The Worst Filing System Known To Humans

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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Cha-Change! Formal Experimentation in Adventure Time

I want to talk about Adventure Time, and the experimental direction that the show has taken, and the episode Food Chain in particular, but we're going to have to do some work before we can get to that discussion. That's ok, because it's a discussion well worth having!

When a show gets as experimental as Adventure Time has, playing with different styles, metatextual elements, surreal explorations of sexuality, and so on, that show deserves praise. And I think it deserves praise that goes a bit beyond the initial "well isn't that neat" praise of pop culture journalism and digs into the weird alien guts of the thing to see how it all fits together, why it's significant, and what it all means. Which, of course, takes work, particularly when you're discussing an episode as odd as Food Chain, an episode where lead characters Finn and Jake metamorphose progressively through the forms and lives of different organisms as they experience the titular food chain first hand on a small desert oasis. The episode explores this philosophical journey through a dynamic and cheerfully--even gleefully--off model animation style notably different from the show's usual techniques. And in the process it makes it possible for us to discuss some of the odder recent offerings in Theory.

But let's not get ahead of things here. First, let's talk about why Adventure Time has the freedom to play around with form and narrative so extensively. The show has, over the course of five-and-change seasons, grounded the weirdness in remarkably sincere emotional relationships between the characters. And this sincerity is a gift that keeps giving as far as experimentation is concerned.

Pictured: Finn and Jake

Consider the most recent episode, Ocarina. Now, this episode is, as Adventure Time episodes go, more on the coherent side, particularly compared to some of the strange experiences elsewhere examined in this essay, but that makes it a potentially more accessible example of the way the show blends its bizarre hijinx with enough emotional sincerity to keep viewers invested.

At its core, regardless of the weirdness of the setting and the characters, the story of this episode is fundamentally about the relationships between a father and his somewhat estranged children. The first moments of the episode condense substantial information about these relationships and the different characters in a remarkably condensed space, expressed simply through conversation between the five children and the mother during a picnic. The overarching conversational thread is that Jake, the father, is absent, and the children all have different reactions to this. I can't even really say that there's a subtext here, because the characters themselves are quite aware of the subtext and comment on it openly: Jake's absence reflects his absence elsewhere in their lives, a recurring failure to materialize that each child copes with in different ways.

And take note, in all of this, that the show is leading us deliberately to certain conclusions about Jake and his own failures as a parent. The show's writers didn't need to have him finally show up with no presents (despite it being the kids' birthday), and with a handful of macaroni salad which he promptly plops on the ground. But they did, and it's worth considering the points being made here about Jake's character flaws. They're almost overemphasized here and it's for a purpose. It provides context when the problem of the episode is introduced--specifically, when Jake's son Kim Kil Whan reveals that he's bought the deed to Jake and Finn's tree house and intends to rent it out to what should probably be an illegal number of tenants.

After the bulk of the episode dwells on the problems Finn and Jake face as their house is taken over, and their failed attempts to get it back, the episode climaxes with Jake gifting his son, Kim Kil Whan, with the titular ocarina, a crude object of clay that isn't even hollow and has holes that are really just indentations made with a pencil eraser. This object represents, according to Jake, his fatherly love. Nevertheless, Kim Kil Whan gives Jake the deed to the treehouse. After Finn and Jake leave, he reveals to his wife (which... apparently is a thing he has) that his goal was always to get Jake to leave the childish things of the treehouse behind and face the real world. He responds to his failure ambiguously, seemingly torn between disappointment and a newfound acceptance that he might be able to (or have to) accept and even love his father despite his failings as a parent.

We COULD describe this story as a story of how the child of a mutant dog and a "rainicorn" buys the deed to a treehouse from a vampire by selling her an epic four necked bass and forces his mutant dog dad and his dad's adopted human brother to sleep on a ladder, leading them both to being stepped on and ultimately prompting them to seek out and provide that child with an inept belated birthday gift. But all of that weird stuff is... top level stuff. It is the aesthetic core of the show, for sure, and that makes it important stuff, but it's not the emotional heart of the episode. It's more on the level of tangible details.

