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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.

Monday, July 15, 2019

I Want To Connect (But It's Hard To Understand): Sarazanmai Part A

For an anime all about connections, Sarazanmai, with its musical numbers, kappa mythology, and formal experimentation sure can be obscure. But its unique symbols are an inventive communication tool, one rooted in the unique power of cartooning.



When, in Sarazanmai, a trio of teenage kappa boys anally penetrate a giant ghost in order to steal its secret hidden desires in the form of a glowing magical ball, I'm not thinking about semiotics.

I'm thinking "ha ha what the fuck?!"

Semiotics, the study of signs, still hovers in the background of that reaction, though. After all, watching a particularly mindscrewy anime like Sarazanmai inevitably involves a lot of interpretation of how all sorts of signs--words, icons, stylistic choices--all refer to ideas--the idea of the literal plot and the idea of the metaphors and themes. "Ha ha what the fuck?!" might be a decent enough phrase to summarize my emotional reaction to Sarazanmai's weird kappa-on-ghost fights and their gay sexual subtext, but it glosses over the particularities of what parts of the action and symbolism I understand, what parts confuse me, what parts I understand but still am so shocked by that I might as well be confused, and so on. It also glosses over the delicate tightrope that experimental stories play, balancing innovation with the danger of overloading the viewer's capacity to interpret.

A lot of my mental energy when watching Sarazanmai gets spent on just figuring out what the heck is going on. Anime created by Kunihiko Ikuhara usually demands such close attention. His breakout hit series Revolutionary Girl Utena starts, after all, with a series of surreal sword duels at a posh highschool, and ends with the apocalypse and (in the movie) teenagers turning into cars. Ikuhara takes these already kind of inaccessible plots and overlays a variety of stylistic oddities: flat, stage-set-like artwork, abstraction, physical models and live action shots, shadow puppetry, deliberate cartoony aesthetics... Utena, Sarazanmai, and his other shows Maworu Penguindrum (Spinning Penguindrum) and Yurikuma Arashi (Lesbian Bear Storm) employ all sorts of visual oddities in order to tell their stories. Summaries can't do the shows justice.

Still, an article like this needs a summary, so I'll do my best.

Underneath the weird lore and aesthetics (kappas, giant ghosts, anal desire balls...) Sarazanmai follows conceptually familiar story beats, if you've seen monster of the week shonen or magical girl shows. The trio of teenage protagonists confront a monster associated visually with some mundane item, and must battle and defeat it to restore order to their world. The show splits its time between the travails of their personal lives, then introduces the monster of the week--the "Kappa Zombie"--and Kazuki, Enta, and Toi are transformed by their mystical guide figure Keppi the Kappa Prince into magical warriors, in this case cute kappas.

The conflict they're caught in is between Kappas and Otters, two mythological entities that both prey upon human desire. This desire is represented by the "Shirikodama," a ball-shaped organ held in the anus. That's not an Ikuhara invention, that's legit Japanese folklore, weird in the way folklore often is. In the source mythology, the Shirikodama seems to represent the soul, but here it represents secret needs, longings, and drives to connect with others. After accidentally breaking a Kappa statue, depressed crossdresser Kazuki and juvenile delinquent Toi both have their Shirikodamas extracted by Keppi as punishment, turning them into kappas. Kazuki's friend, disaster gay Enta, is quickly roped in as well, and the three must fight in the surreal Field of Desires to become human again.

Their opponents are the giant, surreal Kappa Zombies, monstrous manifestations of a former human's fixated desire. In each episode, a Kappa Zombie appears and magically accumulates objects of fixation from around the city (balls, cats, fish...). To defeat these zombies, the transformed teens must join together to extract each zombie's Shirikodama. Doing so banishes the ghost after revealing its secret, pathological desire. Victory comes at a cost, though: each of the teens has a whole series of their own secrets they keep hidden from the world, and the magical transformation that allows them to transfer the Shirikodama to Keppi--the titular "Sarazanmai"--causes their own desires to leak out to their peers, revealing their shameful needs, codependent schemes, and betrayals.


