A.S. King – Please Ignore Vera Dietz

 

verdietz__spanJust a while ago, I read a Young Adult novel that seems to be the positive mirror of this. It was Jennifer Brown’s Hate List. Both novels deal with a tragedy, specifically a girl losing a boy to death and how it affects their lives. The relationship was big. Both happen to be outcasts in a Nowheresville. Relationships with the family is rocky and there is a sexually-active, supposedly hot chick that’s evil involved.

The difference is in how Hate List is darker, but more sympathetic whereas King’s book has more shocking content on the surface but less of the empathy which is truly disturbing. Therefore, at the bottom there isn’t much horror or insight. King lays out at the beginning who are the good guys and who are the bad. Nowhere in the novel do they get a chance to prove otherwise and we don’t get any view of their inner world. Dad figure swings from bad to good, and it’s actually nice to see a parental figure being allowed to be flawed but not a complete asshole. Sadly, this is where the good characterization ends.

I’m all for novels like this. Teenagers need books like these which deal with drugs, sex and death. They experience these things at this age and sometimes what they need isn’t the perspective of an adult, but a lot of perspectives similar to theirs. Books like this mention the important subject, but they offer such a narrow perspective. Perhaps for those for whom death and alcoholism ring close, this book can be some kind of an emotional outlet. For the rest of us, though, it’s too close-minded.

My issue is not with the content and not even that it’s quite wacky, moving away from the gritty-realism authors like this try to imitate. I can take the octagonal treehouse and teenagers burning shit down. I can even take the enigmatic, hot outcast male. Where’s the life in them, though?

Charlie isn’t as bad as Green’s females, but we still get a character with zero personal issues that we’re supposed to adore. He’s a dream boy – wild, untamed, skinny, always doing things, putting a tough exterior but is actually romantic and with some emotional issues. Of course, the romantic side and the emotional baggage is never let out – because men with emotions aren’t sexy. For some reason, too, love interests in these novels are always skinny and this is passed off as if it’s against the beauty ideal.

Eventually he goes to the dark side to be with ‘cool people’. King’s version of the Evil Cool isn’t jocks and football junkies for a change, but a bunch of druggies and a rocker girl. As for her, she happens to have a lot of sex and is nasty to people. Why she’s nasty to people, we never understand. Her sexual nature is also often painted hostile and morally low, but I’m not sure why besides the fact it’s ‘conformist’ – unlike Charlie who is really cool and builds treehouses.

She’s so nasty that she ruins everyone’s lives. I’m sure there are people like this, but if only King gave us a little insight into why she does what she does. Jenny ends up being nothing more than a plot device and someone we could hate. Besides breaking up between the main character and her lover, she has no role.

Many characters in this novel fit a scary template in fiction – characters whose main purpose is that we’ll have something to hate. Such characters contain some qualities that nearly everyone will claim as bad – cruelty, sadism, lack of empathy. On top of that the authors will put something else to make them uncool, like being stupid or doing too many drugs or being too conserative, or maybe just racist. We’ll be expected to really detest this character and hope for their downfall.

The problem is, we often feel this way in real life towards people because it’s all we’ve been exposed to. Sometimes hating people is justified, but what’s wrong is hating them while denying their humanity. Once we draw a too distinct line between us and the evil, we override the purpose of morality. Morality then is not decided by deeds or virtues, but by people. ‘A is just because of X’ becomes ‘A is just because B is unjust’. That type of morality leaves no room for redemption, and so no room for admitting when we’re wrong (since we can’t be – the other side must be wrong!). Once we adopt such a morality, nothing prevents us from becoming what we hate.

Sadly this is what King has to offer us. Jenny and the others remain an enigma – assholes without character. If only King would’ve developed further, maybe she could’ve conjured something more horrifying, more haunting. Evil is at its scariest when we realize we can do it, too. That’s why pictures of serial killers are so frightening. We look at them and see flesh and blood just like us.

Plot doesn’t matter much in novels like these since the psychological development of the character is important. King is better than Brown in creating a main character. The writing is utilitarian and doesn’t add much, but there’s a toughness to the writing, an edge that lets Vera be more than an outcast. She’s a tough person who bottles it all until it comes back out. While King is not the peak of minimalism, she lets just enough edge to let this psyche be expressed in the prose.

It would’ve been better if she didn’t need a big event for the story to revolve on. Considering how Vera has enough depth to carry a story on her own – not much, but just enough – big explosions were unnecessary. All we needed was to see these characters go about their lives, how their worldviews and personalities – Vera’s detachment, will to be responsible and for escapism and Charlie’s adventurous spirit – collide, stray, collide again and eventually fall apart. She does it quite successfully throughout the novel. The relationship is convincing enough with how the characters relate and then go separate ways when puberty hits.

Scattered throughout the novels are other perspectives – the pagoda, the father. King doesn’t have the writing ability to give these a new tone. Don’t look at the heading and you’ll find the father and the daughter are speaking in the same internal voice. Still, it’s a refreshing addition that almost gets close to adding empathy to this story. Sadly, these are tidbits, not a choice of method that re-frames the whole novel. Most likely a young author will be inspired by this but will accidentally credit As I Lay Dying.

