Anime and the Future of the NEET

Reposting from elsewhere:

Cover of the Welcome to the N.H.K. novel showing Misaki sitting outdoors, a tree in the background and a blue sky above, smiling at the camera
I actually bought this novel the second I saw it in the book store. I think it was $14.

I remember asking during PodCastle in the Sky‘s One Punch Man episode what the future of the NEETs in anime would be. You see, NEET is a British term referring to those unemployed youth who are Not in Education, Employment, or Training, and in the podcast I asked whether anime in the future would be about grown up NEET protagonists worrying over not having a pension. Art must cater to its audience, and if there are so many Japanese people stuck in a pit of economic despair, won’t they want their lives reflected in the stories they consume?

It’s a few years later and I think I’d like to expand the question to include those who are horrifically underemployed in Japan. As the title of a Bloomberg article from 2020 reveals, Japan’s Lost Generation Is Still Jobless and Living With Their Parents. The article’s description of the Japanese job market is painful in its inequity.

The doors open only once. That’s how people often describe Japan’s hidebound hiring system, in which college students have their best shot at landing a coveted salaried position in the year approaching graduation. Those who successfully navigate the arduous corporate recruiting process will be rewarded with a secure place on the corporate ladder, along with regular raises and promotions. The rest are largely condemned to flit from one low-paying job to the next, with little avenue for advancement and zero job security . . . Japan’s 2015 census revealed there were 3.4 million people in their 40s and 50s who had not married and lived with their parents.

So here is Japan, here are its young people, and here is the miserable life of bare survival that they suffer through. What can anime say to this audience? How can it be relevant, especially when the makers of anime are also living through the same misery? (And when I say misery I mean misery: in 2019 it was possible for a new animator to make an annual income of 668,000 yen, which is around $6600 USD. Yes, there is no missing zero in that figure. There’s a crowdfunding project just to subsidize housing costs for the ones who make the anime we consume.)

I would say there are two ways for anime to deal with life in late-stage capitalism. The first is to acknowledge its barbarity. However, the logic of modern life is so crushing and inhumane that to depict it realistically is too much to bear for the artists and for the audience. The solution is to turn to comedy to soften the blow.

If we were to name the works of anime capitalist realism that are most well-known, we would not do worse than listing the classic series Welcome to the NHK!, which is about the people unable to compete in the marketplace of labour, or Aggretsuko, which is about the ones who did enter the ranks of the wage slave but who found no better life anyway, or Recovery of an MMO Junkie, which is about abandoning the existential despair of being alienated from your labour. For the present season of anime, we could point to Uramichi Oniisan, except it’s not very good and in fact rather painfully blah.

The second way for anime to grapple with the weight of modernity is more reactionary. Instead of meeting the real, the anime takes the opposite trajectory of escape. The escape might be through returning to a better time – see all the series where the protagonist wakes up as their younger self like Remake Our Life! or gets de-aged like ReLIFE – or it might be a literal escape to a better world. Yes, I’m talking about all the isekai shit that comes out every season, some of which are embarrassingly frank about being nothing but vehicles for wish fulfillment.

Those wishes being fulfilled might be as innocuous as being able to sleep in and work whenever you want and at whatever you want for as much or as little as you want, like in all those isekai series about farming in a fantasy town or whatever (see Restaurant To Another World for an example involving opening a small business in a fantasy land with absolutely no problems whatsoever). Or those wishes could be darker and more disgusting, such as indulging a sexual slavery fetish like in How Not to Summon a Demon Lord or Death March to the Parallel World Rhapsody (and yes, the protagonist is invariably a man enslaving women).

It may sound like I think anime about the real world’s unhappiness are better for facing up to the truth, but in reality I think both the path of acknowledgement and the path of escape can lead equally to nowhere. Obviously hiding from society’s problems make one less likely to help in fixing them, but merely knowing things suck doesn’t do anything either. Without a call to action, outrage leads only to frustration and then to resignation and apathy.

So even in our fantasies we can’t escape the inequity of our world. The rank unfairness of existence circumscribes the stories we tell and haunts the dreams that we create.

However, we should not slip into nihilism. I will remind you all that better conditions existed not very far back in time and can do so again, and perhaps be better, for even those older times had their own miseries. Our dreams can point us to another path so long as we remember that dreaming is not an end in itself.

So let us struggle for a better world: what do we have to lose?