This is the central tension of the show, captured by each episode title: "I want to connect, but..." followed by a variety of barriers ("I want to lie","it's not meant to be", and eventually simply "I can't"). That tension grounds the show's bizarre mythology in an experience of teenage isolation and, to varying degrees, repressed queerness. Each of the characters feels compelled to sacrifice himself for some unhealthy relationship: Kazuki for his younger brother, Toi for his criminal older brother, and Enta for Kazuki, with whom he has fallen in love.

So, the show is definitely weird, but all the weirdness is bound in a solid conceptual circle: questions about connections and relationships that are explored in different forms in each episode, both through the protagonists and the Kappa Zombies. Recurring imagery of circles and chains emphasizes the need to connect with others, while the interpersonal drama of each episode highlights how toxic relationships can become. Underlying it all is the sense of attraction between the three protagonists, most blatant with Enta but present to an extent in each pairing, and the barriers that circumstance, society, and individual psychology throw up in their path. 

Still, there's something a little contradictory about the show's themes and its layering of unique lore and experimental storytelling. Why make a show about connections while using so many unfamiliar or even freshly invented symbols and reference points? Isn't that, itself, a barrier to understanding?

Ikuhara is often treated as a bit of an obscurationist. Like Hideakki Anno of Neon Genesis Evangelion and Andrew Hussie of Homestuck, I've seen reactions to his work range from claims that the symbolism is just "rule of cool" at work, merely entertaining spectacle, to accusations of pretentiousness and a kind of trick played on the audience. I don't mind pure spectacle, necessarily, but I don't really agree with that assessment of Ikuhara's shows.

No, I think Ikuhara just uses the full range of symbolic freedom that visual art affords a creator. More than that, Ikuhara has a reputation in the industry of lifting up new talent that similarly approaches visual storytelling in an experimental way, encouraging his collaborators to develop their own styles and unique visual rhetorics. More on that in a bit. The work of Ikuhara and his collaborators is often shocking, distinctive, and decidedly out of left field. And yet, as already hinted at in the summary above, usually you can sit with it and translate the odd symbols, motifs, and stylistic choices.

Take, for example, the use of iconic symbols to stand in for background characters. Designed to look like the minimalistic figures used on signage, Sarazanmai is full of such iconic entities floating along through the far more detailed backgrounds. There's some solid mechanical logic behind this choice. After all, you can save animation budgeting for other aspects of the show if your crowd scenes are full of such abstractions instead of detailed, naturalistic humans.


But the choice of such icons is fairly consistent throughout. The more background characters act on or are affected by or connected to the protagonists, the more likely they are to be drawn as humans rather than abstractions. Again, this seems like a practical concession to the needs of the narrative, but given the show is so centered on the notion of connections and the possibility of falling outside of society, it also strikes me as symbolically meaningful. Maybe it's a little solipsistic, but we don't really care about those background characters as more than icons, right? Not unless they're linked somehow to the primary action. And how different is that from our connections in daily life? Certainly living in a big city demands a certain level of abstraction, if you don't want to find yourself overwhelmed by the sheer mass of people.

But that abstraction can also lead to systemic failures, as when Toi reflects on his family's troubles and semi-explicitly ties gentrification and the erasure of spaces that are no longer useful, to the erasure of people. His criminal brother has taught him that only people willing to be bad can survive this process of exclusion. His bro is kind of a piece of shit, mind, and his ideology isn't one to be emulated, but it's born of real pain. Connecting is a struggle, and the abstracting-away of other people into faceless masses can leave one outside the chain of relationships, with no beginning, no end, and no connection--a phrase that recurs throughout the series as the consequence of failing to connect.

So the iconic background characters--designed, from what I understand, by graphic designer Wataru Okabe--make up a part of the story's symbolic system, what we might casually call its visual language.

That language isn't quite like written language, though, and the difference is crucial to Sarazanmai's free-wheeling experimentation. Remember that delicate balance I mentioned earlier, between innovation and incomprehension? The ability of visual creators to play in that space of balance stems from the unique way that semiotics works in a visual medium.

Critics and theorists of anime, manga, comics, cartoons, and so on, sometimes talk about cartooning having its own "visual language." In a general sense this is true! If you're looking at language as just a means of communicating various ideas, there's all kinds of meaning-making levels to a cartoon. You've got the baseline of the verbal and textual language, what is depicted visually, the style it's using, abstract symbols like exasperated sweat drops or wavy "heat" lines for anger, ornamentation like a frame around the action featuring twirling roses, and then the way all these things work together to form a higher level group of thematically relevant symbols and motifs (apples, princes and princesses, references to famous works of art, and so on).

