Tag Archives: analysis

Memory and Oblivion in Sora no Woto

The price of a memory is the memory of the sorrow it brings.
― Pittacus Lore, I Am Number Four

We must embrace pain and burn it as fuel for our journey.
— Kenji Miyazawa (1896-1933)

Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.
― Marcel Proust

The scars that are left in a person’s soul after surviving a war, the ways a society tries to console and redeem itself, how the historical truth gets twisted, suited and tailored to different people’s needs: these are topics that Sora no Woto, beyond its flaws, managed to sing about elegantly. The sound of the sky carried and awakened memories…


War trauma: the ghosts of the past

In episode 7, we get a glimpse at Felicia’s past and her recollections of war. It’s the first thing we see when the episode starts. The memories are as clear as if they happened yesterday [1]. The cinematography is excellent and when Felicia’s gaze stumbles across her fellow soldiers’ dead bodies, the ‘camera’ trembles. She starts feeling dizzy, the terror obvious in her eyes; her world is falling apart, both metaphorically and literally, drastically changing from one minute to another.

Later in the episode, the flashbacks continue: she walks aimlessly, her mind blank, when the debris and the road cave in and she ends up underground with a skeleton as a company. The situation starts sinking in; Felicia questions her reason for living, and wonders why she was the only one who survived. These dark thoughts pull her deeper in despair to the point that her guilt of being still alive morphs into an apparition and an imaginary dialogue with the skeleton. It’s her survival instinct and loneliness that make her respond to the calls of the princess who came to her rescue.

In the present, Felicia’s memories keep coming back against her will, whenever she falls asleep or spaces out. We see her having hallucinations, like when the image of a soldier appears in the fortress’ yard; she smiles bitterly, because she’s aware that her eyes and spirit play pranks on herself.

This is a pretty accurate reflection of reality. Trauma is an event that pushes the individual to its limits, destabilizes its life, and in its first phase the individual feels unable to handle and process it. Denying what happened results in ‘eternal mourning’: the trauma resurfaces in miscellaneous forms at the slightest trigger. In Felicia’s case it was the public commemoration, a day which wields enormous emotional power (I’ll touch the topic of the ceremony later). However, Felicia seems to have worked through her past, since her reactions aren’t panic-stricken. She also appears to have found a meaning for her life. Mourning in such conditions is a long-winding process, after all. And we aren’t given enough of their time to know what progress the characters have made through the years.

On the other hand, Nöel freezes, starts shaking, and goes berserk once she encounters the Roman soldier and hears her old title and commander mentioned. The cinematography is once again masterfully executed: a deranged Nöel is shown behind some sort of metal railings—she is held captive by her fear and memories.

Nöel’s case (episodes 11-12) isn’t only there to reconfirm how vile war is. Her angle is different: while Felicia is portrayed as a victim, the sole survivor of her troop and at least an adolescent, Nöel is shown as an exploited child genius who witnesses the death of people by the war machines she helped rebuild. Thus we are shown both the suffering of the perpetrator and the exploitation of children in the war.

Her trauma is deep not only due to the tender age at which she was exposed to war’s cruelties, but also from the sudden change between the protected world of the laboratory where she got praised and the raw reality. The military’s image as a highly organized and efficient unit juxtaposes with the reality of war as chaotic, terrifying, and anything but meticulously executed [2]. It’s a shame that we weren’t presented with the experience of other soldiers who dealt with hand-in-hand combat; then we could understand better how complex the human soul is and the devastation war wreaks upon on it.


Public commemoration: appeasing the living and the dead

‘Festa du Lumieres’ in Helvetia is in fact Tōrō nagashi. Tōrō nagashi is a Japanese ceremony in which participants float paper lanterns. This is primarily done on the last evening of the Bon Festival, based on the belief that this guides the spirits of the departed back to the other world. It is also believed that humans come from water, so the lanterns represent their bodies returning to water. [3]

The deep emotional and physical wounding caused by acts of violence is devastating to the individual identity and,by extension, to group identity.  Prayers, rituals and symbols can be used to heal or transform the trauma. People want to be bonded in emotional and spiritual ways—to give and receive love.  ‘Festa du Lumieres’ is an opportunity to express grief. It helps survivors to see the traumatic events in a new perspective, to build hope and a healthy self-identity, and to be able to effectively cope in their communities. It also makes people feel calmer and relieved because they are still connected and can do something good for people who have died and were special for them. [4]


The Flame Maidens Legend: memory and anti-memory

The Helvetian version is narrated by Rio, who impersonates a Flame Maiden in the Water-Dousing Festival, while the Roman version is told by the nun who heard it from the Roman soldier. In both cases we can talk about remembrance through communicative memories that passed from generation to generation, and about anonymization of the trauma.

