Rambles: Becoming Otaku
I have been watching a lot of anime lately. My general intuition insists that I should be embarrassed about this habit. My inner introvert delivers a counterpoint: If you enjoy them, who cares? Your time alone should come with a (reasonable) suspension of outside judgment. If you want to watch silly cartoons, do it. It’s your private time.
I am not tarring all anime with the same brush. The specific things that make anime embarrassing (which I won’t get into at this time) are present on a spectrum, which goes all the way to zero. In addition, many a series makes up for its foibles by delivering something special.
There is a certain sensibility that I appreciate as well – a skewed version of Japanese culture that nonetheless enchants and mystifies. And let’s not forget that one is essentially looking at beautiful artwork for twenty-odd minutes. Hearing voice actors speak a language I don’t understand for characters who are drawn allows me to suspend judgment about acting and performance. I don’t have to watch Hollywood phonies phonying around on some set for a paycheck. Instead I can just watch someone’s imagination take life on the screen.
Irregardless, I have lost the sanctimonious perch from which I previously judged those who sacrificed their hours at the altar of mediocre TV. For all intents and purposes of smug judgment, I might as well be watching Burn Notice.
Chihayafuru looked pretty questionable at first but soon became a must-watch. The show follows a group of high school students (they all do) as they enter the world of an arcane, historical card game in which classical Japanese poems are read aloud, signaling players to slap that particular poem-card away from an array of cards arranged before them and their opponent. Chihaya – the heroine of the series – is both endearing and admirable, possessing model good looks (her sister’s pursuit of a modeling career is a subplot), a deep lack of social skills (she calls her teammates demeaning nicknames, seeming not to notice their complaints at all), and the dedicated, tireless, obsessed heart of a champion. My favorite moment has Chihaya in school, filling out her all-important career survey. After some consternation she simply scrawls “Queen” (the highest-ranked woman Karuta player in Japan) on the paper. Afterward the adults in her life express concern about her. Second favorite: when Chihaya, hearing syllables almost before they are spoken, nearly becomes a god during competition.
…For you see, the very best animes are about transcending human limitations and approaching godhood. For example, in Neon Gene
During my last trip home to Ann Arbor, I went out for a drink with a very good friend of mine. Anime came up, and I mentioned Neon Genesis Evangelion. He had seen it! Alas, he didn’t much care for the show… the character of Shinji struck him as “a whiny little bitch.” He then suggested that Cowboy Bebop is the superior anime.
I took a swallow of beer and held my tongue. I had never seen Cowboy Bebop. I resolved to watch it with an open mind.
After watching all 26 episodes I can report that I DON’T KNOW WHAT ALL THE HUBBUB IS ABOUT.
Yes, the animation is gritty and gorgeous, the far-flung space colony settings are alive and seedy and varied, the characters are defined with subtle strokes yadda yadda….
Some of the early episodes are just so dumb. Spike literally dodges bullets every goddamn time (even while floating in space, with no method of changing his momentum) while smiling smugly, then follows up with crazy kinetic Kung Fu. Accompanied by Yoko Kanno’s hot jazz, complete pandemonium breaks out in crowded urban areas and all of the bystanders miraculously dodge, are missed by inches, or disappear in clouds of dust. Our man Spike always wins the battle, often with the help of the Bebop crew, but some clever coincidence or twist of fate always cheats the crew of their bounty.
Lather rinse repeat.
Over the course of the series there is some development, but it tends to work backwards – we explore the characters’ pasts, which are composed of decently dramatic genre fare. The characters, trapped in their pasts and monotonous present, become static, despite all their crazy adventures. Nothing too surprising happens, there are no existential threats or epiphanies worth chewing, and nobody transcends any limitations.
