On anime and nuclear annihilation

A nuclear bomb exploding in downtown Tokyo, as imagined in Akira

It is strange days when we see Japanese schoolchildren running for their lives in simulation of a nuclear attack from North Korea. The picture in the linked article reminds me of nothing more than Cold War evacuation drills in the US.

Selfishly, as an anime fan I wonder how all this uncertainty is going to affect the anime industry. I never thought the threat of nuclear conflict would figure into my estimation of when we could expect season 3 of Attack on Titan, but here we are.

It’s jarring to think of these things when thinking of anime, which, let’s face it, is mostly just escapist fantasy, like most mass entertainments are. I’m reminded that Jane Austen joked about being tempted to include a treatise on Napoleon in Pride and Prejudice just to counteract how light and frothy her novel was. I’m also reminded of what Slavoj Zizek said about the use of the Christian calendar, which uses the birth of Christ to mark the flow of events: he called it the irruption of the infinite into the historical. Perhaps we might call the imposition of nuclear geopolitics into the logic of anime production as the irruption of the political into the inconsequential.

Of course, this statement is both facetious and incorrect, for anime is already political. It is produced in a web of politics -government grants to aid in translating content for export, industry-wide discrimination to discourage women, a regime of austerity that encourages overwork of animators, and a capitalist ideology that demands crass commercialism – and also expresses statements of political positions – women are always emotional, Chinese and foreign characters can never beat Japanese protagonists, and Koreans don’t exist.

The surprise we feel when placing anime in the same headspace as nuclear diplomacy is a surprise that has been manufactured. Being apolitical is a political stance, and depoliticization is a political action. To divide the world and say these things are of politics and these things are not is an act of power (Michel Foucault called it power/knowledge, which is the power of defining what knowledge is).

The personal may be political, but it’s inconvenient for the powerful to let common citizen remember this fact. Politics is not merely debating tax rates and talking at town halls, which is to say it’s not only for politicians and activists, but keeping it an activity of a small elite certainly makes it easier for those elites to set the agenda. Political apathy serves those who already have power.

And so we come to anime and its role in the politics of apathy. Crudely speaking, anime is just another cog in the machinery of distraction that keeps the masses quiescent in that old Roman strategy of panem et circenses (i.e., bread and circuses). Focus on your pop culture, say the masters of the world, and leave the important things to us. This was, of course, the old politics, before the divisions in democracy were laid so starkly bare, but it was a deal that many thought worthwhile, and many still do.

But even behind this wall of willful ignorance, sometimes the world of politics would intrude, as in the current case of North Korea and its nuclear arsenal threatening the home of anime. We find that we cannot leave politics because we are already doing politics. We are reminded that we live in a political world. The personal is political, but now we see that the reverse is also true, that the political is also personal. In a liberal democracy, to not resist is to consent. Therefore if we wish not to die and to continue watching anime, we must act.

Action begins in knowledge, so I ask first that you learn what is happening around you. What circumstances led to the nuclear standoff threatening our beloved hobby? What power moved us to this impasse?

After answering these questions for yourself, then ask yourself this one: am I okay with things continuing the way they are?

If your answer is anything besides “yes”, then continue asking questions, including the big one – what should I do? The answer is simple: do anything that you can. Speech is action, so even something as minimal as talking online is still a step in the right direction.

My fellow otaku, ignorance is only a temporary condition. I challenge you to look up from your TV and computer screens. Remember that you are not only a consumer. You are also a citizen.

Giant Robots and Why We Love Them

Originally posted by me on PodCastle in the Sky

A quick glance at the lineup of a typical anime season will reveal a large number of shows featuring giant robots. In the recent winter season alone we can count among giant robot anime the series Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron Blooded OrphansSchwarzesmarken, Macross Delta, and probably a bunch more I’ve overlooked. Point is, giant robot anime are like cockroaches and herpes – they keep coming back.

But what’s so great about giant robots? Yeah, I know, to ask the question is to answer it. Giant robots kick ass. I mean, have you seen Robot Jox?

Or Pacific Rim too, I guess.

Fine, but why giant robots? Why not, say, giant tanks, like in Heavy Object?

