Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Otakusphere: A long line of dead blogs

So recently I was checking through my backlog of stuff and stumbled across an old Otakusphere column that I wrote back in February. Mostly because I wanted to find out what had happened to Only the Bitch Knows.

What I found was a fairly long post about how she'd had her identity stolen. Honestly it was one of those posts where even a crusty curmudgeon like me finds myself unexpectedly feeling a pang of something in my chest.

But it got me thinking about last posts on blogs. I mean CCY had brought up Like Water earlier in the year, and that was another really good last post. But what I found kind of went like this. There are two types of "dead" blogs. Those that just fade away and those that march into that good night.

So, I've decided to try and find some actual good posts on those blogs. So I'm going to take a step back into the way back machine and look at some blogs that either are on indefinite hiatus, or are, well, dead.

First up we have Equivocal Resolution, who really did suffer from the slow death. But it was her last post that I think is her best post. She did a review of Touch and brought up a complaint that I honestly haven't heard much these days. That 70s and 80s animation seemed old and dated. I mean granted, it probably is old and dated, but really, I don't hear that complaint much. Especially with the spate of people who have reviewed Legend of the Galactic Heroes in the past few months. (On a site note, she does have bateszi listed as "an interesting NEW blog.")

Now Kimagure may not really be dead. I mean he (or she) might just be resting. The blog has only been inactive for about five months. But I do like his (or her) second to last post about the controversy surrounding Kodomo no Jikan. Personally, I don't have any feelings about the title one way or the other (read: there's stuff I want to read/see more). But I think it's a pretty good opinion about why pulling was probably the best thing to do for Seven Seas, but that it was still a good title.

Die Fanboys! has arguably the best name of any anime blog that I've seen to date. Okay, maybe not the best one. But this was definitely a case of going out on a last hurrah, but not one that said, "So long and thanks for all of the fish." Matrim posted a fairly long rant about the decision to yank the twelth episode of Higurashi off of the air. To be honest, a lot of it's common sense. But on the other hand, I still am not sure whether Higurashi is actually any good and worth getting all that worked up over (I've got it cued up to watch at some point.)

And just for flavor, I'm going to throw in Pretty Scythe's review of Paradise Kiss ep 6. Mostly because I like that show.

Just one final note, a green haired loli trap sent me an e-mail to let me know that the voting for the anime blog awards has started, so go vote. And by some random trick of fate, I did manage to secure a spot in the Rookie of the Year category which is nice. So thank you for everyone who nominated me. I do appreciate it.

So in the spirit of Drmchsr0: Go out and get your vote on!

List o the weak: Anime that time has forgotten

So there are some series that make such an impression that they seem to rock the foundations of anime fandom: Evangelion, Serial Experiments Lain, Fullmetal Alchemist, Cowboy Beebop, etc. It's not that these shows are universally beloved, but they're definitely universal. They'll come up at least once in any conversation you have about anime.

And then there are shows that seem to spark, fizzle and fade away. Now for the most part, they probably deserve to. I mean how many people really are going to talk about Project A-ko or El Hazard. Not that these shows are bad, it's just that they didn't leave much of an impression.

And then there are shows that are good, but surprisingly don't seem to show up in any conversations. Now none of these shows are perfect, and they may have come at the end of a glut of other shows, or they might have just gotten a little too much bad press. But these are my top five overlooked anime.

Number Five: Otogi Zoshi

Okay, so the first thirteen episodes of this are better than the second, but even with that this show has two kickass openings, swords, mysterious quests and some really excellent animation (courtesy of Production I.G.) The first thirteen episodes follow the adventure of Hikaru Minamoto as she assumes her brother's identity to save Japan. Yes, it sounds like a cheap rip-off of Mu Lan. But trust me, this isn't Disney at all. It's got blood and dying and tragedy and all of the good stuff.

Now the second half does take place in a modern Tokyo and does seem more like an epilogue to the first part rather than a story in its own right. But it's still enjoyable enough.

Number Four: Noein

There's just something about this show. Yeah, it does focus on a bunch of elementary school kids in their last summer before they go on with the rest of their lives. But how they get caught up in this inter dimensional war is great. The kids themselves get routinely upstaged by their adult counterparts. In particular, Kurasu, who is the older version of the male lead, is at times dark and mysterious and times tragic and at times cruel and occasionally insane. He makes for one of the better heroes I've seen in anime. Now I wouldn't necessarily put him in Lelouch or Suzaku territory, but he's still loads of fun.

And the other characters are just as enjoyable. Even Atori, who at first just seems like the classic anime wack job actually gets some fairly decent development. In fact, my only complaint about this series is the ending, which just didn't seem to fit with the rest of the series. But otherwise it's definitely worth checking out. Here's Anime Diet's first look at it.

Number Three: Argentosoma

Um… did you notice my banner up there? Yeah, that's Ryu Soma. Probably one of the best anti-heroes in anime. He's as interesting of a character as Lelouch or Kaiji. He's probably more interesting than a lot of the heroes on my top eight list (with the exception of Brandon Heat). Now, I spent an entire analysis piece a while back going over him, so I won't repeat everything I said there. But the dynamic between him and Hattie is really what sells this show to me.

Now the side characters aren't necessarily as interesting, but that's okay. The plot is fairly good and provides an excellent backdrop for the conflict between those two characters and the conflict within the main character himself.

Number Two: Starship Operators

So I had a hard time deciding whether this should be number two or number three, but it's probably the more obscure show. I'll be honest though, it does an amazing job at capturing the relationship between the media, the government and the military in times of war. In fact, it could just as easily be a case study for the nature of modern warfare as it is a story about some high school students who hijack a ship.

The only bad thing I can say about it is that it has a nasty case of red shirt and a missing denouement but otherwise it's an excellent show.

Number One: Kaze no Yojimbo

Okay, so I've talked about this one before. But if you're tired of hardboiled heroes who go soft halfway through the series, than watch this show. If you want a little more realism in your anime, then watch this show. If you just want something that's different, then watch this show. I mean if Dashiell Hammett had a Japanese love child, it would be George Kodama. And if he'd happened to set The Red Harvest in Japan is would be Kaze no Yojimbo.

But… the character designs do have a bad tendency to switch a little. But honestly if you can put up with the ever shifting character designs of GitS: Standalone Complex, then you shouldn't have a problem with this one.

Friday, April 25, 2008

In My View: I still like serial. Even if it might rot my brain.

Now before I get into this, let me say that I respect bateszi a lot. I don't always agree with what he says, but he does say it very well. And even if I disagree, I can appreciate his point of view. And hell, he liked GTO.

It's just that his latest post got me thinking about why I like anime.

But I think I have to give you all a little history, so you know where I'm coming from. I grew up watching Doctor Who. In particular I grew up watching Tom Baker play Doctor Who on public television every weekday. And I didn't watch it in the two hour block that it would be later processed into. No, I watched it a half hour at a time. So an entire arc could take a week or two to play out. When you're eight, an hour can seem like a long time, let alone a day. But every weekday at 7:30, I made sure I was in front of the television when the show started up because I didn't want to miss a thing.

That's when I fell in love with the serial.

Serials really are unlike any other form of storytelling. Mostly because they aren't self contained. A really good serial will pull the viewer in and leave them thinking about, "what's going to happen next time?" in a way that traditional episodic television simply doesn't do. That's not a knock on episodic television, just to say that they're different.

Now with a rare exception, the majority of American television in the 90s was episodic. I don't blame the networks for their choices as far as that goes. I mean episodic television is safer. The stories are self-contained and don't rely on a person having watched the previous ten or so episodes so they get what is going on. Producing those kinds of shows just makes good business sense.

