“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
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, but suffice to say that I got all of the above, and more. The routine went something like this. I’d watch an episode or two, and be forced to snicker at the thematic repetitiousness, Evangelion’s dull, idiotic humor, the great number of cliches straining for ‘relevance,’ the ridiculous ways in which it’d sexualize middle schools kids just for the sake of following genre conventions. Of course, these were conventions that were quickly growing dated, and that the series, despite its faults, and despite its over-reliance on them, would nonetheless help overturn. Yet for all that, I was also struck by Evangelion’s often deft use of (as opposed to ‘wallowing in’) pretense, in a way that would veer quite close to schlock, yet pull away at the last minute by zeroing in on its own tricks and manipulations. In a way, it would turn this pretense upon the viewer, even as the show’s purported inner reason was its characters: or rather, the live-long patterns these characters forge for themselves, and their excoriation.
No, none of this is obvious in the rather thin script, but the series (like much of anime, in general) overlays some damn good imagery against a narration that — given its cliches, faux poetics, and psychological fluff — jars with what’s actually on screen, and turns these elements outward, thus co-opting them for a deeper purpose. Yet despite the near-universal acclaim (at least among otaku) for Neon Genesis Evangelion’s characters, scripting, and ‘complex plot,’ these elements are by far the show’s weakest. Evangelion is not really literary, at all, as has been claimed, but closer in its conceits to Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. It takes a seemingly ‘deep’ script, lards it with ridiculous and dated psychobabble, and deceives the viewer (intentionally or not) into accepting that as the show’s real import. And, just like with Persona, a legion of fans have come out defending these elements, with an equally rabid set of detractors attacking the show for precisely the same reasons. No one, however, seems to see that anime is a visual medium, as well, with an interior tale within the images, themselves, storyboard promises that are little more than subterfuge, and an experimental edge that, while almost always sure to fail in literature, for reasons of how the written word operates, can work quite well in film (and animation, specifically), given how easily the mind latches on to images, and imbues them with a depth at the barest suggestion. Literature, after all, has only been around for a few thousand years, while our brains have been analyzing visual cues for millions. Yet what was imperative, was instinct, once, for reasons for survival, is now a tool almost wholly for abstraction when directed towards art. And this, of course, is how true cinema works, a fact that Neon Genesis Evangelion tried to capitalize upon, failed with, and was therefore ignored by ‘serious critics’ as a mere kid’s show.
In a way, Evangelion’s pretentiousness is a boon to the art-form, for if there’s been one thing missing from animation, it is not so much its unwillingness to experiment, but to experiment self-consciously. Now, this is not film-speak, nor some bullshit akin to the 2 of 3 epigraphs, above, but a recognition of the fact that the root of the word artifice is art. Art is not ‘truth,’ but a dupe’s game wherein the best sleight-of-hand wins, and utterly un-real concoctions — wonderfully sketched characters, poetic dialogue — trick the consumer into accepting them as real, thus lowering one’s autonomic defenses against feeling manipulated or ‘cheated,’ defenses that were engineered into us for reasons of survival, but still come out, now, at the slightest suggestion of deceit. This is why the worst art feels so cheap, so exploitative of people’s emotional weaknesses, and why self-conscious (i.e., pretentious) art, if done well, is so bravissimo, for it STILL manages to get to the core of reality despite its artifice, thus signaling to the viewer a level of technical mastery few art-works can achieve. Anime, whose pretense is especially visible, is in a great position to capitalize on this, provided that its writers and directors know what they’re doing, and do not feel ‘above’ selectively borrowing from the more copious world of cinema. And there’s many examples of such in Evangelion, alone, from the emotionally arresting use of blood for ‘dying’ robots (since the viewer knows it cannot be real, yet can’t help but empathize with the anthropomorphism), to the build-up of a convoluted plot-line that, despite rising to epic proportions as an eschatological tale, ultimately gets condensed (not ‘reduced,’ as it’s been derided) back down to where the story first begins: with the self-hatred of a single, transparent, and none-too-interesting boy whose cowardice is never resolved, and who selfishly turns the world into a receptacle for his problems.
Yet anime is NOT cinema, and shouldn’t try to be: and vice-versa. In short, animation’s real boon is that its base irreality — i.e., pictures — requires no real suspension of disbelief, since we know, right off the bat, that people don’t perceive the world in this way. This immediately puts the viewer into a curious and receptive state of mind. Lots can happen, now, such as great leaps of logic (as per Keats’s Negative Capability) with nary an issue, all the while animation’s traditional audience lets the director get away with archetypes (as opposed to fully fleshed-out characters) that would really drag on a standard film, thus opening up some fresh artistic routes. These include imagistic (as opposed to literary) narrative, pretense, meta-fiction, the ‘freeing’ up of characters to be less-than-deep, and other experimental fluff that, when turned outward, as opposed to being forced to subsist on these elements alone, can actually be done well, and point to the future not only of animation, but in the cross-currents of cinema, as well.
That said, although Neon Genesis Evangelion succeeds only partly on these terms, it matters not, if one simply takes the long view of things. Yet in the 1990s, I was still an adolescent, and could not — almost by definition — take the long view of anything, really. I was enamored with detritus: abandoned rail-yards, video games, and things that were more or less an extension of my need to explore beyond the confines of 5 or 6 city blocks, at a time when kids were making a now-permanent transition from the streets to a more ‘interior’ kind of world. To be sure, I have not dealt with this part of my life to any real satisfaction, because although the 90s kids — coming of age, in fact, during the sort of possibilities Evangelion seemed to offer — felt, thought, and aspired to so much, there was no one to really articulate our detritus as something that could actually matter to anyone but us.
Evangelion, to me, is precisely ‘that’ sort of promise: a promise made, a promise reneged, and a key to the peculiarities of that time period, as well as to our quickly-cementing future. It is not enough, however, to merely talk about the series, or enter into some fandom. That, in short, is little more than personal oblivion, and a means of occluding some deeper questions. At bottom, Evangelion needs to be talked of as art — often to its own detriment — because art will be what’s left when our memories start to go, when we come to find that ‘things’ (books, shows, music, painting) document and remember more of us than we do. For, at end, we become the Zeitgeist, and the Zeitgeist is little more than what we were during its ascent. To grow up means, in part, to understand this.
Neon Genesis Evangelion: The Series
In brief, Neon Genesis Evangelion’s narrative thrust is the following. It is 2015 AD, and the world is awaiting a possible Third Impact: a cataclysmic event that can be triggered in a number of ways, such as by an Angel’s (or so we’re told) re-combination with Adam, who is both the first Angel (Japanese shito: ‘apostle’) , and progenitor of most of the other 17. These are manifested, usually, as robotic beings who seem less evil than amoral, driven by a purpose that human beings can’t really understand. They all start coming in waves after the Second Impact in 2000, a powerful explosion over Antarctica fueled by Adam’s awakening, due to human meddling, thus killing billions, melting the polar ice-caps, and turning the world into a kind of steamy jungle.
In turn, an organization called ‘Nerv’ is founded to deal with these new threats, while the Evas they’ve been building — large, robotic walkers that are eventually used as weapons — can only be manned by a select few 14 year-olds, all of whom are, predictably, quite immature, and therefore use this opportunity for their own ends. In most cases, this involves issues of identity: Rei Ayanami, a clone whose purpose is to harbor Lilith’s (the ‘real’ mother of all human beings, and second Angel) soul, Shinji Ikari, the cowardly, self-loathing son of Nerv’s commander, Gendo, and Asuka Langley Soryu, an American who speaks German and is the show’s de facto ‘bitch’ — angry, aggressive, and confused like the others, for all 3 characters are mere archetypes and permutations of each other.
In a way, Misato Katsuragi, the sexy, 29 year-old Nerv Captain, becomes the kids’ mother-figure, even as she’s emotionally incapable of such. As the show progresses, she lives with Shinji, re-kindles an affair with the ‘cool’ Kaji, and engages in a power-struggle with other Nerv staff in order to better eliminate the Angels: the purported goal of the whole organization, really, until its ‘darker’ secrets come to the fore. In time, Gendo is shown as evil, and even more selfish than Shinji, as he both manipulates (and is manipulated by) Seele, a shadowy, apolitical cabal that hopes to bring about the forced evolution of mankind by engineering the Third Impact, all the while Shinji zips in and out of the show’s action sequences, dealing, as he is, with his own unwillingness to pilot Eva, and other microcosmic issues.
Yet as the Angels are defeated, it becomes clear that things aren’t as they seem to be. Rei Ayanami is revealed as a clone, Asuka becomes suicidal, and Shinji doesn’t really grow but regresses into his own flaws, to the point of near-destruction when he refuses to kill an Angel that takes over his friend’s (Toji Suzuhara) Eva. Such personal battles, however — the angst, the multiple love triangles, and so on — take a back-seat to what’s happening in the macro sense: Gendo’s betrayal of Nerv, the progress of the Human Instrumentality Project (Seele’s goal) and the appearance of Kaworu Nagisa, an Angel in human form who sacrifices himself for the greater good.
Near the end, however, a complicated series of events brings on the Project’s completion, or perhaps an intense dream-state wherein Shinji purportedly learns how to finally be comfortable. This is not much of an end for Shinji, however, given that the epiphany is either forced upon him due to a coerced evolutionary event, or is a mere signal from the subconscious, with NO guarantee that he will act upon this signal when awaking. This is Evangelion’s most controversial part, even as the imagery and narrative technique has a number of well-known antecedents (Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Persona, or even Tarkovsky’s Solaris) that make the show feel quite tame, by comparison.
There is more — a lot more — that I’ve left unsaid, for while Evangelion’s plot-points are quite labyrinthine (to put things mildly), they are also irrelevant in the deeper sense. Yes, fans have pored over the show’s many questions, the hints and details without rejoinder, but this is simply a kind of artistic hoarding: an accretion of trivial and personal, moe-like attachments to things of little import to the deeper narrative, here, much less to art as a whole. Plot, after all, is little more than a means to keep a viewer’s or reader’s attention, at best, and a red herring at worst. It is really what’s underneath that matters in art, and plot, in any good work, is simply the excuse to more easily plumb these depths.
That said, to better understand Neon Genesis Evangelion, both for its good as well as its manifest flaws, its place in animation, as well as its potential lessons for cinema, it is best to start with a few emblematic scenes. The first is the show’s opening, wherein Tokyo-3 — an industrial, almost Godzilla’s Revenge-like town meant to serve as a bulwark against the invading Angels — is forced into a state of emergency. As the voice continues to broadcast, the streets look blurred from all the heat (we learn, in time, that the world no longer has seasons), one hears the sound of summering bugs, and all is calm. Interestingly, although we see tanks, guns, and other defense systems, nothing appears manned, almost as if a disaster has already struck, and the warnings — delivered quite casually — had come too late. The viewer is thus forced to imbue several narrative possibilities, for we’re given just enough hints to construct a meaningful story, not larded (at least not yet!) with over-description and over-analysis of things that should be obvious to any intelligent viewer.
The images get even better as characters are introduced. There’s the fourth Angel, Shamshel, an alluringly humanoid ‘robot’ who — after being destroyed by 14 year-old Shinji, piloting Eva 01 — is last seen intertwined with 01 as night comes, a potent symbol that nicely recapitulates some of Evangelion’s basic themes, and highlights the futility of the combat that will go on to fill most of its action sequences. Another sequence shows a bomb getting dropped on the Angel Sachiel, wherein the eye must climb ‘down’ the screen, as the image itself flows up, to get the scene’s full import. It is a technique that few films ever do well, belonging, as it does, mostly to the world of animation. And while it’s a mere stylistic flourish, these touches add up over time, and even belie some of Evangelion’s worst parts. A silly conversation on one’s childhood, for instance, could be twisted by a casual (and easy to miss) shot of a tipped-over sandpail, in a way that refracts the speakers’ words, rather than merely honing in on them. To this end, there’s Shinji, a self-loathing teenager whose uncertainty is highlighted by shots of doors closing in on him — done naturally, by the way, without the need to scream ‘symbol!’ — as if he’s about to enter into his own interiors. Then, there’s Nerv, headed by Shinji’s father, Gendo, the secretive agency to whom Shinji is contracted, whose cut-off logo is shown early on: “GOD’S IN HIS HEAVEN…” Yes, it’s little more than a famous line from Robert Browning, but given how amoral so many of the characters are, despite the spiritual overtones that flood their screen presence, these sorts of flourishes (and there are many) goad the viewer into a sense of curiosity about Nerv, specifically, and Evangelion’s world, in general, that its half-baked, simplistic characters can never do. And therein lies the show’s aesthetic strategy: get viewers hooked on the allure of the images, then allow the show’s script — both good and bad — to play off of these images in sometimes-novel ways. It’s a perspective that’s rarely been taken, even as so much of Neon Genesis Evangelion is a kind of Persona-lite.
Yet despite the show’s often-stellar imagery, its real narrative thrust — at least in terms of what makes the imagery meaningful — is what it does with its characters, a fact upon which Evangelion rises and falls throughout its 10+ hour span. It is clear, for instance, that Shinji, both a coward, as well as ‘sick’ in a deeper, inward sense, doesn’t want to pilot the Eva. There are, I suppose, many reasons for this, but the most obvious one is that piloting an Eva is quite taxing. It leaves Shinji drained, psychologically, as well as physically broken, with the most affecting example of such being Rei Ayanami, who, despite her visible injuries, is willing to take Shinji’s place until his guilt takes over. And, despite Shinji’s nervous breakdowns (there are many), he always ends up in an Eva, anyway, leaving him in an emotional fog wherein he keeps re-visiting the site of his own destruction, a kind of fatalism that neither he nor the viewer can ever really understand.
In fact, Shinji does this to the very end of the show, where it’s clear that — far from becoming a self-actualized ‘hero,’ as most tales of this ilk demand — he is a hero only in the technical sense of the word. That is, he’s done something most could never do, at great risk to himself. Shinji’s confidence, however, never really grows, and as the narrative makes clear, it is Shinji who will have to live with himself, despite proving over and over again that he’s simply incapable of living an enviable life. No, this is not definite, as he is only 14, but Evangelion is clearly about human patterns, in the micro sense, as opposed to the superficially ‘complex’ and dull eschatological tale that makes up the bulk of the show’s action. To confuse this is to confuse the show’s real purpose, then damn Evangelion for not delivering the things you, on a personal level, want it to, rather than accepting what’s actually on the table.
Yet this is also where Evangelion falls into its major problems, as issues of script (the backbone of all film and animation, really — even when there’s no dialogue) and character (the ‘gel’ that holds most films together) come to the fore. Too often, we’re given a glimpse into a character’s psyche, only to have the show’s writer torpedo any and all subtlety, within, as if they’re scared that the viewer won’t ‘get it’. The examples of this are endless, such as Shinji failing at some task, then needlessly going off about his ‘worthlessness,’ over and over again, or Asuka telling us how she’s the best at this or that job, only to have her predictable bluster crumble, and the other characters commenting on how she ‘really was’ self-loathing behind that front — as if we’d not figured it out, during her endless monologues on this very point. Worse, still, are the needless recaps of what the viewer already knows, as characters explain each others’ psyches after some ‘important’ event, proffered, it seems, in the hope that the least among us will finally get what was already quite obvious. This is downright BAD writing, and torpedoes not only the characters, themselves, but any real sense of empathy for them, because while art is manipulation — especially of ‘the truth’ — the moment a viewer can readily feel this, and see evidence of it on screen, it puts up a wall between the art-work and those that wish to engage with it on a deeper, and less ‘ideas-on-a-silver-platter’ sort of way.
As Mike Crandol writes:
“But of these supporting players it is most interesting to compare Shinji with the hot-tempered pilot of Eva Unit-02, Asuka Langley Soryu. At first glance the two are complete opposites: Shinji is passive, quiet, and unassuming, while Asuka is aggressive, outgoing, and seemingly full of confidence. But through the lens of Evangelion’s extraordinary character development we learn that deep down Asuka is exactly like Shinji. Fundamental feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness drive Asuka to proclaim herself “the best” at whatever she sets out to do, and her fear of abandonment is allayed by convincing herself that “she doesn’t need anybody”. When it becomes apparent that she is in fact not “the best” Eva pilot, she begins a mental collapse that parallels Shinji’s.”
Now, it may come as a surprise to Crandol, but he unwittingly highlights precisely what’s wrong with so much of Neon Genesis Evangelion. Just note how Crandol thoughtlessly praises cliches of phrasing (Asuka “doesn’t need anybody”) as well as of character (“fundamental feelings of inadequacy…drive Asuka to proclaim herself ‘the best’ at whatever she sets out to do”), yet passes them off as some deep revelation. It is not, and it’s predictable, to boot, for hyper-aggression implies a personal shortcoming in the same way as Shinji’s passivity, two modes of being that no healthy person will ever engage in. To invoke such transparent extremes, however, as if they’re somehow revelatory is a mere excuse, as REAL characters are usually forged from subtleties, not extremes, even if that requires the subtle shading of an extreme: the depiction of a sick person, gangster, vampire, etc. These demand more than the show’s pop psychology can provide, and well-sketched human beings (not mere archetypes) to play off of, so that the total sum is not merely ideas bouncing off one another, as is the case with Evangelion, but human beings interacting in complex ways, and across diverse situations.
Nor does it help that much of the show’s philosophy (at least when un-aided by the images that undermine its weaker moments) is really high school-level fluff, wherein fairly obvious and rote observations on identity, politics, human bluster and personal relationships are tied into a wan, eschatological symbolism whose import really comes from its novel uses of pretense rather than any ‘deeper’ meaning of its own. Need evidence? Ok, here it goes! On a supposedly ‘rich’ use of Schopenhauer and Freud, said of Shinji: “The hedgehog’s dilemma. The closer they get, the more they hurt each other. He can’t show his feelings.” An epiphany Shinji has: that he is “lucky” to live with a beer-guzzling slob like Misato, since her very willingness to show this side to Shinji implies that he’s “family” — a cue to zoom-in on Shinji’s surprised face! And this is how an episode ends! On Rei’s persistence, replete with foreshadowing as subtle as alarums: “She scares me. She stops at nothing to gain her objectives!” On human transcendence, via phrasings that were already quite passe 50 years before the show’s release: “The human spirit and mind can’t be digitized!” On the reasons for Asuka’s attempted suicide, as per Asuka’s own words: “I am useless. I’ve no reason to exist…” And, worst of all, a recapitulation of things we see on-screen, in the most cliched way possible: “Rain — like my mood, gloomy. I don’t like that. The sinking sun, fading life, my hope…”
Are you impressed? Sure, Evangelion has a number of wonderful lines (my personal favorite: ‘The year had nothing else to say’), but even more rote ones, and just as many cliches. In many cases, they are not saved by the show’s imagery, either, and have little to play off of except for what’s on the screen — a serious drag on the whole, really, when things could get so intellectually and emotionally repetitive. I’ve already noted the issues with the former (bad scripting; thin pop psychology masquerading as something ‘more’), but much of Evangelion’s emotional strategy ends up backfiring for a very different reason. This is because scenes that are meant to the lure the viewer into a sense of complacency, of getting to know the characters beyond their role as Eva pilots and saviors of humanity, are neither funny (despite attempts at comic writing) nor affecting, in most cases. Moreover, some of the show’s very best parts are near the end, wherein so many of these ‘domestic’ scenes (such as Misato’s lone date with Kaji) are combed over once more, given new dialogue and an entirely different context. This repetition occurs quite a bit (in fact, it is one of the show’s controlling metaphors), and gives a depth to previous characterizations and plot-points that they might not otherwise have for Evangelion’s bulk.
That said, the show’s symbolism, while quite overt, at times, can’t really be called ham-fisted in the usual sense, and has a few interesting qualities that bring us back to Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. This is because for all of Evangelion’s over-the-top elements — Lilith nailed to a cross, allusions to the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jewish and Christian folklore, the 3 ‘Magi’ computer systems — they are not, nor are they intended to be, a religious comment, but an odd combination of myth, science, and pure happenstance that is more reminiscent of works like Salvador Dali’s “Corpus Hypercubus,” i.e., a curious side-step, rather than a truly new way of looking at things. In Persona, as Dan Schneider argues, much of the film is ‘looking out’ at the viewer, but while Evangelion does not have the technical brilliance of the former, it still casts a damn wide net at the critics who’d inevitably line up to argue over those symbols, not realizing how much of it is hollow and silly, especially in the face of its deeper and less talked about strengths. In a way, then, while Persona helped nail a generation of critics, Evangelion highlights so many of the illusions of its own fan-base, in the detritus of 1995 and even two decades later. It helps, too, that so much of this symbolism has an allure that escapes mere phrasing, such as Ramiel (an Angel in the form of an octahedron), whose shape reminded me of The Prisoner’s white ball, an object that frightens precisely because it so well fits into the ways our brains might image the idea of ‘unknowns’. No, the show’s choices don’t really plumb the depths of 2000+ years of human image-making, in any real sense, but they do take a particular world-view, from a particular group of people in search of this depth, and position their and the show’s illusions at the fore. This is not a condemnation, merely an admission of the fact that anime, as a whole, and Evangelion, in particular, probably work on levels that only another couple of decades’ time will make obvious, after which their techniques can be more wisely applied to other art-forms.
Still, there ARE many parts of Neon Genesis Evangelion that work purely of their own accord, with no need to invoke anything but what’s on the screen at that very moment. There is, for instance, Shinji’s initial loss of consciousness after piloting Eva 01, only to awake staring up at the ceiling: “Unknown Ceilings” is the episode’s title (in fact, one of several well-chosen and poetic titles), and this particular image of loss and ‘intrusion’ repeats itself over and over again until the show’s end. Then, there are shots of speakers from a great distance, as if they are co-conspirators; the almost Kubrickian use of classical music in the midst of Evangelion’s action sequences, where — on a superficial level — the combination seems inappropriate, but really gets at the show’s (and art’s) deep artifice; the novel ways in which the animation ‘pauses,’ such as right before Shinji crushes Kaworu and the lesser-known parts of Beethoven’s “Ode To Joy” are played in a way that’s almost operatic; the (first) kiss between Shinji and Asuka, wherein Asuka — asleep — wanders into his room as he listens to a tape, whose sound is nicely recapitulated in the next scene with a cable-elevator; Shinji’s Eva getting swallowed up, with the near-death Shinji finally able to come to, and declaring: ‘I just wanted to see…’, a realistic take on what such an experience might do to one’s coherence, and the sort of comments that tend to come from duress; the inversions of cliches from many episodes before; and the many, many good to great shots that fill so much of Evangelion, for while the animation, itself, is self-consciously bland, in the way some of Bosch’s medievalist paintings were, the framings and the deeper underpinnings are not.
For all that, however, the show’s ending is its most controversial element, not only among fans who are split between its artistic merit and/or meaning, but anime’s detractors, as well, who’ve often pointed to it as ‘evidence’ of the medium’s worthlessness, even as these same critics would go on to champion utter schlock in the cinema world. I’ve already implied how silly the controversy really is, especially to those acquainted with Evangelion’s antecedents, but here is a fair summary of these problems by Lawrence Eng:
“Ironically, the most popular anime of the 90’s would stir up the most controversy as well. The final two episodes, especially, proved to be unpalatable to many fans. Not only was it visually bizarre and jarring, it offered no clear answers to the show’s innumerable mysteries, no clear conclusion to the storyline that had been set up, and no sense of closure for most of the characters. If there was any closure at all, it belonged to Shinji, and therefore [director Hideaki] Anno — since Anno himself was such a big part of Shinji. For many loyal fans of Evangelion, this was a betrayal on Anno’s part. As the series progressed, the depression that Anno had been dealing with since completing Nadia became more and more an integral part of the story. Some claim he was even suicidal by the time the series had ended. What began as fan service turned into a deeply personal look at the director’s wounded psyche, and perhaps a bitter message to anime fans and the anime industry that they needed to shake things up and find their way out of the shallow and artificial worlds they were so invested in. Whether or not viewers agreed with the content of Anno’s message, many fans were angry about its placement. When Anno’s emotional introspections finally overshadowed the rest of Evangelion’s narrative, they could no longer be so easily tolerated by the fans.”
Prior even to my explaining Evangelion’s ending, note how ridiculous the fans’ charges are. Yes, it is true that Anno was depressed, and even based Shinji (and, therefore, the show’s excoriation of Shinji) on his own experiences, but few have the wisdom to see how irrelevant this all is. Shinji could have been based on Anno, or on Anno’s pet shih tzu; hell, some might go on to claim that the reason he put all these middle-schoolers into sexual situations is because he’s some ‘pervert’. Yet in all these red herrings, the REAL question is inevitably obscured: what is happening on the screen, exactly, and does it have merit in and of itself? That so much could be said of Anno (to the point of his receiving death threats over, basically, 45 minutes of artistic choices) yet so little of the show’s actual ending speaks to the immaturity that most consumers approach an art-work, whether it is otaku collecting model trains, or book-lovers who absolutely NEED every detail spelled for them, or else! So, what is Evangelion’s ending, exactly, and what does it say of the reactions it has garnered?
Episode 25 begins with Shinji bemoaning the killing of Kaworu from the previous episode, the ‘depressive’ counterpart to his outburst, many episodes prior, over having almost killed a good friend for the sake of saving humanity. In other words, it is clear that Shinji has not learned from his mistakes, and is only marginally (if at all) healthier than the show’s start, for the world is still about Shinji’s perception of it, rather than the other way around. Interestingly, it is this depressive state that more or less begins the Human Complement sequence, which means it can partly be interpreted as stemming from Shinji’s mind. No, he’s not wise enough to be able to ‘read’ the show’s other characters, as these next two episodes do, but the fact that such self-reflection occurs in the midst of a guilt-trip is telling, and proves that something, within, really is Shinji’s responsibility. Yet viewers, unfortunately, tend to ignore this, and STILL get bogged down in literally an infinity of interpretations, when a gentle use of Occam’s Razor can narrow things down to a handful.
Pretty soon, images of Shinji and of Shinji’s past zip in and out of the screen, as characters are seated for a kind of cross-examination, dealing, as they are, with their own emotional issues. Numerous Rei Ayanamis come to the surface, as well as Misatos, Asukas, and the support cast, for they are all part of a vague ‘whole’ — implying that we’re either dealing with the Instrumentality Project coming to an end, or that, just as likely, this is a simple warning emerging against keeping one’s identity too singular, too much in one place, without necessarily having to refer back to Evangelion’s more superficial plot-line, which gets little to no closure. Sure, it’s all a bit too obvious from the get-go, but the ending’s REAL issue is not the abstraction, but how long it takes to hammer the same point home. This doesn’t really make this sequence bad, but opened up Anno to the same criticisms that he, ironically, hoped to avoid by being so ham-fisted in the first place. In short, by taking the focus away from the plot and to the characters, themselves, Anno was able to re-direct the viewer back to the show’s narrative thrust. Yet he did not trust himself enough, and certainly didn’t see (as most intelligent viewers might) that he’d already spent close to 9 hours polishing the same idea. No one really needed another 45 minutes of the same, even as his fan-base, predictably, had already fallen so deeply into the illusive, labyrinthine plot-line that they wanted nothing more than to get out of it, even though, in a deeper sense, falling in was their own choice and fault, a fact Hideaki Anno was — to his credit — always quite adamant about.
Yet I’d argue that the ending’s best and most emblematic scene comes somewhere in the middle of the last episode, as Shinji is penciled across white space, and is told that he has “total freedom.” Of course, this doesn’t help him much, since ‘freedom’ in the totalizing sense is meaningless without some boundaries, implying, as it does, little more than free-fall. So, he gets a single black line drawn underneath him: he is grounded. ‘Now you have to stand on the bottom…” This is not a loss, but a means to instill purpose, as new lines, walls, and characters start to fill that world, and remains Anno’s most dramatic (and famous) way of bringing the show’s attention back to where it started: Shinji’s angst. For, if the viewer recalls, Evangelion begins with Shinji’s rejection, goes on to occlude the boy’s early ‘triumphs’ by parallaxing them against his various ills, and introduces characters, one by one, that more or less serve to shed light on the psychology involved. This is the show’s premise — thin as it is — and to demand that it focus on something ‘different’ in one of its most critical moments is not really putting the art’s needs, first, but the viewer’s own wan, irrelevant desires.
In one review, Kenneth Lee typifies this sort of thinking:
“Although the entire series up until now (#1-20) showed extreme promise, the final episodes (#21-26) manages to make one thing clear: This is a piece of animation that has failed horribly in the precepts of what ‘Good Animation’ should be. By ‘Good Animation’ I mean Anime-tion that presents some clear focus or goal with a favorable cast of characters, and a development of that goal by those characters in a cohesive, enjoyable, and stimulating manner; for if it is not cohesive, then what is the point of the animation, and what is the point of watching it? Episodes #21-26 are the anti-thesis of everything that Good Animation should be: From the narrative style, and music, to the character development and film direction, these six episodes have managed to destroy the beautiful, solid foundation work of a potentially great show, and what the viewer is left with is nothing but sadness and utter disappointment.”
