Sunday, September 30, 2012


I recently started my PhD program, and with that has come a dramatic decrease in my spare time.  This alone probably wouldn't be enough to kill the blog -- I maintained it through my MA year, after all -- but there seem to be an endlessly proliferating amount of demands on my time, and to be frank this blog isn't exactly setting the world on fire.  I've got a third of a post on Eureka Seven AO typed up, but I can't really be arsed to finish it, and I don't want to do the kind of half-assed job that I (or the creators of Eureka Seven AO) have been doing lately.

I may return sometime with a new format, or a new blog all together.  Or I may vanish into the aether of the Internet forever.  I'd like to thank all of the people who stumbled across this site looking for porn, my two loyal readers that may only be a figment of my imagination, and all of the television I grumbled about over the past year.  Sorry, guys.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Mantracker 6-05: Priscilla & Colt

The dual trends of reality television and cable proliferation has produced a host of shows that manage to produce several seasons without the vast majority of the population being aware they exist.  Such is Mantracker, a Canadian[1] reality series that my too-complicated wildcard system happened to stumble across.  It's a cheaply-produced show, obviously formulaic, and on some levels laughable, but critics would be foolhardy to ignore the vast bulk of cable detritus, which taken together is a pretty significant cultural phenomenon.  So down the rabbit hole we go.

As much as I can gather from one episode, Mantracker is basically The Amazing Race (or, more accurately, extreme tag) crossed with the plethora of nature-based reality shows, with the titular mantracker (given a name in the intro but mainly referred to by "Mantracker" or "Tracker") filling in the role of grizzled host.  The format involves a team of "prey" travelling on foot across the wilderness, trying to evade the team of "Tracker" and "Sidekick" (yes, that's the actual name the show gives him), who don't know where they're headed but get to travel on horseback.  It's a basic one-off competition format, with the contestants either winning by reaching the finish line or losing by getting caught.  There's a bunch of extra stuff to attempt to balance out the asymmetric nature of the game, but that's the gist of it.

Of course, the fact that this chase takes place across wilderness -- in this episode the Canadian shield -- is crucial.  For one, the setting helps change the central metaphor of the competition from "tag" to "hunting", which is much more dramatic.  Moreover, the wilderness provides inexpensive beauty -- when the drama of the series fails, the opportunity to experience nature from the comfort of our sofa is enough of an appeal.  There are even a number of educational bits about local wildlife (possibly just there to justify government grants).

The natural setting also helps produce an ideology in which the show is meaningful.  "It's more than just a game," the overly-agressive narrator insists in the opening.  "This thing called Mantracker is a return to the animal instincts hidden deep in the human DNA."  It doesn't really get much more explicit than that, folks.  Mantracker positions itself as a return to something real -- the wilderness, life-or-death struggle, and biological imperative -- in contrast with the postmodern world.

This is a distinctly gendered discourse.  Priscilla is constantly portrayed as an anchor on her husband Colt, ranked (very scientific-like) as having less physical ability and being easier to capture, and the narrative of the episode goes on to confirm this.  On a broader level, the nostalgia for a time when trackers on horses were really societally important is at least in part a longing for a physical, masculine world where men could actually fulfill all the aspects of their traditional gender identity.

The narrative of the episode plays out cyclically: the prey come up with some plan or scheme tto fool the tracker, and we then cut to the tracker immediately figuring out what they've done.  Priscilla & Colt are portrayed in the time-honoured manner of minor villains, making half-hearted jokes about the tracker's age and scheming about leaving prankish traps for him, which the tracker interprets as nice gifts in one of the episode's more amusing interation.  The usual reality TV staples are all used in an attempt to create tension, ranging from confessional interviews to pre-commercial previews which make the upcoming events look much more dramatic than they actually are.  (In one egregious exampe, the preview suggests that one of the teams encounters a bear, which never comes close to happening.)

For all these tricks, though, there isn't much actual tension in this episode.  Whether it's the imbalance of the format or simply the weakness of these two particular contestants, Priscilla and Colt never really seem to have a prayer of winning.  The tracker basically finds them not far from the starting line and lets them get away, presumably because they need to fill up an hour with this chase.  Reality competition shows usually don't ask for much suspension of disbelief, as their format openly and obviously forces competition and drama, but this scene ruins any ideas that the narrative is not entirely predetermined.  On a slicker-produced show, I might have bought Priscilla and Colt's escape, but here it comes off as blatant manipulation, which kind of spoils the whole "survival of the fittest" aspect.  But that's the danger with reality television.  The producers may think they're in control of what really happens, or at least what makes it to air, but so often reality is in control of them.

Next week: "That's the only connection I have between my Mom and I.  It's not a weapon!"

[1] This may help to explain my ignorance of this show, as I (like most Canadians) don't pay any attention to Canadian TV.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Fist of the North Star 103: A Challenge From the Devil! Fudo, Be the Demon for Those You Love!!

Okay, let's get this right out of the way: no episode of Fist of the North Star is as good as its title.  The amount of bold, over-the-top heroics suggested in sentence fragments and redundant exclamation marks is enough to set anyone's blood a-boiling, especially when screamed out by the hyperactive preview narrator.  The actual episodes usually pale in comparison, often seeming like the thirty seconds of awesome-looking moments from the trailer stuffed together with twenty minutes of stalling.  With next-episode previews affixed to just about every anime release, Fist of the North Star ends with that distinct soap opera kick: "that was terrible, and I need to find out what happens next."

I was exaggerating: the show's not terrible.  It's perhaps not the classic that certain spheres of anime fandom have built it up to be, but it has a certain charm that's mainly to due with the anarchic animation and larger-than-life characters and accompanying mythology.  It was also incredibly influential, which may make it a classic depending on your particular definition of the word.  Of course, not all influences are for the better.

Many of anime's distinctive stylistic traits were developed in the 60s and 70s as shortcuts to cut animation costs.  While some of these are reviled today (speedlines, anyone?), many have become cherished parts of the anime aesthetic.  Similarly, the shortcuts and narrative duct tape used by Fist of the North Star have become distinct traits of the shounen genre that it heavily influenced.  In particular I want to look at its economical way of portioning out story -- or, to be slightly more direct, its use of filler.

Shounen today is famous for its long battles that can stretch on for several episodes.  This episode's featured battle, between Raoh and Fudo, is only two episodes, as it isn't tremendously important and the standard of fight length had yet to be really established.  But whether two episodes or twelve, in most of these episodes there's remarkably little fighting going on.  In "A Challenge From the Devil!", for instance, the Raoh/Fudo fight doesn't' get started until three quarters of the way in.  In general in these episodes significant events happen at the start and the end of the episode.  This is not simply poor writing, but a factor of the format and economics of mass-market anime.  There's only so much manga to adapt, and said manga is usually incomplete when the anime adaptation starts.  So plot must be rationed, spread out amongst the constant grind of weekly episodes.

So what do you do when there's not enough plot to go around?  Flashbacks are one staple.  In this episode we have an extended flashback to Raoh's past encounter with Fudo, the only man to ever truly frighten him, as well as Fudo's eventual conversion into the gentle giant of the present.  This conversion was, of course, at the hands of Yuria, the idealized female figure who, as an object of desire, has driven this last arc.  Simply witnessing her kindness is enough to reform Fudo.  We're also reminded again that the young Yuria looked an awful lot like Lynn, furthering the idea that all of the significant female characters in the series (all 3 or 4 of them) are basically the same person.

(The perspective here is a great example of the grandiose overstatement inherent in Fist of the North Star's style, with characters like Fudo and Raoh being not only giants but also growing and shrinking at the whim of the animator.)

There's a kind of paradoxical nature to the recent flashbacks in this series.  On the one hand, any flashback establishes the primacy of the past as a way of understanding who the characters are today.  This logic works for both mythic (e. g. Fist of the North Star) and psychological (e.g. Lost) ideas of character.  When Fudo is forced to don his old battle armour again and become "the Ogre", it's the return of the repressed writ large and violent.  Kenshiro's new ability to channel the skills of his defeated foes also plays into this dynamic.

But at the same time these late-series flashbacks are a bit of a retcon.  Characters like Raoh and Fudo are ascribed motivations that have never been mentioned before but are suddenly all important.  At the same time as the in-story past is made more important, the past that we ourselves remember -- the past of the series -- has become less important and even cast as unreal compared to these characters' newly-established backgrounds.  This is the essential paradox surrounding retcons, both the obvious dimension-bending ones seen in superhero comics and the subtler ones seen elsewhere.

It is not that flashbacks are necessarily filler -- they can often reveal crucial information.  And in Fist of the North Star they reflect one of the main ideas of the series, a lost age of peace and prosperity ruined by degeneracy and complacency.  But they stop the narrative momentum of the series in its tracks, and interrupt the flow inherent to any good fight scene.  As the fights become talkier and more flashback-dominated, it becomes less of an action series and more of a series that uses fights as an inciting dramatic event but is basically not really interested in them.