But it didn't help me much.

So I started watching anime. Now as a medium, anime does the serial really well. In fact, I'd risk saying that they do the serial better than they do episodic television. Now I'll admit that I started watching anime again on Cartoon Network. I even sat through the entirety of the Cell Saga on DBZ, although I'm still wondering why. And once I had the means and ability to buy anime, I did.

And it was about that time that America resurrected the serial with The Sopranos. In all honesty, I haven't watched the Sopranos, and I don't really have any intention of watching it (mostly because Mob shows are the one form of crime drama that I don't like.) But I have watched 24, Lost and Heroes with split feelings on all of those shows. But I can say all of those shows have one thing in common.

They aren't anime.

American serials (for the most part) work on the premise that no matter how weird things get, this is a story about real people living real lives. I mean take a look at Heroes. Here's a show about a group of people who find out one day that they have superpowers. Even the most bombastic show of all time – 24 – is still a show about the progression of Jack Bauer as a character. The creators have even said that much.

In fact, when a show starts pushing that boundary of realism too far (24) people like me start to cringe (how many times can the guy get tortured before he finally dies.) Now part of that has to do with the medium. Part of it has to do with the nature of American fiction. But with any of these shows they're required to stay within people's expectations of how real people should act and what real people should be able to do. And each time they diverge from reality they're taking a risk of losing their audience.

Whereas anime can break all the rules and get away with it. I mean could you imagine a live action Kamui and Fuma zooming around Tokyo tower holding swords nearly as long as they are? Or a real Lain standing in the middle of a bunch of jabbering mouths attached to shadowy figures? Or even someone playing Shinji Ikari kneeling at the feet of Unit 01 debating with himself whether he should really pilot it? I know I couldn't. (All rumors of a live action Eva aside.)

But because they're removed from the realm of reality, it becomes believable. We can imagine these things happening because somewhere in the back of our heads we're thinking, "It's just a cartoon." And that's the beauty of it. In fact, I'd compare it closer to another type of teen entertainment – the comic book.

Now anime that cuts a little closer to reality can certainly be good. I enjoy Monster. I think Kaze no Yojimbo is easily the best hard-boiled detective series that's ever been animated. But they're mostly a novelty. Interesting, yes. Intelligent, sure. But I could turn on my own television and see the same thing.

It's not that I deny that the American serial has a certain amount of appeal. I mean I like some of them. But it's a different type of story with a different type of medium and a different approach. Judging one in the light of the other just doesn't seem fair.


Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Lost in Translation: A look at BLASSREITER and Tower of Druaga

Sometimes I wonder why some genres don't travel very well into anime. Partially I understand that anime is on the whole a fairly new medium. And it's not a medium that has a whole lot of experimentation that goes on. It's pretty possible to pick up a new show that is really the rehash of an old show which was a different take on another older show which all started with this one show that was pretty novel. So I can't blame them that they haven't experimented a lot, they've gone with what's safe. (Granted I could go into the whole Lain/Texnolyze/Ergo Proxy/Ghost Hound/Kaiba thing, but I'm going to save that for another post.)

And then there's the fact, that there are just some genres that they seem to have a mental block on. Take Western fantasy for example. Now, I'll admit my geekdom started with picking up a copy of Guardians of the West by David Eddings, and after 16 years of reading fantasy I'm pretty jaded when it comes to the genre. When I take something like A Game of Thrones or The Deadhouse Gates and compare it something like Slayers, well let's just say it's like comparing Alan Ginsberg with a well meaning 15-year-old poet wannabe. It makes me want to cry. A lot.

This is why Tower of Druaga is surprising me. I mean it already has one strike against it: It's based off of a video game. That the second strike should mean that it's lingering between being barely entertaining and downright unwatchable.

Yet, I find myself looking forward to Friday and pulling up my YouTube page to watch the new episode. Now don't get me wrong, Druaga won't win any awards or be listed in anyone's top anime of all time. But I still find myself liking every episode I watch, including the first one.

So I keep trying to figure out, where it succeeds, where so many have failed. And I think I have an answer. It takes itself just serious enough without taking itself too serious. See where a show like Record of Lodoss War fails is that the dialogue, plotting and characters simply don't live up to the uber-serious tone it sets for itself. I mean how can I take a mage serious who runs around chanting stuff and screaming, "Fireball." Whereas the sit-com plot of Slayers completely undermines any thing serious they try to do, distancing me from the characters. (It doesn't help that my favorite character is a doofus, who never seems to win.)

Yes, Jin is a loser. But he means well. Yeah, the priestess goes around chanting to Ishtar, but she doesn't strike up a three-minute monologue explaining the importance of Ishtar to the culture of the land and do it in a way that's so horribly cliché that it makes me want to kill some Elves. The funny moments in the show aren't enough to damage the integrity of the serious moments, but they're enough so that some of the ridiculousness doesn't grate on my nerves. Basically Tower of Druaga is a David Eddings book: charming, funny, a little cliché, but mostly good fun.

But oh… BLASSREITER, how you are disappointing me. Now I'd like to point out that the Japanese do cyberpunk well. In fact, right after shounen fighting and epic space battles, anime seems to be made to have street samurai's facing off with class-A hackers. I mean you don't have to worry about gravity or athletic ability in anime. And by taking a step away from reality, makes the impossible seem plausible in a way that would be much harder in the live-action movie.

But BLASSREITER insists on upping the melodrama. See cyberpunk (in my humble opinion) has to be handled with subtlety. Now visually BLASSREITER does a good job. The character designs are in the more realistic style of something like GiTS: Standalone Complex or Parasite Dolls. The scenery all looks real. Honestly I could really go for the story.

If they weren't shouting about Gerd all the time and wondering whether he's a monster or is he a human being. (Maybe they should just make him a number and banish him to some island where he can get chased around by a giant floating bouncy ball.)

In fact, the best cyberpunk stories seem to dwell too heavily on their themes at all. Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex actually spends quite a bit of time exploring the nature of technology and people's interaction with it, but it's always in the context of another story (like chasing a tank down the road or trying to rescue a kidnap victim.) You could watch the entire series without once having to pick out the theme.

But BLASSREITER insists on shoving it down your throat until you gag on it.

And that's unfortunate because it could be a really good series otherwise.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Jumping at Shadows: Is the first episode of Code Geass Japanese Right-wing propaganda?

"There is a house down in New Orleans. They call the Rising Sun."

  • House of the Rising Sun. (Traditional American Folk song)

Now I'll admit my first encounter with Japanese culture didn't come from anime at all, but rather a book. And not really just any book, but a book written by an American. In this case, Michael Crichton's "Rising Sun". Now admittedly around the time it was written it was fairly topical. Japan was buying up large parts of American real estate. Economically and psychologically, the country felt dwarfed by the powerhouse across the ocean. So Crichton, being the smart writer he was, wrote a book exploring the Japanese-American relationship at the time.

It was the first time I came across the word, "gaijin".

Now the only reason I bring up the book, is that when I told other people about what I learned in there, they looked at me and said, "You know that's kind of racist." Now of course, they were referring to what I was saying, not the Japanese attitude.

Now, I'm not going to go into whether Crichton overstated Japan's xenophobia or whether he's racist because honestly, that's not the point. The point is that America (and to a lesser or greater extent the rest of the Western world) is very conscious of race. We talk about it. We argue about it. We have entire fields of study devoted to it. We have television shows that explore it.

So it's not surprising that we end up seeing it in anime. Unlike my friends at the time, we're all pretty familiar with the word gaijin, and the sometimes racist, sometimes xenophobic stuff that creeps into anime from time to time.

