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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 22, 2019

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.

I didn't connect with Revolutionary Girl Utena at first. There were bits that I liked, but I found myself bouncing off of some of the techniques that director Kunihiko Ikuhara frequently employs. Like, there were the weird musical numbers accompanying each of the sword fights that formed an episode's climax. There was the OTHER weird musical number accompanying Utena's ascent to the dueling arena and magical girl transformation. There were the odd shadow plays that act as intermissions to each episode, telling seemingly irrelevant stories in an absurd style. And just on a production level, there was all that reused stock footage!

Utena had been pitched to me culturally as "Evangelion for Magical Girl shows". Boy did that pitch set me up for failure! While the two shows have a similar relationship to their genre, adopting conventions from, respectively, Magical Girl and Mecha anime to explore much weirder philosophical ideas, Evangelion does this by introducing brutal psychological realism paired with cosmic horror. Utena goes practically in the opposite direction, doubling down on cartoonishness, abstraction, and wild flights of fancy. It took some time to adjust my expectations to the show's reality.

But I did adjust.

I adjusted so well that by the end of Sarazanmai's run, I was cheering and laughing at each new version of the weekly song and dance numbers that both the heroes and the antagonists get. Oh, yeah, I didn't really get into that when I talked about the show last week, but the story beats of the monster-of-the-week narrative are highlighted by the characters actually dancing out their feelings. It's... amazing?

To recap, the series follows three teenage boys who turn into cute kappas in order to defeat giant ghosts by extracting their "Shirikodamas", organs contained in the anus that hold a human being's desires. In the process, the emotional hangups present in their daily lives are exposed to their friends in embarrassing detail. If they want to win the wish-granting Dishes of Hope to achieve their personal goals, though, they need to embrace these difficult and painful connections.

Their ghost opponents are beings of pure codependent or obsessive energy, unleashed magically by secondary villains Reo and Mabu. These two crooked cop partners--partners in two senses of the word--work for the villainous Otter Empire against the deposed Kappa Prince, extracting desire energy from these ghosts. They've been press-ganged into service to keep Mabu alive, but the two have grown distant and Reo fears that Mabu has been replaced by the otters with an emotionless facsimile. As their relationship breaks down in the background, they pick up people whose weird fetishes have led them to creepy behavior, and judge whether those individuals are ruled by "Love" or "Desire", turning them into Kappa Zombies if it's the latter.

This transformation, by the way, is achieved via an elaborate dance number which appears in each episode, where the two sing together about desire as the vast industrial mechanisms of the Otter Empire box, stamp, and ship out the hapless deviants in the background. The fights against the Kappa Zombies also comes in the form of a song and dance number, as the three central characters sing their need to reclaim the particular item of the week before their secrets are exposed to the world. It's a very musical show!

I can definitely see, given my experiences with Utena, why that might be a barrier to entry for some folks. So how did I go from bouncing off Utena the first time I watched, to greeting each reappearance of Sarazanmai's songs enthusiastically?

Well, I guess the simplest way to sum it up would be "through connections" but that's more glib than clarifying. There's lots of different types of connections that come into play here, after all.

One of them is the connection between reader and text. Like I described last week, visual media in particular have a ton of latitude to invent their own cartoon rhetoric, a whole set of visual symbols and styles that are unique to one particular story. Still, it's very possible that such a visual rhetoric is just too obscure. How do you connect to an audience enough to keep them around through the weirdness?

One way is through carefully repeating motifs and even stock footage so that an orderly structure can guide viewers through your symbolism. I know, I know I said just a few paragraphs ago that Ikuhara's repeated structures presented an initial barrier to me, but if you can accept what they're doing, they operate as a helpful tool.

