Bagoum Literature Club

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The Insulting Narcissism of Re:"Creators"

07 March, 2018 ~ ElDynamite ~ Anime

In seeking to discuss the way we as a society approach literature, Re:Creators chooses to emphasize the position of, as one may hazard to guess, the author. Yet this devolves quickly into a system of narcissitic self-flattery, in which singular authors conceptualize rich texts, and readers are left to passively consume them like feelies, without interaction or imagination. These outdated ideas were tossed aside early in the 20th century-- and it's a shame to see modern literature so confidently peddling them.

Ambiguity and Objectivity

A critical characteristic of language is that it is arbitrary. The meaning of any word is dependent only on social convention; words have meaning as they are used, and lack meaning as they are not used. As a result, communication also becomes arbitrary: the meaning of a phrase can only be understood in terms of social convention, rather than the metaphysical dictionary which objectively details the meaning of every phrase.

This acknowledgement is critical because it allows us to make better sense of literature. Specifically, it forces us to acknowledge that we cannot arrive at an objective reading of any literary work. How people read a work will invariably vary based on their experiences, circumstances, and differing conceptions of linguistic conventions.

Given that literature is simply a form of language, and linguistic meaning is dependent on social convention, it thus arises that literary meaning is dependent on how a work is read. Due to arbitrariness, the words on the page themselves have no meaning outside of their interaction with readers. What this most critically implies is that the author is not the ultimate arbitrator of the work-- it is everyone else, the societal body, the readers who analyze and imagine the literary world.

This fairly basic tenet of literary theory comes into radical conflict with Re:Creator's focus on the influence of authors. On a basic level, it conflicts with the obsessive focus on authors and their perfect conviction in their knowledge of the characters. Don't forget the diction involved-- authors are literally "gods" who give birth to alternate universes, whereas readers are opinion polls. Not once does the show deign to impute any imagination to the readers; rather, they are simply passive spectators. In Re:Creators, authors contrive the settings of the world and have absolute knowledge of the personalities of the characters within it, whether that come in the form of Suruga's manipulation of Blitz Talker which she describes as godlike, or Takarada's unshakeable conviction in the justness of Aliceteria despite all concurrent evidence to the contrary.

But what if they're wrong? What if the collective consciousness perceives those characters differently? These critical questions are never asked due to the show's axiomatic belief in the omniscience and omnipotence of the creator, the God, with regards to the literary world. A person who cannot even understand their own universe thinks to perfectly understand the actions of another! This attitude seems somewhat dated in an age of science where we can conclusively show there are things we cannot know-- whether it be in terms of uncertainty or incompleteness.

And the readers are your mindless believers.

Not Quite Accurate

This conflict also opens up glaring gaps in the story with regards to the key characters of Altair and the specter of Setsuna. Ironically so, for Altair is the only literary work in the story which one may argue has been redefined by the readership.

"Why is Altair resentful?" Altair's resent drives the entire plot, so it certainly must be well-founded. However, none of the online media containing Altair depicts her as particularly angry, nor do they contain any references to Setsuna. Thus, it makes utterly no sense that Altair would be resentful towards a world which was hostile to her author. (They also do not contain references to Souta, so she has no reason to recognize him either.) The spectre of Setsuna claimed that she wrote Altair with resentment-- but we have no reason to believe that anyone read Altair as resentful, and thus no reason to believe that an incarnation of Altair should be resentful. The only possible justification for this setup is that the collective perception of Altair is subservient to the metaphysical resentment imbued in her by a single dead person.

Likewise, the spectre of Setsuna has too many characteristics for a small and weakly defined character. I do not doubt that Souta may have conceived of her death and her feelings while writing his little pieces-- but with only a post hoc indication of what he did, and no information at all about how he did it, I wouldn't suppose that all that information was perceived by the collective readership, or even contained in his short omake. (This touches on a significant problem with the climax of the story-- none of the deus ex machinas at the end are explained, so one can only assume the laziest possible explanation.) The spectre of Setsuna thus relies once agian on the all-powerful hidden ideals of the author.

