Archive for July, 2009

Simoun: Purity and War

Obligatory Image of Neviril and Aer Kissing In A Simoun Post

I figured it would be best to get the Obligatory Image of Neviril and Aer Kissing in a Simoun Post out of the way as soon as possible.

Considering its name, it should be hardly be surprising that yuri series tend to deal heavily with purity; yuri means “lily” and, let’s face it, when your name for a particular style of fiction wherein two women may or may not have romantic interest in one another comes from a flower associated with the Virgin Mary, she of the Immaculate Conception, it’s kind of difficult to not have purity invoked as a deliberate theme. Sometimes it’s embraced [->], others fetishized [->], and still others challenged [->], but the theme persists. I’ve been rewatching Simoun lately (as I have intended to do since, oh, I finished it), and it proves to be no exception, and one-ups a lot of series I’ve seen by explicitly making it a major theme.

Simoun is set in a world where everyone is born female and makes a decision to either remain female or become male after their 17th birthday. The central nation, the Simulacrum Theocracy, possesses the ability to seamlessly transition the individual from female to male, should they desire, through its belief in Tempus Spatium, an ability that a neighboring country seems to mysteriously lack, relying instead upon technological methods of gender-alteration. Additionally, those who have yet to undergo the transformation are the only ones qualified to be Sibyllae, the priestesses of Tempus Spatium, and pilot the Simoun aircraft, which must be piloted by a Pair of Sibyllae.

Naturally, of course, the plot concerns a group of twelve Sibyllae known as Chor Tempest; rather quickly we discover that, although everyone insists that they are pure, noble, and other yamato nadeshiko-esque adjectives, for various reasons, they aren’t exactly the purest lot of Sibyllae around. (Although, apparently, none of the other Sibyllae are any better at the purity schtick) And not only this, but due to the invasion of other countries, they are also being forced to pilot the Simoun aircraft in a militaristic fashion. They are expected to be noble and pure, yet frequently aren’t.

Well, okay, that’s assuming a functionally non-existent one-dimensional interpretation of the term “purity”; many of our intrepid Sibyllae exhibit some (or even many) qualities vaguely embodied by the lofty, indefinable concept of “purity” but, on the whole, never really fit in. And even then, they don’t always get treated as though they were pure, as the assumption goes: case in point, episode 11 [“United Front”], where the scout airship upon which Chor Tempest makes its residence transports an all-male military outfit to lay siege to a captured town on the border. If the nobility and other upper-crust denizens of Simulacrum treat the Sibyllae with deference, respect, and guarded requests, the rough, uncouth military men of the front lines treat them as, well, the young, nubile maidens that they are. This leads to Problems of the sort that only tend to crop up when the terms “pure” and “nubile” start to conflate themselves, as they are wont to do.

Most of Chor Tempest treat the male soldiers with disdain (haughtiness somewhat optional), but one–eternally cheerful, naive, innocent, oblivious Floe–is fascinated with these creatures known as “men” and rapidly (and, one might add, forcefully) befriends a similarly naive, oblivious young soldier, Mastiff, who thankfully has more tact and respect than the rest of his fellow soldiers. What follows, of course, is the (quite charming) mutual discovery that the Other is not a fearsome entity, but another human being, rather much like the Self, in fact, allowing for certain differences in physique and temperament. Still, our Intrepid Young Soldier learns that a Sibylla needn’t be distant nor conform to his perception of their purity, and our Intrepid Young Sibylla learns that men are not terrifying beasts of lechery and violence and can be quite charming and friendly.

Except that there’s a war on, a war that directly threatens the alleged purity of the Sibyllae by using them to combat the opposing forces via fancy skywriting. Purity and killing other people en masse don’t exactly go well together, even if the other people are busy trying to kill you at the time. And so Floe and the rest of Chor Tempest perform their duty–possibly scared, definitely military–to first deliver and then assist the soldiers in their efforts to retake the town. Floe chooses–insomuch as she has a choice–to engage in combat and compromise herself to protect her ephemeral soldier friend. But the very act of engaging in combat, be it her choice or not, shatters Mastiff’s impressions of Floe–and, thus, of Sibyllae in general–in ways that her previous behavior had not: she becomes less of an accessible priestess, but a demon of destruction.