Another key time-filling technique can be seen in this episode's interstitial action sequence with Kenshiro.  This is a familiar pattern for the fourth and final "part" of the series: while Raoh and the Goshashei have plot-relevant battles at the start and end of each episode, Kenshiro takes on minions in the middle.  These guys are basically the image of your average Fist of the North Star mook, a mixture of 80s countercultures that embody youth degeneracy.

There's a bit of a change to the formula of these battles, as at this point in the plot Kenshiro has been blinded and has to take on the bad guys without use of his sight.  This allows for moments of mortality, such as when the leader of the thugs in this episodes actually hits him.  But for the most part it's the usual exhibition of invulnerability and superman strength.  This was once, of course, the meat of most episodes, but now it seems as though Raoh has become the true protagonist (if not the hero) of the narrative, whereas Kenshiro is just a relic of the older story, a supporting character in his own show.

Of course, what fans deride as filler is not always a bad thing.  If we put prejudice in favour of serialized stories aside, the journey can be just as fulfilling as the destination.  There are great shows that are entirely episodic, and thus from a certain perspective all filler.  But at this point in Fist of the North Star we're just seeing conflicts and ideas we've seen many times before re-enacted again.  Worse yet, there is genuine plot advancement in the episode, which makes the redundant majority of its runtime even more aggravating.  So I would argue that the reliance on time-filling in what is, after all, not that complex a story is a flaw of Fist of the North Star.  But it would very quickly become a flaw of the genre.

Next week: "You haven't ignored the last of me!"

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Futurama 7-13: Naturama

The anthology format is one that doesn't always work, especially for half-hour shows.  (Note that here I'm talking about episodes that are themselves anthologies of shorter pieces, not Twilight Zone-esque) anthologies of stand-alone episodes.  For instance, at this point when it pops up on The Simpsons it usually signals an indifferent space-filler (or maybe that's just any contemporary Simpsons episode).  But Futurama has always made this format something of a special event, usually a season-closer, recognizing in it the potential for unbridled play.

The Futurama anthology episode is usually the equivalent to the old comic book What-If stories, quite literally for the old "Anthology of Interest" episodes.  By exploring alternate universes and continuities, one can not only reveal more about the "real" universe of the story but also transgress the usual boundaries of the episodic format.  In "Naturama" the writers take particular delight in killing off regular characters and otherwise teasing alterations of the status quo that would never fly in the main series.

"Naturama" imagines the central characters as animals, a fairly hokey premise, but fortunately the various writers do more than cute-dog jokes.  Like the previous season finale, "Reanimation" has an ostensible gimmick uniting the three shorts (there it was a change in animation style) but also has a thematic undercurrent cutting through all of the stories.  Here all three are about love, in particular the hopeless and frustrating side of love, as well as the collision between personal will and the dictates of nature.

The first segment, "The Salmon", references the well-known but still bizarre mating rituals of the salmon, a natural metaphor for a fatalistic worldview if there ever was one.  The story uses the Fry-Leela romance, which has at this point become more of an occasionally-referenced myth than an actual plotline, and exploits all of those mythic associations.  Of course, graphing human romance (especially a star-crossed romance involving a love triangle with Zap Branigan) onto animal mating behaviour is specious anthropomorphism, but hey, that's the whole episode.

What's more interesting is the parts of the salmon lifestyle that aren't anthropomorphized.  When asked his name, Fry-fish replies "I don't have a name.  I'm a salmon."  Similarly, the short makes a lot of hay out of the actual sex act, involving the female laying eggs and the male jizzing on them.  The almost scatological and definitely bestial specifics of the act contrast with the attempt to overlay a very human romance narrative on it.  "The Salmon" constantly undercuts its central premise by pointing out how absurd that premise actually is -- a strange maneuver, but an interesting one.

The second short, an obvious take on Lonesome George featuring the Professor as the eponymous turtle, is more of the cute-animal story one would expect from the overall episode premise.  Other than Mom's sourness, the characters here only visually resemble their Futurama incarnations, and the story at large is an uneasy mixture of sentimentality and dark-humour cynicism.  It's a perfectly fine seven minutes of television, but other than a few lines about parasites and lifespans it lacks that alienating dynamic that interests me most about this episode.

That dynamic returns in spades in the final segment, which again deals with a strange mating process -- that of the elephant seal.  (Incidentally, one has to compliment the Futurama writers for not only being able to dig up these bizarre biological corner cases but using them to create further jokes and not just chuckling at the idea of seal sex).  Bender is reincarnated as a "beachmaster", keeper of a massive seal harem, which is a divergence from canon Bender -- who isn't interested in lust any more than any of the other sins -- but one that allows him to retain the characteristics that make him appealing.  The Amy/Kif romance is also interpreted into a new form whilst retaining its essence, the beta-male-makes-good storyline.  If anything, it becomes more impactful in a setting where the term "beta male" is not a metaphor.

The story itself is filled with strange ambiguities.  Amy is treated as genuinely in love with Kif, but gleefully joins in every pile on Bender.  Kif heroically challenges Bender to a fight, and is promptly squashed.  At the end bender is still content in his throne, although the beta males have secretly impregnated many of the females.  There's nothing revolutionary about a story where neither good nor evil wins, but there's usually a message, whereas here there's just unpleasant things happening.

The Phil LaMarr-voiced narrator assures us at the end of the second segment that "nature is horrific, and teaches us nothing".  It's comically overstated, but in the end that does seem to be the main take-away from "Naturama".  As much as we may wish to ascribe human characters or motivations to animals -- George is lonesome, the salmon long for their home, the beachmaster is slothful and indulgent -- ultimately only a mixture of biology and raw chance rule.

This is not an especially new idea, with the idea of nature as meaningless violence going back at least to Hobbes.  The general acceptance of evolution means that it's a fairly widespread idea.  What "Naturama" points out is the way in which we attempt to elide this view through narrative, whether it be ascribing human characteristics to our pets or the full-scale anthropomorphism of a Disney movie.  It does this by constantly calling attention to the ridiculousness of its own narrative conceit, a surprisingly bold movie for a show as long in the tooth as Futurama.

Of course, it does leave us with one final question: is this realm of random violence and meaningless endings really all that different from the one we humans live in?

Next week: "I got rope, I got duct tape, I got a tazer..."

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Wilfred 2-10: Honesty

The first season of Wilfred was substantially foused on Ryan's relationship with Jenna.  Not only is Jenna the impetus for the entire series, being the one who asks Ryan to look after Wilfred, but many first-season episodes were driven by Ryan's attempts to get close to Jenna or split her and Drew up.  In the second season, however, she's taken a bit of a backseat, to the point that it began to seem that every episode started with Wilfred explaining how Jenna was on vacation.  This was largely beneficial to the show, as Jenna doesn't really have that much comedic potential and the possible scenarios surrounding her were more or less exhausted in the first season.  But when she returns in "Honesty", not as a supporting character but a major one, it does feel as though Wilfred has returned to its roots.

This is actually the kind of episode that feels as though it should have been much earlier in the season, dealing with the fallout of the first season finale and not the barely-mentioned events of the second season thus far[1].  It relies heavily on knowledge of the cascading series of disasters that closed out the first season, which are a bit cloudy in even my memory.  On the other hand, this does fit into this season's overall arc of Ryan making amends and inching closer to becoming a normal human being.

The impetus of the plot is Jenna's attempt at regaining her journalistic credibility, but this quickly is transferred over to Ryan's own personal neuroses.  The genuine favour she asks of him would involve him talking with his father, one of Ryan's prevailing hang-ups, so of course that doesn't happen.  But Ryan's failure to overcome this fear for the girl he likes leads him into a guilt-driven attempt to fabricate a story, which naturally spirals into absurdity.

So far this is par for the course.  This is the basic comedic machine of the series: Jenna (sometimes replaced by Kristen or Amanda) incites Ryan to action, usually through guilt, and his errant attempts at making her happy are inflamed and made both absurd and disastrous by the intervention of Wilfred.  This is a very traditional sitcom structure, and its absurdism and dark comedy Wilfred is a very traditional comedy, right down to the moral of the week.  While you would never see a plotline involving the main character pretending to be a deranged cat murderer on, say, The Cosby Show, the underlying beats of the story -- for instance, the moment where Jenna thanks Ryan for his attempts to help but only aggravates his guilt for creating the problem -- are pretty similar.

That moral of the week is a little skewed here, however.  On the surface the story reinforces the preschool lesson about honesty being the best policy -- Ryan and Jenna finally come clean about their respective misdeeds, and it ultimately leads to a better relationship and less guilt.  What's more, this honesty also allows us as an audience to see the characters in a new way, in particular Jenna's admission that she was consciously manipulating Ryan throughout the first season.  This isn't really novel -- the hot girl who takes advantage of the weird guy with a crush on her is a well-worn one, probably driven by the tendency of screenwriters to be frustrated weird guys -- but it does suggest a sense of interiority that was absent from Jenna before.

