Friday, May 27, 2016

another riff or two on art reflecting the aspirations and anxieties of empires, the controversy over the casting of Kusanagi in the live-action Ghost in the Shell

So many film critics and writers have vented their spleen about how the same sci-fi franchises keep getting rebooted that I began to tire of the people who are tired of the endless reboots.  The usual explanations of "it makes money" or "people love nostalgia" are foolish arguments because they are too vague and because they don't even really attempt to explain why the nostalgia train runs as it does.  It "could" be said that the nostalgia train is what we get any time 40-somethings who have the money to burn decide to revisit the stuff they watched as kids twenty or thirty years ago.

But, you see, the reason I can't quite buy that is because if "that" the "real" explanation for franchise reboots and the like could there have been this controversy about Scarlett Johannson?


During the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, when Japan had not only made its comeback but was experiencing an unprecedented economic bubble (on the back of consumer electronics exports —€” toys to the rescue again) Japanese animation started to really come into its own as an art form. And as it shifted from its origins as a medium aimed at children to explore more adult themes, it turned its gaze toward the ground zero of this aggressive expansion. Tokusatsu (special effects) films like the Godzilla franchise had explicitly riffed on post-atomic anxiety, but anime melded that anxiety with the technoparanoia and existential musings of American science fiction authors like William Gibson and Neal Stephenson. The ubiquitous image of the atom bomb is the inciting or concluding event; the fallout is technology. Innocent youths are caged in robot suits, powerful psychics are trapped in decrepit childlike forms. Technology alienates everyone: consciousness becomes unmoored, bodies become arbitrary and disposable, sex becomes less a biological function than a psychological dysfunction, the planet and its host of forgotten nature spirits cries out in agony.

Enter Ghost in the Shell. Masamune Shirow's cyberpunk crime saga was first published as a manga serial in 1989, and by the time it was released as a feature-length film in 1995 the bubble economy had burst. The emphasis of the story shifted from the paranoid thrill of a world where everything is connected via a network to the fate of a human consciousness in a world overtaken by technology. Its heroine, Major Motoko Kusanagi, is a cyborg with a manufactured body and a human brain (maybe). She, like many other enhanced humans in this vision of 2029 Japan regularly jacks into a globe-spanning network via ports in the back of her neck. She's already started to wonder about the origin and location of her consciousness, when an artificial intelligence, that has self-generated in the network, finds her and asks to merge with her as a means of mutual self-prolonging. The 1995 film ends with her merging with the entity and assuming a new, younger body.

Ghost in the Shell isn't even an American thing. Now Americans love to revamp and retool stories from all over.  It's not like the forthcoming Magnificent Seven doesn't remind us that it's a remake of a film that was a remake of a Kurosawa film, after all.

The piece from The Verge floats an explanation of what it is about Ghost in the Shell that makes it distinctly Japanese.

Technology was what Japan turned to as a means to assert itself as a world leader when military might was no longer an option. The wire-encrusted dystopias of ‘90s anime are the natural outgrowth of a country brought to its knees by nuclear warfare that threw itself into a tech explosion and is now slumping through economic downturn. And it's an indirect American inheritance. America took away Japan's army, tossed it some tin cans, said "Here, play with this, instead." A half a century later, we have the PS4, Hatsune Miku, and sex robots. That's better than comfort women, to be sure. It's definitely better than nukes. But it permanently altered the entire question of national identity.

Another way to put this could be to say that Japan was defeated by the United States and put in a position where it could not possibly regain its self-sense of glory or empire through military might and embraced technological innovation.  Regular readers (if there are those, still) may recall that I've been riffing on the idea that sci-fi and genre nostalgia and the franchises that tend to be picked up as popular to begin with seem to cluster around the aspirations and anxieties of empire. 

I proposed this idea explicitly to explain why we keep getting reboots of sci-fi utopian and dystopian adventures that cluster around the 1960s and 1980s.  "Nostalgia and the Anxieties of Empire: Toward a unified theory of American sci-fi movie nostalgia"  was where I floated the idea that the franchises we keep seeing get reboots or that have never entirely fallen to the wayside embody the utopian or dystopian anxieties of artists during what I'd call the Camelot fantasies and nightmares of the Kennedy and Reagan eras. Since Marvel comics began in the 1960s and hit some strides in the 1980s I'd say that the lately released Age of Apocalypse would continue to prove this point--Americans may be convinced we're going to destroy or save the world but in any event it's absolutely going to be US that does the deed (pun both unavoidable and intended, for once).

But just because American pop culture can be a medium for recycling the aspirations and anxieties of empire doesn't mean that's not in some sense what all art is for other nations.  James Bond and Doctor Who can be taken as franchises reflecting upon the British empire in decline.  Not that progressives in the West would necessarily like it to be put this way but all art is imperialist or colonialist in some fashion.  Baroque art and music celebrated grandeur and power.  We can pick an empire to back but what we don't have a choice about (unless we've got the material and monetary means to do otherwise) is which empire we make art in (if we make it).  Any aspiration to go "mainstream" is to want to share in the riches of an empire and even the repudiation of  a current empire carries with it a belief that some other kind of empire would be better. 

