Aku no Hana (The Flowers of Evil)

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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

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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

Halsey – Badlands

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We seem to live in the comedown from Nicki Minaj and Lady Gaga. A few years ago, a lot of women got on TV with weird outfits and bragged about how much sex they have and how much they drink. The parties didn’t have to look fun. Mostly, it looked like a bunch of cool people trying hard to impress you. What’s important is that you’ll find them profound, strong, going against the norm. As we know, nothing is more rebellious than drinking alcohol and having sex.

Only your mom is actually against partying, and even that population of anti-partying moms is dwindling. Pretty soon a new type of female Pop rose, one that was still about lots of sex and partying but acknowledged the fact that made your Mom despise those parties. Where there are people, there are feelings and getting hurt. People sometimes get hurt before, during or after the party. Sex is fine and all, but it’s not as easy doing vocal acrobatics and calling it a song.

Halsey is a latecomer to this scene, and it shows. Lana Del Rey may have kicked it off, but singers who came later didn’t stick to the formula. For all of the ‘alt girl’ posing on Tumblr, these singers did show there was room for personal expression in Pop music. Compared to what came before, these singers gave a voice to all the kinds of experiences you go through when young.

Halsey may be considered ‘generic’ in that movement, but it’s a movement that’s defined by not sticking only to bragging about sex. In fact, her personality is actually more solid than it first seems. If she seems like a stereotype of the dyed hair, feminist teenager that’s on Tumblr posting better content than you it’s only because she throws herself fully at it.

True enough, we need it. I’m not one to complain about how there aren’t enough Black people in a certain field, or how there are too many males in a different one (As we know, all males are exactly the same). There is something different about these lyrics of youth though, something that’s far from the rage and angst of the male-dominated rock genre.

Instead of tales of hatred, rage, and heartbreak we get tales of confused and confusing sexuality, of drugs that are fun and wrecking at the same. Overall, life is a huge set of contradictions. Now that’s emotional depth for you. In contrast to bands where sex was always a bad thing, where romance lead directly to agony here it’s unclear and blurry. “Strange Love” is about a relationship so messy we don’t even bother to define it. On “Hurricane” she manages to overcome the guy all the girls can’t overcome. All that confidence is gone on “Drive”, a contemplative, atmospheric song that’s soaked in the amorphous and somewhat profound thoughts of an over-intelligent youth.

I know it’s fun to assume young people are idiots – that’s why we got such a moronic educational system. They experience things, though. The best music of youth captures this spark and more. Halsey is at once a young girl who lets herself get carried away by her sexuality, is totally in control of it, utterly confused by it and has the wisdom of a sage – sometimes in the same song. “Hurricane” isn’t the best song here, but it’s the best example of when it all collides at once.

Can these lyrics be anything less than ridiculous? Actually, they’re quite excellent. They aren’t a bunch of vague lines about sex and pain strung together, but there’s a coherent idea connecting them each. The distinct subject matter is what helps the songs stand out. True, “New Americana” is awful, but that’s because it’s the only song where Halsey pretends to be important. Name-dropping Nirvana and Biggie especially sounds stupid. Isn’t she younger than me? Did she feel comfortable listening to “One More Chance”? Statement-making was far more convincing in “Castle”, a slow-grinding song where Halsey sounds like an overconfident youth with all the good that it implies.

She’s actually at her best when she throws herself at an idea. The more contemplative songs, where she sounds too grown for her age can blur together – “Hurricane” and “Roman Holiday” are cute, but “Gasoline” contains lyrics that in any other context would stupid. “Are you deranged like me?” is as attention-wanting as it gets, but it nails the feeling of being misunderstood with others on the internet. “Colors” is the big highlight about loving a guy who’s on the road to self-destruction. The lyrics may be sappy, but being young is about being sappy. If you got the bonus tracks then “Control” is another highlight. I have no idea how it didn’t end up on the album.