The heart of the episode is a story about the way a character grapples with his feelings towards his absentee dad and ultimately attempts to find some emotional closure and reconciliation. Adventure Time tends to be a show that's coy about messages, abstaining from stating them directly and often making the thematic content ambiguous or only comprehensible when viewed across multiple episodes, but if there's a message here it seems to be that sometimes parents fail their children, but that it might be possible to find some love for them regardless.

Speaking personally, this episode hits close to home for me because of the way my father relates to his father, my grandfather, a man who was... well, in many ways, probably a lot like Jake. Someone we might charitably call a free spirit, a hoarder who had no real concept of what the stuff he was hoarding was worth, someone who apparently never provided a whole lot of guidance to his children... It's not exactly the same (in part because of the lack of strange mutations and magic besides, obviously, the whole book-for-a-head thing I've got going on) but the touchstones for the show are absolutely grounded in actual relationships that people have with each other, and the show consistently treats those relationships with sincerity, compassion, and empathy, even amidst all the strangeness. If the messages are inconclusive, ambiguous or, unresolved, it's not because the show wishes to effect a posture of subversiveness but because there genuinely are no easy answers to these problems. At least, if there are, my family certainly hasn't found them yet.

Pictured: Finn and Jake
It also rewards close reading and attentive consumption in multiple ways. For example, many of the individual gags work on multiple levels. At the beginning of this episode, a father bird reads his newspaper, oblivious to his five baby birds who have just fallen from the nest. This would almost be too on-the-nose if not for the fact that it transitions into T.V., one of Jake's sons, brushing the birds off his head with an irritated exclamation: "Ugh. I'm covered in noobs!" ...Which of course, as a gag, wraps right back around and tells us something about T.V.'s petulant, angry personality, which in turn helps contextualize the conversation between the five kids, all of whom respond differently to the father's absence. Joke and sincerity are interwoven heavily in the show and while individual beats may feel random or inexplicably quirky they often are tightly integrated and reward close consideration.

This is also rewarding for longtime viewers in that frequently these interweavings take place across episodes. The themes in this episode of intergenerational strife and less-than-stellar dads represents a return to a theme that's been particularly present recently but which is woven throughout the backstories of many characters. Between Finn's real father turning out to be a massive asshole, Marceline going through an emotionally taxing repeated cycle of recovery and abandonment from both her father and her father figure, Flame Princess's struggle with her evil tyrant father, and numerous other examples, it's harder to find a stable, lasting relationship between fathers and children anywhere in the show. It's clearly an idea that the show's writers are interested in grappling with, just as it's clear that they want to grapple with issues of adolescent sexuality, consent and mutual respect, queerness, and the complicated nature of morality as you grow older (although, it should be noted, they cannot address all of these ideas as freely as they, and we the viewers, might wish).

The show thus works as an interconnected whole not just through narrative continuity but through thematic continuity as well. And believe me, kids can be very attuned to both kinds of continuity! It used to drive me up the wall as a kid when character developments reversed or established ideas were undercut in later episodes. (The most tangible offender is probably Spongebob Squarepants, which gradually transitioned from treating Squidward as suffering for the consequences of his misanthropic actions into just punishing him for... well, existing, as far as I could tell. Drove me up the wall as a kid, let me tell you.) It's a show that grounds the strange action in the relationships between the characters while also rewarding close reading by the audience.

All of this makes it possible for the show to experiment with metatextuality, drastic style shifts, and more abstract narratives. And, bless their hearts, the Adventure Team has taken those opportunities and run with them. Between highly metafictional genderflop episodes, meditations on the nature of fanfiction, weird interconnected multi-thread narratives, and whole episodes animated and written by auteur directors, the show cheerfully has dived off the deep end numerous times secure in the knowledge that the groundwork laid in other episodes with respect to the characters and the bonds that connect them will act as a safety net to catch them.

Such is the case with Food Chain. It's directed by Masaaki Yuasa, a rather odd Japanese animator who's worked on a number of projects that I don't think have penetrated that far into the West, unfortunately. You might recognize his work from an episode of Samurai Champloo, however:

Yuasa is no stranger to weird, trippy animation. I just started watching an Anime he directed, The Tatami Galaxy, and it's one of the most frenetic, dense, and aesthetically imaginative things I've seen in a long time. His work reads to me like some sort of bizarre alternate animation history artifact, a product of a whole divergent evolution in what animation looks like that branches from a different body of Osamu Tezuka's work, maybe in a timeline where The Princess and the Cobbler was actually completed.