I think it ultimately comes down to power fantasies. A giant robot perfectly embodies the juvenile dream of invincible domination that a tank cannot. Realistically speaking, a tank is a better weapon. It’s smaller, so it’s harder to hit; it’s cheaper, since manufacturing tank treads is easier than a bipedal walking machine; and it’s safer, since it’s easier to knock over something on two legs than a machine that rides low to the ground. Tanks are pound for pound the deadlier weapon, yet they don’t feel that way.

Consider that riding in a tank is akin to being jammed into a broom closet. Who feels invincible when the walls are pressing in everywhere?

Michael Peña driving a tank in Fury

Even were they roomier, though, tanks are fundamentally more like a heavily-armoured house on wheels. It’s a place to hunker down and hide in. One feels safe by virtue of being enclosed.

Melinda of Heavy Object holed up in the perfect otaku bunker

Look at the image from Heavy Object above of a tank driver in her native environment. It looks like a shut-in’s dream room – no windows or doors and ample monitors to watch TV and surf the Internet. The outside world might as well be just another program on the computer screen. It’s a perfect metal womb to hide in.

Feeling safe, though,  is not the same as feeling powerful. By contrast, a mecha is more truly worn than ridden. It’s human shaped and therefore more of an extension of one’s self – like the perfect battle armour or a second skin, or a new metal body that replaces vulnerable flesh.

It’s also important to remember that the heroes in giant robot anime are all teenagers, even the ones who aren’t. The modern iteration of the giant robot subgenre tends toward the melodramatic and the angst-ridden (as opposed to the gleefully consumerist giant robot shows of the 70’s and 80’s). There’s usually a sense of persecution and oppression being unjustly visited on the protagonists, whether it’s the outcast mercenary troop of Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans or the underdog defenders in Argevollen.

But who are the villains who bedevil our heroes so? The enemies are often generic imperialists who fight for poorly-articulated and nonsensical political objectives. They aren’t fighting for anything specific because ultimately their goals aren’t important to the narrative. They’re just there to be roadblocks, to harass and  obstruct the hero and provide them something to punch.

The enemies of giant robot anime are so generic as to be universal. Look at the nickname bestowed upon the protagonist of Valvrave: The Boy Who Fought the World. This says it all. The enemy of the giant robot anime is no one specific, but rather everyone. Parents, teachers, bullies, rivals, friends, classmates, adults – which is to say, the generic “they” that persecutes the suffering hero of the show – are all the bad guys. They’re who he’s fighting against.

The giant robot pilot is like the Incredible Hulk – he wields incredible power but is misunderstood by the world. In the end, Hulk, like a surly and emo teenager, just wants to be left alone.

The Incredible Hulk pursued relentlessly by the US Army as he punches a tank shell and screams about being left alone

And here we come to the ultimate answer. The giant robot anime is the perfect teenage fantasy, for it’s a metaphor for the teenage condition: an innocent hero is possessed of unwanted new abilities which cause him to be unfairly beset on all sides by powers desperate to control or crush him.

This is the secret of why giant robot anime is so eternally alluring. Even adults who have their shit together will still occasionally feel like the world is picking on them for no good reason, and wouldn’t it be great if you had a magic wand that could make everything disappear? That could stop the world from pissing on you for just one damn second?

Why do we love giant robots? Because we all wish we had one of our own.

Yotsuba and the Slice of Life

More from that interview translation blog: Interview With Yotsuba Artist Kiyohiko Azuma.

I’d like to point out that the guy also did Azumanga Daioh, the slice-of-life series I like to describe as Seinfeld if it was about Japanese high school girls. I couldn’t get into the manga, probably because I had trouble telling the girls apart, but I didn’t have that problem with the anime.

What’s interesting about the slice-of-life genre is that it’s always a slice of fictional life, which is to say that it’s always about the heartwarming and positive aspects of ordinary life. The lives being sliced are those without sorrow or tragedy or money problems or heartbreak. It’s inherently escapist, which, of course, is one of the biggest reasons behind the genre’s appeal.

I’m reminded of something I read a long time ago comparing tha manga Azumanga Daioh and High School Girls. I don’t even remember which blog I read this on, but the blogger observed that one of the biggest things they found unrealistic about Azumanga Daioh was that the high school girls never talked about boys. In contrast, the girls of High School Girls constantly talked about boys, about their periods, their make-up, their teachers, their rival social cliques – which is to say that they talked about the kinds of things actual high school girls talk about. This is unsurprising considering that the author based the series on her own experiences in an all-girls high school.

