Sunday, November 20, 2016

Arrietty, Ghibli, and One Last Song

Everyone who watches anime has heard of studio Ghibli and has probably seen at least one of their many excellent movies. Some of them, like Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke, have even bled over into mainstream Western culture. Known for their re-occurring themes of pacifism and environmental protection and usually created to be consumable by people of all audiences, these films do a good job of giving you a sense of wonder and motivation and then making sure all the characters get a happy ending and everything ties up nicely in a fashion usually slightly more nuanced and significant than your traditional Disney movie. I grew up on many of these movies and never hesitate when I get the chance to share them, but over the years Ghibli's most famous director, Hayao Myazaki, has become less active, going in and out of retirement while other directors give a whirl at putting the industry titan's resources to use. The last Ghibli film I saw in theaters was Ponyo, which while I thought had many qualities did not resonate with me in the same way stuff like Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind or The Castle in the Sky did. After that I watched Wizards of Earth-sea on DVD, and, soundly disappointed, stopped feeling especially motivated to keep up with their new releases. A few new movies came out: The Wind Rises, Up on Poppy Hill, Arrietty, When Marnie Was There; I heard little about any of them, and after reading the premises I assumed they were more or less various versions of The Cat Returns: cute stories beautifully animated, but the not the heart-wrenching epics of old.

Recently I've been catching up because, well, it's Ghibli, and it's not like I'm ever gonna finish a Ghibli movie and feel like I wasted my time. The Wind Rises was a solid drama with a middling romance, When Marnie Was There was an excellent tale about abandonment and resentment hampered by a weak ending, and Arrietty... well, Arrietty was the one I had heard the least about, so I didn't even know if it was worth watching. I'd seen The Borrowers back in the day, and didn't know if having gorgeous animation was enough to make Miniature Home Alone anything more than a series of endearing, albeit not all-that-creative gags. This, however, serves as the recommendation part of the review. Watch Arrietty. Not only was it an outstanding movie, but as a long-time Ghibli fan it... well, it might actually be my favorite of their films. Sure, it doesn't have the scale or scope of something like Princess Mononoke, but I actually found it to be more effective at conveying Ghibli's core ideas than any of the countless fantastic movies that came before it.

Arrietty's core strength is simple and tragic: it's the fact that it's tired. Time and again Ghibli has produced uplifting movies capturing the very real and very overwhelming problems of the world post-industrial revolution, but these movies are all hopeful, happy renditions of these issues, stories that paint the future in an positive light. No matter how bleak the films get (and Nausicaa has a nuclear-beast detonate a genocidal attack, so they get pretty bleak) they always come back to that Hollywood conclusion where everything works out alright for all the protagonists. On top of this, they frame the issues they address as fast-paced and exciting, the culmination of epic adventures and sequences of intense action. Even adversity is full of excitement: Princess Mononoke has sword fights and people riding wolves and heroes possessed by demons. Spirited Away has dragons and radish spirits and duels with river gods. The Castle in the Sky has sky pirates and mythical robots and spells of destruction. You get the idea. The antagonists are out in the open, the heroes are presented with clear and discernible conflicts they need only find compromises and solutions to using their hot-blooded enthusiasm. But problems as large as war and climate change and environmental degradation aren't always out in the open like that, and we're certainly not at a point in history where we can pat ourselves on the back and reminisce about how we've solved them. Now, more than ever, we need people who are active in making these changes in the world, not just fantasizing about them, and what the world needs is less stories about how everything will work out alright and more stories that demand something from their audience, that don't give them the satisfaction of watching the credits roll with a sense of contentedness. I think that uneasiness is a valuable feeling to possess at times, and I know that at least personally I tend to contribute the most to our horribly broken world when I'm overwhelmed by just how much work there is to do.

Which brings us back to Arrietty. Arrietty is a movie that is fundamentally uneasy. It's creators have experienced the high of watching Everything Work Out Okay, and they've become numb to it. They're no longer able to drag out some tale in which it all wraps up alright and undercuts what the movie is actually saying. Arrietty is straight and true, and kinda, well, er, perfect. I mean, no work of art is truly perfect, but in my eyes I don't know what I would change about this film. For me, it does everything right.

Arrietty is about a family of little people, the Borrowers from that goofy story you may have read growing up. They even call themselves as much. The Borrowers are a traditional folk: Arrietty's (the character) parents are clearly kind, capable people, but they also cling to what they know of the world and are unwilling to adapt to an expanding human race that no longer feels the need to respect or leave room for them. Arrietty herself isn't some ambitious young new wave, either. She is molded by her parents words, part of her craving to work out some sort of situation with the humans of the house, but never ever to quite put this idea into words or truly defy her veteran parents whom she holds great respect for. However, the Borrowers need to change. They're skilled at what they do, but they're also dying out. Time and time again throughout the movie they express their fear that they're the last of their kind, that they're alone in a world full of strange things. Symbolically, they exist in some strange  purgatory between nature and mankind, representing a culture tied to tradition and to the land, a culture that is seen by most humans as a source of the sort of fascination you find at a zoo. They embody the way modernization is not only stamping out countless species and destroying ecosystems, but marginalizing human voices that defy the general consensus of what progress means.