It’s quick and to the point, but mostly it’s an insulting collection of stereotypes. We all could use books, like music, that offer us catharsis but this is not a song that will carry on to future years. It’s more like your first local show, where the mere presence of sound and emotion is enough to inspire you to keep digging. You won’t remember precise details about that band, and the same goes for this book.

1.5 rocker girls out of 5

Advertisements

Genei wo Kakeru Taiyou (Daybreak Illusion)

daybreak.jpg

Horror comes from inside and is directed inside. People who want to kill us are quite scary, but they’re a very specific problem. True horror is in realizing that we can be the killers, that we can be what we hate. It throws a big wrench in our grand narrative and shatters it to pieces. That’s why we limit our consciousness, assume the patriarchy or the media or the government is to blame for it all. Negative feelings are bad, but the true problem must be outside us.

Obvious comparisons to Madoka spring up, but these are superficial comparisons. The latter is more existential and philosophical, less concerned with the emotions of its characters and relying more on structure and mechanics to deliver its philosophical idea. Daybreak Illusion is far more emotional, fantastical and wild. Each character has distinct demeanor, it has many arcs which peek into other people’s lives and the main subject matter is emotion, not the grand meaning of life.

vlcsnap-2018-03-03-16h55m02s90

With that aside, let’s focus on what’s actually going on here, something deeper than how ‘logical’ the story is. Cliched stories that flood your cinema have an external evil. These are comfortable fantasies. The bad is always outside of us. We need to kill it. Some of them improve and we can converse with these evil, but it’s still outside. The third stage is recognizing something inside of us is evil, but an external thing brings it out. The fourth, and most horrifying stage, is realizing that each of us partakes in the conspiracy against the human race.

Daybreak Illusion belongs in the third category, which is a weird one. Stories that reach there are aware of theme exploration, that their story shouldn’t just give us a good time with pretty visuals. You can’t reach that stage without trying to be deep. The anime really wants to be more, not just a copy of Madoka but to compete against it and expand on the genre. It does that fine enough, but not good enough.

vlcsnap-2018-03-03-16h55m32s132

Daemonia are the big evil, but they’re amplifiers of already-present negative emotions. Yet by pushing the source of the bad outside, the series isolates it and doesn’t explore their issues too deeply. Many of the characters become ‘not themselves’ when the Daemonia take over, but that’s just avoiding the horror. The horror is realizing that the bad side is just as a part of ourselves as the good side.

The series is always close to truly delving into the depths of emotion, but never getting there. A climatic conflict does it the best, showing how we’re responsible to each other. Main character finds herself needing to actually face another person’s emotions, and digging inside of her to find out what she really feels. It’s an interesting position to put the main character in, but it doesn’t solve the big conflict. All ends with a big Final Boss Fight full of flashing lights and explosions.

In the most of the arcs though, the victims are just innocent people who are tempted by the devil. By the time they start their rampage, they’re supposedly ‘not themselves’. The escape from horror isn’t deliberate. Our heroes talk to the Daemonia and are frigthened by the fact that these are people. In a way, by showing us that these distorted monsters are still actually human beings, we’re supposed to be all the more horrified by our negative feelings. Yet this doesn’t work, since these Daemonia too end up too alien from us, their cause being external. People transform into monsters because something infected them, not because they made decisions (or were born in environments) that turned them into monsters.

vlcsnap-2018-03-03-16h58m11s208

For the characters in the story these people are real enough, even when they come looking like man-eating plants. What it does better than Madoka is showing the journey and emotional development of heroes caught in the midst of a cosmic battle. Characters actually have a will and their reactions to the events. If in the first episodes the anime seems aimless, it’s only because it really tells the story of these girls and nothing else. Any time the story loses its direction is when it sways from it.

Although these characters aren’t particularly deep, they’re given distinct views about the battle, the world and what they get from it. In the first few episodes the anime actually threatens to improve on Madoka, since it’s far more in touch with what kind of dilemmas and conflicts would arise in this situation. Of course it uses Monster of the Week format, because anything else is a distraction. At its most exciting, we see them clashing and arguing and talking about what they’re going through. How it feels like to be the hero is where the excitement lies.

The drop in quality comes later. Suddenly we get a more rigid structure and a main villain. Already in the beginning we had some meaningless technobabble, but it avoided getting technical. Battle ended when there was no emotions left to explore in that conflict. The final conflict also ends thanks to the heroes reaching a conclusion, deciding to rebel against their own fate. Yet we don’t actually see them reaching this conclusion.

vlcsnap-2018-03-03-16h57m45s210

A trait of messy anime, especially those with huge epic stories and wacky art styles is that they have a slew of themes and they don’t know which one to focus on, or even which one fit their structure. First the anime start with exploring how negative emotions get the best of us, how the evil is supposed to be inside of us. Then this is thrown away, not completely resolved and instead out of nowhere the girls are fighting against fate.

Now, if the series had something to say about emotional determinism it would be fine. Exploring the conflict of will and choice is the next big thing, since so far we all agree we can’t control our emotions. The whole idea of fate comes from the Tarot, though, not because the series wanted to explore it in the first place. Messy structures tend to arise naturally from theme-focused anime, but here it’s because the show couldn’t focus on its ideas.