I quite liked High School Girls and nearly drove myself crazy trying to find copies of the manga. As you might expect, a series where girls talk frankly about menstruation kind of had niche appeal ten years ago. The series was made into an anime and renamed in English as Girl’s High.  Things in the story were necessarily squished for the adaptation, which is why I consider the original manga to be superior, but at least the anime ending was charming and fun.

Yeah, I realize that the dancing is just rotoscoped actors, but I do like how the way each character dances directly links to their personality – the uptight girl does the frug (I think that’s what it’s called), the extrovert goes crazy with a guitar riff, and so on. And even better, all of the girls are endearingly awkward. It really does look like a bunch of teenage girls messing around instead of accomplished dance students displaying their skills. Plus the ending shows just how much effort the girls put into appearing cute – the make-up, the studied playfulness, the deliberate construction of their social fronts. It’s not Erving Goffman but it’s still something.

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.”

On the Perfectibility of Games

A discussion has sprung up on Gameological regarding the abuse of glitches in video games. One asks, though, how these glitches are discovered in the first place, and what impulse drives their discovery. Whence arises the desire to find glitches in video games?

I would say that glitches are uncovered not from a desire to expose a game’s flaws, but instead from a belief in its perfection. Players take the game at its word that it is complete and self-contained. How, then, could a player not wish to explore this alternate universe? How could they not wonder what is on the other side of a pixelated hill?

Players look for hidden areas and secret powerups because they want to experience everything in a game. A lot of that exploration exposes flaws that were never meant to be seen, flaws that are exploited for ends the developers never intended. Having laid bare the secret workings of this world, players start hungering for even more secrets.

At this point the meta game of breaking the programming appears. But it all started from an abiding worship of the eidos of the game.

The language of Narcissus

Two warriors cleaving a goblin in two in Dragon's Dogma

So I wasn’t kidding when I mentioned I’m into Dragon’s Dogma. I’m at that particular stage of video game obsession where when I’m not playing it, I’m thinking of playing it.

A related obsession has sprung up for me, though, and that’s the obsession of posting screenshots. You can take and upload screenshots directly from the game. This is not such a big thing for computer players, but trust me when I say this feature is fairly novel for this generation of video game consoles.

See for yourself how much I’m uploading to the official video game website (the answer is several pics everyday). It’s fun to document your fictional adventures and put them up for strangers to view. It’s fun even when no one sees your pics, but it’s even better when random people on the Internet actually compliment you on them.

I did notice, however, that the majority of the screenshots posted are from Japanese players. Not only that, but the uploaders often write a short blurb to which other players respond. I can’t read Japanese but it’s obvious that there’s a community of Japanese players carrying on conversations and connecting with each other through their enjoyment of the game.

However, there is no similar community of English speaking players on the game website. There are anglophone players, but compared to the number and visibility of the Japanese players they’re a drop in the bucket.

It’s not as if the narcissism of the screenshot is unknown outside of Japan. Do I even need to mention that the word “selfie” exists?

I would theorize that the dominance of Japanese players is due to a couple of reasons. The first is that the Japanese Internet is more centralized than that of other linguistic communities. A gigantic amount of Internet traffic in Japan goes through one website, 2ch. It’s my understanding that it’s basically an old school BBS with a few modifications and apparently still has that terrible web design from the 1990s that oldsters might remember. Even if they’re not on it, a Japanese Internet user will at least have heard of the site.

No equivalent website exists for the English Internet. Players would be on several different message boards, blogs, and gaming sites, so one single service would not dominate.

Of course, the Dragon’s Dogma site is integrated directly into the game, so players should at least be discovering it that way. Thus, the second reason I would say that so few English speakers can be found on the game site is due to is popularity – namely, its popularity with Japanese players. An English-speaking player might share a few screenshots and go to the game site hoping for some discussion, then discover that most of the existing conversation is in another language. They might make a few attempts at connecting with other English-speaking players, and a few die hards might stick around, but the majority will retreat to their own gaming forums or even just give up on connecting at all.

