Thursday, May 17, 2012

Princess Jellyfish: Ambiguity and Fashionable Geekdom

I love this series because it is sweet and entertaining, but it's also got depth, refusing to offer simple scenarios or simple answers. Also because it hits a little too close to home in both a good and bad way, and far more directly than any other anime that I can make that claim about.

Tsukimi Kurashita is an eighteen-year-old girl who moved to Tokyo to become an illustrator. However, she has not gone anywhere yet, and is living in a small apartment block with "The Sisterhood": four slightly older women, and one female manga artist who is never seen and communicates with notes under the door. All visible members are "otaku", characterized by obsessive focus on a single thing, and with the typical social awkwardness and unfashionable dressing this suggests.

For Tsukimi, her "thing" is jellyfish, which are also connected to nostalgic memories of her deceased mother. When she makes the regular trip to the pet shop to talk to her jellyfish friend, "Clara" (a play on "Kura", as in "Kurage", the Japanese word for jellyfish), she sees Clara's tank now has another jelly species whose secretions are poisonous to her/it. Tsukimi tries to muster up the courage to talk to the hip clerk in the closed shop, but can't succeed…before a glamorous girl shows up and demands Clara for Tsukimi. Shocked at the kindness of one of "The Stylish", Tsukimi takes Clara home with the girl in tow.

This girl is actually a boy: Kuranosuke Koibuchi, the illegitimate son of a powerful political family. Kuranosuke regardless lives with his father, and cross-dresses to come off as too crazy for politics, and to reconnect with the glamorous mother who was pressured into giving him up. Kuranosuke genuinely likes living with the Sisterhood, keeping up with a disguise that only Tsukimi knows is false, which is good, because the apartment is a "nunnery", with no male tenants allowed.

Kuranosuke also wants to be the one to get them dressing better and acting better, especially because their apartment block is threatened by redevelopment, and they need to become respectable to protest it. Furthermore, they are going to try to raise money to buy the building. They start out with the flea market, and end up trying to create a line of jellyfish-themed dresses for sale. Oh, and in the middle is a very awkward love triangle between Tsukimi, Kuranosuke, and Kuranosuke's older ("legitimate") brother, Shu.

Shu catches sight of the first made-over Tsukimi and is immediately smitten, despite their being over a decade of age difference (Shu is thirty). It takes a long time for Shu to realize who Tsukimi is, seeing her several times in her regular sweats, and assuming the made-over Tsukimi is a different girl. The age difference is, I guess, supposed to be overwritten by different cultural standards, and the fact that Shu is a virgin who's never been kissed or been on a date, putting him on a "young" level and equivalent to Tsukimi's inexperience, but it's still a little creepy.

There's a fourth person who has the potential to get with nobody but Shu: Shoko Inari, a woman involved with the area development. She slips Shu a mickey and tries to convince him they had sex, in order to blackmail him into supporting the project to Shu's father. There are some genuinely poignant moments at first, when Shu comes staggering home with his clothes rumpled, and then goes to Tsukimi's just to hold her hand, but the rest of the story is played mostly for comedy.

Inari fancies herself a femme fatale and expert manipulator, but is prone to explosive, cartoony rages and behaving like a child. When Inari starts following Shu around to get her blackmail, it's played as comedic rather than disturbing. To make it worse, it eventually looks like Inari might be falling for Shu genuinely. Neither the anime nor the manga has anything happen between them, but the direction creates further discomfort. It's not entirely okay for Shu to be in love with Tsukimi, but this isn't the best alternative.

A series about female geeks, in large number and without male counterparts (though one could argue that Kuranosuke is a "fashion geek", and his family has a chauffeur named Hanamori who is quite obsessed with his Benzes), is something unusual. That it's unusual is not surprising, given certain perceptions of gender, but it's good to have something different, anything that demonstrates that female characters can be flawed in that very real way, without pulling back. Though Tsukimi has the most development, you would know people like every "Nun" if you hang in geeky communities. The only exception might be Mayaya, obsessed with the Three Kingdoms, who becomes a "cartoon" by yelling her sentences and making vaguely martial-arts poses and hand movements.