A Dictatorial Collective

This is not to say that the show is utterly ignorant of the author-reader dynamic. It makes some concessions-- for example, anyone may contribute to Altair's powers, and viewer approbation is the key to making changes to a work. Yet in a show which treats readers as little more than sheep waving glow sticks and authors as masterminds trying to change the world, this rings like a bread-and-circuses dynamic between a singular plutocracy and a vast array of stupid plebians. They even have live opinion polls to let them know when their superficial spin-off collection isn't working too well at placating the masses as they quietly spread their ingenious plan to save the world.

Fitting its title, in the world of Re:Creators, the authors are the only agents. They construct their works with certain settings, and then hand them down as incontrovertible laws of nature. The readers may accept or reject those works, as a kitten may accept or reject the cheap cat food you bought to cut costs this month.

Here is where the show fails: it is not the authors who create, and it is not their feelings that are important. Insofar as we discuss literary worlds as the product of a collective consciousness, they may exist only as dictated by that collective consciousness. For all its emphasis on collective approbation, the show completely misunderstands the meaning of "collective", choosing instead to frame the readership as ultimately subservient to the Platonic ideal of the author's thoughts.

Once again, consider all the people who added to Altair's abilities. None of them had any intention of imputing misanthropic resentment to Altair, and none of their depictions could be characterized as such. There is only one person who may have conceived of Altair as resentful-- that is the dead Setsuna. To erase the attitudes of all the readers and secondary authors who conceived of Altair in order to rather focus obsessively on the whims of the deceased is the very height of authorial narcissism.

"Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."

Wrapping Up

We create words by ascribing them meaning, corrupting them, reviving them, and eventually leaving them to wither and die in a cycle much like life. We treat stories the same way: we retell them with different viewpoints, reread them with different attitudes, and create a vast web of signification that may span millenia before disappearing in the nights of time or the libraries of Babel.

In fact, many of our stories are at heart simply retellings of other stories. The universality of the hero's journey or the uncanny similarities between religious tales point to a system of literary worlds that is much more intertwined than an interfranchise battle royale would imply. And who may dictate the nature of the hero's journey? The neanderthal who "invented" it so many thousands of years ago, or the billions of us who reread and rewrite it every day with our own experiences in a changing world?

Re:Creators sets the discussion about literature off on the wrong foot. Its perspective of literary worlds as watches crafted by ingenious authors is not only incorrect, it's boring. "Ingest media as the author intends, give it a thumbs up or thumbs down, and know that if you ever make a derivative work, it'll only ever be a footnote on the glorious original." This is the insidious Brave New World conformity being peddled, a system where the dynamicism of literature only exists in the minds of the singularities. In the end, this show wants you to be nothing but an opinion poll or a power-up-- and I take that as an insult.


Kokkoku: A Show Made by its ED Credits

01 February, 2018 ~ ElDynamite ~ Anime

Kokkoku is a work that, even within the first few minutes, is very clear about its social critiques. We're immediately presented with a somewhat dysfunctional family in which only the woman work, yet which is nonetheless defined exclusively by the (undeserving) men.

This lack of respect for the value of women extends past the power of institutional sexism, and seeps deeply into the personal views of the many male characters in the show (with the notable exception of the head villain), whether they express it intentionally or not. The father clings to his "title" of "head of the household", yet the only thing that qualifies him for that position is his status as a middle-age man. The grandfather falls into the same old trope of viewing women in power as "scary", even though he's otherwise fairly respectful. And comment is hardly needed on the sexist vulgarity of the mobsters.

This is the only question they ask her.

This is good and all, and I expect that this dynamic will be leveraged more heavily in the episodes to come, at which point a more thorough analysis will be necessary. But what really has me interested is not so much this fairly standard discussion of sexism-- rather, it's the meta-discussion that surrounds the work and the literary process itself.