Ok, did you get all that? The first “beautiful” three-quarters of the series “showed extreme promise” — as if a bad (in Kenneth Lee’s perspective) final quarter can obviate all of what had come before. I mean, just look at his definition of ‘Good Animation’: that it ‘needs’ to have “a favorable cast of characters”? What does that even mean? A Clockwork Orange has an utter monster for a hero, yet still makes the viewer identify more with his will to retain his identity — even though it’s predicated upon evil — than the world’s faux sense of liberalism. This is a technical boon, not a ‘minus,’ for it subverts expectations instead of merely feeding into them, as this show does. Stimulating: OK, I agree, but Evangelion is not exactly an intellectual challenge, to begin with, so if the complaint is lobbed, it ought to be at the show in toto, and NOT just at the last hour. Lee goes on to deride the ‘character development,’ near the end, but why? No evidence is given, for any careful viewer will conclude that the characters are merely following the same trajectory as laid out in Episode 1, but instead of growing, are intensifying the same arcs they can’t quite break free of. He goes on:
“Only upon closer (or rather, distanced) inspection does the truth become clear: This is a wonderful master facade of film direction by Anno, as he cleverly manages to sidestep every single one of the crucial plot elements and questions, and instead feeds the viewers an MTV-style, hip, post-modern bombardment of images and quick cut scenes that are about the important issues and questions, but never really answers them. How did Yui die? Who is Rei? Where did she come from? What’s her purpose? How did Misato recover from her 2 years of mental incapacity? Why did Kaji die? These are just some of the real and valid questions that are never answered by Anno, Gainax, or Evangelion.”
Indeed, the show is very much a facade, but to take the word in a negative sense merely reveals one’s biases, which, in Lee’s case, is a bias for answering “crucial plot elements and questions,” and against deeper artistic concerns, which run counter to Lowest Common Denominator plot-points. Lee, like so many other viewers, seeks “answers,” but to what, exactly? The show’s philosophical posits are worn on Evangelion’s sleeve; the characters’ ‘depths’ are actually half-shallow, and plumbed from the get-go. As for Lee’s other demands? Is it really that important to know how a character dies (although, in fact, the show does answer most of Lee’s queries), or to learn of Misato’s recuperation when it’s not relevant to this tale, as it’s presented now? Rei Ayanami, for instance, is pretty much another side to Shinji — as most characters are, really — and given an external purpose, by virtue of being a clone, as opposed to something she might choose herself. Again, these are the show’s central themes, and what is in fact germane to the tale, for while Lee’s version of “who?” is little more than a question of physical roots, the show answers it in the deeper, existential sense. Yet, as before, it’s not really about the show, is it? It goes back to the viewers’ desires, and how Evangelion can serve their subjective likes and dislikes:
“The fast, blinding narrative style doesn’t stop here either, as throughout all four episodes, not only is the viewer trounced with the sheer amount of information being spouted, but in addition they are rewarded with even more confusion as the narrator of these events changes as well, nearly matching the rapidity of the facts being fed to us.”
Yep: there’s a change of narrator, despite the fact that every narrator, in this sequence, more or less bemoans the same ol’ issues that Evangelion spends 26 episodes commenting on. This is confusing?
“From Fuyutsuki remembering his early days, to a seemingly impossible narration by Ritsuko’s mother (after all, she died, and how would Fuyutsuki ‘remember’ anything from Ritsuko’s mother’s perspective?)…”
Could it be because they’re dead? Dreaming? The end-complements to Seele’s project? Part of some other fallout due to the (possible) Third Impact? These are all legitimate answers, for they are all justified by the show’s own plot-line. In fact, it’s interesting that all these critics are consuming what is, essentially, a children’s animation predicated upon faux Christian mythos, semi-divine beings from outer space, and middle school kids — one of whom is a clone — saving the world in gigantic, mechanized walkers, yet cannot ‘deal’ with a few mild leaps of logic, or a fractured point of view? I mean, if Kenneth Lee can’t tackle a none too complex interplay of voices (prepped, by the way, by episode after episode of similar verbiage and probing, of which this is merely a condensation), what would he do with genuinely great cinema, at the highest level of human accomplishment, a la the last 20 minutes of 2001: A Space Odyssey?
“In addition, many hail these last episodes as a ‘masterpiece’ of ‘Art-house’ film direction. Nothing could be further from the truth – it’s not ‘Art-house,’ it’s ‘out-house.’ Like watching an NBA basketball game for 3 quarters, only to have it suddenly change into a Golf game for the last 2 minutes…”
Well, he’s right: Evangelion is no masterpiece, and even the last couple of episodes (good as they are, in parts) are simply a lite version of some better, deeper predecessors. The show’s real worth is in how it might be a stepping-stone for even better work in the future. As for Evangelion becoming a golf game in the last 2 minutes? This is true, I guess, if one mistakes the show’s eschatological fluff for its inner reason, but simply untrue if its narrative thrust is respected and understood.
“In conclusion, through the narrative style, to character development, to film direction, Shin Seiki Evangelion and Hideaki Anno have achieved what few shows could ever hope of achieving: They have managed to dupe the vast majority of viewers into believing in their awesome Parthenon known as Evangelion, yet in the end, it is nothing more than a House of Cards that has fallen and crumbled…”
Again, Kenneth Lee is quite right, but for reasons he’d not ever recognize. Evangelion is a house of cards, a ‘dupe,’ just as many art-works are, and as so much of anime is, in particular. Yet it’s how the viewer gets duped into accepting these illusions that holds most of the show’s artistic value. Images come and go, undermining much of what is told to us, directly, and even manages to hook so many viewers (such as Lee) on its superficial elements, as if that’s all there is to ‘wonder’ of. To mistake the propping up of illusions, however, for the illusions, themselves, is the sort of critical faux pas that might prevent similar experiments in the future. Yet anime, itself, is a massive experiment whose major queries will not be resolved before the genre is ready to mature. Until then, here are the seeds of something better, if only they are used. There are, at any rate, worse places to start than Neon Genesis Evangelion.
The Evangelion Films
Neon Genesis Evangelion: Death & Rebirth and The End Of Evangelion
After the manufactured ‘controversy’ surrounding the show’s ending, Hideaki Anno decided to release The End Of Evangelion (1997) as an alternative to the show’s final hour, with Death & Rebirth as a kind of teaser: a 70-minute condensation of the show’s first 24 episodes, as well as some new material that would go on to form much of the basis of the ‘real’ film. In fact, to call Death & Rebirth anything more than a glorified trailer for the original show and subsequent film would be dishonest, as it’s very much a marketing ploy for End. There’s nothing really wrong with this, in and of itself, but it means that Death & Rebirth had only a several-month shelf life in 1997, and is now (excepting a few DVD extras) completely obsolete.
The main reason for these flaws is in how Anno decided to treat the original show’s condensation: that is, literally, by simply taking a few favorite scenes, putting them together, and emerging with no real story nor narrative coherence. Sure, this is spliced with some good images of Shinji attending a school music rehearsal (with Bach as the backdrop), but they’re utterly wasted because, for all of their poetry and evocation, there is nothing to really play off of — it’s not a real tale, after all — and therefore very little to evoke. One does not construct great art from images, alone, and without a real narrative spine, Death & Rebirth is targeted strictly at those who’ve already seen the series, and could now make sense of all the names and disparate going-ons. A more worthwhile approach could have, for example, condensed the best of the original images into a story all their own, a la Koyaaniqatsi, not only showing off the original show’s strengths and making new fans, but challenging Anno to forge some new directions in his later work. In a way, then, both this and the later film became a kind of signpost for Anno’s talents, and what he could (and could not) do post-Eva.
But while The End Of Evangelion is a superior work, it’s not really a film proper, in the sense that a film is a work of art that can stand on its own, independent of its allusions. By contrast, End requires good familiarity with the series, for it doesn’t really bring you into its world, or even explain what’s happening and why. It merely strands you at the end of episode 24, and re-imagines things from there. Yet End is not even an expansion of the series — the philosophical posits are identical, and the psychology of the characters is explored in the same way — but simply a means to give some body to Evangelion’s hated ending, in that the viewer now sees the physical effects of things the show merely implied: a change, really, that’s not necessarily preferable or better than the original (as Anno has insisted), and little more than a means to sate one portion of his fan-base. For this reason, End is less ballsy than the original, and pretty much devolves to a solid action flick, even as the animation, itself, is better than the original’s, and a number of its images quite superb.
The film opens with Evangelion’s familiar summer-noises, alongside some good scenic shots that recall the show’s opening. The set-up is one which implies a potential movie in its own right, but quickly goes to a shot of Asuka unconscious in the hospital, as Shinji cries. Accidentally ripping off her gown and seeing her naked body, he masturbates (replete with a shot of his glazed hand) and calls himself disgusting. Ok, this is a terrible start, and a moment that’s only there to highlight Shinji’s immaturity and frustrations, in the least subtle way possible for the sake of getting a reaction. Meanwhile, Nerv is awaiting Instrumentality, as Seele fails to hack into the Magi system to overtake them from within. Asuka is quickly transported to her Eva, and Seele’s ground invasion of Nerv begins, with the objective to eliminate all Eva pilots and staff.
As shells explode over Asuka’s drowned Eva, she curls up and repeats that she doesn’t want to die — a choice that seems too melodramatic for cinema (at least on paper) but has an odd resonance, here, as animation, especially in the absence of all other sounds and superficial realism. Yet instead of allowing the moment’s pathos to play out, The End Of Evangelion comes into its second bad moment: Asuka’s communing with her mother, who seems to tell her that she’ll protect the girl, after which Eva 02 jumps out of the water, and begins to repulse the Japanese army. The triumphant music, Asuka’s hammy declarations of her ‘epiphany,’ and so on, follow the biggest superhero cliches imaginable, for even if one argues that Asuka’s eventual injury (and possible death) is a subversion of this cliche, that is simply not the case, now, from the framing of the images to the number of scenes in between this one and her eventual defeat, which is simply too far-away to work in any real subversive context.
Seeing this, Seele decides to release the Mass Production Evangelions to deal with Asuka, which are some of the best designed villains in the entire series. They behave and look reptilian on land, yet clearly resemble vultures in flight, making their eventual ‘plucking’ at 02’s anthropomorphic features all the more unsettling. This includes the disemboweling of 02, to their blurred appearance in Asuka’s line of vision as she pathetically reaches out her hand at them, only to see them circle above and unexpectedly launch their spears into her body — a final insult, in a sense, for they never visit her again, and the viewer’s forced to deal with the suddenness and lack of closure. In fact, I’d argue that this sort of manipulativeness is what anime is often best at, and while viewers might wince at the word, this is really art’s chief advantage over life. Art, after all, can pick and choose its own facts, its own narrative order, without much concern for anything but effect. It is an idea that is too often glossed over, even as every book, film, or story of value that we consume is calculated for doing — then masking! — precisely that.
Meanwhile, Seele’s invasion has destroyed much of Nerv, and killed off quite a few staff members. Shinji is ‘misbehaving’ again, and refuses to get up when called by Misato, forcing her to drag him off the floor, as he pines for Asuka’s attention, as well as her safety. Misato gets shot, and tells Shinji she will never forgive him if he refuses to pilot his Eva at this critical time. He agrees, and this kicks off End’s Instrumentality sequence, wherein — unlike in the show — we can be more certain that these are the famed ‘complements’ returning to one another, ending with Shinji sobbing over the (possibly dead) body of Asuka.
It’s a long process, and visually superior (at least in a technical sense) to the series: there is, for instance, the great shot of Lilith coming off of her cross, down to how the skin physically rebounds after escaping the nails; a shot of Mistako speaking to a lover, all the while the image is of a spinning fan; a ‘turn’ towards Shinji’s childhood, with blurred-out, grainy images that suggest how he colors and discolors such memories; live-action sequences that are shot documentary-style as the characters seem to enter into a higher plane of existence; and, of course, the last few suggestive shots, of two petrified figures across the destroyed world, above two living (?) ones.
At bottom, End’s primary reason for existence is to provide an alternative to the show’s mythos: or rather, a glimpse into how this mythos plays out physically, thus turning The End Of Evangelion into an action film, first, wherein the first half is dedicated to war (external and not), and the latter portion to its after-shocks, in a way that’s visible rather than implied. Yet for all these changes — all of them, by the way, stylistic, or on the level of plot — it is important to realize that the exchanges between characters are still quite similar to those in Evangelion. The ideas re: death, living, identity, personal boundaries, and pain are the same, and expressed with the same mix of novelty and platitudes. One could argue, then, that Hideaki Anno was merely tossing darts in the hopes that a few of them would stick, a ratio he’s not improved upon since the original series. For every well-parsed line or interesting phrasing, there are atrocities such as: “If you decide to live, anywhere can be heaven — because you’re alive. There will be chances to be happy anywhere. As long as the sun, earth, and moon exist, everything will be alright.” In short, the material can still be bad, bad, bad, with the caveat that a noble failure, as parts of Evangelion are, can be MUCH better to learn from, for the sake of the future, than a merely solid work of animation, as The End Of Evangelion generally is.
Is Hideaki Anno interested in ‘the future’? Perhaps, but in a medium that’s so often controlled by the whims of the consumer as opposed to an artist’s vision, the tendency is to dumb things down, and to pander. One of Anno’s inadvertent controversies, for instance, is in the film’s last line: a line that gives a clue to the whole series, really, and the fallout from which can be deduced the state of health not only in animation, but the arts, in general. The line is Asuka’s, and she says “I feel terrible.” It’s sometimes been translated as “disgusting,” or “I feel disgusting” — a squabble that, amazingly, has led to research, interviews, and other second-hand accounts (for once an art-work is finished, all else is second hand- including the input of its creator!) that pay remarkably little attention to what’s actually happening on the screen. In short, the line may mean one thing or another, but the scene, as a whole, will still have the same artistic function, and this is to keep the possibility of Asuka’s death a mere possibility, as opposed to a fact. This is why, for instance, there is such a lingering shot of her eyes (seemingly dead) before they dart in Shinji’s direction. And it is this, and not her comment, that’s the most dramatic part of the exchange, a fact that telegraphs we are now dealing with Evangelion as plot, as opposed to the (slightly) deeper, ideational qualities in the last 2 episodes of the series. It’s amazing, to me, that so few viewers seem to pick up on this, or even care that, despite their great love for the show, they don’t see how their reactions build up a less deserving moment, here, in exchange for the de-fanging of another.
And perhaps that is the difference between love and knowledge, for while the two can inform each other, they don’t have to: and this lack of a command is taken as license, where love (being pleasant) is not conditional, and knowledge (being tough) is bounded. And while this is an OK blueprint for life, it is a terrible one for art. This is because great art, for all it can do, can’t live within your narrows, while life, for all its good, can only benefit from them. So, which one’s which for the otaku? The answer, in fact, should be irrelevant. It is not. It is also, to be sure, not the artist’s responsibility.
The Verdict Is Elsewhere
In trying to find a proper ‘finish’ to Neon Genesis Evangelion, it’s all too easy to bring up some image or a snatch of dialogue, and call it emblematic of the whole. Yes, it might give you an accurate take on the show’s art (pro and con), but it’d also be falling into the same trap that Evangelion sets for itself, over and over again: the belief that an art-work may refer only to itself, without pushing against the bounds of some deeper reality of character and psyche. So, let’s stop talking about the show, for a second, but use it to get at something higher, a key to the sort of thinking-patterns and decisions that inform popular ideas of art.
In The End Of Evangelion, 29 year-old Misato gets shot, and although the viewer doesn’t know it quite yet, is about to die. Prior to this, Shinji is being his typical, selfish, 14 year-old self, a fact Misato chastises him over, then proceeds to give him an “adult kiss” (as she calls it), requesting they “do the rest when you come back.” Now, it’s hard to tell whether she does all this because she’s been shot, and is now delirious, but it matters not; the scene, as many scenes of sexuality in anime, as a whole, are little more than ‘fan service’ from the director, as a kind of wish-fulfillment for his demographic. It is a decision, then, that bears little artistic import, for such things are both quite far from recognizable, human behavior, as well as a mere trope within the genre, revealing how poor — especially ca. 1997 — anime’s own allusiveness really was. Always referring back to itself, to its own story, its own universe, rather than any deeper thing ‘out there,’ the idea was (and still is, in many regards) that we are dealing with genre, first, as opposed to art of its own accord.
This is a mistake, and one that sets up limits to what is ought to be limitless. This is because genre, literary conventions, and many of the so-called artistic ‘rules’ are an illusion, with the belief that one must follow them (or else!) a delusion. Too often, essays fear to branch out, or even experiment with the structure of their paragraphs; novels go from A to B to C, with no care for the how of such a trip, much less the reasons for it; and consumers, for all of their demands for what should be, forget what it actually is and can be: communication, which brings all these other wants and desires under its umbrage, thus deepening them, providing a sense of purpose, and only demands that they’re done well. It is, I’d think, a liberating thing — to be able to do precisely as you wish. Yet I’ve not seen too many otaku take solace in this fact.
Now, I started this essay with 3 epigraphs, and told you that 2 of them were complete bullshit. I hope the reader can, after reading this far, make a distinction between them, but they’re worth analyzing, anyway. The first quote makes the observation that we’ve come to the end of the ‘grand narrative,’ i.e., that values have been overturned, and things (especially in fiction) have lost their totalizing and intrinsic meaning, wherein things like ‘otaku culture’ can now thrive in the interstices. Sure, it’s an influential idea, but one that takes a peculiar view, held by a minority of people, held — if anyone needs to be reminded — only when the question is in fact posed, and extrapolates that into the ‘modern condition.’ Few people, if any, really believe this, for literally 99.9%+ of their existence pays respect to a grand narrative, day to day, and should not simply disappear when pressed. And this, in fact, is why so many academic theories fail, even as they purport to base themselves on the real world.
The next quote bemoans what’s happened to the (Japanese) imagination, claiming that — as with so much of anime — people’s thought has now turned inward, as opposed to seeking deeper referents from the outside world. It’s better than the first, but still too overstated. In short, any inward turn is temporary, and simply one of the many cycles the art-world has had to go through, and will continue to go through, then shake off after taking something of value from it, to rehabilitate it and use it for its own ends. Far from reaching an ‘end-point,’ such things merely atrophy, in the short term, before consolidating — or being consolidated — into something better.
And the last word, of course, belongs to James Baldwin, for it ties all of this together. To say that ‘the camera sees what you want it to see’ is not a complaint, really, but a precis on what art is: that art, at best, is a grand manipulation by some creator, no matter how deeply it gets at and cuts into reality, and will therefore do exactly what its author will tell it to do. In short, no excuse-making, no pleas about some ‘new age’ and its problems. The artist is either in control, or he’s not.
And this, perhaps, is what people need to learn, because there have simply been too many people — artists, even — who’ve been led astray by the sorts of diversions one sees not only in the art-works, themselves, but, even more importantly, in people’s reactions to these works. For in the needless condemnation that Evangelion has received, as well as in the hyperbolic praise for things that it most certainly is not, there are patterns that ought to be examined, there are keys to mass thought, to the new directions art can be pushed, as well as to the mass delusions that, yes, the ‘new age’ can indubitably feed.
Although I was too young to ever watch Evangelion upon its release, I recognize, today, all the little markers of — and in — the show that helped define an illusory decade, a decade whose fraud, prosperity, and reneged (in some cases, never made) promises are only completely apparent now, two decades after the fact. I see Evangelion in the way we’d play in the street: that is, only half-way, for we were the first generation to live in media while others had to contend with the ‘real’ world, and thus have our imaginations turn inward, and en masse. I see Evangelion in how kids related to one another with an innocence of bigger things that, only a few years earlier, they’d not ever have been able to escape from, and might, with the right combination of stupidity and ill luck, have even been killed by. And I’ll see what meaning (if any) such recollections, now, might have in the future, when such things go distant. For while Evangelion’s Nerv might have had Robert Browning’s most famous quotation, they missed his more salient one, the one that applies both to the show, as well as those who’ve been affected by it: those that wanted something better, something deeper, if only for themselves, but didn’t quite know how to proceed:
Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for…?
Comments from a FB thread:
Tanner-Rey: tomfoolery aside, your friend Alex encapsulates my thoughts on the series perfectly in these words:
“… the series (like much of anime, in general) overlays some damn good imagery against a narration that — given its cliches, faux poetics, and psychological fluff — jars with what’s actually on screen, and turns these elements outward, thus co-opting them, at times, for a deeper purpose. In this way, despite the near-universal acclaim (at least among otaku) for Neon Genesis Evangelion’s characters, scripting, and ‘complex plot,’ these elements are by far the show’s weakest. “
I feel Eva was more responsible with the fact it was a self-aware series than other anime-related “necessary viewing”. (*cough*Haruhi*cough*)
Also on what he says about Eva jumping over the boundary of being self-contained into being outright self-absorbed:
“… Always referring back to itself, to its own story, its own universe, rather than any deeper thing ‘out there,’ the idea… that we are dealing with genre, first, as opposed to art of its own accord.
This is a mistake, and one that sets up limits to what is ought to be limitless: self-imposed limits that, after a while, train people to interpret things from the same filter, over and over again.”
Earlier he made a note about how Eva ends up anvilicious, and while it’s a failing of the series I think it does fall under one of what he calls “noble failings”. It’s a little unavoidable in trying to reach out to an audience that probably never experienced anything like this before, and it weakened the series but it also made it more accessible.
As a counterpoint to that though, he did mention anime, hell any art or entertainment, cannot exist in a vacuum if it’s to be anywhere near great. Eva did that with itself in ways he already identified, and now a work that’s become deified for so long when it has curious flaws that tend to be glossed over, needs more mature reexaminations.
Alex Sheremet Overall, I’d call it a solid/good show, and it’s much better in its use of pretense than in taking the philosophical parts seriously. It’s odd, too, how fans have gotten so caught up on the plot-points, when plot is 1) merely a vehicle to examine deeper things, 2) in this case, pretty rote, anyway.
In the long run, though, shows like Evangelion can have things to teach cinema, and I’d not ignore it as a mere kids’ show or an absolute failure.
Thanks for reading.
Tanner-Rey Much obliged, man. Not to stroke your ego, but usually when I open up an article on the series I have a knee-jerk reaction holdover from my I-dont-like-Eva-anymore-because-everyone-talks-about-it phase. But your thoughts kept me glued.
There’s perspectives to that series, flaws and triumps, that I was only able to truly get after recently revisiting it.
k. law I’m sorry, but your first mistake was treating Eva as an anime. Anno is a filmmaker first, and when you’ve seen the art films of Japan in that period, everything falls into place. The pacing, the editing, its not supposed to be character-driven, actually, but serve as something anime doesn’t do very well: make people think about themselves as realistic, multi-dimensional constructs instead of flat, cliched characterizations. So the cliches: giant robots? Not actually robots. The peppy tsundere? A fucking tragedy. The comforting illusion of a stable, productive society that Japan so often loves to project in their media? Old men trying to usurp and exploit young people for things only young people can do. Eva is a masterpiece, if only more people besides anime fans understood it.
Your second mistake is not so much a mistake as a cultural divide. The symbolism feels superficial or overly drilled in- ONLY IF YOU’RE NOT JAPANESE. Take the setting sun, for example- the sun is Japan’s national pride, its very symbol, and to characterize it as a failing hope creates a dark irony that westerners will find very difficult to understand. The private revelations will be familiar to the overworked, socially stressed out introvert comprising much of Japan’s workforce- the masochism in a 2-tatami room in the face of an uncaring, yet superficially perfect daily life SHOULD be very familiar.
Alex Sheremet “I’m sorry, but your first mistake was treating Eva as an anime. Anno is a filmmaker first, and when you’ve seen the art films of Japan in that period, everything falls into place.”
It’s an anime, i.e., a Japanese animation, by definition. But these sorts of categories are irrelevant because it could have been an anime, an art-film, a Woody Allen production, or released as a fake porno, and it’d STILL not change what’s happening on screen — really, the only thing that matters, if you care about objectivity.
As such, my critique of character, the show’s mega-cliches, and its intellectual simplicity, all stand, for those elements are there. Yes, it has some rich images, great snatches of dialogue here and there, and does a pretty good job of turning its own pretense upon the viewer, but to somehow think this obviates the most basic issues of characterization, intellectual depth, and writing, is silly. ESPECIALLY if you’re trying to argue that it’s a great art-film, and not an anime geared towards teens and young adults, where such obvious flaws may pass a little.
“The pacing, the editing, its not supposed to be character-driven, actually, but serve as something anime doesn’t do very well: make people think about themselves as realistic, multi-dimensional constructs instead of flat, cliched characterizations.”
In other words, by throwing out a bunch of flat, 2-dimensional characters, poor dialogue, and predictable narrative arcs at the viewer, this is supposed to show how much deeper true reality is? So if I write a bad sonnet about bad sonnets, does it become great by, therefore, highlighting Shelley’s OZYMANDIAS?
Note how your defense can apply to literally every piece of bad art ever made (not to say that Evangelion is bad, overall — it’s not), simply because a consumer has an emotional need to justify what’s not there, intellectually.
“So the cliches: giant robots? Not actually robots.”
So? This is taking the most superficial level of imagery and symbolism, giving it a small tweak, and somehow deducing great depth from what is, essentially, a minor cosmetic change.
And giant robots aren’t cliches, in the same way that time-travel in science fiction is not a cliche. They are merely part of the genre. This is why I don’t ever make such critiques, but focus on issues of poor character, narrative cliches, and intellectual lacks, which are NOT merely part of a genre.
“The peppy tsundere? A fucking tragedy.”
Literally, a tragedy; there are ‘tragic consequences.’ The question is whether it’s Othello-level tragedy, or Titus Andronicus. You posit the former, but without evidence.
“The comforting illusion of a stable, productive society that Japan so often loves to project in their media? Old men trying to usurp and exploit young people for things only young people can do.”
Which is then presented in a way that often (but not always) wallows in cliches, poor narrative choices, and, about 60% of the time, intellectual dearth.
You can have the greatest idea in the world (not that Evangelion necessarily has them). But without the talent for art, it’ll just be that; an idea.
“Your second mistake is not so much a mistake as a cultural divide. The symbolism feels superficial or overly drilled in- ONLY IF YOU’RE NOT JAPANESE.”
You’re wrong. The Tale of Genji was written about 1000 years ago, and is still not cliched now. Hokusai was a wonderful imagist, at times, 2 centuries ago. Tanizaki wrote one of the greatest novels of the 20th century — in 1929. Akira Kurosawa was the most diverse and subtle filmmakers to have ever lived, and Kobayashi’s hyper-realism and nuanced symbolism was far better than Shakespearean melodrama.
They are Japanese, but rarely stooped to the level of bad writing, bad symbolism, and over-all obviousness. “Evangelion” can’t refer to its Japanese-ness as some kind of autonomic defense, for culture moves on a WORLD-WIDE scale. ‘Cuz, really, even if there’s a tribe on a desert island somewhere that could do arithmetic quite well (as Eva does), yet know nothing of geometry (as Kurosawa does), can you really claim they’re great mathematicians (artists)?
“Take the setting sun, for example- the sun is Japan’s national pride, its very symbol, and to characterize it as a failing hope creates a dark irony that westerners will find very difficult to understand.”
Actually, it’s a symbol that’s been co-opted from literally thousands of years of the same cliche. Sure, you can say it’s “REALLY” a nationalist symbol, or a hyper-allusive comment on nuclear technology, or a critique of science, but why? A quick use of Occam’s Razor puts the image squarely in the rest of Eva’s context: the too-common use of cliches and faux poetics. This is obvious since the preceding line is a cliche, as well: “Rain, dark, gloomy, like my mood.” And the line after the sun-line is a cliche, as well. That, and nothing else, is the pattern. That you imbue something else altogether is your own choice.
Look, I can tell you’re a fan of the show, and you seem to be interested in the arts. But you’re jumping through hoops and trying to excuse the obvious with all sorts of machinations simply because it will provide deeper evidence of your already-held view.
I recommend you step outside of the show, or anime, in general, and take a look at other art works (if you don’t already), then do a simple comparison. The other will be richer.
Comments from where? Friend’s FB page?
Yes, although I don’t know the person arguing with me. Gonna specify that.
These comments are all from K-LAW:
“As such, my critique of character, the show’s mega-cliches, and its
intellectual simplicity, all stand, for those elements are there.”
Amounting to an assertion, a repetition, nothing more than repeating yourself.
What mega-cliches? What simplicity? Your examples are fraught with
opinions with no solid fact. Saying something is “silly” is saying
nothing at all but “I personally find this childish.”
As for “flat, 2-dimensional characters, poor dialogue, and predictable narrative arcs
at the viewer” can you really predict Rei’s sacrifice with the N2 bomb?
Could you predict Shinji’s confidence backfiring on him in the Sea of
Dirac? These are certainly tropes of coming of age stories, but to say
they’re cliche is nothing but pompous and fatuous. The mark of a coming
of age story is the 3-dimensional character. Shinji alone is a knot of
Oedipus complex wrapped in teenage confusion and Japanese expectations
of a young man his age. From the very first episode his internal turmoil
is just that: forced inside, with only a polite, dutiful response on
the outside. As for poor dialogue, you obviously are not watching it in
“This is taking the most superficial level of imagery and symbolism, giving
it a small tweak, and somehow deducing great depth from what is,
essentially, a minor cosmetic change.”
The giant robot cliche is not only the robot itself, but the idea of
mind-bogglingly large things using Japan as a battlefield. In itself the
idea is representative of Japan as a country, caught between
superpowers since WW2 (hence the abundance of large, often Christian
themed explosions). They’re cliched in Godzilla, Ultraman, Gundam, and
countless other shows that still reflect a great fear of things Japanese
folks can’t control.
So to hijack the idea and make it about something not only infinitely more powerful, but also as closely related
to humanity as mother to child (the pilot tube, the LCL amniotic fluid,
why only Shinji can use 01, Lillith itself constantly bleeding to
nourish humanity) is to subvert the symbolism and return the power to
the weak (Again, Christian values, and almost literally the point of
Human Instrumentality Project.) I’d say that’s great depth indeed.