People talked about how Halsey is constructed, artificial and is ‘not real’. Is Lady Gaga real? Sure, she flaunted how her imagery was fake but we were supposed to take seriously the idea she’s not real – or whatever postmodern hullabaloo went over there. Music is performance, and what matters is how the performance goes. Halsey is dead-on in what she’s trying to achieve. I met the type of girls who are into this music and heard their stories. Halsey’s lyrics match their stories, if not in precise details but in vibe. In the end music is more about capturing a certain essence of feeling or of experience, rather than the exact details. While it’s true Halsey doesn’t have too many quotables – her peers are much better than her, as a whole her lyrics are fantastic. Few songs get what loving a dangerous and self-destructive guy is like “Colors”.

Badlands is overall a fantastic Pop albm with everything you’d want – great hooks, great production and enough personality to make it memorable. That personality can annoy people, especially if you’re too busy with authenticity or getting angry over weirdos on Tumblr. It’s also possible you’re too busy looking for things to make fun of rathe than experiencing the world. Irony culture has yet to produce something as fun as “Colors”.

3.5 sexy boys out of 5

 

Toradora

toradoraNote: this series has been dropped at episode 14

Unlike the main protagonist of this anime, I do not have much strength to withstand torture. Put me in the clutches of a diabolical serial killer/torturer, and I have no idea what I’d do. Ryuji, our hero, is one of a kind. Bards should sing about him in taverns all across Tamriel. For 14 episodes, he stands Taiga’s relentless abuse with a smile.

In one of the greatest songs ever written, the extremely white lead singer of the Smiths sings about how it’s so easy to laugh and so easy to hate. Kindness and gentleness are difficult, and I do agree with him. That said, I wonder if the band and their fanbase would change their mind if they saw the anime. Actually, considering how huge this anime is, becoming iconic in the school genre – I think they won’t.

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I’m a defender of the school genre. Many rant about how immature and derivative it is, but few people didn’t go to school. A lot of things happen in school and you meet a lot of people, so it’s a place rife for stories. Its low-key and stable environment actually makes it excellent for stories driven by characters. Conflicts will have to rise from within and not an external UFO coming to wreck the party. These shows rely heavily on their characters, and it’s enough to have a decent, odd cast – see Haganai – to make something decent. Toradora is a major failure because of how insufferable its cast is.

Since we’re talking about symbols and not actual human beings, I need to find a way to explain why and how disgusted I was with them and how that lead me to conclude this anime is horrid crap. Many a great story are about horrible people. In fact, one of the best novels ever is about such a terrible murder. It’s their darkness, their psychology and reasons for being so that makes them so intriguing. How frightening these characters are because we understand them and see us in them. Part of our obsession with villains and their backstories, or with serial killers’ childhoods is because we want to know why they’re like this.

Everyone in Toradora is a bit of an asshole. Actually, only two characters are but they’re so dominant that it’s easy to forget about the rest. Taiga is the big problem, since she’s both the main character and the worst. Tsunderes can often seem creepy, sometimes borderline Gacy-like sadistic. None of them are as bad as Taiga.

The archetype can be funny. Tsunderes’ appeal is their insecurity, how they address the Presentation of Self in Everyday Life – we put up a front in every social interaction, putting a different front in different places. The best Tsundere, Neptunia‘s Noire is all about this. Humor never comes from her being violent – she’s rarely is – but how hard she works on her image.

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In contrast, Taiga is nothing but violence. She reacts to everything with violence, like a 10-year-old playing Elder Scrolls and thinking that it’s supercool to kill every NPC. She may not kill anyone, let alone essential NPC’s but it doesn’t make it any less creepy. In every episode, she beats up people at least 5 times. Her reactions are always with force, causing clear pain to the other characters. I’d expect anyone to beat her in return the first time.

