Guardian of the Sacred Spirit

Discovering an exceptional but lesser-known work of fiction for oneself is one of life’s smaller pleasures, one made no less enjoyable for being such an ordinary experience. The story of Seirei no Moribito (Guardian of the Sacred Spirit) itself feels rather small and ordinary; instead of covering an epic struggle between good and evil, at its heart it’s about the depths of maternal love and how far a person can go to protect a loved one. The melancholy nature of the song in the video captures well the feeling of the show, much better than the opening song, in fact, which I found rather insipid in an inoffensive pop song way.

Seirei no Moribito is based on the first book of a Japanese fantasy series and it covers the story of Balsa, a female bodyguard, who is tasked with protecting a prince from his father’s own assassins. There are many things to like about the series, not least of which are the lush backgrounds as can be seen in the video. Generally speaking, it’s a lot more realistic than other anime that deals with swords and the supernatural. You won’t find arcs of blood stylishly spraying into the air or fighters shouting out the names of their attacks; rather, all of the fighting is firmly rooted in real-world martial arts.

Unusually for the genre, the anime does not deal with the samurai-and-ninjas feudal era which first springs to mind when one mentions “Japan” and “swords”. Instead, the series is set in a fantasy world based on Heian-era Japan, which is to say, Japan before the samurai. Japan was governed more like Imperial China, with the Japanese emperors wielding direct political power as the sons of Heaven. This is the opposite situation of the later feudal era, where the emperor was largely a figurehead.

It’s interesting to note that the hydraulic theory of state formation posits that states formed in early China because a centralized power was needed to organize the necessary resources that allowed complex irrigation systems to nourish rice paddies. Ancient Japan, of course, consciously modeled itself on China, and the fact that both countries relied on rice as the central staple food in their diets certainly helped keep their systems of government in sync for a while. Certainly a bunch of squabbling feudal lords couldn’t have organized things half so well.

Of course, one must then ask why feudalism arose in Japan if central organization was so necessary to keep a country of rice eaters alive. There are of course the political and historically-contingent reasons for why the strong Japanese state broke down (short story: a combination of screw-ups and bad luck for several Japanese emperors). Improvements in military technology and the resulting change in recruitment practices also gave greater power to regional leaders, and I suspect developments in agriculture also helped. A separate military class rose to challenge the power of the imperial government, a civil war happened, and slowly but surely the samurai were the new rulers of Japan.

Admittedly, all this is going rather far afield from the original topic of the anime series. What can I say, I have a certain fascination for states and state formation. Anyway, to return to Seirei no Moribito: I liked it. If you like serious anime, please try it out. Not that I hate the funny (Ranma 1/2 remains one of my favourite shows, period), but Moribito definitely deserves a larger audience, which I hope this blog post might in some small way help to provide.

The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya

I watched The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya last night. Word on the street was that the movie was a good addition to the Haruhi Suzumiya series, and I really must concur. I’m kind of glad that I didn’t get into the series until a few months ago, since apparently the last new content was from 2007. That must have been a long three years for the fans.

The Haruhi Suzumiya series reminds me a lot of The Time Traveler’s Wife – not in terms of plot or even aesthetics, but rather in the way both use science fiction in the service of the story. They’re not like too many other science fiction stories, where the writers are too busy geeking out over the ray guns to bother about the characters or the plot. Rather, the fantastic elements in both stories exist to drive forward the fundamental relationships at the heart of their respective plots – in Haruhi Suzumiya’s case, it’s about a misanthropic girl learning to appreciate the mundane and a misanthropic guy learning to appreciate the fantastic (with that term encompassing time travelers, psychics, and aliens). However, both Time Traveler’s Wife and Haruhi Suzumiya aren’t just regular stories with science fiction stuff thrown in, they would be fundamentally different without being science fiction.

I like Haruhi Suzumiya. It’s always got such interesting ideas.

Never Look Back (rec)

Just found this fanfic, Never Look Back. It’s a crossover between Neil Gaiman’s short story A Study in Emerald (full version, PDF) and Sherlock, the BBC tv series which sets the Sherlock Holmes stories in modern Britain. A Study in Emerald is itself a crossover fanfiction between the classic Sherlock Holmes series and H.P. Lovecraft. So basically the fanfic updates Gaiman’s story to the modern world. Read it. It are good.

Seriously, I’m not into slash but I’ll make an exception for the fic (that, and the slash parts are easily skippable). I’m green with envy at the prose.

