'Yaoi Fangirls' by inukagome134
Comics, Feminist/Gender Theory, LGBTQ, Manga, Pop Culture

Does ‘Boys Love/Yaoi’ Manga Have A Gender And Sexuality Problem?

‘Boys Love’ manga presents gay men for the pleasure of straight women – so why does it represent both so badly?

[Contains spoilers for ‘Ten Count’ and ‘Raising a Bat’.]

In hit anime series, Ouran High School Host Club, twin brothers Kaoru and Hikari always make sure to treat their female guests at the titular club to quite a show of “brotherly love”.

For viewers popping their proverbial anime cherry, these scenes must be a bit of a culture shock. For those more familiar, it translates as both serving and gently mocking the shounen-ai (‘boys love’ or BL) genre; fulfilling its target audience’s expectations whilst cheekily representing them as easily manipulated girls with nothing better to do than fawn over bishounen (‘beautiful men’).

As a life-long otaku with a soft spot for said beautiful fictional men, I can’t say that I don’t see a little of myself in the squealing guests of the Host Club and niether do I see anything wrong with it. The level of eye-rolling that follows the success of things like Magic Mike or Fifty Shades of Grey or any other cultural product that caters unabashedly to female sexuality is getting pretty tedious.

Haruka from Free! getting out a pool

I mean, Free! doesn’t exactly owe it’s success to the big cross-section of anime and professional swimming fans does it? Source: Giphy.

At the same time, I also know that BL is a genre unfortunately beset with complicated problems in the way it represents gender and sexuality.

The fact that the majority of BL stories are created and read by women binds the genre in both positive and negative baggage. On the negative side, far too many stories that occupy this particular genre of storytelling promote unhealthy and harmfully unrealistic depictions of gay men through a female heteronormative gaze. This is especially true of ‘yaoi’ stories, a sub-genre of shounen-ai that features more sexually explicit content, and one in which gay men are even more in danger of being objectified and fetishized by this gaze.

Kuroneko Kareshi no Aishikata

A page from popular BL manga, Kuroneko Kareshi no Aishikata, by Ayane Ukyou.

There’s also, I’ve noticed, a perpetual conflict between BL character’s sexuality being unfairly dominant in defining their personality, yet strangely absent in their lifestyles. Even the out and proud BL characters who are doggedly obsessive in their romantic pursuit of other men hardly ever self-define – verbally or otherwise – their own sexual preference by name. More to the point, I have yet to see one of these characters to go a gay club or Pride parade. Instead, they always seem totally isolated from their own community – a community that is notoriously familial, IRL. In these tiny, pocket universes dedicated to man-on-man action, the ‘G’ word seems either be taboo or redundant.

If we go with the latter description, you could argue there’s something progressive in enjoying romance stories without ‘seeing’ gender. As Lin-Manuel Miranda poetically put it: “Love is love is love is love,” after all. But, when we’re talking about BL, we know that’s simply not the case. It’s right there in the name after all: boys love. And since heterosexual love stories are still a dime a dozen, there’s a kind of voyeur curiosity for the straight consumer attached to ones told from an LGBTQ perspective.

Regular couple, yaoi couple, yuri couple. I see no difference, love is love.

I wouldn’t ever use the word ‘regular’ to distinguish between heterosexual and homosexual relationships, but the right sentiment is there all the same. Source: Pinterest.

In fact, that ‘exotic’ aspect of BL’s appeal is also part of its fans’ defence of it. After all, so much of romantic fiction – particularly erotica like yaoi – operates within a realm of fantasy so great that their realism may as well be discussed alongside the The Lord of The Rings books. And as more women prefer to read erotic fiction rather than watch porn, thinking of BL in this context grants it more leeway to cater to women’s depoliticised fantasies of gay men rather than how they really are. It’s not a full exoneration as such, more of ‘reasonable doubt’ defence.

BL certainly contains some questionable depictions of gay men, but perhaps equally troubling is its representation – or often lack there of – women. This is also particularly strange for a genre that is so female-focussed from inception to readership. The literary world is still dominated by men and the comic book industry is no exception. For this reason alone, the space carved out by women in the Japanese market for shojo and shounen-ai decades ago was downright pioneering. Just read this extract from Mark MacWilliams’, Japanese Visual Culture: Explorations in the World of Manga and Anime, for further proof:

“The production of Japanese comics has always revolved around men – male artists, editors, and publishers – and they reacted to yaoi comics with revulsion, which caused a sensation. The mass media criticised such stories as decadent and degenerate, using hyperbole to characterise these kinds of stories as a “violation” of manga. However, this issue of homosexuality also stimulated the industry creatively. Today, one can find many successful female artists and editors in Japan. The continuing popularity of yaoi comics also suggested that Japanese women are not shocked by gay themes.”

Knowing this revolutionary history of the genre, it seems surprisingly counter-intuitive that so many BL stories are so misogynistic in their tone and representation of women. Female creators too often either vastly underrepresent their own gender, or cast them as antagonistic forces standing in the way of ‘true’ male love. The latter of which I found to be a particularly troubling aspect while reading Takari Rihito’s Ten Count manga – one of the highest selling BL manga in Japan since 2014.