Of course, few pieces of popular fiction remain static as their story progresses, and these characters must change from what they were. The use of makeovers does mean the story is simply about the female characters learning to be "normal", however. There are many layers to the presentation, so that the audience is not left with a simple understanding of what Tsukimi "ought" to be.

Sometimes there is the sense that Tsukimi should break free of her otaku bubble, with her friends being potential dead weight because they have weaker characterization and less ambition. The major exception is Chieko, invested in traditional Japanese dolls and clothing. Her mother owns the building and she functions as the "den mother" and is also a wizard at sewing, meaning she has some skills and practical intelligence to offer. Chieko helps to make sure Tsukimi's friends aren't just obstacles to her becoming "normal".

Yet at the same time, Chieko is not as complex as Tsukimi, and the rest of them (Bamba, Mayaya, Jiji), are far less competent. They are eternally reluctant to help out and easily distracted, by their obsessions, their laziness, some good food, or by their fears and persecution complexes in regards to the fashionable elite. So the picture is not rosy either.

Tsukimi also keeps switching back and forth in her appearance, and Kuranosuke in fact surprises himself by being happy the first time he has seen Tsukimi changed back. Tsukimi's musings also include questioning of whether women truly do need to become "princesses" to be happy.

Kuranosuke also starts to perform his technique on all the other "outside" girls except for Chieko (whose signature kimono can blend in with the fashionable), and they continue to be unchanged in other ways. When Kuranosuke takes them all out to a cafe, Bamba is watching for trains and Jiji is watching for old men, their respective obsessions. Furthermore, Tsukimi's love of jellyfish, the main characteristic of her geekdom, becomes fuel for artistic creativity, meaning that not everything about her needs to be changed. The popular presumption that a makeover will make a character automatically more poised is therefore challenged, but it could go other ways than just to make it so that fashionable dressing is no big deal.

Before this, it is also made clear that the Sisterhood has a persecution complex/fear of "The Stylish" that at first seems ridiculous once we meet the friendly and glamorous Kuranosuke, whom everyone but Tsukimi are unjustifiably abrasive towards when they first meet him. Yet Inari and others also confirm their implied fears, that "The Stylish" are not only different from they are, but predatory and nasty.

This is what I mean by Princess Jellyfish offering no easy answers, and audience reaction to it is bound to be equally complex. While a story isn't obligated to be politically correct, it's always harder to get viewers on your side if a story has the already-looked down on groups of society do as they are already encouraged to do in real life. And where is the line between taking care of yourself and arbitrary standards of beauty? It is convincing when Kuranosuke tells the Sisterhood that to be taken seriously in protest against the development, they must dress respectfully, i.e. fashionably, but Kuranosuke, as a disguised boy, can also reject the trappings of femininity anytime he wants, while the Sisterhood, as women, are asked to consider them obligatory rather than a personal preference. One's interpretation of what this series is doing may depend largely on their personal experiences.

One could argue that Princess Jellyfish involves pandering to its audience, with what is technically a story about a plain girl (potentially) getting a beautiful boy. Yet pandering is fine if it's not obvious, and the quality of the main characterizations, and the constant shifting the series undergoes makes Princess Jellyfish at least look objective. The makeover plots have made so that Princess Jellyfish can't be a total reversal of the "plain guy gets beautiful girl" plot already, either.

However pandering, romantic, or comedic Princess Jellyfish might become, though, Tsukimi's awkwardness and fears feel extremely real for anyone who has ever undergone something similar. ANNCast even made note that Princess Jellyfish is a series that is about a fundamentally female experience, or at least, a contemporary, urban "female experience" rather than a universal one. It maybe Japanese, but I, as a North American viewer, still "got it". It's not about Princess Jellyfish being a "chick show", but something more about the day-to-day living as a young woman whose life didn't follow the script, both by accident and design. Yet anime fandom was raving about this series, so it must speak to male viewers as well.

Princess Jellyfish is not perfect. As I suggested, the focus is on Tsukimi, and while the other members of the Sisterhood  have character, they don't change or develop as the plot progresses, and often serve as just comic relief or sewing machines. While the makeover plots mostly do a good job of justifying themselves, Kuranosuke's desire to get rid of Tsukimi's glasses or saddle the girls with high heels brings slight physical crippling into the mix and is harder to accept.