That was it? (Ergo Proxy: A commentary)

Lil Meyer from Ergo Proxy

Seriously, that was it? I can’t believe I watched all 23 episodes of Ergo Proxy and by the end I was still waiting for the story to start. “Underwhelmed” would be the best word to describe my feelings.

All right, that’s unfair. The series was pretty interesting in the beginning and had great potential at successfully combining philosophical ruminations with narrative cohesion, like The Matrix. By the end, though, it turned into a mishmash of disjointed plot points pasted together with pretty visuals. Which isn’t to say that it was bad, exactly, but how could they have spent so much money on the visual effects and still not manage to make a satisfying climax for the story? Remember the structure of the three act play, people: Introduction, Rising Action, Climax, and Denouement. Yes, those four parts fit into three acts.

Continue reading “That was it? (Ergo Proxy: A commentary)”

Battlestar Galactica 2010

Get Your War On

So, Adama didn’t nuke the planet after all.  I’m having trouble remembering other parts of last Sunday’s episode, though, since I almost dozed off a couple of times.

I don’t think it’s because the episode itself was boring, since the parts I recall seemed fairly exciting — Cylons getting blowed up, gunshot wounds to the head, and a scene where Apollo and Anders almost gave in to the sexual tension between them (this one I may have hallucinated while I was half-conscious).

I suspect I was still somewhat tired from skiing the day before and pleasantly groggy from my pork chop dinner, but I think my inattention also had to do with being in a different place and time to watch Battlestar Galactica.  This is the first time I’ve watched this show on Sunday instead of Saturday and in my old house instead of my place in Halifax.  It didn’t quite feel right, and the experience made me consider just how much context is responsible for Galactica‘s success.

Consider, for instance, that there is a new animated series of Star Trek being considered for production by whatever company it is that makes Star Trek.  The third comment points out that the original Star Trek drew upon dewy-eyed 60s optimism in its story-telling.  Star Trek failed and was cancelled in its first incarnation, but became popular in its movie version.  I think this was due partly to the difference between 1966 and 1979, the year the first movie came out.  In 1966, the United States was steadily losing its war in Vietnam, and Star Trek‘s optimism must have seemed like some cruel joke to a country dealing with major military defeats for the first time in its recent history.  In 1979, the Vietnam War was already finished for most Americans, and perhaps Star Trek: The Motion Picture was a nice distraction from the reality of corrupt presidents, dead leaders, and empty spots at the dinner table.

I’m sure we can all think of other tv shows or movies that, no matter how excellent, just didn’t catch on for some reason.  The Al Pacino movie Scarface, for instance, was a flop when it was first released, but it’s now considered a classic today, with its digital re-release celebrated by numerous film critics.  The reverse also holds true: classic Saturday Night Live skits like Jim Belushi’s samurai deli falls flat among people of my generation, the phrase “pile of dog crap” being bandied about at times.  The present is different from the past, and stories that were popular yesterday are not necessarily popular today.  But what, then, of Battlestar Galactica and its examination of the so-called War on Terror?  What of Battlestar Galactica‘s prospects for popularity among future generations of viewers?

Let us pretend that it is possible to win the War on Terror, or conversely (and perish the thought), it is possible to lose that same war (victory not necessarily being the objective of either “side”).  Let us pretend that it is now years, decades later, and we have achieved the status quo ante bellum, and the War on Terror is as distant as the Falklands War.  Would Battlestar Galactica still be considered brilliant by those who’d never seen it before?

I can easily imagine that it would be seen as too dark by future viewers who’d never been disgusted by graphic images of actual torture or had to helplessly read about monstrous crimes being perpetuated in their name many distant miles away.  In fact, Galactica might be seen as an unwelcome reminder of a past better buried, or perhaps even as a sign of the sickness of the society that it was produced in — after all, Galactica is meant as entertainment, and what is entertaining about reproducing images of terror?

The greater fear, of course, is that Battlestar Galactica will still be relevant twenty years from now.  If satire is meant to serve as a warning, then does that mean that Galactica‘s creators would like nothing more than to be a historical curiosity in the future?

I’m reminded of Weapons of Choice, a science fiction novel I read a few months back.  In it, a naval task force from twenty years in the future accidentally time travel back to the Second World War.  This means that the crews on board the ships have lived through twenty years of the War on Terror.  The future presented is grim, with summary executions of prisoners being conducted by the US military immediately after battle, and with American citizens living in a heavily militarized society.  Setting aside the author’s Tom Clancy-esque fascination with the machinery of war, the book’s portrayal of the future seems depressingly probable.

