Saturday, September 24, 2011

Steins;Gate 23: Open the Steins Gate

Steins;Gate has come a long way since we last checked in on it. In a very anime move, once the series hit the halfway mark it began cashing in on all of the investments made in the seemingly plotless first portion. The goal was to seduce the audience with not a single character but the group interactions between lab members -- the series space carved out so painstakingly, a comfortable groups of losers and outcasts who are just predictable enough for us to feel like we know them. With the repeated deaths of Mayuri the question is just how much Okabe will sacrifice to save that series space, that group experience.

As it turns out, he'll go so far as to sacrifice the group itself. Okabe becomes a myopic, revenge-driven hero, ignoring the larger repurcussions of his actions and focusing only on preserving Mayuri. The other girls -- Suzuha, Moeka, and finally Kurisu -- are sacrificed along with what little sanity and moral compass Okabe has left in the first place. In the end he ends up back with three lab members, neither of which could possibly fill the confidant role Kurisu did

This is, as E Minor notes quite bitterly, the end of the story. It's not a particularly happy end, but it's not a particularly happy character arc -- the story of a dedicated hero who becomes so involved with his quest that, when he's finally completed it, it's at best a bittersweet success as he's destroyed everything else around him as well as his own character and morals. This is a part of the classical rise-to-power narrative, a cinema classic (from The Godfather to The Social Network), but here there's no rise to power, only a fall from whatever piddling amount of power Okabe once had. The arc is, however, complete with the restoration of the original world line, Okabe having achieved his dream but the powerful ambiguity of his sacrifices still in the air.

So of course, in the last two episodes Suzuha shows up in a spiffed-up time machine to fix everything in a neat little bow, offering a way for Kurisu and Mayuri to both live. It's tempting to dismiss this ending as a fob to the fans who don't want to leave a series with a bad taste in their mouth and who want to see their favourite characters prosper. This episode breaks with the established rules of time travel in Steins;gate pretty considerably, rules that were if not really logical at least consistent. The idea of a rigidly balanced world of sacrifice and reward that was underneath the past dozen episodes is neglected. The most obvious symbol of this is Suzuha's time machine, which can now carry passengers and go back and forward in time, with no explanation other than "this timeline is different": Suzuha's sacrifice from previous episodes is rendered unnecessary with a flick of fictional fiat.

Still, I think this desire to see everything turn out alright is interesting, because it speaks of a fundamentall fannish audience.  Steins;Gate has courted this audience right from the beginning with its immersion in otaku culture and frequent self-referential mentions of its visual novel origins, and while that may have done a lot to hook viewers it ultimately also becomes a burden on the narrative, as the story now has to meet not only its own narrative ends but also fannish desires.

I'm drawing a distinction here between being a viewer of a work, critical or not, and being a fan.  Fan culture is something completely different from appreciation, and it stems from a distinct approach to texts.  Instead of approaching a TV show or book or whatever as a cohesive narrative whole, with characters and other elements an integral part of that whole, a fannish viewer accepts the text as a modular universe whose parts can be separated from it, almost a kind of paralell universe with as much nuance and potential for interaction as the real one.  I travelled in fanfiction circles in my misguided teenage years (yeah, I know), and one of the most curious things about these hardcore fans was that they often seemed indifferent to the actual story of their chosen text -- rather, they became attached to a particular character and focused their fandom on that aspect.  With this in mind it's not surprising that these fans often end up discussing fictional characters as real people that they feel love or hatred towards.  It's also not surprising that fandom attaches itself to texts that are already excessively modular, possessing dozens of minor characters who get just enough screentime to attract kindred souls, and usually with clearly delineated story arcs -- think the Harry Potter series or any popular shounen anime.

Video games, and the visual novel genre in specific, assume a fannish (or modular) approach to their content.  In a video game, you sort of have to respond to things modularly and with fannish attachment, because -- as Philip Sandifer of the much-missed NES Project has repeatedly pointed out -- video games are lousy narrative devices.  Visual novels present much more of a conventional narrative, to the extent that they can barely be described as games at all, but in almost all examples of the genre you have to choose between characters or (more rarely) plotlines -- at some point you have to make a fannish choice, deciding which discrete element of the text you want to pursue and which ones you want to leave by the wayside.  The story is then neccesarily diffuse and fragmented.  So it's really not surprising that in the end Steins;Gate would have to have an ending that meets more fannishly appropriate as opposed to narratively sound end.  Leaving half of the girls in limbo would just not do for all of the fans those girls have accumulated over the course of the series [1].  The epilogue in the next (and final) episode goes further, briefly showcasing each character just to reassure us that they're all doing fine and have once again become a part of the community of outcasts.

