23.9.16

Perfect Blue

 “…after going back and forth between the real world and the virtual world you eventually find your own identity through your own powers. Nobody can help you do this. You are ultimately the only person who can truly find a place where you know you belong.”

That’s Satoshi Kon on the anime, his first feature as a director. It’s essentially a slasher film in which the victim and predator are split personalities vying for control over the main character, the latter drifting out to possess other bodies and use them as weapons. What’s real and what isn’t is kept intentionally vague, but it’s also somewhat beside the point. What Kon is really interested in is the way we find out who we really want to be in the maze of media and culture we consume.

The protagonist Mima is a 'pop idol' who wants to become a serious actress. Her fan base is exclusively comprised of young men who are attached to her pure, pleasant and infantile persona. Her career is managed by an agency, mostly men again telling her what to do. But the choice to become an actress is her own. It is a chance to grow up, but it will also disappoint her fans, who expect her to play one particular role, rather than many. An irony the film touches on (but doesn’t explore enough) is that in transitioning from her image of the virgin, Mima is almost inevitably cast as a whore. It seems there are only so many roles available, although Kon might be suggesting that more avenues become open once the teen idol fantasy is abandoned for a more adult (in every sense of the word) persona.

The decision to become an actress leads to a crisis – a part of Mima’s psyche rebels and seeks revenge for her own disgrace, murdering the scriptwriter who wrote her into a rape scene and the photographer who persuaded her to pose nude for a magazine shoot. The slasher wants to give the fans what they want, and crush Mima’s attempts to become her own person. She is a manifestation of the urge to go back and have your life controlled by other people.

The film is an efficient thriller, spending some time at the beginning establishing Mima’s character before gradually pulling apart her sense of reality. The tension rises as the bodies pile up, and good use is made of the eeriness of a sugar-sweet sprite being responsible for a variety of brutal stabbings. It feels like a more linear and focused work that Paprika (the only other Kon anime I’ve seen). And it’s a more satisfying exploration of the struggle to assert your identity in a mass media society that amplifies rather than dissipates the expectations people have of what your ideal self should be.

11.9.16

Manji

Another adaptation of a Tanizaki novel by Yasuzo Masumura, with concerns similar to his version of TheTattoo. Again the focus is on the ‘demon woman’, a sexually irresistible but manipulative creature who traps and kills her lovers. In The Tattoo we see the way such monsters are created quite explicitly – Otsuya is unwillingly transfigured by her tattooist and the gangsters that employ him. In Manji the infection is not consciously administered by representatives of the patriarchy. Rather it is imbibed unwittingly as a result of treating women like divine beings.

Like in The Tattoo, the femme fatale in Manji is shown a picture which provides the model for her later behaviour. It’s not a vampire standing on a pile of corpses, but the Goddess of Mercy – an extremely popular deity in Japan who guides the souls of the deceased to their final resting place. The picture is drawn by Sonoko in an art class she attends to get away from her boring husband. There she meets and is smitten by Mitsuko, who begins an affair partly to cause a scandal and escape her boyfriend.

Tanizaki’s protagonists are usually ‘women-worshippers’, and here he transfers that tendency onto a female protagonist. He was writing in the 1930s, and his motives may not have been entirely enlightened – the ‘unnaturalness’ of the lesbian love affair might be a way to highlight how ‘unnatural’ Mitsuko’s allure is. In any case, the urge to put people on pedestals becomes dangerous – Mitsuko becomes both infantilised and insatiable as a result of having disciples. The attention of one person isn’t enough. She wants many lovers, all jealous of each other.

Mitsuko ends up living up to her identification with the Goddess of Mercy. She ensnares Sonoko’s husband and instigates a ménage à trois in which she is the dominant partner, receiving all devotion. The final part of the film becomes increasingly weird – Mitsuko behaving like a cult leader with complete sway over the couple who love her. When their unconventional arrangement is revealed in the press, she argues for suicide, and in a very strange ritual the three light incense in front of her picture as the Goddess of Mercy, before drinking poison.

