Archive for August, 2009

On the Nature of Enjoyment (feat. Ange Ushiromiya)

One thing that I’ve noticed as I read a lot of Western fiction and watch a lot of Japanese animation is that occasionally I have to pause and think about the nature of how I enjoy something. This frequently leads to bewilderment and confusion in both myself and others as I try to figure out whether or not liking something in a different way than I like something else means that I like it less (or more). It’s fairly meaningless for me to say something like “Simoun is a better fantasy than William Goldman’s The Princess Bride” when there’s almost zero grounds for any sort of comparison. It might be slightly more meaningful, depending on the context, for me to say “I like Simoun better than The Princess Bride” but then that’s akin to saying “I like celery more than I like bananas”. And sometimes I really want bananas. But right now, what I want is a whole-wheat cracker.

It’s something I feel whenever I think about the differences in the nature and form of enjoyment I take from the Western novel and the anime (or manga, or even what little Actual Japanese Literature™ I’ve read), but can’t quite put in words. And, no, it’s not quite a visual appeal issue, so I can’t solve it by saying “anime has cute girls therefore it’s better/worse [please circle the best choice] case closed.” The closest I can come is placing things into a strange matrix of enjoyment derived from intellectual and emotional means. This is not to say that one is inherently better than the other–it’s best, after all, when both are present in similar amounts–but the method of approach, the ever-mutable intellectual and emotional expectations brought into and taken from a work, seem to alter the nature of the enjoyment I derive.

When I think of a Western (the vague and ill-defined global concept, not Louis L’Amour) novel, for instance, I think of intelligence; this is regardless of whether or not I like the novel under question, or whether said novel is intelligent or not. The novel is praised for being intelligent, for being clever, for doing anything that appeals to intellect; the novel is detested for failing to appeal to the intellect, for being sloppy or sentimental or schlocky, for being the Dread Word “Entertaining”. The observation of this perception is hardly news as it’s been going on for roughly two centuries (give or take some decades), but there’s more to it than Sturgeonesque bitterness towards the intellectual elite. Consider the fact that most defences of entertainment, of genre, of actually enjoying what you read are intellectually adroit, understandable given how they are generally addressed addressed to an intellectual audience that may or may not like to enjoy itself. The fight to enjoy something, to defend something against being deemed “escapist” or otherwise “unintelligent” is to insist on the unconventional intelligence of the works under contention.

I’m not trying to upturn my nose here–I’m as guilty as the next person at wanting and enjoying intelligent entertainment (in all of that phrase’s gloriously fuzzy meaning), and, in all honesty, treating entertainment of any kind as though it were unintelligent by default is damaging to everyone. I read books that I enjoy, and I enjoy books that I read. Yet somewhere in the back of my mind, more often than not I find a novel to be more intellectually appealing than emotionally–no matter how affectionate I am of the novel or how emotionally appealing I found it. Again, this is not bad, but merely an expression of a particular form of enjoyment.

Conversely, when I think of anime (and of Japanese literature in general, to which anime and manga belong, however reluctantly) I find myself thinking far more of emotions. This, again, is hardly surprising: the history of Japanese literature places more emphasis on the emotional side of a story than its logical side. In other words, the emotions and internal workings of the characters play a stronger role than how “real” (or “realistic”) the characters are. I find this notion easy to detect in anime: whether it be Kabuto Kouji full of burning passion to defeat Baron Ashura and Dr. Hell, Akari Mizunashi full of curiosity and delight in the small things, or the complex characters of Macross Plus, emotions–both those of the characters and/or those engendered in the viewer–play a key role in the series and its appeal to its fanbase, no matter how simplistic or complex they might be.

Just as how Western novels blend intellectual and emotional appeal, however, so too does Japan (more so now, with an increase in Westernized attitudes). The Tale of Genji, the first and most significant work of Japanese prose literature, is extremely internally consistent despite its vast cast of characters rarely referred to by name and with shifting titles; the few inconsistencies tend to appear in chapters where Murasaki Shikibu’s authorship is potentially in doubt. There is also anime that offers much to the intellectually-oriented audience–the  films of Mamoru Oshii and Satoshi Kon strike my mind first here, but that may more be due to their larger penetration into the Western market. Even Miyazaki has a strong intellectual appeal, one that may be causing the divide on Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea. And there’s the reverse, with more emotional than intellectual appeal, where I think of Key and their ability to take fairly thin characters and still engender strong emotional reactions in their readers and viewers; ef seems to follow in this tradition, if a bit more spectacularly.

