12 days 2018 #2: mirrors of desire

For my second post for 12days(of)Anime (etc), I should take a moment and go on a bit about the “why?” of this strange blog, for those of you who are dropping by for the first few times. Yup, I do the usual anime and manga reviews of stories that catch my eye and I have even been known to do “season line-up” coverage but that isn’t my main interest.

Kind of hard to explain…

Herr Doctor Professor Saitō Tamaki summed it up in his brilliant post-lacanian examination of otaku desire; Beautiful Fighting Girl. Libidinised desire, even displaced and sublimated through fantasy narratives can re-cathect and/or re-enchant an otherwise dead reality. Think of it as an updating of what Freud swiped from Mary Shelly.

Go back 8-10 years. I was reading scanlated manga and watching a few fansubbed anime and was beside myself. I blame  Kōji Kumeta and his insanely long-running and arch manga Sayonara, Zetsubo-Sensei [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sayonara,_Zetsubou-Sensei] The anime versions, staying quite close to the source material but cranking the problematic aspects to 11 only made matters worse.

I was soooooo embarrassed that I was reading and watching that sick shit.

Did I worry too much? Would you, even today post a series of opening (or closing) credit sequences from a Sayonara Zetsubo Sensei anime on your normie Faceebook page? No, really... Aside: search Vimeo and Dailymotion, the OP’s and EPs routinely get scrubbed from Youtube.

Even the mild Rolly- composed and sung Teacher’s Pet ED slips in a whackload of cringy and strange bits. It wasnt good enough to dismiss the entire mess as edgy satire. (BTW: that’s his sister who is wiggling her ass at sensei)  Sure; makes fun of… Ha Ha Ha, It’s a Japanese thing, they just do that kind of in-your-face pornish, death-obsessed, pedo-bear, lolicon weirdness. Then add the Showa bits to lampoon the “exoticization” of a past Japan; a trick Mamori Oshii cranked to 11 in his forgotten 2006 Tachiguishi-Retsuden [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tachiguishi-Retsuden] (1)

Kumeta is making fun of all it, including all the Showa-era graphic conceits, nasty shout-outs, the insane labyrinth of footnote-able pop sociology (the manga scanlating crew was heroic, with end-pages full of references and decoded snark) and the ironic-but-still-get-to-gawk fanservice overload…

Yeah, that’s it.

Time to re-watch Full Metal Panic. Pacifist Japan dreams of warring secret societies with robots and futuristic weapons built with super tech from girls who dream of the future, playing global games of apocalyptic geopolitics. Complete with a chaste love story. You have to get through ALL the light novels before they even get to kiss. Jeesh! What’s left of the Arbalest’s AI wants a Camaro.

Suicide, bondage, stalking, madness, murderous jealousy. A high school class full of under-age nubile girls chasing a drama queen rich-boy teacher. A Japanese take on Harold and Maude, without the sex granny?

Why does this THING exist?

Uh, lookie: a few blogs I follow have gone ecstatic about the revival of some old manga. Is Genshiken even a Japanese word?

Pause and rewind. Dr Tamaki wrote Psychology of the Armored Cutie in the year 2000. He didn’t care to delve into the women’s flip side of the effect; he even dismissed the possibility that there were any significant number of Japanese manga fans who might not be quite “straight”. Write what you know. Tamaki, a Japanese Lacan-influenced psychologist [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tamaki_Sait%C5%8D] dabbled in otakology only as a sideline to his work with social isolates. He had no interest in developing a unified otaku schmex-und-desire field theory. Besides, bricolage-ing Lacanian and Freudian pop cultural analysis at a very Japanese phenom was a wry joke in itself. Had not Lacan declared that the Japanese were fundamentally un-anylyze-able?

Want to know what was weirder? His simple monograph on otaku stirred up a half decade debate-feud among Japanese guy otaku “experts”. Watch a whole bunch of  Japanese pop-cult theory guys manspalain that while –urrrr some otaku might, urrrrr, hmmmm, dojinshi, kleenex boxes, figurines, whatever– that was all beside the point, or the result of wimmins shoujo-ish poison infecting heroic manly sci-fi anime and manga, or just more of the same militaristic nationalism mind control, or something about databases…

They should have asked the women, since Japanese women had been quietly playing with this stuff since the 1970’s. Or, the boys had to go the long way around because the girls were being very very secret secret society about it all. I did mention the “second generation’ of the Genshiken, right?

So: stare into the pit too long and the pit does not stare back. Once in a while however, it glances provocatively over it’s shoulder and winks.