In fact, we're so used to it that we expect it. We look at the two CIA agents in GitS: Standalone Complex and say, "Yep there it is." We look at the masked Americans in Gasaraki and say, "There it is again." I'm pretty sure that we could come up with a laundry list of questionable things that have popped into anime since we've started watching it.

So when another blogger asked, "Whether we thought the first episode of Code Geass R2 was right-wing Japanese propaganda?" The initial reaction would be, "Yes."

And it could certainly be seen like that. I mean, you have an invading Western force occupying Japan. You have the noble Japanese people under the thumb of those cruel Brittanians. In fact, the rebel's hero, a Caucasian westerner, is a ruthless anti-hero who would willingly sacrifice his own men.

But… I would say that interpretation is kind of limited.

Tanaguchi and Imperalism

The question here really is one of context. And really I have iknight's pimping of Goro Tanaguchi to thank for it. If we look at Code Geass in the light of PLANETES, then the episode falls into a completely different category.

PLANETES is probably one of the most scathing indictments of colonialism and imperialism that I've seen. In fact, the second half of the series is dominated by a group of "terrorists" from developing countries who want to share in the wealth of space exploration. But the Western world has shut them out.

I put "terrorists" in parentheses because throughout most of the series these people are portrayed as hard working, just people, who happened to come from poor or war torn countries. Now I'd provide specific examples, but I don't want to spoil the series.

Although, I can point out the UN satellite in the first episode. Which Ai originally thought was a symbol of peace and turned out to be blatant PR for the UN.

Now if I compare that with dynamic between the Brittanians and the Japanese, it becomes less about who it's happening to and more about what exactly is happening. Whatever else Code Geass might be about; it is mostly a warning AGAINST imperialism. That just happens to take place in Japan. Much like 1984 happened to be based in England, or Fahrenheit 451 happens to be based in America.

But why Suzaku and Lelouch

Now somebody could ask, well what about Suzaku and Lelouch? I mean the Japanese guy is noble and heroic and has all the best intentions. And the Briton is sneaky, self-involved and cold. And on the surface, I think that's probably a decent argument. And when I was thinking about this subject, I did run up against a brick wall.

I mean Suzaku IS a good guy. But… he's still the villain. I mean he's the Vichy government. And Lelouch IS still the hero even with all of his faults. So why the switch-up?

And I think the answer is pretty simple. Tanaguchi seems torn on terrorism.

If we take the character from PLANETES, who will remain nameless, as an example. We can see that he's a noble man. The first time he gets introduced he's actually a hero. All he wants is a little social justice, but the powers that be won't listen to him. So he takes matters into his own hands. Now I won't say he glamorizes terrorism, but that he realizes that there are times when the tree of liberty has to get watered.

But he also realizes that violence has to be a means to an end and not the end in and of itself. In fact, Lelouch's almost surrender to Euphie points at this. Once the government listens, it's time for the terrorism to stop.

In fact, the opinion I get from watching his stuff could be summed up, "There is a thin line between terrorist and revolutionary." And that's a fairly cosmopolitan (if somewhat radical) viewpoint, if I do say so myself.

Related Links

Anime World Order's interview with Helen McCarthy, Rob Fenelon and Dave III presents an interesting take on the relationship between Britain and Japan.

Iknight's look at the Lelouch's character.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

In My View: Why I can’t stop worrying and learn to love the anime industry.

Honestly, I think a lot of anime fans don't have the foggiest understanding (or concern) for the general business of anime, both the creative aspect and the commercial aspect. How often do you hear a fan criticize an animation studio for a business decision it had absolutely nothing to do with, as if the giant media conglomerates bankrolling and controlling the production in the background didn't even exist? And how often do you hear anime fans whine about getting "ripped off" by greedy anime "companies" without any real knowledge of, 1) how much money it costs to produce anime, 2) how little television broadcast ad revenue amounts to, and 3) how little the people working in the trenches get paid?

Jeff Lawson on the Animanachronism's post Studiotolatry

To be frank when I first started learning a bit more about anime, I started to get interested in the decisions of the studio. And how the business worked. So I sent one short e-mail into "Hey Answerman!" It read:

"How much creative control do the studios have over the anime they select? Can they choose the series? Because I've noticed some similarities between series from certain studios (like Bones and GONZO)."

It's a really simple question. It certainly didn't require a page long answer. A simple "A lot" or "A little" would have sufficed. But it didn't get answered. Maybe it's because it was poorly phrased. Maybe because it was too vague. Maybe because I have bad grammar.

Or maybe because he wanted to talk about fansubs that week.

I don't know. And I probably will never know. So when I read that little snippet from Jeff Lawson, frankly it pissed me off. But I couldn't put it into words why. Somehow the crux of my problem was eluding me. That was until two things happened. The first was a comment from Sejanus over on the blogspot version of this page on my strangely popular rant about ANN's spring preview:

I think you are over-analysing it… ANN is just trying to do a better job, give us, the fans, what we want: more information.

And what do the fans say about it? Not surprisingly, they're bitching.

Now you can read my rambling after that. Frankly, I got on my high horse. And I went into my traditional rant. Now maybe omo is right. Perhaps my crime is caring too much about standards. Perhaps my crime is that I think there's a correct way to practice journalism. And perhaps Impz should have written this rant.

But if I might be indulged to misquote Shakespeare, "Let it not be said that I loved too little, but that I loved too well." And that's why being told that I'm bitching and that I should just sit down and shut up, ticks me off. Because I do care about those things, whether I should or I shouldn't. Like I care about how much money it costs to produce anime. Like I care about how little television broadcast ad revenue amounts to. Like I care about how little the people working in the trenches get paid.

Like I care about anime.

But no one would tell me anything about it. And why should they? I mean they already knew. Why bless the unwashed masses with that information? As Avatar put it:

Hey, if you've been in the industry for a decade, you know better than to talk to damned anime fans... there's nothing but abuse in it, and you can't tell them anything good anyway, so why bother?

Perhaps the same thing could be said about the anime fans. That they love too well. They care too much about things that they don't know enough about. And why don't they? Because frankly the information isn't there. Avatar makes an interesting point about subtitlers, but I couldn't tell a good subtitle from a bad one. I couldn't tell a good timer from a mediocre one. Some people might even accuse me of the fact that I can't tell a good voice actor from a bad one. Because no one has ever taught me. They're all inside some secret chamber somewhere, doing stuff and all I have are questions.

But it wasn't that I read TheBigN's blog post that I finally got it though. I wasn't just mad because I care. I was mad because I got lumped in with THOSE people. You know the ones. They talk about how, "fansubs are protected by the First Amendment." They complain about how the anime companies are ripping them off. They blame the studio for a bad business decisions.

And you know what? I am.

But I don't want to be. I listen to Anime World Order and Anime Roundtable as often as I can. And even though I might complain, I read ANN. I check out the blogs. I try to gather up as much information as I possibly can. So maybe it's time to turn those tables around. Maybe it's time for the people in the know to stop bitching.

And to start teaching.

Now in all fairness some of them do, but they still keep this pretense up. That somehow those of us that are less knowledgeable shouldn't be speaking. But how are we going to know unless we ask questions? How are we going to know unless we challenge?

How are we going to know unless they answer?


Related Links

Anime Almanac's take on my poorly worded rant.

Jpmeyer's take.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Why not s-CRY-ed?

To be honest I've liked s-CRY-ed since I first watched it when it was coming out on DVD out here.

