February 04, 2016

Don't make a federal case out of it

Yaoi manga is far more prevalent and "mainstream" in Japan than slash-fiction is here in the U.S. and yet (especially male) homosexuality--despite the lack of Victorian taboos--is far less accepted in Japan as a matter of accepted practice (in real life) and statutory law.

Japan is a "Don't ask, don't tell" kind of place. Or rather, you can tell all you want as long as don't expect people to spring into action. So actual social change takes place slowly, but "stuff that doesn't have to be taken seriously right away" gets a lot of latitude.

More latitude than even western liberals would be willing to grant. The opening scene in the anime Denki-Gai (about a manga bookstore) has a officious-looking lady browsing the stacks in the hentai section. It turns out she's from the town council, and is making sure that the NC-17 titles are properly sealed (can't be read in the store).

She's not there to ban anything, only to make sure the rules are being followed. As long as social disorder isn't in the offing, then the sky's practically the limit. Thus "gay marriage" becomes a topic tabloid TV shows in Japan love to discuss precisely because nobody is drawing lines in the sand.

As Justin Sevakis observes,

Modern Japanese society has a lot of red tape and is very slow to change, but people also aren't as in-your-face about their personal beliefs--so the end result is a place where there's simply no provision for anything like gay marriage. But there are also barely any hate crimes.

Japan's far left is about as ideologically threatening as Bernie Sanders, and its far right is basically a tossed salad of rabid historical reenactors hopelessly trying to resurrect the late Meiji period (when the Imperial Navy clobbered the Russians and annexed Korea), obnoxious but mostly harmless.

Alas, the downside is that well-established bureaucracies and social institutions (like those governing agricultural policy) that made sense fifty years ago are still barreling along on pure momentum and the only way to derail them now would be to tear up the tracks.

This makes the whole idea of "coming out" much more difficult, since there's often a lot of guilt involved in what's perceived to be to shirking your own responsibilities as a member of society and having a "normal" family.

But it also means that every blessed disagreement in life doesn't immediately get polarized and politicized in the public square. The First Amendment should include a clause defending the right to like (or dislike) something without turning it into, well, a federal case.

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January 28, 2016

Galapagos art

The "Galapagos syndrome" refers to technological solutions native to Japan that evolved in relative isolation and with little external competition, and thus ended up incompatible with the rest of the world. Cell phones and ATMs, for example. Infrastructure mods and retrofits hope to insure that, come the 2020 Olympics, visitors can make phone calls and withdraw cash with their Apple gizmos.

But there is a positive definition that can be drawn from Darwin's observation of a species diversifying to fill every available ecological niche. I'm thinking here specifically of the way that art finds an audience, and specifically art that strives to be popular or at least "accessible."

There's the "big dinosaur" approach: put all your eggs into one basket and watch that basket. But there's only so much room at the top. Even before a wayward asteroid wipes out the big guys, a lot of little critters are scampering around in the undergrowth, making nests in tight and overlooked places, doing well in marginal environments that could never support the lumbering giants.

New York and Hollywood are giants in publishing and movie making, not only in the U.S. but around the world. No asteroids on the horizon. Well, Amazon is a pretty big rock, but as the whole self-publishing scene is proving, as long as you avoid getting stomped on, it's much easier for the little, furry animals to be everywhere the giant isn't.

Self-publishing has been alive and well in Japan for decades, in the doujinshi (self-published manga) market. Doujinshi made Comiket the biggest comic book convention in the world.

Despite the healthy amount of fan fiction involved, Japanese publishers generally refrain from pursuing copyright claims on not-for-profit IP, instead using doujinshi as the minor league teams of manga world and Comiket as the playoffs. The broad acceptance of manga as a literary form has kept the young adult book market in Japan alive despite the slumping population.

Manga attracts talent from across the spectrum, with a lot of cross-pollination. As with anime, low production costs (first-run broadcast and publishing rights break-even at best) mean that publishers can target smaller niches and experiment with marginal projects without breaking the bank. (I don't mean vanity projects where the editor is thinking "Newbery" and not "a good read.")

