Shinsekai Yori (From the New World)

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This is a story where the antagonists are the main characters. Either that, or it flips up the romanticized notion of revolution. Wouldn’t it be awesome to just go guns ablazing into Washington DC? Wouldn’t it be fun to kill all the powerful people that dehumanize us, make us work in low wages and study in their jails called schools? Only we forget powerful people also bleed. Beautiful people suffer from rape, and famous actors develop anorexia.

If only we could change.

Our relationship with beauty is odd. Although political bands make money off hating rich people, beautiful people may have more power. That’s thanks to the Halo Effect. If we perceive a good quality in a person, it makes all other qualities look better and the bad qualities look a little worse. Throughout the anime, we see a bunch of pretty kids/teenagers do their stuff. They fall in love, they have a lot of sex and they have fun out in nature.

Compare them to the queerats. It’s not that they don’t look human. They look ugly. They’re desexualized, have rough voices and do manual work. Surely, such stupid and ugly creatures deserve their place. When hundreds of people die, we can’t help but despise them. It’s not like the people of the villages are evil. They’re perfect, stick-thin intelligent people who care for the order of society.

“but they all forget somebody’s gotta scrub the toilets” – BioShock.

The anime is, at its heart, about power imbalance. Its way of exploring this idea is by deliberately making the powerful people sympathetic and appealing. There are two reasons for this. Evil people don’t really exist. There’s a coherent theory behind the oppression of the queerats. Also that often we won’t rise up against powerful people because we love them. It’s easy to hate the rich fat dude, but what if it was a beautiful women who enslaved people or send them to the gas chambers?

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The faction you side with tells a lot about your preferences. The story is the basic old tale of the oppressed rising against their oppressors. If you’re siding with the villages, then maybe justice isn’t in your priorities. The villages are more appealing, more like how we want to be. If you side with them, you just might be a victim of the Halo Effect.

If you hate the humans and relish all the death and destruction, then you also missed another point. There’s no difference between dehumanizing people for being powerful and dehumanizing them for being ugly. The anime makes the villains appealing both to reveal how the Halo Effect can make forgive terrible things, but also how people who do terrible things have their reasons for doing so.

Underneath all these philosophies of power there’s also an emotionally engrossing sci-fi story. Shinsekai Yori is a great argument for how sci-fi can be about human relationships and drama, not just showing off about possible technologies. Sci-Fi isn’t about predicting possible technologies – how a car works isn’t a story. It’s about how our society might look like if a certain technology emerges.

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It’s about what would happen if we’d become too powerful for our own good. If I were an expert in Japanese culture, I’d say there are parallels to the atomic bomb. The Cantus is a genetic mutation that gives human beings ridiculous amounts of power, but you can replace it with any possible mutations – super-strength, super-intelligence – that will cause a power imbalance.

Every human in the villages is a ticking time bomb waiting to explode. Despite the peaceful exterior, danger is ever-present. It can coming from inside – one of us loses their mind and goes berserk. It can also come from above. The masters can take you away because they consider you a danger.

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We humans have a hard time building an honest society. We feed our children a lot of things they later have to unlearn – there’s no tooth fairy, the people in TV aren’t your friends and schools don’t teach you anything. The ‘growing up’ the kids do is realizing that the world isn’t peaceful and cannot be. The Cantus is part of human nature. Reality is hostile from every direction – your servants can rise up, one of you can go berserk and someone from above can erase you from reality. You learn similar lessons when you grow up – the job market is cruel and being a programmer isn’t enough, rapists can be sexy and you might get sent off to war.

Like any other organism, we’re constantly trying to remake the environment in our own image. By constructing a peaceful environment, we could ensure our survival. Utopian fiction often portrays these environments as a jungle of machinery and wires. So the main lesson we learn is that technology is evil, savages are noble and we all should be one with nature. The villages are ‘one with nature’. Technology hardly exists there yet the world is still hostile. Cantus isn’t just a genetic mutations. It’s a physical manifestation of the power we hold over each other. Organisms by nature are dangerous. No amount of sex or being one with nature or creating a class of ugly people can solve it.

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Shinsekai Yori is so good that talking about the technical side is pointless. It’s fantastic in how it explores its themes and anime like this are why I put so much effort into writing reviews in the first place. Every year a thousand works of fiction come out, and books or live-action movies may seem more mature but I doubt many come close to the lows of this anime. It’s at once simple, emotionally engrossing and explores its themes to the fullest. There isn’t a reason for anyone to skip this.

If only we could change.

4.5 Queerats out of 5

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The Friendzone! Or: The Demonization of Desire

Unless you’ve been blessed with asexuality, you’ve had a close brush with the Friendzone. I’m sure it also happens to gays’n’lesbians, but I’m not among you. I’m in the hetero majority and so I can only speak about that experience. Also, I refuse to gender the friendzone. Since the dating scene is rigged against men by nature (Controversial statement? Different discussion), we mostly hear about how men are friendzoned. It can happen to women, too. Nothing about being a female protects you from rejection. So for the rest of this post I will refer to the parties as Rejector and Rejected.