Now, I'm not saying that being a fan is any better or worse than being a critic, but in the end a show cannot serve two masters (or at least it cannot without a level of deftness that Steins;Gate is frankly not capable of), and the artistic highs which Steins;Gate has shown in driving Okabe to his breaking point over the past ten episodes feel compromised and cheapened by this sudden change to a different mode.  Steins;Gate courted and celebrated (through characters like Feyris and Mayuri) fannishness to draw viewers, but that audience has in a way become a burden on the narrative arc.  "Open the Steins Gate" reaffirms this connection with its fans right from the beginning, with its opening shots of the streets of Akibahara.

Still, these last two episodes work in some ways.  The structure of Steins;Gate is actually quite clever: throughout the first half of the series many changes in the timeline occur and mysteries are brought up but not answered.  In the second half Okabe has to undo all of the alterations in reverse order, which involves revisiting the previous episodes in an unfolding pattern and resolving the mysteries raised there.  Whereas most narratives have a straightforward progression, the narrative map of Steins;Gate is a line folding back on itself, erasing all the progress it's made, until ultimately we end up in the same place we started -- as we did at the end of the last episode.  We are suddenly returned to the early days of the lab, with only three members and no time machine.

Structurally, then, these last two bits make sense: we need to revisit the first two episodes, the mysterious incidents surrounding Kurisu's speech, that we have at this point almost forgotten.  But we've already reached the end point of the regression -- we're back where we started.  That Okabe can undo the past while actively adding things, keeping Kurisu alive and creating the same community without any of the damage -- that saving the world this time requires not sacrifice but salvation -- can be seen as a kind of betrayal of the nothing-comes-for-free ethos that has underlied much of the show.  On the other hand, it's also a nicely optimistic statement: that not everything is as bleak as Steins;Gate's reversal plot and (visually, at least) dark world make it seem.  Sometimes, after all, saving the world requires not sacrifice but a new kind of creation.

I'm also interested in the attitude Steins;Gate takes towards science.  There are two approaches to science in the series.  The first is the raw geekery of Okabe's ramshackle lab, inventions created just for a couple of cool tricks and which may end up changing the world as a mere side effect, pursued out of love alone.  On the other hand there's the cold institution of the scientific world in both its academic and industrial applications.  For most of the series this approach is represented by the faceless evil of SERN, but in these final two episodes it takes the form of the vain and violent Professor Nakabichi, who is ultimately made out to be a kind of monster.

Institutional science, and Nakabichi in particular, is responsible for World War III in this timeline and a dystopia in the other one.  On the other hand, Okabe and the girls live in a kind of scientific utopia, albeit one that is constantly under siege -- where mad scientists can trip over time machines and dorky fun is the order of the day.  Steins;Gate ultimately pledges itself to the cult of the amateur and the cult of the nerd -- everything, from science to art to love, should be approached with a thoroughly unprofessional passion bordering on insanity and not cold careerism.  No matter how awkward the vessel it's in, I think that's still a worthwhile message.

Next week: Archer gets a little long-form.

[1] This is in no way confined to anime, visual novels or genre projects -- even mainstream sitcoms can promote fannish viewing.  The classic "will they or won't they" plotline is essentially projecting the fan habit of shipping onto a mass audience.  In some ways it's easier to appeal to fans than critics, and more and more media are turning this way.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Frisky Dingo 1-01: Meet Killface

Writers like Alan Moore and Frank Miller get a lot of credit for what they did in the 80s, but let's face it: deconstructing and parodying the superhero genre is pretty damn easy. Whereas most science-fiction stories have at least one foot set in reality, the superhero (and especially the supervillain) is a figure who is completely divorced from the world around us. Batman, for instance, has no supernatural aspects to his character, but at the same time there are no Batmen in the real world, whereas in the comics world there are tons of people who decide to put on a costume and fight other people in costumes. It's an unreconstructed relic of an earlier age of pop-culture, and promotes a good versus evil divide, both of which are easy to take apart when approaching from a modern standpoint.

Frisky Dingo is, then, not a show that starts out by breaking much new ground. In addition to the long history of superhero parodies stretching back to 50s MAD magazines, it follows in the more recent tradition of Adult Swim cartoons, a series of minimum-budget shows consisting of 15-minute shorts. By the time Frisky Dingo premeired in 2006, this format was already firmly established (and, some would argue, starting to become stale). This is even acknowledged by starting off "Meet Killface" with the first few seconds of the Sealab 2021 opening, before cutting abruptly to the new program.