Calling all this "language," though, isn't always quite right. Or at least, comics scholar Hannah Miodrag thinks it might deceive us. See, for Miodrag, language means something specific. She's a semiotician, and her book Comics and Language spends most of its time carefully distinguishing between a language in the semiotic sense and how comics communicate ideas. A language, she says, most properly is a set of signs that apply arbitrarily to what they describe, and are bound by convention.

That's true of some things in cartooning, but not all, and often only in degrees. Wavy lines to indicate irritation is a conventionalized symbol, but it's a motivated sign. It's not arbitrary but expresses the hot feeling of anger. It also works in conjunction with other motivated (posture, expression) and more abstract and conventional (color, pattern) signs. Taken out of that context, it could mean everything from a bad smell to a groovy feeling to a particular tone of voice. Take a few wavy lines and see how many different meanings you can make with them! Or, do that with a circle. But also keep in mind that it's still somewhat conventionalized, so in one body of conventions irritation might be indicated with straight lines instead.


This means that someone working in visual media has a ton of latitude to invent entirely new "languages". Conventions exist, but they're not as binding as the restrictions of prose. The motivated nature of many visual symbols, even invented ones, actually helps make visual systems more flexible, because they can rapidly be taught through reference. Visual artists can go to some pretty wild places while still assuming that through the power of metaphor, and their own ability to repeatedly introduce the same visual grammar, viewers will keep up. And, of course, all storytelling, visual or textual, can make use of higher level symbolism by associating words or phrases or particular pieces of invented lore or mythology with recurring story situations, character archetypes, or philosophical concepts.

It's kinda strange, then, that so few mainstream creators push visual communication to the wild extremes that they might potentially go.

Maybe that's why Ikuhara's shows are sometimes treated as just "rule of cool" or even wild, self-indulgent nonsense. While he does at times draw upon familiar imagery--Christian symbolism, romantic icons, the graphic design of urban environments--he also freely invents what Miodrag calls the langue of the text, a custom set of symbols that get their meaning through inference, reference, and repetition in a single narrative's context.

Revolutionary Girl Utena is full of that kind of thing. One of the most iconic images of the show features the main character leveling her sword against a couple of teen boys riding a motorcycle like it's a horse in a jousting match, while a chorus sings the words "Allegory, Allegorier, Allegoriest." A little bit over the top and self indulgent? Absolutely. But it comes in the context of a season-long use of muscle cars as a symbol for the transition from adolescence into a more adult sexuality, and the primary villain's predatory relationship toward the cast. So, we can look at the motorcycle and its use in the duel as relating to that symbol.


How far can we take the metaphor? Pretty far, actually. The motorcycle is driven by the pair of teen heartthrobs Touga and Saionji, who have been key antagonists to Utena throughout the series. Saionji is frequently manipulated and used by Touga's schemes, and Touga finds himself exploited here by the primary villain. Rather than a sports car, with its dangerous and powerful masculinity, Touga has only his motorcycle, with poor Saionji demoted to the side car. Utena thus finds herself vying, via the car/motorcycle symbolism, through this escalating scale of shitty masculinities that she's gotta defeat in order to protect her lesbian love interest. Also, Saionji is ambivalent about bottoming. That's also part of the sidecar subtext.

The symbolism is weird but it's not unmotivated or unprecedented. After all, aren't motorcycles and musclecars already kind of a symbol of masculine power? And Ikuhara's taken great pains to build the symbol and its associations throughout the series. When we arrive at the "Allegory, Allegorier, Allegoriest" image, we might respond with "ha ha what the fuck?" but we sort of already know what the fuck, don't we? It's wild and even jarring, but it's not completely incomprehensible, because the very nature of this visual system gives Ikuhara the freedom to teach us how to read the series.

Ikuhara takes playfulness with his visual symbol systems into his language, playing wildly with all sorts of puns. Puns, of course, do some odd things to a language-system's apparent rigidity, allowing words that should be discrete units to slide between each other in unexpected ways. Ikuhara often uses this for humor. His primary antagonist in Sarazanmai, Otter, is constantly declaring that things are (in the translated version) "otterly unacceptable" and the like. In Utena, he milks some great comedy from punning misunderstandings, as when the character Nanami mistakes the character Juri's bowling ball for a giant egg.

