Sunday, September 30, 2012

A Half-Baked Self-Analysis of a Checkered Past

I've written briefly about my break-up with The Lion King, a beloved movie from my childhood that I just can't  love for itself anymore, though I also can't bring myself to hate it. It's because I can't swallow the film's support of ironclad hierarchy, one in which everyone has their place and those who try to change it are evil or misguided. I also find the handling of Simba's exile unconvincing in a few ways, and the easy diffusion of Scar as a threat once he becomes ruler to also be disappointing.

Which just leaves me wondering why the hell I loved it so much as a kid. I've decided I'll never know for sure, but that doesn't prevent me from thinking about it. The strongest thought was that I interpreted Scar and the hyenas as positive anti-authoritarian characters, and having decided, by age ten, that I liked characters who defied authority, I latched onto them as fellow aliens. In my mind, Scar was "snarky" and thumbed his nose at royal pretentions. The hyenas were (not literal) underdogs who had been treated unfairly and were looking for a better lot in life, and they also were "snarky" and didn't give a shit about authority.

If it really was the way I looked at those characters in the past, it's impossible for me to do it now. I look at those characters now and all I can see are the ways they support the "real" messages of the film. Scar is an idiot, and most emphatically not a saviour of the downtrodden, but one who uses them for his own ends. He can scheme his way to the top but isn't smart enough to be an effective villain once he gets there.

The hyenas are also not meant to be oppressed in any way. Their desire for food is because they are gluttonous rather than starving, and according to the rules of the narrative, they "deserve" to be kept out because if they don't, it'll fuck everything up. They're also too stupid to realize when they're being manipulated, and not intended to be worthy of sympathy for it. All four characters are anti-authority, but negatively so. Their refusal to stay in their pre-ordained roles is why they are villains.

I know part of the beauty of fiction is seeing characters in different ways, finding emotional resonance that the creators may not have intended. I still believe that, and there are times when I balance my feelings towards a character with the knowledge that these reactions were not intended by the writers. However, in this case, I can't see the Lion King characters as anything but what I believe they were intended to be, with no other emotions in the way.

I just cringe to imagine the Lion King villains being spun for any kind of progressive interpretation, because I see them as so strongly the opposite of that, so obviously meant to show why defying authority/order is a bad thing, that I can't connect with the characters on any other level anymore. They're not competent, they're not "right", and they don't care about each other. Something's just gotten screwed up in the last eighteen years.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Some Small Words About Macross: The Musicalture

Being a poor peon stuck in North America, I won't be able to see the latest media project for the Macross franchise: a short-run musical with an all-new cast and story, called The Musicalture. At first I thought it would be one of those hilarious anime musicals that retold some of the previous media stories with cheesy costumes, but it being a new story was a surprise and a further interest-booster. I hope that some generous nerd will put it up somewhere with subtitles because…damn, it's Macross. I love Macross, despite all its problems.

There are two things about it I'd like to note, based on the details given about the storyline and characters.

First, one of the characters, Sonia Dosel, is said to be the granddaughter of Rori Dosel, aka Rico, one of my favourite tertiary characters from the original series. This is common to a lot of media franchises, but it is a Big Deal for a Macross thing, for a few reasons. One is that I'm in a state to always be hungry for any kind of acknowledgement that my favourite Macross characters existed and succeeded at anything, and are actual characters instead of things to be noted in summary.

As I've said before, Macross often steamrolls my favourite characters in ways that make no sense. Rori in particular was said to have become a bitter-burned out alcoholic that leeches off his wife, after being presented as a comic relief character with a positive role to play in the story. I still say that you don't have to like the character to see why this is a fucked up idea—it completely goes against the tone of the series and the expectations raised by it. Sonia's existence doesn't necessarily negate this sort of path, but I'd like to think it does, if only in my own mind. You know that the people behind this musical probably didn't find that obscure bit of trivia about Rori, but it's nice to imagine that it suggests familial success right from the get-go.

 The "descendant of so-and-so" is often a lazy device for media franchises, but it gets a pass here for a few reasons. Macross likes to move ahead with newer characters, with returning characters being rare, and descendants even rarer, so a little indulgence on that side is okay. Secondly, using a tertiary character makes it seem less like an old-fan grab than it could have been, and more like building a world with a past.