There's a sort of magic imbued into the world of Borrowers, a magic that made me feel like there was value there just beyond the individual Borrowers themselves. I feel it's worth mentioning the film's incredible art design and pacing, because it's the execution of the atmosphere that makes this tale work in the first place. Arrietty is very much concerned with non-action. It doesn't want its tale to feel epic in any way. It takes its time with everything, going through the motions of daily life for the Borrowers with excruciating detail, detail that is perfectly mesmerizing thanks to the phenomenal depiction of the time-steeped clutter of their lives. The entire society the Borrowers have constructed for themselves feels fantastical in a way that doesn't need to be disrupted or cataloged. The excitement of the world of the Borrowers comes from cats and crows and crickets and other entities that are entirely mundane for us, but take on an aura of fear and excitement for our tiny protagonists. This isn't some comedy-routine shrinkage movie depiction, though. The Borrowers avoid threats and excitement whenever possible, allowing the movie to revel in the beauty of the complex simplicity of their way of life.

The human boy, Sho, seems to understand this beauty. For him, it's not so much a matter of whether or not the Borrowers are an active part of his life: just know that they are there and thriving is enough to make him happy. He wants to see them, and to meet them, but only as they are. Others, however, feel differently. His caretaker wants to capture and display the Borrowers, going so far as to put them in jars like insects for her own amusement. She, too, is fascinated by them, but this leads her to want to find a way to domesticate them into something that is hers. She's hardly an antagonist though. In the end she's portrayed as more of a nuisance than a source of malice, and it's clear that her own actions come from thoughtlessness and misunderstanding more than anything. This is accented by Sho himself, who despite his comparative conscientiousness rips apart the Borrower's house in an attempt to 'gift' them a new kitchen, an act that does more damage than good thanks to the difference what the Borrowers actually need and what he thinks is good for them. Even he is imposing his own vision of modernity on the Borrowers, in his own way, despite being a perfectly kind, compassionate person. It doesn't matter that he's a nice guy; being a nice guy won't save the Borrower's from their fate. Taking action based on informed decisions might, though.

It's not as though the humans and Borrowers could not find a way to coexist. This becomes progressively more clear over the course of the story. If they were willing and brave enough to communicate with one another, it would be no doubt a matter of a single conversation to work out an arrangement. The offering of the dollhouse proves this, as does Arrietty's friendship with Sho. But here's the kicker, and also kind of the point: this conversation never happens. Arrietty never asks, and Sho never offers. "I wanted to protect you" says Sho, with a hopeless past-tenseness that is telling of his own outlook. Sho is sick, and is consumed by the matter of his own heart operation. While the borrowers may serve as a distraction, he seems to be of the opinion that he can't take real action until he solves his own problems, problems that may never be solved. In the meantime, while he is waiting to learn the results of his operation, the Borrowers have had enough: scared of being discovered and railroaded by their customs, they uproot their home and strike out with the hopes that they will be able to find somewhere else to settle before they help dwindle the number of their kind. Mankind pushes the magic of this world further to the margins, not because we are cruel or vicious or insensitive, but because we are unwilling to act or consider. The antagonists of Arrietty are hesitation and thoughtlessness. How are you supposed to defeat those with willpower or kindness? They aren't a witch running a bathhouse, or a ancient king summoning a robot army. Arrietty is Ghibli at its best because it doesn't cut corners or force answers. It presents a dilemma, and then it ends. The only one who gets to decide how it turns out afterwards is you.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

The Voynich Hotel: Sunset or Sunrise?

Warning: The following is an analysis of The Voynich Hotel manga, and therefore will contain spoilers.

This past summer when I was trying to get my foot in the door and expand my manga horizons, I received a recommendation from my sister to read a little story called The Voynich Hotel. Within a couple of pages I found myself both laughing and intrigued, and I ended up blowing through the whole thing that day. This past weekend I re-read it thanks to some free time and quickly-acquired nostalgia, and it more than met the expectations my memory had set for it.

The Voynich Hotel is a story about the evolution of culture from one generation to the next, and the ways we come to coexist with the often-frightening implications of modernization, open borders and technology. It's particularly concerned with the way these modern forces impact areas that do not have the historical power or influence to maintain their own cultures and histories under the weight of colonization and imperialism. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, though; The Voynich Hotel is a beautiful, heartfelt tale that frames the changing of the times and the disconnect between the past and present not as some sort of Faulknerian tragedy but as natural process that rewards open-mindedness and acceptance, though with a dash of stubbornness.

