Sound Worlds, Hyperrealism and Disorientation in The Hunger Games

Note: This is an assignment for my course “Action Film and the Soundtrack.”

The first Hunger Games film occupies an interesting place in the history of young adult film adaptations. It’s such an obvious choice for one, given its focus on teens battling to the death in a dystopian future America. Yet, from the start, it’s not directed at all like an action film. It feels like a period drama or documentary: It opens on an explanation of the titular Games’ founding, then dunks us into a news report with the host and gamemaster discussing its history. It has a distant, faded look to it over mysterious, minor-key music, giving the impression of the exotic and otherworldly. Then, it flashes to Katniss comforting her sister in District 12, with no explanation for the new viewer how the two images are related. This juxtaposition is important, however. It sets up clearly the two very different worlds in the movies’ Panem: the luxury of the Capitol and the abject, rural poverty of most of the Districts, which is also simulated in the Hunger Games arena.

Screen Shot 2015-09-25 at 12.04.38 PM

The disorientation is visual, too — here’s how we first see the Cornucopia through Katniss’s eyes.

This is reflected in the sound landscapes for the respective environments of the film. While the plot structure of The Hunger Games could be debated, the settings divide the film into roughly three sections: the District 12 portions, the ones in the Capitol where the Tributes are paraded before the ruling classes and train in luxury, and the actual battle in the arena that takes up the bulk of the film. After the film’s very memorable and unusual opening sequence, where lilting folk-like melodies and drone score sounds dominate, it was strange to me that once Katniss and Peeta arrived in the Capitol, there was hardly any memorable use of sound in the film. The exceptions were usually diegetic (sounds the characters are hearing in the film), like the triumphant fanfares for the characters as they appeared onstage for their interviews and showed off their costumes. This immediately changed when the film dunked the characters into the arena for the opening bloodbath.

This is built up to with Katniss’s entrance into the arena. The sterile white of their plane, and then in the room where Katniss meets with Cinna for the last time before entering her tube, are closer to the Capitol’s removed luxury than the wilds of District 12. We know the stakes are different now because of the role of the camera and, especially, the soundtrack. There are several key moments when the sound effects drop into a sort of “hyper-realism,” when their volume is amplified beyond how they would in real life in a way that feels much more immediate. In these scenes, this especially comes with the closing of doors: to the plane taking them to the arena, and to the tube finally dropping them in it. The latter involves a close-up of Katniss’s face, showing her panic as she’s separated from Cinna, and realizes how soon she will be in danger. It happens at the exact same moment as the thud. The Capitol scene has other close-ups of Katniss’s face, and moments when the sound zooms in and out, to emphasize her perspective, but the confluence is never that striking until the moment she’s about to drop into the arena.

Screen Shot 2015-09-25 at 12.03.32 PM

As the games begin, the sound effects zoom out for more emphasis on the drone-like musical score, similar to the sounds we heard as the film opened. It brings the viewer back to that world through sound, as well as visuals, with the interesting tricks it plays with perspective: jumping back and forth between different tributes, following Katniss’s eyes. The lack of emphasis on the actual sounds for an overarching soundtrack puts us in Katniss’s mind, overwhelmed by the larger proceedings rather than zeroing in on specific events or people. As people jump into action and Katniss realizes it’s time to run away, the music changes to percussion and strings in the style of minimalist phasing, emphasizing both the character’s movements and the whooshing, rapid change of perspectives. It also adds to the disorientation, with how phasing works by slowly moving the different instruments’ voices apart and together. It messes with the listener’s sense of time, and works in The Hunger Games to put them in Katniss’s mind. It combines urgentness (percussive timbres, repetitive rhythms) and helplessness (the uncontrollable time shifts of the phasing).

I had trouble capturing a good screenshot from this scene. I think this shot of Thresh running gives you an idea of why.

I had trouble capturing a good screenshot from this scene. I think this shot of Thresh running gives you an idea of why.

Disorientation is a strange tactic to use in blockbuster action films, designed to be crowd-pleasers. Yet The Hunger Games is hardly alone in this, with it also marking a key feature of post-apocalyptic films like Mad Max: Fury Road. A huge chunk of that film’s opening sequence uses sound and cinematography to put the viewer in Max’s mind, and visually depict his desperate life. It adds to the urgency of the situation in a way that’s more exciting, but also makes the viewer more uncomfortable. It immediately signaled to me when I first saw Fury Road in features that this experience would be like no other action film I had seen. Still, Fury Road later fits into genre conventions in a way The Hunger Games do not.

The Hunger Games uses those effects in a different way, one that doesn’t feel like “action film” directing. The emphasis is consistently on the main character’s psychology and the despondence of her situation, not on exciting fights. Mad Max does at least make action sequences viscerally thrilling, panning out in those moments to show us the scope of the battle, or focusing on characters wielding weapons and how they do it. The Hunger Games plays it all close to Katniss and other important characters’ heads, which makes the action viscerally upsetting and disgusting. This is through the sound’s focus on her perspective, whether she’s hallucinating from wasp stings or just looking for a way out of a tree. We feel her discomfort. Nowhere are we more immediately aware of it than the first scenes in the arena, dunked into this sound world in a way that feels disorienting coming from the restrained world of the Capitol. And yet, there’s some déjà vu (or déjà entendu), with the sonic callbacks to the opening scenes in District 12.

Part of why Katniss wins is that, unlike some of the other tributes (such as the Careers), her daily existence in impoverished, rural District 12 is not that different from life in the arena. (As they’re coached during training, survival skills help far more than weapons.) This is reflected in the sonic atmospheres of District 12/the Arena compared to the Capitol. Many dystopian worlds paint their false idylls as lacking music, the language of color and fun. (The most obvious YA example of this is The Giver–the book, not the film.) The Hunger Games is not among those: the people of the Capitol have culture and amusement aplenty. They even visually resemble the aristocracy of the late 19th-century Gilded Age. Still, there’s a huge difference between their sound for entertainment, and the sounds of survival, of existing out in nature and relying on its unpredictability. This is something The Hunger Games goes out of its way to explore, with its focus on Katniss’s perspective as she navigates these different worlds. We not only see but hear the stark divide between Panem’s different classes, sounding the cue for rebellion.

Tokyo Ghoul is Better Than Parasyte, and You Should Be Watching It

Every year we get several anime that are beloved by the general otaku community, but send critics and bloggers turning up their noses. For most of these, that response is warranted, but there are always at least a few who don’t deserve it. This year that honor goes to Tokyo Ghoul, which even I dismissed during its first airing as a soulless gorefest. I have a bit of an aversion to ultraviolence, and without hearing much else to recommend it to me, I decided I’d skip it in my already-loaded summer itinerary. I revisited it last month, though, after my friend and fellow critic Hope Chapman talked it up so much in her episode reviews for ANN, and now I can see it’s fully deserving of not just fannish excitement, but critical analysis.

There's still plenty of blood, though.

There’s still plenty of blood, though.

Tokyo Ghoul probably gets dismissed because it’s the latest in this year’s trend of shounen anime, featuring a world where humanity is preyed upon by a monstrous Other and one boy is the “bridge” between the two groups. Because our protagonist has aspects of both, you see: he’s a titan-shifter, like Eren Yeager from Attack on Titan, or he’s got the man-eating alien hiding in his hand, like Shinichi from this year’s anime adaptation of Parasyte. The latter especially is probably why so many Serious Anime Fans decided to skip over Tokyo Ghoul, deciding to wait for this similar thing based on this old horror manga that so many senior anime fans remembered fondly. Yet, as it becomes clearer and clearer to younger viewers that we chose wrong—that Parasyte is little more than “Anime Spiderman”—it’s probably time to take a second look at Tokyo Ghoul. And in doing so, you’ll find that it’s a much richer, more “human” story.

Tokyo Ghoul is, like Parasyte, a protagonist-centered tale: it focuses on Kaneki, a human stricken with ghoul appetites and abilities when he gets a ghoul’s organs transplanted into his body. The first series follows him throughout his “metamorphosis” of sorts, as he comes to accepting the “ghoul” side of him as inevitably dominating over the “human” one, and his place in ghoul society. This isn’t like Parasyte, though, or like District 9, where the protagonist’s irreversible transformation happens over time. Like Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, he wakes up completely transformed; Kaneki may retain his human eye, and a “human taste” as some unscrupulous ghouls later find out (but more on Shuu in a bit, ugh), but he’s all ghoul in the ways that matter. And it’s why he can never go back to the life he had before all this, even if he can hide it for a while from his human friends like Hide. While he does change physically at the end of the whirlwind that is Episode 12, it’s in largely cosmetic ways, and the real changes come psychologically. As Kaneki is tortured, he retreats into a void where he encounters the ghoul girl who gave him his organs, and Kaneki realizes he has to accept one side of himself over the other. Kaneki picks the only one that makes any sense: “I am a ghoul.”