He respected her purity and sanctity, even as the other Chor Tempest members scorned her for her association with a man, even as she behaved in a manner incompatible with how he perceived a priestess should behave; yet her violent protection of him shatters his faith in her. Ironic, then, that her decision was made with the sort of purity–naivete, innocence–generally only found with first loves; with a selfless, kind-hearted, and ultimately “pure” motive, she simply and effectively ruins the life she was trying to protect most, and destroys her own purity in the eyes of another. Purity, it seems, is a dangerous thing indeed.

Granted, this isn’t the most important thing to happen in the series, nor is it the only angle of approach to Simoun’s purity aspect. But this particular episode struck me as one of the best moments to illustrate the impact of war upon the Sibyllae; the other characters reflect other aspects and, sadly, I’m only halfway through a rewatch now, and nearly every other character is more complex than Floe, which means I really ought to finish the rewatch before I go any further, time and energy permitting.

In the meantime:

dawwwwwww

d'awwwwwww

Kino no Tabi: The Road Goes Ever On

Ever since I first heard about Kino no Tabi (or Kino’s Journey) when it aired six years ago, I have been eager to watch it. For reasons ineffable even to me, it has taken me until a few days ago to even start upon the series. I am quite happy to report that the series has been well worth the wait, even after only four episodes; allowing time for me to grow and mature between then and now has probably only amplified the experience of watching the series for the first time.

The framework of the series–Kino’s travels with her talking motorcycle Hermes in a quasi-fantastic land populated with darkly twisted city-states–allows for different explorations of the series’ tagline and central theme: the world is not beautiful, therefore it is. Kino no Tabi is unsettling and hauntingly elegiac, a feeling not unlike that experienced in Mushishi or when listening to a Sound Horizon album (Roman, or perhaps Elysion) with a translation in hand, although I would venture that perhaps Kino no Tabi is much easier to understand than Revo’s multilayered metaphorical lyrics. Other comparisons that pop to mind include Lois Lowry’s The Giver and Michael Ende’s Momo, both of which deal with functionally dysfunctional societies.

Of particular note (because I just watched it and it made me gush with awe) is the story of Kino’s homeland–the Country of Adults–and the profoundly alienating nature of that particular city-state. Here, children, at the age of twelve, undergo a menacing “operation” to “remove the child from their head” so as to enable them to enjoy their job, which are full of unpleasant and dull things that adults do not want to do. As do the residents of all city-states that Kino will visit, she simply accepts this way of life as natural and logical, the way things are. Of course, the illusion she has is shattered when a passing traveler (also named Kino–there’s a reason for it) learns of her country’s custom and inadvertently pries open her childish curiosity that things might be different than they are here, a profound, world-shattering sentiment for anyone who has the insatiable curiosity of a child.

Lamentably, of course, this leads directly to the “adults” (quotation marks are important here) discovering that, suddenly, Kino has a will of her own, and their psychopathic nature shows true, as her parents promptly begin to berate and despise her for not following tradition and questioning what’s good for her. This leads directly to her family deciding to kill her for refusing to undergo the surgery she “needs” to become an adult. The traveler-Kino, himself unable to fit into Kino’s highly delineated world of “child” and “adult” as he is neither, sacrifices himself, leaving Kino’s parents somewhat confused and stymied about what to do next (the attendant police officer helpfully encourages them to remove the knife so as to try to kill their daughter again) and also prompting Kino to escape with Hermes and begin the journey that occupies the remainder of the series.

