The terror of fantasy

Witch Craft Works kind of has an image problem. Nothing in all the marketing I’ve seen for this anime indicated it was anything besides a typical high school comedy-romance with a twist – he fights ghosts, she’s a superhero, it’s a school for magic, whatever. In this specific anime the twist is that the male protagonist is the damsel in distress. “Don’t worry your pretty little head over it” is basically the central message repeated over and over to our hero. Otherwise the show’s early episodes have the sort of things you’d expect from a high school anime – a student council with ridiculous amounts of administrative authority, a beloved school idol, teenagers running wild, and so on. All of that was to be expected in this setting. What I didn’t expect was to discover that this anime was also about the War on Terror.

The rising sun peeks out behind wrecked skyscrapers
Not a picture of Ground Zero.

Continue reading “The terror of fantasy”

On violence, on anime, and on violent anime

Most giant robot anime, and most anime in general, seem to be anti-war or anti-violence (barring the relentlessly capitalist shows like Mazinger-Z and Voltron which say nothing beyond “explosions are cool” and “buy our toys”). The shows that luxuriate in violence, like Black Lagoon, make clear that the characters are psychologically damaged in some way. The shounen fight series are either about making friends (like One Piece), are comedic (like Ranma 1/2), or have a stick up their ass and continually remind the viewer that the hero is only fighting reluctantly (like Bleach). I suppose the atomic bombings and the enforced postwar pacifism are ever present in the Japanese consciousness.

Though two series that glory in war and violence are the right wing wankathons Total Eclipse and High School of the Dead. One of the characters from the latter show even remarks, as he’s using a baseball bat to bust open a cash register, “You know, this is pretty awesome”. And he’s right, it would be goddamn sweet to be running wild in a zombie apocalypse with a Humvee full of guns and big-tittied girls in high school uniforms. Or being encased in a mechanical womb and using swords, cannons, and other phallic objects to unleash death and figurative semen on hordes of invading aliens.

Of course, there’s no such thing as zombies or alien invaders, which is to say that there are no faceless Others one can morally slaughter; thus, in anime, the depiction of violence simultaneously demands an apology for its use. But it seems that it takes a right-wing dickwad to not give a shit about such distinctions.

World without end

Cover to Volume 3 of Eden: It's an Endless World

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eden: It’s an Endless World is one of the standout manga in my many years of experience with the medium. I’ve wanted to write about this series for years. It’s just taken me this long to digest its ideas, as you can see from the meandering summary I wrote a while back. The story is so big and its scope so grand that I’m daunted at the idea of ever reading the series again, but it’s also so compelling that I know I will revisit this manga someday.

Eden is a science fiction story about a world where the apocalypse didn’t happen, which is to say that it’s a science fiction story about our world.

In this cyberpunk future the Closure virus has ravaged humanity, killing two percent of the global population (which, let us be reminded, means the death of millions). The old order is dead, and the new order – the New World Order of the conspiracy theorists – has descended upon humanity in the form of the leviathan named Propater. Opposing Propater are an eclectic mix of drug lords, terrorists, and gangsters.  Mostly they fight not out of ideological zeal but because they also want their cut.

The near-apocalypse of the setting invites millenarianism in its fictional universe, which the story covers extensively. In fact, the series draws heavily on Gnosticism, though not gratuitously and not gratingly. It’s possible to enjoy the manga without having any idea of the theological significance of aions, for instance.

The creator, Hiroki Endo, is an unrepentant leftist, and his politics suffuses every page. This is the only manga I know of which invites readers to check out Noam Chomsky in the appendix. The story is better for being overtly political. Otherwise it would be the type of reactionary fantasy that makes vague calls to fight for great justice while being so naive and so divorced from the everyday that it invites the opposite action. It’s heavily cyberpunk in that it’s a science fiction story distrustful of the establishment, but it also avoids the provincialism of much of cyberpunk. Be it New York, Los Angeles, or Neo-Tokyo, the classic cyberpunk stories are rooted in particular and specific urban geographies.

By contrast, this manga spans the globe, from brothels in Peru to private schools in Australia, with the story being the most compelling when it deals with the dispossessed. The manga even touches upon what the Zapatistas call the Fourth World, or the indigenous peoples so far out of the orbit of the powerful that they don’t fit into the totalizing categories of First and Third World.

