Wednesday, January 24, 2018

What I'm Running

So, the Blog has lain fallow for quite some time.  As I return to it, I noticed that blogspot has now become blogger and everything is different.

Well, we'll have to just forge ahead.  It's been more than a year since my last post, and in the intervening time I've had to deal with a whole lot of life and health issues.

In the interim, I've discovered quite a few systems and games in which I'm interested.  While I still try to keep up with the RPG blogosphere, I'm also interested in the YouTube vlogosphere, so I've been watching videos by Runeslinger and Sameoldji (to name only two) on YouTube.

So, around the holiday season of 2016, I discovered a whole slew of new roleplaying games to tickle my fancy--foremost among them being Burning Wheel.  The moment the Gold Edition and the Codex went back into print, I snagged myself copies and set about devouring them.  In combing through these rules, I've been transported back to my middle-school self poring over the Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks for the first time, enrapt by all the possibilities.

Last winter, I ran a few sessions of Ron Edward's excellent narrativist game Circle of Hands.  This winter, I wanted to give Burning Wheel a shot.  So I pitched the idea to a few friends with a couple of caveats, one of them being that the game would essentially be All-for-One: Regime Diabolique but using Burning Wheel instead of the Ubiquity or Savage Worlds system.

Running Burning Wheel is challenging, especially if no one at your table (including yourself) has ever played it before.  The rules are pretty daunting.  There are a lot of helpful worksheets that can assist in comprehending and using the rules without constant flipping through the book but there are times during the game when I feel less like I'm GMing a game and more like I'm handing out an assignment to my students.  The thing is, the system is so beautifully realized that it is all worth it and once the players grasp the rules the worksheets are actually extremely handy.

At its core, Burning Wheel is a low-prep game.  I still do a bit too much prep work but a lot of that is brainstorming ways to challenge the characters' Beliefs, Instincts, and Traits (BITs for short).  The reward system is not used to make your character more powerful in the way that Experience Points do--instead Artha (the reward tokens) are earned through embodying your character's Beliefs, Instincts, and Traits via roleplay and spent on giving your character an edge in dramatic or climactic confrontations and conflicts.  So, I've spent a lot of time conjuring up NPCs, encounters, and events that I can throw at the characters to challenge their BITs, as well as giving them ample avenues and opportunities to pursue their own agendas.

It seems sandboxy but it isn't.  Not at all.  The game works alright in a sandbox, I think, but the system, by design, lends itself to pushing events forward to dramatic conflicts, climaxes, and resolutions to create stories.

So far, Burning Wheel is the game I've always wanted to play but never knew it.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Open Response to Muda-kun's Comment

Muda-kun of Hearts of Furious Fancies responded to my last post (read what he says in the Comments section).  Well, my reply to Muda-kun was just too darn verbose for Blogger to post it as a single comment and instead of breaking it up into several sub-comments, I've pretty much just posted it up here for all too see.

Thanks for responding, Muda-kun.  Here we go.

Mr. Cesarano, thank you for this serious analysis on chapter 122 and the honor you do me referring to my posts, as well as - where you saw necessary- the warnings.

Flattery will get you nowhere.

Actually, joking aside, I seriously hope I'm not overdoing it.  Your method of analysis is important and I only want us to have a positive influence on each another--challenging one-another to step up our analytical game.

I believe that this kind of dialogue is some of, if not THE most important "secondary production" that can emerge from any fandom or larger field of study. Oh, and IT ROCKS!

Yes, sir, it does!  Hey, I enjoy our disagreements and our agreements because I think it helps us refine our own position and encourage an enhanced understanding of the material.

I now have a lot more to mull over, especially Said - I really only have passing acquaintance with his works...

Well, I am really critical of Said.  I think Orientalism is far too hyperbolic in its approach.  Nevertheless, I think there is merit to his methodology.  I do lay a lot of the blame for the current "cultural appropriation" fanaticism on Orientalism to some extent.  And I, by no means, want my use of the term "appropriation" to be anywhere near as pregnant with implications of racism, imperialism, and suppression/oppression as the term is widely used to be.

... and prefer Adrian Piper's approach, which is somewhere off along the Z axis to his admonitions.

Piper is, probably, someone into whom I should look.  I've only heard a little bit of him.

Further to this, I think I had better take more care in my analysis, if only to keep the fannish parts when I get caught up in the story, (yummy... narcissism! mmmmm!) from the (and you will excuse me if I use imprecise terms here) game of trying to intuit the larger wagers that Kio Shimoku makes in his tale, and whether of not he can meet them and raise them.

Bah humbug.  Fannishism... fanism... fanaticism... whatever, it's the entire point we want to write about this stuff.  Don't take more care to avoid it at all.  Play your cards, man, and let us disagree. Vive la différence!

You are my preferred sort of interlocutor.  I've a few friends with whom I disagree about stuff and we get into it but often it ends up being that sort of dialectic where, eventually, a synthesis of ideas evolves (sometimes... sometimes thesis or antithesis wins but hey, that's how it happens occasionally).

It might be unfair but I expect a lot from Kio Shimoku's Genshiken. I am sure lots of other readers do so as well; the trouble of course lies in all the different things we expect... Putting aside all of us outlanders, entering "Genshiken" into Twitter's search box brings up at least five Japanese University clubs inspired by his work. He has made a wager. You are right to point out that some of us in the West may judge that he has failed to make his bid, when by his rights and those of his core readership, he has. I am going to work on the presumption that he is ambitious, if only by the ambitions of the characters he has created.

Well, by my own standards, he's definitely made good on his bid.  Good stories do not, cannot, and should not be hidebound by politics and societal taste.  Hato is far too complex a character, as is Madarame, for me to have been satisfied with many of the alternative events many have daydreamed about.

I will go into the whole "why" I think Shimoku's bid was definitely a winning bid from a literary standpoint sooner on my blog rather than later.

To put it another way, I read UQHolder, but I would never expect from it what I expect from the Genshiken.


Chapter 122 is definitely far more complex than it appears.

Absolutely.  And I would say it catapults the entirety of the harem arc into a much higher literary examination of Japanese group-social dynamics.

Definitely a "highlight the contradictions" crisis. For example, I never twigged to how hysterically "sewn into his(hir) girl suit" (to use a crude metaphor) Hato's chan character was before the Niko trip.

Man, that is so compelling, though.  My brother once commented on Hato's art in "male form" that it is amazingly interesting and compelling, revealing of an internal turmoil that could be tapped to do amazing things, but finally coming to rest by stating, "Hato hates himself."

Holy crap!  My God, man, that's amazing!  I mean, if Hato were a real person, we shouldn't be discussing him in such a detached manner but since he's a fictional character, we're capable of going to town and psychoanalyzing him in ways that would otherwise be unethical.  Why?  What do we get out of all of this?

Basically, an enhanced understanding of the human condition.  This is what has floored me and brought so much full-circle--the discomfort Hato feels in his female form on the trip is so reflective of that earlier discomfort demonstrated by his art.  Wham!  There is so much to discuss!

(one can limit this to internal plotting and character consistency considerations without getting into gender expression politics - yeah, I tippy toe, some folks have a lot more skin in the game and it is rubbed raw, so I try to consider that as I traipse around...)

And that, good sir, is to what I am objecting.  People have too much skin in the game.  They're taking a fictional character and identifying with them way, way too much, which is why I say that the upset among certain fans is narcissistic.

Let me throw this one on you--I've tossed about the idea of drawing a comic for a long time about the trials and tribulations of a mixed-ethnicity/race/culture couple consisting of an American male nerd and a Japanese female fujoshi + otaku (I distinguish between the two, by-the-way).  One of the strip ideas involves the nerd coming home from work to their shared apartment to find she's off shopping or not yet returned from her own job.

Somehow, he stumbles across a doujin she's drawn.  He knows about her hobbies and even enjoys seeing the happiness she gets from it.  However, this doujin she's drawn goes over the line for him. 
It's Kirk x Spock or Frodo x Samwise.  Something he's grown up loving.  Something he's introduced to her and she's discovered her own enjoyment of it.  And now... this!  No, no not this! 
She returns home and finds him a mess, tears staining the doujin and him on his hands and knees.  He leaps up and grasps on the hat rack, dangling from it like Luke Skywalker from the gantry in Empire. 
"No... It's not true.... That's impossible!" 
She responds, "心を読んでみろ、本当だと分かるはずだ." 
"Noooooo, noooooo!"  Then he releases the hat rack and falls to the floor.
It's ridiculous.  Of course it is ridiculous.  They're fictional characters, why would he be so devastated to see Frodo and Sam or Spock and Kirk in a BL situation?  People sometimes have too much skin in a game that was never theirs to have skin in.

(For the record, I can't draw worth a damn so all of my scripts will probably never see illustration.  Also, I wanted it to deliberately be a bilingual comic, which has a whole host of other issues.)

I remain indebted for your much earlier consideration of Yoshitake.

Dude, looking back, I was so wrong about her.