THE AUTHOR

In anime (and perhaps in film in general), the presence of the narrator, as the representative of authorship, is often quite diluted. They speak rarely, and when they do, it is seldom more than a third-person omniscient acknowledgement of someone's mind. But there's one place where we can see the narrator's thoughts directly: the OP/ED credits. In these sequences there is no story to be told-- there is only the narrator, the god of the work and the stand-in for the author, revealing their musings on the work.

So what does the narrator, as the representative of the literary process, think about the world and characters of Kokkoku? What does authorship think about the world and characters of Kokkoku? (I invite you to look at the ED credits again. Here's a link without sound-- YT seems to be hammering it. Potentially NSFW.)

WHAT'S IN A GÉNÉRIQUE?

In the ending credits, during the narrator's repose after recounting twenty minutes of narrative, we see that the narrator, too, thinks of Juri as an object. The composition of the credits is (by my count) 13 "normal" sequences, 6 pinup sequences of Juri, and 1 pinup sequence of Majima. That's 7 more pinup sequences than should be expected from an action show trying to paint women as agents rather than as objects. Yet no matter how hard the narrator tries to hide his sexual fantasies of the only two women in the story-- one of whom bares nothing but head and hands-- they keep reappearing, flashing between flaccid attempts at a more "serious" ending keeping in pace with the more feminist narrative.

The credits are all the more interesting because there's no in-world justification for them. The narrator cannot even justify them on the basis of the classic "that's just how they're like"-- because they so obviously aren't, according to the narrator's own storytelling. The narrator goes through pains during the episode body to show how Juri, and to a lesser extent Majima, are mistreated on the basis of sex, but ends up mistreating them in exactly the same way in the footer, viewing them through the same eyes as the mobsters he considers scum.

This is a caption with no image, since I need to keep the blog PG13.

The ending credits thus cast aspersion on the narrator himself, as well as on the creative literary process he embodies. The narrator's inability to distinguish the characters he writes into existence from his sexual fantasies threatens to undermine the validity of the feminist nature of the narrative, and we can as readers only hope that the narrator's storytelling does not degenerate into the softcore pornography that has afflicted anime, and the male-dominated corporate literary process in general, for so long. Yet even if it does, we'll have seen it coming, and we'll know exactly why: because the narrator may in truth be little different from the mobsters in his view on women, behind the narrative he weaves.

WRAPPING UP

Now, the source material finished publication about five years ago, and the anime adaptation has probably been slated for a while. But I would like to request that you entertain the comparison between the two-faced sexism of Kokkoku's narrator, and the two-faced feminism of the public figures (many of whom were likewise storytellers) who have been, and yet will be, deposed in the wake of the Weinstein scandal.

The acknowledgement that the literary process itself is a product of the social systems in which it exists is not new. But the modern conflict between what cultural products say and what their creators do has thrown into question the very cultural validity of those products. Kokkoku-- at the least, this adaptation-- is acutely aware of its own susceptibility to this problem, and yet still seeks to create a compelling story that does not fall prey to it. It's aware, and it's brave. Will it succeed?

We'll see.

Disclaimer for future readers: This analysis was written with regards to the first four episodes of the anime adaptation.


HxH: Alluka and the Mirror of Erised

20 January, 2018 ~ ElDynamite ~ Anime

Kilua's journey through Hunter x Hunter is largely one of self-discovery: it concerns his attempting to understand what he desires, and what he must sacrifice to achieve it. Primarily, what he desires is the capacity for love: he wants to be able to love Gon, but struggles with squaring his desires with his upbringing. The Alluka arc thus stands out as one of the few where he acts independently of Gon, and so today I'd like to discuss some of my thoughts on the Alluka arc. Specifically, I'd like to discuss how Alluka is a confirmation and crowning of Kilua's persistent themes, as well as how Alluka serves as a mirror, especially with regards to Kilua's hero arc.

Safety or Love

The assassin mindset indoctrinated in Kilua by Illumi is one that expressly contradicts the love Kilua hopes to express. Loving another, in this case Gon, means being willing to carry the risks concomitant with valuing the life of someone you cannot trivially tell to run away at the first sight of danger. It is thus when Gon's well-being is at risk that Kilua is most severely struck by paralysis, unable to bear the dangers of love, but also unable to turn away.

