Friday, August 31, 2012

Guilty Pleasures: Season 3 of the Original Transformers Cartoon and the Animated Movie

I have to make clear that I don't specify "season 3" because the early Transformers cartoon was a good show that declined in quality after Optimus died. No, it's just that season 3 is the only season of the original Transformers cartoon that I give a damn about, and how. The original Transformers cartoon never changes in quality, but I prefer the characters and settings of the third season, which were part of my first fandom. Because of that, no matter how much my taste in media gets refined, I can still watch these cartoons.

The Transformers: the Movie was the first G1 thing that I ever watched. I picked it up in 1998, wanting to have context for the references in Beast Wars. I loved it at the time, and still do. The film is noisy, incoherent, and half-baked. Its foreshadowing is laughable, the cast shift is jarring, and it is unconvincing that suddenly now characters would die from blows they walked away from in the TV show, especially with such a weak sense of escalation, but it's so much fun.

I don't give a shit about the older characters, and this movie just looks so good being itself, with lots of shiny, colourful robots having adventures in excitingly weird alien environments, to the tune of earwormy hair-metal and synth. TF:TM just has this borderline hypnotic effect on  me, and I can just sit and watch it, eyes glazed, up until the very end of the credits.

Season 3 had more of the same, but it was different. Although the art as less shiny, it was much more interesting, character-wise. Getting a season to themselves, the "new" Transformers were pretty awesome. Rodimus Prime, with his sarcastic insecurity, was my top favourite, but I liked most of the main cast, except for kid sidekicks Wheelie and Daniel. To this day, I prefer these renderings of the characters over any other interpretations, even if the re-imaginings may be technically better-written, or appeal to a broader audience.

The only other popular 1980s cartoon I enjoy is The Real Ghostbusters (though Inhumanoids had some cool parts), but I don't look down on fans of He-Man, ThunderCats, etc, because it's pretty much the same thing I'm doing here--a series just gets you in a certain way and you can't let go of it.

That doesn't make the G1 Transformers cartoon good, however. I can watch season 3 through a gauze of nerdy nostalgia, but once I get out of that comfort zone, the cartoon becomes just painful to watch. There's bad voice acting, bad animation, nonsensical plots, and poor world-building. It's a dumb show, designed to sell toys.

But there's just a tiny, flickering spark of warmth to the series that lets me understand why I still enjoy it. There are character moments that seem genuinely heartfelt and "real", mostly Rodimus' difficulties, and the way Cyclonus acts in "Webworld" (still the best episode). The settings are wonderfully weird, too, with the alien and robot designs being equally interesting. I wouldn't change a thing about it, including the callous bumping off of the old cast, but it's not something I'd loudly identify with, or recommend to another adult.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Guilty Pleasures: Chobits

I can't make any arguments against the reasons this manga is considered creepy, but they also have almost no effect on my emotional reaction to it.I still like it, god help me.

Chobits is about a honey-eyed, cat-eared girl robot and her quest for love. After a memory loss, she starts out only able to say "Chi", and taken in by a broke-ass young Joe named Hideki Motosuwa, the main character. Chi has a tragic past, a mystery that gradually unfolds, and there is some meditation on the issues raised in a world when robots like her (actually nearly-human computers called "persocoms") can mimic humans so thoroughly. Hideki and Chi eventually fall in love, transcending all obstacles.

Yet let's get real: it's wish fulfilment. Though Chobits was made by women, Chi is also spank fodder, portrayed with a disturbing combination of innocence and sexual suggestion. Hideki initially has to take a paternal role to teach her memory-wiped self, and because he eventually falls in love with her, it's two times the creepy. Furthermore, though Chi has an inner life of her own, it's mostly brooding about her feelings for Hideki.

To underline the set-up, while male persocoms do exist and have adoring women on their arms, any "futuristic" couple in the named cast involves a female persocom and a male human, paving the way for Hideki and Chi. The "just for men" angle, though thankfully only implied, makes it even harder not to find the story unsettling.

And Chi, as it turns out, can't have sexual intercourse without being re-set, because her re-set button was deliberately put in her no-no place as a way to "test" how deeply a future lover could care for her. Hideki, despite his huge collection of porn and comical horniness, agrees to the condition and lives happily ever after with her.

When I was younger, I found the final reveal subversive and touching, since Hideki, though good-hearted, assumed Chi would perform sexual services when he first found her, and this was dialing back the wish fulfillment. Now it comes off as weird virginity/abstinence fetishism, as if a love can only be "pure" without sex.

However, the illusion of poignancy and substance is impossible to shake entirely, and on some levels I still believe in it, that Chobits is merely a heartfelt sci-fi love story with elements of a mystery, weirdly charming.