I modified it a bit. Not evil or even Loki, but I sure see her as "stealth Kaminaga" or to narrow that down, a "conservative" defender of a female-exclusive fujoshi social.

Yeah, that is a far better analysis of her character.

Given that fujoshi are easy targets, she would have her reasons for doing so if she considered them, but of course she acts mostly on impulse, following her instincts. She is in many ways "built" to do this; I must assume, to make a point and not just push the storyline along.

Yeah.  She is not simply a character to drive the plot along.  (In tabletop RPGs we always referred to them as "Plot-Device NPCs" and kind of found Game Masters who relied to heavily upon them to be of novice-skill-level.)  She's not a "Plot-Device NPC" whatsoever.  She's a fully-fleshed-out character.

I do hope she runs into a guy who spins her head.  I'm a romantic at heart.  As a historian, I've developed a soft spot for Yoshitake, despite all of her conniving.

As for the main character, the club's "Wa" was preserved, for now, barely and in a strange way the resolution went beyond Kio Shimoku's colleague's "Everyone will be unhappy, equally, together" to ensuring as well that all parties were actively complicit in their state. (an observation on technique that I lifted from a very astute observer of Japanese politics)

I remember you mentioning that before.  Care to provide a link?  Is it an article?

Whether he closed a wound or opened one has yet to be seen. I'm waiting to see what he does next. I look forward to more dialogue with you on this great puzzle, your time permitting.

I also hope we can consider a couple of other comparisons--especially with the situation of Genshiken to Yahari Ore no Seishun Rabu Kome wa Machigatteiru, which, despite my hatred of most light-novel adaptations, I have found to really, really enjoy.  (It's on CrunchyRoll as My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU.)  I'd also like to consider a comparison between the titular character of Ranma 1/2 in comparison to Hato.  If you want to throw down on your blog with these two ideas, man, do so.  These are ideas that this latest series of events has made me want to write about so I won't be upset if you beat me to the punch--in fact, I welcome it.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Genshiken and Western Political (Non)Discourse

A dozen or so unfinished blog posts have accumulated over the past few months.  Business, job search (my current job just doesn't pay the bills well enough), lecture planning and exam/paper grading, and Japanese study/practice (I attend a language-exchange meetup regularly) have put a real damper on my expository lifestyle and seen this blog languish in the pits of stagnation for many a month.  So, what could possibly drag me from complacency to pound my keyboard?

The March issue of Genshiken, specifically #122.  I've often discussed Genshiken on this blog--probably more than any other single thing with the exception of Dungeons & Dragons--and this latest issue marks the conclusion of a story arc that has gone on for over two years.  The fan reaction has been very mixed with regards to the result.  My own is one of extreme satisfaction and approval.  Kio Shimoku not only knows what he is doing but has done something superb.  That it hit all the readers right in the feels only demonstrates how well he's done but it also demonstrates how the readers are injecting their own personal identity politics far, far too much into Shimoku's work.

This post will not be focused on a singular aspect of Genshiken #122 but on a number of aspects that will take the entirety of the harem arc into consideration.  Thus, I will assume that the reader has already read up to and including #122 and as such, will not be spoiled.  Today, I would like to discuss the fan reaction to the conclusion of the arc.

Identity Politics and the Western Interpretation of Genshiken Nidaime
Please take a look at the comments section in Ogiue Maniax's blog posts here and here.  The common theme running through a great many of the comments is that of tremendous disappointment as though an important and decisive battle had been lost.  Indeed, numerous posts of Muda-kun's at Hearts of Furious Fancies charge headlong into the gender-and-identity-politics discourse.  In particular, three posts (here, here, and here) demonstrate a dramatic increase in tension as the conclusion of the harem arc became imminent.  The comments section of these three posts seethe with tension.

What was at stake?  Who stood to gain or lose depending on whom Madarame chose?  Why does it appear that so much was riding on whether or not Madarame chose Hato as a romantic partner?

When #122 was released, a number of groups felt totally defeated but none so much as the Hato-supporters.  A small group, myself among them, were satisfied with the result.  In my own case, I was tremendously pleased and impressed with the results (especially after Ogiue Maniax made translation clarifications for the chapter).  The amount of hurt feelings, bruised egos, and sour grapes might have puzzled me but it doesn't.

So, going back and answering the above questions, I will say, "Nothing," to the first and "No one" to the second.  The third question, "Why does it appear that so much was riding on whether or not Madarame chose Hato?" can be summarily answered with "gender and identity politics" but that response requires some explanation.

To begin with, the inclusion of a character such as Hato garnered a tremendously complex reaction from the fans of the original Genshiken run.  Internet fora referred to the "new" Genshiken club as "fujoshit," an obvious portmanteau of "fujoshi" and "shit" that served as a disparaging commentary on where many fans felt the series had gone.  Hato, in particular, was disliked.  In response, readers and fans sympathetic to gender and sexual identity politics locked shields and voiced support for Hato's legitimacy as a character.

Thus, Genshiken went from being a manga about how a few girls turned a homosocial group of hopeless otaku in university upside-down into a political battleground.  Yet neither group of readers actually had any armies to field and the battlefield itself was off in Japan.  The debates, arguments, and discussion could not help but be all for naught--the author resides in Japan and it is unknown how much the raging debate over his work reached him at all.  The stories of Hato and Madarame were actually being subverted and conformed to fit the political debate in the West.  Individuals sought validation for their chosen political ideology in the outcome of the harem arc.

"But ah," sayeth Muda-kun in the comments section of his blog, "Fandom without (secondary/ transformative) product is just consumption; interesting for marketing studies but ultimately disenchanted."

What is objectionable about all of this is that it isn't just transformative but, for lack of a better term, appropriative.  I admit to wincing when I use this term because "cultural appropriation" is the buzzword of choice on college campuses nowadays and I have to admit to disagreeing with the outright profligacy of its use and the Orwellian attempts to control discourse being employed.  Edward Said's seminal work, Orientalism, can be considered one of the sources for the current proliferation of the entire "cultural appropriation" argument.  Nevertheless, provides a framework from which to understand my criticisms of this appropriation.  Providing Said's definition of the term "Orientalism" is, perhaps, the best way to prime the reader to understand my premise.
"...Orientalism is not a mere political subject matter or field that is reflected passively by culture, scholarship, or institutions; nor is it a large and diffuse collection of texts about the Orient; nor is it representative and expressive of some nefarious 'Western' imperialist plot to hold down the 'Oriental' world. It is rather a distribution of geopolitical awareness into aesthetic, scholarly, economic, sociological, historical, and philological texts; it is an elaboration not only of a basic geographical distinction (the world is made up of two unequal halves, Orient and Occident) but also of a whole series of 'interests' which, by such means as scholarly discovery, philological reconstruction, psychological analysis, landscape and sociological description, it not only creates but also maintains; it is, rather than expresses, a certain will or intention to understand, in some cases to control, manipulate, even to incorporate, what is a manifestly different (or alternative and novel) world; it is, above all, a discourse that is by no means in direct, corresponding relationship with political power in the raw, but rather is produced and exists in an uneven exchange with various kinds of power, shaped to a degree by the exchange with power political (as with a colonial or imperial establishment), power intellectual (as with reigning sciences like comparative linguistics or anatomy, or any of the modern policy sciences), power cultural (as with orthodoxies and canons of taste, texts, values), power moral (as with ideas about what 'we' do and what “they” cannot do or understand as 'we' do). Indeed, my real argument is that Orientalism is—and does not simply represent—a considerable dimension of modern political-intellectual culture, and as such has less to do with the Orient than it does with 'our' world.”

I am tremendously critical as to the extent which Edward Said's Orientalism took claims of racist and colonialist/imperialist Western responses to Middle Eastern culture and society.  Yet the political debate surrounding Genshiken's harem arc and subsequent outcry at its resolution is actually a good application of Said's critical methods so long as I provide this one particular caveat: Genshiken, a Japanese cultural artifact for and about Japanese people, published in a Japanese context, and engaging in a dialectic that is specifically Japanese, is being repurposed as a political tool by Western audiences for the purposes of self-validation.  To be clear, I do not object specifically to Genshiken being "appropriated"--Genshiken is being converted into a political MacGuffin for the purposes of individuals seeking psychological validation.  This isn't transformation but misappropriation and misuse of a cultural artifact.

Said wrote that "Ideas, cultures, and histories cannot seriously be understood or studied without their force, or more precisely their configurations of power, also being studied."  Yet, with a few exceptions, this deliberately Japanese artifact is being reconfigured.  It is not being understood or studied in context or parallel to its own cultural force.  Instead, it is solipsistically being decontextualized and converted into a sort of ideological vehicle for the purposes of psychological validation in a Western context.  This results in being dismissive for the purpose of reifying the identity politics of the self--an act which is, ironically, something that is intrinsically Western and not Japanese.  It is to this very dismissal and repurposing that I object.  That the dismissal and repurposing is done to further a uniquely Western vision of identity politics is ultimately more violent to the original cultural content.  This is unique because Said's objection was to the West's taxonomization (among other things) of the Middle East as a means of possession.  What is going on here is not a taxonomization but it is no less an attempt at possessing a cultural product for political purposes quite detached from the original context.