Turn of the century

I don’t know why but I’m watching Martian Successor Nadesico and Outlaw Star. I guess maybe it’s because both series came out back when you could have more than 13 episodes in a season and could actually spend time with the characters, but not like in the 80s when you’d have 300 episodes where nothing at all happened in each one. I like Outlaw Star more because it’s better at the cliffhanger ending which makes me want to keep watching, but both series are pleasantly unchallenging to watch.

Strongly Dislike the Police

Thanks to, you know, the thing, there have been a few ongoing discussions online and in other places about copaganda shows that invariably always show the police as heroes and minimize or erase real world issues of systemic racism, domestic abuse, etc among the police community.

The conversations reminded me of the show 19-2, which is set among the beat cops of a fictional Montreal police station. It does show moments of heroism – one of its best episodes is a harrowing depiction of cops responding to an active school shooting – along with regular work bullshit like the cops paying for a shoplifter’s frozen turkey because they didn’t want to deal with arrest paperwork. But it also shows cops being unequivocally shit.

The cops’ union rep, for example, is a wife beater. It’s not addressed in a single very special episode divorced from the larger story, either, but is an ongoing subplot over the series, and after an abusive incident so terrible that the violence can’t keep getting swept under the rug, the union negotiates a tearful public apology from the abuser to convince his wife to return to him, which is portrayed as exactly terrible an idea as you would think.

Another cop is an alcoholic and shows up to work drunk or hungover, directly endangering others, but when the protagonist brings it up with his partner, he’s told that reporting the problem is useless since the union knows how to address complaints which can make them seem without substance or taken out of proportion (of course implying that alcoholic cops are so widely found that there’s already a playbook for dealing with complaints about them). Yet another cop gets jumped by some youths and takes out her PTSD by being extra-violent to protesters later on while facing almost no consequences for it.

The biggest omission from the show, though, especially in light of the current protests, is its refusal to show police racism, at least in the episodes I’d seen. This reflects mainstream Canadian reluctance to discuss race beyond rah-rah self-praise for multiculturalism and the equally strong tendency to point to the US as being terrible and therefore that means things aren’t actually that bad (similar to the way white Europeans use the example of the US to avoid dealing with their own problems on racism).

Anyway, I had originally thought the show was just being anti-union, but in retrospect maybe it was being anti-cop union specifically. It’s rare enough to see the realistic bad stuff about police officers being shown in fiction that isolated examples stand out. It’s something to mull over regarding fictional depictions of the thin blue line separating us from the savage hordes of ourselves.

The Emotion Engine

So Tales From the Loop is actually good. It’s set in a small town where everything is centered around a mysterious research facility. The whole thing appears to take place in the 1970’s, except there are decaying robots in the woods and inexplicable sci-fi encounters are a part of life. I’ve only seen the first two episodes, but it looks like there’s a core cast of characters loosely intertwined in each other’s lives, but with the protagonists shifting in each installment.

Even if I hadn’t known already, I probably would have guessed that this was originally a Scandinavian property as its general tone is off-kilter and contemplative. I understand the concept books focused more on the kids, but the show probably didn’t want to come across as copying Stranger Things since they’re both science fiction period pieces.

However, it’s way different anyway, since Stranger Things is awash in nostalgia for a specific period’s consumerism and pop culture, whereas this show feels more like it takes place in a timeless 20th century of no particular decade.

Also, Stranger Things foregrounds its plot elements – stop the Demogorgon, the commies, the thingamabob – whereas this show is all about the emotional consequences of the sci-fi twists. There’s no technobabble solution for letting your best friend down or having your mother break your heart.

Anyway, this is a hearty recommendation from me.

The Anointed One

I watched all of Messiah on Netflix, and man, I really liked it.

As you might gather from the trailer, the show is premised on the question, “What if the messiah returned today?” However, the trailer makes it seem like the character depicted is definitely Jesus Christ returned, whereas the show plays coy on whether its central figure is actually divine or whether he’s just a brilliant and charismatic leader using religious fervour and magic tricks to push a revolutionary agenda. As one of the characters on the show even points out, this same question of saviour or con artist would have been applied to the historical Jesus (if he existed) by his contemporaries as well – the character herself comes down on the side of Jesus being “a populist politician with an axe to grind against the Roman empire”.