But Mitsuko cannot help toying with her worshippers, even after death. She spares Sonoko, who is now filled with doubt about whether Mitsuko truly loved her, or whether she preferred to spend the afterlife only with her husband. Her faith is tested – she's left agonising about whether the Goddess she devoted herself to was just a figment of her imagination.

Masumura’s title is the Japanese name for the swastika – the four bent arms of the cross symbolising the four crooked relationships in the film. But it also highlights the theme of bringing the sacred into profane matters. It's a warning that attaching a spiritual dimension to the workings of love and lust is a recipe for death or despair.

9.9.16

5 Centimeters Per Second

"...if you look at our everyday lives, you realise that we're well-fed, well-clothed and well-housed. We also live in a society where there's almost no class discrimination. And we have freedom to live our lives however we want. Considering what kind of society we live in, if you still have problems with relationships with people, the cause of the problem is probably not society or anything readily apparent. In that case, you have to find the cause within yourself. That's actually a hard thing to do, I think. You might think there's a nothing within you that's causing the problem. So I had a strong desire to portray that 'nothingness' as it is."

That's the director Makoto Shinkai on the film. No doubt he's somewhat blinkered in his view that society places almost no restrictions on our liberty. That kind of complacency is frustrating, but the myopia runs deeper. The truth is, trying to isolate the cause of your discontent without reference to the expectations placed on you by others is a mug's game. That's why the characters in this film feel more like archetypes role-playing doomed love affairs rather than real people. Takaki is little more than a dreamy heartthrob yearning to protect Akari from the evils of the world. Their drifting apart is the product of the cold mathematics of speed and distance – their families move away, it's too far for them to continue their relationship. It's as simple and as brutal as that.

The real highlight is Kanae in the second 'Act' of the film – the only time it adopts a female perspective. She also pines after the cool Takaki, and formulates her life-projects with reference to his own. That leaves her in limbo when she realises that he will never be interested in her. In fact, her one moment of glory comes when she achieves something on her own – learning how to surf from her older sister. That victory is clouded by her subsequent rejection, but it points to the damage caused when tying up all your self-worth onto the whims of another person.

There is another highlight, of course – the dazzling imagery. Every frame of the anime is polished to a brilliant sheen, sometimes to the point of distraction, particularly when it comes to the nebula-stuffed starry skies. The animation is more impressive when it comes to the everyday details of train stations, convenience stores and countryside roads, which capture the look and feel of Japan unbelievably well. It's those wonderfully realised bits of quotidian existence that add a weight to the otherwise fluffy angst the film is portraying. It's a shame that for all his efforts to embed them in the real world, Shinkai can't make his characters actually feel real.

29.8.16

"The Bedouin had traditionally lived off raiding neighbouring tribes and extracting payment in various forms from settled peoples. It was a fundamental principle of early Islam, however, that Muslims should not attack each other: the umma was like a large and expanding tribe in the sense that all men were members of the same defensive group. If all the Arabs were now part of one big family, raiding each other was clearly out of the question. The inhabitants of the settled communities were also fellow Muslims. A peaceful, Muslim Arabia would mean abandoning both of the traditional nomad ways of surviving. The alternatives were stark: either the Islamic elite were to lead the Bedouin against the world beyond Arabia and the desert margin, or the Islamic polity would simply disintegrate into the warring constituent parts and the normal rivalries and anarchy of desert life would reassert themselves once more... The only way of avoiding an implosion was to direct the Muslims against the non-Muslim world."

***

"A key element in the success of the conquests was the comparatively easy terms usually imposed on the conquered. Arab commanders were normally content to make agreements that protected the lives and properties of the conquered, including rights to their places of worship, in exchange for the payment of tribute and the promise that they would not help the enemies of the Muslims. Defeated defenders of cities that were conquered by force were sometimes executed, but there were few examples of wholesale massacres of entire populations."

