War is life? Full Metal Panic’s view of war

Daniel’s right. War does suck, especially in Gundam shows.

Now, I’ll admit, I have a bit of an aversion to the Gundam franchise. It’s not that I dislike it. It’s just a lot of the shows I’ve watched (Gundam Zeta and Gundam 0083) didn’t really excite me. At least not in the same way Macross, Argentosoma, RahXephon or a lot of other big robot shows excite me.

That said, I think there’s something to be said for the franchise because it does excite a lot of people.

While I think Daniel’s right, I do have something to add to what he said (otherwise why would I bother writing this post?) I think war represents more than just war in Gundam shows and other war epic/coming of age Mecha shows.

It represents life.

At their heart, each of these shows is the story of a teenager, who generally gets thrust into the middle of the action. Then the main character has his (or her) values, opinions or life view challenged, generally on an everyday (or at least every episode) basis. To top it off, they have to do deal with these challenges. They have to learn to adapt and change, adopt new world views, learn how to love, learn about people all in the course of fighting a war.

And in these cases, war is life played on a grand scale.

The characters may dream about returning to their pastoral innocence or they may fight to restore it, but either way they aren’t entering adulthood unchanged.

This is what makes Full Metal Panic so interesting.

Now when I started thinking about this post, I imagined FMP was simply the Gundam tale told in reverse. You have a teenager, whose life is war and then has to learn how to deal with peace. In this argument, war becomes the pastoral innocence Sousuke is clinging onto, while the battles he’s fighting are really in the classroom.

To a degree, I still think that, but (yes I am going to say this) I think FMP is more complex then that.

Full Metal Panic seems to play out on two fronts. On the one hand, there’s Sousuke’s relationship with Kaname and on the other there’s Sousuke’s relationship with Gauron.

When the series starts (and through the course of most of the first season and all of the second season) Sousuke is a solider. Not only is he a solider, he’s arguably the perfect solider. Gauron even makes reference to that in one of the episodes. He essentially lives to serve. Like I said before, war is Sousuke’s life. It’s what he understands. It’s his farm or space colony or whatever analogous metaphor you want to put into there.

Then he get’s thrust into a “normal” Japanese high school during peacetime. He tries to cope by applying wartime tactics to real life. And much like Roy Fokker to Rick Hunter, Kaname is Sousuke’s mentor. Now you could say it stops here. If you did you could say the show is pointing out war is actually an artifice. The lessons you may learn there don’t apply to real life.

But you’d still be left with Sousuke’s relationship with Gauron.

This is where it gets tricky because Sousuke and Gauron are like Amaro Ray and Char Aznable or, perhaps, even more like Lelouch and Suzaku. They are two people who are joined by a single common element.

War.

Except Sousuke’s war and Gauron’s war are two different things. Sousuke’s war is clean, noble and necessary. His life is regimented around the idea that he is a solider, good soldiers follow orders and those orders may lead to death, but it’s in service to the higher cause.

Gauron’s war is dirty, underhanded and self-serving. His life is regimented around the idea that war is about who walks away with the most profit. People might die, but as long as he lives, who cares?

For the majority of the series, these two viewpoints are put at odds. It’s pretty clear Sousuke is right and Gauron is wrong.

Until Second Raid (and arguably the latter parts of the first series.)

In Second Raid, we find out both versions of war are wrong in some way.

Gauron’s war is born out of cynicism and disappointment. When Sousuke is confronted with his own disappointments, he starts to slip. Now, I would really like to stop there and say the series says, “Gauron’s view of war is the correct view of war,” but I don’t think it does.

Sousuke doesn’t completely give into Gauron’s worldview. Yes, he does ponder it, but in the end, he finds out another truth (perhaps not so strangely from his real life mentor, Kaname.)

War is meaningless unless there’s something to protect. While this isn’t a necessarily earth shaking concept for anime, it’s interesting how the series got there.