But, the puns usually accompany even wilder and weirder visual punning and symbol manipulation. The Utena episode in question features Nanami waking up to find an egg in her bed, and she quickly convinces herself that she must have laid it. The egg then proceeds to take on a bunch of different symbolic roles throughout the course of the absurdist drama: it seems to fluidly represent everything from anxieties about sexual maturity, menstruation, queer desire and the lesbian Juri's Big Egg Energy, the threat of any of those things being discovered, or the predatory hunger of male characters. The punning and symbolism isn't necessarily fixed, it can float all over the place across a series of connected ideas, enabled by the fluidity of these higher level symbol systems.

So, in the Japanese version when Otter speaks he puns constantly on the sound overlap between "Otter" and "Lie". This is paired with his place in the narrative as a force of deception--manipulating characters and taking the form of their loved ones, primarily--and his general depiction. Otter is rendered as a flat black mass with red outlines and eyes. Not too out of the ordinary really for a threatening antagonist, but Otter's depiction feels notable for how it remains consistent throughout--he never takes on a more fleshed out form, remaining this minimal graphical element even amongst more detailed human characters.

His cartoon rendering mirrors that of the protagonists and Keppi. In particular, Kazuki, Toi, and Enta take on, when they transform into Kappas, a far more abstract and iconic form than their usual detailed human models. Their field of play also is abstracted, not geographically literal but notional. This is particularly highlighted by co-script-writer Teruko Utsumi's little cardboard diorama of a street which a camera pans through as the kappa trio travels toward the bridge that is their battle arena. This deliberately unreal environment suggests that the Field of Desires really is a more abstract and notional space than the daytime world the trio inhabits, and should be treated as partly allegorical (allegorier, allegoriest). The trio themselves are left with their loves, desires, and pathologies much closer to the surface, the abstract cartooning techniques allowing them to be more expressive, and their abstracted forms signalling that they're sort of the essence of the characters with all the messy detail stripped away.

So, when I got to the final episode of the series and Otter, in the midst of a song and dance number, dramatically proclaimed "I am an abstract concept!" my first response was "Ha ha, what the fuck?!" But the great thing about Sarazanmai is that throughout the series, through countless choices of its symbolic system, I was able to go pretty quickly from the immediate reaction to seeing how it made sense. Otter is a kind of lie that exists in the metaphorical field of desire, a fear of failing to connect, a temptation drawing people outside the circle of connections, or a false connection driven only by unhealthy fixation. He's banished when the trio, in the face of all the possible failures that might destroy their relationship to each other, still choose to reaffirm their past and present bond and move into the uncertain future together. The transition then back from the abstracted, iconic forms of the characters and Keppi might be read as a reaffirmation of that very messy detail lost when transforming a person into merely their base desires. The characters embrace their whole selves (with Keppi merging with his "Dark Keppi" counterpart and no I don't have time to explain THAT whole thing here) and become fully realized entities. 

Otter is an abstract concept! So, in a sense, are any of the countless signs of which Sarazanmai is constituted, and the show's power comes from how it plays in that space.

The narrative techniques it uses to keep readers engaged through all the wild symbolic play, and the specific joy that emerges from this storytelling method, is a whole other can of worms, though. To hear about that, connect with me next week when I dive deeper into Sarazanmai's storytelling in Part B.

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I Want To Connect (But It's Hard To Understand) Part B

Complex shows like Sarazanmai and Revolutionary Girl Utena use powerful techniques to connect to their audience. But the most powerful tool might be the audience itself and the connections we make to each other.

All Streamers Are Rose Brides: Utena Commentary Podcast

Months ago I did a live stream with optimisticDuelist of Homestuck Explained where we watched the final two episodes of Revolutionary Girl Utena. You can now listen to that stream as a podcast commentary on the show, with Part 3 available now! Here's the link to my Patreon; you can also listen on oD's Patreon if you're already subscribed there.

Complicated and Messy: Kingdom Hearts, Plot, and Being A Teen Queer

Kingdom Hearts feels like a wild game of pretend played with every random thing the players had lying around. That's also what my experience of being a queer teenager felt like.

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