Messiah begins as follows: as the Islamic State lays siege to Damascus (which is in rebellion to Bashar al-Assad), a street preacher appears claiming that despite all evidence, Daesh shall soon be destroyed. Immediately afterward, a great sandstorm covers the city for an entire month, breaking the siege and demolishing ISIL’s supply lines. Throughout the storm, the street preacher continues to proclaim the supremacy of God’s will, gaining himself followers, and after the storm clears he leads 2,000 people into the desert (and, it’s implied, away from the Syrian government’s retaliation). The people are all Syrian Palestinians and the nameless preacher, now called “al-Masih” (messiah), has led his starving and unarmed followers to the Israeli border to claim the right of return for Palestinians ejected from their homeland.

And this is all in the first episode. The show quickly gets very global in its setting and shows the tentacles of empire, moving between the centre and the periphery, from the site of imperial actions in the Middle East to the source of those actions in the US.

I realize that it’s possible to imagine a horrifically tone deaf Law & Order-style ripped from the headlines hour of TV from the description I’ve given, especially considering that the show’s producers are Mark Burnett of the Survivor reality series and Roma Downey, the lead actor of Touched by an Angel, and considering that this producer couple have apparently made mawkish and pandering Christian-focused sentimental shows.

With that in mind, it’s surprising that the show is actually politically engaging. I mean, just to run through a few plot points – Jesus Christ (potentially) returns to earth and gets interrogated by Shin Bet. The CIA sends out its agents to dig up anything to discredit the messiah. Upon meeting the president of the US, our Lord and Saviour tells him that the path to world peace means withdrawing US troops from all overseas deployments.

The interesting thing is that the question of al-Masih’s divinity is actually immaterial to much of what he says and does. Is he a Russian asset sent to destabilize America? Maybe just some radical with an axe to grind against the American empire? It doesn’t matter, because empires are immoral and you don’t need possess divine wisdom to see this. 

I realize, though, that I may be projecting more of own politics onto the show than what it wants to say by itself. For one thing, the show is mostly told through the point of view of a CIA agent, and she is basically what the CIA sees itself as: a passionate defender willing to make the hard choices in defense of the ideals of the Republic. Instead of, you know, Keystone Kops bunglers using unsurpassed money and brutality to enforce hegemony.

Thinking on this further, the show expresses discontent with America but is unable to fully grasp or articulate the causes of America’s sickness. It steps in that direction by using the language of millenarian religion but is unable to move further beyond individual moral failing to larger structural causes. However, it’s possible that the show will go further with that thread in a potential second season.

I admit that a large part of my enjoyment stems from having studied a bit of Biblical theology once upon a time. My religious studies class and I would discuss what it would have meant for a Palestinian Jew to be decrying Roman occupation and criticizing collaborationist elites, while keeping in mind that the Romans wouldn’t have given much of a crap about factional distinctions and probably thought Jesus was just one of countless desert nutjobs who needed killing for the Pax Romana. The show basically took those discussions and set my class’s imaginings in the 21st century. And of course the other part of the show I like is the whole poli sci/international relations nerd crap.

Bottom line? If there’s a second season, I’m definitely watching.

Throw a coin

I finished watching The Witcher. The story was too muddled and could have used some tightening up. It could have especially used less frontloading of fantasy gobbledegook – Nilfgaard, Kaer Morhen, Cintra, whateverthehell. I assume part of the problem was the show feeling obligated to stuff the things people liked from the books and games into eight episodes. And a map would have definitely helped. I admit I also get irritated at destiny and chosen one plotlines and usually need an interesting twist on them not to feel annoyed.

I guess the show overall was okay, and apparently getting a season 2. Can’t wait for Netflix to cancel it after that, though, like they always do.

I will say that this is the most Dungeons and Dragons-y live action fantasy show we’ve gotten yet. There are elves, dragons, wizards, and CGI monsters. I guess Game of Thrones paved the way by easing viewers with ice zombies and whatnot.

But let me say, Geralt of Rivia? Not a compelling character.

COBRA-La

I’m watching The Rook, which is about a British spy agency staffed by people with superpowers. In the opening scene the protagonist wakes up surrounded by dead bodies and her memories wiped and has to rely on letters she wrote to herself ahead of time to get to the bottom of the conspiracy while pretending that nothing about her has changed.

It adapts a book series I liked and I’m rather glad of the changes made in the translation to screen. One of the things I found enjoyable from the book was the weird asides from the history of the spy agency, like the time they crucified one of their agents for betraying them to the French or when they were almost hunted to extinction by an angry vampire. 

