Saturday, September 6, 2014

Review: Bakuman volumes 14-15

In volume 14 Bakuman. has blundered further into what always has been nefarious territory for the underdog shounen sports ilk: what happens if the protagonist in the question is no longer an underdog? Bakuman. has so far handled the duo's rivals well, with the right touches of comic and human, making them the actual interesting characters in the series, more so than Takagi and Mashiro. But then it decides to introduce a true villain, new mangaka Nanamine who has a strange creative process. He culls opinions from the Internet to determine the plot of his manga, a "dark," barely suitable for Jump, fearsome project.

The problems this little twist reveals of Bakuman. are myriads. First of all, Bakuman. has never been halfway decent with its manga within the manga, and has largely avoided showing this fault by offering very quick peeks. The problem is that the some-fifteen pages provided for Nanamine's new manga are painfully mediocre: there's clumsy exposition and rushed pacing and exaggerated expressions almost right out of 80s shoujo manga. (There is also the matter of conflating attractiveness with moral integrity, but perhaps that's only par for the course.) These pages supposedly demonstrate Nanamine's talents and intelligence--his only saving grace from the egomaniac he proves to be in later chapters--but if this is Bakuman.'s showing not telling, I'd rather it just tells.

The second problem this development makes devastatingly clear is that Bakuman. has said very little of value about manga and about writing, despite being a manga about manga. It has paid lip service to perseverance and creativity, to be sure, but it falters in harrier conversations like the validity of writing by committee and really, I mean really, challenging the publishers. If I have it right, in fact, the major conflict has been the mangaka wanting to work themselves to death and the editors not enabling that behavior. Anyway, both Ashirogi and the writing team of Bakuman. itself are two-person collaborations, plus some odd assistants, but what of constructing the plot by consulting with 50 different egos with a shaky driver seat? The project falls apart. Bakuman. makes it clear that the collaboration has been able to yield positive results, but is the idea inherently self-destructive, or is it Nanamine's own failing? It seems curious that by-committee creative process comes into so much scrutiny considering doujinshi's long tradition of writing circles and Bakuman.'s good track record with mangaka's contribution to each other's work.

Third problem: Bakuman's touch and go character work. On the one hand Bakuman. has a number of amusing sidekicks and rivals, on the other, there's the milquetoast protagonists and the blatant archetypes. It's clear, you know, that Mashiro and Takagi are supposed to be the readers' ciphers--they're in high school, they're mild-mannered boys, bam, half the demographic of Shounen Jump. The trade-off is perennial: There has to be absolutely nothing spectacular about them for it to be an effective cipher, ergo, no character work.

But, you may interject, there's that confession Mashiro made to Azuki in the first chapter. Wasn't that adorable? Wasn't that sweet what absolute romantics they are? Actually, it was something I hoped Bakuman. would grow out of. Think about it, the relationship that would be at the heart of the story has no foundation, no reason, and no chemistry--and that's supposed to be Mashiro's motivation! The only thing audacious about that first chapter is how lazy the writing is.

But, you may protest, Mashiro and Takagi are totally not cardboard stand-ins like those ecchi guys. Oh yeah? They are high school boys who want to write a manga instead of getting laid. Can't draw? You're the Takagi? Can't write? You're the Mashiro. Takagi and Mashiro are stripped of specifics to the point of having no personality. Consider this: can you name anything they do, not things that happen to them, what they do, that showcase their personality? IN FACT, how does any of their backstory affect their creative decisions? All of their output is what high school boys think would be dark and edgy to write about.

Dark-and-edgy in quotation marks is all the Ashirogi brand ever was. The manga inside the manga are premises, not real stories. Their first ever project was about how you can sell your mind for money: ooh, corruption, dark! Ooh, dystopia! Can you actually tell me what's interesting about the moral quandaries we're presented with here? Can you even identify those moral quandaries? Their magnum opus was about a disaffected but observant boy?!?!?! What the fuck how--how can you possibly cater more to your demographics? And to bring it back to these volumes, Nanamine's new manga is a Battle Royale-inspired fantasy where an omnipresent force kills schoolchildren who lie? The people who lie just happen to be the bullies and the hypocritical jerks? And the "extreme and interesting" ideas about a boy not wanting to die a virgin so he forces a girl into the bathroom? They're just textbook definition of dark-and-edgy tryhard. "Morally ambiguous, psychological battle manga"? "Lays bare man's ugliness"? Blergh, it's a contrived situation, stupid. Even Takagi said it, there's little to none character work, and honestly, if you want to say something grand about human nature, you have to begin with something specific. Specific characters, with specific circumstances. Ashirogi gave the manga a 3 out of five for "Originality and Characterization," and 5 for story. The problem is that those are not separate categories, and if they are, characterization should be all that matters.

