Sundays Without God (Kamisama no Inai Nichiyoubi)

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This is such a bizarre anime. I’ve seen anime and movies with trippy imagery. I’ve read stories with pages of gibberish, yet few works of fiction left me with a sense of culture shock like this. Such anime are so original it’s hard to make them truly terrible, since the novelty value is there. Creators also tend to be as confused as the viewer, so they rarely reach their full potential.

When you have a unique premise on your hands that doesn’t owe anything to any tradition, there are two ways to go about it. You can either go full retard, mine the premise for anything it has and throw the kitchen sink along with everything. Since you have no idea how your anime is supposed to work, all you can do is try everything and hope something sticks. There’s a famous anime who did this and it’s called Future Diary.

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The other route is the safer one. You let your story flow, but you never try too hard to understand it. You let characters interact and explore your world, but you refrain from anything too attention-grabbing. The anime will narrow its focus. Its structure will become almost RPG-like, giving the protagonist a basic objective to complete and finish it off.

Sundays Without God takes the latter route, but the result isn’t a complete failure. Despite not playing with the structure, its setting and premise are so weird that the feeling of culture shock is persistent. The stories that make up the anime are also good enough on their own and take advantage of the setting. You cannot tell them in any other context. Still, something feels off. It’s not completely weird, not completely normal and leans towards the weird without mining it too much. The result is anime that’s enjoyable like an ordinary anime while feeling weird.

The best thing about the anime is it unique setting and tone. It’s a perfect example of how you don’t need a lot of details to create a unique world. The world here is simple. God is gone, no one can get born and dead people don’t really die. It’s apocalypse in slow motion. We’ve had a lot of stories about what happens after the apocalypse and we tend to imagine it as something swift and fast. Here, the world is in the process of ending.

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Human beings are resilient things, though. Even if the sun will explode, we’ll most likely try to save something. Survival instinct is so strong that it defies rationality and free will. In this case, the world isn’t ending so much as life reaches its epilogue. Life isn’t bad, but it keeps moving in an ordinary pace towards its ending.

What do you do when you’re the last generation? The anime is essentially about this, but it seems so weirded out by its premise it doesn’t really explore it. The first stories deal directly with these themes – one character is about to be the last of the last generation, which is the worst isolation you can have. The city of the dead is an interesting expressions of the Metaphysical Rebellion – how we can rebel against our circumstances and reject them.

The structure doesn’t prevent exploration of these topics, since many shows used shorter length with depth. The method of storytelling gets in the way. There’s an objective to solve, and the characters spend more time trying to solve it. While the pacing isn’t thriller-like, it’s too fast for such a premise. It doesn’t slow down enough to show how characters exist outside the story.

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Characters’ existence outside the story is one of the best ways to convince us they’re real, to make us care about them and see their humanity. Stories are something humans create and we don’t live in just one. A focused storyteller shows snippets of other stories the characters can have, but then goes back to the main one. A master storyteller can imply these side-stories and connect them to the main plotline. The anime doesn’t do this. Its focus is too narrow.

It’s a shame, because the storytelling is quite excellent. The format is familiar – we have a good, well-meaning character visiting people and helping them. Ai isn’t just a vehicle to tell the stories of these people. Her personality and position is directly tied to her role. In a world where everyone’s ready to die or desperately fighting death, she’s a piece of light. She’s the youngest person alive, a possibility that there might be a future.

She’s not a lantern, though. When things go bad, Ai doesn’t say some nice things and the story ends. Often, she gives those pep talks but stumbles. The world is, after all, ending. Problems still exist and are hard to solve. Ai may be an optimist, but she’s a struggling optimist. We see her doubts, how much she tries to cling to her optimism despite everything.

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This is where the anime’s faults lay. Although this is an excellent usage of such a character, they don’t take it far enough. Ai struggles, but the creators put her so much in the role of problem-solver she doesn’t have time to ingest the struggling. There’s no time to see how the possible failures affect Ai’s psych. Stories don’t always end just like she wants them to, and that should influence her worldview. How do you stay optimistic when things don’t go as expected? Do you blind your own eyes? Do you become pessimistic, or do you accept things as they are? The anime never addresses these questions.