One boy, many faces.

One boy, many faces.

So Tokyo Ghoul gets points over Parasyte for its much deeper and more original portrayal of a character gradually losing touch with his humanity, and coming to terms with changes in himself. Parasyte’s changes for Shinichi are largely the physical, in the form of Peter-Parker-like superpowers, though of course there are some cliché bits about how he’s becoming more beep-boop logical and losing empathy. Kaneki retains his human emotions, however, since ghouls are shown to have just as much emotional depth as the non-cannibalistic humans are; his journey is about acceptance and, in the last episode, about responding to trauma. Speaking of the ghouls’ emotional depth, though, that’s another place where Tokyo Ghoul is leagues above Parasyte: it gives all the characters emotional arcs and believability. Parasyte is almost Death Note-like in how much its two protagonists, Shinichi and Migi, tower above the walking plot tools who inhabit the rest of the story. Tokyo Ghoul has a larger story to tell; it centers on Kaneki but it’s not just about Kaneki.

Of course, that’s not to say that Tokyo Ghoul is that complicated. It’s still a shounen-manga, and outside of Kaneki and Touka, a female ghoul who is Kaneki’s closest friend among them and strongly drawn to him, most of the characters fall into familiar archetypes. Yet, they still have their own struggles and stories, in spite of their simplicity. There’s Hinami, a sweet little girl who lives her with her protective mother, with all the childlike naïveté you’d expect from a kid who doesn’t need to eat human flesh in order to survive. Her mother dies protecting her, and it’s a story as much about her own loss of innocence as it is about Kaneki’s. What’s more, the show also fleshes out the human characters, including the ones who kill ghouls we care about like Hinami’s parents. Amon, an investigator with the CCG (a police-like organization that hunts ghouls) is the next most-developed character in the series after Kaneki and Touka. The series spends a lot of time with him despairing over his colleagues dying and toying with his conscience.

Very sexily, I might add.

Very sexily, I might add.

It’s comparing and contrasting Tokyo Ghoul’s approaches to the human and ghoul characters that make it so rich for analysis. Unlike a lot of sci-fi and fantasy analogues for understanding real-world prejudice and conflicts, Tokyo Ghoul presents both sides as equally sympathetic and rational in their causes. Ghouls are pretty disgusting and present a real threat to humanity, but they didn’t choose to be that way and some of them take pains to limit how much they harm humans (as with the ghouls at the Anteiku café where Kaneki and Touka work, who only consume the corpses of suicide victims—which raises its own question about why those suicides are so regular in the first place). Who is the oppressor and who is the oppressed? Who deserves our sympathy? It’s not for the show to say—it’s up to the audience.

Which is where it gets hard to recommend this show as a “sci-fi metaphor for prejudice and the cycle of hatred,” as Hope puts it in the first of her episode reviews. Real-life prejudice, at least within a society (rather than between two warrings ones), is normally a lot less complicated than that. Members of privileged majorities rarely have any rational reason to feel threatened by oppressed minorities. Their irrational feelings are understandable, but usually the result of ignorance of the larger causes that leave them searching for a scapegoat. The human society of Tokyo Ghoul’s world does seem to have some bigger problems, sure (like…whatever’s causing all those suicides), but the ghouls present an actual threat. Most ghouls aren’t Anteiku, and actively feed on humans. There are other ghoul gangs, like Aoigiri, that actively fight against both humans and human-sympathetic ghouls, and if they’re supposed to be analogues to minorities who choose more violent and aggressive means for standing up against their oppressors…well, that’s more than a little suspect in a way we see too often in anime like this. That’s not to mention that Tokyo Ghoul isn’t so great when it portrays real-life oppressed minorities among their characters, as Eric detailed in his post about the show’s queer-coded villain, Shuu.

tokyo ghoul shuu

This is about what you can expect

I’m giving it some legroom before I write it off there, though, because it’s an incomplete story that may end up completely surprising me. This could be especially true of Tokyo Ghoul √A as it spends more time among the Aogiri, with post-breakdown Kaneki joining their ranks. Plus, this show has so much else to recommend it: its portrayal of Kaneki’s psychology and, most of all, the interesting lens it turns on us, on humanity, especially in response to similar shows. Attack on Titan and Parasyte both indulge some amount of lifting up humanity as a whole, celebrating its “specialness” in response to the monstrous titans and cold parasites. Both Shinichi and various titan shifters fret over losing their humanity to their inhuman other sides. Yet Tokyo Ghoul, in how it prioritizes the everyday lives and emotional development of the ghouls, frames humans as the other. Even Amon doesn’t get as much time on-screen as do the slice-of-life moments in Anteiku, and that’s on purpose: to put the viewers on the outside with the ghouls, looking in on humanity. Looking in on ourselves. Are humans really all that special after all, or could our “special” qualities be managed just as well—if not better—transferred into other bodies? Is “humanity” really worth protecting?

For an ultraviolent shounen, Tokyo Ghoul poses many thought-provoking questions. Add in its fantastic production values (from its vibrant color scheme to its varied and energetic musical score, it’s a pleasure to see and hear, even when it’s gross), and it’s a show with a lot to recommend itself to all kinds of anime fans. Even squeamish babies like me.

Twelve Days of Anime #11: Vash vs. Legato, and Trigun’s Peculiar Approach to Pacifism

I’m finally writing this post, after I’ve promised it over and over. I’m finally writing this post, on one of the most emotionally-devastating parts of one of my favorite anime, at 5 am on Christmas morning because I can’t sleep. Season’s Greetings!

Once again, full-series spoilers for the Trigun anime ahead.

If you’ve talked to me about it at all, you probably know that Trigun is one of my favorite appraisals of pacifism as a philosophy in fiction, and especially in anime. On my Tumblr, I’ve posted before about how I think other series (namely Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood) get pacifism wrong in comparison to Trigun by making it too easy for their heroes, always giving them a convenient out when they have to struggle to uphold their philosophies. Vash the Stampede gets no such outs. He repeatedly makes sacrifices for his “no-killing” credo, and it’s up to the audience to decide whether he’s making the right decisions or not. Other, sympathetic characters also repeatedly challenge him on this philosophy (namely Wolfwood), and make Vash wonder if it’s actually as sound as he thinks. This comes to a head in Vash’s final confrontation with Legato Bluesummers.

When I first watched through this anime, it was confusing to me how this scene fit in with Trigun’s pacifist themes. Vash really has no choice but to kill Legato here. Legato stacks the deck against him, by making it so Meryl and Milly will almost certainly die horrifically if Vash doesn’t obliterate him. I couldn’t understand why a series devoted to pacifism would put its hero in a situation where it couldn’t possibly work. And yet, Vash’s confrontation with and killing of Legato actually furthers Trigun’s more nuanced approach to the idea, an approach that makes it more salient than other shows’ takes on it.

Vash the Stampede has lived nearly 150 years without killing anyone, and it utterly destroys him when he does in this scene. It was a promise he made to Rem when she was alive, and so he feels like he’s failed her and that her spirit has finally left him for good. Yet, in the remaining episodes, Meryl’s appraisal of Vash’s values and the importance of letting people live to give them a chance at redemption—and that killing them passes judgment on their lives that no one deserved to—recommits Vash to his beliefs. It makes him realize he hasn’t failed, just because once he was backed into a corner. After this, he can go on to confront Knives without killing him, giving his brother a chance to rebuild his life. We’re left not knowing whether Knives actually does this, but true to its Christian values to the end, Trigun asks us to have faith in him. Even someone as awful as Knives has been up to this point, deserves that chance.

Vash does spend a lot of bullets wounding people, though.

Vash does spend a lot of bullets wounding people, though.

The take-away here is that Trigun approaches pacifism as a project, rather than a strict set of rules one must always adhere to or they fail. It recognizes—unlike other series like Fullmetal Alchemist—that there will be times we can’t commit to our values, that we’ll have no choice but to do something else, even something contrary to them. Yet, that doesn’t mean they’re no longer worth it. We should still try, if we can still explain why they are worth it. And Trigun certainly explains why pacifism is a worthy value system.