At least on the surface it works well enough. As a simple heroic story, I’d take this over many others. Even if its exploration is shallow, it gains from it enough emotional weight. These battles matter. We see the characters going through something during these moments of violence and how their psyche is affected. It’s not just ‘beat up those deamons and get some shwarma’. It hasn’t reached the heights it’s aiming for, but it’s still an exciting story with great visuals. For some, that’s enough.

3 daemonia out of 5

 

 

Aku no Hana (The Flowers of Evil)

akunohana

There is no reason for anyone to love the way they’ve been raised in suburbia. It may not be dangerous, but that is not enough to make living there worthwhile. Suburbia is a world without values, where nothing is allowed to be good and worth devoting to. Some things are considered bad and off-limits – like drugs. Anything else though is ‘just a hobby’. No wonder this safe lifestyle doesn’t stop people from killing themselves – why live such a life, anyway?

No wonder, then, that suburbia has its share of ‘rebels’ who take symbols that seem to contradict suburbia. Then again, any person who finds something valueable is rebelling against suburbia – that’s why both the happy-go-lucky raver and the skull-laden metalhead are considered rebels of this landscape. Even the truly religious and the intellectual can be rebels in this world. Such passionate people will challenge the status quo since they will value something other than the suburban lifestyle.

vlcsnap-2017-10-21-17h03m07s130

Notice the problem, though. Notice what’s the requirements for a true rebellion against suburbia – having values. Aku no Hana is the pseudo-rebel, the person who hates suburbia so much with all its emptiness yet cannot find anything of value to replace it with. It wrecks destruction, says naughty words and perhaps will pay lip-service to sexuality but in the end it has nothing to say. In the end, it is too weak to admit it’s exactly like the suburbia it hates and this lack of self-awareness is its destruction.

The anime fails in the same way the main character, Nakamura, fails. Nakamura hates the boring life she leads. I hate that way of life, too. Yet just because she claims she’s going ‘beyond the hill’, that she will tear down Kasuga’s walls to find something there doesn’t mean she actually will. It doesn’t mean her actions are directed at this venture. Actually, her actions are more like that of a sexual abuser rather than a tough life couch.

vlcsnap-2017-10-21-17h02m35s80

Imagine if a man stripped a female of clothing, forced her to wear something and said this will somehow psychologically heal her and make her stronger, bring out the ‘real her’ or something equally fancy. Few of us would take it seriously. The moment the man will use force is the moment we will find him villainous, no matter how many rebellious slogans come out of his mouth. So why is it okay when a female does it?

vlcsnap-2017-10-21-17h03m19s229

It’s an anime so engrossed in being different, so immersed in wanting to be unique that it doesn’t even try. It goes beyond the art style, which is ugly but not too hard to get used to. The backgrounds are fantastic. They go beyond the emptiness of suburbia, giving everything a rusty look of falling down and crumbling. We see something else besides boredom, that suburbia equals malaise and its lack of values is actually that depressing. As for the character design, it’s merely failed realism. None of them actually look like real people but more like distorted photographs. For a while it’s amusing, but not too much.

At first it starts off interesting with a view into the darkness and weirdness of random people. Quickly, though, it is obvious we’re supposed to side with Nakamura, view her as a tragic person lost in a world of dull people who just cannot realize how special she is. Too bad the creators missed that if anyone actually paid attention to her, they’d realize she should be in jail. No one cares how special you are when you abuse people. Look what happened to Watkins.

vlcsnap-2017-10-21-17h03m51s54

True horror is realizing that something that’s horrible is also real, and perhaps more common than we think. Don’t be a pig and act like your mud is special. Show the viewers that what they consider deviant is actually normal. Horrify them with that. Instead, we see a small act of stupidity and teenage horniness being shoved in our faces like the creators just discovered the true darkness that lays at humanity’s heart.

If only they had enough empathy to realize that the true horror is realizing that all our rebelliousness is worth nothing if we’re cruel, that we’re excellent at swallowing our own Kool-Aid as we hide from how we hurt others. From the middle onwards, the series becomes nothing but a carnival of vomit. We see people being mean to each other, some preaching about the nastiness of suburbia and pushing someone to do things they don’t want because you and your rebellious self know what’s best for them. Hating suburbia is a good thing, but it’s the first step. This anime barely takes in, and merely wallows in the pre-packaged cliches of rebellion – like anti-capitalism music that you need to pay to hear.

1.5/5

Jennifer Brown – Hate List

תוצאת תמונה עבור ‪jennifer brown hate list‬‏

Whenever the subject of school shooting rears its head, someone has to point out that it’s a topic for overly-privileged kids. The mere act of talking about privilege in this context is a display of a lack of empathy, not a clever critique of society. It also misses the point, and why school shooting became so iconic. To understand that you have to understand what a terror attack is.