So in the end, we learn Sousuke’s view of war is just as empty and meaningless as Gauron’s war.

Getting off the High Horse: Picking on Cowboy Bebop

Recently, I read an interesting exchange between Daniel and Michael about Cowboy Bebop.

And by recently, I mean about fifteen minutes ago.

Now, I’ve said my piece about the quality of Cowboy Bebop as a show, but comparing it to Faulkner is a bit unfair – both to Faulkner and Cowboy Bebop.

Faulkner’s biggest strength (in my opinion) is his use of form. As Michael rightly points out, the stream-of-consciousness first person narration creates an immersive environment. The reader is not only seeing the story through the character’s eyes, but also through their perception. So we’re actually inside of the character’s mind. It’s a form that’s often copied, but from what I’ve read of it, it’s never done quite as well.

Where I disagree with Michael is that Cowboy Bebop uses a similar style. In fact, I disagree that Bebop uses form at all. Now I could be a Philistine, but I simply can’t see the largely episodic structure (even with the slight tie-in in the end) as a homage. The episodes are too scattered, too tonally inconsistent and too rooted in third-person narration to be anything more then what they are – a collection of short pulp stories with a larger novella spread out among them.

That said, I think Raymond Chandler is a better writer than Faulkner. Hell, I think Robert Ludlum is a better writer than Faulkner.

Now, I’m not go into the whole depth issue. Frankly, I haven’t really seen a good way to judge depth. But I do think that the comparison to an “airport thriller” is also incorrect. Bebop is noir. Maybe not quite in the way that Chandler describes hardboiled detectives, but more in the way that noir has become. Spike is Chili Palmer. He’s the classic repentant criminal, who’s trying to forget about his old life, but can’t. Jet Black is… well… Philip Marlowe (or perhaps it’d be more fair to compare him to Matthew Scudder or Spenser). He’s the classic disillusioned cop, who still believes in justice, but can’t seem to work inside of the corrupt system. Faye Valentine is the femme fatale (there really are too many of them to name.) Really, the only thing that’s unusual that Bebop brings to the table is Ed and Ein. Everything else is a stylish re-hash.

But that doesn’t make it thematically empty. Yes, it does play out some rather familiar themes like identity, repentance and betrayal. But it leaves this viewer with enough questions to think about after it’s all done. For instance, is identity determined by memories? Once an identity is formed can we willingly leave that identity behind? What happens when the things we based our identity on betray us? And if this is a good measure of depth, then I think Bebop succeeds.

Riding on the Space Train: A note on internal consistency

A long time ago, I did a post about Galaxy Express 999, looking at its often confusing, occasionally silly, but still satisfying world. In short, Three Nine’s world rarely makes “sense” in any logical way. And it’s completely unapologetic about it and often flaunts it. I mean, why wouldn’t the space train run on coal?

But, I am a bit of a Matsumoto fanboy. Okay, I am a lot of a Matsumoto fanboy, so I set out on his current trip on the space train – Galaxy Railways.

Now overall, I think it’s a good show. It’s definitely enjoyable. But it definitely does need some comparison with the original as far as world view goes.

What makes Galaxy Railways interesting, is that it does concede to trying to build a believable reality. Gone are the trains floating through space riding some sort of invisible track, and in comes an almost Cowboy Bebop-esque set of rings that seem to hold this invisible track. Sure, there are still scenes where the crew walks outside of the train without any breathing apparatus, but now there’s a forcefield that seems to hold the air in.

But all of this got me thinking, are these things really realistic? Let’s take the wind ruffling the hair, when the crew is outside of the train or has the window open. Now if we assume that the train is carrying around the pocket of air (a safe assumption considering that they’re able to drop their shield) then there shouldn’t be any wind because the air is moving at the same speed as they’re going. Oh yeah, and smoke evidently can filter out of the shield, but air doesn’t escape? And then there’s the big one:

They’re riding a train. In space.