I can’t even put CB in the same category with NGE. The latter’s plot keeps building and escalating until the viewer is left in a state of ecstatic confusion. Instead of elastic characters who reset every week, NGE illustrates how repeated traumas and inexplicable phenomena deteriorate the mental health of the characters at the center of our giant robot drama. Gods are created. Differences of strategy arise in the execution of the apocalypse. Gigantic biomechs go berserk and strangle each other. A father praises his son and calls him by name…
Cowboy Bebop was fun to watch. The animation was perhaps the apex of a certain 90s aesthetic, but the adventures were too action-movie lazy (by this I mean protagonists cheating death, willful ignorance of damage and civilian cost, heavily favorable physics, goofy coincidences, deus ex machinas, overuse of dramatic timing, etc.) and the characters failed to evolve or fully interact. For the record Radical Edward was my favorite, and she just *Spoiler* [leaves the good ship Bebop at the end of the story, never to be heard from again].
Speaking of vaguely disappointing outer space narratives, I don’t know what I was expecting from The Last Jedi, but it made me miss both The Force Awakens and Rogue One in very acute ways. *Spoilers Follow* Awakens had a little more daring in spots, especially toward the beginning. We actually got to see the Stormtroopers Stormtroop, massacring civilians on planet My Lai as a number of our main characters watched. I enjoyed the early incarnations of the characters, and the ways in which they were established. Remember when the trailer came out and there was a shot of a black Stormtrooper running in the sand? I sure do. Finn’s whirlwind bromance with Poe Dameron was memorable if nothing else, and it was fun to see him not get along with Rey right away (a callback to earlier times, I know). Speaking of Rey, her difficult, thankless, lonely life as a junk scavenger was beautifully sketched. My favorite scene in the film is her adorable Rebel-pilot-fantasy dinnertime featuring beat-up helmet and hard-earned meal.
As the two main characters were swept into events, the complete changes to their ways of life were made properly palpable. Self-discovery followed, and had the cowards at Disney not shoehorned in a third death star, the film may well have been something special.
Jedi was not kind to Finn. It turned him into a toothless, slapstick, millennial everyman with no real purpose. The minority-sidequest-casino adventure he and Rose embark on is an utter disaster, wasting runtime, a novel setting, and interrupting/diluting the urgency of the main storyline. And wait! What the hell was that Princess Leia forcegrab thing? Wiping her away in a heartbeat would have been so goddamn gutsy and memorable – a reminder of the cruel speed of death… time cut short and no chance to say goodbye… art imitating life. Instead she survives the vacuum of space and now Rian Johnson is smiling all over the internet. Like a pleased little gerbil. “Oh I’m so glad Kathleen liked my contribution to the Star Wars Universe. It was so difficult to know if we were doing the right thing with Luke Skywalker, but I’m confident that what we decided was true to the character, who we all love of course. Oh I’m ever so happy for the opportunity to make my own trilogy…” In interviews Johnson often speaks as though portions of the story and film are beyond his purview and understanding. The hyperbole about direction by focus group is tragically apt.
If the entire film is set up as a doomed death-chase, why haven’t the writers borrowed liberally from Mad Max: Fury Road? As the finest film of the decade, it has many les
What I missed from Rogue One was the grit and the mistrust. The strange bedfellows created by the rebellion. The mistrust and tension and scarcity that comes with squashing people from across the universe into a tiny ship and telling them to accomplish a vital, deadly mission. The blind pseudo-Jedi monk fellow is by far the most interesting character to come out of this whole revival. The Last Jedi got Benicio Del Toro to stutter a few things on the way to the bank (art imitating life) and said good enough.
Adam Driver is great, though. His Kylo Ren is straight out of Scorsese – a tortured catholic questioning his lineage and his very soul. I must make an unconventional gripe here: Jedi’s millennial flavor – present mostly in the dialogue – irked me. Irked me because I can’t stand my generation (ironic, since I just praised Adam Driver, who was in Girls, which is perhaps the flagship media artifact of self-important millennial narcissism). Sometimes I feel like I’m aging out of my generation by falling behind (or opting out) on media, methods of media consumption, social media consumption, ways of talking about things, social movements, etc. Someday I will file an application for asylum in Generation X.
Speaking of subtle but essential distinctions between outwardly similar people, Blade Runner 2049 was cool (this post began as a review of only that movie). However! Denis Villeneuve’s strengths worked against him in noticeable ways.
