Tuesday 12 January 2016

How I learned to love David Bowie

My first thought when I read that David Bowie had died echoed Metternich’s apocryphal response to the death of Talleyrand: “And what did he mean by that?”

My second was that the whole production and release of his new album, Blackstar, and the preceding singles and videos had been an elaborate piece of theatre designed to frame his death in the most dramatic and climactic way possible. Bravo, sir.

Creeping in behind these two thoughts was a gradual, sickening realisation that I was truly, genuinely in pain at the news.

The social media tributes that inevitably gush forth upon the death of a well-known musician always make me feel a little uncomfortable. I will sometimes give a little online salute to an artist who had an effect on me, and I certainly don’t wish ill of anyone else who does the same. Everyone experiences music in their own way and who am I to judge their feelings for an artist invalid, but at the same time, the very individuality of that experience is what can make the collective expression of grief at these moments feel so strange and jarring with me.

Music exists at a strange nexus between individual and collective experience, which often manifests itself in a sort of tribalism. You seek something that speaks to you personally, but at the same time, this process of identification grants you membership of a group or tribe, which then further channels your sense of identification towards certain kinds of artists.

When people say they aren’t influenced by this kind of stuff and just “like what they like”, it is usually because the tribe they are members of is so dominant that they rarely encounter its edges except as a curiosity they are easily able to ignore, dismiss or compartmentalise.

David Bowie confuses all those boundaries. He is (I still cannot think of him in the past tense: his presence fills everything right now) an artist who inabits so many worlds and has touched so many people in so many ways that the possibility of some kind of universal collective experience feels completely impossible to me.

Nick Currie (aka Momus) in his moving reaction to the news described Bowie’s death as “our Diana moment”, but who is “us”? For Currie, Bowie was the flash of light that illuminated grim 1970s Britain, the “best and only friend” for a generation of misshapes and misfits. To me growing up in the ‘90s, the misshapes were just another clique I wasn’t cool enough to hang out with; meanwhile Bowie was an elder statesman of classic rock, and everyone loved him, even as they tried to pretend his more recent work didn’t exist.

To the Britpop generation I was growing up in, the ‘80s had ruined Bowie, and his contemporary work was a musical mid-life crisis: an interesting but misguided attempt to reclaim his edge. Still, the height of the era, when the NME polled musicians on their greatest influences, Bowie came top, towering over The Beatles, Stones, Dylan.

And it made sense. No one after about 1970 ever made any interesting music under the primary influence of The Beatles or Stones, but nearly all my favourite bands growing up had Bowie deeply embedded in their DNA – Blur, Super Furry Animals and Pulp of course, not to mention the sweaty glam swagger of the defiantly un-Britpop but nonetheless contemporary Earl Brutus.

Like many kids my age, I’d grown up with Let’s Dance on my parents’ turntable, and the film Labyrinth on the TV. This wasn’t such a bad way to encounter him really, but it was through these British ‘90s bands that I started investigating his albums in earnest.

Honestly, I didn’t get it. I couldn’t identify with the freaky personas he adopted, growing up in an era when being a gender-bending alien pop superstar was normal to the point of being banal for the UK charts. I liked Ziggy Stardust and Diamond Dogs fine, but they never clicked with me. They were better than other classic rock, but they were still classic rock, and like Led Zeppelin, The Who or Jimi Hendrix, I wasn’t quite able to find my own way in. I could take the bus tour with all the other tourists, but I had too limited a map of my own identity to be able to navigate my way; I lacked the tools to unlock my own individual path in. Heroes, meanwhile, was just plain terrifying: a cold, scratchy, metallic panic attack of an album built around a single elegaic rock anthem. It intrigued me, but I rarely had the courage to listen to it: it was too much too soon.

Bowie went onto the backburner. When I moved to Japan, Ziggy and Diamond Dogs came with me just in case I needed them, while Heroes stayed at home. I didn’t buy any others for a long time.

In the meantime, however, I’d fallen deeply in love with postpunk bands like Wire, The Teardrop Explodes and XTC, and my experiences in the dark, smoky live halls of Tokyo had brought me face to face with what felt at the time like impossibly uncompromising and avant-garde bands such as Nisennenmondai, Saladabar, Panicsmile and bands I started working with myself through my own label, like Hyacca – some of which made Bowie’s most experimental records sound ridiculously timid (and these bands were themselves by no means extreme by the standards of the scene). It wasn’t always music that translated well to record, but those experiences in a live environment worked quickly, training my ears and body to respond to sounds far removed from the pop and rock conventions I’d been used to.

Part of that is the Stockholm Syndrome of being in a dark room with no easy escape, forced to experience horrible sounds at oppressive volume – you start to find pop appeal in even the tiniest crumbs the artists decide to cast your way. That doesn’t mean that those crumbs are any less real though, and a realisation grew in me that music was at its most magical an experience when the process was collaborative: where the musician did not simply provide a service to the audience, but actually demanded some work of them too.

Those experiences in the Japanese experimental underground, those hours upon hours watching bands and their audiences in this subtle psychic courtship, also taught me to look inside the music, cracking open the case and looking at the gears and springs inside. I don’t mean this in a strictly technical sense – I’m every bit the non-musician I was when I started – so much as in how I analysed and related to the creative process. Why did they put this bit here, and why did they repeat that bit? Why is he making the guitar go skronk instead if squeeeee?

The artists I liked from the punk era were mostly ones who made music simple enough that the gears and springs were easily visible. Even if their lyrics were impossibly opaque, Wire’s music in particular was an open toolkit, with the creative decisions laid out for anyone with a passing acquaintance with punk and rock’n’roll to see. This was music that even as it seemed to push you away with its confrontational rejection of pop appeal, simultaneously invited you to poke around in its most intimate internal workings. Writing about music helped too, of course, forcing me to engage with music on the level of the creative intentions behind it as well as simply whether I liked it or not. Together, British postpunk, Japanese avant-garde rock and my own music writing helped give me a new way of thinking about music, with this attempt to engage with the process at its core.

It was around this time that I found my way back into Bowie with a vengeance, and the album that finally cracked him for me was Aladdin Sane.

