Monday, August 14, 2017

[Anime] Samurai X

Rurouni Kenshin: Meiji Kenkaku Romantan – Tsuioku-hen (Samurai X: Trust and Betrayal) – 8/10

He who learns must suffer
And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget
Falls drop by drop upon the heart,
And in our own despite, against our will,
Comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.

Despite Rurouni Kenshin being one of my introductory anime many years ago, I never got around to Samurai X.  I didn’t watch it then because I was disturbed by its graphic violence, and later on when I became (regrettably) more jaded I never returned.  Finding myself with some time, I decided to see what I missed out on years ago.

Samurai X reminded me how much I appreciated the candidness of Rurouni Kenshin’s message: violence is appalling, and inevitably begets more violence.  Even if Kenshin is an admirable swordsman, it never loses sight of how terrible his path is.  The fights are short and brutal where the goal is to murder the opponent and escape.  Swords eviscerating torsos, piercing necks, and being driven like spikes through the throat and up out the skull are common moves.  There is no honor, just blood in the dark.

Coupled with this is an acute appreciation of how idealism can go awry.  Kenshin doesn’t descend into the chaos to become a hitman, to revel in killing.  He does so because he feels deeply the suffering of the people.  He himself was nearly slaughtered and was only saved by the grace of Seijiro Hiko; he wants to be that person to all of Japan now, protecting its people against the predations of the violent and powerful.  It is only later when the fallout of his actions, the collateral suffering of the fallen, comes back to remind him of the true price.  It is similar to a Greek tragedy, where the great character of a man is what precipitates his inevitable fate, with the greatest falling all the harder.

However, there is a refreshing optimism despite this.  Kenshin’s story doesn’t end in irredeemable failure.  The monumental suffering brought on by his mistakes is palpable; he is scarred both inside and out by his actions.  But he doesn’t succumb to evil, his passage through darkness serving to guide him in the future.

Kenshin is also not the only good person in this world.  The women who protect him are compassionate, willing to use their own bodies to guard the future of an unknown child.  Seijiro Hiko is a thoughtful and principled master.  He may not have the bleeding heart Kenshin does, but he is wise in his own way.  Even Tomoe can be viewed in a positive light.  Her appreciation for Kenshin’s inherent kindness overcomes her hatred, even if it is late.

This mixture of horror and hope is refreshing to me, as it is lacking in many anime.  So often series seek to coddle their viewers, guarding them from unpleasantness.  Even if the worst happens, it is mitigated, fixed in a final burst of magical goodness.  Or, seeking to escape from this childlike safety, they plunge to the opposite extreme, sinking into faithless despondency.  Kenshin’s story defies both of these extremes and offers more: a true story of redemption.

p.s. I tried to watch the Rurouni Kenshin anime after this out of nostalgia’s sake.  I was…sorely disappointed one episode in.  Better to leave that in the pleasant past.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

[Anime] Chikyuu Shoujo Aruja v2

Chikyuu Shoujo Arjuna (Earth Maiden Arjuna) – 6/10

Note: This is version two of my review, written later and with less venom than the first.  I felt the first version was excessively abrasive, abusive in both tone and substance.

“Arjuna” was a frustrating series for me to watch.  On one hand, I love its early-2000s ethos.  The hopeful inspiration of Evangelion still lingers: that deeply strange and thoughtful anime, driven by the vision of an auteur, can reach the masses.  However, it pains me to say that Arjuna is simply not great.  It seeks to address some of the deepest issues of our modern culture, but falls short both its execution and fundamentally irresolute worldview.

The series follows Juna, an average Japanese high schooler who dies in a motorcycle accident* while on a drive with her boyfriend-but-not Toshio.  On passing away she is confronted by an unsettling-looking angelic being that identifies itself as Chris (Krishna).  He tells her that she is the Avatar of Time he’s been looking for, and that he will restore her to life if she agrees to help save the world.  In her distress she agrees, immediately waking up in the hospital and beginning her journey toward eco-enlightenment.