But there's still a great deal of deceit that goes on and remains uncorrected at the end of the episode.  Jenna still has no idea that when Ryan looks at her dog he sees a foul-mouthed Australian in an animal suit.  If we look at illusion as a kind of metaphysical deceit, then Ryan still has no idea whether he can see Wilfred honestly, and Wilfred himself is a cauldron of deceit and tricks (as Ryan argues early in this episode, Wilfred lies to him all the time).  On a smaller scale, Jenna ends the episode without ever learning about Ryan's connection with the cat kidnappings or that Ryan never called his father.

So what's the take-away here?  Is the lesson that deception and illusion are wrong except for when they work out for the best, a la A Midsummer Night's Dream?  Is it just haphazard plotting undercutting the alleged larger message?  Neither explanation really satisfies me.

Rather, I think this reflects on Wilfred's idea of morality, which is probably most closely akin to Catholicism.  Honesty is not, in this episode, telling the absolute truth about everything.  Rather, honesty is about confession.  Ryan only can be honest by admitting that he is a sinner and asking for forgiveness.  Many other episodes of Wilfred follow the model of confession -- Ryan at first denies that he's doing anything wrong or suffering from any kind of sin (past episode titles: "Avoidance", "Anger", "Pride", "Fear"), and is healed by admitting his weakness in the episode's conclusion.

The Catholicism comparison also highlights why guilt is such an important driving device.  (This might come off as a joke, but I don't really mean it that way.)  Wilfred is the human (er, canine) embodiment of guilt, the voice in the back of your head always suggesting that you aren't living your life according to the moral code that you believe in.  This would explain the sometimes contradictory nature of the show's "lessons" -- guilt can get you no matter what you do, and there can even be paradoxical guilt over the failure to embrace new-age morality about putting the past behind you and living life to its fullest, which Wilfred advocates in the episodes where he isn't hounding Ryan for past misdeeds.  So maybe Wilfred isn't the figure of unrivaled id that he's usually taken for, but a strange kind of conscience (a superego, to go all Freudian).  If this is true, it's a conscience that is, perhaps like real consciences, constantly unsatisfied.  But the series suggests that maybe this kind of thinking can lead to positive results after all.

In this episode, everything works out because of Ryan's one act of honesty.  Now knowing what she experienced, Jenna is able to use that experience to sell a potentially hokey "investigative report" on pot candy.  The deceit that Ryan formerly embodied is transferred to the inanimate stick of candy.  (Its deceitful, destructive high is carefully separated from and contrasted with the open, inhibition-lowering pot that Ryan and Wilfred smoke at the end of almost every episode.)  Jenna regains her job, Ryan regains her friendship, and things inch closer to, if not a happy ending, at least the basically stable first-season status quo.

But of course, there are Ryan's still-unrevealed deceits, his inability to confront his father, and his potential insanity.  Wilfred's central characters only progress through two steps forward and one step back.  But that is, the show suggests, enough.

Next week: "A Challenge From the Devil! Fudo, Be the Demon for Those You Love!!"

[1]This along with Jenna's general scarcity this season is enough to make me suspect that there were some scheduling issues with Fiona Gubelmann, although I have no idea what else she has going on.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Haibane Renmei 10: Kuramori -- Haibane of Abandoned Factory -- Rakka's Job

Like a lot of anime series, Haibane Renmei takes a turn around the midpoint of its run, and (as with most other series that make this turn) it's towards a more dramatic and heavily serialized type of story.  This isn't always successful -- for example, Trigun was much better as a goofy episodic adventure series -- but when it's done well it not only makes the stories more consequential but disrupts the underpinnings of the lighter fare earlier on.  (Martian Successor Nadesico is a prime example of this although, as I'm discovering on my second watch-through it still has plenty of comedy episodes after the midway point.)  For Haibane Renmei, I especially welcomed this change, because the first half of the series is pretty soporific.

This change is instigated by the departure of Kuu, which brings into relief the strange metaphysical nature of the Haibane, and in turn provokes an existential crisis from Rakka.  In typical fantasy fashion, the rites of the Haibane are only exaggerated and literalized versions of human mortality -- we are here but for a short time, and then we have to leave, and it's impossible to know what happens next, if anything does.  Rakka has always seemed somewhat childlike, and her depression is akin to that first brush with mortality and the blind fear it brings.

Haibane Renmei is about supernatural beings that closely resemble angels, but only now does it touch on the subject matter of religion.  In addition to the question of mrotality, in the last few episodes we've learned that Haibane can be "sin-bound", unable to reach salvation because of an inborn curse.  How this actually works is a bit confusing -- in this episode the Communicator suggests that Reki can still fly over the wall despite being sin-bound -- but it's an obvious echo of the Christian notion of original sin.

Although by this point the story is basicall continuous, this episode still uses the series's signature tripartite structure.  The first part is an extended flashback to Reki's past.  We already know the broad strokes of her backstory -- that she was born sin-bound and went through a turbulent adolescence -- and this flashback doesn't really give us any new information.  What it does is shift our perspective.

Reki's process of hatching and being slowly brought up as a Haibane is parelelled darkly in Reki's story.  Whereas Rakka awakens surrounded by people, Reki hatches alone and covered in blood.

We then see Reki going through all of the stages Rakka did over the first seven episodes of the series -- meeting the other Haibane, being tested by the Communicator, and eventually witnessing someone leaving her -- but there's a darker inflection to each of these.  Whereas Rakka's process was marked by agreeable conformism and slice-of-life hijinx, Reki's is full of conflict[1].  This is most because she's easily identified as sin-bound, and thus stigmatized, but the meaning of the shift in perspective is more general than this.  It's a simple recognition that the cheerful narratives of growth that characterize most childhoods are not universal.  This is, I think, one of the more useful gestures fiction can make: sometimes, it's like they say, but sometimes it's like this instead.

It also highlights the darker side of the small world of Haibane Renmei, which has been subtly present the whole time.  Through no fault of her own, Reki is an outcast.  The mystical dictatorship and its unquestioned edicts make life easy and conflict-free for Rakka, but for Reki it sinks her life into incomprehensible suffering.  Even the two characters' names highlight their duality.  Despite being friends that care deeply for one another, they're also foils for each other.

The second part returns us to the present day[2], and is the most like what comes before.  Structurally, it acts as a bridge between one plot point (Rakka's sickness) and the next (her new duty as cleaner).  Thematically, it flows naturally out of the first part of the triptych.  Whereas the Reki we see there is a helpless victim, this Reki is not afraid to violently argue with the Communicator against the system and what she sees as injustice.  At the same time as this establishes continuity between the past and present (Reki's past leads her to act against a similar situation), it also establishes a potential discontinuity: if Reki has anything to say about it, the past won't be repeated, and Rakka will be saved.

Rakka is saved, in a manner of speaking.  Her fever clears up, but it's not clear what's responsible for this.  Given the way that Reki was talking about the wall-induced fever as a fatal affliction, this is an unlikely event, but the episode leaves it up in the air whether it was Reki's actions or blind luck that healed Rakka.  Or perhaps Reki's diagnosis was not as definitive as we thought it was.

For the most part what the middle stanza accomplishes is to flesh out the supporting characters.  The one who benefits most is Nemu, who up until now has been a benevolent matriarch-type, but is revealed to be... well, still a benevolent matriarch, but one who was at one point a bratty kid, and one whose benevolence leads to problems such as her own inability to communicate her feelings or, on a level that's more literal in-text and more metaphorical out of it, fly over the wall.  A couple of the Abandoned Factory Haibane show up, and they turn out not to be as tough as they look, although the rough-girl-shows-sensitive-side scene is one that's very familiar, especially to anime fans.  None of these characters are revealed to be much different than how we thought of them, but they do seem more real now.

The final third deals with Rakka's new job, ostensibly handed down as a punishment for her disobedience.  She is assigned to clean the inner walls of the temple, which is demeaning but also moves her closer to the central mysteries of the series.  There's been occasional emphasis on the Haibane's need for a job, with the idea of work as a neccessary way to define their identity, and this would seem to finally supply Rakka with such a job.

Interestingly, the outfit Rakka wears for this job heavily resembles that of the Communicator.  This would seem to foreshadow Rakka herself becoming a communicator or part of the system that's vaguely referred to as "the Renmei"[3].  I'm not entirely sure how I feel about this development -- it seems a little too neat -- but it does certainly give new important to the series's title.

In short, the end is coming into sight, and now that we're beginning to see the larger shape of the series we can see not just the future -- what it would take to complete this shape -- but how the past episodes fit into things as well.  This is perhaps not the best format for a serialized medium, as it leaves earlier installments incomplete and contextless, but Haibane Renmei manages it better than most "puzzle shows" by putting the emphasis on character motivations rather than mythology.  More than anything else, this is the episode where the central characters took a definite step into reality.

[1]Maybe it's just the drama-addict in me, but I can't help but feel like Reki's story would make for a more interesting series.