The opening track, Watch That Man, is a pretty straightforward Rolling Stones strut. Bowie was always a better Jagger than Jagger ever was though – both more masculine and faggier all at once, a freewheeling sexuality allowing his lyrics to travel to more fantastical places for their lack of grounding in what, for all his transgressiveness by ‘60s standards, remained Mick Jagger’s standard meat-and-two-veg. So far, so Ziggy, except for the moment a few minutes in where the beat starts to break down and the honky tonk piano strays from its clomping chords and begins to wander hither and thither all over the final section of the song.

It was only in the next song, the album’s title track, that I really started to understand what this meant. The way it combined the metronomic, repetitive bassline (borrowed from The Kinks' Tired of Waiting for You) with freeform jazz piano that took the meanderings that Watch That Man had hinted at as a starting point to leap completely out of the world of anything I understood as conventional rock music. The wailing sax in the background brought back to mind the farting hamster sounds I had mocked as a teenager on the track Neukölln from Heroes, an album I was now starting to regret leaving behind.

Panic in Detroit was a masterpiece that was both a magnificent rock song and like absolutely nothing I had ever heard, and where Bowie had bettered Jagger on Watch That Man, he slayed him stone cold dead on his spiky, proto-new wave cover of The Stones’ Let’s Spend The Night Together.

At around this time, I was playing with my friend Grant in a band called Rizla Deutsch. Grant was at a similar stage in his own journey into Bowie (in his case working backwards from Scary Monsters), and hanging out with him we gave each other elaborate sales pitches for the opposing ends of of the '70s (read Grant's own reminiscences here). It became clear that I needed to reacquaint myself with those late ’70s albums that had previously felt if not exactly intimidating, at least fairly inessential, and now that Aladdin Sane had given me the key, I suddenly found myself able to explore them with a new freedom. Suddenly, songs like Golden YearsSound and Vision and “Heroes” felt less like rare successes on otherwise inadequate albums than like poppy excursions from the real business of the record, like when Wire would casually toss a Mannequin or Outdoor Miner onto one of their albums just to show how easily they could do proper pop songs if they wanted to.

It was these albums, with their deconstructions of pop and rock song structures, with their willingness to show you a glimpse inside the process, that finally gave me a joy I could call my own with David Bowie’s music – that I was able to find something that felt like it had been made just for me. And then once in, I began to find in the quirks and flourishes those same patterns, the same mind at work in his other albums. Music that I had before found merely great now felt personal.

The way Bowie’s now-final album, Blackstar, came together, choreographed to first cryptically announce his death and then to serve as both his headstone and resurrection, hit me harder than I could have ever expected.

While I had finally found my own way into his music, I knew I had to share him with so many other people, all loving his work in their own ways, many of whom hated his weird Berlin records as arty and inaccessible, or considered their experimentalism juvenile and pretentious, or lamented his exploitation of more genuinely innovative German musicians of the period. People who loved him for Ziggy, for Let’s Dance, for his late-‘60s hippy folk albums, his plastic soul, for his ‘90s industrial albums, his Davey Jones mod records, they all have a claim on him.

Part of his importance as an artist was the way he forces listeners out of their comfort zones if they want to stick with him. To be a fan, you have to be openminded enough to listen to and find enjoyment in all kinds of stuff. At the same time, though, there’s always going to be one album, one period, one act in his theatre that feels like home for you.

If there is one thing the news of David Bowie’s death has really taught me, it’s that my favourite album of his is Heroes. It’s a naive album in many ways – an avant-garde work by someone clumsily coming to terms with the tools of avant-garde music – but this is its appeal to me. Songs like Joe The Lion and Blackout, which I found impossibly claustrophobic as a teenager, now fizz with energy for me, the way the vocals run ramshackle over the song, Bowie himself mimicking with his voice the freeform piano that woke me up to Aladdin Sane, the songs constantly seeming on the verge of total collapse. The sax on Neukölln still sounds ridiculous to me, but now it feels impressive in its fuck-you audacity.

“Heroes” itself is the only song that doesn’t really feel belongs to me. I’ve stood outside the Hansa Tonstudio building where it was recorded, and looked across at where the Wall would have run, and I can’t see the entwined lovers, feel their passionate, desperate moment. I can’t step inside the song and fully feel the cold edge of reality: instead I feel a soft, velvet-coated anthem to vague and intangible sentiments. It’s a great song and one I’m happy to enjoy together with the world, but somewhere inside me I know it’s too perfect, too creamy: I can’t see the gears.

The sudden appearance of the ten-minute Blackstar in November of last year should have given me warning of what was to come: it blew apart all my expectations and left me feeling lightheaded for the rest of the day. Sure, it wasn’t really as original as all that – Bowie was never an innovator so much as a very imaginative thief – but that couldn’t diminish the thrill I felt on hearing it. It’s a track that would have impressed me coming from anyone, but coming from Bowie it felt like a special gift just for me: a belated first experience of what I imagine every week must have felt like back in the ’70s; a tour round some of the finest moments of the years 1976-79 that importantly retained the same restless urge to keep stepping forward onto new ground. I had never expected a new David Bowie song would have the power to affect me in such a way.

One of the most incisive critiques of Bowie’s work I’ve ever read came from one of his biggest fans, Nick Currie/Momus. Not having the exact phrase to hand, I hope you’ll forgive me paraphrasing, but the essential point I took was that Bowie’s instincts were at heart pretty conservative, and that he only really flirted with the avant-garde when his back was up against the wall, faced with the choice between change and irrelevance. The tension between those two urges – Bowie’s career is a constant balancing act between the individual and the collective experience for himself just as much as for his audience – is part of what makes him such an exciting artist, but ever since reading Momus’ remarks, I’ve always kept a curious eye on the circumstances surrounding any of Bowie’s turns into the leftfield.

That he chose to take one of those left turns so decisively with his final album feels significant. He didn’t want to be remembered with a contented, crowdpleasing, commercial sounding coda. Many took The Next Day as a sign of him coming to terms with his past and legacy, but Blackstar returns to some of the claustrophobia and panic of Heroes, without the sweetener of the torch song title track.

I delayed buying the full album on its day of release and it’s a decision I will always regret, because I’ll now never have had the experience of listening to it free from the knowledge of what it portends. What would I trade just to have that experience of listening to it through in a state of innocence? Three days’ worth of memories? Easily.