And you might be able to accept what that use of stock footage does if you're familiar with that convention from elsewhere. Ikuhara got his start with Toei Animation, and Sakugablog writer kViN suggests that the Toei production processes, which heavily utilized stock footage,

"are still ingrained in his brain. He hasn’t been forced to pay weekly tribute to toy makers nor worry about the economy of long-running productions for decades, and yet he’ll still rely on monster of the week structures and recurring transformations scenes."

kViN goes on to suggest that this structure allows Ikuhara's work to use slight modulations in how the stock footage plays out to create various humorous or thematic effects. The repetition is, in other words, a tool for teaching viewers how to read a show's visual rhetoric, by providing a stable backdrop into which differences can be introduced. More than that, though, I think it provides a familiar vocabulary for genre fans. If you know shows like Sailor Moon, the conventions of stock transformation sequences and battle beats can help guide you through some of the weirder abstractions of the shows.

Heck, just watching other Ikuhara shows can help. When I recently started watching Yurikuma Arashi (Lesbian Bear Storm) with revolutionaryDuelist of Homestuck Explained fame, I gotta admit I was bewildered. The show, fittingly for its title, is a maelstrom of bears, lesbianism, problematic content, abstract symbolism, lore, imposing Argento-influenced architecture, and people shouting things like "I'm not giving up on love!" Within that storm I grounded myself in analogy: I looked for the stock footage, compared it to sequences in Sarazanmai and Utena, and figured out, ok, this weird thing with a bear trial, girls licking honey off of each other, someone falling down a staircase, and sniper rifles, must be this show's equivalent of the magical girl transformation sequence and battle.

I guess. 

Look, Yurikuma is both the most abstract and the most troubled (read: cancellable) of Ikuhara's shows, I'm still not sure what I'm looking at, and I disclaim all responsibility for its more dodgy content. I can make sense of its hallucinatory sequences, though, through reference to conventions of the genre. That feels like a solid testament to how effective this repetition can be!

This also captures something of the weird interplay between invention and convention. Cartoons, and any visual media in fact, can get incredibly abstract and experimental in their visual signs, but these generic conventions swoop in to keep things from becoming a pure tone piece. You might picture this like a set of semiotic layers: in visual signification you have the subject an image refers to, the image itself, how those images are composed into a larger narrative, and then the conventions of genre on top of it. Ikuhara and his collaborators can slide in on that narrative level and use striking, unique choices of images, because the lower level has that connection of resemblance, and on a higher level they can rely on genre motifs to carry things.

That doesn't mean the genre has to be fixed, mind. One of my other ways into Ikuhara shows has very little to do with anime directly. No, I'm influenced by something from much further back in my backstory:

Musical Theater.

See, I grew up literally sitting on the steps of the orchestra pit while my parents played for a variety of musicals. From that unique vantage point, I got familiar with the conventions of theater. Sometimes space might be traversed nonliterally with sets moved to indicate passage, the intervening time cropped out. (Consider the scene when the Kappa trio accompanies Reo and Mabu into the depths of the Otter processing plant, and they carry on their conversation as though no time has passed between each scene transition.) Sometimes space is a mere trick of the light and careful perspective. (Consider the upside-down castle in Utena.) Sometimes characters just break into song about their emotions. (Otters, soiyaaaaa!) Sometimes characters act less as individuals in their own right and more as a chorus commenting upon the action. (Consider Sara-chan's news announcements which set up the conflict of each episode.)

Actually, let's zero in on that last bit for a second, because it's one of the odd conventions Ikuhara seems to enjoy. Utena had its shadow plays, performed by the theater club at Ohtori Academy, but Sara's announcements adapt the Greek Chorus convention to the modern day, transforming theater performers into an Idol personality. Moreover, as 19.04 Sec blog details, the scrolling text that accompanies Sara's programs also provides additional story information and often dramatically ironic commentary on the action. Blogger Atelier Emily has a number of detailed analyses of these pieces of commentary and how they reflect on the plot, lore, and themes of the series. Sarazanmai therefore mashes together multiple different conventions here--Idol culture, news programs, and the generic convention drawn from theater of the Greek Chorus. It's wildly inventive, but it's nonetheless motivated and logical, tying multiple ideas and story needs together.