Kino’s life as traveler has several interpretations: the most obvious one to be derived from her backstory is that she has now assumed the identity of the Kino who died to allow her to escape; now she, too, is caught in the land that is neither adult nor child. One is tempted to say “adolescence,” but that term carries a certain undesirable connotation. I tend to agree with a somewhat paraphrased statement about the phases of life: in childhood, you have all the questions; in adolescence, you have all the answers; in maturity, you realise that the questions were the answers all along. Perhaps it would be fairer to say that Kino now exists in a state beyond the loss of her innocence and the deadening of emotion that she’d assumed adulthood to be. In short, she never “grows up”; indeed, it could be said that all who are truly adult never do. She understands that there are other experiences yet to have in life, not all of them pleasant, yet she is also not resigning herself to a life of misery (or misery masked by bland, deadened, obligatory cheerfulness).

Another way to look as it is that, as a traveler, she is also an outsider. And as an outsider, removed from the troubles that the insiders have, she is better able to perceive the nature of things that the insider might deny themselves; Kino can see the faults as well as the strengths of each individual way of life. None are perfect, all are flawed; yet the flaws can also lend them the beauty they lack. In this, it seems, all walks of life are united. Even Kino’s way of life doesn’t escape the lens; as a traveler, she is alone, aloof, disconnected. Yet her unwillingness to settle down itself needn’t be viewed as a recipe for suffering and misery, as instead Kino draws pleasure from the evanescent solitude.

The world is not beautiful, she reasons; yet because there is suffering, there is also joy. And indeed, it seems that in every city-state she visits or draws near, there is superficial happiness masking a deeper undercurrent of suffering, malice, or cruelty; yet below and beyond the suffering lies a joy that goes seemingly unnoticed by the many resigned to their fates. Therefore: the world is beautiful.

Kino enjoys obtuse and paradoxical tautologies. They have flower petals.

Taishou Yakyuu Musume: HISTORY LESSON! CLASS: S! GOOOOOO!

Taishou Yakyuu Musume: Cute and educational!

Taishou Yakyuu Musume in a single picture: Cute and educational! (I think...)

Taishou Yakyuu Musume is pretty clearly a seinen work (by the publication the light novel ran in if nothing else) but its rather unusual time period of the Taishou era, a sort of transitory era between the Meiji and Shouwa (aka Hirohito) eras, sets it up to deal with historical issues not frequently directly tread by anime and its related indicia to my knowledge. This makes Taishou Yakyuu Musume an interesting period piece in a medium (or genre; I can never tell when it comes to anime) that does not normally tread historical ground unless it also involves samurai and/or ninja and/or people dying in large numbers. (I am positive that there are far more manga that do this, but historical manga of any kind, set within or without of Japan, seem to be a fairly rare beast, so feel free to yell at me and tell me how wrong I am, in this or in any other matter to be discussed henceforth in this post)

Since I’m pretty sure that the girls in Taishou Yakyuu Musume are not going to be shipping off in military uniform for war (if you want to see anime deal with that, I heartily suggest not watching Raimuiro Senkitan), the focus remains on the domestic culture of Japan, which in and of itself is a fascinating thing. After Commodore Perry and Millard Fillmore (President #13 and belongs to the Presidents With Great Names club) essentially beat Japan’s closed-door policy between 1852-55 with a big stick that would have made dear Teddy jealous, the influx of Western ideas captivated Japan as a whole and catapulted them straight from a feudal economy into the industrial age. This resulted in a rather hodgepodge cultural mix of Japanese and Western cultures and involved people dressing awkwardly like this:

This image is not an exaggeration. In fact it might almost be an understatement.

This image is not an exaggeration. In fact, it might almost be an understatement.

The period of social upheaval lasted more or less from the restoration of power from the shogunate to the Emperor with the Meiji Restoration in 1867 to the end of World War II and the signing of the peace treaty between the US and Japan in 1945. It is a hotbed of military action (a major war with Russia and the invasion of China being the major bits), but also great cultural change: Japan increasingly created arguments in favor of “leaving Asia” and joining the West as an equal and not as a “backwards” country. Loosely boiled down, the “leaving Asia” arguments (the most famous one being Fukuzawa Yukichi’s Datsu-A Ron) claimed that Japan was better than the rest of East Asia and should “leave” it and its cultural traditions behind and embrace the growing current of Westernization occurring at the time. Hence the rise of the cultural conflict between traditional Japanese values and modern Westernized values (see above picture) that persists to this day.