So there you have it, fellow fans of Galactica.  The series will be relevant in the future, or it will not.  A prediction, though: either way, lots of stuff will get blowed up.

Cavite (the movie)

Cavite.jpg

I learned of this movie from The Wily Filipino.  Got to say, I wasn’t impressed.  I already rented Suicide Girls on his recommendation and found it a bit “wtf?”, although there is a Clockwork Orange-y rape scene in Suicide Girls that is eerily beautiful.  One more strike, though, and I’ll just have to say that The Wily Filipino and I have divergent tastes in movies .

CORRECTION: It was actually Suicide Club. Suicide Girls is the porn website where the models all have tattoos and piercings. And no, I’m not a subscriber (sin is a financially taxing endeavour).

The plot of Cavite centres around a 2nd generation Filipino American in the Philippines whose family is being held hostage and who is forced to do all kinds of illegal things by the bad guy who relays all his instructions by cellphone.  Yes, just like that one cellphone hostage movie that was out recently which I never plan on seeing.  Oh, and he has to do all his running around in the province of Cavite.

I grew up partly in Cavite, but that has nothing to do with my dislike of the film.  Rather, it’s clear to me that I’m not the target audience.  The movie is obviously set up with 2nd generation Filipinos in mind, since the whole thing is about the anxieties of the 2nd generation in regards to their Filipino identity.

The first thing that didn’t fly with me was the language.  I speak Tagalog well enough, and to me, the menacing voice on the phone issuing Tagalog commands didn’t sound menacing at all.  In fact, the guy sounded like a complete tool.  It was hard to take his threats seriously since he actually has more of a comedian’s voice.  I kept expecting cellphone guy to start cracking toilet humour jokes.  Not only that, but it seems rather odd to me that Adam, the main character, should understand Tagalog, since his family is supposedly from Mindanao and I would expect him to be more fluent in Chavacano or other more regionally-appropriate languages.

In fact, language is one of the things that 2nd generation Filipinos have an ambivalent relationship with.  Obviously, Adam has passive fluency in Tagalog so that the story is able to take place, but he also talks almost entirely in English because he’s “not comfortable with the language [Tagalog]”, just like many 2nd generation Filipinos.  Quite a few don’t understand any Filipino languages at all, what with their parents wanting them to assimilate completely.  That, or they’re embarrassed by their parents’ languages and make an effort to speak entirely in English.

In this case, the menacing voice on the phone represents the Filipino-ness that 2nd generation Filipinos (the kind that would watch this kind of movie) want but don’t quite feel they’re worthy of.  The voice is the inadequacy that 2nd generation Filipinos feel towards being Filipino, that they’re not really authentically Filipino if they can’t speak Tagalog, have never been to the Philippines, can’t eat balut, and all sorts of other things.

In fact, the movie is all about gaining this elusive authentic Filipino character.  Cavite begins by forcing Adam to confront the poverty and material deprivation in the Philippines (what could be more authentic than the poor?) and he is then forced to participate in other “authentically” Filipino experiences such as watching a cock fight, drinking soda out of a plastic bag, and eating an unhatched duck egg.  In fact, the scene with the balut is significant because watching foreigners recoil at the thought of eating balut is one of the pastimes Filipinos engage in with outsiders.  Having eaten the balut, Adam has proven that he is really Filipino.  The taunts of the voice on the cellphone are merely the prickings of his guilt at not being Filipino enough.

So this movie is actually about discovering one’s identity, and not just any identity, but ethnic identity.  Therefore, it’s about discovering what one always already is, or so the proponents of ethnicity will claim.  Still, the journey of ethnic discovery parallels the journey of the tourist in many ways.  Both centre on finding the authentic among foreign Others, particularly savage Others (the poor, the non-white, and the non-Western).  Second generation travellers might argue that they’re different from tourists, that tourists only see the surface, the superficial, but we have penetrated this wall of inscrutability and have beheld the true faces of the Filipinos.  In fact, we have always been Filipino, so there was never a wall there in the first place.  But the desire for the authentic still marks both journeys.