“You posit the former, but without evidence.”
Strawman. I was not in fact positing this, but merely pointing out the tsundere
is NOT a tragic cliche, but a comedic one. Thus, an original subversion
creating a complex character with decades of fans.
“wallows in cliches, poor narrative choices, and, about 60% of the time, intellectual dearth.”
Again,merely your opinion, as is your rant about culture. Point some
specifics out, and we’ll talk. Until you do, the whole exercise is
pointless. Frankly you find so much of Eva “obvious,” but it really is
starting to sound like you’re quite missing the point.
“A quick use of Occam’s Razor puts the image squarely in the rest of Eva’s
context: the too-common use of cliches and faux poetics.”
You don’t quite grasp Occam’s Razor, a logical argument used in a logical context: deduction and induction. Any analysis of art must be a relative one, not a causal one: the symbolism is meaningful only because it isn’t meaningful to everyone, but is meaningful to the artist and to the target of his art. Only in this way can communication be established: from the knowing to the unknowing.
In this context, yes, it is a nationalist symbol. You say “thousands of
years” but to whom? The Japanese? The Rising Sun was only adopted in the Edo period, the latest maybe 1603.
And you really must stop analyzing scenes based on subtitles, since the original intention is completely lost. Things are only obvious to you because YOU DON’T ACTUALLY UNDERSTAND WHAT’S HAPPENING. Yes, I have a view, but I’m presenting it with facts, examples, and rationale. You, thus far, have
only presented an opinion. If we are conducting a logical analysis of
this conversation, Occam’s Razor suggests you don’t have a leg to stand
And my response. Hopefully, it will be the last one.
“Amounting to an assertion, a repetition, nothing more than repeating yourself. What mega-cliches? What simplicity?”
Bro. Did you not read the article, or my response to you? I need to really explain why ‘fading hope, like the setting sun’ is a cliche? Or why ‘rain, gloomy, like my mood’ is a cliche? Or why a 14 yr old girl (Asuka) who shows up with a bad attitude, bitchy demeanor, hyper-aggression, and extreme cockiness is, in fact, compensating for insecurity, which will PREDICTABLY and INEVITABLY have to be revealed in the course of the narrative?
Read the article. There are plenty of examples of narrative, dialogue, character, and structural cliches, provided you understand what these things are.
“…can you really predict Rei’s sacrifice with the N2 bomb?”
No, in the same way you cannot predict that a little girl in a red jacket in an otherwise black and white film (Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List”) will show up at the end. This doesn’t make the symbol any less obvious, twee, trite, and just over-the-top BAD.
“Could you predict Shinji’s confidence backfiring on him in the Sea of Dirac?”
Again, focusing on plot-points, as opposed to deeper narrative issues. This attitude, and only this attitude, makes EVANGELION feel much cheaper and qualitatively worse than the show in fact is, for you’re too caught up on justifying things that don’t need it. You harm your own argument with such tactics.
And Shinji’s refusal to ‘grow’, in the predictable sense, is one of the best and deepest parts of the series.
“These are certainly tropes of coming of age stories, but to say
they’re cliche is nothing but pompous and fatuous.”
Note that I never, at any point, deride the show’s tropes, for they are merely part and parcel of the genre. It’s a point I made in my first response to you, and which you’ve ignored because, well, it lets you straw-man my argument.
The problem is not the tropes. The problem is how these tropes are constructed, in THIS particular case, and how they are ultimately executed.
As such, putting Asuka’s archetype into a work of art is perfectly fine. Yet forcing her archetype to non-stop berate Shinji, grate on the viewer, invoke her own superiority over and over again, THEN put her thru a mental breakdown wherein all the characters are in ‘awe’ of her ‘hidden’ self-hatred, is predictable and trite, because it’s neither hidden nor difficult to predict. Assuming, of course, you’ve got a brain, and a passing familiarity with literary and cinematic characters, much less people around you in everyday life.
“As for poor dialogue, you obviously are not watching it in the Japanese.”
Ah, the defense of last resort- “it’s not been translated well.” I’ve seen the series across 3 different subs, including the official release. It’s different varieties of good, bad, and utter shit, in ratios that are remarkably similar from one translation to the next.
“The giant robot cliche is not only the robot itself, but the idea of
mind-bogglingly large things using Japan as a battlefield. In itself the
idea is representative of Japan as a country, caught between
superpowers since WW2 (hence the abundance of large, often Christian
themed explosions). They’re cliched in Godzilla, Ultraman, Gundam, and countless other shows that still reflect a great fear of things Japanese folks can’t control.”
Again, this is YOUR imbuing, not the show’s: a difference you do not seem to understand. Giant robots are not a cliche, nor is ‘the use of Japan as a battlefield’. They are TROPES. I’ve not said otherwise.
“Strawman.I was not in fact positing this, but merely pointing out the tsundere is NOT a tragic cliche, but a comedic one. Thus, an original subversion creating a complex character with decades of fans.”
I can read. You made a POSITIVE contrast between the ‘peppy tsundere’ and it, in fact, being a ‘fucking tragedy’- these are YOUR words, and they are praising.
My own rejoinder was that it doesn’t matter whether it’s tragic, comedic, or something else altogether- it’s the TYPE of tragedy, *qualitatively,* that matters. This is why I used an example of a great Shakespearean tragedy (Othello), and an abysmal one (Titus Andronicus). You did not see this, but instead chose to read what ought to be a pretty clear distinction in the most LCD way possible.
“Again, merely your opinion, as is your rant about culture. Point some
specifics out, and we’ll talk. Until you do, the whole exercise is
pointless. Frankly you find so much of Eva “obvious,” but it really is
starting to sound like you’re quite missing the point.”
Again: read the article, as you’ve not seem to have done this. If you have, then re-read, but better.
“You don’t quite grasp Occam’s Razor, a logical argument used in a logical context: deduction and induction. Any analysis of art must be a relative one, not a causal one: the symbolism is meaningful only because it isn’t meaningful to everyone, but is meaningful to the artist and to the target of his art. Only in this way can communication be established: from the knowing to the unknowing.”
Trust me, I grasp Occam’s Razor better than you, which is why I’ve in fact applied it, here, as well as in the article, and you’ve failed to. You jump thru hoops to ‘prove’ that an abysmal cliche re: “the sun setting, like my hope” is in fact something else altogether. I responded that, no, you simply need to look at all the lines that come before & after, and you see that this particular line is sandwiched between a number of other cliches, thus making THAT the most logical explanation of its existence.
This is called logic, and, yes, it applies to art. Your argument, in fact, breaks down the second you posit art as somehow “relative”. It most certainly isn’t, because if it were subjective, then what I am saying is 100% as valid as what you are saying, meaning your critique of my critique is meaningless.
Yet you do not REALLY believe this, or else you’d not attempt to engage me. You feel a need to ‘show me up,’ so after spending 2 posts arguing against my interpretation, you disingenuously invoke the issue of ‘subjectivity’ because it will make things easier for you.
Or so you think.
It matters not what Anno intended, or what his demographic expected, or in what context or genre or time period the work belongs. This is IRRELEVANT. All that matter’s is what’s on screen, because cliches are cliches, poor structure is poor structure, and bad characters are bad characters– Japanese or not, teen or not, otaku or not.
Note how you surreptitiously invoked “it’s not a cliche in Japan,” yet had no response when I offered a # of great artistic works from Japan, across literally 1000+ yrs of time, that lacked these very cliches you defend out of an emotional need.
This is because the best art, at the greatest level, achieves what it achieves at the highest standard: world-wide. So, even if EVANGELION is the greatest anime ever conceived, that would simply mean it’s top in its niche– not necessarily the most impressive accomplishment, in the same way that “the greatest 12 year old sonneteer” or “the best sculptor in Micronesia” does not mean much when compared to the world at large.
Yet you invoke Evangelion as great cinema in league with the best, all the while claiming it’s in fact all “relative,” and merely important to the limited, intended audience. Do you not see how much you inadvertently condescend to Evangelion (and anime, in general), even as you try to defend its status?
You need to make up your mind. It’s either all relative and subjective, or not. It’s either subject to logical argument, or not. Because, if not, you have precisely zero business arguing with me for YOUR viewpoint, since ‘argument’ implies logic and verifiable claims, and my claim, under your own preferred system, is as valid as yours, with no in-between possible.
And if it’s NOT the case, Evangelion has to deal with its own material, on-screen, by the only standards that matter: art, and quality, and the parameters implicit in such. All else is just fuckin’ around.
What I wrote to you on FB re: the setting sun thing –
“How does one not understand that “setting sun as symbol of fading hope” is about as universal and archetypal a cliche as possible? Yes, Japan has a rising sun on their flag, but EVERY HUMAN EVERYWHERE has a rising and a setting sun and will react to such in predictable ways, if only because things like “night, cold, mystery, danger” present a pretty universal and immediately identifiable threat?”
Seriously, it’s not about how long such things have been around in Japan, or even all of Asia, but about the nature of human experience more broadly, which is the main subject of most worthwhile works of art. Shit, night is a pretty literal narrowing of perspective, for one can only be aware and plan for one’s immediate surrounds.
Pingback: Neon Genesis Evangelion: A Response To Tumblr's Ritsumaya | IDEAS ON IDEAS
Pingback: Review Of "La Planète sauvage" (Fantastic Planet) | IDEAS ON IDEAS
Pingback: Review Of Hayao Miyazaki's "Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Wind" (1984) | IDEAS ON IDEAS
In my opinion, you say a lot of nothing. I read this and could not determine it’s purpose. What questions are you trying to answer? What should I know upon exiting this page? I would like you to summarize that.
You simultaneously praise and condemn the show for something but never get there yourself. You talk of meaning and I would have you tell me what that is rather than stating it exists.
So to explicitly state:
What was the point of this thing you wrote?
What do you think was the point of the show?
Thank you for your time.
Sorry about the italics. I am not good with these things.
“In my opinion, you say a lot of nothing. I read this and could not determine it’s purpose. What questions are you trying to answer? What should I know upon exiting this page? I would like you to summarize that.”
I’m not answering any “questions”. Your assumption, here, is your own error. I’m looking at what’s on the screen, describing it objectively, and comparing this description with others’ assessments, as carefully as possible. Re: what you should ‘know’ upon exiting this page is precisely what I’ve written- no more, no less.
You simultaneously praise and condemn the show for something but never get there yourself.
There is no ‘something’- there’s ‘a lot of things’, both pro and con. And unless you’re dealing with unabashedly great art, that is the direction fair criticism MUST take. I mean, you’re busy looking for that ‘something,’ therefore missing the thing(s) actually there. Please understand that this is your own issue to work out.
As for a summary:
1) “Neon Genesis Evangelion” is a solid show, overall. It is neither a great show, as its admirers claim, nor a terrible mess, as its critics insist. The bulk of this essay’s ~11,000 words provides evidence for this assertion.
2) Its admirers claim that it’s a great show for all the wrong reasons- namely, they point to its supposedly great writing and philosophical depth while ignoring the huge # of cliches (philosophical, writerly, etc.) that bog so much of the narrative down. Much of the essay’s content is evidence of this.
3) Its detractors claim it’s a terrible show for all the wrong reasons- namely, that it doesn’t follow more typical narrative arcs, that it doesn’t over-explain the plot details they want to be explained, etc., all the while ignoring the fact that plot is superficial to a work of art. NGE’s plot is particularly dull and commonplace, and people are attached to it for all the wrong reasons. Much of the essay’s content is evidence of this.
4) Some of its best art comes in the way that its images absolutely jar against the more predictable writing. In this way, cliches are often inverted (instead of rotting away at NGE’s core) and silly narrative tropes (typical mecha shit, heroism, etc.) get sacrificed for something better- much to the emotional consternation of its fans. Much of the essay’s content is evidence of this.
5) I claim the show is littered with anti-symbols: stuff that, while seemingly ‘meaning’ something, means nothing at all- even as critics and fans alike spend so much time making ridiculous deductions. This forces many to conclude the show is pretentious- and while true, NGE turns this pretense OUT at the viewer, rather than merely wallowing in it seriously. The pretense, in short, avoids damaging the art, even as most viewers miss it. Just think of the way that fans of Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona” praise its psychological angle so rapturously, when in fact the psychological angle is merely there to hook and nail a few readers on the fluff, all the while they miss the far deeper elements.
There is more, but that’s the gist. I am sorry you had difficulty reading.
That was much better. Your grandiloquence and attitude does you no credit. The last thing I can say now having understood your attempt at ‘objective’ analysis better, is that I believe you are trying to analyze something as strictly art when the side that is entertainment is omitted, ignored, or unnoticed. Also, plot in itself can be art. Otherwise, what are fiction books? Thanks again for your time.
That was much better.
No, it wasn’t. You’re confusing the fact that you’ve been *made* to understand something with its immanent quality — as if the world (and this page, in particular) revolves around YOUR needs. It doesn’t work like that.
Listen. I am not trying to be ‘nasty’ to you. I’ve edited this response several times to erase things that might have seemed harsh, but I need to be blunt as you don’t realize your own arrogance here. I’ve made several points that relate to you, specifically- you ignored them. This means you feel, consciously or no, as if you’re ‘above the fray,’ and that my correctives are beneath your input.
Your grandiloquence and attitude does you no credit.
Re-read your original comment. YOU start things off by outright calling me a fraud, then complain about MY attitude? I could have told you to merely fuck off, as most people simply get ‘offended’ and pissed at being challenged. Instead, I pointed out the issues, then fulfilled your request when, for whatever reason, the article was too tough for you to read.
This may come as a shock to you, but if you think an essay with complex sentences, semi-colons, and a few parentheticals is “too grandiloquent,” then you’re simply out of practice. I wonder how you’d fare with Moby-Dick, the Declaration Of Independence, Nietzsche. Anything, really, that’s not manga, video games, or Twilight. This is an entire world that steadily blooms out of your reach. If you wish to engage with the world, this is something to work on, not merely delegate to whatever unflattering category that allows you to ignore it.
Seriously. Re-read the article, if you must. Point out, to me, what seems like my bloviating about “nothing,” and really think whether the issue is with me, or you. I get that archaisms aren’t everybody’s thing, but this is a stylistic choice- sort of like the difference between Wallace Stevens ‘abstraction,’ and the razor-sharp lines of a Countee Cullen. One isn’t better than the other. It’s simply different, assuming the writing is good. It sucks that, at a time when ‘individuality’ is so championed, it’s done in the most LCD way possible- and true distinctions, like these, are dismissed so that everyone can end up being ‘the same,’ and that people can merely go on understanding the limits of what they choose to understand.
The last thing I can say now having understood your attempt at ‘objective’ analysis better, is that I believe you are trying to analyze something as strictly art when the side that is entertainment is omitted, ignored, or unnoticed.
Well, anime is an art-form, first- and NGE is art, in particular. It’d be one thing if I were to go after basketball as not being ‘aesthetic’ enough, or a TV show designed for infants for lacking true depth, but NGE clearly attempts artistry (both in writing and visuals). And ‘artistry’ is how most fans and critics have responded to it thus far. So it’s 100% ripe for this sort of analysis, especially since I argue that it has a few things to teach the film world… but especially vice versa.
Re: entertainment, I spend some time on its cultural import, my personal affection for 90s stuff, etc., so I disagree that it’s ignored. The focus is simply on the art- mostly because it’s been treated so poorly over the last 20 years, especially by the so-called ‘serious’ critics in academic journals.
And no need to put the word ‘objective’ into scare-quotes. I am being as fair as possible. If not, you are free to point out my errors. I do not think it’s a stretch for me to call cliches “cliches” after I quote them. Nor is it wrong to say that the show’s philosophy is a kind of entry-level ‘best of,’ and little more. The evidence is there if you wish to take a second look, both for these claims and dozens of others.
Also, plot in itself can be art. Otherwise, what are fiction books?
I disagree that plot itself is art, except in the most mundane sense. A plot is merely an EXCUSE for the art to do its thing. Huck Finn isn’t a great book because there is a kid there that goes on the lam, has adventures, and tries to free a slave. It is a great book due to HOW these things are treated- HOW they’re described, HOW the story’s elements interact, etc. You can easily turn Huck Finn into a piece of shit while keeping the plot identical. The real worth is in the ‘how’, and this is what makes an artist.
To illustrate this a little better. Think of the all the books, movies, poems, declarations, etc., that you’ve heard on how ‘bad’ racism was. Then read this poem, and see how all of those dead images come to life again, in a way that few writers ever achieve:
I hear a whistling
Through the water.
Won’t be still.
He keeps floating
Round the darkness,
The silent chill.
Tell me, please,
That bedtime story
Of the fairy
Who swims forever,
Deep in treasures,
A coral toy.
*In 1955, Till, a fourteen-year-old from Chicago, for allegedly whistling at a white woman in Mississippi, was murdered by white men who tied a gin mill fan around his neck and threw his body into the Tallahatchie River.
Woops I wrote part of that reply before deciding to complete it on Word document before copy pasting it over, so I repeated some parts of it accidentally. Here’s the proper comment
To be honest, I can look at Evangelion any day, while I can’t really get much into Bergman. Likewise, I think that animation has different distinct aesthetics from cinematography. For the key-frame connoisseur, Hideaki Anno is equivalent to any number of the standard great directors out there. An aspect you’re missing out on, as well, is the so-called ‘rhythm’ of the series. Since everything in animation has to be worked out from bare-bones, the sound is wholly non-diegetic, or rather you have to create the illusion of a diegetic environment. Evangelion stands far above most things in terms of its marriage of what’s going on on screen with what’s being heard. That’s why I still think that Evangelion is far from objectively bad art.
Most of your thoughts on the aesthetics of artifice is similar to what Sontag writes in ‘Notes on Camp’ except that she comes to the conclusion that there does exist an aesthetics of grandiosity, pretentiousness and overblown expressive emotionally, and this can be seen as equal to supposedly harmonious art forms.
In fact her thesis starts off this way:
“To start very generally: Camp is a certain mode of aestheticism. It is one way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon. That way, the way of Camp, is not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization.”
Also I find it strange that you want to make the claim that the characters are not well crafted enough to be empathetic when any scroll through a bunch of comments on Eva will indicate how much of its appeal rests on the empathy, and quite a bunch of pretty smart people I know have all been bitten by the bug. Somehow it seems that Anno has created just the right amount of archetypal soup to appeal to the adolescent and the mopey in everyone, and neither do I believe that this is strictly a matter of ‘if you have enough angst-cues you’ll affect a large span of the population’. Why is it that all those ‘noir-ish’ follow-ups to Evangelion failed to capture the same aspect of the populace that Eva did? Why has no one really heard of Saikano or Now and Then, Here and There? Why is Rahxephon still not as well-known even though it works as a functionally better narrative? Why did Serial Experiments Lain merely become cult and not mainstream pop-art? The show is notoriously disjunct and campy in its aesthetics, and should be alienating on every account of the term, especially when it gets to its latter phase, yet it manages to subsist both as pop avant- garde and a profitable mainstream mecha anime. While I do agree that there is a surface level Freudianism and Existentialism involved, I have never really understood why Anno’s specific brand of lowbrow philosophical pessimism works so well. Why is it that the unwieldiness aids the emotional content?
(Then again True Detective is pretty famous solely because it references Lovecraft and Ligotti, and Twin Peaks being a big deal was a thing back then.)
(Incidentally I actually spoiled quite a bit of the show before watching it, because it’s so famous, so I knew beforehand all the stuff about Asuka and Rei and Shinji’s psychological problems. I also knew of the mindrape scene and the masturbation scene and all that. Maybe because of that I was able to be more aware of the form?)
Actually I don’t think the writing is bad at all. Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar works in the same way in that it uses stereotypical lines from any Western but it meshes the lines together weirdly to create this half-expressionistic psychosexual soup of a movie. Anno’s distinct subversions of cliches works somehow in that whole sense that these emotions really do seem larger than life, and do seem to cut to the core of everything. It’s this weird psychological beat that has to do with a combination of the frames, the voice-acting, and the sheer grandiosity of the lines. One of my favorite episodes is episode 15, and my favorite moment is when Misato goes into the distinctly Freudian outburst about her father, even though every single grain of my intellect goes against it, something still bubbles up inside me. Who could ever make lines like that work with such a straight face? But somehow the whole atmosphere created somehow makes it fit completely. I have to congratulate Shinji’s voice actor for making the screams so piercing, as opposed to his inferior English counterpart. I have to congratulate Misato for the timbre of her slight lisp, giving her the perfect blend of childishness and maturity that makes her sticks out in her role.
Another favourite moment of mine is when Shinji runs away in episode 3 and that whole sequence just has Scorcese’s neon-romantic Taxi Driver painted all over it. I think you make a mistake trying to separate form from content. I would say that whatever is being said fits the screen. I mean Anno is crazy enough to make the “to be continued” frame an essential part of the work itself, always ending out of nowhere at just the correct moment for the highest psychological resonance. (And in the same way psychologically detached way that Godard ended Vivre Sa Vie, not in the emotionally manipulative way that Nolan ended Inception)
(Also there’s the whole deal with Japanese and all that. Naturalistic curt poetics is a thing that is distinctly from Haiku and stuff like that, so Rei’s use of it in her monologue may register on the terms of its culture. The issue of a cultural gap is still apparent even if you want to whitewash it. The Tale of Genji may still work now, but you definitely won’t be able to register it on the vivid intuitive level that a Heian courtesan would have been able to back then, solely because you wouldn’t understand all the in-depth references that they were exchanging in their poetry. In fact we wouldn’t even be able to understand the whole tight web of references in stuff like Romantic poetry the same visceral way they would have understood it back then. Even with an annotated version, there would still be a loss of aesthetics. Likewise poetry as a whole does not translate into languages, since the whole idea of poetry is, after all, the perfect words in the perfect order. That’s also why Flaubert is deemed to be notoriously hard to translate. In Japan, repetition and cliché are kind of like a whole language in and of itself. The language is full of specific memes that only register if you understand it, like their whole idea of ‘kengo’.)
The Asuka moment you bring out for example. The key frames here are distinctly actiony anime, with all the missile circuses (the famed Itano Circus) where she’s almost ecstatic over her ‘epiphany’ while all sorts of fireworks from the missiles exploding are going on in the background, is quite plainly pure camp. It just does not register (to me at least) as a normal action scene at all. But neither does it feel ironic in the sense that Hot Fuzz uses quick paced action movie style moments for completely banal and parodic scenes. It feels orgiastic and just plain surreal. Really the only aesthetic term that fits here is either ‘expressionism’ or ‘camp’.
Animation has a different visual vocabulary from film, especially with its mecha roots. The design of the Evas, taken from Godzilla, for example. When Woody Allen puts a distinct reference to Fellini and Bergman in the Stardust Memories dream sequence, you understand that Allen knows this aspect of his craft fully, and its functionally the same as when Anno has his ‘ballet action scene’. The whole history of anime is not in editing and mastering of the shot, but it was all about the mastery of movement from the flow of the frames. In anime you look at the movement first and foremost, which is where all the visual cues are.
Au contraire. The structure was perfect at the time. The whole first half was a complete homage to the genre, with its monster-of-the-day style episodes and its animation being the cutting edge of traditional animation at the time. It was everything that the people wanted at the time, and it gave them more than that, not just with therapy but with its extreme aesthetics of camp. Anyway structure and aesthetics don’t necessarily intersect. Are Giallo films aesthetically bad because their structures unwieldy?
Whatever it is, I don’t find your case for Evangelion being low in aesthetics convincing at all because you’re going at it from the perspective of the high flown fine film aesthetics. I do agree that there is some overlap, but there are also different things to look out for. I don’t think that art is straightforwardly subjective, but I do agree that some people like the perfectly symmetrical Bach, and other people love the overblown and grandiose Wagner to death. To me, there are two types of stimulation, the first being the immaculate stylistics of precision, Kubrick and Coleridge and Flaubert and Kawabata and all those ‘minimalists’ or whatever, but there is also stuff like Gothic Architecture and Melville and Victor Hugo. To me Evangelion works in the grandiose unwieldy ways of the latter type. Nothing ever quite works the same way Evangelion does.
Incidentally here are some nice shots from episode 19, with all the distinct colouring and lighting that Anno is known for.
There’s also this tumblr that is wholly dedicated to pop-art and lowbrow aesthetics that I like to browse through now and then.
Another commentator that also tries to figure out why Evangelion works despite its failure in narrative and psychology on every aspect is Gwern, in this article. (well it’s not really an article, more like notes for writing an article)
Thanks for the comment. I am surprised that you’re even using the word “aesthetics”- as in, you don’t find my sense of aesthetics “convincing at all,” when I went out of my way to avoid ANY mention of aesthetics in the first place. I’m not trying to be condescending, but do you know what the word means? It is this:
1) a set of principles concerned with the nature and appreciation of beauty, especially in art.
2) the branch of philosophy that deals with the principles of beauty and artistic taste.
I am not concerned with “beauty,” at all, for great art can be ugly, and beautiful art can still be quite bad. Think, for example, of the uglier paintings of Picasso vs. the hyperrealism of a photo-like painting depicting a pretty woman yet saying nothing else. Nor am I concerned with taste, for taste is simply that- a personal take on things, irrespective of the object under critique. In short, it can- but doesn’t always- correspond to artistic greatness.
Let’s take a look at your first claim:
To be honest, I can look at Evangelion any day, while I can’t really get much into Bergman…
Believe it or not, I agree with you. Excepting 2 or 3 films, Bergman is far from my ‘favorite’ filmmaker- I don’t get so emotionally invested in his work. THAT is an aesthetic issue- one of mere preference. Yet to THEREFORE say that he’s not a great filmmaker would simply be wrong. You simply cannot predict how a person will react emotionally to this or that work of art; at the very least, you cannot really say who will ‘like’ what. But you can certainly conclude whether or not a film has good writing, good visuals, deep characterizations, good use of music, etc., irrespective of what you might FEEL about them.
I actually have a personal affinity for NGE, anime, and video game aesthetics- primarily for childhood reasons. That says nothing of their immanent quality, however. Likewise, I’d rather watch Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Total Recall” than Bergman’s “A Passion,” but to say that the former is a superior work of art is laughable, ridiculous, and wrong.
My point is this. Leave aesthetics at the door when you attempt an objective critique, or else you will simply confuse yourself and others. Look at what matters- look at the sum total of what’s in fact done or not done, and proceed from there. And don’t assume that your favorites are necessarily what’s best. It’s OK to have a disconnect there.
Likewise, I think that animation has different distinct aesthetics from cinematography. For the key-frame connoisseur, Hideaki Anno is equivalent to any number of the standard great directors out there. An aspect you’re missing out on, as well, is the so-called ‘rhythm’ of the series. Since everything in animation has to be worked out from bare-bones, the sound is wholly non-diegetic, or rather you have to create the illusion of a diegetic environment. Evangelion stands far above most things in terms of its marriage of what’s going on on screen with what’s being heard. That’s why I still think that Evangelion is far from objectively bad art.
It has a different aesthetic- but so does Picasso vs. Rembrandt vs. Bosch. All 3 were great artists. And they were great for reasons that had nothing to do with aesthetics. They were great for what they had in common, for ALL great artists do a number of similar things well- no matter how differently they approach it.
Re: NGE, in particular, I’d definitely rank it among the best anime made. Yet this is like saying “he is the greatest poet…in Mozambique.” That kinda changes the logical measure of the word ‘greatest’, eh? In other words, I’ve not seen anime that can compete on the world stage, merely within the limits of its own self-imposed bounds. That said, NGE certainly isn’t bad art- it’s a good series, over all, but with more bad moments than excellent ones. Film can learn from NGE (as I’ve written), and vice-versa. But especially vice-versa.
Also I find it strange that you want to make the claim that the characters are not well crafted enough to be empathetic when any scroll through a bunch of comments on Eva will indicate how much of its appeal rests on the empathy, and quite a bunch of pretty smart people I know have all been bitten by the bug.
So? A character’s strength isn’t merely his empathy- there’s other things, too, which is really what this essay focuses on. Isaac Davis in Woody Allen’s “Manhattan” is a piece of shit- but he’s still a great character, almost because of this. I make a large number of specific claims re: characterization, and where it fails, and why. The characters are two-dimensional much of the time, react predictably, and often have very little of substance to say or little of substance to be said about. These are not aesthetic claims but verifiable ones. Yet you keep using the word “aesthetic,” and pointing to sheer, gross numbers (“look at how many people love them”) in lieu of argument.
Somehow it seems that Anno has created just the right amount of archetypal soup to appeal to the adolescent and the mopey in everyone, and neither do I believe that this is strictly a matter of ‘if you have enough angst-cues you’ll affect a large span of the population’.
Yes, he has. But this does not a great character make. “Appeal” is not greatness. Britney Spears was popular once. So were the Backstreet Boys, as well as the Insane Clown Posse. They had appeal, and often of a dizzying sort that would work its fans up into mobs- but musical greatness? The two don’t usually intersect. I’m at a loss in regards to what you’re saying here. Art is not a popularity contest, or a weighted average of people’s mass reaction to whatever. Art DEFIES such things, which is why so many great artists have had to struggle in their lifetimes.
While I do agree that there is a surface level Freudianism and Existentialism involved, I have never really understood why Anno’s specific brand of lowbrow philosophical pessimism works so well. Why is it that the unwieldiness aids the emotional content?