The themes of wishing does make its appearance, but the creators aren’t sure what to do with it. People wish for things. Sometimes they come true, sometimes they don’t and sometimes they come true but the result is painful. It speaks volumes when a messy anime like Big Order addresses these themes better. They’re present, but wishing is not a plot device here and there aren’t enough angles to explore this topic from. It’s just there.

The art style continues the weird nature of the quality. The character’s looks are distinct and memorable enough, but the art style itself isn’t. You can put these characters in a school anime and they wouldn’t feel out of place (except for the outfits). There’s variety in how everyone looks and the school arc lets them show off their designs, but nothing connects it. Characters shouldn’t just look distinct but there should be a style that connects them, quirks that make the design memorable and make you wonder what else you can do with it.

On the other hand, the color schemes and backgrounds are beautiful. The anime finally fulfills potential. The colors are balanced. Light and dark tones are mixed. A burning red or a cold blue is are the dominating colors, and they have just enough brightness to make the world seem normal. There’s also a little darkness in them that reminds you that the world is dying. It’s a balance that’s hard to get. You can easily find yourself in bland colors, but here they’re the perfect mix of darkness and lights that fit the weird tone of the series.

Sundays Without God is a flawed anime, but nevertheless an anime like no other. Its failures hold it back from greatness, and but their nature prevents them from being offensive. When it falls, it’s not because it does stupid things. Rather, it’s too afraid to play with its ideas. They stand on their own, and even as basic storytelling it’s good enough. Someone might one day run away with these and render this irrelevant, but until then it’s worth your time.

3.5 sundays out of 5

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Deadman Wonderland

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The Nu Metal song in the beginning could’ve been a good sign of things to come. The anime could’ve been the visual version of Nu Metal – loud, heavy, violent, stupid and a lot of fun. Too bad it’s closer to early Drowning Pool than Mushroomhead or Slipknot. A lot of stuff happens, but nothing is fun.

The warning signs are in the first episode. Ganta (‘gangsta’ minus two letters) has no personality. Brief slice-of-life tell us nothing about him other than that his taste in women is generic, his best friend is more extroverted than him and that he’s nice.

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He’s a bland stand-in for the viewer. He’s defined by the most vague attributes – he’s nice, he wishes good for everyone and he feels a little weak. It’s a nice suit the viewer can insert himself into and feel better at the end at overcoming the pain along with Ganta.

A character defined by being normal and good-willing can work. The writers would have to be aware that this is his purpose, though. They will have to make sure his normality is constantly contrasted (because normality is in itself empty) and that his goodwill is active. This worked for Danganronpa.

Ganta isn’t Naegi and there are no one here as mad as Daganronpa’s students. We never get an insight into how the events actually affect him. Then again, the events are meaningless acts of cruelty. All Ganta can do is be depressed for a while, inner-monologue about how weak he is and then stand up to protect his friends.

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Wasn’t this what Sakamoto did in BTOOOM!? The major difference between the two is that Sakamoto had less people to talk to, so he also inner-monologue’d during fights.

Shiro isn’t much better. Her personality is amusing but runs out of steam before you notice it had any steam in the first place. Yuno is an obvious comparison, and Shiron is everything Yuno satirized. She exists to please Ganta and to help him. She doesn’t have anything beyond this.

Yuno was defined by being a yandere. The fact she needs someone is the center, not the someone she needs. Without Ganta, what can you do with Shiro? She walks around, acts cutsy and solves problems for Ganta.

It’s possible that the manga develops her differently. There’s a big twist thing that’s not revealed in the anime but is elaborated upon there. In this anime, she’s our hero cute female sidekick.

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The creators also can’t be imagnative with their cruelty. Buckets of blood are spilled and people get shot in the head. Many were abused in their past. It never builds towards anything. Everyone just suffers.

In order for us to understand suffering, we need to see the difference between one kind and another. We need to see how different characters approach the situation. Many in Future Diary had a difficult past, but they took it differently. They weren’t just senseless psychos. It affected their desires and worldview in a way that’s connected to their personality. There is a difference between Yomotsu’s rough justice, Tsubaki’s hatred, John’s megalomania and Yuno’s obsession.