In fact, what attracted me to anime in the first place (as I’ve no doubt regaled people with countless times) was the profound emotional effect it had on me; hitherto that point I’d mostly been interested in comedies and was convinced I didn’t like drama at all. The effect of this flip-flopped my attitude not just towards anime and manga but also towards novels and literature; here were emotions I’d not had, or didn’t think I’d like. The result seems to be that I began to understand and explore that which emotionally appealed more to me over that which appealed more to my intellect, and (slowly but surely) move closer to integrating the two. I’ll probably always tend more towards that which stirs the emotions than that which purely stimulates the intellect; but as these two concepts are not diametrically opposed but instead exist on a Cartesian coordinate plane, I can certainly hope to have it both ways (or at least adjust myself as I deem it necessary).

I’ve divided the spectrum between West and East (or West and Japan) and between textual and visual mostly unintentionally, as my initial goal was to muse upon (for my benefit and potential sanity at least) the odd, contrasting natures of how I liked both Western fiction and anime in what generally appears to me to be completely contrasting and contradictory ways (leading to maddening questions like “Do I really like books? Do I really like anime? Do I really like anything? Do I really have too much free time these days? Do I really need to go take a really long walk and just wipe myself out?”). Nothing mentioned here is strictly bounded by borders of nation, genre, or medium, real or imagined.

I think, in some sort of conclusion (have I actually reached one?), it’s worth pointing out that nothing, as the aforementioned Sturgeon said, is ever absolutely so, and examples and counter-examples clearly exist to everything here, and, furthermore, those examples and counter-examples are going to differ depending on the person giving them. But whether it’s just me who thinks this way, or everyone, or if I’m even dead wrong on my (hilariously subjective) assessment of the matter, I think it best to at least keep in mind that there are at least two tandem approaches to deriving enjoyment from any given narrative: one from the intellect and one from emotion. Each manifests itself differently in everyone and people naturally tend towards one more than the other for some narratives and vice versa for others; some will even be able to swap between the approaches at will. And it’s likely that as time passes that the preferences will change as well.

I think I best list some examples so, at the very least, my subjective assessment of all this nonsense will be known, so that perhaps thought processes can maybe be assimilated into some kind of coherent whole by someone who is not me. Oddly enough this also somewhat serves as a “recommended reading/watching” list in a very odd and somewhat haphazardly slapped together at the last minute way.

  • Primarily intellectual:
    Novels: Cyteen by C.J. Cherryh, feed by M.T. Anderson, The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
    Anime: Legend of Galactic Heroes, Macross Plus, The Sky Crawlers
  • Primarily emotional:
    Novels: The Six Duchies nonalogy by Robin Hobb, Spin by Robert Charles Wilson, Enchantress From the Stars by Sylvia Engdahl
    Anime: Kamichu!, Crest of the Stars, Whisper of the Heart
  • Primarily both:
    Novels: Octavian Nothing by M.T. Anderson, The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, The Time-Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
    Anime: Revolutionary Girl Utena, Planetes, Toki o Kakeru Shoujo

If this post makes no sense, it is entirely my fault for not being sensible. I’m going to go not think for a while. It might do me some good, and prepare me mentally to think way too hard about information management.

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Simoun: A Connecting Braid

I remember this being roughly my facial expression around episode 19 the first time through the series.

Rotoraemon and Mamiina were, upon my first (and rather visceral, my analytical powers being nascent at best) viewing of Simoun something of an odd anomaly; I remember that I hadn’t been too terribly interested in their stories until it was entirely too late. One of my more personal goals in rewatching Simoun (the only one I explicitly made) was to pay more attention to their part of the story. The overall goal was to pay more attention to the characters in general, of course, but I especially was looking forward to their “arc”. Hence this post.

If Floe’s experience of love (or something vaguely resembling it, anyway) and war exemplifies Simoun‘s dialogue between purity and war, then the somewhat complicated relationship between Rotoraemon and Mamiina exemplify a different theme structure with regards to purity: that of sincerity, of purity of intent. Other characters wrestle with this as well, but it has stronger significance for the two not-quite-childhood-friends.

Rotoraemon comes from an upper-class family, one that is certainly well-off enough to afford extravagant luxuries such as mansions and hired, live-in help. This would seem to set the stage for Rotoraemon to be the ojou-sama type character (backhand cackle and all), yet she noticeably lacks the supercilious manner in which most ojou-sama characters carry themselves; in fact, she’s quite pleasant, honest, and cheerful. Growing up in the same household as her was Mamiina, the daughter of two servants. Not much is shown of their childhood days, but the impression is starkly clear: the two were friends of a sort, with subtle tensions stretching between them. Only Mamiina seems aware of these tensions, seeing, as she does, interaction with Rotoraemon more as a servant’s duty than the genuine friendship that Rotoraemon wanted and believed they had.

