncomfortable amount in common with the vile way women/girls have come to be portrayed in anime over the past ten years.

As for Murakami R, again I agree. Gotta love Anemone.

Jack said...

I was in the process of considering whether to pen a fairly basic 'women in anime' post when it occured to me that male characters in animes are equally formed out of a series of cliches, just ones which we find slightly more palatable. It also got me thinking that Keaton from Master Keaton and Kenzo are pretty much flawless male characters who never make any serious mistakes. However by the time we get to 20th Century Boys we get Kenji who actually contains some flaws in his personality.

dotdash said...

With Keaton you also get the other annoying anime trait of "foreign heroes must at least be half-Japanese, no matter what contortions we must put the plot through."

Interestingly flawed male characters (and I don't just mean crap like "he's shy around girls" or "he acts aloof because of a traumatic past, but inside he's warm and caring") are rare but I don't doubt that they exist. Also, there are plenty of pretty much flawless characters who are still super cool (Spike) or just plain lovely (Nausicaa) without being boring.

What I really need to get on and write is my long overdue appraisal of the fabulous Kemono no Souja Erin, which is a masterpiece of anime character writing. The main character is consistently a perfect little miss goody two-shoes, yet she's also believably human (in a way that Nausicaa never quite managed) and most importantly visibly grows and develops. Anime Bildungsroman at its finest.

Jack said...

Some how I forgot to mention The Twelve Kingdoms which is fairly close to Character Development : The Show. Fairly interesting work there, apart from the characters who were written in purely for the anime.

dotdash said...

Yeah, Twelve Kingdoms is a stonker. It's the baseline against which I judge all anime fantasy shows. It was great to be able to watch a show where the story and characterisation were internally consistent with the rules of the world as presented in the show rather than constantly having to dip into a database of pre-defined plot and character elements drawn from the entirity of otaku culture's vast pantheon.

Jack said...

"...dip into a database of pre-defined plot and character elements drawn from the entirity of otaku culture's vast pantheon."

It concerns me that I know exactly what you are talking about, as in the words make more sense they should. Why do I have an academic level of knowledge revolving around otaky?

dotdash said...

Because Azuma Hiroki's postmodern analysis of otaku culture as a database rather than a narrative based system has by now been reabsorbed into otaku culture as an element of the database in itself. We all understand it because by watching the shows, we are by definition absorbing the analysis of those shows themselves in real time. Nothing means anything anymore. We are all prostitutes. Pop has eaten itself.

Jack said...

I'm trying to come up with a clever reply, but failing.

Surely, like a snake eternally swallowing it's own tail, they must all eventually die. There can be no growth if there is no escaping the database, there can be no evoloution.

Also I sometimes wonder whether all media can be summed up by a large, complex database that contains all plots and characters. Then I realise that even it's true, then it's a large enough database that I don't care.