A terror attack isn’t one where people simply get hurt. Killing isn’t even the main objective. Terror is communicative violence, its purpose is to attack an icon and make everyone connect that icon to the event. Notice that the most famous terror attacks are always connected to a major place. The twin towers aren’t just big, but in an iconic place in an iconic city. The purpose was to make us always fear whenever we’re near that ground, and many will be near that ground since it’s so iconic. Terror attacks are meant to devastate us, to cause emotional damage far beyond the initial event.

Jennifer Brown generally takes the well-worn narrative of the school shooting, that of a bullied kid having his revenge on the world. Consciously or unconsciously though, she’s aware of the meaning of a school shooting, its similarity to a terror attack. Her book isn’t so much about bullying but about the devastating effect of a tragedy.

Although written in the typical form of a Young Adult novel – minimalist, first-person, a whole lot of reflection and emotional confession – the book tries to break outside its main character’s head. In the end of the novel Brown wrote this was Valerie’s story, and the structure may fit this but the content doesn’t. She’s a character as much as she is a window for us to witness the effect of tragedy on people.

Thankfully, Brown tries to grasp the complexity and psychology in the fallout of tragedy. Everyone reacts differently. Some stick to their old ways. Others radically change it. Some are angry, others become forgiving because what’s the point? Tragedy doesn’t make us into angelic beings. You actually can’t predict what tragedy will make of us.

Brown doesn’t manage to capture it with enough complexity to have impact. Only in the end there is a truly profound moment, one where the fragility of being human is captured. A short inscription on the grave of the shooter gets it. His grave is pushed aside with a small epitaph because he is the killer after all, but the killer had a mom who loved him after all. It echoes Susan Klebold’s article, or any interview with a parent of a killer. Victims had families who will never be the same again, but the killer also had a family who loved him.

A good chunk of the book is about this, about carrying on knowing the person you loved is a killer. I wish Brown would’ve delved into this dilemma more deeply, but then again this is extremely difficult. The highlights are the moments where Valerie is allowed to reminisce about the good times, and where she’s trying to connect what she knew of Nick to the violence. In these moments, despite the lack of character development, she finds some emotional punch.

Like many a Young Adult novelists, Brown’s characters are driven by emotion, not a psyche that’s unique to them. She has enough empathy that her characters react in various ways. Even the assholes who don’t change, who become more asshole-ish still come off as human being. Their point of view is there in front of us. Sure, it sucks for Valerie, but it also sucks for the father. His character is the most interesting since he’s supposed to be the least sympathetic – the father who abandons his family for a younger woman. His behavior never goes against this archetype, but in subtle moments we’re allowed to understand him and why he’d go after someone younger.

The portrayal is complex because of the variety of reactions. The problem is these are just reactions floating around, not tied to anything. Those few who get developed don’t end up as anything interesting. Nick is a typical sexy outcast – thin, listens to Rock music and can quote Shakespear. Bullying in this novel isn’t quite convincing, since Nick too often plays like a sexy mysterious guy. It’s not overdone, but nothing about him is especially weird. Bullies seek the weirdo, the one who isn’t flamboyent, doesn’t rebel and doesn’t have anything to offer but weirdness.

Likewise, it’s hard to think of what we learned about these characters. They’re human enough, but the complexity is too vague. It’s all outlines which are good enough, but I’m left here constructing their psyche. For once, minimalism betrayed the story. This story needed some inspiration from Dreisser, long slow moments that show who they are beyond the tragedy. Brown focuses so much on the effect of tragedy she creates people who have no lives outside of the tragedy. It’s only half the work.

It’s a shame, because otherwise Brown proves to be more capable than her peers. YA has a lot of talented writers, but they capture the spirit, the energy of youth without enough depth. These are enjoyable books, but mostly as research material before you write your own. Brown does a little better by widening her perspective, and so the novel is not just the story of Valerie but of everyone and how they deal with grief, how they cope with the tragedy. If only we could get a little deeper underneath these reactions, if only we could hear more than just their voices but let us walk in their shoes. I can’t tell if Brown doesn’t try or is just in incapable, but widening her reach is enough to give this novel extra emotional punch.

Hate List is not a total classic in the genre, but it deserves some respect in it. Many authors could learn from Brown’s wide reach, and the topic of school shooting gets a respectful treatment for once. Perhaps Brown is not just good enough to reach those heights, but she knows which mountains to climbs, what to do and so the novel has far more good in it than bad.

3 out of 5

Kuuchu Burnako (Flying Trapeze)

kuuchu

Often you’ll hear how being unique isn’t enough to make a good anime. That’s not entirely true, since being unique is overall a good trait. Why would you want to sit in front of a screen, watching the same thing over and over? What these people do get right is that mere uniqueness isn’t enough. Although in the end, all great works of art are unique and highly original, not all original works are great works. That’s because true greatness which comes from true uniqueness isn’t just a unique art style or a cool storytelling method, but a thematic depth.

All the problems with this anime are in this sector. It’s eccentric and utterly bizarre. Better anime don’t break their conventions like this, but in the end it’s all just quirks and a unique style that don’t reach any profound conclusion. As an aesthetic experience, it’s awesome with how wacky it is. As for its narrative, it’s just there.

vlcsnap-2017-07-05-14h35m56s36

The narrative is fairly empty and the symbols, while cool, don’t mean anything. Having a psychiatrist and people with psychological disorders isn’t an automatic ticket for actual character psychology. The anime mistakes exaggeration for madness, like a 16-year-old kid who thinks a Facebook cover photo with blood shows how ‘crazy’ they are.