The search for authenticity is of course not politically neutral.  Second generation Filipinos look to the Philippines as a source of identity because they cannot find it in their home countries.  That is, the search for inclusion within the Philippine imaginary is contingent on the exclusion that 2nd generation Filipinos experience in their lives outside the Philippines.  Identification is always a political act, and a diasporic imaginary, as James Clifford put it, can be seen as making the best of a bad situation.

Which is all well and good, but the political goals of 2nd generation Filipinos don’t speak to me at all.  Cavite didn’t resonate with me because it showed me nothing that I hadn’t already seen before.  Rabid dogs on the street?  Floating mountains of garbage in the rivers?  Squatter children bathing outdoors?  Ho hum, how very boring.  Adam is shocked, but I sit and wait for the movie to start.  By the time it ends, I realize those scenes were the point.  And there’s nothing more boring than watching a movie that was made for someone else.  I wish I’d just gotten Superman Returns.

Zizek zizek bo bizek, me mi mo mizek, Zizek!

I’m currently working on applications for funding and schools and crap.  I don’t have time to think about this blog, so changing hosts will have to wait until next week.  Late next week, in all probability.  Sorry, I actually have a couple of drafts I was saving to post on the new blog, so stick around and you’ll eventually see them.  In the meantime, have some Zizek.

By that I mean that I just saw the documentary on the philosopher Slavoj Zizek, titled Zizek!  I can only comment on the superficial stuff since I don’t have time for deep reflection.

First, I liked the film.  It only gives a very broad presentation of Zizek’s ideas, but you’d have to read him to really get him anyway.  The documentary was entertaining, just don’t expect to anything too, too deep.  I think it was pretty much a necessity for the movie to explore Zizek more than his work, otherwise it would be a glorified Powerpoint presentation of his ideas.  Second, Zizek is a rather engaging speaker.  He’s very animated when he talks and keeps waving his hands around.  By the end of each of his public talks he’s always dripping in sweat.  Third, Zizek has seen Armageddon (the movie, not the end times).  He’s also seen (and liked?) Hero, the Jet Li film, the politics of which always stuck in my craw — the filmmakers might as well have just addressed the audience directly and said, “So you see, this shows that unity is preferable to human rights and that therefore Taiwan should submit to China.”  Fourth, he types with one finger (not even two-fingered hunt and peck, just one).  Fifth, he keeps his clothes in his kitchen cupboards.  Sixth, my supervisor apparently knows him personally.  He’d once given a talk at King’s College, which is part of my own school, Dalhousie University, and she told me that he’d forgotten to pack clothes when he came over.  I know, how can anyone forget that?

So in conclusion, Zizek! — good to watch if you’re not paying for it.  Another excellent way to put off work for an hour.

So I married a killer robot

I know I’m kind of late to this party, but danged if I’m a gonna quit. I’ve been reading a bit of what the reaction to the new season of Battlestar Galactica has been on some parts of the English blogosphere and I just had to offer my take.

Battlestar Galactica began as a clash of civilizations: the genocidal and merciless Cylons versus the battered yet defiant humans. The people of the Colonial fleet were shown as noble but flawed, peace-loving but driven to violence, grief-stricken but stalwart, courageous, craven, paranoid, and cooly rational — in short, they were shown as human. The humans were the flawed heroes while the Cylons were the perfect Others, the anti-humans: relentless where the humans faltered, inscrutable where human pain was displayed, and all-knowing where the humans groped around blindly in the dark.

That was where Galactica began, but it’s certainly not where it is now. Slowly, we began to see more of what Cylons were really like, and slowly, we began to sympathize with what had been an unknowable enemy. Finally, by the third season the tables had turned and “we” were supposed to feel conflicted as to which side root for: the violently incompetent Cylons, or the suicide-bombing humans?

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that the issue of suicide bombing in the show has become so controversial. After all, suicide bombing has been relentlessly portrayed in the news media as a cowardly tactic used by the enemies of civilization, possibly in league with Satan, Darth Vader, and Lord Voldemort. Setting aside the issue that cowards cower, not willingly blow themselves to smithereens, it’s a bit odd that the characters’ use of suicide bombing should be so fraught with moral crisis. I’d always gotten the impression that the problem with suicide bombing was that it was inconsiderate of distinctions between civilians and soldiers, whereas the tactic on Galactica has been used only against military targets. I think that the discomfort with suicide bombing among the show’s viewers comes from two main reasons.