The fact Ryuji stays there is flat-out creepy. Moreover, she treats him with pure condescension. Rarely, if ever, she addresses him in a way that’s not hostile. Early in the series they make a pact to help each other, but Taiga doesn’t actually help him until the middle of the series. All the episodes are about the characters doing stuff and Taiga beating people up. The anime never answers why, exactly, Ryuji puts up with so much physical abuse.

Yes, ‘abuse’ is the only word that can describes their relationship. Switch the sexes. Imagine if Ryuji was constantly beating up Taiga, calling her ‘bitch’ and so forth. It’s nothing but sick. You can only watch it for so long before getting tired of this torture porn thing. Not only Taiga is violent to everyone, she also has a weird entitlement problem. She expects Ryuji to take care of her and do everything for her. She never asks, demands with the expectations that Ryuji must do it for her.

In the end, she’s nothing but a horrible person who beats up everyone but also thinks everyone owes her everything. Now, a character being a terrible human being isn’t enough. How their actions are framed is important and now we get to the main problem. Taiga is framed as okay.

A backstory occasionally rears its head, feelings of insecurity do show themselves. None of is it actually dark, none of it gives us a glimpse into a troubled psych that can only react with violence and cannot connect to people. The backstory may justify anger, but the anime never acknowledge how bad Taiga’s case is. No one around her also reacts like they should. They treat her like she’s a quirky friend, someone who occasionally goes off, like that friend who swears a lot. This is a person who’s in desperate need of help and a lawyer. It’s no longer a person having anger issues but a criminal that everyone tolerates because the plot demands it.

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Such light framing of dark material is unforgivable. Humor doesn’t have anything to do with it, but how the frame never addresses the darkness of it. Physical abuse leaves people with trauma. People react harshly to physical abuse. If people stay for a long time with a physical person, being nice to them and doing what they want it means they got issues of their own. I can’t stress how dark this material is, yet the light framing is disrespectful to anyone who went through physical abuse.

Taiga and the framing of her behavior towers over the anime, so everything else ends up pointless. No matter how hard they try, the creators frame Taiga as quirky and cute. Nothing can salvage the anime, but then again it doesn’t seem they try. There isn’t much in the way of stories or characters. Ryuji is like that dude from Haganai only not as hot. Somehow he manages to be perfect and eventually the center of the harem because he’s nice to everyone and doesn’t have wants of his own. To the anime’s credit, the secondary male actually has a purpose here and he’s a bit hot, but besides being a more energetic nice guy there’s nothing to him.

Other females consist of a wacky redhead who’s entertaining for five episodes and then becomes tiresome. As for Ami, she’s another generic asshole who’s overall unpleasant without the darkness. Like Taiga, she treats people like crap but the cruelty is never meant to shock or make us reflect. Funniest thing is how the anime passes her off as sexy. Not only the characters can’t drive a story, but they look bad.

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Art style is another problem the anime suffers from. No one has a distinctive look. School anime, at worst, create pleasing to look at characters. You may not experience anything profound but there is aesthetic value in the designs, in understanding human beauty. Designs don’t have to break boundaries, but little touches like Sena’s butterfly and deep eye color make an anime more pleasing to look at.

Toradora does nothing like this. Taiga does have a weird hairstyle, but Minori isn’t memorable at all. She has huge eyes and short red hair. End description. Worse offender is Ami who is meant to be the sex symbol. To express this, they gave her a longer hair and slightly bigger breasts. Unlike shows where the characters are actually sexy, her figure isn’t defined or emphasized – which is necessary if the character’s beauty is important to her personality. Her hair is just long without hairstyle quirks. Look at any anime that has a character whose beauty is important and you can always spot details expressing it – just as I described Sena in the above paragraph. The designers decided to do the bare minimum.