[2]To give you some idea of how much attention episode director Koji Yoshikawa pays to form, the flashback ends almost exactly one-third of the way through the episode's running time.  The next two parts are less tightly wound, and what I've identified as the third actually happens in the middle of the second.

[3]Of course, everyone else who cares has already seen the end of the series, so my speculation is uninteresting as well as useless.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The X-Files 1-20: Darkness Falls

Straight horror has never been a major genre on American television, and attempts to make it so have resulted in everything from certain episodes of The Twilight Zone to American Horror Story, but never a major hit.  But horror has been far more successful when hiding beneath the veneer of science-fiction or other genre stories.  Early episodes of Star Trek revolve less around science-fictional concepts and more on strange foreign monsters that exploit our vulnerabilities and anxieties.  The same is true of the first season of The X-Files, which certainly has the show's distinct conspiracy theory flavour, but as often goes in for conventional horror plots.

"Darkness Falls" is one of these episodes.  It follows the classic template of isolating a group of broadly-drawn characters in an isolated environment, a literal cabin in the woods, and surrounding them with mysterious monsters that pick them off one by one.  The monsters are ancient insects represented by green bugs that look for all the world like blips in the video, probably because they more or less are.

This scene is another obvious horror movie staple, where one of the victims struggles to start their car.  The bugs have a bit more of a scientific rationale than your average movie monster, but they're not exactly unprecedented -- horror movies exploiting our fear of insects go back a long way.  The formula more or less works, and if the resultant episode of television is never really good, it at least holds the attention effectively.

What makes "Darkness Falls" distinct is the amount it commits to the woods as a setting.  The plot revolves around a conflict between forest rangers and a group of ecoterrorists[1], and in addition to this there's a lot of ecology and quasi-ecology relating to the setting.  Nature is not merely an isolated neutral setting -- it is the enemy itself.  At night the investigators and company huddle around artificial light, using technology as a refuge against the dangerous forces of nature around them.  The woods seem complicit in the violence perpetrated by the insects, mostly in their imposing length (preventing an escape even with all day to travel.  Later on we learn that they emerged from an ancient tree that was recently logged, with a green ring highlighting their former home.

Technology, on the other hand, isn't really trustworthy either.  Automobiles in particular are a source of vulnerability -- the forest rangers' car is easily sabotaged by rice and other natural substances in the gas tank, and even the much-vaunted Jeep can't take Mulder and Scully out of the woods fast enough.  And of course there's the above-mentioned "car won't start" stock scene, featuring the death of the stock character who doesn't believe in these irrational monsters.  Repeatedly we see the insects entering through the wholes in cars -- the vents and fans and cracks.  These reflect the chinks in the invincible armour of technology.  In the end, where the government promises to exterminate the insects with gas, there's a distinct sense that this technology too will fail.

This is basically a microcosm for the larger dialectic between science and nature in The X-Files.  On the surface, scientific rationality (usually embodied by Scully) is proved wrong all the time in its refusal to accept folk wisdom and urban legend.  This is seen in this episode both by the failure of technology and the first casualty's dismissive attitude towards the threat.  But at the same time science is often the only means of combating the threat of the unknown -- the only reason that Mulder and Scully learn enough to survive is because science gives them a way to know the threat.

"Darkness Falls" tries to strike a similar balance in the political side of the episode, in the struggle between the hippie ecoterrorist and the burly park rangers.  The X-Files naturally has an anti-authority bent, which would lend it to sympathize with the rebel disrupting the system, but on the other hand its heroes are law enforcers, and in most plots end up trying to banish the strange from the normal workings of society.

Because of this tension (if I wanted to be fancy I could call it another dialectic) this episode can never fully come down on either side.  A large part of the plot pivots around Mulder trusting the outsider, but this sympathy doesn't extend so far as to agreeing with his goals.  On the one hand, the "monkeywrenchers"' ideas are reinforced by the plot, as it's illegal clear-cutting that frees the killer bugs in the first place.  But their actions are also what stops everyone from being able to escape, which is reinforced -- in the usual TV irony -- by the end of the episode, when the "terrorist"'s Jeep is laid flat by one of his own caltrops and he's caught by the insects, hoisted by his own petard.  The episode suggests that the monkeywrenchers' concerns are valid, but their means of resistance is wrong.  That's a common refrain in mainstream television, but it's unsatisfying here, and a useful contrast could be drawn between the more agressive tactics the show condemns and Mulder and Scully's ineffectual attempts to work within a system they know is corrupt if not downright evil.

"Darkness Falls" seems to be very deliberately modeled on a classic from earlier in the season, "Ice".  Both episodes involve Mulder and Scully trapped in an isolated natural environment with a group of guest stars and an insidiously small monster.  It's obvious that at this point the series is trying to revisit its successes and move towards more of them -- the following episode, "Tooms", does this more directly.  But "Darkness Falls" doesn't quite live up to "Ice".  It replaces paranoia-driven conflict with ideological bickering, and by moving out of an alienating science-fictional setting (the arctic research station) it seems far more dated today.  Even without the tacked-on element of environmental politics, it would be a less effective episode: the green bugs are just less intriguing and less scary than the bacteria of "Ice".

Still, if it's a fairly middling X-Files episode, that just means it can tell us more about the series as a whole.  Throughout its first season, The X-Files was balanced precariously in the middle of sets of opposites -- between nature and science, authority and subversion, and (on a more formal level) between episodic and serial structures.  All of these come across in "Darkness Falls", despite its status as a stripped-down horror movie expressly for entertainment.  It's precisely through a median episode like this that we can see the distinct X-Files approach forming.

Next week: "The walls are absolute.  There is nothing I can do."

[1]Even the word "ecoterrorist" sounds embarrassingly 90s, and this episode's attempts to shoehorn an environmental politics debate into the usual formula is very awkward.  Still, it's nice to remember when the scariest terrorists were hippies who might mess with your car.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Eureka Seven AO 15: War Head

Note: While I'm generally working off the official Funimation subs, I'm going to be using the original episode title, as Funi in their infinite wisdom has seen fit to replace the trippy musical reference episode titles (already in English, nonetheless) with rather generic ones, and I just can't abide by that.

"War Head" is predominated by the revelation from Eureka in the last episode that the Secrets which have thus far been the monster-of-the-week villains of Eureka Seven AO are in fact the planet's natural defense system from the alien scub coral.  This has everyone in a tizzy in this episode, and debating whether or not the theory is true.  Eureka offers up no real evidence (although we'll have some quickly) but seeing as how there's no real other explanation for why the Secrets do what they do, it's a compelling idea.

Taking a step back, though, this revelation hardly seems to matter.  No matter what the Secrets' motives or purpose is, they still cause mass damage and chaos, and their "cleansing" mechanism is responsible for massive nuclear explosions.  There have been a couple signs that the scub coral is less than benign, such as mentions of its health effects on the surrounding area, but they seem like much less of an immediate threat than the entities that would seek to erase them.  But everyone in the episode is taken up with the idea that, quoting Eureka, "the Secrets are not your enemy".

Revealing halfway through that the enemy which the heroes have been heroically crushing up until now is not the real enemy but in fact a potential ally is a fairly common storytelling technique for mecha anime.  The first time I saw this (I think it was Gundam SEED... hey, don't judge) I was blown away, but at this point it irks me more than anything.  The ubiquity of this twist probably stems from Japan's postwar pacifism, and the previously-described tension between abiding by those values and delivering an exciting action series.  This tension is usually born out of the best motives, even if by this point it's become de riguer, but I'm not so sure about the ultimate implications of this twist in Eureka Seven AO.

The original Eureka Seven was essentially a story about accepting the alien, as embodied in the relationship between the human Renton and the Coralian Eureka.  The series suggested that the scub coral were a new form of life, and that accepting difference was not just a nice thing to do but the key to progressing as a species.  The villains were characters who viewed the scub coral as enemies because of their foreignness.  In AO, we have a battle between two aliens, the Secrets and the scub coral, with humans frantically trying to intervene.  We can see this in the difference in design between the two -- the colourful, fluid outgrowth of the scub against the dark angularity of the Secrets.  They are not just opposites but atomic opposites, matter and antimatter, such that when they meet everything explodes.

If, as Eureka suggests, the Secrets are not the enemies, then the question arises: who is?  (There could simply be no enemy, but it would leave the following 11 episodes a little devoid of conflict.)  The most likely suspect is the government, which always seems to be the real enemy (and rightfully so), and AO has already made a couple jabs in this direction.  But if we accept that the Secrets were acting benevolently, doesn't that make the scub -- the alien -- a legitimate danger?  Aren't the Secrets acting on the same rationale as Dewey and the rest of the original series' villains?  Is this a counterpoint or a betrayal?

"War Head" poses these questions directly through the captured Secret subjected to questioning by the Japanese government.  Japan is a kind of ambivalent power in Eureka Seven AO, simultaneously acting as the regional bully to the now-independent Okinawa and being bullied in turn by the United States and the international organs (i. e. Generation Blue) it controls.  It has its own rogue agenda, which Ao (standing in for the series at large) can't agree with, but isn't comfortable with violently opposing either.  In this case, they're the first to jump on the possibility offered up by Eureka's words, quickly producing evidence to support her [1].