The anime deals with the old notion of ‘crazy’, something that I think the mental health institutions abandoned even before Thomas Szasz took an axe to their heads. Here characters don’t struggle daily with a disorder. The problem isn’t present in every fabric of their existence but, rather, explodes out of nowhere. Most of these characters lead normal lives until something triggers them.

Now, it’s true that a lot of mentally ill people function day-to-day, interact with people and buy eggplants without causing a massacre. Notice how their normality is only something we experience. They don’t. Someone who is suicidal (A major problem that the series oddly avoids) is always suicidal. Some days it hurts less, some days it hurts more. However, the normality is only an external thing.

vlcsnap-2017-07-05-14h36m34s94

Inside, everything pushes him towards death. For the depressed person, every thing demands extra effort and the question of ‘why go on?’ is always present. That’s why mental illness is such a problematic thing and a lot of philosophers had to step in to redefine it. Mental illness is not a wound, it’s not a specific area of the body we can target and diagnose and seperate. Mental illness is an integral part of being. Depression isn’t a distortion of reality but a part of someone’s personal reality.

The characters here aren’t even reduced to their mental illness. They’re reduced to their onsets. Although we see them do ordinary stuff like jobs and family, we rarely get insight into how they exist with this. It’s all just build-up until the dude panics over not being sure if the stove is on. This prevents the show from having any serious psychology. In order for it to be truly psychological, it needs to present these people as whole human beings and it needs to show how the illness relates to the whole.

In truth, these aren’t really characters. Their disorder defines them more than anything. Most of the differences between them comes from that. The show belongs to the tradition of a main character who’s a vessel for other stories. In general these type of anime have a cool style and an empty narrative. It’s not just because there is no major conclusion – although it tries for something sappy like how we need to listen to others. Their problems are also very illness-orientated.

If mental illness was so exaggerated and obvious, we would’ve had an easier time dealing with it. We don’t. The problems these characters face tend to be only their illness. How it relates to other problems is unclear. Sure, it disrupts their day-to-day life but that’s not enough. How does it affect sexuality, social interactions, worldviews? The series loves to portray extras as cardboard, but in truth no one is cardboard for people. Our ilness and these passerbys are part of our lives. The anime treats mental problems like an obvious wound.

It doesn’t help that most of the stories involve OCD. I’m sure it’s a common disorder, but where’s schizophrenia, depression, bipolar? Perhaps because OCD is far easier to exaggerate. It has onsets, things that are easy to transmit visually. Depression is harder since depression is everywhere, showing itself in every action and relates to a person’s inner life. You have to show a worldview in order to portray depression. That’s why its status as an illness is such a problematic issue. Eventually, all these people with OCD blur into one another. The only thing that changes is how it works.

When a different illness comes, they fail to show its psychology. A person’s narcissism ends up being monotonous. The big problem isn’t narcissism, but a dude who can’t stop smiling. The whole agony of living in the past, in glory days that are never to return and trying desperately to re-create them isn’t there. Rather, it’s just a person repeating his shtick over and over. It’s an excellent example of how they take a serious issue and reduce it to a single symbol, stripping it of any depth.

vlcsnap-2017-07-05-14h36m45s247

The surrealistic, bizarre art and storytelling also leads to an air of self-satisfaction. It’s not as bad as it looks from the outside, but it’s there. Nothing is particularly funny about these jokes, since they don’t point to any absurdity and hardly a taboo. So the psychiatrist gets off on vitamin shots. That’s kind of odd and amusing, but not out of place. Early on the anime establishes how wacky it is with these colors, so this is fairly ordinary. Irabu is also not really funny, just quirky and high-pitched. There’s also a sexy nurse who thankfully has little screen time. Her role is mainly to inform the viewer that the makers are totally fine with ultra-sexy yet placid women, some pathetic symbol of ‘sexual strength’. I don’t know. Nothing about her is interesting, including breaking into live-action. Overall, the series sets itself up as weird, but can’t ever up the weirdness.

It’s not all bad though. In fact, in its format, the anime is quite excellent. It’s the old format of a single main character whose a narrative device to show the lives of various characters, like Kino’s Journey or Mushishi and it does it so much better.

First off, merely dealing with mental disorders – an integral part of the experience of being – gives these stories a more emotional, personal angle. Already here it lifts itself up above the aforementioned anime. Unlike them, there is some sort of humanity here. It’s exaggerated, caricature-esque and shallow but it exists. The main driving symbol has a far more personal nature so the stories are by their nature more emotionally engrossing. The distance that harmed Mushishi is mostly absent.