It gives people like Legato too much power if we let them back us into a corner and make us doubt ourselves. (And Legato certainly intended to break Vash with his dying breaths—a mind-gaming devil to the end.)

Look at this smarmy shithead.

Look at this smarmy shithead.

I specifically contrasted this with Fullmetal Alchemist, so let me explain this. In the manga and the Brotherhood anime, Edward Elric is frequently verbally challenged on his “no killing” policy, including by sympathetic characters. Yet, it’s always in practical rather than moral terms, unlike how Vash is challenged in Trigun. What’s more, Ed never actually has to make a tough choice between killing someone and saving others. Even when it appears that he will need to do so, a third option always presents himself, allowing him to keep his moral purity intact. In the first anime, Ed does actually have to make the difficult choice to kill a few times—and it results in him examining the faults of and eventually discarding his previous value system. He finds it gradually easier to kill bad people.

I’ve seen fans commend Brotherhood for its commitment to “killing is bad,” but I always thought that the convenient third options undermined it. Like a lot of Brotherhood’s thematic stuff, it’s shallow shonen morality that doesn’t hold much resonance in the complicated real world, where if you live in the violent kind of life Ed does, you will inevitably have to choose between your ideals and the best end result. I think Trigun is stronger for putting Vash in the impossible position that Legato does—and still finding a way to uphold his values after that.

Still, poor Vash. :(

Still, poor Vash. 😦

A strong philosophy such as pacifism is a life-long project. We’ll inevitably make mistakes, but that doesn’t mean we’ve strayed off the path. As long as we recommit ourselves, that commitment is still there and it still matters. We are all worthy and capable of redemption.

Twelve Days of Anime #7: Kiritsugu Emiya vs. Philosophy 101

If you’ve ever taken a philosophy class, you’ve probably been faced with the “trolley problem”: A runaway trolley is headed toward a group of five people. You have the option to save them—but only by pulling a lever that switches the track over to where just one person is standing. Would you pull the lever? Most people, at least at first, will say yes. It’s simple math, right? Five is greater than one. The only struggle is the fact that you have to get over the compulsion not to kill, not to get your hands dirty. And that’s just your selfish emotions talking, right?

The “trolley problem” is supposed to be up for interpretation, but I always thought its framing made it fairly clear that you’re supposed to pull the lever. It simplifies the complex issue of intent vs. results, of means vs. ends, down to a mere mathematical inequality. In doing so, it makes our human instincts against killing feel illogical. As someone who knows she wouldn’t be able to pull that lever—knew it at 17 when I first learned about the trolley problem in school, know it now—I find it a little insulting and amoral. And as a fan of his anime, I suspect that Gen Urobuchi would agree with me.

Fatezero_cover

It’s easy to forget that I first watched Fate/Zero only earlier this year. The “Fate” franchise is the sort of thing that consumes you so much that you forget that you weren’t always familiar with it. Then I remembered this scene as I was preparing the “Vash vs. Legato” post that’s coming up in this series. It serves a similar purpose in being a moral argument about “pacifism” as a philosophy, but Urobuchi takes it from a very different angle.

Trigun, as I’ll explain in a future post, supports pacifism because of the idea that killing robs people of their free will to determine the course of their lives, and that everyone deserves that chance at redemption. (It’s a very Christian story, so it’s a big-time believer in the power of redemption and forgiveness. That’s why it ends the way it does. But more on that later.) Urobuchi believes very strongly in the human spirit and in free will, but not in quite the same way or for the same reasons as Trigun does. And so, when Urobuchi gets to be his most direct in pleading for “ethical killer” Kiritsugu Emiya to change his ways, this is how he does it:

Kiritsugu is the sort of guy who would never hesitate with the trolley problem. He’d pull that lever in a jiffy. The Holy Grail shows him why he’s wrong when it turns the trolley problem on its head, by repeating it to the point of uselessness. Even if Kiritsugu continues choosing the option where he kills less people, he’s still ultimately killed the majority of the people in total. It shows the folly of reducing this issue to a math problem—because if you make a life philosophy out of this, the math doesn’t even check out, anyway. You’ll eventually have killed far more people than you’ve saved.

And that’s exactly what Kiritsugu has done. The “long trail of bodies” Kiritsugu has intentionally left behind him is more his legacy than the people he supposedly saved with them. Violence can’t solve violence, the Grail tells him; only ending the cycle in the first place will do that. Urobuchi makes more philosophical, less mathematical arguments for this in Fate/Zero and many of his other series (Bobduh has a good post about this topic on his blog). But I thought it was neat that Fate/Zero showed that even from the math front, even when you do reduce the issue that way, it still fails if you set up the numbers like they’d check out in the real world.

Irisviel knows better than you.

Irisviel knows better than you.

So if I were to teach a Philosophy 101 class, I think I would try to find a way for my class to watch Fate/Zero, or at least the relevant bits of it. (If only it were an easier show to chop up like that!) Maybe then my students won’t all see the “trolley problem” as one with such an easy answer. Maybe they won’t think that dispensing with what makes us human is the inherently more “logical” choice.

Twelve Days of Anime #2: How Nicholas D. Wolfwood Made Me Cry

This is the first of what will likely be two or three posts about Trigun in this series. It was one of the first anime series I completed this year, and it says something that it’s still rattling around in my mind 11 months later. So if you’re a Trigun fanatic, rev up your engines—and you know there’s only one way to do that:

(Also, this is going to include a butt-ton of spoilers for the anime series, so if you haven’t seen it and you want to keep your Trigun virginity intact, you might want to skip this post.)

This blogging series is supposed to be about moments–in anime, in anime fandom—even if I kinda violated the rule with the previous post being more about a gradual realization. Anyway, as soon as I read the description, I knew that I’d be talking about the death scene for my favorite Trigun character, Nicholas D. Wolfwood. It had such an impact on me when I first saw the show that I originally planned to start this blog off with a series on character deaths in my favorite TV series, and why they worked or didn’t work. I can admit now it was just an excuse to talk about this dork:

trigun_nick0042

Along with the ending of Madoka Magica, Wolfwood’s death is the only time that anime has actually made me break down in tears. And that’s from no lack of engaging with tear-jerking anime: I made it through all of Wolf’s Rain, Penguindrum, Fullmetal Alchemist, the ending of Cowboy Bebop…all without any waterworks. What is it about Wolfwood that did it for me?

I think it’s that he didn’t want to die. And moreover, he didn’t need to die.

trigun wolfwood smoking

The smoking probably would’ve eventually killed him anyway

Oh, I’m sure people will argue with me on this, but I firmly believe this. And I’m someone who can easily admit when characters I love need to die. I think Hughes’s death in FMA is a brilliant turning point and tonal shift, and can’t see how it could have been executed any other way. I think Spike Spiegel died at the end of Cowboy Bebop and it absolutely had to happen to close off his character arc and make the point Keiko Nobumoto wanted to make. And for a non-anime example: I think Don Draper needs to kick it at the end of Mad Men for similar reasons.

Wolfwood didn’t need to die. You can say he needed to be shuffled offstage to make way for Vash’s final confrontations with Legato and Knives, but I’m sure Trigun could work him in somehow or find a way to explain his absence. Heck, it does essentially work him in, since Wolfwood’s voice in Vash’s head is what pushes him along, and his giant cross-shaped gun, the Punisher, is how Vash finally triumphs over Knives. (A phrasing I think Vash would disagree with, but whatever.) What’s more, Wolfwood knows the unnecessary nature of his death, and expresses this.

The beauty of that scene is not just its exquisite direction, and use of music (I still can’t listen to “Rakuen,” Wolfwood’s theme that was used so extensively in this scene, without getting a bit blubbery). The way Wolfwood exits the world is just so human. He tries at first for serenity, to accept the inevitability of his approaching death, and muses on how he hopes to be reincarnated in a paradise where he can “live happily, with him (Vash) and the girls.” (Finally, the Milly/Wolfwood and Vash/Wolfwood shippers are united in emotional torment!) But when he takes time to really think about that dream, and how his actions in life made it impossible, he suddenly realizes he doesn’t want to die. He wants to live and make things better! His “sins are so heavy,” but that’s because he’s full of regrets, regrets he could easily make right—if only he had a little more time. “I did not want to die this way!” he screams. And then he dies.