As well, Endo is fascinated by the interface between humanity and its technology, personified in the form of the cyborg. He’s fond of images like the one above, where the hard and mechanical is revealed underneath the feminine and organic.

As you may guess, the subject matter guarantees that this manga is full of violence, but of the more grounded type. This is an example of the seinen genre, which is targeted at men. I guess it might be characterized as a thriller in the vein of a more leftist Spartan or Ronin.

This is not a story for everyone, but at times it felt like it was made for me. Perhaps I misspoke when I said that I’ve taken years to digest the ideas in this story, for I’m still grappling with them. Too many action stories and too many manga retreat into fantasies of empowerment and away from actual political engagement. It’s refreshing to read one that faces the political head on.

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.”

War of the Worlds’ Races

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mlpl-RzsCck

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.

The Hudsucker Negro

I saw The Hudsucker Proxy over the weekend. It’s a pretty fun film and I rather liked how it was an homage to old time movies. What was jarring was the literal Magic Negro, which felt peculiarly of its time (that time being 1994). Portraying a sympathetic black character would have probably gotten the director arrested as a Bolshevik agitator in the era the film is paying an homage to, whereas crypto-racism is at least more subtle in the 21st century. Therefore this character could only have existed at a time when white people know they shouldn’t be racist but are ignorant enough that their attempts at equal representation still come across as condescending.

The 90’s: Politically Correct enough to be ashamed of racism yet ignorant enough to perpetuate it anyway.

Sodomy: pros and cons

Via Foreign Policy:

In his 1961 religious treatise A Clarification of Questions(Towzih al-Masael), [Ayatollah] Khomeini issued detailed pronouncements on issues ranging from sodomy ("If a man sodomizes the son, brother, or father of his wife after their marriage, the marriage remains valid") to bestiality ("If a person has intercourse with a cow, a sheep, or a camel, their urine and dung become impure and drinking their milk will be unlawful").

Let’s just get this out of the way: Yes, that sentence is goddamn hilarious. Of course, the question of whether or not a marriage remains valid if a man sodomizes his father-in-law’s sheep is left unanswered, but let us at least acknowledge that there are serious aims in such peculiarly specific pronouncements about the manifold permutations of the human sex act. Religion is a source of political authority, therefore playing the holier-than-thou game by setting out detailed rules about sex is all part of the political process in Iran.

Which, of course, doesn’t stop outsiders from finding the whole thing amusing. Tee hee.

Amerika

Over in the Alternate History Discussion Board, a message board where people go to discuss historical what-if scenarios, someone asked the question of whether a communist or fascist America was more likely to happen in the past. Obviously it would have to happen before the Second World War and quite possibly earlier – home-grown communism in particular would have needed to arrive before 1918, otherwise the panic over Bolshevism would have tainted communism with the whiff of essential foreignness. The general consensus was that fascism was more likely, given that the pre-existing capitalist state was and is already closer in form to fascism anyway (I paraphrase, of course). However, other posters have pointed out that a communist America was not quite a wild-eyed hallucination, and that there were already certain strains of American socialism that could have eased the transition into communism. Like many discussions of American politics about communism, many participants confused socialism and communism, but it was still enlightening to read about an America that could have been.

La lucha sigue

Stalin strikes down Hitler with his superpowers while declaring, 1

Somewhat interesting news from New York about the growing popularity of communism in the Big Apple:

“As the economic crisis has gotten steeper in the country, it is not surprising that people are opening their minds to other ideas. Words like socialism and communism have been so stigmatized by the educational system that many people are afraid of those words. However, many studies have shown Americans support the redistribution of wealth but if you mention the socialism word they won’t agree with it anymore.”

Continue reading “La lucha sigue”

On The Righteous and Harmonious Fists

The Economist recently published a fairly decent overview of modern Chinese attitudes towards the Boxer Rebellion (judgement on the historical accuracy of the article supplied by Frog in a Well). Overall, there’s nothing surprising about how the Chinese nationalists have lionized the Boxers and how the underground Chinese Catholics have their own counter-narratives about the Rebellion. However, the comments to the article are full of Sinophile apologists making idiotic excuses for the actions of the Chinese, especially that of the Communist government. One commenter looks to be a genuine Chinese nationalist. Eh, whatever, a pox on all their houses.