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.

Gen X and the 21st Century

Thanks to a possible gas leak last weekend I watched more movies than I’d planned on. (My house is fine bee tee dubs).

So, Valerian. It reminded me of reading a French sci-fi comic book in that it looked good but the story was thinner than the toilet paper in a public bathroom. I actually fell asleep during the souk shootout, mostly because I didn’t really care if the characters made it. I don’t need to enumerate the rest of the movie’s shortcomings since they’ve been covered well by others already, but it’s no Transformers. I think this will be decent enough to watch when it ends up on Netflix.

Now, Atomic Blonde, that’s a very stylish movie. It’s like 70% style, 30% substance, and 110% Charlize Theron. Actually, maybe I should run my numbers again since it actually did make more sense than, say, Sucker Punch. But despite the Cold War setting it’s not an 80s spy thriller so much as a Gen X nostalgia fantasy movie (i.e., it’s nostalgic for the 80s but for a fantasy version of it where it’s all sexy people with meaningful jobs doing things that matter in between making out with each other).

I hadn’t realized before how tall Charlize Theron was but the movie made sure we noticed this in almost every scene she was in. I appreciated this reminder of her physical presence since this made it more believable that she could engage in hand to hand combat with large angry men. I also appreciated that the movie was conspicuous in showing her looking for weapons every time she would throw down, even if it’s as simple as a bunch of keys clutched in her fist, since weapons do a lot to make fights more equal.

One thing that did take me out of the movie was the selfie in the beginning. People didn’t take selfies with film cameras unless there was a mirror involved, dammit. Otherwise you wouldn’t know if you were in the frame until you got the pictures back a week after you dropped the film off, which might be months after you originally took the picture if you didn’t use your camera a lot and took forever to use up a roll of film. Also, I don’t want to imagine how much work it would take to edit a tape recording in a hotel room, considering it’s already a bitch with digital files under ideal conditions.

But whatever, it’s a minor point. My take away? I liked Atomic Blonde.

Old Man Logan

I saw Logan and was moved. A superhero movie made me feel something besides glee when the bad guys got their asses kicked! This is unprecedented. That final X almost brought me to tears. I saw the movie twice in the theatre, which is something I very rarely do.

You know, in the comics whenever the X-Men travelled to the dystopian fascist future it always looked ridiculous and cartoonish, whereas in this movie it’s almost painfully plausible. The Guardian‘s review called Logan “a feral howl of rage”, which pretty much is the prevailing mood in a lot of the US today.

Yet this movie was made while Obama was still president, and let’s not pretend Hillary would have done more than half-assed work in reining in the neo-feudal society the obscenely wealthy keep trying to bring about. It’s like Aliens vs. Predator said: Whoever wins, we lose.

The rage of the movie is not merely the rage of the decent despairing at the rise of the despicable, but also the rage of the dispossessed wailing at the cruelty of the world.

Logan is many things, but one of those is a cri de coeur. I recall what Marx said of religion:  “[It] is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people”. For good and ill, one can also say that of art.

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.

Samurai Jack and Jill

Recently I saw A Boy and His Samurai, a Japanese movie about a samurai who inadvertently time travels to the present day. Don’t ask how, you didn’t really care how the thingy worked in Big or Freaky Friday, did you? In fact, structurally it’s a lot like Big, with the magic at the start, the funny stuff early on followed by the serious adult stuff, then the magic again to wrap things up.

So it’s a comedy-drama – the samurai gets taken in by a single mother and swears fealty to her as her feudal retainer, then as time goes on he becomes an up and coming pastry chef. There are the expected fish out of water jokes, but the movie’s also a thoughtful examination of class and gender in the 21st century, particularly how modern society is still structured around the nuclear family while steadily breaking down the systems that produce nuclear families. The film’s not a didactic women’s studies manifesto, but it does illustrate exactly how tough it is to be a single parent and how gender and class expectations tie into that difficulty, all wrapped up with a sweet story about a boy finding a surrogate father.

After the war

I saw that Force Awakens movie a while ago.  I don’t know if anyone has made this observation yet, but I thought Kylo Ren was basically the personification of the whole movie: he’s a reiteration of an original product that’s neurotically obsessed with whether he’s as good as the example he’s copied from.

He’s good enough, which is kind of my feeling on the movie as a whole. I thought it was decently entertaining, though it’s kind of interesting to see the Marvel blockbuster formula being used for something other than superheroes.