Sigh. Ashirogi didn't identify the real reason why Classroom is unpublishable in the end. It's not that the main character dies, it's that students have been dropping like flies since the first pages without any meditation on the story's part on their death. It's that reading it, I feel dirty, because what are readers but the omnipresent voice delivering death sentences from a box from high above? Bakuman. tries to make the story intellectual but behind it, there's an obvious and heinous sadistic glee that is the furthest thing from an earnest investigation into human nature.

Why was it sadistic? Many manga and shows I like kill characters all the time. The difference is they make us care about the characters first. In Nanamine's manga the teacher who dies first wants to kill his student so that he is the last one standing. The class president who dies shortly after is pathetic and manipulative and looks like a frog. Their deaths are meaningless in a way that deaths shouldn't be. It's gauche. It's clumsy. It borders on sociopathic. It's also creatively bankrupt.

Look, if you want a truly non-mainstream, anti-Jump manga, you write about loneliness and depression, not this. If you want to make a statement about human nature, you write a really human character in the freaking first place. Characterization is the cornerstone of writing and it's only from the specific and the intimate that you can say something universal, you goddamn asshole. Like, the fact that these new writers become younger and younger, starting out at 15 and 16 and shit, it's not inspiring or reassuring. It just means that they're more likely to be clueless manchildren with no empathy. Bakuman. certainly is portraying one such asshole, why doesn't it see sheer immaturity and lack of life experience and consequently anything meaningful to say as part of the issue?

Time stamp: I wrote a huge part of this post back in--I don't know, back when Bakuman. hasn't ended its run yet. I've since finished reading the manga and Jesus fucking Christ, all the the back half is mired in this unfortunate bullshit about writing the best manga in the world, OMG. That's not the poi--you can't even do it like that--I can't even--you gauge it by volume sales WTF THAT'S NOT HOW YOU DO IT. Okay it's true that many of the best manga were also the most popular in their time, like Touch, or Fullmetal Alchemist, but keep in mind that One Piece outsells both of them combined and that Detective Conan is on its last, practically nonexistent creative leg. But this is not a conversation you're even having, so, yeah.

And I should have known, honestly, because in the Ashirogi versus Nizuma Eiji competition what other metrics were they going to use? I had hoped they would come into a realization in the course of it, but you know, sigh. This is really the fundamental problem of running a manga about manga writing on Shounen Jump, because even as Bakuman. attempts to challenge what was okay for the magazine to print, it can't help but chronicle a traditional shounen rivalry in the middle of itself--a rivalry that is not at all fit for its subject matter, and Bakuman.,obviously out of its depth, finally resorts to traditional tropes to handle the non-traditional rivalry. Which is a fucking terrible idea. Instead of confidently making a statement about writing, Bakuman. betrays an insecurity about its own identity: What does it mean that I am published on Shounen Jump? Am I dark and edgy enough? Important enough? How on Earth do I judge that? Does my having zero life experience impede my ability to write a meaningful relationship?

(Okay that last one was--whatever.)

Anime break: From the New World

Watching From the New World is a bit like watching my twelve-year-old cousin argue: He’s talking about completely inane things gathered haphazardly from the stuff he’s seen on TV, neither he nor I have any idea where this is all going, and he expects to be taken seriously.

Frankly, it’s not interesting to talk about From the New World at all, in my opinion, but the anime is Exhibit A of Why You Need to Do Your Work. A.k.a., execution is everything. That is to say, all the cool, dramatic moments that the twelve-year-old remembers from the TV show and tries to imitate? They all need build-up. If you want to have a tournament in episode two, for example, you need to have already built it up to death all the way from episode negative three, which is why you can’t have a tournament in episode two unless you are set in 300 B.C.E Rome, at which point your show is called Spartacus. Anyway, the lame tournament in episode two of From the New World makes this mistake. It has zero build-up, zero stakes, all the while our main characters are absolutely, unironically dead serious about the outcome. If I knew why I had to care about this maybe I would have overlooked the requisite, utterly blah strategies and cheating in the matches but as it stands, I am going to talk about the requisite, utterly blah strategies and cheating in the matches, and how it’s emblematic of why this anime fails and of my pet peeve with fiction in general.

The problem is this: the second episode of From the New World doesn’t see all the build-up that ordinarily goes into fight sequences, it only knows to imitate the major scenes and the plot twists. In the episode, the main characters run around yelling and battling, discover that another team is cheating, and ultimately they emerge triumphant by exploiting a loophole in the rules because they’re just so smart. These are all staple beats of shounen manga tournaments. So what’s different?

