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

Genei wo Kakeru Taiyou (Daybreak Illusion)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

 

 

Dennou Coil

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You can’t talk about Dennou Coil¬†without talking about Digimon Tamers. They don’t just use a similar technique to tell their stories. Their stories revolve around the same theme. The ending also includes a girl trapped in a visualization of grief. It never feels like a rip off. Both shows wanted to explore a subject that needs exploration, and found different inspirations.

The core difference between the two is the mode of storytelling. Tamers was a heroic journey, but Coil is closer to something like Mushishi. It’s more concerned with the world it created and what it means.

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Nature is odd, but so is technology. At some point, inventions become so advanced we can’t predict their behavior. Even the most simple ones contain surprises. They often spin out of control, and the internet is the perfect example of this.

Do the people who invented the internet thought it would be used to exchange Japanese cartoons, cat photos and have people’s suicide notes on them? The internet is now out of our control. It’s a constantly-changing frontier, with pages being born and dying. It’s a way to connect to others, where bullshit rumours spread and where you can escape your reality.

The technology in this show is just a visualization of this idea. It juxtaposes the exploration of the virtual frontier and the physical one. You might think kids today are all just stuck on their computers, but weren’t the astronauts stuck on exploring the moon, rather than the Earth?

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Space is not the final frontier. The internet is another one, but it’s one that we create. The spaces weren’t here before. Every piece of data was created by someone else, a product of their thoughts. Exploring the internet is exploring what others think, whether you’re looking for funny pictures someone uploaded, their writings or stuff they thought was cool and reblogged. I think once someone said we are the final frontier. If this is true, then the internet is how we explore it.

The kids in this show may seem too independent,but this isn’t a plot device. Kids on the internet are often more independent and loose than outside of it. If you play outside, your mom can still look out the window and see what you’re doing. If you go somewhere, she’ll want to know where.

It’s easier to build an independent culture when you’re on the internet. Close the door or minimize the window when mom comes in. If she doesn’t know the address, she’ll never know what’s going on. Even if she does, you’re creating a new identity she might not recognize.

The new culture the kids have built in Dennou Coil isn’t alien. I’ve seen it happen myself. I remember those message boards that were the beginning of Nerdom in my country. I still see communities with a distinct identity in message boards or video games.

Here, we got a physical reality along it. So the rivalries aren’t just name-dropping in forum posts but the old fun of shooting each other. That’s something people do online all the time. They shoot cyber-avatars of other humans.

These avatars can be convincingly real, even when they were just pixels. That’s the problem with the internet. A lot of it appears real, and the line between reality and the virtual blurs. Maybe it doesn’t exist at all. Densuke only appears when you put your cyber-glasses, but you can only see Jupiter with a telescope. Densuke is not a real, biological dog. A real dog is also not a virtual one. What makes one dog better than the other?

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Both dogs actually exist. Both respond to us. Even a virtual pet in an RPG game responds to your actions. The fact one is manmade isn’t much of a difference. Dog breeds are an invention of men. The difference is that the virtual world is full of data and information, but nothing sensory.

Stuff on the internet is not something you can feel. That’s why some people can be social on message boards but socially neurotic in real life. Densuke is a virtual dog and will never be a real one. If we try to program humans, they will just be virtual versions. They will never be a real human.

Grief does its thing, though. It messes with our minds, and we want more to find a new reality where the event didn’t happen than find good in our reality. A character gains the option of creating her own reality without the death of a close person.

A purely man-made reality is nothing, though. Nothing is purely man-made or exists on its own. A reality where nothing is connected is barren and dry. This is the same world of the D-Reaper. A grieving person can’t escape into his world. He’ll just dive deeper into his own sadness.

All we create is just a reflection of us. Isako couldn’t re-create with her brother. She could enjoy a projection of him, something similar. It’s not the real thing, and in the end it’s not a proper replacement. Things can’t be replaced with second hand versions.

If this sounds like it’s too heavy for children, then you’re not paying attention to the best of children’s fiction out there. Children deal with loss. Their stories need to address it.

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While Dennou Coil treats it with maturity and empathy, it falls short of Tamers. Its technology is more imaginative and conceptually deep. The Digimon are a plot device, but the idea of a ‘virtual reality’ isn’t explored. Tamers kept the technical stuff at bay. At too many instances the mechanics of the virtual reality will be explored. None of it is ever coherent. It’s just a physical manifestation of the internet and that’s it.

Dennou Coil also sports a problematic art style. There is a great difference of creativity in the character design and the virtual reality design. The designs of anything virtual are beautiful. They’re simple, but the little details are excellent. The Illegals’ black, blurry body, Densuke’s round shape, Oyaji’s lack of mouth and small eyes are all details that stick out.

The character design does the minimalist-realist Mushishi did. It’s not as bad as that one. They find subtle details to give them personality, but too often they feel dry. Auntie is supposed to be the beautiful character, yet nothing about her looks significantly different than the others.

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Two episodes are noteworthy. One is the comic apex of the series. It’s a brief history of humanity as if they were the hairs that compose a beard. The episode is complete with a bearded old lady. The other episode comes right after it, and is actually the most psychologically deep one of the series. The climax isn’t as powerful as Tamers’ D-Reaper. In that episode, it is. If only they could use the ideas there, reshuffle them and make a different climax.

Even if it doesn’t manage to reach the heights of Digimon Tamers, it comes close. It’s not treading the same grounds. It uses the same tools to tell an equally deep story with its own take on things. In some places, it’s weirder and bolder. Anyone who wants to see how good children’s fiction can be should watch this.

4 illegals out of 5