Trauma creates a huge void in the way a society perceives itself. Besides ceremonies, history or, in this case, legend contributes to the (re)creation of identity, but not without distortions of the truth.  Be it the collective memory that got warped or the state that manipulated the narrative, the Flame Maiden legend and its two versions reflect the wishes and self-image of each country.

If we want to find out what really happened, we should take both versions into account, like Herodotus’ first attempts at writing history. For some reason, in this dystopian future the science of history seems to have been lost, and remembrance of the past reverted to oral traditions. So, we’ll work with many assumptions and our logic as guidance.

Assuming that the Romans saw themselves as punishers led by God, we can believe they were the ones who initiated a war or avenging a past lost war and its victims. The Helvetian version about the demon inside the city might be interpreted as the Helvetians co-existing initially with Romans and treating the latter with racism or as the fear of the enemy who was of different skin color.

The angel and the demon were both based on a dinosaur fossil, which each side assigned different values. In both versions the giant spider alludes to the tanks and the golden horn signifies a peace treaty. This much is clear. But what about the rest of the story? If we consider the Roman version closer to the truth, then we can claim that the Helvetians wanted to cover up what they considered treason from the women in their town (the fact they helped the enemy by providing medical help). They take metaphorical revenge by turning them into victims, but since they also need a reconfirmation of the community’s worth, they make the girls in their version suffer willingly while the villagers helped extinguish the fire by dousing them every day (this could hint at torture procedures, too).

What is not so certain is the duration of the hostilities. The Helvetian version gives the impression that it was a hard fought war and that it lasted a long time. The Roman version presents the events happening over a shorter time span. It’d be only natural for the Helvetians to emphasize the hardships and duration, while the Romans, who considered themselves god-sent, would only embarrass themselves if they admitted they weren’t victorious after a long war. It’s not coincidental that it’s the angel who gave the maidens the golden horn in the Roman version: the enemy declared peace only because their side provided the solution.

Memory is a tricky thing. We get scared in life, so we wish to forget. Sometimes we can’t. Sometimes we cover the bad memories with gold leaves and paint a new picture for us…


Notes:

[1] In order to create a memory, the brain releases chemicals “that etch these events into its memory bank with special codes”. However, when one experiences a traumatic event, the memory becomes vivid because the context surrounding the event is so significantly different from anything the victim has ever experienced before. It seems, then, that during a traumatic event, our senses are heightened – this may be due to the fight-or-flight response that readies us for action. Since we sense (or know) that something is amiss, our brain releases more chemicals that allow us to be more alert; this in turn may be the mechanism that helps us to remember traumatic events so well.

[2] as well as the above come from http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/bb/neuro/neuro03/web2/shabelow.html

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T%C5%8Dr%C5%8D_nagashi

[4] http://www.mcc.org/system/files/MCC-PON_09-3.pdf

Psycho-Pass: Where Does Criminality Come From?

Why do people commit crimes? What makes people “good” to begin with, and are some people just born to be “bad”? The debate is as old as philosophy, religion, and ethics, and Gen Urobuchi—one of the most thoughtful screenwriters in anime today, and who has broached such subjects before in previous series—once again tackles the question in his new anime, Psycho Pass.

Continue reading Psycho-Pass: Where Does Criminality Come From?

Natsuyuki Rendezvous: Bodies and Souls in Transition

Natsuyuki Rendezvous, a reclamation of the virtues of josei storytelling for the Noitamina block, goes beyond standard love triangle cliches to closely examine just how people move on—as opposed to get over—their grief. The emotional gravity of the show lies there rather than in the romance that sets it off.

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A History Lesson from Hyouka

“It all becomes part of the classics, as per the rules of historic perspective.”

Guest writer FoxyLadyAyame of the beautiful world presents an informed, in-depth look at how the characters in Hyouka enact a particular historiographical method in their search for truth. The result is a rich analysis of one of the season’s most notable shows. —gendomike

History: a word that probably causes shivers to most people and especially students. No wonder, since this subject is traditionally tied to a list of dates to remember by heart, heavy books that scare you just to look at, and a teacher who keeps talking till you get drowsy…

But it shouldn’t really be this way. History isn’t just something totally disconnected to us; it isn’t just the story of dead glorious people. “History is who we are and why we are the way we are” said David McCullough. History is the search for the truth of important or every day people, of epic battles and of life during peace times. It should be interesting. It should cause people’s eyes to sparkle with excitement, ask questions and discuss with each other.