There is, then, at this point a certain ambiguity to accepting the Secrets as allies.  The Secret that Japan holds is the most human one we've seen yet, and is even identified as "human type", allowing for a level of anthropomorphic identification that would have been impossible with the more geometric Secrets.  But its design still suggests something jagged and hostile, essentially mechanical instead of living -- which is an interesting contrast to the mecha, which are anthropomorphized machines and which we can identify with much more.

But for all the sympathy for the devil, at the end of the day there's still fighting to be done.  After a fairly talky episode there's another Secret attack, and the piedpiper team feels as though they have no choice but to fight it.  This is, however, a battle where we no longer know what the stakes are.  And this would seem to lead to the downfall of the conventional action narrative -- instead of coming up with a cunning plan to defeat the Secret, Ao is crushed and hospitalized, without putting up much of a fight.

As evidenced by my previous entry on it, I'm currently re-watching Martian Successor Nadesico, and in its second half it poses a question similar to the one being considered here.  It's easy to acknowledge a change in the situation, but how do you change the way you narrate the world around you?  In particular, how do you change from a combative, warlike narrative to something more constructive?  This is a question that the characters have to face as well as the viewers. I've mentioned before that this shift of enemies is a common mid-series plot twist, but what separates the wheat from the chaff is whether this is just a changing of the gaurd, with a new ultimate evil to prove oneself against, or something more thoughtful.

The battle against the Secret does not go as planned.  Ao does his usual heroics, but instead of saving the day he's crushed and hospitalized.  The scene is shot effectively enough that, even though it's episode 15 of 26 and his name's in the title, I momentarily thought Ao might actually be dead.  Later, we learn that this kind of one-on-one combat is becoming outdated.  Generation Bleu has gathered the Quartz in their satellite and is clearly preparing for a massive winner-take-all battle.  The closest paralell would be the shift from the "heroic" wars of the 19th centuries to the industrial-scale carnage of World War I.  The old narratives, it appears, will not do us any good.

Still, despite both the work in the first half of the episodes to make the Secrets more ambiguous and my general misgivings about the series, when Nirvash is flying through the sky and that triumphant music starts playing, it's hard not to feel drawn into the battle.  Action scenes are propaganda at their finest, transfiguring violence into spiritual uplift.  And that's ultimately what makes transitions like this so difficult.  How can we create new narratives when the old narratives still seem like so much fun?

Next week: "That's a lot of flannel to be choking down, even for Bigfoot."

[1]I don't usually comment on things like this, but the speed with which the translation device was built and its perfect functionality stretches plausibility even for a very soft SF show like this one.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Good Wife 2-22: Getting Off

So here's a question: why does American TV only feel comfortable addressing unconventional sex on procedural crime shows?  On most shows, no matter how sexed up, it's unlikely for the protagonists to do it in anything but missionary position, but it's such a frequent plot element on your CSIs and Law and Orders that they spawned a spinoff entirely dedicated to it (Law and Order SVU, which is actually still on, although everyone seems to have forgotten about it.)  Maybe it's just that such elements are introduced only by lowest-common-denominator shows looking for more ways to be lurid, having already exploited the element of violence as best as they can.  Maybe it's that in our cultural mind sex and violence are two sides of the same coin, or that we can only deal with sexual deviancy [1] when it's coupled with criminal deviancy.

The Good Wife doesn't entirely fit into the profile established above -- its lead characters have moments of sexual misbehaviour, and are at one point glimpsed engaged in cunnilingus [2].  And because it's a legal drama its protagonists are just as often engaged in defending sexual deviants than trying to put them away.  But for all its prestige-drama leanings, it still employs sensationalism frequently to add gravitas to its plotlines, and sensationalized sexual strangeness is among its arsenal.  The Good Wife at least makes an effort towards allowing its deviant characters self-explanation, but it still nonetheless associates this deviancy with unsavoriness if not outright evil.  Look at how Peter's nadir was not just sleeping with a prostitute but asking to suck her toes.  Or the entire Colin Sweeney character.  Or this episode, "Getting Off".

This episode does boast one of the better integrations between the episodic "case of the week" storyline and the ongoing serialized plot, although it's not exactly a subtle parallel.  Lockhart/Gardner is tasked with defending Stephanie Engler. a woman who runs a thinly veiled Ashley Madison and has an open marriage, while Alicia and her family deal with the fallout from her learning of Peter's earlier affair with Kalinda.  A prep session between Alicia and Stephanie quickly becomes obviously Alicia taking out her frustrations about her adulterous husband.

There's a big gap between having an open relationship and adultery in secret, and I don't think "Getting Off" entirely conflates them, but it does view them as associated phenomena.  What lurks like a spectre here is the idea, articulated by Laura Kipnis among others, that adultery and its ubiquity are a sign not of the weaknesses within individual relationships but in the mainstream relationship model itself.  Stephanie mostly gets to best Alicia in logical argument, her theories being undone by emotional response later, but even she can't quite muster up this kind of societal critique.  Still, she does raise the question of whether the sin -- Peter's adultery -- that lies at the centre of The Good Wife's ongoing storyline should really have been that big a deal.

The contrast between logic and emotion is a key structuring mechanism in the episodic plot.  This is most obvious in the cold open: Will has a cool demeanor, refers to the dispute as a matter of contract law, and generally adopts a hyper-logical libertarian dispute.  His opposition, recurring antagonist Nancy Kroeser, adopts her usual scandalized act and puts focus on the sexual component of the case, obviously appealing to the prurient emotions of the jury.  She's made out to be a villain for doing so, but it's more or less the strategy The Good Wife is using in this very episode.

As a matter of contract law -- whether or not Stephanie should be held responsible for the murder of a man at a date arranged via her website -- The Good Wife has little interest in the story, and the ethical ambiguity remains unresolved.  Instead the story transforms into a more black-and-white murder case, with Lockhart/Gardner having to defend Stephanie from charge of doing the killing herself[3].  This would seem to lend a lot of credence to my earlier musings about television needing its sex and violence to be intimately intertwined.

But even when Stephanie's business becomes well and truly irrelevant to the proceedings, it's still a central element of the episode, with it being the one central idea "Getting Off" wants to mull over.  Its continual presence is justified by the fact that Kroeser will use it to inflame the jury, but once again the jury and the audience of the show are both being served by the same device.  Visually, the scandalous images of the murder victim engaging in kinky sex are constantly framed and partially-blocked by the audience, calling attention to their spectatorship.  The trial is revealed as a spectacle by the frame of the larger episode, but even with that frame the audience can enjoy the spectacle nonetheless -- perhaps enjoy it more because it is no longer a guilty pleasure.

In the end, the vaunted open marriage is revealed as a lie, as it turns out that Stephanie's husband murdered the victim out of jealousy.  When she hears this, Stephanie embraces him -- turns out that deep down she wanted homicidal devotion after all.  I suspect the idea was to make her appear normal underneath the deviant facade, but it turns out that normalcy involves an equation of violence with love and a myopic if not sociopathic focus on personal relationship issues over another human life.  Stephanie's claims to an alternate and positive sexuality are rebutted and made the focus for her own humiliation.

Most episodes of The Good Wife end with a pyrhhic victory, and this applies doubly so here.  On the strictly literal level, the firm defends their client but only by implicating her husband.  On the more thematic level, the principle of monogamy is restored and the dangerous deviant sexuality is revealed as a form of denial -- but a new deviancy based on violence is created.  Stephanie's ideas would also seem to have some kind of traction despite the episode's conclusion, as they foreshadow the affair between Alicia and Will which begins in the next episode.

I don't really have the time this week to get into the more serialized bits of storytelling, but it's worth considering Kalinda's own recently-revealed deviancy, both in terms of her one-night stand with Peter and her bisexuality.  (The Good Wife makes a show of LGBT-tolerance, fitting with its generally moderate liberal ideology, but I think it's telling that Kalinda's cheating came out around the same time as her sexuality.)  In this episode the drama with Alicia is almost enough to send her to a new job with her occasional lesbian lover, a FBI agent investigating white-collar crimes, before she learns it would involve working with Peter.  In the end, this is a choice between two deviancies, and she chooses the workplace where she's known as an adulterer over the one where she's known as a lesbian.  It's a bit more complicated than that, but sometimes the broad strokes of a story are more telling than the disclamatory details.

But that choice can also be read as Kalinda choosing the female Florrick over the male.  The friendship between Alicia and Kalinda has been much more developed and more believable than whatever is between Kalinda and Peter.  I don't really read anything sexual in there (although if you want to, slash away) but as Eve Sedgewick has argued, homosociality can be every bit as subversive as homosexuality.  In the end, the more you fight it, the more deviance creeps in.

Next week: "We're unable to tell if it's a machine or a life form."

