Fairest of the fair

On Makoto Shinkai’s Hoshi No Koe, and Saito Tamaki’s Beautiful Fighting Girl

hoshi no koe - 004

Few anime have sized my imagination and remained as resonant in memory as the short 2002 OVA Hoshi no Koe, known in english as Voices of a Distant Star. A decade after I first got my hands on a lovingly transcoded and fansubbed grey version of it, I remain a gushing a fanboy whenever I remember its charms and search it out on the web to watch it one more time. For those of you who missed it, I will steal liberally from the wiki entry (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voices_of_a_Distant_Star), editing and re-arranging the page synopsis for emphasis and clarity:

“Voices of a Distant Star (ほしのこえ Hoshi no Koe?, lit. “Voices of a Star”) is a Japanese anime OVA by Makoto Shinkai. It chronicles a long-distance relationship between two close junior high-school friends who communicate by sending emails via their mobile phones across interstellar space. It was originally released to DVD on 2 February 2002

The narrative begins in 2047. A middle-school girl named Mikako Nagamine is apparently alone in a hauntingly empty city, trying to contact people through her cell phone. She finally says, in an empty classroom with stacked chairs, “Noboru? I’m going home, okay?”, a rhetorical question which is answered with a busy line on her cell phone. She then wakes up to discover that she is in her “Tracer”; a heavily armed “mecha” orbiting Agartha, the (fictional) fourth planet of the Sirius System and begins her descent to the planet Agartha.

hoshi no koe voices2

A flashback gives us the beginning of her travels. Mikako was recruited to the UN Space Army in a war against a group of aliens called the Tarsians, named after the Martian region (Tharsis) where they were first encountered.
The narrative hints that the aliens were friendly at first and then suddenly slaughtered the earth colonists on Mars and left the planet. Humans have salvaged their technology and are determined to track them down.
Mikako, selected as an exemplary student has been drafted or has volunteered for the Space Army and must break the news to her childhood friend Noboru Terao, then undergo mecha pilot training on Mars. Mikako pilots a Tracer, a giant , heavily armed robotic “mecha” as part of a fighting squadron attached to the spacecraft carrier Lysithea.

When the Lysithea leaves Earth to search for the Tarsians, Noboru is left behind. The two continue to communicate across interplanetary, and eventually interstellar space via the email facilities on their mobile phones. On the edge of the Solar System, the fleet meets a swarm of Tarsian vessels and Mikako’s Tracer must confront a curious alien pod-ship that attempts to examine her Tracer, capture her and/ or kill her. As Mikako destroys the alien pod, the fleet scrambles to evacuate to the Sirius planetary system via a space-warp. As the Lysithea travels deeper into space, the emails take increasingly longer to reach Noboru on Earth, and the time-lag of their correspondence eventually spans years.

In the middle of the anime proper, she sends an email to Noboru (which shows the date 2047-09-16), with the subject “I am here”, saying “to the 24-year old Noboru, from the 15-year old Mikako” which will reach him 8 years, 224 days and 18 hours later.

Hoshi no koe on Agartha

On a seemingly empty, earth-like Agartha, Mikako must once again confront a lone alien; apparently telepathic, it presents itself to her in a hallucination as a lookalike younger version of herself. While “speaking” the alien “her” morphs into a Tarsian and then into an older version of herself. The same room where she woke up in the beginning of the animation is presented again, with the same ambience, but this time she is squatting in the corner, sobbing and pleading with her doppelgänger to let her see Noboru just one more time to be able to say “I love you” to him. The other being says “It will be all right. You will see him again”. The alien also makes vague promises of humanity’s growth in understanding.

The ship’s alarm interrupts the exchange, warning her in its characteristic overdone female british accent that “Tarsians are existing everywhere on Agartha!”. Mikako cries even more, yelling “I don’t understand!”, but her training kicks in and she avoids a ground blast and has to engage the Tarsian pod-ships in close combat. A climactic space battle ensues.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, Noboru receives the message, albeit almost 9 years in the future. A voice-over dialogue commences between the two of them which functions as a synchronous soliloquy on the same subject.