Much like in Hyouka. Because these kids were conducting historical research on a small scale.

What we see in episodes 4 and 5 of Hyouka are historians at work and the perspective of the new historiography. In contrast to the Old History, which focused on the narrative and considered the sources to provide the truth in raw form, New History emphasizes analysis and interpretation, and supports a critical approach towards the source material. The latter also is concerned not only with big narratives (national history) but also with smaller narratives (local history), such as Kamiyama’s school festival incident.

According to the Annales School, a style of historiography developed by French historians in the 20th century, history should be studied in 3 layers: structures, conjunctures and events. Braudel, who suggested this framework, wanted to show that time moves at different speeds and one can say that he divides time into geographical (long span), social (medium span) and individual (short span) times respectively.

Structures exist in the long span, and they may last hundreds, even thousands of years. They refer to the underlying social patterns which provide continuous constraints on our actions. They may represent patterned cultural, economic or political modes of reacting to natural phenomena or perceiving social realities. We can see in the series that Kamiyama, in Gifu prefecture, is surrounded by green, that farming is still taking place, and that the families who have big parts of land, like Chitanda’s, possess a pretty high social status. It would be safe to assume that these characteristics were pretty much the same 45 years ago and the mentalities accompanying rural areas are also maintained. Structures don‘t make an appearance during this first arc of the series and don’t seem to play a significant role to the solution to the mystery, yet are still there.

What we do get to see in episode 4 is the presence of conjunctures. Conjunctures lie between structures and events and represent the cyclical rhythms within the normal fluctuations of all structures. A conjuncture in our story might be the ‘uprising’ against authority, in particular the government and secondarily the teachers. Yes, the student movement of the 60s that Fukube mentions first and their hypotheses up till that point take a whole other meaning.

The event of course is what happened to Kamiyama High School 45 years ago, and to be more precise, the past of the Classic Literature Club and the past of Sekitani Jun.

So how do historians seek the truth?

The answer is by following certain steps. First of all, they search for available sources, keeping in mind the topic of interest at all times. They categorize and evaluate the sources and choose those that are considered more valid. As students, the available sources for a very specific topic can be limited, but more than one source is always important in order to do cross examination. Chitanda focused on Hyouka’s anthology vol.2 introduction note, Ibara searched the library and found Unity and Triumph vol.1, Fukube dug up the archives of the Wall Newspaper Club’s Monthly Report, and Oreki sought some official records and brought information from Kamiyama High’s 50 Years of Journey. All of them are primary sources.

Then comes the analysis stage. The texts are carefully read, the important facts are singled out, keywords and thematic of each text are highlighted and the first hypotheses are formed. By going through more texts, facts are added, doubted or confirmed and the hypotheses are corrected. And most importantly: questions are asked.

When: June 1967. Cultural Festival Discussion Meeting. Conflict. / October 1967. Sekitani’s Jun expulsion.

Where: Kamiyama High School

Who: Sekitani Jun and the student body.

Why: Students’ independence was forfeited.

How: Violence wasn’t used.

What:?

Questions though towards the source and the ‘story’ would be just inadequate and pointless without activating ‘filters’ and setting in motion our critical thinking.

While analyzing the text, the researcher also asks who wrote each source, to whom and for what purpose. This phase is kind of omitted, but Fukube does make a remark on Ibara’s text, since it seems prejudiced in favor of revolutionists. The feelings and the intention of the author might distort the truth and mislead the researcher.

Critical thinking entails among other things the ability to fill in the gaps using logic and previous knowledge from outside the sources. For example, Oreki corrects Ibara when she claims that the revolution was violent, because if we talked about a punitive act, Sekitani Jun would be expelled immediately and not five months later. Reading between the lines and comprehending/clarifying ambiguity is crucial, too. Do you remember when Ibara pointed out that the ‘legendary protest’ and Sekitani Jun’s incident are one and the same—otherwise there would be a visible distinction? That’s making use of linguistic rules. Similar are the cases of the puns/homonyms/heterographs discussed among the four characters (sacrifice-offering, Kanya-Sekitani, hyouka= ice cream-I scream).

And of course we shouldn’t forget empathy. In the historical context, the concept of empathy is much more than just seeing a person, idea or situation through the eyes of another, but rather is a much deeper understanding of the circumstances and concepts surrounding the event. In other words, empathy is ‘wearing one’s shoes’ and reconstructing a situation/an era. Oreki seems to excel in it.