If you get geeked on this kind of theory-behind-the-genres thing, you can go all Da Vinci Code fast. Or you end up with the beginnings of a post-graduate research project. If young, with a passing grasp of Japanese, you may want to seek an advanced degree in some cultural studies-ish field related to Japan. Fair warning: most of the Japanese faculty positions open to outlander experts to reflect Japanese cultural ephemera back to Japanese undergraduates are already filled on a long-term, renewable every five years contract basis.

Yet theory holds its own form of moe. I remain a sucker for it. And because I try not to essentialise too much, I fixate on those odd bits of Contemporary Japanese Visual Culture that travel well into outlander (that’s you and moi) regions. Grey channel patterns of distribution help a lot. If a whole bunch of folks go through the trouble to translate, etc., etc., etc… there must be something there. Oh! Moar pr0n

Now that Genshiken Nidaime has concluded I have less concentrated raw material to play with. I have to wander further afield, even if Kio-sensei continues to have fun with the old gang in the quarterly Spotted Flower. If you have not yet, you really should. That means the full manga run, not just the anime(s). As for Spotted Flower; the story takes place on a probability line where the original crew have all grown up as bored and horny 30-somethings. Either this is the Kio’s Gate result from playing with obscure IBM computers or the author is taking every single lewd doujinshi pairing and mulling over whether he could do better. Kio Shimoku is proprietary about his creations; competitive too.

Which invariably leads to, ahem, minority sexuality and gender expression in Japanese stuff.  Set aside the made-by-and-for properties. They face sterner scrutiny than I, an outsider could ever offer. What gets fascinating is when “queer” characters get dropped into stories for nominally straight audiences. On one hand, real-life folks in somewhat similar circumstances gush to see representation that looks even a tiny bit like their realities. For the rest of us, reactions vary from hard-reactionary “get that xyz stuff out of my zyx” to -hmmmmmmm- and even “yes please, can I have another?”

It’s that old “the other” thing again, with a fresh coat of paint. Different classes, ethnicities, nationalities, cultures and (dare I use an imprecise term) “races” have all suffered this kind of interest before. Why not throw some queer into the pot as well? And am I not redoubling the offence by projecting my interests on the Japanese expression of this effect? Yes and no; Japan and co. are all grown up high modernists too; they are doing it back to us, we see them doing it at us as we are doing it at them and both of our gazes lock in mutual fascination. Could this be love? (2)

Search this blog for Adrian Piper

Meanwhile, queer characters are no longer used (as much) as scary villain sauce or even tragic object lessons (you can have your “pure, not-approved by society” love but the fates will be cruel in the end). What the sociology types call “established models of gender roles, desire, romance, family formation and child-rearing” are under heavy structural and economic pressure. They are falling apart all over the world and a few teens (or others) who really really don’t fit some highly idealised models are not the ones causing the collapse. Repeat: Gay marriage does not “threaten” marriage. Gay folks holding hands and sneaking a smooch in public does not destroy hand-holding, smooching or the public. No money, no steady jobs and /or benefits/ health care and crazed authoritarian politics are probably closer to what has gone sour, causing the Japanese high-end beach-front Pizza restaurant to close its tacky wedding chapel and reno it into a bus tour friendly mega-dining hall.

We all knew that reactionary religio-politico types; Japanese or North American or other were all just spewing bullshit to line their pockets by leading group-hate cheers. Shame on those who go along with it.

Curiously, after decades, even centuries of being nasty toward the gay, what do we now suddenly want from it? We imagine “they” must be experts at getting around all that rigid asshat proscriptive stuff and figuring the important stuff out for themselves, right?. So they must have secret insights! Also, they do the “to yourself be true” thing, which I sometimes call “the doctrine of authenticity” (and which gets all of us one way or another) and that is heroic in a way that removes no skin from my nose and is heartwarming to cheer on. Gawd, this is transactional and selfish as all get-out, just as it always has been. We are like that, even if we’re working on it. And if “they” are less than interested in sharing tips, we’ll just go and invent crude shadows of “the gay” to try out our nifty ideas in a story or two..

The last violence we impose upon the queer of our straight imaginations
is the burden of our hopes
.”

Sorry, but long, long ago too many of us (guys) were scared spit-less by Alice Sheldon’s (writing as James Tiptree Jr) “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Houston,_Houston,_Do_You_Read%3F]  This, incidentally also explains gamer-gait and similar spasms. So, harm reduction…

Whether it is teen (and on) young women reading about two young good-looking guys trying to figure out their first make-out session, because guy characters can do things that might be too smutty or objectified for the readership if one (or both) of them were girls, or otokonoko otaku guys reading about stand-in straight boy getting hot and bothered over the crossdresser or trans continuum character (who incidentally does “girl” better that the run-of the mill cis version, in numerous subtle but important ways – (jeesh dude, what happens if you fall IRL for a cis girl who doesn’t look/present like a BFG in bikini armor, OL/ hawt teacher or moe blob?) whatever “model breaking” ends up relentlessly circling back to our majority cis heteronormative concerns – if only because they are so many of us. That, bucks and printing presses.