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Character designs are integral to how we view them. How people look is a part of them. It doesn’t mean characters should all be sexy (that’s actually quite odd) but their looks should somehow find their way to their personality. If your character is meant to be beautiful, make them beautiful. Toradora is satisfied with just sending the signals, mistaking low effort for minimalism. Minimalism is when you have few details but these details are important. Ami’s design and everyone else’s has no effort put into it. A simplicity that has no elegance, that emphasizes no details is just a product of no effort and laziness.

Maybe the anime drastically improves. I have a hard time believing it. Watching this anime became painful. Witnessing the abuse Taiga inflicts on everyone, and expecting to be entertained and amused by it is too much. Torture porn at least acknowledges its characters suffer even if it expects me to find entertainment in pain. This anime pretends physical abuse doesn’t cause any pain. Truly, it’s objectionable almost on a moral standard.

1 abusive partners out of 5

Laura Weiss – Leftovers

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This book is angry. Weiss fires off a lot of bullets from a variety of weapons to plenty of targets. Often, the targets contradict each other. Both strict parenting and loose parenting are getting the blowtorch. The education system is mocked in its treatment of violence. Hot popular guys and ugly lonely creeps get the crosshairs. It’s like a literary equivalent of a Slipknot song. Perhaps when parents complain that teens don’t read enough, they should realize what’s their favorite music and act accordingly.

Then again, anger in music and anger in literature are two different things. Music can be senselessly angry. Music isn’t intellectually stimulating. It’s not a presentation of ideas, arguments, conclusions and proof. Music works as emotional release. Slipknot tell you more about what being angry feels like. Literature is an intellectual experience, not sensory. A lot of anger may be affecting, but it can lead to a shallow work. Weiss’ book isn’t completely shallow. It does more good than bad, contains more shades of grey than black’n’white, yet her failure tells us exactly what’s good and what’s bad about anger.

Anger is a good thing. We know when we’re angry that something is wrong, like how the pain from a wound tells us it exists. Anger also drives us to act. It stimulates and awakens your body. I doubt many changes in the world would’ve happened if it wasn’t for anger. So it’s a great thing Weiss is angry and such anger can drive young people to things. It sure did cause Weiss’ heroes to act. Anger also makes us lose empathy for others, though. While Weiss is aware of it, she’s just as guilty.

Something about anger narrows our focus. Depression can connect people or put a wall between them, but anger gets people hostile. Either you’re angry with someone about the same problem, or you’re against them. As an author, you must not fall to this lack of empathy. You created these characters, gave them personalities, backstories, wants and ordered them how to act. If you never bother to understand why they are the way they are, you set up strawman. It’s worse than that, since how can we solve a moral problem if we don’t understand why people do it?

‘Empathy’ doesn’t equal ‘justification’. You can understand why someone does what they do without agreeing. It means you can imagine yourself doing it. That’s why villains that we understand are more horrifying than those we don’t. I can understand why Ian Watkins committed his crimes. I can understand why, in such a position of power with charisma and a busy life I may push my sexuality towards these places. By understanding this, I can also avoid commiting his crimes if I am in a similar situation.

All of Weiss targets lean closer to comically evil than deep portraits. The topics she address are relevant and varied, but all we can understand is why someone would be angry at that. Blair’s mother is a neatfreak who cares so much about appearances she neglects everything else. Weiss tries not to make her too evil, but she lacks a moment of vulnerability, a moment that shows her us reasonable. Sometimes Weiss gets too close to making her sociopathic. She constantly ignores her daughter’s feelings with some hints that she deosn’t mind if Blair has horrible sex with douchebags if it advances her career. Now, if she was supposed to be a ridiculous career freak then fine. Weiss can’t get enough into her character to either make us understand why they’re extreme, or show us their other side.

The hostile world here is also one-dimensional. Often authors who portray a hostile world fail because of a self-centered view. They show how the world is hostile to their characters, but not much how others are a victim to it. It’s important since if your idea is that the world is a cold, unwelcoming place – which is true – then it’s like this for everyone. The situations in Leftovers are mostly us-against-the-world cases. Shy, socially inept guys are rarely present. Ardith’s parents are just alcoholics. The only pain we see is the main character’s, and that’s not a good excuse. Other characters have plenty of lines.

