Archive for December, 2009

Secret Santa Project Review: The SoulTaker: Takin’ Souls, Cryin’ Blood

So after watching The SoulTaker for the Reverse Thieves’ Secret Santa project, I can honestly say that it was a much less painful experience than rumor had led me to believe; in fact I rather enjoyed it, or enjoyed the process of watching it, or something. Prior to actually watching The SoulTaker, the most I’d heard about the series ranged from “it’s terrible” to “it’s kind of alright” and the fact that Nakahara Komugi (of Nurse Witch Komugi-chan Magikarte infamy) was a spinoff of SoulTaker. This is not exactly the kind of buzz that is heartening to hear for a series, and so I’d filed the series off in the back of my head as “probably shouldn’t watch” which was exactly what it was until the Secret Santa project came around. Considering that my other two options for the event were Narutaru and Paranoia Agent and while I’ve seen half of the former (it’s no Bokurano manga, but neither was the Bokurano anime) and I intend fully to watch Paranoia Agent at some indeterminate point in the future (that mystical Shangri-la where I have Free Time in which I can read all I want and watch the anime I’ve meant to watch), I decided that SoulTaker would be the more adventurous option of the three, and the most in keeping with the spirit of the project.

“Adventurous” is, of course, a kind of understatement for SoulTaker. It is, after all, an early Akiyuki Shinbo series, and I am fairly sure that, out of the total of 325 minutes of the entire series, exactly seven of them were spent with what passed for “normal” lighting in SoulTaker. The rest of the series was occupied by screens that were mostly black, backgrounds that seemingly escaped from Frank Lloyd Wright Does Cathedral Windows, 45° camera angles, and lots and lots of dark colors. Lots of dark colors.

All the dark colors add to the paranoid atmosphere of SoulTaker, the story (?) of which is the prime driver of the paranoia in the series. I would, at this point, explain what sense I managed to piece together of the plot, except I don’t think it’s actually possible for me to put it in words, as the plot does not exist to make any sort of coherent sense. The generalities of the plot revolve around Kyosuke Date being betrayed by nearly everyone in the series at some point, punching people in SoulTaker mutant/alien form, and crying tears of blood. The point is: this series is paranoid to the max, as it starts out with Kyosuke getting stabbed in the heart by his mother and ends with Kyosuke killing his grandfather. You can call it allegory or you can call it bad writing, the plot is highly abstract and doesn’t cohese well into a sensible narrative; the characters are slightly less abstracted, but they still do not seem to function in the way characters normally do.

The only way I was able to even start to make sense of SoulTaker was through the old standby of the reality/fantasy binary: Kyosuke starts off the series with a strong desire to rescue and locate his sister, whom he loves,although all he ever has contact with are fragments of her personality (or “Flickers” in the parlance of the series). Most of the episodes involve Kyosuke meeting, dealing with, and eventually rejecting (or failing to attain) different fragments of his sister, until the end, where the machinations of other characters eventually re-integrate her personality and reconstruct her. Of course, his sister is both 1) young and innocent-looking and 2) sinister and deadly; long story short, she attempts to kill off the entire human race simply so that she and Kyosuke can have an idyllic existence as the Adam and Eve of a new race of hybrids. Kyosuke rejects this, and eventually “kills her so she can live” by absorbing her into himself before saving humanity.

I have no idea if that previous paragraph makes any kind of sense whatsoever, and I won’t be surprised if it doesn’t, but hopefully it’s not difficult to see the implication that fragments and outward manifestations of a person’s personality are easier to like but deceiving of the true nature of the dangerous personality behind them. A general reading is possible, but it’s hard not to see SoulTaker as a sort of cautionary tale for the modern otaku: even in 2001, the abstraction of character personalities and physical traits, familiar now to all, was well underway, and unease was already beginning to stir. Here we have fragments of a single idealized personality—likable, attractive, and often subtly sexualized on their own—that, when assembled, form a frightening and destructive whole that threatens humanity; here we have the otaku, pursuing the idealized personality suggested by the fragments, then confronted by and eventually assimilating the twisted reality of their ideal.

In the end, I can say with assurance that I liked watching SoulTaker, which is, to me, always the most important thing, and infinitely more important than concerns as to whether I liked a given work qua work, or whether or not I think a given work is good. In that regard, the Secret Santa project is, at least in this instance, a success.

The Social Fandom, The Solitary Fan: An Inconclusive Theory

Long, complicated intersections of conversations and renegade trains of thought yesterday resulted in the singularly obvious observation that simpler, more accessible stories are always going to be more popular (and possibly more ephemeral) than the more complex, less accessible stories will be. While your mind is busy comprehending the sheer obviousness of that statement, I’m going to spend a wee bit more time with it in relation to the greater concept of fandom (maybe).