In other words, playing "small ball"--getting base hits--instead of trying to smack a home run every time at bat.

Tie-ins are famous in Hollywood, but in Japan they're a necessity: novels based on manga; manga based on novels, manga artists illustrating novels; television and movies based on novels and manga, fiction and non-fiction, in every imaginable genre. The anime series A Certain Magical Index alone has generated over 30 novels and spin-offs (Yen Press has picked up the print license).

In an odd but revealing way, there's an upside-down and backwards version of this at work in the U.S. market vis-à-vis Japanese media. The Japanese movie titles available on Netflix, for example, might suggest that all Japanese watch are perennial classics by a handful of directors (mostly Kurosawa), Studio Ghibli, schlock horror, budget samurai actioners, and exploitation flicks.

That's because either these titles have built-in audiences (thanks to John Lasseter, Ghibli films have no problem attracting Hollywood talent to do voice-overs), or, at the other end of the spectrum, can be licensed for dirt cheap because they're not worth much in Japan either.

Otherwise, Hollywood is so dominate that if GKids or Disney aren't interested, "general interest" family films like The Perfect World of Kai and The House Imp and The Great Passage end up nowhere to be found. The best-selling novel of 2014 in Japan was a YA adventure title: Daughter of the Murakami Pirates. It hasn't been licensed in the U.S.

The Japanese publisher doesn't want to license the IP for a song (and risk a quick and shoddy translation on top of that), and no American publisher yet wants to risk the investment.

The only way to make it work is to zero out the upfront costs. Digital Manga has been trying this approach with some success (although with "minor league" IP). The anime industry is heading in that direction in the streaming space. Publishers could likewise release titles directly as ebooks and cut out the middleman completely. In fact, emanga are currently more popular in Japan than ebooks.

Unfortunately, when it comes to digital, the big publishers in Tokyo are determined to stick their heads in the sand as firmly as the big publishers in New York. Observes Jason Thompson,

Most Japanese publishers have no coherent digital strategy, and the extra step of licensing them in America makes them even slower to react to change. Perhaps wary of creating an iTunes-like behemoth which could drive prices down, publishers haven't united in any reasonable way to create a consistent digital newsstand/bookstore format for their titles.

Welcome to the club. The bitter pill to swallow is that properties worth tens of millions in Japan are worth tens of thousands in the U.S. The music industry in Japan is only begrudgingly beginning to accept that fact. As Justin Sevakis notes:

The Japanese music industry is both ridiculously luddite, and ruled by thuggish talent agencies with delusions of worldwide grandeur. They want to hold back their precious artists from America until they're ready to make a big splashy debut, but when they do, they refuse to play ball with American media and expect their completely unknown artists to be able to throw their weight around like they do back home.

Little by little, legit DRM-free tracks from established Japanese artists are appearing outside the walled garden of iTunes-Japan. The upside of Japan's declining consumer base is the realization that something is better than nothing and thus the inevitable need to grow outside the home market. And there's always Amazon waiting in the wings to shake things up.

The model here is what Crunchyroll did a while back when it streamed all of Makoto Shinkai's films for a weekend. Because before the world can clamor for your product, it has to at least know it exists.

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January 21, 2016

JWPce (Unicode)

JWPce is my single most used computer app. It's been on every Windows PC I've owned, and is responsible for wearing out the letters "D" and "S" on my ThinkPad keyboard (I map the dictionary to CTRL-D and there's no autosave).

JWPce doesn't do much but what it does do it does quite well. It's a lightweight Japanese text editor integrated with a kanji radical lookup engine and the WWWJDIC bilingual dictionary database.

JWPce was written and had been maintained by Glenn Rosenthal at UCLA. He's since left UCLA for the private sector, and the JWPce web page he'd maintained on the UCLA servers from 1997 to 2005 has been taken down.

Thankfully, Rosenthal made the JWPce source code available under the GNU General Public License. Vladimir Lazunin preserved the code and recompiled it in Unicode. You can download the revamped install package here.