Where the pessimistic worldview does win Weiss victories is in her main character. Oddly, the flaws in the book are the exact flaws the two heroines suffer from. Their flaws were deliberate, too. The big, tell-everything prose says so. The same lack of empathy that made Weiss to write weak antagonists is also the downfall of the heroines. It’s also the best part of the book, the moment where she truly shocks the audience. In truth, the Ardith and Blair don’t commit a crime but only nudge pieces to take revenge. Nevertheless, they used someone’s pain for their own gratification and it’s not glossed over. It’s the one instance of hostility that we can understand, and that makes it more powerful than any description about how Ardith’s brother is an asshole.

The writing is precise, catchy and expressive. It’s also not subtle, which leave you feeling empty at the end. Most of the events don’t have much meaning but build up to the great sin. Still, the climax is powerful enough. Why shower it with explanations? It shows how difficult it is to do a confessional style right. Even when writing in a confessional style, it’s not just what’s being written that’s important. Holden isn’t defined by what he says, but also what he lingers on. The writing doesn’t give any new insight and Weiss doesn’t try. She has some skill, but it’s more like a hardcore band who breaks for a beautiful chorus of 30 seconds at the end of a show. The problem is Weiss doesn’t believe enough in her skill to write without explaining.

Still, it’s a decent book more concerned with exploring teenagers and their messy life, rather than offering a comfortable fantasy. It’s neither propaganda about how the world is actually beautiful nor how teenagers are misunderstood heroes. Perhaps Weiss has a great YA novel in her, because Leftovers shows she can capable of complex thought. It just shows she can do it, not that she does it.

2.5 leftovers out of 5

Shinsekai Yori (From the New World)

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

If only we could change.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If only we could change.

4.5 Queerats out of 5

Ivan Illich – Deschooling Society

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Ivan rages against the machine. He rages so much that the book might as well be considered the pioneer of Rap Metal with how angry it is. Has intellectual writing ever been so energetic, so kinetic? The medium of text isn’t very good with emotions. It is, after all, just ink on paper. It can explain an idea, but the sensory experience of taste and touch, the emotions of anger and sadness can never be summed up with words. Deschooling Society is an expressive book.

The comparison to the political ‘rap’ metal band (Zack cannot rap for shit) doesn’t end with simply raging and machines. Rage Against the Machine made impressive noise that was fun as it lacked insight. Anyone reading the band’s lyrics will only hear some frustrated dude screaming about taking the power back and how we should settle for nothing. These are great lyrics for rock shows, but they mean nothing. Illich’s situation isn’t that bad, but it’s close.

His paragraphs are often a series of attacks without much explanation or defining terms. Without defining terms, you cannot have a sensible discussion. Every word is just a collection of syllables or symbols until you attach meaning to it. If you don’t explain what you mean by ‘learning’, what are you discussing? Illich operates in the realm of the abstract. He doesn’t talk about physical objects like rocks or guns or tables, which are easier to define.

Many concepts we use everyday aren’t defined well. Schools are a perfect example of how warped our concept of ‘learning’. I agree with Illich that schools don’t cause learning, but I never understood what Illich meant when he was talking about ‘learning’. When Postman attacked the education system, he had an idea of what ‘learning’ should be. In general, ‘learning’ for Postman is finding meaning in data. That’s why he provided some narratives that schools can adopt. For him, knowing a bunch of equations isn’t learning but just gathering data.

In fact, it seems Illich’s ideas about what learning is, are close to what schools say about learning. He claims schools must provide people resources for information, but is it enough? We’re currently living in the age of information. The internet doesn’t have all the info you need, but you can use it to track down enough.

