Sarah Perry – Every Cradle is a Grave


Two ideas are hard-wired into our minds. We believe life is good and that forcing people into existence is a positive thing not because of rational thinking. Genes make us think this way, because this is how they progress. Without these ideas, an organism kills itself and doesn’t produce offspring. Genes die, and genes’ purpose is to continue.

People always killed themselves. Some cultures even claimed it’s virtuous in certain situations. We’ve made huge ‘progress’ (Or, more correctly, changes) over the years thanks to doubters who kept tearing down ideas and replacing them with new ones. The general ideas about the value of life and birth remained the same, though. One famous philosopher talked about how we shouldn’t have kids, but is there any major literary work that asks this question?

You can’t blame Perry for not digging deep enough. She’s in the toughest stage of philosophy. Ethics and the meaning of life are both hard subjects, and going against your own genes is even harder. Few people made that journey – many who tried just said suicidal people got some chemical imbalance and called it a day. If her exploration is sometimes a little shallow, it’s only because she has few sources to draw from.

Her section about suicide is the most disappointing one. It’s a shame, because it’s also the most important one. Of all the ideas in this book, assisted suicide is the most practical one. The suicide prohibition is harmful and no different than oppression of minorities.

We treat suicidal people like criminals. Voicing misogynistic or racist thoughts is less dangerous than voicing suicidal thoughts. People can be hospitalized against their will for wanting to die. No suicide prevention is willing to actually talk to suicidal people, to deal with the arguments behind why suicide is a valid option. At least when people argue against misogyny, they got science and philosophy behind them. When people talk about suicide, they write people off as ‘irrational’.

There are a lot of ways to look at this tricky subject. Suicide is a private action that causes great distress to the environment. Perry doesn’t delve enough into why suicide should be protected. The main arguments suicide are the value of life and the harm it causes to others. The harm it causes to others is especially important, since ethics often blur when freedom, pleasure and pain mix.

While Perry explains briefly the principle of consent that transform murder into assisted suicide, it’s not enough. Suicide causes extreme pain and we need more allegories, more rephrasing of why it’s okay for a person to kill themselves. There’s a whole chapter about the suicide contagion which feels a little pointless – sure, it’s a thing but not as central to the debate as other things.

The chapter about social pain is fantastic and too short. It’s a new way to approach the problem of suicide and is informative even if you don’t believe in the right to die. The common narrative is that people kill themselves because they’re depressed is common and pretty comfortable. It makes the problem more complex – how do you solve depression? – but it erases responsibility. Perry’s idea that people kill themselves because of failed social belonging demands a revolution in suicide prevention. Suicide prevention should start earlier, and constantly happen. If people kill themselves because they don’t belong, we need to create a more welcoming, a more social society.

This type of idea is easy to explain, since people experience a lot of social pain. Suicide is causing social pain, actually – you reject people, deeming them not worth the time. It’s also the only moral type of suicide – suicide prevention by improving life, rather than stopping the act itself.

Suicide is a difficult subject. There are the practical side of how we make assisted suicide available – who’s fit, who loses the right to die, whether there’s an age of consent. The issue of how people feel after someone dies to suicide cannot be ignored. No matter how integral the right to die is, suicide leaves a huge pain (In fact, it’s considered the worst way to lose someone). Perry doesn’t do enough to explore such an alien idea to many.

Her writings about antinatalism is far better. She does write off the subjective perspective too easily, though. This higlight the core difference between the right to die and antinatalism. Both rely on different versions of morality. The former values freedom and the subjective perception, the other one is about preventing harm.

So even if life is overall bad, the fact people perceive it overall to be worthwhile is important. People who behave in a ‘suicidal’ way, according to her, may just be optismitic enough to believe it’ll be worth it in the end. Maybe they take these huge gambles because they value life so much that even if the gamble fails, life is still worthwhile.

Nevertheless, her anti-life arguments can’t be written off easily. They demand questioning our genes. Picking apart our daily schedules is important even if you believe life is worthwhile. By showing us how much time we waste on doing nothing, how much of our life is actually unpleasant she motivates change. If you truly think life is worthwhile, then you must act in ways that’ll prove it. If social pain encourages suicide, we must build a more friendly, communal society. Our morality relies more about not doing harm than actually doing good. What kind of society is it where we only avoid harm but don’t do good? A good life isn’t defined by lack – happiness due to absence rarely lasts. We’re happy when we have friends, but we’re not happy because we’re not being bullied.

