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.