Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Religion in D&D

A couple of years ago, I did a brief workup of faith and ritual in the Forgotten Realms' Shadowdale.  This was a small overview of some ideas I had to deepen and broaden how I could handle faith and religion in The Forgotten Realms campaign setting.  I should clearly note that I do not use nor am I interested in any of the changes to the setting brought about in 4th (or now 5th) edition.

A great 2nd edition resource is the Faiths & Avatars book, which gives a really good write-up on the gods and the beliefs of their followers but the truth is, The Forgotten Realms, as presented, is a somewhat unrealistic approach to ancient polytheistic belief systems.  So, drawing upon what I know from Eliade's The Sacred and the Profane, Burkert's Greek Religion, Yehezkel Kaufmann's History of the Religion of Israel, and a couple of other sources on pre-modern polytheistic belief structures.  I would love to have gotten my hands on M.A.R. Barker's article "Create a Religion in your Spare Time for Fun and Profit."  (I hear they have a copy at DriveThruRpg.)  This blog entry over at Game Over provides a nice review and summary of the article for those interested and it has helped me quite a bit.

To build on this, we honestly need to isolate a number of cultural/linguistic groups that inhabit the Realms and determine how tradition and ritual (which are very, very important parts of religion) interact with the societies. There is one, singular pantheon for all of Faerûn and that is something that really just pulls me right out of that precious suspension of disbelief because of how dramatically unrealistic it is.  After doing some thinking, I managed to pull together some ideas about how cultural interaction and communication led to a diffusion of deities throughout the Faerûnian ecumene.  This would be similar to how, during the Hellenistic and Roman periods of Mediterranean history you start seeing gods being identified with one another, mixed, and new gods form, like Serapis in Graeco-Roman Egypt, Zeus' syncretistic identification with other chief deities, and the introduction of entirely foreign cults, like Mithraism from Iran.

So, I started working backwards through Faerûnian history to break down the human deities into distinct and isolated pantheons of gods.  These are based on language groups that are also cultural groups of humans that dispersed through Faerûn--Talfiric, Calishite, Luskan, Damaran, Netherese, and Chondathan.  The Netherese gods are detailed in the 2nd edition boxed set entitled Netheril: Empire of Magic, although it is important to know that Chauntea (whom I identify as a Chondathan grain goddess) was synonymous with the Netherese goddess Jannath.

From there I started to do some work mixing and matching, looking at which gods were worshiped the most where through the sourcebooks and discovered, low and behold, that I could pull out a logical sense of consistency for a lot of these different pantheons.  It took some work but hey, back then I was a lazy college student who liked wasting time applying my new scholarship skills to frivolous stuff like D&D back in the day.

So, what are the values of these cultures?  Well, for starters, I'm going to take a look at the Chondathan culture before I start tackling other ones.  Chondathan culture is a very distinctly Western European plus good ol' corn-fed United States red-blooded American sturdiness.  The Chondathan diaspora has spread out from it's titular lands, through the Vilhon Reach, Cormyr, Sembia, the Dales, and out into the Western Heartlands where they mixed with and culturally replaced the Talfiric peoples.  Basically, the population of the Heartlands of Faerûn, from Waterdeep to the western Sea of Fallen Stars littoral, is almost entirely of Chondathan linguistic speakers.  Language and culture are intrinsically tied, so much so as to be difficult to separate one from the other, therefore, even if the genetic stock of a region isn't Chondathan, if they speak a Chondathan language, it is safe to assume they have overall Chondathan cultural traits.

Anyway, I'm digressing.  A lot.  So, let me circle away from this tangent and back to my main points.  Alright?  Okay.

Now, while reading the review of Barker's essay at Game Over, the blogger emphasizes one of Barker's key arguments about how to build these religions in his summary:

It's not just a matter of phoning it in by whipping up a few names and one-paragraph descriptors for your gods either; these are entities which are going to govern the lives and livelihoods of player characters, and so you're going to want to answer a lot of questions about the gods and the religions from the players. ...
That said, the single-paragraph description of the god is still there; Barker demonstrates just how much of a religions' nature can be derived from examining a detailed and well-written description of its god.  However, it's not actually Barker's recommended starting point. ...
...  I bring this up partly to illustrate that the essay has considerable value beyond the issue of building religions in fantasy games, and partly to demonstrate how Barker actually recommends building religions: from the ground up.  Worry about the social, the political, the economic situation on the ground, in the cultures where the player characters move - then get your arse up there and think about what kind of gods might appeal to those cultures, or might have formed those cultures through exerting influence on their situations.  Treat religion as the social process it is and you'll get something rich and deep for your trouble.

Start at the bottom then work your way up.  The problem with most DMs, setting designers, etc., is that they never, ever, ever consider the actual duties and functions of their deities within the actual structure of the society itself.  Oh, yeah, in the 2nd edition The Complete Priests' Handbook the writers and designers give all sorts of advice for creating gods, religions, clergies, etc.  It's only the tip of the iceberg.

Where can one start?

With studying actual polytheistic faith systems that really exist in the world.  No, I'm not talking about Wicca, Witchcraft, or Paganism in the modern world.  Sorry, they're honestly new inventions and while they seek to reclaim and restore much of the lost religions of the old gods of Europe, they are still very influenced by modern perceptions of those cults than the actual worship and practice of ancient religious belief.

But permit me to digress, once more, by citing an excerpt of the 3rd edition Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting book.
Some Faerûnians zealously follow one deity.  Others make sacrifices to many deities, while upholding one as their personal patron.  Still others sacrifice to as many deities as possible, shifting allegiances as their circumstances and needs warrant.  It's a rare Faerûnian who hasn't occasionally hoped to avert the baleful influence of an evil deity with a propitious gift, or thanked a good power for an unexpected blessing.  The belief system of most Faerûnians generally centers on a particular deity whose interests and influences are most likely to affect them, but acknowledges other gods as significant and important, too.  --The Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting, 3rd edition, pg. 93.
The first sentence in this paragraph describes henotheism.  The second sentence as well as the last sentence describe monolatry.  Everything in the middle describes standard polytheism or (at most) kathenotheism.  In function, however, especially through the cleric and paladin character class, what we mostly get in Faerûn is henotheism and monolatrism.  This smacks me as problematic, especially because the common needs of the populace will require frequent appeals to a variety of deities.

If you read pages 93 and 94 of the 3rd edition Campaign Setting, it paints a fairly believable and solid picture of religion in theory but in practice most DMs simply take the easy way out--monolatry and henotheism, all clergy are paladins, monks, and clerics, etc.  The Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting makes it clear that "most of a Temple's clergy are not clerics."  It goes on to say, "They're experts, aristocrats, even commoners who serve as advisors and counselors to the faithful and officiate at routine observances.  A cleric usually leads any particular temple, shrine, or order, judiciously using her spells to aid sick or injured followers and assist the local authorities in maintaining law and order in the community as it suits the deity in question."

Here, the authors actually undo some of what they were trying to build--true actual polytheism.  The key here is where they say, "the faithful" and "followers."  This can mislead players and DMs alike into the assumption that the clergy of a temple only administers to those who follow their deity and their deity alone.

When studying polytheistic belief systems, I tend to lean toward the Graeco-Roman traditions (specifically because I specialized in Graeco-Roman history, society, and culture in my undergrad and grad school days) and modern-day polytheistic traditions like Hinduism and Shinto.

I have a lot of exposure to Shinto through my stuc., and receive a good-luck charm that would bless their efforts in study with hopes that they would pass their university entrance examinations.  These students were not henotheists or monolatrists like the bulk of D&D non-player-characters and player-characters.  The temple provided a specific service to the students by taking offerings dedicated to Tenjin and interceding with the kami in order to grant his favor to the students.

So what do temples do?  They provide services to the populace but also to the state.  Their job is to be a basis for tradition so as to curry favor with the gods so that peace and prosperity is ensured, misfortune and catastrophe are prevented or warded off, and the cultural traditions continue.  The D&D campaign worlds are far too influenced by Christianity (whether players and DMs like it or not) in that each god has a sort of salvation or promised afterlife for their worshipers.  Relationship with the divine is a part of Judeo-Christian faith (more Christianity than modern Judaism, though).  Polytheists don't often seek to have a personal relationship with the divine unless they're rulers or dies of Japanese history and culture, as well as having visited a couple Shinto temples in Japan.  What I saw, for example, at the Tenman-gu shrine to Tenjin, the Shinto god of scholarship, made me realize that D&D (in particular) and role-playing games' designers (in general) have religion all wrong.