There's also the balls-to-the-wall assertion made at the end: even though no persocom has anything but programmed emotions, it doesn't matter as long as humans feel attached to them, and persocoms feel attached in turn. Somehow, Hideki can say "Chi's heart is real; it beats inside of me" and I'll want to believe it, despite the lack of substance in their relationship. That's such determined advocacy for simply wishing things to be right, it's almost admirable.

In the series, some female characters relate their bad experiences with persocoms, involving abandonment and jealousy, but this never creates any long-term consequences for the cast. This social analysis is eventually swept under the rug in favour of straightforwardly pursuing Chi and Hideki's romance.

Stories should not lecture to the audience, of course, nor need be politically correct to be good, but it's easy to see this dropping of conflict as a way for the story to create the illusion of deep consideration without confronting the issues it raises. If a moral conflict is introduced, a story should pursue it to the end, or at least explain why the conflict does not apply to the leads. Maybe the message is supposed to be that others' bad experiences can't spoil a valid concept?

The last part of the manga runs on this same kind of strong individualism, as promoting the complexity of love's form replaces the exploration of the dark side of persocom existence. Oh, and there's also a lot of creepy incest overtones, though none involve literal blood relations.

I've seen several people explain why Chobits is a cut above other male-fantasy manga, and maybe it is (I wouldn't know). The anime version is also worse, dragging out the sex comedy parts with filler before it reaches the heart of the story, and having a less coherent ending. Yet even with this in mind, Chobits is still shaped like itself. No amount of aborted conflict or earnest emotion can disguise the creepiness. At the same time, I can't let go of it. I let myself get bamboozled every time I read the series.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Guilty Pleasures: A Blog Series

"Confound it all I love it though--Jack Skellington

Guilty pleasures: we all have them, and however much they may come down to class issues and the environment we grew up in, a lot of people still want to hide them because they want to establish a reputation with others. No one has impeccable taste, but most people want to create a good self-image, so we hide our little "lapses".

It's hard to define what makes a "guilty pleasure", and it's different for everyone. In my case there are two main kinds of guilty pleasures. One: a work you enjoy has a certain amount of content that you disagree with morally, or is of a certain low level of quality, so that you become uncomfortable about admitting you like it. The exact ratio is hard to define. There are some things I like that could be guilty pleasures, but I find enough in them to counterbalance the feelings of disagreement and/or bad quality.

The second, rarer kind is when you take only a mild or completely justifiable pleasure in something, but you let yourself be shamed into staying silent because you see so many people you respect criticizing it and you don't have a very strong defence in place.

Considering how much vapid children's entertainment I also take in, this blogging series should be a lot longer than it is, but there is room to add more as needed. Some of these things I've admitted to before, others less often, or are entirely new. This is also an arbitrary list, with order being meaningless.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Who is Kaworu Nagisa?

I decided to rewatch Neon Genesis Evangelion for the first time in two years. I enjoyed it as much as I ever did, and it gives me an excuse to talk about something important to my experience with the series: the reason I don't ship Kaworu x Shinji.

It might be a tough thing to justify, when it seems like everything should be in place for me to ship it. I like both characters, find their rapport convincing, and I'm not homophobic (though this might make me look like I am). But I believe Kaworu plays a symbolic, ironic role that makes shipping him with Shinji a contradiction of what the series is trying to convey. That, and I don't ship anyone in Evangelion because all relationships in the series are dysfunctional, so I don't see the appeal of exploring the couples.

Anyway, Kaworu is a character that "needs" to die because he represents an unreal idealism that contradicts the rest of the series and the lessons Shinji must learn. Shinji must reject Kaworu in order to accept the real world in all its flaws, rather than retreat into the company of an idealized companion. It parallels Shinji's ultimate fate in both the television series' final episodes, and the film End of Evangelion.

In both versions of the ending, which may or may not be concurrent, Shinji Ikari rejects the comfort of a closed-in world for the experience of real humanity, however the narrative defines it. In the TV version he is moving from a closed-in world that is part of his wishes, to...something. Perhaps it is acceptance of the world of Instrumentality, the merging of all souls into one being, perhaps not.

In End of Evangelion, it is slightly more clear-cut. The remnants of Rei Ayanami give Shinji Ikari the ability to determine the direction of Instrumentality. At first he wishes that everyone would simply die, because the hates the world after what's happened to him. In response to his wish, the fused Rei/Kaworu/Lilith/Adam being initiates Instrumentality.

Even though Instrumentality is designed to eliminate the fundamental loneliness of humanity, and Shinji might've been happy inside it, he eventually overcomes his hatred of humanity to declare that he wants to be in the real world, even though it can be painful to exist there. Thus, he breaks Instrumentality, the fused being falls apart, and he returns to earth, with everyone having the potential to also return.

