MTV’s AEON FLUX (1995): A Retrospective

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Eight screenshots from Aeon Flux

In the early 1990s, America seemed to have found a way out of at least one cultural nadir. The 1980s were, to put it mildly, a little gruesome for both film and animation, serving up not only the apogee of the ‘blockbuster’ mentality in cinema, but also cheap, mass-produced kids’ shows with dedicated networks to run them on demand. After a decade of mismanaging this new low, however, it looked as if the logical solution was not to tap high art, but to explore some deeper possibilities from the bottom, albeit with a touch of high art’s polish. Well, given the direction things ultimately went, this was not to be, yet not without some glimmers of what could have been. Nickelodeon, for example, produced several now-classic shows such as Hey Arnold! and The Adventures Of Pete & Pete, Cartoon Network launched Courage The Cowardly Dog, FOX had The Simpsons, and MTV – in their final paroxysm before the TRL coma – had Liquid Television. The last of these was an animation showcase that, while in many respects a failure, was nonetheless a noble failure, briefly cementing MTV’s willingness to eschew norms for the sake of pushing boundaries. One of the program’s more interesting features was Peter Chung’s Aeon Flux, a philosophical anime of disconnected shorts that metamorphosed into ten full-length episodes later on. Although mostly forgotten today, the show is – like Neon Genesis Evangelion after it – a good example of the anti-80s backlash, as well as the ways in which the 1990s were unable to cope with their own inheritance.

To begin, Aeon Flux’s premise is less complicated than typically suggested, since a single viewing is enough to glean the relevant details. Aeon (Denise Poirier) is an agent and possible terrorist from the state of Monica, which is seemingly at war with neighboring Bregna and its new leader, Trevor Goodchild (John Rafter Lee). There may be some wider world, but it does not meaningfully expand beyond these two nations, since it is Trevor’s unilateral behavior which yields the future for the whole cosmos. The lead characters are, inexplicably, in both sexual and psychological conflict, attempting to entrap one another without an obvious plan of action and with intentions that shift from episode to episode. Sex, too, is less of a bonding exercise for the habitans of Aeon Flux than it is a ritual or game, which adds little to the narrative except to suggest that this is not ‘our’ world – and perhaps that human beings have evolved past recognition – in the most flagrant way possible. More importantly, however, the true nature of the show’s central conflict is unclear. Yes, Monica is often described as a ‘free’ anarchist society compared to ‘repressive’ Bregna, but we see almost nothing of Monica: merely that Aeon, herself, is not evil, seems to believe in her mission, and that her mission – whatever it is – is both free-form and ambiguous. This itself … Continue reading →

Critique Of Katsuhiro Otomo’s MEMORIES (1995)

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Katsuhiro Otomo's Memories

Katsuhiro Otomo’s Memories kicks off with Eva in Magnetic Rose.

In reading the reviews of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Memories (1995), one might be particularly struck by what is not said: that, for all the ways that titles might recapitulate, refract, or even turn away from a film’s content, there is almost no discussion of what the title means to the work at hand. Yes, the word is uttered early on, and has an obvious, ham-fisted, 1:1 relationship to the first of the collection’s three anime shorts, but what about the rest? There is very little to say, really, since the others tackle different tropes, and have only a slipshod connection to one another in the fact that they’re the film versions of three of Otomo’s previously written stories. In brief, whereas the title could be said to cohere too neatly with the work’s first forty minutes, the last eighty, well, cohere not at all, despite containing some of its best material. Is this an issue? Perhaps, but since it’s the least of the film’s faults, I do have an idea of what it all means, and why Otomo made these artistic decisions. Yet instead of positing an unpopular claim, first, and bracing for the fallout, I will present the evidence, bit by bit, precisely as the film presents it, so that the sum is unassailable, and that the work’s poetic status might get the treatment of a more mechanical eye.