First of all, if you want strategy, go back and rewatch that Kakashi versus Team 7 fight in the first couple of episodes in Naruto. This may surprise you, but shounen manga and anime are really shockingly good at writing effective fight sequences and strategy—so good, that it seems deceptively effortless. On paper it seems Naruto isn't doing anything drastically different from From the New WorldNaruto inhabits a world where ninjutsus and chakras are real, and in From the New World, people command telekinesis. Both anime are fantastical, but Naruto succeeds where From the New World doesn’t because From the New World does not establish itself as fundamentally a fighting show, rather, it is a dystopian mystery. The tournament in the second episode is tonally fucking weird in the first place. Also, the goal and the rules of Naruto’s fights are not merely clearly defined, they’re intuitive. There’s no cognitive overhead in order to understand them. From the New World has characters control attackers and defenders in order to roll a large ball into a large hole, over an earthy, grassy terrain, which can’t be tampered with, and one of the attackers can’t be attacked…which, you’ve already lost me. It’s not that the rules are incomprehensible, it’s that they’re too specific and there’s no time for viewers to get used to them, to feel out the confines and the intricacies of them, to make it earned when the main characters figure out how to sidestep the letters of the rules.

It makes the main characters’ strategic victory very silly. They solve a problem, sure, but it is a problem for which viewers are given no parameters and no context. The characters were never in a bind because the viewers did not know what bound them, what they had to work with within those bounds. I’ll say this right now, the strategy that they come up with is unspeakably dumb, made ever sillier by the dramatic music and the extreme close-ups of the characters’ faces that we don’t see the top half of. All of which, by the way, are played completely straight. Why so serious? Actually, we are not privy to that information. We actually have no idea what the stakes of the tournament are. Every emotional beat in this episode is false, unearned, and the five minutes of strategy in it is profoundly stupid. If you want a good laugh, in fact, just watch the first two episodes of this show and prepare for your jaw to be consistently slack, gaped in What-the-Shit-Is-This amazement.

Spoiler, it doesn’t get better. There’s an info dump delivered in the next few episode via a library that can talk. Let me reiterate. A library that can talk. We’re treated to a ten-minute segment of the history of how the telekinesis gene has destroyed the world, during which our main characters violently scream about how they can’t take it anymore. Look, if you spend the entirety of your running time on the uneasiness Saki has about her world, then you don’t fucking make her hysterical when her doubts are confirmed, okay? But you got to do what you got to do, right? I mean, the characters are only obviously meant to be our cardboard stand-in.

By this point, From the New World has demonstrated itself utterly incapable of nuanced storytelling, which sadly is what it fucking needs if it wants to take on the subject matter. There are pseudo-slaved creatures in this show’s universe, called queerats, and the show has them be barbaric, dumb, conniving, and then ultimately redeemed by being self-sacrificial? Are you fucking kidding me? There’s, by the way, another prolonged and painful stab at strategy in the five to seven stretch of episodes, which I chose not to write about because I checked out in the middle of it and I would kill myself if I had to watch it again.
Something happens in episode eight though, which actually requires some backstory.

You see, the only reason I had been able to make it to episode eight was because I was promised some hot boy on boy action, which apparently made some fanboys go bonkers and makes me go “Yes, please.” I waited, and I waited, and I was skeptical because there’s been zero romantic tension and/or chemistry between any of the boys so far but then again, the same is true with all of the characters, so I waited some more, until episode eight.

In episode eight, Satoru, the hot-headed boy, gets together with Shu, the shy one, and Saki, our main character herself, gets with Maria. It all is framed though, as a phase. There’s been no tension because they were always meant to break up. At least that’s how I read it. Shu is actually in love with Saki, who is in “unrequited” love with Shu while stringing Maria on, and in the end all the pairings are heterosexual.
At this point I rage-quit.

It’s frustrating, with a show like this one. It thinks it’s so clever, so it doesn’t explain the universe and some parts of the show is very confusing, but we already know that the show is dumb because it takes pains to drive home some spectacularly vapid reasoning that only a twelve-year-old would have deemed clever. We know better than to watch it and expect anything, but as with all twelve-year-olds, the show has some seeds of some worthwhile ideas, approximated from what it has seen its betters accomplish, but this is pale imitation formed from flash and bang, not stemmed from any true understanding. I know what the show is going for, but what the show actually does is not remotely how to go about doing it. And seriously, I don’t trust a twelve-year-old with complex genetic modification politics.

P.S. There's some unbelievably, comically bad animation in episode 5 or 6, stuck between a good color pallette and an amazing ending sequence so, yeah, mood whiplash seems to be this show's default mode.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Skinnydipping in Anime: Detective Conan: Private Eye in the Distant Sea

Let’s get it out of the way that Detective Conan: Private Eye in the Distant Sea fails as a mystery, fails at telling a satisfactory, cohesive story, and badly needs some subtlety—any subtlety! All of which are side effects, I suppose, of being a fan service and propaganda delivery vehicle.

