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).

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The DM as "Sacred"

So, there are about a dozen blog posts I want to make right now and not enough time to do so.  So, I'm going to go in order and discuss today the first thing on my mind which is a response by an anonymous commentator to my last post on Religion in D&D: Sacredness.  The commentator has some interesting things to say so I encourage the reader to click the above link and scroll down to his or her comments because this entry is going to be a response.

The timing of this blog entry is fortuitous because Alexis over at The Tao of D&D just posted on the rock star position of the DM and seeing his "smug superior mug" accentuated and subordinating the players' images in online game videos on YouTube.  Yeah, read all about it here.

Anyway, my anonymous commentator (henceforth I'm going to refer to him or her as "Anon") indicates a grandiose shift in gaming away from emphasis on the DM and toward the players and the removal of the "arbitrary" and to the rigid, governable world in which the DM is marginalized.

My response is, frankly, one of mystification.  I'm not certain I see what Anon is talking about.  All over the internet, on YouTube, on blogs, on RPGnet, the DMs are Rock Stars and are all centers of juvenile controversy as well (see this post over on The Alexandrian to see just how ridiculously pedantic and politically droll some of these feuds can get--especially "enjoy" the comments section to see the flames spill forth).  Alexis' blog references I Hit it with My Axe as an example of a heavily followed and syndicated series of game sessions viewable online.  I can go on YouTube and watch a dozen-and-one DMs explain how they run, why they run, what rules or systems are best, how their house rules really improve things, etc.  There's definitely a smugness about most of these guys.

So here I am, humbled by Alexis.  Yeah, okay, people may think I'm a suck-up.  That's your prerogative.  The fact is, I'm also called an arrogant and elitist bastard quite often.  I respect experience and knowledge, especially if those two components are combined with metacognition and self-criticism/self-reflection to produce sweeping changes in one's own behaviors for the better, despite whether one likes the harsh truths of their conclusions or not.  That way lies intellectual honesty.  Even Socrates admitted he didn't know anything.  That's why I always appreciated Alexis' blog.  Here's a man who speaks with authority because he's criticized himself personally as well as his DMing quite a bit.

Now I've been reading his How to Run and it's been kicking my butt.  No, rest assured, there are things Alexis asserts with which I have disagreements but here's the kicker--I respect all of the work and research and experience that have all gone into those assertions and I'm obligated to challenge myself and figure out why I disagree with Alexis here and there and, most importantly, if those disagreements stem from my own preferences, insecurities, and personal foibles (limitations of perspective or simple, raw self-centeredness, for example).

Why do I bring up Alexis?  Because both The Tao of D&D and How to Run pound the idea that the DM's fun is secondary to the players' fun and the DM is performing a service to the players by running.  The players should be the rock stars.  There should be a bit of a trade-off, of course, because the amount of work the DM puts into constructing the world and making sure it serves the players' needs and wants, the players should have respect for that world and all the time and effort of the DM and not simply run around willy-nilly killing blacksmiths and seducing barmaids.

The number-one problem with all of these DMs I see online is that their fun takes precedence over the players' quite often (or at least is considered equal in proportion to the combined amount of fun being had by all the players').  I have to admit, I fail in this regard quite often.  I don't have fun running certain campaign settings or systems, frankly, even if my players' love them.  There are times when my players are having a great time and I'm fighting off boredom trying to project enjoyment and confidence that isn't there and I really just want to go do something else.  The problem here is that by picking up the mantle of DM, I've also shouldered a serious responsibility to those who play my game to provide fun for them, not for myself.  I should achieve satisfaction from seeing how they enjoy the game I run but that's not the same thing as having fun.  Indeed, satisfaction is something that's more important because it means I've put work into something and achieved a goal--a goal that not just anybody could.

This also means I have to do things I don't want to do in game.  This includes trying to kill the PCs if that is what the world demands.  I have a tendency to get attached to PCs and I have to remind myself to react as the world would react.  It has to be believable or I do a disservice to both my world and to the players.

So, let's take a look at some of what Anon has said about the loss of sacredness with the DM.  First, Anon indicates that in the 1980s and 1990s, before the "anti-game master movement" gained momentum, that the DM embodied the sacred, unquantifiable aspects of reality.  Anon references the Judeo-Christian God as a great example of a DM in action through a manifestation of the sacred (assuming, for argument's sake, that Moses was a PC in a role-playing game, of course), or when Krishna confronts Arjuna, etc.  These are instances when the DM (if these were events in an RPG) acts through the world to determine the sacred.

