Tag Archives: philosophy

What if I had never gotten into anime?

Have you ever wondered where you’d have gone if you hadn’t become an anime fan?

I’ve always wondered if I hadn’t gotten into anime, what would’ve happened to me?

If you had met me back then, you would’ve met a very different person.

The year was 1995, when I graduated high school, the best year of my teenage days. I went to the prom with a pretty good looking gal, hung out with friends in a limo, ate at an expensive French restaurant (aren’t they all), and then went on a nice retreat the next day.

I was a high school senior: a veteran of the war of adolescence, battling shyness, struggling with my feelings for the opposite sex, avoiding  bullies, shutting myself off some times, and dying to be a club maniac at other times. You know, the usual stuff that almost all adults go through in their younger days.

I remember right after graduation, after we tossed our hats in the air, and I was on my way home with my parents, on our way to a Chinese restaurant for celebration. I knew exactly what I wanted to listen to on our way; I inserted the cassette tape (wow, did these even exist) of Top Gun’s soundtrack; I had already fast-forwarded it to the Top Gun Anthem. I felt like I was going to soar into the sky.

Somewhere in the sky, my dream, whatever it was, was waiting for me. I was flying somewhere, or so I believed.

I was not outgoing, but I was not reclusive. I knew how to be, for a lack of better word, ippanjin (can be translated as normal crowd, perhaps). I was pretty positive about life because I had became a Christian one year earlier, and I had gone to Life ’95, a huge Christian party, in Orlando, Florida. Filled with positivity, I knew how to tell a good story—my favorite was the one about how my prom looked disastrous but worked out well in the end, and I attributed its success to God’s blessings.

I simply believed then.

Fast-forward (3x the normal speed), and here I am, in 2012. I’m rather cynical about life, less hopeful, have weak faith, don’t know how to act like an ippanjin, am an otaku, and watch anime as my primary means of entertainment.

I’ve gone through years of alcohol addiction; I wasted my college years drowning in booze, porn, and a lot of 90’s anime. I was once wealthy, but now technically in the category of being poor (but far from it in reality). I’m no longer simply trusting.

All this time, two things have always accompanied me, and they have almost never been at odds with each other, oddly enough. These things are anime and God.

I’ve always wondered why God allows me to watch anime, and he doesn’t tell me to get off of it. After all, anime has very little or nothing to do with Christianity, or at least I still believe that today. People would probably tell me Eva this, Alucard that, Trigun this, or whatever.

Once again, oddly enough, I’ve learned a lot of Christian lessons through different moments in different anime. Some of these anime were funny, but most were serious (without taking themselves too seriously, thank God), and almost none of them said a direct word about God, Jesus, or Christianity. Actually, most of them had nothing to do with religion. They were simply great works of animation. Great stories.

I’ve always wondered about that. Why is it that there are Christian anime watchers, and even Christian otakus (is that an oxymoron?). Recently, I even met a woman (no, we’re not dating, just working on a project together) who shares a very similar background in that she grew up in Taiwan, went to the US to study for college and graduate school, and watches anime as entertainment.

I wonder if it will take a lifetime to discover why.

Or is the question “why” even relevant at this point in my life, with our (Mike, Jeremy, me, Linda, MLM, Dan, and a group of awesome folks) site, Anime Diet, being a major indie press in the US and our Facebook page having close to 8,700 likes.

I am wondering exactly this: if I were to meet the me that just graduated from high school, toe to toe, in the middle of Rockville, Maryland, what would I say to him?

I take all that in with another gulp of beer, and I’ll leave you with that and bid you good night

or good day.

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.

Panty and Stocking: Broken Heroes

It should be a series filled with horrible angst.

Panty and Stocking – named for the artifacts they bear – are outcast angels, unable to ascend to heaven. Denied communion with their maker, they must slaughter their way through hordes of ghosts and demons until they redeem themselves. It sounds like the recipe for a Twilight knockoff, or a Supernatural/Buffy pastiche.

But Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt avoids these predictable traps, and is far better for it. Brandishing a “hell with it, let’s roll” attitude, the title characters are seriously flawed heroes. Stocking is a gothloli addicted to sweets, and Panty is a shameless tramp with an insatiable appetite for man-flesh. Let’s face it: these are the girls your mother warned you about – and that’s before the whole “angels on stripper poles” transformation sequence. Faced with epic morale problems, Garterbelt – a Mr. T in clerical robes – has mostly settled for pointing them at the monsters and saying, “Kill.”

It’s interesting that the demons of the series – Scanty and Kneesocks – represent order. The demonic is not the order we create, the meaning we give to our lives personally, but rather the thousand petty rules and obligations that society foists upon us. The creators of Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt have literally demonized social rules, and cast the angelic protagonists as struggling to overcome them.

