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." - Jun'ichirō 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.