Violence is just tossed here. It’s something to cheer for. How can you take a show seriously when everyone is so sadistic? The world is cruel, but it’s also strange. Stories from Holocaust survivors are more shocking not just because they’re real but because they’re going somewhere.

Humans adapt. People who live in harsh circumstances adapt or die. In the most intense times in the army I didn’t have time to inner-monologue. In this anime they just monologue. The reason the pain of Danganronpa‘s cast was believable was because they had more than pain in their lives. The show made it clear each of these characters could stand on its own.

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None of the characters of Deadman Wonderland can exist outside the anime. They’re all tied to the emotional core of doom’n’gloom. Without senseless violence they don’t exist. Characters who need senseless violence are senseless.

It’s ironic how the series tries to say something about brutal entertainment. The whole set-up is violent entertainment taken to reality. It’s an interesting concept, especially when we deal with prisoners. The rights of criminals and what to do with them is a controversial issue.

It seems the anime’s answer is that we should massacre them in entertaining ways. If this was supposed to be a critique, it should’ve made the violence truly shocking. Violence is shocking not when it’s extreme, but when it has some sort of meaning. This is why Yukki killing a bunch of orphans is more jarring than any ‘difficult past’ story here.

Yukki’s violent rampage was a result of a person who is sure he can bring everyone back to life. It’s an embodiement of ‘once people become easy to copy/resurrect their life lost value’. The Deadman Wonderland is brutal, but also cool. The people are using weapons made of blood. The race has them dying in all kinds of ways. The camera always lingers on the body so we will get a clear image of it. It’s pornography now.

I could’ve forgiven this if the series wasn’t so pretentious. I love aesthecized violence, and you can use it to give commentary on it. Borderlands is both violent and comments on violence in video games. What exactly Deadman Wonderland is trying to say about our relationship with violence is unclear. People are cruel, so?

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If it was more stylish, if the focus was more on the violent games than the psycho-drama thing it would’ve been better. There are some cool visual ideas. The race scene could’ve been fun, but instead it’s a celebration of gloominess – brutal violence with no energy that’s still pornographic. It’s just unpleasant.

It’s actually hypocritical. The series points to us how disgusting brutal entertainment is, but the show itself is nothing but brutal entertainment. Its violence only exists for our pleasure and the cruelty isn’t deep. It’s like how in the Saw films, Jigsaw talks about how we should appreciate life but forces others to kill.

At least it’s better than BTOOOM!. The series does reach some kind of conclusion. The grand story doesn’t end but they create a central enough arc that does. The setting and characters are also wild enough to be entertaining occasionally. People are getting their heads split open, there’s a loli with a sword-whip-thing and weapons made of blood. It’s pretty fun.

It does have a weird relationship with sexuality as expected. It’s not drowning in fanservice, but the female cast is hanging around with more nudity than practical. Shiro has a skin-tight custom that makes her look naked, another girl is half-naked and the camera literally pauses so we could stare at some G-cups. These type of anime generally fail at sexuality, but despite the occasional moment Future Diary was mainly concerned with the personalities. Danganronpa also never sank to these lows. Sexuality is fun but not when it’s off-topic. Why is the sexual features of every female character is emphasized? At least there’s a dude with killer abs here.

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At least the people in the sound design knew what they’re doing. There are some guitar riffs and industrial beats. It’s the perfect soundtrack. There are even Cannibal Corpse-like blast beats during the Carnival Corpse. If only they had a better anime to fit these cool beats to.

Deadman Wonderland is occasionally fun, but it’s closer to BTOOOM! than to . If doom, gloom and sadism are impressive you then you find some enjoyment here. I wouldn’t even recommend it for people who are into violence. The brutality is never stylish, never cruel in a way that stays in the mind. It’s halfway there and the result is just unpleasant. It’s a bad Nu Metal song – full of angst, noise, ‘brutality’ but no fun or depth.

2 killer lolis out of 5

Charlotte (The Anime)

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“No one man should have all that power,” – Kanye West

Watchmen was a response to the explosion of superhero comics. Charlotte feels like a response to the explosion of superhero films. The Marvel Cinematic Universe helped to keep superheroes in the public’s consciousness, but it was just a dumbing-down of what Sam Raimi did before. Charlotte has a more interesting take.