I arrived at Tenman-gu around the time when Exam Hell was just starting to ramp up.  Students would come to the temple and make offerings to Tenjin in money, incense, etoracles and even then it is rare because too much attention from the gods invites calamity as much as fortune.

So temples don't exist for the individual to develop a relationship with the god.  They're not where the populace go in order to commune with the deity.  They're where the populace go to offer sacrifice and store-houses or treasuries for various offerings.  They could also be a place where certain things are stored safely, like how the Temple of Saturn in ancient Republican Rome was the site of the Roman state's treasury and also where legal documents (like contracts, wills & testaments, etc.), archives, seals, and original measurement templates were kept.  They could be clinics, like the temples of Asclepius, the Graeco-Roman god of healing, or places where sacred prostitutes were sought, like the Temples of Ishtar or Ianna in ancient Mesopotamia.

Alright, what does the clergy do?  The clergy has knowledge.  This knowledge could take many forms.  It could simply be the knowledge of when and where to plow, when to sow and when to harvest.  It could be analysis of the calendar in order to decide what days are fasti and which are nefas.  It could be knowledge of medicine and healing, or how to examine entrails or flights of birds to divine the gods' will.  Some clergies may have knowledge of exorcism and warding against ghosts, evil spirits, or plain bad luck.  Still others will observe and maintain the markers of boundaries.  Even irrigation and water management has been known to fall under the auspices of temples in Bali.  Most importantly, however, the clergy of a temple has knowledge of how to carry out tradition, how to avoid ritual impurity, how to be cleansed of ritual impurity, when and how to store and display sacred relics and cult statues, when and how to perform ritual dances, how to offer sacrifice, what hymns to sing and their words, what songs or stories to tell and when, how to recreate and commemorate sacred events, and how to communicate to the gods both the fidelity of the populace and their needs, wishes and desires.

Notice that I say "the populace" and not "the people."  Polytheistic deities were often perceived as detached and distant.  This is especially apparent in Republican Rome where the primary gods were gods of the state.  The gods were more concerned with Rome as a whole than with each and every individual living in the city or countryside.

A major important concept to note is that religion is going to vary from region to region, especially in the form of traditions, cultic practices, sacrifices, festivals, and other details.  While in a wide Faerûnian ecumene it is likely that specific similarities in practices and traditions are going to be common, there is not much likelihood of there being any strict set of doctrines and dogmas.  Shinto doesn't have much in the way of guiding texts or dogmatic scriptures, for example.  Hinduism has numerous holy texts and different sects of Hinduism value the various texts differently.  Buddhism has a great many holy texts.  Greek, Roman, and Egyptian religion didn't have much in the way of holy texts that were monopolized by the temples and considered specifically holy and sacred.

Thus, a great starting point for actually building a believable religious tradition for your role-playing world will start at the ground and work its way up.  A phenomenal example of a compelling religious tradition can be found in the video game The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind.  The Tribunal Temple, the primary religion of the dark elves of the setting, is full of lore, hierarchies, functions, dogmas, traditions, rituals, and volume upon volume upon volume of in-game sacred texts, scriptures, and writings that the player can read and participate in.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Cool South Korea?

In my previous post, I asked, "What Happened to Cool Japan?"  My general answer was drawn from personal experiences and observations and somewhat informed by the articles and blogs I've read.  Basically, Cool Japan was smothered by the shrinking economy and the increasing insularity of a society that feels awfully beleaguered.  Although the likes of Murakami Haruki and Miyazaki Hayao have seniority and are somewhat insulated from any backlash against their art and the critical dissection of Japanese society via their well-refined crafts, there's no room for any successors to Murakami Haruki or Miyazaki Hayao.

The side-effect of this is that most of the forms of expression and entertainment have taken on an assembly-line quality, formulaic, derivative, and uninspired.  Occasional flashes to break through the fog, like Attack on Titan, but the overwhelming majority of Japanese intellectual property and immaterial culture is very repetitive and reeks with the pungent hospital-scent of corporate boardroom sterility.

In my last post, I described the process through which a close-knit American anime-fan* subculture evolved--specifically my personal experience of that process.  What I want to emphasize as I write this tonight is how the North American demand for Japanese anime was not matched by Japanese interest in its supply.  The activity was all on our side of the Pacific.  This is one of the reasons why Carl Macek is such a controversial figure--on the one hand, he butchered many of the shows he brought over to the United States; on the other hand, he was instrumental in Japanese anime getting airtime on American television and thereby increasing awareness of anime as a medium for entertainment and storytelling.

*NOTE:  I dislike the word otaku being applied to non-Japanese.  I'm somewhat of a language purist and I don't believe that the word has entered English parlance enough to be allowed a degree of definition shift.  I don't like to refer to non-Japanese anime-fans as otaku because the weight of meaning is not there in the American anime-fan use of the word, primarily all of the social and cultural baggage the term carries with in in Japan.

Throughout much of these developments, the Japanese were utterly passive.  Though the Japanese government and businesses were very concerned with exporting cars and electronics to the United States, they were much less interested in the exercise of soft power when it came to intangible aspects of their culture, such as intellectual properties, narratives, cinema, television, and music.  Although incredibly proud of those novelists and filmmakers that received worldwide recognition, they were much more concerned with the performance of artists and craftsmen domestically and very disinterested in the demands and appetites of North American markets.

That is why I wrote in my last post that we non-Japanese must come to grips with the reality that the Japanese are not concerned with the world beyond their shores.  Streamline Pictures (defunct, 2002), Central Park Media (defunct, 2009), AnimEigo (still around, barely), Manga Entertainment (also still around), AD Vision (defunct, 2009), and Funimation (still around) were all North American companies licensing and distributing anime and Japanese films.  The only two Japanese companies I am aware of that were involved in exporting anime to the United States are Bandai Entertainment and NBCUniversal (which started out as Pioneer, then Geneon, before North America's Universal bought it).  When AnimEigo started letting licenses lapse and most of their translated films and television programs dropped off of Netflix, I knew something was up.  When I started sniffing around, I discovered that after the crash of '08, a huge number of distributors dissolved.  Some of these companies were founded in whole or in part by Japanese individuals who came to the United States, but all of them were headquartered in North America.  When VHS and then DVD/BluRay distribution dried up and people could get their fix via Crunchyroll and Netflix, the licensing and distributing of the anime was no longer profitable.  Granted, things weren't handled as best as they could but the Japanese weren't coming down on fansubbers and non-profit online translator/distributor rackets.  There wasn't enough potential money being lost and the Japanese corporations that owned the IPs were not concerned with what went on in the white spaces on the edges of the map where barbarians and dragons roamed.

We've Come A Long Way Since Madame Butterfly
The fascination began when Europeans and Americans traveled to Japan and were moved to write about the culture and society they experienced.  In a way, however, they inadvertently did violence to Japan in the way that Edward Said describes European scholars did to the Near East in his Orientalism.  In the 1980s, however, Japanese imports into North American markets and Japanese investment in North American infrastructure and the U.S. economy brought about a huge paradigm shift.  This was the first time the Japanese were truly on equal footing with Americans and the American exposure to Japanese culture was no longer through a sort of racist filter the likes of which Orientalism described and decried.

Thus, as a young man, Japan wasn't the land of geisha and samurai, strange tea ceremonies and martial arts, but of brilliant manga artists and talented animators and storytellers.  It was the land that revitalized video game culture after the 1983 video game crash.  There was a mystique about Japan that fascinated us.  The JET program was started by a few Japanese visionaries in order to bring Americans over there and develop cross-cultural communication, not just to teach English to Japanese children.  Nevertheless, the JET program was somewhat of a fluke (albeit one with a lot of staying power) and one of those rare occasions when Japanese leaders realized how important the expression of soft power was in international politics.

The American view of Japan, as seen in World War II movies and films like Gung Ho, Mr. Baseball, You Only Live Twice, The Karate Kid, and Rising Sun, and even recent films such as Memoirs of a Geisha and The Last Samurai, are nowhere near as influential to the Japanophile as actual Japanese films and television programs.  We weren't getting our own interpretation of Japan by itself anymore, we were receiving Japan's own self-expression.  We were demanding it.  University courses studying Japanese anime and manga, Japanese language programs, Japanese literature courses, Japanese film studies programs, all began springing up across North America.