Ten Count covers

Cover art from volumes 1& 2 of Ten Count by Takari Rihito.

Ten Count could best be described as the yaoi market’s version of Fifty Shades of Grey, which would make shy and inexperienced protagonist ‘Shirotani Tadaomi’ [pictured right, above] its ‘Anastasia Steele’. Shirotani has been plagued by misophobia (a psychological fear of being contaminated by dirt) for almost his entire life, which also inadvertently suppressed the truth of his own sexuality. Suppressed that is, until he meets a tall, dark and handsome doctor named Kurose [pictured left, above], who just happens to specialise in treating psychosomatic illnesses, and vows to cure Shirotani.

So far so yaoi, until it is revealed through flashback that the root of all Shirotani’s ails was… guess what? A woman! A woman by the name of Ueda, who – when Shirotani was a little boy – drove a wedge between him and his father (her school professor) by pursuing a sexual relationship with him. On one particularly traumatising occasion, Ueda tricks Shirotani into hiding in a closet while she has sex with his father. On the cusp of puberty, Shirotani feels confusingly aroused and tries to ‘relieve’ himself, which is the exact moment that Ueda pretends to discover him:

Shamed by Ueda, Shirotani desperately washes himself over and over again, unable to feel properly ‘clean’ after what happened. Subliminally, he starts to conflate arousal with dirtiness, becoming obsessively paranoid of any foreign contact from the outside world – especially human.

Equally troubling later on is Kurose’s treatment of Ueda in the present day, when – upon a chance encounter with him and Shirotani – Ueda antagonises Shirotani into storming out of the trio’s lunch date, and then tries to fruitlessly hit on Kurose. Kurose’s reaction to this unwanted attention is, um, well see for yourself:

Pages from 'Ten Count'

Ouch.

Obviously Ueda is not a supposed to be a warm, sympathetic character in the slightest, and every melodrama needs its moustache-twirling villain… but is the slut-shaming really necessary? And why does the only female character in the entire story have to be characterised as a man-eating sociopath? Considering that gay and female culture often go together like PB and J, this hostile ‘battle of the sexes’ trope is yet another negative aspect of the genre that is weirdly inconsistent with reality.

Look, the truth is: I criticise because I care. Ten Count is a deliciously guilty pleasure to read, which is why this blemish on its otherwise stellar quality riled me so much. As a feminist and a fangirl, I want the media I love to do a better job at serving its fans, which is why I’m going to end on a more positive note.

Raising A Bat (Bagjwi Sayug) is a Korean webcomic (or ‘manhwa’) that puts a supernatural twist on the problematic ‘seme‘/’uke‘ (dominant/submissive) relationship dynamic that most BL falls into. ‘Park Min Gyeom’ [pictured left, below] suffers from a rare blood disease called hemochromatosis, meaning his blood absorbs too much iron forcing him to regularly donate to keep healthy. This condition makes him the perfect source of food for his classmate, ‘Kim Chun Sam’ [pictured right, below] – a half-vampire. I guess you could call it the BL answer to Twilight. Interestingly, mangaka (creator) “Jade” refuses to let their dynamic fall into the standard ‘prey/predator’ one that you’d expect. Human Min Gyeom is in fact the one who calls the shots, deciding when and where vampire Chun Sam is allowed to feed off him, while Chun Sam – the burlier of the pair – falls into a more submissive role, visually evidenced by the cover art:

Cover art from 'Raising a Bat'

Cover art for Raising a Bat by “Jade”.

Abused and abandoned by his father, Min Gyeom has had to grow up far too quickly with his younger half-sister being his only source of genuine affection. He’s guarded, plucky and full of self-loathing. Chun Sam, on the other hand, was born to a rich and loving vampire/human family and babied by a watchful mother (who also served as his food source [insert Freudian analysis here]). He’s sensitive, naïve and painfully shy. Things get even more complicated when the two start to develop romantic feelings for each other, with their emotional baggage blocking them from being able to healthily express this.

Not only does Raising a Bat manage to subvert the troubling seme/uke trope in an unexpected way, it features a cast of positively represented women in supporting roles, and even a self-defining bisexual male character (Jung Won Hyung) whom Min Gyeom pursues a dysfunctional relationship with. Even better, when Jung Won betrays Min Gyeom’s trust by ‘forgetting’ to tell him he has a girlfriend on the side, “Jade” is clear in placing the blame squarely on Jung Won rather than make an enemy out of his girlfriend.

Page from 'Raising a Bat'

Uh-oh…

The drama all comes to a head when – homeless, rejected and hopelessly alone – Min Gyeom considers ending his life. Self-harm and suicide are also reoccurring themes in BL stories, often in the damaging context of glamourising abusive relationships. Yet, the strong writing and starkly minimalistic artwork of Raising a Bat make this moment one of real grit rather than cheap shock value. Especially when you take into account that suicide attempts are 4-6 times higher in LGBTQ youth than they are in straight youth, and 8 times higher in LGBTQ youth who come from “rejecting” families – as Min Gyeom does.

