23.8.15

Audition

And it was all just a dream... But was it? I haven't read the book so don't sue me if I get this wrong BUT I lean towards the dream-filled interpretation. Partly because the balance of evidence tends to point that way (the jump cuts, the recurring scenes and dialogue, all the stuff Aoyama can't know about Asami). But also because the film would be richer as a result. If the torture is all real, all we have is a version of the rape-revenge film – a favourite ploy of pulp directors to have and eat their feminist cake. Tarantino loves doing this, and loves this film as well, apparently. But what if it was something more? What if it was about the pulp director's guilt about his use of women as objects? What if he turns the rape-revenge onto himself?

Aoyama feels guilt first and foremost because in trying to find a girlfriend he is betraying the memory of his dead wife. But his fantasies about Asami highlight a deeper uneasiness at his behaviour towards the other women in his life. The housekeeper who praises him for raising a son by himself, even though he's actually rich enough to employ her to help out. His son's prospective girlfriend, who is sexually objectified by him. The secretary he foolishly slept with and does his best to ignore, even though she still pines for him. He is perfectly civil to all of these women, and he is also nothing if not a devoted father. The horror is made all the more acute because he is such a sympathetic character.

But there's the business with the audition. The conceit cleverly underlines the omnipresence of male domination in the film, and Japanese society. How many job interviews with powerful middle-aged men are really tests of marriageability? Aoyama remains super uncomfortable and quite sweet throughout the process. The real monster in the film is his film producer friend Yoshikawa, who organises the whole rigmarole. But Aoyama is complicit in the con trick. The measure of the man is how he checks his privilege, brutally, in his dreams.

And the twist at the end is all the more succulent. Aoyama awakes from an unforgettable nightmare next to a docile Asami, who he has promised to wed even though he now feels horror at the thought. Will he go back on his word? Will Asami be cast away, as the secretary was?

22.8.15

Yukiko's Spinach

Frédéric Boilet is a French artist who lives in Japan and is a practitioner of 'Nouvelle Manga'. My guess is that the term is in part a reference to the French 'New Wave', because there's an awful lot of fourth wall-breaking in Yukiko's Spinach. The story (of a short-lived affair between the artist and a native) is actually about how the story was put together, to the point where Boilet scans in pages from his notebook containing the sketches that ended up as panels. The foregrounding of the creative process allows for key moments to be revisited several times at different stages of refinement. Repetition, one of the basic techniques of meaning-generation in art, is shown to be a particularly powerful tool for comics, which are always a succession of frozen moments.

The sense of certain images being picked out for particular study is enhanced by Boilet's contrasting talent for portraying stream-of-consciousness in panels. Much of the comic is in P.O.V. with the protagonist's dialogue in captions at the bottom, while the other characters get speech bubbles. The gaze is liable to drift away from the person 'we' are having a conversation with, often when the subject strays into uncomfortable territory. It's a clever way to juxtapose the immediate sensation of time-bound life with the objects and practices that capture that time and allow us to meditate on it.

The story itself is barely there, but it does have a certain resonance for me. My girlfriend is Japanese and I've done a lot of the dating things the two lovers get up to (onsen, purikura). As should be obvious from the above, Boilet is very good at conveying what sharing those romantic experiences in Japan is like.

7.8.15

Heavenly Creatures

David Lynch apparently made sure Peter Jackson won the Silver Lion for best director when he was chairing the panel of judges at the Venice Film Festival. That he should warm to the film makes sense – Heavenly Creatures shares more than a little with Blue Velvet. Not just period decor and an interest in noir, but a general concern with the way we police our imaginations. Like the bohemian decadent aesthetes that slither through Lynch's film, the two childhood friends start losing track of where their imagination ends and where reality begins. Jackson's innovation is to block out any attempt to judge the killers, at least before we understand what led up to the crime.

Part of it is the fierce mutual fellowship that comes with shared ostracism (it emerged after the film that the relationship was never sexual). Part of it is the urge to escape a lonely and parochial world, one that is too confident in its finger-wagging prejudices. Part of it is also the loss of trust that comes when secrets and lies are revealed beneath what appear to be secure family units.

Incredibly, I didn't actually know the story of the film, and had no idea about the scandal it was based on. And even though Jackson foregrounds the horror of the murder in a busy sequence at the start, much of the film is free of any presentiment of where it is all heading. For me more than perhaps most, Heavenly Creatures is less of a foreboding true crime drama, and more of a film about the delights of friendship and fantasy. Jackson's achievement is to make sympathy with these two killers so easy, and then to put a murder weapon in your hands.