Fandom is, essentially, a social activity. One can be a “fan” of something without necessarily being social, but “fandom” exists in the social sphere and is the social function of being a fan of something. The word “fandom” provides the perception of a monolithic entity even as we recognize that fandom consists of people with wildly differing temperaments, personalities, tastes, and extra-fandom interests. When we speak of fans, we refer to the general monolith of fandom; when we speak of a fan, we refer to a specific person within the fandom. In other words, “fans” can be abuzz with social gossip and conversation that any single given member of fandom might not care about, lending apathy, confusion, or anger to the fan whose concerns lie outside whatever the latest gossip is. We see the effect in a giant robot fan isolated in a sea of “omg did you see that pantyflash?!”, and we see it in the cute girl fan isolated in a sea of “omg did you see that rocket punch?!”; this effect is, of course, multiplied when you’re both talking about the same series.

In light of this, it’s important to remember that there are two directions that works tend to lean: one reaches out, towards the social environment; another reaches in, towards the text itself. Northrop Frye refers to these as the “centrifugal” and “centripetal” motions of literature respectively; in a move that will either please or displease my English degree-holding overlords, for this purpose let’s assume that the “centrifugal” or outward-movement is directed towards fandom, and the “centripetal” or inward-movement is directed towards a fan. Both of these exist simultaneously in any given work, especially considering that to have any centrifugal effect, a work generally must have some sort of centripetal effect.

It should come as no surprise, then, that there are some works that are more amenable to all the multitudes of fan activities that fandom is comprised of. Regardless of the relative quality or popularity of works that possess this trait, they tend to be simpler and broader in their appeal. They are the works that are easy to like and, conversely, easy to dislike; they are our SHIN MAZINGER SHOUGEKI! Z-HEN on TELEVISIONs, our K-ON!s, our Maria-sama ga Miterus, our Code Geass-s. For whatever reason, the centrifugal response that manifests in fandom comes naturally, and so they tend to dominate most public discourse simply because it’s easier to.

On the other hand, there are some works that are more amenable to the vagaries of an individual fan than fandom at large. Again, regardless of the relative quality or popularity of works that possess this trait, they tend to be complex and focused in their appeal. They are the works that are difficult to like or dislike, and more likely to leave a strong, positive impression on the viewer; they are our Serial Experiments: Lains, our Kaibas, our Sky Crawlers-s, our The Girl Who Leapt Through Times. For whatever reason, the centripetal response that manifests as a personal response to the work comes naturally, leaving them to be more subdued when discussed in a social context.

We have, of course, temporarily ignored the giant Day-Glo elephant in the room, which is that every work has some degree of leaning in either direction. Some works will actually lend themselves well to both ways, able to draw in and maintain a broad audience while still providing the complexity needed to provoke more personal and analytical reactions. These tend to be the major landmark successes: they are the Neon Genesis Evangelions, the Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiyas, the Mobile Suit Gundams, the Tengen Toppa Gurren-Laganns. They tend to provoke controversy and leave lasting impacts in both fan and fandom, occasionally in society itself.

The two directions, also, entail different types of social interaction, it seems: the centrifugal direction finds its home making simple subjective judgments, i.e. “this character > that character”, “this episode > that episode”, “this show > that show”, etc.; the centripetal direction tends to provoke more analytical responses than simple subjective judgments, and finds its expression more an “appreciation” than an “enjoyment,” although certainly enjoyment is a major factor for it as well. This also accounts for some amount of weirdness when a work we consider to be directed in one direction is treated in the other; we all scratch our heads over the “Sky Crawlers sucks I give it negative eleventeen stars” as much as we have the “The Dynamics of Interbeing and Monological Imperatives in Maria+Holic: A Study in Psychic Transrelational Gender Modes.”

What does this all get us, besides an inadvertent preliminary draft of Northrop Frye (With Creative Embellishments) for Anime Fans? I’m not entirely for certain, unfortunately, but I can hardly think it disadvantageous to take a step back and realize that sometimes there’s a reason a woefully ignored, brilliant masterpiece isn’t getting discussed as much as the flavor-of-the-week: it’s harder to discuss, especially on a place like the Internet, the primary function of which seems to be demonstrating that inane prattle is exactly as common as it is, rather than the fervently-hoped-for less so.

A quick bibliography:

This Ask John article sparked the conversation that sparked the process that ended up as this post.

Also read cuchlann’s excellent postulate of where fandom comes from, as applied to Maria-sama ga Miteru but also generally applicable as well.

If you somehow develop the urge to read Northrop Frye and you haven’t already, The Anatomy of Criticism is a good place to start. Or, at least, it’s the one I recently read. It also happened to make sense but that’s likely just me.


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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December 2009