Elegance. A sense of space and geography. Continuity. Cinematic composition. Controlled pacing… these are the qualities that were completely decimated by the bizarre cut-and-paste (and recut and re-release) futurist pastiche that was the first Blade Runner. Somehow during the remake these very qualities were resurrected – becoming the building blocks of the new film. This means there is no stylistic continuity from the original to the sequel. Big deal – they’re like 58 years apart. The issue is lack of boldness. Blade Runner dropped us in the rain getting shoved by Asians and made us yell “with noodles!” two times to make sure. We didn’t speak the language and we didn’t know who was a replicant. Future shock was real.
I said no stylistic continuity, but the aesthetic and societal continuity were almost 1:1. By that I mean 2049 did not bother to change where or how people lived. Only our viewpoint of Los Angeles changed. It was more deliberate, more consistent and aware of distance. 2049 was a good yarn. Humanity was questioned, new life forms fought for life. Our semi-hero worked at a mystery and finally solved it.
But the ending stunk, at least compared to the other one. Roy Batty’s poet-warrior shtick may have infringed on Kurtz, but it was effective. Poor Deckard left with his head spinning, not because of the violence of the replicant attack, but because he was ultimately saved by a skin-job. By contrast the climax of 2049 was just a lot of violent punching and water. Why exactly couldn’t they torture Deckard on Earth? Where did K get his flying cars from?
And boy did Villeneuve misunderstand the nature of bureaucracy! K’s boss is never busy or overloaded, and just gives him simple directives from behind a big desk in an elegant office. And what about the vindictive police state, how did that erode to the point where some replicant lady can just stroll in and kill LAPD employees whenever she wants?
Speaking of characters doing whatever they want, I am happy to report that K does not commit any acts of
Speaking of the nature of bureaucracy, it drives me crazy when Neon Genesis Evangelion fanboys (I am, of course, among their number), crow about Shin Godzilla being like “a live action manifestation of Evangelion,” when in fact the Hideaki Anno-directed monster movie most clearly resembles the bureaucracy-porn masterpiece Patlabor 2: The Movie. The similarities are manifold. First, we have an extraordinary crisis that stresses the existing systems of emergency response. Second, we are introduced to a bureaucrat whose responsibi
I took another trip to California, this time with the waifu (my girlfriend). Though the fierce and abundant nature of the place struck me the last time, this time I came to feel that all Californians must necessarily be in touch with it. The climates and landscapes of the Golden State are so clearly the work of large-scale geological forces that one simply cannot ignore the fact that there is a planet called Earth… and that it may soon kill us all. Here in flat, vaguely coastal Rhode Island (the Atlantic coast, north of Delaware and south of Maine at least, is vaguely fraudulent, industrialized, cold and homely – no more interesting than the shores of the Great Lakes), the only evidence of a wrathful weather god is the occasional big snow (“Bombogenesis” this year, a sort of windsome blizzard) or leftover hurric’ne wind ’n’ rain bl’win’ up fr’m dow’ the c’st.
In California however, sustained droughts hang in semi-permanence over daily life. Just during my visit, the draught was broken by a day’s steady rain – which subsequently caused mudslides that killed over a dozen people, and closed a major highway. This tragedy ensued because the landscape near Santa Barbara had recently been weakened by OUT OF CONTROL WILDFIRES. In the days before we arrived, an earthquake gently shook Berkeley, and in the following weeks other minor quakes followed.
Climate change and geological activity are not just abstract out there, like they would be at some factory in Ohio. Californians are distinctly living on the edge of disaster, on contoured lands not quite designed for sustained civilization. I believe this forms a large part of the state culture – greater appreciation of the magnificent beauty of nature, and its fearsome power, forever.
When I got back, my friend and bandmate hit me off with Netflix access, so now I’M ALL CAUGHT UP ON BLACK MIRROR. This the part where I’m supposed to feel something, correct? I am now a minimally informed member of the cultural zeitgeist! Retweet me!
It feels sometimes like the Netflixes and Hulus are the only forces preventing the entire generation from bursting apart due to the explosive forces of narcissism and large outbreaks of public phonestare. Oh and also the culture wars. Is social media still fun? People say facebook is no good, but people still use it. Instagram seems to be pretty low impact in terms of shame and suffering… but what do I know.