Even though Shinji isn't conventionally rewarded for his conviction, ending up currently alone on a strange, red Earth and strangling the first person to appear beside him, the choice he made is still meant to be the moral one, since it was exactly what the story was building up towards. Choosing Kaworu would be the opposite of what the story was building towards.

Just like Instrumentality could represent a cocoon preferable to real existence, Kaworu also represents a love preferable to the real existence, both potentially free of fear and uncertainty. Asking if Shinji and/or Kaworu are "gay" isn't the important question. The relationship between Kaworu and Shinji is deliberately unnatural in its speed and depth, so it can't be considered part of the characters' "ordinary" sexuality.

Instead, the relationship is beyond ordinary, beyond the "norm" of Shinji's existence. And Shinji does not fall in love with Kaworu as a person, but as an ideal. Shinji is not capable of a healthy, ordinary relationship, accepting another being with all their faults and flaws. Instead, he is unsure of what he wants, but so trapped in his own mind that he can't open up to a real person. It is a prefect situation for an unreal person to appear, and make the outcome more effective.

When Kaworu appears, Shinji has lost everything, or it has been corrupted. His overtures to his father were crushed with Toji's entry plug. His school friends all have to go because his city has been destroyed, including the injured Toji. Asuka, whom he masochistically looked up to, has had a complete breakdown, no longer being the "hero" he thought she was. Rei and Misato are both distant, Rei being a new clone has lost the tentative bond between them. And both of them now represent a disturbing mix of maternity and sexuality, Rei because she is his mother's clone, Misato because she was Shinji's mother figure, but reached for him on that bed.

Under these conditions, Kaworu appears even more like a dream than he otherwise would. He asks for nothing and gives everything, compliments Shinji in ways that would seem absurd to all the jaded folks watching ("I think I may have been born to meet you, Shinji Ikari"), and is immediately interested in Shinji as a person, and always maintains a calm, stable air, asking for nothing. His gender might also serve to further distance Shinji from his real world of corrupted potential love interests.

To further emphasize that Kaworu is not meant to be taken at face value, he makes cryptic pronouncements about the nature of man, and Misato and Hyuga race to figure out just what Kaworu is. The audience knows something is up, as they are being primed to accept this swift attachment between the two characters as building to something greater and darker than just Shinji getting his wish.

The bonding between Kaworu and Shinji is, in short, aware of its unreality and works with it. Kaworu is not realistic. Kaworu is not human. He doesn't fit with the world of Evangelion, and not just because he is an Angel. In this series, a perfect companion, who asks nothing but your happiness, will not simply appear and solve everyone's problems.  He does not fit with what we know of humanity, both the real version and all the flawed example seen in Evangelion. And, so he must be killed. It's not about Kaworu being "too good" for that world, in the sense that we are all supposed to mourn for the death of an "angelic" innocent, but that he just doesn't fit in.

Kaworu's abrupt entrance and exit further underlie the way he cannot "exist" according to the rules of the story. If Kaworu were around for longer, perhaps the narrative would need to define him as an individual character, fleshing him out beyond his symbolic role. But as he exists in episode 24, Kaworu's small existence lets him be just a symbol, and it fits him because of the role he plays.

Kaworu's betrayal also doesn't mean he is not an idealized character. Even though Shinji is angry with him, the scene ends with Kaworu still being a kindly figure. He tells Shinji that he is the one who deserves to live, and sacrifices himself to save Shinji and, by implication, humanity. Shinji is in turn destroyed emotionally by having to kill Kaworu, proving that the bond between himself and Kaworu did not disappear. He still views Kaworu as an idealized figure, and one worthy of existence.

The moment of betrayal, however, raises a question: was Kaworu lying all along, and does it affect the interpretation of Kaworu as a symbol? SEELE apparently sent Kaworu to NERV to initiate Third Impact in the guise of a replacement EVA pilot. Some fans have inferred that Kaworu's overtures to Shinji were part of the infiltration. 

Yet since Kaworu can just use his powers to manipulate EVA-02 and open Terminal Dogma, a close relationship with Shinji is not required for infiltration.  And if Kaworu were lying, he would not have left his mission incomplete and declared he was giving his life up for Shinji. It's still possible for Kaworu to be a liar if one assumes Kaworu was part of a design to break Shinji's mind, but as with much of Evangelion, the exact details are open to interpretation.

In End of Evangelion, SEELE wishes to break Shinji's mind as part of the process of Instrumentality, but it is not clear if Kaworu's appearance and death was designed to further that breakage. It might be possible.