Whot De…??? They made the boy figure skater a full precure ??? This is a show for Japanese girl children! It was inevitable after they made the android girl from the future one earlier. Check out the heavy-duty sakuga in the battle scenes with the guest precures…

All this means something.

Scribble, scribble…

 

(1) 10 years ago I got half-way through puzzling out English subs from machine translated Chinese subtitles for Tachiguishi Retsuden (Tachigui: The Amazing Lives of the Fast Food Grifters) before I gave up. Only the folks at Sumimassen Scans could even hope to do this one justice. Brain Hurts! And yet I am convinced it was a big influence on Kumeta’s decision to Showa-out Zetsubo Sensei. Someone, please…

(2) “Since the 1950s area studies programs throughout the United States have produced knowledge in multiple disciplines about strategically identified geographical “areas.” But this knowledge tends to remain ghettoized in area studies departments and only rarely feeds back into the mainline disciplines. This is a result not only of continuing Eurocentrism in academia, but also of the isolating effects of the organization of area studies departments according to nation state, as well as, in the case of Japan studies, an insistence on Japanese cultural uniqueness that is underwritten not only by many Japanese scholars themselves but also by the funding priorities of Japanese government entities that are charged with propagating Japanese culture abroad. The vast amount of knowledge produced outside Japan about Japan thus remains suspended in a curious limbo, jealously guarded by its producers, like a fetish that compensates for their lack of access to the “larger” scholarly community. As Harry Harootunian and Masao Miyoshi put it, employing a striking metaphor that Freud would have had a field day with, “More than fifty years after the war’s end American scholars are still organizing knowledge as if confronted by an implacable enemy and thus driven by the desire either to destroy it or marry it.” 

— Intro, Perversion and Modern Japan: Psychoanalysis, Literature, Culture. Edited by Nina Cornyetz and J. Keith Vincent. London and New York: Routledge, 2010. 

(Don’t get too excited; the book is all about turn-of-the-century Japanese literature, except for the last entry on the rise of the pantsu fetish in 70’s Japanese “pinku” soft-core porn films. The research therein must also be taken with a grain of salt as it started out as a conference joke research paper, originally titled “Die Zizek Die!” )

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Violet Evergarden: Beautiful Fighting Girl or headless robot maido?

Who is Violet? what is she,
That all our swains commend her?
Holy, fair and wise is she;
The heaven’s grace did lend her,
That she admired be.

Is she kind as she is fair?
For beauty lives with kindness.
Love doth to her eyes repair,
To help him of his blindness,
And, being help’d, inhabits there.

Then to Violet let us sing,
That Violet is excelling;
She excels in each mortal thing
Upon the dull earth dwelling:
To her let us our troubles bring.

Apres W. Shakespeare,Two Gentlemen of Verona

Recently a certain lazy trick of dramatic license is beginning to wear on my nerves. It is something like the Old Yeller effect, aka the Bambi’s Mom effect. Want to add some dramatic tension to your tale? Toss in some senseless violent tragedy as prologue and / or ending. Tadah! Must be serious literature-like because it is sad.

If I want grief I will turn on the news.

Because of this kind of crap, Chise in Ancient Magus Bride has to go through a creepy slave auction. Strange; you have all manner of over-powered magical creatures inhabiting that world, all with their own sense of what is right and fair and good. It would take one of them to wipe any such an abomination from existence. Even Black Butler, a series that is nothing but violent creepy-tastic shotacon-BL-bait starts by obliterating a similar perv-pit. I didn’t like it when Chip Delany did it for one of his gay sci-fi morality tales 30 years ago and I still don’t like it. Just me.

Why not give one or more of the young women in Aria a senselessly violent and creepy back story, just for Otaku juice?

With Youjo Senki (young girl’s war diary/ The saga of Tanya the Evil), the whole of the story is drenched in war. The extra twist, that she is a reincarnated asshole salaryman caught in a Job-like wager with a deity just winds the karmic clock springs:

Get a safe behind-the-lines sinecure but let’s do just one more teeny weenie over-the-top-murderous-stunt to prove to my superiors how effing qualified and worthy of promotion I am, even if it will get me near-killed. Do not succumb to any weak spiritual mumbo-jumbo and let being X win. Oh frick! Looks like I really like killing! Wheeeeeeeeeeeee!