I mean plot-wise, it really isn't that different from most shounen style fighting shows. You have two guys, who don't like each other; both of them are trying to get strong enough to challenge the other one in an all-out mano y mano fight. But honestly, if you watch shounen fighting shows for the plot, then you're going to be sadly disappointed almost every time.

Because it's the characters themselves that drew me into this show. In fact, it was how the characters were considered equally important (much like Yan Wen-li and Reinhard von Lohengramm), given equal screen time and both had compelling back stories and conflicts.

Oh yeah, and the fights were awesome.

But I never could really connect with it and it's taken me a really long time to figure out why.

The metaphor of s-CRY-ed

The second part of the series always bugged me. You know, the part where suddenly Kazuma and Ryuho get sucked into Never Never Land and then the wacko guy from the Mainland shows up. It just seemed too inconsistent of a break in the plot. He'd spent a good fourteen episodes building this tension between these two worlds, why go and ruin it by switching up the story on the viewer?

And then I realized it. s-CRY-ed is a parable.

On the one hand, you have Kazuma, who represents the ideal of Freedom. On the other hand, you have Ryuho who represents the ideal of Security. (Now some person might say that he represents "Order" but I don't think order and security are two different things.) Then you have Ryuho's setting which is the reality of Security and then on the other hand you have Kazuma's setting which is the reality of Freedom.

So the first part of the series is basically saying that: A truly free society will become an anarchic state where the strong pray on the weak. And a totally secure society will become a totalitarian state where no one can make their own decisions (and if they do then they get kicked out.) Now, I could spent a lot of time going into what each of the characters mean in this debate, but I don't think it's really necessary.

Because I've got to talk about Kyoji Mujo, the guy from the Mainland. The thing is that the first part of s-CRY-ed is really clear about what the metaphor is. I mean it's even in the ads for the show. But the second half threw me. He didn't have a clear-cut metaphor. And then it hit me: He's Tyranny. Essentially he comes along takes the worst parts of Freedom and Security warps them to meet his own personal ends and then throws them back at the heroes. He differs from Freedom and Security because he only wants those things for himself and uses other people to get what he wants.

Okay, so there'll probably be some spoilers here, so if you haven't seen the series, go watch it. And really why are you still reading this anyway if you haven't seen the series?

So how does it all play out? Well Freedom and Security get together and kick Tyranny's ass and the world is a safe happy place for everyone else. Why? Because Freedom and Security still don't like each other and they have to spend the rest of eternity pounding each other into the ground. But neither of them can win because they are equally important.

So the moral of the story is, "Both Freedom and Security are necessary to keep a check on tyranny and provide a safe and free environment for the rest of the human race."

Sounds good, right?

Except if you're me.

On the nature of the Freedom vs. Security debate and why I think s-CRY-ed is so messed up.

I think George Orwell said it best when O'Brien was talking to Winston Smith. People don't want freedom. They want security. In fact, human history is littered with cases of people wanting to feel safe and willingly giving up their rights to do just that. All you need to do is look at the rise of Manorialism after the fall of Rome to see that people will sell themselves into slavery so that they know that those pesky Vikings aren't going to come in and raid their land and take their stuff. In a straight fight between those two values: security wins.

But freedom is the higher value. In so many ways, freedom allows people to do things, to follow their goals, to become participants in society rather than slaves to it. But the only time people chase after freedom is when they're afraid of losing it. And then only if they don't have any fear that someone might do something bad to them. Because if their security gets threatened they'll give up freedom without a second thought and they'll even defend giving it away.

So while, I agree with the basic idea of s-CRY-ed, Goro Taniguchi misses the point. Security and freedom aren't equal values. Freedom is the higher value. It's what should be preserved, both because it allows people the choice to do what they want, and because it's so unnatural for humanity. Security is a vice. It should only be indulged when it's necessary to preserve the safety and well-being of the society.

And that's what bothers me about s-CRY-ed.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Umm… Why is ANN doing a Spring Preview?

So am I the only one who finds it a bit ironic that ANN is doing a "real time" preview of the Spring Season. Granted, it is news. And even if I disagree with their reviews, they do seem to do it every years. But they spend so much time and effort trying to convince people that downloading fansubs is wrong that somehow I don't think their reader base would be running out to download the fansubs of these shows.

I mean it might just be me, but aren't they making a profit off of doing those reviews. And doesn't it mean then that they're making a profit off of promoting the illegal downloading of shows, or at the very least promoting shows that may or may not actually come out in the United States (or anywhere for that matter.)

Yeah. Way to go ANN. Throw ethics to the wind, so you can drag in a few extra dollars.

Impressions: Tower of Druaga, BLASSREITER, Madlax, Saiunkoku and Dennou Coil

So I'm taking iknight's advice and actually looking at who is directing these shows because all my snarky comments aside, I probably should be.

Tower of Druaga: I'll be fair about this one. Right now, I could go either way. If they decide to make the entire fantasy world some sort of online game and make the main character both a failure in the game and in real life then it would be really cool. If it's just the standard, young guy must train hard so that he can defeat the evil that lurking in the tower then it'll still be good. (No matter what those stupid people over at ANN say.) So far I've been watching this on YouTube and the quality is decent enough.

BLASSREITER: So far I've seen the first two episodes, and it seems pretty standard. Nothing great, nothing bad. I do like that the whole BOOMER-esque "Machines that can meld with other machines and become super machines" thing it has going on. But other than that, I'm not sold on it either way. Although Ichiro Itano, the director on this one, has some interesting titles under his belt, like Gantz. And he was the animation choreographer on Macross Plus, which explains why those bike scenes are done so well.

Madlax: So I decided to pick up Madlax again after I've had it sitting on my shelf for about a year and a half. (I've watched it once and I hadn't gone back to it since.) And the truth is that I'm just as unsure about it as last time that I watched it. It's definitely a fun series. Especially the Madlax episodes. I mean how can I not like the top notch assassin who goes around killing people like it's well… a nine to five job, but still acts a little bit like a kid herself. The Margaret Burton episodes are a little boring, mostly because Margaret Burton is a little bit boring. But the story does pick up and keep going at a fairly even pace. Although the lesbian undertones would probably be better if there was a little bit more yuri, a little less hinting at it.

But the one thing I can't figure out about this series is whether or not it's hinting at a yin and yang relationship in the human psyche, which would be a really simple interpretation. But just seems a little too easy, and if that's the case then I'm not so sure if I like it. Or if the series is about how the West treats the developing world. Now if that's the case then this is a show worth watching. And looking at the director on this one straight up doesn't help. On the one hand he directed Noir, on the other hand he directed Irresponsible Captain Tylor. I don't know.

Saiunkoku: Well other than for the one interesting note I made earlier, this show is still just okay. It's gotten past its tea parties and flower picking phase and now actually has a kind of solid plot. But I still have a hard time worrying about what's actually happening to Shuurei. It's starting to get into the politics a little more, which could be good, could be bad. Because this show really is a mixed bag. I guess I'm not surprised when I found out there was a rookie director on this one.

Dennou Coil: Okay this series just proves that evidently, I have no taste whatsoever. I mean everyone and their dog loves this series. But I just can't get into it. I'm not worried about these kids. I don't really care too much about their metabugs. And the "oh-so-cute" elementary school crushes make me want to gag. Much like Noien, this show really suffers with having a cast that is too young for me to relate to. But unlike Noein, I don't feel like they're in enough danger for me to care.

Persona ~trinity soul~: And yet another anime to prove that I have no taste whatsoever, only in the other direction. I actually like this one. I mean it's not perfect by any means. It lags. A lot. Like for entire episodes. But when it does get going, it's actually fairly enjoyable and I really like the artwork and the character designs. Those two things by themselves are enough to make me want to watch. Even though I'm not quite sure what's going on some of the time. Strangely enough there was another rookie director on this one

Thursday, April 10, 2008

In My View: Anime is Art?

