Sunday, July 20, 2008

Getting off the High Horse: Picking on Cowboy Bebop

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

And by recently, I mean about fifteen minutes ago.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 18, 2008

Riding on the Space Train: A note on internal consistency

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

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

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

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

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

They're riding a train. In space.

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

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

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

Well, except for the last two episodes of AIR.

(Obligatory spoiler warning.)

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

In My View: I fail (Now with pictures!)

I was wrong.

I'll admit it. It has happened before, and it'll happen again. Part of the reason I write in this blog is to present arguments that strike me at the time as valid, and see how well they fly.

And to be honest, on the whole fansub ethical issue I ignored the third option: to not buy it. Which is really the only ethical option in my argument.

But I did get a lot of interesting comments that I think deserve a full response.

Point One: Buying is not an ethical action

Now I've made this argument before, but I think it bears repeating. The exchange of money for goods is not an ethical action. It's not an unethical action either. Now I'm not going to go as far as to say that the person who's selling a product is not entitled to set a price on a product. But the only person who can set a value on a product is the individual consumer.

Now Sagacious1 brought up a good point that the value of a product can't be generalized. But just because it can't be generalized doesn't mean the final arbiter of the value should be the person who made it. Because that means if I buy a product on sale or used or rent it than it's unethical (or at the very least less ethical than buying it at MSRP).This opens up a whole bag of worms which I think is both unnecessary and frankly a little insulting. Because if I can't determine the worth of a product than who should? The anime industry? The animators? The distributors?

Now the big problem with my argument is that it's quite possible that you might pay less than what the product is worth to you (which would mean it's actually an unethical action), but that's a better result than the alternative.

The other reason why considering buying an ethical action is a problem is that it legimatizes "Buyer Beware" as an ethical argument. If I buy a product that isn't worth what I paid for it, then the seller does have an ethical obligation to take it back. (Strange how this doesn't seem to work in the real world.) To go back to Sagacious1's Bentley argument, if I buy a car and it's a lemon, it's not my fault that the car was a lemon and I was definitely harmed if the seller isn't willing to give me my money back.

Point Two: Zero Sum Gained and Selfishness

The problem with not buying being the only ethical action in my case, is that there is a zero sum gained for the anime industry. Now I'll admit that this really was my only problem with Ayres argument. I do respect that he's right in the end, but if I don't buy and I don't watch fansubs (of shows that aren't released in the United States) then where does that leave the anime industry.

Really, the big reason I don't have a problem with watching shows like Legend of the Galactic Heroes or Monster or Rose of Versailles is that I wouldn't buy them (unless by some miracle they get a US release). Now that doesn't justify stealing them (omo and Sagacious1 are completely correct on that point.) Sure I ought to pay what they're worth to me, but without a means to do that I'm left on the wrong side of my ethics without a way out. Now Scott's all or nothing approach does appeal to me, but I guess I have to admit that DrmChsr0 is right. I am selfish.

Now that is a bitter pill to swallow.

Point Three: The Monetizing of Enjoyment

The big reason I didn't touch on the economic issue is that what is happening in the anime industry is a microcosm of what is happening in the larger entertainment industry. Network television is struggling. DVD sales are down. All around we can see the signs of media saturation. And when you combine that with the ever blurring line between professional and amateur content, the rapid devaluation of entertainment and throw in a healthy dose of entitlement (which is not just a symptom of "this" generation. Spend some time working retail and you'll see what I mean) you get a problem which is both cultural and economic. And it's hard to split those two apart.

The only difference is that the anime industry presents an even more convoluted, almost labyrinthine, business model. It's almost impossible to follow the money from a release because part of it is through DVD sales, part of it is through figures, part of it is through general merchandise and part of it is through ad revenue and part of it is through licensing fees. Even renting doesn't provide a simple one to one ratio because most of the time the studio still "owns" the product, the rental company is just borrowing it. (Although this may or may not hold true with the anime industry.)

But to be honest, when I read the Ayres interview my initial reaction (and some of a lot of commenters) was, "Hey wait, I spend money." And to be honest, I spend a quarter of my disposable income a month to buy anime. Again, this doesn't justify stealing, but it does dishearten me when someone comes along and says, "You're not doing enough" or "You don't have a right to watch that show." Because while they may be right, I feel like I'm being denied and dismissed.

This isn't really the way you want to treat your customers.

Point Four: The Customer isn't always right, but they're still the customer

Now using customer in this context is a little disingenuous. Customers buy stuff. But for argument's sake, let's replace customer with consumer. The thing about consumers is that they feel entitled to what they consume. This goes for every age bracket, every generation and pretty much the majority of America. And if you pay attention to politics you'll notice that not only do they feel entitled to what they consume they also feel that they pay too much for it. Is this a bit elitist of me to say? I'll let other people decide that.

The thing is that all of that is right, but no one likes being told that. There's got to be a more politic way to go about it. Brandishing swords (in a panel or on the Internet) will not solve this problem for the industry. Trading invectives is not going to change anything. All it's going to do is make both sides dig their trenches a little deeper and make people like me make faulty arguments and splash them into the Internet.

But the other side of that argument is that people do have to buy. Now you don't have to buy everything. You don't have to put yourself out on the street. And you certainly don't have to buy stuff that isn't worth buying. But for any entitlement argument to work, there has to be a concerted effort to actually purchase stuff. Well unless we all decide to go and shoot the creators. That's always an option.