It’s so easy to write characters who go into death with an accepting smile on their faces, but I have to imagine that everyone is at least a little like Wolfwood when they’re about to meet their maker. Even if you’ve lived a long, full life, there have to be some things you wish you could’ve done when you’re stuck there, alone with your thoughts, knowing you’re reaching the end. And Wolfwood didn’t live that kind of life: his was short (remember, he’s only chronologically 17 in the manga, and the anime hints at this a few times, too), and filled with violence and misery. It feels brief to the audience, too, since as much screentime as Wolfwood’s had by this point, we only really got to know him and his backstory in this episode.

A lot of my favorite anime are those that establish characters and ideas in really small chunks. For example, in FMA, we learn everything we need to know about Sloth in the three minutes right before Edward kills her, and it’s one of the series’ most masterful moments. Madoka told us everything we needed to know about Homura and her many lives in the space of a single half-hour. FMA had a big cast, and Madoka had a short runtime, so it was necessary for them to push to pull this off. But Trigun didn’t need to do this; it only had a few major characters, some of whom still didn’t get any real backstory in the anime (like Legato) in spite of the series’ ample time to do so across its 26 episodes. It could’ve taken its time with Wolfwood, but it didn’t.

I think it works, because it just compounds the regrets the audience feels and represents the brief tragedy of his life. We barely knew him before he left us. He barely knew himself, only just then revealing to Vash his conflicted loyalties (“Knives is in Dmitri”) and firmly deciding to fully commit himself to his friends’ ideals. In that sense, if I were going to compare Wolfwood’s death to that of any other character in an anime I love, I would compare it to Lust’s in FMA. They were only just beginning their journeys of self-discovery when we lost them, and their deaths are full of regrets about that. But it isn’t that we’re cheated; that incomplete journey, that sentence fragment is the point. It adds to the emotional punch and realism of these stories, since this happens far too often to real people, too.

trigun wolfwood confessional

How can you not love that face? How can you not cry over it?

Trigun is ultimately not Wolfwood’s story, but the story of Vash the Stampede and Millions Knives, two godlike beings struggling to make sense of their relationships to humanity. Vash is a Christ figure, showing how such a “man” would be burdened and tried by the world if he’d lived longer than Jesus’s 33 years. Wolfwood is the key to his bond with humanity, as Trigun’s most deliciously flawed, frustrated, human character. His death is the perfect coda to that.

Twelve Days of Anime #1: From Tumblr to ANN–How I “Became” A Critic

dost day 3

This first post in 12 Days of Anime is one I’ve been meaning to write for a while, and it’ll probably be one of the longest. I want to keep up my engagement with this neat little aniblogging project, but with so many Ph.D. application deadlines coming up in the next couple of weeks, I’ve got a lot of work to do, so some of the pieces will be shorter. (Knowing me, they will probably still be really long by most people’s standards, though.) I prepared this one for a while beforehand, since it’s kind of a history of where I’ve been as a critic and where I’m going. And the story of my engagement with the anime fandom on Tumblr, since I can’t tell the story of myself as an anime critic without telling that one, too.

I criticize Tumblr and its approach to media a lot, but I wouldn’t be here without that website. It didn’t make me a media critic; I’d tried off-and-on throughout my history of “posting prose on the Internet” to get other people to pay attention to my thoughts on media. I was active in music and nerd-franchise “fandoms” on Xanga as a teenager, and I had various abortive attempts at media blogs throughout college. (One of the highlights was an attempt at a “queer analysis” of Harold and Maude.) And of course, I’m focusing my graduate studies and future career on musicology, which is basically the academic version of doing this with music. My early Internet attempts didn’t really get off the ground: Xanga was a fandom community through and through, and while my followers were content to gush with me about whatever song or band member I liked, they lost interest when I wanted to break that music apart and talk about how it worked. They made me feel like I was just a pretentious band geek showing off how much more I knew about music than they did. (Fun fact: If you become a critic, this attitude will never go away. You just learn to start ignoring it, since it normally boils down to either “I’m not interested in criticism in the first place” or “I’m jealous, because I want to do what you’re doing but don’t know how.”) I wasn’t able to get an audience for my previous blogs without having previously established myself in a community interested in that stuff, and so inevitably I got busy with school or other websites and they withered away. It was only on Tumblr where it stuck—stuck enough that it gradually morphed into getting a regular gig talking about media for a much bigger audience.

(Autostraddle also played a big role in this, obviously, but I was originally picked up by them to write about news and politics. I started writing about anime and other media for them largely because I wanted to and that was because I was having so much fun doing it on Tumblr. So while it was the Autostraddle writing samples that have probably done the most for my career, I still think Tumblr played the bigger role and is the more interesting conversation.)

Tumblr has a lot of issues in how it executes its ideas, but it still sure is nice to have a large social-media community with such a strong focus on social justice, progressivism and especially activism. You probably wouldn’t have so many young people protesting in the streets over Ferguson and Eric Garner right now if not for communities like Tumblr. It’s also nice to see so many people interested in engaging the media they like on how it deals with marginalized groups like women, racial minorities, the LGBT community and people with disabilities. It was a lot of this focus that made me fit into Tumblr’s community so well, since I’ve been looking at media that way for a long time. I took a lot of classes in women’s studies, queer theory and the like in college, and spent a lot of my free time on feminist blogs like Pandagon and Jezebel. Since I was already thinking about media a lot as a music major, it was natural those interests would merge. Tumblr gave me an audience for that. I was talking about the media issues they wanted to hear about—”social justice” and so forth—and I was usually more knowledgeable about stuff like film form than most of the people I was engaging with on there.

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But that’s another reason I had to eventually move on from the site. A lot of people like being the “smartest person in the room”; I’m not one of them. I like being someone who feels like I can learn something from the people around me, and when I realized that most of Tumblr and I were dealing with media from such fundamentally different starting points, I knew I was never going to last there. I’ve talked about this on my post about fanfiction culture, the difference between “fiction-as-world” and “fiction-as-message,” and my critical approach (and I think, most critics’) is more about the latter. I also think it has to do with what Film Crit Hulk calls the four levels of media consumption; Tumblr is largely dealing with level 1 and (especially) 2 consumption, and I think most stuff I would truly call “criticism”—and certainly the vast majority of what I personally find useful and enlightening—is level 3 or 4.

So in a sense, where Tumblr stumbles is the same place where sites like TVTropes stumble: there’s too much overlap between the “fandom” part of engaging with media and the “analysis” of it. And those will always be strange bedfellows, because “fandom” is about engaging with media to such a personal level that it becomes a part of your identity—inherent in the name, in fact—and about escapism, about treating media as a separate world you can jump into when life gets you down. Not that critics don’t engage with media like that in their own way sometimes: I certainly have plenty of conversations with fellow critic friends about shipping and headcanons and other fan nonsense, and I think most people become critics or artists because of a strong personal investment in the media they consume. But “analysis” is fundamentally the opposite of that highly-personal, escapist approach, because it’s about taking apart the media to see why it works that way and, if it’s focused on issues like sexism or racism, about looking at how this thing you love might be subconsciously feeding you some awful messages. This is why, as long as Tumblr clings to “fandom” approaches to media, their “feminist media criticism” will always be limited to self-congratulatory back-pats for why they like what they like and weaponizing it against people who like the “wrong” things. Good criticism, though, acknowledges that art can have other redeeming qualities, and in fact this is often how stuff with pretty toxic messages succeeds in seducing people who should know better. Great art has a long history of being weaponized by all sorts of horrible ideologies for a reason. None of us are immune to that, and it says little about how good or bad of feminists or other flavors of progressives we are.

To give a specific example of the mentality I’m criticizing here, let’s talk about “headcanons”—specifically of the queer/trans/autistic variety that are so popular on Tumblr. (For those who don’t know, a “headcanon” is a personal belief or theory about something in fiction–usually a character–that isn’t “official” canon but may as well be for the person expressing it. Think TVTropes’ Wild Mass Guessing feature, or check out the many Tumblrs devoted to posting these from different people.) Tumblr often frames this as “analysis,” but what does it actually add to the conversation about a piece of media? Well, it’s useful to point out once or twice how “gender-passing” characters can be trans, how characters who show interest in the opposite-sex could also have off-screen same-sex interests. The invisibility of bisexual and trans people in media other than in the most clichéd, stereotypical depictions contributes to our oppression. There’s only so much that can be said about that, though, and it has very little to do with the particular piece of media compared to the larger media climate and conversation around these identities. And when it turns into these really defensive posts about how Asuka is totally a trans girl and if you disagree you’re a cis hetero shitlord, it’s completely ceased being about the media itself, as opposed to your personal investment in it.