Yet are we learning? Are we being flooded with intellectuals and philosophers making breakthroughs everyday thanks to all that information available? It’s not enough for information to just be available. You can’t publish a book that contains an essay about history, an essay about psychology and some sport statistics. Connecting pieces of data is the actual process of learning. It’s what separates active organism, which observe their environment and react to it from passive ones. The octopus realizes he can push the lid off or use a stick to beat a shell. The squid doesn’t.

Then again, Illich’s gripe isn’t so much with schools themselves as with institutions. Talk about being able to connect pieces of data. Illich has some interesting things to say about institutions, especially the idea that some create the demand for their product. What he says about our reliance about institutions is especially important.

We do rely on institutions a little too much. How many of you met friends through places that are not work or school? When I talk about how harmful schools are, I often hear about how school is important because it’s where you meet friends. Yet how deep can these connections be when the main common ground is an institution? What connects people are shared experiences, common ground and chemistry. Some of it institutions can create, but it says a lot about our society when we have a hard time meeting people outside workplaces or schools.

Some institutions are necessary. I wish he’d gone in-depth about why hospitals are so wrong. Medicine is a serious subject. There should be authority figures in it, because screwing up in medicine means causing often irreversible harm. Imagine if an uncertified doctor performed a surgery. We have institutions like hospitals to make sure only the experts perform difficult and dangerous activities. Yes, they are trustworthy. Imagine a doctor screwing up a surgery so bad that the patient dies. Can the secret be kept?

Illich admits not all institutions are the same. He offers a scale which includes on one side institutions that promote activity. These institutions provide services, but the client has a lot of options and can quit or stay any time. They’re toolboxes the client can run with. Authoritarian institutions punish and force clients to stay. They give them something to consume, but the client is more passive.

That’s an interesting thing to explore that Illich doesn’t. He’s too busy ranting. If institutions aren’t all the same, then you can’t create several groups and be done with it. The military and the schools are both fucked, but for different reasons. If Illich wanted to show that authoritarian institutions are problematic by nature, he needed to go more in-depth into why they fail. He needed to present many examples and show why despite the differences their effect is overall bad.

His ideas about ‘learning webs’ are important. He may not define what he means by ‘learning’, but his ideas how to do it are useful. He offers more social, more open ways of educating and teaching. The most important idea here is the web itself. Illich proposes a computer (nowadays it’d be an app) where people can insert their subject of interest and then connect with others who share the same passion. No, the internet hasn’t provided this yet. Reddit is too impersonal. Facebook groups are messy. Illich doesn’t talk about a message board but a private chat. His program would encourage people to meet to explore their subject further, not just discuss it on the internet.

He’s a bit too ahead of his time. If he were alive today to see how message boards rise and fail, I’m sure he’d either taken the initiative or write a more detailed essay about this. As it stands, the idea is buried here. Someone should run with it. I should nag my programmer friends and hopefully it’ll spawn copycats. It’s so simple, but so brilliant. Offering an easy platform for people with the same interests to talk to each other.

The last chapter is ridiculous and a little insulting. All that praising of a primitive men reeks of the Noble Savage cliche. The problem with praising or condemning the primitive is that we don’t know exactly how they lived. We imagine them as peaceful or in harmony with nature or living perfect lives, but that’s just the Fall of Adam story without the Jewish stuff. Besides, if the primitive life was so good why did the primitive ended it? Why did they build fires, invent writing and used tools? If life was so good for them, they wouldn’t starve for change.

As a critique of schools, Deschooling Society is disappointing. It shows a bit of the economical side and has a less spiritual approach than, say, Dumbing Us Down. Illich has some insight and good ideas. His critique of the general nature of institutions is needed when discussing schools. Although Neil Postman wrote a great book, he didn’t consider deschooling. Sadly, Illich is too excited over his ideas to explain them coherently, to slow down and define his terms. There are building blocks to take from here, but this isn’t going to revolutionize your philosophy of education.

3 institutions out of 5