I disagree because I see this as post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning.  The expressions of sacredness coming through the world by arbitrary DM fiat are justified by examples in these works after the fact.  The situations in which DM values and ethics are expressed in game are explained by the DM being God.  Instead of The Tanakh, The Gospels, The Bhagavad-Gita, The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Iliad, etc. being the model for the intrusion of DM values they are redacted into being the excuse here.  Perhaps I'm misinterpreting Anon's argument, however, so I could be mischaracterizing what he or she is trying to demonstrate.

Well, I'm going to let Anon speak for him/herself here:
In the gaming of the 1980s and 1990s, before the anti-game master movement came into power, that sense of the sacred was inherent in having a game master embody the campaign reality.
Just as secular science can be expressed in formulae and books of rules or "laws" that can be leashed and driven forth by anyone with enough knowledge of science and/or its practical crafts, so the campaign's physical science is expressed in game mechanics formulae and game mechanics rule books.  Want to know the composition of water?  Look in a chemistry book and realize that (barring a miracle) water is always two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom.  Want to know how to cast magic missiles or aim a starship phaser?  Look in the rule book for the unvarying game mechanics involved. 
However, an individual game master would have his or her own aesthetics, interests, sense of humor, eccentricities, etc., many of which could be noticed and taken into account but none of which could be quantified into controllable rules because humans are not dry iterations of formulae and rules.

Interesting.  So far, so good.  I can't say I disagree.  DMs are human beings, after all and have foibles.  However, it is incumbent upon the DM, in order to be honest, fair, and provide the best possible service, to minimize these idiosyncrasies or at least make the players as aware as possible of them in order to best facilitate the players' enjoyment of the game.
So the player who was attuned to the underlying meaning provided by the game master's unconscious humanity--i.e. the sacredness of the campaign world--would notice that when this particular game master had to make a sudden judgment call about whether the horses were spooked, the PCs who had been kind to cats were more likely to be able to calm their horses.  A bad player would say, "Oh, Bill likes cat-lovers, damn his bias!" but a good player would say to himself, "Ah, I see, cats have something to do with the poetry of this universe." 
Similarly, the player would notice that moments of good luck came more often to those PCs who did not torture.  A bad player would grumble, "Ah, Mark's subconscious wussiness is giving an edge to the good PCs, and that ain't in the rule book for me to find loopholes, so damn him!" while a good player would think, "Hmmm, there seems to be a universal morality to this universe beyond what we can play 'rules lawyer' with."  Or the player would notice that this game master tended to describe safe magic fountains as silvery but cursed magic fountains as flashy, and instead of personalizing this as an eccentricity of the game master's descriptive habits, she or he would realize this is one more manifestation of the underlying patterning of the campaign universe provided by the game master who had created it for the players.
Here is where I start to take issue.  It is incumbent upon the DM to be conscious of his behavior in this regard.  If all of these situations are in-game (i.e. if the DM is not penalizing a person for out-of-game hatred of cats or vice-versa not rewarding a player for out-of-game kindness to cats) then it is fair game and the players should start putting two-and-two together and understand cats are somehow sacred in this reality.

The thing is, these ideas must be something the DM is aware of because he or she must present an understandable and believable world.  In other words, not torturing being a cause for receiving a little bit of luck, while not necessarily a quantifiable game mechanic, must be a part of the universe of which the DM is consciously aware.  This way, the players can start keying into these ideas and their characters can interact with the world more effectively.

The problem is when the DM is unconscious of these things.  Then it is arbitrary DM fiat and it is not part of maintaining a believable world that makes sense.  As Alexis says in How to Run, it doesn't have to make perfect sense objectively but just has to make sense enough to the players to facilitate suspension of disbelief (I'm paraphrasing a bit, here, I don't feel like flipping through pages and finding the exact quote--I'm lazy, whaddya want from me?).