Back in orbit around Agartha, three of the four carriers have been destroyed by suicide attacks by Tarsian motherships. The Lysithea remains intact and Mikako, once roused to battle is a formidable fighter. She leads a breakthrough past the defending Tarsian pod-ships and destroys the last remaining Tarsian mother ship. After winning the battle, Mikako in her damaged Tracer drifts in space.

The manga version has a 16 years old Mikako send a message to 25 years old Noboru, telling him that she loves him. By this time Noboru has joined the UN, who have launched a rescue mission for the Lysithea. When Mikako hears the news from her crew mate that UN is sending help for their rescue, she consults a list of people on the mission, Noboru being one of them. She ends by saying that they will definitely meet again.

Voices of a Distant Star was written, directed, animated and produced entirely by Makoto Shinkai on his Power Mac G4. Makoto and his wife, Miko provided the voice acting for the working dub (A second Japanese dub was later created for the DVD release with professional voice actors). Makoto’s musician friend Tenmon, who had worked with Makoto at his video game company, provided the soundtrack. Shinkai cited Dracula and Laputa as inspirations to make Voices.

A manga serialization based on the series in Afternoon magazine from Kodansha in Japan. It was run monthly from February 2004 to December 2004. The story of the manga begins at the same point as the start of the anime and carries the story a little bit beyond the anime itself. Makoto Shinkai wrote the manga, with illustration work done by Mizu Sahara.””

(per http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voices_of_a_Distant_Star, with edits)

(Damnation! I am back to my bad block-quoting habits again!)

Voices of a distant star is exceedingly fast-paced and dense  narrative for its 26 minutes; a casual viewer might have trouble following the action, let alone making sense of the plot. As a long-time reader of American science-fiction, I immediately “read” it as playing with some of the same themes used by Joe Halderman’s landmark Forever War (1974) series and his later Mindbridge (1976).

Elite youth conscription, interspecies war against incomprehensible aliens, lovers separated by time dilation effects and aliens who are telepathic clones who either cannot understand individualism, or believe that the fears expressed in human subconscious thoughts are actually conscious desires (We thought you wanted to fight for fun!) helped me impose a coherent “understanding” on a fragmented narrative that was frightening in its beauty and over-wrought in its emotionalism.

Just say that I am a sucker for long distance romance stories.

hoshi no koe dont mess with grim girl

A few jarring idiosyncrasies in the story help fix it in my memory, and give it an unmistakable “Japanese Anime” feel. Mikako pilots her Tracer from a ovaloid pod-seat with a 360 degree holographic display, so she seems to float in space or above landscapes, while ticker-tape displays on the edges of her field of vision keep her and the viewers updated. Fortunately for me, the UNEF uses english for display text. Now if they could only buy her a proper uniform. Yes, the fleet’s deadliest Tracer pilot wears a middle-school uniform throughout her battles. She is truly a “schoolgirl in a mobilesuit”.

hoshi no koe detail

Another oddity: the years 2046-2056 are a nostalgic time for the Japanese cell-phone market, as they have re-issued the iconic Sharp J-phone, suitably updated to relay sms messages through UN Fleet channels. Anyone out there who needs to cosplay Mikako (or Noboru) can have mine (no I didn’t fanboy out, I got it in a pile of phones from my sweetie’s relatives) for a suitable bribe plus shipping. As a final insult, the J-phone is obsolete and its 2G wcdma protocol is no longer supported by Japanese cell phone companies. Cosplay use only, sorry.

Other anachronisms are the Japanese urban scenes which update the utility poles to make them wireless, but preserve freight rail transport so as to give the viewer plenty of transition scenes that pay homage to Yasujirō Ozu. This is an oddity compared to contemporary Japan: I have never seen a freight train in Japan, only passenger trains. I know they must exist, but they hide them well. Nothing like a war with aliens to shift rail use back to material transport.

