Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Un-Go 2: Pitiless Song

Like many anime, Un-Go positions itself at a cross-section of genres.  Most obviously it is a mystery series, in which our mysterious protagonist (a protagonist who always takes the back seat to the rest of the plot) solves a murder case by discovering a perpetrator that no one else would have suspected.  But it also has a distinctly science fictional setting, taking place after a war of counter-terrorism and filled with day-after-tomorrow technology.  And on top of that we add in a blatantly supernatural and fantastical element in Inga, the main detective's sidekick, who has the power to turn in a hot babe and extract the truth from people.  First and foremost this demonstrates that genre is not as concrete a category as we often like to think: fantasy and science fiction and horror and mystery and all of our other favourite literary junk food emerged from a bubbling morass called "the weird" in the 19th century, only later became distinct traditions of their own, and are now frequently merging back into that morass again.  But I want to look at how each genre plays its part in this episode, and that's going to involve some artificial separation again, but so be it.

Mystery: The whodunnit plot is one of the most recognizable ones in the game, simple to understand but difficult to pull off.  There are two essential strands to the classical mystery: first, the audience has to be able to "play along" with the detective, meaning that they have to be able to piece together who the killer is before it's announced in the story.  This is a kind of ludic thrill that adds an appeal more commonly seen in games to the particular pleasures of narrative.  Un-Go sort of breaks the rules in this respect.  Inga's supernatural truth-finding ability goes beyond the kind of deduction that a mundane viewer can do, and could be considered a cheat in classical genre terms.  Still, thus far it's been confined to motive, whereas the actual events of the crime are presented cleanly to the viewer -- the kind of necessary compromise that arises in cross-genre projects.

The second rule, one that usually isn't stated as explicitly, is that it can never be the first or most obvious suspect.  There may be crime stories or detective stories which feature the detective just trying to find enough evidence against the obvious bad guys, but these can't be properly described as mysteries.  Un-Go adds another layer to this by presenting two different layers of red herring.  Beyond the immediately suspicious culprit (in this episode the murdered idol singer's bandmates), there's the culprit apprehended by the foil of Detective Kaisho, the less obvious suspect with some evidence behind them, the character who would be the real murderer in many stories [1].  In this episode it's the ex-idol's cross-dressing boyfriend, which raises issues about the villification of the   Other, although these are never directly addressed.  Finally, we have the real, third culprit, revealed by Shinjuro and Inga.  The final culprit has to be someone whose presence in the story has seemed natural, and who makes sense, but should still come as something of a surprise -- this is a difficult line to walk, and this episode doesn't quite handle it, but it does a better job than a lot of other mystery series.

However, there's an additional element in the soup, which is the persistent taint of corruption.  Shinjuro is nicknamed the "Defeated Detective" because, even if he indusputably solves the case, his truth is ignored for the official truth announced by Detective Kaisho.  The real truth is buried beneath a convenient fiction.  In one respect this is a hand-me-down from the cynical world of noir, as argued by E Minor.  But it also calls into question the very idea behind mystery stories: that the truth matters, and revealing the truth is a heroic act.  Is Shinjuro simply fighting a futile battle, realizing who's commited the crimes to a society that doesn't care?  This calls to mind one of my favourite series EVAR, Veronica Mars, and how it continually played with the question of whether or not the truth ever solved anything (although it did it much better than this series has so far.)

Science Fiction: The stories Un-Go was adapted from were set in an entirely different genre, being historical mysteries, but this adaptation instead sets it in the future.  In some ways this adds an additional mystery into the mix, as we are never exactly presented with the events that took us from the present to this point in time: we know there was a war involving some kind of terrorist group, and that society has been radically restructured, but we don't really know any of the details.  What we do know is that we are in a new kind of gilded age, with an elite ruling class that visually presents themselves as the aristocrats of old -- see the costume ball last episode or Rie on the horse in the episode following this.  Hell, it even shows up in the opening credits.

The futuristic technology takes a backseat in "Pitiless Song", but in many ways it's a science-fictional story.  In essence the story is about the potential for technology to divorce humanity from itself -- in this specific case the divorce between the singing of Osada An and the rest of her person, with an entire new human being created through media spectacle.  Based on this and the next two-parter, Un-Go is as suspicious of technology as most classical sci-fi: instead of leading mankind into a better age, technology ends up making us less than human, and in the end we're just left with a shallow version of what we had before.  The transplanting between past and future makes sense in this context: the show is arguing that the future will just be old wine in a new jug.