Anyway, Anon continues:
These were not seen as acts of conscious or unconscious favoritism any more than an American would label karma as cosmic favoritism or accuse Jesus of favoritism for choosing apostles instead of letting anyone who could make a d20 saving throw become an apostle.  They were seen as an underlying pattern of meaning that any genuinely involved game master could not help but impart to a campaign by dint of his or her humanity, and they welcomed not resented. 
Of course, that all changed with the decade plus of anti-game master outcries.
Anon is right that the over-mechanization of game rules is somewhat problematic because it gives power to rules-lawyers.  However, I've played with really horrible DMs/GMs/STs who were pretty arbitrary and governed their games by fiat instead of trying to be impartial referees.  Rules lawyering became essential to survival in some of these settings but the thing is, if I have to resort to that then I'm not truly having a good time and I don't trust my GM/DM/ST/etc.  If I don't trust them and they obviously don't trust me, then what am I doing here?  I'd be better served doing something else with my time.

The problem here is the swing of the pendulum.  Sorry, Gygax and Arneson were not model DMs in my opinion.  Similarly, neither is the DM who gives players whatever they want without any challenge.  I think a lot of players convince themselves they've had a good time despite actually having had pretty terrible experiences both with tyrannical and lenient DMs.  Rules should not exist to shackle either DM or player but to provide an action resolution system, plain-and-simple and the more effective those rules are, the better they serve the needs of DM and player alike.

This means if the rules need to be changed to suit different moods, themes, and goals of both the DM and players, then by all means change them.  I love White Wolf's game system but I wouldn't want to use it too often in a combat-heavy setting with super-powerful demigods--its one of the problems I ran into with running Exalted last year.  Actually, White Wolf is well-suited to low-combat, investigation and interaction-heavy games full of intrigue, politics, mysteries, plotting, dealing, and rare, sharp, lethal combat situations.  Simultaneously, I wouldn't want to run such an intrigue-heavy low-combat game involving vampires or werewolves in D&D.  I mean, it could be done but I think White Wolf's system is much better calibrated for that sort of game.

The rules are a tool.  Nothing more.  Indeed, I certainly agree with Anon, here, that the fetishization and deification of rules have served neither player nor DM.  The search for the perfect system, though, is not a lot of fun, either.  Although I love 3rd edition/Pathfinder the rules-bloat is something I find problematic.  Granted, characters can be very easily customized and more interesting.  You can run an entire party of just fighters and have a great time because every fighter is different.

On the other hand, the DM is not God.  God has an agenda, the DM should not, unless, of course, that agenda is to provide a believable world with which the players can interact.  If anything, the DM should represent what Yehezkel Kaufmann calls "the metadivine realm" in his History of the Religion of Israel.  The metadivine realm is impersonal and can be called upon through magic and supernatural ritual to coerce, force, or bypass the gods in order to achieve an effect.  It simply exists and the gods themselves are subordinate to it (at least, in a polytheistic world).  If you're running a campaign set in a monotheistic universe where the Judeo-Christian God runs the show... well, the DM frankly should detach himself entirely from whether the Devil or God wins.  Even if the DM believes fervently in the Judeo-Christian tradition, his world is not the Real World, it is imaginary and the DM is presenting this world to his players for their entertainment not for the confirmation of his/her beliefs or to make converts.  Frankly, given an individual DMs beliefs, it may be considered a conflict of interests for a Christian DM to run a game in a setting where the Christian God is sovereign, especially if the players are not all Christian.  That's asking for trouble on all sorts of levels unless the DM can seriously reign himself in and understand that he's not running for himself or herself but to provide entertainment for his or her players.

Thus, while I agree with Anon that a lot of the anti-game master sentiment that has led to rules-bloat has been somewhat detrimental to the game, I feel much of it was a reaction to shoddy DMs when the hobby was still in its nascent stages.  I disagree, however, with Anon because I reject the notion of the DM as sacred or as some kind of representation of the sacred.  The DM is a referee period and the DM's job is to facilitate the best experience the players can possibly have.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Religion in D&D: Sacredness

How deep does the DM want the rabbit hole to go?  How well-defined should the religious practices, beliefs, and traditions be and how much should the DM demand the players conform to these?  Let's be honest, the lion's share of players won't be all that interested in a deep understanding and knowledge of complex religious practices, taboos, and rituals.  They're interested in killing monsters and getting loot, right?

