Wednesday, January 18, 2012

snow toons

Over the years I have been writing off and on about cartoons.  I have written about Pixar films that I own and enjoy.  I have been writing about the DCAU (aka Timm-verse) and am even now refining "The Wounds of Discovery" this week as part 4 of my Mockingbird series Batman: the Agony of Loss and the Madness of Desire.  I have every episode of the Powerpuff Girls and watch it even if my nieces aren't with me.  Though I don't like Scooby-Doo I shall never begrudge Frank Welker his meal ticket and Shaggy is admittedly one of the most enjoyable voices in the history of toon'dom. The voices of Megatron and Bumblebee have surely paid their dues to the natural fact that cartoons are their own art form.

Got Wallace & Gromit.  I've got Coraline.  I made a point of seeing The Nightmare Before Christmas because no self-respecting fan of animation can have missed what was arguably one of the most important stop-motion animated features of the last twenty years. Got Miyazaki films.  I've got Satoshi Kon's Perfect Blue with plans to one day pick up Paprika.  I've picked up Grave of the Fireflies though I don't have the emotional energy to watch it probably more than once a decade!  I managed to pick up Night on the Galactic Railroad on DVD.  I was one of a few people who saw what was probably one of the only legal showings of Oshii Mamuro's Angel's Egg presided over by the director himself.  I await the opinion of friends about Persepolis. In sum, when I at times drop hints that I'm a cartoon nerd here and elsewhere trust me that I'm not bluffing. 

I am also, I admit, kind of snobby about cartoons, too, which is why when I became completely hooked on Psalms of the Planets (aka Eureka Seven) my nerd ego and snob ego took a few hits along the way.  Some people have rightly described the series as what you might get if Neon Genesis Evaneglion had pink explosions and swirling rainbows. Ha!  When my brother told me about the premise of the show, that people operated mecha that ravelled around on flying surfboards I replied that this sounded like the most lame-ass premise for an anime in the history of anime.  My brother merely replied that, be that as it may, the show was still worth watching.  He wanted me to at least sit through the first five episodes before passing a final judgment.  Okay, so I did. 

The characters were all stock, the music was often goofy in the way that J-pop is ... well, you know.  There were all sorts of maudlin bits about the power of belief and having dreams.  It was the sort of thing where thematically it was making me bristle with the remorseless sentimentality, gooey music, and the beginnings of what looked like a standard-fare emo romance as a certain friend of mine put it at the time.  Yep, all there.  So why was it that by the end of episode 5 I decided to keep watching?  The hazing episode (episode 6) had lots of deliberately awkward and forced humor that on first viewing not only wasn't winning me over but was grating.  The central character, Renton, seemed self-involved, self-pitying, and more than a little annoying.  Yet he also had this embarrasing naivete and trust that, I hate to admit this, I remembered having a bit of in my own earlier teen years.  The character was embarrassing to watch because he sorta reminded me of me from about that age.

But over episodes 6-10 I began to realize that there were hints that this was a wind up for some reveal.  That Eureka was not human was obvious within the first two episodes.  Anyone could have figured that out.  That tossed off characters remarked that Renton's heroes were basically just a bunch of worthless mercenaries, traitors, criminals and thugs was the sort of thing that seemed unimportant in the first few episodes.  By episode 10-12, however, the show had tipped its hand.  An earlier moment where a 14 year old girl makes the huge mistake of disciplining a 5 year old girl who ran off by slapping her in the face was played for laughs at first but soon enough the series revealed that what was played for laughs early on was priming us for learning how and where these characters learned to relate to each other like this. 

And that was what hooked me on the series because the "how" and "where" turned out to be the series theme--what was billed as an action-adventure romp dealing with mecha and flying surfboards turned out to be the pretext for exploring how intergenerational and culturally engrained child abuse is sustained, justified, and assimilated by the recipients and perpetrators of said abuse. When Eureka considers that she deserves to be pelted with food stuffs because she was "a dog for the military" she doesn't stop to consider that there might, possibly, have been anything wrong with adults making her kill hundreds and thousands of people.  She just accepts that she did kill those people and deserves some punishment for it.