However, that style of storytelling obviously wouldn’t work on TV, and of course the more flamboyant superpowers would get expensive for the special effects budget, so things get more toned down and the plot revolves more around spy versus spy in the 21st century. The show really gets into Britain as a panopticon state, but it shows this from the point of view of the watchers. The spies are literally a class apart from the people they spy on, living in expensive condos in the heart of London or old Victorian townhouses. I can’t imagine any of the characters ever watching Coronation Street or going down to the pub for a curry.

I’m reminded of certain criticisms of real world British spies, who tend to be recruited straight out of university and have giant blind spots regarding the people their work revolves around. I’m not sure if this class reading is something the show is deliberately encouraging or whether this is something that just inadvertently creeps into shows about the modern United Kingdom. I mean, I found class issues glaring in The Worst Witch and that show is supposed to be a lighthearted kids’ series about hijinks at magic school.

I do appreciate how much more accessible the show is to people not already fans of the spy genre. Being about a fictional spy agency, it doesn’t get deep into the specific details of the British state and governmentality. Here, for example are some real world British government things that have never been mentioned on The Rook, but do keep coming up in novels about British spydom and are essentially gibberish words for foreign audiences: GCHQ, Whitehall, the Official Secrets Act, COBRA briefings.

Anyway, that was just an aside. In the end, I find The Rook intriguing and am already up to the 4th episode.

After Trek

I recently finished reading Trekonomics by Manu Saadia. It analyzes the Star Trek shows and movies to discover what kind of economics exists in the Trek universe. I hadn’t realized how dorky the corner of the Internet I regularly traverse is but I was actually already familiar with many of the arguments the book puts forth, though there was less nerdy jargon being thrown around than online. The book takes for granted what the characters claim about the Federation’s society having no money and no want and teases out what that would mean as far as labour, innovation, psychology, and so on.

The end conclusion is that the Federation’s innovation is not technological, but political. It does present an interesting hypothesis for the Drake equation – that thing scientists and sci-fi enthusiasts use when they need to pull a number out of their asses for how many alien civilizations exist in the universe. The book points out that exploring space is inherently unprofitable and that space exploration means creating a society where massive resources are not wasted on convincing people to gamble on mobile games and suing each other over intellectual property violations. Perhaps the main thing preventing aliens from zooming around in space ships is that they never figured out a way to organize their societies around anything besides profitability, which is to say that capitalism is the problem.

It’s an interesting thesis and obviously impossible to test, but seeing as how space exploration stalled once it stopped being a dick measuring contest (i.e., stopped being possible to profit in terms of national prestige) it does make some sense.

Anyway, I found it an interesting read. And I suppose I should really get on with watching Discovery already.

Kung fu TV

Warrior is the shit. It’s a violent kung fu spaghetti western that’s so very over the top. It’s set in 19th century San Francisco and I think is basically what Bruce Lee had wanted the original Kung Fu TV show to originally look like. The protagonist is literally fresh off the boat from China, but unlike other FOBs he knows kung fu and starts kicking racist ass as soon as he arrives.

The show has a lot about the politics around Chinese immigration at the time – the way politicians stoked working class racism at lost jobs, the way the Irish workers shat on those lower down the ladder than them, the way the rich businessmen gladly exploited the Chinese, the resentment the Chinese had against their oppression, and the gangsters and criminals who didn’t give much of a shit as long as they profited. But all this is expressed in modern-ish language (in fact, very hip hop language), and thanks to the magic of TV we hear English when the Chinese characters are talking all funny among themselves.

Did I mention the show is violent? Because it is. It’s what I wanted out of Into the Badlands and damn if it doesn’t deliver. If nothing else, just watch the opening, it’s stylish as hell. I like the whole 70’s kung fu movie poster thing.

Dragon’s Dogma coming

Well well, seems like Netflix is making an anime about Dragon’s Dogma. As might be gathered from my previous writings on the subject (and on the copious number of painstakingly composed screenshots that I’ve uploaded – seriously, you know how hard it was to reach some of those ledges?), I really liked the game.

Having said that, I liked the game as a game, not as a story. The plot itself was quite thin and not really that compelling (though the backstory was kind of interesting). To accurately reflect my own experience of the game, the show had better have extended sequences of the main character climbing up a cyclops to stab it in the crotch. Also it would need to have 20 minutes of catching rabbits and throwing them off a cliff, plus like 50 hours of trying on different outfits.

Still, the Castlevania show on Netflix turned out pretty good and it’s not like that franchise had an especially good story behind it. Of course, Warren Ellis was the one who wrote that adaptation and we still don’t know who Dragon’s Dogma will get. Fingers crossed the anime will be as fun as the game, though.