It’s less unwieldy than people think. Yes, it gets disjointed in parts, but the characters have 2-dimensional (mostly) and one automatically roots for a # of things- things that correspond to our more adolescent side. And they tend to play out in predictable ways, at least here. This is why I’ve enjoyed video games, and had a great time with Chrono Trigger as an elementary school kid in the late 90s— despite its lack of depth.
Yet you are, again, referencing 2 distinct things. 1 is the emotional side of “working well,” and the other is a qualitative judgment. Art CAN work upon you simply by being cheap and manipulative- or by tweaking a thing you have a personal attachment to. You need to be aware of this and on the defense, for while manipulation has a place in art (and I think NGE does it well, in parts) it can also trick you into accepting its illusions rather than seeing what’s really there.
Anno’s distinct subversions of cliches works somehow in that whole sense that these emotions really do seem larger than life, and do seem to cut to the core of everything. It’s this weird psychological beat that has to do with a combination of the frames, the voice-acting, and the sheer grandiosity of the lines.
Anno does subvert a good # of cliches- but, again, not always. Sometimes he utterly wallows in them. I don’t think he truly got the difference, but, via instinct alone, was able to get a few good hits in, at times. A subverted cliche is one that uses an expected phrase (if it’s writing) in an unexpected context, or tweaks a familiar word, or turns a figurative ‘thing’ into a real one, or has (in movies) images playing that subvert the meaning of what is being said, or vice versa… and cliches become more forgivable when set against the context of far deeper lines, and memorable ones. Yet NGE lacks memorable writing much of the time— and most of the time, it’s little more than functional, not something to either be praised or dissed. Again, I’ve provided specific examples of this since it appears so often.
Also there’s the whole deal with Japanese and all that. Naturalistic curt poetics is a thing that is distinctly from Haiku and stuff like that, so Rei’s use of it in her monologue may register on the terms of its culture. The issue of a cultural gap is still apparent even if you want to whitewash it. The Tale of Genji may still work now, but you definitely won’t be able to register it on the vivid intuitive level that a Heian courtesan would have been able to back then, solely because you wouldn’t understand all the in-depth references that they were exchanging in their poetry. In fact we wouldn’t even be able to understand the whole tight web of references in stuff like Romantic poetry the same visceral way they would have understood it back then. Even with an annotated version, there would still be a loss of aesthetics. Likewise poetry as a whole does not translate into languages, since the whole idea of poetry is, after all, the perfect words in the perfect order. That’s also why Flaubert is deemed to be notoriously hard to translate. In Japan, repetition and cliché are kind of like a whole language in and of itself. The language is full of specific memes that only register if you understand it, like their whole idea of ‘kengo’.
Yet translation and mis-translation is usually over-stated. I was an intuitive reader of Latin, for a while, and am fluent in Russian– going between the English, Russian, and Latin made me realize that I was spending too much time on poetry’s non-essentials rather than trying to get into its core. Yes, you can completely fuck a translation up and make something worse, but this is a far cry from Robert Frost’s comment re: translation (“poetry is what is lost when it is translated”- or something), mostly because there are deeper things at work here. I watched NGE in the commercial DVD subtitles; I watched it in multiple fan subs, as well. The differences were negligible unless you were geekily attached to this or that detail, as opposed to the core of what’s being said or not said.
More importantly, the writing was eerily similar, in ANY translation, to so much of anime as a whole— and shared, of course, anime’s (many) flaws as well as some of its strengths. In other words, anime is influenced by anime and often devolves to a kind of circle-jerk. All other influences and features are WILDLY overstated, for the truth is in their commonalities- not ‘out there’. Yes, I’m sure Anno has a # of details, side-details, puzzles, etc., for us to work through, and that, as English speakers, we’ll inevitably miss. The same is true of the Tale Of Genji, or even a mediocre yet labyrinthine film like Bergman’s “Cries And Whispers.” But these details mean NOTHING if the whole adds up to nothing much, or if a few essentials (character, dialogue, etc.) are not legitimately met. Yes, you can pore over them, try to figure them out, but without a true diegetic payoff, it’s meaningless. It is baroque of baroqueness’s sake and reminds me of the arguments typically made for Nabokov’s novels: they have just so much stuff in ’em, man! Sure- but they’re also over-larded, badly written in parts, and add up to a puzzle- not communication. And art is more communication than it is other things.
The Asuka moment you bring out for example. The key frames here are distinctly actiony anime, with all the missile circuses (the famed Itano Circus) where she’s almost ecstatic over her ‘epiphany’ while all sorts of fireworks from the missiles exploding are going on in the background, is quite plainly pure camp. It just does not register (to me at least) as a normal action scene at all. But neither does it feel ironic in the sense that Hot Fuzz uses quick paced action movie style moments for completely banal and parodic scenes. It feels orgiastic and just plain surreal. Really the only aesthetic term that fits here is either ‘expressionism’ or ‘camp’.
Yet the scene also comes on the heels of lots and lots of predictable tropes- from her familial woes, to her ‘need’ for toughness, coldness, and so on, ALL presented in predictable ways (down to the attempted suicide- ugh!), now given release. You point to a few “key frames” as if the puzzle inherent within 1 or 2 details will undo literally hours of poor characterization that led- in inevitable, machinelike fashion- to this moment. Your point re: “orgiastic and surreal” would work better if it weren’t for the fact that Asuka’s character was BUILT upon these very cliches for so much of the narrative. To divorce it, now, from cliche and put into the territory of a kind of self-conscious meta-cliche is simply reaching— for Anno had already shown himself to be quite comfortable with smaller cliches, and this scene (given the nature of everything that precedes it) can be more plausibly argued as a mere extension of the same rather than an inversion.
Anyway- thanks for reading. I predict that, in the future, anime (or something like it; or something that replaces it) will deepen in ways that- at least at first- might not be 100% recognized as art, but will. The same with comedy, Internet humor, and things that- for the past 20-30 years- have merely been floating about in culture without a strong, visionary mind to annex it and give it body. It’ll happen, but my point is that it hasn’t happened yet. And I say this despite a strong personal affinity for anime, games, and ‘low’ culture as a whole- I grew up on these things, and wished (and still do now) that they were deeper than they in fact were. There’s lots of people in this category, I’m sure, and part of the reason for writing this essay is to document this feeling- this fixation. If not, it’ll get lost in the shuffle of the 90s, like lots of things probably have done over the course of thousands of years without anyone to resuscitate them.
Thanks for the reply.
Actually that comment was sort of a knee-jerk response to the article, which I came upon randomly from Googling. But I’ve browsed through your articles, as well as Dan Schneider’s articles (since you mentioned being influenced majorly by him) so I have more of a grasp on your idea of what aesthetics and criticism should be about. Your articles also convinced me to watch the less ‘standard’ films of Woody Allen, like Interiors, which I really love now. Especially since most of my previous conceptions of Allen were only through Manhattan, Annie Hall, and Don’t Drink the Water.
Personally though, I’m not a subjectivist, in that I don’t believe that art is strictly a matter of ‘taste’. So I guess I’m sort of empathetic to your notion (in the review) that Art is ‘patterns’ that are neither completely loose so as to allow for the collapse of any objective valuation, nor completely strict so as to allow for a straightforwardly ‘quantifiable’ kind of criticism.
But I do feel that there are different types of critical functions and methodologies (note that I’m not talking about the ridiculousness of ‘literary theory’ that has swamped the academia nowadays), and these aren’t mutually exclusive, although your idea is that you have to clash with critics that are opposed to your notions.
Well its understandable if these critics also try to weigh things on an ‘objective’ criteria, such as Rosenbaum for example, and since they proclaim to work on the same calculus then you can match them on your own calculus, but I’ve come across quite a number of contending and diametrically opposed sensibilities, all of which I feel are equally valid. Dan Schneider is the champion of harmony of narrative form and content, and he’ll fight to the bone for this. He hates Borges who is what he conceives of as a ‘postmodern experimental hack ideas writer’ without much artistic value (incidentally Borges is one of my favorite author. David Foster Wallace is also one of my favorite writers, does that make me a bad person?). His exemplars are thus people like Chekhov and Woody Allen, as well as poetry that is opposed to cliches such as Wallace Stevens. He also believes that any philosophy not written well is not worth his time.
On the other hand I’ve also read the criticism of Stanislaw Lem, who is as hardline in his view towards a purely idea-based fiction. He isn’t opposed to aesthetics, since he himself is also one of the most varying Sci-Fi writers of the age (he has written everything from children’s stories to satire to cohesive space operas), but he sees not as much value in a Literature that does not deal directly with important cutting-edge ideas. While Schneider looks for breathtakingly amazing passages per story and harmonious narratives, Lem looks for fiction that can provide ontological realization after ontological realization.
Furthermore I’ve also come across the criticism of Sarah Horrocks, who is fully into camp and pop aesthetics. She believes in exuberantly large, overabundant, emotional, sort of films and comics. She imbibes detail and abundance of form with relish, and so her favorite artists are people like Basquiat and Egon Schiele and writers like Cormac McCarthy. Her reviews can be heavily confessional, and sometimes they may even appear in the form of straight rants, or she can be overtly poetic in her judgment of a work so that the review itself becomes some strange type of prose poem. Yet somehow she always manages to put across exactly what makes the aesthetic work for her, and she is also hardline in her stance that she will never enjoy anything banal or trite (like Schneider) but on the other hand she wants large unharmonious works with that kind of ‘gothic’ sensibility and admits that its just her kind of thing.
Somehow I feel that, while there are also those horrible critics out there who are orthodox, unfair or conventional in their praise, all these methodologies of criticism are equally valid, and may even be able to be woven into one another. You can conceive of a work from the perspective of how much the work pertains to pure ideas, or on how well the narrative syncs with the imagery and form, or on how fantastically the overabundance of forms and all that works on your feelings. I believe that there are certain sublime levels, but I find it hard to distinguish between those levels in different fields. What differentiates the Scientist’s or Philosopher’s sublime, from when you experience the cohesion of a perfect system, to the intellectual aesthetic sublime, when you come across a narratively harmonious work, to the emotional sublime, when you are forced to confront a work of such staggering aesthetics and beauty?
Well I guess my idea is still that I think Evangelion is a great work of art because it has this specific kind of abundance that works, even if its a failure in every other aspect. When I think back, for example, on the feelings I got from watching the austerity of Interiors or some of Chekhov’s stories, along with the experience of reading through precise and fine-tuned systems, like the Tractatus of Wittgenstein or the essays of Borges, along with experiencing the plain emotional overabundance of films like those of Makoto Shinkai, or Miyazaki or Giallo or Hitchcock’s Vertigo or Evangelion, I could not find straightforward distinguishing points that made one type of feeling different from another. They’re all, to me, quite great works. Maybe its a matter of age, and maybe one’s senses will become fine-tuned later in life, but I still think that we can have such critical approaches.
That’s my idea of criticism and aesthetics, but I realize I still haven’t dealt with your specific points that you’ve raised on Evangelion. I may do that later.
Really? Don’t Drink The Water? How did you come across it? It always seemed quite obscure, to me, and I almost regretted hunting it down. The film really sucks- probably his worst until then.
I can’t say that I “love” Interiors, for it’s one of those great films that- at least most of the time- I’d rather not watch. In fact, I probably prefer Annie Hall to most of his dramas despite the fact that it doesn’t even break Woody’s top 5, all things considered. Have you seen Stardust Memories, Another Woman, or Crimes And Misdemeanors? Those are probably his 3 best. In fact, I’d rank them in exactly that order.
Anyway- I agree that there will be future methodologies, if they don’t exist already. Some of these we might not even recognize as such- again, I’m open to this possibility. My main issue, however, with using ‘camp’ and some of these more nascent theories in looking at NGE, Chrono Trigger, rap music, etc., is that these arts are simply too insufficient today- they are too immature. Yes, I see hints of the future in NGE, games, and films like Persona– this film, especially, turns notions of ‘good art’ on their head- but they are simply that: hints. This is why I think it’s important to look at anime, rap, and other ‘low’ art forms: you NEED to know where things are going, and where they err. By that same token, I grew out of these things in my late teens/early twenties (especially rap- I used to know so god-damn much about it) because they simply weren’t doing enough. And it’s not the art-forms, per se; it’s the immature, practically anti-art crowd that gets sucked into it. There’s another decade or two- at least- for things to mature, probably on the margins, somewhere, before it’s reasonable to even BEGIN looking at these mediums and genres as serious competition with great rock, great literature, and great cinema.
Fact is, I wish it were different- I wish culture could be sped up. More realistically, one simply needs to wait and carefully observe. I do look forward to the day when anime (or whatever might replace it) bursts on the scene with a truly great work- or when a videogame learns to negotiate between true narrative and giving the player ‘just enough’ control to make it game, yet not too much, so that it could BE art- not merely have a pretense for such. This is why I follow it. Yet I’m disappointed left and right. The 90s really were a kind of ‘lost decade’- whether it was the illusion of material prosperity that burst with the dot-com bubble, or of cultural promise, via games, anime, and the like, that two decades later proved itself to be little more than a stepping stone; and in-between. Yet that’s life, and every decade, I suppose, has its own half-measures. The difference is that we’re finally able to record them- they don’t have to ‘die’.
Have you read my essay on Miyazaki’s Nausicaa? https://alexsheremet.com/review-hayao-miyazakis-nausicaa-valley-wind-1984/
Re: Borges, I’ve enjoyed him, for I enjoy puzzles. Yet there’s little more that I can say his work. As for DFW, he’s just plain bad- even though I was genuinely attracted to his work as a teen. Dan has some comments on it, but the best take-down of DFW that I’ve ever read is Jackson Hawley’s analysis of his major works. If you can spare 40,000 words-worth of reading, the essay is here: http://www.cosmoetica.com/B1349-JH1.htm
Re: inter-weaving methodologies. Maybe, but I’ve not seen it done particularly well. If it’s academic criticism, for instance, a perfectly legitimate decision to focus on- say- race, or gender, or a philosophical conception, or ‘camp,’ or whatever, tends to exaggerate THAT very thing. This is usually because art (especially great art) is never about one thing, anyway, and if one focuses on it, one is encouraged to go for length- and depth- and therefore find things that either don’t exist, or simply CAN’T exist outside of the totalizing context of that particular work. Ever see Woody’s Manhattan? This is a great example of this concept, because every time an academic seems to touch it, whether it’s Rosenbaum, or Carney, or whoever, they fall for the film’s social illusions- and any ‘social’ take on it is therefore discolored in light of what’s actually there. It’s a ridiculous position to be in. For this reason, critics ought to look at as much as they can… and sometimes even generate essays that look at a work from a different, perhaps even non-artistic perspective. Yet if a critic can’t tell greatness from laziness and stupidity, then most likely even this perspective will be a failure, for we’re STILL talking about art- or at least I’d hope so.
Don’t Drink the Water has the benefit of being the first Allen film I ever saw, so I can’t judge it harshly. My father is an Allen fan and he just decided to watch it so the whole family just started watching it. I was around 12 or 13 at the time (and yes my parents are the type of people who don’t care about letting kids watch all sorts of stuff like Monty Python. But I also watched Chaplin and the Marx Brothers young). Of course at that age I loved it.
I’ve seen Another Woman as well as Crimes and Misdemeanors, but C&M I saw at the same young period so I don’t remember much other than plot elements Incidentally I watched Wild Strawberries before it so I could see the similarities in Another Woman. Currently I like it, but I think it was because Interiors was more visceral in its artistry, because of how plainly and beautifully staged everything is, that it currently still holds a higher position in my eyes. Maybe its as you said, that as you grow older Another Woman grows with meaning and significance.
With regards to the current pop art forms, of course the Video Game (or Interactive Fiction) is the form with the most potential but also the highest barrier to entry (due to the programming element) to be able to pull off a cohesive story properly. Stuff like The Walking Dead or The Last of Us are huge blockbusters that have considerably more people pumped into it than most films out there. The same goes for the Animation Industry. Its significantly harder to have an auteur vision in those circumstances, especially when Japanese company structures are so complex. Have you watched the anime Shirobako? That depicts the exact processes of what goes on inside any such company, with the multiple checks and moving parts that are working together to form a single coherent vision.
But I think actually, compared to the past , anime is moving to a more wholesome and less genre-focused form. Most Asian Dramas Serials usually fall into the same molds, but somehow it seems Anime is the only type of mainstream medium that has the capacity to become as diverse as the current Western TV Series variety.
(Web writer W David Marx goes into the reasons for the strange reason a marginalized subculture medium has enough weight on the industry here http://neojaponisme.com/2011/11/28/the-great-shift-in-japanese-pop-culture-part-one/)
Currently the most ‘complex’ anime series after Evangelion, in terms of characterization, is probably either White Album 2 or OreGairu, both being based on a famous Visual Novel and a famous Light Novel respectively, and both expertly subvert the traditional genre trappings in a non ‘postmodern experimental’ way to develop pretty solid character dramas. Yet of course they still fall into the realm of being mostly about adolescent high school experience (although White Album 2, in the Visual Novel form, is supposedly an amazing character tragedy, since it develops to university later. I’m learning Japanese so I’ll see when I get there). OreGairu has the benefit of being the ‘current Catcher in the Rye’ which sort of indicates what type of a work it is.
The main problem with the medium is that its so niche that its reliant on a subculture (the otaku subculture), and has to pander to those specific subcultural traits in order to really get anywhere. No one would ever really conceive of a best-selling anime without action or romance of any sort. Likewise no one would conceive of a best-selling anime without cheesy over-romanticized gleamy flowery graphics or extremely over-the-top battle scenes. Although I know your argument in that other post, about Ristumaya, is correct, it is quite a fact that the anime medium has too strong and parasitic a relationship with the subculture it’s attached to, and Anno was definitely making a work firmly within that realm, speaking primarily to his ‘own people’. As that form of communication, it succeeded. A lot of source material on the creation of it and what he was thinking about going into it is collated here:
In the end though, despite being great therapy for the subculture it definitely does not do it much good as an art form. Of course Anno himself realized this and chose to ‘exile’ himself from the subculture after making his more experimental and more character driven adaptation, KareKano (actually you should watch this because I think it’s quite amazing how Anno took a pretty ordinary shoujo romance manga and adapted it completely word for word, yet by his direction alone changed the complete mood and atmosphere of the whole work altogether, it has quite a few moments I consider perfect, and it stands so far above so much of the horrible romance stuff that comes out these days). I watched some of the indie films he made during his ‘time of exile’ and it shows that he has quite the technical capacity in live-action media, but he can’t really muster the form to get it down properly and cohesively. It’s quite a shame that he’s only focused on that unshakeable single vision of completing his original Evangelion, which means rooting himself back in the subculture.
Another director I would note is Osamu Kobayashi, who makes these amazingly ‘naturalistic’ shows, mainly Paradise Kiss and BECK. I think I would endearingly name him ‘anime Cassavetes’ because he does that kind of more natural overlapping meandering dialogue for anime, though not to the extent that Cassavetes does it. And I would also look at Yuasa’s The Tatami Galaxy, for being all-round entertaining and witty, although having a slightly melodramatic tint.
As an art-form, Comics and Manga are better in terms of having fewer mediators between the artist and his work, and the variety is definitely greater. The best out there, in my opinion, is Inio Asano and his amazing portrayals of disaffected contemporary youth and their solipsistic heavy universes (a description which sounds suspiciously banal and possibly adolescent, but in my opinion he makes it work, at least far better than what Anno did in Evangelion). His magnum opus is the manga Oyasumi Punpun, but he seems to be developing a better grasp of his craft even after that, opening up to wider themes and wider issues.
As for DFW though, yes I did read the essay. I do agree that he got quite a number of things wrong, and built up a neurotic vision of the world in his essays. His New Sincerity seems completely outmoded in the time of the digital age. Strangely I never had a problem with reading his prose at all, though whether I find it beautiful is a different thing. Actually I never understand the accusation of him being to ‘academic’ or ‘rough’ or ‘mechanical’ because his essays have always felt easy to digest, and I have always felt like he style was mostly a parody of the academic style anyway, with enough ‘colloquial modes’ to make it more digestible. Jackson Hawley’s critiques, that DFW is unreadable in his prose, makes too many easy generalizations, too many cheap moralizations, and is too didactic, and also just plain show-offy in his breadth of knowledge without the corresponding depth for most of it (a bit of my problem with Joyce too), I kind of agree. Yet I still like him because it was always my conception that DFW wrote a certain specific mode and experimental fiction and is very good at that, which is the depiction of self-awareness destroying itself and eating itself. In fact I’d even compare him to Anno, in his relation to a type of subculture (in this case Literary Postmodernism), that he used the mode of writing primarily to showcase its weaknesses and utter trivialities, also as a form of therapy.
Not that that really exonerates him from all the above critiques. I’m still glad I came across some of the stories best exemplifying his vision, like “Good Old Neon”, “The Depressed Person”, “Mr Squishy” , some parts of Infinite Jest and The Pale King (although I admit I never finished Infinite Jest) and some of the interviews with ‘Hideous Men’, and his essays. He can only pretty much write one thing, and like Hideaki Anno, that one gnawing thing envelops the whole of his creation. Also his review of Wittgenstein’s Mistress doubles as a very good beginner’s primer on the philosophy of Wittgenstein.
There’s one thing I have against Hawley’s characterization though, which is mainly here:
“The idea that excessive detailing of minutia is somehow a more true form of writing is no more defensible than writing boringly about boredom. And what is with the insistence that life today is just so much different than it was “back then”? Life today is certainly more fast-paced, and there are differences, of course, but did he really suffer under the delusion that Tolstoy’s experience was so much simpler, that he had a significantly easier time selecting bits of reality to assemble into stories? Tolstoy’s novels would have been just as artificial relative to real world experience back then as they would be were they written today. The brain is wired for narrative, linear or not, which is why the idea of writing to achieve truth, rather than writing to achieve good writing, is so flawed, for artifice simply is and is present, regardless of how detailed or undetailed the words are. Denuding Wallace here is easy, for one need simply ask what feels more “true”: Dmitri’s assault of his father in The Brothers Karamazov (to use another Russian), or a group of wheelchair-bound terrorists putting a potentially murderous professional football player under a big glass dome with a swarm of cockroaches (in a ripoff of 1984)? The answer, of course, is that neither is the least bit true, but because the former is better-depicted and less convoluted, it will likely feel truer for more readers and for longer. As Picasso once wrote: “…Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand.” In other words: the important thing in art is not “the truth”, but the nature and quality of the lying.”
But every new year is teaching me that the way we are currently perceiving life and society is transmuting at every moment. As a person born in the age of mass accumulates of data, I once made the effort to browse through the DOAJ to cull and bookmark just about every single repository of knowledge that interested me. The amount you glean everyday is just ridiculous. It’s subcultures and cultures upon cultures, and languages upon languages, and modes of conceptualizing the world upon modes of conceptualizing the world, and all this is mixed with humongous channels of bullshit as well as small bits of whatever. Even in terms of Mediums, cinema as a medium hyper-developed faster than any other out there. And out there, there seems to be no satisfying depictions of contemporaneity, other than perhaps what DFW, and Inio Asano has created. It’s quite interesting that Hawley also accuses DFW of being a scheming marketer when Wallace himself wrote one of the most damning condemnations of the advertising monolith in his short story Mr Squishy. Quite a number of posts I’ve seen here and there have said that the high jargon infused circumlocution that occurs throughout that story is exactly the type of speak that is used in the marketing agencies out there.
I think Dan Schneider is the most hardline and critical person out there in terms of defining and proclaiming a need for objective aesthetics and high culture (and this is after binging his archives, and having him tear apart quite a number of writers and movies that I love), but I have come across quite a few types of Dan. In Economics you would have Nicholas Nassim Taleb. In Philosophy you have the anti-bullshit Wittgenstein. In Science Fiction you have Stanislaw Lem. Together this triptych, along with a few others, are slowly dragging me away from that high-tower that believed in the sanctity and sublimity of aesthetics and narrative and all that, in place of didactism, and contemporaneity, and ideas.
If you want a nice bit of thought to grapple with, try this article that posits an interesting theory about the banning of books. Needless to say that I am still trying to grapple with its prospects and its axioms.
Or look at this ridiculous repository of knowledge on just about everything out there, collated by a particularly sharp mind.
Whilst Borges still remains for me the ideal of the positive critic. Many people call him the precursor to postmodernism, but to me Borges has always been a writer in the vein of the Classicist Tradition. His whole writing output is a love letter to culture and Literature as a whole. From his stories to his essays, it overflows with love, and as Lem puts it:
“In the beginning he was a librarian, and he has remained one, although the most brilliant manifestation of one. He had to search in libraries for sources of inspiration, and he restricted himself wholly to cultural-mythical sources.
But in our age they are on the decline, dying off as far as their power to interpret and explain a world undergoing further changes is concerned. In his paradigmatic structures, and even in his greatest achievements, Borges is located near the end of a descending curve which had its culmination centuries ago. Therefore he is forced to play with the sacral, the awe-inspiring, the sublime and the mysterious from our grandfathers. Only in rare cases does he succeed in continuing this game in a serious way. Only then does he break through the paradigmatically and culturally caused incarceration which is its limitation, and which is quite contrary to the freedom of artistic creation he strives for. He is one of the great men, but at the same time he is an epigone. Perhaps for the last time. He has lit up — given a paradoxical resurrection to — the treasures transmitted to us from the past. But he will not succeed in keeping them alive for any long period of time. Not because he has a second-rate mind, but because, I believe, such a resurrection of transitory things is in our time quite impossible. His work, admirable though it may be, is located in its entirety at an opposite pole from the direction of our fate. Even this great master of the logically immaculate paradox cannot “alloy” our world’s fate with his own work. He has explicated to us paradises and hells that remain forever closed to man. For we are building newer, richer, and more terrible paradises and hells; but in his books Borges knows nothing about them.”
Anyway my point about the interweaving methodologies wasn’t exactly talking about ‘theoretical approaches’, for like I said, I wasn’t referring to people viewing specific schools of theory. In fact I have quite a nice example on the idea of interpretative narrowness too, which is with regards to Blue Velvet by David Lynch.
Of that film DFW wrote in his essay on Lynch that:
“The movie’s obvious “themes”—the evil flip side to picket-fence respectability, the conjunctions of sadism and sexuality and parental authority and voyeurism and cheesy ’50s pop and Coming of Age, etc.—were for us less revelatory than the way the movie’s surrealism and dream-logic felt: they felt true, real… This was what was epiphanic for us about Blue Velvet in grad school, when we saw it: the movie helped us realize that first-rate experimentalism was a way not to “transcend” or “rebel against” the truth but actually to honor it. It brought home to us—via images, the medium we were suckled on and most credulous of—that the very most important artistic communications took place at a level that not only wasn’t intellectual but wasn’t even fully conscious, that the unconscious’s true medium wasn’t verbal but imagistic, and that whether the images were Realistic or Postmodern or Expressionistic or Surreal or what-the-hell-ever was less important than whether they felt true, whether they rang psychic cherries in the communicatee.”
Whereas Ebert writes in his scathing review:
“Instead, director David Lynch chose to interrupt the almost hypnotic pull of that relationship in order to pull back to his jokey, small-town satire. Is he afraid that movie audiences might not be ready for stark S & M unless they’re assured it’s all really a joke? I was absorbed and convinced by the relationship between Rossellini and MacLachlan, and annoyed because the director kept placing himself between me and the material. After five or 10 minutes in which the screen reality was overwhelming, I didn’t need the director prancing on with a top hat and cane, whistling that it was all in fun… In “Blue Velvet,” Rossellini goes the whole distance, but Lynch distances himself from her ordeal with his clever asides and witty little in-jokes.”
So here you have DFW touting Lynch’s work as his trademark type of New Sincerity product, whereas Ebert castigates it exactly for the insincerity and the satire. Incidentally when I watched it I felt that it wasn’t really satirical enough to be considered wholly a farce, but also not intuitively expressionistic enough to cut quite to the bone of any sort of feeling.
But it also feels as if there’s something lacking in the well-enveloped approaches as well. An example would be Schneider’s Borges review where he states:
“This is manifested by the fact that, although many argue over the meaning of his fictions, the very high degree of dissent and differing interpretations, says that there was not much meat on the bone to begin with, but dogs do love bones. A general rule of thumb in art is this: a work with multiple meanings is usually a great one, a work with merely one or two is generally not, and a work with infinite interpretations is a failure because of the artists’ laziness in refusing to take an actual stand.”
As well as
“Borges had neither the depth of thought, nor the narrative ability to thread his ideas through stories that could startle and engage, so his fictive essays almost always read like nice ideas poorly executed”
And Schneider does his usual attack on the prose and also seems to make him out to be one of your standard mystical writers who uses the denial of reality idealism solipsism thing. This I can agree with because Borges is primarily a philosophical Idealist. But it’s in this essay where Schneider sounds less ‘cohesive’ than Lem’s, because he doesn’t really chart the ideas of a primarily ideas-driven writer, and seems to derive it from the conclusions. In this regard Lem has a ‘fairer’ critique because he gives Borges his exact due:
“In each story we can find the same kind of method: Borges transforms a firmly established part of some cultural system by means of the terms of the system itself. In the fields of religious belief, in ontology, in literary theory, the author “continues” what mankind has “only begun to make.” Using this tour d’adresse Borges makes comical and absurd those things which we revere because of their current cultural value.