I have no reason to be interested in Sonia as a character, but it's still interesting that she exists.

Another thing about The Musicalture storyline is that there is a hostile movement growing among Zentradi in the fleet. I'm not worried anymore about my criticism I make of Zentradi unrest being read as me wanting the Zentradi to be saintly, so I have to say…I am okay with this idea, because some conflicts linger for centuries. I still stick by my notion that allied Zentradi unrest is similar to prisoners or Vietnam vets being unable to live "on the outside", than any kind of ingrained corruption that invalidates their story arc in SDFM.

If The Musicalture becomes popular in Macross fandom, I "can't wait" to see fans interpret this newest conflict as exactly that, acting as if SDFM built up to the Zentradi freedom, only to say, "Whoops, it's not positive after all! Surprise, it's self-destructive!". I still can't understand why some fans don't get that if a series spends some time tending a concept and presenting it a certain way, it's not going to turn around and completely declare that concept a waste. Showing allied Zentradi unrest doesn't invalidate the positive aspects of the Zentradi alliance—it just adds some complexity and realism to the mix.

On the other hand, if Macross wants to build a world with some internal conflict, I got to ask where the anti-Zentradi unrest is. The only thing I can recall is President Glass muttering in frustration over the Galilia 4 incident in Macross Frontier, and it's not as solid. I just figure if you're going to add some realism to spice up your world, it should include making things two-sided. It'd be really cool if the Zentradi unrest was partly a result of poor action by humans, but I'm not holding out.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Shinji in Rebuild: You Can't Improve on Imperfection

After experiencing nerd-rage for myself, I've figured out the obvious: it's no shame to feel it, just a shame to be obnoxious about it. Having an issue with changes made to media by the creators isn't petty by itself; you just don't have to overreact.

In one case, though, I've let fan reaction amplify what should otherwise be a very low-level issue. Unlike a lot of anime fans, I wasn't that impressed with the first two Rebuild of Evangelion movies, the proposed four-film retelling of the popular anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion. This came from a combination of finding them choppy, and, yes, my attachment to the previous anime. I don't expect a truncated movie adaptation to deliver absolutely everything that made me fall in love with the longer series, but I want to feel at least something of what I did for the original series. No dice.

Of particular interest was the portrayal of the protagonist, Shinji Ikari. Though at one time it seemed that nearly every anime fan hated him, he's become one of my favourite fictional characters ever, with the only thing still bothering me being that one incident in the beginning of End of Evangelion.

However, it was a wee bit disturbing that when the first Rebuild movie, You Are (Not) Alone came out in North America, I found Shinji to be very, very, annoying there, twitching my way through the film. I went back and watched the TV series, and all was right with the world. In this case, I didn't feel the urge to hunt down and kill the film just because it presented a different version of Shinji, especially since I couldn't understand what made him unlikable there. In the case of the second movie, I just found him dull. I could forget it, and move on.

However, a lot of people started saying that You Are (Not) Alone wrote Shinji better than the TV series, using that all-important phrasing, "more realistically". By the time of the second film, You Can (Not) Advance, others had added that Shinji was now a "manly" mecha warrior, because he had made an explicit effort to try to rescue another character. Shinji was taking control of his world, moving beyond his despair to achieve the payoff the audience wanted all along.

This managed to turn my opinion of Rebuild from neutral, to just kind of...having more knee-jerk negative feelings associated with it, because much of what they said was completely the opposite of what I felt.

Saying Rebuild Shinji is "more realistic" was totally baffling, because a great strength of Shinji's original character was his extreme realism, the raw portrayal of emotional breakdown.
The conflict, however, might come from differing views of "realism": In my case, "realism" meant Shinji's characterization showed an aspect of reality in a brutally accurate fashion: the ways that despair and loss can destroy a person inside, so that they don't act the way most believe a hero in popular fiction should.