I also have a slight preference for the original manga version. The anime isn't bad, but in the name of finishing off a series while the manga is still ongoing, the characters' outward problem is solved too quickly, as Chieko's mother shows up and tells them she isn't selling the building after all, and the love story is still left open. It's better than if the series went on longer and added more of its own off-the-cuff material, but it means the series is not as fulfilling as it could have been. The manga version takes more time to flesh out the story of characters trying to solve their money woes, and probably will finish off the romantic aspect in some way. Unfortunately, only the anime is officially available in English, while the manga is confined to scanlations.

Aesthetically the series is also successful, though the realistic setting dictates everything be low-key. The dubbing is good, so is the original Japanese acting, and the score is okay. The animation in the TV series is decent, and the artwork is great. Every character looks distinct, which is especially good for the female cast, because female animation designs rarely have that same sense of character that male designs are allowed. All of the Sisterhood looks different, and though tiny, afro'ed Bamba and lanky, square-jawed Mayaya might seem too unfeminine for some viewers, it's refreshing to have this difference.

The opening is cute, with the characters acting out western pop culture references, but the song is the singer's plea to live a gentle life without frustration, and one wonders if it is meant to be critical of the main cast. The closing series has child versions of the Sisterhood and Kuranosuke playing in a park, depicted with a lack of outlines and a slow camera pan, and it's cute in a different way.

This review is so long because Princess Jellyfish is just that great. In some ways it's a different kind of series, and the progression isn't obvious or easy for anyone involved. Tsukimi is easy to relate to, but the writers aren't afraid to let her change..yet without removing what makes her interesting. A lot of things remain anyone's guess, and if the elements described have intrigued anyone, the series is worth your time.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Last Robotech Novel [That I Read Out of Order]

I have an ambivalent relationship with the series of Robotech novels, based on the 1980s anime mash-up. On one hand, some of the novels introduced concepts that helped to soothe the various issues I had with the way other continuities handled my favourite characters and things, and also provided me with fanfic fodder. On the other, the novels are generally poorly-written, and also do horrible things with my own favourite concepts. It's a conundrum.

Because of this, I dragged my feet on finding the last two "Lost Generation" Robotech novels, the trio of "midquels" written when James Luceno was the only living half of the "Jack McKinney" duo. The other "Lost Generation" novel, The Zentraedi Rebellion, is, as I've said before, one with which I've made lemons out of lemonade, and which was founded on a solid concept.

However, The Zentradi Rebellion suffered from the same basic problems as the other two novels, which are excessive "grittiness", and redundancy. I'm sure they also mess with continuity, too, but I'm not so invested that I would spend time figuring out how exactly they do.

Recently, I managed to find the last of the "Lost Generation" novels, The Master's Gambit, in a used bookstore. It actually precedes Before the Invid Storm, which I read beforehand, but my apathy should be a clue as to why that doesn't matter too much. I read The Master's Gambit in three days, feeling the urge to wash my hands of it but unable to stop reading. It's one of the few times I've succumbed to that nerd disease known as completism.

The three novels roughly correspond with each "generation" of Robotech, and this one is parallel to the middle-segment Robotech Masters series. A lot of its content is supposedly based on Robotech: the Untold Story, a movie combining the anime film Megazone 23 and other footage to create a Robotech movie that never saw a wide release. I cop to not seeing either Megazone 23 or Robotech: the Untold Story, and look at this novel in terms of how it fits into the overall scheme of what I do know.

While others may not accept the spot-welding of three unrelated anime series, the world portrayed in The Master's Gambit seems even farther afield from the common ground the original series supposedly had. The more familiar world of military politics and impending alien arrival, is combined with a story about hackers, information trading, and neo-yakuza in future Tokyo, sending readers off-balance.

What The Master's Gambit does add to the plot and characters is almost universally, unrelentingly, bleak. This is a problem of all three "Lost Generation" novels, and I might as well re-articulate it here. The mainline novels already tried to up the sexual and violence quotient from the edited anime, but the Lost Gen novels go up higher, and add so much cynicism to them.