And before Muda-kun jumps in with Said's own words in contradiction to, let me nod to his (I presume) opposition with yet another quote from Orientalism:
“What I am interested in doing now is suggesting how the general liberal consensus that 'true' knowledge is fundamentally nonpolitical (and conversely, that overtly political knowledge is not 'true' knowledge) obscures the highly if obscurely organized political circumstances obtaining when knowledge is produced. No one is helped in understanding this today when the adjective 'political' is used as a label to discredit any work for daring to violate the protocol of pretended suprapolitical objectivity.”

Touché, Muda-kun.  To depoliticize discourse would be not only disingenuous but outright oppressive.  What I am advocating is not the depoliticization of Genshiken-related discourse.  Quite the contrary--I believe that Genshiken must be recontextualized to the Japanese milieu.  Western identity politics has become a sort of "tyranny of the individual" against society as a whole--the pendulum has swung so far that it has destabilized any and all discourse and poisoned the dialectical well beneath the Orwellian Newspeak of "that which is problematic."  This discourse occupies an opposite spectral pole from Japanese identity-politics discourse which seeks to strike a balance between the individual and society in a way that is beneficial to the whole and not the sum of the parts.  This is why I find the response to Madarame's decision to be unhelpful, selfish, and narcissistic--individuals have staked their claim on turf that is on the Moon, so to speak.

I won't go so far as Said and accuse those who are appropriating Genshiken of being racist or imperialist nor do I mean "appropriate" in such a manner that it is pregnant with current political meaning as to be intrinsically offensive.  I do believe that the current climate is divisive and having a balkanizing effect on Western society which stands in sharp contrast to the Japanese cultural milieu.  Even when one examines Genshiken through the lens of identity politics with an eye to maintaining the integrity of the cultural context, one runs the tremendous risk of subverting the context beneath the narcissistic individualism of a Western interpretive framework.  Indeed, it is almost inevitable that persistence with this view, especially the attribution of socio-cultural value on the results of the harem arc for purposes of the validation of the political individual identity of the self, results in ignoring, dismissing, and sublimating the group-centered collectivist context that is a defining characteristic of Japanese society as a whole and Kio Shimoku's work as a cultural artifact.

I am not leveling this criticism solely at those who supported Madarame choosing Hato as a means of personal identity validation.  This criticism is universal.  None of us have a stake in what happens in the story beyond the boundaries of narrative, character, and cultural fidelity.  If you want a contextually Western examination of the themes of gender, sexuality, and identity politics, watch the award-winning Transparent on Amazon Video.  As for Genshiken, Shimoku has adroitly exposed a number of throbbing nerve clusters within the Japanese context of sexual, gender, and social dynamics.  For a phenomenal analysis of the entire arc as a whole and the Issue #122 in particular, I point again to Muda-kun's blog post here.  In this particular instance, Muda-kun maintains a thorough grasp on the cultural and social context without subducting it beneath the (occasionally tectonic) weight of his ideologically-informed analytical toolkit.  (Muda-kun, I really hope that doesn't come off as a backhanded compliment--I mean it in no such way.)  Muda-kun is also self-aware and cognizant of the tendency to let his ideological toolkit get the better of him--this keeps him intellectually honest, albeit at the expense of excessive apologies for being a "privileged" cisgendered heterosexual male.

I, however, shall not apologize for being a stick-in-the-mud.  While it may indeed inform my perspective, I nevertheless strive toward an objective appraisal of Genshiken.  I am also not offended by this behavior.  Annoyed is more accurate.  Disappointed, to be sure--I'm no stranger to being disappointed by humanity, especially since I am a student of human events.  If anything, I find the narcissism behind the anti-Hato criticism of Nidaime to be just as annoying as the narcissism behind the pro-Hato response to the ending of the harem arc.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Response to Josh Parker

A couple of weeks ago, a certain Josh Parker (who blogs here) posted a number of interesting comments to which I'd like to reply.  However, there was simply too much there for me to respond to in the comments section.  Therefore, I'm collecting all of his comments and my responses into a single post.

Before you read this, you may want to jump up to speed by reading these previous posts:

The State of Fantasy in 1977
Fantasy: 1977 to 1989
Fantasy: 1990 to 2000.  The Age of Doorstops and Gimmicks.
Fantasy: 1999 to 2011.  Disillusionment and Nihilism.
Fantasy: 1977 to 2011.  Wrapping it All Up.
"Realism" and Nihilism in Contemporary Fantasy
On Terry Brooks' The Sword of Shannara

So, I'm going to jump directly in, here.
I know I'm quite late to the game here, but I must comment on a couple of things: 
First of all, the attitude expressed by Lagomorph Rex is, in my opinion, exactly why fantasy refused to grow for so many years and why brilliant authors like David Gemmell and Glen Cook weren't really celebrated until their definitive works were several years old. 
Throughout the 80's, we were subjected to a number of standard-issue fantasy fiction which, while few were the abject rip-offs that The Sword of Shannara was, nonetheless followed a certain mold and refused to break out of it. This is what gained fantasy much of its poor reputation. 
Rex seems to want more of this; for the genre to stay as it was when he was a boy and never grow beyond that. Assuming that's true, it is an attitude that I as a fantasy reader and hopeful some day fantasy author, simply cannot stomach.
I like Lagomorph Rex but I will agree with you entirely here.  Yet let's not pretend, here, fantasy has always been full of pastiche.  Ron Edwards' discussion on Narrativism as a role-playing method discusses pastiche pretty well:

What happens when you want a story but don't want to play with Story Now? Then the story becomes a feature of Exploration with the process of play being devoted to how to make it happen as expected. The participation of more than one person in the process is usually a matter of providing improvisational additions to be filtered through the primary story-person's judgment, or of providing extensive Color to the story. Under these circumstances, the typical result is pastiche: a story which recapitulates an already-existing story's theme, with many explicit references to that story. 
Is pastiche necessarily bad and evil? No. Is non-pastiche necessarily incredibly good? No. 
Here's a little dialogue between me and one of the first-draft readers of this essay: 
Jesse: Now we come to a point of personal confusion. Pastiche. I still don't get it, in any medium. If the Situation involves "...class conflict, people being trapped by their social position, repressed romance..." and the GM lets the players resolve it anyway they like, then how is that not Narrativist? 
Me: It is Narrativist. What you're describing is not pastiche, or more clearly, it typically does not produce pastiche. The key is the "resolve it any way they like" part. 
Jesse: Similarly if I'm writing a story and I make a check-list of items I feel like I "need" to include to tell the "kind of" story I want to tell, and I have a character experience and resolve those things, then how have I not written a new story? 
Me: You have. What you're missing is that pastiche does not do this at all - instead, it references existing works in order to re-invoke what they, originally, provided for the reader/viewer, rather than doing it on its own. Die Hard is an outstanding movie. Passenger 57 stinks on ice. Why? Because Passenger 57 is only enjoyable if it reminds you, successfully, of Die Hard. Same goes for Broken Arrow, Con Air, and a slew of similar films. [Disclosure: I do enjoy many of these films, on the basis of the "reminder" alone. - RE] 
And it's not a matter of "who does it first." Die Hard works because it nails its Premise, with the explosions and one-liners all being supportive of that goal. The other movies fail to provide Premise of their own, merely using the explosions and one-liners to remind you of Die Hard, and by (putative) extension, tapping into Die Hard's Premise through association alone.
If you can see past the discussion of role-playing, it is actually quite a good, if indirect, explanation of what pastiche is by explaining what pastiche does.  It is imitation, ultimately referential to a previous work, and it ultimately fails when it is all reference and imitation without any of the real exploration of theme and premise.

Why does The Lord of the Rings succeed so well?  It nails that sense of lacrimae rerum--tears for things that exist no more, a sentiment similar to Japanese mono no aware.  Though Sauron is defeated, the world loses its mystery and magic, the Elves leave for the Undying Lands to the West, and Middle-Earth is less unique and special.  Frodo is traumatized by his experiences--especially (and this is something everybody seems to miss) having failed to surrender and destroy the Ring.  He returns home to the Shire but at the same time he cannot ever return to who he was and how he was because, like Gollum, the Ring was forcibly taken from him.  (Samwise doesn't suffer so because he willingly parted with the Ring.)  Even the Shire experienced the trauma of the War of the Ring under Saruman's occupation.  Victory had a terrible price but the price was better than defeat.  Nevertheless, the world will never be the same.

The Sword of Shannara doesn't really capture any of these things.  Shea and Flick Ohmsford return to a Shady Vale that is no wiser about the wider world or the tragic events that shook kingdoms to the North.  Nothing really changes--the Dwarves and Elves continue on as before.  As an adventure, the story still works--it is definitely readable and enjoyable but not sublime.  It is pastiche that succeeds because it addresses the very basic concepts and premises of what an adventure is and what a hero needs.  Terry Brooks doesn't really go any further than that, though.