The first reason is that suicide bombing lays bare the fiction that soldiers are human beings. That is, suicide bombing acknowledges that soldiers are not and cannot be human as long as they are soldiers; rather, they are military assets, pawns to be moved back and forth in war, the true game of kings. If a cause is worth killing others for, then it’s also worth killing your own soldiers for (Dean Stockwell’s character voiced a similar sentiment on the show, though he was arguing for the war to become genocidal again). Soldiers are trained to be the tools of their leaders, and the more perfect they can be as machines, the more perfect they become as soldiers. Therefore, when you see Colonial rebels blowing up themselves and their enemies, you aren’t seeing humans killing Cylons. Instead, what you are witnessing is the spectacle of killer robots killing other killer robots.

The second reason I think that suicide bombing in the show is controversial to its viewers is that its viewers are mostly composed of those who conquer, instead of those who are conquered. That is, it is the privilege of the viewers to see suicide bombing as a horrendous crime instead of being forced to consider it as a viable tactic. Which is why I don’t relate at all to the controversy over suicide bombing, since I’m descended from people who might have considered suicide bombing had the option been available.

What I’m referring to is the Philippine-American War of 1898-1902 (the latter year being somewhat arbitrary since armed resistance was still taking place in many “pacified” territories). It’s an obscure war to most Americans, though its impact is still felt today. Many historians see it as the precursor to the Vietnam War and therefore the ancestor of the current war in Iraq, though I see the Indian Wars as the truly prototypical conflicts that lent their shape to later wars of American imperialism.

Briefly, the Philippine-American War grew out of the the Spanish-American War of 1898. The United States, having finished its land-based empire-building in the Indian Wars like the Russians in Siberia, wanted to get into the overseas possessions game. Spain was already in the process of imperial decline and it was the ruler of colonies immediately adjacent to the US (remember, the Monroe Doctrine had already established the Americas as the playground of the United States). With the Philippines in hand, the US hoped to use it as a springboard into China. US troops invaded the Philippines, arriving in the middle of an ongoing insurrection by Filipino rebels. Hoping to use the native insurgents against Spain, the US tacitly encouraged the cause of Philippine independence. By the time the Spanish-American War ended, Spain had ceded the Philippines to the US, which claimed the colony for its own. Feeling betrayed, Filipino rebels went to war against a new colonial master. In the end, they lost and the Philippines became a US Commonwealth.

The conflict soon became a guerilla war for the Filipinos, who could not use conventional tactics against better-equipped and better-trained Americans. The US Army saw guerilla war as dishonourable and uncivilized. A US general, in an exchange with a leader of the revolution, remarked that war

[C]ould only be justified by a combatant where success was possible; as soon as defeat was certain, “civilization demands that the defeated side, in the name of humanity, should surrender and accept the result, although it may be painful to its feelings.” Combatants who strayed from this principle “place themselves in a separate classification” as “incompetent in the management of civil affairs to the extent of their ignorance of the demands of humanity.” In this specific case, the end of conventional war and the dispersal of the Philippine Army meant that continued Filipino resistance was not only “criminal” but was “also daily shoving the natives of the Archipelago headlong towards a deeper attitude of semicivilization in which they will become completely incapable of appreciating and understanding the responsibilities of civil government.” Civilization meant “pacification” and the acceptance of U.S. sovereignty: “The Filipino people can only show their fitness in this matter by laying down their arms…” (Kramer 2006)

However, the Filipino revolutionary countered that the statement

was simply the claim that might made right, that the U.S. war was “just and humanitarian” because its army was powerful, “which trend of reasoning not even the most ignorant Filipino will believe to be true.” If in real life, he noted, “the strong nations so easily make use of force to impose their claims on the weak ones,” it was because “even now civilization and humanitarian sentiments that are so often invoked, are, for some, more apparent than real” . . . [T]he Filipinos had been left no choice. The very laws of war that authorized strong nations’ use of “powerful weapons of combat” against weak ones were those that “persuade[d]” the weak to engage in guerrilla war, “especially when it comes to defending their homes and their freedoms against an invasion.” (Kramer 2006)

Update the language a bit and they might have been talking about suicide bombing. I think that instead of asking how suicide bombing can exist, it is better to ask what kind of dire situation a person can live in that they would think blowing themselves up is a good idea. Make no mistake that suicide bombing is a weapon of the weak, else they would be using cruise missiles and nuclear threats.

Therefore, I cannot really understand why just the very use of suicide bombing in a fictional context can be so fraught with debate. Personally, it seemed perfectly logical that people in the position of the Colonials on New Caprica would turn to suicide bombing in the face of the overwhelming power of their enemies. Why suicide bombing? Why not? To me, something less would have seemed more unrealistic.