However, the interplay between Kaworu and Shinji, while not destroyed if Kaworu had ulterior motives, is the most effective if a viewer assumes Kaworu was being earnest. The reason why he would bother with Shinji would remain unexplained, but they aren't that important. What is important is what Kaworu represents, as outlined above.

There are other versions of Kaworu, namely the ones in Yoshiyuki Sadamoto's manga adaptation, and in the Rebuild movies. Rebuild Kaworu hasn't done much yet, and it is possible he may play a completely different role. He has once said he would like to make Shinji happy, but if that will lead to something similar to his television role is unknown.

Characters aren't obligated to be the same throughout each iteration, but no other version of Kaworu has been as effective and affecting, and it's no surprise the original Kaworu would be hard to follow up on. Personally, I'd like to see if a work could alter Kaworu's television role without removing what made it interesting, perhaps giving him more depth of character but still managing to be inhumanly idealized. But that, however, is coming from a viewpoint of someone who already considered TV Kaworu to be the ideal.

Sadamoto's version of Kaworu has been nicknamed "Evil Manga Kaworu" because he once snapped a stray kitten's neck out of ruthless pragmatism. But when he becomes part of the main cast, this time earlier than before, he's more obnoxious than sinister. He lacks a sense of appropriate social boundaries and is questioning of human emotions, but in a way that makes him seem like a run-of-the-mill creep or a sullen brat rather than a thoughtful "alien". Shinji is also actively hostile towards him, and a kissing scene is played for his disgust rather than confused titillation.

I can imagine someone cheering Sadamoto for removing the taint of romanticism and idealism and a "shallow" character from the storyline. However, like I said, the original Kaworu was not meant to be taken completely at face value; his alien nature and brief betrayal show that Evangelion did not suddenly lose its teeth when Kaworu appeared. We all know Gainax wouldn't be above creating a character to draw in fangirls/yaoi fangirls, and it'd be unsurprising if that was another purpose beyond Kaworu, but that doesn't make him this ill-fitting example of sugary romanticism, especially in light of the relentless marketing of the female cast. Kaworu was never a misstep into fantasy land, but a justifiable part of the series narrative.

Therefore, to be annoyed with "Evil Manga Kaworu" is not about pearl-clutching that such a "sweet" character became so nasty, but being annoyed at the simple act of change, and that what in its place is just plain boring.

Going back to the original Kaworu, he's a good example of a character that doesn't seem to fit with his environs, before you realize how well he actually does. Some of what Kaworu ended up representing could be accidental, but it's effective nonetheless. It questions the notion of the idealized companion without beating viewers over the head with it, and manages to justify a character that could be perceived as shallow. In the process, though, it also enforces the strict pragmatism at the end of Evangelion, and ensures that the idea of a romantic relationship between Kaworu and Shinji would be greatly missing the point. Sometimes "the point" isn't what shipping is really about, but it still makes me want to avoid supporting the pairing.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

What is a Pterobat?

What is a Pterobat?

So, my blog name. It's the result of trying to change my Internet Name after over a decade of using it. It finally occurred to me that "Incisivis" wasn't the easiest thing to spell, pronounce, or remember, just as it eventually occurred to me that "Dragonclaw", my previous one, was uncreative and probably made me sound like a dopey furry. Being that way, I eventually settled on "Pterobat".

"Pterobat" is obviously a combination of the words "pterosaur" and "bat", two of my favourite things, and it has a certain ring to it. I started using it to refer to a certain style of wing found on the characters of Disney's Gargoyles series: characters who had tiny hands on their wings and a single supporting rib, but with the wing's edge being notched to suggest there was further, "invisible" ribbing. I never used it this very much this way, and so repurposing it was easy.

Today, I think of "pterobat" as referring to that certain kind of biologically inaccurate pterosaur which has batlike wings (hands included or not), usually also mixing features from different species. I also kept thinking of alien animals from the Transformers cartoon that might be called pterobat-like.  Shrikebats, first mentioned in the movie, and depicted in the episode "Chaos" of the original TV series, and a similar, smaller creature called Groyle is also seen in the episode "Madmans Paradise".

Picking the name rises from my pterosaur obsession, which I've had since childhood. I collect pterosaur junk and know a few things about things, and also wait for the day when a pterosaur-based fictional character doesn't suck. I don't know why I like pterosaurs like I do, but I don't mind pterobats at all.

The current blog header is derived from a piece of art by Edward Newman, and it actually is an early attempt at depicting a pterosaur. According to his Wikipedia entry (*sigh*) this was Newman interpreting a pterosaur as a mammalian creature, a "marsupial bat", and he published this in an 1843 edition of The Zoologist. Interesting if true, since it makes my header selection pretty on-the-nose, when I didn't know the origin of the art at first.