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Brave Story, ブレイブ・ストーリ or Bureibu Stōrī (2006)

March 21, 2011 1 comment

Brave Story, ブレイブ・ストーリ or Bureibu Stori began life as a novel written by Miyuki Miyabe with a transition into manga and then this full-length anime version produced by Gonzo, directed by Koichi Chigira. For the record, the film was nominated for “Animation of the Year” at the 2007 Japanese Academy Awards.

 

The best way to start thinking about this film is to consider what gives any work of art “universality”. It’s too easy to say anything that achieves consistency throughout time and in differing contexts is merely the opposite of relativism where meanings and interpretations might change. Why? Because when it comes to any work of art, how any viewer sees and interprets a work may differ significantly depending on their cultural background. The fact that A might like something because it reminds him of entirely human, moral values does not prevent B from liking it because it reminds her of Christian doctrine. Both may be equally valid interpretations.

Wataru Mitsuya wonders whether he's up to the challenge

 

So here’s a story about means and ends. To illustrate the choices we can make, we’ll start off with two boys. Both come from fresh tragedies. Wataru Mitsuya finds his life changed when his father leaves to live with another woman and his mother attempts suicide. Mitsuru loses not only his parents, but also a younger sister. They meet in the human world. A tentative bond is formed. Both then set off on a magical quest in a world called Vision, collecting magical gemstones to embed in the hilt of a sword or head of a staff respectively. They are motivated by the promise that the one who “wins” will be entitled to ask the Goddess of Destiny for one wish. That could change the events in the real world and restore one family. How will their approach differ?

Mitsuru is fixed on his path

 

Wataru enters this new world as an innocent, prepared to reach out and trust those around him. He’s not much interested in any power he may have. Indeed, instead of steady progress from step to the next, he rather stumbles or blunders from one crisis to the next. Fortunately, he has just enough wisdom or courage to survive each trial. He makes loyal friends, being deputised as a Northern enforcement officer and inspiring at least one young girl to fall for him. Mitsuru embraces the reality of his magical powers from the outset. There’s to be no holding back in his pursuit of the gemstones. His desire to recover the life of his younger sister means lives in Vision can be sacrificed. Indeed, he’s more than willing to destroy the entire world of Vision if that’s the price to be paid for realising his wish.

 

In one sense, we could dismiss this as being a rather trivial dungeons and dragons type of scenario. A quest to collect tokens with the winner to be granted a wish. Yet the execution achieves a kind of universality that makes it one of the most pleasing of stories of the last decade. Worse, it’s at this point that we have to begin talking about the symbols being used and the themes explored. As cultural anthropologists, we remind ourselves this is a Japanese story and therefore drawing from Shinto and Buddhism. Since the story is very much about life, this places us in the Shinto side of the equation and into the rites of purification. Before anyone can progress to a higher level, he or she must remove the “bad” side of their character. This would include all the fears, selfishness, anger and so on. This is, of course, parallelled in Christianity where the individual must accept the “bad” or sinful traits and heal the spirit. In Biblical terms, we should recall that Jesus accepts the sins of the world and forgives everyone. He also resists temptation, seeing through the devil’s tricks and holds true to His beliefs. That’s why His sacrifice saves this world. As an aside, not wholly irrelevant, I noticed the images of a cross prominent in the end sequences of Brave Story but, in Japanese anime, that has nothing to do with the Christian concepts.

 

From my own view as an atheist, this is a story about personal growth. Wataru starts off as focussed on his personal needs but, as he comes to understand the world in which he finds himself, he realises his moral code forbids the sacrifice of the world as the price of saving one person — he’s increasingly Utilitarian. No matter how dear a dying parent may be, the greater good is served by saving the world and all its people. To reach this new plateau of morality, he must confront the essential selfishness inside himself that would willingly condemn others. We can call this the Kantian triumph of a universal law that we should do no “evil”. Once he recognises the need to resolve the moral conflict, he reaches peace within himself and can move forward. The second boy, Mitsuru, embraces the amoral universal that the means always justify the end. He fails because he cannot reconcile the moral and amoral sides of his character. In a sense, the two sides of his character fight each other and both lose.

Wataru and the Northern leader make ties

 

The cast of characters in Vision is impressive with the water-loving Kee-Keema, the feline Meena who is redeemed from sin by her love for Wataru, and the Northern Highlanders whose pursuit of justice and order make them natural allies for Wataru. For those who just want to see this as an engaging adventure story with everything from dragons to demons, there’s plenty to enjoy. At a higher level, this attempts to be profound. I’m not prepared to say it achieves universality or even a completely satisfying level of discussion of the moral issues. But, when you think about it, that’s hardly surprising. Anime is the last place you would expect to find hard-core philosophy. So, no matter how you approach this, you’re going to find it enjoyable and, in its quieter moments, thought-provoking. Who could ask for any better combination.