Mission number one of this movie: getting everyone you know some screen time, goddammit, no matter how tacked on these lumps of narrative have to be. Sonoko and the 1B detectives are the most egregious, because they don’t even contribute anything to the “plot,” but the way in which the movie insinuates Heiji and Kazuha into the story is more annoying. Yes, they do catch a bad guy—but it’s in a movie that has not one, not two, but three bad guys, at least two of which are totally unnecessary. The Heiji and Kazuha subplot is emblematic of how this kind of fan service destroys coherency: because everyone has to do something, the movie becomes convoluted, diluting any focus on any character. The emotional through line—in which Shinichi promises that he would be able to find Ran anywhere, and lo and behold, she ends up needing him to rescue her—is introduced half way through in a half-hearted attempt to lend the movie emotional gravitas. It doesn’t tie to the central mystery or any kind of theme, and kind of insults viewers’ intelligence in suggesting that Ran can possibly die and trying to wring some drama out of that tension. Another case of “you didn’t earn this” is Kazuha crying at the end. Crying is catharsis. Traipsing through Osaka solving puzzles and dodging bullets doesn’t earn catharsis.

For much of the same reason, Detective Conan: Private Eye in the Distant Sea is not an effective mystery. Look, the best Gosho Aoyama mysteries all have a hook and are clearly laid out. A favorite story I go back to every time is when seven detectives are gathered to solve a riddle inside a castle—traditional to be sure, but man, the atmosphere in it is incredible. It’s the closest Detective Conan has come to a thriller. In an Agatha Christie And Then There Were None kind of way, the seven detectives are all suspects, distrust each other, and kill off each other as the culprit watches, only better than Agatha because there’s dried blood between the playing cards, a car explosion, and a family crest that’s a cross between a crooked nosed man and a bird. Aaanyway, other Detective Conan stories all define their suspects and have a central conceit—locked room murder is a perennial favorite. Ones that feature a red herring, as this movie does, always revolve around a small and insignificant detail that the obvious solution doesn’t necessarily explain. The mysteries may seem complicated, but the goal is often very well defined: explain this thing, using details that we may not have drawn attention to. A lot of what makes up mysteries is misdirection.
Detective Conan: Private Eye in the Distant Sea isn't complicated; it’s convoluted and painfully straightforward, not understanding that mysteries are about misdirection. It draws attention to every little detail and they always come back like this intricate interlocking puzzle, and it’s convoluted not because every piece works together toward some nebulous conclusion—they don’t—it’s convoluted because there are so many mini-puzzles that do not cohere to a unifying theme. It lacks a good hook. It lacks a clear goal. The mini-puzzles are superfluous and purposeless. The culprit isn't even introduced in the first act.

I can’t deny, though, that the movie has some pretty entertaining moments, all of which, of course, are completely unintentional. Part of it is my having seen the movie on a Japan Airline flight in English subtitle; part of it is the dumb-as-a-box-of-oceanic-rocks terrorist plot, in which a “foreign country” tries to steal military secret from a top security vessel. I don’t know whether China or the US was in the original Japanese script or what, but have some backbone, dude. Speaking of, this movie immediately shoots up on the Top Ten Hilariously Pro-Military Propaganda Movies of All Time. It features the police and the Self Defense Force working together like a big happy family. It lavishes on dorky technical specs of the Aegis—which, I guess my mentioning the ship by name means that it works. I watched slack-jawed as credits rolled over cheesy, loving, live-action shots of the ship out at sea, with pelicans flying and everything. It’s an atrocity to subtlety. It’s great.

Also, for those who care which I know are depressingly not a whole lot, Detective Conan: Private Eye in the Distant Sea is kind of weirdly sexist. In the first act, Conan becomes suspicious of a female SDF officer because women don’t make up a ton of the SDF, so the chances of seeing one in the wild are not great. Look, fucker, even if women make up only one percent of the SDF or something, the chances of no one seeing a female SDF officer are still zero.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Yuri Detour: Futari Dake

Futari Dake is my favorite type of manga for all that it is not a typical manga, and I’m not even talking about the dark-and-edgy bullshit. For one, Futari Dake is technically a doujinshi; for another, Futari Dake is a thirty-page one-shot. Compact, quiet, dramatic, and intimate, Futari Dake unravels bullying with deep, understated empathy.