Red Mars

It seems that Takashi Miike is directing a live action film adaptation of the manga-cum-anime series Terraformars. This might be surprising for people familiar only with his art house work such as Audition or 13 Assassins, which feature extreme violence and sexual deviance, but the man has actually made quite a lot of commercial schlock: some kids’ movies, a few comedies, a video game adaptation. This news is of a piece with his earlier work. Plus Terraformars itself is pretty damn violent all on its own. I’d say this property is right in his wheelhouse.

But hey, Miike is apparently also making a Blade of the Immortal movie with a 2017 release date! I’m definitely looking forward to that one.

War in the Pacific

So it appears that they’re really serious about promoting the new Star Wars films on a global level. There’s a licensed Korean webcomic adapting the original trilogy and putting in extra stuff. It starts from when Luke was just a towheaded moppet on Tattoine learning to shoot a laser rifle from Uncle Owen.

Young Luke Skywalker lying on his back on a Tattoine night and fantasizing about the distant stars

This adaptation is pretty smart, because I hadn’t thought about it but there have been like two generations of moviegoers born since the theatrical release of Return of the Jedi. I do like how the artist doesn’t try to slavishly reproduce the actors in 2D. The linework reminds me of art from some French sci-fi bandes dessinees. But who the hell’s Windy, is he from the Expanded Universe?

Anyway, if you want to check the webcomic out (for free by the way) go to LINE Webtoon and sign in with Twitter. You’ll get to read the official English translation. I’m not sure myself if I’ll stick with this comic, though if you want to check out other webcomics in this library I would say Hive is a safe choice – basically Walking Dead with giant bugs, and prone to the comic and TV show’s trick of always pulling the rug out from under the protagonists to keep the status quo.

Or for actual good stuff, Chiller‘s a horror anthology that goes multimedia with sound effects and mild animation – for maximum effect I recommend reading it alone in a room with the lights off – and Witch Hunt, which is about demons hunting witches in modern South Korea.

Judgement Day

I saw Terminator Genisys. It was the best of the Terminator movies not directed by James Cameron.

I realize that’s not saying much since Terminator in the 21st century struggles to be decent, but at the very least it’s leagues beyond Terminator 3 (the one with the Terminatrix) in terms of quality. In fact, here are my rankings of Terminator movies:

  1. Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
  2. The Terminator (1984)
  3. Terminator Genisys (2015)
  4. Terminator Salvation (2009)
  5. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)

Genisys is the kind of C-level movie one can waste time on during a Saturday afternoon looking for something to watch on TV. The movie has two main issues: its action and its nostalgia. The action movies of the 80’s aren’t a genre that Hollywood makes anymore (apparently they’re mostly made in Eastern Europe now). This unfamiliarity with raw and wordless violence is evident in the movie, as I’m not that engaged in the action. It’s not enough to show two robots punching each other, as the Transformers movies showed us; we need to care why those two robots are punching each other in the first place. Certainly the movie makes us care more about the fate of the principals than Terminator 3, but that’s not a high bar to hurdle.

Of course, a hallmark of the 21st century revival of old franchises is the strangling miasma of nostalgia that surrounds such works. Scenes copied from the first two Terminator movies (i.e., the good ones) are peppered liberally through the present iteration. The nostalgia and the movie itself works best in the scenes set during the 80’s. Things get more meh when the action moves to 2017.

On the actors themselves, let me observe that the Terminators of our century have had an ongoing problem with casting bland white guys as the lead – chronologically listed, they are Nick Stahl, Sam Worthington, and now Jai Courtney. Regarding Sarah Connor, Emilia Clarke (a.k.a. Daenerys Stormborn, the Mother of Dragons) mostly does an impression of T2-era Linda Hamilton. It’s an okay impression but not an impressive acting job on the whole.

This isn’t the worst nostalgia-driven movie I’ve seen – that distinction would go to the 2012 Total Recall – and I can honestly say it was an okay bit of fluff. However, and speaking as a fan of the franchise, I wish that they’d stop rehashing the same story and make something new again. They kind of tried with Salvation, which was entirely set in the apocalyptic future, but that movie never examined the world it was set in and was just about some guy stumbling through the wasteland. I’m not asking for high art here, Terminators. Be like Predators and give us something different.