Our story takes place on the island of Blefuscu, a fictional island first mentioned in Gulliver's Travels and re-adapted for the purposes of this take into the object of Spanish Imperialism during the spread of European culture. This means that already we're set up in a place that doesn't exist: not just a made-up island for the purposes of this story, but an island that is explicitly fictional in its origin. An island that is steeped with legend and magic and mythos, complete with the story of The Three Mothers, witches who used to own the island and protected it for many years from Spanish invaders by massacring any foreigner who dared to step foot on the shore. Blefuscu is a place that wants to be set apart from the world, to exist in its own mystical time-capsule, and the attitudes of many of its inhabitants of all ages reflect that. However, times are changing in Blefuscu whether its citizens want it or not, and this causes them to lash out against the unknown and the intrusive in ways that they didn't know they were capable of. The duality of acceptance and rejection is perhaps best established in the relationship between the two sisters, Snark and Alice. Alice, the younger of the two sisters, is unwilling to confront the world: a sort of stand in for the soul-of-the-island and occasional narrator, Alice reflects the innocent unease shared by many of the older generation, but not so much held by the group of hooligans she wants to fit into. Her older sister, Snark, in an attempt to protect her sister from change and allow her to keep relying on the magic mask she uses to communicate, goes so far as to become a serial murderer known for her cruel, untraceable killings.

Snark likes to act as a sort of vigilante defender of the status quo, chasing away tourism and shutting down up-and-coming businesses with a flick of her claws, claws she notably attained from making a contract with a demon and selling her soul. In her mind, her cause is clearly noble, and her pastry shop acts as a haven for the locals. To those who love and support her cherished sister she is kind without reservations, truly acting as the force of good she strives to be and helping to make the island a better place to live.

Snark isn't the only one on Blefuscu who's ever killed outsiders though: the Three Mothers from the island's legend are still around, having suffered a noticeable dip in influence and power since they were eventually successfully overcome by the Spanish forces. This is where the story of Voynich is truly rooted: the Mothers, symbols of the island nation's legacy and tradition. Two of them, Elena and Beluna work at an old, shoddy hotel called Hotel Voynich run by (notably) a masked Spanish wrestler referred to only as 'owner', while the third sleeps underground, not yet able to traverse the modern world. Here Elena and Beluna whittle their days away preforming odd jobs and helping to keep the hotel running. Once the violent defenders of the island, they now work for a man who clearly came over from Spain and helped him to open a tourist resort to allow even more people to come infiltrate Blefuscu. Broken remnants of their past glory, missing parts and pieces, they should by all accounts be unhappy prisoners.

But they're not. The sisters aren't unhappy, and they're not clinging to the past as some sort of bygone glory days that the present will never be able to match. The owner is not seen as a tyrant or as a conqueror: he's a nice guy, and he cares for the people he employs and all the people of the island. In fact, by the time the story has begun he's already an established part of the island's culture, feeling as naturally a piece of it as the Three Mothers or Snark. His ancestors may have fought with the Three Mothers in brutal and selfish bloodshed, but he isn't his ancestors, and rather than being at odds with one another he and the Mothers help and support one another for the well-being of everyone. This was once a tale of imperialism and oppression, but it's not anymore. Blefuscu has long since integrated its Spanish colonizers into its culture. They aren't outsiders anymore. The owner didn't take over their land and force them into working for him: they came to him voluntarily because they were tired of being at odds with the outside world and wanted to adapt and become someone new. The Mothers themselves were not afraid of change. They adopted technology, became integrated with modern media and entertainment, and in some cases went to far as to engage in MMORPGS to the terror of all.

That's not to say that that the Mothers don't have a sense of identity or pride. They do have pride, but they have the pride of reason which causes them to interfere only when the situation actually threatens the livelihood of the people living in Blefuscu. They aren't pushovers who will stand for anything.  When assassins from across the world gather to come seek out targets on Blefuscu, whether the targets be local or not the Mothers say enough, not permitting any kind of violence or persecution to unnecessarily stain their shores. When a demon erects a skyscraper hotel on top of a local donut shop and threatens to jeopardize the local economy while overrunning the island with excessive infrastructure and industrialism, the Mothers say enough. They care about is the island and everyone living on it, but they aren't obsessed with some idyllic notion of what the island is or what it's supposed to be. They accept that countless legends and traditions have intermingled over the years to create Blefuscu as it is today, and that it is the up-and-coming younger generations that should get to decide the kind of island they want to live on, not Snark's enforcing of the old ways and xenophobia. Blefuscu isn't anything-goes, and real demons will be ousted. But foreigners? Over the course of the story Elena learns to fall in love with a foreigner from Japan, expressing her excitement for connecting with his culture but not allowing that to wash away her identity as a witch. She professes to never have fallen in love before, but definitely isn't reluctant. In fact, she's excited: excited to have someone she can share and grow with, a completely different attitude than she had in the past when she unequivocally saw all foreigners as threats. Elena isn't a softie, but over the years she's become someone not all too interested in the past. She doesn't persecute outsiders anymore, but she now knows how to recognize a real demon.