Also in terms of visual tropes and homages paid, I commend the obsessive viewer to compare the scene where Mikako’s Tracer chases a Tarsian pod ship across a lake surface on Agartha with a later similar scene in Howl’s Moving Castle. Such imitation homage is a standard part of the “society” of producers in modern Japanese visual culture. Even barbarian furreigners have caught on; one could run a dangerous drinking game prying apart the giant robot fight scenes in Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, but that is for another day, or a more experienced anime blogger. Oh heck… Pay close attention to the “slice the Kaiju in half from head to toe” during the “breach” battle scene. And the Jaeger is missing an arm!

A la recherche du temps perdue

Voices of a Distant Star spurred more than a few love-it-to-death acts of appreciation from anime fans in the rest of the world. Though an official dub would soon appear, the initial grey zone fan-subbed release was one of the first using the .mkv video encoding package and a then-obscure high-resolution video codec. An advance subtitle protocol was also used so that fonts, placement and timings could be better controlled, all while the enthusiast group made strident declarations that it would not release a smaller, more download friendly and low-powered computer watchable version of the video. It was just too beautiful to ruin with fuzzy video encoding and ugly subtitles.

Back in 2003, high-speed internet was less common than it is today and hobby machines were far less powerful. High definition videos could take a week of all-night dial-up downloading, as modern conveniences like bittorrent and file-drop sites were rare or nonexistent. A determined Japanese anime leech would get a “news-reader” program and possibly some text attachment plug-ins and then would see if their internet provider carried the alt.binaries newsgroup hierarchies and did not impose message length limits. In the latter cases they were left to find an open news group server, wait 30 minutes to load the hierarchy and finally the newsgroup “articles” availability and set their “reader” programs to download huge text messages overnight, which could then be reassembled, decoded, repaired with extra error-correction data sent in further huge messages, unpacked and joined up into their prize.

Back then you really worked for your anime fix. Figure from three evenings to a week per short anime. More if the postings evaporated and you were left pleading for a re-post of a section. Finally when your latest catch sat on the desktop of your home pc, you would have to chase codec packs and find a highly efficient media player so that the .mkv could play without stuttering or causing your machine to crash. If you had a mac, you crossed your fingers and hoped that VLC could handle the load. Quicktime would only play what Apple allowed you to play, with some few exceptions provided by dodgy utilities.

Still the payoff was worth the prolonged effort. You got the newest “good stuff” – the better it was, the more the legions of anonymous fans worked in loose cooperation to disseminate it to the faithful. Also the subtitles often came with footnote subtitles, explaining difficult cultural and translation points, and striving for authenticity. Commercial releases had stupid cutesy hillbilly voiced dubbing and “localized”, poorly translated subbing. The fansubs for one release of Ghibli’s Spirited Away had more footnotes than an average undergraduate sociology paper. These ran above the frame, while the dialogue ran below it. The fansubbers and distributors all knew they were possibly committing a civil-law tort, (as opposed to a crime – it wasn’t back then and still isn’t in many jurisdictions) against the rights-holders but always justified their actions in terms of love for the product and revulsion over the lack of properly venerated western releases. They saw themselves as elite missionaries. From 1999 to 2005, this was pretty much the way lots of anime made it into cheapskake gaijin hands. (Aside: this has absolutely nothing to do with the “download by usenet” come-ons you see on certain sites. Avoid unless you want to hand your machine over to netcriminals.)

No one really has the time for this sort of thing any more.

beautiful-fighting-girl-saito-tamaki-paperback-cover-art

Voices of a Distant Star was created and released after the year 2000 publication of Saito Tamaki’s Psychoanalysis of Beautiful Fighting Girl. The book was and remains a landmark, if only because so many responses to it were offered in the wake of the controversy it stirred up. A full treatment of Tamaki’s opus is beyond this post, but a preliminary contrast between Mikako and his ideal fighting heroine is a useful exercise. Tamaki’s beautiful fighting girl is an emotional cypher at her core. In contrast to the American (super) heroine who is often older and carries a traumatic back story that is overcome through heroic activities, the BFG fights because she was born/ created to fight. Fighting is what she does, and she derives that curious sex-deprived joy of French critical theory – jouissance – from her battles. Male characters, especially sports-consumed young male characters are often written with similar thin motivation, but even they eventually get some back story. The BFG gets a revealing outfit an a mofo big weapon, often long, very rigid and dangerous. The symbolism is obvious, forced, and after the publication of Tamaki’s study, self-consciously ironic. (The doc sez it is supposed to be a phallic symbol, so make it BIGGER!)