***

"...the Muslim conquerors put little or no pressure on the recently subjected populations to convert to Islam. Any attempt at compulsory conversion would probably have provoked widespread outrage and open hostility. As it was, the Muslim authorities established working relationships with the heads of the churches and other religious institutions that were now in their power. Conversion when it came was partly the result of fiscal pressures, the desire to escape the hated poll tax, but also because conversion provided an opportunity to escape from existing social constraints and to become part of the new ruling class."

Hugh Kennedy, The Great Arab Conquests

21.8.16

The Gap Between Panels / Buffy As Comfort Food

Latest post on the London Graphic Novel Network stays true to my obsessions – in this case Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which I never tire of telling people is the greatest television series of all time. David Simon magnanimously conceded that it was so, if you don't believe me. Anyway, the column goes in on the comics that continue the story after the end of the show, and which get better with each new 'season'. Read it here.

14.8.16

"To conform to a type, to be the captive of a form, means the decadence of art, it is sometimes said. But what of folk arts like this puppet theatre – have they not become what they are with the help of hard, fixed standards? The heavy-toned old country plays, in a sense, have in them the work of the race. Generation after generation of gifted performers has built each item in the repertoire to a standardization of property and action, handed on so carefully that by following its prescriptions the amateur can mount the singer's platform and bring forth a fair copy of the play, and the spectators as they watch can make the association in their minds with the great names whose work is there." - Jun'ichirō Tanizaki, Some Prefer Nettles

17.7.16

The Passion of Anna

"My philosophy (even today) is that there exists an evil that cannot be explained – a virulent, terrifying evil – and humans are the only animals to possess it. An evil that is irrational and not bound by law. Cosmic. Causeless. Nothing frightens people more than incomprehensible, unexplainable evil."

That's Bergman on the film – suggesting that it has an almost Lovecraftian undertone. In fact a good way to read it is as a kind of existentialist horror film. We get some rather unsettling images of the carcasses of mutilated farmyard animals. The culprit is unknown, underlining Bergman's emphasis on the inexplicability of human evil. But the gruesome acts instill a sense of fear and suspicion in the community that spurs a local gang to find and punish a scapegoat. The account of the punishment is delivered in dialogue, mainly because it's too awful to depict visually. Anna's description of the death of her husband and son in a car accident is also grim going. Passion is not as hard to watch as Shame, which was made at the same time and shares many of the same preoccupations. But it's uncompromisingly unpleasant nonetheless.

My emphasis on it being an existentialist horror film is not flippant – in one of the key monologues towards the end, our protagonist Andreas describes the humiliation of failure and how the inability to assert himself against the world leads to a withdrawal from society. He shares his malaise with Ava, who is trapped in a marriage with a rich, aloof and sarcastic husband, and is also unable to pick and fulfill her own life project (she refuses to have children after a miscarriage). The husband is probably the most well-adjusted character, but he's also a bit of a creep, unconcerned by his wife's infidelity and subtly driving Andreas into debt and servitude. He's an amateur photographer who understands that photography cannot capture personality, just surfaces. That outlook is underlined (and perhaps undermined) by the insertion of four interviews with the four leading actors separately discussing their characters.

But clinging to illusions turns out to be even worse than disillusionment. Andreas's violence is the result of frustrated self-loathing – the realisation that he is a worthless human being. Anna cannot process her own failures, and instead fabricates a fairytale of her happy previous married life. Although she insists on the need for people to find a truth they can believe in and live up to, that imperative turns out to create hostages to fortune. If life doesn't comply with your truth, you change it, violently if necessary. Better to kill your family and remember them lovingly than go through the pain of seeing that family crack under the pressure of real life.