You may be asking yourself “but what does all this boring history junk have to do with cute girls playing baseball in the Taishou era?” The answer is:

Historical accuracy!

Historical accuracy!

Along with the fashion and factories and other physical manifestations of “Western civilization” that came to Japan after Perry’s arrival came ideas of Western origin. Of particular note is that the early phases of the suffragette movement (think Senaca Falls) occur during this time, and Japan, too, begins to have the early flowerings of a feminist movement. The establishment of all-girl academies gave burgeoning young girls empowerment between obeisance to the family and obeisance to the husband; couple that with the introduction of the soon-to-be-ubiquitous sailor uniform and the eventual (and equally ubiquitous) male fascination with the empowered schoolgirl, or shoujobyou (“girl disease”) is somewhat inevitable, or at least understandable. However, this post is not about shoujobyou as most likely everyone reading this is quite familiar with the concept in a practical, if not necessarily theoretical, level, and therefore we can save this for later.

Taishou Yakyuu Musume‘s 1925 setting places it square in the middle of the popularity of Class S, a genre of literature primarily concerned with the relationships between young women. The exact nature of Class S is rather difficult to pin down, as I’ve yet to read an actual example (Nobuko Takuya was the most popular and influential Class S author, and I’ve yet to see even one of her short stories translated to English and I daren’t try my Japanese reading skills on them). The closest that seems to get to Class S in a modern context is Maria-sama ga Miteru, which features heavy use of the Class S style; indeed, complaints I’ve heard about Marimite about “thespian lesbians” seem to corroborate this, especially considering that Class S grew out of the Takarazuka Revue, an all-girl theater troupe reputed for performing (you know, in case you were wondering why all the boys in shoujo manga tend to look, well, really feminine).

To make the point rather blunt: the Takarazuka Revue and Class S (both of which are nearly coincident with one another) essentially serve as the birth of what would, after the Year 24 Group came about (Riyoko Ikeda, Moto Hagio, and Keiko Takemiya, to name a few), to be known in manga parlance as yuri. The fundamentals of yuri’s appeal to many–purity of feelings, a sense of tranquil nobility, and perhaps the occasional Platonic love/lust–stretch back to the early 20th century. (Astute readers will also note that the Roaring Twenties and the flappers are in full steam in places that are not Japan and are in fact America)

Class S relationships actually existed, of course; they were quite common and looked upon as simply another part of a girl becoming a woman. A first crush being another girl was considered a healthy, safe first taste of love and even something to be desired in a child–of course (this is Japan and this is the early 1900s), as long as it was both transitory and nonsexual. Some of the Class S relationships did extend beyond the adolescent phase, of course, and eventually, with the banning of Class S literature and the growth of the co-educational school, the Class S culture was driven somewhat underground, to resurface later in the 70s. Still, Class S and all that stems from it–however vast that might be–captures and idealizes (in some way) the feelings of these relationships.

What does this all really have to do with Taishou Yakyuu Musume? Well, not a lot right now, except that the first episode made me go “that’s so Class S” and subsequently want to (badly) write the above. Due to the time period I expect the nature of the series to tend more towards a Class S mentality than a modern one (sorry, no Candy Boy for you), although I don’t quite see it (yet) as a primarily yuri work. I also can’t really tell if it’s going to tend more towards the shoujo or the shoujobyou side of things. All I know is, as long as it retains the general feeling of the first episode, tending to whichever direction it pleases, I’ll probably be fine with it.

Extra points, of course, for more songs.

Extra points, of course, for more songs. Everything needs more singalongs.


NOTICE SHAMELESSLY STOLEN FROM G.K. CHESTERTON

I cannot understand those that take anime seriously, but I can love them, and I do. Out of my love I warn them to keep clear of this blog.

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