The chapter about the natural world is also essential reading. It’s a radical and rare view of nature – not as a friendly, optimal place but one whose behavior is actually anti-life. So many animals die so young. Yet we don’t interfere when the female mantis eats the male’s head. How do animal rights work in this context? Why is it wrong to kill animals, or to ignore murder but okay to ignore it when it the organism aren’t human beings?

What makes the book so valueable is that even if you don’t agree with Perry’s thesis – many won’t, since they either love life too much or they can’t resist their genes – the ideas here are still useful and thought-provoking. It’s not just about how bad life is, but what to do with it. The last chapter, “Living in the Epilogue” is both horrifying and comforting. If things are really that bad, we can at least speed up life by enjoying it. Also, who has it worse? The person who’s about to die or the person who has 90 unwanted years ahead of them?

It’s an incomplete book, but antinatalism and suicide are difficult subjects. Perry at least confronts them instead of writing them off. Maybe someday in the future – if we have one – this book will become slightly outdated because of some basic sections. For now, this is a book that stares at difficult subjects in the face, provides tough answers and plenty of room for discussions or to move forward. You don’t have to agree with Perry to enjoy this. Many of her ideas can be used to improve society. As she said in the beginning, and something we often forget – we’re all humans, and what drives ethical philosophy is compassion for others.

4.5 cradles out of 5 graves

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Ernest Hemingway – Men Without Women

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Hemingway is a fascinating character. Many tell stories, but Hemingway lived in an epic poem. He traveled the worlds, participated in wars, hunted, fished, went through four marriages only to commit suicide. If I needed source material for an epic tragedy, I wouldn’t need to look further. I wouldn’t even need to add themes – masculinity, romance and war are constant themes in Hemingway’s life. This fascinating Hemingway is the only good thing about Men Without Women.

Nowadays, Hemingway’s prose reads more like a parody of realism. He didn’t understand the purpose of it. When he talks about his Iceberg Theory, he talks about hiding things from the reader. Yet holding back information isn’t good storytelling. It’s how cheap thrillers keep us hooked by hinting that if we invest more time, a revelation will come. The purpose of minimalism is to reveal using few words.

Carver came years later and saw it through. When you read Carver, you don’t need to dig deep to find buried ideas. Rather, Carver’s bare prose makes everything float up to the surface. If something is hidden or implied, it means that the mere fact of it being hidden is important. At the end of “One More Thing”, Carver tells us the man doesn’t know what to say. That’s enough to show us how confused, how broken that man is. If Hemingway wrote that story, it would end with “The Man said.”, as if not telling the reader what he said is somehow more profound than showing the man is at loss for words.

These aren’t stories of beginnings, middles and conclusions. They’re snapshots of life, which is fine. “In Another Country” is a story that goes nowhere, but it’s so lifelike. That story must be close to him since it deals with war wounds. He’s not worried about being obvious there, but just let the images stand on their own. In it, there are machines that are supposed to cure body problems. Despite being the first of their kind, there are images of before-and-after. It’s not a complex image and perhaps not a very subtle one, but it’s more powerful than anything here.

“Hills Like White Elephants”, perhaps the most famous story here both shows where the style works and where it generally fails. It’s routinely praised for only implying it’s about abortion instead of saying it, but what’s the point? If you insert the word ‘abortion’ there, would it change the story drastically? Often that word dies to appear on the page, especially if you read an analysis of it. Hemingway writes it while struggling not to mention it for fear of being obvious. It’s like a band who stumbles upon a great melody, but repeats it only once in fear of being ‘poppy’ or ‘mainstream’.

This isn’t being concerned with literary quality, but with literary image. A story that aims for critically-approved traits like subtlety and depth misses the whole point. Even if you do switch the word ‘operation’ with ‘abortion’, the story would remain excellent. It’s really about a couple who reached a stumbling block in their relationship and don’t know where to go. There’s a reason they spend the whole story in a train station.

If you found his dialogue stiff and repetitive before, it’s even more so here. Some stories have sections like a broken record. “The Killers”, an otherwise excellent expression of fear of organized crime, has at least a page worth of unnecessary dialogue. Whenever Hemingway slips into this, you can feel him dying to say something but too afraid of ruining his image. He’s not completely awful in his style of omission. He said he left out the whole Chicago thing from the story and that’s a wise decision since namedropping the city wouldn’t add anything. Organized crime is scary regardless of where you’re at, but killers who repeat the same words ad nausam just don’t make sense.