Memories begins with Koji Morimoto’s Magnetic Rose, a highly stylized tale of an opera singer, Eva, and her chief fixation: her prior life with Carlo, a famous tenor with whom she went on to win world acclaim. They are happy, briefly, until Eva loses her voice, then Carlo, and ultimately murders her former love in order to trap him in a cycle of unchanging memories. The details are slowly discovered by a crew of scrap collectors, of whom Heintz, a father seemingly on leave from family life, is the mysterious protagonist. They witness an SOS signal in deep space as Heintz and another crew member, Miguel, go on to investigate. Once landed, the two enter a Victorian-style mansion propped up by holograms and ‘genuine fakes’ that, once discerned, crumble and disappear. At first, they do not realize who the owner of this place is, as Eva zips in and out of the landscape, inducing hallucinations that tangle up her own life with theirs. In time, however, another crew member radios from their spaceship, and informs them of what he’s found. The hallucinations grow violent, culminating in the ‘death’ of Heintz as if he were Carlo, Miguel’s imagined fling with Eva, and Heintz’s own probe into his family, leaving the viewer unsure on the question of his daughter’s death. Magnetic Rose ends with Heintz floating in space amidst rose-petals, possibly dying, and possibly even accumulating, in Eva’s manner, his own memories, and waiting for the cycle to be broken by future explorers.

It is, to be sure, an anachronistic … Continue reading →

Review Of Hayao Miyazaki’s “Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Wind” (1984)

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Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Wind Hayao MiyazakiTo be sure, watching Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Wind is an interesting experience, albeit not for the reasons typically claimed. Yes, he’s made superior films over the years: films that were better scripted, better illustrated, and much better scored. Yet for too many viewers and critics alike, there is a subtle danger in the more polished films, in that their veneers can be mistaken for genuine depth, and their ‘lush’ imagery — especially in works like Princess Mononoke — for communication. This is because cleaning up a handful of cliches or improving a few visuals are not really qualitative changes, but cosmetic ones, and can do but little to push a work of art to deeper territory, assuming one understands the meaning of the word ‘art’. In this way, Nausicaa is both the beginning of Studio Ghibli as well as the summation of everything Miyazaki could and could not do across his career, prefiguring so many of the tricks and conceits not only within anime, itself, but in video games, comic books, and — for good or ill — popular notions of depth and intellectual probing.

That said, the film’s main problem is its profligate waste, for it takes a potentially rich idea — a low-tech society on the margins after some wisely-unnamed apocalyptic event — and utterly ruins it with a child’s conception of what a good film might look like, as opposed to an adult take on adult themes, executed in an adult manner. And, naturally, it bears repeating that animation is NOT cinema and shouldn’t try to be, at the risk of confusing the advantages of both, and thus being unable to enjoy the privileges of either. In fact, Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Wind spoon-feeds the viewer pretty much every aspect of its tale: its symbols, the meaning of this or that line of dialogue, the film’s imagery, and everything in between. It doesn’t trust your intelligence partly because it thinks it’s speaking to adults, and partly because anime directors, on the whole, have always struck me as solid to good film-makers that have never quite grown up, and assume, in their own solipsistic way, that the rest of the world has merely followed suit. For this reason, Nausicaa is middling, at its best, but puerile and condescending even at its heights. And, in this case, these are little more than visual tricks, combining scenic vistas with messy, anachronistic robots and ships, literally sliding into the film’s shots, nicely subverting a handful of expectations, all the while not knowing what the hell to do with the rest of them.

Nausicaa opens up with an immediate reference to the world’s “toxic jungle,” as an over-voice declares that a thousand years have passed since the collapse of industrialized civilization. Precious little is left to the imagination, which ought to really be the thing to fill in an art-work’s gaps — or else there is no engagement, merely acceptance — and the artist, … Continue reading →

Review Of “La Planète sauvage” (Fantastic Planet)

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La Planète sauvage Fantastic Planet Roland Topor LarouxThe more that I study animation, the bigger its differences (self-imposed and no) with cinema seem to go. This is because animation — as I’ve argued elsewhere — despite forcing a kind of irreality upon the viewer, requires no genuine suspension of disbelief, since we know that people don’t quite perceive the world in the way that animators depict. This is an often overlooked advantage, for it gives an artist leeway to break quite a few rules without necessarily compromising the art’s art, all the while putting the viewer into a receptive state of mind that wishes to further test boundaries. In fact, it is precisely this willingness to explore and engage that’s necessary for good art to flourish. It is surprising, then, that so few animated films have broached artistic greatness, a thing that might be remedied if the ‘why’ of such is better understood, and the word’s answers better applied.