The result of this setup is a mixed bag.  Most of the concerns that Arjuna pursues are legitimate.  It identifies real problems with modern farming practices, food animal mistreatment, resource waste, pollution, gross global inequality, and a society of thoughtless consumer convenience.  I admire attempts to bring attention to these issues, even if it comes with (in my opinion) baseless accusations against other topics.

*The near-death experience scene before she flatlines was what originally drew me to watching the series, having seen a clip of it elsewhere.

"I think you have the wrong costume for ecological activism."
Cracks begin to appear rapidly, however.  No Evangelion-inspired show would be complete if it didn't  write in para-military organizations, meaningless phrases, and then attempt to bolt action onto its message.  Juna isn't just a thoughtful girl, awakened to practical activism.  She's a literal Earth spirit, capable of transforming into a Hindu-inspired pink magical girl, summoning the bow Gandiva, and summoning an Asura to defend her.  The evils of humanity are giving rise to "Raajas" ("disease"), giant CGI worms that physically attack the signs of civilization.  I guess it was India’s turn to have its mythology plundered for names.  She's also now part of S.E.E.D., a clandestine group spread around the world, dedicated to saving it from itself.  Captain Planet's commando unit, as it were.  She's TI2 ("the second child"), Chris's necessary backup as his health declines.  It appears all "first children" are destined to be pale and sickly.

However, this entire apparatus is simply...pointless.  The story distracts from the themes, rather than acting as a scaffold in which they operate.  The action is thankfully infrequent, but when it occurs it isn't exciting, just ludicrous.  Arjuna follows the cookbook for "intellectual post-Eva anime" without understanding what made it work in the original.

Not sure which is scarier: the Raaja in the background or that smirk.
When the series ignores all this and simply focuses on Juna's growing sense of social awareness it is at its best.  The highlight is clearly the latter half of episode six, when she and Toshio follow their math teacher Sakurai home.  This is because Juna wants to hear his "true voice" after seeing him plod soullessly through class every day, reading out of the book with no attention to the people around him.

Once inside his apartment, he grills Juna on why the world is set up the way it is.  The disillusioning realization he brings is that it is not due to optimization or morality but unexamined convenience.  This is deeply worrisome, for ease does not beget happiness, and therefore society as a whole is on the wrong track.  Following this scene is a sincere expression of intellectual estrangement.  Sakurai helpless attempts to convey his love of mathematics to the uncomprehending pupils.  His desperation is palpable, and for me personally relatable.

The cherry on top is the exchange Juna and Toshio have as they walk away from the apartment.  Neither of them understood their professor.  The best Juna can muster is a specious remark that, "[To change the world takes] each and every one of us feeling the beauty in our hearts.  If each and every one of us changes, we all change."  In a rare moment of insight Toshio replies, "What happens if you are the first one who changes?"  A lonely image of Sakurai sitting in his apartment suffices for the answer.

Unfortunately, this reflectiveness is a one-time event.  What fully alienates me from this series is its fanciful extremism.  The director isn't simply critical of modern society, he demonizes it.  He can dream of nothing more desirable than we all return to our pre-modern state, where we can all feel constant oneness to nature.  This view irritates me deeply, as it demonstrates both an ignorance of human nature and an unrealistic vision for the future.

The best place to see these contradictions in action is the arc where Juna and Toshio visit the mountain hermit.  A wizened old man, he left his career and city life to pursue an idyllic rural life.  His garden is unweeded, his fields untilled, in accordance to how nature intended.  Does he not see the contradiction?  Before humans were there a forest existed.  He or somebody else had to clear the trees, flatten the land, and divert the water.  While this may be less invasive than mass agriculture, farms are by their very definition not ecological.