Anyway, Black Mirror is good. It feels a little too famous for its own good now – no longer a British curiosity, like Altoids, but rather a transatlantic zeitgeister high-expectations juggernaut, like David Beckham. My favorite episode from seasons 3 and 4 is “Men against Fire,” in which a platoon of soldiers (privately contracted? It seems that way) are *Spoiler* [fooled into committing eugenic genocide by performance enhancing implants]. A cynical part of me says that with the right messaging, training, and prestige, the implants wouldn’t be necessary at all. Anyhow, I thought that one was great – using brutal violence in smart ways, sketching a main character who we understand more intimately and sympathetically than the people around him (the Bigger Thomas effect is real), and deploying a really painful twist (of the knife, in flesh). Runner up goes to USS Callister, for the way the narrative is set up in elegant layers, and the way the plot action has to work in multiple layers as well, pushing up against well-defined constraints in each. Inception-esque, now that I think about it, but sleeker, with less hullabaloo.
In conclusion: Trump.
Some would argue that President Trump is somehow a worse president than George W. Bush. He’s openly xenophobic they say He’s costing us our standing in the world. I beg to differ. I believe there may be some “What you see is all there is” happening here (go read Thinking Fast and Slow, it’s wonderful). Are there standard metrics for this kind of comparison? I’m ignoring them. To phrase things in Rumsfeldian terms, there are inept-actions and inept-inactions. Where Bush was the master of the inept-action, the defining characteristic of Trump’s chaotic reign has been the inability to establish a functioning, effective executive branch. Trump’s first year in office has been marked by sustained and repeated inept-inaction. Yes, he has managed to hurt people by means of executive order. The travel bans, the transgender military ban (if you ask me, no one should be allowed to serve in the military) and a bunch of other stuff aimed at kicking the non-white and unfortunate, the vulnerable and the different. However, in many cases cooler heads have prevailed and ameliorated. The court system has stymied many of Trump’s most pernicious initiatives, while the “adults” in the cabinet (Mattis and Tillerson) have sought to soften a few of the other imperial decrees. Perhaps the most painfully, Trump has let ICE off the chain, but Obama was no angel on deportation either.
I don’t believe American society is significantly more nightmarish under Trump than it was under Obama. Few of the current goings-on troubling the liberal conscience are brand new – the difference with Trump is that he has come out in brazen support of them. This as opposed to Obama’s approach – pointing out wrongs, then being unable to do anything really meaningful about them. Examples: Guantanamo Bay, Carbon Emissions, Oil Pipelines, Killings of unarmed Black People by Police, White Supremacists, Underperforming Schools, Campus Sexual Assault, Financial Shenanigans, etc.
Bush used a portfolio of carefully prepared lies to start a war that killed over one million Iraqis. The other war he started is still going strong 17 years later, with a resilient, defiant Taliban pulling their most depraved stunts yet. A report recently came to light, establishing that US actors (military advisors, I believe) in the region turned a blind eye to Bacha Bazi (PBS made a great, horrific documentary on the practice) in order to keep things going smooth with our allies. While many of Bush’s actions may have been inept-actions in his case, they often represented the execution of ept-actions orchestrated by Dick Cheney, the actual president of the United States from 2000-2004.
Under Cheney’s rule the government started two wars and legalized torture while the whole country looked on. They also let pollution-happy fossil fuel companies write the national energy policy, built JSOC into a commando team that could murder any human being on the planet without consequence, established the killer drone program that Obama later fell madly in love with, and so on. If you value human life and want to understand how Prez Cheney, then Prez Bush, then Prez Obama completely denigrated that value, read Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars. It’ll give you nightmares.
America is building a wall and dropping the torch. China is taking over the mantle. Nuclear war with North Korea is inevitable. The sky falling! The sky is falling! Sorry, but most of this stuff strikes me as noise. Trump likes to bellow and tweet and responsible people feel responsible when they respond to the dangers that are latent in his words. LOTS OF SMOKE, but as of yet, how much new fire? Inept-inactions.
Bush said nice things about Muslims, then assiduously created the conditions for sectarian civil war and ISIS. Inept-actions.
Cheney didn’t bellow, or say nice things. He did his work quietly and thanks to his efforts on faraway continents whole families died in their bedrooms.