Rene Laloux’s 1973 film Fantastic Planet (La Planète sauvage) is a good pedagogical tool to this end, for it is well-scored, well-voiced, well-limned, intellectually, and well-animated — the last being true despite its simple appearance, which by its nature tends to heighten the Draag giants, diminutize the tiny Om, and deepen the more outlandish creatures, within, merely by stripping them down to a few salient parts, and mimicking the way child-like dreams and memories really work. Indeed, it is animator’s Roland Topor’s work that drives much of the film, both in the film’s overt decisions, such as La Planète sauvage‘s lingering shots and mnemonic imagery, to the smaller stuff, such as the heavy-handed shading, thus nicely recapitulating how a child might interpret (and conduct) the word ‘art’. Yet for all that, the film is more or less adult, and while didacticism hinders so much animation, from Soviet ‘classics’ (Hedgehog In The Fog) to even the most recent Japanese anime, it still manages to handle its ideas quite well, deftly turning away from its own arcs, at times, before things get too formulaic and predictable.

The film opens with a fleeing Om (identical in sound to the French homme), as a few blue-skinned Draag children torture her and her child with exotic-looking objects and reneged opportunities to escape. It takes the viewer a moment to get what’s going on, nicely imaging the sort of helplessness that the Om, themselves, might feel. They kill her, and Tiwa — a conscientious, pre-teen girl — decides to keep the infant as a pet. Named Terr (the film’s onomastics, if you can’t tell, are a weak point), he provides a pretty good voice-over: ‘good’ because it is succinct and does not needlessly recap what we’ve already witnessed, keeping things to an occasional sentence or two, the first of which (‘That was my first encounter with the Grand Master of the Draags’) tricks the viewer into accepting Tiwa’s father as the referent, even as Tiwa is the one to grow in stature over … Continue reading →

Neon Genesis Evangelion: A Response To Tumblr’s Ritsumaya

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Neon Genesis Evangelion Beautiful Screenshots
Now, it was not lost upon me that an essay —  any essay, really! — on Neon Genesis Evangelion would draw out mis-readings, obsession, and all-around ignorance, especially since a good chunk of said essay is a critique. Nor would it matter that most of the essay is a defense, since, well, it’s not a defense in toto, and, by definition, nothing that’s sacred is ever ‘allowed’ to be criticized in the first place. And make no mistake about it: Evangelion is quite sacred, and too often boosted by the sort of people who end up subtly disparaging the show, even as they think they are somehow fighting for it.

Want proof? Enter Ritsumaya’s post, which went up just a couple of days after my own. It mis-reads me, mis-reads the show, claims things opposite of what I claim, and has an emotional edge from the get-go (my article apparently “infuriated” her — and I will assume it’s a ‘her’) that nicely mirrors the startling lack of genuine analysis, within. I won’t dwell too long on this, but hope to show how utterly childish and vapid the world of anime criticism usually is, oscillating, as it does, between poorly written academic jargon (a la Thomas Lamarre’s The Anime Machine), on the one side, and pretty much all non-professional bullshit on the other.

Ritsumaya is, alas, in the ‘other’ camp, and begins her critique with the following précis:

I googled it and found a pretty lengthy essay written in that infuriating “if I use big words I must be correct” style; as much as the author derides Evangelion’s pretention, he engages in plenty himself.

I mean, I chuckled. ‘Pretention’ — does she mean pretense? Or pretension? This is, I’ll assume, one of the ‘big words’ Ritsumaya is confused by, for which I think I am sorry. But she errs in claiming that I deride Evangelion’s pretense. In fact, one of the chief arguments of my essay is in how novel the show’s use of pretense really is, even favorably comparing it to Ingmar Bergman’s great 1966 film, Persona. This is not called ‘derision,’ but ‘praise’ — two other words whose definitions Ritsumaya must be unfamiliar with.

Yet she presses on:

He has a few good points throughout the essay, which I’ll come to shortly, but he makes the mistake of many who watch Evangelion: He walked in expecting philosophy 101 and received a bunch of mentally ill people realising that it’s okay to be alive.

Well, actually, the term ‘Philosophy 101’ implies a fairly banal introduction to some fairly basic ideas, hence the designation 101. And, by often being precisely that, this is really where Evangelion comes off its wheels, with ‘a bunch of mentally ill people realising that it’s okay to be alive’ in fact being one of its better parts, as I point out, over and over again. How Ritsumaya misses this, when I explicitly state that … Continue reading →