Min Gyeom's descent into depression is captured beautifully in his expressions.

“Jade” captures Min Gyeom’s descent into depression beautifully through his subtle changes of expression.

BL can be smutty, endearing, funny, poignant, trashy and fun. What it shouldn’t be is offensive, harmful or insulting to its subject matter or audience. Raising a Bat goes some way in raising the bar on what we should expect from BL, but there’s still a lot more ground to cover yet.


Header image by inukagome134.
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sacred blacksmith manga anime review gender sex seinen japan woman female cecily campbell
Anime, Feminist/Gender Theory, Manga, Pop Culture

“You’d Better Become Aware That You’re Just a Woman”: Your New Favourite Feminist Manga.

Originally posted on the Cosmic Anvil Recommends blog. 


The Sacred Blacksmith or Seiken no Burakkusumisu is a fantastical story about knights, demons, medieval melodrama, magical swords, and reincarnation. At its core, however, it is essentially a story about a young woman asserting herself in a man’s world. In light of this it might be surprising to learn that the manga’s key demographic in Japan is the ‘Seinen’ audience – young to middle-aged men. Seinen stories are primarily characterised by soft-core sexual content and a female protagonist, but rather than rely solely on the usual fan service to satisfy male readers (panty shots, accidental nudity, nosebleeds, etc.) Sacred Blacksmith uses its genre trappings to instead highlight the causes and consequences of sexual violence with chilling realism, and handles it better than most live-action representations I’ve seen.

The Sacred Blacksmith began life as light novel series by Isao Miura with illustrations by Luna. The manga adaptation by Kotaro Yamada has been serialised in Monthly Comic Book Alive since 2009, and the (criminally short) 12-episode anime from Manglobe also aired in 2009. It’s hero is Cecily Campbell, a young woman who dreams of becoming a great knight like her Father. The problem is… Cecily doesn’t have a clue how to be a knight. In fact, she’s pretty useless at it. That is, until she teams up with Aria – a formidable spiritual sword who can take the form of a human – and Luke Ainsworth, a grumpy and isolated master Blacksmith who is attempting to forge a sword powerful enough to take out the evil presence that plagues the medieval world they live in. Aria quickly becomes Cecily’s ally and best friend, but Luke takes a lot more convincing. This is not because Luke has any prejudice against women (evidenced by his female assistant, Lisa) but simply because he finds Cecily’s incompetence really annoying.

sacred blacksmith manga anime review gender sex seinen japan woman female cecily campbell

Cecily getting on Luke’s last nerve.

Cecily, however, is unrelentingly ambitious, and slowly manages to become better and better at wielding Aria, and far more confident in battle. Luke finds that as their paths continuously cross, and Lisa and Aria conspire to push the two together, he begins to see past his initial impression of Cecily as a bumbling idiot and instead as a valuable ally and equal. These feelings predictably intensify into more romantic ones, but as Luke seems unsure if Cecily returns these feelings, he remains at a respectful distance from her… for now, anyway.

sacred blacksmith manga anime review gender sex seinen japan woman female cecily campbell

Shall we dance..?

Cecily and Luke’s tentative and courteous relationship throughout the story is put into stark contrast with Cecily’s encounters with the villain of the story – Siegfried. Siegfried is your standard ‘insert-villain-here’ kind of villain: power-hungry, ruthless, and very, very creepy. This creepiness doesn’t take long to become predatory, culminating in one of the most shocking moments I’ve ever come across in my years of reading comics and manga.

It comes after Cecily manages to claim a significant victory over Siegfried, and he – humiliated – physically and sexually assaults her when she is alone and off-guard. His intention is to not only humiliate her in the way she did him, but to demonstrate both his power over her as an enemy and, more importantly, as a man over a woman. He doesn’t even need to actually carry out the ‘act’ fully because the implication is enough, and the implication is that it would certainly not be a sexual act rooted in lust, but a violent one rooted in sadism. The ordeal is quite honestly extremely difficult to read – as you would expect it to be – but perhaps equally heart breaking is seeing the effect it has on Cecily, who is utterly psychologically destroyed by it.

sacred blacksmith manga anime review gender sex seinen japan woman female cecily campbell

Cecily in turmoil after the assault.

This internal collapse is physically represented – and powerfully visualised – by Cecily shutting herself away in bed at home, curled up under the covers with the curtains drawn, closed off to all of her friends and family. Aria tries to console her, but gets nowhere. Cecily seems to suffer in silence for many painful weeks. It is unclear if Siegfried’s actions are unique to his cruel character, or symptomatic of a larger culture of sexual violence in that world, but either way, the effect on Cecily would be the same. In a manga that had been fairly sweet natured up until this point, the gritty brutality of this arc was rendered all the more shocking to me, but I was also impressed at the balance of realism, brutality, and delicacy that Yomada conveyed through art and text, and all the more endeared to Cecily. I was reminded of a scene in the film G.I Jane (1997) which told the story of Jordan O’Neil – the first woman to go through a male-exclusive Navy Seal training programme, the toughest in the world. In the scene, the harsh reality of being prisoners of war is demonstrated to the new recruits, and to their horror, Master Chief Urgayle graphically simulates raping O’Neil to coldly remind them that sexual abuse is used as torture in war. Broadly speaking, he is also reminding O’Neil that she really is a woman in a man’s world, and could be taken advantage of in ways that her male peers probably wouldn’t. The only difference between G.I Jane and Sacred Blacksmith is that O’Neil’s abuse was simulated, but Cecily’s was all too real.

sacred blacksmith manga anime review gender sex seinen japan woman female cecily campbell

G.I Jane – the cold reality for women on the battlefield?