Brooks is not alone.  Pulp fantasy is full of slavish imitations of Robert E. Howard.  A lot of Michael Moorcock's early Elric stuff is Conan with the career path reversed and angst added.  Indeed, a lot of Michael Moorcock's stuff is great but also a lot of it is drivel (the Runestaff series, for example).  How much of L. Sprague de Camp's Conan stories are failures as Howard imitation?  (How many of them are shameless rewrites of Howard stories to shoehorn Conan into the lead role?)  Is R.A. Salvatore's Drizzt just an Elric with a different skin-color and a somewhat more tragic backstory?

Regardless, I am really digressing here.  I wanted to describe pastiche and establish how pulpy Appendix N stuff often falls into the pastiche pile to give some degree of perspective.  Fantasy has always had a rather poor reputation, especially when compared to the grand futurism and thought-experiments being written by the likes of Asimov, Sturgeon, Bradbury, Heinlein, Clarke, and Ellison.  The pulps did a lot to create this reputation, I think, but the post-1977 surge of Tolkien pastiche didn't help.  In fact, all that Tolkien pastiche made it worse and the massive outpouring of TSR Dungeons & Dragons tie-in novels largely sealed

The problem with people in general is that when they run into something they really like, they don't want it to ever end.  I used to be just like this--when I first read The Lord of the Rings in third grade, I cried when it was over.  When I found Terry Brooks and Robert Jordan, I was overjoyed that I could dive into adventure and fantasy again.  I was too young to really understand what was wrong or what was missing.  Now, I have problems with the never-ending story that doesn't resolve.  It is why I have lost interest in George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series.  It is also why I have serious reservations about Tad Williams' announced return to writing about Osten Ard with a sequel to Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn.  Television shows like Lost demonstrate perfectly the tremendous flaw in having a story that doesn't resolve.

Let's point out what Simon said about recommending Tolkien's readers to Circle of Light. What he meant about that being a "portent of worse things to come", he was referring to the maddening tendency by fantasy publicists to place somewhere on the cover of their latest epic fantasy some quote that seems to suggest the novel can be compared to The Lord of the Rings. Every WOT novel once had the inane quote "Jordan has begun to dominate the world that Tolkien began to reveal" plastered on the cover. Authors as diverse as David Gemmell, George RR Martin and Scott Lynch have all been compared to Tolkien, usually by way of praise. "The greatest epic fantasy since The Lord of the Rings!" "(Author) has the same sort of epic storytelling capability of Tolkien", etc.
You know what, I can see that.  It is something I certainly missed and it actually accentuates how bad the problem we're discussing here is.  It reflects the appeal that a return to Middle-Earth represents and I will be honest, these taglines worked on me.  From a marketing standpoint, it was brilliant of the Del Reys.  However, they're business-people.  They're not critics and haven't demonstrated much appreciation for art.  This is an interesting problem because it brings in the overall struggle between art-as-a-business and art-for-the-sake-of-art, a struggle that is as old as artists have sought patronage.

I don't want to read the new Tolkien. I don't want to read another Eddings. I don't want to read the spiritual successor to Donaldson. I want to read the next (name of author). Just as I don't want musicians I enjoy constantly compared to the Beatles (and they never are), I don't want to read Abercrombie or Lawrence or Brett and feel like they've got to be conforming to some mold set down by an author before them.
No disagreements here.  I grok you.  Given you're punctuation (quotation marks inside the period/full stop instead of outside, for example), I imagine you are not an American and probably haven't spoken to as many Americans about their fantasy consumption as I have.  Actually, I'm not noticing a wide proliferation of "u" in words like "favorite" vs. "favourite" so I could be 100% completely and absolutely wrong and I hope I don't offend with my assumption.  Anyway, I've spoken to tons of fantasy readers (granted, mostly concentrated in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast cultural regions of the United States, so my sample-size is not a really good cultural cross-section of U.S. culture, admittedly).  What I have discovered is that many of the readers of Jordan, Goodkind, Eddings, and Brooks were, if not consciously looking for a successor to Tolkien and a continuation of Middle-Earth epic adventure against dark lords and monolithic evil, were so subconsciously influenced by Tolkien that they assumed that such perilous quests and evil overlords were necessary tropes of the genre as a whole.
I also can't agree that fantasy, now or in 2011, was stuck in a "perilous and shabby condition", but instead it seemed then, and seems now, to be thriving, and finally throwing off the impression that it's for kids, or too silly for mature readers, or "it's all the same".
I've honestly been out of it.  I wouldn't know about the developments of the past four years.  I've had my attention firmly placed elsewhere.  I will admit, I am waiting for R. Scott Bakker's third novel of The Aspect-Emperor series but that is about it.  I've not stepped into a Barnes & Noble bookstore in about three or four years except on my campus to order books for my courses.  Therefore, I am really in no place to comment or argue and have to concede to you on this point.
Fantasy has had really three main "booms", in my opinion. The first, and most obvious, was the late 70's boom that Simon talks about. The second I think happened in the early 90's, when Robert Jordan's WOT books really took off and helped draw attention to other "fat fantasy" epics and finally the third boom (so far) was in the mid 2000's when ASOIAF became the new standard by which new fantasy authors were judged and a new era of low-fantasy, magic-lite, character-driven, gritty-and-grim novels began. Many hated these novels and loathed their success. I firmly believe that they are the future, or at least will prepare the way for the next boom that keeps fantasy alive, and to discount their impact is foolhardy.
Looking back on the post, I don't think it was my intention to discount their impact and if I gave that impression, it was unintentional.  I definitely agree that A Song of Ice and Fire has really put fantasy on the map so successfully that it is incredible.  Even my father admitted that he has HBO exclusively for A Game of Thrones now that Boardwalk Empire is over.  The question is simply this--is Martin a game-changer?  And if so, how, exactly, has he changed the game?  I'm not exactly certain that I like where the fantasy genre may be going from here because I've lost interest in A Song of Ice and Fire and I'd rather not see future fantasy imitate its soap-opera structure.
Ah, Randy, Randy. Look up "ad hoc argument" some time. 
Not one of the books "trashed" here even approaches greatness. I would argue that even some that are (lightly) praised don't even come close. 
I have a soft spot for the WOT series but I know it's deeply, deeply flawed. What can I say, it charmed me.
I usually delete comments that troll like this after I had a nasty run-in with a certain internet celebrity from The Escapist who dismissed my position and sicced his fanboys on me. I try to keep things professional here and ended up having to delete entire posts because I like potential employers to take a look at this blog.  Before that happened, I used to let posts like Randy's stay up and simply not respond because I figured anyone who had read the post and possessed half-a-brain and an ounce of logic and reason would know that Randy had made an utter fool of himself with his comment.

Thank you for demonstrating that I figured correctly.