Point Five: All of this makes me depressed.

To be fair, talking about fansubs and the industry makes me depressed. Because it feels like there's an overemphasis on what I do wrong and no emphasis on what I do right. Almost every argument made against downloading fansubs is valid. But a lot of the arguments for downloading them are valid too (at least in the case of shows that aren't going to be released in the United States). Granted, none of the ethical ones really stand up (at least from what I can tell.) Maybe omo can give me a better metaphor.

All this said, a lot of this discussion has left me feeling a bit helpless and definitely hopeless. I'm not really seeing a solution.

And what's worse, is the admission that downloading isn't really ethically justified (something I knew before but hadn't really thought about) really set my brain in gear. Now my Dad has instilled into me the credo that as long as you admit what you're doing is wrong and can accept the consequences than do it. But on the other hand, what exactly are the consequences of admitting what your doing is wrong and then doing it anyway.

I guess that makes me a hypocrite.

And that is really the hardest pill to swallow of all.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

In My View: Fansubs? Again?

So there's been a lot of drama around Scott's post about Greg Ayres panel. And granted, I know I'm writing this pretty late in the game, but it's taken me a while to get my thoughts into a coherent form on this subject.

The problem with fansubs and the industry is not a simple one. And there isn't a simple fix for it (well except for shooting all of the downloaders). To be frank, I'm not qualified to talk about this problem on a business level. I don't even think the industry really knows how to make money in this new market. Most of the arguments I've heard sound like people taking their personal experiences and trying to generalize them to the wider populace (including mine.) While they certainly sound nice, there isn't enough evidence one way or the other to really talk about the issue. Especially since it seems that even providing fans with anime straight from Japan wasn't enough to save GDH from the threat of getting taken off of the stock index for Japan.

And I'm certainly not qualified to talk about copyright from a legal angle. Despite what people may think, the law is neither simple nor clear-cut on ANYTHING. Even something as simple as, "the right to free speech" depends on time, place, manner, medium and content. Case law is often contradictory and occasionally flat out confusing. And copyright law is no less labyrinthine.

So we're left with one thing I can discuss with some level of intelligence.


Now, I'll freely admit, I wasn't a philosophy major. I did take a few classes in college and my sister did major in it, so I'm arguing based on what I know. If anyone wants to correct me, please feel free. But as far as ethics go, I'm a Libertarian. So your mileage may vary, depending on how your feel.

The Problem with Stealing

Now, omo is certainly right. Stealing is an easy metaphor when we're dealing with downloading copyrighted material. But in my mind, it's also the correct one. I mean, anime IS a product. It is meant for sale. Taking a product that is meant for sale is, well, stealing. The thing is that all stealing isn't equal. What if I steal the denotation device from a nuclear bomb? What if I steal food that's going to be thrown away? What if I steal a five-dollar bill off of the side of the road? What if I steal clothes out of a dumpster and then sell them to a thrift store?

And I have to admit that Ayres's argument is compelling. I don't want to put anyone out street. I don't think any of us do. But just like anime consumers can be accused of seeing the industry as one faceless mass of people, the industry can be accused of seeing consumers as one open wallet that should be willing to give them cash.

So the question becomes, who's right? And the answer is it depends on who is getting harmed more.

Like it or not, anime has no intrinsic worth beyond the plastic it's printed on and the packaging it comes in. Any worth it has must be determined by the consumer. Period. And just like Ayres (and to a lesser extent Scott) seem to think that, "We owe it to the creators to give them money." The anime industry owes it to the consumer to give them a product that's worth buying (this is why I don't like the 'Save the Industry' argument.) Now Scott is certainly right. If a show has come out in the United States and you live in the United States than for God's sake rent it. If $9 a month is going to put you out on the street than you've got bigger problems than watching anime. And to be honest, the majority of anime series are worth what you'd pay for Netflix.

The problem starts though when the show is not available in the United States (or in whatever country you happen to be in.)

Because in a perfect world, you, the consumer, would be able to decide whether a show is worth buying or watching on TV or through Hulu without having to wait and wonder if it'll be released in the States. In a perfect world, you wouldn't have to choose between importing the disk (not to mention hunting down a region free player) and stealing it off the Internet.

But we don't live in a perfect world.

No matter how much we want to.

So the question is no longer which one is more right, and becomes which one is less wrong. And that answer depends on how much anime is worth to you.

Frankly, it's worth $7.50 an episode for a show I REALLY like on DVD. It's not worth $30. So I have to balance out the harms. I'm hurting the industry $7.50 an episode when I download and they're hurting me $22.50 an episode if I import it.

It's that simple.

Why this matters and why it doesn't

The classic arguments against what I just said are, "You're just making justifications," or "You just do it because you know there won't be any consequences." And they're right to a degree. I can do it because there aren't any consequences and I am making an ethical argument (which is in a way a justification.) But when the law doesn't provide you with a deterrent for your actions, and the anime companies haven't started hiring mercenaries to enforce their vision of the "proper" consumer, all you have left is ethics.

And ethics like it or not, are personal. I can argue with people. I can disagree with people. But in the end, I can't expect people to see things my way. The only person who can decide whether or not you should click that torrent link is you.

For anyone who finished reading this, I apologize for the length. I had a lot to say, and I couldn't figure out how to shorten it down.