Upper-class families are apparently noted for being the primary source for sibyllae, especially those called to pilot the Simoun, and Rotoraemon’s family is no exception. But, whereas Rotoraemon naturally glides into the position of Simoun sibylla, Mamiina, wishing to surpass her low birth and demonstrate her capabilities, must instead follow a somewhat hardscrabble route to sibylladom. Accepted as a candidate only because she is willing to pilot the Simoun in military action, she quickly rises to the top of the combat poll, no doubt due in large part to her utilization and view of the Simoun as more of a tool–a weapon–than the holy vessels that the sibyllae from more prestigious families do.

In a sense, Mamiina’s use of the Simoun as a tool for personal aggrandizement is a vulgarity of sorts, one that ties into the general concept of tainting something sacred with bloodshed. Indeed, when Mamiina first appears, she seems to fluctuate between a gentle demeanor (no doubt remembered from her childhood) and an aggressive, dominating spirit. She determines to pair with Neviril not because she respects her, but because, by pairing with her, she can achieve her goal of rising to the top and pairing with the most famous sibylla. This immediately sets her at odds with Aer and Parietta; aerial fisticuffs ensue.

Needless to say, Mamiina’s behavior taints the entirety of Chor Tempest and, assisted by terrorism, leads to their stint upon the Messis. As befits an exile of penance, of course, tempers flare up on a regular basis, and those between Mamiina and Rotoraemon are among the first. Here, then, the issue of the braids they both bear is breached: to Mamiina, the child of servants, the braids that Rotoraemon’s parents insisted that she wear became a sign of nobility, a sign of the status that she never had. Of course, now she has braids, but (rather charmingly) she binds them up with a ribbon.

It’s worth pointing out here that Rotoraemon seems a bit childish, or at least continually caught up in her childhood: her bed is surrounded with stuffed animals, either ones that she made or that her parents have purchased her. When Mamiina reappears, she treats her as a friend that she has been estranged from for several years, wishing to resume her old friendship with her, which (of course) is exactly what Mamiina does not want. A return to the old dynamic is not what Mamiina wants at all, considering her recent failure to attain what she had considered her goal. And so confrontation, and so hateful truths spilling themselves out, and so the doll that Rotoraemon herself had sewn (the rather clumsy one) is accidentally torn.

Soon, however, a Fortuitously Timed Emergency occurs, leaving Rotoraemon and Mamiina the only pair of sibyllae who have not scrambled, and bickering on the flight deck. And then, in order to prove to Mamiina the sincerity and honesty of her friendship, Rotoraemon pulls out a penknife and hacks one of her twin braids off. She had pleated her hair as her parents had told her to, and so, Mamiina felt that Rotoraemon was her friend merely because her parents had told her to be her friend. But by severing the braid–the connection to her parents and their obligations–Rotoraemon now proves to Mamiina that she acts under her own free will when she declares herself a friend to Mamiina. No ulterior motives, no conspiratorial schemes, not even a shred of friendship via pity.

The severing of the braid seems to mend the feelings Mamiina bears for Rotoraemon, and gradually, over the rest of the course of the Messis’s travels, Mamiina softens her demeanor and becomes somewhat of a grounding point for the rest of Chor Tempest, even as the world breaks for the other members. And so it goes, until the fateful final mission to the aerial base, where Mamiina manages to fulfill the desires that she seems to have long abandoned.

The first is that, for the mission, with the grounding of Yun and Aer, Mamiina is given the chance to pair with Neviril with little fanfare–indeed, I’m not sure she noticed the subtle filling of her initial stated goal, and I didn’t until well after the fact. But of even greater importance is what transpires upon the airbase: with the Simoun shot down and both Mamiina and Neviril about to be taken prisoner, Mamiina stalwartly defends the honor and sanctity of Neviril–the same sanctity that she previously had wanted to violate, for lack of a better word, for her own ambitions–at the risk and ultimate cost of her own life. But before she makes the fatal jump to her final stand, she unties the braids that Rotoraemon had pleated for her, pulls out her own penknife, and slices one of them off as Rotoraemon before her.

Rotoraemon’s severed braid announced her as a unit independent from her family; Mamiina’s severs a far less tangible connection: that towards her own ambitions. With a single motion, she severs the feelings and obligations she had given herself–the desire to rise above her low birth–and sacrifices herself for the sake of another. In a way, she embraces the role of a servant, but at the same time she also fulfills her desires to rise above her own social status and truly become a true, pure sibylla. In paradoxical fashion, by rejecting her selfish ambitions, Mamiina fulfills them.

It seems odd, then, that perhaps in at least Mamiina’s case the war, the bloodshed, that threatens the purity of the sibyllae, in roundabout fashion, bestows it upon her. Perhaps some cliche-ridden phrase is in order, something along the lines of in the white-hot fires of combat the alloy of purity is forged of impurity laden ore or something moderately ridiculous like that. But perhaps it also goes to show that the definition of “purity” (or whatever you want to call it) is multifarious, and that perhaps the difference is all in how you look at it.


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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