The Mother's acceptance of the younger generation as the driving force for the nation's identity is reflected in the importance of the Sleuth Brigade, Alice's group of friends and the manifestation of the up-and-coming generation that has yet to really decide where they fall on the spectrum of vision for the island. Their leader's name is simply 'Leader', an unsubtle nod to his importance to the story, and it's he who struggles most with the conflict of change. 

Surrounded by a spectrum of madness ranging from his peer 'Doctor' resurrecting the third of the Mothers, Tenebrarum, to the appearance of an aptly unsettling incarnation of discomforting modern technology in the form of Andybot, an android who seems to never be out of ways to be as unsettling, incompetent and creepy as possible, Leader hasn't really figured out where he stands in regards to what he wants Blefuscu to be like when he grows up. In many ways the growth and innovation unsettle him, as seen through his distrust of Andybot and his hatred for organized public infrastructure like the police that represent a quota for structure and order demanded by the modern era. He collects rumors of modern legends, ghost stories about robot factories and powerful poisons being distributed, and he feels resentful of the way some of Blefuscu's inhabitants seem to have accepted all this and moved on. This can be seen on a personal level in his relationship with Vixen, one of the members of his brigade. Vixen is modern: she's fashionable, spunky, comfortable with sexuality, and distrustful of rumors and superstition. Throughout the series Leader rejects her advances and pushes her to the side, reluctant to accept the new-age element in his very own brigade as part of his identity. He even has heavy suspicions that Alice's sister is Snark, but is unwilling to do anything about her killing spree.

Eventually though, Leader starts to grow up and realize that it's not all as simple as he thought it was. When he gets to actually meet a couple touring on their honeymoon he can see that these aren't invaders coming to mutilate the island. In fact, they're fascinated by Blefuscu's history, respectful of its inhabitants, and there to simply enjoy the location and have a good time. So, when the newlywed husband goes missing, Leader finally makes up his mind and goes to confront Snark. Snark, for her part, finally realizes that protecting Alice might not mean stuffing a mask over her face and dismembering outsiders, and, unwilling to lash out against Leader as it would 'hurt Alice', she finally gives up and lets both Leader and the young couple live. After this, her contract is up: she's no longer needed to 'protect' the island, because the younger generation doesn't want protecting. They want to meet these newcomers and make up their mind for themselves on whether they're threats or not. Snark at this point is only muffling their voices, making it difficult for them to speak. She goes to visit Alice one last time before she dies, asking forgiveness for her attempts to enforce her own vision on Alice and the difficulties that caused. Snark, for all her sins, just wanted to protect something dear to her. She might be an antagonist, but she's not a villain: Voynich doesn't frame the desire to protect and preserve the status quo as villainy, but it does see it as naivety with cruel consequences.

Leader eventually accepts that technology isn't as useless or scary as he thought, either. When Vixen steps on a landmine, threatening to repeat an incident several years ago when a friend of his suffered a quick end at the bad end of a minefield, Andybot steps in to shield her from the blast and change the outcome of the situation. Leader acknowledges that the technology he mocked played a key hand in preventing Vixen's death, and as a result he starts to learn to respect Andybot and see him as both competent and respectable. Leader even decides he wants to be a policeman: once he sees Andybot saving lives and comes to understand what being a police officer actually means, rather than the vague, oppressive notion he had in his head, he realizes that's actually the kind of person he wants to be.

As Snark dies she tears off Alice's mask and takes it with her, forcing her younger sister to finally address the scary, impending outside world. Alice takes a look at both the island's ancient past and the intimidating forces that threaten to change its landscape forever, she comes to realize that what she's most concerned with is not some vague sense of 'other', but simply her own life and the people around her. Her heart is tied to the Sleuth Brigade, to her friends, to the people she values in her life and wants to be with and protect. The island opening up to the world at large will come with difficulties and complications no doubt, but it also brings growth and new perspectives, technology that can make life easier, and a sense of security from the threats of the past like land mines. What the future requires is nuance: everyone has their own tendencies and desires, and creating a place where Vixen's contemporary attitude towards sexuality and fashion can coexist with Doctor's love of tradition and the past, as exemplified by his enduring visits to the third Mother, Tenebrarum, is more important than securing a sense of normalcy. Elena returns to Russia to meet her mentor and her own origins, and is finally able to open up a little bit to her lover, telling him that she is a witch; that at her core, she will always hold the history of Blefuscu to be important. He turns to her with his eyepatch, matching her own, and tells her that he already knows. He long ago accepted Blefuscu tradition as part of himself, just as she accepted Japanese culture.

Traditions change, cultures collide, and the future is as exciting as it is frightening. That Voynich manages to exemplify this in as concise, entertaining, and stylish a fashion as it does is a staggering triumph. The Voynich Hotel is a surreal and gripping experience from start to finish, functioning almost as well as a romantic comedy as it does an argument for the ethics of change in long-rooted cultures. It's really something beautiful.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Shiki: A Thought Dump Upon Finishing

Can anime do horror, and do it well?