Title: Futari Dake
Author & Artist: Mountain Pukuichi

High school girl Saki becomes interested in her classmate, Ogata Ayumi. Saki eventually breaks off from her group of friends—who bully Ogata—to befriend Ogata. The story is very simple, very simply told, and it has been told some hundreds of thousands times before but I have never seen it told quite like this. Ogata is a devastatingly realistic combination of distressed and dealing with it. She is bullied not because she is fat or “plain-looking,” not because a popular boy likes her and that doesn’t jive with the other girls, not because she is special or different or any combination thereof.  Futari Dake directly comments on it: “Because we all kind of had a similar look,” thinks Saki, “I ended up hanging out with these girls right from the start. They’re probably picking on [Ogata] for some equally meaningless reason.”

Saki is no stereotype herself. She is not the kind of loud, aggressive, sociable, best-friend-to-the-heroine character; she’s just really self-assured and really interested in Ogata. (The homoerotic undertone here is barely noticeable, but perhaps it plays a huge part in not allowing Saki and Ogata to slot into stereotypical roles.) Saki doesn’t hotly confront her former friends when they bully Ogata either. The confrontation is in a girls’ bathroom, members only because that’s how we take care of our business, pun intended. Later, the leader of the group finds Saki and warns her of the bullying to come, but the meeting is quiet and perfectly amiable. It’s not personal, you see, it’s just high school politics.

And because Futari Dake deals in real characters with real human depth, it handles the bullying realistically in a way few coming-of-age stories have been able to. Ogata doesn’t stand up to anyone, and the bullies never repent or reap appropriate comeuppance. Ogata just has a friend to weather the bullying with her now and that’s more cathartic and moving than any kind of retribution arc. In the first turning point of Futari Dake, Saki goes up to Ogata and apologizes. Not just says that she’s sorry. Saki apologizes. Even though she’s never directly, physically hurt Ogata or badmouthed her. Saki is not the savior, doesn’t task herself with breaking Ogata out of her shell because Saki is simply here to make amends and to get to know Ogata.
Because Saki doesn’t understand Ogata, instead of alienating her, Saki embarks on a quest to know her.
It’s a story about empathy. That’s not just my favorite kind of manga; that’s my favorite kind of story, period.

It doesn’t hurt that for two subjects I hold very dear to my heart—bullying and female friendship—Futari Dake has portrayed both with stunning nuance. Earlier I mentioned Futari Dake’s homoerotic subtext, which never quite culminates in anything and hell, is less blatant than half of the shows airing on television, but is perhaps the crucial underpinnings of this story. Here, a heterosexual romance does not take precedence over the relationship—by all appearances a friendship—between two women. Another manga (Tomodachi no Hanashi) in this ilk belabors the point—the attractive friend does not desire to date any guy who doesn’t want to spend all of their dates with her best friend too. Yet by simply introducing the possibility of a lesbian relationship, Futari Dake mutes the strange absence of any male presence in the story to something barely noticeable. It lets two people come to each other free of assumptions and merely wanting to understand. This is the subversive power of yuri. 

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Mid-series checkup: Skip Beat!

Warning: spoilers, references to past events that I don't bother to explain.

For long running manga if the question of declining quality doesn't niggle at you, you are a dirty lying liar who lies, because alright, name one that has not jumped the shark and then some over the course of its decade long life, and okay, ask the person next to you if they share that opinion. This is the fucking plague, okay, but I'm not here to complain, or to argue an open and shut case.

So let's talk about Skip Beat!'s recent Kain/Setsu arc.

Specifically, about the not-really-incest.

Here's what not-really about it: 1, they do not actually have sex; they do not actually kiss, at least while in character; and 2, oh yeah, they are not actually brother and sister, only playing at family.

Here's why that doesn't count: 1, not only is there sexual and romantic tension between them, it's helped by the brother and sister trappings; and 2, remember those lolicon manga that have the teenage boy perving on some one thousand-year-old demon--who has the form of a little girl? Well technically it's the little girl who's robbing the cradle. Yeah, I still wasn't born yesterday. Oh, was that a bad expression?

The main dynamic between Kyoko and Ren has always been of the romantic nature, so yes, if they are indeed each other's one true love that spark wasn't about to get stamped out by constant proximity. What gives them constant proximity? Oh right, the brother and sister act. Exhibit A, Ren remarks on Kyoko's being unguarded when they share a hotel room as a pair of siblings, because it's sex appeal of the actress playing his sister that brings Ren the great actor of Japan out of character, of course. They didn't even have to share a room--the agency would know better--but they did and it was a honest mistake from the side of the hotel. Not so much from the side of the author, not really. All that remains is for the two people in close proximity to take attraction and instinct to their natural conclusion. Well narratively speaking this slows the plot down instead of speeding it up, this misunderstanding. In other words Skip Beat is making sacrifices to plot coherency and may I say, integrity, for the purpose of titillation.