But when we look at Borges’s work only superficially we see the “comicallogical” effect alone. However, each of these tales has in addition another — wholly serious — hidden meaning. At base, his curious fantasy is, I claim, quite realistic. Only after some thought do you first note that the heterodoxy contained within “Judas,” for instance, might really be possible. Such a perfidious interpretation of the myth of the redemption, if historically not very plausible, is at least thinkable. I could say the same about “Lottery.” Under certain conditions even the reinterpretation of the notions of chaos and order shown here may be historically plausible. Both stories, diiferent as they may appear to be from one another, are hypotheses about the structure and attributes of existence. Because they are both borderline cases, isolated to one edge of the real paradigm corresponding to them, it was very unlikely that they would come true historically. Yet, considered from a logical point of view, they are totally “correct.” The author therefore has the courage to deal with the most valuable goals of mankind just as mankind himself does. The only difference is that Borges continues these combinatory operations to their utmost logical conclusions.
Borges’s best stories are constructed as tightly as mathematical proofs. It is impossible to refute them logically, however lunatic the stories’ premises may sound. Borges is successful because in any single case he never questions the implied premises of the model structure that he transforms. For instance, he pretends to believe (as some humanists do) that a truly brilliant work of art contains no trace of chance, but is indeed the result of some (higher) necessity. If one thinks that such a statement is generally true, it is possible, without contradicting logic, to claim that a masterpiece could be created, word for word, a second time, and quite independently from its first birth (as one can really do with mathematical proofs). We can only see the nonsense of such a procedure when we attack its very premises; but of course Borges is careful never to do this. He never creates a new, freely invented paradigm structure. He confines himself strictly to the initial axioms supplied by the cultural history of mankind. He is a mocking heretic of culture because he never transgresses its syntax. He only extends those structural operations that are, from a logical point of view, “in order,” i.e., they have never been seriously “tried out” because of historical extralogical reasons — but this is of course another matter altogether. “
(Personally, I have much against “A Borges tale will never have the same impact after the first read- great works of art constantly delight and startle.” After all I have read more or less his complete works and essays 4-5 times from start to finish with the same vivacity each time.)
And Lem is still fair because later he shows how these premises, whenever Borges writes a story, prevent him from going beyond a certain type of ‘librarianism’ (as seen in the above quote). Anyhow I guess this is an example of when a ‘non-artistic critique’ is needed? Since over here Lem is using a logical analysis. I think that’s the adequate critic if you ever want to make a claim of “predictably puerile stabs at philosophy”. In philosophy most of the power comes in the structure of the proofs, rather than the consequences which, if said in summary, can seem extremely banal.
Anyway that’s just my views. I’m definitely following your analyses now so I’m anticipating the next tone to be good too.
Alex sent me a message and said I’d been briefly discussed. I’ll just respond a bit –
“Yet I still like him because it was always my conception that DFW wrote a certain specific mode and experimental fiction and is very good at that, which is the depiction of self-awareness destroying itself and eating itself. In fact I’d even compare him to Anno, in his relation to a type of subculture (in this case Literary Postmodernism), that he used the mode of writing primarily to showcase its weaknesses and utter trivialities, also as a form of therapy.”
I don’t disagree that if Wallace does have a niche, it’s in depicting a kind of academic, overeducated, underwizened kind of hyper self-consciousness, but the task of writing is not just to have a connection to such things, or to try and exorcise them, but to use language precisely and skillfully so as to communicate these things in a mutually appreciable way. Perhaps one could argue a few paragraphs or sentences here and there where Wallace achieved this, but he had so little sense for things like characterization, plot, and dialogue, on a narrative level, and excising and subverting cliches, on a formal level, that a few momentary successes or potentially fruitful threads don’t make up for the utter lack of ability in almost every other aspect of writing. He’s been argued as “experimental”, but virtually any innovation that has been ascribed to him predates him in other writers. He’s the epitome of a writer who used “experimentation” as an excuse to cover up his obvious and inarguable weakness in areas more fundamental to the reading experience.
“But every new year is teaching me that the way we are currently perceiving life and society is transmuting at every moment. As a person born in the age of mass accumulates of data, I once made the effort to browse through the DOAJ to cull and bookmark just about every single repository of knowledge that interested me. The amount you glean everyday is just ridiculous. It’s subcultures and cultures upon cultures, and languages upon languages, and modes of conceptualizing the world upon modes of conceptualizing the world, and all this is mixed with humongous channels of bullshit as well as small bits of whatever. Even in terms of Mediums, cinema as a medium hyper-developed faster than any other out there. And out there, there seems to be no satisfying depictions of contemporaneity, other than perhaps what DFW, and Inio Asano has created.”
I don’t deny that there are kernels of good ideas in Wallace’s fiction. The idea of an ad-riddled, technology- and information-addled fictive world is perfectly fine, if arguably a bit blunt. The problem is that Wallace is nothing but flash, nothing but trickery, nothing but bullshit, except when he’s not. He tries to “have his cake and eat it, too”, if I may cliche, attempts to create this over-the-top, goofy, Strangelovey world of wheelchair assassins and sex-changing spies and rockstar presidents and machine gun-toting tennis superstars, then turns around and tries to depict these really intimate, attemptedly hyper-realistic moments of self-reflection, as though readers should just be able to turn on a dime and suddenly give cartoon characters as much empathy as they would the realistic characters of a Bergman or Ozu. This would almost be commendably ballsy, except that Wallace’s writing has terrible pacing that kills his attempts at comedy, while his characterization suffers from the Quentin Tarantino Syndrome of every person thinking, speaking, and acting essentially the same, with only superficial variations.
So I get where you’re coming from, but whatever the merits of what Wallace’s work seems to be attempting, they are drowned out by the many, many flaws. He simply didn’t understand art very well, turned it into an extension of his own neuroses and biases. He and Ebert are both wrong about Blue Velvet, because neither wanted to take it on its own terms. Ebert’s review of that film is probably his second most notorious example, behind his review of A Clockwork Orange, of letting his disgust for the amoral or gleeful treatment of violence and depravity get in the way of his critical compass. Wallace, on the other hand, “got it”, to the extent that his appreciation was more in line with what the film actually is, but had no appreciation for the film’s essential silliness and shallowness, nor its place in the wider world of art. The film is prob the best Lynch film I’ve seen, precisely because it strikes a good balance of being weird without losing its way or falling into dullness, but Wallace’s inability to comprehend the limitations of its techniques was emblematic of his larger flaws as an appreciator of the arts. The film does “work” because depicting suburbia as a place that is almost stranger in its quiet moments than in the throes of comically over-the-top depravity gets at something significant about suburbia in a very particular way, but it’s limited by its lack of any real astute observations, the magnetic goofinesss of its villain, and its general substitution of strangeness for depth. That he focused so intently on one aspect of the film’s context to the exclusion of everything else is why he never really grew as a writer after his big “hit”.
Thanks for your input! You helped to clarify some parts of your position for me. I get your picture of him now although I still personally don’t mind his work. Incidentally who do you think are the authors with as heavy experimentation, but who get things ‘right’?
Czach, the most successful ‘heavy’ experimentation tends to be focused experimentation– not something that inverts the very backbone of art, and the way that people understand and commune.
Milan Kundera is fairly experimental- that is, I can think of no writer that has even a similar style. Charles Johnson is experimental- his best work is a spin on the slave narrative using Buddhist and Hindu conceits. Kurt Vonnegut was obviously experimental, with SL5 doing everything from time-warps, to sci fi, to psychosis/unreliability, comedy, and drama all at once.
There are others, of course, and what they all have in common is a razor-like focus and a willingness to commune, NOT do away with art, poesy, and structure for the sake of attention.
It’s sort of like looking at free verse poetry. The best free verse is never ‘free,’ as has been said, but still has music, proper enjambment, good imagery, a lack of cliches, etc. That it does away with an illusory artistic backbone (‘meter’) means that the art, itself, is untouched. This is where experiment works best- keep toying with the illusions and people’s expectations, but do not touch the necessary remainder.
This “essay” is utter bullshit.
I am sure, then, that you could point out where, and why, and come up with a better argument?
This is a pretty late comment but I’ve got to ask…
What flaws did you find in the structure of NGE’s cast?
Why are the characters two-dimensional, bad or not well written in your opinion?
And lastly, how would you improve NGE’s cast?
What do you mean by “cast”? Voice-acting? It’s just an odd way to phrase things since we’re not dealing with on-screen actors. If you answer this, perhaps I can answer your related questions.
Re: two-dimensional characters. I go into this at length in the article, as well as in the comments section here where someone asked me to reiterate NGE’s flaws because they couldn’t understand the argument.
Is there something specific you wish to know?
I meant the characters, not the voice-actors.
If you could expand on why you think the characters are not well written/two dimensional than that would be great.
You did pointe out few things but I would like to hear a bigger version as to why you think they are bad.
I don’t know how much more I have to add, except that the characters teeter between 2 and 3-dimensional types. To their credit, they sometimes say things that are in fact interesting, well-phrased, or deep, and NGE’s imagery is often at odds with the cliches that they do spout- meaning, NGE knows how to invert cliches at times and use genre tropes in novel ways. Not everything that is said or represented can be taken at face value. This is what art does.
The negative side is far longer, however- characters often do/say predictable things in a way that simply wallows in genre cliches (for ex., you know Asuka’s psychological ills from the get-go, and you more or less know how they will all play out). Their relationships aren’t really fleshed out- you know why they are all there, for instance, but there are few (if any) moments that help define them as people. Sure, Shinji sees Rei naked and gets a boner, or Misato- to Shinji’s horror- drinks like a man and lives sloppily, but these are hardly deep revelations that will do anything to TRULY further character or adult relationships as mature adults perceive them. It is good for children to watch, I’d argue, but ALL of it has been done better- whether in Bergman’s PERSONA for the experimental turn-its-pretense-outwards, or simple character writing, which most great films, books, and stories do better.
Films still do this better, and anime needs to catch up. In Bergman’s “Scenes From A Marriage,” for instance, you see so many details of the characters’ relationships- a unique sentence or two they might have said to each other an hour before, or photographs shown of their youths overlaid with rich, poetic, well-written narration, etc. – that utterly DEFY cliche and expectation, not only in the writing, but in the narrative, character arcs, and the visuals, as well. This sums up to a great work that says so much about human interaction and the meaning of romance. NGE, for all of its good, only gives you a slice of it- often a soggy, crumbly, easily-forgotten slice.
Thanks, I totally understand your point now.
P.S: Can you suggest me movies/books where you find the characters to be extremely realistic/well written/interesting?
“Collected Tales” by Irwin Shaw- look for it on Amazon. I don’t know if you wish to be a writer, or are simply looking for new art, but pretty much every one of these stories is excellent or great, has a focus on hyper-realism of the characters, and really gets into the heads of the ways that adults think, using patterns we can all recognize. Really great, memorable sentences, great characters, unexpected narrative arcs. Just compare any one of these with what happens in NGE and you’ll see why I’ve been a bit dismissive. They’re great to read because you get really diverse bursts of character and writing over the span of 10-20 pg stories, meaning that, once the book’s done, you can really see how a variety of characters can be constructed in different ways.
“Scenes From A Marriage” is one of my favorite films, and comes in 3 hour and 5 hour versions. Both are a great, and both feature a slow characterization of two protagonists as you see them interact with one another from scene to scene, as certain illusions are swept away and others reinforced. A great look at romance and dysfunction sans the melodrama you’d normally get with all this.
“Stardust Memories” is Woody Allen’s best and most experimental work, since you seem to enjoy NGE’s status as an experimental series. It has comedy and intellectual heft and great characters that come and go and are built up in fragments. I consider it one of the best 10 or 20 films ever made.
“My Dinner With Andre” is another film that features 2 conversationalists as they reveal themselves over the course of 1 main scene. You remember images without having seen them; you take sides with both characters, despite both being in the wrong.
“Aurora Leigh” is a book-length poem from the 19th century, written by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. It just might be the greatest book-length poem written up until that time (excluding Whitman’s “Leaves Of Grass” from 1855).
For more film recommendations, Dan Schneider’s Great Films List is always dependable:
Thanks, again, for the list, I cant thank you enough!
I cant find “Collected Tales” by Irwin
Shaw anywhere… Can you please direct me to a place where I can find it?
I got one of the used hardcovers for $3 or $4, so the price hasn’t changed much. Look for a good quality, unmarked copy.
I feel like my biggest problem with this is that you are critiquing it from the perspective of it just being art. You mention that there are tropes you accept as a part of the medium and don’t discuss, but some of your criticisms of NGE come down to the fact that this is an anime that needed to get people to watch it so it wouldn’t get canceled.
There are cliches in the story and flaws throughout but to the right person these are simply a part of the medium as well. I don’t see why every cliche has to be subverted or have hidden meanings behind it, and I don’t believe that just because a cliche is used and it doesn’t amount to something that it has to detract from the work. Many would simply not notice or not care if they noticed these things.
You said that it wasn’t about if it was the most artistically valuable anime but what value it has as art in general and then compared it to some other works. I just don’t know if it is fair to completely dislocate it from who it was designed for and what influences that had upon it. Part of the reason why this show is so great is exactly because of how it pointed the otaku culture to a mirror and had then take a look at who they are. Isn’t there room for something to be artistically valuable on a personal level?
Honestly, I love this show but I wouldn’t recommend it to just anybody. I would recommend it to someone who has seen some other anime series and has some understanding of the medium and wouldn’t be turned off by some of the more blatant anime elements.
Also, I’m curious if you have read the manga Berserk and what you think about it.
I already addressed your main point, but to reiterate: I approach NGE from an art-first perspective because, well, fanboys, academics, and neutral observers have more or less concluded that it’s good art, and perhaps the apex of Japanese animation. It would be disingenuous to talk, talk, talk of NGE without commenting, in depth, on this reality.
That said, I do mention quite a few things tangential to NGE as an art-work, such as its importance to 90s culture (fractured thing that it was), among other points. The deeper issue is the show’s inner workings, what fails, what doesn’t, what it could teach, what it could learn and should have learned.
“…but some of your criticisms of NGE come down to the fact that this is an anime that needed to get people to watch it so it wouldn’t get canceled.”
That is immaterial. Lots of books in the 1800s were written as newspaper serials released in installments to provide circulation and line authors’ pockets. As a result, many of these books were bloated and suffered as works of art, even as some of them were still good (Dickens, Dostoevsky, etc.). Still, they suffered- and NGE suffered.
“There are cliches in the story and flaws throughout but to the right person these are simply a part of the medium as well. I don’t see why every cliche has to be subverted or have hidden meanings behind it, and I don’t believe that just because a cliche is used and it doesn’t amount to something that it has to detract from the work. Many would simply not notice or not care if they noticed these things.”
Because a cliche is, practically by definition, lazy and condescending. Are you seriously arguing that laze and condescension can be good things, especially in a medium (film/animation) that has proven itself capable of the highest forms of human expression?
Perhaps I do not understand your argument, but a person ‘not noticing’ or ‘not caring’ that a scene is bad says nothing of the scene’s quality- it only says something of a viewer’s tolerance for bullshit. Your tolerance is likely higher than mine. So? You have not shown the worth of said bullshit, which is really the question that I’m tackling.
This is not a discussion of pizza vs. french fries. It is an issue of art and- therefore- human potential. I want people to do better, to reach more, attempt more, to do more. Yet, ironically, the way you talk of NGE, as a fan, is a touch irreverent- condescending, even. You say the article speaks of NGE as ‘just’ art as if it’s something minor, and therefore position your own likes, dislikes, and emotions (that is, your personal reaction to things) as somehow more important than the show’s own successes and failings. Needless to say, this is an unhealthy and solipsistic way to view the world, which NEVER in fact asks for our permission and consent. It just is. And I’m trying to understand what that is.
You said that it wasn’t about if it was the most artistically valuable anime but what value it has as art in general and then compared it to some other works. I just don’t know if it is fair to completely dislocate it from who it was designed for and what influences that had upon it.
In a sense, this is like saying ‘it’s not fair’ that the Special Olympics or the WNBA don’t get as much attention as mainstream sports by men, women, and paraplegics. True, in a sense, but such is human concern for absolute achievement at the highest level- that, and only that, will be remembered.
I do appreciate NGE on a cultural level, and I can say the same for video games from the era, etc., but this is very different from- “therefore”- concluding that it’s the equal of a truly great film or novel.
An Australopithecine that enjoyed the sound of two rocks being rubbed together might have put on a decent concert 2 million years ago, but that would not make him the equal of Liszt, the ‘intended audience’ be damned.
I’m trying to pit anime against the highest forms of human expression. I want it to meet the challenge, even though I don’t think it will any time soon. In a sense, you are throwing in the towel before such things could even happen. I’m saying ‘Wait. Not yet.’
Part of the reason why this show is so great is exactly because of how it pointed the otaku culture to a mirror and had then take a look at who they are. Isn’t there room for something to be artistically valuable on a personal level?
To answer your question- there is always room for solipsism. The trick is to make sure that you never treat such as the true measure of the world. I personally like NGE. But I also realize that my own feelings are not enough to completely justify its over-praise, in the same way that others’ feelings are not enough to justify some of the sillier criticism that it has received.
Also, I’m curious if you have read the manga Berserk and what you think about it.
Have not. I am planning a novel that revolves around the ‘spirit’ of anime, and features and inverts many of the tropes, so I’ll try to get through more things in time.
Pingback: Tractatus-Aesthetico-Pseudo-Philosophicus | This is an Anime Blog, Among Other Things
Have you watched Angel’s Egg?
It reminds of Andrei Tarkovsky works.
I watched “Angel’s Egg” after your comment. Shit – it’s a good film, overall, and although it might be less “beautiful” than something like “Nausicaa,” it is also much more expressive. The use of lighting and shadows is interesting, the fact that there’s almost no backstory really works in making the viewer imbue things into the narrative. There’s just enough information in that way; less would have been lazy, more would have disrupted things. Good symbols, too. One of the better anime I’ve seen.
Anything else you’d recommend? Generally, I find many of the anime “classics” pretty silly.
I would recommend the following to watched at least once.
Serial Experiments Lain
The works of Kihachiro Kawamoto , like Dojoji Temple and Book of the Dead.
The works of Masaaki Yuasa, like Mind Game.
The other works of Mamoru Oshii, like Ghost in the Shell and Patlabor 2.
A short named La Maison en Petits Cubes.
Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade.
Hey, thanks for the reply on the experimental fiction Alex. Also I really appreciate the stuff that you do here. This kind of full-bodied critique is really lacking in the current discourse, and yet its also something that’s really needed. This article especially, but also the rest of your essays and Cosmoetica in general, I’ve found myself returning to again and again in order to refresh my thoughts about what really is the burden and duty of the critic. At this point, I find my first comment absolutely embarrassing simply because I made it after reading your article, but I commented after skimming it in the way that some of the above commenters did, so I didn’t process the gist of what you were saying at the time. I think that this is really the fairest assessment of the show out there, even though I myself have a personal bias towards it. It’s a pity that so many other people can’t earnestly grapple with it, which merely serves to back up the points you make within the article.
What’s most edifying about it is how you’ve written it as more than just a formal analysis of the work, but a well-rounded observation on the whole of the artistic enterprise in general. It’s both depressing, and yet also encouraging, because you don’t make the banal ‘Art is Dead’ claims of the academia, but you also drive the point home that proper art (and even proper critique) has such a high difficulty curve that you have to possess control of all your faculties to escape trap of saying something silly, cliché or facile. It’s been sobering to look at a lot of the previous stuff I’ve written or my previous opinions with this new lens, and sometimes even highly painful.
At this point I don’t know whether I have the knowledge base or time & will to adequately come up with the same level of critique or work that you’ve done, which was why “And while this is an OK blueprint for life, it is a terrible one for art” was such a blow to me, because it does adequately describe the contradictory pulls that splits between the intellectual conception of art and the various emotional & biological states that detracts from it due to the push for survival.
For now I’ve come to the conclusion that, for people who haven’t reached that level of creative self-awareness, it may be better to do something like translation, which, at least, will allow one to sate the creative impulses that drive people to make bad expressions while preventing that person from contributing to the flood of existing media out there. Strangely the act of translation also seems to force one to really think about writing from a critical standpoint, maybe even moreso than analysis, because grappling with every sentence focuses the energy outwards, and prevents complete fallback onto intuitive or emotive thinking. Well, then again, there have also been really bad translations that seem to undermine that thesis, where, when you read it, you wonder how the translator could be so straightjacketed into such narrow methods of interpretation.
On that note, I also want to ask a question about (and shamelessly advertise) a poem translation I’ve done up. The poet, Hai Zi, is a Chinese that falls under the ‘movement’ of the Misty poets, although that assessment seems to be posthumous. He also falls under the label of the young-suicide genius poets like Plath or Crane, committing suicide at 25 and becoming super famous in China after death. The Misty poets are generally viewed as more ‘Symbolistic’ poets known for their complex and obscure images who took up poetry due to the Cultural Revolution forcing intellectuals into the countryside. They were bred on natural imagery, ennui, and expressive desire. This seems to allow them to escape the ‘trap’ of falling into political poetry while still writing verses that can double as political statements.
As a test, I picked up trying to translate him because all of his poems are available online in Chinese, and I’m taking it as also an exercise for my own writing in English. This is the result: https://zibabeldone.wordpress.com/2016/02/01/translation-hai-zi-the-river-1-spring-autumn/
This is part 1 of a 3-part long poem that is one of his few long poems (his other stuff are shorter), which I have yet to complete the full translation for because of other stuff in life, and also because the second part starts falling into denser lines and becoming more prose-poem like, which raises up the difficulty.
The question though, is that this feels to me like a great poem, but I feel I don’t have enough expertise to make that judgment, so I’m wondering whether you can help assess. It seems like something in the vein of Trakl, but with a more pointed approach and sustained narrative, although it seems to have some parts that feels overdone. I also don’t have the database to point out glaring clichés that well yet. Your article on Wallace Stevens helped to open me up to reading Stevens, and also those poets who ‘leap’ more in their verse, but I feel like I can’t adequately judge them precisely yet.
Incidentally, on Stevens, an interesting anecdote comes with this translation. Before translating this poem, I read Sunday Morning, and it completely went over my head at the time, so I forgot about it. Yet, at the end of translating part 2 here, I was faced with a problem. The ending of that part, in Chinese, is one of the 4-word combinations that are extremely hard to translate and impossible to get the effect down in a phonetic language like English. In the end, I came up with the translation that you can see, and I thought that the line I came up with was quite good in setting up the effect that the original had. Later, when I read the poem again, I realized that I had completely ripped the line from Stevens without being aware of it! That experience really showed me the loopiness that can come around with the act of creation and the issue of influence.
I hope you can indulge me in my artistic immaturity this once. Also thanks for all the stuff you’ve done, and keep slamming those bastards who can’t bend to reason!
Nice to hear from you again. I actually expected a negative reaction towards this article, mostly because it doesn’t simply deride the series (as so many bad articles have done!) with logical fallacies, nor kiss ass. The argument is a little more complex when most people just want to get from point A to B. Yet if it cannot ‘make friends’ with the two primary camps, who is my audience, exactly, save for people like you, Czach, who are willing to read and re-read and not simply be content with first impressions and emotional reactions? Serious people in the arts are rare, especially when they’re coming from the ‘pop’ arts…as both of us do, but have long branched out from.
Anyway, I’m glad you’ve gotten utility from my essays. They serve a narrow audience, yes, but here you are, actually processing and re-processing your own thoughts because you’ve been challenged and were up to the challenge. Don’t be so hard on yourself: really, look at the ridiculous reddit thread on my article, and realize that even in your original comment you were ahead of the curve simply by your willingness to dialogue and make specific points. It is THIS skill, not merely being “right” (which is always a one-time deal, anyway, NOT a character trait/identity), that will take you higher and higher. Being wrong is just an occasional piece of bullshit we ALL go through when your thinking patterns are good. Yet if you don’t have those patterns, it becomes a constant state and an identity.
It takes a while to get art, and while “artistic knowledge” has a really bad reputation among hard science types, this is simply because (as you’ve pointed out) the artistic understanding that’s been touted as professional, interesting, or otherwise good over the years is in fact anything but. Give a poem by Stevens to an engineer and to a literary academic, and I can pretty much guarantee that their analyses would be equally valid…and equally poor. This is why academia, particularly in the arts, has been so worthless and is so rightly made fun of. I’ve read a number of academic texts on anime and the like, and barring some ‘sophisticated language,’ they are EXACTLY as meritorious (or not) as the hundreds of inane comments you’ve read about this very article. It is a shame, but remember that the human tendency is one towards mediocrity. Truly thoughtful people tend to hate this in others, but it is better seen for what it is: an outgrowth of the human desire to be ‘more,’ and the eventual meeting of this desire with everyday reality.
RE: NGE, I also have a bias towards the show…again, I was still a child in the late 90s, and my peers were essentially video games, primarily, and the little bit of mystique that was still left in Brooklyn at the time. So I have a natural affinity for pop culture but ultimately that is not enough to carry me through intellectually. One needs more. In time, hopefully, someone can bridge the two in a way that matters for the 90s were a turning point in human history precisely for the reason I’ve stated: that one’s material peers were replaced with material fictions, which is a wholly new way of growing up. There’s a really good documentary on NF streaming right now called “Chuck Norris Vs Communism” that touches on this in a very interesting way, albeit in the 80s, using television. Take a look, if you get the chance, and tell me why you think this statement is accurate…or wrong.
As for the poem… shit. I am shocked at how good it is, in parts, even as some parts do drag — as you state. I can say almost for certain that the fault is not with the translation but a structural issue of too much repetition, and not letting the best images and parts stay in the reader’s mind, thus letting them grow and branch in unexpected ways. This sort of fracture reminds me a bit of T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets,” wherein 2 of 4 are great, and the other 2 are excellent to meandering. Take a look at that poem if you have not, and try to figure out which of the 2 of 4 are great, and just think about why. This would be a wonderful exercise to do.
Anyway, look at the first stanza:
When you came
Snow-wind, for you, broke open the shutters
Came again the order
Walked out, the kind she-goat
Walked out, the moonlight
Walked out, these pretty eyes of running water
This is a fantastic opening. “Snow-wind” is a great image against the more metaphysical, ‘looser’ stuff that follows, but even the more obscure images make total sense: “walked out, the moonlight”; “these pretty eyes of running water”– although, even here, it is a touch over-written. (Notice how “pretty” tends to reduce the effect of the stanza; it is a minor thing, overall, but it is something you should think about and figure out for yourself.)
Morning holds dim, but there sets-in a form of these men’s shadows
Your form is distinguished the more you are viewed
Our loves have their hair, yet, uncoiled
Your thin, dainty brook is as, yet, uncoiled
Neither released, like nets or the wind
Neither swim the clean-white shoals on the sheen
Yet I think of some types of breeding
I think of birth’s bloodletting, and its nightwind
On the days like gold
I cooked, bathed, and hurried waves to plow-wide the trees
You hung your laugh past the autumnal phase
Hung it before the waterfall wakening
I took it
Another good one, the first 5 or 6 lines especially. I’d change “like nets or the wind” to “like nets of the wind” to given the poem yet another layer. Is it less accurate vis-a-vis the original? Perhaps, but in a good to excellent (or even great in parts) poem, like this, you should aim to make a little better if you can. “I took it/ It’s taken” is a good close.
On their foreheads, sisters bear basins of water
Those, borne among the moist, are sincere lilies
Those who have bred such watergrasses & ducks into the loveborn and blessedly happy
Even on the cityskirts, the copper-vessels carved full of oaths
Are all settling in
You should still ride this Night away from here
Take a small road like this, where
I met with History, and I met you
I am the Sun, and you are the Skywhite
I am the Stars, and you are the Night.
It’s hard to tell without the full poem, but this seems the least stanzas thus far…even though the last line is an excellent inversion of a cliche. “I am the Stars, and you are the Night” is now literally so: almost as if the narrator is looking down into a black river at night, and sees himself reflected (like a star) within. If this were a typical love poem, it’s be terrible. The more literal use of the image really works, however.
Zither in tow
It has a long, thin, and pointed penetration
It brims the mucky, bitterness of yellow water
At the sand
Up till now, in meanders, sway to the dim rousing of others
On this dream-making land, where lies the Lily of the Valley
The rousing of others
Maybe this time, to flow a bit
You are water
Or the patriarch washing his face at the day-after-day, the rose dawn,
Fostering the hurried spirit of the Human soul
The meandering really sets in. It barely says anything that hasn’t been covered in stanza 3, even if stanza 3 does it implicitly. The next stanza does add a few novel things, such as references to the narrator’s past, yet this doesn’t need a full stanza of void around them. It is more or less be a lead-in to the last stanza of Part 2, but that cannot justify the entirety of the lead-in.
Part 3- the first 2 stanzas have the same issue, as I’d start it with stanza 3 as a change of narration, metaphor, and image. Otherwise, the reader has already been drowning with little else to go for. By contrast, stanza 3 already contains (in better language) what appears in parts before and after. At this point, it needs to merely get at the thing, and leave. Perhaps the full poem will make me change my view of things, but who knows.
Anyway: overall, the strongest part is the language on a line-by-line basis, but structurally it gets messy. Definitely has a strong Stevens-like feel, in parts, but whereas Stevens is totalizing, this is seeking. I don’t know if the language is you or Hai Zi, but I’d be interested in more, as there is much promise here.
Thanks for the comment, and feel free to e-mail me at any time.
Thanks for your analysis, I really appreciate it!
I haven’t explored Hai Zi fully. He left a lot of short poems, 3 long poems, and one unfinished extremely long ‘cosmic’ poem that he pored over his whole life, which is seriously fragmented and, from what I looked through, has all sorts of weird things like multiple narrators. I don’t know how bloated that one gets. I can’t read it fast because my Chinese is really not-good, mainly because I understand the grammatical structure intuitively from being steeped into it, but I never properly studied the vocabulary until lately.