Anyway, Yuasa the third guest director (as far as I can tell), the others being James Baxter ("Nnnnjaaaaaaames Baxtah!") and David OReilly (of recent "Mountain" fame). And, like the others, he pushes not just the envelope of style (through a super flat, dynamic, thin lined style that often jumps between keyframes rather than attempting fluid movement) but the content as well (via the hallucinatory trip through the titular food chain, with Finn and Jake taking on the roles of various organisms within the chain).

I'm actually, perhaps surprisingly, less interested here in the food chain specific content here, perhaps because it's so, well, obvious. Yuasa does a good job of explaining each level of the system in the context of Adventure Time's weird magical setting and... there's... not much to say beyond that.

What fascinates me with this episode is the way it capitalizes on the notion throughout the rest of the series of interrelationships. Now hold tight here because I'm gonna need to talk a bit about some Weird Theory Shit, and it's stuff that honestly is even weird to me, when taken in certain directions, so... yeah, hold tight, I'm going to do the best I can to explain this.

One of the ideas that's starting to gain attention in the wild, weird, and wet world of Theory is sort of a broad network of notions tied to the term "Posthuman." "Posthuman" is not to be confused with "transhuman"--the notion of transcending the limitations and suffering of the human race through technology. Posthumanism involves broadening thinking beyond the concerns of humans alone and considering the way in which human-centric narratives might erase other possible narratives, aims, and agencies. At its most comprehensible this can be applied to animals, in recognizing that they both do not have human subjectivity and they do not act for human purposes. (I'm finding that out first hand these days as I literally try to herd a pack of feral cats in my backyard. I have similarly discovered that local government agencies also may not have human subjectivity and may not act for human purposes!) At its weirdest we can talk about Object Oriented Ontology, which is interested in the concept of being and existence from the "perspective" of objects, which in some definitions encompasses just about everything that exists. I... honestly have not found much use for Object Oriented Ontology, and I can't say that I even really fully understand it's philosophical logic, if there is one. Maybe that'll have to be a future article.


Pictured: Finn and Jake
Much of what happens in this episode might be seen as a way of jostling our understanding of the members of the food chain from our human perspective. This process isn't what I'd call complete--after all, Finn and Jake retain much of their personalities through each change, which doesn't mesh too well with the interest in nonhuman subjectivity--but there are moments when the show attempts to explore the particular subjective experiences of radically nonhuman entities. From the perspective of Finn and Jake as flowers, for example, time moves rapidly, caterpillars appear as blurs, and the sun speeds through the sky. Finn transforms into not one bacterium but a whole swarm of bacteria, acting as a cooperative mass (and note here how some of the sound clips of Finn speaking are recycled and echoed many times over! This aesthetically emphasizes the lack of individuation between the bacteria) with differentiation only appearing due to interaction with the single Jake bacterium. And of course there's the strange song sequence at the beginning of the transformations which is not just a hilarious gag but also serves to dramatically divorce the human Finn and Jake from their bird forms.

What I'm really fascinated by in these transformations however is the way in which desires, agency, and resultant relationships shift form. One of the notions that Posthumanism is tied to is the consideration of positionality. Your position within the world alter your perceptions and the networks you are a part of. For the caterpillars, for example, their networks of relationships extend strongly to the plants which provide them food and the birds with prey upon them. This network is different from the networks of the birds who relate to the Oasis that serves as the scene for the story in a different way than the caterpillars do. For the birds, the oasis is of interest--is part of their network--only insofar as it is a potential source of caterpillars, just as for humans nature has been instrumentalized as a source and generator of resources important to human aims, with caterpillars, say, being treated as a problematic element that disrupts our networks rather than an entity with aims of its own that in turn is part of wider networks. Which isn't to say that I want cabbage worms eating my cabbage! But on a larger scale this potentially helps us recognize that ecosystems are not designed for human activity alone.

This is dramatized through the all-important relationships on the show, first through the friendship of Jake and Finn, and then through Finn's ongoing search for love. As Finn is transformed from songbird to bird of prey his friendship with Jake is altered by his position of predatory hunger. Again, this is played as a gag in the show and it's a really funny sequence! Jake's line at the end is particularly great--"I'm just not into it, dude," he declares as he flies off. But within that humor is a recognition that part of Jake's agency here is to refuse his "place" in the grand wheel of life, even if that means an alteration in his relationship with Finn.