Another pertinent point I have yet to prove is the role of incest as a kink. Exhibit B, how Nakamura insists on highlighting how Kain loves to spoil Natsu, how Natsu makes him, how protective Kain is of his sister against potential suitors. Does that other guy have a reason to exist? Beyond making Kain jealous? Beyond acting competitive over acting roles-no-not-really-it's-the-sister? It's badly written badly handled badly generic incest drama here.

But, I have no objection to incest as a kink, and I do not pick and choose which series I take issue to, so what's the problem? Skip Beat! isn't being sincere about it. Isn't sibling bond even closer than that of childhood friends, thus negating Shou's advantage--but not really? See, any attraction Kain has for his sister Setsu is really from Ren to Kyoko, we mustn't conflate the actors and the characters they play, after all.   Then Skip Beat! shouldn't be deriving sexual tension from the situation, because this makes Skip Beat! no better than those pseudo rape fantasy shoujo manga out there (no, he's just lapping up blood from her wrist with an orgasmic expression on his face). Well, some may say, it's not like a mainstream shoujo manga can cop up to using incest as kink, then DON'T TO IT IN THE FIRST PLACE.

We have to consider how much of this is role-play too. What's going on here, why are you trying to throw so many kinks together in the same story line Skip Beat!? It honestly baffles me. Role-play has worked out well for the manga before, see the student teacher debacle, and this being a manga about an aspiring actress if the manga does not partake a slice in that cake I would be very surprised. Actually now all we have established is an MO: the romantic tension between the roles translate to the romantic tension between the characters. It was teacher/student to the real life sempai/kohai, so the older brother/younger sister here is not only intentional, it follows a persistent theme in the manga.

My point is, Skip Beat! has managed the rare feat of being unexpectedly skin crawling uncomfortable and yet painfully uninspired. And then there's the agonizing pace and the hundredth time Ren catches Kyoko doing something she thinks would disappoint or enrage him and gets this look on her face because she fears him berating her only he has no actual ground or reason to do so. Overall, I say extremely weak mid-series checkup, bail out now, or watch in fascination as Skip Beat! hits rock bottom of the shoujo seedy underbelly, and it will, mark my words.

Monday, February 4, 2013

K-drama, Because Everyone's Doing It, and Why Not: School 2013

So I've officially stopped pretending that this blog is anything more than a paper thin disguise for the fact that the Internet is in no shortage of people who are in no shortage of opinion. In case the title of this blog also hasn't clued you in already, I am not a nice person, and therefore am hijacking my own reclusive corner for manga to squee about TV. Korean TV.

K-drama School 2013
Episodes 1-3

School 2013 is causing quite an uproar over in Eastern media communities (for want of a better term.) I really have no idea why, diving in, because a screencap of two boys getting up in each other's business space cannot have had the same instant I'm clicking so hard the Internet would break effect on everybody. But first of all, to those subscribing to the same weakness, you are not getting any squeal worthy moment in the first three episode, I mean, one half of that pairing couple duo hasn't even made an appearance yet, and in the mean time, School 2013 has been an exercise in failed chemistry and disjointed storytelling.

Wait, not that the show is bad, no, it's not bad. It's even competent. In-jae, idealistic and not just a little bit naive, with a mere five years of experience under her belt, is undertaking homeroom duties of the de facto trouble making class of the school. Se-chan, superstar Literature teacher, jaded and cynical, is transferring to the same school due to violations of some education law that I don't know about but would surmise that it has something to do with him teaching a private class. It's an age old clash and attraction of the polar opposites in a highly charged environment, and if School 2013 was about just that, I would have bailed out at mark 25:37. What makes the episodes as compelling as they are is full-lipped, dreamy, distant, mysterious student Nam-soon (what, what, I'm allowed my objectification) who steals every scene he's in.

The thing about him is that he's maybe more dimensional than the rest combined, because he appears aloof, yes, he doesn't seem partial to more emotions than this-is-a-pain-in-my-ass or private smiles, he turns down what looks like a Bible for test taking saying he doesn't need it, and he is stony and unresponsive to threats of violence as well as expulsion. That's the way he was introduced. But Nam-soon isn't apathetic, if anything, he cares too much, and precisely which fact makes him misunderstood by his peers. Why else would he stand up for another student but not himself and refuse to go to class on the basis of morality? Later, and I don't think it's a spoiler because it's so early into the series, he apologizes to In-jea for having given her the cold shoulder for something she didn't do, trying to make it up by manipulating other students to show up to her class at his own expense. This is who he turns out to be, I am head over heels for characters and adore writing like that.