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January 14, 2016

The ebook of the future

Nate Hoffelder documents another attempt to revive that digital zombie of the reading world, the interactive novel. A long-forgotten tech bubble was the hypertext CD-ROM boomlet back in the mid-1990s. The era did produce the bestseller Myst, which was more of a game than a work of narrative fiction.

CD-ROMs did pay off big-time in the less glamorous field of database indexing. When I was in graduate school, a single IBM XT loaded with the ERIC index on CD-ROM was the most useful reference tool in the library. (Nowadays, it's available online for free.)

As the old joke goes, the interactive novel is the ebook of the future, and always will be. Though that is not necessarily true abroad and may be changing here at home.

Because for as long as the "interactive novel" hasn't succeeded in the U.S., the "visual novel" has been huge in Japan, with studios like Key VisualArts becoming major players in manga, anime, feature films, and "light novels."

While manga and anime have carved out profitable niches in Western markets, the visual novel has only recently found a tentative (though growing) foothold. It's another one of those touchstones that encompasses a universe of cultural differences (as usual, the easiest explanation is introverts vs. extroverts).

To better understand what the visual novel is all about, I recommend Rockmandash's Beginner's Guide To Visual Novels.

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January 07, 2016

New Twelve Kingdoms novel

According to Fuyumi Ono's Twitter feed, mid-2016 will see a new installment in the Twelve Kingdoms series, and it is "a very long story" (「とても長い物語」). She writes that the work is proceeding apace, a publication schedule is set, and further announcements are forthcoming. So stay tuned!

Fuyumi Ono's two most recent Twelve Kingdoms books were short story collections (my translation here and o6asan's translation's here). But her latest seems to be a novel of massive proportions. ANN reports that her publisher estimates the manuscript at over 1000 pages.

I'm crossing my fingers that she'll tie up all the dangling threads from the Gyousou/Taiki arc in a glorious and epic finale.

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December 31, 2015

The Boy and the Beast

Mamoru Hosoda was briefly slated to direct Howl's Moving Castle but left after what really were "artistic differences." All for the better, as it turned out. Miyazaki took over and made a great movie. And now Hosoda is well on his way to matching his record.

Hosoda is one of the few directors I consider self-recommending: the name alone in the credits is enough.

If anybody stands to inherit Miyazaki's mantle, it's Hosoda, whose films rival Ghibli productions for their consistent quality, dramatic depth, a sheer entertainment value: The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006), Summer Wars (2009), and The Wolf Children (2012).

And this year, The Boy and the Beast. The description sounds like supernatural version of The Karate Kid: the bellicose, bear-like swordsman Kumatetsu takes Kyuta under his wing and trains him to be a fighter.

The setting is Shibuya in Tokyo, except that a connection to an alternate realm has turned this Shibuya into a kind of postmodern Narnia. (Blood Blockade Battlefield sports a similar premise, though in New York, so maybe we've got a sub-genre going here.)

Funimation has licensed the film for North America; it's scheduled to open in theaters in 2016.

Speaking of the Miyazakis, Goro Miyazaki's Ronia the Robber's Daughter, based on the children's fantasy novel by Astrid Lindgren, has been made available to international distributors. The series ran for 26 episodes on NHK between fall 2014 and March 2015.

Hopefully this means that it'll show up on Hulu and/or Crunchyroll in the near future.

And speaking of Studio Ghibli, GKids is distributing Only Yesterday, Isao Takahata's 1991 slice-of-life melodrama, with voice-over work by Daisy Ridley, no less. (And GKids now lists Ocean Waves, the last Ghibli film to be released in the U.S., on its website too.)

Related posts

The Girl who Leapt through Time
Summer Wars
The Wolf Children

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December 25, 2015

Merry Christmas!

Okay, enough of this "White Christmas" business.
I want some of that East Coast weather.

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December 24, 2015

The catechism of "Angel Beats!"