When Renton discovers that his childhood hero Holland Novac turns out to be an emotionally distant, short-tempered child abuser the let down isn't just a let down, it's almost stomach-churning.  I began to realize that the characters who were annoying to me because of the tropes they fit into had, by a weird writerly amalgalm, been revealed to be characters who were tropes not "just" because they were story cliches (though, surely, they are) but the back story each character got helped to explain how each character's otherwise rote traits sprung in part from their being consigned certain roles they didn't ask for. 

And along the way stock characters were revealed to be stock in part because they were hiding from themselves.  The initially stand-offish and "cool" Holland is soon revealed to be pathetic, insecure, and prone to compensate for his insecurity by beating others.  The initial impression of his girlfriend Talho as a petty, mean, vindictive woman dressing on the lesser side of modesty turns out to be one of the few characters with an almost strangely consistent moral compass in the series' narrative universe.
As I became hooked on the show and watched all fifty episodes I began to realize that despite the rampant sentimentality and the maudlin aspect of it all I was drawn into the show anyway.  I now hesitate to suggest the series because some six years later I can say, intellectually at least, there are plenty of other anime out there that are more "important". 

But at another level I would say I hesitate to recommend Eureka Seven to just anyone because if I did so I would have to do something that is a bit "politically correct" by some measures, I'd have to include the caveat of "trigger warning".  That is to say that the series directly shows or implies pretty much every conceivable form of abuse and neglect an individual or social unit can possibly afflict upon a child.  If the scenes of Renton's hero Holland kicking him off a platform in a rage are disturbing the things in the backstory of a supporting character like Anemone, if you let them sink in, are simply horrifying.  Call me squeamish but I can't even bring myself to write about those things on this blog.  It is to the credit of the creators of the show that they decided to imply and telegraph rather than unload all of that stuff on the viewer. 

The otherwise rank sentimentality of a cartoon in which a character chooses to love someone and help him stops being a merely sentimental trope if a character chooses to save someone who has punched him in the face, kicked him in the stomach and tossed him off a platform, insulted him, and abandoned him, and breaking a dozen or so promises along the way.  The series moves along and shows us that if one of the good guys is a short-tempered child abuser the bad guys are not necessarily better for including an affable husband and wife team of mercenaries who are kind and sweet yet in the midst of that even more cruel and callous then the child abuser. 

The show Eureka Seven ends on a happy and remorselessly sappy note with a "love conquers all" motiff.  By the time the series wraps up all the gooey sentimentality reaches its apotheosis in such unabashed treacle I don't know how anyone could have written the ending that way without laughing.  Yet, for some reason, it still "works".  Why?  Well, perhaps the best way to attempt explaining this is that if even across religious and secular cultural divides we humans could agree that love hopes all things, believes all things and endures all things then Eureka Seven forced its central characters to endure enough misery (often self-inflicted and even more often inflicted by the people they love and trust) that the profession of mutual love does not seem cheap by the time it is finally expressed. 

When I express my abiding cynicism and skepticism about evangelicals pontificating about how evangelicals don't look into depicting "the tortured beauty of the Cross" I think it's because too many evangelicals look at the cross as an abstraction, even when they attempt to somehow "make it real". It's because the effort of "make it real" is part of a rhetorical procedure in which there is an obvious goal. The goal is to make you feel bad about your failures enough that you make a decision for Christ or rig up the pious water works. It can't be real in that setting because you know you're being played and if you don't you'll soon have your suspicions.  Maybe evangelicals would be better at exploring how love endures all things in the arts if we endured almost anything at all in our day-to-day lives.  I don't mean inconvenient streetlights, obviously.  But enough of that digression.

Not everyone who uses or abuses children will ever repent but by the end of the series one of them does.  One of the things that sticks with me about the series is that a supporting protagonist like Holland can recognize that he has killed too many people to atone for those killings.  He also recognizes that the way he used and abused the children who had been put in his care was wrong and decides that even if he can't stop walking a path where he has to kill to do the soldierly work that is about all he's good at, he can at least kill so that the kids he has taken on to his cause don't have to.  Holland turns out to be the metaphor for an abusive father or father figure who experiences remorse and repents of his abusive ways. 