As for The Wheel of Time... dude, it's a guilty pleasure.  There are a number of deeply, deeply flawed films, anime, and novels that charm me as well.  However, you recognize that it is flawed.  That sets you apart from the uncritical, unthinking consumers.
The SOT books did the opposite. I didn't notice its flaws at first but after a while I couldn't handle it anymore and it repelled me. I can't stand those books today and can't fathom why anyone likes them. I've got a whole list of reasons why they're terrible but that's a blog post (hell, that's a whole BLOG) on its own.
I read the first book and it seemed pretty solid for a pastiche.  It also seemed like it was a complete, self-contained story that had resolved.  I didn't see anywhere it could go.  I can't comprehend how he's milked this series without tremendously contrived plots.
I should point out that Robert Jordan always seemed like a nice man who was thankful to his fans for providing him with a career.
Oh, yeah, no doubt.  My criticisms of his writing are not personal criticisms of the man, whatsoever.  Not in the slightest.  Both the critic and the author have to detach the work being critiqued from the person who produced the work.
Terry Goodkind seems like a total jerk who hates the genre that made him a success and is angry with any fan who reads his books for the wrong reasons. "No, you don't understand. It's not fantasy. QUIT READING IT FOR THE FANTASY ELEMENTS! IT'S DEEP, DAMMIT!"
From what I've read and heard, the entire series is Randian Objectivism set in a fantasy world.  Having read Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged and learned about who and what sort of person she was, I can't say I'm all that surprised by Goodkind's attitude.
I'm gonna have to take issue with your lumping Abercrombie in with Nicholls and Morgan. From your comments equating all three writers as essentially the same in content and motivation, I'm going to assume you haven't actually read any of Abercrombie's stuff and are instead writing based solely on his reputation.
You redress this later so I'm not going to respond to this yet.
I have read Abercrombie's First Law trilogy and I find that it is essentially a leaner, meaner take on George RR Martin's approach to fantasy writing. His focus is on visceral character development and he crafts some of the most in-depth characterizations I've ever read. In lesser hands, a man like Glokta would be thoroughly unlikeable, a stereotypical boo-hiss villain incapable of drawing an iota of sympathy from the reader. In Abercrombie's hands, he comes off as more sympathetic than anyone else in the book.
If you're being objective (and I will assume you are), then Abercrombie is definitely talented.  As an historian, I often deal with humans that are quite often less than what we today imagine as heroes.  Especially characters like Achilles in Homer's Iliad.  However, I can't help but lament the demise of heroic fantasy and Abercrombie's fantasy is most certainly not heroic if all that I've heard and read about him is true.  I'm not bashing Abercrombie, here, or gritty, dark fantasy.  I'm simply saying that I wish there was more heroic fantasy out there.
Also, reading comments from the author's blog, Abercrombie is definitely NOT trying to just be an "anti-Tolkien". He respects Tolkien, rightly reveres him as the father of the genre he writes in. But he correctly states that Tolkien has already mapped out one corner of the fantasy genre, so it would be wrong of Abercrombie to stick solely to those paths. As far as I'm concerned, Abercrombie is head and shoulders above the likes of Morgan and Nicholls and deserves to be thought of as Martin's successor.
I don't know if Martin needs or should have a successor.  Nevertheless, you (and Abercrombie) are right--if that corner of fantasy is already mapped out, there's nothing wrong with trying to push in new directions.  I'd also like to see people do great stuff with older material.  That's why I love Tad Williams' Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn.  His is most certainly epic and heroic fantasy with all the trappings.  However, he doesn't tread over what Tolkien did but instead draws from the same well of inspiration as Tolkien had and does some interesting and new (indeed, deconstructive) things with heroic fantasy.  I'd like to see some of that, too.
I have said before that writers who employ a healthy dose of cynicism, grit and realism in their fantasy writing have helped broaden the genre and help people understand that it's not just all fanciful swill designed to entertain children. Writers like Martin, Erikson, KJ Parker, Bakker, Matthew Stover, China Meiville and yes, Abercrombie, are not just "rebelling against Tolkien" but are instead rising beyond the formulaic approach of Brooks, Eddings, Salvatore, et al. They are the modern Glen Cooks or Mervyn Peakes, showing what more the genre can be.
One must be careful regarding what is considered "mature" and what is considered "kid's stuff" because when sometimes what is passed off as "mature" is really just adolescent and sophomoric.  I put this in here as a word of caution, really.  Again, I can't speak for certain but

Fantasy is not the only genre and books the only medium to be inundated with gore and violence in an attempt to be "mature" or "edgy."  Anime has been having this issue since the decline of the OVA and the loosening of television restrictions in Japan and the "shock factor" isn't making anime better.

As I wrote in "'Realism' and Nihilism in Contemporary Fantasy:"
So, in order to avoid just another umpteenth retelling of The Lord of the Rings, modern fantasy requires foul language, scatology, immoral anti-heroes, graphic sex, sickening and upsetting violence, and rape. In other words, it needs to realistically depict the graphic realities of medieval life, warfare, and death because Tolkien didn't do that (although Howard approached it). 
As I go through earlier 20th century works of fantasy fiction, I find them chock-full of sex and violence. It's just not graphic. I have to ask why George R.R. Martin finds it necessary to describe, in detail, one character's sexual experience in A Feast of Crows, where Poul Anderson simply ended a chapter of Three Hearts and Three Lions as Holger carries an elf princess off to bed. What was the rationale behind it? Sex is a part of life and shouldn't be avoided in literature, but I don't need a pornographic description of what happens. Similarly, Robert E. Howard's warriors would wade through buckets of blood, but it was always described with a certain panache that is most definitely lacking in a lot of contemporary fantasy. They seemed less like men and more like forces of nature in combat, and the violence of the scene was woven into the tale like thread. This is different from reading about some young maiden trying to hold her intestines inside herself after a mercenary decided to gut her. I'm trying read an adventure tale, not watching a Rob Zombie flick.
Violence and sex are vehicles for telling a story.  They are not the objective.  Ask yourself this: is the violence and sex necessary?  If the answer is "no," then ask, "Why is it in here?"  If the answer is "yes," then ask, "Why is it necessary?"  The answer may be in how it is used and what the point is.  The idea is to separate whether or not it is violence for the sake of edginess or to get a point across.

For example, the opening of Saving Private Ryan most certainly needed to be as violent as it was for various reasons.  Spielberg wanted to show what no previous film about the Second World War had done up until then--show what the weapons actually did to the soldiers they wounded or killed.  It also established how desperate and terrifying the war was so that we could comprehend the sort of mental and physical trauma the characters were enduring throughout the course of the film.  It intensified the risk.  Death wasn't a melodramatic scene where the mortally wounded character whispered, "It's getting dark."  Instead, he bled.  Everywhere.  On his letters home.  On his girlfriend's picture.  He died crying "mama, mama" because he wasn't yet twenty years of age.  The horror actually raised the stakes and intensified the drama.  It instilled an appreciation in us for what our grandparents and great-grandparents endured.  The violence was necessary to drive the very premise of the film home to the viewer.

I won't compare this to a lot of horror because the violence in many of those films is part of what is enjoyable.  I watch Rob Zombie movies to see the spectacle of the horror but I don't come out with any sort of feeling that Rob Zombie had something meaningful to say about the human condition.  The Saw films fail because the premise is actually tremendously flimsy and the violence descends into pointless torture-porn, so perhaps they're a good counter-example.  Yet the best counter-example I can think of to Saving Private Ryan is the anime entitled Elfen Lied.  If you remove the violence the entire show collapses in on itself because without the edginess the entire narrative premise cannot stand.  It lives and dies on how adolescent and edgy it is.

I can't get into Mieville.  He's far too political for me and I've read where he says he's deliberately anti-Tolkien.  I can't find the article where I read that, so I admit my assertion here is shaky.  Martin's problem is, I think, he's lost control of his story to a degree.  I'll probably have to write a very long and very detailed post about Martin.  This doesn't mean I dislike A Song of Ice and Fire but rather that I'm fatigued by its length and will probably return to it once it has been completed.  Erikson and Bakker, I really enjoy, for vastly different reasons.

Given a few years of perspective, I think that the "rebelling against Tolkien" is something the pundits have decided upon, for the most part.  With the exception of Mieville and Moorcock, who both criticize Tolkien for being "politically incorrect," "politically conservative," and writing "narratives of oppression" and all that other university-professor mumbo-jumbo, I think a lot of these writers do, indeed, admit that they owe a debt to Tolkien.
I somehow missed this section, and missed that you admitted you've not read Abercrombie.
Yup.  No worries.  That's why I soft-pedaled my assessment and put a lot of qualifiers in my argument regarding him because it is intrinsically flawed.
You need to. The descriptions of others' critique of his work goes from "missed the point" (The title of The Heroes was meant to be ironic) to "skimmed it instead of read it". 
Abercrombie may be the finest writer of fantasy of the new millenium, with Sanderson a half-step behind. Please, before you judge him, read him. And read him with an open mind.
If I get the opportunity, I may.  I'll probably start with The First Law series.  I don't know about Sanderson.  I don't want to admit it but his association with Robert Jordan has kind of put me off.

I've got a lot of reading to do and I spend much of my reading time on some pretty heavy stuff.  I have to look at is opportunity cost.  I've got to read more of a lot of philosophers, historians, and classic canon literature, too.  Therefore, I have to cut some stuff and just accept that I may never get the opportunity to read it before I die.  There are simply too many books out there and not enough hours in a day, days in a year, or years in a lifetime, unfortunately.

Thanks for writing, Josh.  You've given me something to think about and a reason to return to some very old posts about which I've not thought in a long time.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Trigun and Japanese Narrative Structure: A Response to ThatAnimeSnob

This post is mostly in response to ThatAnimeSnob's assessment of Trigun in his review in specific and his remarks on it that surface in his studio evaluation (Madhouse), and his annual evaluation for 1998.

In his annual evaluation, ThatAnimeSnob describes Trigun as follows:
It is quite good in terms of action and characterization but it keeps jumping from comedy to tragedy way too fast and kills the mood.  Not bad overall but it surely lacks focus on what it wants to be.
His review over at AniDB is much more descriptive of what his issues are:

-The first part is episodes 1 to 11.  These are mostly aimless comedy, where the lead character is goofing around and saves random people in random areas.  It is very light and makes you think that the entire show is nothing but silly storyless adventure.
-The second part is episodes 12 to 16, where the story is now entering an on-going and more serious phase.  You are given some insight to the hero's past and he faces far more fearful and inhuman opponents.  Now you think the show ill be hereon an average to good action/comedy/drama.
-The third part is the rest of the show (17 to 26), where the comedy portion almost disappears, violence, death and tragedy are increased tenfold.  This part reveals the hero's tragic past and how he tries to make up for all the damage he and his brother caused to the world.  The catch is, unlike the beginning of the show where nothing seems hard to accomplish when he is fighting seriously, over here he hardly manages to achieve half of what he intends to do.
The mood of the show changes almost 180 degrees from beginning to end, turning from a silly comedy to some serious tragedy.  That is perceived as a bold and well received element that makes the whole deal far more memorable and interesting.  If it was tragic or comedy all the way, the effect on you would be halved
That is still not enough for me to give a 10 to the story.  As much as I liked the mood swings, I found many scenes where the storyboard was messy and chaotic.  The plot seems to move any way the animators felt like it and the action scenes lack realism almost entirely, which in effect ruins a big part of its attempt to be serious.  The major showdowns are also a major problem as they all seem to end fast and almost effortless or way too simplistic.  The conclusion is like that as well so it may feel lukewarm in comparison to what was building up along the way so far.