These teens are superheroes. They may not have capes and a one-eyed boss (although an eye does get plucked out), but they got superpowers that can be used for saving the world. Why should they, though? A superpower is just an extension of any kind of power.

How many powerful people use their power to contribute to humanity? Musicians use their talent to vent their frustration and sell records. Programmers build websites to get traffic. Most people I know become doctors because it’s a respected profession and gets money. The mindset that you should use your power to contribute is rare.

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Yuu and Nao are two different sides of the coin. For the first two and a half episode, they’re an interesting exploration of power. Yuu uses his to move on up, taking advantage of people but not actually hurting them. Nao’s desire to protect others leads her to plenty of physical confrontation.

Being a moral hero isn’t easy. Nao may have good intentions, but she leaves a trail of beat up people and isolates herself. Yuu’s achievements rely on a skill he gained by luck, not by hard work. There could be an interesting examination of how we shun people who work hard and praise those who just won the genetic lottery.

Nao also has a reasonable motivation for being moral. Her moral behavior isn’t convenient but results in isolation. Sadly, this is where the character development stops.

Yusa is brought in as much-(un)needed cuteness, as if Nao isn’t pretty herself. Ayumi already does the forced cuteness bad enough, so what does Yusa contribute? Worse, she makes another character turn into a drooling fanboy. Takajou first looks like a middle ground between Nao’s vigilance and Yuu’s selfishness, but after Yusa appears all he does is worship her.

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This forced cuteness clashes with the occasional grim tone. Yusa and Ayumi are too-much-sugar cute. They’d be overly-optimistic in Azumanga. Their cuteness is plain happiness, with no unique design or quirk. Next to the cuteness there’s grief, overcoming it, time traveling and what power does to the user.

The treatment of grief does acknowledge the darkness. We see the downward spiral, the isolation and how a person is so overwhelmed he abandons life. Then after 2 episodes he rises up and things are going well. Grief is supposed to change us forever. It doesn’t automatically make us good guys. Nao’s grief turned her into a vigilantee. When Impmon’s whole world was wrecked, he changed but part of him remained. There’s no hint in Yuu that he used to be a selfish brat. He transforms into a moral hero with no relation to what he used to be.

It’s not that the story of Charlotte is convenient by nature. The core premise is an attempt at subverting a common trope. The problem must be in the length. Charlotte has too many ideas and stories which can’t be crammed in 13 episodes. Mirai Nikki couldn’t develop it all in 26.

At least Mirai Nikki played by its own rules. Charlotte often gives up any time it could get interesting. The last episodes is where its most harmful. A senseless enemy appears whose contribution to the story is nil. The only contribution is the killing of another character, but it they don’t do anything meaningful with it. The death doesn’t affect the story in anyway. We don’t see how the characters deal with grief, or how that death is a meaningful conclusion to that character’s story.

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They already touched on grief. The only thing that conflict adds to the story is to make Yuu be heroic while killing a device that makes Yuu work a little harder in the climax. Yuu is interesting because he’s the opposite of a moral hero, so turning him into one works against the story. The climax also didn’t need such a dramatic brush with death to start.

At least the final episode redeems the series. Like the detour to Dealing With Grief, it’s too short for its own. Still, its idea is intriguing and the psychological development is well-paced. It’s further development on the original ideas the series started with.

While Charlotte does suffer from rushed pacing, it overcomes it by well-structuring its episode. The last episode is an epic journey that often takes more than 10 episodes in other anime. The creators managed to sum it up in 20 minutes without the journey losing too much impact. There is talented people there, they just took on too much.

Charlotte‘s main problem is that all its detours don’t always rise from the premise. Mirai Nikki explores both an ensemble cast and the Nature of Time and Space, but these are things that are found in the premise. Nothing about Charlotte’s idea of superpowered teenagers has anything to do with exploring the nature of death or time travel.

All these detours also lead to too many characters who aren’t given enough to do. Too many events are external. The puzzle-solving of the first episodes was fun, but after that it’s all big events. The creators can’t imagine a way to approach them that’s not dull heroism, so there’s no emotional payoff.