Japan was exporting its culture not just to North America but to the entire world.  There was a vast demand for it and countries all over the planet translated and aired television shows like Sailor Moon and Dragonball Z on every single habitable continent.  And yet the Japanese were simply content to ride this wave.  Their insularity made them wholly inattentive to the tremendous political weight these cultural exports gave them in projecting soft power.

The Great Queen Seondeok on Netflix
I lived in South Korea for three years and the South Koreans are, in many ways, just as insular and xenophobic as the Japanese (perhaps moreso).  However, the impact the Hallyu has had on Korean self-esteem and self-image on the international stage has been extremely profound.  A country divided, jockeyed between rival superpowers, and the psychological damage of the Japanese occupation still in living memory, the South Koreans have a very pronounced insecurity complex with regards to their role in international affairs and the strength of their culture.  They're tremendously fragile, which means small victories mean a great deal to them, especially when those victories are against former oppressors like Japan.

So, the Korean Wave is inundated much of the Western Pacific with Korean culture in the form of television drama, K-Pop, and cinema.  Where once the major player was Japan, now Korea is emerging as an exporter of cultural IPs.  Korea was once a blank space on the map for the U.S., a very nondescript culture that was entirely uninteresting and little understood when compared to the gigantic mythological stature of China and Japan in the Western mindset.  Thus, Korea's breakout success with the Hallyu has stunned everyone and opened their eyes to a treasure trove of creativity the likes of which many haven't seen since the bursting of the Japanese bubble and the increasing insularity of Japanese society.

South Korea is determined not to let this opportunity slip away from them.  The South Korean government has been investing in the arts and entertainment industries with a keen awareness that their cultural products are just as important as their cars and electronics.  Although there is a powerful desire to quell dissent within Korean society, the tremendous success of Korean cinema both at home and abroad has given Korean intellectual insurgents a place to go to express their criticisms creatively through art and craft.  Some of the most powerful Korean films I've seen, such as Oldboy, The Chaser, 200 lbs. Beauty, and Secret Sunshine, are powerful commentaries on some of the darker aspects of Korean culture and the Korean psyche.

Is it possible that Korean arts will stagnate as they have in Japan?  Absolutely.  Is it likely that the Koreans are interested in what foreign audiences want?  Nope.  Not a chance.  They're as culturally and socially locked to domestic appetites and tastes as the Japanese are and also just as uninterested in outside input.

So what is the difference?  Money.  The Koreans are making sure they support their projection of soft power financially.  This will slow down the inevitable cycle of artistic vitality--artistic stagnation and give the South Koreans more staying power than the Japanese ever had.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

What Happened to Cool Japan?

Hearts of Furious Fancies and Ogiue Maniax recently posted on the state of the Japanese cultural export situation, with Hearts taking a more broad approach and response to Global Elite Magazine's post here that was a running commentary of this article from the Christian Science Monitor.  Meanwhile, Ogiue Maniax focused on the current state of American anime fandom.

Let's face it, I'm behind the curve here.  This is all news to me.  However, it is news by which I am entirely not surprised and honestly should have been aware enough to see coming back in 2007 when Toonami dropped off of Cartoon Network.  (Ogiue Maniax reports that its back and doing extremely well in the ratings department.)

So, what happened?  Where did Cool Japan go?  Was it really just a fad propped up by Gen X and Gen Y and now that both generations are (by-and-large) out of college and in the working world (or at least struggling to find and keep jobs) they have no time or energy to devote to youthful fancies and nostalgic hobbies?  Global Elite Magazine, riffing off of the CSM's article, attributes much of this to the cultural and socio-economic stagnation of the Japanese system.  Essentially, Japan is one big Good Ol' Boys' Club where age and seniority are inscrutable and those without seniority are loath to criticize their superiors.  Having just read You Gotta Have Wa and reviewed it, this latest series of articles and posts served to simply reinforce this impression of the tyranny of seniority.  The weight of the top-down society in Japan crushes dissenting voices.  What makes things worse is the almost universal resistance to outside criticism.
"Better yet, a debate is needed within Japan to improve Japanese culture on the whole, meaning: more power to women, youth, minorities and artists; less grovelling to loan sharks, Keidanren, and mandarins.  But any attempt to question the tenets of Japanese culture is likely to draw accusations of racism or Japan bashing.  Issues about how to heal the sickness in the heart of the culture--stress, alcoholism, suicide--aren't likely to come up during the two-week election campaign about the TPP and NPPs."  --Christopher Johnson, Global Elite Magazine
Johnson sums up succinctly and clearly the issue with outsiders who want to offer suggestions or constructive criticism (a concept nonexistent in East Asian culture).  The emphasis on "face" has created an enormous obstacle to progress and advancement in a society that seems to be stuck in a mud-pit.  Seriously, read Johnson's article.  It strikes the core of issues that are not unique to Japan, but also to South Korea and China as well.  There's a resistance to foreigners in these cultures and an insularity that makes the Ku Klux Klan look like they're positively egalitarian.

Spider Jerusalem would be utterly and absolutely unwelcome in Japan, South Korea, and especially China.

Yankee Go Back 2 4chan!
Unless you speak the language fluently, you're not very welcome in the East Asian cyberworld.  A funny and humorous example can be seen in this reddit series on playing online games with people when you're a foreigner.  Internet anonymity removes any and all barriers of taste and manners for many people, allowing them to express deep and pervasive prejudices, aggression, dislikes, and outright hatreds.  Make one mistake with your Japanese on 2ch and you'll get a plethora of accusations and admonitions to "go back to 4chan" where you belong.

CAVEAT:  Yes I am speaking in generalities.  Guess what?  Generalities and stereotypes exist for a reason.  Human beings learn from pattern recognition.  It is part of our survival mechanism.  It is a huge fallacy that stereotypes and generalities are bad--by themselves they are simply tools and like any tool, how they are used determines whether or not the result is good or bad.  No, not all Koreans, Japanese, or Chinese are like this.

A lot of foreigners who try to work themselves into Japanese social situations, especially the otaku subculture, invariably meet passive-aggressive resistance to their inclusion.  Part of this is the language barrier but much of it is due to the foreigner being a disruptive influence when it comes to wa.  We're noisy, obnoxious, opinionated, and individualistic.  We don't realize that you're not supposed to disagree with anybody.  It took a long time for me to realize this in South Korea, since I repeatedly encountered this.  When it dawned on me that I should just agree with what the consensus said, suddenly new Korean acquaintances stopped blowing me off, started wanting to hang out more.  Granted this is in Korea, but Japan isn't so far off.  You really can't let someone know what you really think until you and your Japanese friend have reached the honne stage of intimacy, when tatemae can be dropped.  Americans are just used to disagreeing with one another.  We can agree to disagree, stay friends, and get along because we've a culture that emphasizes individual uniqueness.

In East Asia, uniqueness is dissent.

We disturb the peace just from existing.  We're unpredictable.  And what really is the kicker, we're dramatically misunderstood and there doesn't seem to be any real interest in actually understanding who and what we really are.

Why Anime is Dead
I know, I know, it's not, really.  But for me it is, by-and-large.  Why?

The creativity and vitality is gone.

Miyazaki Hayao said that the anime industry is full of otaku and that's a really bad thing.
"With plenty of anime portraying characters without development or capability of change and agency, Miyazaki has a point.  In order to create compelling stories and characters, a person needs to both have well-rounded experiences and meet different people."  --Carly Smith, Escapist Magazine (article here).
Character stagnation is only one part of the problem that I've noticed.  It's only the tip of the iceberg.  My biggest issue when I look at the lists of anime on CrunchyRoll or Netflix is that I'm seeing variations on the same themes, over and over and over again.  I'm not interested in seeing the same stories repeated ad infinitum.

Shows that use a trope or theme as a vehicle to tell a story are dwindling in favor of formulaic plots and character designs.  There's always the bishounen guy who is super-confident and oh-so-cool, the megane girl, the tsundere girl, the sporty girl, the dark and tortured soul guy who hates everyone and his own situation, the Rei Ayanami clone, the list goes on and the characters themselves never actually evolve or develop into anything more than a two-dimensional (pun not intended) caricature.  The settings are always in some post-apocalyptic world, an alternate reality world, a war with giant robots, a typical Japanese middle/high school, a wonderful Japanese (or pseudo-French) boarding school for rich kids, a school for magical studies, a post-apocalyptic school, or an alternate reality school (my God, I am SO DAMN TIRED OF SHOWS SET IN HIGH SCHOOLS OR MIDDLE SCHOOLS!!!).  Everybody wears a school uniform.  Everyone is 15 years old.  Harem situations are ubiquitous.