Many of these are absolutely legitimate criticisms and I will not dispute that there are issues with tone and pacing.  Some of this can simply boiled down to aesthetics--Japanese audiences tend to find American (in particular) and Western (in general) stories to either be all comedy or all drama and they find that approach dry and less interesting as a heavy mixture complete with stark jumps between mood.  While that explains why a great deal of anime characteristically employs the jarring tonal transitions from tragic drama to comic relief, this is entirely a matter of taste and as a Westerner myself I admit that I find these shifts in tone to damage the overall dramatic tension in a story.

However, there are a few aspects of ThatAnimeSnob's review that I feel must be addressed because they are reflective of common East Asian storytelling techniques that are virtually unknown or misunderstood in the West.  Trigun, in particular, is a prime example of how Japanese narratives often follow a jo-ha-kyu (序破急), a technique whose roots are employed in Noh theater and discussed at length by the 14th/15th century playwright Zeami Motokiyo much as Aristotle discussed ancient Greek dramatic structure.

NOTE:  This post will focus on jo-ha-kyu as a pacing structure for Japanese narratives.  It will not concern kishotenketsu (起承転結) although it deserves some mention because, as will be discussed below, it is overlaid upon jo-ha-kyu much like Freytag's pyramid can be superimposed upon the three-act model.

ADDITIONAL NOTE:  This response is not a rebuttal or a criticism of ThatAnimeSnob's assessment of Trigun.  While I do think Trigun scored a bit lower than I feel it deserved, de gustibus non est disputandem.  The purpose of this post is to point out how Trigun exemplifies a narrative structure and dramatic pattern that is endemic to Japanese storytelling and how that structure is both unfamiliar and aesthetically difficult to process for many Western (especially North American) audiences.

The average reader may be aware that Western drama has its roots in classical Athenian theater, much of which survives in the preserved tragedies of Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschuylus and the comedies of Aristophanes (mostly dating from the 4th century B.C.) and (as mentioned above) the analysis and critique of drama preserved by Aristotle's Poetics (unfortunately, only the portion on tragedy survives--his analysis on comedy is lost).

These roots are then filtered through Shakespeare in the Anglophonic world.  Shakespeare reshaped drama in the English milieu and is the most immediate foundation for theater and film that exists in North America, the United Kingdom, and the British Commonwealth.  In the 19th century, much of Western dramatic structure was systematically analyzed by Gustav Freytag as is demonstrated by the pyramid structure of Western storytelling.

Most American schoolchildren are taught the basic components of storytelling and elementary critical theory in Language Arts classes in elementary school.  Therefore, Freytag's pyramid, with it's exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution elements, should be familiar to any North American (at least).  Most Anglophonic stories utilize this method and further refine it, through Shakespeare's influence, into a discernible three-act structure as seen below:

The three-act structure is extremely apparent in basic Anglophonic storytelling, from Beowulf to The Matrix.  Indeed, it is a nigh-universal base structure as well.  An easy example of the three-act structure in action is the original Star Wars film.  The first act generally establishes the characters, their motivations, and the conflict.  The second act introduces complications, providing minor victories and setbacks to further motivate the protagonist or to increase dramatic tension and intensify conflict (both internally and externally).  The final act sees the protagonist complete a transformation that enables him to overcome whatever challenges are set before him or (in the case of tragedy) to succumb to misfortune through the presence of some sort of tragic flaw.

This structure can be combined with the pyramid to illustrate the manner in which Anglo-American stories are constructed in a general sense.

This combination of Freytag's pyramid with the three-act structure illustrates how the elements of the first two acts combine to create the rising action that climaxes and resolves in act three.  The key to understand the difference between Western structure and jo-ha-kyu lies in understanding when the conflict is introduced.  The basic structure of the first act in a Noh play and in Western drama (be it tragedy or comedy) is the beginning of the divergence between storytelling technique.

Jo-ha-kyu is commonly translated as "beginning, break, rapid."  It traditionally consists of a five-movement structure (as opposed to three acts) and is based on a very different pacing aesthetic from the Western three-act model.  The essence of jo-ha-kyu is establishing a slow, peaceful pace broken by the jarring and sudden surge in dramatic tension that climaxes extremely rapidly before resolving even more abruptly.  The first movement establishes the protagonist and his overall situation, which is usually somewhat favorable to the protagonist.  This movement takes up a great deal of time and establishes a very light tone that is often optimistic and reflective of a certain status quo.  The break occurs during the second movement, in which the conflict is usually introduced--at this point, the pacing of the story increases suddenly and surges towards the climax in the third movement (the break), where the story pivots and begins to resolve equally as rapidly.  The overall effect is to see how the conflict disrupts and destroys the status-quo before it resolves and a new status-quo is established at the end.  The drama is enhanced by the sense of absolute disruption.

A good literary example of this is in Natsume Soseki's novel Sorekara.  The beginning establishes Daisuke as the protagonist, who generally floats through life on a stipend from his wealthy family.  Complications arise when they urge him to marry and his close friend, Hiraoka, returns home with a wife (Michiyo) and a mountain of debt.  Despite these complications, however, the dramatic tension does not increase for much of the book, establishing Daisuke's life as a somewhat carefree existence in which these complications have very little real effect on him.  The story accelerates once Daisuke falls in love with Michiyo and the real conflict is introduced.  The status quo is completely destroyed by Daisuke's love affair with Michiyo.  From that point on, the book resolves extremely rapidly.

Final Fantasy VI also displays jo-ha-kyu as a narrative method.  The climactic pivot of the game's story occurs not at the end but when Kefka moves the goddess statues out of alignment on the floating continent and creates the World of Ruin--from this point on the status quo is destroyed and the conflict must be resolved in a new context.

Trigun also demonstrates jo-ha-kyu in application as a Japanese literary technique.  What ThatAnimeSnob does naturally is to observe that there is a definite structure to the show's composition.  He identifies Episodes 1 through 11 as effectively stable, episodic, and comedic.  Episodes 12 through 16 introduces an actual conflict that supersedes the previous structure and results in the transition of tone from lighthearted to intensely serious.  Episodes 17 through 26 resolve the conflict but not in as dramatic or climactic a fashion as ThatAnimeSnob would have preferred.

What is interesting is that he unintentionally delineates the pacing consistency that jo-ha-kyu exemplifies.  It is unintentional (I assume) because I do not expect ThatAnimeSnob to be aware of jo-ha-kyu as a Japanese aesthetic concept because in the West it is particularly obscure.  It is a testament to ThatAnimeSnob's skill as a critical thinker that he unintentionally and indirectly explained jo-ha-kyu in his review of Trigun.

The first episodes introduce the viewer to the base elements of the story--the characters Milly, Meryl, and Vash, as well as their motivations; the planet of Gunsmoke is established primarily through visual cues; the general comedic tone of the status quo is firmly founded.  The premise is laid forth--It is preferable to run away than commit acts of violence; nonlethal violence should only be applied as a last resort.  This is translated into the theme--love and peace can conquer all.

There are overarching conflicts through these episodes but they are low-key compared to the later conflicts.  First, there is the conflict that Meryl Strife & Milly Thompson have with Vash.  Milly and Meryl want Vash to stop destroying stuff because it is costing their insurance company a fortune but Vash is not actually responsible for any of the destruction we witness on screen.  The destruction is mostly generated by the other conflicts in the story--criminals Vash will usually foil or bounty hunters trying to capture him.

The first eleven episodes establish how Vash is never really challenged.  If he cannot escape he can draw upon his superhuman skills as a gunslinger to resolve conflicts through nonlethal force.  The result is usually Vash looking sublimely awesome and utterly defeating his opponents.  Love and peace are reinforced as theme: if everybody would just stop fighting and get along, none of these problems would happen.  This is the status quo.

Things start to shift between episodes 11 and 12.  This is when the status quo begins to break down and the antagonists begin to seriously challenge Vash's adherence to his principles.  Suddenly, "Love & Peace" may not be enough.  In Episode 12, Vash almost murders Monev the Gale to avenge the dead and stop Monev.  This is the first time that simply running away or using nonlethal force are not enough--if he had killed Monev at the outset, innocent lives would not have been lost.