As previous noted, Angel Beats! never rises to the sublime hermeneutics of Haibane Renmei, and aims for the emotional--rather than the theological--jugular (a Jun Maeda trademark). But it does tackle several substantial ideas in a creative manner.

1. Like Haibane Renmei, Jun Maeda (inadvertently) addresses the problem of infant baptism. From a Catholic perspective, all of these teenagers have arrived in Limbo, the purpose of which is to free themselves from Original Sin.

In Buddhist terms, they must free themselves from impermanent and transient attachments and achieve satori, a true realization of their place in the universe and what matters from an eternal perspective. Grudges and regrets have to be left behind.

This is about dealing with the past and moving on. It's not about "justice" and not about what you think the universe owes you in recompense for your suffering. As Clint Eastwood's Will Munny puts it, "Deserve's got nothing to do with it."

All of the characters in Angel Beats! had miserable childhoods, perhaps Yuri the worst, hence her refusal to reconcile herself to whatever she imagines God is. But only reconciliation will allow them to live out the childhoods they were denied in morality.

2. Jun Maeda is also a game designer, so it comes as no surprise that the serpent in this garden should be a creation of computer programming. Indeed, the students who are not aware that they died and are in the afterlife are called "non-player characters" (NPCs).

Here Angel Beats! again resembles The Matrix, though Agent Smith never compellingly tempts Neo with an offer to rule in the virtual rather than serve in reality. But Yuri is offered what she imagines she's been fighting for all along.

This scene aligns with two themes explored in depth by C.S. Lewis, that we mortals are fighting on enemy territory but both sides are bound by a specific set of rules. The serpent is doing what he's allowed to do. So agency trumps order even in the afterlife.

(Another useful by-product of game design is that because games require literal logic to work, that essential disciplining structure is reflected in the narrative as well.)

3. The "big reveal" introduces a backstory that is told and not shown, which would seem a narrative mistake, until it becomes clear that Otonashi's story embodies it. In the end, Otonashi does not follow it, and so the story concludes on a very Buddhist note.

Because it is only by breaking out of the present eternal cycle (samsara) and being reborn that the players can win at this game.

Related posts

Set Apart
Angel Beats!
The Passion of the Magical Girl
The atonement of Pacifica Casull

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December 17, 2015

Pirates of Silicon Valley

A common criticism of the recent spat of Jobs biopics is that he is unfairly depicted as a nasty piece of work. Pirates of Silicon Valley is no exception. I can understand why: screenwriters and actors alike are drawn to the operatic drama of human conflict like rats to cheese.

But it gets awfully samey (sorry, Tolstoy). And at only 100 minutes long, watching Steve Jobs rant and rave (and Bill Gates drive a bulldozer) draws time and attention away from more interesting subjects.

I would have preferred less melodrama and more documentary. Though for that, there's always Robert Cringely's definitive account, Triumph of the Nerds. And more recently, Silicon Valley (the hardware side) and Something Ventured (the finance side).

In cinematic terms, Pirates of Silicon Valley looks like the made-for-TV move it is. Even so, Noah Wyle as Steve Jobs, Joey Slotnick as Steve Wozniak, John DiMaggio as Steve Ballmer, and Anthony Michael Hall as Bill Gates handle the material quite well.

When playing off each other, Wyle and Hall do such a good job illustrating their wildly contrasting personalities that I wish they'd invented more scenes for them to be in together, out of whole cloth if necessary. Because the abstract moments in this movie are the best ones.

The narrative is occasionally interrupted by "interviews" with the main characters (the actors). In one scene, John DiMaggio as Steve Ballmer steps literally through the fourth wall to comment on the historical moment in which IBM allowed Microsoft to license DOS to anybody.

It was that agreement that would eventually hound IBM out of the PC business it created, not Apple.

(DOS licensing begat Compaq and Dell and a thousand other makers of "beige box" IBM PC clones, which begat the Windows/Intel hardware standard, which was adopted by Linux and, ironies of ironies, even Apple. Which is why an iMac can dual-boot Windows.)