One of the ideas Bergman was playing with when making Passion and Shame was of Fårö (the island where he shot many of his films) as "the Kingdom of Hell". Although Bergman prefers to gloss the evil in Passion in a transcendental way, you can also read it as a malaise caused by the subjugation of the individual by society. Anna must cling on to her belief in her perfect marriage because of the ideals and expectations that surround her. Likewise, Ava is unable to escape her lofty and remote husband because she is forced to be a jewel in the crown of his many achievements. Andreas is a failure – he can't even fix his house properly (as the opening scenes make clear). He's not the embodiment of what we expect of the male hero.

The interviews with the actors is one way of getting to the notion that these characters are playing roles foisted onto them by the tyranny of society. The darkness of human hearts is not put there by an incomprehensible creator, but by a director making a film. And one way of surviving is to recognize that these are roles to be inhabited when needs must, and then cast off when you find something better. This is not something Bergman allows for here (interestingly, he now thinks inserting the interviews was a mistake). In Passion, nothing better is available, and the characters end up walled off against each other, wandering alone in a barren landscape. Human interaction is a recipe for hypocrisy, which leads to either delusion or nihilism, with violent consequences. Genuine communication is only possible once our propensity for roleplaying is recognised. In Passion, we only get to see it when the actors speak about their characters – when they step out of their role and have the freedom to reflect on it.

10.7.16

Ninja Scroll

This 1993 anime gets grouped alongside Ghost in the Shell and Akira as being classics reasonably well-known in the West. It's an expertly crafted wuxia (martial arts) film, with very stylish and frequently gruesome fight scenes, a complex story which unfolds well, and every narrative thread tied up nicely at the end. That doesn't distract from the sometimes rather troubling genre conventions it exemplifies. As expected, the hero Jubei is an itinerant warrior who refuses to play by anyone's rules but his own – a particularly attractive fantasy for conformist Japan. His attitude echoes that of Guts in the manga Berserk, who feels nothing but disdain for those too weak to avoid exploitation.

But exploitation is inevitable in the world of Ninja Scroll. Jubei is forcibly recruited by a wizened, wry (and unexpectedly wiry) government spy as a foot soldier in a secret war between the Tokugawa Shogunate and a rebellious lord (the so-called 'Shogun of the Dark'). Neither side in the conflict are particularly noble – all elites in feudal Japan use, abuse and discard those lower down the social hierarchy. But interestingly, rather than struggling against the evil empire, our protagonist's role is to protect it from something worse – factionalism and the civil war that raged before Tokugawa Ieyasu defeated all comers and established his regime. The film reinforces the notion that you will be chewed up and spat out by those above your station, and that this is a price worth paying. No matter how individualistic these ronin are, they can't escape co-option by the political powers that be.

And then there's the women. Jubei crosses paths with a feisty poison-taster and clandestine ninja called Kagero – rescuing her from being raped by the first of what turn out to be eight superpowered adversaries. The poisons Kagero has imbibed mean she is unable to sleep with, or even kiss, someone without them dying. Her independence and fighting prowess is bought at the expense of a complete neutering of her sexuality. Rather unbelievably, it turns out that Jubei can and must seduce Kagero in order to neutralise the poison he has been infected with. His relationship with her for the most part of the film is huffy and disrespectful, but he is nonetheless steely enough to refuse to sleep with her on these terms, choosing death before dishonour. Celibacy is the route to heroism for both characters, even though both (particularly Kagero) are objectified and sexualised to some degree.

This is in marked contrast to the bad guys, of course, who all seem to be sleeping with each other. And not just with the opposite sex either, which adds an extra homophobic tang to proceedings...

19.6.16

The Gap Between Panels / Comics as PowerPoint

Latest post on the London Graphic Novel Network gets a bit self-indulgent and tries to connect comics to my day job as a digital comms guy at a think tank. Basically, infographics and powerpoints tell stories too, and maybe comics can learn a thing or three from my grubby tinkering with Adobe Illustrator. Read it here.