[1]"Deviancy" is an extremely loaded term, but I need a shorthand here for the constellation of kinks, fetishes, lifestyles and subcultures that makes up everything outside the narrowly proscribed horizons of "vanilla" sexuality.

[2] This isn't deviant sexuality in any way, shape or form, but I can still count on one hand the number of times I've seen it even suggested in television.

[3]I'm reminded of the story in one of the Phoenix Wright games where the titular character has to defend his client against a burglary charge and remarks on how weird it is that it's not a murder trial like every other case he's done.  Sure enough, the client is promptly charged with murder, which turns out to be the "real" trial.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Inside Men 3

Inside Men is a show about security.  That's true on a literal level, of course, as the titular saboteurs are all in some degree in the security industry, protecting the cash that flows through their counting-house, with Chris being a literal security gaurd.  But it also revolves around less physical ideas of security.

Chris and Marcus are both threatened by financial precarity, and this is what motivates them to turn to crime.  As much as Marcus may dream of lavish ends to put his stolen millions to, his primary motivation is to avoid the kind of finaical failure that his life has, it's been implied, been a steady stream of.  His goal is class mobility, the unfulfilled promise of capitalism.  Marcus has a goal that's even more enshrined in our culture, providing for his impending family.  The recession is never directly mentioned, but grey streets and empty businesses are a constant backdrop.

And it's not a coincidence that their target is a central institution of the global currency system, but one of those silent parts of the system that was responsible for the last crash.  As violent and partial as it is, the robbery they plan is a kind of resistance against capitalism and the money system that supports it.

Of course, this still evinces a basic belief in the power of money.  This is a version of Marx's commodity fetishism, at least as I understand it.  Obviously paper money only has value because a state structure exists to give it value, otherwise it's just paper with a kind of ugly drawing on it.  The same is true of gold or any other kind of commodity: it is only valuable insofar as it exists in an economic system that gives it value.  The protagonists of Inside Men don't really understand this.  Through their heist they remove the money in the counting house from the capitalist circulatory system, assuming that all of its value will transfer to them.  But the problem immediately arises: they can't even retrieve it, as they're being monitored by the police in the wake of the robbery.  Even if they could, they couldn't spend it (or at least not much of it) without alerting the authorities.  If they follow John's plan, they'll have to go about their normal lives for a long while without making significant changes so as not to draw attention.  In other words, the money loses its value, as they can't actually do anything with it.

This is itself a commentary on the economic system, whose arbitrariness -- massive cages of cash sitting in a warehouse while the streets are filled with empty storefronts -- Inside Men makes clear even to those without a grounding in economics.  This exact mental slippage, the conflation of money with what it represents, can be seen in the recent financial crash.  Not only were the people involved obsessed with massive sums of money that, after a point, couldn't have made any actual difference to their lives, but through financial devices like derivatives and bundling they repeated this process of abstraction several times order until eventually they were exchanging massive amounts of nothing.  The supposed security of money -- even the cold, hard cash that our trio of saboteurs steal -- is in itself an illusion.

What about the other forms of security they seek?  Racial priveledge, for those who have it, is an obvious kind of security, but it's also one that seems consistently under threat in Inside Men.  The incident which perhaps sets everything in motion is John discovering that Dita, a young East European immigrant, has palmed a 20-pound note and firing her.  The trio's criminal operation forces them to hire the oily Kalpesh and his crew of Indian immigrant thugs.  While someone like John seems to symbolize that criminality can come in any guise, it still exists primarily as a threat from afar, carried in on foreign bodies.  Our protagonists are descending not just into the world of crime, but a distinctly racialized world.

While there is a bit of subversion here, Inside Men still relies on typical ideas of the immigrant criminal.  In this episode John hires Riaz, one of Kalpesh's men, in order to let him scope the place out.  It's a scenario that goes out of its way to play into fears about immigrant workers.  The Indians are never much more than thugs, and while it's okay to have some flat characters in a four-episode miniseries, the choices about who to develop and who not to are important.  While John proves himself more than capable of violent depravity, it is explicitly a descent into a racialized depravity -- see Garland Grey's recent post about Breaking Bad for why this is problematic.

How, then, to deal with Chris?  He's made every bit as sympathetic as the other two protagonists -- arguably more so, as he's the only one who really has a conscience.  Maybe as a British native, even a black one, Chris is not the outside threat that Kalpesh and Riaz are.  Or maybe his eventual decision in this episode to betray his co-conspirators to the police signifies that he is, in the end, still an outsider -- or, more precisely, one who is neither able to be entirely inside or outside.  I can't offer one interpretation here that explains everything -- Chris is the fly in the ointment, producing an endless array of complications.

What about the security of masculinity, of settling into a definite gender role that matches up with your biological sex and which gives you a power that's been established over millennia?  That's what John seeks in this episode.  What he relishes is the sheer masculinity of crime -- and not just any masculinity, but a physical and primordial "real man" type.  His attempts to start an affair with one of his co-workers pretty clearly stems from this rush, as does his playground-esque physical confrontation with Chris.

The contemporary world, Inside Men suggests, has little room for this ruggedness and its accompanying danger -- there isn't much of the fronteirsman less in the meek get-along middle manager that John starts out as.  Through crime, however, he returns to a more simple world, one without the tolerant ambiguity of human resources, and one that allows for this uncomplicated masculine persona.

(I'm not sure how accurate a social prognosis this is.  Masculinity is still glorified in our culture, especially its most violent and predatory manifestations.  Arguably antihero-driven shows like Inside Men feed into this obsession and the constant cultural demand for a more masculine society, usually expressed in laments about feminization by sidewalk-droppings such as Adam Carolla.  While these shows go to great extent to show the negative sides of their protagonists, their rejection of order in favour of action always seems to be supported by a troubling section of fans who will loudly support the masculine violence of John/Walter White/Don Draper/Vic Mackey/Tony Soprano/and so on and so forth.)

There have been a lot of comparisons between Inside Men and Breaking Bad (well, not a lot, as not a lot of people have seen the former.  But among those who have, there are comparisons).  And there's a definite connection, with the scene in this episode where Chris watches his mother choke to death instead of helping her seeming like a deliberate recreation of a similar scene from Breaking Bad's second-season finale.  A larger part of this is just a continuation of the antihero figure that's become so prevalent in "quality" dramas.

But there's an important difference between Walter and John.  Walter White certainly isn't doing everything for his family, as much as he will say that to anyone who will listen.  But he's doing it for a purpose, an ideology -- the code of masculine ideology that he's always subscribed to, albeit usually less ferverently.  Crime is a means to an end, just not the end he claims.  But for John, crime quickly becomes the end itself -- it's the act of subverting the rules that he lives for.  (This possibly helps justify the series' ending.)  He doesn't need the money, nor does he have any grand plans to spend it.  He just wants to become a criminal.

And this is, perhaps, what Inside Men finally suggests about security.  The very objects which seem to make us secure, seemingly stable and eternal things ranging from the financial system to gender, in fact create their own kind of danger.  Viewed from this angle, the eventual failure of the heist becomes clear.  The elements of stability that John relies on, from the carefully designed plan to the racial and class priveledge that he assumes will eliminate him as a suspect, can in themselves throw things into chaos.  It's a counter-intuitive message, but one that seems increasingly applicable to the times we live in.

Next week: "If you love someone, don't you set them free?"  "No."

Sunday, July 22, 2012

UFC on Fuel TV 4: Munoz vs. Weidman

In addition to the usual low-wattage roster of a Fuel TV card, UFC on Fuel 4 suffers from occuring in the wake of the Anderson Silva/Chael Sonnen megafight, with most fans suffering from fight hangovers.  I watch these things pretty religiously, and I almost totally forgot about it.  In theory the point of these events is to build up new stars and give long-serving undercarders some TV time.  Outside of the main event none of these fighters are in sniffing distance of the top 10.  The question then emerges: is this event, wedged in the middle of a week bookended by more interesting ones, worth watching at all?  What are the merits to it as three hours (!) of television?

Some would simply suggest that it exists because the UFC wants to fully exploit its current popularity, expanding as fast as it can with no concern as to fan fatigue.  But this isn't really the case.  The UFC almost certainly runs these smaller shows at a loss: they're broadcast in the outlands of cable, usually fail to get a decent live crowd, and other than fighter salaries have all the same costs as a bigger-ticket event.  So it can't be greed.  The simplest explanation would be that the UFC has hundreds of fighters under their employ and a limited number of (healthy) stars, so sometimes you have to run a card without the stars just to generate enough fights for everyone.  That's closer to the truth, but it still suggests that the UFC is being run by its fighters instead of the other way around.  So it has to be that, somehow, these events contribute to the larger commercial and athletic (and those two are always in tandem, as with any other professional sport) project of the Ultimate Fighting Championships.

