The Story of High School

Imperial Stormtrooper with two high school girls

Photo by Danny Choo / CC BY-SA 2.0

I just started watching an anime series titled Beyond the Boundary. Yes, another one. This particular series is about a high school boy teaming up with his classmate to hunt down monsters. The animation is good, though the story’s a bit clichéd on the relationship front. In the end, I like it well enough as something to decompress with after a long day.

What strikes me, though, is the realization that there are a hell of a lot of anime series set in high school. Thinking about it some more, though, I have to admit that there are actually a lot of stories – anime and otherwise – set in high school.

The Japanese high school story is distinct from the American high school story, but both versions largely elide what takes up the majority of an actual high school student’s life: academics. We are shown scenes from before class, after class, whispered conversations during class, and interruptions during homework and study after school, but simply going from what is depicted we could not appreciate that these scenes are tiny particles of a student’s personal life snatched from the all-devouring temporal maw of the modern educational system. The state desires citizens and it will keep children in a totalizing and regulated environment until something more compliant comes out. Or until something not quite fitting into the system jumps out, but that’s mostly okay too, since modern society also needs poor people to exploit.

But we move away from the central topic. Like Don Quixote’s romantic tales of chivalry, which never mention knights-errant packing clean shirts or budgeting their travelling expenses, the high school story takes it for granted that the audience understands that the dull banalities of everyday life are being handled by the characters offscreen while the interesting stuff happens front and centre.

Inherently, then, the high school story is a fantasy story, for what is modern life but a collection of dull banalities, and what is fiction but an escape from those banalities? Here is what matters, says the high school story. Here, romance blossoms and ends, friends come and tearfully go, rivals clash and compete, adventure strikes, life is lived. Here is something better than reality – here is truth.

But this truth can only be found in fiction. Who has time to investigate a mystery or sabotage a date or spy on a committee meeting or do any one of the thousand clichés found in fiction? Who has time when ever more minutes of ever more days are increasingly scheduled and regulated and penciled in? And when one has free time, one must be preparing for the period when one does not. Get enough sleep, study, wash your school and work clothes, prepare your lunch for the next day, shop for groceries to make lunch with, and so on everyday over and over.

This explains the prevalence of the high school story. High school is essentially the last period in a middle class person’s life where they’re old enough to have grown-up wishes but young enough to have free time. Not as much as in previous generations, but certainly more then they would as young adults. And unlike undergrads, should things get too bad for a high school student then they still have the psychological safety blanket of running to mom and dad for help.

We fantasize about what we do not have, and what we fantasize about is doing anything else besides what we’re supposed to. Our secret yearnings are for some rose-coloured and nonexistent past when there were enough rules to protect us but not enough to constrict us.

Most of us don’t want to do what we’re currently doing. Why else does procrastination take place, and why else should so many Youtube videos be watched in the middle of the work day? People who lived outside of the strictures and constraints of the state did not all live happy and fulfilling lives, but they certainly spent a lot less time doing things they loathed. “If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen” is a guiding principle for them, not an insult. If I’m hungry I eat, if I’m sleepy I go to bed, and if I’m unhappy doing something I find something else to do.

From the problem, we come to the solution. But what solution? What could a better world look like? I think it would involve less regulation, less constriction, less hierarchy. In other worlds, less of the state and more anarchism. But whatever this better world looks like, I think we can all agree that it won’t look like the one we have right now.

A closing thought to ponder on – if alien archaeologists were to find the remains of extinct humanity millions of years hence, they might erect this epitaph: “Here lies the human race. They spent most of their time grinning and bearing it.”

The Wasteland

Right now I’m listlessly looking through apartment listings online. I’d forgotten the mix of anxiety and self-delusion one feels when looking for a new place. Still, every now and then I come across gems like this review for an apartment building:

Great place to live if you want to be close to your crack dealer.

I guess that’s why the rent was so cheap.

Hits and Misses

In the name of efficiency, I thought I might just do a roundup of anime that I’ve recently watched and my reactions thereof towards them. I know, I seem to be talking about anime a lot lately. I’ll have to write more about communism or something, otherwise this will turn into just another anime blog, though perhaps that ship has already sailed.