Un-Go in particular belongs to the "day after tomorrow" subgenre of sci-fi, in which current trends are satirized by taking them to hyperbolic extremes.  The mysterious but seemingly all-powerful censorship law plays that role in the background, while in the foreground this episode the fever of war patriotism, something that can be seen in the unceasing fellating of soldiers and the military in American culture, is attacked as being a source of shallow calculation.  By making themselves martyrs, the members of Yonagahime capitalize on the existing trends in the media looking for icons of wartime resistance.  Both "Pitiless Song" and the episode before it feature victims who took advantage of the country in wartime to gain fame and fortune.  This is almost a quaint message -- the condemnatory phrase "war profiteer" is so pre-Blackwater, after all.  But it's a worthwhile one to have around.

Fantasy/Supernatural: Inga is the great unexplained element of the story.  All of the other genre elements are twenty minutes into the future, but we have no predecessors for creepy little boys that turn into scary ladies that can magically extract truth from you (although that would be pretty cool).  In some ways Inga is the common sidekick character, a character who can be emotionally expressive while the main detective has to remain stoic and serious.  Often, as in Batman or Sherlock Holmes, the sidekick is the audience's surrogate, although Inga is far too strange to play that role.  He/she does act as a kind of pure id figure, much like the penguins in Mawaru Penguindrum, in that as a child he is always motivated by simple desires and ignores social convention or propriety.  The adult Inga's porno-fantasy body may connect her to the id as well.

(Incidentally, I have to give a lot of credit to Aki Toyosaki for her voicing here, which manages to make Inga sound both playful and absolutely unhinged.)

In terms of the plot, Inga is a deus ex machina in the classical sense: she appears despite logic to restore order to a chaotic world.  Shinjuro inevitably solves the mystery of who was the "real culprit", but the real point of the narrative, as suggested by that guy from 2-D Teleidoscope, is the restoration of social order -- and this is what Inga provides.  In child form, he spreads chaos by his carefree actions, but in adult form she uses her powers to eliminate the secrecy that has splintered a community.  Both of the murders we've seen so far were based around long-simmering secrets.  If Un-Go is playing with the importance of the truth, it seems to at least suggest that secrecy is a malevolent act that grows like a cancer, undermining the community it's set in.  Inga is then a healer of long-hidden illnesses.

Of course, there may also be a genre metaplot mystery associated with Inga, where the viewers gather clues as to what he/she really is.  On the other hand, the truth may never be revealed -- and in some respects that would seem fitting.

Anime: Okay, listen.  I'm the first one on the "anime is a medium not a genre" bandwagon [2].  But here anime was minding its own business and then otaku culture just sprand up around it like a bizarre weed infestation, and at some point these shows have to either acknowledge it or pointedly ignore it.  Un-Go does this by centring "Pitiless Song" around the idol business, exposing its seamy underside.  To track down information on Yonagahime Shinjuroh has to immerse itself in his subculture.  These are not the power otaku of Genshiken or the geurilla nerds that Anonymous likes to present themselves are: these are people with technological power that acquiesce mildly to the regime of censorship, content with chasing after the latest electronic gadget or idealized virtual girlfriend.  We begin the episode in a massive line-up of shifty looking men waiting for the latest update to their holographic idols, the colours dull and grey, and it's hard to identify with any part of this.

(That is one very understanding girlfriend on the left.)

Of course, only in this situation could a negative portrayal of nerds be viewed as challenging the audience or taking a risk, and "evil occurences behind innocent pop music" is hardly a new trope.  But what this episode calls attention to well is how important paratext is to our understanding of texts.  With all of the idol groups producing identical bland pop music, all that becomes important is their personality, their story, and what it means to be a fan of them.  Without the patriotic/tragic element to them, Yonagahime would never have been successful.  It's unlikely that the wider ramifications will register for the audience, but it still forms a good example of how dangerous paratextual fandom is.

While I've been detailing in this post how Un-Go plays with genre in lots of interesting ways, this shouldn't be taken as general praise.  The formal restriction of anime to the half-hour format seems to really hurt here, as everything seems to be rushed with no time for the viewer to find their footing in the plot, nor for most of the interesting thematic territory to be mapped out.  Shinjuro is also disappointing as a detective, lacking the quirks and character that make procedural shows watchable, although Inga might make up for him.  Sure, this is the most interesting new anime of the season, but that's not saying much.  Still, the sheer amount of stuff being fused into one product, no matter how jumbled, is enticing, and if this show ever fully follows through on its ambition -- well, I'll want to be watching.

Next Week: Shit gets and/or remains real on the penultimate season finale of The Shield.

[1] This is not by any means an innovation on the part of Un-Go: the middling detetive who finds another red herring goes back to the bumbling police lieutenants in Sherlock Holmes stories.

[2]Well, to be more precise, animation is the medium.  Anime is more of a tradition, something that encompasses multiple genres but still has a distinctive style -- like Hollywood movies.  But this isn't nearly pithy enough to fit on a bandwagon.

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