Some players, however, will enjoy and appreciate the deep immersion in aspects of rite, tradition, and belief in a campaign setting.  Some settings will lend themselves very well to such detailed and complex concepts as ritual purity, for example.  Knowing the audience is important for the DM but as for myself, I prefer to run for a specific type of player and if a player in my game does not enjoy my presentation of a world then they are best suited to finding another DM.  Period.  No hard feelings.  We should all be adults about this.

So, it is with that caveat that I consider the building-blocks of belief and tradition in a campaign setting, especially one such as the Forgotten Realms.  The Realms has always been a favorite of mine, alongside Dark Sun and Ravenloft.  However, the ruminations I made for D&D in my last post on religion in the game apply equally to those settings as well.  It is not enough that gods and religions exist in a setting.  There must be some sort of expression of belief in the setting as well.

So, let's discuss the concept of sacredness in D&D worlds.  To begin this discussion let us start with a quote from Mircea Eliade's introductory chapter to The Sacred and the Profane:
The sacred always manifests itself as a reality of a wholly different order from "natural" realities.  It is true that language naively expresses the tremendum, or the majestas, or the mysterium fascinans by terms borrowed from the world of nature or from man's secular mental life.  But we know that this analogical terminology is due precisely to human inability to express the ganz andere; all that goes beyond man's natural experience, language is reduced to suggesting by terms taken from that experience. 
...We propose to present the phenomenon of the sacred in all its complexity, and not only in so far as it is irrational.  What will concern us is not the relation between the rational and nonrational elements of religion but the sacred in its entirety.  The first possible definition of the sacred is that it is the opposite of the profane.  --Eliade, p. 10

What this demands of the DM is to mentally divorce his running of the campaign world from the realities of Planescape and The Manual of the Planes, if the DM actually uses them.  Why do I say this?  Because these works establish a rationality for the multiverse of D&D that goes against this concept of sacredness that Eliade is identifying and describing throughout the work.  By building up a framework for the Planes and the dwellings of the gods, by giving the gods hit points and other statistics, they're able to be approached by players, interacted with, and heck, even killed and replaced.

When I hear stories of players who have achieved godhood in their games, I shudder to think of the damage being wrought to the sense of wonder and mystery endemic to the human religious experience as it is simulated in D&D.  Maybe I harp too heavily on realism, especially for a fantasy game (though that's another discussion entirely) but I want to run believable worlds in believable systems and this sort of thing just breaks it down too much for me.  Unless the game is purposely calibrated to simulate the heroic epic where the players are demigods like Hercules, the effect of the setting is diminished and the appreciation for the scale of the power these gods have and the distance they possess from mere mortals is traumatically reduced.

Does that mean the DM should entirely dispense with the Planes?  Absolutely not.  The DM can know that there's a rational system at work in the background so long as the players' characters do not know.  If a player is capable of divorcing his knowledge of the Planes on a metagame level from his character's ignorance of the outside universe, a sense of wonder at the majesty, terror, and mystery of the supernatural can be maintained.

That which is sacred is by necessity other.  It is otherworldly.  It is set apart.  In comparison to that which is sacred, that which is mundane or secular is offal.  Eliade describes how a tree struck by lightning can be seen as sacred because it was touched by something far beyond the understanding of the populace.  Stones, buildings, and objects can all be sacred and they possess a kind of uniqueness.  As a medieval studies professor of mine in graduate school once described it, sacred relics possess a sort of "holy radiation."  Nearness should generate awe.  These things should not be touched with unclean hands, these words should not be spoken with unclean lips, this sight should not be seen with unclean eyes, etc.  It's special in a way that is not rational but not random either.  There is reason for these things to be special but that reason cannot be contained in secular rationality.

This is something that has been lost in secular modernity.  Even Protestant Christianity does not have such a ritualistic and irrational reverence for the sacred because in Protestant Christianity that which is sacred is incapable of being perceived.  The Bible is just a book, the pages and ink just that--pages and ink.  The ideas within The Bible that are sacred to the Protestant Christian.  Contrast this with the Jewish approach to the paper and ink which comprise Torah scrolls, which should not be directly touched by human hands once completed and instead pointers are used or the handles are held, or the Muslim approach to the Koran, which is wholly sacred because it contains the words of Allah as transmitted by Mohammed.  The Protestant Christian is highly rational (yes, believe it or not) and highly secular, especially in comparison to adherents to other religions and belief structures both current and historical.  Indeed, I've argued elsewhere that Protestant Christianity, building upon the Renaissance, made possible the Enlightenment and the secular rationalism/humanism of Modernity.  Had Protestantism not arisen, the Renaissance would have been suppressed beneath tradition and doctrine from the Holy See.