Unfortunately, the rest of the movie doesn't follow the tone set by that scene. This docudrama about people thinking outside the box is pretty buttoned down. It needed more goofy moments illustrating creativity at play, rather than telling us how brilliantly eccentric everybody was.

Related posts

The blind spot
Something Ventured
The accidental standard
Back to the digital future

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December 10, 2015

The blind spot

Why don't the smart leaders of authoritarian states quash the revolution before it topples them? Some do, like the Chinese in 1989. Others (Assad in Syria) hammer down with all the effectiveness of pounding jello. And then there are those (Gaddafi) who wait too long to get out of Dodge.

On the fictional battlefields of Lord of the Rings, Kate argues that it is indeed believable that Sauron never suspected that his enemies intended to do with the ring what he would not.

Sauron's weakness is his inability to believe that anyone would actually destroy the ring. A military rival is something Sauron dreads yet something he can handle. Consequently, Sauron reads in Gollum the very thing he sees in others and himself: desire for the ring.

A good example of this from military history is Oda Nobunaga. Nobunaga came within a hair's breath of uniting Japan under a single, centralized government in the late 16th century. He was larger-than-life in every way and an undeniable military genius.

On the verge of complete victory, he sent his army and right-hand man to western Japan to subdue the fractious Mori Clan, remaining behind in Kyoto with only a small contingent of bodyguards. One of his own beleaguered generals (Et tu, Mitsuhide?) took the opportunity to stage a coup d'état (click to enlarge).

Cornered at Honnoji Temple, Nobunaga (top right) fought
to his death or committed seppuku (accounts differ).

Nobunaga simply couldn't imagine that any of his groveling underlings would get fed up enough with his megalomaniacal personality to actually do to him what he had done to so many others. For all of his strategic smarts, Nobunaga lacked an objective understanding of basic human nature when it counted.

Yes, sometimes the dog bites the hand that feeds it.

In a completely different context, this is the underlying theme of Pirates of Silicon Valley, a docudrama about the early days of the person computer revolution. It begins with Jobs on the set of his famous 1984 commercial, which cast Apple as the rebel overthrowing "Big Brother."

In this telling, "Big Brother" was obviously computer colossus IBM. Jobs was right about IBM, but especially in the early days of Apple, he was no less petty a tyrant, and convinced that he was the only "pirate" in the business. Fixated on IBM, Jobs didn't see Microsoft sneaking up behind him.

Jobs (Noah Wyle) shows off the Macintosh.
A key set of scenes depict the critical moments when XEROX gave the Apple brain trust free access to its Palo Alto Research Center and its groundbreaking "Alto" prototypes, because what threat did this dinky company pose to them? Except that the "Alto" would directly inspire the Macintosh GUI.

Then Jobs turns around and gives Microsoft access to its Macintosh prototypes, because what threat did this dinky company pose to him?

(The cinematic metaphor doesn't quite work in reality because Microsoft was an important applications developer that Apple needed on board, and giving prototypes to important developers is common practice.)

These scenes lead up to the climax in which Jobs accuses Gates of stealing his ideas. Gates calmly observes that they had both stolen from their rich, inattentive neighbor (Xerox PARC).

And then not long after that, Jobs was fired by the very CEO he had hired, John Scully. Jobs would return to Apple a dozen years later build it into the world's biggest company (in terms of market capitalization).

A common failing in these Jobs biopics, Robert Cringley points out, is that they treat this return as triumphant without the necessary context, a deus ex machina that saves the day.

Something happened during Steve's NeXT years that turned Jobs from a brat into a leader, but they don't bother to cover that. In his later years Steve still wasn't an easy guy to know but he was an easier guy to know. His gut for product was still good but his positions were more considered and thought out. He inspired workers without trying so much to dominate or hypnotize them.

Running NeXT (which failed as a business but produced the core code that became OS X) and Pixar taught Jobs how to work with companies (like Disney) and people as dominating and headstrong as himself. Ross Perot was a NeXT investor and John Lasseter was the creative genius at Pixar.