While animation is often used to invoke a more vivid and artistic picture of the real world than live-action camerawork could create, in Adult Swim shows there's nothing real being referred to at all. The characters are not real people repurposed for the world of animation, but animated characters repurposed for more satiric animation. In early shows the characters were literally old and forgotten cartoon protagonists repurposed for comedy in a kind of new-age detournement (e. g. Space Ghost Coast to Coast, Sealab 2021), whereas in more recent shows it's the more familiar repurposing of parody (e.g. Moral Orel, The Venture Bros.) The animation is blatantly artificial and sloppy, letting the audience see all the tricks and seams, never letting them forget for a moment that they're watching a TV show. Frisky Dingo is then the merging of two kinds of spectacles (in the Baudrillardian sense, as signs with no real-world referent but simply a vast network connecting to other signs) : the superhero genre and the Adult Swim parody show.

This metafictional spectacle shows itself through the opening of the first episode, "Meet Killface". It begins with, as previously mentioned, the beginning of the opening for Sealab 2021, but then cuts to Killface, the eponymous supervillain, having ostensibly taken over the airwaves and addressing the viewer directly with his typical doomsday plot/threat. Of course, no one is meant to be fooled into thinking that this is a real commandeering of the airwaves, but it immediately disrupts the viewer by mediating their relationship with the screen: instead of being a real viewer watching a real fictional program, they are a real viewer assuming the role of a fictional viewer watching a fictional real program (that is, a program that is real within the fictional, animated world of Frisky Dingo.) That was kind of confusing to explain, but I think that's the point. After making his threat, the camera lingers on Killface staring straight forward, not moving or speaking, for a solid fifteen seconds -- he doesn't even move his eyes until ten seconds in.

Fifteen seconds of stillness doesn't sound like a lot, but it's very rare to see it on television, especially the kind of hyper-kinetic short-format Adult Swim shows. I watched this part twice, and both times I checked to make sure that I hadn't actually paused the video, then wondered if something was wrong with the file. It's a profoundly uncomfortable moment, jarring the viewer out of the fictional world and reminding them that what they're watching is a TV show with a physical and temporal form. It's a sudden break with the fictional viewer persona which Frisky Dingo has foisted upon its viewer in the first minute.

This break is made permanent by what follows, a more conventional comedy sequence in which Killface argues with his cameramen, a group of fast-talking, vaguely irritating film students. The argument over the staging of the archetypical supervillain threat video undercuts the tropes that so easily established what was happening in the first minute, revealing what seems natural to us to be artificially created, and the threatening supervillain to be neurotic and somewhat effete. Still, this is fairly conventional stuff, and I sort of wish the fictional-viewer persona hadn't been discarded so readily.

All the same, there's a persistent sense of unreality throughout Frisky Dingo (or at least this episode), caused mostly by the animation style but also by some sly bits of directing. The long, check-your-video pause returns again, albeit in a shorter format, at various points during the conversation. Again, this is not so much unnatural for real conversation, but unnatural for television. After an angry rant by one of the identical twin film students Killface blasts him in half with some kind of death ray. The twin's top half sails through the air onto the couch, looking less like a person being blown in half and more of a cardboard image of a top half with some oddly detailed guts attached being moved across the screen -- which is just what it is. Later, when his twin brother is killed, he splits in half exactly the same way.

From here we're in more conventional comedic territory. The main thrust of the gags is that despite Killface's evil genius and plans for world domination he still has to deal with ordinary business problems, like the difficulty of advertising and the disquieting notion of settling for direct mail. The joke is in taking a seemingly elevated, otherworldly subject (here a supervillain, but it can be a lot of other genre tropes -- show creator Adam Reed would take a similar approach to the Bond-esque superspy genre in his (hilarious) series Archer) and giving them mundane, ordinary problems, creating humour through the contrast. Interestingly, the same technique is also used to create likeable dramatic characters -- you could probably fit The Sopranos or Big Love into this model, although those shows were always half sitcoms anyway.

This is a pretty common joke setup, but instead of repeating it in numerous iterations "Meet Killface" is essentially one long version of the gag. We start with a full minute of the straight-faced (well, relatively so) supervillain monologue, firmly establishing the pulpy elevation of our supervillain. And then it's just nine minutes of dragging that elevation through the muck of our beauraucratized present, complete with douchey assistants, technical errors, and insufficient funds. It doesn't re-invent the wheel, and some of the bits here are definitely tired, but there's just enough of a spin on the standard-issue parody here to put it into that Adult Swim zone of "just a little off".

"Meet Killface" is written by series creators Adam Reed and Matt Thompson, and both are also identified by Adult Swim as the uncredited director. This is true for every episode of Frisky Dingo. Reed also stars as the voice of Killface, making this pretty much a two-man operation. Of course, no production as major as even the most low-budget of late-night cable shows is truly made by a pair of individuals, and I don't want to neglect the communal character of the medium. But as far as TV goes, Frisky Dingo is pretty close to being an auteur project (the epitome of auteur TV is probably Louie, which I would argue suffers considerably from it.) There are advantages to this approach -- I've talked about how shows like The Shield strive for a consistency of voice despite the multiplicity of their writers, but this isn't really a concern if the same guys are writing every single script. The ideal of pure artistic creation is certainly better served this way. But I'm not sure that this ideal is what we should by into, because I'm not sure that individual creativity neccesarily creates better shows than communal writing. Frisky Dingo certainly isn't something that couldn't come out of a focus group, and one could argue that it could use a few more writers to fill in the gaps between jokes. When given creative freedom some will create genius, some crap, but a good number will turn out something pleasant but safe anyway.