(Please note: I am the worst kind of elitist. The type that doesn't like elitism)

I have to admit that I'm somewhat jaded about the idea of "art".

It isn't that Hidoshi did a poor job of explaining it. I think he came up with some of the best criteria that I've seen. In the end, they're concrete, reasonable and understandable.

But still… I just can't go down that road.

Let me give you a little background. In my other life (the one where I'm not watching anime to do really long pretentious analyses of them) I write stories. Now I'm not going to say that they're good stories, but they're stories. And I try really hard to do all the things that stories should do: have a theme, solid characters, a strong voice, a good plot, so on and so forth. But I refuse to call myself an artist. Not because I think that storytelling is any less of a form of creative work than say painting or poetry or theater or anime. But because I think being an artist is one letter away from being an artiste.

And being an artiste reminds me of James Joyce. (Yes, I pick on Joyce a lot. But that's because I hate his writing.)

In all fairness, it's not just Joyce. But all the other artistes who run around screaming, "No one understands me. Woe is me. I can't become a commercial hit in this world of Philistines." These are usually the same people who can't manage to string a thought together coherently, or say things like, "Well that's just plot-driven crap." They're also the people who say things like, "Anime isn't art."

What's worse is that they're backed up by a bunch of gray-bearded academics who are busy proving their life is worthwhile by declaring that all pop culture is trash. Those wonderful people who sit on their thrones deciding that "this" is art, while "that" is juvenile rubbish without any merit whatsoever.

This is why I've decided that art doesn't exist.

Okay, before you go flying off the handle to race down to the comments section, let me explain what I mean. Art as a concept is dubious at best. I mean they have an entire branch of philosophy that deals with art (okay, it's the study of beauty, but nonetheless). Even with Hidoshi's criteria, I could run around in circles trying to prove X isn't art, while Y is. While I'm a fan of picking apart stuff to see how it ticks (as this blog proves) it just seems like an exercise in futility. In the end, does it really matter whether I think Lain is art? Or Gundam? Or Speed Grapher? I mean sure, it might have all of those points that Hidoshi mentioned and it might not. But in the end, art is just a label and not a particularly useful one at that.

What matters is that it's a good story. And a good story has all of those things that I mentioned at the beginning: solid characters, a strong voice, a good plot, and a theme that isn't clear cut, etc, etc. Perhaps it'll say something about the human condition or about society or about gender or about any of the other dozens of things a good story should do. Perhaps it'll enlighten me.

But what it will do most is entertain me. And that's what I think is important.

And it doesn't need to be called art to do that.

Some Related Posts (because this is an old subject)

The other half of Anime Diet's analysis on whether anime is deep or not.

Some stuff from some guys who know more about literature and "art" than I do.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The Otakusphere: My DVDs are attacking me, Crunchyroll sucks and my obsession with classic Southern cuisine

If there's one thing I like about living this close to the "South" it's fried chicken. Oh yeah, nothing beats stopping into the local grocery store and seeing boxes of the stuff laid out for me like pre-packaged heart attacks. Which is probably why I found Hinano's post on buying merchandise interesting because I own two wall scrolls. That's it.

But I have a ton of DVDs. I mean I have them coming into my bed and attacking me in the middle of the night. That might be the reason I don't have much merch.

Or it could be the fried chicken.

Speaking of DVDs, Atama Ga Warui put some final words on the obituary for HD-DVD. But you know, I can't see me buying a Blu-Ray player anytime in the near future. Maybe it's because I'm a closet Luddite. These new fangled technology things secretly scare me. What happens when my collection becomes obsolete? I couldn't imagine having to buy all of this stuff again. That'd be crazy. Like I said, they're starting to form political parties on my shelf.

And just as I'm about to complete the party of Gekkostate, they go and announce a Eureka 7 movie. Really? I haven't even finished watching the series (I'm waiting for that last disk to come out before I do.) It makes me feel completely inadequate. Really I just will need to go hang my head in shame.

Well for that and the fact that I heaped loads of love on Crunchyroll and they fricken pulled Tower of Druaga. I'm sure that those liars and thieves over there have some really good reason why they played with my heart. (Okay, they might really have some good reasons that I don't know about.) But then again, maybe they don't. But you can still watch it on YouTube or BOSTTV. I'm not necessarily sure which one I support more. I'd love to support BOSTTV more, but I'm a little low on cash this cycle (I spent my extra buying anime and fried chicken.)

I don't have a good transition for this, but CCY reminded me about something I really want to write about one of these days. Basically that it's okay for a series to be good. It doesn't need to be radical or amazing; it can just do what it does well and move on down the line. Granted people won't talk about it in five or six years. But they might...

Oh yeah, and double reminded me that summer is still coming to Baltimore. Man, I hate summer here.


Agree or disagree? Leave a comment or e-mail

Sunday, April 6, 2008

In a man’s world: Why I’m liking Saiunkoku

So I've managed to pick up Saiunkoku again. And once you get past the first ten or so episodes or so the series does start to pick up. (Granted, I still think the first set of episodes is a case study in missed opportunities.)

Now, I'll admit that I don't watch a whole lot of shoujo anime. I don't have anything against it. Any more than I have anything against shounen romance or mecha shows or any particular genre. It's just that there haven't been too many stories in that genre that leap out at me and scream, "Watch me!" So I can't really speak too much about what Saiunkoku does with the conventions of the genre, but I have a feeling that it doesn't really do much that's interestingly new.

Except for what it says about gender and the role of women in a patriarchal society.

To be honest, judging from the first 14 or so episodes, I really wasn't expecting much. Shuurei is a fairly classic heroine in this type of a story. She's an exceptional person who's given several chances to show how exceptional she is. At least in the beginning, any resistance to her gaining a position in a world of men is weak and often petty. It isn't until she passes the royal examinations that things start to get interesting.

(This is a customary spoiler alert. Spoilers contained herein shouldn't really ruin your appreciation of the series, but I will discuss some major plot points.)

On the Nature of Hard Work

Now largely this entire arc is leading up to a grand conclusion, but I think it's important to mention the beginning part as well. Now once Shuurei gets to the palace that is when the series starts to get really interesting. Like I mentioned before, Shuurei hadn't really encountered any really firm resistance to her rise. But once she started her training that changes drastically. From her first meeting with Official Ro, the person in charge of the trainees, she's belittled and demeaned and generally treated like an intruder in the world of men. The work she has to do is generally menial labor, in this case cleaning the toilets and doing filing, and most of the male characters simply make her work harder for her. To top it off, those people who actually seemed to care about her in the beginning distance themselves from her.

To be honest, I'd been waiting for this to happen from the beginning of the series. It's a fairly common plot structure in this type of story. Young woman challenging the system needs to overcome the prejudices of men in a patriarchal society.

But what makes it interesting isn't the commonness of the situation, but the uncommonness of the solution. Generally, in this situation the usual answer is rebellion because the audience is supposed to assume that the treatment is unfair. And while this arc is happening there is little to show that the treatment isn't unfair and unjust. But instead of rebelling, Shuurei accepts the work because she sees it as the path to achieving her goals.

Now, it'd be easy to assume that this sends the message, "To achieve anything in a man's world, a woman must bow to the will of men." In fact, if you took a look at a show like Revolutionary Girl Utena as an example of achieving equality in a patriarchal society, you'd probably compare the two and say, well Utena fights against the injustice therefore she's the stronger heroine and therefore the better role model.