But really, I could pick on Galaxy Railways some more. But it really is a good show. Usually I am a stickler for internal consistency, but in a lot of ways the show reminded me of AIR. They were both shows that paid the briefest lipservice to internal consistency. In AIR’s case, it set up a mythology about a winged girl and then expected everything else to fall in around it. And for the most part it did. And for the most part it did.

This all brings up a question. Do I expect my shows to be internally consistent or don’t I? Do I expect a world that sets out rules that make sense? Or will I willingly extend my disbelief to cover even the most unbelievable things? (A lot of this reminds me of some of Coburn’s comments on mechambivalence.)

And I think it depends. In the case of both AIR and Galaxy Railways, I think the shows appeal to the viewer to discard logic in favor of feeling the show. To not pay attention to the astral projections, or the train riding through space. Instead, they ask us to form a bond with main characters and cheer them through their trials. For the most part, both of them work.

Well, except for the last two episodes of AIR.

(Obligatory spoiler warning.)

The thing about Galaxy Railways is that it didn’t force you to ponder its inconsistencies. Much like Three Nine, it worked because it didn’t try to explain itself. So those problems with the logic of the show become kind of like asking about the paradox in the Terminator movies or the existence of bi-pedal war machines. They just aren’t important. The show doesn’t dwell on them. And it certainly doesn’t build a mythology around them.

And that’s the problem with the last two episodes of AIR. They just aren’t consistent with the rest of the story. They ask the viewer to accept that somehow turning into a crow and then hugging the current vessel of the winged girl will somehow free her of the curse. That somehow, this is what previous generations intended all along. And even after that, the show proceeds to even ditch that concept in favor of the main male character needing to hunt down Misuzu because his work isn’t done. Isn’t done? He turned into a crow, traveled back into the past, and then came back and his work still isn’t done? Come on.

See my problem with the end of AIR isn’t that it’s inconsistent. But that it highlights those inconsistencies to highten its emotional appeal. And in the end, it backfires.

In this Nation of the Blind: On Anime Journalism in the age of blogging

Now I’ll admit that I don’t really understand the nature of Internet journalism as omo has pointed out quite fairly. And the nature of journalism itself is changing. I mean take a look at CNN.com and you’ll see political blogs and “citizen” journalism by way of ireporter.

I’ll admit that I’m torn.

You see on the one side, I’m a journalism elitist. I do believe that there is a proper way to report. I do believe that there should be standards and ethics and an attempt to remove the personality of the reporter from the article. In fact, I’d take it so far as to say that I hold professionals to a higher standard than I hold amateurs. I believe the majority of us bloggers (myself included) do not have the resources or the knowledge to do a good in-depth article. (Although I’ll admit Scott does some really bang-up columns, like this one on Tokyopop.)

This is why I get angry at professionals who don’t live up to my standards. And I don’t get angry at other people.

But I also realize that I’m a dinosaur. Because like it or not, print is dead. Okay, maybe it’s not dead but it is morphing into a multi-platform experience using the Web, Broadcast and Newspapers in an attempt to reach new readers or even old readers. It’s becoming less top down and more of a community of people who are willing to invest themselves in the experience.

This is why I’m torn. Because like I’ve said before, I’m a pretty radical Civil Libertarian. I do believe more speech is better speech and that avenues of communication shouldn’t be limited just because a few stodgy old men want to cling onto their precious rituals.

This leads to omo’s central question. What should the nature of Internet journalism be? And perhaps more importantly (for the sake of this blog), what should the nature of anime journalism be?

And my answer is that there has to be a place to meet in the middle. Now, I’ll freely admit I like Gia’s site. It’s quick. It’s easy to read. And it’s generally and genuinely informative (although I’d really like some direct quotes. Please? Anyone?) And it’s quite possible it could turn into a site that I’d want to frequent to get my news.

But there’s something I need as a reader. And it’s something that’s been lacking from almost every Internet news source on anime that I find.