Sin vergüenza

It’s amazing how having constant high-speed Internet and cable tv means that one no longer has to go out as much. I’ve been doing my best to get caught up on watching cartoons, reading comics, and generally lounging about in sybaritic fashion. For instance, I spent last Sunday afternoon eating grapes and watching the dvd boxed set of Season 1 of Carnivale.

It’s wonderful to waste free time. And yet, time is not wasted when one’s mind is productive. Even when I’m not thinking about my thesis, I’m thinking about my thesis, and connections spring up during my relaxation in many delightfully surprising ways.

In this case, I’m talking about Eden, another Japanese comic book series (also known as manga) that I’ve recently come to like (thank you MangaProject). It’s about a young man living in a world where a pandemic has brought the world to the brink of disaster, and where a new world order has sprung up as a result. I have to tell you, in the following discussion of Eden I’m going to dispense spoilers like crazy. So read on at your own risk. There’s too much stuff to cover in one post so I’ll revisit the series again later. If you want my thoughts on Eden in a nutshell: Cyberpunk, biopolitics, near-apocalypse — rock! Read it if you need something to flip through when you want to pretend to yourself that you’re working.
A recumbent android girl is opened up and examined by lab technicians.
Anyway, the new disease is called the Closure Virus, which has killed 15% of the world’s population decades before most of the story’s action takes place. Bear in mind that 15% may not sound like a lot, but that’s still hundreds of millions of people dead, not to mention the many more that are implied to have died from the chaos that erupted. Governments collapse and a new organization exploits the power vacuum to put itself in charge — the Propater.

In the book, Propater is a neoliberal theocracy of federated nation-states controlling what we would call the “West” plus most of the Americas. I know, “Propater” sounds made-up. The name actually comes from Gnosticism, a religious movement from the same era as early Christianity. In fact, if you’ve got some knowledge of the Gnostics and of early Christian theology then you’ll be able to appreciate better some of the references in the series. I feel embarrassed I hadn’t caught on to the Gnostic elements until I’d read the series glossary, where it was all spelled out. Gnosia and agnosia, the aeons, God as insane: these are all things that are mentioned in the book, and they’re all important in some way to the story and its themes. Actually, googling around reveals that the major characters are named after Gnostic deities and they all play similar roles in the story as in Gnosticism.

The Catholic Encyclopedia (take that Wikipedia) says this about Gnosticism:

The doctrine of salvation by knowledge. This definition, based on the etymology of the word (gnosis “knowledge”, gnostikos, “good at knowing”), is correct as far as it goes, but it gives only one, though perhaps the predominant, characteristic of Gnostic systems of thought . . . Gnostics were “people who knew”, and their knowledge at once constituted them a superior class of beings, whose present and future status was essentially different from that of those who, for whatever reason, did not know. A more complete and historical definition of Gnosticism would be:

A collective name for a large number of greatly-varying and pantheisticidealistic sects, which flourished from some time before the Christian Era down to the fifth century, and which, while borrowing the phraseology and some of the tenets of the chief religions of the day, and especially of Christianity, held matter to be a deterioration of spirit, and the whole universe a depravation of the Deity, and taught the ultimate end of all being to be the overcoming of the grossness of matter and the return to the Parent-Spirit, which return they held to be inaugurated and facilitated by the appearance of some God-sent Saviour.

However unsatisfactory this definition may be, the obscurity, multiplicity, and wild confusion of Gnostic systems will hardly allow of another. Many scholars, moreover, would hold that every attempt to give a generic description of Gnostic sects is labour lost.

Oh, and apparently Christian Gnostics were responsible for early Christian fanfiction:

The Gnostics developed an astounding literary activity, which produced a quantity of writings far surpassing contemporary output of Catholic literature. They were most prolific in the sphere of fiction, as it is safe to say that three-fourths of the early Christians romances about Christ and His disciples emanated from Gnostic circles.

Setting aside the fact that this version of the Catholic Encyclopedia is rather old and it’s often amusing to read the snide jabs at other religions, it’s interesting that anyone would structure a manga around Gnosticism. However, Eden isn’t the only manga or anime to take its inspiration from Christianity and related religions. I’ve never read the manga or watched the anime, but I know Neon Genesis Evangelion also explicitly explored themes from Christianity and Kabbalistic Judaism, though its treatment of such was apparently problematic. I did watch two episodes of Ninja Resurrection, a godawful anime miniseries about rebellious Christians in feudal Japan and the rise of the Anti-Christ or something.