As a bisexual person, I understand the impulse for this, especially in media that lacks canonical representation of your sexual orientation/gender identity/etc. But it isn’t analysis, and it plays into some toxic fandom attitudes of overly-personal investment in media that hinders actual analysis. (After all, if you’re convinced this character is basically you, it’s harder to interrogate how well they’re written or how good of a representation of that group they really are.) It doesn’t deserve the defense it so often gets of “Death of the Author,” a philosophy that came about from acknowledging that works take on lives of their own and influence culture and other media beyond what authors originally intend. The life it has in your own individual head, a life it has because you read that into all the media you consume, is only a small part of that if at all. It just ends up privileging your head over the author’s head (aka the person who actually put thought into creating this), and says nothing about that larger climate.

okosan will not allow pudding or himself to be ridiculed

Anime fandom is where I’ve engaged the most on this, and so it’s the most potent example of how seductive, yet ultimately fleeting that engagement with media was for me. I got big into the Fullmetal Alchemist fandom on Tumblr shortly after re-watching the 2003 anime series, and because what people were telling me about the manga and Brotherhood anime looked really interesting. FMA is a fandom that’s filled with drama, even by the standards of most anime fandoms, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s a low-fantasy alternate-universe full of cool powers, fun characters and (especially in “Mangahood”) intricate world building, so it’s got the “escapist” appeal down pat. Yet it deals with more serious, fraught real-life issues than most shonen manga, the kinds of issues that lead to fights all on their own. It’s full of well-developed, compelling characters and relationships between them, and there’s not much in the way of canon romance—fertile ground for shipping wars galore. Most importantly, the franchise includes two basic versions of the story that work with the same blueprint, but take the characters, plot, tone and especially themes in wildly divergent directions. And there are few things nerds love arguing about more than which edition of a franchise property is the best.

The original FMA series is my favorite anime, and I have a pretty strong opinion on why I prefer it to the manga and Brotherhood. It was hard not to get sucked into that world where I was encouraged to take someone’s different opinion on this matter personally—and on everything, not just the version wars. I was really lonely, so I also got very invested in fanfiction and shipping, and that included the accompanying “wank” about how “totally canon” my favorite slash ships were (even if deep down I knew I was totally kidding myself). Participating in that was crucial to belonging in that community, and it earned my blog a lot of readers. Yet, it also weakened my abilities as a critic when I couldn’t separate my personal investment in this piece of media, and in its fandom, from a broader critical evaluation of it. I really could only do that when I separated myself from the fandom, largely by getting more involved in the anime fan community on Twitter rather than Tumblr.

(Is it it just me, or does it say something when a medium where you only talk in 140-character spurts has more thoughtful critical engagement than a blog-based website like Tumblr? That’s a topic for another post, but it’s food for thought.)

How “personal” your engagement with media can be as a critic is its own fascinating discussion. A piece of criticism is, essentially, one person’s individual reaction to a piece of media, and that’s inevitably going to vary from person to person based on their life and media history. Certainly, it’s frustrating and stupid when groups like Gamergate suggest that any approach that isn’t completely universal—like feminist or other “social justice” approaches—don’t belong in general-audience reviews. How women or LGBT characters are treated is so tied in with how I experience media that I can’t just remove them from how I write about it, and I don’t want to anyway. Yet, there’s a difference between experiences and perspectives I share with lots of other people (other women, other LGBT people), and highly idiosyncratic stuff that likely won’t apply to how anyone else experiences that piece of media. Reviewing is, at heart, about giving your audience an idea of what to expect, and they won’t get that if you spend half of it ranting about how “the fandom” ruined some subplot for you, or how you can’t like this character because he looks like your crazy ex, or whatever. What’s more, not being able to separate that out often leads to the overly-personal “my fandom is part of my identity” behavior that’s so common in places like Tumblr, that I think is toxic no matter what you do with it.

I mean, really.

I mean, really.

Getting involved in “Anitwitter” and meeting other people who engaged with anime on the level I do did a lot to help me separate out those feelings, and develop more of a distinct critical voice about anime (and film/television in general). The best thing about it was that, to that community, it didn’t matter what you shipped, what version of a franchise you liked, or how you felt about this-or-that character. What made good criticism was about if it made you think or started a conversation, and I realized that’s always how I’d engaged with it. I slurped up Todd VanDerWerff’s Glee recaps at The A.V. Club every week when I watched that show, even though I often disagreed with him—because he got me thinking critically about it in a way no other critic, and certainly no one in the fandom, did. I also realized that even my friends on Tumblr who shared my opinions on our favorite shows weren’t really engaging with them in ways I found compelling anymore, and so I couldn’t help but leave that community behind.

Getting a job at a website as big as ANN kind of seems like it should be the culmination of my critical journey this past year, but of course I’m still learning. I still have trouble owning my more unpopular opinions, being able to tell which “unusual” approaches might actually interest my audience or not, and so on. And after all that time in Tumblr “fandom” communities, I really have a hard time examining when a more positive opinion is my own and when I’m unconsciously going along with the consensus on it. Writing and criticism are a journey, though, and anyone worth their salt will constantly be reexamining and changing their approaches. The best thing is I’ve finally found a group of people I want to take this journey with, and that makes it all the more rewarding.

Fandom, “Deconstruction” and Puella Magi Madoka Magica

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I’ve seen a lot of posts on Tumblr lately trying to frame various series as “deconstruction”, usually based on the reductive TVTropes “understanding” of the term. A big one seems to be framing Revolutionary Girl Utena and Puella Magi Madoka Magica as somehow both being “deconstructions” of the shojo or “magical girl” genres. Utena can certainly be said to be playing around with and criticizing a lot of shojo conventions (among those of other genres) in a fairly metafictional way, but other than that, this doesn’t really work, as I explained in a pretty strongly-worded post there the other night.

In a follow-up, I expanded a little bit on what I thought deconstruction (in terms of the actual definition of the term, as Derrida and later post-structuralists framed it) in a work of fiction could actually look like:

Deconstruction isn’t at all necessarily about “criticizing” a genre. It doesn’t even necessarily have to do with “genre” in the first place. It’s about taking apart an idea by looking at the smaller ideas that go into it and how they build it through relation—and perhaps pointing out some logical inconsistencies and other flaws of it when it’s separated from that broader glue. The reason this is applied to “genre” so often is because the technique of deconstruction has a lot to say about how flimsy our conceptions of these “genres” really are—how much they’re built by association with what we’re told are works of the genre over time, and less the actual definition.

(For example, is there really anything about this music that suggests “the Old West” on its own? No—none of those instruments were actually played much in the late-19th-century western United States—but because it was from an iconic western, one whose soundtrack influenced countless westerns that came after it, we all associate it with that genre. It’s built through relations more than inherent meaning. This is the kind of stuff that fascinates me as a musicologist.)

All that being said, I think it’s pretty hard for a fictional work to be a “deconstruction” of a genre itself unless it’s somewhat actively “metafictional”. So, you could make an argument for something like Princess Tutu, or maaaayyyybbee aspects of Utena, as being deconstructive. But Madoka? Nope. Taking elements of a genre and making them darker is not really the same thing as taking them apart and showing why they don’t make sense on their own. And Madoka doesn’t really have anything to say about the construction of “magical girl”; it just does its own thing with its conventions, to suit its unrelated thematic purposes.*

When people get away from this idea that deconstructions have to be “dark” or “critical”, it actually opens up some other possibilities for what could qualify. I think you could make a good argument for something like Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun being deconstructive. It’s largely about people involved in creating shojo manga, and how ridiculous the genre’s conventions are when taken out of their fictional home and into the real world. It’s an affectionate look at all this, of course, but it’s much more “deconstructive” than a lot of the OMG DARK SUBVERSIVE stuff people try to shove into that label.