Look, the unfortunate truth is that anime isn't a medium well-suited to horror. It feels fundamentally detached from reality and therefore struggles to legitimately frighten/shock its audience in a way that makes them feel like they are right there in the thick of the terror. But, as Halloween came around this year, I was suddenly struck by the desire to watch something creepy, sinister and animated leading up to the day the spirits make mischief. So, on a whim, i heeded the recommendations of several of my trusted peers and ordered a $20 S.A.V.E copy of all twenty-four episodes of Shiki (with OVAs integrated in where they belong) and then watched the whole thing.

Guys, Shiki is a good show. It's also seriously fucking frightening. Not because vampires are scary, or because it figures out how to get the jump on you. In fact, if anything Shiki almost immediately digs itself even further into the anime/horror hole of incompatibility by making all of its character designs reminiscent of flamboyant Pokemon villains. We've all seen this before: shows like Vampire Knight and Rosario + Vampire are infamous for taking the concept of Nosferatu and strangling them into unrecognizable angst-filled cosplaying teens. At first, this kinda seems like what we're getting into again; the first character to turn vampire is pretty much the single most-anime character to ever exist, with her dismissive love-interest set up to be the dark, brooding morally-conflicted young male blah blah blah. cynical as I am, it's possible I would've put this show down after one or two episodes if it weren't for the recommendations and the fact that I had already spent money on it and didn't want to admit to making a bad investment.

I'm very glad I didn't. Today I'm here to tell you that Shiki is a shaky, spastic production with a slow and questionable start, and that in spite of this it is well worth your time to push past those early episodes and finish it, not only because the second half is gold but also because in retrospect those early episodes become a lot better.

This isn't to say that the first half of Shiki is in any way a drag. The show begins by quickly establishing an unusually large cast of characters, trying to capture the essence of the entire village as swiftly as possible. As the episodes go on more and more characters are introduced while the show attempts to keep up with the original cast at the same time. The result can feel a bit unfocused: we're not given much of a reason to care about many of these characters at first, so we're left with an abnormally sized cast and very little emotional connection to it. However, the early iteration of the show is perpetually fun, and what it lacks in individual investment it makes up for in bombast, drama,  one-liners, and over-the-top side characters that succeed at holding your attention if not your heart. Shiki is a very entertaining show, but if you're in a hurry to get to the action and bypass all the early stages it will only frustrate you. I feel the show works best when you take each scene as it comes and appreciate it for what it is, then experience the payoff naturally when it comes. To help along the way Shiki is littered with compelling shots and a bizarre array of visual styles ranging from watercolor to shakycam that oftentimes prevent it from becoming stale when it's meddling in otherwise typical horror beats. On top of this, the soundtrack is impeccable, holding the atmosphere together against the odds of the character's increasingly impossible hairstyles.

As the show goes on we come to garner an incredible understanding of the village as a whole, and also of the various philosophies and ideologies that run through its veins. There are long-asserted village values, there are the ways those are actually implemented, there are the ways newcomers and outsiders react to them, there are the ways the younger generations react to them, and there are a variety of different priorities held even by the village's various elders and leaders. Perhaps the most relevant of these splits is the fault line running between the village priest and the village doctor, two well-respected patriarchal heads who become aware of the impending threat of vampires and, while attempting to understand the impact of the night-dwellers, continue to reach different conclusions on the solution/best course of action. More of this can be seen though in the rifts that form between parents and their frustrated and antsy children, causing families to turn in on themselves even as they try to stay together on the same side of the veil of death. This really feels like a whole village reacting to change in lots of little ways that add up to a more significant shift in atmosphere. Shiki takes its damn time laying down the pieces, but once it puts everything into place it certainly knows what to do with it.

But I guess that still doesn't really answer the question of why Shiki is scary.

Well, it's not the vampires, and it's not the psychopath lurking within us all or any of that nonsense: I'm afraid that what a lot of people are going to get out of this show is that "humans are the real monsters" or some other pseudo-intellectual overdone garbage, which is just kind of redundant at this point. What's scary is that humans aren't monsters. They're just humans. They all live complicated lives, they all have different goals and dreams and vested interests and financial and personal situations. They all have different morals, too: different ideas of what's right and wrong, what's good and evil, what the noble choice is and what the damning one is. What's scary is that if you put a bunch of humans in a situation where those differing ideals come into conflict it can bring about unspeakable tragedy without any of them really making choices that they feel are 'wrong'. Shiki isn't a nightmare brought about by a 'kill or be killed' situation, it's a nightmare brought about by people from different generations, backgrounds and lifestyles refusing to cooperate, communicate, or attempt to understand one another. Shiki is modernism versus tradition, science versus superstition, and community versus individuality. Very few of these people or vampires are especially evil, twisted beings. Most of them have just been abandoned by their concepts of God, left to figure out for themselves what the right thing to do is. Shiki's characters try to simplify and simplify to make things easier on themselves, and the result is, in a word, horror. Shiki is the first anime I've seen that manages to do horror, and do it well.