Across his books, Hemingway’s flaws are as repetitive as the dialogue. Yet I keep reading because there’s something beating here. Discovering Hemingway lead an epic life isn’t surprising once you read a few pieces of prose by him. There’s distress, a desire for more, an obsession with concepts that fuels great people. It’s also not surprising Hemingway killed himself. Literature was an outlet for his troubles, but he couldn’t let it out.

Again, his Iceberg Theory stabs him in the back. Being a stereotypical man means bottling up your emotions and going fishing. Men are supposed to be tough and invulnerable. A vulnerable man can’t protect your children, after all. The stories try to dig into these masculine troubles, but end up conforming to stereotypes instead of breaking them.

The troubles are distinctly masculine. Violence and heartbreak often plague our characters. The violence is either for glory or for survival. As for women, their role is to provide a respite from this life. Perhaps that’s why the man in “Hills Like White Elephants” is so vague, anxious both to make the abortion and telling her she should choose. He’s afraid of losing her because if she’s gone, all he will have left is bullfighting and war. There’s glory in bullfighting and connection when you’re at war with your buddies, but these things can also be your downfall. Then again, in Hemingway’s stories women can also be the downfall.

Downfall is always around the corner, but the sense of dread which the characters feel never surfaces. Hemingway wants to imply so much that the stories feel like a person opening up about his break-up, only to shut up once he talks about the real reason. You, as a listener, is being teased and your curiosity isn’t satisfied. The person who needs a good talk is too afraid to speak, so he doesn’t get any help. The best stories here are “In Another Country” and “Now I Lay Me”. Hemingway lets himself go in these. There’s a bit more telling, but the emotional punch of them is powerful. Both can slot nicely into a Carver collection without a change in quality. The worst story is “The Undefeated”, where Hemingway flexes his jargon and ruins what could’ve been a beautiful story.

Don’t read Hemingway to say you’re reading the canon. Read Hemingway because you’re interested in his personality. None of his books that I’ve read are truly great (I’m yet to reach Bell though) but they each expand on his unique personality. If you find Hemingway an interesting enough person, read this. It’s not good, but like anything else he wrote it’s an essential piece of the puzzle.

2.5 men out of 5 women

Raymond Carver – What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

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How do short stories work? How does any story work? Stories are a series of events connected by a theme, time and circumstances. They lead into one another and eventually conclude. Every ending is a beginning, of course. The end of a relationship is the beginning of a life as a single. Still, we live with these beginnings and endings – we draw lines between childhood and adulthood, day and night and Mondays and Sundays.

If you want to aim for realism, you need to remember this bias when writing stories. Beginnings and endings are what give stories meaning and we tell a story because it means something. It can be funny, it can show something about love but you never tell a story just to tell a story. Carver’s stories have some kind of a beginning, but no real endings. Sometimes they end with a punch, sometimes with the implication something terrible is about to happen. Concrete endings are rare, yet these stories still work.

Is this poetry, or is this literature? What’s the boundry between them?

Carver’s stories work because he puts the purpose way ahead of structure. His purpose isn’t clear-cut, which makes it all the more impressive when his stories work. There is no specific situation Carver wants to explore, no guideline that connects the stories. A lot of drinking happens and love is a big deal, but that’s because love is a big deal in general.

He tries to tap into life’s energy. If this sounds overly-sentimental, it’s because it’s hard to talk about the stories in any other way. How he achieves such emotional resonance is still unclear. Characters might as well not exist and stories rarely end or begin. It must be because of the unique structure of the book.

Few stories here stand on their own. Even the best one requires prior experience with his style before enjoying them. In fact, even as an experienced reader in minimalism and in Carver (I actually read this a long time ago in its original version – Beginners) it took me time to get into it. The style is so minimalist, so sparse that it’s shocking at first. We’re used to maximalist literature. Every beginner writer who gave me their stories to review has overflowing language.

We look for the grandness. We look for the symbol or the sentence that repeats itself, or characers talking about who they are. Carver creates Everymen by letting the situation speak for itself. In one story, everyone lives in Alburquerque but are all from somewhere else. In another, a man puts his whole house – couch and TV and kitchen – outside. In another, a couple fights violently over a baby.