I ended up posting another clarification when this, predictably, got launched on out-of-context by the anti-Madoka crowd to confirm their weird idea that the show is anti-feminist and what-have-you. (Oh, Tumblr.) And more when, of course, I got someone else insisting that, “no, it is a deconstruction, and so is Attack on Titan because of my weird fan theory linking them, and language evolves and you’re a snob!” Lots of reminders of why I don’t usually write about this kind of stuff on Tumblr anymore. But anyway, I thought I’d use this as a chance to elaborate more here on why I don’t think Madoka Magica qualifies under the designation, and some other examples of where the Internet is mistaken about this term.

sayaka and soul gem

I would say that “deconstruction” is really about looking at how we assign meaning to things through relation, and taking apart those associations. “Deconstructing” a genre would be more about looking at how it’s constructed in fiction, what the tropes building it up are, than what its real-world corollary would be. So for example, because I’m sure there’s someone who argues this: OITNB isn’t a “deconstruction” because it’s not really engaging at all with the normal clichés of “women in prison” shows. It’s just a show about women, that’s set in prison, but the fiction genre is more than that–it comes with a certain set of expectations that OITNB doesn’t do anything with. It “averts” them, in the TVT terminology, not engaging at all. So it can’t be a deconstruction. It has its own story to tell, that isn’t about genre.

Madoka Magica is a little trickier, since it does have all the normal trappings of magical-girl shows. It takes things like their transformation trinket, the animal familiar and so on, and gives them the darkest possible interpretations. But is this really the same thing as “deconstructing” that genre? Does Madoka Magica really have anything to say about why those are the building blocks of “magical girl” stories, why those elements are compelling and popular? Does it do anything, then, to comment on and criticize these elements, the way that Revolutionary Girl Utena does with fairy-tale and shojo romance tropes, the way Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun even does with a lot of other shojo tropes? Mere presentation–even gritty, “edgy” presentation–isn’t the same thing as commentary, as Anita Sarkeesian reminded us in her most recent Tropes vs. Women video. (Strong trigger warning for graphic violence and sexual assault, and discussion of each, obviously.)

….Yeah, Madoka Magica doesn’t really have anything to say about the genre itself. It isn’t about those tropes and why they do or don’t work, or would or wouldn’t work in a more “realistic” setting. It simply dials them up to maximum darkness levels in service of another thematic purpose. (Well, several–the stuff about the resilience of the human spirit, the limits of utilitarianism, and how we make the best of oppressive systems that show up throughout Urobuchi’s body of work, as Bobduh explains really well here on his blog.) Themes that I really enjoy and get a lot out of, for the record–Madoka is one of my favorite anime. But there’s nothing “deconstructive”, nothing about taking apart meaning and the relations and associations that make it up. And that’s okay!

Honestly, a lot of what frustrates me about these discussions is that I think people on the Internet who frequent places like Tumblr and TV Tropes, have internalized this idea that certain modes of analysis or types of thematic writing are superior to others. Declaring something a “deconstruction” automatically makes it sophisticated, and they’re sophisticated for liking it and trying to “deconstruct” it themselves. Of course, like what Tumblr often does with “feminism”, this gets diluted into the vaguest possible meaning so it applies to as many things they like as possible. Either way, though, there’s really no reason that “taking apart language and meanings” is an inherently more “sophisticated” project than the other stuff these series are doing. Why does that make Madoka Magica a better show than what it actually has to say about utilitarianism? Even with series that could be considered to be doing some deconstruction: why is that element of Revolutionary Girl Utena more important than its feminism? Why is that element of Princess Tutu more important than what it has to say about agency and free will?

And I say this as someone who is really fascinated with deconstruction and how meaning is created through relations, especially with regard to genre.

That, to me, is why this discussion is more than just my academic “nerd rage” at seeing a term I learned about in school used incorrectly in the Internet. I think it’s important for us to take apart a lot of what we implicitly value as consumers of media and, especially, people who attempt to analyze it.  Particularly, nerds really need to get over the idea that something being “dark” and “subversive” (see, we already have a word for what Tumblr thinks “deconstruction” means! Language doesn’t need to “evolve”, as is the response I keep getting) makes it better. And it’s important to take the media we look at on their own terms, rather than attempt to fit them into boxes based on vague suggestions. Yet, even before we figure out if we should put things in a particular box, we should figure out why the labels on those boxes are so important to us, where the value we assign to them came from in the first place.

You might even say we should deconstruct them.

Ouran Post Club #1–Haruhi Fujioka: A Love Letter

So, first of all, news: I’ve started writing for Anime News Network! I got a position there this summer writing episodic reviews, then of Black Butler: Book of Circus, and now continuing into the fall season. You can read episode-by-episode reviews from me on Rage of Bahamut: GenesisShirobako and Your Lie in April each week over there. I’m really enjoying it–but all that does mean, however, that I don’t feel much investment in continuing my round-ups of each anime season on this blog.

Instead, I’m just going to write about and analyze whatever strikes my fancy, and I’m starting with what might be an odd choice, but should hopefully make more and more sense as I go on. Ouran High School Host Club chewed up my heart and spit it out when I first watched it this past summer, as well as making me laugh really freaking hard. It fully earned its spot as one of my all-time favorite anime, and as one of my obsessions for the next several months. But of course, I’ve seen plenty of “good anime comedies with heart” before: Azumanga Daioh, the better episodes of Hetalia, and so on. (Or this summer’s surprise hit, Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun, although that’s more the sort of exemplar title that deserves its own series of posts.) And I enjoyed them, but never on this level. What makes Ouran so special?

Well…there are a lot of reasons, but a lot of them boil down to its protagonist: Haruhi Fujioka.

Haruhi_To_This_To_That

Shojo anime–especially of the “reverse harem” variety where Ouran sits quite comfortably–revels in romantic wish-fulfillment. That usually means, however, a fairly weak female protagonist to soak up all the boys’ attentions. I don’t mean “weak” just in the sense of actual power, though she usually is that, too. But I mean weak as character. She has to be a vague fantasy for girls reading to slot themselves into, so they can easily imagine themselves in the story. Think Twilight here, since Bella Swan is a perfect example of this sort of character. Or think the dreaded fanfiction term “Mary Sue”–which has been rightly criticized for its sexism and how the Internet is eager to apply it to any female character aimed primarily at female audiences, but the characters themselves (the ones who actually fit the criteria) are rarely all that progressive, either.

Criticism of the “Mary Sue” concept points out that there are plenty of these for male readers, too, and that’s certainly true. And it’s especially true in genre fiction, like comic books and anime are. Heck, anime today is filled with male wish-fulfillment protagonists, from Kirito in Sword Art Online to Inaho in Aldnoah Zero: non-descript dudes where the point is their non-descriptness, that they get to be “badass” and the (male) viewer can imagine himself in their “badass” place, too. It says a whole lot, though, that that’s the fantasy that boys supposedly want, and that the equivalent for girls is to be waited on and protected by boys. (And again, this is hardly purely due to “Japanese gender roles”–YA in the West is full of this thing, too. Patriarchy can work surprisingly similarly across cultures.) And the personality traits go with this too, when the characters have any–the guys being powerful, the girls being meek icons of traditional femininity.

Enter Haruhi.

The one on the right...errr...

The one on the right…errr…

Haruhi is different from the get-go: she’s introduced looking like a boy (and being mistaken as one by the Host Club), and a rather awkward, dowdy one at that. She’s covered up in a baggy sweater and big glasses. It’s in this…“disguise” that she’s recruited for the Host Club, as the boys (and especially the clueless Tamaki) mistake her for one of their own. She’s surprisingly comfortable with this, as Haruhi has never been one to care much for either looks or gender roles. She says outright that gender is irrelevant to her conception of people and her own identity, so she doesn’t care if the student body thinks she’s male. She cut her hair short because she got gum in it and, at the end of the day, it didn’t matter to her: it was “just hair.”

This is pretty revolutionary on its own, especially for shojo, but there’s even more to her refreshing personality than that. Most shojo heroines are meek and sweet, going along merrily with the antics of the pretty boys around them. Haruhi’s reactions are… to laugh. Or roll her eyes. Or make sarcastic comments. As in, the way most people would to the over-the-top antics of one Tamaki Suoh:

It makes her that much more relatable and real to audiences watching–especially to female audiences, who are used to being represented in these by bland, cutesy ciphers. Haruhi’s still plenty cute, of course–and still totally has her pick of the boys in the host club, who all love her to bits–but her personality packs a punch, both in uniqueness and emotional resonance. She’s the kind of girl you actually want to root for here for who she is, not just what she represents.