My expectation in Sacred Blacksmith was that Cecily would eventually confide in Luke leaving him to enact revenge on Siegfried as the resident valiant ‘Prince Charming’, but I was glad when this expectation turned out to be completely wrong. Instead – as you would hope from a self-motivated woman of action – Cecily manages to not only come to terms with the ordeal, but faces down Siegfried again with Aria in hand. Luke does aid her in doing this and there is an implication that he has some idea of what may have happened, but I don’t think this detracts from the significance of Cecily standing up to her attacker and finding strength as a survivor rather than continue to feel defeated as a victim. In fact, when Luke steps in to confront Siegfried alongside Cecily, he does so not as Cecily’s protector or superior, but as her friend and ally outraged on her behalf.

sacred blacksmith manga anime review gender sex seinen japan woman female cecily campbell

Luke has had enough of this shit.

The ‘woman in a man’s world’ trope maybe a well worn one, as is the ‘clumsy girl who learns strength through fighting’ one. And although Sacred Blacksmith doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel, it is ultimately Cecily Campbell’s inner strength that pulls her through one of the toughest ordeals a woman can face, and handled with the appropriate mix of shock, brutality, and sensitivity through the beautifully drawn art. And don’t forget – this is all in a story aimed at young men.


@SpannerX23 on Twitter.

By night, Hannah is a geeky feminist blogger, but by day she is a freelance artist who specialises in unconventional and unique illustrations. Check out her website here to see her portfolio.

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Pop Culture, Sci-Fi, Visual Cultural Theory

Godzilla vs. MUTO vs. Humanity: Who are the real monsters?

 SPOILERS AHEAD.

Ye have been warned.

 godzilla-poster-2

I love the Fantasy genre and I love the Sci-Fi genre.

But….Sci-Fi holds a special place in my heart. This isn’t because I think it is inherently better than Fantasy, it’s a personal opinion. A personal opinion that I think stems from the general but fundamental difference between them: Fantasy is usually rooted in the past – in pre-technological worlds than are either alternate or parallel to our own. Sci-Fi is rooted in the present or future with a heavy preoccupation on technology and the quasi-scientific grounding of the seemingly impossible. Both are fuelled by highly creative imaginations. But Sci-Fi, which endeavours to predict or forewarn the future, for reasons I can’t explain, captures my imagination far more, and lends itself to highly conceptual and deeply philosophical human quandaries far better than Fantasy seem to.

(Again, this is my opinion. I like The Lord of The Rings and I like The Matrix trilogy. It’s just my genre-bias makes me predisposed to like The Matrix a little bit more even though I concede that LOTR is a more solid film trilogy.)

250px-Godzilla_1984

WmFVQei

Godzilla is an icon of cinema in the same way that Marilyn Monroe and Mickey Mouse are. You don’t have to have seen any of the films that they appear in to recognise them instantly or know something of their origins. Unlike the latter two, Godzilla is seen also as a Sci-Fi icon. That being said, there are certainly touches of the Fantastical about him – the monstrous, ancient, and the mythic. Indeed, the films of his franchise are so old and loved that they have passed into pop cultural lore – the modern equivalent of myth and legend. Gareth Edwards’ latest reboot understands this, which is one the reasons I enjoyed it so much. The title sequence plays ingeniously with both the footage of the 1954 original version (Gojira) and the true events that it was inspired by – the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 as well as other subsequent nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific Ocean in the 1950s – and skews them with added SFX to present a ‘real’ covered-up version of events to provide the set-up for the new film.

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Despite this, upon discussing the 2014 version with someone recently I hesitated before describing it as Sci-Fi, which caused me to wonder why. On paper, it seems to tick all the right boxes – giant monsters fuelled by radiation, humanity’s impending destruction, questioning human arrogance etc., etc. However, on closer inspection it is not in fact very ‘high’ Sci-Fi – and I don’t mean that as a criticism. As I stated earlier, an almost self-defining rule of Sci-Fi is preponderance on technology – normally futuristic – but the raison d’être of this film seems to be the obliteration or redundancy of technology.

‘It’s going to send us back to the Stone Age!’ Bryan Cranston’s character shouts at us.

This seems to widen the story out from pure Sci-Fi into the broadly Fantastical, which is perhaps refreshing given that blockbusters still seem so rigidly intent on remaining ‘in genre’ these days.