With regards to the translation, I took some liberties with certain areas. Chinese has a lot of those 2-word combinations that, in direction translation, would sound unnatural, but makes perfect sense in its own language because the language is formed by combinations of word units. From all these 2-word combinations, you can usually get 3 possibilities, which is either the natural meaning, or two variations on the direct translation.
白天 translates directly as ‘white-sky’, but usually just means ‘day’. I chose ‘Skywhite’ for the rhyming couplet. Another one is 草原 from the last part, which I translated as grassfields, although it can just mean fields or plains. Throughout the poem I tried to vary these, sometimes choosing the natural meaning, and sometimes swapping to the others to get those stuck-together words that ee cummings sometimes uses.
I’ll see if I can check out the documentary you mentioned.
I guess my tendency towards this ‘more’ comes from being in a country where the literary landscape is almost bare, due to being too young a culture. Singapore literature tends to either be too political or too nostalgia-focused to concern me. But I also have no cultural connection to the books I read from overseas, which means they have to stand on their own.
Anyway, thanks again for all your help! I really wish more people could be open to the stuff being taught here.
I know this is a bit rude to ask of you, however, could you please consider watching the following anime shows:
A series of movies by the name (Kara no Kyoukai — The garden of Sinners)
Both are my favorites shows and I would really like to see what you think about them.
Not Alex, but as a person who’s watched both and was a fan of Nasu’s work before, I think I’ll chip in with my two cents.
Nasu is definitely a guy who loves effects at the expense of everything else, because you can’t call the characters of Kara no Kyoukai anything but archetypes meant solely to tout the mystical-philosophical things that he’s concerned about. Even if the animation is beautiful and there’s stylistic innovations in Movie 5, all it adds up to is melodramatic action entertainment with philosophical pretensions.
I’ve come to think, though, that Asian action entertainment weighed in on something that could potentially be the next step for people trying to adapt the style. That is, drawing from Wuxia in the past, they discovered that action itself doesn’t matter as much as the effects of it. Like how in Wuxia novels everything was basically god-like characters with stereotyped personalities drawn from the history rattling off Chinese poetry mixed with Sword Battles, with little sense of realism. On the other hand, nowadays with Fantasy action novels, you have to have the aspect of ‘world-building’ despite the fact that there’s an expense of narrative when you dedicate so much time to engineering culture from bottom up like that.
Nasu’s method is thus, similar to Wuxia, he attaches a philosophical textbook behind every single action scene so that he doesn’t have to explain how what happened actually happened. Yet, even though it doesn’t achieve much art here, you can actually see how that might lead to something great in the future, because poetry is made when you care little for the things themselves, than for how to structure these things to achieve your artistic effects.
Which brings me to Bakemonogatari and the Monogatari Series, that, a bit closer, though still not yet there, understands that all of the supernatural effects and mysteries that’s being set up matter little except in order to develop something substantial – something that you can hold on to by the end of the story. The problem is that, while all that is being sketched out, Nisio Isin as a writer still sees the need to go off on all sorts of tangents solely for his own self-amusement. He has to cater to the specific otaku tastes and fanservice, bring references to mystery novels that he likes, rely on soliloquy and banter (nothing from with this if done well though), and indulge in wordplay. The result is also that you can’t see the characterizations that come from the later seasons in the first season. Most of these problems, you can also see in Eva, which is tied down by its adherence to genre devices from mecha shows.
The reviewer Nick Creamer (who also does the full-episode essays on the series) went into the problems with that here, though I think if you’re a Monogatari fan, you’ve probably seen his essays and reviews before: http://www.animenewsnetwork.com/feature/2015-08-07/monogatari-is-a-disaster/.90575
I’m planning to do a full rewatch of the series again one day, because I think that there’s something in there worth looking at which goes about the right way to do Animation. Technically, Shaft in general is superb, even pointing to a possible way to use Pop Art methods for narrative purposes with Gekidan Inu Curry. Yet, most of me still feels that this amounts to nothing more than a stepping-stone to something else, rather than a work that can stand on its own completely.
I believe the purpose of Misato kissing Shinji was to shock him into action through an act that was both extremely unexpected and more visceral by stimulating his lust. If I recall correctly she also leaves blood in his mouth and if she were aware of her bleeding then it would further serve to shock him.
“Nasu is definitely a guy who loves effects at the expense of everything else, because you can’t call the characters of Kara no Kyoukai anything but archetypes meant solely to tout the mystical-philosophical things that he’s concerned about. Even if the animation is beautiful and there’s stylistic innovations in Movie 5, all it adds up to is melodramatic action entertainment with philosophical pretensions.”
A lot of time I’ve seen this complaint about the series by that it is pretensions. And I always had a hard time understanding why. You see, I dont understand what parts could trigger that thought in the first place. The only moments in the series that could do that are the philosophy points of view in the first and seventh movie. They arent meant to be taken as fact but as a point of view of a character. Nothing else looked to me as pretentious. I also dont understand how you see the characters as “archetypes meant solely to tout the mystical-philosophical things that he’s concerned about” because, for me, they were characters, and not talking heads with philosophical ideas.
“Nasu’s method is thus, similar to Wuxia, he attaches a philosophical textbook behind every single action scene so that he doesn’t have to explain how what happened actually happened”.
Again, I dont see why you feel that way.
Let me explain. I see the story of KnK as a complex character focused story about Shiki and her relationship with Mikiya. Thats all. Everything in between was just ideas that made the series more interesting (for example: the idea of “float or fly” in the first movie). It didnt bash me with its philosophy, it was just there to show how certain character thinks about this kind of topic. Many of the “complicated”, “vague” or “ambiguous” dialogue in the series has logic behind it. Even if its just Philosophy and it is definitely serves a purpose and not just to “affect” the viewer in some way.
I agree with you on the monogateri
“The reviewer Nick Creamer (who also does the full-episode essays on the series) went into the problems with that here, though I think if you’re a Monogatari fan, you’ve probably seen his essays and reviews before”
I dont like watching reviews so I dont know this guy. Ill go and check him later.
Still, Im interested in seeing your point of view ^^
I admit it’s been quite a while since I watched the films, so I glanced through the LN translations on Baka-Tsuki just to refresh myself. I remember that Ufotable was quite direct with the adaptation, so the dialogue isn’t too off.
This is the meeting between Male Shiki and Kokutou in vol 2:
Probably it’s a lot slower when you see it on film, and there’s the cuts and visual stimulation that actually make it better – but at the core there’s nothing really that feels like anything beyond psychological exposition:
“But that’s a very important thing. You need to be pure, Kokuto. Since you only worry about yourself when you’re small, you won’t notice the evil minds of other people. Even if it’s just a misunderstanding, the feeling of love you receive makes you able to be kind to others, hence people can only express the emotions they’re familiar with.”
“But I’m different. I have known someone else since I was born. Since Shiki has SHIKI inside of her, she knew of others. She found out that there’re other people who think differently and that they do not love you unconditionally. Since she found out as a child how ugly other people are, she could not love them. In time, she grew to pay them no attention. The only emotion Shiki knows is rejection.”
Dialogue like this definitely isn’t driven by proper and rigorously sketched characters. There’s nothing wrong with that though, if the whole is greater than the sum of its parts – like Absurdist plays or Kafka. Yet all it adds up to in KnK’s case are fight scenes, mystery plotlines that are merely intriguing and nothing else, and essentially a stereotypical love story.
The ‘abnormal love’ mixed in with murder is a genre-style stemming all around Gothic horror, and especially early Japanese mysteries and horror stories – like those written by Edogawa Rampo. In a sense it’s only an aesthetic device. The other characters are stock taken from mystery series or other anime series – loving little sister, mysterious girl, badass female etc… Kokutou is the stock good guy that puts his way out for the mysterious girl – waiting for her outside, visiting her in the hospital, and all the other stuff that are brushstrokes of a character rather than a proper character
Here’s another dialogue moment in the novel:
(Volume 3, ending aftermath)
“Really? But that is my opinion. Because, Shiki, even though she lost herself, Asagami Fujino is a normal girl. She will take in what she’s done without changing the facts to suit her. Even if she does give herself up to the police, no one can prove what she’s done and she won’t be socially responsible for her sins. That’s what makes it more difficult.”
“…… I think sins are things people willingly burden themselves with. A burden that one casts on themselves according to their views, that is what a sin is. The more compassion you have, the heavier a burden your sin becomes. The more common sense you have, the heavier a burden your sin becomes. Asagami Fujino’s sins become heavier and more painful as she gets happier.”
Shiki tells me I’m too good-natured.
“Then does that mean those without compassion have no sense of what sin is?”
“I don’t think anyone exists without a sense of sin. It just means that their sins are lighter to bear, but they are still there. A small sin within their small scope of compassion. For us it might seem trivial, like tripping on a road; but for that person, it becomes a burden. Even the small pain for us becomes an unpleasant feeling for those with small compassion. No matter the weight, the meaning of a sin is the same.”
I hope you get the point. I think the adaptation is definitely better because you get less of the psychological rambling, but the core is flawed. Just look at the excess for the character interaction scenes in his later works like Fate/Stay Night – which goes into fully stereotypical slice-of-life stuff. So, in a way, Kara no Kyoukai works better because it’s more compact.
Actually Bakemonogatari is the best comparison because of how Nisio Isin runs its characters to counterpoint what they say even while it does the same things – whereas Nasu’s characters are one track in their psychology and ideas. You can also compare to any psychological exposition by a Dostoyevsky character, or Shakespeare Soliloquy, or Chekhov character. You just have to have enough knowledge of other things to be able to peel away the surface gloss.
But I wasn’t talking about the novels. I haven’t read them myself because they were different than the movies and I hate to watch cannon stories be different than what they were (thats why I didnt watch the new Evangelion movies). The dialogue in the movies felt relevant. It felt like (almost) everything that was said was meaningful(I guess thats why they cut so much of the dialogue from the novels).
“Just look at the excess for the character interaction scenes in his later works like Fate/Stay Night”
Im actually really glad that they didnt adapt KnK like Fate/Zero or Fate/Night cause it would feel completely different.
The movies tried to keep the dialogue short, relevant, on point, with minor philosophical ideas here and there.
“But I wasn’t talking about the novels. I haven’t read them myself because they were different than the movies and I hate to watch cannon stories be different than what they were ”
I checked back to the subs (Movie 2, around 28 minute mark. Movie 3 around 49 min mark). They took most of the same dialogue from the novels, condensing the Fujino part I took into about half its length but it’s still this faux-psychological rumination on sin. That’s why I only chose dialogue parts and not any of the other parts which goes into the more psychological aspects. The only difference is that they layered a soundtrack and the images on it. Yet although Ufotable is amazing in their animation style, it doesn’t provide any meaningful counterpoint to what’s being said. It only makes you more susceptible to the sentimentality. There’s this image of SHIKI dripping juice on the paper portion of a straw which curls up, that could harken to some things, but not much else.
I feel you’re skimming through what I said a bit – I even mentioned in my comment that:
“Probably it’s a lot slower when you see it on film, and there’s the cuts and visual stimulation that actually make it better – but at the core there’s nothing really that feels like anything beyond psychological exposition:”
That’s one of the ‘good things’ about animation that Alex mentioned above – it creates a sense of irreality that allows you to get tricked – but, likewise, it can also create a false atmosphere that makes to think that things are being processed, but when you look back upon it, there’s actually much less there. Recently I watched Steven Universe, which I enjoy a lot, and it has a lush minimalist animation style that fits the atmosphere – but it goes little into earnestly interrogating the themes that it supposedly tried to deal with.
“It felt like (almost) everything that was said was meaningful”
If you want to ascertain that, you have to bring out the evidence itself and reflect upon it – if not you’re just trying to get into a conversation to reinforce your own biases about something. There’s nothing wrong with that if it’s just a matter of social chatter (I myself have watched Paradox Spiral like 5 times and done the same with my friends before) – but there’s a lot of problems with that if you’re talking about actual criticism and evaluation.
I also don’t understand this notion of a canon – which ultimately creates an urge to pick apart whether something is in ‘continuity’ or not without interrogating the matter itself, or what’s important about it. It’s not like Kara no Kyoukai is Kubrick’s The Shining, which took a pulp novel and turned it into something a lot higher and completely different than its source material. If I were critiquing that from ‘canon’ I would dismiss Kubrick’s movie for being non-canon, even though it’s the better work of art.
I hope your mind didn’t process my criticism such that you saw “novel” and “it’s been a while since I watched the films” and then proceeded to label it all under “I can retort him by saying that it’s not canon” – whilst ignoring everything else I said about the characters still being stock taken from mystery novels and other anime.
Even then, as I said, when I look back they took pretty much most of the things from the original novels in terms of dialogue – and they only used the images to outline rather than using its self-awareness to reinforce the meanings. Even the interesting cinematic techniques used in Paradox Spiral are more aesthetics over meaning.
I have to ask a quick question – did watching Kara no Kyoukai really teach you anything about the nature of sin, psychopathy or death that you have found yourself repeatedly drawing back to since watching it? When I think about those things I always find my mind drawing up something like A Clockwork Orange, High and Low, or Taxi Driver. When I rewatch these films I find myself gaining up to them, rather than exhausting them of all their value. Less so for KnK. Nowadays, if I ever think about it, it’s more for watching the amazingly animated fight scenes in Paradox Spiral or for the shininess of the art.
Incidentally, I have a MyAnimeList account if you want to talk more about this kind of thing (since I think that this whole comments thread has already been quite derailed). Just message me here: http://myanimelist.net/profile/czxcjx
“et although Ufotable is amazing in their animation style, it doesn’t provide any meaningful counterpoint to what’s being said. It only makes you more susceptible to the sentimentality. There’s this image of SHIKI dripping juice on the paper portion of a straw which curls up, that could harken to some things, but not much else.”
I really need to read the novels to make a clear opinion of these. Perhaps the fact that I didnt read them, makes my opinion to be ignorant of the topic. However, I only decided to look at the movies. Only them, and as the movies themselves they’re doing just fine with how the dialogue is going. The dialogue in the novels have much more to it, I guess yet for the movies they decided to take only the important stuff(again, I havent read them but I assume that’s how it went).
Animation adds a lot to the KnK novels without just adding music/visuals to the spoken novel’s dialogue. (If you want I can give you examples).
“If you want to ascertain that, you have to bring out the evidence itself and reflect upon it – if not you’re just trying to get into a conversation to reinforce your own biases about something”
I can give you evidence but first tell me what do you consider “meaningful”. I dont want to bring you stuff that you will find invalid.
“I hope your mind didn’t process my criticism such that you saw “novel” and “it’s been a while since I watched the films” and then proceeded to label it all under “I can retort him by saying that it’s not canon””
About the whole cannon stuff, its just my personal opinion. I didn’t ignore your previous points and I wasn’t using that as an excuse or something. I was just explaining why I didn’t read the novels.
“and they only used the images to outline rather than using its self-awareness to reinforce the meanings”
Please give me examples about that claim.(I will also give my evidence too after your response)
“I have to ask a quick question – did watching Kara no Kyoukai really teach you anything about the nature of sin, psychopathy or death that you have found yourself repeatedly drawing back to since watching it?”
KnK is not a deep story. Its not A Clockwork Orange or Taxi Driver. Its a complex story about a girl and her relationship with themes here and there. I did gained few new perspectives about the world and some philosophy was interesting but mostly I was focused on the story. If I wanted to enjoy heavy themes in an anime then Id watch Texnolyze or Serial Experiment Lain or even NGE but that is not the reason I love KnK.
“Incidentally, I have a MyAnimeList account if you want to talk more about this kind of thing (since I think that this whole comments thread has already been quite derailed). Just message me here: http://myanimelist.net/profile/czxcjx”
HOLY SHIT. This is not the first time I see this profile(wow this sounds wrong ^^). A few months ago I got bored a bit from anime and decided to watch manga instead. I’ve encountered your profile from reviews that you wrote and decided to read manga based on your recommendation. I loved Aku No Hana and Oyasumi Punpun and many of Asano Inio’s works. hehe I wasnt expectingmeeting you here xD
I already gave my examples. Movie 2 and Movie 3 – the part where Mikiya first meets SHIKI and the part where Mikiya talks to Shiki after the Fujino incident. I gave the dialogue parts that are directly adapted into the movies. I took those from the novels because the text is directly there for you to refer to, but I told you I checked back to the movies and they’re more or less the same (except volume 3 condenses the sin speech into one paragraph).
These are supposed to be some of the main moments where the two characters interact. In Movie 2 it’s a key moment where Mikiya learns something about Shiki’s character. In Movie 3 it’s supposed to be the chance for them to find something within each other after the mystery-centric events.
Yet this is the kind of dialogue that frequently occurs, which doesn’t really express anything except the bare bones of character.
“But I’m different. I have known someone else since I was born. Since Shiki has SHIKI inside of her, she knew of others. She found out that there’re other people who think differently and that they do not love you unconditionally. Since she found out as a child how ugly other people are, she could not love them. In time, she grew to pay them no attention. The only emotion Shiki knows is rejection.” (this appears word-for-word in the movie)
This kind of thing isn’t what you call interaction. Neither is it complex – there’s no thrill in the reveal the same way you get a thrill when a complicated mystery story like the Tokyo Zodiac Murders Case gets revealed. Its psychological-idea driven talk (and the key here is ‘idea’ which is different from proper characterization) with an abnormal gothic bent which – as I already said – isn’t really too alien to the past Japanese stories. You’ll see this kind of dialogue in Osamu Dazai novels, or Edogawa Ranpo, or even, for a more contemporary bent, the novels of Murakami. It’s also a shadow of even the speech that appears in Chekhov or Dostoyevsky. There’s no unraveling thrill, and there’s no characterization, and so it can only be an aesthetic.
For reference, this is a quote from No Longer Human: ““I am convinced that human life is filled with many pure, happy, serene examples of insincerity, truly splendid of their kind-of people deceiving one another without (strangely enough) any wounds being inflicted, of people who seem unaware even that they are deceiving one another”
The envelope isn’t really pushed for this type of character, who has been around for a long time in Literature. From the start to the end you don’t feel any threat to the relationship, nor any growth in a real and directly tangible way. You feel like its being driven by the author, except he’s inserting these things inside just to make it seem like Shiki is ‘cold and psychopathic’ and Mikiya is fighting an intense psychological battle to break into her heart. Yet it doesn’t translate beyond the standard gothic ‘lover who expresses love through damaging the object of her love’ trope (a staple from Vampire fiction). In movie 7, it even essentially ends with a ‘power of love’ ending.
Other than Paradox Spiral which has a few interesting tricks, all of these scenes are done with the standard conversational framing. As I said, the only possible interesting facet in the Movie 2 scene is the shriveling piece of paper-straw that SHIKI drips juice on. The camera is either there to frame a fight scene, frame a gothic-noir atmosphere, or frame expositional detail. Even those slightly more well-done scenes (like the montage of Tomoe Enjou living at Shiki’s apartment) aren’t really a far cry from tactics even in mainstream film.
If you’re arguing it’s a character study with plenty of interaction, take note that in movie 4 Shiki spends most of her time in a coma and only talks to Mikiya in the last scene. In movie 3 there’s a huge focus on chasing Fujino’s rapists. In movie 5, half of the movie is spent in fights and with Touko explaining the spiral apartments. In movie 6 it’s between Mikiya and his sister. And things really come into fruition in movie 2 and 7. Whatever dialogue they have is something along the lines of the stuff stated above, with mostly standard cinematography.
Also, for the record, I never said that KnK was pretentious (which implies self-awareness). I just said that it’s an archetypal aesthetic. It’s less of a character ‘study’ and more of a character ‘thesis’.
I’m not implying anything particularly complex with the word ‘meaning’. I’m just talking about characterization and narrative. You don’t even have to find it in Serial Experiments Lain or Texhnolyze. I’d argue even White Album 2 has more character depth and rumination on relationships than KnK.
>”This kind of thing isn’t what you call interaction. Neither is it complex – there’s no thrill in the reveal the same way you get a thrill when a complicated mystery story like the Tokyo Zodiac Murders Case gets revealed. Its psychological-idea driven talk (and the key here is ‘idea’ which is different from proper characterization) with an abnormal gothic bent which – as I already said – isn’t really too alien to the past Japanese stories.”
>”There’s no unraveling thrill, and there’s no characterization, and so it can only be an aesthetic.”
Im sorry but I still dont understand your point and Im really sorry for that.
Isnt that whole paragraph was suppose to give us more information about Shiki and her past? Thats why she said in the same movie that she wants to feel alone rather than to be alone. That’s why her encounter with Mikiya creates new alien struggle in her life. Thats why by the end of the movie she decides to kill Mikiya. She gets into a hospital, gets her second personality gone and now she has to find a way to fill her new void that erupted when SHIKI was gone. The next 5 movies were exploring how she will do that and how her connection to the void resulted in Araya’s involvement.
>”From the start to the end you don’t feel any threat to the relationship, nor any growth in a real and directly tangible way”
Isnt Shiki’s growth was by the fact that she learned to live without SHIKI and accepted Mikiya while coming to realization with her morals and ideas?
>” Yet it doesn’t translate beyond the standard gothic ‘lover who expresses love through damaging the object of her love’ trope (a staple from Vampire fiction)”
Perhaps im just not familiar with all these terms and Im 100% sure that these kind of characterization was done else where, I just disagree by the fact that it was done wrong.
>”If you’re arguing it’s a character study with plenty of interaction, take note that in… ”
All the events in the movies serve as a background to Shiki’s character(except movie 6).
>”take note that in movie 4 Shiki spends most of her time in a coma and only talks to Mikiya in the last scene.”
–Movie 4 mainly focuses on Shiki’s new personality and how she must live with her new life. She gets the help from Tokoe, a girl that’s definitely knows how to control her personality. By the end she accepts the her current state and starts living.
>” In movie 3 there’s a huge focus on chasing Fujino’s rapists”
And on Fojino with in contrast show sthe difference in the morality between Shiki and Fujino. How, despite both being “the same kind” of murder lovers, Shiki loves murder but respect people while Fujino loves murder but has no respect to other people(all orchestrated by Araya for that same reason).
>”In movie 5, half of the movie is spent in fights and with Touko explaining the spiral apartments.”
And why Araya wanted Shiki and why the he made the first two girls and even Lio. Granted, there was not much character exploration in that movie but we still learned new information from it.
>”And things really come into fruition in movie 2 and 7″
The 7th movie concluded her character and showed us how the end of the “morality war” between Shiki Lio and Mikiya affected all of them and lead to a sad yet promising future.
KnK characterization was not super complex for me or deeeeep beyond measure or whatever. I liked the whole package of the movies. The animation was great and so was the music. There was focus on the characters with a cool little mysteri story in the background that felt mature and well written.
“I liked the whole package of the movies. The animation was great and so was the music”
So do I, but noting whether or how one ‘likes’ something is not the point of criticism.
“There was focus on the characters with a cool little mysteri story in the background that felt mature and well written.”
There was a focus on characters, and a cool little mystery story – but I’d cross out the last two adjectives.
The problem is that most of your argumentation is only talking about what happened. Not why it’s important. The other problem is that knowing why it’s important requires understanding of what constitutes a ‘mature’ character.
So let’s try a different tactic. Tell me what makes the characters in KnK mature and well-developed characters.
By the way, I won’t be posting here anymore on this topic since its getting really sidetracked from Alex’s article – if you want to continue message me at MAL. Thanks.
Re: “I do look forward to the day when anime (or whatever might replace it) bursts on the scene with a truly great work- or when a videogame learns to negotiate between true narrative and giving the player ‘just enough’ control to make it game, yet not too much, so that it could BE art- not merely have a pretense for such. This is why I follow it. Yet I’m disappointed left and right.”
Could you explicate the features, concepts, etc, exemplary of the kind of game you imagine, might have? I’ve thought about this a lot and researched it, but haven’t found any deeper discussion (http://www.costik.com/gamnstry.html, and http://mtswy.com/?p=71 for example), and like you have been repeatedly disappointed.
Apologies if this is too off topic.
I actually haven’t thought about it much, partly because it’s hard to conceptualize what an “artistic” game would actually look like. That’s mostly because we’ve had so few games that could be called art-like, or even bad art. Keith mentioned the PS2’s “Shadow Of The Colossus” before, as it’s an example of wandering long distances with little in between, punctuated by wandering giants that don’t even need a back-story. It’s a small ‘p’ poetic, which you can’t really get in stuff like Skyrim or Fallout (typical candidates for “art games”) since they are so cluttered with people, objects, and events. It’s almost like novels or movies that give you non-stop dumbed-down stimulation and confuse that with true artistic density, whereas a writer like Irwin Shaw can have an entire story hinge upon a single sentence or adverb. If art is a slow kind of accumulation, most video games are a kind of hoarding. And even if the typical praise were true (say, that CD Projekt RED writes “mature stories” and “great dialogue”- bullshit, of course, but let’s just say it’s true), art is much more than a set of well-done discrete parts. This is not something that developers understand.
In the short-term, video games can move towards art by reducing player choice from a near infinity to a multiplicity: sort of like a great line of poetry might have 3-4 interpretations, but never 300. In video games, I’d strip this down further and turn the thing into something like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” novel, at least structurally, for here are joints and facets where something clear-cut can emerge. In the long-term, if a truly visionary artist would make something like “Shadow Of The Colossus,” it could be art, itself. We have hints today but nothing else. Nor do I think that indie games will necessarily hit great art faster, although the lack of outside pressure might definitely help. Indie developers have the same issue as indie publishers in that, while what they make is certainly “different,” it is a difference of aesthetic, not quality. Indie types are notorious for publishing “only” certain styles, for example, in the same way game developers take one bias and aesthetic and run with it, ignoring the fact that style is an expression of art and not the art itself.
Have you played anything that would in part qualify? What do you think of sandbox stuff like Fallout? I have enjoyed the latter in the past, myself, but would never call it art.
I find it funny/interesting that your idea of an artistic game, or the basics at least, seem to match my thoughts perfectly; from trekking across land and encountering giants though that part escaped me, to reduction of player choices. Re: I can think of a few that would partly qualify like Shadow of the Colossus (besides ICO. Have you played it?), though I’ve yet to go through them all.
“With Those We Love Alive” is probably closest to visual novels and your “Choose Your Own Adventure” example, but it’s more than just “moral choice 562” like Mass Effect 2. It has good writing (which I’m not an expert on by any means), and is definitely unique. If I made a top 3 list, this along with ICO and Shadow of the Colossus would probably be on it.
“Spec Ops: The Line” I haven’t played. It’s a deconstruction of the FPS genre from what I’ve read, and the gameplay is not even “enjoyable.”
“Undertale” I also haven’t played, and on the off chance you haven’t either, this video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qvSd_opycoI explains it best. “For all of the restrictions that it places on movement in space, Undertale to me still feels like a more open game than Witcher 3 or Fallout 4.” It’s what BioShock with the Little Sisters and Infinite could have done with violence but ultimately failed.
Re: Sandbox games and Fallout. I agree. I enjoyed Fallout 3 but would die of boredom today, God forbid I play the dumbed-down sequels. Even looking at it mechanically, or as entertainment, it’s not particularly good, and I think Undertale does a better job as art. Sandbox games like Skyrim suffer from too much freedom with a lack of cohesion, and usually end up as “a set of well-done discrete parts,” which is the developer’s fault of course.
Those are the only likely examples I can think of that fit, and I’m bad at getting around to playing them, despite my interest. What are your thoughts on P.T and Journey, even if you haven’t played them?
I’ve not played most of these games, and have not really touched a video game for a couple of years now. That might change down the line, but not now.
Just took a look at “With Those We Love Alive,” and it’s an interesting game-title and some of the writing seems unique for a game, but it’s also way overwritten (from the looks of it) and seems to do little with the poeticism of a bare-bones text approach. It’s really one of those places where writing LESS would be more, for you’d merely have a screen with 2-3 colors and a couple of suggestions. Your mind could fill in the blanks after the developer does most of the leg-work. Here, it seems like too much is spoon-fed. For ex., “The empress rises from the water, dragging her train of leaves and ichor. Her larval skin floats across the lake like a pale leviathan” is self-consciously alliterative and faux poetic, nothing more.
Here’s 2 game critics talking about it, and while they do a lot better than most “awesome, dude!” game reviewers (like Angry Joe, and shit like that), it’s the prime example of two folks who know little of writing but still commenting on it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8LcaFEvD2BQ
Unless something changes, soon, I can’t play much else than open-world games, if I play at all. Yes, on some level, Skyrim, et al. are boring fluff, but the level of excitement and depth from something like Skyrim to Colossus is such a minor jump to begin with that, realistically, all that’s left is emotive and aesthetic preference, and mine is for the bland variety of this type of game. True game-art would probably change my mind, however.
Re: “Undertale,” never played, but it looks interesting. The following comment from the video, while not as deep as a gamer might in fact think it is, nonetheless points to an artistic direction of future games: that of limited (kill; not kill) branching choices that tests you as a person, and, in a great developer’s hands, comments on the choice, as well, in a way that leaves few (if any) choices:
I feel like you kind of skipped around the actual point of your video, which is, “Why Undertale is the most violent game of the year” because you focused too much on explaining why other games choose the violent route.
So here’s my thoughts on it, straight up: Undertale is one of, if not the most violent game of the year simply because you can choose NOT to kill, are ENCOURAGED not to kill, are at some times BEGGED not to kill. But at the same time, the structure of the game, having multiple different endings with unique outcomes, means that MOST players actually will make a point to play the game over and over and over just to see what would happen if they DO kill. Every death is brutal because you know you’re putting these characters through serious pain, although it is only a video game.