But here it is, and it is what it is. I’m listening to the last album David Bowie will ever make, and I’m devastated. But at the same time, I’m selfishly elated. He made an album for me, and he did it in my lifetime. Not only that, but he made it his farewell to the world – his bid for resurrection and immortality – and disappointed thousands of people in the process. A little part of me glories in that: I feel chosen.

Of course David Bowie left us with an embarrassment of riches by which to remember him, and my social media timelines have been swamped with tributes of all kinds, from all kinds of people, all kinds of fans. I don’t know that I agree with Momus about this being the “Diana moment” for all the misshapes – there are too many Bowies, too many ways to remember him, and even if we pool our cathartic tributes across all our Facebook walls, we will still be alone. At the end of this 3,000-word essay, neither you nor I will not be any less alone.

Yesterday as I sat watching the tributes crawl past the screen in front of me, still trying to come to terms with the fact that I even had the capacity to be left this stunned and bereft by the death of a 69-year-old pop singer, I got a text from a friend suggesting we go out to karaoke. Singing along to a couple of dozen parping midi versions of his hits with a small group of friends felt right in the end – a balance of the individual and collective experience that filled a need I didn’t know I’d had.

Thursday 8 January 2015

Legend of Korra: Final thoughts

Part way through season three I made a few observations about Legend of Korra and its approach to thefantasy genre, and now it has come to an end I think there are a few things that can be added to my earlier post.

WARNING: Lots of spoilers in here, so don't read this if you get upset by that sort of thing.

Firstly, my ambivalence regarding the superficiality of its facade of Asianness remains. The conclusion of Legend of Korra, where it wraps up and clarifies its ideological universe shows that the framework of values in which it operates is a fundamentally American one. That aside, the way it unfolds over the course of the four seasons and how they all fit together is nonetheless an interesting one and really quite good.

Accepting that the unspoken assumption of the show is that pursuing any kind of belief to its extremes is dangerous (probably true, but not very exciting), the way it plays out that drama through its often selfish, self-obsessed, occasionally oafishly unaware, but nonetheless fiery and courageous heroine comes together very satisfyingly. Korra's supposed teacher Tenzin is himself flawed, myopic, conservative, and often preoccupied with his own problems and interests, and in fact it is her opponents who take the form of a series of dark mentors.

While the original The Last Airbender series themed each season around one of the elements, Korra takes more abstract themes. The theme running through season one is the conflict between equality and privilege; a political reading of season two could interpret it as dealing in an abstract way with secularism and religious extremism, and/or on a more spiritual level as the disconnection between the physical and spiritual worlds; season three explicitly deals with anarchism versus an entrenched and corrupt monarchy; while season four places a rise of nationalistic fascism in the power vacuum. Korra's education is carried out through a series of traumatic apprenticeships to these teachers, with Amon and Hiroshi representing an extreme extension of equality, Unalaq spirituality, Zaheer freedom, and Kuvira order.

This doesn't completely overcome the limitations of the show's adherence to a fairly conventional liberal American worldview. However, where the show is interesting is that in a way all of these villains are right, and through learning from them and adopting the changes they represent, Korra proves herself a good student even where the teachers are “bad”. Another strength of the show is how, with the exception of the two-dimensional Unalaq, the villains all retain some of our sympathies (Henry Rollins' Zaheer especially – who wouldn't love that guy?)

While in the world itself it is the problems Legend of Korra raises rather than its solutions that are the most interesting, really it's within the character of Korra herself that the show makes all this work in the end, and how the scars of each of these encounters visibly carry over from one season to another. Korra doesn't allow us to celebrate the defeats of these villains; she doesn't allow us to feel that “our” side somehow won; she internalises every struggle and by the end of the series she looks exhausted.

Much of this also has to do with the bitterly personal nature of her final struggle with Kuvira. While fans may have gone giddy with delight at all the Evangelion and Akira references that accompanied the end of the series, it was the way the personal stories were resolved that was Legend of Korra's greatest triumph. Kuvira, Korra's final opponent, is constantly depicted, sometimes more explicitly than others, as a mirror for herself: another young woman struggling against the chaos of a world that never seems to straighten up and fly right.

The show handles romance with a refreshingly unsentimental disinterest. Bataar's love for Kuvira crashes against the rocks quite movingly. Given a choice between her lover and her ambitions, the momentary and seemingly genuine pain that crosses Kuvira's face makes the ruthlessness and lack of hesitation in her choice all the more chilling – she is not an unfeeling two-dimensional monster: she is a fully realised human who can both experience and overcome pain. Leavening this is the way Zhu Li's rather touching devotion gradually wears down Varrick, which while played mostly for laughs, nevertheless depicts love as a struggle that often seems barely worth the meagre reward.

The strongest bonds the show depicts tend not to be romantic though. Utterly crushed and broken by Kuvira's choice, Bataar finds himself in the dubious comfort of his dysfunctional family with a long, hard road of fence-mending ahead of him but at least with an unconditional love at its core. The most open and unambiguous declaration of love is expressed between brothers Bolin and Mako as the latter prepares to do something suitably suicidal and heroic.

The love triangle set up in season one between Korra, Mako and Asami resolves itself far more ambiguously. The fumbling teenage angst between these three had gradually dissipated as the series went on and escalating catastrophes of global significance made their petty jealousies seem pretty inconsequential. In a sequence partly mirroring the end of Return of the Jedi, Korra drifts away from the victory celebrations and is approached by Mako who declares he will always “have her back”, implicitly confirming them as friends and comrades rather than lovers. Korra then encounters Asami, and a seemingly more minor interaction between them from earlier in the series takes on greater significance when Korra apologises for the pain she caused Asami by her disappearance. This bursting to the surface of a largely suppressed source of pain between the two reveals a depth of feeling between them that hadn't been overt before and they end the series by going off together.