The pit does not stare back, but sometimes it glances provocatively over its shoulder and winks:

Another aspect of Tamaki’s BFG, which he initially glosses over or misses is how unlike most female characters, the BFG is emotionally stunted and unconcerned/ unskilled in social interaction and empathy. For the male otaku consumer, she is a fantasy character that could not only whomp his ass without breaking a sweat – or the asses of anyone who ever tormented him in real life, but one that he, a ronery basement dwelling neckbeard could give tips to on social interaction (!) Perhaps he could even help her with those mysterious, troubling feelings she is beginning to experience when she is with him…

Bwah Hah Hah! No really…

What nailed this point home to me was an obscure shojo-ai manga, Transistor Teaset that featured a plucky girl electronics geek trying to keep the family electronics parts store in Akihabra alive, and her friends who both had mostly-innocent designs on her affections. At some point they all end up building a “robot maid”, and the gamine- like otaku- ish younger friend then insists that it must speak only one line, in our heroine’s recorded voice:

“What – is – this – thing – called – love ???”.

Here was the emotionally vacant BFG lampooned with vicious and devastating comedic economy. Robomaid subsequently runs amok and ends up haunting the back streets of Akiba town, headless yet still issuing forth her doleful plaint. (off-topic, but of note: the next story arc “Lets meet at Mansaibashi Bridge” is a beautiful retelling of a classic Japanese ghost story and is worth hunting down.) Even a “real” girl in a manga can poke fun at the emotional void in the heart of the BFG.

Back to our heroine Mikako and her problem. An elite “fighter”/ mecha/ Tracer pilot she has learned not only how to wield a complex weapon to defend herself, but to kill. Her weakness is her homesick longing for her male friend, and the regrets she harbours that she was never able to tell Noboru that she loved/ loves him. This lack of traumatic back story is enough to place her solidly within the Tamaki typology, but she is also something else, something missed in Tamaki’s elaborate typology of fighting girl types and something far more dreadful – born out of the wars and disturbances of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century: a child soldier.

Black sails returning:

Among other quips, Jean Baudrillard was known for his cryptic comment that “the messiah always arrives a day too late“. What he meant was that by the time an existing trope or social form goes “hysterical” it is already without consequence; “already out of fashion” (or out of the reality of social force and into fashion) as the case may be. So that by the time Stallone’s Rambo was re-winning on film all the disappointing stalemate battles of 40 years of American foreign adventure, the most lethal, cheap and deployable soldier available to the world’s warlords could be found not in the ranks of elite mercenary corps, or SEAL teams, or even angry Vietnam era veterans, but in the frightened survivors of slaughters in equatorial African villages. Just have your speed-addled terrorized child soldiers kill all the adults in a village, then force half the surviving children slaughter the other half, beat and starve the surviving few, then load them up with amphetamines and you have the twenty-first century’s newest, cheapest and deadliest fighters. You might lose half of them in any battle, but more can be made when needed. Welcome to the Lord’s Resistance Army.

Or you could opt for the high-tech version, popularised early on in American sci-fi by Orson Scott Card in his Ender’s Saga.