It even points out your cruelty by commenting on what you do when you reset the game to the beginning, just to do more killing. It’s not killing for a purpose, you’re not killing so that Frisk can leave the underground and live happily ever after, because otherwise you would be content with the pacifist playthrough.
Sans even points this out: “You’re not the type of person who will ever be happy, you’ll just keep on consuming timelines until…” assuming we keep going until we’ve done all possible endings, or just get bored of killing.
This is the game that “Hatred” claimed to be.
Of recent, quite a few such games, which seek to focus on plot have been released, mostly by indie game developers; example include – Danganronpa, Life is Strange, Pony Island, etc. Most of these games, I think, do highlight the potential of the genre, but save for the occasional glimpse of focus, they seem to have the same problems that most movies would; banal dialogue, bad characters, being far too plot-centric..and a flaw unique to video games as well – needlessly repetitive gameplay. Undertale, albeit better than most games mentioned, also seems suffers with a lot of the same flaws, and fails to communicate well ennough.
Regarding anime, I think the series Death Note, for around the first half of the episodes was a good, narrative-driven anime. Even for all its faults, at least stylistically it makes full and efficient use of the form, albeit in a slightly unconventional, melodramatic manner. And at it’s best, it’s an interesting and suspenseful cat and mouse sort of tale. The second half, however, seemed to possess all the cliches and tropes one could expect to find from anime, and a terribly predictable and half-eaten plot.
I was wondering, though, is there any anime that can be considered great art completely? The best I have seen are Akira and Memories, but each of them has their share of flaws.
Yeah, I agree; I see hints of the future in games, but it’s awful how regularly fans and art critics accept these the flaws uncritically.
I’ve not seen great anime, ever, but I’ve been on the hunt. I am searching because I believe that when truly great anime starts (and, specifically, the kind that uses genre tropes of the 1980s to 2000s), and comes in a kind of cavalcade as opposed to 1 or 2 outlier films, it will be a time when art, itself, begins to change. It’s weird how what is essentially kids’ stuff has this tangential relationship to art’s future, but I see it, while those arguing on both sides of the issue tend to simplify.
Your criticism of “With Those We Love Alive” actually reminded me of a game titled “Narcissu.” From memory, it’s very basic: any artwork it does have is minimal, the characters were rather bland and unlike-able, and the writing far less colorful.
I suppose it’ll take an extensive amount of time for games to mature, as videogame design requires a very broad field of skills unless one relies on others (and neither help), which along with the fact that people are terrible at complex logic (programming), slows things down more than other arts. Even finding games that are not broken difficulty-wise (which even the Souls games fail at, for all their praise), or mechanically, is an arduous game of hide-and-seek in my experience.
I like the idea of making a video game, but not the idea of simply settling for constructing a stepping stone, simply building on top of games like Undertale or Shadow of the Colossus; the idea of creating without some grasp of what a chef-d’oeuvre of game art would be.
Given a game that instead of repeating one thing, like Undertale’s binary kill/don’t kill system to test you, consisted of slowly germinating many small poem branches that eventually coalesce, would you consider that a step forward?
I think for the next 10-20 years, folks with visions of a ‘deeper game’ will have to settle for stepping stones — or, more likely, not make anything at all, for the stepping stones will be made not by those with vision but by those with a little discrimination and some happy accidents. Then the visionaries could start.
Not sure if repeating one thing (as in Undertale) vs. germinating branches is anything more than an aesthetic preference. I can imagine, as in poems, etc., where both techniques work quite well in seemingly opposite (but in fact similar) ways. But I also think that, given how art develops, we’ll probably see more hints and pieces in binaries, first, before people could even begin to handle the latter. To be sure, this is uncharted territory, and it’s not even Greeks vs. Moderns, but the literature of a pre-literate society trying to compete with 4 lines from Wallace Stevens. Games are essentially in the Stone Age when it comes to not only art, but even basic issues of mechanics, as per your mention of the Dark Souls franchise. Shit, look at the Skyrim ragdolls, and how people crap themselves over a game with even slightly realistic physics. So many clunky things to work out, whereas game critics are getting ahead of themselves and already discussing how ‘mature’ and ‘eloquent’ the dialogue has gotten!
For the record, Fallout: New Vegas was quite a bit better, overall, than Fallout 3, which is a pretty barren game with a couple of fun setpieces.
I fucked around with it a bit, but tried it pretty late, to begin with, and after I started getting bored with games, anyway.
I am not sure what your basis for reasoning that development will occur in the next 10-20 years is, however, perhaps Japan will be the first to make, though maybe not dominate, or even popularize, game-art (if such a things happens, like with Citizen Kane). Here, Hatred causes an uproar, as per America’s tendency to ridicule and censor new mediums (e.g. film) meanwhile in Japan, arcades are still a popular distraction, predominantly NOT labeled as toys for “man-children.” America does have the advantage of quantity, nonetheless, and maybe censorship in games won’t affect them; I do not know if that was the case for film, but regardless, German Expressionism was ahead of Hollywood at the time. Until then, as you said, I’ll probably have to wait. Making small games, playing with other mediums, or animation, are options, though not as enticing.
Games are certainly in the stone age, as people crapping themselves over realistic physics is a minor step forward, since that at least has some application, such as Shadow of the Colossus’s boss fights. Despite our advancements in computer power, people favor graphical realism over more convincing worlds, subtle technologies like inverse kinematics, human AI, like in The Lost Pisces (and hardly got any publicity) or AI in general.
Concering Angel’s Egg, and your review of “La Planète Sauvage,” I was wondering if there were any animations like them?
My reasoning for the 10-20 years time-frame for at a least a handful of great anime films or series (before, of course, the inevitable deluge) is mostly demographic. I’d say anime really started coming into its own in the 80-90s, and 2 things were happening at that time. 1) Teenagers and young adults were watching them; 2) young kids, perhaps too young to watch them, grew up with anime as their surround. The teens were too old to really do something with anime, while the kids, whose early perceptions were forming, are in their 20s-30s now, and could at least nudge the genre in a slightly more interesting direction. It will take a kind of archivist to really do anything with it, in the same way that it took the Marx Brothers literally decades to be bested by Woody Allen in the 60-70s, wherein Woody did things in comedy the Marx Brothers couldn’t even dream of. They reached their peaks around the time that Woody was born, with a 30-40 year hiatus before the next stage of comedy was ushered in.
This isn’t just relevant to Woody, of course. Art and influence follows a similar generational trajectory, especially pop art, if one looks at the 19th and 20th centuries. So, if we’re 20 years removed from the 90s, we are also 20 years removed before the 90s influence could actually be understood. I mean, just look at all the critical books on the time period…it’s all nostalgia shit, or wan sociological studies that in fact say little. Lots of historians discuss ‘centuries,’ but most are too afraid to tackle decades, particularly more recent ones, since their meaning is hazy and haziness requires balls to cut through and contain.
I’d say Angel’s Egg, Savage Planet, and 4-5 others are the peak of this sort of animation, which is unfortunate. It seems to me that genuine adults were drawn to animation in the 50s, whereas now animation tends to attract those stuck in a kind of perpetual childhood. There is no anime that is the equal of “Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol,” a mere 1-hour affair that is far more dense and rich than the more self-consciously philosophical animations. It’s a shame, I wish there was more, but this is what I see.
Oh, sorry. I also wished to know the names of the animations. Should have specified that.
I think in the essays and comments we’ve pretty much exhausted the best of what we’ve seen, although I’d add “Grave Of The Fireflies” as another good one. I’ve been meaning to watch “Memories” for a while, so I’ll do it this week. “Cowboy Bebop” has, at the very least, excellent moments (like a good number of popular shows), and plan to watch Space Battleship Yamato given how many lists it tops.
I was wondering what was your opinion on the latest Evangelion movies, I don’t expect it to be very different regardless of the small different decision developed through sequels, I’m just not sure how much Anno wants to have his cake and eat it with the third movie in that everything turns even more cryptic and convenient but a few lines about a kid in need to man up.
I promise I’ll proof read for stronger structure and stuff;D
I have them around somewhere, but haven’t seen them.
Pingback: Critique Of Katsuhiro Otomo's MEMORIES (1995) | IDEAS ON IDEAS
Welp no pressure.
Saw that. I don’t argue on Reddit, nor any place where mob opinion is counted more heavily than argument.
What other anime would you recommend based on this objective standard? I expect the list isn’t very long.
Great piece by the way. Probably the best criticism of Evangelion out there. I’m a novice so I can’t really give a meaningful comment, but you’ve given me a lot to think about.
Thanks, glad you got something out of it.
To answer your question, NGE isn’t bad as far as these things go, and I generally think some of what are presently thought of as anime classics have good moments. “Angel’s Egg” is pretty consistent throughout; the last episode of “Memories” is an excellent short film, maybe the best individual anime I’ve seen; “Cowboy Bebop” is an odd mix of cliche and lots of really novel, well-wrought stuff; the original “Ghost In The Shell” is good, as is some of “Grave Of The Fireflies”. Miyazaki makes a lot of crap but there’s an interesting moment here or there in most of his films. And although technically not anime, “Fantastic Planet” is pretty good.
Quite an interesting essay.
There are a couple of points in particular I’d like to put up some thoughts about. In the one case because I sort of agree but for different reasons, while in the other case because my mind went right the opposite way.
Just to share ideas.
Ａ．“[…] Evangelion is clearly about human patterns, in the micro sense, as opposed to the superficially ‘complex’ and dull eschatological tale that makes up the bulk of the show’s action. To confuse this is to confuse the show’s real purpose, then damn Evangelion for not delivering the things you, on a personal level, want it to, rather than accepting what’s actually on the table.”
I, too, am inclined to dump the eschatological tale and consider it a simple ploy. The actual purpose, I think, is shown in episode #26’s last 30 seconds: friends and family congratulate Shinji, for he has eventually found a way to appreciate his own self, reach out beyond his absolute terror and therefore be able to relate to the people around him. He has developed 志 (‘kokorozashi’): will, ambition in a good sense; and I wonder if it’s translatable in this context as the courage to exist. «How to get there?» is, in my view, the general point of the series. If you, viewer, are already there, or if you don’t feel like asking yourself this question, you’ll wander looking for a meaning that’ll appear shallow, at best, or hidden in a grandiose apocalyptic prophecy with no actual revelation, at worst.
But if you do need to ask that question, then you’ll find that everything in Evangelion revolves around one magic word: 心, ‘kokoro’. Every time you hear the words ‘soul’, ‘heart’, ‘mind’, that’s ‘kokoro’ they’re saying all the time. The red, round S² cores, as well as Rei’s and Kaworu’s red eyes: ‘kokoro’, the thinking and feeling heart (1), that which thinks and feels in me. A famous novel by Natsume Sôseki goes by the same name and addresses quite similar issues, with one major difference: for Sôseki, the only escape from incommunicability and loneliness in life, is death (2). Anno Hideaki is more constructive and proposes ‘kokorozashi’ as a way out, to fix a ‘dividing self’ (3). The wall between people can’t be removed, but it can be made permeable by relating, and by the process of expression. Here’s Anno’s own words about this:
“Expression is, like, basically the process of creating something that’s missing, attempting to get an idea across to someone else… trying to make yourself whole at the same time… for those who have a hard time relating to the people around them it’s, at the very least, kind of like being able to pass something along to maintain a relationship between you and those people. That’s what I think expression is… at least for me it is… Anime and movies are ways I am able to continue relating to others… That’s what I think.” (4). This “making yourself whole” should ring a few bells.
Whether Evangelion is great art may be debatable. It certainly is good therapy on both sides.
１ Meredith McKinney, “Introduction”, in Natsume Sôseki, Kokoro, trans. by M. McKinney
２ Edwin McClellan, “The Implications of Sôseki’s Kokoro”
３ see R.D. Laing, The Divided Self, clearly a major influence
４ youtube.com/watch?v=eh0qbJAQhgk, from 16’09” to 16’45”
Ｂ．“Too often, we’re given a glimpse into a character’s psyche, only to have the show’s writer torpedo any and all subtlety, within, as if they’re scared that the viewer won’t ‘get it’. […] Worse, still, are the needless recaps of what the viewer already knows, as characters explain each others’ psyches after some ‘important’ event […] This is downright BAD writing, and torpedos not only the characters, themselves, but any real sense of empathy for them, because while art is manipulation — especially of ‘the truth’ — the moment a viewer can readily feel this, and see evidence of it on screen, it puts up a wall between the art-work and those that wish to engage with it on a deeper, and less ‘ideas-on-a-silver-platter’ sort of way.”
This is what I’ve found particularly interesting, because what you see as a major drawback and failure, is, to me, the series’ greatest feature: self-conscious superflatness.
I see your point and won’t argue against your claim that the characters are two-dimensional archetypes and not “well-sketched human beings”, or “real characters”. But I think this is basically the series’ point, considering its subject matter and target audience. My view is: ‘real characters’ are needed only because that’s how we get the impression we’re watching real people. Pretty much in the same way linear perspective is needed to have a picture give the impression of depth, when it’s actually a two-dimensional, flat surface. Our Western-canon expectation is, as I understand it, the representation of reality through a virtual reality containing fictional elements such as characters that offer you meaning as the result of drama within that illusionary world.
Superflatness crushes this illusion of depth and makes meaning emerge from the connection, configuration and inter-referentiality of those elements, in an overall construct that is flat but complexly so (5)—and, I think, more relying on sensory and psychological stimuli (colour, shape, music…; archetypes), than on a three-dimensional mental environment. I see Evangelion as a sort of Gestalt-like assemblage work, whose ‘characters’ are not even so much characters at all, as behavioural patterns, states of mind, affections, embodied projections, which can’t be relevant in or of themselves, but only in relation to the others. They’re something expressed in a form you ‘read’ independently of their believability as people. In a sense, you relate to the medium instead of what’s in the medium.
A wall in front of the viewer’s face is not necessarily bad, I think. As a matter of fact it’s always been there, only it’s been painted invisible for the last five hundred years. The point is, it can be made meaningful as a sort of surrogate, composite, relational subject delivering not ‘description’ but ‘expression’ (in Anno’s meaning), and emphasising not so much one-way empathy as two-way sympathy. Sympathising is different from empathising because it allows to share feelings without displacing the sense of alterity.
What I mean by ‘two-way’ is that, indirectly, I could sympathise with Anno and comprehend something of his ‘kokoro’; but more importantly Evangelion sympathised with me, functioning as a talking mirror and making me reflect upon my own relating to others. Essential to this second aspect were episodes #25 and #26, and their repercussion on the understanding of the entire work. In fact, the subsequent His & Her Circumstances and Love & Pop are a rather direct continuation of this line.
５ see Thomas Lamarre, “The Multiplanar Image”, in Mechademia 1: Emerging Worlds of Anime and Manga; see also Thomas Lamarre, The Anime Machine
To answer point A- I actually found the ending to be a little darker than you, since I don’t think Shinji has found much self-actualization…if at all. He’s beat up, emotionally, intellectually, over and over again, while the viewer gets bombarded with ideas and pseudo-ideas which serve as a nice recapitulation of Shinji’s own lacks. And “Kokoro” is a good novel.
B- “self-conscious superflatness” might be legitimate, to a degree, but one has to be very careful in applying it: something NGE (as I’ve argued) does not do. You can say there is a ‘reason’ for 2D characters, cliches, and so on, then go on to excuse pretty much every instance of such in any work of art with just a little bit of philosophical flourish. I specifically brought up Bergman’s “Persona” because it has some of what you posit: a self-conscious use of what might be otherwise termed as bad art (for example, in its superficially poor use of psychological mumbo-jumbo). Yet in “Persona”, it’s done in such a way as to be turned outward AT the viewer, and pillories everything from academia to ‘artsy’ film-fan, whereas NGE (by your own implicit admission) basks in its own flaws merely because it has to, since it the demographic is basically teenagers and adults with a child-like conception of philosophy, art, and so on.
You are right about walls, surrogates, and the like, but the issue is that in NGE there are few specific instances of such where it can be said to be successful. If you haven’t, I’d recommend “Persona” since it describes much of what you write yet, unlike NGE, is successful in its own self-conscious nothings, turning them into something else entirely. NGE, meanwhile, is stuck. I wish a true innovator in the medium could come along and show the fandom exactly how to get unstuck.
Also, I read Thomas Lamarre- in some ways, he is to anime what academic critics are to poetry. He sees all the little machinations, what happens here, there, but lacks the wisdom to make it real, and build it up to something meaningful. He clearly has a lot of technical expertise but very little artistic understanding. The former is a scholar’s realm, and can be mastered with care and some intelligence. The latter is a kind of accident which no amount of argumentation – no matter how correct – can convince.
Hi Alex, thank you for your reply,
“Self-actualization” isn’t really what I meant. I thought of ‘kokorozashi’ really only as a prerequisite for ontological security. Barely a starting point, as it were, fulfilment being a long way off.
I re-watched Persona, keeping in mind what you wrote. I had seen it before and thought of the connection with Anno. A cross-search is how I found you, actually. It was an instant favourite the first time, for sure, but I have to say that ‘medium-consciousness-wise’ I prefer Man with a Movie Camera; while ‘human-relation-wise’ I still prefer Evangelion. Persona does turn outwards at the viewer and it does offer a (hugely) visually rich observation-of-life-as-art, but it doesn’t quite click in sympathy; it doesn’t love you back, so to speak. Evangelion works on a different level, which, as I perceive it, implies understanding Shinji as a visual-language sign standing for ‘self-conscience’—rather than a fictional ‘another person’—, and therefore understanding the ending congratulations as a positive starting point, being stated, no theatrical stage involved. In my view, Shinji is not a subject. Evangelion is. You relate to Evangelion, while you receive Shinji’s world. Take for example the Angels: as theatrical characters they’re very poor tropes, I agree, especially if seen as tropes of a pompous ‘I-must-fight-my-enemies-to-be-a-man’ kind of stuff. This is rubbish. ‘Shito’, ‘tenshi’, ‘shisha’, these are literally messengers: retrospectively, they’re the ‘Other’ at the highest degree, seeking a contact to really bring love, not destruction (see how the Angel-element evolves towards Kaworu). And to do so, the ‘Other’ has to enter and dispel your ‘Absolute Terror Field’, i.e. your terror of implosion and engulfment. This relationality is something I perceive as strongly and beautifully induced in/by Anno’s work (cf. Love & Pop for another enemy-as-messenger); whereas I find it to be missing in Persona, for as much as it turns outwards at the viewer, the way it conveys what you call “its own self-conscious nothings” leaves the person isolated within the film’s split self-reflection.
While making artists no less great, this is a shortcoming which I personally find a lot of ‘art’ to be stuck to. Even when turning outwards at the viewer, anything thrown from the ‘inside’ just goes splat on the screen, and stays there; me, untouched. Unless it becomes the screen, asking me to collect the scraps.
Evangelion affected me more than anything else so far. It was utterly painful, and yet, friendly. That’s my perception, I can’t change that fact, and I’ve developed my assessment from there. What should I call a work like this, if I feel it really does communicate (as opposed to ‘if I feel I like it‘)? And how am I to possibly asses a work from the world-at-large’s point of view rather than this way? Is ‘objectivity’ based on the assumption that the same stimulus will induce the same stimulation on everyone?
With Bergman, I much prefer some of the straight, no-frills dramas, like the long versions of both “Scenes From A Marriage” (one of my 4 or 5 favorite films) and “Fanny And Alexander”. Still, I can’t argue “Persona” is lesser; it is merely less my taste, despite being a great work of art. You and I have similar reasons for disliking it, perhaps, but the lack of sympathy (or empathy, rather) is not a deal-breaker for cinematic quality. This is partly true because we’re dealing with an emotional response that can easily vary from person to person, while its immanent qualities are there despite the percipient.
To answer your last question, ‘objectivity’ does not assume an identical response. It merely assumes that there’s something inarguable, meaning, it does not care for an identical response, nor for differences. Can ten children – or even ten adults – have an identical, positive response to a sonnet that ends with the line “she broke my heart into a million tiny pieces” due to some perceived artistic merit? Yes. Can a hundred people have a negative response to the line, predicated on the fact that they were cheated on, and therefore cannot read the cliche without tearing up? Yes. And yet, both responses would be wrong, regardless, for they have little to do with the art, and everything to do with the circumstances surrounding the art-work. These percipients have reached exactly opposite conclusions, but because we know their line of thought, we know neither conclusion is correct. It is not illogical, merely nuanced. This is really the proper way to look at objectivity.
A few last things, and thank you for your time:
What immanent qualities define art-communication?
In the essay you praised imagery but mentioned script and character as the backbone of all film and animation, which only apply to narratives and not much to other forms of art-communication like music, for example. Besides, film being an audiovisual medium, it is not bound to tell any ‘story’ and might as well do without one entirely. Representation is only one aspect of communication, while affect and direct presentation can be quite disjunct from reality and still be completely purposeful. How to appraise what escapes verisimilitude?
And then, once the immanent qualities have been dissected, what’s the objective basis of greatness?
Think of art-communication as communication on the ‘highest’ level. So, obvious and trite, silly ‘truths’ need not apply. A book whose *sole* purpose is to show, for example, that ‘racism is bad’ can’t possibly be a work of art given its low-level utility. This is why, by contrast, something like “Native Son” or “Huck Finn” are both great works of art, for they go beyond the lesson into deeper territory.
I’d like to avoid making ‘rules’ for art or going purely on definitions, since the best art by its nature pushes against boundaries. It is better to go by clues rather than by rules. That said, avoiding and/or inverting cliches, trying to push for new ideas or old ideas expressed in a fresh way, respecting the boundary between what the brain wants/seeks vs. what art requires, are almost always good ideas. Most books require well-sketched characters. If characters are weak they need to be put to some deeper over-arching purpose while their surrounds deepen/do not slack. That sort of thing. Yet notice the stipulations even there.
Yes, film does not have to tell a ‘story’ in the traditional sense, but I specifically make a distinction between plot and narrative. Plot is what ‘happens’ in the overt sense, and may not really exist much at all. Narrative, however, is always there, even if it’s a simple emotional arc wherein two actors look at each other on screen. Poetry is similar in that way, for some of the best poems have absolutely no plot whatsoever, and since they are ‘purer’ than film, you see the playing around with ideas, emotions, techniques, and so on, in a way that is practically all abstract yet still makes good conceptual sense in a way that neither pure music nor pure drawing, etc., cannot.
Greatness is the combination of all the above as a maximum. The best example is art itself. Contrast “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” with “Native Son”, for yourself, and see what you can find.
Or a religious poem like Joyce Kilmer’s trite “Trees” and Countee Cullen’s “Heritage”. What probes more? What has better imagery? What has original expression?
Go look up umbrage in a dictionary before you use it in a sentence again.
I used the word correctly. Go dip into a little Dick & Jane before you read above your level again.
shorten your sentences dickhead,
reading this gave me a migraine.
Ah, look- yet another ‘reader’ weaned on a steady diet of tweets, blog posts, and PornHub tries to read something above his level.
I mean, what is it with this week- did you pussies finally decide to come together and start that LCD revolution you’ve been so wet for?
i’m sorry, but as a writer you commit the cardinal sin of being terrible at writing
I’m sorry, but as a critic you commit the cardinal sin of thinking with your puckered asshole.
Pingback: CTS- Nostalgia and Retro – YIXIAN LIU
How many times did you watch the show? Also It’s obvious you did research…how much did other people answer things for you? I ask because basically impossible to research this show and not stumble upon other people thoughts and interpretations of the show.
This lite review is a bit too confident. IMO.
I watched it a couple of times over 2-3 years.
What do you mean how much did other people answer things for me? I am (mostly) responding negatively to both the over-statements and under-statements people have made. Beyond jogging my memory about certain plot points, I didn’t have a chance to build on others’ ideas.
Not sure what you mean by “too confident”. I am literally right in the middle of the reception NGE has received, meaning, I neither give it too much credit nor too little and try to evaluate the arguments on both sides.
I don’t mean to be disrespectful but I want to be frank. Some of the interpretations of the show you talk about in the article are wrong and/or stupid. That’s what I mean about too confident. So reread your article and consider what it sounds like when your own interpretation of the show is very weak. Lines like: ” Now, it’s hard to tell whether she does all this because she’s been shot, and is now delirious, but it matters not; the scene, as many scenes of sexuality in anime, as a whole, are little more than ‘fan service’ from the director, as a kind of wish-fulfillment for his demographic. It is a decision, then, that bears little artistic import, for such things are both quite far from recognizable, human behavior, as well as a mere trope within the genre, revealing how poor” /// sound very ironic and dumb.
People were talking about this article on reddit that’s how I got here: https://www.reddit.com/r/evangelion/comments/698323/best_essays_on_eva/
Sorry, I don’t follow. What interpretations of the show? My interpretations, or the ones I refer to from others? You then say “lines like” and proceed to quote me, but what’s “pretentious” about the words quoted?
characterized by assumption of dignity or importance, especially when exaggerated or undeserved
By contrast, I make the meaning clear- anime likes to over-use sexuality for the hell of it, and for pleasing a very specific demographic in a way that has nothing to do with art. Just look at that dumb butt-battles anime to see what I mean. I also assert that the character behaviors, within, are often unrealistic- i.e., they don’t act in recognizably ‘human’ ways much of the time, or exaggerate when they do, which is a no-starter when it comes to art and characterization. This is the very opposite of ‘exaggerated’ or ‘undeserved’. It is careful and cleanly argued.
So, my guess is you don’t like the fact that I use complex sentences, that I use commas, that I enjoy parentheticals. But tell me why I need to give a damn? Seriously- I mean it- why should it matter? This is the style of literally almost anything of note ever written prior to the Internet. I’m not trying to be rude, either, but if you’re having issues with the above, how would you ever tackle James Baldwin, Herman Melville, continental philosophy, Charles Darwin? An entire world is closed off to you because your aesthetic sensibilities reject whatever happens to be unfamiliar. So, your solution is no solution.
As for my interpretation being ‘weak’, this is called an assertion without evidence. You’ve basically farted out of your own mouth in the hope that I’d smell it. Why respond to my article if you can’t even deliver a substantive objection to what I’ve written?
U’m haven’t read your article in a few days I’ll explain after rereading later.
But for now:
“So, my guess is you don’t like the fact that I use complex sentences, that I use commas, that I enjoy parentheticals”
FYI this is Pertencious. BUt yeah your writing style the kinda sucks now that you mention it but that’s not what I’m refereeing to. Pretty sure I said you have a weak interpretation of the show. Not sure why you are randomly making shit up.
Johnny. You have flagrant spelling and grammatical errors in your comments, you nebulously assert “bad interpretations” but refuse to get specific, you object to a block of text without giving a reason, then issue a judgment about my writing style which you then expect me to take seriously?
I’d like you to re-read your own comments to me, and tell me what a rational response should look like, in your eyes. I’m not trying to trick you or “make shit up”. I’m actually giving you the benefit of the doubt despite having zero evidence that you’re trying engage me in good faith.
Nor do I delete comments unless I have a good reason. Sorry.
Not trolling I swear, I’m procrastinating lol. So I noticed in some of the comments you said the characters are flat and 2 dimensional. (I skimmed and it was hard to read because you copy pasted from face book I think so sorry if I misunderstand) Do you mean the characters are boring or do actually mean they are 2 dimensional? Like whats your definition of 2 dimensional and who in your opinion were the the 3d dimensional characters in Eva.
Actually you know what never mind this is stupid you can delete my comments. I just realized I don’t want to waste my time and I’m pretty sure you don’t either.
I have never been too impressed by anime, but I have with a few anime inspired novels and novel games.
Of English translated ones, I would suggest Himawari – The Sunflower and Dies Irae – Amantes Amentes. It takes a while for these games to catch their narrative stride, but there is some really well thought out content within them.
I looked it up on Steam. Looks interesting, but $40 for a game that’s not even a game? How long are these Steam novels? I’ll wait for a sale maybe.
I’ve read some of yoyr article and im quite intrigued being a big anime/manga fan what are some pieces of literature that would be good to read with creative and imaginative ideas and storytelling. Furthermore with your opinions on cliches in Nge what are ways to use said cliches or tropes but avoids the flaws of them, also creating 3 dimensional characterization. Lastly i would like to know your opinion on the Anime industry as a whole is it in a state of stagnation does it have potential?
It depends- are you interested in older or newer books? I ask because while they are qualitatively similar, you seem to go more on personal resonance/need. If you enjoy classics, there’s always Moby-Dick, Siddhartha, Huck Finn, Aurora Leigh (the novel in verse by Elizabeth Barrett Browning), Native Son, quite a few books by John Steinbeck.
More contemporary novels are Remains Of The Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (a personal favorite, and probably the best published novel of the last 30 years), Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage (and his other novel, Oxherding Tale), most books by Kurt Vonnegut (especially Slaughterhouse-Five), William Kennedy’s Legs, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series in sci fi, as well as Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin for more sci fi. I mean, there’s a lot, obviously, but pick one or two from each category and try your best to get through it.
You can use cliches in art in a few ways. One is inverting cliches, meaning, changing around some common words to call forward a cliche but forcing the reader to look at it askew. W.B. Yeats did it famously in his poem “The Lake Isle Of Innisfree” with the end-line: “I feel it in the deep-heart’s core”. The more familiar image is “I feel it in the heart”, yet he takes “heart” and gives both a deeper physical and psychological dimension, and comments on the image differently.