I haven't been following other online discussions of the series, and I've read nothing about the series ending, but I can imagine that it raised eyebrows and caused some debate. I think it's important and again to the show's credit that it doesn't outright say anything about Korra and Asami's relationship here, letting the viewers draw their own conclusions. Based on the way other relationships are treated, it seems clear to me that the writers of Legend of Korra believe the depth and devotion of one's love is more important than its nature, romantic or otherwise, and it's easy to read Korra and Asami as a reflection of that: friends and family are the strongest bonds, and those are the bonds that are most poignantly reinforced by the final episode.

However, the visual depiction of this final moment is nonetheless unambiguously romantic, with the pair's physical proximity and body language shimmering with sexual tension as they walk off into the light of the spirit world. This is the cinematic language of two people who are going to fuck each other senseless the moment the scene fades. The show is obviously nodding to the possibility of a romance, while at the same time holding back from saying so outright, I think not so much out of coyness (there's really no ambiguity about the visual language employed) as out of the show's refusal to hold up romantic relationships of any kind as the most important thing – the depth and strength of Korra and Asami's bond is what it wants to emphasise first and foremost, rather than the nature of their sexuality.

This again comes back to the question of values and the conversation that Legend of Korra is having with itself. It's a broadly American debate, touching on many of the big political struggles the country has found itself embroiled in over the past hundred years or so, and which still inform the national debate. Even the show's attitude towards love is an American conversation, as the country gradually awakens from Disney's spell – in fact there are clear parallels between Legend of Korra and Disney's own Frozen in the way they de-sentimentalise romance and place it back into a broader context of what love means – and begins to come to terms with same-sex relationships.

That's not to say that these aren't a valuable conversation to be having, and Legend of Korra, despite its “yellow-wash” over what are essentially American concerns, explores the issues raised within its moral universe with depth, sensitivity, and a generally open mind. Perhaps as time goes by, these contemporary concerns will age the show in ways that aren't flattering, but I'm still pretty much convinced that it will be remembered as one of the greatest children's TV shows ever made, and mostly deservedly so. As a vision of another world, it is only a very qualified success, but as an exploration of an important corner of the one we're actually in, it's an unqualified triumph.

Wednesday 5 November 2014

Shooting at Japanese women with bamboo rifles

There's a lot of outrage on social media (and real media) about a certain "dating coach" and his let's call it unorthodox approach to seducing the ladies. I'm not going to link to his stuff here because you've probably already seen it and I don't want to bomb the guy with any more free publicity than I already have (not that I think anyone who would be interested in anything I write about on my blog would be at all the sort of person who would get anything useful from one of his seminars).

However, if you haven't had the joy of watching him at work, his advice for winning the hearts of Japanese women is basically to shout "Pikachu!" at them, then grab their heads and shove them into his crotch. At the end of the video, you see him doing it to a few clearly very embarrassed girls while bystanders look on with uncomfortable expressions.

Now obviously ordinary, non-sociopathic people are pretty much universally outraged by this how-to guide to sexual harrassment bordering on physical violence, but I want to talk here about something slightly different.

The most striking thing about the "dating advice" this gentleman dispenses is how useless it is in its ostensible function. You're not going to pick up anyone by grabbing random girls with your big meaty hands and forcing them to smell your sweaty balls, you're just informing them that you're an asshole. There may be specific social environments where the group's general familiarity with each other has led to a sort of general lowering of inhibitions and a shared understanding at play that something like that is funny and silly, but fundamentally it's just not effective dating advice.

The "dating coach" knows this, and so, if they're honest with themselves, do the fawning acolytes you can see hanging on his every word in the video. So what is it really about?

If you look at the reaction of the attendees in the seminar, their main reaction is laughter. They're like an audience at a comedy club, listening to a standup deliver racist and sexist one-liners and anecdotes that one after the other reinforce their most shameful prejudices and reassure them that they aren't alone. These guys probably aren't going to go to Tokyo and start thrusting their crotches into girls' faces: what they are getting instead is a cathartic validation of their own potency. They might laugh about it and make half-hearted plans to visit Tokyo together, high on the thrilling possibility that they could impose themselves thus on the supine Oriental ladies of Japan, but most of them will return to their lives of nagging self-doubt and making spiteful threats to women on the internet.

Even Mr. Dating Coach probably doesn't really take that approach. He's probably tried it just enough to know he can get away with it, but in the clips on the video, he's clearly doing it for the benefit of whoever's holding the camera. Those clips are demonstrations of his ability to impose his will on the female species, but I'm going to stick my neck out here and suggest that he has never got laid using that method.

No, what it is is a sort of ritual of male power, Mr. Dating Coach acting as a sort of priest, conducting a congregation of men who share a nagging sense of their own declining status. Together, they act out this pantomime of male dominance and female submission, like cargo cultists performing military drills with bamboo rifles in the hope of summoning back the airdrops that have long passed them by -- they are not there to learn but to experience fleeting reassurance of a status of respect and dominance that they feel they deserve but have never thought to earn.

Sunday 3 August 2014

Legend of Korra: the perils of making fantasy "relatable"

There are a lot of reasons to really love Legend of Korra. Compared to the anime it takes so much of its inspiration from, its fight sequences are really nicely handled, with a balletic wuxia film style that few Japanese anime have ever even attempted to match. Its avoidance of moé character tropes in favour of a female lead who is strong, muscular, independent and beautiful, with a female supporting cast who are all treated as human beings rather than doll-like objects of male fantasy, is also a refreshing change after a lot of time spent in the otaku hell of most anime of the past 10-15 (20?) years. Legend of Korra, like Avatar: The Last Airbender before it, is also refreshing compared to a lot of American TV for its basis in non-European culture and ethnicity.

And yet is it really?

There are a lot of visual signifiers of Asian culture, and the show obviously has a lot of fun with them in its pagoda skyscrapers and junk battleships, but in those things what we're really seeing is the familiar trappings of Western (in this case American) civilisation done up in the exotic embroidery of the Orient. Where it comes across most strikingly, however, is in the characters themselves. Yes, Korra, Mako, Bolin etc. appear Asian, but they speak and behave just like contemporary American teenagers.

The world of Legend of Korra also adheres to a very American sense of history's march. There are monarchies and empires, but the show expects us to understand that a presidential republican democracy in the American model is the only natural and just progression. Other models of governance exist to be taught that they are wrong.