The narrative is now turning in a new direction with this introduction of Legato and his followers.  Vash's scars are revealed and the tone of the story shifts as the pacing increases and the stakes gradually become clear.  Vash's own inner conflicts gradually surface during this period of the narrative.  The premise and theme are called into question and Vash has to not only face his past but also decide at what point the price of his principles is too great.

This peaks with the break section, the highest climactic point of the story in the third movement.  Episode 16 is possibly Vash's lowest point and the key moment in the jo-ha-kyu pattern.  It is here in Episode 16, specifically the moment Vash loses control and blows a hole in the Fifth Moon, that the ha (break) takes place.  The auspicious and optimistic tone of the first ten episodes is eradicated entirely as the new mood and atmosphere takes over.

What he have seen, then, is how the introduction of the core, real, actual conflict has utterly annihilated the tone and pace of the beginning portion.  Jo-ha-kyu often generates drama by showing how the conflict can destroy stability and introduce chaos.  Considering that Japanese society has been heavily influenced by Confucianism, it should be apparent that this is a characteristically East Asian approach to conflict in general.

Typical to the Japanese narrative structure, there's a brief pause (Episode 17) before the fourth and fifth movements accelerate toward a conclusion.  The old status quo is gone.  Vash is now working through his internal conflicts regarding his pacifistic principles and the reality that conflict with Knives will result in lethal force.  The fact that the conclusion of the story is not as climactic as would be typical of a Western narrative is due to the nature of jo-ha-kyu, wherein the climax is usually the breaking-point of the tale, where the narrative decisively pivots from one tone to another and the status quo is utterly disrupted.  The fourth and fifth movements of the tale are where the protagonist takes steps to resolve the disruption caused by the break in the third movement.  While there are still peaks in dramatic tension, they are not as strong or as pronounced as those in the third movement where the break takes place.  Thus, the climax, where the dramatic tension of the tale is at its highest, is not in the latter two movements but in the third.  What carries the audience through the story is the acceleration toward the conclusion--the feeling of rapid, organic movement with spikes of dramatic tension that act as a rapid succession of aftershocks on the heels of the main earthquake.

If viewed and analyzed from the standpoint of jo-ha-kyu, Trigun holds up aesthetically well.  However, jo-ha-kyu is culturally specific to the Japanese.  For those raised in the Japanese context, their familiarity with it as a narrative model will not feel quite so jarring as it may to Westerners.  Numerous texts throughout Japanese literature and popular culture (such as video games, anime, novels, and manga) illustrate the application of jo-ha-kyu.  Final Fantasy VI and Natsume's Sorekara are provided as examples above of this model in media other than anime.

De gustibus non est disputandem.  It is entirely possible and acceptable for ThatAnimeSnob to find jo-ha-kyu tedious and uninteresting a narrative model.  I'm not going to fault him for his assessment of Trigun--this post's purpose was not to correct ThatAnimeSnob or to defend Trigun's flaws but instead to provide perspective that can shed light on why Trigun's plot structure seems so disjointed.  If this perspective alters opinions so that viewers can appreciate Trigun's narrative, I feel that I will have accomplished something.  If viewers such as ThatAnimeSnob do not alter their opinions in the slightest in spite of this post, then at least I would have spent a few hours relaxing with a cup of coffee at a coffee shop, thinking about stuff I enjoy and putting it to print.

It should also be pointed out that an understanding of jo-ha-kyu should not lead to an automatic perception of all anime (or manga) as literary masterpieces.  Neither a thorough grasp and appreciation for jo-ha-kyu or kishotenketsu can redeem such trainwrecks as Mirai Nikki or Clannad, despite the tremendous amount of praise and hype heaped upon them by what ThatAnimeSnob deems to be "tasteless casuals."

Friday, August 29, 2014

Genshiken Nidaime and Spotted Flower

Note:  I originally wrote this post back at the end of August, 2014.  It's now early April and I've not posted anything because I've been incredibly busy with teaching at a local community college and finishing up my M.Ed. and my coursework for teaching certification.

As issue 110 was just released of Genshiken Nidaime and Kio Shimoku's latest interview with Anime News Network, I've got to say, a lot of what I've said here may not, at all, be relevant anymore.  I still feel very similarly to how I did back in August of 2014 but a lot of reveals since them have introduced and changed many of the facts.

Therefore, much of what is written here may not really be relevant or applicable.
 End of note.

So, I reread all of Genshiken and Genshiken Nidaime in July and August.  It seriously made me reconsider a number of assessments I had made in my previous series (Intro, Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4) on Genshiken Nidaime's gender dynamics, although, on the whole, recent developments during the summer, including Kio Shimoku's recent publications in Afternoon (especially issues 101, 102, and the as-yet untranslated 103) have seemed to validate a number of my assessments.  Coupled with the two most recent issues of Spotted Flower (issue 12 and issue 12.5), I am going to depart from my usual style of "impartial" analysis and actually do a bit of "shipping."

I've no serious investment in whether Madarame and Saki get together.  Although I like the characters, I recognize them as fictional and I won't get upset if events don't play out as I'm predicting here.  The reason I'm writing this post, however, is to demonstrate the contextual and literary rationale for my "shipping," essentially arguing that Kio Shimoku has been spending about half of Genshiken Nidaime building toward the situations found within Spotted Flower via analysis of the plot thus far as well as analysis of the characters themselves.

I'm only going to discuss my reassessments in brief, so let's get them out of the way first.

I will admit I mischaracterized Yoshitake's character as a literary Satan/Devil/Loki character.  While she is somewhat chaotic, most of this is due to her enthusiasm and happy-go-lucky personality.  She's not really experienced heartache, nor seen heartache in her friends.  She accepts that she's somewhat pathetic (re: Ogiue's question regarding everyone's romantic histories) but it doesn't seem to bother her at all.

The problem with Yoshitake is that she doesn't realize she's playing with fire by trying to set up Yajima with Hato.  Broken hearts are difficult to mend and while Yoshitake realizes that the circumstances surrounding Hato's infatuation with Madarame may lead to a breakup of the Genshiken as a whole, she doesn't seem to realize that her meddling could hurt Yajima as well.

Yoshitake's motivations are alright.  She wants Yajima to be happy and in that regard, she's a great friend.  Yajima doesn't have any confidence in herself and her feelings for Hato, albeit known to Yoshitake, are suppressed and denied by Yajima for fear of failure and rejection.  What Yoshitake doesn't seem to realize is that there's no doubt that Hato would reject any romantic advances from Yajima.  Or perhaps Yoshitake does realize this?  If Yoshitake does, is she trying to maneuver Yajima so that she, too, gets rejected like Madarame was rejected by Saki in order for Yajima to get over it?

I don't think Yajima will recover from a rejection like Madarame did.

After re-reading Genshiken, it became quite clear what sort of personality Sue has.  Sue finds Madarame attractive and is drawn to him but she constantly rejects and refuses her feelings in order to maintain a persona.  The fact is, Sue is almost always playing a character in front of everyone.  When she speaks Japanese from her heart and not by reciting quotes we get a glimpse into her personality--a caring, observant, sensitive person.  Unfortunately, she keeps this part of herself submerged unless the situation requires her to speak up and help the group to remain solid and harmonious.

Sue's defense of Ogiue at the Comiket is a fantastic example of this.  Sue's encouraging of Ogiue to not allow Hato to feel isolated after he "outed" Madarame as a fantasy uke is another example.  Sue's conscientious and despite her "funny gaijin" caricature, she's genuinely compassionate and perceptive.

Unfortunately, when it comes to Madarame, or perhaps just men in general, Sue's got some major issues and unless Kio Shimoku shifts focus in the upcoming Fall's issues, we're not likely to get a real look into her psyche to see what her deal is.  She's chosen a persona that's possessive of Ogiue and a self-proclaimed rival of Sasahara.  Granted, this rivalry isn't serious--it's all part of her act.  It's not who she really is.  Interestingly enough, everyone else seems to know this.

Like Madarame's shell of otaku-ness, Sue's persona is a big defense mechanism meant to protect her heart.  She easily bonds with the women around her and becomes protective of them.  The men, however, really don't get much interaction with her (with the exceptions of Hato and Kuchiki, who are, well, exceptional) beyond "Die, Sasahara!" and "Die, Tanaka!"  It's unclear whether she feels fearful and threatened by men or simply perceives them as rivals and antagonists.  Her feelings for Madarame are likely due to his growth toward passivity and unobtrusiveness.  He's not threatening to her because, as he expresses at the end of Issue #103, "Girls are scary!"  When it comes to Madarame, Sue can feel safe and in control.  Unfortunately, she is also scared of revealing her true feelings.  She's made her mask so important to her that she's resistant to actually expressing her actual self.

Unless something serious happens, like when the entire female contingent of the Genshiken cajoled and maneuvered Sasahara and Ogiue into coming to terms with their pasts and feelings toward one another, Sue is very much unlikely to ever confront herself enough to make any real, honest advances toward Madarame.

Hato's come to terms with himself and his hobbies.  Whereas I saw Hato as tremendously confused back in the Spring, I now recognize Hato as a character who has come to accept who he is and what he loves.  The problem with this is that he has become infatuated with Madarame.