All the narratives you hear about the friendzone revolve around one principle. It’s the demonization of desire. Both parties refuse to acknowledge the other party’s humanity, needs and existence. Both can’t imagine someone exists with different wants. So they demonize them.

The Rejected’s narrative:
“I was a great person. I was kind and nice. They didn’t choose me because I was good enough. They only like assholes. They deserve to be with such assholes for not choosing me. The fact I was nice and kind and worked hard means I deserve romance. I know what’s good for you because…?”

The Rejector’s narrative:
“You didn’t want me! You only want sex! If you really loved me, you’d sit there and be happy for being rejected and that I found someone else! Besides, it’s impossible that you really love me. You can only want sex and that’s why I didn’t choose you. I know what you really want because…?”

Notice the pattern?

Rejection hurts our pride. It tells us that we’re simply not good enough. Sadly, romance and sexuality don’t make sense. They’re not a meritocracy with clear guidelines and ways of improvement. Getting thinner or funnier or more confident won’t necessarily win you the person you want. Rejection is a failure you cannot learn from.

So the only way to deal with this fog is to deny it. It’s always easier to deny failure, to deny other people’s success. When you’re in a system that has no set rules what can you do? You can’t quit on sexuality, so you simply distort it for your own advantage. You say to yourself that you’re actually good. You didn’t win the person because the person was at fault. They weren’t good enough to realize how amazing you are. You end up removing their desires and wants from the equation. Their desire is considered invalid simply because you are not what they desire.

Notice the language I ended up using. ‘Winning the person’, as if it’s a prize.

Of course, nobody owes us romance or sex. Even if we could control attraction, we wouldn’t owe anyone these. These aren’t things you give someone. Romance is something you create together. Sex is something you do together. You cannot remove the other person’s wants from the equation. The moment you do, you’re no longer interested in a relationship.

Another thing the Rejected forget is that the world is full of people they don’t want. They’re so invested in their “I am rejected” position, they cannot see all these people they wouldn’t be in a relationship with. Take a walk outside and you’ll see at least 20 people. How many of these attract you? In your school, how many of the attracting sex you wanted a romance with? There are plenty people you’d reject too. You simply don’t have the opportunity yet.

Now, let’s move on to the other side.

All things being equal, it’s better to reject than be rejected. You haven’t put in any effort. The main thing you get from rejecting someone is that at least one person wanted to. Overall, you’re in the position of power. You’re given a door and you can decide whether to enter it or not.

But a person who wants a relationship with you isn’t an offer you can refuse with no consequences. You’re not offered an object, but a person. Nevertheless, we don’t really like to reject people. Hurting other people is no fun. If those who rejected were good friends of ours it hurts even worse. Guilt is no fun. If hurting those we love was easy, people would commit suicide more often.

One way of dealing with guilt is to sweep it under the rug. If rejecting someone weighs too much on your consciousness, just write the person off as not serious. They only wanted sex, after all. That doesn’t count (Sex isn’t a psychological need, remember. Only SmartPhone apps make people happy). All the effort they put into courting you was just a scheme! It’s also impossible for a person who only wants sex to have good intentions. They must only care about their own pleasure and be selfish in bed.

See what’s happening here? You turn the Rejected into a demon, a person who’s out to hurt you. You spin-doctor their desires as if their invalid. When was the last time you were rejected and took it like this? What makes the desire of the Rejected so invalid?

It’s easier to reject someone once we minimize and dehumanize them. They’re already not sexually attractive. So we just think that they only care about themselves, that they only treat us as a reward and we are the victim. Someone dared to want us sexually! If wanting sex is so bad, why do Rejectors later have sex? Could it be the desire of a sexy person counts more than the desire of a non-sexy one?

The same desire we demonize in the Rejected we have, too. You will also only want sex from some people, or put effort into being liked by those you’re romantically attracted to. If your feelings are valid enough that you’ll act on them, why is the Rejected’s wants invalid?

There’s irony in the tough-guy talk of “Get over it! Nobody owes you sex! I thought you were my friend!”. Just as nobody owes you sex, nobody owes you friendship. If a person doesn’t want friendship – if they’re interested only in romance or sex – they’re allowed to quit. After all, you would break off a relationship you wouldn’t want, either.

There is a solution to this that’s simple in theory but difficult in practice. The solution is to not pick sides. We should accept that both desires are valid. It’s okay to only want sex. It’s okay to not want a friendship and only a romance. It’s okay to only want a friendship with romance.

Sometimes, how we view people isn’t how they view us. When two people want different things from a relationship, it doesn’t work and it’s time to rethink it. Love confessions are such a moment. The two parties should first off recognize nobody is being immoral by wanting something. Then, if both aren’t willing to settle just walk away.

