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.