Each of these small tidbits are rife to analyze. Just by telling you what happens I imitated a whole story, and do we really need more of it? A couple fighting violently over a baby is a great illustration of a fallen relationship. The baby is a product of both parents, yet the two parties want it for themselves. The baby couldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the other. Relationships need room for selflessness, for caring about the other. One of the last line feels like Carver summing up every fallen relationship:

“He felt the baby slipping out of his ands and he pulled back very hard.”

Is this how we should react when love comes down? Should we pull back towards ourselves stronger and stronger at something that can only exists thanks to co-operation?

Self-insert characters are often criticized as lazy. That’s true, but there is a time and place for them. Sometimes the situation is the main character. The objects moving carry the meaning, not the personality. It’s true this has been used for escapsim – Harem anime create a situation many guys would like to escape to. Carver doesn’t create comfortable situations.

His situations are soaked in pain, but more than anything confusion. It’s as if by expressing the events in the most blunt way possible, he hopes he could make sense of the human condition. As evidenced by the last two stories (who gain a lot of their power by their position), Carver didn’t even come close to a solution.

These stories are a journey through a land that’s not really barren. People exaggerate when they describe Carver’s stories as ‘people drinking and talking’. He’s more concerned with the absurdity of life. That’s why a lot of these stories involve weird situations that feel odd in this collection. When was the last time a person with no hands asked to photograph your house? Life is strange – any attempt to capture realism by removing odd events results in bland monotony. Since strange events are confusing, many authors write about them with colorful language and your dull feel-good ending. “Viewfinder”, in different hands, would’ve been distorted into how ‘it all depends on your perspective! snap out of your depression!’. In Carver’s hands, he lets the interaction stand on their own. The loneliness is obviously there, and that makes their connection all the more engrossing and life-affirming.

‘Empathy’ is another word that suits Carver’s style. His style is so warm, so intimate. You can pop this book in the middle and it wouldn’t feel any different than starting from the beginning. The stories like a collection of aimless anecdotes friends tell each other into the night, just to have something to talk to. Like your friends’ anecdotes, the stories ramble and swerve into unnecessary territories before snapping back to the main topic. This isn’t sloppy writing but a deliberate attempt to capture the warmth of sharing stories.

Although Carver has been hailed as a master of minimalism, it didn’t actually come from him. Gordon Lish, the editor. The original manuscript wasn’t as minimalistic, although Lish clearly saw the potential there. The attraction to these stories is in the how intimate they feel. Even when Carver starts writing in bigger paragraphs, this would remain the defining feature of his work.

It’s as sparse as a Joy Division record, but don’t read Carver for the minimalist macho bullshit. This isn’t about covering up an iceberg like Hemingway. He does the opposite. By writing about the stories just as they are, he mines them for every sip of emotion there is. A lot of great authors gave us insight into the human mind/condition/experience, but none feel so intimate as Carver.

4 talking about love out of 5

Margaret Atwood – Wilderness Tips

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At its worst, Wilderness Tips suffers from Atwood’s most common flaw. Although she’s blessed with intelligence that never gets in the way of her stories, there is always a little too much distance between the reader and the characters. That’s an odd complaint, considering the book’s genre. Compare it to Raymond Carver, and Atwood has better characters yet doesn’t create as much sympathy.

It’s odd. It should be the opposite. The close look at people in all their glorious flaws should make us feel closer to them. Atwood isn’t shy of the first person narrative. Yet it’s the same case with every Atwood book – its emotional impact is always a little low compared to the intellectual side of things. Then again, there are some brilliant stories here and it’s a prime example of how realist fiction should be done. So Atwood couldn’t get around her tiny flaw here, but it doesn’t matter when everything else is so brilliant.

Short story collections can be hard to review. They’re not music albums. They’re often written over a long span of times. They tend to contain experiments and snippets. For many authors, short story collections are B-Sides & Rarities – odd pieces of prose that are interesting for the die-hard fan, but don’t go anywhere and don’t really ‘conclude’.

The latter part is important. Even if you’re a great short story writer, why are all of these stories packed together? In music albums, you often have an overarching sound connecting it all. Great albums also have good sequencing, with songs sounding better in their place in the tracklist. Wilderness Tips isn’t so good that it starts with a bangs and concludes, but it’s a masterwork of a genre. That alone is enough to make it feel like a complete work, instead of just assorted prose for the diehards.