Another is something this genre could do- use trope and cardboard characters as unavoidable parts of the genre, itself, but have great writing and/or animation *around* them. In literature, you see this in the Mike Hammer thrillers by Mickey Spillane. They are potboiler sort of works but they are really well written, which means the lack of ‘deeper’ characterization becomes more of a mark of the genre rather than a chief flaw of the works. Sure, it keeps it from ever truly great literature in the vein of Whitman or Steinbeck, but it’s still excellent writing that shows the potential of mere genre work.
As for anime as a whole, I’ll repeat to you what I wrote in another comment to you under the MEMORIES article:
“It’s both sub-par when it comes to specific classics (for example, there hasn’t been anything as good as MR. MAGOO’S CHRISTMAS CAROL), but better in terms of general thrust and ideas. Western animation is very niche and hasn’t evolved much over the years, whereas anime often has a mature demographic in mind yet lacks proper execution. If you put the greatest artists behind Western animation and anime, I can see anime coming out with more interesting, better-executed, and boundary-pushing material in the long term. This is partly why I follow it.”
I enjoyed the read(I envy your use of language), but found myself disagreeing with you more often than not. Your points about the dialogue bothered me more than anything, partly because as an anxious, somewhat neurotic person, I use very similar language to the characters in the show when deriding myself. Asuka stating “I have no reason to exist”, while far from subtle, does just…sound like something a suicidal 14 year old would say in that situation. Before that, the “Hedgehogs Dillema” sequence you derided is not supposed to be a deep, thought provoking moment, rather an ironic anecdote, as it comes from someone just as broken as the children she lords over.
I would also argue that you are using too broad of a context for analyzing Evangelion, and thus are missing out on some of it’s subtleties. The show fits into the “mecha” genre, and each character is supposed to mirror the traditional military family you tend to see in those shows. Shinji bears similarities to Amuro Ray, Asuka to Char Aznable, Misato to Captain Bright, and Rei to Chirico Cuvie. Viewing it from this context, Asuka’s over-compensation is nothing out of the ordinary – boisterous, hot blooded pilots are a trope of the genre, after all. Viewers go in with an expectation for Shinji to emerge from the story as a *grown up*, similar to Amuro or Noriko from Gunbuster, an earlier work by Anno. Misato is simply supposed to be there, as an officer, so her role as a mother figure, and a vulnerable one at that, is also unexpected. Rei’s blue moon nature is also subversive, traditionally these are secret weapon types, characters who are far more powerful than let on, but this is not the case for Rei. Rather than being an atomic bomb, she’s merely a rack of muskets waiting to be shot and disposed of.
I also feel that the cliches work, in a sense that they feel uncomfortable, or out of place. Take the bit in episode 3 where Shinji is surrounded by all the girls in his class when they find out he’s the pilot. This is happening while the teacher is explaining the second impact, and the ensuing struggles, who has lost himself in his own mind thinking back to the horror of it all. Another example is the scene where Shinji and the gang are hanging out on the bridge of the aircraft carrier in episode 8, while Misato oversees the transfer of Unit 02. While they’re ogling the vast array of military hardware on the deck, the commander makes an off hand comment about this being all that’s left of the world’s navies, while adjusting his hat and speaking in a somber tone. It’s just a subtle thing, but it instantly makes his brash, rude nature more sympathetic, as he is a survivor of some of the most brutal wars in human history.
Anyway, just some after-work ramblings. Will read more of your work.
You are right, I think plenty of suicidal kids might talk exactly in this way. People, as a whole, talk in cliches, and usually have little of value to say. But you are confusing a random slice of reality with art. You can, for example, theoretically do as Warhol did and set a camera up on some guy sleeping, or on the Empire State Building for hours on end, ultimately capturing nothing much at all. That is how life flows. But art is not simply an uninterrupted look at life (or else why call it art, and differentiate it from art?), but a highly selective glimpse that is shaped into a narrative. This is what makes artistic communication so much higher than, say, a random 4-minute snippet of conversation culled from a longer 6-hour discussion.
In practical terms, look at Louis Malle’s “My Dinner With Andre”- it is literally ‘JUST’ a 2 hour-conversation between 2 friends at a restaurant, but is not selected at random. It clearly has a beginning, middle, and end, and things are phrased in a way that are really memorable and unique. There are both insights into quite a few aspects of the human experience, but also pushes and pulls of characterization, where both friends reveal themselves (and each other!) by what they say and don’t say. It is subtle and it is implicit, but it is there and takes some thought to process- it forces you to engage, rather than spoon feed you or encouraging you to take things at face value.
By contrast, those neurotic thoughts you might have or which might appear in an anime are simply that- unformed thoughts expressed in typical, predictable ways. There may be nothing wrong with HAVING those thoughts, and they may very well be important to you personally, but that is a different issue from committing them to film or a blank page as poetry, since they are little more than common human expulsions. Think, for example, of how sad a person might feel over learning of a spouse’s death. The emotion might be powerful and real, but compare how most people express such a feeling with how Edna St. Vincent Millay expresses it in this wonderful sonnet:
If I should learn, in some quite casual way,
That you were gone, not to return again —
Read from the back-page of a paper, say,
Held by a neighbor in a subway train,
How at the corner of this avenue
And such a street (so are the papers filled)
A hurrying man—who happened to be you —
At noon to-day had happened to be killed,
I should not cry aloud — I could not cry
Aloud, or wring my hands in such a place —
I should but watch the station lights rush by
With a more careful interest on my face,
Or raise my eyes and read with greater care
Where to store furs and how to treat the hair.
Just look at what the poem does. It takes a very remote possibility, that of learning of someone’s death by way of a newspaper, and presents it as a macabre sort of hypothetical which slowly and insidiously reveals itself to be absolutely real. This twist both shocks the reader, as well as strikes one as absolutely true-to-life by the end. How many people would actually have that sort of reaction of eyes glazing over, and not knowing what to do? The ending, instead of being shrill and hysterical (as would be her emotional right, of course!), is actually very understated and emotionally devastating for that reason. This is what makes it art, and why it’s so hard to put together. It is not like writing in one’s diary, which may be emotionally taxing but is usually not technically taxing at all, nor intellectually taxing for that matter.
As for NGE itself, yes, it is a riff on everything which came before it, in the same way that so much later anime has been a riff on NGE. Yet context can only take you so far. What you note is definitely helpful for reaching a certain level of appreciation, but there is a fairly low ceiling if the writing’s poor, philosophically inert, and the characters dull. At that point, it doesn’t matter what the show is riffing since its result cannot stand much on its own terms, and is forced to lean on things that- as time passes- will become less and less important and less known. For this reason, much of NGE has not aged especially well, particularly for those who haven’t seen many animes from the 1980s. By contrast, give me a dozen great poems by Li Bai or Tu Fu and tell me NOTHING of their life or historical contexts, and they are still great poems which need nothing but themselves despite being even further removed from our historical context…by 1500 years, almost, and at least two civilizations over. That is definitely something to consider in the arts.
And, yes, expecting Shinji to grow when he doesn’t is in fact a good thing. It may not be ‘satisfying’ for the viewer but it is artistically satisfying, which is more important anyway. You can reach emotion through the mind but not always the reverse. Millay’s poem, above, appears all emotion, yet it is intellect first that does it well enough to bring emotion into the mix interstitially.
I agree about your smaller observations near the end- NGE does have good moments like these, and I in fact mention a few of them in the article. But, we need to be honest- how often does NGE invert a cliche vs. merely wallow in it? How often is there a terse, well-sketched moment like the ones you reference, vs. throwaway crap that does little to nothing artistically? I find it silly how NGE has been derided by illiterates as pure posturing, when it actually has some good in it. Yet by that same token, it’s just as silly to proffer NGE as an artistic height, in any medium, really, because while it’s definitely a ‘height’ in anime, this doesn’t mean that much since anime is littered not without mountains, but hillocks. I’d prefer, by contrast, for anime to compete on the world stage and will write of it from this perspective. I find anything less to be subliminally dismissive, and disrespectful.
Thanks for reading.
Here are some recommendations for stuff I’ve seen anime fans hype up:
Tatami Galaxy, Ping Pong The Animation, Ergo Proxy, Kaiba, Texhnolyze, NHK ni Youkoso!, Legend of the Galactic Heroes, Ultimate Survivor Kaiji, Utena, FLCL, Berserk, Millennium Actress, Princess Tutu, Penguindrum, La Maison en Petits Cubes, Koi Kaze, Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju, Shinsekai yori, Area 88 OVA, Rurouni Kenshin: Tsuiokuhen, Jin-Rou, Monster, Parasyte -the maxim-, Katanagatari, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, Zegapain, The Rose of Versailles, Haibane Renmei, Hunter X Hunter (2011), Planetes
Note: Many of these shows are unsubtle or half-baked in what they are trying to communicate, and stagnate in terms of narrative in favor of plot machinations.
What do you think of the Tatami Galaxy, Texhnolyze, Ping Pong the Animation, Legends of the Galactic Heroes, and Serial Experiments Lain? Many people I know consider them the best animes.
Have not seem them.
I’ll be done with my current book soon, and then I’ll be working on a book on 90s culture which will include anime from the 80s-90s. Maybe I’ll include them there.
Yuasa’s work is pretty great and LotGH was amazing. I wasn’t impressed with Lain all that much when I saw it.
Did you read the LotGH books? I just started the first, and although it’s too early to tell, I already see lots of cliches and genre fluff.
@Alex, have you seen Steins;Gate? And if you have what do you think about it?
I watched a couple of episodes, didn’t think enough of it to continue.
That’s a shame. It does seem to be slow paced at first but that’s because it takes nearly the first half of the show to set up the mechanics for time travel. With the exception of some sci-fi novels, I don’t think I have seen any time travel story in media that has been more consistent than Steins;Gate.
Also on top of everything that has been suggested here, I’ll add Gankutsuou and Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade. Both have deep characters and intriguing plots, and some pretty epic endings and awesome animation to boot. Gankutsuou in particular has been inspired by the Count of Monte Christo with a few twists and turns thrown in, it does feel a bit darker than the original, while Jin-roh takes the story of Red Riding Hood in an interesting turn. Perfect Blue is also an excellent psychological thriller that reminded me of Memento, while Paprika seems like it was Inception before it existed. They’re definitely worth the watch.
I’ve seen Perfect Blue and thought it was a good film. Thought less of Paprika, it was stylish and fun but had poor writing and not much else going for it.
Working on an art theory book that will include anime, with comprehensive looks at a number of films. Will include some from the comments on this page.
Pingback: Alex Sheremet’s Doors & Exits: Our Recognizably Human School | This is an Anime Blog, Among Other Things
Phenomenal analysis. Evangelion holds a very special place in my heart and while I don’t view it as the super-deep, super-complex work of art that I did as a young otaku, I still love it to death. I’m a big lover of anime/manga but overall I’ve never really come across an example from those two mediums that came off as subtle when compared to the works indigenous to Western civilization.
Thanks, I was too young to watch it when it came out but often saw clips and the like, and knew that quite a few video games (which I played a lot) had almost a direct line from NGE and anime, as a whole, into their own worlds. But, yeah, the real issue with anime is that it’s usually made by former otaku who never quite grew up and assume this sort of philosophy and artistic wherewithal is the be-all, end-all of Art.
Eva doesn’t need defending. Its overall legacy speaks for itself, and people will likely be falling in love with it for decades to come.
It needs both defense and criticism: particularly since “falling in love” is about as deep as most viewers get.
Hi. I enjoyed the article and agree with it – people tend to either undervalue or, more commonly, overvalue NGE. You mention that there are a few good moments in NGE that have some actual value – can you provide some more examples? From my (poor) recollection of the series, nothing really stands out.
Thanks. I mentioned a few instances- Shinji’s character arc of ‘stasis’ (meaning, wanting to change; failing to change) is a good one, compared to more typical heroic cycles, there are some well-written lines in contrast to the images that get put on the screen, there are some interesting narrative disruptions here or there. NGE’s ‘ending’ is both good and bad, and is neither exceptionally deep nor merely pretentious. There is almost a sarcasm there which both cuts and deludes the viewer. It just happens to not be very substantive.
Pingback: MTV's AEON FLUX (1995): A Retrospective | IDEAS ON IDEAS
Great essay, glad to see someone else made a comparison between Persona and NGE (more particularly EoE).
Thanks for reading.
Have you viewed any more anime since? Eg. Utena
Just some every once in a while, but not in recent months.
Have you seen/heard of Psycho-Pass? I don’t think it aspires to be the sort of art you predict may one day come from this genre (it was a project explicitly made to recapture some of that Ghost in the Shell “grittiness”), but I think you might find it an interesting place to “check in” and see where the genre’s leading. It was definitely created to be easily consumed, but I think it’s meatier than the general fare and pieces together some interesting philosophies to at least ask entertaining questions. If you do wind up checking it out, I’d recommend watching through ep. 11 before I’d say you’ll know for sure if it’s just not for you. 6-11 is just a pretty solid arc and a step above the earlier episodes, is all I’m sayin’.
Or, uh, don’t, obviously. I’m sure you get a lot of angry anime fans coming in here telling you to try stuff because their fave is the one that’ll change your mind. I just like to recommend things to people who I think might enjoy them.
I’ve not seen it, but I’ve actually been making a list of things to watch based on the recommendations in this comment thread. When I get more time, I’ll return to anime critique with a bit more emphasis on the animation, itself.
Thanks for the rec. Anything else that might have slipped fans by? The way you characterized Psycho-Pass hits more ‘art’ than the majority of fans are capable of articulating, irrespective of whether or not you’re correct in the assessment.
From what I remember of Psycho-Pass, it was a standard dystopian cyberpunk mystery work that started off with standalone contained episodes building up into a main arc with your stereotypical megalomaniac ‘genius’ villain. Basically, popcorn entertainment except that it loved to drop a lot of references to philosophers and other science fiction books to show off self-awareness without making it cohere into the narrative – as though pointing out the tropes and themes of other books similar to it would somehow justify its own cliches.
When I re-evaluate the medium from what I’ve watched, I don’t think any work clearly hits on greatness – but there are little peeks and hints here and there. Utena uses artifice and pretension with more potency than Eva, and it uses references to construct its own kind of universe, but at 50 episodes its definitely overlong and repetitive. The works of Isao Takahata are more mature and experimental than whatever Miyazaki did despite the latter being the more famous director from Ghibli. A Silent Voice had potential in the animation, and I was reminded of Koreeda at some moments, but it was weighed down by lots of adolescent angst. I would recommend Lain as well. I’ve heard good things about Texhnolyze, a cyberpunk show that is supposedly sparse in dialogue but tells it more through visuals, but I’ve never touched it. The works of Masaaki Yuasa are also interesting, visuals-wise more than content, because of how his characters can still function even without consistent human form.
You might have better luck with Manga – especially Daisuke Igarashi, who is something like a Van Gogh in comicbook form – but his art is usually more memorable than the narrative they’re attached to.
“From what I remember of Psycho-Pass, it was a standard dystopian cyberpunk mystery work that started off with standalone contained episodes building up into a main arc with your stereotypical megalomaniac ‘genius’ villain. Basically, popcorn entertainment except that it loved to drop a lot of references to philosophers and other science fiction books to show off self-awareness without making it cohere into the narrative – as though pointing out the tropes and themes of other books similar to it would somehow justify its own cliches.”
Hmm. I’m compelled to disagree, but not too much.
(1) Does Psycho-Pass amount to anything more than popcorn entertainment?
(2) Is the use of literary references simply to lampshade cliches and did these references actually cohere into a whole with the rest of Psycho-Pass?
(1) Short answer: I think it’s definitely more than popcorn entertainment, but no I don’t think it’s . I was more asking myself: “What goes further than Evangelion? What pushes the needle a little bit?” Just to find something interesting to watch in the medium that would further the discussion. And, well, I think Psycho-Pass meets that test. However, because Psycho-Pass is objectively most concerned with entertainment, it’s easy and reasonable to focus on just the trappings. Though, by doing so, I think you miss some interesting discussion.
Yes, I agree that first and foremost the prime directive of Psycho-Pass is entertainment. As such, it has a lot of trappings to keep people interested. E.g. the rivalry between Kogami and Makishima (to make the Death Note fans happy), the pervasive acts of cruelty (to make the crowd that automatically equates such “creative” violence with profundity happy).
(For anyone else reading, could potentially see the following as spoilers, though I do attempt to speak somewhat obliquely and discuss only underlying themes and not plot points. Just not sure how else to discuss something on the merits without actually, well, discussing it.)
I was actually ready to think it was only these elements, too. I think I actually started watching the show twice, originally—hence my kind of obnoxious recommendation to give it a few episodes.
It wasn’t until the very end of the arc with the guy with the Internet personalities (hereinafter “persona guy”) that I really started paying more attention. I think this arc actually presents some interesting ideas, which I was surprised to find in an anime, to be honest. Underneath the trappings, I think the show genuinely attempts to take part in a discussion about the theory of forms and Internet personas. Do persona guy’s actions actually further the purity of that form, as he suggests? Can the self behind the persona be neatly excised? Do others shape the form of the persona more than the self? This arc, while interesting, isn’t as strong as the other self-contained ones (e.g. the one set in the school), because I don’t think it goes too far beyond raising these questions. In addition, I think it needs some essential baselines about whether this form is static or can develop, while still staying itself. However, I would still argue that this amounts to more than just entertainment, and the next two arcs provide an even stronger case.
So, we have these self-contained arcs which I would argue all have similar discussions running underneath the trappings. I won’t bore you by outlining the rest of these. Then, as you summarized, these coalesce into a ongoing story line involving Makishima, who had been threading the previous arcs together. The question then becomes whether or not this devolves into a cheap Holmes-Moriarty narrative. Again, I’d argue no. It’s only at this point we see the narrative pan out to beyond the perspective of any given individual who attempts to subvert the system, and start to view the system as a whole. I don’t think I can realistically discuss this too much without actively ruining some parts of the narrative, but some interesting things Psycho-Pass provides in this part of the show:
– (the obvious one) the discussion of autonomy. Once you remember to take into consideration that this is a fully subsumed generation (Akane’s, I mean) in that they’re the first to grow up with the system, there are some valuable conclusions to draw here
– the discussion of judgment. To concretize this overbroad statement a bit, specifically I mean the correct placement of the judge within the system itself in order to arrive at the “best” outcome. Different viewpoints in Psycho-Pass address this problem and come to different conclusions based on how they define this (e.g. legal realism view, utilitarian-based social-welfare-maximizing view, legal positivism view). Eventually we wind up with a climax that focuses on 3 (or 4 if you include Sibyl) viewpoints on this take of the law.
All of this being said, again my argument is just that it’s worth seeing and it makes for an interesting “check in” point for the medium. It is a potentially valid interpretation that the prime entertainment directive has caused me to judge the quality of Psycho-Pass through a comparative lens and that I consider it an elevation simply because it goes beyond what it purports to be. I’d like to think it fits within the narrow constraints I’ve wrought for it here, but I can understand if you feel differently.
(2) Short answer: I don’t agree with you here that the literary references are merely self-congratulatory and that they don’t actually serve the narrative in a substantive way. YMMV on the philosophical references.
The most obvious literary reference here (one that isn’t explicitly mentioned in the show as its intent is obvious, though another work by Dick is mentioned), is Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report, given that the basic premise riffs on this. Given I view this as merely the setting and not the purpose, and I think the show goes plenty beyond the source material, this doesn’t bother me too much.
However, what you were likely referring to, is what people have come to amusingly refer to as “the Psycho-Pass reading list”: https://anime.stackexchange.com/questions/3119/is-there-a-complete-list-of-books-read-mentioned-seen-in-psycho-pass
I have to disagree with you here to some extent. As you mentioned, there are essentially two categories of works here: philosophical works and other fictional works (mostly sci-fi). With regards to the fictional works, I completely disagree. The only time I really saw one of these references as a cheeky wink to the audience and as a way to lampshade a trope is maybe with The Most Dangerous Game. Though, even then, the use of the source material in Psycho-Pass itself is facial at best, to be honest. Compare and contrast this to Lavinia and the schoolgirl. The conversation where the character discusses Lavinia isn’t at all a riff on Titus Andronicus. She plucks out a specific moment, a specific feeling, insomuch as it relates to her motivations, and I actually thought it fit quite nicely, even as someone who doesn’t care particularly about the source material. I see most of the literary references functioning in this way.
With regards to the philosophical references, YMMV, I think. Mentioning these works seems actually less egregious to me than cheekily sitting a philosophical work in the background of a scene where its topic is relevant. Actually, and here I see a reasonable place to disagree, the multitude of references reaches a point for me where it’s actually too egregious to be a sly wink and seems more like an acknowledgment of the foundations on which their discussions rest.
I don’t watch a ton of anime, but I’ll think about it and get back to you, if you’re still interested. I’d agree that you should consider some manga as well.
Chin, are you sure Utena is good? I watched the first episode after an almost 3 year anime hiatus and I found the characterization and dialogue to be pretty bad. From what I remember, Evangelion’s first episode was significantly better than this.
Just watched the 2nd episode of Utena. There are some cool ideas for symbolism but the actual writing, characterization, and dialogue are so dull that I can’t see how this show could become good. The Thin Red Line conveyed more in a few moments than these 2 episodes did in their entirety.
Edit: didn’t realize this comment form allowed for HTML, stupidly put “insert your art of choice here” in angled brackets where there’s a blank space in Short Answer 1.
I’ve just rewatched the show over the last few weeks and then reread this essay. I still think it’s a superb essay, even though I still don’t understand everything—and this is only in part because I had to look up a couple of words. This was actually the second essay I read on your blog (the first being your ripping Ritsumaya a new one ☺, which is how I found your site in the first place).
Thanks. Next year, I’ll try more anime reviews.
This was a nice read. I’m curious, how do you value plot? I know its merely a frame for the greater meaning, but do you value a plot with fewer holes, logical inconsistencies and conveniences as opposed to one riddled with contradictories (at least to a small extent)?
A plot without obvious holes and inconsistencies can be important, but it depends. Many works of art inherently depend on both impossible assumptions as well as a suspension of disbelief, even for realistic works of fiction. The trick is to make that suspension worth it, and- in expert hands- invisible. Think about the fact that Moby-Dick, while completely realistic, opens with a series of symbols, quietly builds pace by sketching out characters, puts the most wonderful philosophical expositions into the mouths of ordinary human beings, and has every little event ‘add up’ to something greater. This is obviously not how life works, but the reader does not notice. And, of course, bad writers can easily create plot-gaps because they have no way of avoiding them. Or they compound improbable event upon improbable event just to have a story- also a big no, unless you have a reason for it.
I’ve actually used the latter technique in a novel I just finished writing. I am creating a series of ever more unlikely events, but their genesis has an obvious purpose- namely, they (as well as their improbability) say something meaningful about the protagonist’s state of mind. In this way, a bad reader thinks this is laziness. A good reader will understand that I’m using, responding to, and even making fun of the technical flaws of bad artists without myself wallowing in them.
Random question, but do you think there is any language worth learning for the narrative arts? What languages besides English have the greatest number of great books, movies, poetry etc.?
They’re pretty well-distributed across major languages. Japanese is an obvious choice- great films, lots of great fiction. German is good (Rilke, Hesse, Nietzsche, and others). Russian, Spanish, although I don’t think much of French film or literature, generally. But, speaking as a bilingual person, your appreciation certainly is heightened by knowing a target language, but it’s not instrumental to get a lot out of art assuming you have good translations. Is Rilke better in German? Maybe, but he is damn great by way of Stephen Mitchell too.
What do you think of Chinese? Is their modern literary scene too primitive? I looked at a Chinese book database and it seems to be dominated by foreign translated books. https://book.douban.com/top250?icn=index-book250-all
I mean, if you have the willingness, ability, and time, learning Chinese isn’t a bad idea, for literature and for other reasons. That said, most Chinese films I’ve seen and a sampling of modern Chinese writing I’ve read have left me unimpressed. Who knows what’s really out there, though.
What dreadful prose this is.
Thanks for reading!
I have an announcement to make:
Ever since I published my essay on Ben Shapiro, as well as this essay on Neon Genesis Evangelion, I’ve had countless requests to start a political/arts show, or something similar. I’ve finally taken this advice, and am testing the waters with a YouTube channel, under the branding “Not Your Liberal”.
The channel will cover politics, the arts, science, and philosophy, with videos and debates ranging from a few minutes to well over an hour, depending on the topic and format. I’ll debunk talking points, as well as meatier and more substantive arguments, teach you how to correctly read a poem or evaluate a painting, introduce you to ideas you’ve not heard before, and- of course- frame and unfold arguments in unpredictable ways, as you’ve probably seen if you’ve read some of my other essays.
I just posted the first video- “Debunking Ben Shapiro’s Free Will,” covering a philosophical topic I am interested in but didn’t get a chance to talk about just yet. Still, you will find a nice political aside in that video, as well:
Please subscribe to the channel, and if you like the Shapiro video, click ‘Like’. I have an upcoming, much longer video debating the state of politics and culture, as well as videos on abortion, multiculturalism, film, animation, poetry, and race and IQ. I plan on doing a Marxist critique of anime, of all things- exciting stuff! I will tackle the Intellectual Dark Web in the near future, which is a pretty common request I get in e-mails.
I’ve also started a Patreon page so that I could potentially transition to writing and making videos full time. Even just $1 per month helps- the important thing, to me, is the number of loyal, interested, and responsive patrons that I have, and not necessarily what they’re able to contribute. Once I hit a certain number of supporters, I can start covering bigger and bolder ground:
Let me know if you guys are interested in this sort of content.
I have a few words for you. They’re not particularly nice or polite, but then again you–the image you project as ideal and worthy of projection–aren’t particularly nice or polite.
I am going to do this because your image is a shadow within me. You represent the hell to which I have sometimes traveled; you present the perfect self-conscious prison-cage in which I have occasionally spent years. I live in fear of that prison. Its cold bars loom before me if and when I am not careful.
You write with the utmost rationalism; your every sentence drips with the highest certainty of your method, your path, and the perfect admiration you have for your current rigid ideals. It reeks of stagnation. You are the like middle-aged, settled, cruel Newton with little of his natural, youthful, intuitive genius. You are the twisted academic deprived of a warm, human audience, and so you have determined to sit upon the high chair of artistic inquisitor and lash at those who masochistically allow you to.
The little truth that there is to be found in your writing owes itself to your essential and incorruptible human intuition — what little you have yet to strangle, board up, and trap within the confines of your own cancerous intellectual egoism.
Therein lies your mistake: you dress yourself with the invincible armor of the artistic analyst and policeman, and thus attempt to prevent the surfacing of that essential vulnerability and insufficiency which might otherwise tie you into some kind of social, pseudo-spiritual communion.
Your use of literary and philosophical allegory is abusive in the extreme. Your hatred of the masses is so developed and contradictory that in one breath you express the desire for the masses to have taste (for then you wouldn’t be alone), and in the next are prepared to cast anything the masses touch into the flames (for then, you wouldn’t be any better than them). You thus define yourself as the anti-person rather than an individual. It is to this horrible end that your intellectual egoism has brought you.
Where others see kernels of beauty–Shinji’s emerging from the LCL as the archetypal inversion of Camus’ “choice of suicide,” thus transformed from a passive choice (not to commit suicide) into an active one (to emerge from the LCL), you only see cliche. Where others see ‘what is,’ and are simply happy to happen upon a diamond now and then, you dream of ‘what might be,’ and spit on those content to sift for them among heaps of idle fun.
I do not believe in God but I will pray for you (that is, the simple dignity you have smothered within).
Really glad to see that you’re introspective- it’s not a quality most people have. So, let’s turn that introspection on, and probe a bit:
I wrote an article on NGE, and actually treated the show fairly. I went through the writing, the animation, the symbolism, and highlighted where and why most critiques fall short- that they are lazy, that they only look at a single dimension, and so on. My conclusion was that it’s an interesting work that points to anime having a place in whatever artistic synthesis emerges years down the line.
You read my critique, but were so emotionally wounded that you felt the need to be “impolite”. That’s the first red flag- that you’ve tried to work out your various issues over the years, but have only found a fresh set of problems that you’ve convinced yourself are not really problems in light of your past. That “self-conscious prison-cage” was what, exactly- you being trapped in your own head alongside these strictures? Because- I’m afraid to say- you’re still there. How could it be otherwise? You wrote EIGHT PARAGRAPHS of pure bitching, but not a single one addresses anything I’ve actually written, and does not raise any specific objections: just the vague stuff you’d expect from the emotionally wounded. Notice how I can’t even respond to your charges (“your use of literary allegory is abusive”) because you’re not referencing any line or argument. You wrote just enough for your own personal catharsis, but nothing else. There’s literally nothing to say here, pro or con, and one wonders if it’s yet another defense mechanism designed to keep yourself from additional hurt.
If you’d like to actually get out of your own head (and not merely convince yourself that you have), try to actually engage with the various stimuli that pain and/or offend you.
Also, not to be petty, but your own writing is just awful. I mean- it’s what a 16 year old thinks of as ‘poetic’ and ‘deep’. You employ cliches in every single line, you over-modify, etc., then complain when I talk about cliches? It’s absolutely nuts that you’re posturing as some ex-solipsist but limit your critique (to the extent that it even exists) to defend the very things that you, yourself, are guilty of.
I’m sorry that you see so much of yourself in the worst parts of NGE and feel the need to lash out, but I did not write this essay to cater to you or anybody else. And if you ever do get out of that “perfect self-conscious prison-cage”, you’ll know exactly what I mean.
Thanks for reading.