Well except for To Eigetsu who is faced with the same kind of demeaning menial labor and the same type of prejudices. Now if you assume that Eigetsu is the male counterpoint for Shuurei then suddenly all of that is flipped on its head. Because now you have an exceptional man who is being treated the same as an exceptional woman. So instead of the message being on of acceptance, it becomes one of endurance. Basically, to achieve anything a person has to work hard.

As a counterpoint, Utena actually becomes the less favorable role model. Since she's portrayed as being gifted without the benefit of actually having to work at it. In fact, it could be assumed that the message is more one of, "She's superior by virtue of being a girl." Now, I'll admit I haven't watched the rest of Utena, so I'm not entirely sure how that plays out. But from the season and a half that I did watch that general message did stay the same.

What is even more interesting is that the series makes a point of showing that Official Ro's behavior was normal for people who are exceptional. In one scene with Shuurei's uncle later on, they specifically point out that Ro did the same thing to him when he was in training.

But that isn't what I found the most interesting about the arc. What I found the most interesting was make-up.

The Importance of a Make-up Kit

Okay, so even if how Saiunkoku deals with hard work is interesting, I should have largely expected it. Working hard to achieve your dreams was a theme from the beginning of the series. But it's what it says about make-up that really made me tilt my head.

Let me give a little bit of background. When Shuurei was going to work at the palace, her former boss gave her a make-up kit. Now her boss is an interesting character in her own right. I never thought it was really clear if she was more of a geisha or a prostitute. But either way, she headed up a house of adult entertainment. In general, it'd be assumed that her profession demeans women. Now I'm not going to open up that can of worms, but I do think the series shows that she is also a strong, capable and ruthless woman as well. Like I said, she's an interesting character. Now by all rights when she says "Make-up is a woman's war paint" it should make any feminist cringe. I mean make-up was developed by men, for men and is just another way that men oppress women, right?

Except Saiunkoku doesn't deal with it like that.

Instead, at the end of the arc Shuurei has the epiphany that she's been trying to compete in a man's world as if she was a man. And she makes the decision to put on the make-up because she's not a man.

Now up until now, most anime that I've watched that deal with gender issues pretty much said the same thing. That to compete in a man's world, a woman has to act like a man. This carries right down to the way they dress (I really wish I had watched more Rose of Versailles, but I think Utena is a good enough example of that.) The fact that they beat men in combat. To the fact that they often have traits that are associated with men (hot-headedness in Utena's case).

It would be easy to say, Shuurei's decision is another sign of acquiescence to the rules that men laid out. But I don't think it is. Because Shuurei is portrayed as an exceptional woman. In fact, she is the equal of the male characters. But she isn't a man.

That's what makes the series interesting, is the fact that it states that it's all right to be a woman in a world of men. It doesn't mean that you're less capable. To be honest, this is a pretty daring approach to this subject. But in my opinion a more mature one. Because dismissing gender differences out of hand is the easy and often used route.

And even though someone's probably going to think I'm a misogynist for saying this, I'd say Saiunkoku's portrayal is the more truthful route. Women don't need to be the same as men to be able to perform the same jobs as men.

Of course, other people can and most likely do disagree with me on that point, but still I do find it a refreshing change from what I expect. And I'm actually excited to see how the theme is going to play out in the rest of the series.

Friday, April 4, 2008

In My View: A Heartfelt Apology to Arthur Smith and the Crunchyroll premieres

Around the time I started blogging, Arthur Smith came out with his interview over on At the time, I lambasted him and while I still stand by what I said back then (and what I've said since), I have to say he's stood by his word.

He IS exploring other methods to distribute anime. He IS trying to combat fansubs in a way that is proactive rather than reactive. And I commend him for it. Because I didn't think this day would come.

So I just finished watching the premiere of The Tower of Druaga – the aegis of URUK – over on Crunchyroll and I implore everyone to go do the same. First of all because it's free. Second of all because it's free. And third of all, because it doesn't cost any money. What isn't good when it's free. I'd gladly sit through a screening of Spiral if I knew I didn't have to pay for it. Now the show itself is pretty funny, especially if you've played enough D&D and online roleplaying games to get the really high-strung dramatics that go in those situations.

Strangely enough though, I didn't see any advertising in the actual show, so I'm kind of curious where they're putting it. I also didn't see any advertising on the page either. But… for now, I'm willing to take those people over there at their word. A dubious proposition at best, but I'll put a lid on my inner skeptic.

In all fairness, the video quality is horrible. There are some scenes I couldn't actually figure out what was going on, especially when there was a lot of action and it was dark. The soundtrack sounded like it had gone through a digital masher, but you know what – it was free. I don't expect high quality video that I didn't pay for. And if you want the high quality stuff, then go over to BOST and get it there.

Not only was it free (have I mentioned that enough times yet), it didn't crash, which is more than I could say about AnimeNetwork's Online service, which I think has fallen out of the Otakusphere's memory. Now as much as I may think ADV is usually at the forefront on this side of the Pacific, I don't think they planned well enough for the immense amount of traffic they got. Hopefully, Crunchyroll did. Because at least until this one disappears out of the public consciousness, it will be the biggest thing since sliced bread.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

The Otakusphere: The Anime Blog Awards

So when I came back from my hiatus, I had a whole bunch of hits coming in from some page called the ANIME BLOG AWARDS. I thought, "Huh?" I mean, the last time I'd heard about Web Page Awards was back in the mid to late 90s when every Joe, Bob and Martha with an established Web site had an award saying, "So and so, thought my site kicked ass and so should you. Here's a cookie. What? You can't block it? Um… yeah… why exactly is that my problem?"

And then over time, I saw those types of awards become fewer and fewer, until they died completely off. But I'll admit, I always thought they were kind of cool. Someone with no vested interested in a Web site went out of his or her way to give this person a pat on the back and a flashy jpeg. In all honesty, that kind of recognition is hard to come by, especially in the cutthroat/apathetic world of the Internet.

So I followed the link over and checked out the page. Honestly, it's a really simple concept. You sign up (if you have a blog). You nominate within specified categories (that may or may not be the best things ever). And then you move on. It's an almost streamlined process. Except that I had to wait for my password. I hate waiting for my password. It drives me up the wall. It's like having to take a number when the deli counter is empty and having the kid behind the counter count up to your number.

Yeah, that's a kind of petty complaint. Okay, it's a really petty complaint. However, I read through the blogs there. Checked out a few that I didn't know. And nominated in a couple of categories. If you want to know who I nominated, then go to the Web page and look for iniksbane. (No I'm not telling you what it means. Just that no matter where I sign up, I can guarantee it hasn't been taken.)

I did exactly what those sneaky masterminds over there wanted me to do. And every so often I go back and look at some of the other blogs I don't know. Now, I may or may not read them consistently. But anything that drives traffic to sites that don't have a big following deserves some praise at the very least.

Now in the interest of full disclosure, I have been nominated in two categories (Rookie of the Year and Best Editorial Blog). I don't expect to win. Hell, with the competition I got I don't even expect to place. But it was a pleasant, if strangely surprising, thing to see this blog even on the same list as omo, Jeff Lawson, The Animanachronism, The End of the World and bateszi.

But every good idea has its problems. Impz wrote a fairly long Q&A post over on T.H.A.T. Animeblog, answering all of the various concerns. But I wanted to throw in my two cents. Is this a beauty contest? Sure. I don't know how anyone can expect it wouldn't be. The larger (and older) blogs have more readers, more experience and let's face it, probably deserve to win. Hell, RIUVA's been around since Christ was a corporal. Bateszi and Martin just celebrated their two year anniversaries. The one time omo linked my site, I got 20 hits just from him alone.