Likewise, it was Tokugawa Ieyasu who finally united Japan twenty years after Nobunaga's death. Ieyasu was a true Machiavellian who understood people, and established a political system designed to endure despite human failings, not only because of human brilliance (click to enlarge).

By convincing key opponents to switch sides, Ieyasu won 
the Battle of Sekigahara before the fighting began.

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December 03, 2015

The Mormon "koseki" problem

So I was writing about Angel Beats! and that got me musing about infant baptism, about the same time that the Mormon church announced that the children of gay parents would not be eligible for baptism until they were legal adults.

As my brother quipped, "And yet the child of two heterosexual Satan-worshipping prostitutes would be?"

The first thing that occurred to me was that the Mormon church had reinvented Original Sin. Hey, kids, welcome to Limbo! "Limbo" isn't official Catholic doctrine. Apparently this is.

But the bigger question is why the church even bothered. Who thought this was a problem that needed solving? What, there were maybe five people in the entire world that such a policy would have otherwise applied to (before turning it into a cause célèbre)?

It struck me as the kind of rule-making engineered by a mid-level bureaucrat who panicked one day when a hypothetical raised by a local bishop clawed its way up the chain of command and he realized that they didn't have a form to handle it.

You see, the church has a koseki problem. Cultural and religious reasons aside, one reason gay marriage has made halting progress in Japan is for the same record-keeping reason.

The koseki tohon (family register) is the official census record in Japan, and the legal equivalent of a person's birth certificate. All major life events--birth, adoption, marriage, death--are recorded in the koseki. If it's not in the koseki, it didn't legally occur.

The Japan Times explains:

People without a family registry are ineligible for passports and driver's licenses, as well as such basic but critical services as public health insurance and national pension benefits. In addition, their lack of a legally valid identity leaves them open to a multitude of other potential problems.

The koseki is a patrilineal document as well as a genealogical record. Before privacy laws were enacted, private investigators, employers, and marriage brokers could peruse any person's koseki for evidence of disreputable fruit hanging in the family tree.

With its roots in medieval Japan and its first major revision back in 1872, with public access to koseki records only being restricted in 2008, the koseki system has adjusted slowly to modern times. Consider, for example, the following:

  • When a couple marries, only one family name can appear on the koseki. Except in the case of adult adoption, the woman almost always gives up her maiden name.
  • The child of a divorced woman who gave birth before legally remarrying will be listed on her previous husband's koseki.
  • To gain custody, the child must be "abandoned" by his "legal" father and adopted by his biological father. This is one reason child adoption is rare in Japan.

Adult adoption, on the other hand, remains surprisingly common.

  • Even more bizarrely, there are circumstances where the child doesn't end up on either parent's koseki and so legally ceases to exist.

As many as 10,000 mukoseki ("no koseki") Japanese have fallen through these cracks, children of Japanese citizens but non-persons in the country of their birth.

  • And, of course, there's no effective way to deal with gay marriage, especially the child of two women (although for an eldest male, adult adoption becomes an interesting alternative).

A few progressive wards in Tokyo have carved out exceptions, but nothing approaching a national solution is on the horizon. (Keep in mind that Japan is just getting around to creating a social security numbering system and fax machines remain ubiquitous.)

So what does this have to do with the Mormon church? Unlike most faiths, the Mormon church keeps the equivalent of a koseki for every member (which is both weird and kinda scary). Like the koseki, this database is patrilineal in theology and structure.

And like the koseki, simply changing the values in a database field can't help but make a cultural statement, with a boatload of political implications in tow. Perversely, the kind of statements and implications that the Satan-worshipping prostitute avoids.

Here is where that mukoseki status serves to resolve the church's gay marriage dilemma. No koseki? The kid doesn't exist. Neither do the parents. Not our problem.

Frankly, the church should borrow from the Amish and not baptize anybody until they're eighteen. Oh, and I'd tell the Japan census bureau that the clarity of the Jewish matrilineal system has much to recommend for it.