Even the problems with democracy reflect the common straw-man complaints Americans have of the system in that it is sometimes subject to the capricious whims of the crowd – in essence that democracy is too responsive to the wishes of its people, a bit like going into a job interview and saying, “My main fault is that I sometimes work too hard.”

Now I'm being a bit unfair here, I know. That the show even deals with the issues of governance and flaws in democracy at all is a sign of its thoughtfulness, and it's ridiculous to expect a kids' show to suddenly turn into The Thick of It or Veep, but it's worth recognising just how limited a range of views it expects from its viewers. At heart, Legend of Korra isn't really doing much more than reflecting back at its audience the core values their own society professes.

Of course given my earlier comments on Legend of Korra's representation of women, in a way I'm praising it out of one corner of my mouth and criticising its broadly American political ideology out of the other, despite both being reflections of the same thing: the show's adherence to Western, broadly liberal values. Look at international gender equality rankings and China's lingering ideological remnants of Communist equality mean that it tends to do OK (but not brilliantly), while patriarchal capitalist oligarchies like Korea and Japan prop up the bottom of the table alongside places like Qatar and Kuwait. Would we really want a kids' show that accurately reflected the gender inequality that's rife in so much of Asia?

I think there are two points here. Firstly, that such social constructs needn't be a barrier to creating strong, believable characters. Characters can live in a very conservative society and by good writing that shows them as rounded human beings in their interactions with those rules, we can still sympathise with them and root for them. The problem is when we simply assume a set of values in our viewers and lazily broadcast those values back at them.

Inherent in this is the misconceived idea that in making narrative art, it should always be “relatable”. Why should we as the audience expect to be able to relate everything back to our own lives? The human capacity for empathy and imagination is an incredibly powerful tool that allows us to step into the shoes of people with quite different lives to us and understand them and their struggles. This is also an idea at the core of the fantasy genre, which exists to do precisely that. Legend of Korra is a fantasy drama and by cleaving so closely to behaviour, language and values familiar to American teens, it fails to credit its audience with the imagination to empathise with anything more than an Orientalised version of themselves.

Once again, Legend of Korra is in the fantasy genre. It doesn't need to painstakingly recreate the Asian cultures that it draws its aesthetic influence from any more than it should be simply recycling contemporary American culture. It has a free rein to pick and mix from all over the place or just simply invent stuff of its own out of the ether. Fantasy can employ satire to reflect back elements of its reader's own culture, but it is never a straight reflection: rather it is a funfair hall-of-mirrors distortion that in its very absurdity shows up the foibles and pretensions of its target.

Yeah, I get it, there are commercial reasons why anything more complex than what it already is would have difficulty getting made, and audiences are trained these days to expect their TV sets to behave like little more than a mirror. Sure. You're right. But on a literary level, what Legend of Korra does is still limited and fails to fulfil the fantasy genre's remit of taking its audience to a truly different place, denying us the joy of exploring a new world with its own rules by simply transplanting our own.

It's still an enjoyable show, and well worth watching. Similarly, Japanese anime is often every bit as ideological in its own, often rather more unpleasant and disturbing way. Just read this as a plaintive, selfish cry from a fan and an admirer for a greater degree of anthropological rigour in my animated TV fantasy drama.

Sunday 22 June 2014

Artists and the machines of death: The Wind Rises (2013) and The First of the Few (1942)

Hayao Miyazaki's The Wind Rises was pitched as the director's final film, and as such has an extra weight of expectation attached to it, as if it should not only match up to the rest of his celebrated oeuvre, but also somehow act as a coda, a definitive statement, a portrait of the man as an artist. It tells the heavily fictionalised tale of Japanese aircraft designer Jiro Horikoshi, creator of the legendary Second World War fighter the Mitsubishi A6M “Zero”, and given Miyazaki's love of flying machines of all kinds, it's easy to see it as a metaphor for the man himself.

In watching The Wind Rises, I decided to take it in as a double feature with another film about an aviation designer, the British wartime drama The First of the Few, which told the story of Reginald J Mitchell, the designer of the Supermarine Spitfire. Between the two films, there are a number of interesting points of comparison relating to their portrayals of the engineer as artist, of the creator who makes machines of destruction, and of relationships and obsession.

Both films make it explicit that they regard their protagonists as artists, somehow above mere engineers, and they do this partly through portraying Horikoshi and Mitchell's interests in and appropriation of natural forms. Horikoshi's admiration of the elegant curve of a herring bone that he picks out of his lunch isn't of any real practical use, since the curve of a wing for maximum aerodynamic efficiency is a matter of mathematics, but his appreciation of this natural form tells us that he is not just an engineer: he is a man of inspiration, who searches not just for engineering efficiency but also for elegance.

Similarly, when we first meet Mitchell in The First of the Few, he is birdwatching during a seaside picnic with his wife. The circumstances of both Mitchell's and Horikoshi's moments of inspiration come during moments away from work, but both find their attention drawn from their food and companions by the power of sublime nature. In Mitchell's case, the focal point of his inspiration lies in the simple elegance of the bird's form which he seeks to emulate in contrast to the ungainly network of struts and wires that make up most aircraft of the early 1920s.

One big difference between the films is in the relative weight placed on dreams and reality. Horikoshi is portrayed as a dreamer and The Wind Rises frequently disappears without warning into his (and by extension Miyazaki's) fantasies. The First of the Few, however, explicitly anchors itself in reality. This contrast is exemplified by the opening scenes of the respective films.

The Wind Rises opens with a dream of the young Horikoshi taking to the skies in a homemade flyer, soaring over the peaceful countryside of early Taisho period Japan, only for the peace and purity of his airborne antics to be shattered by the arrival of a vast, German airship (Japan was Britain's ally during the First World War and fought against Germany, although this also foreshadows other aspects of the film) and a fleet of idiosyncratic flying bombs.

The First of the Few, on the other hand, rubs your face in reality. It begins right in the thick of The Battle of Britain, with newsreel footage of German conquests, genuine footage of German bomber squadrons over southeast England, and the words of Hitler, Goebbels, Goering, Lord Haw Haw and Churchill. The acting of the extras who trade quips and banter between sorties may seem unnaturally awkward and stilted, but that's largely because many of them were genuine RAF pilots who had been drafted into the film for propaganda purposes.