And that’s perspective. Anime news reporting has mastered the art of the brief. And that’s great, but it’s time to move past that. It’s time to move into the realm of multiple source stories. It’s time to move out of the realm of the Q&A and move into the realm of news articles with an angle (at least for the stories that deserve it.) It’s time for someone, anyone, to discard the mantle of information disseminator and take up the mantle of a reporter.

Because the Otakusphere is chock full of commentators (myself included), it has a slew of reviewers (more than I could read in one lifetime), but what we don’t have is someone who’s willing to talk to multiple people, navigate the ever-shifting landscape of facts and put it into a cohesive and digestible form for me. Although, like I said, I might not understand the nature of this new world of Internet reporting. I am a dinosaur after all.

But it seems to me, that in this nation of the blind… the one-eyed man (or woman) would be king.

On Mecha design and heroes

So The Animanachronism’s recent post on the nature of mecha brought to mind a set of posts I did a while back on the role of the citizen solider and the Arthurian hero in anime (a set of posts I’m still a bit proud of.) It’s got me thinking about what is the role of the mecha in mecha anime. Other than to sell toys and other merchandise to people who seem to like that kind of stuff. And sure there are shows that seem determined to do that, but even those the mecha has to play some sort of role in the show.

If it didn’t, well there wouldn’t be much of a show.

But the thing about analyzing the role of the mecha in mecha shows is that they’re intrinsically tied to the characters who pilot them. I mean what does the cape clad, white Lancelot say about Suzaku. (Even beyond the moral questions that it raises.) Or what does the vague Escher-esque Big-O with its hammer of God message say about the role of Roger Smith. Honestly, I think there are some consistencies between these categorizations that I’ve seen.

A Tool of War

Now with the citizen solider, the mech is a tool of war. Now arguably the theme of war pops up in a lot of more Arthurian shows, but unlike those heroes the mech is rarely flashy. VOTOMS is an almost perfect example of a mech that is ugly, utilitarian and kills people. The same can be said about the mecha in Gasaraki. Now there have been some variations on this theme, but in general the mecha are also uniform. These people didn’t just happen across some mech in an underground storage shed, or if they did then they aren’t really any more special than the average toaster.

Now later shows have played off of this theme. The Arbalest from FMP is an example of an Excalibur like mech that is given to a citizen solider (Granted, I might be the only one who thinks it’s strangely symbolic that a pale, wispy girl tossed a nearly magical machine out of a giant lake to land at the hero’s feet.)

But even then it’s still a tool. A handy tool, but the citizen solider doesn’t rely on it to win his battles, unless it’s the right tool for the job. And because it’s a tool, the citizen solider mecha tend to be nearly person-sized. They’re rarely more than 10 or 15 feet tall. It could be said that the man makes the machine and not the other way around.

A Magical Totem

Whereas when we look at Arthurian heroes, it is the machine that makes the man. In fact, the machine itself sometimes takes on a life of its own, becoming an extension of the hero itself. Gundam Zeta’s various power-ups seem to fit into this category. And since the central question of the Arthurian hero is “What type of country do I want to create?” and the enemies have to get progressively harder (because otherwise the tension would drop) the totem also has to become more powerful.

Now there is some gray area here, because occasionally you do have an Arthurian hero who has to learn his machine better so that he can accomplish his goals. In these cases, the machine itself is as powerful as it can get, but the pilot has to unlock its secrets. (Escaflowne comes to mind here.)

And since it is a magical totem, the machine itself has to be impressive and unique. Generally these mecha are giants and tend to dwarf their pilots. They tend to range about 15 to 50 feet high (or at least from what I can tell.)

