steepholm (steepholm) wrote,

Japanese Diary 20 - with reviews!

Watching Japanese anime and film is one of the more enjoyable parts of my studies - I try to do 30 minutes a day - and a sobering measure of how far I have to go to achieve even minimal real-life competence. Occasionally, it's true, I feel quite puffed up at being able to connect the subtitles with what people are actually saying on the screen, perhaps for the course of a few sentences; but if I want that puffing to be punctured with the skill of a fugu chef all I need do is close my eyes, and deprived of the subtitles I am reduced to imbecility.

Over the last couple of months my diet has consisted of: Steins;Gate, Death Note and Battle Royale - all of which I liked a lot. Steins;Gate and Death Note in particular were an interesting pairing, because a major aspect of both is the extremely complex - but very different - plotting. I'm not saying that this was a substitute for character development - that would be unfair - but it was certainly something the makers weren't afraid to put front and centre.

Death Note concerns a brilliant high school student, Light Yagami, who comes across a notebook (carelessly discarded by a shinigami), with the property that if he writes someone's name in it that person will die. He decides to make the world a better place by writing the names of criminals, but before long the police are on his trail - and particularly the famous detective known only as L. Light soon begins killing his pursuers, and developing a plan to become the god of a new, better world.

I think that in a Western telling a lot more time would be spent - indeed, the interest of the story would lie - in Light's transformation from idealistic reformer to mass murderer - basically the Macbeth trajectory. Here, we get very little of that - Light is never troubled by his conscience at all, in fact, and seems to be a charming sociopath from the get-go. The interest and the action lie almost entirely in the rather cerebral (if violent) cat-and-mouse duel between him and L and L's successors - something that didn't seem likely to sustain a story over 37 episodes, but in the event did so rather brilliantly.

Steins;Gate's plotting is almost as complex, but it's a different kind of complexity, based around time travel and its resulting paradoxes. In the first nine episodes, science student and self-proclaimed 'mad scientist' Okabe and his small gang of misfits semi-accidentally create a time machine by hooking a mobile phone to a microwave oven, and try a few tentative experiments. There are some fun allusions to real-world events, people and organizations: in one possible future, CERN has become an oppressive world government after monopolizing time-travel technology; John Titor is a major character; and if you have an IBM 5100 in your garage you may be able to save the world. In fact, up to around Episode 9 the show appears to be a fun, slightly eccentric show, perhaps a little slow. After that point however the pace and the tone change dramatically. Moreover you gain your reward for having watched the first episodes with attention, because saving a life (and perhaps the world) by undoing the consequences of some of the experiments carried out in those episodes becomes the basis of the remainder of the series.

It's not an easy matter: it involves unpicking a series of nested possible futures, which also have some influence on each other by virtue of their very existence. Okabe (for reasons that are never I think explained) is the only one who is able to remember when futures and worlds are changed, with the result that he has to explain what's going on again and again to his incredulous friends, and witness the violent death of one of them dozens of times - with serious consequences for his mental health.

There's also, by the way, a trans character - Ruka Urushibara. She's treated sympathetically, but ultimately this aspect of the story was unsatisfactory for me. Ruka, who lives as a shrine maiden at the shrine where her father is priest, wishes she had been born female-bodied, and in one of the early episodes arranges to page her pregnant mother in the past with a message to eat more vegetables and less meat, which has the desired effect of her becoming - or rather, having always been - female bodied. Alas, this turns out to be one of the changes that needs to be undone in order to save another character's life, and Ruka nobly agrees to revert to a timeline in which she is male-bodied. Unfortunately, the implications of this sacrifice are rather swamped by the suggestion that her main reason for wishing to be female is that she has a crush on Okabe, which could never - obviously! - be requited in a world in which they were both "men". So the questions of gender identity and dysphoria get sidelined by romance - which to my mind (and perhaps I'm not a very romantic person) feels like a trivialization in the circumstances.

And then there's Battle Royale (2000), which I watched over the last couple of nights, largely because I'd heard people say that The Hunger Games bore an uncanny resemblance to it. (According to the film notes on the DVD Battle Royale never had a cinematic release in the USA even under an adult rating because it was considered too violent - which shows how times change.)

The short answer is that the people who point out the resemblance are right - anyone who'd seen Battle Royale first might very reasonably think of The Hunger Games as a knock-off. That's not to say that Suzanne Collins knew about it, of course - and there are also differences, the most significant being that Battle Royale is set up not as oppression of the people by an elite class, but as oppression of children by adults fearful of youthful rebellion. If you want the recipe, think of it as nine parts Hunger Games and one part If - and serve, sprinkled with a garnish of Lord of the Flies.

Bon appetit!
Tags: gender, nippon notes
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