On the other hand, "realism" can also mean restrained depictions, obedience to the conventional laws of fiction while keeping immersion. If we're going with the second definition, then, I suppose, Shinji in Rebuild is the more realistic version, but that's not what I think realism is. Shinji's portrayal in Rebuild just lacks the teeth.
But even if I wasn't impressed with Rebuild Shinji, calling him "manly", and treating it like he'd become "hot-blooded" is just too much. He's still just a soft-hearted, gangly, tiny teenager, and the simple fact that he fights back isn't that radical a change. Even though some of Shinji's fighting in the TV series was attributed to his mecha/mother's "berserker" mode, Shinji was the one who kept attacking in episode 4,  who opened Rei's pod in episode 6, who came back in episode 19. The original Shinji was indeed capable of fighting back, and it's not so much of a stretch that he would try to rescue Rei if the opportunity arose. That's what he went back to do, after all.

Rebuild just punches up such scenes with stronger visuals and higher stakes in order to create an effective climax: the idea of Shinji fighting back was not invented whole cloth, and it by itself doesn't change the character as much as others seem to claim.

So, what I'm thinking is that Shinji in Rebuild isn't radically altered like Neo-Exsedol from Macross, but there are still some things missing about him, some loss of quality. I can live with it, but seeing people with the extreme opposite opinion of Shinji, praising this new version as a great improvement, drives down my interest in Rebuild Shinji even more.

I also want to add that it's not bad writing for a character to lack a feel-good payoff for their despair. A story doesn't exist to make readers feel good—it exists to be told, and Shinji Ikari was fascinating enough on his own. His lack of such a payoff isn't a mistake that needs to be corrected, but just the way that Evangelion was.

It might still be possible for the next two Rebuild  movies to take down fanss goodwill and put Shinji back on his original crooked path, but I can't see that making a difference to me. My reasons have already been stated and cemented, the opinions of fans has already given me the blues. It's a little nerdy weakness of mine, but it happened because my interest in Rebuild Shinji wasn't that strong to begin with.

Other Rebuild bullshit:

I was actually really looking forward to the first movie, being completely open to enjoying it as it was, while appreciating the series regardless. Oh well; at least there were new merchandising opportunities, though I can't keep up with all of those.

However subjective it might be, I think Rei and Asuka in You Can (Not) Advance had their flaws toned down and made "cute". These days I'm aware that female characters may be flawed only for the purpose male audience infatuation, but I've always clung to the notion that Rei and Asuka, though sexualized, had genuine faults and deeply disturbing aspects, that it wasn't all there for the fanboys or meant to be endearing. Seeing them acting nicer/being more comical was a little bit disturbing, though without the emotional connection that I have to Shinji. Like the portrayal of Shinji, it means they are defanged, and greater apparent "positivity" doesn't mean the characters are more appealing or better written.

Some of the new Angels did look really cool, and were the things that excited me the most.

Saying that I hate Mari would be too strong. Rather, it's just that I don't like her. I don't see a need for her, and am disappointed that she's not screwed up in the way Evangelion characters usually are. Yeah, being a nut for fighting and sniffing Shinji like a dog might make her a fine candidate for insanity in any other series, but it's different from the emotional instability usually shown in Evangelion, and I can't help but feel the loss. And maybe, her not being a secret emotional powder keg is the point, but being a contrast to the other pilots doesn't make her interesting by herself. This all adds up to Mari not feeling like a "real" character at all, just someone tacked on.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Guilty Pleasures: Robotech Anything

Once upon a time, a guy named Carl Macek and a company named Harmony Gold redubbed three unrelated anime series as if they were generations of a multi-part saga. 1985's Robotech was composed of Super Dimension Fortress Macross, Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross, and Genesis Climber Mospeda. At one time its relatively uncensored content seemed like a revelation to American cartoon viewers, but anime fandom grew and passed the need for Robotech by.

In 2008, Robotech had a random and brief television run in Canada. I decided to watch it, got into it, passed on to the media franchise built around SDF Macross, at first because of my interest in the Zentradi, a race of warrior-slave aliens who rediscover their own humanity in something both sweet, but touched with absurdity.

Robotech isn't a guilty pleasure because the TV series is an inauthentic representation of other peoples' art. It was bought fairly, and the component series didn't disappear. No, it's three basic things:

One, Carl Macek turned out to be a lot more arrogant than I thought he was, claiming credit for the qualities of Robotech that obviously came from the original anime, and being rude or dismissive regarding the Japanese staff. I value giving the right credit for media, so this is a real groaner.