If there are still holes in the conclusion, the researcher might need to revise his/her sources or search for more. Texts aren’t the only type of sources available. Paintings, artifacts, clothing, even buildings are considered sources of equal value. Hyouka’s cover is a very good example that was unfortunately mentioned in the afterward of the conclusion. Its symbolism could be easily decoded and supplement or testify for the theory they’ve formed.

The niece of time arc ends with an interview with an eyewitness, namely Ms. Koriyama Youko, the librarian. As shown finding an eyewitness can be elusive, especially when it comes to women who drop their maiden name after marriage. Usually it is even more elusive— they had great ‘luck’ that she was still around town, and moreover working in the school from which she graduated. Eyewitnesses are valuable, but they can only present their point of view, which isn’t always sufficient when someone tries to approach the truth as objectively as possible.

That’s how history is written in simple words. I hope you had a fun ride reading this and I wish you can see history with Chitanda eyes from now on ;)

Madoka’s Magical Realism

If anything in the universe lends itself to broad, shamanic principles, it is surely entropy. Broken glass, spilled milk, and toppled stacks of books are all examples of that universal principle we are familiar with. At times, it almost seems intelligent, malicious, seeking to thwart our intentions and pervert our efforts to bring order to our lives.

The fundamental laws of thermodynamics, which govern entropy, have been stated as:

1. You can’t get ahead.
2. You can’t break even.
3. You cannot refuse to play.

Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica examines these laws not from a literal standpoint, but from a philosophical standpoint. It is not the first anime to do so – Full Metal Alchemist centered almost entirely on the point of “Equivalent Exchange,” a principle that comes pretty close to the first law of thermodynamics: to receive something, you must give up something of equal value.

The primary difference between Madoka and its intellectual predecessor is the degree of adherence to Law Two: in Alchemist, you can get some pretty good trades as well as some pretty bad ones. In Madoka, it’s all downhill, with magical girls ultimately sliding down a slippery slope of magic dependency into outright insanity.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

– W. B. Yeats, “The Second Coming”

 

In this context, what exactly is Kyuubey? He is the vengeance of entropy, the denial of hope, the cold and cruel insistence that you cannot get something for nothing, and that the house always takes a cut. With Kyuubey you can never truly get what you wish for just by asking for it, for the act of obtaining your wish in such a fashion changes the situation.  Furthermore, what you get never quite equals what you give up: it always falls short, usually in some terrible way.

Uncle Kyuubey wants you!
Uncle Kyuubey wants you!

It has been variously said that Kyuubey’s explanations of magical energy and entropy border on the laughable, and perhaps that’s right. But ultimately Kyuubey and what he represents should be considered in terms of a philosophical argument, not an accurate, one-to-one correspondence with reality and proper physics. If we ignore this level of consideration to focus on the literal, then Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica is only the story of a mailed fist punching a defenseless face in the nose, ad nauseam, over the course of a dozen episodes. Including it, we see a marvelous juxtaposition: the futility perceived in adulthood when compared with the unbounded expectations of childhood, is philosophically similar to the ultimate thermodynamic futility of all chemical and physical processes, life included.  Water runs downhill, and does not flow back up.  People become corrupt, and do not regain their innocence.  Everyone dies, in the end.

But there are miracles.

Ultimately Madoka, for all of its bleak and nihilistic scenes, cannot help but be a magical girl show.  Even at its worst, it is still in many respects cheerier than the reality the human race lives in. Thermodynamics really does state that we and the world are on a one-way trip to oblivion, and anything we do only hastens the process.  While the stories of the girls in the show are sad, examples abound of people whose daily lives are more depressing than those in the show.

The truly depressing thing about Madoka isn’t that its fictional characters are subject to horror, death and worse.  It’s that every bad thing in Madoka is actually a censored version of what really happens on our planet.

Madoka Magica: The Killing Kindness

Madoka Magica, the best show of this season, is about something deeper than Faustian bargains or even death, grief, and loneliness. It’s about how the desire to do good in the face of such darkness can end up creating more of it.

Continue reading Madoka Magica: The Killing Kindness

Waiting for Haruhi; or, My Anime Series Can’t Be This Original!

The howling critical reactions (and counterreactions) in the anime blogosphere about the fourth episode of Oreimo have prompted some further thought, as a follow-up to wintermuted’s last essay and my own thoughts on Oreimo 3: have many of us gotten so desperate for anything surprising in anime that we will grasp onto even the barest scraps of originality and quality? It’s almost as if we were waiting for a great series to sweep us off our feet and remind us of why we love this medium to begin with. It’s almost as if we were waiting…for another Haruhi?

