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.

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