That’s why the sentimental moments often feel manipulative. This is a criticism that’s been directed at KEY often, but here it feels even more out-of-place. Charlotte is either too plot-driven or too psychological for such convenient wrapping-up. It’s been a long time since I watched Kanon (2006), but it was a pure drama. The sentimentality rose naturally, instead of feeling tacked on.

Some credit must be given to the soundtrack. It seems originality in soundtracks is now common in anime. There is attention paid to the textures and use of rhythm that is rare in Western scores. In this case, it borrows some cues from Bass Music to create the right intensity – one that is not world-altering, but still so.

Charlotte is a clever idea that took unnecessary, if interesting baggage and didn’t have enough episodes to connect everything. It’s more enjoyable than annoying. The episode are somehow paced well, even if the overall pace isn’t. It manages to make a final turn at the end so the journey won’t be futile. Wasted potentials are everywhere, but Charlotte works more than it doesn’t. It’s not brilliant, but it’s good enough to show there are still creative minds in anime.

3 comets out of 5

Attack on Titan (Shinkegi No Kyojin)

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We have a weird obsession with our own self-destruction. It’s not just stories about how we’re destroying the Earth. We are attracted to the sight of humans being butchered, cut up and eaten. The arts have constantly provided a safe place for people to view these things, knowing these people aren’t really dying.

As profound and deep as it sounds, it also gave rise to exploitation films. Sometimes, they get a budget and we get something like the Saw series. The worst offenders are those that use the grim’n’dark atmosphere of violence to shock. The audience for Saw is there for the visual spectacle, but many people are still sure grimdarkness is a sign of depth and maturity. Just look at all those crappy FPS games with monochromatic tough guys, or that very popular fantasy series that’s all about who will be the king.

The premise sure sounds like it will join these ranks. Anime is full of overblown violence, especially in shows with a very serious tone. There’s also a realistic art style to boot. After a few episodes, though, you notice you spent more time with the characters rather than looking at titans eating humans.

Attack on Titan never feels like it’s even trying to join the rank of shlock grimdarkness. This is a very humane story, one where the characters are much more important than what happens next. It doesn’t even sink into exploitating their suffering. It’s far more excited with the variety of humans to linger on one detail.

Calling Attack on Titan a story that loves humans sound silly. Heads are being chopped off and there are a lot of assholes around, but that’s the strength. It looks at humanity’s worst aspects, admits their exist and still refuses to give up on it.

In fact, it’s a criticism of such misanthropy. The titans are distorted versions of us. That’s a visualization of how misanthropes see humanity – as senseless animals just bent on destruction. Yet the whole purpose the titans exist, just to chop humans to destroy them all is the logical end of misanthropy.

It’s not a caricature, though. The creators understand why misanthropes exist in the first place. Cruelty is everywhere. Sometimes it’s cliches about how the elite only cares about themselves (Thankfully, the series doesn’t linger on that too much). Sometimes we get a more interesting look at how assholes are born. A military police officer can’t hear the explanation of how all these destruction is going to get humanity anywhere. Right now his own world is under attack. We care more about our home environment than we do about humanity as a whole.

Caring about the whole isn’t easy. The series presents two ways of doing it. Either persevere as if nothing is happening and hide behind the walls, or make great sacrifices, risk losing everything but also gain everything.

It’s not an easy choice at all. The ideal situation is that Erwin’s plans will work, but there’s no guarantee it will. We’re always encouraged to take risks, but the reason it’s a risk in the first place is because of the possibility of failure.

Failure is an ever-looming presence in Attack on Titan. Plans never go as expected, and sometimes even Erwin isn’t sure where to go from that failure. The series asks whether the risk is worth taking even if the plan fails. It doesn’t present a simplistic, complete failure. The characters always gain something from the risks they take. A complete loss is easy to write and doesn’t leave much to explore. Rather, it asks whether what was gained was worth the exchange.

While this focus on dealing with failure is admirable (and possibly pretty rare in these types of anime), it sometimes become repetitive. The series never sinks into milking its tragedy. We see titans eating humans, but just enough to understand the horror of it all. The camera never lingers on dead bodies and titans chewing on a human. We still get an overpowered enemy for the ending, though.