Secondly, except for a few nice people, the remaining fandom is composed of die-hards more concerned with meaningless speculation and back-biting instead of enjoying anything. It's incredibly frustrating to watch Harmony Gold and the fansbase both refuse to give up, and keep feeding on each other. It's one of those stupid times I let a fandom's bad behaviour made me feel bad about my interest in something.

Thirdly, Robotech had its own toys, novels, and comics. The expanded media had huge flaws, but other things in them got a lock on my brain. This more about feeling liking things of that quality should be "beneath" me than it is about artistic integrity. On the other hand, I don't think they're the most awful thing ever made, either. Just mediocre stuff whose badness is inflated because it perverts the parent anime.

These are the things that I still go for:

* Sentinels Exedore: Exedore was my favourite character, who got spun off into multiple redesigned versions and this one was the closest to what I wanted to see from him. He's not a "true" version of the character, but I have the least nerdy guilt over this. I don't mind the way he looks or dresses and doesn't know what a Trojan horse is. Those Robotech novels, purely by accident, gave his character a sense of post-Macross emotional development, active involvement, and sense of completion that made my interest in Exedore skyrocket. Also, I don't consider the PTSC version to be the same thing.

* Kazianna Hesh: She is the only female Zentradi I liked for a long time, until I decided that Veffidas Feaze was okay. Kazianna, I don't only like because she at some point rocked the casaba with one of my favourite official characters...instead, somehow, through her brief moments, she had a sense of being a "real" character, which is very rare for a character created specifically for Robotech. The fact of her not being an official Macross character, and being unable to easily describe what gives her a personality, is the crux here.

* The Malcontent Uprisings (novel and comic versions): A story about one final push of allied Zentradi unrest is a worthwhile thing, and I liked the conflict between Max and Milia, which gave them a bit more depth as characters. "Depth" might not have been the original intent for those characters, but making their relationship more complex does work. However, TMU also does almost nothing with the allied Zentradi males, and much of the story prioritizes the military thriller aspect rather than exploring the situation via the characters most affected by it. The novel version is also too cynical about human/Zentradi relations, as if it's meant to be a display of self-destruction rather than a bump in the road.

* Tavisha and Rosarik Simons's Robotech Clone comic series: This has little to do with the Zentradi, and not much to do with the rest of Robotech, either. Though these are still licensed comics, only a few token Robotech things appear, and largely it tells its own surreal sci-fi story that may be informed by anime as a whole, with a little bit of New Wave SF. In other words, they show the signs of aspiring original creators struggling to get out, and this might be why they seem to be higher quality than other Robotech comics.

* Novels 15-18 of the Robotech Universe: I know Robotech II: The Sentinels, a sequel planned exclusively by Macek, would have sucked. Sentinels Exedore notwithstanding, I largely see a bare-bones sequel filled with dorky-looking aliens and cheesy plots, with shallow new characters, bad art design, and having no idea what to do with previous characters. Yet I kind of like the outer bits of the novel version. Not flaws I mentioned, but the crazy cosmic shit and the internal divisions among the humans. It's loaded with clich├ęs and never fully fleshed-out, but there's something compelling about it.

Some of my attachment was because I always start off fandom with an uncritical phase, absorbing everything. I read these works before my opinions and my critical senses had solidified for a new fandom, before I started even caring about certain characters or themes. Back then, all I really cared about was Exedore, and not the themes behind the Zentradi. When that all changed, I kept shaving off the attachment to the Robotech things I had previously enjoyed, to be left with those small things mentioned above. Because of those, and because of general apathy, I don't hate Robotech at all, for anything.

Another benefit of the experience was that I had to think hard about the nature of prequels and sequels, when exactly a character is fit to be continued and when not, and whether it makes a difference to enjoy something just for the small things, or enjoy a work as a whole. It helped me define my relationship to those issues, and become more aware of myself as an artist.

I'm not interested, however, in any modern attempts to extend Robotech, your Shadow Chronicles comics/film and your Development Hell live-action movie. Nothing that I find to be a "guilty pleasure" is there anymore, and everything seems rushed and charmless, boring rather than offensive or especially not sucking me in.