The general plot centres on primordial forces that have been wrongly resurrected out of their own allotted time period and inadvertently (I’ll go into my use of that word later) threatening to destroy hundreds of years worth of careful and daring human technological progress in the blink of an eye…or the crash of a giant moth-leg. All of our current most powerful weaponry – which is nuclear based – is quite literally food for continued devastation. We are rendered powerless by the sheer size and brute force of these creatures. These are creatures which predate us, and it seems that the reverence and fear of the ancient – for all of our modern innovations – stills holds powerful sway over us, both for the version of us on-screen, and as members of the audience.

Godzilla

Another interesting debate I found myself having with someone about the film was the overall message of it. Now, without seeing the original Japanese Gojira you might think of the franchise that it spawned as not taking itself all that seriously. And with titles like Godzilla vs. King King, Son of Godzilla and Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla I wouldn’t really blame you. As I mentioned earlier, the original was in fact an allegory for Japan to convey the terror of the traumatic and horrific nuclear weapons assault in 1945 without fear of censorship post-WWII. It is a surprisingly poignant and thought-provoking watch with very sympathetic and believable human characters at its centre, and I would highly recommend you watch it if you liked the 2014 reboot, which has clearly chosen respectfully to carry the essence of the original through into its own new storyline.

Godzilla-Alternative-Movie-Posters-2

 

ultraman_godzilla_kaiju_posters_3

Having said that, it is also careful not to ignore the other integral components of the franchise as a whole, which – however ridiculous – have become part of the monster’s enduring lore. Those components being all those bizarre and laughable sounding titles I mentioned. As much as fans of Godzilla love and respect the serious anti-nuclear message of his origins, we also really love seeing him beat the crap out of other monsters. In Gareth Edwards’ version, his monstrous nemeses take the form of a male and female MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Object). Fans will undoubtedly spot the resemblance between the MUTO and Mothra (or Kaiju) a recurring Godzilla foe who is basically a giant Moth from the Amazon. (Godzilla’s design, incidentally, is a combination of a Gorilla and a Lizard.) This is a both a strength and weakness of the film. I knew this version would be big and loud, and so I chose to see it on the most appropriate screen possible – at the BFI IMAX in London (boasted as the biggest in Europe, the slightly nervous announcer told the audience before the film started). It didn’t disappoint on either of these fronts. It was most certainly big and most certainly LOUD. So much so, that the one and only time I flinched (as the 3D did bugger all to do that, as usual) was when Godzilla first opened his mouth and let out that iconic battle cry.

With not one but three giant monsters on offer you would expect to be shrinking down in your cushioned cinema seat frequently. However, I have to say that even though I thoroughly enjoyed the film and was impressed by the look and feel of it, I never felt threatened. This is a significant weakness for a film that has one giant Lizard foot quite clearly placed in the apocalyptic genre of storytelling, and with large parts of Hawaii and San Francisco being spectacularly eradicated. Trying to determine the cause of this, my explanation came down to the simple fact that none of these creatures were specifically targeting humans for attack – they were targeting each other. The wanton chaos that ensued around them came from them merely stomping around and, well, being very big whilst doing it. The MUTO prey on nuclear weaponry, not the blood of the innocent, and Godzilla in turn preys on the MUTO. Humans are merely accidental casualties of their sparring.

godzilla-japanese-poster2

So what is the message of this reboot? Why does Godzilla target the MUTO? Who are the real monsters?

Godzilla began as a metaphor. Then he became a myth. Myths survive by their continual retelling and also their continual re-contextualising. Slowly, they are twisted and adapted to suit whichever zeitgeist they have been passed into. Today, the analogy of Godzilla I’ve heard seems to be that of a ‘tragic hero.’ He seems far more rooted in the myth of the lone Samurai warrior than atomic arms. There is certainly a sense of unsung nobility about him in the 2014 version that seems almost more human than the human characters themselves. It seems stupid to say it, but the real star of Godzilla is Godzilla himself. Towards the climax, this is brought out by paralleling his actions with those of the titular human character played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson. As he falls, so does Godzilla. As he battles, so does Godzilla. United by a common enemy. There is a lovely moment when they both seem to stare into one another’s eyes and an unspoken understanding of the other seems to form. In the climactic end to the battle, it is left open as to whether Godzilla purposefully saves Taylor-Johnson’s character and his mission or whether his intervention (and WHAT an intervention it is) is coincidental. Godzilla, for all his monstrous qualities, is extremely likeable. Perhaps it is his slightly chubby stature, his T-Rex-like arms, his lumbering movement, or his amazing RAWRRR, but he somehow emits a surprisingly empathetic personality. Like Frankenstein’s monster, he is a beast we can connect with. I suppose that seals him as a true Sci-Fi icon.

godzilla-sxsw-mondo-poster

If Godzilla is the hero of the story, then that surely make the MUTO the villain, right? Well, let’s examine their villainous credentials: They do look big and scary. Their insect-like appearance makes us predisposed to dislike them the way we are predisposed to dislike spiders and other creepy-crawlies. Their origins are that they lay dormant underground until our deep mining disturbed them. First a male, and then a much larger, female emerged. When we found that they could not be destroyed, we instead tried to contain one of them, feeding it nuclear energy until it let out an electromagnetic pulse (or EMP) wiping out all electronic devices within its radius, which enabled it to escape. It then began hunting first for nuclear devices to consume – in Russian submarines, for example – and then its female mate to reproduce with.