For example, there is the portrayal of Dana Sterling as a "wild child" which includes "seducing" the older Terry Weston, which is pretty wrong and horrible. An older man doesn't get "seduced" by a teen, okay? I don't care what erotic fanfic you like to write. Terry Weston was the protagonist of a minor Robotech comic series, so I'm not caring about the stain on his reputation, but it all sounds like something added to make the novel "edgy" without larger consideration. It simply doesn't compute with the world of Robotech to have this type of storyline, nor does it match with the cheery, peppy Dana Sterling of the animated series. Pair this with the very broken understanding of statutory rape, and we have a barrel of fun here.

(Another odd thing about the novel is that Luceno likes to pepper the Japan sequences with Japanese terms and phrases, most of which are translated, but it still reads like a bad anime fanfic. There is also a character named "Misa", which might be a reference to the original Macross.)

This is totally unsurprising given my Zentradi obsession, but the extremely dour perception of what would happen to the Zentradi stood out the most to me. However, even if you don't have any particular sentimental attachment to the Zentradi as a concept or as characters, their fate nicely shows the underlying problems of the "Lost Generation" novels, and is the example of lazy writing.

Yeah, the main series of novels did stupid things with the Zentradi, too, but the last two "Lost Generation" novels really do exceed them. They portray a world in which the humanity and human contact that the allied Zentradi wanted, everything they defected for, has completely gone to shit, due to a combination of xenophobic government policy, and the Zentradi's own inability to escape an ennui that comes with no longer being warriors. To that end, they have all self-exiled themselves to the non-functional Factory Satellite, where they basically sit around and wait to die, their only action taken being to become a sacrifice to protect the Earth.

Now, plenty of stories have been written to end in absolute failure, usually to make a larger philosophical statement. And I can see where Luceno might have gotten some of his ideas from: the later episodes of the TV series do show Zentradi having problems adjusting to human life, including turning on their allies and being unable to know what to do with their lives. However, there are still the questions of tone and quality to consider.

Macross is, even in the Robotech-dubbed form, a series about hope and sweetness and taking silly things seriously. It doesn't shy away from displaying the darker aspects to life, but that is only to bring its idealistic nature somewhat back down to earth. A grim tale of failure doesn't organically follow from a series about love triangles and giant alien fanboys. Problems with the Zentradi come off as bumps in the road, nothing to define the entire allied race or their future.

Furthermore, if a bleak ending is not justified by anything deeper than "Life's a bitch and then you die", it just seems like the author ran out of things to actually do with the characters or ways to build up their world/plot, and decided to just be lazy instead.

Conveniently, the only Zentraedi who could give lie to this perception of their race's future are either gone or dead. I'm still sore about Rico, Bron, and Konda being killed off due to an unexplained illness, but at least they were treated with some level of sentimentality and respect. The last two Lost Generation novels name-drop these characters but without any of that sentimentality, or dwelling on how their actions (spearheading a rebellion against their oppressive military structure and never being a danger to humanity) might contradict the views seen in these novels.

The basic idea is instead that even if the Zentradi thought they wanted freedom from the military lifestyle, their own instincts betrayed them even more than humanity's political backlash did. There is even a scene where Rolf Emerson, Dana's surrogate father and caretaker, actually pauses to wonder if Dana's temperamental behaviour is the result of her Zentradi genes, and the "gentle" genes from her human father helped to temper them. And this is supposed to be a heroic character? It doesn't manifest in his treatment of Dana at all, but it's still jarring.

It is particularly shocking because the Sentinels novels, which run parallel to these books, but were written before, have a much more sentimental treatment of the canonical Zentradi characters. There are several wrong-headed moves made, such as Breetai sacrificing himself to end a karmic cycle of violence, and Miriya quitting the military, but a reader gets the impression we're meant to care about these characters, and they're meant to be happy/doing the right thing. I wonder if these ideas were the product of Brian Daley, and Luceno had the darker vision of the Zentradi?

Another place where this is evident is in the portrayal of Exedore, my favourite character in the whole thing. In the Sentinels novels, he is presented as a benign figure, participating happily in scientific and social endeavours and having an amicable nature. In The Zentradi Rebellion, he is cynical and harsh instead. Now, I decided to interpret this as his jackassery being intentional, but a result of stress and an over-applied pragmatism, plus the mean streak that he already displayed in "Blitzkrieg", all that he eventually learned better from to become the nicer Sentinels Exedore. However, now I can easily see that these are simply two different views of the same character, without any intention of progression.