The sad thing is, some of my favorite shows of all time have a lot of these tropes.  The difference is, they develop the narrative so that these tropes are just a vehicle.  They're tools, not the point.  Super Dimension Fortress Macross and Neon Genesis Evangelion had giant robots.  If you watch those shows, however, the robots take a back seat to the characters' internal struggles and dilemmas.  Legend of the Galactic Heroes has the bishounen blond Reinhard von Lohengramm, but von Lohengramm loses occasionally, especially to his foil, Yang Wenli, who is a lazy bum that just happens to be as much of a strategic genius.  Trigun, Vision of Escaflowne, and Cowboy Bebop were three of the best shows that came out when I was in college.

Is it just me?  Am I just being nostalgic?  I don't know.  I really enjoyed Attack on Titan's first season on Netflix, I loved the Ghost in the Shell series, and have a very soft spot in my heart for Alfonse and Edward Elric.

Love and Anime in the Age of VHS
We had to get a lot of our stuff fansubbed back in the 1990s.  We also had the hit-or-miss anime wall at Blockbuster.  For every video cassette of Neon Genesis Evangelion there was an abortion like Baoh.  Still, anime was so new and the storytelling tropes and narrative structures were so unique to us, who were accustomed to Hollywood and American television, that Vampire Hunter DNinja ScrollAkira, Ghost in the Shell, Fist of the North StarWicked City, and Iria: Zeiram the Animation were amazing.  We'd never seen anything like this stuff.  We worked for minimum wage on weekends and summers (around $4.50/hour), gasoline was $0.95 a gallon, and an anime VHS cassette was $25 at Suncoast Video.  It was cheaper to rent a video for 3 days at Blockbuster for $4.50, take it home, hook our VCRs together and bootleg ourselves a copy or two.  Everything was invariably poorly dubbed but occasionally, we could afford a $30 subtitled video tape.  Soon, our rooms were full of bootleg tapes with Dragonball ZBubblegum CrisisRecord of Lodoss War, and Ranma 1/2.  Sometimes we'd catch heavily edited and dubbed films on Sci-Fi channels' summer anime weekend festivals that happened every year (which is how I first saw Urusei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer).

Those of us who actually got fansubbed anime were like gurus.  They knew the sites, got to know the fansubbers personally through email.  In the dark age before Amazon, we emailed our request, printed out the reply, cut a check for $5 a fansubbed tape (plus shipping and handling), mailed it, waited a month, and then received our prize in a U.S. Postal Service envelope.  During college, when we had access to the Internet through our campus networks (T-1 connection, baby!) we emailed away for fansubbed shows not available in the States through distribution, got our tapes, then copied them for our friends and traded around.  We had anime nights where we first watched shows that were already a year or two old in Japan.  When we watched a fansubbed Otaku no Video for the first time, we felt a real kinship with the anime fans in Japan.

Everything we got seemed different, unique.  Yeah, there were common threads we saw in all of the settings, characters, and narratives.  Nevertheless, it all felt different.  Each show had its own character, feel, and story that kept things feeling rather fresh and unexpected.  It was absorbing.  It was special.  You had to work hard to get your anime and since most of it you couldn't afford, you took shortcuts.  Yeah, that probably hurt the industry a bit, I'll admit.  But it probably didn't hurt it as much as the streaming and the downloading that would become rampant in the years following 2001.

Neon Genesis Evangelion hit the shelves of Blockbuster around 1997.  With our new drivers' licenses, we drove to Blockbuster, rented it, bootlegged it, and watched, rewatched, and re-rewatched the episodes.  Then, we sat at the diner and discussed our dozens of theories.  What is Gendo's plan?  What are the Dead Sea Scrolls and what do they predict?  What happened during the Second Impact?  What are the Angels?  Why are they attacking?  Hey guys, I bet you $20 that Rei is a clone of Shinji's mom!

Once VHS died, a lot of the culture surrounding anime in America changed.  Suddenly, anime became mainstream and the distributors realized that DVD could be more easily controlled and more difficult to copy (although enterprising individuals found workarounds on their computers).  Easily bootlegged VHS tapes vanished.  Blockbuster for rentals later collapsed when streaming emerged as The Way to Get Your Fix.

Suddenly, we were inundated with anime.  But the anime was different.  At first, it all seemed to be attempts by the producers and writers to recapture the cultural impact of Neon Genesis Evangelion.  Once that started to fade, the otaku boom/Akihabara boom had already happened in Japan.  Densha Otoko and Akihabara@DEEP ushered in the short-lived, quasi-mainstreaming of "fashionable" otakuness.  Even the original Genshiken manga was a contributor and beneficiary of this development.

And overnight, manga and anime alike became by otaku and for otaku.  Stagnation set in.

The Overseas Market Doesn't Matter.  At all.  Ever.  And never will.
The occasional overseas collaboration like Afro Samurai are rare, noteworthy (especially for their rarity), and therefore unique.  They are exceptions that prove the rule.

The fact is, manga and anime have always been made for domestic audiences.  It doesn't matter that the distributors overseas started folding back in the late aughts.  It wouldn't have mattered if those distributors had marketed and sold anime in North America very effectively.  It doesn't matter how huge American otaku conventions have grown.  The foreign market has always been and always will be a distant afterthought for most Japanese mangaka and anime developers.

The Japanese anime market is dictated most strongly by the Japanese consumer and moe culture has gone haywire over there.  Selling hyper-expensive figurines is the primary drive for many anime programs.  Shops and businesses throughout Akihabara in Tokyo and Den-Den Town in Osaka pulled in otaku where they would exchange their hard-earned yen for dolls, posters, figurines, and audio CDs with their favorite voice-actors singing songs in character.  Merchandising is not new to anime and manga, nor unique to Japan but it seems that anime's greatest purpose is to be an object of consumption.  US consumption of all these peripherals pales in comparison to Japan, especially since shipping and distribution of all of these peripherals is much more costly and difficult than distribution of the anime and manga themselves.  That isn't the problem with the overseas market being ignored.  The problem lies in to whom the shows and comics are being marketed in the first place and since manga and anime are for and by otaku to a growing exclusion of other demographics in Japan, it is not only reinforcing the weird otaku stereotype but alienating anyone who is not specifically a Japanese otaku.

After the bubble burst in the 1990s Japan has been growing more and more insular, which is unsurprising since their economy is still shrinking and it is human nature to circle the wagons when threats are perceived.  Even when the Japanese economy was a powerhouse the Japanese were very resistant to foreign ideas and knowledge.  Their ability to tolerate dissent and critique has always been low but in the past two decades it has further shrunken dramatically.  Japan is producing no more Murakami Harukis, Mishima Yukios, or Miyazaki Hayaos because the hammer is falling more heavily on nails that stick up than it ever has since 1945.  The powerful impact of manga like Akira is in the excoriating scrutiny, examination and critique of Japanese society that provides.  There is no more room for mangaka like Otomo to evolve in the current Japanese climate.  The otaku consumer is, in this way, much like the mainstream American consumer--cheap escapist fantasy that is unchallenging and allows you to switch-off and veg-out is sold to them.  It's mind-numbing, comfortable, and ultimately empty.

Should We Go Back to 4chan?
American consumers like me who remember a time when anime challenged our worldviews, brought new dialogues and narratives into our awareness, and kicked us in the mind are going to lose interest in the same-old, same-old.  Granted, there were harem situations in the 1980s and 1990s and yes, after season 2, I got extremely bored with Ranma 1/2 and never got into Tenchi Muyo.  This was expected, though.  As I realized that manga and anime were mediums and not genres, I developed tastes for specific genres within the mediums as a whole.  The problem I have today is that the genres have become formulaic and certain genres have fallen off of the radar entirely.