This also represents a selfish solution.  This man can afford to live out this dream because others do not; with humanity numbering in the billions, there is not the space left to support us in this fashion.  It is only the well-to-do of industrialized civilization who can afford to daydream this way.  Arjuna's rallying cry to awareness and action is catastrophically undermined by its sheer impracticality.

This was in reference to gut bacteria.  I do not believe that woman has ever been to medical school.
Arjuna's views become especially degenerate when it achieves ideological orbital velocity and escapes from the tenuous pull of reality.  Fully succumbing to the naturalistic fallacy, it seeks to correct the errors of the present by retreating into the mystical past.  Ley lines, telepathy, chakras, ancient ruins, and all manner of rubbish make a showing.  As Juna becomes more attuned to the world, she begins to “hear the voices others cannot,” including those of babies in the womb, and seeing the colors of people’s emotions.  One can blame science for getting us into this mess, but it is most assuredly science that will get us out.

Earth Maiden Arjuna is a series that sought to say something, and say something it did, loudly and with greater partisanship than FernGully.  However, its distinct lack of groundedness, both in message and execution, doomed it to mediocrity.  It would have been served well by trimming down, eliminating its more fanciful elements in favor of the down-to-earth experiences of a girl suddenly made aware of the contradictions on which her world is built.

+1 for quality insect animation.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

[Anime] Chikyuu Shoujo Arjuna v1

Chikyuu Shoujo Arjuna (Earth Maiden Arjuna) – 6/10

Note: After some consideration I have rewritten this review into a less acerbic form.  I decided to leave this version up here, as the two are not entirely redundant.

“Arjuna” is a special kind of series: the sort that irritates me so deeply I finish it out of spite just to have the opportunity to eviscerate it in a review, my ire sharpened by the superficial similarity of its message to my own views.

The series follows Juna, an average Japanese high schooler (what else would she be?) who dies in a motorcycle accident* while on a drive with her boyfriend-but-not Toshio.  On passing away she is confronted by the creepiest fairy in existence who identifies himself as Chris (Krishna).  He tells her that she is the Avatar of Time he’s been looking for, and that he will restore her to life if she agrees to help save the world.  She agrees, wakes up in the hospital with a Yin tattooed on her forehead, is inducted into a secret military organization that is guarding the planet, and promptly runs off to a nuclear plant to fight giant bad CGI worm monsters by turning into a pink Hindu magical girl and summoning a bad CGI robot named Asura (no, I’m not kidding).  I guess it was India’s turn to have its mythology plundered for names.

*The near-death experience scene before she flatlines was what originally drew me to watching the series, having seen a clip of it elsewhere.  Hope springs eternal is all I can say.

"They're all laughing at your costume."
Fortunately for the series, the plot doesn’t really matter, for its entire purpose is to use Juna’s newfound attunement to the Earth’s spirit to explore every single grievance the director has with modern society.  With an approach that makes Captain Planet seem subtle by comparison, we are introduced to the evils of nuclear power, pesticides, fertilizer, pharmacology, meat packing, food waste, groundwater pollution, GMOs, genetic modification in general, social and global inequality, dependence on technology, hospital birthing practices, and intellectual estrangement.  All of this was thoroughly contrasted with the harmonious, natural state of planetary oneness that Juna begins to experience.

Herein lies the issue.  I have no objection to the many of its ideals or criticisms, at least in the ecological realm.  Modern civilization is not sustainable in its current form.  Our economic system is built on a relentless quest for more, our short-term weakness for convenience overriding deeper concerns about what these mean for ourselves or the planet.  At some point reality is going to catch up with us in the form of global warming, ecological collapse, exhaustion of resources, or some other external factor.