Anyway, I think it’s fair to say that there’s a widespread fascination with Christianity in Japan, perhaps analogous to the fascination with Buddhism in the reified West. Perhaps this fascination comes from a desire for authenticity, with that authenticity being searched for in the foreign. So foreign = Other, Other = authentic, and conversely, domestic = Same, Same = inauthentic. This BBC article on one manifestation of Christianity in Japan presents an interesting but somewhat exoticizing view on the topic.

However, it’s debatable just how alien Christianity really is to Japan. It’s been in the country for 450 years, meaning that Christianity in Japan is almost as old as it is in South America. Christians have played major roles in Japanese history, perhaps most famously in the rebellion of Amakusa Shiro (depicted in Ninja Resurrection), not to mention the extensive meddling in feudal Japanese politics that Catholic missionaries engaged in. And as the BBC article shows, certain Christian sects are quite popular in modern Japan. So just how Other is Christianity really?

Oh whatever, I’m hungry and my rice just finished cooking. I’m definitely coming back to Eden, but see you some other time.

Art: What is it good for?

 

Tatsuhiro Satou surrounded by his contemporaries (calling them friends would be too much).

Recently, I’ve been reading a Japanese comic book series called NHK ni Youkoso, or Welcome to the NHK (thank you Evil_Genius). The main character, Tatsuhiro Satou, is what is called in Japan a hikikomori, which is essentially a person who has withdrawn from the rest of society. The term can be glossed as “social withdrawal.” Hikikomori are shut-ins who not only refuse to venture out of their houses, they also refuse to leave their rooms. Most live with their parents or other family, who support their recalcitrant sons (and hikikomori are mostly young men, often the eldest son). “Hikikoomori” is not an absolute category, but rather a catch-all term encompassing many young men who are socially withdrawn to varying degrees. In fact, it seems to be a culture-bound syndrome unique to Japan, in the same way that anorexia is mostly confined to “Western” societies. For more on this, see this article from The New York Times.

The existence of hikikomori has been treated as a crisis in Japan, but no one seems to be entirely sure what it is a crisis of. Are hikikomori men who have lost faith in Japan Inc.? Are they “social parasites” leeching off their suffering parents? In the comic book itself, the reason given for Satou’s social withdrawal is unsatisfactory, and in fact the psychological motivations behind becoming hikokomori are inadequately explained. There are many commentators who are willing to give their own opinions on the appearance of hikokomori. Ryu Murakami (no relation to Haruki Murakami), for example, discusses some of the emic or insider views of the hikikomori phenomenon from a certain Japanese perspective.

It’s all very well and good to say that Japanese culture contains within it the potential for social withdrawal, but I think the hikikomori phenomenon is a historically contingent one. I don’t think the hikikomori could have appeared at any time other than now. Certainly, anomie has long been recognized as one of the effects of modern industrialized life. Hikomori are like Grigor Samsa, the gray everyman who ate, slept, and worked every gray day of his gray life, and who eventually turned into a twisted version of himself, or rather became the person he really was, and was supported by his family until his death, “And thank God for that!” as his father said.

But hikikomori and Grigor Samsa are different in several ways. Hikikomori obviously don’t turn into vermin, though they’re certainly spoken of that way by a lot of people. More to the point, Grigor Samsa turned into a bug because that was what he already was — living to work, eating, sleeping, and sacrificing just to work some more. Doesn’t that sound more like a worker ant’s life than a human being’s? Industrialism and the wage labour system transform people into insects, reducing them to brute labour and ignoring the many ways that they are unique. However, hikomori, unlike Grigor Samsa, refuse to participate in this system in the first place, or perhaps it is better to say that they are unable to participate.

Hikikomori could have only appeared now because it is only now that Japan has slowed its industrial growth. Industrial growth is not infinite, cannot be infinite, but that is not how it is presented in the rhetoric of capitalism. Onwards! Upwards! To the stars! The increasing penetration of the popular media and the greater sophistication of its mesmerizing consumerist promises are the propaganda for this ideology. But where is this golden land of plenty to be found? Not in Japan today. Faced with a world where the dazzling promises of consumerist capitalism can never be realized, where people are taught to desire what can never exist, is it any wonder when so many refuse to become the bugs they were destined to be? “I never signed up for this” might be the motto of the hikikomori, could they but articulate the malaise they feel.