The last part of the series goes in a different direction. It’s a nice risk, but I’m still not sure whether it was worth it. It’s an extended action sequence that’s well-animated and exciting, but can feel too out-of-place. Up until then the series was concerned with the characters. We got various worldviews and personalities and saw them interact. The training arc is especially great. The action sequence relies on more on what will happen next than on the characers’ personalities.

There are still character moments there. A moment of banter between the elite soldier defines what makes this series so engrossing. The way each of them talks is modified by their personality (Oluo’s narcissism, Petra’s empathy). The action is also entertaining enough. It’s well-animated, unique to the series rather than just generic sword swinging and uses extended, moving shots. There is a kinetic energy to it. The camera moves as the soldiers fly with their gear, and that transmits this motion more effective.

Too bad their enemy is pretty dull. It borders on invincible. Fighting an all-powerful enemy can be used well, but only psychologically (As in Harlan Ellison’s story about mouths and screaming). An action scene against an enemy who can block each attack quickly becomes repetitive. There’s a reason why the last fighting scene in Medabots is so short.

The enemy is given the occasional downfall and these are the most intense moments. Anytime it breaks out and finds a way around there’s a sense of been-there-done-that. At that point, it just felt like the creators was dragging the series on and piling on tragedies.

Up until then, it constantly kept moving forward and didn’t linger on unnecessary details. The reason we get these time skips because we don’t need 40 episodes of Eren’s childhood to understand him. We’re given enough to understand and then it moves on. Why linger on the least exciting section? Maybe they’re trying to appeal to an audience who’s in it for the action. At least they gave them unique action scenes.

Overpowered enemy means the ending isn’t very different than what happened a few episodes before it. The lack of conclusion isn’t the big problem. The manga keeps going, and the series doesn’t put all its money on the Big Conclusion anyway. The conclusion is not satisfying enough, but it doesn’t negate all that came before. The problem is that not enough changed when it ends. Change is only hinted at, but the enemy hasn’t been really defeated and not a lot of progress was made. I did not want all points wrapped up, but I wanted a lesson learned. A good ending is one that wraps up the themes, not plot points.

The series also gets credit for changing my view on realistic character design. My previous experience was with Monster, where everyone looked like real people and no one looked interesting or unique. Animation gives total control. The animators decide everything – the size of the head, the shape of the eyes, the color of the hair.

There is supposed to be a good reason to include a detail. If not, it’s just meaningless fluff with no purpose. That’s why, in cartoons, the characters tend to have ridiculous designs that are either interesting to look at or to inform us about the character’s personality. Attack on Titan has this attention to detail. The facial expression especially have a lot of work put into them. Levi has small, narrow eyes that reflect his world that’s nothing but killing titans. Eren’s eyes are wide but muscular, which fit with his idealism, extremist views and desire to go to the world outside. Petra also has such wide eyes, but they’re softer. She’s more emphatic than anyone around here.

It also avoids the shounen trap and let women look like women. A lot of shounen anime give the women breasts, but not actual female beauty. It’s no attempt to subvert gender norms. The femininity is removed without something to replace it. Here, though, women are allowed to look like women whether they’re mother figures (Petra), hardened warriors (Annie, Mikasa) or wild eccentrics (Hanji, Sasha).

It’s a good moment to say that the series avoids all cliches of misogyny and feminism in its representation of women. The women in Attack on Titan are allowed to be human beings, not walking pin-up posters or bland strong women. They have characters and personalities just like the guys. They do drop the ball Mikasa, but that’s less because they try to make her strong and more because they forgot to give her a personality. Why do we waste our time, asking whether a sexy schoolgirl with a one armed scissor is feminist when this one gets it all right?

Despite the small flaws, Attack on Titan is well worth the fame. It’s good to easy it became so big. There are at times when it feels unstoppable, like it’s hell-bent on becoming the best anime ever. Almost every scene has purpose and every dialogue exchange contributes to the characters and worlds. Even when it becomes just an extended action sequence, it’s fantastic. That’s how good it is.