By way of natural digression this leads to the question of why Holland would be a child abuser.  His girlfriend and (spoiler alert) eventual wife Talho figures it out long before Holland does, Holland finds it easier to "run away" from his own overwhelming sense of failure by taking out his anger on a child than admitting what he was trying to do was a failure.  By the end of the series, despite Holland's best efforts everything he attempted to do turned out to be a failure in terms of what his goals in the formal narrative were.  But in the emotional arc of the series he has stumbled upon salvation by being capable of feeling remorse.  He may have lost the battle he was fighting but by refusing to place victory over human dignity or a willingness to concede utter defeat and failure he ends up still being one of the heroes of the series. 

By contrast, his older brother and nemesis literally gains the whole world at the expense of his own soul and chooses to destroy everything in a bid to, as he sees it, atone for human failure to preserve its own dignity.  There's still that happy ending but I don't feel like spoiling everything.  Dewey Novac creates a team of children trained to kill without hesitation or regret and who are excited to help him orchestrate the death of tens of millions to right the wrongs of a dynastic regime that put its own convenience and power above truth and principle. Trouble is that Dewey does not recognize that his own pursuit of principle and truth is even more cruel and destructive. 

There are also a few asides and implied activities of Dewey I don't really feel like getting into.  My brother endured the film follow-up and let's just say that if the series had the good sense and good taste to avoid spelling out obviously what an alert viwer can put together the film made the grievous mistake of telling and removing all doubt.  There are times in which taking the high gothic horror approach of hinting, suggesting, and implying is far more effective than the low gothic horror route of just having a "gotcha" moment where the monster shows up and you smack the audience in the face with the ugly stuff.

The series never refrains from seizing every possible moment of positively eye-rolling sentimentality or garish humor.  In fact whole episodes are practically built on seizing every possible moment and then forcing in several impossible ones!  But, as John Woo once told an American journalist, it could just be that in Asian story-telling the melodrama has never fallen out of intellectual or cultural fashion.  It was maudlin and is maudlin, it's saccharine in all sorts of places and yet when the show is dark the show is unremittingly dark in ways that stick with me.  I guess that's what the Dostoevsky and Kafka fan in me found intriguing about the show.  The show wasn't going to show us the best and brightest without dragging us through the worst and darkest, often by dragging us through the worst and darkest of even the most sympathetic characters.

I don't know if I feel like explaining every last personal detail but the first time I managed to watch the whole series was in late 2007.  The show had been broadcast in the U.S. on Cartoon Network enough that my brother and a friend of mine told me about it.  The show ended up on DVD and I began to catch up on the show.  By now long-time readers of the blog probably don't have to work too hard to figure out what was going on in later 2007.  That was merely a side story to other more personal things that involved some family difficulties that at that time were on-going and some very big stresses I had at my job. 

Without getting much more detailed by the time I got to episodes 42-46 I was at a point in my life where I was emotionally drained and this was around August 2007, I think.  The cumulative story lines and character arcs all came together in a moment where through happenstance or providence the series hit every raw nerve I had at the same time so hard and fast I had no emotional defenses for it.  I managed to watch the episodes and found them compelling story-telling one weekend and then a whole day later the cumulative effect of the story-telling hit me and I had a three hour long melt down.

Three hours is a long time to have an emotional breakdown.  It was quite unlike anything I experienced in my life before or since.  The significance of it is something I have left in the domain of close friends and some (though not all, or even most) family members.  In fact I'm sort of at a loss to explain it now, even five years or so after it happened.  It's possibly the height of embarrassment for a person to admit to having a three hour melt-down triggered by watching a cartoon but there you go.  It happened to me and I had no idea such a thing was even possible.  In terms of snob appeal or intellectual credibility I don't know if anyone on earth would want to admit to having a meltdown triggered by such a cartoon and the personal significance is something that, frankly, I think would be impossible to share.  As Proverbs puts it the heart knows its own troubles and no other shares its grief (or joy, depending on which translation/reading we're working from).

When I end up snowed in during the winters I drift toward stuff like The X-Files or Eureka Seven or Batman: the animated series.  There's probably some thematic reason for that but I don't feel like writing about that at this point.  This blog entry is quite long enough.

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