‘Realism’ is an annoying word to use when discussing fiction. It’s also necessary, which makes it more annoying. No one actually has any access to what reality is. It’s the Map and Territory situation. You perceive parts of reality, but never all of it. So how can humans write something ‘realistic’ when they only perceive a very tiny part of reality? Keep in mind that fiction deals with the most unstable aspect with reality – humans, their relationship and how they experience the world.

Some opt for a dry, ‘nothing ever happens’ style to inform the reader it’s realistic. That’s basically a cop-out for people who aren’t imaginative enough or too insecure. The ideal technique for realistic fiction is to steal stories directly from reality itself, and always be aware every story has as many sides as it has characters. I don’t know how many of these stories are based on true cases, but Atwood’s portrayal of relationships has always been brilliant. Here, she’s in top form.

I wish I had Atwood to help with me with relationships. She never slides into strawmen or caricatures. Her men and women aren’t heroes and villains, but flawed people. Sometimes their flaws make them easy to manipulate or abuse. Sometimes their flaws lead them to abuse or be terrible to others. With great understanding comes great pessimism, though. All over these stories is disenchantment and cynicism towards the idea of romance and sexuality.

It’s not so much that Atwood is a rowdy feminist out to castrate men. Women can a lot of flak too. Many of them are attracted to married men and work on starting an affair. The crucial thing Atwood focuses on is that every relationship has two participants. It’s never one person doing things to the other. Affairs aren’t just sluts seducing innocent men, or men being pigs. Both sides choose to do it.

Some relationships are abusive, though. Some people are assholes and only them are to blame for what they do to others. In these stories we see what pessimism is truly like. The assholes are never evil caricatures, rapists in the dark or hot young gaslighters. It’s easy to understand why they do it and that includes the backstabber in “Uncles”. What’s more horrifying than the act itself is their humanity. Atwood knows evil people don’t come from outerspace, kill people for the fuck of it and get blasted by dudes with sixpacks. What drove them to that behavior can also drive her or me or you or anyone of us.

The best story here is perhaps the aforementioned “Uncles”. While Atwood’s feminism and exploration of women’s position in society isn’t huge here – women are the main characters mainly because Atwood is a woman – that story explores it brilliantly. Again, it’s about showing the two sides of things. This time it’s about the relationship with a beautiful, perfect person who’s used to approval. I’ve met those. Women who are pretty can have it very easy in life, especially if they develop a few skills. Their good looks already means people are nicer to them.

People are jealous of you when you’re successful. The jealousy is even harsher when your luck is obvious. Everyone is successful mostly because of luck, but the Beautiful People’s type of luck is so obvious it’s excruciating. We also all know that our love for the Beautiful People is what gives them their success. We’re to blame. One way to deal with jealousy is to demonize the successful, disregard their successes or assume their feelings aren’t worthwhile. They’re so successful, so who cares if we humiliate them? It mirrors things I’ve seen in real life.

There’s also enough variety in tone and prose style to prevent this from becoming variations on a style. The hard realism and theme of relationships allow Atwood to experiment with story structures and styles without causing any disconnection between the stories. It’s the most versatile I’ve seen Atwood yet. Some stories have a more poetic, somber tone to them. Others like “Hairball” have jumpy prose that’s unlike anything she’s written. Sometimes she apes Carver completely with hard, dry prose. The tone is always appropriate for the stories, too. This variety helps to reinforce the realism. People experience reality differently. If all your stories are written in the same way, you’re too narrow for reality.

Wilderness Tips is an excellent short story collection. The only flaw is the slightly disappointing closer (“Hack Wednesday”) and the distance Atwood can’t rid of. Still, at its best this is how realist fiction should be. The events are exciting. There’s always a feeling of uneasiness and unstability which define reality. People are flawed human beings, sometimes weak or evil or talented but they’re always human. The stories also conclude more than they just end hanging in the middle of things. No one writes prose like Carver, but this is where I’ll direct people if they want to understand realist fiction.

3.5 tips out of 5

Mushishi Zoku Shou (Next Passage)

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Mix a few of these episodes in the original Mushishi, and hardly anyone would notice the difference. That’s not a compliment. The original Mushishi had mainly novelty value. It was a deeply flawed show with a brilliant premise. Next Passage doesn’t do much but gets more steam out of it.