I might be generous and say that as far back as Carl Macek's original plans for a Robotech sequel, which these novels are based on, he wanted to suggest the Zentradi were very low in number, and that, due to the speed of novel production, Luceno just came up with something on the fly, without considering the larger implications involved. Even so, the results as well as the circumstances should be looked at critically.

And anyway, if the line is that Robotech is all one series, why try to get rid of elements from the first "season" when these elements could be integrated into the whole with a novel version, enhancing that perceived unity? It doesn't make sense. (An alternative explanation is simply that Macek was considering the total proportion of Zentradi, allied and not, who died, which in this case, the remaining defectors would be smaller in number, in comparison to the original intact, living army).

Are there any good things in this novel? Actually, I thought that Luceno's world-building, his little allusions into how societies and social hierarchies have changed after the near-apocalypse were interesting, actually feeling as though they were part of a developed setting that offered enough glimpses to make a reader feel satisfied without overwhelming them with exposition. The military and political manoeuvring would have been fascinating to read about if it did not enhance the character relationships in the TV series, and really didn't have that large an impact on the overall narrative. Nor does the part of the story with the Robotech Masters offer anything more about the race's vaguely-explained backstory. If the narrative had gone more places with these things, it would have been more fulfilling.

I would like to think that even if I had read these two novels while working through the strongest stages of my Robotech obsession, I would still be able to use the good things the other novels provided for me with a clear "conscience". However, I wouldn't like to try out that hypothesis, and am glad they were both encountered later, because god only knows the vast quantities of nerdrage they would have inspired when my interest was at its peak.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Gurren Lagann is Not the Anti-Evangelion

This post was delayed for a while as I struggled with the way to put my thoughts to paper regarding the reasons why I avoided Gurren Lagann, and my rebuttal to those who believe certain things about it. I can't avoid the fact that no matter how much I enjoyed Gurren Lagann, there was a time when I avoided the series because of the attitude of its fandom. It's embarrassing to have let myself be affected in that way, especially when I discovered that the series didn't embody the attitudes others thought it did.

Many, many other nerds viewed Gurren Lagann as, by turns: an attempt to bring manliness back to the mecha genre; an antidote to the angst that apparently pervaded the mecha genre; an antidote to Neon Genesis Evangelion; Simon as an antidote to Shinji Ikari. And so on.

Hence, a perfect storm: I am naturally suspicious of anyone who thinks "manliness" is under siege, I am against fans acting as though they are owed an antidote to anything they didn't like, and I damn love Evangelion and Shinji Ikari, both of which have become something of sacred cows for me over the years. Not enough for me to think they should be sacred to others, but enough so that they are deeply engraved into my brain, and anything that is purported to be an attack on them would give me pause in checking out.

And, after watching Gurren Lagann in full, my impression is Gainax was just making the series they wanted to make, something possessing no deeper agenda than to be crazy-fun. I can see how Gurren Lagann could have become those certain things to fans watching, but I don't think it was the intention of the creators for it to be these things, nor do certain interpretations stand up when you look at the series closely.

Kamina and several other characters may rant about "manliness", but it's not some kind of broader statement by the creators about the mecha genre or modern society. Instead, the writers are just echoing sentiments from other boys' adventure shows without really thinking about them, or about the contradiction when there are several female characters involved in combat, proving there's nothing exclusively male about perseverance in the face of adversity.

I'm really glad Gurren Lagann never went any deeper with that focus on "manliness" because, well, "manliness" is a bunch of bull. The first thing I think when I think "manliness" is posturing, loudness, and excessive concern with one's reputation. How else can you put it? I don't believe that "manliness" is just a way to describe the ½ of  positive human traits that belong only to men, because there's no set of values just good for one gender. Nor is it a set of rules for men to follow to be a decent human being, for that also needs no special name.

Actually, worrying over the "manliness" of current robot cartoons sounds just like code for worrying about manliness in culture, which is also ridiculous. There is a HUGE culture of pushing male insecurity about being "manly" enough, and pretending the opposite is willful blindness. I don't want that crap in my animu.

