This day before dawn I ascended a hill and look’d at the crowded heaven,
And I said to my spirit When we become the enfolders of those orbs, and the pleasure and knowledge of every thing in them, shall we be fill’d and satisfied then? 
And my spirit said No, we but level that lift to pass and continue beyond. 

- Walt Whitman, Song of Myself


The Gap between Panels / Strange New Worlds

Wrote this a while ago but forgot to put here – exhumes my pet theory on why comics are so fixated on the superhero genre, and how that comparative advantage has been eroded with the advent of cheap CGI. It's also a bit of a rave about Ody-C by Matt Fraction and Christian Ward. Read it here.


The Ages of Lulu

I've liked some of Bigas Luna's other films, but this one is unremittingly terrible. It has none of the satirical edge of his later work, which attacks bullish masculinity and capitalist excess. Nor is there a hint of Luna's surrealist sensibility. This is just a skin flick, all the worse for being played completely straight. Lulu's character is substituted for her sexuality, the development of which provides the only subject for the film. Consent is intermittently policed – in her one moment of assertiveness, Lula leaves her husband after he pushes things too far without her permission, insisting that she doesn't want to be a child anymore. But on her own and looking for thrills she foolishly walks into what turns out to be a den of rapists, and has to be saved by her husband. It's a bad bad world out there, ladies. Best explore your sexuality in the safe haven of marriage, even if your husband isn't willing to share what he plans to do to you in the bedroom. All of these titillating escapades are presented without comment. The unique character of Luna's other films is absent, either unborn or suppressed.


Perfect Blue

 “…after going back and forth between the real world and the virtual world you eventually find your own identity through your own powers. Nobody can help you do this. You are ultimately the only person who can truly find a place where you know you belong.”

That’s Satoshi Kon on the anime, his first feature as a director. It’s essentially a slasher film in which the victim and predator are split personalities vying for control over the main character, the latter drifting out to possess other bodies and use them as weapons. What’s real and what isn’t is kept intentionally vague, but it’s also somewhat beside the point. What Kon is really interested in is the way we find out who we really want to be in the maze of media and culture we consume.

The protagonist Mima is a 'pop idol' who wants to become a serious actress. Her fan base is exclusively comprised of young men who are attached to her pure, pleasant and infantile persona. Her career is managed by an agency, mostly men again telling her what to do. But the choice to become an actress is her own. It is a chance to grow up, but it will also disappoint her fans, who expect her to play one particular role, rather than many. An irony the film touches on (but doesn’t explore enough) is that in transitioning from her image of the virgin, Mima is almost inevitably cast as a whore. It seems there are only so many roles available, although Kon might be suggesting that more avenues become open once the teen idol fantasy is abandoned for a more adult (in every sense of the word) persona.

The decision to become an actress leads to a crisis – a part of Mima’s psyche rebels and seeks revenge for her own disgrace, murdering the scriptwriter who wrote her into a rape scene and the photographer who persuaded her to pose nude for a magazine shoot. The slasher wants to give the fans what they want, and crush Mima’s attempts to become her own person. She is a manifestation of the urge to go back and have your life controlled by other people.

The film is an efficient thriller, spending some time at the beginning establishing Mima’s character before gradually pulling apart her sense of reality. The tension rises as the bodies pile up, and good use is made of the eeriness of a sugar-sweet sprite being responsible for a variety of brutal stabbings. It feels like a more linear and focused work that Paprika (the only other Kon anime I’ve seen). And it’s a more satisfying exploration of the struggle to assert your identity in a mass media society that amplifies rather than dissipates the expectations people have of what your ideal self should be.



Another adaptation of a Tanizaki novel by Yasuzo Masumura, with concerns similar to his version of TheTattoo. Again the focus is on the ‘demon woman’, a sexually irresistible but manipulative creature who traps and kills her lovers. In The Tattoo we see the way such monsters are created quite explicitly – Otsuya is unwillingly transfigured by her tattooist and the gangsters that employ him. In Manji the infection is not consciously administered by representatives of the patriarchy. Rather it is imbibed unwittingly as a result of treating women like divine beings.

Like in The Tattoo, the femme fatale in Manji is shown a picture which provides the model for her later behaviour. It’s not a vampire standing on a pile of corpses, but the Goddess of Mercy – an extremely popular deity in Japan who guides the souls of the deceased to their final resting place. The picture is drawn by Sonoko in an art class she attends to get away from her boring husband. There she meets and is smitten by Mitsuko, who begins an affair partly to cause a scandal and escape her boyfriend.

Tanizaki’s protagonists are usually ‘women-worshippers’, and here he transfers that tendency onto a female protagonist. He was writing in the 1930s, and his motives may not have been entirely enlightened – the ‘unnaturalness’ of the lesbian love affair might be a way to highlight how ‘unnatural’ Mitsuko’s allure is. In any case, the urge to put people on pedestals becomes dangerous – Mitsuko becomes both infantilised and insatiable as a result of having disciples. The attention of one person isn’t enough. She wants many lovers, all jealous of each other.

Mitsuko ends up living up to her identification with the Goddess of Mercy. She ensnares Sonoko’s husband and instigates a ménage à trois in which she is the dominant partner, receiving all devotion. The final part of the film becomes increasingly weird – Mitsuko behaving like a cult leader with complete sway over the couple who love her. When their unconventional arrangement is revealed in the press, she argues for suicide, and in a very strange ritual the three light incense in front of her picture as the Goddess of Mercy, before drinking poison.