That kind of attitude is not holier-than-thou, it's just as naive as In-jae's. When Nam-soon says, (asked why he just wouldn't implicate Oh Jung-so, the bully, to save himself from the very real possibility of expulsion,) "School couldn't be that unjust," my heart breaks a little. It's so obviously a foreshadowing and it would shatter a character already so broken. I won't say anything about a resilient strength found inside a fragile vessel, because I have the feeling that Nam-soon is more of a shock absorber: he takes the beating and the misunderstandings because he can take it; and the thing about shock absorbers is, excuse the platitudes, I can see your rolling eyes from over here, thank you, that they have a threshold.

Which brings me to the premise of School 2013; it's supposed to be a realistic portrayal of Korean high school life, test cramming, bullying, and all. The bullying is depressingly prevalent in the education system, yes, but that doesn't mean it's interesting, since for me, like for every other TV viewer, this is its 100th iteration. That isn't saying that School 2013 is dull, that is saying that its subject matter appeals to me none at all. School 2013 isn't doing anything interesting thematically either. It has occasional moments where ideas and dialogues shine, but to few and far in between to count for much against the crippling blandness of the ideal v.s. the disillusioned. It isn't saying anything new about teaching. 

Let's stop discussing nonexistent philosophies now.

Because I will follow School 2013, and I will follow it for the characters. In-jea is quite something herself. Like Nam-soon, her flaw is caring, and she and Nam-soon are explosive together onscreen. They are not always on the same page, but they respect one another. In-jae gets that Nam-soon hid what he did for a reason, and Nam-soon gets that In-jae cares as his teacher. He responds to her as a student. He admires her strength, as do I, however tired the saying might seem I will maintain it because In-jae has proven herself. Credit goes to actress Jang Nara, who I believe has better grasp of her role than the entire cast, though that may be put down to the fact that her stereotype has dominated Korean TV since its inception.

The weak link is not actually Jung-ho whom I want to strangle with my bare hands, or the class clown whose acting is nails on chalkboard, but Se-chan, who is given great dialogues and the appearance of intelligence and hints to Past Events That Derailed His Dream of Being a Teacher. Depending on your view, that is either a lot of land to work with or very little, since his too is a stereotype, but, the point is, his part needs only be competent. Se-chan with pick-your-character-any-character-no-any-I-mean-it is chemistry free, his lines rote. When he and Nam-soon are made to mop the gym together, even charismatic Nam-soon looks uncomfortable bantering with a line delivery AI. His scenes with In-jae are likewise forced, and I'm not rooting for them as potential love interests at all, even though, let's face it, they will be.

Another claim I made is about the structure of the show, i.e., scenes seem thrown together without any regard for editing continuity. The first episode was particularly egregious. It bore the task of introducing 4 individuals, which is the reason, to be sure, but not the excuse for a bumpy 40 minutes with nothing for speak of for a build up or a climax. Now that it's got a good foundation, here's hoping School 2013 finds surer footing.

Worst moment of the show:

Teacher Jo about Nam-soon and Se-chan: they're two peas in a pod. Urgh, not at all. And so so cliched that I am vomiting inside my mouth just thinking about it. Like, teacher Jo was even looking down at them on a balcony speaking in a knowing voice and everything.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Manhwa Intervention in: Flowers of Evil

Manhwa is always going to be a little more fucked up than their manga counterpart, especially in subjects pertaining sexuality and general sanity. Case in point: Goong, wherein, spoiler alert, toward the end, they have on-screen sex, despite the Goong's previously tame tones. Shoujo manga the likes of Hot Gimmick, whose contents actually veer more questionably, can only reward fans with the Inappropriate Touches.

Flowers of Evil, boys and girls, is batshit, and definitely not safe for work.

Title: Flowers of Evil
Author & Artist: Lee Hyeon-Sook

Let me clarify that. Warning: incest, dubious consent. Here is the conversation I had one hour ago:

Devil me: stop me when I get into kill-me-now-kill-me-with-fire territory, okay?

Angel me: oh, you mean five paragraphs ago.

This post, on the other hand is safe for work, so don't go reporting it and all.

Synopsis: Twin brother and sister Se-Joon and Se-Wa are beautiful if not very sociable, and they sleep in the same bed. Their parents tell the more socially adept Se-Joon to stop indulging Se-Wa in her clingy possessive ways.

Se-Wa seems dependent on Se-Joon and their connection. She reasons that as all others are impure, they should not touch the twins. Thus begins the cycle of Se-Joon attempting to integrate himself with society, the miniature version of which is high school and a girlfriend, and Se-Wa pulling him back and trapping him with her. Both intentionally and accidentally, she only has to hurt herself and Se-Joon comes running, because he also ends up choosing her every time. At one point, that Se-Joon goes to his girlfriend's house to presumably have sex is seen as ultimate betrayal, as he becomes tainted.