The nearest analogy would, I suppose, be one of those low-key episodes of a serial drama that exists to build characters and set up future events.  So it could be argued that while neither Mark Munoz nor Chris Weidman, much less the unranked talents that appeared on the undercard, are people you care about, in the future they may be fighting someone you care about, and possibly even become one of those people themselves.  Giving them the headlining spot is meant to introduce them to the promotion's "main stage", with the theory being that if the fans see these fighters in the main event, they'll start thinking of them as main eventers instead of undercarders.  (This applies mostly to Weidman, unknown before his recent upset of Demian Maia, as Munoz already headlined a not-as-small UK card last year).

The above partially-incoherent paragraph goes to showcase how important image and status is in the fight game.  Building a name that people remember (which usually involves building a persona) is frequently more difficult than making it into the top 10 or even winning a championship.  Take Chris Weidman, who has an impressive victory in the main event.  He's stopped a dangerous opponent, and the stoppage is even a memorable one, albeit mainly due to the referee's delay in stepping in when Munoz was clearly out of it.

But where does this leave him?  What separates him from Jake Ellenberg, or Johny Hendricks, or Michael McDonald, or any of the other surging crew-cut white guys?  Of course, this is a bit of an unfair question.  Not everyone has an uniquely marketable persona -- indeed, it would be impossible for each of the 200 or some odd fighters to all be interesting characters.  In fact, it's usually only after you win a championship that the marketing gurus start to work, as when they transformed Frankie Edgar into a mostly-unknown crew-cut white guy to a lightweight Rocky, helped along by Edgar's gutsy performances.  Even then, Edgar never really became a major draw, and who knows what'll happen with new lightweight champion Benson Henderson.

The UFC can't come up with characters wholesale, and similarly its athletes shouldn't be pressured to become media characters instead of focusing on their fighting (although those that do, like Chael Sonnen and Ronda Rousey, are usually rewarded for it).  So in that respect it lacks in the character department when both something like pro wrestling and team sports, where a team can maintain the image it's gradually developed for decades instead of constantly having to invent new ones for the latest rising star.  This is not so much a failure of effort as a failure of format, and it may explain why fight sports have never trumped the big four in America or sports like soccer or rugby internationally, but to me it's part of their appeal -- they present each competitor as an individual instead of appealing to tribalistic emotions.

But what the UFC lacks in characters it makes up for in spectacle.  This is the part that's made it most popular among young males, and which also draws all the criticism.  Supporters have long argued[1] that it's equally or less dangerous than established sports like boxing or football.  But of course, the difference is that in mixed martial arts the violence is overt, personal, and bodily -- there is no way to avoid it.  This kind of violence has undeniable biopolitical significance.  The representative of violent spectacle on this card would have to be the battle between James Te Huna and Joey Beltran.

(Most MMA screenshots are going to involve the referee standing awkwardly around on the fringes of some sort of action.  Although it's not as awkward as when the referee should be doing something, like the previous one.)

The Te Huna/Beltran fight isn't really a competitive exchange of skill -- despite some flurries from Beltran, it's mainly a beatdown.  And it's one that never reaches its conclusion, a testament to Joey Beltran's chin.  (The ability to take a punch is, as per usual, read as a sign of grit and authenticity.)  The two mens' striking is not very technical.  But the fight is aesthetically pleasing in its own way: its brutality, its sloppiness makes the stakes of combat seem so much more real than a fast-paced submission battle.  It looks like two guys fighting outside a bar, and that transmutes the situation into something we can understand and empathize with.  It seems as though either guy might go down at any time, restoring destructive value to the punches that usually just accumulate as statistics.  I don't want to be hyperbolic here, but a fight like this makes us believe that the UFC is real again -- hence why the announcers talked it up so much.

The rest of the matches were fairly obscure affairs, but they did their job of showcasing up-and-coming stars as well as a couple resurgent veterans like Rafael dos Anjos and Aaron Simpson.  The UFC is generally known for its competitive matches, and that continues here, although sometimes things fall through and you end up with an one-sided fight like Aaron Simpson vs. Kenny Robisnon.  But in general what you have is the next step in each of these fighters' individual careers, whether it be a step up in competition or a shift to a new weight class or an adversity to be either fought through or succumbed to.  Each fight has two narratives, one for the winner and one for the loser, but it's the winner's narrative that is generally highlighted, with the loser condemned to obscurity.  Such are the perils of competition.

In the end, the ultimate significance of this event is as of yet unknown.  If its prospects -- Chris Weidman, Francois Carmont, James Te Huna, etc. -- go on to major success and stardom, then it will have been an essential part of the UFC mega-narartive, a tapestry woven from hundreds if not thousands of individual stories.  If not, it will just be a strange detour that only the hardcores will have noticed.

Next week: "This crime hasn't happened yet."

[1]This argument is probably correct, but since it's such a young sport we haven't really seen the long-term implications of being a professional mixed martial arts fighter.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Haibane Renmei 3: Temple -- The Communicator -- Pancakes

There aren't very many shows that can be described as "supernatural slice-of-life", but Haibane Renmei thus far is among them.  Its first three episodes are dedicated to laying out the life of the angel-like Haibane in the quaint locale of Old Home.  These episodes (and possibly the rest of the series, for all I know) are consumed with the quotidian and the almost banal.  It's world-building, but of a different sort than we usually see.  We still know basically nothing about what the Haibane are, or the world around them, or the mysterious and fairly ominous figures that run their nice little city.  But we know how they pay for things, how they raise their children, and what each of their hobbies are.

It's useful to contrast this with something like Game of Thrones.  In that series we get broad exposition about far-flung corners of the world and significant moments in history -- we have a much better picture of the world at large.  But zoom in and things start getting fuzzy.  After two seasons of Game of Thrones I still have no idea how the average person in that world lives, or at least not as much of an idea as I do of the ordinary lives of the Haibane after three episodes [1].  Haibane Renmei's focus points to a more sociological idea of fantasy, which imagines societies in the ways favoured by leftist historians that denounce the "great man" figure and focus on broader social trends and common experience.

Of course, the main difference is that whereas leftist historians are extremely critical of these aspects of society, Old Home and the village around it are thus far pretty idyllic settings.  There's work to do, but it's all pretty pleasant work, like baking and teaching.  (It's also work that's traditionally gendered feminine, although I'm not sure about the larger significance of this.)  Everybody is friendly and the worst conflict is a little mischief or childish misbehaviour, as at the end of the episode when we find out that Hikari has been using the halo mold in her baking.  The art style supports this mood, being full of thin lines and soft colours, creating a pleasant, nonthreatening, and sometimes soporific effect.

As newly hatched, Haibane Renmei's protagonist Rakka needs the world explained to her, which makes her a convenient proxy for the audience.  It's an age-old device, but it works well here.  But even for an audience surrogate Rakka seems strangely passive, constantly out of it and a little inept.  At first this makes her seem like just another hapless moe heroine, I would argue that this actually stems from the divide between her physical body and mind and her lack of experience.  We're used to thinking of the mind as developing naturally with experience, to the extent that we often fail to distinguish between the growth of the two, but Rakka presents the question of whether we can imagine a set of developed mental faculties without any set of memory or experience, newly pushed into the world.  This isn't a purely academic question either, as it raises a lot of the issues surrounding the fluid memory we know in the real world.  Rakka's strange combination of passivity, childlike curiosity, and frustration could just as easily belong to an amnesiac or an Alzheimer's sufferer.

All of the series's episode titles are triptychs, but they don't represent a rigid seperation between acts as they would in, say, a traditoinal Saturday-morning cartoon.  Instead they suggest a gentle flow from one story to another.  "Temple -- The Communicator -- Pancakes" (the title, not the episode itself) brings together three different things: the vaguely religious connotations of the series, the mysterious and faintly ominous Communicators which suggest a deeper mythology, and the genial adventures in child-raising that Rakka undertakes in this episode.  These conjure up disparate moods and disparate objectives, but in the actual episode they all appear to be of one cloth, belonging to the series's natural rhythm.  It's a magic trick that Haibane Renmei isn't afraid to brag about.

Let's start with the first part.  Japan has a complicated relationship with Christianity, greeting it with the same mixture of distrust, fascination, and incomprehension as it does most of Western culture.  Anime offers a good window into this.  There are fairly few portrayals of actual Christian religious practice -- the recent Kids on the Slope is all that comes to mind.  Instead, Christian mythology is taken and taken apart into material for fantasy.  Whereas American Christian fantasy mostly takes the whole mythos part and parcel, usually adding in its own interpretations (even something as irreverent as Dogma basically maintains the whole schema), anime has no compunctions about abandoning most of it and grasping the parts it likes into a completely new framework.  This can be seen in the jumble of Christian symbols within Evangelion[2] or Kamikaze Kaitou Jeanne.  To be fair, the mostly secular Japanese culture largely treats Shinto and other Eastern religions the same way.  Some have accused shows like Evangelion of not really understanding the symbols they use, but this suggests a certain reverence for the symbols' original meanings that is disrupted by their repurposing within a genre narrative.