It’s easy to see Ouran, then, as the sort of work that people think appeals to its female audience for the boys, when the girls are actually more key to the series’ success. Shojo reverse harems are full of pretty boys organized into “types” for girls to fawn over (though, of course, Ouran’s are better-written than most). When it comes to the characters, though, Haruhi is what makes the series unique. Not many shojo heroines are actually interesting people you’d want to be like beyond just in terms of getting you boys. Not many react to the ridiculousness of their situation with emotional honesty. And when ones adds in Haruhi’s rejection of traditional gender roles and side-eye toward societal expectations in general, she’s really more like the anti-shojo heroine–much more like the caustic female characters you’d find in more guy-oriented manga, but minus the fanservice, and with more emotional depth to allow other female readers to relate to her. It’s no wonder that she’s the series’ most popular character.

In this sense, Ouran is a lot like the appeal that, say, Jane Austen’s novels have on women, and Haruhi like many of her wittier, more spirited protagonists. I was actually inspired to write this by an article at The A.V. Club about the history of Pride and Prejudice adaptations. It explains that when P&P adaptations go wrong, it’s in assuming the book’s appeal is purely due to female wish-fulfillment, of getting courted by sexy guys. That’s certainly not nothing, but most women who really love and understand Austen’s work don’t actually want to live in that world. (That’s where it and Ouran differ–I would love to live in the Host Club’s world. I’d be first in line at Music Room 3.) And more importantly, her female characters tend to be more of a draw than the boys. Plenty of books from Austen’s era have brooding hunks, but most of them don’t have a Lizzy Bennet. Women read Pride and Prejudice for her as much as, if not more than, for Darcy. And likewise: we watch and read Ouran for Haruhi as much as, if not more than, our favorite boy(s) in her reverse harem.

haruhi_08_animestocks5Bcom5D (1)

All this makes Haruhi as a character, and Ouran as a larger work, seem like a feminist revelation, but there’s plenty to criticize about her and Ouran on those grounds, too. She seems a little too calculated to be the type of “clever” girl that boys will naturally like. She gets their jokes, she’s sarcastic, and not big on dressing or acting traditionally “girly”… and yet, she’s nurturing and caring, still fulfilling the role of support and caretaker that are the real crux of those feminine standards that Haruhi eschews. The idea brings up the ideal of the “just one of the guys” Cool Girl, who is able to get the boys in that way that their girlfriends who love shoes and shopping don’t, but is still conventionally feminine enough to be attractive, not off-putting to and challenging those standards in the way that a woman who is truly butch or mannish is. This could be my personal anxieties talking: As someone whose social-awkwardness goes beyond just not caring about certain social standards, but often not being able to read them in the first place, it was that aspect that made Haruhi a little harder to relate to for me. Depending on what kind of girl you are, Haruhi is either like you or she’s someone you should be. But what does that new standard mean? Is it progressive?

Perhaps not, if you’re looking at Haruhi in isolation. She’s progressive for the shojo genre, but ultimately just a new standard for women to live up to that defines us in what boys think of us. But the thing is, you can’t just look at her in isolation. The story is not just her own, and the way she rubs up against those male characters–and who they are–is necessary in examining Ouran’s gender politics, intentional or otherwise. (And considering the sort of people working on Ouran–such as Yoji Enokido, one of the major writers of Revolutionary Girl Utena–I have trouble completely sweeping this under the rug as “just a joke.” Ouran does have something to say about gender, and class, and gets in a lot of social commentary about those topics in-between the hijinks. Comedy, in fact, is probably one of the best genres for truly cutting and subversive social commentary, and always has been–but, more about that in the next post.)

The most important thing here, is that Haruhi isn’t the only character in the series who is defined, in part, by her unusual amounts of empathy and knack for reading people. This is also Tamaki’s greatest strength as a person and as a character. After seeing, throughout the series, how Haruhi is able to reach the boys of the Host Club (and often, the girls they try to help, too) in a way that no one else could, we’re shown, in two flashback episodes–one focusing on the Hitachiin twins, and another focusing on Kyoya–how Tamaki himself earned their trust and friendship by seeing through the masks they put on for the world, diagnosing their problems and offering solutions. Tamaki is the glue holding together the close-knit club for this reason, and Haruhi also penetrates their defenses due to her sharing this trait. Otherwise, Haruhi and Tamaki are quite different people, but this commonality is important to their relationship and their places in the Host Club (and also, what draws them together romantically).

This also reveals that Ouran doesn’t define this particular trait along gender lines, showing this as a positive in both men and women, and as a standard for everyone. Both Haruhi and Tamaki have masculine and feminine traits, and both can be positive and negative. And Ouran‘s gender politics go further, in impressing this message on all the characters. Kyoya has always valued emotional restraint and careful planning, but Tamaki encourages him to enjoy the more frivolous things in life–and nudges him toward the emotional honesty that allows Kyoya to admit how much he’s always wanted those things. He teaches Kyoya that masculine ambition is important but not in lieu of other pursuits. Mitsukuni, or “Honey-senpai”, had to hide his childish, girlish traits, like love for cake and all things kawaii, behind the façade of following in his family’s footsteps as martial-arts master, and it’s Tamaki and the host club that help him come to who he truly is.

Ouran’s gender-bending protagonist isn’t just a breath of fresh, more relatable air for shojo readers, and she isn’t a gimmick hiding more traditional and regressive gender attitudes that are typical of the genre. Haruhi is, in many ways, reflective of the show’s overall flippant, subversive attitude toward gender and gender roles. It’s why, at the end of the day, I have to say that she’s one of my all-time favorite female protagonists in anime, and a big plus for women’s representation in shojo.

Up next (probably): Ouran’s class- and genre-consciousness.

The Boys of Summer…And Fall: Change, Nostalgia and Pet Sounds

I once had a dream, so I packed up and split for the city / I soon found out that my lonely life wasn’t so pretty – The Beach Boys, “That’s Not Me”

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Music is the medium I know the most about and have the most feelings about; it’s what I study as my “career”, after all, as a musicologist, and it’s the one I’ve had the most experience in actually creating. I also have the most formal “training” in it, with the exception of maybe my many literature classes as a kid. Actually, scratch even that – by high school, I was taking more music classes than English classes. While I’ve used this blog mostly for anime at this point, I also created it partly to get some more non-academic music writing of mine out there–once I decided that I wasn’t into turning my love of classic rock into a video review show. (Yep, that was something I considered doing once upon a time, even bought a digital camera for it. Original, I know!)

One of my ideas for a review series was something called “Album Alchemy”, where I examined famous rock albums as a way of discussing the idea of an album as an entity unto itself vs. a collection of songs. Yeah, the title is silly, and reflects how far up the Fullmetal Alchemist fandom’s butt I was at the time, but the idea of being able to break apart the album into chunks and yet still see it as a concrete whole is why it’s a fascinating medium to me. Unlike the symphony or concerto, the album was originally conceived as nothing but clumps of a band’s latest hits, and then over time came to be seen as a cohesive work. And it’s gone backward and forward throughout its history between those two extremes, breaking down and coming together again, like an alchemist’s transmutations. See, it worked, and it was alliterative!

The phrase “concept album” gets bandied about quite a bit, and every pop music critic and scholar has a different idea of which work from the mid-1960s was the “first” to go there. In truth, while a lot of these albums feel like single works to us emotionally because of how we experienced them, there isn’t much to “connect” them when you look at the individual parts and how they fit together. Sgt. Pepper is the most obvious example here: besides the first two tracks and the “Sgt. Pepper” reprise, there’s not much that collection of songs have in common when it comes to either musical style or lyrical content. They just happen to flow into each other very well. And now that it’s been released in something close to how it was originally intended, we can judge the Beach Boys’ “answer” to it, Smile, and find that it’s much the same. Smile has more lyrical and musical motifs that repeat throughout, connecting the works in a similar way that the Beatles would do with the second side of Abbey Road. But there are still plenty of songs in there that don’t fit the apparent “concept”.

The whole idea even poses the question of what is supposed to unite the “concept album” in the first place. Similar subject matter in the lyrics? Similar musical style? The answer is usually the former or both, and for that, it makes sense to look a little earlier in the Beach Boys’ career: to their baroque-pop magnum opus Pet Sounds. Probably the single most influential album from that era along with Sgt. Pepper and The Velvet Underground & Nico, I’m surprised by how little Pet Sounds is brought into the “concept album” discussion compared to its contemporaries. Pet Sounds and other works in the “baroque pop” genre–most notably Love’s Forever Changes, The Kinks’ The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society and The Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle–feel the closest to the “concept album’s”‘ classical soulmate, the “song cycle”.