Related posts

Angle Beats!
The hidden reason for the policy change
The koseki system in The Twelve Kingdoms

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November 26, 2015

Baby on board

This is one of those funny juxtapositions that tests just how big an anime geek you are.

Sitting on the back of the truck is a baby ohmu (okay, a plastic replica), a species of giant bug dreamed up by Hayao Miyazaki for his post-apocalyptic epic, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.

In the movie, a baby ohmu is kidnapped by the bad guys in order to stampede the rest of the herd into destroying the last defensive redoubt outside of Nausicaä's village.

When ohmu really get their dander up, their eyes glow red. These particular ohmu are not happy campers. So you'll want to steer clear when the parents show up (triggering a classic eucatastrophic climax).

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November 19, 2015

Angel Beats!

Jun Maeda turned the visual novel game studio Key VisualArts into a synonym for true-to-life melodramas infused with a large dollop of magical realism. In Angel Beats, his latest anime series, he skips right past the realism and goes straight for the magical. Or rather, straight for the eschatological.

In the first scene, Yuzuru Otonashi wakes up in the afterlife and promptly gets killed again. He doesn't die because he's already dead. Which is a good thing, because he's fallen in with a gang of like-minded teenagers who have decided they do not want to "go gentle into that good night," and have armed themselves accordingly.

That means fighting "Angel," who's gotten very good at "killing" them in turn (it's like a painful time-out in the penalty box). Angel's ungentle job it is to see that they do go gentle into that good night. And that means being good students instead of a bunch of delinquents.

You see, Angel is the student council president. Purgatory is a Japanese high school. And Angel has appointed herself Charon, the ferryman.

Refreshingly, these rebels really are a bunch of delinquents, and despite all the scheming by Yuri, their bad girl leader, they're not good at being bad. Otonashi admits he would have joined whatever group first approached him. All they know is the status quo, so that's what they defend--to the repeated death.

Though following Jun Maeda's reliable formula, this is executed with a good deal of dark humor that at times (if you like this sort of thing) is quite funny.

Helped along by the fact that Angel isn't a mindless antagonist, and this hapless gang--who admit they don't really know what they're rebelling against (to quote Marlon Brando: "Whaddya got?")--aren't necessarily the protagonists. Because the only true enemy is the self.

Yeah, I know, that's about as trite as truisms get, but stick with it. It pays off.

There's an element of The Matrix here. The "red pill" students know they're dead but alive in an unreal world, while the "blue pill" students remain completely oblivious. Except here Maeda fills in the gaps that The Matrix misses, by giving all parties compelling, even moral, reasons for their choices.

Though in substance and message, Angel Beats! reminds me more of Haibane Renmei, Yoshitoshi ABe's subtle and sublime meditation on grace and redemption. ABe's protagonist is Rakka, who is "reborn" into an afterlife that resembles a semi-rural village in mid-20th century Eastern Europe.

In the pastoral world of Haibane Renmei, there is no presumed god to rail against, no laid-down path to salvation, no sign posts pointing the way. Their "job" is to live out their afterlives in the community while "working out their salvation with fear and trembling" (Philippians 2:12).

But while Haibane Renmei is quiet and meditative, Angel Beats! is loud and obvious. It's the garage band version, with the volume turned up to eleven. Literally, as one of the gang's "weapons" is a student rock band that stages illegal concerts to distract Angel's minions during their "missions."

Angel Beats! also has a distinctly Buddhist slant. ABe created a purposely Catholic version of purgatory for Haibane Renmei. In Angel Beats! Christian "salvation" isn't in the cards. Getting "twinkled" is purely a product of self-realization or satori, and only you can hold yourself back.

On this score, Joseph Smith would agree.

For our words will condemn us, yea, all our works will condemn us; we shall not be found spotless; and our thoughts will also condemn us; and in this awful state we shall not dare to look up to our God; and we would fain be glad if we could command the rocks and the mountains to fall upon us to hide us from his presence (Alma 12:14).