But Mitsuko cannot help toying with her worshippers, even after death. She spares Sonoko, who is now filled with doubt about whether Mitsuko truly loved her, or whether she preferred to spend the afterlife only with her husband. Her faith is tested – she's left agonising about whether the Goddess she devoted herself to was just a figment of her imagination.

Masumura’s title is the Japanese name for the swastika – the four bent arms of the cross symbolising the four crooked relationships in the film. But it also highlights the theme of bringing the sacred into profane matters. It's a warning that attaching a spiritual dimension to the workings of love and lust is a recipe for death or despair.


5 Centimeters Per Second

"...if you look at our everyday lives, you realise that we're well-fed, well-clothed and well-housed. We also live in a society where there's almost no class discrimination. And we have freedom to live our lives however we want. Considering what kind of society we live in, if you still have problems with relationships with people, the cause of the problem is probably not society or anything readily apparent. In that case, you have to find the cause within yourself. That's actually a hard thing to do, I think. You might think there's a nothing within you that's causing the problem. So I had a strong desire to portray that 'nothingness' as it is."

That's the director Makoto Shinkai on the film. No doubt he's somewhat blinkered in his view that society places almost no restrictions on our liberty. That kind of complacency is frustrating, but the myopia runs deeper. The truth is, trying to isolate the cause of your discontent without reference to the expectations placed on you by others is a mug's game. That's why the characters in this film feel more like archetypes role-playing doomed love affairs rather than real people. Takaki is little more than a dreamy heartthrob yearning to protect Akari from the evils of the world. Their drifting apart is the product of the cold mathematics of speed and distance – their families move away, it's too far for them to continue their relationship. It's as simple and as brutal as that.

The real highlight is Kanae in the second 'Act' of the film – the only time it adopts a female perspective. She also pines after the cool Takaki, and formulates her life-projects with reference to his own. That leaves her in limbo when she realises that he will never be interested in her. In fact, her one moment of glory comes when she achieves something on her own – learning how to surf from her older sister. That victory is clouded by her subsequent rejection, but it points to the damage caused when tying up all your self-worth onto the whims of another person.

There is another highlight, of course – the dazzling imagery. Every frame of the anime is polished to a brilliant sheen, sometimes to the point of distraction, particularly when it comes to the nebula-stuffed starry skies. The animation is more impressive when it comes to the everyday details of train stations, convenience stores and countryside roads, which capture the look and feel of Japan unbelievably well. It's those wonderfully realised bits of quotidian existence that add a weight to the otherwise fluffy angst the film is portraying. It's a shame that for all his efforts to embed them in the real world, Shinkai can't make his characters actually feel real.


"The Bedouin had traditionally lived off raiding neighbouring tribes and extracting payment in various forms from settled peoples. It was a fundamental principle of early Islam, however, that Muslims should not attack each other: the umma was like a large and expanding tribe in the sense that all men were members of the same defensive group. If all the Arabs were now part of one big family, raiding each other was clearly out of the question. The inhabitants of the settled communities were also fellow Muslims. A peaceful, Muslim Arabia would mean abandoning both of the traditional nomad ways of surviving. The alternatives were stark: either the Islamic elite were to lead the Bedouin against the world beyond Arabia and the desert margin, or the Islamic polity would simply disintegrate into the warring constituent parts and the normal rivalries and anarchy of desert life would reassert themselves once more... The only way of avoiding an implosion was to direct the Muslims against the non-Muslim world."


"A key element in the success of the conquests was the comparatively easy terms usually imposed on the conquered. Arab commanders were normally content to make agreements that protected the lives and properties of the conquered, including rights to their places of worship, in exchange for the payment of tribute and the promise that they would not help the enemies of the Muslims. Defeated defenders of cities that were conquered by force were sometimes executed, but there were few examples of wholesale massacres of entire populations."


"...the Muslim conquerors put little or no pressure on the recently subjected populations to convert to Islam. Any attempt at compulsory conversion would probably have provoked widespread outrage and open hostility. As it was, the Muslim authorities established working relationships with the heads of the churches and other religious institutions that were now in their power. Conversion when it came was partly the result of fiscal pressures, the desire to escape the hated poll tax, but also because conversion provided an opportunity to escape from existing social constraints and to become part of the new ruling class."

Hugh Kennedy, The Great Arab Conquests


The Gap Between Panels / Buffy As Comfort Food

Latest post on the London Graphic Novel Network stays true to my obsessions – in this case Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which I never tire of telling people is the greatest television series of all time. David Simon magnanimously conceded that it was so, if you don't believe me. Anyway, the column goes in on the comics that continue the story after the end of the show, and which get better with each new 'season'. Read it here.


"To conform to a type, to be the captive of a form, means the decadence of art, it is sometimes said. But what of folk arts like this puppet theatre – have they not become what they are with the help of hard, fixed standards? The heavy-toned old country plays, in a sense, have in them the work of the race. Generation after generation of gifted performers has built each item in the repertoire to a standardization of property and action, handed on so carefully that by following its prescriptions the amateur can mount the singer's platform and bring forth a fair copy of the play, and the spectators as they watch can make the association in their minds with the great names whose work is there." - Jun'ichirō Tanizaki, Some Prefer Nettles