Shiki won't have you covering your eyes or quivering in your seat, but when the ashes have settled it's definitely scary. It's the kind of scary you may have to mull over, to dwell on, think about, question, worry over, and inevitably try to find solutions to. It's the kind of scary that keeps you up at night wracked with anxiety over whether or not you're living your life the right way or not. It's the kind of scary that makes you ask whether or not there is a God watching over us. Shiki is definitely a thinkpiece, meaning I would recommend you watch it with a critical mind, and perhaps a friend or two to argue ideologies with. You might have a pretty adamant interpretation of who's right and who's wrong, but if you watch it with someone else you might find that maybe, scarily enough, that's just your interpretation.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Kino's Journey: Review

The World is Not Beautiful -- Therefore, it is

Kino's Journey is sort of a difficult show to talk about as a whole. It's extraordinarily episodic, following the traveler Kino and her motorad (basically a motorcycle with a consciousness) as they visit a vast array of countries (which are actually cities) in an often-surreal fable-esque steampunk world. Each place they visit is fairly unique in not only its culture but the ideas the show chooses to explore, meaning that there's little unifying the show as a whole outside of the aesthetics and Kino's own personal journey. Luckily, Kino's personal journey is a pretty big deal, but if you're looking for any sort of overarching plot or climactic finale this might not be the show for you. 

So why should you watch Kino's Journey?

Well for starters, Kino herself. Kino is one of my all-time favorite characters as well as what I'd consider to be one of the most impressive anime has to offer. She's not just a window through which we observe the show's various scenarios, she's a fluid and growing personality stumbling to find her way in the world. There's a fascinating conflict lying at the heart of her character: from the beginning, Kino seeks to be a non-factor, an impartial observer absorbing her surroundings without affecting them, devoid of categorizing traits such as gender or ego. Her fashion is dull and unassuming, her intentions soft-spoken, her words few. She refers to herself only as 'Kino', a name that functions more as a title, and will correct anyone who addresses her otherwise. 

However, as the show makes clear from its early episodes, Kino is inescapably human and inescapably part of the world she seeks to play bystander in. Try as she might to discard them, she possesses everything from ingrained survival instincts and opinions to base emotions and distinctive mannerisms. Kino is not a non-factor, and she slowly starts to learn the folly of pretending that when she steps through the gates of a country she can avoid having any kind of impact. When alone in the snowy woods with a group of starving men and some unassuming rabbits that can serve as food she aspires to play moral arbiter, but when her own life is put on the line she abandons her efforts to weigh the scales without hesitation to protect herself. This is a conflict we see time and again: the clash between Kino's idealistic armchair philosophy and her innate craving to survive and continue her journey. At times like these Kino is forced to admit that she places value on herself, and it is only in acknowledging her own significance that she can get a little closer to figuring out why she's traveling in the first place.

Sometimes this is taken further though. Sometimes, Kino not only partakes in the struggle to survive, she goes so far as to take actions to impose her own worldview upon her surroundings. Her formula is to stay three days and never interfere. But when circumstances are perfect, when she makes a close friend in a welcoming place or when she watches as thousands of unfortunate lower-class citizens are turned into oppressed labor for the sake of a tyrant and his aristocratic 1%, then she becomes moved or frustrated to the point where she breaks her own rules, asking to stay for more than three days or taking measures to change the tyranny she witnesses. In these instances she isn't even consciously making exceptions for herself, she's just acting in the way she feels is right. It's usually only afterwards that Kino reflects on her internal contradictions and tries to understand where they come from, prompted by questions from Hermes. Desire? Righteousness? Perhaps she's just not strong enough of a person to follow her own code. But she does try to learn, later answering 'because I'm not a God' when asked why she didn't step in to save a man she knew was going to be killed. All of this is part of her exhausting struggle to comprehend her complicated journey, each new conflict forcing her to think about just what kind of person she is.

Kino's struggle to understand her own journey reflects perhaps the biggest question the show poses: why do people do what they do? The world is full of sorrow and separation, loneliness and despair, death, sadism and suffering. Even if you can push past this and acknowledge that 'the world is not beautiful, therefore it is', then you're still left with the question of why you go on. Kino's first and foremost advice for traveling is 'try not to get yourself killed', which underscores how much of a role her own survival instincts play in the continuation of her travels. Obviously life is about the journey not the destination, but what's the point of the journey in the first place? The experiences you gain? The emotions you feel? Time and again Kino seeks to justify her own endless quest, discerning her own motivations whether they be the inspiration found in birds or the desire to see joy. But time and again she can't find an absolute reason. So she listens, and learns, and grows, and maybe she can't understand life but at least she's trying to make the most of it. Maybe that's the answer. Maybe not. The show does a splendid job at discussing meaning, succeeding in that it gives you plenty to think about without trying to simplify something as immense and simultaneously personal into some sort of solution.