What we non-Japanese have to realize and understand, though, is how much Japan does not care about what we think.  Indeed, if our criticisms even reach Japanese ears (or eyes) they'll invariably feel compelled to lock shields and take cover behind the tried-and-true "you're foreign so you don't understand our inscrutable ways" defense.  It's pointless.  The market that matters in this situation is Japan and Japan alone and the only demographic that matters is the otaku demographic.  We are irrelevant.

Outlook: Not So Good
So, what happened to Cool Japan?  Rampant otaku consumerism is one thing.  That killed one aspect of Japan's appeal--it's visual culture of anime and manga.  Although this is just a symptom of Japan's overall decline in artistic dynamism and creativity (discussed heavily in the posts and articles linked above), this decline has impacted one of Japan's most intense expressions of soft power and cultural (as opposed to material) export.

I'll discuss whether or not South Korea and China will be able to replace Japan in a future post.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Book Review -- YOU GOTTA HAVE WA by Robert Whiting

The cultural differences between the United States and Japan have fascinated many, many more people than just myself.  Although I'm not a huge fan of baseball, I can still appreciate it and the cultural impact that it has had on the United States and on many other countries that have adopted it as a professional sport.  What is so interesting about Japan with regards to baseball (in Japan, "野球"--yakyuu) is how the Japanese adopted the sport but not the American approach to the game.  Indeed, they approach it from a very similar standpoint that they do martial arts.

This is where Robert Whiting's book, You Gotta Have Wa, comes in.  First published in 1989, shortly after the height of the Japanese economic invasion of American markets, the book took advantage of the cultural climate in the States which, in the 1980s, was suddenly fascinated by the exotic strangeness combined with technological newness in the floating Japanese world and imperturbable stoicism of the Japanese businessman.  Films like Gung Ho, Mr. Baseball, and Rising Sun explored the American interaction with the Japanese in a way that was actually more revealing about American attitudes and prejudices than it truly managed to uncover the mysterious culture of the Land of the Rising Sun.

Decades later, the American public has a much greater appreciation for and understanding of Japanese culture.  Nevertheless, this can create a vast number of false assumptions and expectations for those Americans exposed to Japan only through their consumer culture and entertainment.  Japanese business and Japanese sports are still war and are still governed by the principles detailed in Sun Tzu's The Art of War.  In 2009 Whiting updated his book to incorporate the sudden and tremendously influential influx of Japanese players into the American MLB and consider recent developments in Japanese baseball, demonstrating that although there is a lot more cross-cultural understanding between the United States and Japan there are still very firm barriers between the two societies and their approach to the sport.

Whiting's book focuses on the concept of wa (), the Japanese idea of harmony (which is, also, coincidentally, an ancient name for Japan itself derived from the Chinese name for the country, using a different ideograph--).  Harmony is integral to Japanese society and dictates almost all social interactions between Japanese people.  This both causes and is caused by the emphasis on the group welfare.  The individual is expected to sacrifice for the group.  Whiting explores the rigorous and demanding training regimen a Japanese baseball player is subjected to, often in direct conflict with what Western sports medicine determines as beneficial or harmful.  To the Japanese, though results are incredibly important, victory is attributed not to skill, ability, health, or anything physical at all but to attitude--the willingness to sacrifice oneself, the display of fighting spirit, determination, and will to do one's best.  Thus, the typical Japanese baseball team will wear itself out in pregame practice for four hours whereas an American player will engage in a few brief warm-up exercises.

Whiting explores the deep, cultural rifts between the Japanese and American approaches to baseball through the American players that head off to Japan, detailing their stories, their struggles with coaches and the companies that own the teams, their depiction in newspapers, their bitter fights against racism, and the hardships they endure because their teammates often resent their "special treatment."  Whiting injects thoughtful analysis of the damaging shortcomings that are harming the Japanese game, their inflexibility and inability to adapt to the Western model--a model built on science and medicine and an understanding of how the body conserves and expends energy.  Whiting does not use these analyses to attack Japanese society as a whole, and indeed demonstrates a deep appreciation for Japanese baseball.  His critique also serves to highlight the shortcomings of the American game as well--the frequent misbehavior of prima donna players, a lack of team spirit, poor attitudes, narcissism of American players, etc.  While the Americans have a lot to learn from the Japanese, it is also clear that we're a lot more accepting to an international approach to the game, as is evidenced by the frequent inclusion of South American, Caribbean, and Mexican players, and the fantastic success of Ichiro Suzuki with the New York Yankees.  The Japanese might adopt some practices of Western baseball but Whiting explains how the Japanese culture surrounding baseball is still very closed to foreign ideas.  Indeed, Whiting describes how the Japanese adaptation of the game makes it almost seem as though the Japanese believe they actually invented baseball.

Whiting's book was an absolute delight to read.  His narrative is heavy on facts and details without being over-encumbered by them.  His style of prose is evocative, clean, and direct, never turgid but still displaying a depth of vocabulary and a command of the English language that keeps the book vigorous yet tightly composed.  His analysis and criticism are not heavy handed and well-spaced throughout the narrative, which is well-sourced, documented, and researched.  Whiting brings a thoroughly professional level of scholarship and personal experience to his narrative.  I flew through this book and was determined to read more of Whiting's works the moment I set You Gotta Have Wa down.  Whiting has been quite prolific, especially on the subject of baseball and a number of his works have been translated into Japanese.

This book came to me with high recommendations and I cannot help but praise it as well.  I heartily encourage anyone with an interest in Japanese culture, baseball, the foreigner experience in Japan, or a combination of the three, to read You Gotta Have Wa.

You Gotta Have Wa by Robert Whiting
Style:  A
Substance:  A
Overall:  A

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Genshiken Nidaime: Victims, Villains, and Gender Relations among Japanese Otaku -- PART FOUR

Introduction
Part One
Part Two
Part Three

Madarame's Perdicament
No matter who Madarame chooses, somebody is going to lose and get hurt.  It dawns on him when he asks Hato if he can bring Sue with him next time he comes over to cook for him--an extremely feminine move that screams "I have romantic feelings for you."  Hato is visibly hurt by this and Madarame realizes that in the manga and anime, the protagonist in the harem always seems to resolve all conflicts in a way that is noncommittal and maintains the status-quo.  Nobody is hurt or rejected.  The power balance, the detente between the other harem members, is perpetual.  To an American, this is absolutely boring and why I can't watch Ranma 1/2 or any other harem anime (especially after I heard about how the ending of the manga resolves absolutely nothing).  To a Japanese person, this is reassuring because wa--harmony--is maintained and Japanese values are reaffirmed.

Oh the humanity!!!
Mada knows he's not equipped for this.  One misstep and somebody gets hurt.  The resulting chain-reaction could lead to him in an even worse social position than he is.  All of his friends could be lost.  What's worse is, Mada can't not do anything because even that could lead to a disruption of harmony.  He never knows if an off-hand, innocent comment could completely blow the whole situation apart and lead to hurt feelings, anger, and all kinds of other social eruptions.  In the latest issue, Hato gives him an escape hatch--he's perfectly happy maintaining the harem's balance-of-power.  He's willing to take the reins of control from Mada.

Here, Mada has a dilemma.  Does he take agency or surrender it to Hato?  To Mada, if he accepts control over his actions and authorship for what he says and does, it seems inevitable that someone will get hurt and harmony will be lost.  Male authorship, male agency, results in a cascade of catastrophes in the female-oriented Genshiken.  Hato's agency doesn't count as male--he's in female mode, possessed of the spirit of a woman and actively annihilating his male self (psychological self-castration, perhaps, or do I go too far?).

Poor Mada.  Just become an herbivore and tell everyone to screw off.

Or is that where Shimoku is headed?  Will Mada become another statistic and simply swear off love and become a grass-eater?  There's a sort of depressed fatalism in that.  Frankly, if Mada chooses the herbivore path, it will result in a regaining of dignity, empowerment, and agency.  It may even be a choice he can make without alienating the rest of the harem, letting it dissolve gently and easily without conflict.  However, it would simply be another wall, another defense mechanism to protect his heart, a tatemae over his honne.  He'd be back to where he started when he first was introduced in the very beginning of the original Genshiken.  His illness would be the same, it's just the symptoms that would have changed.

Unless Shimoku pulls some awesome stunts, Mada is going to either break Hato's heart and end up a bad guy or Mada is going to succumb to Hato's advances and be unmade, annihilated, nullified as a character and turned into an empty plot device.  Mada's biggest problem is that he cares.  Yoshitake is just amused by the whole thing.  No matter what happens, she wins.  It's everybody else that gets hurt.