5.8.15

Blind Beast

There's quite a lot to unpack in this erotic horror retelling of Beauty and the Beast, made by Japanese New Wave director Yasuo Masumura. It's partly a compact and meaty drama with three characters in a couple of sets slowly pulling each other apart. The central dynamic is the sheltered child-man detaching himself from a devoted but overbearing mother and being seduced by a new woman of the 1960s keen to push the boundaries of art and sex. The gradually escalating scenarios of ploy and counter-ploy between the mother and the new arrival contain some impressive character work. Like with the Oshima films I watched previously, there is a nod to the idea of a more individualistic generation breaking the bonds of duty that tie them to parents, family and society more widely (which may reflect a debt to Ozu as much as a prevalent mood in the culture of the time). A town/country divide is also alluded to – the artist's model is a city girl, whereas her kidnapper is a naive country bumpkin who is unprepared for the duplicity of his captive.

The film takes a sudden gear shift away from this tight three-way drama as soon as it is (violently) resolved. The almost theatrical family struggle is bracketed by a more cinematic exploration of images as a mechanism for dampening the awesome power of physical sensation. There is some confusion here, because Masumura's portrayal of blindness in part evokes the desire of the audience to feel their way through an image and into the fantasy it portrays. But it also represents the danger of living a life without images. The sense of touch becomes obsessive, and without the distancing effect provided by seeing things, ultimately brings humanity down to the level of insects and jellyfish. The photos Aki poses for have her bound up in chains. In Michio's warehouse, where hundreds of gloopy sculptures of body parts cover the walls, those chains are removed, and sculptor and model both lose themselves in a masochistic, sexual frenzy. Desire and dissolution melt together.

The sculpture Michio creates magically crumbles as its real-life subject is mutilated and destroyed. By this stage, the sense of otherwordly fairy-tale has completely enveloped the film, and it doesn't come as a surprise. But what to make of it? Maybe Aki's spirit has become so infused with her simulacrum that she becomes a work of art in her own right – an idea rather than a person. Or perhaps it's the director passing judgement on the two mad lovers, ensuring that no work of art escapes to stand the test of time and inspire other sybarites to emulation. There are many ways to read it, which is another way of saying that this is a film that would reward repeat viewings.

2.8.15

Paradise Lost

Harold Bloom is onto something when he describes how Paradise Lost reads today like science fiction. A lot of that is down to Milton's distinctively monist cosmology. For him, Heaven and Hell are not in separate parallel dimensions. He believed that if you get in a rocket and went past the solar system you will eventually hit the pearly gates. Angels are physical space-faring beings that eat food and excrete through their pores. God is an awesomely powerful alien. Imagine a benevolent Galactus sitting at the top of a giant mountain.

And what's interesting for the purposes of the poem (which the beginning makes clear is to explain the ways of God to men) is that our universe was not created ex nihilo. Rather, God fashions it using pre-existing materials. Philip Pullman may have fixated on these world-building elements because they indicate some limit on God's jurisdiction. The poem personifies Chaos as a grumpy grandpa enduring chunks of his realm being annexed by his more powerful neighbour, who builds Hell and then our world during the course of the narrative (and presumably Heaven as well before the action starts). So what if these materials exist independently of God? What if other awesomely powerful space aliens have built their own worlds?

Since Blake and the Romantics, it has been all too easy to get carried away with Satan and presume some subconscious subversion on Milton's part. On this re-read I did my best to stick to my university training and take Milton at his word, without being seduced by Straussian attempts to read between the lines. Fact is Milton was a deeply pious man trying to explain the problem of evil – an insoluble theological puzzle if ever there was one. What was important for Milton was that God freely chose to create – to share the universe with others. Likewise he left his creation enough freedom to dissent from his overwhelmingly obvious and necessary lordship. Although foreseeing the Fall, he allows it without interfering, preferring devotion that is freely chosen rather than mandated. The link with Milton's political liberalism comes through at the end, where he condemns religious persecution and a politicisation of religion that leads to citizens performing empty rites that do not express their internal convictions. The only royalty Milton submits to is God – kings are but men, and removable if necessary.

All that said, for me there remains an impression of God as a limited figure. He creates angels and then realises he needs the Son as a bridging device that will allow them to more closely identify with him (the Son will later fulfil a similar purpose for humanity). Needless to say, the plan backfires spectacularly. Adam and Eve are created in God's image, but they (like the rebel angels) are in some respects pre-fallen. Eve's pride leaves her open to temptation, like Satan. Milton is at pains to point out that Adam has all the knowledge he could possibly ask for and yet he still eats the forbidden fruit. God does not seem to have a grip on his creation – it spins away from him. His dark materials are wayward elements. There is still a little bit of Chaos in them. We're not too far away here from the atomistic 'mechanical' view of the universe that will become ever more prevalent during the Enlightenment.