4 titans out of 5

Ian McEwan – Atonement

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There are two competing novels here. One is driven by a character’s flaw and how it brought her to do a terrible thing. The other is a manipulative, Shawsank Redemption-like tale where the author takes a character who has it made and puts a lot of external troubles on it in order to make us sympathize. Surrounding these novels is some great writing that made you understand why so few authors try minimalism.

There’s no reason to sympethize with Robbie. He has no character. He has no flaw to struggle against. The trouble he faces is all external, and it doesn’t take any effort to just pile terrible events on the character. It’s especially easy to pile on these events, and leave the character almost unscarred to show us how strong and capable he is.

Maybe McEwan wants to inspire me to be good with Robbie’s character, but Robbie needs to have a character first. After being sent to the frontlines because of nothing, Robbie remains humanitarian and nice to everyone. He tries to save a woman and a child, and even a pencil pusher that’s almost being lynched.

Why should he want to save him, though? Robbie ate shit all the way. His only companions aren’t very pleasant. Why shouldn’t anger take the best of him? Soldiers are often angry at ‘pencil pushers’ and office workers. These people make a lot of decisions from behind their desks without seeing the bombings and the fighting. There’s no reason for Robbie to try to save anyone, let alone what soldiers especially despise. There is no depth to this ‘goodness’. It’s a hook to try to make us like Robbie, but that’s exactly what makes him so boring and unappealing.

Only at the end Robbie does something less than admirable, but McEwan doesn’t let all his events reach their logical conclusion. Robbie is barely scarred. All that needs to prevent him from hitting the bottom is some cliched crap about the power of love. Does McEwan thinks that after all Robbie went through, a women’s love is enough? That’s a recipe for cheap escapism.

By never letting Robbie succumb to the logical conclusion of going through hell, he paints a world of black and white. He doesn’t want to. He tries really hard to get to the emotional core of the characters. It’s espceially evident in the small characters and Briony, but all of them deserved so much more than being on a novel where Robbie stars.

Briony is, if not exactly complex, a real character. The deed she tries to atone for comes out of her personality. She does it not just to make the plot move because it’s the reasonable thing to do for a character who lives more inside her head than in the world. Everything else about her stems from this. All her other decisions and actions comes from her character. The end of her story is also consistent with her themes.

It’s almost misandrist how McEwan gives zero depth to the male character while writing Briony so real.

The post-modern Gotcha! at the end doesn’t really redeem this flaw. If anything, it just makes Briony far deeper and Robbie shallower. It’s a twist that serves the story, but it doesn’t excuse spending so many pages with someone with less character than a shovel. It doesn’t excuse the complete lack of even hinting at Robbie is not a saint. I recall how Atwood failed back in The Blind Assassin. Being sexually attractive is not enough to make a man a saint.

Between these two stories there is a lot of writing. It’s mostly descriptions, but if everyone described like McEwan then it’d make reading so much easier.

McEwan’s greatest prose is found in the middle, writing about the war effort. His attention to small details and every person who passes by is not because it makes it ‘more real’, or to pad the book in attempts to impress. He writes every passer-by like he’s the star of his own novel. Every one of them has his own little short story. They’re so good that you tend to forget Robbie is even there.

It’s so good that the bluntness can be forgiven. McEwan writes like a sledgehammer. He describes everything, and then writes a literary critique of it. This makes Atonement a funny novel. It’s both long and very easy to read. I’d normally attack an author for being that blunt, but it’s deceptive. The emotional insight he shows with the soldiers, both on the frontlines and the hospital contains much more than what he writes.

How an author can fail on what his story focuses and writes beautifully the sidelines is beyond me. Atonement is written by an author of great talent. There’s enough her to enjoy – Briony’s character, the various digressions and descriptions – that it’s easy to forget where McEwan fails. I’m really tired about reading about sexually attractive, righteous and perfect guys whose only troubles are external. It’s not a brilliant novel, but it has plenty of hints of brilliance.

3 nurses out of 5

The Shawshank Redemption

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Stephen King is an awful storyteller, but he has good ideas. I hoped that translation to the big screen will do his stories justice. Plenty of adaptions of his work won critical acclaim, so I sat down, sure to enjoy a good film. I didn’t expect Shawshank to be brilliant, just good. I didn’t expect to fall in the same way King fails.