Yajima, the Female Mada
Yoshitake is the stereotypical fujoshi.  She's not a real person but a literary device.  Like I said, she's the villain of the comic (cue the hatemail and angry comments!).  She might look like she's the female Madarame, what with her tendency to go on long diatribes, but that's all an illusion.  It isn't a defense mechanism.

Yajima, however, is the prototypical fujoshi.  She embodies the same sort of fringe mechanic Madarame does, and indeed, does it better than Ogiue did.  Yajima needs to protect herself and her feelings as much as Madarame.  Her crush on Hato puts her in a predicament as painful as Mada's crush on Saki.  Is it possible that in a Genshiken Sandaime she'll find herself surrounded by a male harem?  One can only hope.

In this regard, Yoshitake is a psychologically violent person.  Disguised as Yajima's friend, she pushes, prods and eggs Yajima on.  It remains to be seen (in my opinion) if she is actually Yajima's friend and not just Loki putting the mistletoe javelin in Hoder's hand.  (Really bad metaphor, I know.)  If Yajima gets shot down by Hato, will Yoshitake cackle and cavort and humiliate Yajima as Keiko did when Saki shot down Madarame?

Who knows.  These may become moot points and Shimoku could completely upend everything and Yoshitake actually comes out being the hero of the whole darn story.  What a bait-and-switch that would be!

Sue is the Real Hero
Now Hearts of Furious Fancies had this to say about Sue being a hero (see here for the post):
Or something else is going on: With all the yuri teasing that Kio Shimoku has been dropping onto Sue, could she be watching, pining away as the girly-boy of her dreams dotes on an inappropriate guy? Heartbreaking! Nawwww… Sue too cool for that… But if she likes the soup, she should demand cooking lessons.If circumstances force Sue into doing something heroic we are more likely to get one smitten Mada and a full circular triangle; field strength %98 and holding.. We need a crisis, something that threatens the entire Genshiken. Saki was able to “save” the Genshiken from the stuco last time, Could a V.2 Sue do the same?Hero or not, Sue will not glomp onto Mada. Sue already has a more or less platonic hero fixation with Ogiue, and what Ogiue represents to her cannot be found (yet) in anyone else. Neither Mada or Hato can claim to have gone from shameful abject yaoi fiend to successful circle leader, dojin artist and semi-pro mangaka who won over the boy she once shipped, and who supports and protects her kouhais (- heh! Wait a second! Could Hato also be stuck in a loop of Ogiue worship ???) If Sue becomes heroic, she will do so in emulation of Ogiue and the needle of Hato’s heart will swing to her as to a lodestone. Madarame can’t do that. Then again if Hato becomes Ogiue-ish heroic, Sue would fixate on the new Hato. They would make one heck of a mutual admiration society.
And here I very much disagree.  Sue may have hero-worship for Ogiue but she's already a hero in her own right.  She just doesn't realize it.

Nobody else seems to, either.

Sue makes me proud.  She plays the stereotypical American loli fangirl but in reality, she's Angela's foil as well as Yoshitake's.  Sue is far, far more sensitive to the mood and tone surrounding her than any American would be assumed to be.  Shimoku has taken yet another trope and turned it on its ear.

Sue's actions and words are always calculated to have an effect on the group, an effect that redirects attention away from an uncomfortable situation, lightens the atmosphere, or otherwise helps to alleviate any actual, deep disruption of harmony.  Sue will play the dumb American and say something ridiculous, troubling the surface of the harmony briefly so that the deeper currents can remain untouched and preserved.  If anything, I'd argue that Sue has done far, far more to keep the Genshiken from fragmenting than most people think.

Dun, dun, DUUUUNNNNN!!!

Sue sees where Angela is going, suggesting a multi-partner sexual encounter involving herself, Mada, Sue, and Hato.  Sue fails to preemptively shut Angela down with her fist but that failure is unimportant.  What is important is that she tries.  Later, when Keiko and Angela compete at the festival to see who will "comfort" Mada while he is injured, Sue steps in, defeats them both, and preserves Mada's "virtue."  Sue disapproves of Mada's assignment as spy on Hato and his high school friends and tries to drive him out of his hiding spot.  Sue is the moral center of the group in this regard and her actions demonstrate an actual concern for Mada's feelings and the integrity of the group as a whole.

So, why is Sue and Hato now competing for Mada?  I think it is because Sue, despite her protestations to love only Ogiue, actually does care for Madarame.  I wouldn't go so far as to suggest she loves him but she does care about him and seems to realize the threat that Hato poses to both Madarame and himself.  Sue does care about Hato and his feelings and has clued in on the reality that Hato is going down a self-destructive path.  Perhaps setting herself up as competition is an attempt to save both Hato and Madarame.

Of course, it could be much more mundane.  I could be reading too much into Sue's character and behaviors.  However, Shimoku's been doing too much with her character, having her break the mold of what is expected of the waifish, loli-looking American stereotype.  Because Sue's Japanese speaking ability is limited (though improving) and she's often limited to conveying her thoughts and feelings through quotes and halting, stilted phrases.  Hence, her interactions are quite puzzling.  At first, she seemed to be trying to make Hato face his attraction to Madarame ("Mada is sou uke!").  Now, I'm not so sure.  Maybe she was trying to make Hato realize something else?  Sue's a tough nut to crack.

After all, in the Chapter 88 on 4chan an anon asked, "Why is Sue so best girl?" and another anon replied, "Because she's a fujoshi, anon.  In fact, not only is she a fujoshi, she's one that ships real people, and tries to force her ships onto them regardless of their actual sexual preferences.  If she wasn't cute and a wacky gaijin you'd hate her."

At the time that seemed plausible.  Indeed, at the time, I downright agreed with the second anon.  Now... I'm not so certain.  She's definitely jockeying for a position against Hato.  There definitely seems to be a degree of chemistry between her and Madarame as well.  And I cannot forget that innocent little kiss she gave him at Comiket to make him jump into view while he was supposed to be spying.

So... What Now?
Genshiken is, at heart, about friendship and mutual support.
Why bother? from the start, the Genshiken was not an allegory of otaku redemption, but one of accommodation and finding the strength of friendship and community. To find support from others you have to take the risk of rubbing up against others, and most of these others are not going to be completely to your taste. The situations that emerge are not all going to be within your comfort zone. In the Genshiken, the most important part of learning how to be open with others has been the breaking down of the walls that separate male and female fandoms as a microcosm of larger problems in Japanese society.  --Hearts of Furious Fancies, "Why Hato: Build Up Logically."
I won't disagree with this.  Conflict, however, keeps a story interesting and the conflicts within Genshiken Nidaime are far, far, far more complex than the ones in the original Genshiken.  Shimoku has really raised the bar for himself.  The above post is not a condemnation of what he's writing.  It is simply my attempt to analyze some of the dynamics between the characters that no one on earth has seemed to see.  The most important thing I can point to is that I do not perceive friendship and community at work except between the females.  The males are no longer overtly supportive.  Part of this is due to the obstacles of geography, employment, and other realities of the Japanese working-adult lifestyle.  Mada is not supported but objectified.

This is the core issue I perceive in Genshiken Nidaime.  Can males survive in a female-oriented space?  Are we human beings damned to forever live in clubhouses with painted signs saying, "No girls allowed" and "No boys allowed"?

I think Shimoku is building up to something in which this issue is resolved and not perpetuated.  I don't think Shimoku is saying that males must be objectified by and exiled from the female space.  I do think he is tackling gender-dynamics head-on.  I'm not sure where he is going with those dynamics but my analysis should reveal a lot of deeper, gender-driven conflicts and how these conflicts effect a number of these characters on a more psychological level.  At least, I hope.  I am, after all, not Japanese, I am American and I could have totally gotten the entire thing wrong.

And hey, I could totally, absolutely, 100% be mischaracterizing Yoshitake.  Except for seeing her as Loki.  She's definitely the trickster god.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Genshiken Nidaime: Victims, Villains, and Gender Relations among Japanese Otaku -- PART THREE

Introduction
Part One
Part Two


Mada also doesn't need a broken wrist but he sure as hell gets one.
Emerging Female Space
As Hearts of Furious Fancies cribbed in this post, "The arc of Genshiken is long, but it curves toward female agency."