All in all, "Meet Killface" is an unconventional series premiere -- the other major character of the series, Awesome-X isn't even in it, and as an audience we're dropped somewhat in media res without any chance to catch up. But today something this unconventional is almost conventional -- it fits the Adult Swim house style, and is following in a long line of genre parodies. What makes Frisky Dingo distinct is not any obvious element, but that general feeling of off-ness, that something's not quite right. It's an intangible atmosphere that's the trickiest part of the AS formula to nail, and that Frisky Dingo does it so well in its first episode is a sign of promise for its future.

Next week: Steins;Gate goes for the flowered throne.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

No. 6 8: The Reason...

It's hard to imagine, but at one time the dystopia was an unusual, maybe even revolutionary storyline. The key to the dystopia was not just that things are bad, but that this badness is hidden behind an ideological construct that proclaims that this society is completely normal or, in fact, a utopia. When Zamyatin, Huxley and Orwell were writing the novels that everyone reads in high school (well, maybe not Zamyatin) their writing was an act of insurrection against the ideologies of their time, ideologies that, as is their wont, present themselves as a normal or even ideal part of society -- totalitarian socialism, nationalism [1], consumerism, patriarchy (A Handmaid's Tale), etc.

Of course, now we all read these books in high school, and they are used not to undercut ideology but to support it, teaching us that Communism Is Bad and that we need to Watch Out For Big Government. The modern image of dystopia is not Brave New World but Brazil, in which the horror is any threat to capitalistic freedom. Moreover, the dystopia has become a stock set for genre projects, projects like No. 6.

The eponymous city of No. 6 is pretty much your bargain-bin dystopia. It's first established as a rigidly structured paradise -- a civilization much like our own, but without any apparent social problems or vices. However, as we quickly discover, it has a barely hidden totalitarian side -- secret police, constant monitoring by the government, and people who are too disagreeable being "disappeared". However, there is no apparent ideological basis for No. 6, no Big Brother or Fordism. It is a value-free dystopia, the trope hollowed out of its revolutionary nature and used in a way that is neutral if not conservative. There is only the contemporary societal bargain -- you can have a pretty good life so long as you don't mind the government doing terrible things constantly. But, as "The Reason..." makes clear, No. 6 is not so much a construct of any political ideology but rather modernity and Western technology. (I'm cribbing from Moe Sucks quite liberally here.)

As I've mentioned before, the clash between nature and modernity is a conflict that appears again and again in anime. The obvious reference here is Hayao Miyazaki's work, but it pops up in the strangest places. This is far from exclusively a Japanese concern, but its popularity in anime can certainly be attributed to the fact that this is a nation that was forcefully shaped into a modern liberal democracy by the hands of a foreign power, all in living memory. The circumstances are similar in No. 6 -- as we learn in this episode, the utopian cities were a deliberate, carefully constructed creation, when contrasted with the natural growth of both the forest people Rat comes from and the chatoic slums outside No. 6. These cities are also identified with Western culture both through costume and setting design but also through cultural reference -- Safu studies the work of Picasso and Shakespeare, but no comparable Eastern artists.

The introduction of the forest people adds a mystical, fantasy element to the thus far resolutely sci-fi series and underscores this dichotomy. Nature is accorded a semi-mystical power, associated with Rat's song that can be heard in other peoples' minds from far away. This suggests a kind of Jungian collective unconciousness, with Rat's song being a cross-cultural image that hints at a more natural and pure self. In No. 6 culture itself is associated with nature and primitivism -- in No. 6 we see no over-the-top propaganda videos, no mindless entertainment TV, no media or culture period -- just cold science and bland comfort. No. 6 even prohibits the neutered official culture that other cities permit -- a few episodes ago we saw Safu having to give up her art books on returning to the city. On the other hand, nature has so strong a command of art and culture that it is able to communicate it across all logical boundaries.

All of this forms a hastily-added environmental angle to No. 6. I guess you could say this has been foreshadowed by previous instances of Safu being able to here Rat's song, but other than that there's been no lead-up to this reveal in terms of either plot or themes. If anything the previously episodes mainly contrasted the orderly, planned city of No. 6 with the lively chaos of the slums. But the series seems to have lost interest in this and is instead grabbing at another way to villainize No. 6, this time through the familiar trope of industrial tree-clearing, this time executed by stormtroopers with flamethrowers, just in case we didn't get the message.