It hints at first it may a sort of Full Metal Jacket in prison. The introduction of Warden Norton (Bob Gunton), the way the old inmates abuse new inmates and the performance of Tim Robbins in the first scene (Playing the main character, Andy Dufresne) all point to an emotionally gripping and complex film. The direction keeps pointing at that, too. The small moments of banter between prisoners is always on the verge of revealing the characters. As it goes on though, the film reveals there’s nothing beneath.

The Shawshank Redemption is as blunt as a hammer. There is no theme to explore. There are clear, good guys who may regret their crimes but that’s enough. There are evil people who are evil because they’re evil. There’s narration all over the film, to make sure you understand also what the film means. One of the film’s only bright spots, how institution like prisons can make to dependent on them is given that treatment.

The film quickly puts a dichotomy of poor, oppressed prisoners and evil guards. Prison life is awful, but some of the people in it are there for a reason. The inmates themselves are also some of the reason prison is sometimes pointlessly cruel.

There’s no exploration of that theme here. Prison is just a stand-in for an oppressive environment. The film touches on prison rape, but the people who do it are just monsters. They have no character. There’s no reason for them to do it beyond pure sadism. Even the narration tells us.

Warden Norton could have been an interesting character. He’s not given a cruel set of morals though. He’s just evil. Like all bad villains, Norton has no reason to do what he does beyond being evil beyond a shade of a doubt. Even selfish people have a reason to do what they do. Norton could have been an exploration of Christian hypocrisy (Which the film suggests and then drops) or of selfishness and too much power. Norton isn’t given character time to help us understand them. He does his evil things so we could rejoice in his defeat.

The Drill Guy from Full Metal Jacket also received this treatment. That’s to give us the same distance the soldiers have from him. We saw the whole thing from the soldiers’ point of view. The Drill Guy seeemd like an alien, distanced presence because that’s what he was trying to achieve. Jacket also has the satirical edge, which excuses that. Shawshank always hints at character moments. It’s a serious, deep film. The main character gets close to Norton. Norton is a human being, yet the film treats him like he treats the prisoners. Two wrongs don’t make a right though.

The prisoners are also just as one-dimensional. Once the film is done with the rapists, the prisoners somehow stop being assholes to each other. Worse, we’re never given any insight into who they are. A story about a prison full of well-meaning guys can be convincing if the characters are there. Any time that banter starts between the prisoners, the scenes end. There’s no oppurtinity to learn about them.

Andy and Red both don’t have characters. They’re both educated prisoners, but that’s it. The first scene hints that Andy may be a troubled man with a unique personality, but when he reaches prison there’s nothing to him. Freeman also doesn’t add anything to his character beyond his general charisma. Robbins’ acting is especially disappointing after the first scene. He doesn’t even try to capture the anxiety, anger, and all the other emotions he expressed in the first scene.

It’s a shallow story based entirely on emotional appeals, and good guys versus senseless bad guys. The final half-hour is especially bad. Stories end you wrap up the themes, not when the life of your character stops being interesting. What Andy does in the end tells us nothing, not about his character or about his themes. Remove these 30 minutes, and the film wouldn’t lose its meaning.

The only good arc is Brooks (James Whitmore). Brooks has character, and his story has actual themes. The way some people become dependent on such institution was an original theme I haven’t encountered before. Sadly, it’s not one of the central themes. It’s just one for one arc that exists to push Andy further. Why focus on Andy though? Brooks’ arc is more meaningful and well-developed, and when it ended it truly felt like a proper place for a film to end.

The Shawshank Redemption is a typical acclaimed film. It’s serious and deep, but it’s all on the surface. Warden Norton is a comic book villain. Andy is a poor oppressed prisoner who is also smart. That’s the gist of it. Perhaps if it didn’t pretend to be so deep with all these profound sentences, I could have said it’s a fine, entertaining drama film. Instead, it’s a film that doesn’t even try to be good and fail. It’s a film that thinks appearance is enough.

2 bibles out of 5