Apparently it does so at the expense of male agency.  Or at least the agency of male otaku.  Madarame is the prototypical male otaku.  Or perhaps I speak too soon, because Shimoku isn't finished.  There's more to come and perhaps I speak too soon.

Thus far, however, the conversion from male space to female space has been violent to the males.  They've been expelled by graduation, employment, and/or the change in atmosphere or relegated to the fringe as buffoons, like Kukichi.  The only male who is truly accepted in the space is Hato and that acceptance is strongest when Hato cross-dresses and behaves in a female manner, fanning out over and drawing the fujoshi comics that the girls enjoy.  Mada is on the cusp of acceptance but the primary reason he has any level or degree of belonging is because he is an object of female machinations--they're conniving and plotting to direct his romantic involvements.  Not all of them are guilty of this by action but more by association, which I'll discuss more in a bit.  Nevertheless, after his wrist is broken, Mada completely abandons the club in a physical sense, although he remains a topic of conversation and machination within the circle.

Consider the facts--female agency resulted in Mada's "confession" to Saki, her shooting him down, and the subsequent nullification of his own agency, dignity, etc.  On top of that, the creation of the harem, the forward advances of Hato and Angela, the abusive psychic violence of Keiko, the isolation of Mada by from his male friends, the removal of a safe male space where he can be male in a secure place, all of this serves to rob Mada of free will and agency, dignity and respect.  He becomes an object to the other characters.  He becomes their MacGuffin, something they can ship and slash without considering the consequences of these manipulations upon his heart and mind.  Hato cares about Mada and his feelings, true... but as an object, an archetype, a replacement for his former senpai and not as Mada.

Sue, Yajima, and Yoshitake spying on Hato and Mada in the club room.

Apparently all gender agency must come at the expense of the adjacent gender.  (I say "adjacent," not "opposite," due to my own personal beliefs on gender.)  Hato is just as much a victim as Mada.  Unfortunately, Rika and Hato's hometown acquaintances have maneuvered Hato into a position where his own self-actualization relies upon the further destruction of Madarame as an agent.  He must be reduced to a role in a BL doujinshi in order for Hato to self-actualize.  And Hato has signed on.  In other words, Hato has acquiesced to the New Order.  Males are now objects, females are empowered.  Hato has opted for being a female in order to fit into the New Order.  Hato has now compartmentalized Mada as the recipient of his affections.  Indeed, Hato has also compartmentalized his male self, done psychic violence to his masculine side.  Hato is in the process of nullifying himself as a man just as much as Mada has been nullified.

Darkness and evil incarnate behind that cute smile?
The proof is in the comic itself.  Hato-chan/Kaminaga-simulacrum is always there, lurking, pushing, taking the form of Hato's former senpai, Kaminaga, the woman that Hato wants to be and cross-dresses as.  She has only vanished once Hato has drawn her into himself, accepted her as himself, and chosen to bury his maleness as anything more than a possible sexual encounter with Mada in a seme-uke relationship.  An objectified relationship.  A fantasy relationship.  An object.  Not people.  Things.

And Yoshitake is enabling this.  Everywhere there is an opportunity to disrupt the status-quo, to shake things up, she's there.  She is the very symbol of the new Genshiken, the embodiment of the very meaning of the club's emergence as a female space and a place of female agency.

Or is she?  She ruminates and vacillates.  Is BL like a king from a fairytale?  Or can we manipulate, cajole, push a little here, and pull a little there, and manifest that king in reality?  Yoshitake is the villain (I know people will hate me for this) but she's a very, very, very interesting villain.  First she seems to be encouraging and then she turns around and tries to disabuse Hato and everyone else with "reasons Mada is a loser."  Then she gives that up and just rides the harem-train while whispering in Yajima's ear.

Rika Yoshitake is the Devil.  Or maybe Loki.
The above are reasons are why I view Yoshitake Rika as the villain of the manga, if villain it would have.  She's the primary instigator and enabler of everyone's own inner dilemmas and instead of helping one-another cut through the complications and really, truly self-actualize, she's contributing to the over-complication of everything.  She waffles as to whether the wants Mada's harem to exist or not.  She pushes Yajima with regards to her crush on Hato but also encourages Hato's crush on Mada.  She encourages Hato's fantasies of slashing Mada and himself.  The entire time she does these things, she's smiling.

The Villain

Maybe I'm missing something, here.  I am an American after all and TONS of Japanese nuance is lost on me.  However, to me, Yoshitake seems to be the female incarnation of the trickster god of myth and legend.  She's the anti-Japanese.  Far more than Angela and Sue, the Americans of the bunch, she's disruptive of the harmony in the group.  As a literary device, she's fantastic.  As a character, she's the Devil, the Adversary, tempting the characters with tantalizing visions and fantasies of their desires.  Just sign on the dotted line.  In blood, please.  Thank you.

Mada's totally bewildered.  He's the Job of the group, beleaguered.  The rest of the club pretty much clocks in as Job's friends and wife.  "Curse God and die!" Hato seems to say.  I wonder who is going to appear in a whirlwind and set everything to rights as God in the end?

See, most people perceive Hato as the protagonist of the story and it is true that the story is centered around Hato.  But I do not perceive Hato as the protagonist.  Not by a long shot.  I may be really missing something, here, but for me Mada is the main character.  This has developed into Mada's story for me and Mada is cast in the role of Job for certain.

Reality vs. Fantasy
Baudrillard would have a field day.  When you watch the television, it also watches you, right?  The thing that is symbolized eventually becomes the thing.  Or something along those lines.  Whatever.  Baudrillard was French, after all.

The hilarity of it all is that when Genshiken was male-dominated, the men didn't try to make the women into manga and anime characters.  Oh, sure, Ohno cosplayed and even got Saki and Ogiue to do it, too.  That enabled the male characters to perceive different aspects of the female characters' personalities (yes, even Ogiue's, much to her chagrin).  The male club members struggled with the reality vs. fantasy idea and at least Tanaka and Sasahara managed to overcome any sort of desire to make fantasy reality.  Mada did so very gradually--after all, for him fantasy was a defense mechanism against reality.

Okay, here's where Baudrillard comes in.  It's all about Simulacra and Simulation, right?  (This is sort of revenge for Hearts of Furious Fancies referencing Lacan.)  Power relationships between groups and all that.  Signs and the signified.  Alright, let's be honest, nobody knows what the hell post-structuralists talk about, and neither do they, but everyone pretends they do and so do the post-structuralists, and Derrida recanted on his deathbed, so it doesn't matter what we say because everything has meaning in relation to the network of signifiers around it that it is not, so we can only truly talk in double-negatives and ohmygodIjusthadananeurism.

Anyway, back to Baudrillard.  The fantasy BL manga is likened to "a king from a fairytale" by Yoshitake.  The drive, the desire of Yoshitake is to see their king from a fairytale realized.  They consume the fantasy, an unrealistic simulation of homosexual partnerships, and in response the fantasy begins to consume them.  Just like the citizens inhabiting not the empire but the map of the empire Baudrillard discusses (taken from Borges' "On Exactitude in Science"), the girls in Genshiken inhabit not the physical space of reality but the imagined space of the doujinshi.  Therefore, reality starts to decay around them.  Their will and desire is pulling their fantasy into reality, or conversely, themselves into the doujinshi they read.

But see, there's this reverse of Baudrillard going on.  These characters in the club live vicariously through their consumed entertainment and always have, even since the very first issue of the original.  The attachment to reality has always been strained to breaking.  I don't know if you can ever take narrative and picture and so divorce it from reality that it has no attachment whatsoever to said reality, as Baudrillard posits in the fourth stage of simulation.  Nevertheless, there is a gradual psychological detachment the otaku in the manga make from real life.  That they, themselves, are simulations makes it even more amusing because is creates a sort of infinite reflection loop like in a hall of mirrors.  They inhabit a mise en abyme.

Remember I mentioned Hato is perhaps a personification of Genshiken and not, actually, just a character?  Hato's own schizophrenia is a manifestation of this breakdown of reality in favor of the simulation.  Indeed, Hato's own simulacrum of Kaminaga within himself has become more real than Hato.

Now that Genshiken is a female space, making fantasy into reality is the name of the game.  Reifying the fictional as factual is their primary focus.  Yoshitake is the spearhead of this.  The thing is, this reification will inevitably result in psychic violence and objectification.  In this case, that violence is being done to Madarame.  It is important to note, however, that it is also being done to Hato.

