MTV’s AEON FLUX (1995): A Retrospective

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 proves … Continue reading →

Critique Of Katsuhiro Otomo’s MEMORIES (1995)

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 setting: the ‘past’ is presented in Victorian, almost steampunk terms, replete with … Continue reading →

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

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, himself, … Continue reading →

Review Of “La Planète sauvage” (Fantastic Planet)

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 time … Continue reading →

“Neon Genesis Evangelion” And Its Place In Animation

Neon Genesis Evangelion Screenshots Misato Shinji Tokyo

“To render it in my own terms, the ‘idealistic age’ is the period when grand narrative functioned alone while the ‘fictional age’ is the period when grand narrative functioned only as a fake.” – Hiroki Azuma, Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals

“…it also appears that the culture of imagination, a longtime province of Japan’s male youth, is reaching a certain end point. It is as though imagination is no longer expanding toward an aspirational time and place but is instead fixed in the here and now, capable of only expanding internally and heralding a kind of era of obsessiveness.” – Izumi Tsuji, “Why Study Train Otaku? A Social History Of Imagination”

“It is said that the camera cannot lie, but rarely do we allow it to do anything else, since the camera sees what you point it at: the camera sees what you want it to see.” – James Baldwin, The Devil Finds Work

 

Introduction:

One Theory Of Anime

In the spirit of this essay’s central posit — or one of them, anyway — I’ve started out with 3 divergent, even duplicitous epigraphs. Prior to going any further, I suggest you re-read them, carefully, as 2 of 3 are, word by word, in whole or in part, total bullshit: red herrings that always seem to slink their way into conversations on the arts that they really have no place in, thus crowding out what’s relevant, and what needs discussion. The other quote, by contrast, brilliantly suggests why a work of art can be so polarizing, even as that work is an objective ‘thing’ with properties immanent to it, and does not simply change with the percipient’s whims. I won’t tell you which one’s which — not yet, at least — for the best answer is somewhere in the art, itself, which you and I will try to see anew.

Yes, Neon Genesis Evangelion is a polarizing work. Although essentially a ‘teen’ or young adult anime, it’s been derided by critics for its ending (“cheating,” “meaningless,” “stupid,” mere “veneer”), its faux Christian symbolism, the way it seems to obviate its own narrative spine midway through the series, as well as director Hideaki Anno’s decision to leave a number of rote questions more or less unanswered. I did not, therefore, approach this work with any real expectations. It was, after all, too popular with the ‘pop’ crowd, too loved by the notoriously dense philosopher-types as a work of art (red flag!), and too badly hammered by those who seemed to know what they were talking about. As for me? I was a cinephile who, years ago, was about to enter into my very first anime, and, given all that I’d known of otaku culture, expected dull writing straining to be ‘deep,’ immature characters, plot-driven (as opposed to narrative-driven) stories, and video game-level fluff admixed — I do not know why — into something that was, for lack of a better word, interesting.

I will detail the reasons for my curiosity later, … Continue reading →