There’s also concern and empathy for these characters. For all its exaggeration, the series has some awareness that underneath it all there should be humanity. The tone is not mocking, something that the aesthetics and the ultrasexy nurse hint at. Rather, it’s empathetic towards these little lost humans and their madness. Episodes don’t end with a complete return to normality, but with a way to cope with the madness.

vlcsnap-2017-07-05-14h38m21s187

It’s this vibe and demeanor that prevents the anime from being only an exercise in aesthetics. There is a clear meaning underneath some of these symbols, like how cardboard-like people merely means these aren’t important characters. The mental conditions are caricatures, but at least they make sense – extreme worry is a problem. Even if the series isolates these parts, it does fit with the style. In a way, the series never pretends to actually be psychological. From the start it’s concerned more with flash than substance, but it has just enough substance and humanity to prevent it from being vapid.

As for its aesthetics though, they’re fantastic. It’s true there isn’t an anime quite like this one. You might compare its surreal style to Tatami Galaxy, but that one had an overbearing, total aesthetic. Here they take a realistic art style and utterly distort it, creating a weird clash of realism and cartoon. The storytelling is knowingly expressive, so much so that sometimes things don’t have meaning. There are polka dots everywhere, but then again why not? It’s self-awareness which doesn’t try to be clever. Knowing that none of it is real, they let themselves go with wacky, memorable images. It’s a style weird enough to hold on for 12 episodes even if there isn’t much variety among them.

Utterly bizarre and original, yet its lack of depth prevent it from being one of the greats. It had the premise and the aesthetic boldness, but it’s also satisfied in just being fun. Often we talk about how ‘just fun’ shows need to be unoriginal, yet this anime demonstrates you can have fun without aiming too high. Set expectations about how mind-blowing this is, and you’ll be disappointed. This is just another in the long line of episodic anime with a wide cast, but its one-of-a-kind style breathes life to the format.

3 crazies out of 5

Kaiba

Kaiba_poster

Great works of art are not easy to review. They are not common like the cesspool of bad art. Bad art is easy to deconstruct, to show how pathetically horrible they are. “So bad it’s good” exists because these works are so bizarre, so extraordinary that they become unique. Bad art is never unique its badness. In contrast, great works of art always end up redefining what ‘good’ is, so any review of a masterpiece will never be analytical and conclusive. It always end up chasing something that we can only grasp a piece of, like a poet looking at a beautiful line he wrote and knowing he can never write a worthy poem of it.

Kaiba is one of those artworks. I say it deliberately. Judgment of it is not confined to anime. It transcends media, reaches something so deeply human and awe-inspiring that it becomes a part of you. Do not expect a rational explanation of why this anime is better than pretty much anything. If we understood completely why it’s so good, we’d have masterpiece dropping from the skies. I can try, though.

vlcsnap-2017-06-09-22h45m03s189

The key to understanding Kaiba is understanding how it tells a story, specifically how it takes advantage of the personal nature of fiction. All art, including fiction, is personal. It is a product of human thought, a translation of your entire Being – your experiences, philosophy, unconscious, passions – into some kind of experience that another being can take on. Kaiba is a ridiculously expressive work. Every scene is imbued with emotion. Every object says something about what it represents. It’s so emotionally draining because of that.

Memory is the big topic, but Kaiba isn’t just about memory. In a cliched way, it’s existentialist, asking what we are. Its answer is memories, but memories are also information. The anime explores this intersection of information that defines us. Notice the symbols. When memory isn’t converted to information, it is organic and free – it is lifelike memory eggs. These are also tiny, fragile and fleeting. The memories float away and are easily lost.

The roe is us, so they use to show how tiny we are when death strikes. When a character dies, their bodies become liquid and vanish completely. The ‘self’ becomes just a bunch of yellow pieces floating way. It expresses the loss of death, how death completely erase us and we become nothing. The memory chip – a drill-like thing – can also die so easily, if it’s lost it’s gone forever. Sure, we can try to capture those roe or to protect the chip, but it’s so difficult. It’s an expression of how fragile we are.

vlcsnap-2017-06-09-22h44m21s250

Yet converting ourselves into information makes us so much easier to control, and easier for us to control others. Altering other people’s memories is a sci-fi trope, but this anime is concerned with how it affects everyone, how it affects our personal lives. We see the small results of this – how erasing someone’s childhood erases who they are and they end up becoming nothing but a memory. How this power to change personal reality blurs into thinking we can change reality itself – a direct link to megalomania and tyranny.

Our memories are our personality. Once we control them, edit them, change them all lines break down. The world of Kaiba looks funny by design, but that’s because how the people experience it. People can also put their memories into a whole new body. In one episode this results in a world where bodies are manufactured like clothes. Its reality is grotesque, a mass of weird shapes that’s disorientating. Somehow we ended up creating a more chaotic reality than nature.

vlcsnap-2017-06-09-22h46m31s62

Leaning towards a socioeconomic critique of society, the anime shows a world in which memories – selves – become products. So a character sells her own body with hopes that her memory will be kept. Selves are no longer precious. This society isn’t painted with strokes of black to show you how evil rich people are. Rather, to illustrate the chaos of it, we see selling your own body and putting yourself in a chip is no guarantee. You’re relinquishing control of yourself, your grip on the world.

Yet this ‘information’ is never just ‘information’. Consciousness was the result of accumalating all these pieces of data and connecting them. So we’re never really dead, and using memories this way is using people as objects. The anime is deeply concerned with living things. In a gallery of memories, the people who own these memories cry out to be released.