You can run, but you can't take Gon with you.

Alluka is, for Kilua, the most concrete crystallization of this tradeoff. He can love within the safety of banishing Nanika, but it will be a cheap and brittle love. Or he can carry the danger of Nanika's destructive power, thus sharing a robust yet risky love.

We are, in a magnificent act of misdirection, lead to initially believe that Nanika is something that must be sacrificed: we cannot, after all, put so many people at risk for the sake of "something" that has alighted from some unknown plane. Such a power must be destroyed or quarantined. But how different is this perspective from Illumi's "always be 100% safe"? More pointedly, Kilua's plan to save Gon is in itself risky, perhaps even more so than not sacrificing Nanika.

Deciding Nanika's fate is Kilua's final trial, but this isn't made clear until after he screws it up. When I first watched through this, I expected from the start that Nanika would be banished so that Alluka would be "freed" of her "curse". But this is the wrong thought process. Alluka and Nanika are two hearts as one, and you cannot treat them otherwise. The riskless love that Kilua initially desires with Alluka does not exist. He must accept all of her, or none of her. As he once did for Gon, he must now do for another.

There is no love without danger.

The Mirror of Erised

Within the framework of the hero's journey, Alluka stands clearly as a metaphor for hell. Kilua descends into the deepest parts of the estate to find her, and her power explicitly threatens to destroy the world he grew up in. But she is a very special kind of hell: she only destroys in proportion to the greed of the demand. She forces those who gaze upon her to look inside themselves and come to terms with their deepest desires, then destructively punishes them if necessary. Much like... the Mirror of Erised from Harry Potter.

In Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, there is a mirror hidden away in a restricted section of a library, that reflects the greatest desire of anyone who gazes upon it. Upon first encountering it, Harry becomes enamored with his reflection in it, which shows him with his family. While it does not physically destroy anything, the dreams that it offers drives many to madness, nearly doing so to Harry as well.

Men have wasted away before it, not knowing if what they have seen is real, or even possible.

-Albus Dumbledore

There are a multitude of similar setups across literature, but I bring up this comparison because Kilua's hell (Alluka in this arc) is best represented by a mirror, since all his obstacles are internal. It rarely occurs in the story that Kilua loses for a reason other than his own insecurity regarding safety and love. Gon loses to Knuckles because he's too slow, but Kilua loses to Shoot, and almost to Rammot, because he can't stand up to someone stronger than himself. When captured by the Phantom Troupe, Kilua's most pressing worry is one of self-doubt. Thus, in order to escape from hell, he must kill the part of himself bound by the laws of assassins-- and it's pretty difficult to see yourself without a mirror.

Meanwhile... Gon is studying his welding flashcards

Nanika forces people to confront what they most desire. For Kilua, this is "love without risk", a chimeric combination of human love and assassin surety. But Alluka forces him to realize that-- in the vein of the Mirror of Erised-- just because you want it doesn't mean it's possible. Kilua looks upon the "love without risk" that Nanika reluctantly offers him, but with the aid of Alluka he comprehends how ephemeral it is, and finally overcomes his heroic flaw of lusting after it.

Wrapping Up

I found the Alluka arc incredibly powerful, because it so pointedly condensed and crowned everything that Kilua had gone through up to that point. It was a confirmation that Kilua's freeing himself from the grasps of his family extended past simply yanking out Illumi's needle, a confirmation that he was no longer an assassin, but now a human. We see that Kilua's love can extend past Gon, that through introspection in the mirror of Alluka he's finally succeeded in establishing himself as an individual. Thus does he finally complete his hero's journey.

In other news! I plan to write another piece on HxH soon, likely on either the themes of rage and delusion in Chimera Ant, or on the character of Lorelei also in Chimera Ant. Catch me on the reddit thread or on Discord and let me know what you think of this piece, or what you'd like to see.