I also haven't watched every mecha show ever made, but I'd be hard-pressed to believe there is such a pall of angst on the genre that someone conceived a deliberate response to it. Like all media and genre, I'd imagine the popularity of certain motifs comes in cycles, with nothing dominating for any notable length of time. From my end, angst is hardly a cancer that is killing mecha anime.

Also, since Gurren Lagann is all about being in your face, if it wanted to be about reclaiming a "lost" manliness/be the killer of the mecha genre's chronic angst, it would tell viewers very loudly. But Gurren Lagann doesn't play that game. It just tells a fun story, and doesn't have an agenda.

It would also be very hard for a series to turn out this good if its genesis was showing up other cartoons rather than telling its own story. For this reason, Gurren Lagann is probably a series created out of sheer love of mecha action, not out of any hate for anything. It wants to create something for itself, not to look down on another thing. It's particularly ludicrous to think Gainax would want to create an "antidote" to Neon Genesis Evangelion, a work that put the studio on the map and continues to make them gobs of cash.

The argument is that the characters of Gurren Lagann push forward in the face of despair, while the characters of Evangelion freeze, or earn nothing when they try to fight. This is one of the more developed arguments I've seen. But the plot of Gurren Lagann is completely different from Evangelion's, and the characters are never placed in any similar situations. A very general difference in series-wide "character" between the two shows does not make their relationship oppositional. Gurren Lagann would have had to have a glut of very similar situations to Evangelion's that turn into their opposites in order to prove itself a rebuttal.

The truth instead is that Gurren Lagann derives several story elements from Evangelion, but these end up with similar outcomes. For example, the Anti-Spiral race is revealed to have shut itself away in a mindless collective to avoid gathering too much destructive energy, and this is positioned as the thematically wrong thing to do, standing in stark contrast to the heroes' individuality and life.

However, this shutting away is not analogous to the final actions of Evangelion's main characters, but instead to those of SEELE. The status of the Anti-Sprial sounds a lot like Evangelion's Instrumentality, and Instrumentality was also positioned as the "wrong" thing within its series, the product of the nominal antagonists, and what Shinji eventually breaks from. It might not be as clear or as glamorous as the way Simon breaks from the Anti-Spirals, but it is more similar than different. Hell, both sequences include a "Normal Life AU Interlude" that the characters escape from, reinforcing the similarity rather than opposition between the two series.

Evangelion also wasn't all 'bout despair to begin with, so when Team Gurren defies the Anti-Spiral, they are doing so in the name of Gurren Lagann's own themes, not to attack what would be a strawman version of Evangelion. Gurren Lagann echoes Evangelion, not to judge Evangelion, but because productions from the same studio would inevitably share motifs and elements in common.

Simon being intended as the anti-Shinji I don't buy, either, and for pretty much the same reasons I don't see Gurren Lagann as designed to be an antidote to Evangelion: both characters have far too little in common. They both come from the same "reluctant hero" wellspring, but if Simon was intended to be an anti-Shinji, there would be a lot more parallels than just timidity/insecurity and a vague physical resemblance.

For example, when we first meet Simon, he has already grown up with Kamina as a positive influence in his life, and is an orphan, while Shinji has initially no one at all, before his bastard of a father calls him back. Already the two characters start off in different situations which have a deep effect on how they already act. Starting from those different points, Simon and Shinji are just vaguely similar character types who happen to go in different directions. That Simon looks a bit like Shinji is just Gainax copying itself again, and copying without a value judgement involved.

This is all not to forget that the idea of series/characters needing an "antidote" is ridiculous. Since no one involved with Gurren Lagann has expressed disdain for Evangelion, the idea of an "antidote" for the series being needed seems to have sprung from fans' dislike. Not enjoying the original works are fine, but being arrogant enough to say that the creators must surely have hated things as much as they did, and so this later work must be a "rebuttal", is really petty. For the third time, why would Gainax even bother or care?

I don't know why I let the fandom effect me the way it did, when it's so obvious in hindsight that Gainax had no reason to attack its own. Gurren Lagann obviously won't surpass Neon Genesis Evangelion in my estimation, but it's still a good show. I haven't connected as deeply emotionally with Gurren Lagann as I have with Evangelion, and the flaws I mentioned before do bring the series down. But it was hellishly fun to watch