Mikako is closer to Card’s Ender. Unlike the Forever War‘s William Mandella and Marygay Potter, Mikako was nowhere near university age when conscripted/ recruited. Halderman wrote Forever War on the tail of the Vietnam conflict; in 1974 the idea that a nation’s best and brightest youth would be sacrificed to a lottery of perpetual war and death – the Minotaur’s Maze updated, was shocking enough: no need to suggest that Unka Sam would go after school children, yet…

Unlike Saito Tamaki’s BFG, both Halderman and Card spent extra time and effort around the question of how to motivate their young pawns to fight ruthlessly. In the first actual battle in Forever War, the recruits find themselves under the spell of hypnotic conditioning that turns them into beserk homicidal fighting fiends upon hearing a trigger phrase. This ensures that they don’t waste time gawking at the stringy “Tauran” enemy in inoffensive looking transparent bubble suits. Friendly fire casualties ensue, and half the surviving earth soldiers go mad from post-traumatic symptoms. Card uses the computer-game metaphor, ruthless drill/ competition and remote telemetry to achieve similar depersonalizing effects. Both sagas started as short stories that allegorised limited hypothetical arguments. Both went on to grow in the telling, but Halderman’s opus remains more humane and appealing to me.

Some day I must dig up a Japanese translation of Halderman’s Forever War and send it to Dr. Tamaki – or perhaps I am years too late.

Strange how the female child warrior gets a completely different treatment in manga and anime than her male counterparts. Jormungand‘s Jonah and Full Metal Panic‘s Sagara Sousuke are afforded far more room for emotional agency, while the restraining of their lethal reflexes becomes a reoccurring sub-plot. The BFG simply fights, rests, waits and fights again.

230px-Nausicaa2cover

Of note is that Tamaki’s highlighting of Princess Nausicaa as a prototypical sub-type of BFG must be taken in the context of Hayao Miyazaki’s longer effort on the Nausicaa manga. Serialized in Tokuma Shoten’s monthly Animage magazine, the first chapter was printed in February 1982 and the final chapter 59, was eventually published in the March 1994 issue of Animage. Many aspects of the manga were unconventional, its layout, pencil-only art work, the pacing of the story and the visual sense of scale, as well as the apocalyptic arc of the entire saga did much to give Tamaki notes for his prototypical “Miko” or “priestess-medium” type. She alone takes on the responsibility of deciding that the ancient technology that waits for the purification of the land must be destroyed. Some synopsis’s suggest that she perishes in the process.

“She is beyond good and evil, Western values mean nothing to her”

Tamaki cautions against simple plot-readings of the BFG trope, instead seeing her archetype as the locus of hysteria in character and reader alike. I may have read this part wrong, because the hysteria section of his work is the one point where his arguments become completely and utterly opaque. Many reviewers have warned that the work, available in English translation since 2011 is full of dense post-lacanian psycho-babble and that it meanders all over the place.  Upon finally securing a paperback version and reading the entire thing I found it logically ordered, well researched and carefully argued and a reasonably good if not too challenging a read. It is far superior to his shorter work on Otaku Sexuality examined earlier in this blog.

Except for the hysteria section.

Best I can make out is a feedback/ overload condition between everyone and everything surrounding the shocking realization that someone could create and present the BFG as a character. The BFG is a trauma on the (male) imagination, a shock-as-wound that male fandom keeps falling into; one so popular that fan-producers and commercial producers are driven to recreate her again and again so that the trauma can be forever experienced and re-experienced and shared with new converts.

stuff works the way it should crop

The trauma of course is the BFG’s real, physical libidinal effect on the (again male) reader. One shouldnt get horny thoughts from looking at a manga heroine. Surely this is the path of madness. (Don’t call me…) Hato’s reading of het male oriented dojins allows him to experience this thrill in a ridiculously funny context. He is surprised, yet reassured that the “normal” stuff still has some effect for him. His original trauma was something quite more surprising and “other” than a mere armored cutie. Was Shimoku-sensei having even more fun with Hato then we originally thought?

The afterword to Tamaki’s 2006 paperback re-issue of Sento bishojo no seishinbunseki (戦闘美少女の精神分析), (Psychoanalysis of Beautiful Fighting Girl) recommends the Genshiken manga series as a valid fictional treatment of a University-age otaku community. Hato was created shortly thereafter. His traumatic wound was fixating on yaoi pr0n at an early age: a type of “trauma” that may serve as the female analogue to the Beautiful Fighting Girl (the Beautiful Bonking Bishonen?), but is comically mis-applied to a young male. Tamaki’s repeated promises to examine fujoshi sexuality have all so far come up short; he lacks access to correspondents and he is too steeped in the sexism that lays deep within the very grammar of post-lacanian psychoanalysis to yet pull off a convincing theoretical framework.