23.7.15

"There are no doubt all sorts of reasons – climate, building materials – for the deep Japanese eaves. The fact that we did not use glass, concrete, and bricks, for instance, made a low roof necessary to keep off the driving wind and rain. A light room would no doubt have been more convenient for us, too, than a dark room. The quality that we call beauty, however, must always grow from the realities of life, and our ancestors, forced to live in dark rooms, presently came to discover beauty in shadows, ultimately to guide shadows towards beauty's ends." - Junichiro Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows

12.7.15

Scott Pilgrim

My feeling is these books get less inventive and funny as they progress (some of the jokes in the last volume are pretty flat), but they become ~deeper~ instead. O'Malley may have always intended to cut his hero down to size, or he may have experienced a slow dawning realisation as the books found an ever-growing audience that Scott may not be the best person ever. But if reversing that impression is bought at the expense of a few wisecracks and some wild formal experimentation, I think it's a fair trade.

I had two misgivings when I read the first four volumes. Number one is that the portrayal of certain non-white, non-straight characters was caricatured and potentially offensive and alienating for some readers. True, we are always looking at everything through Scott's less-than-perfect gaze, so those portrayals may say more about Scott than anyone else. However: he remains the hero, and it's therefore too easy to become complicit in his unthinking attitude to the people around him, who are too often treated as joke-fodder rather than as people (in ponce: 'means' rather than 'ends-in-themselves').

Misgiving number two was that for someone reared on Buffy and with the expectation that the fantastical elements of a fictional world can be read metaphorically in some way, I found Scott's showdowns with Ramona's evil ex-boyfriends difficult to get a handle on. Especially as the exes were about as three-dimensional as the Gym Leaders in Pokémon. In fact, Scott's drama with his own ex-girlfriends took up far more space in the books, while Ramona's character remains difficult to figure out. She is the cool, American ('othered') femme fatale Scott is gunning down all the bad guys for, but her exes don't really shed any light on her history. Instead it's Scott's history we're working through, slowly exorcising past relationships on the journey to making the new one work.

Both of these misgivings – Scott's profound dumbassery and the fundamental metaphorical instability in the book – are to some degree worked out by meeting Scott's nemesis Gideon, the last evil ex-boyfriend. Because here the final boss (a bit like Ash's rival in Pokémon) does cast light on Scott's own character. Gideon flaw is that, like Scott in much of the book, he treats everyone as a means to his own ends. The most powerful moment in the book is a double page spread where Scott flashes back to moments he has been dumped and corresponding moments when he has done the dumping. He (finally!) puts himself in someone else's shoes. And that earns him the "power of understanding" that allows him to defeat Gideon.

That may sound a bit thin, and I would understand if some readers are not ready to forgive Scott's sins just because he learns so basic an ethical principle (when he's 24!). But I still like the book for the way it tries to deal with my second misgiving – the final boss adds an interesting metaphor to (some of) the fantastical elements that appear in previous books.

Ramona's head glows when she walls off her problems and refuses to communicate. We learn that Gideon has 'infected' her with this condition, and in fact her response to it has been to tunnel inwards and escape situations she finds impossible to deal with (hence her ability to enter hyperspace and teleport). Ramona is not as self-involved as Scott, but both of them are liable to run away from (or in Scott's case, willfully forget) their baggage.

What's intriguing to me (and I accept that I may be reading a bit into the text here) is that Gideon creates his virus as an entertainment industry arsehole. He embodies the worst aspects of the means-over-ends business, and you can take this in an anti-capitalist direction if you want. For me though the inference is more specific. A book so saturated in video games, manga and pop music nevertheless has within it an underlying worry about our ability to connect with other people, and perhaps a sense that these super-fun distracting things can be part of the problem.

11.7.15

The Kindly Ones

My contribution to the London Graphic Novel Network discussion, which is well worth reading in its entirety. As ever, my thanks to Joel for the marvellous job he does organising and steering these conversations.

***

OK so there are two things I like about The Kindly Ones, and both of them are about Gaiman beating himself up over what he has written.