The fact it’s still fun speaks volumes of its premise. The appeal of Mushishi was its weirdness. It’s both because it’s so far away from Western thought, and because weirdness is integral to its themes. Nature isn’t a benevolent or a destructive force. It just exists, indifferent to us and we have to learn to harness it. The mushi and the mushishi are an expression of this idea.

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It’s also a unique take on fantasy, one we don’t see enough. Instead of grand heroic stories, Mushishi is personal. The plights of the characters are always simple and relatable. They deal with relationships, sickness, raising children and depression. They live in the mountains, but they face the exact issues we in the 21st century face. Some themes are eternal.

The series doesn’t know how to handle these stories, though. If they are personal, they need something to bring them to life. The world is full of people raising children and losing their loved ones. The only reason we care about a story like this is because we identify with the person, because we know him.

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You need ‘relatable’ characters, but it doesn’t mean they need to reflect the viewer’s personality. It means they should be written with specific speech patterns, behaviors, and reactions that establish a personality. Once you establish a personality we can believe this is a real human being and we’ll be invested in their struggle. After all, don’t they say that a million deaths is a statistic, because the numbers strip the people of their personality?

Now, the people in Mushishi aren’t numbers but they’re rarely human beings. They exist so things will happen to them and Ginko exists so he will reach them. All of this is so a story will be told. All of this without any grand purpose. It’s odd to have such a unique anime that never tries to lift itself up.

There are moments where it improves on the original. Next Passage is noticeably darker. The situations are often less certain. It’s a small addition, which adds a bit of danger and excitement. It also causes the characters to not just be peaceful. The emotional scope is wider, with a few characters bordering on the immoral. It was almost non-existant in the original, but here it makes the world more believable and alive. The improvement is only slight.

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It also shares with the original a horribly constructed first episode. The exposition was a nice re-introduction, but the first episode is never sure whether it’s concerned with the main character’s story, or introducing elements of the world. The show settles for the usual format in the second and the quality improves.

The art is more beautiful this time around. People always over-emphasized the atmospherics, as if the stories didn’t matter. The art this time though is a wonder to behold. The level of detail is high, but it’s almost negligible. Every story has its own atmospheric focus, and the extra darkness helps the atmosphere. There is always a little dread in the scenery, nature looking good but always hiding something. The movements of the characters are also very smooth, helping bring them to life a little.

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The stories themselves, even without characters are interesting enough. The novelty value hasn’t worn off. There’s still nothing quite like Mushishi and it’s hard to think something will ever come. The Mushi don’t appear visually so much, but their odd presence still takes the center. The mushi always represent some idea, in some episodes much more clearly than others. They way they operate is tied to that idea. Every detail about a mushi is a part of the theme it represents. This makes them both magical and fantastical, but also interesting. This is how magic should be.

Next Passage got its acclaim because most of those who watched were already fans. It’s not brilliant and it’s not a step forward, but it shows the idea still has steam in it. Even if it didn’t improve on the flaws, the uniqueness of Mushishi still works. If you enjoyed the original, there’s no reason not to enjoy this one. In some cases it’s better.

3 mushi out of 5

 

 

 

Kemono no Souja Erin (Beast Trainer Erin)

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It’s a curious thing. Good stories tend to come when the creators know their limits and strengths. You cover up your weaknesses and emphasizes your strengths. Some stories know their weak point and still find a way to get around them. Erin is an anime that’s often focused on its weak parts, yet aside from a weak patch in the middle it’s fantastic.

The strength and weakness is in Erin herself. She’s not a psychological portrait but a mythic one. The whole story is, in fact, more mythic than psychological. Characters aren’t complex or odd, but have very specific role they fill.

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It can sound limiting, but it’s not. Giving your characters a certain role gives you focus. Since the series never pretends to be a deep psychological examination of these roles, they manage to breathe life into them in other ways. Sometimes, two characters have the same role but act on it differently. Jone and Esal are two very different kind of teachers.

These aren’t roles that limit characters. They are never moral ones, of villains and heroes. They give them agency and define who they are. The story is often more than about Erin. There are many episodes in which she barely appears. Other characters star them and their viewpoint is explored.

Excluding one power-hungry villain that only reveals himself in the end, Erin is a series full of shades of grey. Almost any character that is introduced as villainous is immidiately revealed have a logical viewpoint. Even when their intentions still side against Erin, the anime expects us to understand them. This goes further than grey morality. Erin is clearly a moral hero, yet we’re expected to understand her enemies.