An Otherworldly Being

Adam’s mecha provides the most difficulty in analysis, mostly because there are so few of them and there is a good deal of variation. But in general, Adam’s mecha is the impetus of his epiphany. This is true in both Evangelion and RahXephon. It’s even true in Gasaraki. But in most cases, they also tend to be reflective of both the tones and the themes of the story. Unit 01 in Evangelion is almost bestial when it slips loose of its traces. Reflecting back on the main struggle between how Shinji perceives himself and how he wants others to perceive him. RahXephon is almost majestic, but it’s also alien and unpredictable. Reflecting back on the main theme of acceptance (both of the self and others.)

In general, what separates Adam’s mecha from the Arthurian mecha is that in the case of Adam these mecha are alien and they’re at best impartial, at worst possessed with motivations that the hero doesn’t know anything about.

Shampoo Planet: The siren song of Ergo Proxy

So I’m seriously starting to question my taste.

Ever since I ventured into the Otakusphere last October, I’ve seen almost nothing but derision for Ergo Proxy. I’ve seen it called heavy-handed, tedious and downright coma-inducing. In fact, the only good thing I ever read about it came from Anime Sophist, who called it the best series he’d seen in 2007. But I’d started buying it, so I kept buying it, because I hadn’t had any problems with what I had watched.

So I finished watching it and well… I liked it. I’ll be honest, I didn’t find it overly preachy, I didn’t find it heavy handed, yeah a few parts were slow, but nowhere near as slow as the last half of Texnolyze (which seemed to grind to a halt after episode 13.) I liked the characters. And believe it or not, I didn’t have any problems with the world.

Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t love the show, but I enjoyed watching it.

Honestly, it’d be easy to prattle on about questionable religious connections. I mean the show throws around terms like Creator as if it meant you to see it. It also has enough allusions to classical literature and pop culture to choke a horse. We can run the gamut from Daedulus and Icarus straight to the “Mickey Mouse” episode. But I don’t really think that’s what appealed to me.

What struck me were two of the episode titles: life after God and Shampoo Planet.

Now the first one could have been a coincidence, I mean there’s a lot of religious references in the show and a lot of philosophical references. It could have just as well been a reference to Nietzche. Strange enough, it’s the title of a fairly lesser known book by Douglas Coupeland. But when I hit the second title (another reference to a Coupeland book) I figured I was on to something.

Honestly, what tickled my brain (and exposed me for the pretentious phony that I may be) was the fact that Ergo Proxy may not be about religion or philosophy at all. Or rather those things might just be trappings for the real allusion of the story which seems to me to be a sociological one, in particular the story of one generation clashing with another generation.

This is the land Our Fathers left us

Now what makes those references interesting is the fact that they both deal with Generation X. Now there’s some discussion about where Gen X really falls in the timeline (at least here in America) but generally it’s assumed that it starts at 1965 and ends around 1980 (some people put it at 1976, some people put it at 1981). And if I had to sum it up, I’d borrow a quote from Fight Club:

“God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off”

This is really at the heart of Douglas Coupeland’s books (and Fight Club as well). What makes this strange and strangely intriguing is how much this reflect’s Re-l’s speech at the beginning of the series and Vincent’s initial urge to be a “model citizen”. They’re both characters who start off without any real meaning in their lives, without anything that defines them as people. (Which is probably one of the reasons why they’re considered boring, and in all fairness I did think Vincent was a little bland towards the beginning.) They’re a generation of people who are doing even less than waiting to die, they’re waiting to live.

Now arguably both of them are pretty much the classic Adam archetype (with the one exception being that the story actually doesn’t start until the end of the first episode.) But that said, they’re both forced to confront the world that’s been left to them. Of course you could look at their Gulliver-esque travels as a series of thought exercises in philosophy. But there seems to be a consistent theme to all of the places that they visit. And that’s the fact that almost all of the proxies (and the people) are looking for a way to fit in, trying to find a place to belong in the world that had been left to them. Someone could definitely argue that the people outside the domes did have factors that defined their lives, but that said, I find them more lost than found.