 

Thunderer by Felix Gilman

June 30, 2009 1 comment

I have written book blurbs. It’s a mildly diverting game to capture the essence of a book and sell it to potential customers in the shortest possible number of words. The trick is to reassure potential readers that their money will be well-spent. So every book becomes the latest novel channelling Tolkien, Enid Blyton or some other literary heavyweight. As a recent experiment, I asked a question on LinkedIn, “If The Waste Land is a below-par gardening manual and Portnoy’s Complaint is about a diner who gets a poor meal in a five star restaurant, which works of literature do you find inspiring?” It was intriguing to find that half the answers were serious recommendation of favourite books. Obviously, any descriptive reference to a work of literature is potentially true and people “trust” what they see in print.

Most recently, I observed the adjective “Dickensian” rolled out in support of Thunderer by Felix Gilman. Perhaps it’s a reaction to time spent in school when I was forced to read him as a literary giant of the Victorian Age. Coming to an author out of choice always predisposes you to think better of him or her (until the reality of the reading overcomes initial optimism). As a rebellious teen, the well of resentment rose with buckets of scorn to pour over the teacher’s choice. As a social commentator, I concede that Dickens was reassuringly preoccupied with the problems of his age. But his prose style was often overwrought and the narrative shaped to the dictates of episodic publication. Although stated simply, the plots and their characters achieve some degree of timeless universality, they are mired in the language and sentimentality of his times. I have enjoyed some of the more modern BBC television adaptations. But, as someone to read with modern sensibilities, I do not recommend him.

Coming to the Thunderer, the plot may be stated simply. A man on a quest to find the voice of his god comes to a great city and, after some difficulties, manages to save the city from a great danger and, incidentally, stays hopeful that he will ultimately find what he is looking for. This takes some 527 pages. Let’s clear the decks for action. I am not against long books. All I ask is that the length is used constructively for driving the narrative forward. Thus, if a work is full of incident, I am prepared to accept a reasonable amount of background information to offer colour and context for these excitements. But this book is full of the worst kind of padding. We have a multiple point-of-view narrative structure with sequential chunks of text devoted to each major character. This is standard and the usual convention is that time starts to run at the first page and then continues sequentially or with some overlap until the last page when some or all of the characters have met and served their purpose as fixed by the author. In Aristotelian terms, this gives us unity of time and place as the author moves towards a logical (and, sometimes, moral) conclusion.

In this case, the primary protagonist is called Arjun and the first chapter enjoys unity of time as key players react to the arrival of a magical bird over the city where all the significant action occurs. Except the second chapter is largely Arjun’s backstory, simply dropped into the middle of the narrative as a lump of exposition. All of this content could have been slowly drawn out of Arjun as he meets different people in the city and explains why he has come. But this sets an unfortunate trend. Whenever we meet someone new or visit another part of the city, we get these information dumps. In the “good old days”, we praised most world builders, making exceptions for the obsessives like Tolkien whose interminable ramblings have been immortalised in uncountable numbers of posthumous books capturing his notes. But this modern drive to satisfy the apparent desire of readers to get “value for money” is leading to grossly overwritten texts. It is a reversion, but of the wrong type. The reason why Dickens put in so much background is because he had a word target to meet for each episode. So rather than rushing the plot to its conclusion (killing Little Nell had to be delayed as long as possible), he dallied in the descriptions and so maintained his income stream over the maximum possible number of instalments. The bean counters in charge of modern publishing houses also want the maximum number of words for the buck, regardless of the quality of those words.

The result is a book that could have been interesting if an editor had hacked away the unnecessary text. It is a work of metaphors. The city is mutable, shifting and changing its nature through space and time. At any one location, one might meet people out of time or from the future. It all depends on how you look. In this unmappable city lurk supernatural beings and those who would exploit or benefit from their power. Jack becomes a symbol of anarchic freedom. Arlandes becomes a symbol of raw oppression invested with tragic impotence. Then there is Holbach whose intellectualism marginalises his access to power and Shay whose various machinations destabilise the existing order of things. Among all these cyphers walks Arjun who vaguely follows the dictates of his quest until he is diverted by the appearance of a pestilent threat to the city. Frankly, I didn’t care very much what happened. The threat uncoils slowly and without much sense of menace. It kills people in increasing numbers, but that is it. It is perfunctory, a mere plot device because there must be something for Arjun to confront as a delaying tactic in the pursuit of his grail. The resolution is neither victory nor defeat. It is an ending in the sense that a cul-de-sac is an ending and so brings us to the end of this first instalment of journey in what will turn out to be a trilogy or more. Dickens would have approved of this device as a means of selling more books.