And so we have the angels in Haibane Renmei, who have wings and halos and live in a church but have no apparent link to the role of the angels in Christian mythology.  Is the town they find themselves in Heaven?  That would explain the generally warm atmosphere and lack of conflict, but if so it also suggests that Heaven is a very restrictive place and one that can promise contentment but not happiness.  The haibane still go to work, raise children, and have minor spats with each other -- it's just a bit more pleasant than the world we live in.  Given our experience of our fellow humans this seems to be the only version of a broad afterlife I can imagine.  So maybe the Christian mythology in Haibane Renmei is more closely tied back to its origin than it first appears.

This brings us to Rakka's interaction with the titular Communicator, one of the stranged mask men that seem to govern the haibane.  His title is somewhat ironic -- he is the Communicator because no one else is allowed to speak in his presence, only replying with a movement of the wings to signal "yes" or "no".  At the same time he hides his face, preventing anyone from reading his expression and discerning identity or information he doesn't want to divulge.  In the realm of silence, he does appear to be a mighty communicator, but it is only because of the norms that subdue all creation.  A neat metaphor for the state, the church, and really any other institution.

Of course, thus far the Communicators are presented as fairly benevolent rulers -- they accept Rakka as one of their own without much in the way of trial.  But Rakka was already a haibane.  Through this process of confirmation, the Communicator subtly transmutes an article of fact into an article of government approval, creating an appearance of generosity and acceptance while really simply tugging her identity into its realm of control.  (One could make an analogy between this and gay rights if one was really determined.)  This fits in with the general politics of the town.  They leave charmed lives, at the expense of their own autonomy and freedom -- none of them can leave, and their lives are rigidly expressed in official books.  This trade-off isn't as dystopian as one might think -- after all, we make a less dramatic but similar deal everytime we pay taxes.  But there's still something eerie to the Communicators and their obscurity, and I hope that Haibane Renmei isn't naive enough to make this setting utopian all the way through.

Finally we come to the pancakes, which make up a surprising amount of this episode.  The plotline consists of Rakka trying to convince the Young Feathers to eat rice, despite her own personal distaste for it, and then bribing everyone with pancakes to do it.  The main take-away from this is that Rakka is still in many ways a child, unaccustomed to the world around her.  But I'm not sure it raises above the cute-girl-does-cute-things genre that's become so common recently.  The main issue is the apparent lack of conflict or stakes.  Even in an utopian society there's friction between people and personal weakness.  The absence of any such thing in Gile is as eerie as anything else.

Next week: "You do not want this guy on top of you hitting you in the head."

[1] If this blog ever becomes popular enough to spawn a drinking game, trashing Game of Thrones as an aside will definitely warrant a shot.

[2]Same thing for a gratuitous Evangelion reference.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Space Brothers 9: Individual Resolve

Because so many anime series are adapted from established franchises in other media (usually manga) with their own pacing and narrative divisions, you can often end up with awkward episodes which don't really work as story units in themselves.  (The same is often true of American shows adapted from non-TV media -- Game of Thrones, anyone?)  From all appearances, "Individual Resolve" would appear to be one of those episodes, with two main storylines seemingly glued together.  The only problem is that Space Brothers is an original story with no original manga to explain this strange structure.

This episode consists of two fairly discrete parts, both quiet and rather quotidian.  The first deals with the fallout, or lack thereof, from last episode's "cliffhanger", when Mutta discovered Hibito's will and came to the abrupt realization of his brother's mortality.  In the second, he reunites with his peers from the second exam and has another quasi-romantic encounter with Serika.  This structure has its benefits -- it's hard to imagine either story being interesting when expanded to 20 minutes, and we really should advance the plot after spending 3 episodes on Mutta waiting for test results.  The relaxed pace of Space Brothers can teeter on the edge of boredom, and perhaps splitting these stories up would send it careening off to one side.

At the same time, slowness is what makes the show distinct.  Its plot and dominant ideas seem lifted out of a vaguely educational shounen anime -- a long round of testing, striving to be the best, terse declarations, masculine bonding, masculine self-doubt, and uplifting music the whole way through.  But it also realizes the adult consequences of these tropes.  By making us feel the wait for the test results, the show realizes the time between excitements that most series gloss over (although it does manage to inject some excitement in Mutta's vacation.)  Similarly, the will is significant not just because it highlights Hibito's mortality, but also the practical considerations of mortality, the offensively mundane business of deciding who gets his stuff after he dies.

This leads once again to a clash between Mutta's idealism and the world around him.  Mutta is a bit of an overgrown child, still hopped up on his young self's idolization of astronauts (the frequent flashbacks to his childhood, where he seems fairly similar to his current self and Hibito doesn't, cement that more than anything), and this is what leads to the overreactions that make him such a great comedic character.  When no one else is disturbed by Hibito's will, Mutta is almost outraged at their lack of affect.

In a way Space Brothers is an adult coming-of-age story, although not as obvious a one as, say, Welcome to the NHK.  It contains two parallel narratives, one of which is a fairly idealistic story of achieving your dream through hard work, and the other being the slow realization of all the uncomfortable aspects of that dream.  Hibito's will prompts Mutta to study and realize the danger involved in being an astronaut, complicating his long-time dream.  It's a realization not just of his brother's mortality but his own.  This is all expressed nicely in the faintly beautiful[1] pre-credits sequence in which Mutta dreams that he and Hibito are in place of a trio of astronauts that died in a recent crash.

Really, this is something that Mutta should have realized earlier, probably before he made it so far into the application process for a dangerous job.  But it's only through the refracted lens of his brother that he can really deal with his own mortality.  This isn't really resolved in this episode, and to some extent it can't be resolved, in life or in fiction.  If we're being honest with ourselves, mortality is such a complete break with everything we know that it's hard to even conceive, let alone accept.  As to whether or not this will stay an issue throughout the series, we'll have to wait (although perhaps those who aren't as behind as me already know.)

Following this we have a neat little intermission, as Mutta goes out to see the International Space Station pass by.  It's an activity that, we learn, he's done since he's a child, suggesting that despite his newfound awareness of the dangers of his job there's still a continuity with his mythological view of space exploration.  (This view is something that the space program actively cultivates, right down to the names of the space shuttles.)  The ISS in particular is a direct symbol of the way in which space exploration likes to narrate itself, as an international co-operation for scientific progress.  Of course, the actual station is a bit of a disappointment from a science-fictional perspective, looking more like a satellite with room for some people inside.  Babylon-5 it ain't.

Later on we learn that all of the other astronaut applicants were watching the station as it passed over Japan.  Space exploration, then, is a shared cultural signifier that can unite people from disparate places -- everyone from Mutta to Mutta's distant love interest Serika to Hibito to even the astronaut in the space station itself are connected through this one streak of light through the sky.  At the same time it's also a subcultural signifier -- the process of watching it unites the applicants and sets them apart from the rest of the population, who neither know nor care about the space station passing.  This nicely fits space exploration's dual status in our culture, as both a broad popular mythology and something that only a few really care about nowadays.

This power to unite and divide is echoed by the party Mutta attends for their group of applicants.  They're all gathered in pursuit of a common goal, but only five of them have been selected to move to the next round.  The irony that Space Brothers hits upon, intentionally or not, is that while space exploration places so much importance and emphasis on co-operation and unity between nations and individuals, it's also a profoundly individualistic process -- not only are the applicants competing against each other, but the narratives of space make heroes out of individuals (almost always the astronauts) instead of the mass of people responsible for the mission.

Of course, this story is not out to really surprise you, so all three of the characters we actually knew during the second stage have passed on to the third.  Along with them are two nondescript characters who seem to be slightly villainous, commenting about Mutta getting through do to his brother's fame, which is a dastardly insult only enhanced by it being somewhat true.  (Things that seem well-earned from the perspective of the underdog hero who wins things the unorthodox way can seem patently unfair from the perspective of the hard-working, plain competitor.)

Mutta then stumbles across yet another cause for self-doubt, as he learns about the specific and well thought-out reasons for Serika and Makabe's interest in becoming an astronaut, which make his vague childhood dream seem rather silly in comparison.  This seems to be the pattern of the series: Mutta overcomes one source of self-doubt, and promptly stumbles across another.  There are tests and challenges, but Mutta's main quest is an internal one.

This could quickly become irritating, but the series manages to pull it off and make things consistently interesting.  Its best weapon is its humour, which is sometimes so dominant that it would seem accurate to classify the show as a comedy.  It can also produce wonder and inspiration from pretty sparse materials -- somehow the same piece of music that's been used in every episode still manages to stir up emotion within me.  The secret isn't in the script -- it's in all of the elements that surround it.  Space Brothers is an example of what all of the guys who don't get lavished attention on as auteurs in television -- the musicians, the episode directors, the producers -- can bring to the table in making something better than it should be.

Next week: "Pancakes!  Pancakes!  Pancakes!"

[1]Whenever space appears in the show, it looks exquisite and exactly like the glorious fronteir that Mutta no doubt imagines it to be.  We'll see if things stay this way when the characters go there for real.