The first thing is a short scene between Dream and Odin in the middle of the book, and apologies but I do want to put in a quote here:
"You puzzle me, dream-weaver. Are you a spider, who's spun a web of cunning and deceit and now waits patiently for his prey to come to him; or are you a deer, frozen by the light of a hunter's flame, as disaster comes towards you?
You're a deep one. But how deep? What's illusion? That's the question...
I am disappointed, somehow. I expected more from you, dream-weaver."
From the very beginning of these discussions of the series, I've gone on at length about how the book appears to be more profound than it actually is (cf. the 'muddled uncertainty' Joel mentions above). There is the ~sensation~ of profundity, without the content. He's a deep one, maybe. But how deep? Is it just an illusion? Shouldn't we have expected more from him? Isn't there a lingering sense of disappointment?

I take the scene to be a coded mea culpa from Gaiman, not only an admission that he has lost control of the sprawling plot strands in the series (which is what in context the quote above is about), but actually about what the book might mean as a result of that loss of control as well. As Loz's note about The Kindly Ones being longer than originally envisioned suggests, there is a sense that the series as a whole is being made up as Gaiman goes along – he's freestying with a character who is on the page supposed to be brooding, rule-bound and responsible. I think The Kindly Ones is partly about Gaiman waking up to his responsibilities as a writer, and finding that's he's fallen short.

And this leads me on to the second bit of authorial self-harm in the book. The Sandman's imperious and cruel treatment of Lyta Hall at the end of The Doll's House comes back to bite him here. The origin story of the Furies in #62 suggest their revenge is partly motivated by a reaction against the predations of the patriarchy. It is significant that the Sandman is undone not only by Lyta, but by Nuala and Thessaly as well – all women he has patronised and/or ignored. Reading these bits in a meta direction is much harder – I suspect there may be some personal stuff for Gaiman wrapped up in them. But there is a more general sense in which Gaiman is becoming aware of his responsibility as a writer, and his power to ~shape dreams~. As Delirium points out to Dream: he can sway people's actions and feelings even without intending to. In having the Sandman die by female hands, Gaiman is partly trying to de-romanticise (perhaps de-eroticise?) his hero (and himself?)

Loz shot back at my pet theory that the end of the Sandman is supposed to democratise his ~dream-shaping~ powers by noting that suicide is different to exile. Dream does leave a replacement behind him, but Death's suggestion that he could have done what Destruction did to the same end perhaps makes the distinction less important than Loz makes out. I still cling on to the theory, taking comfort from the final scene of the Kindly Ones, where the Furies read out their fortune: "you can be me when I am gone". The Sandman's (and the author's) death leaves the space open for new authors shaping their own new stories. Perhaps they'll do a better job than Gaiman has done.

4.7.15

Pleasures of the Flesh

Another early Oshima feature – the noir plot is loopy and more than a little contrived, but it ultimately results in the antihero spending obscene amounts of money with the catch being that he'll have to die after a year. Would you do it? This million dollar question is less interesting than the sexual politics Oshima gets wrapped up in. His protagonist is a pretty straight kinda guy who goes around the bend when the love of his life marries another (richer) man. He starts his spending spree to change his life from a comedy in which he is always the dupe to a tragedy in which he can at least play the hero (he literally says this out loud – Oshima is perfectly happy to interpret his film for you).

So the poor guy decides to spend the money on women. The first is a courtesan, who he gallantly but unsuccessfully tries to rescue from her pimp and then a gang of corporate mafiosi (Oshima is fond of chivalry, it seems). The second is a masochist who he gives up on when he discovers she she cannot abandon her useless husband and their children. The third is an independent-minded doctor who he finds sexually repressed (a rather blinkered view of empowerment on Oshima's part). The fourth is a mute, nympho streetwalker who he is most sympatico with (again, Oshima proves no friend of feminism). You can imagine this last pairing as slightly older versions of the Bonnie & Clyde Romeo & Juliet of Naked Youth. She even helps him kill her pimp. But by then the money has run out.

All of the women are bought in some respect, and three of them are also "owned" by others – all pimps of some description, selling women's bodies to live. Oshima seems grimly fascinated by this dynamic. Perhaps he believed all relations, even the most intimate, were being reduced to the cash nexus in his 1960s Japan. The conclusion of the film is especially finger-wagging. The protagonist learns that he didn't have to die, he could have kept the money condition-free. And it's all gone by the time he really needs it to rescue the love of his life again. She, however, only wants money, and it's heavily implied that she's been selling herself as well in order to get it. And she betrays him to the police when he confesses his crimes.

Is a sillier picture that the incandescent ferocity of Naked Youth, and its women are less sympathetically drawn. But it further illuminates Oshima's obsessions with people burning out, women being sold, and the recurring image of doomed men biting into poison green apples.