I'm not surprised that they got nominated. And I won't be surprised if they win.

That said, if you're sitting around your little corner of the Internet sulking because the other guys are getting the love then you're missing the point. If you're missing this opportunity to step out of your personal box and say, "Hey look, I think you're missing this other guy, who's good and deserves attention" then well, shucks, that's no one's fault but your own. In the end, yeah the system's got problems, but any system is going to have problems. But if you choose not to participate because it might not be the most perfect thing in the world, I think you're missing out on a grand opportunity. In fact, I encourage everyone to step out of their little section of the playground for a minute and pick a blog at random off of the list. Any blog. Make this contest your own, because yeah, the big guys might win, but that doesn't mean they're the only game in town.

Here, let me help with some blogs that I don't think get nearly enough love.

Claiming Ground – I came across this one a bit ago and it has a lot of promise. Mostly he does straight reviews, and he likes Nausicaa, which isn't necessarily a high point for me, but I think it's worth reading.

Criminally Weird – Part of that network. It's part personal blog, part anime blog and largely the inspiration for at least two of my posts.

Baka-Raptor – Probably some of the most cutting reviews and remarks about anime that I've seen. He's got a quick wit and he's not afraid to lampoon anyone. Including himself.

Anime Almanac – Seriously, Scott is one of the best voices talking about the industry right now. I don't always agree with him, but I do think the guy's got some great points. (Some of which I've made myself.)

Koji-Oe – Definitely an interesting blog. Again part personal, part anime, part gamer, it has got some interesting insights into the geek world from someone studying Japanese.

So those are my thoughts on this. Honestly, I know the Internet thrives on drama (and I refuse to call it dorama), but this is something I don't think deserves it.


Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Big and Bold: Parsing the Epic Part 2

This is the second of these posts dedicated to explaining what I feel the current state of the epic is, and how it applies to anime. The first one laid out a general outline of what an epic was and what it has become. In this one I'm going to examine scale and scope. I apologize ahead of time if any of this seems pedantic because it is.

Some semantics

So first of all, it is important that I define what I'm going to be talking about here. Okay, so it might not be important, but I do think 90 percent of all arguments start because of semantics, and defining terms ahead of time can avoid at least some of those.

Scope and scale are really pretty similar when you get right down to it. The basic question for scope is "How far reaching are the events of the story?" In essence, the question of scope is a question of effects. What happens when the heroes make the right decisions? Or the wrong decisions? Essentially what is at stake in the story? The question of scale is "How many people/worlds/characters/ships (etc.) are involved?" Scale is largely a question of size.

Now it may seem like I'm being a bit vague here. So I'll try to demonstrate what constitutes a large scope versus a small scope and a large scale versus a small scale.

The epic and its opposite

Now I kind of touched on the fact that "slice of life" as a literary genre is the opposite of an epic. Mostly I avoided going into more detail because of the possible confusion of "slice of life" as an anime genre (which is similar, but I'm not quite convinced is the same.) Now "slice of life" stories, as the name implies, are stories about realistic characters living their everyday lives. Now it is a bit of a misnomer because in general it is a particularly important moment in that character's life. In fact, it's probably the most important moment in that character's life. A great example of this would be "Sideways". Essentially the story follows two friends as they take a road trip to the Napa valley region of California in the week before one of them is going to be married. For now, I'm going to leave the issue of character alone.

So the scope of the story is small in so many ways. The story only affects the handful of characters who are directly involved in it. There repercussion, while they may be important to the characters (and by extension the audience), they are not far-reaching. The world isn't saved. Governments don't tumble. Existence as we know it isn't torn asunder.

We can see the comparison when we look at say LoGH. There the scope is huge. And it just gets bigger. It stretches across entire planets, countries and solar system. In fact in someway everyone is affected by the course of the story. If they aren't, then they must have been hiding out on some starship with an android and a hologram and an evolved cat. (Okay, so I couldn't resist the Red Dwarf reference.)

But I've already said that LoGH is an epic. In fact, everyone can agree that it's epic in any category. But what if we take something that's epic in scope, like say X. Essentially the repercussion and stakes affect everyone on the planet. Each time a Dragon of Heaven is defeated, the world inches closer to destruction. So the scope is huge.

However, the scale is not. While it does have 14 "main" characters, most of them are relatively minor. Leaving something much more like Sideways, with its four main characters, than something like LoGH with its twenty or so main characters. So while a story might have a very large scope (the stakes are the world), it might have a very small scale (but only a handful of people are involved in fighting it out.) Trigun is a great example of this. Knives is trying to destroy the world, but really only Vash, Millie, Meryl, Wolfwood and the Gung-Ho Guns are really involved in the story.

The effects of length

Now this is where I think length plays its biggest role. The longer the story, the bigger the scale, the bigger the scale the bigger the scope. Mostly because if the scale isn't large enough at the beginning of the story, it'll basically run out of steam. Honestly, I think this is one of the reasons for the dreaded filler episode in most shounen anime. The scale simply isn't large enough at the beginning of the story to accommodate the length of the plot. It's hard to have two major plotlines (or even three major plotlines) running at the same time when you only have one plucky hero as your title character.

However, I don't think length is necessary for a truly large scale. One look at the third arc of Twelve Kingdoms shows that it's quite possible to have three different plot lines involving a fairly large cast of characters in a fairly short span of time. And the plotlines themselves aren't undercut by their brevity (in my opinion.) And the scope, well considering the central villain is a guy who's trying to challenge divine will and dragging the entire Kingdom of Kou into it, I'd say it's fairly epic.

A parting note

Now you've probably noticed that I haven't really assigned an importance to either of these two things as far as judging the epic. And that's partly because of my original assertion that it is quite possible for something to be more epic than something else. So if something has both an epic scale and an epic scope than it's more epic than something that has just an epic scope.

To be honest though, scale and scope are largely the most empirically easy to judge. Where the question of the epic becomes harder (and more important) is when it comes to character. Especially when it involves their relationship to scale and scope. So that's what I will address in the next piece of this.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Having your cake: Fansubs, entitlement and the American Puritan Capitalist ethic – an analysis

(Note: A large part of this is me thinking through this problem and coming to a conclusion. Now, I hope it doesn't sound pedantic, but it probably will. Also I'll probably use America when I mean United States. That's just because I like America better, no disrespect to the Canadians or the Mexicans or the South Americans out there. I just tend to think of my country as America, whether that's right or not. And on a final note, I'm interested in what other people think of this premise. So if you make it to the end, please comment. Thanks. – Cameron)

America is a weird country.

Now don't get me wrong, I like my country. And it's not that I'm just used to it. I actually like the politics, history and cultural challenges of America. In fact, where else would we have to write out the fundamental rights on a piece of paper, so that future generations can argue about what they really mean? Where else is entitlement a bad word? And where is the basic assumption that people are not entitled to something unless they can prove that they are?

In fact, the question of entitlements has become something of a national pastime in political circles. Who deserves them? Who doesn't deserve them? Are we being fair to everyone? And my personal favorite, "Why should anyone get something for nothing?"

If I had to trace this back through history, I'd put the foundation of these arguments in the hands of two separate, yet equally important, philosophies – Capitalism and Puritanism.

No such thing as a free lunch

Now I'll admit that I haven't read "The Wealth of Nations", but from what I've seen of American Capitalism can be summed up with one name – Horatio Alger. Essentially he wrote a set of stories in the early part of the 19th century with young heroes who through pluck and hard work managed to claw their way up into success. The idea being that in a free capitalistic market anyone can go from busboy to bourgeois. The responsibility for that fell solely on the individual, not on society.