And that's a core difference between the films. Made in 1942, right in the middle of the war, The First of the Few is essentially a propaganda film, while The Wind Rises is divorced from the most immediate implications of the war by nearly seventy years. The Wind Rises has an ambiguous relationship with the war, reflecting the work of a director who hates war but loves its machinery, and Miyazaki feeds that attitude into his central character. Horikoshi experiences the destruction of Tokyo firsthand near the beginning of the film, as the Great Kanto Earthquake hits in a terrifying scene just as his train is approaching Tokyo, and this is a clear foreshadowing of the destruction from the air that is to be visited upon Tokyo from the kind of machines he is set on creating. Later on, Horikoshi's befriends German dissident Castorp, who warns him of the destructive path Germany and Japan have set themselves on, and Horikoshi must wrestle with his love for his art and the knowledge of the ends to which his work is being put. He does this primarily by doubling down on his work, immersing himself in it to such an extent that he doesn't even think about the war. Basically, he decides that art supersedes all other concerns.

The First of the Few is, in a way, by its very nature far more honest and direct in how it confronts the issue of war, but it deals with the same conflict between art and the destructive purposes to which this particular art is put. Rather than have Mitchell wrestle with it as a moral dilemma, however, the film is divided into two parts, each reflecting a different side of aviation technology. The first part deals with the Schneider Trophy and how Mitchell's Supermarine S5 and S6 designs first won and then permanently retained the trophy. The romance of the high speed air race is something Miyazaki had touched upon previously in Porco Rosso, which references the Schneider Trophy and in the name of American pilot Donald Curtis references the same Curtiss R3C biplane that is shown in The First of the Few beating Mitchell's prototype Supermarine S4 to the 1925 trophy. The second part of the film kicks off with Mitchell's visit to Germany to see one of Hitler's glider clubs. His awe at the purity of the German gliders, so close to his own vision of birdlike simplicity, soon gives way to the realisation of the Nazis' ambitions for their own military airforce, and like any true patriot, he is from then on fully invested in making machines of war.

Part of this reflects the circumstances and timing of each film's creation, but it also reflects the contrasting natures of each country's involvement in the war. Britain could easily justify its military air programme as the island itself was under immediate threat. The Spitfire was a short range, land-based interceptor, designed to shoot down enemy bombers attacking the homeland and their escorts. The Zero, on the other hand, was a carrier-based fighter, whose role included escorting bombers and projecting Japanese power far overseas, while Japan's own role in the war was offensive before any need for defence of the homeland came into play. Miyazaki acknowledges this when Horikoshi is inspecting a new bomber aircraft built by his friend Kiro Honjo and asks who it's going to be used on. Honjo rattles off a list of countries including America, China, Britain and the Netherlands that makes it abundantly clear that Japan's intentions lie in expansion. The differing circumstances are also reflected in the differing attitudes of the respective establishments to money. While Horikoshi's Japan labours in poverty during the Depression, the expansionist government pours money into the aviation industry; meanwhile Mitchell's Britain, still war-weary after the trials of 1914-18, is unwilling to fund new aircraft development during such straitened times.

It is interesting that in both films a trip by the protagonist to Germany proves an important turning point for the characters. For Mitchell, his it is what resolves him to invest himself fully into making machines of war. True to the film's propaganda origins, the Germans are portrayed as arrogant and megalomaniacal, making use of all the contemporary stereotypes that still to some degree form the core of British prejudices towards our Teutonic cousins. Significantly, the practical, unsentimental Germans also gently mock Mitchell's romantic notions of the poetry of flight as being essentially British sentimentality. In The Wind Rises, Horikoshi and Honjo's visit to the Junkers production facility in Dessau demonstrates the junior status the Germans consider Japan to hold in their partnership, and the two Japanese engineers are constantly being barred from inspection of certain pieces of technology. The only place where The Wind Rises could be called explicitly patriotic is where Horikoshi and Honjo are forced to assert themselves against the arrogant Germans, again reinforcing the film's conflicted attitude towards its protagonist's work and what it represented.

Another interesting moment from the scene at the Junkers yard comes when Horikoshi is involved in a fracas with a German guard over his wishes to more closely inspect one of the new all-metal aircraft. In that moment, the elderly Hugo Junkers himself intervenes on Horikoshi's side. This moment of solidarity from a fellow artist is given greater significance later on, when Castorp reveals that Junkers is not on good terms with the Nazis (he was a socialist and a pacifist who hated the Nazis and ended his days under house arrest). A much bigger relationship with a fellow aircraft designer is the friendship that Horikoshi strikes up in his dreams with Giovanni Battista Caproni. Caproni was prone to plenty of errors and failed experiments himself, and his bizarre Ca.60 Noviplano makes a brief appearance in one of the dream sequences, wobbling and warping as it flies. Caproni takes on the role of a sort of spirit guide, representing unfettered creativity, the dream of aviation as a peaceful technology, as well as the compromises an artist must make to pursue his dreams.

In The First of the Few, there is no fellow designer or engineer with a comparably large role, but again during the visit to Germany, Mitchell encounters one of his opposite numbers in the form of Willy Messerschmitt, designer of the Messerschmitt Bf 109, the plane which would be the Spitfire's primary opponent during the Battle of Britain. Mitchell and Messerschmitt's encounter is terse and brief, but lasts long enough to give the enduring impression of two opponents sizing each other up in advance of a fight. Other than that moment, Mitchell's only encounters with his contemporaries are in his encounters with the likes of Robert McLean and Henry Royce, both of whom are allies, who assist Mitchell in creating his masterwork.

Mitchell's primary confidant is his test pilot, the debonair ladies' man Geoffrey Crisp, whose role can perhaps best be explained by the need for a sizeable role for the eminently bankable David Niven. Nevertheless, Mitchell's wife Diana also plays a key role in supporting her husbands dreams while at the same time keeping him grounded. Diana is portrayed as an archetypal domestic goddess and dutiful wife, willing to sacrifice her own happiness for the sake of her husband's dreams. In one poignant moment, as she begs her sick husband to stop his work and go away with her, he confronts her directly with the idea that the looming war and the work he is doing is “more important than us”.