The musical numbers in each Sarazanmai episode act as a similar nexus of different needs, conventions, and experiments. They're also just really fun spectacle, the music catchy as hell, the animation delightfully fluid and captivating. kViN, tongue in cheek, notes that the incredible dance by Reo and Mabu is key animated by renowned industry pervert Shingo Fujii, fitting considering the dance ends with Reo cradling a bare-chested and swooning Mabu while holding his partner's mechanical heart. It's... it's a lot, honestly?

It's also emphatically not literal, or, at least probably mostly not literal. I'm a little unclear whether some elements of the show are metaphors or not, and I suspect that's deliberate. Like, it seems like the shot at the very beginning where the wall of their police box lifts up and away is a theatrical touch, treating the physical space like a stage set that is removed in order to make room for the incredibly hot villain song and dance sequence. But then later the cops and the kappa kids also just ride that police box setting down into the factory like an elevator, so maybe that's just literally how it works?

Sarazanmai plays a number of games like that around Reo and Mabu, actually. Reo's gun, for example, displays signs with the character for "EXTRACT" before he creates a new Kappa Zombie, and for quite a while I assumed it was some sort of, I don't know, magic gun? But then he starts shooting people outside of the context of the song and dance numbers, and it turns out it shoots very real bullets (or lasers). Whoops.

Anyway, the point is that to some extent, the dance, like other elements of the series, takes place in the same semi-real space that most musical theater takes place in. This is often hard for people to get used to, I've noticed. You might have heard--or voiced!--complaints that no one would randomly start singing out their feelings in Real Life like they do in musicals! The fact that some percentage of queers ABSOLUTELY would do that in Real Life aside, that criticism misses the mark. Humans, after all, also do not have big expressive eyes like they do in anime. Like cartooning, musical theater is full of nonliteral conventions, signs that refer to the real world but in an abstracted and idealized form. Attempting to translate that non-literal fantasy space into a highly literalized and naturalistic aesthetic is um...

...Often a mistake.

Sarazanmai luckily pushes in the opposite direction. As I pointed out last time, the transformation of Toi, Kazuki, and Enta into Kappas and the transition into the battle sequence against the monster of the week involves a number of deliberate nods to abstraction, the naturalistic space of their city giving over to the more notional Field of Desire. This is true of the Otters Soiya dance as well, what with the pulling away of the police box walls and the rendering of Reo and Mabu in an outlineless form of pure flat colors, which serve to emphasize the mesmerizing gyrations and poses of their dance. This rendering, in fact, creates a fascinating aesthetic interplay that captures the contradictions of the characters. They are highly aestheticized entities that dominate the foreground, distracting from the all too real mechanisms of industrialized violence churning away in the background. They aren't just cops but idealized symbols of cops, and just like the magic gun that turns out to also just be a literal gun for shooting teens, that idealized form masks the reality of the system they serve.

Theater thus acts not just as a way of encouraging the viewer to embrace the non-literal, but as a way of introducing deliberate points of confusion and doubt about the literal vs metaphorical. The point of doing this is to foreshadow and suggest the possibility of deception, and that we should look beneath the surface appearances of characters, narratives, and the apparent order of the world. This isn't a new theme for Ikuhara of course: Utena is all about that shit, and ultimately involves the protagonist fighting through a veiled, illusory, theatrical world order in order to get to the truth.

Of course, I didn't really get this the first time I watched it. Like I said earlier, I went into Utena expecting Evangelion, and just wasn't in the right headspace to grasp the theatrical elements.

For that, I had to watch videos by optimisticDuelist and Zeria on Youtube detailing, respectively, the particular way Utena and Steven Universe utilize certain aesthetics in flashbacks to indicate questionable memory or outright deception, and the overarching fascination throughout Ikuhara's career with society as a kind of manipulative lie that must be overcome:

This brings us to the crux of the matter. When academics talk about reading and semiotics it often focuses upon the individual reader (at least in the scholarly fields I've generally found myself in). But the reality is that readership often takes place within a community. Scroll back through this article, for example, and you can see how much I leaned on information provided by other bloggers to make sense of Sarazanmai! I also literally watched the last few episodes with revolutionaryDuelist and we reacted to the buck wild experience of the conclusion together, trying to parse out what it all meant at 2 in the morning. It was great!