For reviews of other books by Felix Gilman, see:
Gears of the City
The Half-Made World
The Revolutions
The Rise of Ransom City.

Shadow Bridge & Lord Tophet by Gregory Frost

As I sit here, peering uncertainly out of my window at a night sky polluted by light, there is nothing but darkness. Not a single star twinkles back at me. The contrast with my childhood could not be more stark. Long before the development of the high-pressure sodium lamp and its characteristic yellow taint, I grew up in a house overlooking dark tides that sucked unwary swimmers to their doom, the milky way stretching my imagination across storm-tossed seas to other lands of mythic grandeur. I could stand on the headland at night, the looming mass of the gothic keep rearing up behind me and the immensity of outer space spread out in front of me as a smorgasbord of infinite possibility. This, if nothing else, explains my interest in SF and fantasy fiction.

Sometimes an author is overambitious and misjudges what is required to produce good metafiction. It is all very well to want to subvert conventions, but there are times when you can go too far and, rather than produce a literary masterpiece, produce a literary mess. The key problem is always to provide a consistent vehicle for the subversion. In some senses, it works best in the theatre when you watch actors perform a play, e.g. The Dresser by Ronald Harwood, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard or Sounds Off by Michael Frayn because it breaches the convention that the proscenium arch is a barrier through which no member of the audience may pass. Or on stage, cinema or television when a performer demonstrates awareness of role and steps through the fourth wall to directly address the audience. In literature, we have wonderful examples such as The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles, where the author appears as a character and offers alternative endings to the book.

I muse along these lines because of the entrancing duology by Gregory Frost, Shadow Bridge and Lord Tophet. Before coming to the books themselves, a minor gripe. Given the propensity of the publishing industry for profit maximisation, this could have appeared as a brick-sized book. At that length, there is a risk we might have left it on the shelf because of the risk of pulling a muscle lifting it down. Nevertheless, I would have preferred to read the work as a continuous whole rather than wait months for the publication of the second volume. Then we come to cost. A single work costs marginally less to buy and ship. Two volumes, even though in trade paperback size, cost more to ship separately and at a retail price of $28 for both, are at the edge of prices for a single hardback volume. Continuing the gripe, there is a slightly dead patch quite early in the second volume. If an editor had been working to produce a manageable length for a single printed book, that would have been tightened up. As it is, I suspect it was left in to make a better balance between the two volumes as a page count.

That said, this is an author at the top of his game. He has constructed a story about a young girl who makes her living as a puppeteer, moving from span to span on the ever-widening network of bridges that magically encircle this world. In each new place, she captures a local story to make her puppet dramas resonate with local cultures. Thus, the narrative is continually interrupted by the telling of other stories that illuminate the history of the world and the all too human condition of its peoples. This sets up a subtle interplay between the mythic universality of some of these stories and the current dilemmas of the protagonists. In turn, this braiding of narratives threads eases us through the novels. They intertwine and, significantly, assume direct parallels with the myths we know so well on Earth. Indeed, the structure of the narrative comes to have three strands: the narrative arc of the primary characters that ultimately becomes the stuff of myths in its own right, the increasingly complex stories of mythic characters who can affect the primary characters’ actions, and the potential for the first two strands to become a retelling of a familiar Earth myth. Or perhaps that should be the other way round. Perhaps the Earth myth as a character directs the actions of the people in the story so that what happens to them transcends their place and time, achieves universality and matches the original myth.

So at an intellectual level, this pair of novels is magical. It equally involves the reader’s emotions because the main characters remain so true to their own fallible natures. It is all too common in fantasy for there to be hero figures who, when in danger, pull out a sword and hack the opposition to pieces. Frost has created real people who have greatness thrust somewhat arbitrarily upon them. Their lives are made extraordinary by accident or design depending on your point of view. Having been forced into excellence, they must rise to the occasion as danger comes looking for them. They become players on a wider stage, seeking something more than survival as they care for and fight for each other. The outcome, in the literal sense, is the stuff of legend. For me, this was the best pair of fantasy books for 2008 and I cannot recommend them too highly.

For my other reviews of books by Gregory Frost, see: Attack of the Jazz Giants and Fitcher’s Brides.

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