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As for Erin, she’s a great example of how a moral hero should be. She’s not defined by her morality. Her moral behavior comes from somewhere, specifically her fascination with nature which her mother gave her.

This is also where the series, despite not being psychological manages to accurately display what growing up is. Like any good story for children, it deals with the themes of childhood. Erin has the natural curiosity of a child. The difference between her and others is that her mother encourages it. As Erin grows up and meets more mentors, they keep on encouraging it rather than discouraging for some bizarre reasons that create the contemporary education system.

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When Erin starts to display extraordinary abilities, it’s not a case of Mary Sue-ness. Erin is a moral hero who represents curiosity, and curiosity naturally leads us to develop our skills. Curiosity is also what what makes us reach towards others and understand them.

That’s its answer to the main conflict. The show doesn’t have a central theme but it builds towards an epic climax that’s expressive, rather than a placeholder. The central conflict between the two populations is simple. It doesn’t rival the complexity of real life conflicts and it doesn’t have to.

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Political ‘intrigue’ is often a crutch authors rely on, killing characters off to surprise (Game of Thrones still suck). The root of many conflicts is in disagreements, and violence is what we use when we don’t try or think we can reach out to the other side.

As the best episode displays, it’s easy to love one another when you agree with that person. It’s harder to still love them they take a separate path from yours. The episode that chronicles this divide between two brothers is easily the best one of the show.

While the lack of a central theme and psychological exploration don’t harm the series, they do take its toll on the middle part. It’s almost neglectful of a traumatic experience and the pace grinds into a halt.

It doesn’t replicate the serenity of Mushishi. The view of the natural world is different. Rather, the show gets stuck, recycling the same ideas (Erin’s curiosity) and adding characters who only become fleshed out later on. There are worthwhile moments there, but about 8 episodes could have been cut.

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There’s also the odd technique of repeated flashbacks. While some are well-placed, showing them over and over first makes them lose their impact. Then it comes off as lazy and just trying to kill time. The big traumatic event’s repetition is especially bad. Since the series isn’t psychological, the flashbacks don’t make sense and they just make it lose its impact. That said, when they do return in the last arcs of the series they retain their impact.

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The series also teases too much in these episodes about characters who become fleshed out later. Since the series is static during that section, it’s not a slow build-up. Rather, the series feels shy at throwing itself at something greater. What’s weird is that anytime it does become ambitious are fantastic. Nearly every dramatic moment is powerful regardless of Erin’s age. The line “Don’t harm these people with the same hands that can play such a beautiful song” is more profound than any time with realistic design and adult characters wearing suits.

The art style is excellent and beautiful. It’s ‘childish’, but in a good way. There is a simplicity and elegance to it like a children’s drawing. The backgrounds are where the series does it best. They often have a sketchy look to them, relying more on basic shapes and colors to create an atmosphere. It’s not chaotic, though. The sketchiness creates a bare background which fits with the sombre atmosphere. When the series gets dark, it stands in contrast.

 

Erin doesn’t justify its length. It lags in the middle and has too many repeating flashbacks. The varied cast also don’t the development they clearly can. While these flaws can make it tedious at times, the improvement at the second half saves it. From then on, as an example of how deep and emotionally engrossing children’s stories can be it’s perfect. It may focus on a single heroine, but it’s a world of shades of grey, with only one truly villainous character who has a purpose anyway. It fell off the radar because it’s not immediate, but it’s worth pushing through its weak parts. At its best, it’s almost the best anime ever.

4 lizards out of 5

Mushishi

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Some people will tell you Mushishi is great because it doesn’t contain action and fanservice. These must be the same people who praise a film for not including Adam Sandler. They also make Mushishi look more pretentious than it is. It’s far from it. The problem is, even though Mushishi has a worthwhile aim and the right methods, it doesn’t know how to use them.

In order for something to be pretentious, it needs to put up a cover while not including the methods. An anime that has a realistic art style with dramatic characters is pretentious. It looks realistic, but the methods that are used are opposed to it.

Mushishi makes it clear what it wants to be in the first episode. It’s a series that’s concerned mainly with men’s relationship to nature. The mushi are just the physical embodiment of what nature can be. Some have criticized Mushishi for creating a magic system that has no rules but leads to convenience, but that’s untrue. Mushishi doesn’t have an RPG-like magic system because it uses magic to explore themes, not to offer instructions on how to do battle.