Yeah, Ogiue slashed Madarame with Sasahara but she was doing so as a means to come to terms with her own feelings for Sasahara.  She was struggling with something and this provided an outlet for her to explore her attraction for Sasahara.  She never once attempted to maneuver Sasahara and Madarame into a romantic situation.


Yoshitake isn't like that.  Yoshitake has seized upon Hato, however briefly, as a way to make fantasy into reality.  Now that reality is dawning on her that it can only end in tears, she laughs maniacally and seeks to prod Yajima into positioning herself to play "hop on pop" in order to assuage Hato's broken heart once Mada breaks the news that he's straight and cis-gendered and not into people with male anatomy.

In the end, the real loser is going to be Mada.  He has done nothing to ask for this harem.  He's not responsible for its creation.  However, all of the accountability for its continuation and the responsibility for the hearts of the girls that are vying for his attention is placed upon his shoulders.  Like Governor Tarkin, Yoshitake has rolled up a Death Star on Mada's planet.  Hato is Darth Vader.

Concluded in Part Four.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Genshiken Nidaime: Victims, Villains, and Gender Relations among Japanese Otaku -- PART TWO

Introduction
Part One

Sexual Dynamics:  Hato
Hato Kenjiro is confused.  Supremely.  Other bloggers have commented that homosexuality and transsexualism do not manifest as they do with Hato--not even when a person is "in the closet."  Hato, in my opinion, has no idea who he is or what he wants.  Indeed, he's extremely troubled and not at all attached with reality.

Hato and his alter ego--based on Kaminaga
I don't even know where to begin with Hato.  Perhaps with the fact that he began to cross-dress as a girl and draw BL comics out of his infatuation with his upperclasswoman/elder brother's girlfriend (now fiancee), Kaminaga.  Hato seems to need a senpai upon whom he can fascinate.  The problem is, he's not really being himself.  Indeed, I, as a reader, don't know who Hato is.  He's cloaked in so many personas within himself, constantly struggling to figure out which one he is that it is ridiculous.

It doesn't bother me that Hato cross-dresses.  It doesn't bother me that he's trying to figure himself out.  What bothers me is that he isn't taking steps to actually resolve his issues but exacerbate them, and he's dragging Mada into the mix.

As Hearts of Furious Fancies notes, Hato doesn't wish he was born a girl.  He appears to be a female trapped in a male body, but none of the typical internal dialogue about being so is presented to the viewer.  Hato is in conflict but the whole why is really obscured and obfuscated.  We get a lot of factors involved in his conflict but the nature of it is one of self-denial on some level.  Hato wants to embrace his female side but that female side evolved as a sort of redirected infatuation with Kaminaga.  This woman invaded Hato because he couldn't express his feelings for her--she was his brother's girlfriend!  So, instead of just carrying a torch along like Madarame, Hato created her clone within his own psyche.  Hato tried to become her.

This is extremely telling.
Down this path has led madness.  Hato is a hot mess.  He doesn't want to be a woman because he was "born that way," Hato made himself that way.  It is a coping mechanism gone all wrong.  Hato's been conquered by a Kaminaga clone he created.  The poor guy is an emotional train-wreck waiting to happen.  He's got far, far too much baggage he needs to sort out before he is even remotely ready for a relationship.

Hato cannot even draw unless he's dressed as a woman.  This is not a symptom of a well person.  It hints at schizophrenia, multiple personality disorder, you name it.  Perhaps I'm bringing far too sober and serious an eye to this entire thing but there is a powerful subtext of dysfunction that has surrounded Genshiken from its very beginning.  In the first generation, it felt very supportive and accepting.  Ironically, Hato gains acceptance but it is as a female.  The moment Hato attempts to accept his male self and stop cross-dressing, the entire dynamic of the club changes.  The female-dominated space feels slightly perturbed.  The female characters react to this with varying levels of acceptance to silent disagreement but no one really actually supports Hato's choice... except Madarame.

Why?  Because Madarame got what he actually needed, something he's been missing since Sasahara graduated and went off to work.  Madarame got a friend, a male companion... a bro.


'Sup, brah?  Or not...?

Mada Needs a Guy Friend
Although it crushed Hato on some level, the fact that Mada had found a guy friend with whom he could relate had been a huge boon to him.  Mada has, throughout Genshiken Nidaime, been shedding the layers of belligerent, geeky otaku-ness for a more mature definition of self.  It appears that he's been growing a degree of self-confidence, baby-step by baby-step.  Interestingly enough, despite the stripping of his dignity after Saki breaks his heart and douses his torch for her, Mada seems to still be building himself up as a mature adult.  He's still confused and trying to find his niche in the world but he's doing it somewhat calmly and in a relaxed, laid-back manner in contrast to his former self.

Mada's maturity is accompanied by his loneliness.  His old friends are scattered, living their own lives, busy with their own attempts at finding jobs, livelihoods, and enter the adult, Japanese, workaday lifestyle.  His closest friend was ostensibly Sasahara Kanji, who rarely ever pops up in the manga anymore.  Through his arrangement with Hato (who gets changed at his apartment), Mada has actually gotten to know Hato as a guy and not as a cross-dresser.  Mada has found a companion in male Hato.  The thing is, male Hato and female Hato are different people outwardly (although inwardly they're conflicting poles of the same persona).  Mada can deal with male Hato as a male friend--something he desperately needs.  Female Hato only confuses Mada more at first.  Gradually, Mada comes to accept both as two sides of a coin but he feels far more comfortable and safe with male Hato.

Female Hato has finally announced his affection for Mada, exacerbating the harem situation in which Mada finds himself.  (Use of pronouns here is getting... sketchy... so I'm going to use pronouns based on biology).  The thing is, Mada is straight and Hato is trying to validate his own confused needs and desires by latching onto Mada and making him the object of his infatuation and a replacement for his former senpai.  This is not only unfair to Mada, it robs him of what he really needed--a male non-romantic, non-erotic, entirely non-sexual friendship.  Comrades.  Pals.  Bros.

What Mada Doesn't Need
Mada doesn't need to be a replacement for Hato's former senpai.  He needs to be Mada.  He doesn't need to be Hato's uke or seme either.  He needs to be Mada.  Mada is a straight cis-gendered male.  (I swear to God, I'm going to burn my Genshiken tankobon if Shimoku is so gauche to magically turn Mada gay for Hato.  I think Shimoku is better than that--so far he's lampshaded most of these manga tropes and the whole, "I'm not gay I just love you" guy-on-guy romantic arc is a definite fujoshi-manga trope.  Nevertheless, I've been disappointed by cheesy dei ex machinae before and that one would just infuriate me because it wouldn't be true to Mada's character.)

Hato Doesn't Know Who He (or She) Is
Hato can't really get true, honest support because Hato isn't ever honest with himself.  Hato hasn't really come to grips that his female persona is entirely fabricated as a coping mechanism.  He may have admitted it but he hasn't really done anything about it.

No, strike that, he has.  He rejects it, stops cross-dressing, tries to accept that he's a straight male who likes BL and still tries to hang out with all the girls.  He tries.  He gets and A for effort.  Then Mada tells him how happy he is that he has a male friend again.

POW!  Hato is crushed.  Kuchiki tries to "go gay" with Mada for Hato but that guy is such a clown that all it does is make everyone look and feel ridiculous.  In the end, Hato throws in the towel and starts to gradually merge himself with his Kaminaga-clone self and start seriously and deliberately indulging in--and exacerbating--his crush on Madarame.  The sexual tension continues to ratchet up and Mada is caught in the middle.  In the end, Madarame has lost a friend and gained a harem member.  Mada cannot entirely be himself anymore because of this.

What has me tearing my hair out is... why?  Why has Hato fixated on Madarame?  Is it because he is desperately trying to manifest himself in one of his BL fantasies?  Is it because he actually is gay and in love with Madarame?  There is the constant reminder through the manga that reality and fantasy are not the same but that doesn't seem to be stopping Hato from trying to create some sort of romantic relationship with Madarame.  And all this seems to belie the fact that Hato is not a transsexual.  He is comfortable with his male anatomy even though he's emerging as a female persona.

Or is Hato a personification of Genshiken as a whole?  If that is so, then Shimoku is saying something really twisted about what happens when male spaces convert to female spaces.

Continued in Part Three