“Ps, God personally hates me and the feeling is mutual.”

So what happens when your perfect child soldier/ girl golem/ vague unexplained war-“doll” is smashed up in battle, decommissioned and then told to find a life among civilians? Pretty much the same as what happens between battles for any of the other examples of Dr. Saito Tamaki‘s Beautiful Fighting Girl; she starts to wonder what all those complicated and confusing feelings are and then shoujo manifests. Or the shonen-ish shadow thereof, as the magic, miracle girlfriend slowly goes all dere-dere.

Fortunately, an obscure manga had the final last word on this kind of nonsense years ago

I always liked the tomboyish shojou-ai young women’s homosocial of Transistor Teaset (2009). On my first visit to Japan, I toured Akihabra and even chanced upon the night swap market in the parking garage featured in Akihabara@DEEP. Russian amp tubes, American and JSDF army surplus radio parts. Sadly it was gone to redevelopment a few years later and fewer of the original small “radio town” shops remained.

Perhaps by now they are all gone, replaced by otaku-ish cafes and giant camera-and-consumer-gadget stores for the tourist trade. I found the older electronic parts stores more to my taste: even before I messed around with early PC’s I soldered together transistorised kits, designed primitive vacuum tube amplifiers and fixed up clunky tube tv sets. One day someone will write of the connection between ham radio swap meets, sci-fi conventions and Comiket style zine events; a secret history of the 20th century. In Japanese vernacular culture, the associations between radio waves and eccentricity lingers, viz the young detective in Paranoia Agents, Denpa Onna to Seishun Otoko (Ground Control to Psychoelectric Girl) and the Akiba’s Trip franchise. Think “tinfoil hat” if you need a localized equivalent.

The young protagonists of Transistor Teaset, eccentric as they might be, are formidably deadpan in their knowledge and consideration of the current, limited definition of Otaku.

Otaku once meant any type of well-versed hobbyist and the electronic hobbyist always considered themselves among the most hardcore elite of old-school otaku. (Computer nerds? Hah! I will see you one clone AppleII and raise you my JLS OBM-l00 XT motherboard in the attic). Therefore by divine right they are entitled to take a dismissive stance towards the most sacred tropes of lesser aotakudoms.

The Auto Memory Doll of the Violet Evergarden anime is just a clunky, fanciful way of saying public secretary for hire. Before the term typist was used, people reportedly used the word type-writer to refer to the woman behind the machine rather than the machine itself.

In the light novels it is suggested that the Auto Memory Doll was the unspecified creation of a scientist made for his novelist wife and later mass-produced.
For our purposes it appears to be the clunky English translation of an imagined profession for human women.

Violet herself does not seem to be some mysterious robot magic golem; she bleeds when caught in explosions. More likely she is a traumatized hyper-trained child soldier. Bodyguard and factotum to an officer? Secret weapon? Assassin? Newly cashiered and fitted out with prosthetic arms and hands. Why no military pension for her? Why the hush-hush socialization into civilian life if not to play out an over-used trope?

violet_evergarden fire web

What is missing, through the convenience of her vague raised-and-trained-as-a-war-machine back story are the normal human weaknesses that come with an emotional sense of self. Violet suffers no PTSD, no “millions of her mouthless dead across her dreams in pale battalions go“. Violet does not wake in a cold sweat in the middle of the night, lash out at her friends and family, self-medicate herself into substance abuse and contemplate suicide. Her convenient back story pre-dopes her to the gills with the plot-line equivalent of SSRIs, leaving her with only the robot maido’s trite question with which to tether her humanity to.

TTmiado p103 legend web

Violet Evergarden the PTSD-proof Maido-Secretary

Only the epistolary conceit of her (re-) socialization into civilian life redeems her.

Her country is full of illiterates who nevertheless need to send letters to the ones they are separated from. As creatures of language as well as speech, it is presupposed that an inability to write one’s feelings must indicate a difficulty speaking, even thinking them. A new appreciation for some of Lacan‘s work emerges, if one considers it grounded in the peasant illiteracy of immediately post WWII France. Once abandoned to a rural high school I raised weekend drinking money by writing essays for inarticulate farmboy university students – I can appreciate this story trick. In writing for others, Violet will write herself and her self. Very post-war European critical theory-esque.

Violet-Evergarden warchild web

This is a tall order.
We shall see how well the anime’s remaining episodes can pull it off.

I am indebted to Kastel’s consideration of the Violet Evergarden Light Novels
[Let’s Talk About Japanese Books: Violet Evergarden]

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 seized 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 cheapskate 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 berserk 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 recurring 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.