Porn addiction is a serious problem and all of the female club members in Genshiken Nidaime struggle with it to one degree or another.  Make no mistake, porn addiction has been linked to a number of romantic and erotic psychoses developed by those experiencing it, male or female.  For most of the female members of Genshiken, their "addiction" is pretty mild-to-nonexistent.  In Hato's case, however, it has driven him to an alternate (and in Japan, deviant) lifestyle.  While the rest of the members struggle with it by characterizing it as a 2-D vs 3-D dichotomy, Hato has jumped down the rabbit hole and is deliberately trying to live out a 2-D fantasy in real life.

Keiko's blasting of Hato's character in Issue #102 has been questioned by some (such as Muda-kun at Hearts of Furious Fancies) as potentially bigoted and homophobic.  I argue that it's not.  Keiko is no saint and is a petty and narcissistic person (as evidenced by the big reveal in Issue #103, which, if people recall a few moments in the original Genshiken, isn't so surprising after all).  Keiko's criticism of Hato, however, is entirely correct.  If we are what we do, then Hato's a deceiver.

I don't dislike Hato and I don't think Hato is a Bad Person.  I do think Hato is doing something very unethical and immoral, however.  I explained it to Muda-kun thusly:

Hato deliberately put himself in situations where he would fall in love with Madarame.  His Hato x Mada fantasy is something he's desperately trying to bring into reality but the truth is, Madarame will end up in his own version of The Crying Game and everyone is going to be hurt in the end.  Indeed, Madarame could end up going full-blown hikikomori from this entire affair.  I know it's a fictional manga, but Shimoku isn't one to go after unrealistic plot resolutions and Madarame going gay for Hato is about as unrealistic as Madarame piloting a Gundam, not to mention damage if not totally destroy many of the premises from which Shimoku is working. 
If Angela [and Keiko are] bad idea[s] for Madarame, and [they're] cis-gendered heterosexual female bombsell[s], then Hato is potentially disastrous... .  Hato is quite confused but he's less confused than he was before.  What he used to be confused about was his orientation.  Now he's accepted it alongside his love of BL and his enjoyment of being a trans-gendered future-female.  These things aren't a problem--the problem is Hato can't draw the line between fantasy and reality anymore.  Although the fujoshi in the club have tried to help Hato out often it has come with side-effects that muddied the waters and made things inadvertantly worse (ex. when Ogiue, at Sue's urging, showed Hato her Sasa x Mada drawings, which simply threw gas on the fire).  What Hato is doing to Madarame is just as bad as a straight guy doing the same thing to a lesbian woman... . 
Everything she's said about Hato doing "shitty things" has been in regards to seducing Madarame, especially during a time when Madarame is weakened.  Since summer Comiket, he's been humiliated (in part thanks to Hato, in part, thanks to Angela), he's had his heart broken by Saki, been put in an awkward position because of it, had Angela show up again and humiliate him, broken his wrist, been told he's got the weight of a harem to navigate, and on top of all this, Hato is in full-on yamato nadeshiko mode with aims to seduce Mada.  Mada's not attracted to Hato, here, he's desperately attracted to the yamato nadeshiko Hato is dressing as and Mada's having a hard time keeping in mind Hato-chan's [not actually a girl].
Let's consider the last sentence of the second paragraph here.  "What Hato is doing to Madarame is just as bad as a straight guy doing the same thing to a lesbian woman."  I can't imagine any homosexual women approving or even remaining tacitly indifferent to a storyline in which a lesbian woman is "seduced" back to being heterosexual.  It's extremely offensive and the readers would be outraged not just at the writer but at the male seducing character as well.

It doesn't help that Hato is taking advantage of the fact that Madarame's years of sexual isolation and frustration have programmed a weakness to yamato nadeshiko archetypes.  Hato is deliberately accentuating and exemplifying the tropes and characteristics regarding the yamato nadeshiko just as much as he was accentuating and exemplifying BL tropes and characteristics when he was changing at Madarame's apartment.  The only difference is that Hato is no longer engaged in any internal debate.  He's completely committed to his cause.

If Spotted Flower Issues #12 and #12.5 are any indication, Hato is headed for severe disappointment.  This is a big turnaround for Kio Shimoku with regards to how things had resolved throughout Genshiken.  Nevertheless, given how badly some things turn out for the depressingly stupid and narcissistic characters in Yonensei and Gonensei I am wondering if Shimoku is going to bring forth bitter fruit for any of the Genshiken Nidaime characters' decisions.

The Case for Spotted Flower
Spotted Flower is a point of contention for many readers of Genshiken Nidaime.  Is it canon?  Are the characters actually the same as the ones in Genshiken and Genshiken Nidaime?  Is it an alternate universe?  Are the similarities between all the major (and unnamed) characters in Spotted Flower only to tease the audience or is Kio Shimoku changing certain aspects of appearance and omitting names only because of copyright laws (Spotted Flower is serialized in a jousei manga anthology magazine and not Afternoon).

There is the teaser at the end of Genshiken Nidaime #80 after Saki has let Madarame down.  Are we to consider this a plug for an unrelated comic, an unofficial and non-canon glimpse at a would-be future, or a look at the actual future for the characters?  It is my contention that, given all of the facts in Spotted Flower and Genshiken/Genshiken Nidaime that Spotted Flower actually is the future of the Genshiken but Kio Shimoku filed off all the numbers in order to avoid any legal issues that may arise from serializing Spotted Flower in a different magazine.

The biggest hurdle to demonstrate that Spotted Flower is in fact the future of Saki and Madarame is Saki's assertion that, if it were a different universe and Saki wasn't dating Kousaka, that there might be something between the two of them.

This, however, is just how she feels at the time.  If it weren't for Kousaka, Saki never would have even met Madarame, never would have come to care about and respect him (or any other members of the Genshiken, for that matter), and never learned to be tolerant of and even accepting of his otaku-ness.  This is blatantly alluded to in the first few issues of Spotted Flower, where the wife reveals she had dated the husband's friend from his college circle and that the relationship taught her not to feel revulsion for otaku hobbies and interests.  Thus, in Spotted Flower, it is already established that the wife once dated the husband's friend but the relationship ended, allowing the wife and husband to get together.

The following excerpt from the comic (found here originally) after Saki turns Madarame down is extremely revealing.
Kousaka asserts that he love's Saki enough to show her 100% of who he is.  That's lovely.  The problem with Onno's rejoinder is that she doesn't point out that Kousaka doesn't love Saki enough to change in order to give her what she needs.  This is a problem.  I'd say he would be a good candidate for someone with Asperger's if it weren't for some inconsistencies in his behavior that invalidate him.  Kousaka only shows affection for Saki when it is required.  He is perfectly comfortable with or without a relationship and in the earlier issues of Genshiken the audience is privy to Saki's fears and frustrations in not getting what she needs from Kousaka.  Kousaka feels no need to put Saki first.  This is a serious problem.

Saki's been a champion.  She doesn't demand Kousaka change for her and, indeed, she's grown and changed a great deal.  She's gone from being the Genshiken's primary antagonist to a hero that's rescued the club numerous times.  Saki may dearly love Kousaka but their relationship is not healthy, no matter how many Kousaka x Saki shippers try to demonstrate otherwise.  The few moments of their relationship that are illuminated for the audience in Genshiken Nidaime don't give any evidence that Kousaka has grown or changed at all.  His order of priorities puts Saki pretty low in comparison to his hobbies.  Anyone who has ever been in a relationship or studied even rudimentary psychology knows that Saki is in an unhealthy situation.

This is why I see her relationship with Kousaka as temporary.  After Saki started to change and became a true friend to the other members of Genshiken, I went from snickering at her relationship woes because she was a terrible, shallow, self-centered person to hoping she'd break up with him because she deserves better.   A break-up with Kousaka is almost inevitable.

Genshiken was about a lot of things but one of them is Saki's personal growth.  Similarly, Genshiken Nidaime is about a lot of things but it is also about Madarame's growth and maturity as well.  I think Kio Shimoku is setting up a situation in which, when Saki and Kousaka break up, Madarame will be healthy enough and able enough to participate in a relationship with Saki.

Kio Shimoku is doing one of two things with Spotted Flower.  Either he's giving the audience a glimpse of the Genshiken characters' futures, specifically Saki and Madarame, or he is trolling his Genshiken audience.  There really isn't much of a chance for any other interpretation or possibility.  It is entirely possible that the next few months of Genshiken Nidaime will feature events that drastically redirect the course of the plot (especially since Winter Comiket is coming and that means Angela's return, as well as the new school year and possible new club members in Spring).  Kio Shimoku progressed through four years of character growth and plot events in 55 issues (Genshiken), but the past 48 issues haven't even spanned the course of a single year!  A lot of fans are hoping that Shimoku wraps up the Madarame harem storyline soon, which has been going on for about 23 issues so far (that's nearly two years' of issues).