The siren song of Ergo Proxy

Inevitably, whenever anyone bring up “generations” someone will say it’s rubbish or that it’s a marketing ploy or that it’s an overgeneralization. And to a point, I agree. We are individuals. We do experience life differently depending on our culture, surroundings, upbringing and personal beliefs. But having grown up during the height of Gen X and having friends and teachers from that generation, I’m inclined to say that there’s something to all of the talk. I mean I went through the recession in the 90s, I went through the rise of the Internet and the destruction of the Challenger. I definitely felt that same ennui that was prevalent during those times. And ironically, I’ve seen it replaced with a generation that is much more socially and policitically active and cares more.

But what appealed to me about Ergo Proxy was that intentionally or unintentionally it recaptured that feeling of being undefined and unaccepted and it structured a pretty good story around it. Maybe that makes me a pretentious phony, but there it is anyway.

My take on Haruhism

“Yeah, right… What’s a cubit?” – Noah to God in a Bill Cosby sketch

I’ve always had a fascination with religion. Now, I’m not a really religious person, I’ve just been a bit too skeptical for that, but I don’t fault anyone who is. In fact, I tend to find it more a failing with me, rather than a failing with other people.

But it’s lead to me finding religion (in particular Christianity) really interesting and by extension various images of God (or Gods) in anime interesting. Now, I’ll freely admit I’m not a theologian, and I definitely don’t necessarily understand all of the finer points of all religions, but that hasn’t stopped me before.

So anyways, I started thinking about this topic while I was watching Haruhi, so I thought I’d offer my take on that first. (Obligatory Spoiler warning.)

On the Nature of the SOS Brigade

Haruhi is God, right? I mean that’s what the show pretty much lays out there from the start. Now what I finding interesting about Haruhi as God is that she’s almost completely unaware that she is God. In fact, her actions might have somewhat disastrous results, but she’s never the victim of them. In fact, there’s an active conspiracy to keep the truth away from her because who knows what would happen if she ACTUALLY knew that she was God.

What makes this interesting is that almost every person in the SOS Brigade is a direct creation of Haruhi or at the very least is drawn to her. Now it could be said that they’re just scientists hoping to examine the phenomenon that is Haruhi. But from a religious standpoint, they seem more like worshippers. At least one point or another, they all actively work to try to appease her. (Thankfully, they stop short of sacrificing virgins.)

Except for Kyon.

Now when I first started thinking about Kyon and his role, I thought maybe he was a prophet. Kind of like Noah in the Bill Cosby sketch, he was a skeptical prophet, but a prophet nonetheless. But, he just doesn’t seem to have the right amount of religious fear. In fact, even though he knows the truth about Haruhi, he rarely acts on it; sometimes he actually aggravates the problem.

Let’s face it, Kyon might be a lot of things, but he’s definitely not a disciple in the church of Haruhi.

Which left me thinking about how does Kyon fit into this mythology? And more fundamentally, why did Haruhi choose him?

On the Nature of Kyon in the church of Haruhi

One of the things that bothered me the more I thought about this was that even though Haruhi is the one with all of the power, Kyon is the one with all of the knowledge. Like I said, there’s an active conspiracy to keep the truth away from her. So she’s all powerful, but she’s completely ignorant.

On the other hand, Kyon knows what’s going on, and the only one who can really act on it. It could be said that he’s omniscient (in a sense), but is completely powerless. But he’s also the only one who actively opposes Haruhi when she goes too far.

So I’m going to go out on a limb here and say, even though everyone says Haruhi chose Kyon, Kyon also chose Haruhi. It was his actions that lead to the creation of the SOS Brigade. It was his actions that stopped the world from being swallowed up in closed space. And he’s the only one who can rein Haruhi in. In the end, Kyon plays the Superego to Haruhi’s inexhaustible Id. In fact, it shouldn’t so much be the church of Haruhi as the church of Haruhi and Kyon.

Because in Haruhi, I fear. But in Kyon, I trust.