There might be all this rhetoric about the Internet allowing one to connect with a yak herder in Nepal, but in truth the Internet is a very segregated place. Users talk mostly to people in their own country. This does make sense, after all – how many Korean TV shows are shown in the USA, for example? Who else would Korean fans talk about their favourite TV show with but with other Koreans? Of course, there are languages with international reach and emigrant diasporas, so there’s still a bit of internationalism online. But not as much as all the ads back in the 90’s would make you think.

The Sadness of Sweetness

If the history of workers’ rights was an object then it would be a seesaw tipping between capital and labour. Sometimes capital has the upper hand, sometimes labour does. Well, labour is never dominant but sometimes it doesn’t entirely suck to be a worker.

The seesaw of workers’ rights occurred to me as I was watching The Devil is a Part-Timer, which is an anime about Satan being kicked out of his kingdom and exiled to modern Japan, where to survive he has to work part-time at McDonald’s.

Demon Lord of McDonald's

The series is hilarious. Watching the Adversary coming home exhausted to his shithole apartment panicking about how he’s going to pay for his new refrigerator is comedy gold. A lot of the stories are in that vein: The Devil gets promoted to shift manager. The Devil goes on a date with a co-worker. The Devil gets scammed by a door to door salesman.

The series is funny, but I couldn’t help feeling put off by the implicit normalization of living on the economic precipice. Lots of people live pay cheque to pay cheque and it’s probably not funny from their point of view. There are moments recognizing that precariousness in the series, such as the utter loneliness one of the otherworldly refugees suffers from or the way something as simple as free noodles is an incredible gift to the working poor characters.

I’m reminded of Welcome to the NHK, which is about what one possible reaction to the modern world: complete and almost total withdrawal. On the one hand, what does retreat do in improving one’s lot? On the other hand, what does struggling do in improving one’s lot as well? Because The Devil sure works his butt off in The Devil is a Part-Timer but he still isn’t even a full-time worker yet. And goodness knows those poor Kentuckians trying to make a living just seem to be digging themselves in deeper. The article is a decade old, but The Onion hit the target dead-on: “Report: Poor People Pretty Much Fucked”.

Is this the new normal, then? Is this life what Thatcher meant when she said There Is No Alternative? Because it seems that in this brave new world even our fantasies participate in our own subjugation.

I don’t mean to criticize the anime for not offering a solution. Comedy can be a site of political awareness, but by its very nature it can never be a site of struggle. It’s always too easy to say that it’s all just a joke. But comedy and art in general can still be a mirror to the society it depicts, and for The Devil is a Part-Timer, that society is trying hard to laugh at its own misery.

Really, Dresden?

Maybe this was a male-female translation problem. I read an article once that said that when women have a conversation, they’re communicating on five levels. They follow the conversation that they’re actually having, the conversation that is specifically being avoided, the tone being applied to the overt conversation, the buried conversation that is being covered only in subtext, and finally the other person’s body language.

That is, on many levels, astounding to me. I mean, that’s like having a freaking superpower. When I, and most other people with a Y chromosome, have a conversation, we’re having a conversation. Singular. We’re paying attention to what is being said, considering that, and replying to it. All these other conversations that have apparently been going on for the last several thousand years? I didn’t even know that they existed until I read that stupid article, and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one.

I felt somewhat skeptical about the article’s grounding. There were probably a lot of women who didn’t communicate on multiple wavelengths at once. There were probably men who could handle that many just fine. I just wasn’t one of them.

So, ladies, if you ever have some conversation with your boyfriend or husband or brother or male friend, and you are telling him something perfectly obvious, and he comes away from it utterly clueless? I know it’s tempting to think to yourself, “The man can’t possibly be that stupid!”

But yes. Yes, he can.

Our innate strengths just aren’t the same. We are the mighty hunters, who are good at focusing on one thing at a time. For crying out loud, we have to turn down the radio in the car if we suspect we’re lost and need to figure out how to get where we’re going. That’s how impaired we are. I’m telling you, we have only the one conversation. Maybe some kind of relationship veteran like Michael Carpenter can do two, but that’s pushing the envelope. Five simultaneous conversations? Five?

Shah. That just isn’t going to happen. At least, not for me.