But I digress (and that's an argument for another day).

Americans have a long, long legacy of Protestant rationalism.  Thus, we're not used to the idea of mystery like the Catholics (unless one is from a Catholic family).  Even then, American Catholicism is effected by that secular rationalism that the American Protestantism bears.  (NOTE:  Keep in mind, I'm not talking about Jerry Falwell, here, who may seem irrational in comparison to humanist/atheist/secular thinkers like Dawkins, Russel, Hitchens, etc.  This comparison is to ancient, medieval, and even modern religions not to actual non-religious rationalism and humanist or atheist secularism themselves.)

Therefore, it is quite likely that non-American players or non-Protestant players may actually have an easier time of dealing with this concept of irrational sacredness.  I can't speak for how truthful that may be, though, it's just a guess.  Nevertheless, Protestant and American players have a small challenge in accepting and readjusting their mentalities during game.  We have to forget that lightning is actually an electrostatic discharge that equalizes a charge imbalance between two regions of space separated by a highly resistant medium and remember what our ancestors knew--that the world was full of spiritual and supernatural power that we didn't understand.

NOTE:  To my Canadian, UK, and Commonwealth readers, of whom there are a few, please forgive me for not setting you guys apart as an aspect in this argument.  Since I'm not a citizen of your countries and haven't been raised there I don't feel qualified on speaking about any approach to sacredness in game except for my own native one.  I'm happy to hear perspectives on the issue, though.

Hence, we have to break with rationality for the purposes of immersion within a world that should actually function rationally.  Yeah.  I know.  It sounds crazy, right?  The entire point of suspension of disbelief being difficult or easy is the accuracy with which the system a) simulates reality and b) what doesn't simulate reality should still be governed by rational systems.  So, if a rationally believable religious system in-game is to be realistic then it should be somewhat irrational?  Wow.  Welcome to Postmodern/Deconstructionist D&D!

Perception does not equal reality.  Humans often mistake perception for reality all the time.  Even scientists, secular rationalists, empiricists, etc., all mistake their perceptions for reality as well--confirmation bias is, after all, a bitch when you have to interpret data.  No human is immune.  We are all guilty.  That's why belief has power.  Belief influences perception and therefore humans will approach reality based on their assumptions about it, no matter how right or wrong.  This is why postmodernism and deconstruction arose in the first place--as a critique of the assumptions and beliefs of post-Enlightenment modernity, secular empiricism, etc.

Thus, the perception that the waters of a river, no matter how polluted, have healing and purifying properties will see people bathe within it and risk infection.  It's irrational, especially when confronted with facts.  In the absence of measurable proof that the river has "holy radiation" and it can cleanse ritual impurities, we can claim that it's detrimental to bathe in it.  Well, that's all well and good but in D&D the gods are assumed to be real (clerics do cast divine magic spells, after all).  Indeed, in The Forgotten Realms, during the Time of Troubles the gods actually did walk the surface of Toril.  So, at least in game, you can have a river that is polluted and bathers risk acquiring all manner of nasty diseases but that bath actually can have a measurable spiritual effect--in metagame terms.  This makes for interesting dilemmas, especially if some characters are reaching for rational empiricism in a world where gods can walk the earth.

So DMs should seek to delineate sacred spaces, sacred phrases and words, sacred events and time, sacred histories, sacred tunes and music, sacred objects, sacred boulders or rocks, sacred trees, sacred animals, sacred geographical phenomena, sacred symbols, sacred bricks, sacred flames, sacred anything.  These things are sacred because the gods say they are (or at least the priests and shamans do).  They don't even have to have a mechanical effect.  The players don't have to know or not.  Keep them in the dark if you want.  It's easier on your book-keeping to know that if a player bathes in the River Ashaba in Shadowdale that he gains a one-time +1 to his Will saves against mind-effects he can write it on his character sheet.  It's more interesting if he doesn't know but you (the DM) do.  Then again, your mileage on that may vary.

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.