Flowers of Evil follows Se-Wa's point of view religiously, a smartly evocative choice considering her whiplashes of emotion and her tunnel vision. Consequently the series is also extremely dramatic and divisive. Whether or not you read through to the end depends on your being able to identify with Se-Wa, perhaps not in that you share with her any characteristic, but in that you root for her romance with Se-Joon as that is her all-consuming purpose in the beginning.

Warning: discussion of incest

Flowers of Evil in my opinion, can counter the current deluge of big brother little sister(s) incest anime more effectively than your average heartwarming family drama can. It demonstrates why culture remains fascinated with incestuous relationships, especially ones between close siblings. But they are not always siblings, because the key word here is "close."

Writing about Supernatural fanfiction, Tosenberger surmises that incest between brothers Sam and Dean intensifies the concept of romance. An isolated family, possibly with complications that are kept secret to outsiders, is the cornerstone of incest. The factor is absolute claustrophobia: they have no one but themselves; it's always been them together, against the world. The constant proximity, note, is not forced. The ultimate ideal romance is that lovers choose each other time and again even when more normalized choices present themselves, which also explains a common trope of incest narratives, in which gentler outside forces are met with more resistance. The incest is compromised because it's fragile in the face of societal acceptance.

(Another note: I could have, like Tosenberger, used Gothic references, but the fact remains that this was the essay that introduced me to incest narratives. And so very intrinsic are manga readers and fanfiction writers linked.)

All these elements are present here: the family hides Se-Wa's heart condition, her transplant having been medically unethical; the twins distance themselves from others, even their parents; Se-Joon does choose Se-Wa, doesn't go through with sex with his girlfriend, and ends up asking a distraught Se-Wa for forgiveness. The angst associated with incest and Flowers of Evil derives mainly from the mutual psychological torture and the breaking apart of Se-Wa's world as she knows it, the forcibly opening up of that world.

Their relationship is unhealthy, perhaps not so much due to the actual incest as due to the fact that Se-Joon and Se-Wa make each other lesser versions of themselves, do not make each other happy. On one occasion, Se-Wa sabotages Se-Joon's girlfriend's medicine. And in retaliation to Se-Joon's leaving her, she demands that he commits suicide, to which he responds by walking into traffic. Se-Joon is no slouch himself, injuring the person who so much as touches Se-Wa and attempting to murder anyone who threaten their relationship. The very attraction of incest turns its downfall, in this case at least, because its consummation means seclusion and regression. Se-Wa's childhood friend "Sung-chan" who makes Se-Wa laugh and almost rescues both twins is portrayed much more favorably than Se-Joon. Unsurprisingly, Se-Joon views his warm influence as the ultimate threat.

Making Flowers of Evil even more problematic is another aspect of incest as romantic love, which many identify with the union of body and soul, and in the case of incest, in blood. Twins are in this way as closest to that ideal as possible. Romantic love is also associated with breaking barriers, the decisive act in incest to that purpose is sexual intercourse, so not only does consummation of that love mean regression, the manhwa consciously builds its climax toward the consummation. The very premise of incest ties it to titillation, which many understandably find objectionable.

Yet, Flowers of Evil, unabashed in its angst, reveling in the genre's pitfalls, is the method through which to understand incest in fiction. Inspecting incest is quintessential to inspecting it. By contrast, another exploration of the same theme, Koi Kaze, deftly countering critical scrutiny by presenting a tale of two people in love who happen to be siblings, is not, because incest in fiction is essentially a narrative kink, not a realistic, sincere love story. Koi Kaze addresses incest in fiction; Flowers of Evil epitomizes it.

On another note, the creator, Lee Hyeon-Sook, is undoubtedly a Se-Joon/Se-Wa shipper. Her chapter illustrations all depict the pair together, albeit with somewhat inadvisable Christian invocations, so even though the manhwa cautions against incest as par course, it has the connotations reinforced throughout, that incest is beautiful, and pure. This, by the way, is one reason to read Flowers of Evil: it is utterly gorgeous. Hyeon-Sook's lines are clean and sweeping, and her panels are uniquely minimalist, in that both interior furniture and page layout is sparse. As with the typical manhwa, more attention is paid to the hair and the clothes; the eyes, being more stylized, steal the focus. Hyeon-Sook's art stands out as actually achieving the elegance many manhwa seek.

(I wanted to post every week. My having neglected to last Friday just highlights the fact that I have no responsibility whatsoever and that last week was a shit show of jet lag and holiday debauchery.)