There's a fascinating refusal of romanticism here, actually, that's actually somewhat refreshing and liberating to me. Rather than embracing a notion that is often embraced in stories that feature reincarnation--namely, the notion that relationships will remain immutable across form and time--this narrative recognizes that relationships shift with a shift in position. In that respect, it's intriguingly reminiscent of Cloud Atlas, a movie that I've pegged before as featuring reincarnation (sort of, arguably) but not really being about reincarnation, being rather about what recurring characters and personalities can represent metaphorically about human nature and the way that Will reflects across time and place and, yes, alters with the alteration of position (although evil, it seems, remains eternal!).

And like in Cloud Atlas, love is not necessarily eternally bound to one particular traditional cishet monogamous relationship but as bodies shift and positions shift love too is revealed as conditional and based on position. Consider this exchange between Finn and his caterpillar bride, right as they're about to be eaten by a bird:

"When we're reborn as caterpillars, I'll marry you I'll over again!"

"That's beautiful Finn! But when we're bacteria I might see other people!"

What a brilliant line. I mean, it's funny as hell, but it's funny as hell because of both the subversion of the traditional narrative of Love Everlasting, and because of the awkward suturing of 21st century dating politics with a lofty mythic reincarnation plot. It's a joke that is startling in its honesty.

Finn is shocked by this but it makes quite a bit of sense! We've already seen that other relationships change between states, and Finn has made no guarantee that when he becomes human he'll seek out a human caterpillar and marry her again although there was that thing with the bee recently when his arm ended in a flower for a while and you know what we're getting off track here the point is that Finn himself, despite his surprise, has already circumscribed the boundaries of this relationship. His partner is simply extending that logic and looking to the next state of being, considering how that change in positionality may change her own desires. Heck, it's not even new to the show: between the little people that Finn briefly controls and the gender swap fanfiction of the show, there are alternate versions of the main cast all over the place, caught up in all kinds of alternate relationships. (BMO ends up with Ice King in one universe!)

From this perspective, it's hard to know how to take Finn's seeming ascent into nirvana at the end. Jake, who has been through the same experience, has always managed to remain somewhat apart from it, observing but not being absorbed the way Finn was, and while Finn seems, based on the song's lyrics, to perceive the food chain as some sort of lofty perfect system, Jake recognizes the way in which individual members of the chain may attempt to avoid their "naturally ordained" fate. How should we take the fact, too, that the episode itself is a lopping cycle, with the kids returning to their cheerful disinterest in Finn's revelatory experience? What does that say about the fact that this episode, too, is an educational exploration of the food chain with an intended child audience?

Pictured: Finn and Jake
I'll leave that for other minds to pick apart in favor of a brief return here to the idea of aesthetic experimentation. I think part of the reason these ideas play out so well in this episode is because of the frenetic pace not just of the narrative itself but of the dynamic animation style. In playing up the dynamism of what's happening, and willingly pushing the boundaries of literal vs figurative representation, Yuasa helps us to credibly accept the bizarre transformations that take place and the strange spillover between literal and figurative that occurs in the episode's conclusion. And, as described previously both in this article and elsewhere, that experimentation is possible in part because it is grounded in our understanding of the show as a core experience.

Adventure Time is thus capable, like Finn and Jake, of going through countless changes that are visible precisely because they work upon the relationships so well established elsewhere. The nature of the show transforms with the transformation of its aesthetics and focus, but we can understand and recognize that transformation because of the baseline that we perceive and compare to the alternative versions. It's a delicate dance, and the show is all the more worthy of praise for how well it travels each of its transformative steps.

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  1. I just found your blog in search of Madoka analysis, and have been loving your content thus far. One thing regarding this post, more specifically Masaaki Yuasa, that you do not directly mention his wonderfully psychedelic anime Mind Game, so I jump to the (likely incorrect) conclusion you have not seen it. It's wonderful. The love scene, if you can call it that, is one of my favorite pieces of animated cinema.

    Oh, and great article.

    1. You're actually right--I haven't seen Mind Game yet! Thanks for reminding me that I still need to check it out. Glad you liked the piece!


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