The “song cycles” first popularized in the 19th-century by classical composers such as Franz Schubert and Robert Schumann were like “concept albums” in that each song was united by a similar idea (often telling a story, in fact) while at the same time, each individual piece could work on its own. The individual songs from Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise and Schumann’s Dichterliebe are easily excerpted for their own performances, where the movements of a symphony or sonata don’t always work. And yet, they flow into each other and often tell a story–but not necessarily in the obvious way that, say, The Who’s Tommy does. The baroque-pop albums mentioned above are their closest relative in rock music, in my opinion, sharing a theme or story without always being obvious about it.

Pet Sounds makes such an interesting entry in the Beach Boys canon because it feels like a radical departure from their previous music. You can hear a little bit of the transition, but not in the way that the Beatles’ Rubber Soul begat Revolver, despite being quite different albums. The Beach Boys had made contemplative, personal music before, but never stuff that plunged as deep as a lot of Pet Sounds did. “In My Room” and “The Warmth of the Sun” don’t sound out-of-place among their typical “cars, girls and surfing” fare, but Pet Sounds selections like “Here Today” and “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” cut a little too close to feel right playing at the beach. As such, while the Beach Boys’ usual “greatest hits” always felt inappropriate to listen to at any time other than summertime when I was a teen in Detroit, Pet Sounds was my album for the lonely days of autumn and winter. And that album–along with Odessey and Oracle, its British twin in both style and substance–was one of the ones I played the most my freshman year of college, when I struggled with a lot of the dilemmas expressed in its lyrics.

I always wondered if my association of these albums with change, transitions, and nostalgia/fear-of-change was due to my personal experiences with them. Baroque pop, for whatever reason, has marked a lot of the “transitions” in my life. I discovered Village Green Preservation Society when I started high school, Pet Sounds and Odessey and Oracle when I started college, and Forever Changes when I started grad school. But in fact, so many of these albums are singularly obsessed with change, the way that we adapt to it–for good or for bad–and our anxieties about it. Pet Sounds was the first, and it’s interesting how its musical aspects as well as its lyrics helped to define so much of what came later in the genre.

Pet Sounds starts off with “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, a song that yearns for change–for the singer to grow up and move on in life so he and his beloved can get together. It ends with a song, “Caroline No”, that bemoans the negative effects of change, of how time has negatively affected his beloved. (It’s interesting if one views this album like a song cycle in the vein of Winterreise, and thinks of them as being the same woman.) Along the way, there are the usual songs about new relationships, and ones breaking up, that we expect from the Beach Boys and also go with the theme, but also more universal dilemmas that have less to do with romance, those of young adults first learning to live on their own (“That’s Not Me”) or of struggling with changes in your personal philosophy (“I Know There’s An Answer”). Even when they have the pretext of being about romance, the songs speak to a deeper uneasiness (“You Still Believe In Me”); the “romance” framing comes off as simply a way to make the pill easier to swallow for their listeners.

The Beach Boys’ music supports this fixation on changes and their transitions, as well as their interpersonal nature. While the album still has plenty of the group’s famous vocal harmonies, the focus is far more on solo singing, with the harmonies as backdrop or variations on the melody (“You Still Believe In Me” is a great example of the latter). It makes the song feel more intimate, like it’s being sung directly to the listener, straight from their heart. More importantly, the harmonic and melodic structure of the songs is more ambiguous. The songs’ phrases are more likely to end on unresolved chords, or imperfect cadences. The melodies dwell more on dissonant tones. It creates an anxiety and ambiguity that make it clear why so many fans of the Beach Boys’ earlier, poppier, “sunnier” music find Pet Sounds difficult to contend with–and also, why Pet Sounds has its own, artier audience who aren’t so into the surf tunes. Along with the differences in instrumentation (less guitars, more pianos, brass and strings), Pet Sounds is truly a new beast. The Beach Boys would continue to explore some of this on Smile, but not entirely; Smile uses far more of their signature three-part harmonies, while also plunging even further than Pet Sounds did into dissonant chord progressions and odd instrument combos.

The baroque pop that followed them continued the theme of change, if not always expressing it to quite the same degree in terms of their musical style. The Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle is far more direct about how its songs deal with transitions, giving specific examples of different people coping with change in their lives, from the very first track: “Care of Cell 44″, about a convict yearning for his release so he can return to his beloved, and expecting nothing will be different. Erik Adams at The A.V. Club wrote a good post about the disturbing subtext here: the unexpressed reality that, of course, it’s unlikely that things will remain the same after he’s been in prison for this time. (As anyone who watches Orange is the New Black knows, it’s not the kind of experience that leaves you unchanged.) Others include “Maybe After He’s Gone”, where the singer hopes that after his beloved’s new guy leaves, she’ll return to him (another unlikely prospect); “Brief Candles”, about how people cling to memories; and “I Want Her She Wants Me”, about the anxieties of a new relationship. (That song has its own subtext, too – the singer constantly repeating how happy he is while only briefly dwelling on worries about his girlfriend’s baggage.) The songs seemingly cover the full range from positive to negative change: from the hopeful “This Will Be Our Year” to “Changes”, which echoes “Caroline No” in bemoaning how a former love interest has changed for the worse.  But it’s notable that even a lot of the “happier” songs are betrayed by their harmonic structure, like how the cheery “Friends of Mine” ends harmonically unresolved on its way to the end of the album. There’s an overall feeling of melancholy here, going even further than Pet Sounds‘s, as even the sunnier moments all feel fleeting, or even delusional.

All of this is interesting to analyze in the context of the 1960s. This was an era when change of every variety–political, cultural, social–was in the air, as young people rejected the mores they were raised with by protesting and rioting in the streets, or “dropping out” by running away to form their own countercultural communities. All of these bands were deeply imbedded in either the American or British counterculture, and thus well-aware of–and even part of–what was going on. It’s interesting, though, that instead of these songs eagerly embracing change, they spoke to anxiety about it. They were curious about how the world was shifting, but even more afraid or, at least, apprehensive. Considering the cultural perception of the 1960s counterculture is that they eagerly embraced change and progression, it’s interesting that much of their music says otherwise.

Specifically, I remember years ago reading an article about The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society in MOJO magazine, where they spoke to how “unusual” the album’s seemingly-conservative attitude was for the year it was made, 1968. They said it could’ve been made three years earlier, or today–“any year but 1968”. I have to disagree with that assessment, though. 1968 was the year when the counterculture really began to turn ugly in the eyes of the general population, as more peaceful protests gave way to riots, and it became clear with high-profile cases like the following year’s Manson murders that a lot of the “counterculture” was really just power-mad adults taking advantage of idealistic young people. Across the Atlantic from The Kinks, it was the year that Nixon’s “Silent Majority” pushed conservatism back into the White House. It makes sense that 1968 would be the year of the baroque-pop album that most blatantly yearned for an earlier, simpler time. Village Green Preservation Society is mostly focused on negative change to people and places (“Village Green”, “Last of the Steam-Powered Trains” and “Do You Remember Walter”) and the ways we desperately try to preserve the past (the title track, “Picture Book” and “People Take Pictures of Each Other”). And most of this in the musical language of baroque-pop, especially as far as instrumentation.

Yet, like most great art, this music was as universal as it was a reflection of the anxieties of its time. Even though The Kinks’ songs were specifically about the cultural shifts of mid-1960s Britain, there was enough similarity to my mid-2000s Midwestern suburban adolescence that I could hear myself in them. The Beach Boys’ and The Zombies’ anxieties about the broader transitions we make in life dug into my own difficulties in figuring out who I was and learning to be independent during my first year of college, my first year away from home. Though the particular varieties of change that we go through shift themselves throughout time, change itself is always a constant. And this music of changes has stuck with me, through every transition, every period of uncertainty in my life.


So, there you have it: my first music post on here. Expect more in the future, though not all of them will necessarily be as personal as this one. I’m going through another uncertain, transitionary period in my life, and I wanted to write a little bit about why Pet Sounds spoke to me. Also, please give me some feedback in the comments, since I’m not used to writing about music for a more general, less “scholarly” audience – but I’d like to do more of it here!