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.

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