Asides from Kino herself, the show offers a plethora of impressive vignettes that are often fascinating enough in their own rights. Ranging from critiques of religious zeal to human innovation, the show takes common philosophical conundrums and social problems a step further than usual, adding a layer of complexity to its fables perfect for generating discussion. It's honestly an excellent show to watch in a group, since the lack of an over-arching plot makes it so that each episode can be discussed individually, and the show's conflicts are inherently divisive enough to breed argument. Some episodes don't rely on Kino at all, such as the City of Books which is just a staggering accomplishment in itself managing to delve into the mind-melting relationship between author, reader, and critic, as well as the line between reality and fiction in a mere twenty minutes of downright creepy madness. The show does take the time to add some additional texture to Kino's timeline as well, with some of the best episodes being the ones that explore her past and put her entire journey into perspective. Kino's journey isn't something that would benefit well from a conclusive ending; lives rarely have conclusive endings after all, but all lives have beginnings and as a dear friend of mine once said, 'the best part of the story is the backstory'. As I mentioned before, the show does have a unifying aesthetic that helps to bring the widely varied stories at least some sense of relatedness, with almost every background being depicted using dulled earthy colors on a textured canvas, a choice that makes it really feel as though you're flipping through the pages of a storybook. The music is equally fitting: rarely standing out, but always helping to bring the world of the show together with its slow and sleepy vibe.

All that said, this is a review, and the show is not perfect. It will entirely depend on the viewer whether the one-note exposition characters work for you or not, because while they adeptly capture the feel of a fairy tale they also rarely speak like humans. This is even stranger when contrasted against Kino and Hermes who are both textured individuals, leading to some conversations that feel as if they're between a human and a robot (which to be fair is sometimes intentional). The writing is far from consistent, its highs almost always being Kino's understated mumbling and its lows taking the form of unbelievable monologues from characters that seem to lack a personality. In addition, while the visuals are distinct and rich with style, the actual art and animation are in all honesty kind of garbage with very little interesting direction to help keep the screen engaging. The show's sense of space is kind of out of whack, with most of its cities seeming to have been fitted onto the landscape rather than built out of it. Not all episodes are as strong, either. While the show is mostly consistent, there are one or two episodes I feel lukewarm about in that they're too hamfisted or just downright not that interesting. This usually happens when the episodes get broken up into parts, giving the show less time to focus on one story and resulting in stuff like 'democracy is flawed' which is frankly obvious and uninsightful. I could also pick on the order of the episodes. While this may be an entirely personal thing, I honestly feel as though the show would have had a stronger impact as a whole if it had rearranged some of its stories. It'd be unwise to mess with them now seeing as that would make piecing together Kino's character more difficult, but I do wish the creators had thought more about the timeline of the show. Just because it's episodic doesn't mean some vignettes don't complement each other better than others. 

Overall though, Kino's Journey is damn good stuff. Not only is it unique among anime, it's well done even for what it is. Kino is an incredible character driven by universally relevant philosophical conflicts and layered with distinctive personality that makes her feel like an individual independent of the show's thematic adventures. Despite its often tragic scenarios there's a slow-burning smoothness to the production that makes it feel sleepy and bittersweet and, I've found, sometimes even soothing. In between the emotionally sterile calmness are occasional moments of great catharsis that may manage to get a tear or two out of the more jaded viewer, which I think many will agree is a treasured ability. There's plenty to think about along the way with Kino's Journey, and between its poignancy and its 'food-for-thought' value (also known in some circles as '2deep4u') I give it a hearty and wholesome recommendation. Even if vignettes aren't your thing, I would still say give the first one or two episodes a try. You don't have to binge it; it's the kind of thing that's nice to watch once a week for twenty minutes after a long day just to put things into perspective. Kino's Journey is good stuff.

Arbitrary Score: 8/10
Recommendation Level: Check it out to see if it's your thing, because if it is you'll love it.

Monday, August 8, 2016

A Few Words About Taste

I'll confess, I have no idea how to start this. There's this large, wide open space sitting in front of me and I worry that whatever my first post is won't be able to fill it. I considered talking about one of my favorites or doing some pseudo-intellectual breakdown of the pros and cons of anime and manga in general, but eventually I decided to settle on a subject that's relevant across all mediums and is more important than ever in the era of the internet when thoughts can fly and clash and kick up sparks from across the globe.

Taste. Taste in shows. Taste in books. Taste in movies. Taste in art. Whatever medium it may be, everyone has their own taste. I feel like we can all agree on this: each person will inevitably have personal preferences towards the kind of stuff they like. Kinda obvious. Unfortunately though, it's more complex than this. It's too harsh of a world for everyone to just happily enjoy what they enjoy and be done with it. As soon as people start sharing their opinions with each other, the following happens.