Or giant spiritual embodiments of planetary unrest will get us.  Yes, that's it.
However, like all such ecological daydreaming, Arjuna offers nothing substantial in the way of answers.  Take for instance the segment where they stay with the old man in his mountain shack.  He left behind the city and his career to live up in the hills in harmony.  He points out that he doesn’t till his fields or weed his gardens, and yet get what he needs.  It’s an idyllic world that he has retreated to…and one which is both a contradiction and impractical.  As nature-loving as he is, he seems to have overlooked the crucial fact that rice paddies are not the native ecosystem.  He or somebody else had to clear the trees, flatten the land, and divert the water.  What organisms remain are not those that would have flourished originally, but those which can best abide by human disruption.  Yes, it’s better than an over-tilled, pesticide-drenched giant monoculture field, but let’s not delude ourselves that farms are natural either.

"To see one's self in a kernel of corn."  It's almost Blake-worthy.
But more damningly, this is a selfish solution.  With seven billion and counting, there is simply no way to support the current population on such a dream.  We would overrun the land worse than we do now if everybody farmed with such a gross level of inefficiency.  Even if we did want to abandon our current civilization, and the vast benefits it conveys, humanity could not pursue this path.  To retreat, to run away, and then imply that everybody else’s suffering could be eased if they just did the same is insulting.

But what sticks in my craw even more is its insistence on pseudospiritual nonsense.  In its haste to reject the errors of the present it regresses backward, adopting the methods of the past.  Ley lines, telepathy, chakras, ancient ruins, and all manner of complete rubbish make a showing.  There is an unabashed indulgence in the naturalistic fallacy, erroneously harping on how humans don’t even know what to eat out in the wild because of our disconnect from nature.  As she becomes more attuned to the world, Juna begins to “hear the voices others cannot,” including those of babies in the womb, and seeing the colors of people’s emotions.  It’s the whole New Age package unironically presenting chakra centers alongside images of the Mandelbrot set, with no comprehension of the latter.

This was in reference to gut bacteria.  I do not believe that woman has ever been to medical school.
After this, is there anything left of this series?  Well, to be fair there are a few slightly redeeming elements.  The animation is good for the most part, except for the poorly-aged CGI and disruptive interjection of real photography.  The backgrounds deserve recognition as quite beautiful on multiple occasions, even those that are cityscapes.  The direction is also quite reasonable, and there are a few genuinely creepy and intriguing scenes where Juna’s sanity wavers.

While the characters are unremarkable, their interplay has a few high points.  Cindy’s faking of friendship and manipulation of Juna to consummate her relationship with Toshio, and so monopolize Chris’s affections, would have actually been a clever scene in a series that focused on such interactions.  The love triangle between Juna, Sayuri, and Toshio was comparatively pointless, and its associated theme of the insufficiency of words was implemented weakly.

However, my favorite part was easily the final half of episode six where they met with their math instructor Sakurai.  The first part where the teacher grills Juna on why people do things (“Because it’s easier”) is interesting, if a little simplified.  The final conclusion, that convenience does not beget quality or happiness is true, if unsubtly executed.  But then in one of the best expressions of intellectual estrangement I have ever watched, their teacher helplessly attempts to convey his love of mathematics.  His desperation is palpable and personally relatable.  As Juna and Toshio walk away from the apartment Juna speciously remarks that, “[To change the world takes] each and every one of us feeling the beauty in our hearts.  If each and every one of us changes, we all change.”  To which Toshio immediately replies, “What happens if you’re the first one who changes?” and a cut to Sakurai sitting alone in his apartment.

Also +1 for quality insect animation.
Earth Maiden Arjuna is a series that sought to say something, and say something it did, loudly and with greater partisanship than FernGully.  It would have been served well by trimming down: the whole apparatus of S.E.E.D. eliminated, the magical girl transformation and combat erased, and Chris’s role minimized to that of a teacher.  Extraneous topics such as natural midwifery and medical practices should have been pruned in favor of a purer ecological focus; trying to hit too many targets at once inevitably causes misses.  Obviously this opinion comes from somebody who doesn’t subscribe to the return-to-nature program as a complete package, but what else can I say: people producing compost is natural too.

For the record, there are no ants that glow blue.