Yes, rejection hurts. Yes, it hurts to lose a friend who wanted more. It’s okay to get angry and listen to a lot of loud music. You need to be aware there’s something a little beyond your anger. We should find ways of overcoming rejection and the guilt not by pointing guns at the other party. Relationships don’t always fail because of one party.

It’s difficult, but not impossible. I stayed good friends with a woman who rejected me and I don’t regret a second of it. It was difficult, but even through the anger I knew that it was her choice and there wasn’t nothing morally wrong about it. That’s life. Rejection happens, but we cannot move from it unless we acknowledge that it hurts, and that it’s done out of malice.

 

Melanie Martinez – Cry Baby

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Melanie is late to the game. There has been a wave of Pop singers who sound like a response to the abundance of empowerment anthems. You know this style has been bled dry when Sia tries to write a vulnerable song about alcoholism and ends up ripping off “Titanium”.

Lana Del Rey was about the darker side of hedonism and hot bad guys. Tove Lo sang about the loneliness that finds even the sexiest women. Although they made great albums, Martinez feels like the true beating this genre needs. Tove Lo and Lana still sang like beautiful people. Melanie is the voice of the outcast.

Thematically, the album has more in common with Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails. Its structure is similar to the famous album by these two. The songs don’t tell a story as much as they show a psychological journey of a character, who starts off as Cry Baby and ends up as Mad Hatter.

This is not the trouble of a beautiful girl who just needs to choose a different environment. Melanie’s protagonist is an outcast who finds rejection wherever she goes. On “Dollhouse”, she finds no warmth in a family that’s fine only on the surface. On “Carousel” and “Soap”, she’s rejected romantically. The former deserves special mention. It’s one of the few songs where the hopelessness of love is considered.

The rejection climaxes in “Pity Party” and “Tag, You’re It”. In the former, Cry Baby realizes she has nobody. On the latter, someone finally notices her and it’s a sexual predator. Eventually, she uses the same innocence and tenderness she had in the title track for rebellion. Poisoned “Milk and Cookies” get rid of the asshole. The ending is optimistic – she rejects society and its superficiality on “Mrs. Potato Head” and finds joy in “Mad Hatter”.

Superficiality is a big deal here, and in Pop music. How we look, in fact, is a plague that still infects women. Female musicians will still get praised more for their looks than men, as if it has any bearings on the quality. On Little Mix’s “Black Magic” music video, a change of clothes suddenly makes the guy interested.

Melanie is obsessed with how we use fancy covers to hide things. Almost every song here involves bad things having a nice cover, from the dollhouse that hides a dysfunctional family to the poisoned milk and cookies. That’s where Melanie’s childish aesthetic comes into play.

The whole album uses childish aesthetic to express dark themes. The music is the same. The melodies have a nursery rhyme-like quality. Nothing is actually aggressive or loud. “Worth It” is more abrasive musically, but then comes the chorus of “Milk and Cookies”.

While this aesthetic is often brilliant and Melanie sounds like a visionary, it also highlights how inexperienced she is. There’s a reason The Downward Spiral wasn’t Reznor’s first album. Melanie swings between being obvious and delivering just the right line. On “Dollhouse”, you get lines like “Pose with your brother, won’t you be a good sister?”. It’s brilliant in the way it creepily hints at sexual harassment. Then she bluntly states her Dad is having an affair.

She doesn’t stray from the concept, and that’s good. Only two songs feel slightly out-of-place. “Training Wheels” is a love song that’s great on its own but lacks the darkness that will connect it to the rest. “Pacify Her” is the sort of thing I’d expect from Lana Del Rey and Tove Lo. For a brief moment Cry Baby is an attractive girl that can steal others’ boyfriends?

“Mrs. Potato Head” has been already highlighted by many as the best song on the album. It should’ve spread like wildfire through Tumblr and become a meme. It’s an even better anti-beauty anthem than that Manson track. It has no subtly, it doesn’t need any. Someone need to sing “No one will love you if you’re unattractive”. It’s not about plastic surgery, but about our worship of beauty. We wouldn’t need plastic surgeries if we wouldn’t worship beauty like this. It’s also one of the softest songs on the album, and that only makes it cut deeper.

There will be weirder Pop albums, but Cry Baby is the one we need now the most. Its musical backdrop is unique, but not very attention grabbing. It exists to go along with Melanie’s ideas, but she doesn’t expand on them. The most attention-grabbing thing musically is the bass drop in “Soap”, which uses bubbling sounds. The album doesn’t need an overblown sound. Its smallness fits with the childish atmosphere.

The rough edges prevent it from being a classic, but it’s still a brilliant Pop album. It doesn’t even come close to being a “singles with filler” album. The singles are actually some of the weaker tracks. Melanie manages to create a persona of her own and not just create a collection of great songs, but a sequencing that works. It’s also another step forward from the bland empowerment we’ve been plagued with. I wonder what will replace Melanie’s brand of depressed Pop.

4 dollhouses out of 5