People become inseparable from their taste.

No longer can you just be two people independent of your contrasting feelings on, say, Fullmetal Alchemist. Now, how you feel about that show directly impacts how you are viewed as a person. Assumptions are made about your values. Your intelligence. The other kinds of shows you like. And, to make matters worse, you as the judged are very aware of this phenomenon. You can read the terrain and figure out what kind of person would like Fullmetal Alchemist, and you can apply this knowledge directly to yourself. Now liking Fullmetal Alchemist isn't just a matter of enjoying a TV show, it helps to define who you are, both for others, externally, and for yourself internally. After all, whether we like it or not we are all to some degree shaped by the opinions others hold of us, and therefore the conscious decision to declare ourselves a fan of a certain piece of art is akin to declaring a part of our own ego. I've encountered this problem personally on many occasions, going so far as to try to enjoy stories I don't so that I can include the assumptions of their fandoms as part of me. I've tried to wander away from my own taste because I didn't like what that taste said about me, or because I liked what a different taste said about me better.

Well, after many trials and tribulations, here are a few words I have at this particular point on the road.

Who we are is less determined by what we like than it is why we like those things.

This also seems kinda obvious when you look at it, but it's something that seems to be forgotten near-constantly as I pour through discussion threads and spiteful reviews. I've seen a number of reddit posts titled "(insert show) Is Not as Good as r/amime Thinks it is", I watched as a fellow reviewer turned his entire homepage into a parody of One Punch Man fans, and just the other day I found a MAL club with the tagline "Re:Zero fans are called Re:Tards!", not that using the word 'retard' as an insult is remotely acceptable anyways. Now don't get me wrong, I'm all for critical discussion, but at the end of the day this is entirely out of hand. The speed at which popular shows turn into landmines of negativity is simply unacceptable, and the same goes for the violent criticism lobbed at those whose taste is 'elitist'. But the main problem I see here is not just that such aggressive attacks on people are unwarranted, it's that they seem to miss the underlying truth of stories in the first place: that everyone brings their own experiences to the table. When I watch Fullmetal Alchemist it will never be the same as when someone else watched Fullmetal Alchemist because a large portion of the viewing experience will inevitably be a simple matter of who the viewer is. This could be as simple as being tired or cranky, or it could be a difference in political views, or a disinterest in action shows, or any number of other far more nuanced personal factors. Simply put, it isn't the same show. No matter how controlled the atmosphere, no matter how universally applicable the themes, two people watching Fullmetal Alchemist will never have the exact same experience.

Now, I'm not one to preach that art is subjective, and I'm certainly not one to preach that morals are subjective. I think that there are elements of all craft that can be isolated and praised, and I think that there is an inherent good and bad in this wildly complicated world we live in. I also think the two are related. It's entirely possible to break down the elements of a story and try to explain why you think it succeeds or doesn't succeed, but no matter how much you dislike something I feel as though it's important to remember that the people that do like it may hold that opinion for reasons you can't even begin to understand. You may harp on Fullmetal Alchemist for its predictable story structure or repetitive characters, but maybe a fan found someone they could truly relate to in Ed and fell in love with the world building and gorgeous depictions of the landscape. Add this to the aforementioned truth that you simply didn't have the same experience with the show as them, and trying to pass any sort of verdict on them based solely on how much they enjoyed the show seems utterly absurd. However, there is another possibility in this scenario: say, for example, that this fan x enjoyed the show because they've been whiny and disagreeable their whole life and they liked stepping into a fantasy world where it's everyone else who's wrong and they get the girl without having to change anything about themselves. Is this something you can critique?

I think the answer is yes. This is a bit of a toxic worldview. In this instance, the Fullmetal Alchemist acts as an enabler for the person watching it, steeping them further in a philosophy that will continuously harm them and those around them. It may not even be the philosophy the show is pushing: that's not the point here. The point is, this is where the conversation is that needs to be had, not with whatever the show happens to be in the first place and whatever you think that show says about its viewership. It's not everyone's duty to act the righteous deliverer on the internet and constantly point out to everyone else the flaws in their own thought process, but I am saying that if you're going to get all excited about what someone's taste says about them you should be honing in on why they have that taste and not what that taste is, coincidentally, in a vacuum. Otherwise, you're just using your opinion as a hurtful weapon to further force people to feel as though the stories they like and who they are are hopelessly entwined. Otherwise, you're causing both yourself and others to become more detached from the raw passion of reading or watching something that's legitimately meaningful to you. Otherwise, you promote the notion that stories are about being smart or dumb, right or wrong, rather than learning something. If you don't like something, pay attention to why you don't like it, and if you do like something hone in on what it is that makes it work for you. Those are the kind of thoughts others want to hear. There's not much more than that to a real, earnest discussion of art. 

Oh, and for the record, I've never seen Fullmetal Alchemist.