Continue reading Waiting for Haruhi; or, My Anime Series Can’t Be This Original!

The Brother and Sisterhood of Fan: Oreimo’s Two Families

Oreimo, perhaps the most surprising show of the season, has sparked a lot of discussion across the blogosphere. Is it a more realistic depiction of sibling life, at least compared to the rancidly moe depiction of little sisters in recent anime? Or is it just another incest-fest waiting to happen, as a jaundiced interpretation of the most recent episode might suggest? Heck, might it be a covertly Christian lesson in turning the other cheek and loving your enemies?

Continue reading The Brother and Sisterhood of Fan: Oreimo’s Two Families

Some Possibly Reckless Generalizations Based On Three Episodes of “Maburaho”

My roommate, having exhausted some of the current shows this season, was looking for some other anime to watch. Some time ago, when we were trawling through the anime section of Best Buy, I saw Maburaho and suggested that he might like it. Well, last night, we decided to finally check out the first three episodes. Here are some observations.

  • This feels more like Love Hina as a harem show than, say, a more “modern” example like Baka Test.
  • Why are “main girls” so often pink-haired? It’s true here, and in Zero no Tsukaima, Baka Test, Rosario + Vampire…the list goes on.
  • I was still relatively new to anime in 2003, which is when this show was released. I remember that it was considered extremely racy for its time. Now, in the Kanokon-Queens Blade-Seikon no Quasar age it looks rather tame.
  • The only little sister-like character we encountered so far (episode 3) was not really fetishized. The imouto loli lovin’ hadn’t quite begun yet at all.
  • There was a startling amount of plot accomplished in the first episode, more than I expected. Not that it’s a good plot, mind you–it’s as full of holes as any show of its ilk–but until the mindless haremette chasing begins in the second half it felt kinda, well, meaty. In both senses of the word.
  • The pacing seemed a bit slower, almost limp by today’s standards. Or was it unusually slow for its time too?
  • It’s a testament to how things change so fast these days that a show that is merely seven years old already feels like it comes from another time: before Haruhi, before the wholesale moe takeover, etc. Though of course the formula is pretty well in place.

We watched some Rosario + Vampire after that, and in the space of five years, the animation quality, the action styles, and even the introduction of snarky self-referential humor: all were in place for a “current” anime.

Now I’m told that this show becomes a lot more than just a harem comedy later on. I’m not sure I’m interested enough to check it out further, but the experience was instructive. Or, I could be generalizing irresponsibly based on a tiny sample size. What do you think?

The Gentle Post-Apocalypse of “Sora no Woto”

Screen shot 2010-01-24 at 10.00.04 PM.png

If the most interesting aspect of Sora no Woto is, as I mentioned before, the setting–the content of that setting bears closer examination. It is, in effect, a gentle post-apocalyptic world, a stark contrast to the many post-apocalypse stories that have been in American movie theaters in particular lately (The Road, The Book of Eli, Children of Men, etc). Does humanity go gentle into the good night after all?

Continue reading The Gentle Post-Apocalypse of “Sora no Woto”

Art and Soul 6 – Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 and Human Nature

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Update, 3/13/2011: welcome, new visitors. I felt these reflections were worth reposting in the wake of current events in Japan. I am aware that this is based on a half-watching of Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 and does not account for its ending, and I am preparing a sequel/follow up in the coming days with additional thoughts.

There’s an editorial in the New York Times, and another story in the LA Times about the resilience and civility of the Japanese people in the face of crisis. The spirit shown in the show is very real. (You may also find the original Time Magazine article about disaster behavior, referenced in the column, helpful to read too.)

While you listen, no matter what you believe, please consider donating to the ongoing relief efforts. Click here for a list, or see the links above for opportunities.

Yes, the first “Art and Soul” episode since June 6, 2008. This one is about what Tokyo Magnitude 8.0, and disasters in general, might tell us about human nature and behavior in such circumstances.

For those who don’t remember or know about this audio column, this is where I put on my seminary student, Christian theology and ethics and philosophy hat. You won’t offend me if you run away screaming after hearing that. :) In turn I promise not to be that preachy. I just felt after a while, it was time to do one again, and for a worthy show at that. And to counter any misunderstandings that might have happened this week, ahem.

Transcript after the cutaway.

Continue reading Art and Soul 6 – Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 and Human Nature