I think it’s telling that hikomori are mostly young men, because for men, in many ways a loss of power is also a loss of masculinity. Men are supposed to be powerful, but how can one accept a world where one has no power and therefore one is not a man? Japanese women, on the other hand, already live in a world where power belongs to other people. Furthermore, while Japanese parents might gladly support a son they see as suffering through a phase in their development, would they accept as easily a daughter who did nothing all day but eat, sleep, and watch tv?

There is an incident in Welcome to the NHK which I find rather interesting. Satou, the main character, meets by chance a former high school classmate on the street. She invites him to join what is apparently some kind of motivational group, but which turns out to be a pyramid scheme. Not having been born yesterday, Satou tells her that he’s seen through her plan to recruit the idiot classmate she met on the street just to meet her quota. She snaps and tells him that yes, she was planning to squeeze him for money. She had been working for tuition money since graduating from high school, but had it all squeezed out of her by people above her. She asks Satou,

How do you feel about being socially withdrawn for the rest of your life? I know you understand . . . in the end this world boils down to those who take and those who are taken, a zero-sum game! You’re being used by everyone. Your unemployment and withdrawal from society is a result of the demands of society! It’s because society needs people to look down on. You’re smart . . . you should have noticed the ridicule of the people around you. Society’s gears are greased by the existence of slaves . . . But you’re different! You want to take such corrupt relationships and turn them into money! This time, we will be on the squeezing side!!

Certainly it’s a bleak philosophy, but what stands out for me is that this statement is a rejection of the ideology of modernity. Progress? Development? Sentimental hooey. Society cannot be improved, it can only be exploited. Though she reject’s the propaganda of capitalist modernism, Satou’s classmate has learned its ultimate lesson: what is valuable is what is profitable, and to hell with everyone who gets in the way.

The above is not an isolated incident. Welcome to the NHK‘s characters are very aware of their exact role in Japanese society. They even state it explicitly: confronting Satou for his unproductivity and petty theft of food, his business partner tells him, “In a capitalist country, money is the ultimate value! You’re not going to end this with a simple ‘I’m broke’. On the other hand, when you turn a profit, anything is permitted! What a wonderful world!!” This is telling when one considers that neither Satou nor his business partner actually have money. If money indexes value in a capitalist society, then those who don’t have it are worthless.

It is, in fact, their marginality that the comic’s characters are always conscious of. Welcome to the NHK is about the people who reject mainstream Japanese society. The main character, Satou, has isolated himself entirely from other people. His former classmate, Iincho, is the one who has given herself over to the pursuit of profit. His other schoolmate, who he calls Senpai (upperclassman), is depressed, harbours suicidal thoughts, and medicates herself constantly to allay the effects of the sexism, jealousy, and utter grinding work she experiences at her job. His stalker/female friend, Misaki, apparently dropped out of high school because of bullying. Finally, his business partner, Yamazaki, has given himself over to the pursuit of representations of underage pornography (see Sharon Kinsella’s analysis of Japanese “cute” as a rejection of adulthood and Japanese society in general).

So is Welcome to the NHK is a critique of Japanese society? Not as such. It’s not really a drama per se, it’s actually more of a zany comedy: Look at the antics Satou gets into this week! Humour, of course, can give biting critiques of the society it (p)resents. However, being humour, what it shows can just be waved off as a joke. Further, look at the picture above. Satou is the guy in the centre wearing the “H”, but notice that he’s surrounded by other people. This is mirrored by the comic’s plots, where Satou is always getting into trouble with some person or another. For a shut-in, Satou seems to have a lot of friends.

That is perhaps my greatest criticism of the comic. While it explores different rejections of Japanese modernity, it doesn’t go far enough in examining them. The pain that the characters feel is masked behind the hijinks they get into. Too much happens for anyone to stop and think about what exactly is going on. Even suicide attempts are presented comically and actually manage not to seem grim and depressing. Being a hikokomori actually looks like fun, judging from Satou’s experience at any rate.

However, Welcome to the NHK is a fascinating peek into how some Japanese see themselves and their own native Others. What is it to be young and Japanese today? More importantly, what is it to be young and Japanese, and yet not Japanese at the same time? How does it feel to be on the outside looking in? Welcome to the NHK‘s answer, though unsatisfactory, at least confronts these questions.