godzillavskingghidorah

Let’s recap: humans wake up two ancient hibernating animals who then fly off, eat stuff, and then have freaky bug sex. True, they cause a lot of inadvertent damage to human cities, but that’s the key word here – inadvertent. They are animals. They are nature. As an advanced species, we have for quite some time considered ourselves to be separate and even above the rest of the natural world. Our consciousnesses’ have long since outgrown our constricting flesh. In this separation, we increasingly see nature as either an enemy or an alien entity by default. We live artificially dependant lives. Yet as I mentioned earlier, the mystery of the natural and the ancient still inspires us with both fear and wonder. The MUTO are not villainous because they are out to kill us (intentionally, anyway); they are villainous simply for existing in our world.

gojira_poster

 

Polish Poster

Ken Watanabe’s character – the scientist tasked with studying and destroying the MUTO – is instrumental in feeding us these ideas. At one point, he tells the military commander guy (I can’t remember his name…) that Godzilla is supposed to restore ‘balance’ and perhaps rather than fighting him or the MUTO, we should simply stand back and let them slug it out as they are intended to do so. There are multiple ways to read this as I was debating with the friend I previously mentioned. You could see the message being simply that humans shouldn’t meddle in nature and are being punished for doing so; a theme that runs right through Sci-Fi from Frankenstein and further back than that to the story of Prometheus, from which Frankenstein takes his subheading. My friend’s view was that the message was more complicated than that: we – humanity – are the implied imbalance to be re-balanced, and perhaps that Godzilla was targeting the wrong enemy. If the MUTO were here first, she argued, then they can’t be the imbalance. My own reading was that the imbalance had been caused by the MUTO surviving beyond their own time period – a time when the Earth was still radioactive, as Watanabe’s character explains. Cranston’s line about being ‘sent back to the Stone Age’ also echoes the idea of timelines being misaligned. The MUTO are also referred to as ‘parasites,’ which has inherent negativity, and also backs up the idea that they should no longer exist as the environment that sustained them no longer exists. Certainly, our creation of nuclear devices also contributes to the imbalance that has enabled them to continue to feed and breed. Godzilla seems to have magically awakened to fix our mistake.

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You could go so far as to argue that a comparably neutral force scooping up the world’s nukes might not be such a bad thing, too. It might have even been the answer to a lot of long-lying global political problems.

In the tradition of great Sci-Fi, Godzilla asks ‘Who are the real monsters?’ and then turns a mirror slyly towards the audience. Human progress is continually scrutinised as arrogant, destructive, but always necessary in our constant pursuit to speed up evolution. For reasons that are never made clear, Godzilla fights – on this occasion – for us. A champion we did not nominate, or call upon, nor could we find a way to thank in the end. As much as nature threatens and baffles us, it seems to have our back too, whether we deserve it or not.

Thanks for reading! I hope you’ve also enjoyed the classic Godzilla posters I chose for this post 🙂 I love great movie poster art, and Godzilla has inspired some of the best.

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Anime, Pop Culture, Visual Cultural Theory

Anime and Cartoons: East vs. West

So, this is all started when I tried to find a DVD of the brilliant but sadly forgotten anime series The Big O. I say ‘tried’ because to my surprise I discovered that not only were there barely any copies up for sale on both eBay and Amazon, but the asking prices ranged from £35 – 70…for two measly series’. I hadn’t encountered this much trouble finding an anime series on DVD since my fruitless hunt for Neon Genesis Evangelion last year (which was even more distressing – yes, distressing. Point of interest: the Evangelion manga is actually far easier to buy – and makes a heck more sense than the show. You can even get these handy 3-in-1 volumes, which I’ve been collecting, that also include neat stuff like full colour art pages and bizarre interviews with the writer and voice actors…if you’re an Evangelion junkie, I can’t recommend them enough.)

I did have some idea beforehand that Big O was a bit of a cult series, but the fact that the DVDs were so rare piqued my interest, so I had a nose around the show’s Wikipedia page (when in doubt…Wiki it) and found that the critical response to the show was sort of like…Marmite. Some people (like me) thought it was slick and clever with some pretty awesome mecha fight scenes, but others found it far too derivative. One guy from IGN said it seemed like

“the creators had watched The Matrix and The Truman Show one too many times.”

Yeah, I can see that. Most interestingly, however, was the fact that the show did very poorly in Japan, but was largely received positively in the West by the three people that actually watched it.

There isn’t really much reason given as to why that is online, but from what I remember of the show I could hazard a guess at why. The first thing I – and probably many other viewers – noticed when watching Big O is how similar the animation style is to Bruce Timm’s Batman: The Animated Series of the 90s, a show which took its artistic cues from film Noir of the 30s and 40s, as well Art Deco of the 20s.