What makes the series compelling? Is it fun? Yes. Does it have any compunction about making gross scatological jokes? No. But overall, Panty and Stocking are heroic for their willingness to endure. They have the scorn of others; they face doubt, mockery, and condemnation – and like Rhett Butler, they frankly just don’t give a damn. They’ll do the job they have to do, but they won’t bother being saints about it. Surely this resonates with an audience tired of having to put up with everyone else’s troubles and expectations.

Nihilism isn’t quite the same as grace under pressure, but in the broken world Panty and Stocking inhabit, you take what you can get, and look good doing it.

Strike Witches 2 – The Pantsless Dream

“You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”

– Mahatma Gandhi

We live, as the Chinese would have it, in interesting times. No, let us be more frank than that. We live in absurd times. As the BP oil spill continues, as North Korea makes warlike noises despite warnings from nearly every other civilized country with an interest in the matter, as the men from Union Carbide get off with 2 years in jail for the deaths of over 10,000, it is evident that lunacy is the order of the day.

What better time than now to release an absurd show? And how much more absurd does it get than Strike Witches, a show about pantsless magical schoolgirls who put on robot parts and nekomimi to fight for their countries?

Accepting absurdity is not easy.  Some people may complain that, for instance, a blacksmith should wear some pants. But this is the old way of thinking. These standards of believability have already been dealt a mortal blow! In fact, anime has already visited the topic of magical blacksmithing in great detail, and not only is it OK to smith without pants, it is OK to do so without hammer, anvil, quenching liquid, or even fire!  Magic has supplanted all of these. The Strike Witches already engage in life-and-death combat without pants; compared to that, why should the entirely controllable rigor of blacksmithing compel them to don pants?

Do not hesitate: he who hesitates is lost. Do not fear: we have nothing to fear but fear itself, and recursion is utterly passe. Stride forth boldly, and embrace the future!  Dare to dream of a pants-free world!

Of course, it’s possible – just possible – that I’m biased in my assessment. I mean, I’m not wearing any pants.

Let’s Bible One-Shot: The Moe of Christ

Suffering is moe.

Crucified on the cross, Jesus Christ knew profound suffering.

Therefore, Jesus Christ is profoundly moe.

This, along with a few other propositions of dubious logical merit, forms the basis of Let’s Bible, a tale of Biblical proportions that toes the line between being bizarrely funny and simply wrong. Perhaps, as James Wood said, the Creator cannot be reified, but in Let’s Bible, Jesus is certainly moefied.

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Aika Zero: Yielding to Victory

Stop it before it penetrates the sky!

What defines Aika Zero? The fact that it deliberately imitates fetish porn? The fact that the overarching target for the first story arc is a giant phallus, which must be destroyed before it succeeds in emptying its fiery load? The fact that the show goes further than the original Aika, blurring the line between titillation and parody of pornographic content?

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New York Anime Festival 2009, Day 0: Cake

The Dave and Buster’s was crowded. Black-attired waitstaff in crisp uniforms nodded professionally at me as I entered, pointing me up to the third floor when I inquired about the event hosted there.

The cake-cutting katana. Photography by Linda Yau.

It was hard to miss – a frothing mass of humanity bumped and jostled at the far end of the room, packed in tight. I could not see the object of their focus, but this had to be it. As I made my way across the room, I gradually discerned that there were at least three different types of people here – businessmen in suits with refined drinks, a casually dressed faction, and a surprisingly large number of fashionably-attired teens.

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A Brave New Divergence

I have seen the future, and it is fantastic.

uniformlook
These bounce each time she gives a status report. No joke.

Multicolored hair!  Massive oppai¹!  Quantum everything!  Cool robots!  Just ignore the bizarre displays of objectum sexual² behavior that accompany all these things in Divergence Eve, and we’ll proceed.

DivEve

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The Philosophy of Being Otaku

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With a title like Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals, how can you go wrong? Professor Hiroki Azuma’s almost decade-old book by that title has just received an English translation, and it’s supposed to tell us something about what otaku are all about. From Japan Today:

Azuma’s work explores “otaku” production and consumption, and what they suggest about man’s search for meaning. He argues that today’s “otaku” no longer crave narratives and wider significance, but are instead gratified by reading for character “elements”—things like cute cat ears, maid uniforms and loose socks. The upside is that you can find the spiky-haired, ramen-slurping protagonist of your dreams with an online search engine. The downside is a “world [that] drifts about materially without giving meaning to lives” and “humanity [functioning] at the level of database.”