– From Cold Days by Jim Butcher

If you’ve ever wondered what it sounds like when someone’s talking out of their ass, well, here you go. There’s the vague appeal to an unspecified scholarly source (“this one article my cousin’s roommate read”), the Just So story grounded in the “Men are from Mars and Women are Screeching Harpies” school of pop evolutionary psychology, and the whole mealy-mouthed “I’m not a sexist but scientifically speaking women are fuckpuppets for men” defensive tone that permeates the entire passage. It’s been so long since the last Dresden Files book that I’d forgotten how tiresome the sexism could get.

The Hipster Backlash

Lots of people still don’t know this but apparently we’re supposed to hate hipsters now (see the Wikipedia link for its fumbling vagueness in trying to define an amorphous subculture). To see the backlash, witness McSweeney’s Hipster Logic Problems:

  • Train A leaves from a platform that you probably never heard of traveling at 60 mph. Train B leaves one hour later from the same platform going 85 mph. How long will it take train B to catch up with train A, and which is going to an M83 concert?
  • Theodore heard of Youth Lagoon before Max. Max heard of them after Cindy, but Cindy heard of them before Don. Who’s the bigger asshole?

The thing is, McSweeney’s is exactly the kind of website that hipsters frequent. In fact, I will bet actual money that the author of the piece would be labelled a hipster by most people who met him. The missing analytical tool, of course, is class, in that a hipster is invariably a middle class consumer with disposable income and/or university education, the better to buy the vintage t-shirts and recognize the literary allusions found in independent cinema so beloved by hipsters (which is not to say that every single hipster loves these things).

It’s fascinating how the hipster locates identity firmly in consumption. A hipster is not a hipster without also consuming in certain ways (clothes, movies, music, what-have-you). Hipsters are still not as bad off as, say, Japanese otaku, who, as Marxy says, “use consumerism as a therapeutic solution to their psychological and social problems”, which is to say that to be otaku is to consume otaku products, else one would not be otaku and would therefore have mainstream tastes and social skills and not need to fill a hole in one’s life with consumer goods targeted directly at oneself.

However, and unlike the otaku, part of the hipster identity also seems to be located in an obsession with authenticity. Outmoded technology and little-known media are admired as not just pure expressions of creativity; instead, the very act of selecting these products are also seen as expressions of the hipster’s own pure being. “Only the authentic can recognize authenticity” is the unspoken and unacknowledged motto behind hipster consumption. The second part of that motto is of course “Only the authentic can consume authentic products”, which is to say that “Only the authentic can buy authenticity”.

But one might ask, then, what is all this in aid of? What is authenticity for? Which question can only be answered with a syllogism: Authenticity is for being authentic.

To remove the answer from being useless, one might also say that the search for authenticity is the point and not capturing the authentic itself (for, like a rainbow, one cannot stuff it in one’s pockets). Clearly the rampant and relentless message of consumption that surrounds us all in a capitalist society has created strange pockets of, well, not counter-consumption, since there is no such thing, but rather alterna-consumption, or a different way of consuming in a capitalist society which still reaffirms the pre-existing capitalist order.

I do wish I had more time to tease out more analytical insights and further develop these ideas but I ain’t in grad school no more, I can’t be arsed to write more.

Where’s my jetpack?

Seriously, where’s that damn jetpack? Or the hoverboards from Back to the Future? It’s 2011, people. Isn’t the future here yet?

The future is here

Yeah, that’s probably how time travellers from the past would feel. Warren Ellis made the same point in Doktor Sleepless, except I found his presentation slightly annoying in its bleeding edge post-cyberpunk atmosphere. You know what I mean, with the technologically-sophisticated rebels fighting against the authoritarian squares. “We may be virtual, but at least we’re authentic,” say the rebels. “Your Star Trek utopias were naive, but we have created the real future.” That kind of talk honestly gets on my nerves sometimes, especially since I couldn’t give less of a crap about something as ridiculous as authenticity.

But hey, remember the 90’s? That was kind of fun. Weird how disjointed that decade feels. It was kind of all over the place, wasn’t it? I guess the West was still groping for a new grand narrative after the end of the Cold War. Thank goodness the War on Terror made a nice punctuation point to the whole period.