Everyone’s concerns are always personal. Although the characters are simple, they have motivation and a humanity. A sheriff who really wants a girl at first seems like a greedy bastard, but he’s a person. That’s his wants, and when we see this want doesn’t make him just an asshole but a good person we’re encouraged to sympathize with him. In the end, he’s a ‘human’ being – with people he loves, things he wants, and dreams lost when death comes.

vlcsnap-2017-06-09-22h46m40s152

Although there are antagonists, the series always reminds us that they’re people in the most simple way. People want power, but not because they’re evil. They want it because they’re human beings, so we see the ringleader of the resistance crumbling to tears when he realizes what he’s done. He had to erase memories that painted him in a bad light, but the result was losing a friend.

This anime is in the end about treasuring people. The idea of memory is just a tool to show us how we can lose people, no matter how hard we work to keep them. We put their identity, their whole being in a chip but then that chip is lost. We sell a loved one’s body, hoping the salesman will keep the information in a chip. A friend blocks our ambition, so we erase some memories only to realize the whole person is gone. Eventually this anime reaches an important conclusion about being – we need each other, we’re social animals, power doens’t make up for it.

The castle of Warp is a lonely place. The only person he has is an all-seeing robot. He’s not happy and the only thing he can talk about are who to execute. He may be the king of memories, but these are his own memories. What good are they? In a beautiful scene Popo and the resistance at the palace, and it has a huge opening to a black void. That’s the height of power to you, a lonely high place looking out into nothing. The only thing that’s there are themselves, yet they’re craving control.

vlcsnap-2017-06-09-22h45m36s3

The romance between Neiro and Kaiba isn’t a symbol for romance, but what’s really important – connection. Even during oppression, they found something of their own, a precious shared memory that’s enough. Separate yourself from the struggle for power. The privileges of the rich to put themselves in memory chips and live forever aren’t that worthwhile in the end. Every world touched by this is grotesque, people are lost yet they are still people.

You cannot talk about the art without mentioning the Neverhood, which seems like a direct inspiration for the anime. Both endings and beginning borrow from it. It opens with a man seeing an unknown, bizarre world. The ending includes a darker version of the hero and a gigantic, self-sacrificing robot. Like the Neverhood, the design is cartoonish, nonsensical and imbued with meaning and emotions. Look at the planet where the only thing that matters is the story of two old people. The planet itself is nothing but their tower. The underworld is almost colorless – but almost, since it still has some life in it. The club is colorful and weird but has a dominating shade of purple – a disorientating effect. Vanilla looks like what we expect from an asshole with the fat belly and aggressive face (Only his character later proves to be more). There is even a creature who flies by a propeller and doesn’t speak – like the sidekick from old video games. It’s as unrealistic as you get, but no scene is without emotional overtones just like life – and that makes it far closer to reality than anything else.

vlcsnap-2017-06-09-22h47m21s42

Likewise the soundtrack couldn’t be better, a collection of gentle electronic sounds. It fits with the slightly childish designs, but it has the same fragility of the world. A lot of it sounds like Boards of Canada, only it takes it to less nostalgic tones. The soundtrack mostly expresses a reflective, introspective atmosphere, one of both awe and terror. Some tracks are colder and harsher that reminds us that this world is still harsh, a world where selves can be sold. Some tracks have beautiful, intimate melodies to go along with the theme of connection.

There is no other anime like Kaiba, an anime so expressive, where every shot is charged with emotion, wonder, terror and humanity. ‘Depth’ isn’t the right word. It’s not an intellectual, symbolic exercise like Paranoia Agent or a psychological exploration like Digimon Tamers yet it’s somehow better than these two. Perhaps because it takes anime to the origin of art – the expression, not explanation, of human experience. Nothing I could write would do this anime justice.

Kino’s Journey (Kino no Tabi)

kino

This anime is also known as The Good Mushishi. I almost wish it wasn’t so. While that descriptor is true, its existence points out the anime’s shortcomings. For all its imaginative moments, it settles into a pattern early on and never deviates. Even the last episodes which aim for some harrowing ends up slotting nicely without breaking up picture.

It’s almost like reviewing Mushishi all over again, but the bigger scope makes Kino’s Journey better with more apparent flaws. Some anime can make it through with a narrow range of emotions, especially if they’re short. Narrow focus on themes is often the source of fantastic exploration of them. By nature, this anime has a wide scope. It follows a person through various countries, each one dominated by a theme.

vlcsnap-2017-06-03-17h25m46s122

This anime sets itself up to be big no matter what. The stories aren’t small and intimate. They’re more about big issues like war, fate, religion and technology than personal issues. A single character from a country may stick out, but everyone in it are mostly the same person. Such shallow characterization can work, but you need someone to react to this symbolism.

Character’s views and reactions are integral to exploring themes. It’s not enough to just have ‘fear’ or ‘technology’ as a dominating presence in your story. You need to connect it to the human condition. You need to show how it affects the people, how they react to it and live with it. The best stories show us characters in such crises, gain their emotional punch from a meaningful struggle.