Mike’s Take: the interview as given by Japan Today is all over the place, and I can’t quite tell if he’s being critical of otaku culture or just trying to explain how it’s different from other kinds of fandom or subcultures. The summary given above, and in the Amazon description, suggests that the point is that otakus are not so much looking for narrative or meaning in the stories of anime/manga, but rather disconnected, digestible bits and pieces like cat-ears, moe charm points, etc. This is less human than almost a mechanistic, database-like accumulation of knowledge, and is reflective of consumerism and the post-modern condition.

That certainly sounds critical to my ears, actually–and it seems like an incomplete description, at best, of otaku psychology. Not to say that he’s hitting on something that’s not really there. Yes, it is true that in recent years especially, we’ve seen more and more pandering anime whose goal is to appeal to particular fetishes. It is also true that, as he points out in the interview, that many beloved anime plots and franchises like Gundam have roots in commercial calculation, not pure artistic inspiration. And it’s also true that the “collector” mentality of many otaku, with its obsession with catgorizing and cataloguing (see the entire Saimoe tournament, the rote checklist of “types” of girls in many harem anime and eroges, etc) might suggest almost a data-like approach to fandom. I’m even willing to agree that if this is all there is–and it may be so for many–there is something degraded and unfulfilling about it.

hiroki.jpg

But hold on here. This statement here is highly problematic:

According to your book, anime narratives and coffee mugs are afforded the same kind of social status. Could you please tell us about this?

We’re now celebrating the 30th anniversary of Gundam….From the beginning, Japan’s anime culture has been based on selling toys. For this reason, there’s hardly any purpose in poring over Japanese anime or game narratives in and of themselves—they’re being produced to sell merchandise.

So the worth of a story in itself is not determined by its own merits–its narrative, characters, plot, etc.–but by its origin as a commercial project? I reject this as a blanket principle. While commercial motives can certainly bend stories in ways that are often less artistically desirable (we see this happen in popular culture all the time; it’s called “selling out”), there is no intrinsic reason why a story that may have been created initially to sell toys can’t be simply an engaging, well-told story. In fact, as far as Gundam is concerned, Yoshiyuki Tomino’s desire was not only to help Bandai sell robots, but to also tell a classic space opera in anime. Maybe it’s true that if a story begins that way, it’s less likely to be worthy of a closer look. I get that bias; it’s one I share myself to an extent. But it’s not really fair to dismiss all commercial storytelling out of hand for that reason. There have been plenty of examples of TV shows, films, and other media that have been both commercially successful and widely regarded as artistic successes, and even cited as being very reflective of the society and culture of the time. Need I mention my first beloved show, Evangelion?

I wonder too whether what he is talking about may not apply so much to what I understand current Western anime fandom to be like, as opposed to Japanese fandom. For one, he was writing about Japanese otaku in the late 1990s, before they became more widely influential in larger culture and while they were still considered outcasts. (This was the crowd Hideaki Anno was hoping to talk to and change in his Evangelion endings.) My experience of Western fandom has been a lot more social and less atomized than the kind of fans he’s describing here. Ray has told me that Asian cons are different from American cons in that they tend to be much more insular, and oriented around buying things; perhaps this is what Azuma is talking about when he speaks of “database animals.” Somebody should write a similar book but about American anime/manga fandom, and explore the what and whys they are different from their Japanese counterparts.

This looks like an interesting book, however. I might actually pick this up and give it a proper review one of these days. However, from these summaries it already seems like a mixed bag, a rather outsiderish/academic point of view, despite Azuma’s claims to have written it not for academics but for “creative people.” Seeing that it was written in 2000, I may just buy it just to see what he says about Evangelion, which was still going strong at the time. :)

The Zen of Eureka Seven

Freedom writ large.

Take one gangly kid, one cooldere, and a bunch of heroic rebels who just want to live free. Put them in a dystopian future where an almost-magical element, trapar, generates lift forces and enables them to defy gravity. Mix in mecha, a threat to the world, and an uneasy peace. Serves seven: Eureka Seven.

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Strike Witches: The Evil Without

In our roundtable discussion on whether or not anime is art, Ray brought up an excellent point about that infamous scifi-fantasy-loli-pantsu fanservice vehicle, Strike Witches.  To wit, though the show has actual fodder for intellectual discussion, the mere fact that it shows school girls in a permanent pantyshot state renders this moot for the vast majority of viewers.  You cannot rehabilitate such a thing, the argument goes.  No amount of light will overpower this darkness.

Gaze into the abyss!

Nevertheless, with licensing confirmed for S1 and a second season reportedly on the way, an attempt should be made to see just what is good about this show.  And so, with both eyes open – fully cognizant of the anti-intellectual properties of the show – let us try to find some spark of creativity inside.

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