Stuff I liked:

  • Guin Saga is basically Conan the Barbarian without the misogyny or the gratuitous sex, which isn’t exactly a criticism. The setting is essentially a fantasy version of the Silk Road. A leopard-headed warrior with amnesia becomes the protector of two royal children on the run from their kingdom’s conquerors. This series shows that the author has extensively studied the dynastic politics of medieval Europe and all the backstabbing feels like the Byzantine Empire with magic thrown in. It’s based on a series of novels, and the author clearly knows quite a bit about European-style dynastic politics (you know, marriage alliances and whatnot).
    • Furthermore, politics in anime tends to be weirdly bloodless, by which I mean the causes and motives seem too insubstantial to deserve all the violence the characters are enacting. Not so for this series, the backstabbing and struggle for power feels more real. I think the opening gives you a good idea of what the series feels like. I like how you can’t tell who the bad guys are, although there aren’t really evil people in the series per se — it’s all just politics and who’s on what side. Don’t ask me why the titles are backwards in the video, though.
  • Now, as for The Twelve Kingdoms, it’s basically The Chronicles of Narnia mixed with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: a Japanese schoolgirl ends up in some weird kung fu fantasy version of China. It’s based on a series of novels as well, I think half of which have been translated into English. The fan trailer below does a fairly good job of showing the epic scope of the series, though the music is from Avatar: The Last Airbender. Granted, the main character is kind of whiny and homesick for the first three episodes, which is probably realistic for a proper Japanese schoolgirl from the late 80s who’s been dropped into fairyland, but it can get annoying. What’s amusing is that one of her companions is a genre-savvy fantasy fan who insists that she’s the Chosen One when all signs clearly point to the protagonist. Never fear, it doesn’t get metafictional and no 4th wall breaking occurs, it’s there so that fantasy girl’s unwarranted eagerness can serve as a foil to the heroine’s reluctance.
  • Shiki is basically Salem’s Lot set in a Japanese village, with a clear homage to Stephen King in one scene (the bedroom window scene if you were wondering). The series again is based on a novel and it’s also about vampires overrunning a small town. Unlike Salem’s Lot the series also shows things from the vampires’ perspective. King never showed his vampires hiding in terror from bloodthirsty lynch mobs or begging for their lives from their former neighbours as they’re dragged into the sunlight. There’s one particular scene where a vampiric little girl is being chased by a burly bearded vampire hunter shouting for her death which is just uncomfortable to watch. Although let me just say that the character designs are rather, err, unique in aesthetic. But the story is aces. And the book series was written by the same author of The Twelve Kingdoms.
  • Black Lagoon is a series about a smuggling crew trying to keep their company afloat in the South China Sea. Which makes it sound like Firefly on a boat but there are a lot more violent sociopaths in this show. It’s violent and exciting and cool, but it makes no excuses for the sort of people who’d actually live in the world of its setting.

Stuff that fell flat for me:

  1. Legend of the Legendary Heroes. Jesus, why did I even try? Google it for yourself if you must, but don’t make me think about it again.
  2. Bakumatsu Kikansetsu Irohanihoheto. It’s a show for history nerds, but the type of history nerds who obsess about names and dates. Watching it was like this: “On this day this historical figure did this thing in this place, but little did he know that so and so was actually in the same city just two days earlier doing the exact opposite thing. As for this other historical figure, he–” and at that point I stopped watching. I didn’t like having to do homework to watch a TV show. The music’s pretty good, though.
  3. Noein. The first episode is a collection of insipid clichés about an affectless male protagonist who listlessly enacts grotesque violence while cocooned inside a giant war machine and is inexplicably romantically intertwined with a girl too afraid to admit to her feelings for him. If you look at the edges closely, you’ll see the parts where the cookie cutter’s edge is starting to dull.

War of the Worlds’ Races

An observation: War of the Worlds is the prototypical alien invasion story.  It was meant to be an impassioned screed again colonialism and a metaphorical examination of the consequences of white imperialism.

Later tales from the genre took up the original story’s premise – aliens invading the Earth – while ignoring its message that oppressing the Other is bad. In fact, later alien invasion stories proclaimed the exact opposite message: oppressing the Other is good, because they’re out to destroy us with their Otherness.

The alien invasion genre became an expression of fear of immigration and racial others. More, it became a cri de coeur of imperialist terror at losing hegemonic dominance, fear of no longer being top dog. You never see alien invasion movies where the aliens invade Mombasa, it’s always London and New York and Washington.

So now the alien invasion genre has ended up in the opposite location it started from: alien invasion was a metaphor for white people conquering non-white countries, while nowadays it’s become a metaphor for non-white people immigrating to majority-white countries. What a funny old world we live in.