While Mitchell and Diana are presented from the start as a fully-formed couple, Horikoshi's relationship with Naoko is shown from their first awkward meetings, gradually blossoming through their courtship at a rural holiday retreat, and their eventual marriage. Like Diana, Naoko is self-sacrificing to a fault, eventually leaving for the mountains to avoid distracting Horikoshi from his work.

Both films follow the traditional pattern of studies in artistic obsession by interweaving the artist's passion for his work with the notion of death. The sacrifices the women make for their men are also harbingers of death, symbolising the victory of art and its eternal legacy over life in the present and now. In Naoko's case it is her own death from tuberculosis, while in Diana's case, it is resigning herself to Mitchell's own self-destruction via an unnamed disease (the real RJ Mitchell died of cancer, although for dramatic reasons this is not stated in the film, in order to keep the possibility of his recovery open).

Also, in both films this relationship between obsession and death takes on a mystical significance. In The Wind Rises, the wind itself takes on a metaphorical role, with Horikoshi and Naoko's meetings always accompanied by strong gusts of wind. It is the appearance of one of these gusts as he watches the successful test flight of his new plane that tells Horikoshi that Naoko has died. In The First of the Few, it is Diana who is present to see the Spitfire's test flight while the now very unwell Mitchell watches it fly over him in his garden. After the flight, Diana returns with the news and leaves him to rest in the garden, surrounded (perhaps significantly) by birdsong, and as she enters the house, she is struck by a similar psychic realisation of a life passing from this world.

These mystically-inflected moments of death link back to the mystical nature of the inspiration that Horikoshi and Mitchell themselves are portrayed as having discovered at the start of their stories. Just as the word inspire, to breathe in, can also mean breathing in the life of creativity, so its opposite, expire, can also mean death. In each case, a life must be traded for the creation of a work of art.

While The Wind Rises is an antiwar film that appears conflicted in its love for its subject matter, The First of the Few has no time for pacifism and is unambiguous about the necessity of war. Still, both films make a point of contrasting their artist-heroes with the warmongering Nazis, in the British film's case quite explicitly, while in the Japanese film's case more subtly, using Horikoshi's encounter with the Germans to define Japanese national pride against an enemy everyone can agree on. It's tempting to see this as an adoption by Miyazaki of the postwar Allied consensus of who World War II's goodies and baddies were, but it also serves to draw attention to the confused and troubled nature of Japan's involvement in the war, as a partner to a regime that saw Asians as inherently racially inferior. While The First of the Few is a propaganda film and The Wind Rises is essentially a personal work that could be seen in some ways as a partially cloaked autobiography by Miyazaki, they both follow certain generic patterns of the obsessive artist subgenre, and both are films about men who sacrifice their marriages, albeit ultimately with their women's active consent and support, in their obsessive pursuit of creating machines of destruction. In the end, Mitchell sacrifices his life with Diana for the Greater National Good, while Horikoshi sacrifices his life with Naoko for something far more abstract and intangible. Miyazaki attempts in the final scenes to show some sort of cosmic balance between the horror of the war's destruction and the beauty of the planes that Horikoshi built. The First of the Few ends where it began, in the midst of the war with the RAF pilots fighting for their lives in Mitchell's planes.

Tuesday 17 June 2014

My troubled relationship with Joss Whedon

I have a problem with Joss Whedon.

I find his work pretty much universally enjoyable, ranging from at worst (early episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) acceptable timewasting visual chewing gum to at best (Firefly, the whimsical and experimental bits of Buffy The Vampire Slayer) genuinely impressive, eye-opening television, but there's always something nagging at me.

I think part of it is simply that he's so established and has such a large body of work that his interests and habits now show up too easily. Characters behave in the ways they do because they are Joss Whedon characters, not because they are themselves. In that sense, Whedon -- like other writers with easily recognisable sets of tropes and concerns, for example Haruki Murakami to name but one) is a victim of his own success.

Another part of it is his insistence on working with a big network like Fox, where every idea he has must live or die on its ability to capture a sizeable mainstream audience. It was this environment that guaranteed Dollhouse would fail before it had even begun. The idea was just too weird, and Whedon's attempts to appease the network feel like they hobbled the show and prevented it from doing justice to its own concept.

Whedon's treatment of female characters is one of the most talked-about features of his work. A lot of this comes from a feminist perspective and rightly so, but it's also clear that Whedon is not a feminist in the full-on theoretical/ideological/political sense of the word. Whedon's feminism comes across as more like the video gamer who prefers to play Mass Effect as the female Shepherd, or the anime fan who got a kick out of the way Priss could casually blow off the advances of Leon McNichol before crushing the skulls of some rogue boomers in Bubblegum Crisis. Joss Whedon's feminism feels like that of a nerd who finds it easier to identify with female comicbook characters than the butch masculinity of male heroic archetypes. A lot of other fans, both male and female, feel as he does, and the way he recognised that and persuaded the network to take a chance on it with Buffy shouldn't be underestimated.

Watching Joss Whedon's shows from a feminist perspective can sometimes make uncomfortable viewing though, both for good reasons and bad. His women get brutally beaten about, often by men much larger and more physically threatening than they are. His shows invite us to be entertained by this, and that should make anyone pause for a moment. In any real life situation, that man punching that woman in the face that hard, would be an act of sickening violence and the reinforcement of a deeply troubling power dynamic. In the context of Buffy, Dollhouse or S.H.I.E.L.D., however, the point we need to take away from it is that in the world he is showing us, where women have the power to take on men in their own traditionally action and violence-orientated roles, the flipside of that is women must take as well as dish out the beatings. Every time you see Buffy, Echo or Agent May (or indeed Black Widow as written by Whedon in Avengers) take a boot in the gut or a fist in the side of the head, and every time they shake it off and come back with a leg sweep and a spin-kick of their own, they are asserting their equality with, and as heroes this really means superiority to, their male counterparts. This isn't the kind of feminism many people want, and certainly not a sort of feminism that has a great deal of relevance in most people's daily lives, but in the limited milieu of Joss Whedon's comicbook-inspired action universe, it's at least consistent. It's an environment where the highest virtue is badassery, and the women are the baddest-ass there is.