To propose that humans would quest for and actually achieve a state of living that isn't imperial is to ignore the entirety of human history.  Now for those who explicitly embrace apocalyptic religion they at least recognize that only a god or gods could bring that about.  For secularists, I have no idea how secularist utopians who think humans are capable of living without empires imagine that will happen.  But in a way ... superhero stories could be a way to find out.  Are superhero stories too juvenile and disconnected from the real world and how real people behave?  This ... is 2016, folks, and I haven't seen the fans of Sanders and Clinton and Trump behave THAT differently from fans of Wolverine yet.

The problem of an American adaptation of a Japanese story is that the aspirations and anxieties of the American empire won't be the same as those of a Japanese technocratic empire circa the 1980s.

What made Japanese stories meditating on the costs of having embraced technological innovation but with the loss of the old ways and the loss of connection to nature unique was the lack of a military option, so the case is going.  The United States has always had the military option.  But in both cases we shouldn't forget these are anxieties of empire.  If the tech bubble hadn't burst Japanese storytellers could wonder whether what was gained was never going to compensate for what was lost.  If the United States crew trying to bring Ghost in the Shell to life focus on a quasi Inception or quasi Existenze (sic) rumination on how do you know you're you they will have missed the anxieties of the Japanese tales. 

In a way the problem of how Americans think could be summed up in Steve Rogers in Civil War--Bucky was brainwashed by Hydra and the Soviets or something and became the Winter Soldier so everything he did while under the command of others is stuff he's not guilty of.  Or, well, kinda he's not guilty even though he totally killed a ton of people but since he was being controlled he's not responsible.  Not even Bucky buys this reasoning and it might be suggested as a thought experiment that this is the weakness of American character arc logic.  It's why American genre films that raise the question of whether something is a dream or not falter--the American storyteller seems to think that if you just ask "is this real or isn't it?" the characters are off the hook.  But in Uresei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer [sic], you're not off the hook just because you're in a dream world.  Your code of ethics can determine not only your fate but the fate of everyone you care about if you make the right or wrong decision. 

On the whole I would rather Western filmmakers avoided doing adaptations of anime and manga.  But the reason for this is because I don't think that all imperial cultures (and they're all imperial in the end) share the same anxieties and aspirations, even if within each cultural empire the hope and dream is that what "we" want is universal.   We'd like it to be ... but take this recent entry at Slate in which praise for mommy humor includes:
...  Humor liberates us from our idealized selves, and there are few roles shellacked with as many layers of idealization as motherhood. Good mom humor strips off the many, often ridiculous, expectations placed on mothers by both showing us that it’s all right to fail, and, more importantly, making it clear how the world is failing us.

Would a Japanese author talk about how good mom humor shows us that it's "all right to fail, and, more importantly, making it clear how the world is failing us?" Where Japanese film and manga may have explored the possibility that a technologically innovative empire may have gained technology at the price of turning away from nature and tradition, an American writer might see an opportunity to say that the self must assert itself to prove it's real to itself in the sea of fakeness.  How do you know you're really you?  Because you fight!  Because you CHOOSE to live.  Because you have free will (and also perhaps not generations of social obligations and traditions to consider because ... `Murica). 

American science fiction and genre narrative could seem hopelessly nostalgic because in many ways it is.  We want the Reagan Camelot back or the JFK Camelot back or whatever red-state or blue-state fantasy land that we either thought we had or that "should" exist.  If you don't understand that Star Trek is in some sense the ultimate blue state Cold War era utopian colonialist dream you don't get the frnachise at its heart or why ... maybe ... it cannot and should not survive in that way in a post-Cold War setting.  Condescending American chauvinism was so part and parcel of the early Trek that extracting that component by way of making the Federation a source of evil is probably the biggest reason Star Trek Into Darkness felt like a let down for Trek fans.  The darkness isn't supposed to be within the Federation. 

Dystopian stories from the anime/manga tradition are stories I haven't read in a while but I'll take a stab at remembering them in contrast to American dystopian stories.  In American stories the dystopia can be toppled.  In other nations where dystopian futures are taken up it can seem as though there's more a sense that the opportunity cost is a loss that cannot be regained.  Star Trek imagined a world in which the human race could bounce back from even World War III. It's hard to propose a more wildly utopian impulse than that.

And as the pop culture and sci-fi of Japan has shown and told, you don't just "bounce back" from that into Star Trek. 

It's easy enough to imagine that if the wrong person ends up on the Oval Office life as we know it is over and it is perhaps the crisis of the American cultural conscience that it also seems we can't imagine any other kind of life as even being worth living.  Whether on the left or the right it's nothing less than world-saving and world-ending apocalyptic frenzy.  In that sense it's a relief to know that in Japanese dystopian sci-fi the world didn't end, you just ... kinda lost some of your soul.   Not ALL of it, just enough to realize you've missed something.  That's why the continent that keeps giving us Terminator films is probably not going to do anything all that great with Ghost in the Shell.  We're too obsessed with depicting alienation as a completed rupture and riffing on the loss rather than playing with the idea that the ways we build our identities are the ways we lost what we thought we were gaining--we don't seem into the idea that alienation can be a process and that the quest for self can be its loss.  Of course in non-Western cultural traditions the idea that whoever would save his life will lose it and whoever would lose his life will have saved it DOES come up but that's not necessarily the same cultural tradition.

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