The rules the magic in Mushishi follows is the theme of nature. It’s successful in that department. We often see nature portrayed as a calm, peaceful place in contrast to heartless machinery. If the person is especially ignorant, we will even hear about the good old days when men was One With Nature and everything was peaceful and good. Most people see nature though the lens of the Garden of Eden.

Anyone who ever bothered to learn a little about nature – botany or geology or zoology – will understand Mushishi‘s stance on nature. Nautre is unstable, mysterious, powerful and cares nothing about us. Volcanic eruptions and meteors crashing are terrible things, but they’re produced by an indifferent world that has no malice. They just happen. Then again, it’s the same world that gives us great food and visual spectacles. There plenty of time when the terrible and beautiful merge – how many dangerous animals are also beauiful?

The series achieves that by the nature of the mushi. They often benefit and harm at the same time, like allowing people to give birth to a person that died. There is always a sense of wonder and mystery surrounding the mushi. Even Ginko, despite his cold demeanor is also startled by them. What people don’t say enough about Mushishi is that this is how fantasy should be done. It’s not like Martin’s world, which is full of details to make it clear and familiar. It’s truly alien and fantastical.

Where the series falls is in all other departments. The series doesn’t put enough effort into the characters and the stories. They exist solely to present the varying mushi. There are films whose purpose is only to deliver a visual experience, so abandoning conventional storytelling can be a smart decision. It’s not here. It’s not just that 26 episodes make you demand more, but that abandoning conventional storytelling doesn’t help the series’ aim.

The series forgets about the ‘men’ in the relationship between men and nature. The characters feel like they have an outer life. The issues spring from life itself – art, marriage, vision – rather than having a guy preventing another guy from Being the Best. There isn’t enough character psychology to make these issues feel important.

The characters are all interchangeable. I kept waiting for a reason why this person is concerned with vision, or this one with marriage. Nothing is pointless in fiction, after all. In order to bring depth to an issue, you need to connect to the character. Something in the character’s personality needs to be related to the issue so it will affect it. A lot of shounen shows know this, so they tend to give a narcisstic nature to their characters. The character doesn’t just struggle with The Problem but with his own nature. Ikki learns to curb his narcissism and stop swinging between it and depression. Tai learns (or is supposed to) how being a leader works.

Despite these two not being the most developed examples, they make for different stories. You couldn’t put Tai in Ikki’s story, because Tai’s personality is concerned with relationships with others. You couldn’t put Ikki in Tai’s story, because his story is about learning that sometimes you lose some and win some. I could not remember a character that had a situation concerned with his personality. They tend to have generic wants and needs, nothing that’s unique to them. They may be ‘ordinary people’, but people are not clones even when they follow patterns. Or if the series wanted to comment on that, then the similarity should’ve been made important. Nothing is there to emphasize how similar humans are. These are just empty characters.

Ginko is not much better. An episodic series isn’t an excuse to have undeveloped characters. They may not change throughout the series, but they need a personality that will affect every story. A lot of Cartoon Network shows are purely episodic, yet they’re full of quirky characters who create the stories because of who they are.

We get a backstory episode for Ginko, but it doesn’t reveal much. What’s his motivation? Why is he so into mushi? How does all this exploring affected his worldview? There are sometimes hints. In one episode, Ginko agrees with what I wrote above about the cruelty of nature. This is just one instant, though. All Ginko does is visit people, help them solve the problem and that’s it.

That makes him a plot device, not a real character. He exists so we’ll have someone to follow, but how different would the series be if it was a random mushishi in every episode? I do not ask to immidiately reveal who Ginko is. If every episode gave a small piece, it would be enough. The collector, who appears from time to time is the only person with something resembling a drive. He’s really into collecting, and values it more than humans. It’s a little touch that makes him more real than anyone here. There are sometimes other mushishi’s who act a little different, but the difference is never wide enough.

It’s a missed oppurtunity, sure, but not one without merits. It’s as original as people say it is, and a good example of how far storytelling can go. It didn’t live up to its concept, but it’s still good that it’s out there and that it found an audience. Hopefully, one of these someone will pick up these ideas and run away with them. It’s a fun series, but one that should be easy to improve.

3.5 mushi out 5