easy to replicate effect final

Others have adapted the post-lacanian methodology: Kazumi Nagaike’s work can be read as a worthy and useful variation on the theme, especially when one considers her update of her 2004 thesis, published as “Fantasies of Cross-Dressing: Japanese Women Write Male-Male Erotica” rather than the original/ (previously reviewed in this blog) first efort. Unfortunately “Fantasies” has a list price of $130, so Google Books excerpts and the original freely downloadable thesis are all mere mortals like us will see of it. “Fantasies” seems to lose a lot of “the veneration of the demon bones of Freud” that plagued her earlier academic effort and delves deeper into the cathexis, the shock of a “scopophillic“/ voyeuristic libidinous charge that female readers of rough yaoi pr0n and earlier variants experience in their first encounter with the hawt stuff.

Some divergence between the male and female experience, especially among communities can be extrapolated. Per Tamaki, the males become ironic connoisseurs of the effect, internalizing the shock of desire for a fiction and turning it into knowledge and mastery of the formal elements of the narrative. Taken too far, this leads to the “database animals” scratching an itch with products from the Otaku automat. The female variant enjoys a similar social urge to share and promote the thrill/ trauma/ wound, but also values narratives that use nested levels of storytelling as a guide to the initial “enjoyment’ of the weirdness depicted in their fave tales. So at least claims Nagaike as she details the plot convolutions of early 20th century Japanese literature that takes up proto-yaoi themes. Nagaike’s “Fantasies” even features long appendices with her translations of the examined proto-yaoi tales. Some of these are not for the squeamish.

Of course later fujoshi social practice also engages in elaborate typologies of plot tropes, that crystallize around the pairing dynamics of the male characters. Given the high percentages of historic participation in Japanese fan-produced parody culture, including their participation at decades of Comikets, it is a wonder that some theorist has not declared male otaku culture as largely derivative of female fan parody culture, if not strongly influenced by it.

I just wish Nagaike had used a better title. The “cross-dressing” here is all conceptual and virtual, by the fujoshi (and proto-fujoshi) who assume a fake-male/ fake-gay-male viewer position to better enjoy the some naughty stuff. Unfortunately the title puts the work into the F-to-M trans theory pile where it languishes and disappoints those interested in the  issue.

Other attempts at playing the post-lacanian hysteria card to explain fujoshi or wider shojo desire are perhaps more ambitious, or more lazy or more poetic. Mechademia Vol.6 has Frenchy Lunning deploying Kristeva’s theory of the abject in her “Under the ruffles: Shojo and the morphology of Power“. What we get is the vertiginous flow of Kristeva-esque hyperbole a la full Powers of Horror (get your copy  here) mode, without the rigorous buildup. We all love Kristeva for her poetics, but she can get away with it because she also brings a feast to the table. Just saying… we critical-theory-moe types can be greedy and ungrateful.

Urrrrp! Needs more meat, less ruffles.

Voices of a Distant Star is chock full of moe, but Mikako the child soldier is more reluctant hero than battle zombie girl, great honking plasma sword notwithstanding. (push the SWORD button and yell “For My Family!”) One thing that Tamaki never really delves into is the difference between a hero girl, or girl hero and the Beautiful Fighting Girl. The BFG is an object of pure, shocking, disconnected libidinous desire. The American female super-heroine is an older “real woman” working off some injustice. But where is our hero of a (next) thousand (female) faces? As I ventured early on in this blog, Dorothy of OZ is not a very solid foundation for building a tradition of a female Bildungsroman upon. (for more on this and the idea of the frauenroman see this site.)

Much remains to be discovered as to the appeal of the Beautiful Fighting Girl, or heroic girl, or the shojo hero (as opposed to the shojo heroine?)

At this point all I can venture is that idealizing and/ or desiring heroic female agency is probably healthier for males and females, than idealizing and desiring female subservience and powerlessness.

Call it a win.

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