The way Whedon treats sex is one that seems to have evolved, and he seems to have taken onboard criticisms that emerged in response to Buffy. He admitted himself that Willow's coming out as a lesbian proved so popular a move that there was no way he and his team would have been able to have her just announce, "Hey guys, I'm cured!" It's very easy for writers to say that values, ideology and "political correctness" shouldn't be allowed to impinge on narrative, but what political correctness really means in its best sense is to question why you are choosing to say one thing rather than another. Often, ostensibly positive portrayals of homosexual characters in dramas still resolve themselves along the arc of a tragedy, and that's what Whedon did to much criticism with the Willow-Tara storyline. Sensitive as the portrayal was, Tara was still "punished" for being a lesbian. Whedon obviously didn't intend it to play out like that -- he was just playing the standard comicbook card of killing off the love interest of a central character to give a narrative boost to the story -- but the rarity of lesbian characters on TV gave extra significance to Tara's role, and her demise was consequently freighted with far more significance than Whedon had intended. He seemed to recognise this as a mistake and took measures to make it good later.

Another criticism of Buffy was the way that the sexual agency of female characters often seems to be punished with tragedy. Buffy having sex with Angel in the second season precipitates a string of tragedies, and throughout the show, sex is shown to be a perilous adventure for girls. Again, it's doubtful Whedon had any particular anti-feminist agenda here. Buffy was a show as much about being a teenager as it was about monsters and demons, and the mystical significance sex takes on is a metaphor Whedon uses for the fear and confusion surrounding sex when you are a teenager. He also perhaps less consciously locks into a tradition of vampire stories as religious metaphors that paint sex as explicitly sinful. I don't think he really intends this to be the primary message, and the way the religious aspects of the story are treated elsewhere reinforces my belief -- the cross has no particular significance beyond its power as an anti-vampire superweapon, and holy water is bottled and branded like it was Perrier or something -- but it's a tradition that Buffy nonetheless falls into at points. Anya/Anyanka partly rectifies this by being a female character with a strong sense of sexual agency, although she is denied a happy ending. Faith is a more complex proposition, who goes through plenty of her own ups and downs over the course of the series. More significantly, as time has gone by, characters such as Zoe and Inara in Firefly, and May in S.H.I.E.L.D. have presented women who, whatever else we might say about their characterisation, are completely in control of their own sexuality.

What Whedon is very good at doing is anticipating a cliché, leading the audience down the road towards it, and then diverting it at the last minute. You can see this in the Firefly episode The Train Job where Mal leads the audience along the traditional track of the merciful hero before kicking Russian gangster Niska's man-skinning henchman Crow (a reference to Murakami's The Windup Bird Chronicle there?) into Firefly's engine intake. It's a surprise and by showing both that Whedon is aware of the trope and willing to subvert it, he winks to the audience that he's on their side. It also allows him to get away with letting Mal act as the traditional merciful hero for most of the rest of the series simply by showing us that he's willing to break with the trope once on a relatively minor character. Another example is in Avengers where Black Widow's interrogation of Loki follows the path of the hero whose personal demons are easily exploited by an unscrupulous villain before turning the tables and revealing that she was manipulating him (as had been foreshadowed in her first appearance in the film). And by nodding to and then subverting this cliché, it again allows Whedon to then go ahead and have Loki's plan work out more or less flawlessly anyway.

And this is perhaps one of Whedon's problems, and one that relates back to his position working in network TV and Hollywood rather than blue-chip grownup channels like HBO: for all his awareness of conventions and clichés, he still remains tied to them. Many of the things that made Buffy seem so ahead of its time were tricks that disguised an essentially fairly conventionally structured teen drama, albeit one characterised by some incredibly good writing in places, apt to fly off in all sorts of exciting diversions in form, and comparatively bloodthirsty in its attitude to killing off main characters. In S.H.I.E.L.D. those same habits are at play and seem far more dated.

The way Whedon characters often suddenly and unexpectedly reverse their personalities for the sake of a surprising twist (Boyd in Dollhouse was one of the silliest examples of this, which is ironic in a show that's almost entirely about people's personalities being changed and edited) reveals a writer who sometimes puts keeping one step ahead of the fans before narrative consistency and plausibility. Whedon also has a compulsive need to explain everything, where leaving it unexplained might make for a more satisfying experience. The way the film Serenity wrapped up the mystery of the reavers was anticlimactic, and the awakening of River as a ninja ass-kicking superweapon made her less interesting as a character than when she was this unexplained, potentially perilous enigma. These little writerly habits nag at me.

But at the same time, watching a Joss Whedon show satisfies me in a way few other things do. There's an easygoing drive to the storytelling, and the way he delights in showing you the nuts and bolts of the narrative, while often making him like he's being a bit cleverer than he really is, lends a reassuring air that he's fighting the same fight as us fellow nerds. More importantly perhaps, there's an air of attainability in what he writes. Read Thomas Pynchon or watch The Wire and you're just constantly being blown away by how rich, layered, intelligent and downright brilliant the work is. Watch a Joss Whedon show and you think, "This is good, but it's also within reach: I could do this!" This might sound like rather faint praise, but in a way, it's still further testament to Whedon's ability to show his fans a vaseline-lensed, rose-tinted vision of themselves, not in the characters and situations but in the behind-the-scenes machinery that creates and controls them.

Monday 17 March 2014

Kill Your Sempai 2

As part of an event I sometimes organise with my friends Gotal and Ralouf from the band Lo-shi, I did a set of illustrations under the title Kill Your Sempai 2 (there was a part 1 a couple of years ago). Most of the models were just taken from album covers and photo shoots from old Japanese pop stars and models, although there's one of my friend Ayako in there somewhere too. The text is just stuff I was thinking about at the time: satirical cheap shots mostly.

It's a Guided By Voices song title, but a wonderful phrase regardless.

The life of a writer these days -- fuck you, Huffington Post. Also, not sure what happened to the right strap of her bikini.

Physical goods for virtual currency.


AKB48 general manager Tomonobu Togasaki's excuse after being caught at a love hotel with a teenage prostitute.

The hard right, nationalist former military general is very popular with the youth of today. Although this girl looks like something from the 80s.

It's the look of disdain on her face that does it for me.