I wouldn't have understood the show nearly as well, or been able to compose the analysis of Reo and Mabu's dance, without the input of other fans. Their general arc made a lot more sense to me in particular after I read shipperinjapan's analysis of them as symbols for Boy's Love conventions, further expanded upon in this article by Vrai Kaiser. According to this reading, Ikuhara is commenting on the Anime industry's entrenched homophobia by having Mabu cursed to a half-life by Otter: if he ever tells Reo that he loves him, his mechanical heart will explode. This parallels an industry that will allow all sorts of displays of affection, only to eschew such explicit canonizing of a relationship in words. Atelier Emily also reads their relationship in parallel with Enta's crush on Kazuki to explore how painful and difficult it can be to acknowledge that a partner has changed.

My entry into the final episodes of the series was facilitated, then, by a whole network of built up connections.

There is the connection to Ikuhara's work, and in turn his connection to collaborators that express unique approaches to visual storytelling.

There is the connection to generic convention, both of anime and of musical theater.

There is the connection to other fans, and their research and readings which inform my own perception.

There is the connection to my friends, who I can exchange ideas and analysis with directly.

There is the connection to the series as a whole, its unique visual rhetoric and semiotic systems, and the way it employs repetition and form to tell its story.

And that last one comes into play forcefully as Reo and Mabu make their desperate bid for redemption, stealing the spotlight from the Kappa trio and performing the Sarazanmai to get one last Dish of Hope. The song that we've grown accustomed to is now reframed as a duet between the Kappa Zombie of Mabu, and the kappa Reo. Yeah they were kappas all along. Kappa shock! In this rendering of the familiar sequence, instead of a battle between the characters, Mabu willingly submits to his partner, allowing him to finally reveal the curse Otter put on him, and to make the choice to sacrifice his life explicitly stating his love for Reo.

When all that went down, I wasn't thinking about semiotics. I was thinking "Ha ha holy fuck!"

But all these systems of communication, all these ways that we learn to make sense of a complex, innovative visual narrative, the ways we learn not just as individuals but as a connected group of readers all sharing our own pieces of analysis, these are all intrinsically tied to that reaction. They're what makes it a positive experience, and one that exists as more than spectacle, as a comprehensible, powerful, moving story.

Because that sacrifice and the death of these two gloriously canonical and explicit gay men doesn't even last a full episode before they are magically resurrected in the final battle through their love, and become a literal shooting star to light a path for the heroes to victory--a victory that requires them to reaffirm their own connection through time, even in the face of countless possible future failures. And it means so much to me that this experience, at once baffling and joyful, hard to understand and yet viscerally comprehensible, was something I didn't have to experience alone.

What makes Sarazanmai incredible is that if you successfully get through it, and make the connections necessary to understand what's going on and what it's saying, you will have experienced the exact process the show champions. I opened this set of articles asking why a show about connection would be so strange and obtuse, why it would choose such unconventional visual rhetorics and surprising genre conventions. This is why. The very openness of the visual semiotic system is an invitation to actively engage with a work of art, and that active engagement is the root of connection, not passive consumption. It is precisely the obscurity and open-ended nature of the work of Ikuhara and his collaborators, the way so many ideas and symbols collide together, that enables a fandom's collective interpretive work, the connection of readers to one another.

If Sarazanmai presents barriers, it is only in the palpable hope that we will overcome them to connect with it, and with each other.

"...but I feel we were pretty considerate in those episodes nonetheless. I believe we still based them on a shared common ground, so that any viewer could understand them. A lot of people told me, 'Nope, you'd already baffled me by that point," but for my part, I felt I'd given the audience all the help I could. Really, I couldn't have afforded to give them any more." --Kunihiko Ikuhara

This Has Been

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

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