Everybody in this purgatory is terrified of resurrecting the memories of who they were before they died, obsessed with what could have been versus what actually was. As Socrates said, "The unexamined life is not worth living." So the dead stay dead until they can face that examination directly.

Still, it wouldn't hurt to have someone show them the way. Perhaps somebody whose last name is a homophone for "gentle" (otonashii), and whose full name (音無結弦) is spelled with kanji that mean "the strings that bind without a sound" (yuzuru).

Related posts

Angel Beats! (Hulu CR)
Set Apart
Make 'em laugh, make 'em cry

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November 12, 2015

Make 'em laugh, make 'em cry

Tracing the provenance of an anime title can get tricky at times. Anime titles often originate in manga and light novels, though sometimes the anime comes first and the manga follows. A third important source is the visual novel.

In the U.S., the visual--or interactive--novel is the medium of the future, and always will be. But it's been well-established in Japan for twenty years (there's a lot of cultural information in that fact that deserved a Ph.D. dissertation). One of the big players in visual novels is Key VisualArts.

Co-founder and scenario writer Jun Maeda is largely responsible for Key's first three titles, Kanon, Air, and Clannad, which established Key's own sub-genre of magical realism fused with operatic melodrama.

Kanon and Clannad (that's the two-part anime series, not the New Age Irish band, though they're not bad either) are two of my all-time favorite tear-jerkers in any medium. Hope Chapman does a good job analyzing how  Jun Maeda pulls it off in "Why Clannad Made You Cry."

The paradoxical reason, Chapman points out, is not because "life sucks and then you die." Even done well, that approach is only depressing and ultimately silly and self-indulgent.

If a likable character dies in a story, that's sad. If a likable character dies and their loved ones suffer for it, that's sadder. If a likable character dies, their loved ones suffer for it, and then they get killed in a freak accident right after a messenger runs up to tell them that their family dog has also kicked the bucket, you've started spinning a bad comedy routine.

Rather, the exact opposite. "Make 'Em Laugh," as Donald O'Connor argued. And so, "For every five minutes of weepiness in Clannad, there's at least twenty minutes of comedy (and that's a conservative estimate)."

This joy--far more than suffering (Tolstoy was largely wrong on this point)--draws us into the lives of the characters and builds the expectation that more good things can and ought to keep on happening.

Just as importantly, though, when the good things stop happening, they can't stop happening forever or we're right back to nihilism. As Chapman puts it, with Maeda, "Karma Always Comes Through." The scales of justice balance, even if it takes a bit of magical realism to make it work.

Maeda uses magic to express his own feelings about the unfairness of reality, by "breaking" it just enough to give his characters what they've earned. If tragedy is usually absurdly unfair, why can't triumph come from equally absurd fairness?

C.S. Lewis noted the ("educated") human propensity to infuse more "authenticity" in the negative than the positive, even when the one is no more factually substantive than the other. And when it is that essential faith in the "happy ending" that accounts for the human will to exist in the first place.

The joy of the happy ending, or more correctly of the "good catastrophe," the sudden joyous turn (for there is no true end to any fairy tale)--this joy, which is one of the things that fairy stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially "escapist." It does not deny the existence of sorrow and failure, but it denies universal final defeat, and thus is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy.

Tolkien's word for this was eucatastrophe, "the sudden turn of events at the end of a story which ensures that the protagonist does not meet some terrible, impending, and very plausible doom." Like Lewis, Tolkien applied it not only to fiction but to theology.

The universality of the eucatastrophe has fashioned it into a framework on which solid storytelling can be constructed. It shows up across the spectrum of style and genre, from thoroughly westernized fairy tales like Disney's excellent Tangled to anime like Scrapped Princess and Madoka Magica.

The pervasiveness of the form and the formula is easily criticized as "convention." But the key word in the "same only different" is the "same." That sameness exists for a reason: ignoring convention is a good way to create uniquely bad art.

His respect for, and mastery of, the formula is what makes Jun Maeda a storyteller whose work always deserves a second look.

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