The thing is even in those Horatio Alger novels there was a strongly Puritanical undertone. Basically the Puritans were largely the founders of the American work ethic. They went to work at sun up, went to bed at sundown, read the Bible and rested on Sunday. Among their other contributions to the country¹, they contributed the idea, "Idle hands are the Devil's playground" What makes them so important to the American work ethos is that they added a moral contingent to it. If you're working, then you're a good person. If you're not working, you're a bad person.²

While capitalism said, "it's up to the individual to succeed", Puritanical thought said, "The individual has a moral obligation to contribute for the benefit of the society." In Capitalism, this means that people have a moral obligation to produce. But they also need a reason to produce, so they also have a moral obligation to consume for the benefit of society.

Even though there is this commandment on the workers to produce and consume, there was no reverse of that in American society. In fact one look at laissez-faire politics during the height of the Industrial Revolution would show quite the opposite. There was in fact only a moral obligation for companies to produce and produce and produce some more.

Now what's important to note about this trend is that responsibility for judging a product was largely left up to the consumer. They had to rely on word of mouth, perhaps a review and advertising (once the mass media came into being) to tell whether a product was good. And if they bought a bad product, it was not the company's fault for producing a bad product, but the persons fault for not doing their research. ³ But what is important to note here is that the imperative is to "buy" the product.

The rise of Populism and the roots of the entitlement argument

What always strikes me about pundits talking about the illegal downloading of intellectual property, is that they act like there is this rising scourge of people who feel entitled to something for nothing. But honestly if I had to trace this "problem" back to roots, I'd start with the rise of Populism at the end of the 19th century. Primarily, I'd point out the labor unions who stated that people were entitled to basic safety in the workplace and an eight-hour workday.

This is often met with violent repercussions on the part of the people in power. But the idea had taken seed in the American consciousness (4). By the time Woodrow Wilson took office, the change in American society was well on its way. Essentially the labor unions had sort of won an uneasy truce with the people on the top of the food chain.

But the American Puritan-Capitalist ethos didn't die. Instead it stayed, perhaps in a less virulent form, but it would pop its head out any time the government tried to step in to help people. Then in the 60s and 70s people said they had a right to other stuff, such as clean air and water. This is actually a fairly important turning point in the entitlement issue. Not only are corporations responsible for the welfare of their workers, but also the welfare of their communities. Also, and perhaps most important, companies became responsible for the safety of their customers.

Now arguably consumer safety may actually stretch back further than this, but I would argue that seatbelt legislation is really one of the most important turning points in the entitlement issue. Because it took the responsibility out of the consumer's hands and put it in the corporation's hands. Even more than worker's safety and community safety, it was no longer purely up to the customer to judge a quality product. It was up to the companies to produce a quality product whether they wanted to or not.

The nature of the market and the Internet

Now you're probably wondering what any of this has to do with fansubs. I promise that I'm getting there. Now up until recently the basic idea of the supply chain hasn't really changed. The idea is that the companies produce the products, some middlemen get them into stores and people buy the products. It's really simple and it still left people with little choice in the matter. Even though less responsibility was in the consumers' hands the moral imperative to buy remained (and still does.)

But the Internet changed everything, really.

Now, I don't know how many people reading this were really cognizant of the late 90s and the hype surrounding the Internet. Now being the contrarian that I am, I didn't really believe that the Internet would do all that much to change the way we live. Boy was I wrong. Perhaps I should have seen the handwriting on the wall when I was able to find the collected works of Shakespeare online in 1996. But I didn't really expect Napster.

Perhaps I should have though. Intellectual property is fluid. It's easily converted into data and sent from computer to computer. In fact, that's the reason why the Internet came into being to begin with. In retrospect, it's not really that surprising that it ended up being used that way. However, this has wreaked havoc on the supply chain. Now companies which used to have a monopoly on the supply should have scrambled to change their thinking.

But almost 200 years of Puritan-Capitalist ethos is a hard thing to break. So instead of listening to customer's demands, they bullied, pleaded and threatened the people downloading the materials. And they shut Napster down. But once the box was opened, they couldn't quite shut it again.

What I don't think they counted on was that 100 years of entitlement has bred a new type of consumer. One that doesn't ask, "What can I do for the company?" But one that asks, "What can the company do for me?" While that may be part of the Capitalist ideal of the Free Market, it's never become as apparent as it is now. In fact, I'd go as far as to say all control over the market has been stripped out of the hands of the companies and put in the hands of the consumers.

What any of this has to do with anime

Well now that question has moved to the Anime Industry and the same debate has opened up among forums and blogs and podcasts everywhere. And in the end, I'm torn on which side I fall down on. To be fair, I feel bad for the creators. They are producing a product with every intention of selling it to a waiting audience. Essentially they're the only real victims in this cultural struggle between the Puritan-Capitalist ethos and entitlement.

And don't get me wrong, I don't think people are entitled to watch anime. At least not on the same level as they're entitled to clean air or safe working conditions. I've argued before that most of the anti-industry arguments make my head hurt. Although the more I think about it, the more I find the, "But it's free in Japan" is not necessarily a bad argument, but an argument wrongly phrased. It isn't free in Japan, but people can view the series without having to pay anything more than we would to watch say House on television. Essentially, it isn't actually free, but it is perceptually free.

And consumers feel entitled to the same treatment. The consumer culture in America has become one where we no longer have to suffer at the whims of the companies who produce the products. Essentially with the advent of Napster, stealing has become a consumer choice. And like Napster, there is no legal alternative to the service that fansubs provide, which is an actually free preview of the series.

And to be honest, I feel consumers are entitled to that. Because entertainment is such a personal thing, there isn't an empirical way to decide whether you like a series. So why should someone have to spend $60 to $210 US to find out whether they agree with a reviewer? Why should someone have to guess they like a series off a handful of episodes?

Because it's the right thing to do? Phooey. That's what I have to say about that. (5)

It's time for the companies to move past the Puritan-Capitalist ethos (ironically more in Japan than in America) and realize that they don't make the rules any more. The consumers do. And while I feel bad for the creators, every step away from them, I feel less bad. In a world where stealing has become a consumer choice, companies can choose to react or the can choose to stand still.

If they react, they have to realize that the customers are no longer going to come to them. Instead they have to go to the customers. They can't expect the customers to meet them halfway or quarter-way or even sort of step out of their box. (6)

If they choose to rattle their saber and storm around crying, "It's not fair! It's not right!" Well then they deserve what they get.

One Final Note

Ironically, I feel a bit hypocritical making this argument at all. I have spent thousands of dollars buying anime sight unseen. Yet, somehow I can't justify the argument, "Well I did it, so should you."


1 Mandatory public education and the town hall meeting being the most notable.

2 If you don't believe me on this point, take a look at the discussion surrounding welfare reform in the early 90s. Behind the racial undertones and classism, the rhetoric basically sounded like it was pulled out of a Puritanical commune.

3 If this sounds an awful lot like the argument that someone should read reviews and do their research before buying a show, it should.

4 This is in part the work of the muckrakers too. And can even be seen in Andrew Carnegie's fairly hypocritical idea of "Corporate Citizenship". Although I will give him credit for actually setting up a foundation that does do a lot of good work.

5 I do need to point out that I agree with buying a product that the consumer thinks is worth buying. In fact, for the idea of entitlement to have any weight at all, I would say it's necessary.

6 There has been some positive movement on the part of GONZO when it comes to putting videos up on YouTube and (from the sound of it) on Crunchyroll. I don't know if it goes far enough, but at least it's something.