Kino is better than Ginko, but she shares more with him and not just a similar name. There are literally less than 5 moments in which some kind of personality is hinted at. Mostly, Kino does nothing but observe. When she acts, she’s pure convenience. She helps characters solve their problems by being nice, but what’s Kino’s stake?

vlcsnap-2017-06-03-17h24m36s164

Decisions are another way in which we learn about characters. Decisions that relate to themes are even more meaningful. They illustrate a viewpoint and demonstrate it. Kino makes no choices. She comes to a country, observes what’s going on, does the thing that causes the least conflict and moves on. It’s hard to remember what exactly was Kino’s role in many of these stories. In the last episode, she’s interchangeable with any passer-by. Nothing about her is important to that story, only her role.

That’s a problem you encounter with shitty role-players. A character is far more than their little role. If characters are symbolic of human beings, then human beings have various roles depending on who you ask. Even a soldier trapped in the army will have more roles than just a soldier. He’ll be someone’s good friend, perhaps the commander’s most hated and so on. Kino is defined only by her role as a traveler and does nothing else.

vlcsnap-2017-06-03-17h24m58s227

A role can be a part of the personality, but we need to see how Kino views traveling. A soldier can be patriotic or just in it for the money. Both are different takes on the same role that leads to different characters even if they do the same thing and come from the same background. The anime never provides a view about traveling. There’s something vague about how the world is both ugly and beautiful and this grey area is appreciated, but what else? What do we do about the grey?

Grey areas are difficult and I don’t expect answers, but great storytellers show me how they wrestle with the themes. If you can’t answer any questions – and you shouldn’t, because there are no definitive answers – at least throw something. A question shouldn’t drag itself for 10 episodes. The series barely asks a question, let alone provides angles to look at it. Asking questions is fairly easy. The difficult part is trying to find the answers. That’s when you deal with the ramifications. No question has an effect until you check the possible answers.

Some episodes provide moral choices for Kino to make. They’re generic, morally clean choices. They don’t reflect a coherent moral worldview. Kino only chooses the least offensive path. She doesn’t even struggling with these decisions. Remember that this character has been around the world and to many different countries. Traveling and experiencing new worldviews should either give birth to a new, original one or leave you confused and full of doubt. Kino acts instead like a cliched ‘wise Zen master’, viewing things mostly through indifferent eyes. It’s believable, but only if there was a worldview behind it.

The series is capable of darkness. An early episode shows the humanity of slave merchants. Even if it ends by vilifying them, it shows how they can enjoy family and raising kids and company just like us. It’s odd that in under 20 minutes they create simple but lively characters. Nothing about the slave merchants is particularly unique, but the juxtaposition of their ‘good’ and ‘evil’ side is effective for side characters. Kino never gets such interesting characterization. In the arena episode, she always offers her opponent a chance to surrender. Why?

vlcsnap-2017-06-03-17h25m28s240

The slave merchants aren’t the only memorable characters here. This is where the series trumps Mushishi. Its side characters are driven, sometimes flawed and sometimes immoral. Many of the stories cannot be re-modeled for Mushishi since they deal with humanity’s dark side. The variety in characters and themes also lead to a variety in tones. Although the series is often stuck in its ‘contemplative’ atmosphere – a style which, except for Haibene Renmei, always comes off as pretentious – it experiments with tragedy, satire and adventure. The anime doesn’t dig deep enough. It offers themes but rarely shows their complexity, but the sheer variety of them makes the surface attractive enough.

Some have pointed out that Kino’s Journey is very obvious in its themes. Often characters say exactly what the story is about. In one episode, it’s cringe-worthy. An oppressed tribe literally admits to killing people for the sake of revenge, because oppression. At this point, it’s the artist’s critique of an ideology sneaking up into the character’s mouth. Imagine if a Nazi in a story admitted how wrong Nazism is, but they have to do it because of economic hardships. It’s a lone case. The anime is all surface anyway. The only reason to put things under the surface is because your surface is already full, but Kino’s Journey already has little to say. Such an anime shouldn’t make the viewer put effort. It’s a wise decision to reveal everything, since it prevents an unpleasant air of pretense.

vlcsnap-2017-06-03-17h24m50s103

The art is decent, with strong backgrounds and decent character designs. The character designs are distinctive enough. Town folks get different looks and important side characters look like they can be main characters in their own show. It’s minimalist almost to a fault – the lack of details don’t do anything – but it finds variety in things like mouth size and eye shape. The backgrounds, while similar, capture a unique feeling. A running theme is the idea of the world being ugly and beautiful at the same time. The backgrounds use a mix of bright colors and pretty shapes with a darkened atmosphere to achieve is. It’s not particularly impressive, but it’s nice to see colors that fit the themes.

Kino’s Journey isn’t brilliant. Its popularity has more to do with it not being traditional, rather than quality. Some people are just dying for something without fan service. I’ve seen anime with weirder premises, deeper psychology and better art. Still, the variety in stories and the thematic focus makes it a show that’s worth most of its running time. No one yet knows how you achieve the greatest heights in art, anyway.

3 talking motorcycles out of 6