Batman

In fact, the similarities between these shows are so similar, it’s about as hard to not notice them as it would be as hard not to notice you were being wacked in the face by a giant robotic arm coming out of the TV screen. Not only is this true of the animation style, but the entire colour palette, design, atmosphere and characterisation draw parallels: Big O’s protagonist – the dashing Roger Smith – is pretty much Bruce Wayne, but with a giant mecha suit instead of a human-sized Bat-themed one. He even has a British butler, for Christ’s sake.

This leads me on to another obviously Western influence – the names of the characters. Roger Smith, Dorothy Wayneright, Norman Burg… the list goes on. Of course, this is not a unique trait to Big O. Full Metal Alchemist, Attack on Titan, D-Gray Man, Hellsing and a tonne of other anime have used Western names for their characters and also are clearly set in Western countries (the most popular being America, the UK, Germany and France.) However, all of the shows I just mentioned differ from Big O in that they have all been critically and commercially successful in their home country – Japan. Why? Well, the only difference I can see is again in the animation style – the other shows I just mentioned all look like Japanese home-grown anime, whereas Big O has the paw-prints of foreign influences (Bruce Timm’s Batman) all over it.

Anime, after all, seems quite strict in its self-classification. It’s kind of like a tin of baked beans: instantly recognisable from the label, and you know exactly what you’re getting in the inside (I can’t believe I just equated anime to baked beans…is that really the best analogy I can come up with? ) Even if you’ve never consciously sat down (or stood up, you can watch things how you like…) and watched any anime since Pokémon when you were 10 years old, I bet if I showed you a picture of any anime character you would most likely be able to say that the drawing style was certainly not Western. In fact, a perfect example of this is the hugely popular (and deservedly so) cartoon series Avatar: The Last Airbender and its sequel Korra (which is currently airing as I write this.) This show is CONSTANTLY being misclassified as anime due to the obvious Eastern influences on its style and over-arching themes, when in fact both of its creators are American and the show’s network is Nickelodeon. (It looks like anime, it smells like anime, but it just ain’t anime. I will tell you why in a bit…)

This is not to say that all anime looks exactly the same though. In a similar way that different fine artists and film directors have individual and identifiable styles, anime (and manga) artists have different styles that suit different types of anime. Some shows that have stuck in my mind over the years for their outstanding and unique artwork include Soul Eater, Ghost in the Shell, One Piece, Blood Lad, Samurai Shamploo and K. Different anime studios also have a collective ‘house’ style, just like Western ones. Production I.G, which is famous for producing some of the best anime series’ and films in recent years, can be easily recognised by its super crisp and almost impossibly detailed digital rendering, not to mention its ethereal use of light and colour in post-production. Of course, the most recognisable ‘house’ style of all the Japanese studios has to be Ghibli, which has been hailed as the Disney of the East (although I think it equates better with Pixar. No offence Disney.). Ghibli’s style is probably the most Westernised of all come to think of it, yet its popularity in Japan – and internationally – cannot be overstated. It seems to be a troublesome anomaly in the context of what I’m talking about, but hey, exceptions prove the rule, right? (The answer is yes.)

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All of this is not really about me accusing Japanese anime creators or fans of being closed-minded or even xenophobic, but more to do with what I mentioned earlier: the strict parameters of the medium itself. A strictness that I consider largely self-imposed. Last year when I managed to wrangle critical anime texts into my dissertation research I read one Film Professor’s (his name escapes me now) definition of anime as an animation style that can only be produced in Japan (discounting the fact the much of the more menial production work in modern anime is actually done in South Korea, but never mind…) This definition certainly gives credence to my theory as to why heavily Westernised shows such as Big O get such a lukewarm reception in their home country.

So, is there a problem with a cultural medium being so insular?

Well, let me get one thing straight first: as a Western fan, the things that first attracted and fascinated me about anime were their distinctively Japanese qualities – not just stylistically, but in terms of cultural in-jokes, references and stereotypes. They feel – without meaning to sound patronising or tourist-y – like a tiny window into an exotically different cultural landscape to my own as told right from the mouths and pens of its inhabitants. There’s a reason why there is no such thing as a ‘casual’ anime fan in the West. The fans (or ‘Otaku’ as the Japanese call them, a derogatory term similar to the American ‘geek’ or ‘nerd’ meaning someone who is obsessed with manga or anime) put the fan into fanatical. And speaking as one of them, I can tell you that I reckon this is firstly because of the medium’s unmistakable uniqueness, and secondly because – as an outsider – you really have to commit yourself to watch it to actually understand all of the…well, Japanese-ness.

I’ll give you an example: when a character (usually male) is aroused (usually at the sight of a female character’s skirt being blown up by a convenient blast of wind…trust me, this happens more than you’d think) they have a nosebleed. This is because of a Japanese ‘belief’ that having a nosebleed is linked to sexual arousal.

Anime Nosebleeds

Here’s another example: you know how we in the UK and US (and possibly in other Western countries) have the phrase ‘my ears are burning’ when we think someone is talking about us somewhere? Well, in Japan, this is signified instead by a single, random sneeze. Without translation notes (which some subbers helpfully provide) these little quirks are lost on us Westerners, as it would be vice versa for a Japanese audience watching some Western shows. Visually, anime has its own language that you have to learn as well: sometimes characters will shrink into ‘chibi’ mode, and sometimes thoughts that are visualised and become mingled with reality, and another character can see what the other one is thinking and interact with that ‘thought.’ Yeah. There are a lot of quirks to get accustomed to, but it’s all part of the charm.

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Going back to the mention of subbing though (or subtitling) – this opens up another kettle of fish for the Western Otaku. As I’m sure anyone who has ever tried directly inputting Japanese into Google translate has discovered there can be some hilariously terrible consequences of mistranslation in fan subs. Of course, I completely recommend purchasing official releases on DVD for professionally done subs (and to support the creators of the shows), however, as any seasoned fan will know, these English releases are too few and far between. (Not to mention overpriced…£16 for 4 episodes of Vampire Knight? I don’t think so HMV.) Only the most popular shows will get a Western release, and usually quite a bit longer after their Japanese release. Remember how you would have to wait, like, a whole YEAR for the next Pokémon game to come out after its Japanese release? Well, anime still feels like that for me. Even worse, the only anime that is shown on TV (that I can find) has had American dubbing wacked onto it – which can sound HORRIBLE (cases in point: Ceil Phantomhive in the dubbing of Black Butler and Sakura Kinomoto in Cardcaptors. Awful. Just…ugh.)

Saying that the American intro is just too catchy to be forgotten…

Even worse than this, anyone who has ever watched the American production company 4Kids ‘interpretations’ of anime such as Yu-Gi-Oh! and One Piece and then compared them with their Japanese originals will know just how heavily censored and fiddled with they are. (Cardcaptors is another good example of this, as I explored in my Tumblr blog – An LGBT Guide to Anime – in which 4Kids carefully cuts out every scene where it is evident that Sakura’s older brother has the hots for his male best friend. This results in one episode only being half as long as the rest, and so they have to fill time with flashbacks to the previous episodes. Really 4Kids? You think that two guys holding hands is a worse message to kids than a preteen girl sneaking out of her room every night to supposedly fight magical monsters and lie to her friends and family about it every day?)

TOUYA_AND_YUKI_motivator_by_purpletiger

This issue of censorship also makes the intolerance two-fold: just as Japanese audiences have little taste for Westernised shows; there are plenty of elements of Japanese shows that Western companies such as 4Kids deem unpalatable for their audiences. I have often been dismayed at the Western cultural practice of snubbing anything animated as being ‘just for kids.’ Now that I’m in my 20s * shudder * I have to admit that I’ve started wondering if I am just too old to be watching stuff like this. But then I remember that in Japan, most of the shows I watch are not aimed exclusively at kids – anime is a billion dollar (or yen, I should say) industry with a firm cultural foothold in the country’s heritage. Anime and manga are serious business and lots of it has some serious content – and by that I mean adult with a capital ‘A’. Anyone who has ever seen Ghost in the Shell, Neon Genesis Evangelion or Akira will know what I mean. Even more ‘kid-friendly’ shows such as Bleach have a fair amount of blood spurting around the place.

Aizen_cuts_down_Komamura

I suppose from Japan’s standpoint there’s also the argument that – as such moneymaking behemoth – why should this localised medium bother to try harder to extend its reach globally? And how could any foreign shows possibly compete against such overwhelming competition? With such a comparatively small international market there just doesn’t seem to be enough reason for most anime production companies to make that extra effort to cater to fans beyond the East. Or even just beyond Japan.

I think it’s about time I summed all this up. To begin with, I talked about how The Big O was not widely accepted in its home country seemingly due to its heavy use of Western influences; similarly, despite its popularity increasing from the mid-1990s to now, anime as a whole still enjoys only cult fan status in most of the West. As a Western fan, I find this a great shame – largely because of the availability issues I mentioned earlier, and also because I really feel that anime as a distinctive and imaginative creative medium is massively underrated in our mainstream visual cultural landscape. Though, perhaps I am just seeing it through the rose-tinted glasses of a foreigner…

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Let’s end things on a good note though. The existence of shows such as The Big O and Avatar: The Last Airbender and its sequel Korra, prove that cultural ‘borrowing’ from the West to the East and vice versa are not only possible, but produce some brilliant results. In fact some of your favourite American cartoons over the years may be a bit more Japanese than you realised: ever seen Totally Spies, Batman: Gotham Knight, The Matrix: Animated, Ben 10 or Teen Titans? All were heavily anime influenced. (In fact, Teen Titans creator Glen Murakami was so conscious of this that he purposefully picked Japanese pop (or J-pop) band Puffy Ami Yumi to do the show’s opening theme song – in both English and Japanese.) So perhaps the way forward is more of a cocktail, rather than a straight spirit. Yes, more food analogies…

(What do you mean Totally Spies was not one of your favourite cartoons? They have lipsticks disguised as lasers! What’s not to love??)

Anime and Cartoons: East vs. West

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