Monday, May 28, 2012

Hot Springs and Train Tracks: The Global Village in Spirited Away

Spirited Away, anime juggernaut, credited with finally outing what had been called "Japanimation" a few years before as a "legitimate art form," seems at first blush like an extremely Japanese movie, almost to the point of exclusivity. Like many of Hayao Miyazaki's movies, it avoids the western-friendly science fiction trappings of other big movies like Akira and Neon Genesis Evangelion and draws on Japanese mythology instead to build up its fantasy world—a wester viewer doesn't have a big Cold War crater in the middle of Tokyo or a ton of Biblical allusions to give them a foothold. What they have is an aggressively traditional bathhouse full of inscrutable Shinto spirits spirits, the assumption that a viewer passively knows things about the 1980s boom economy, and a ton of calligraphy. It doesn't seem outwardly surprising that Disney sunk so much money into its dubbing job and its advertising—Spirited Away feels Japanese enough that it needs a lot of naturalization to be accessible in America.

But the thing is that it's not. The outer "Japaneseness" of the whole affair is only briefly convincing. As an instructive comparison, let's look briefly at Princess Mononoke, another of Miyazaki's movies that I would say is truly nativist.

Princess Mononoke is set during the Muromachi period, around the 15th century, about as distant as medieval Sweden in The Seventh Seal. Its plot centers around an exile from an Emishi community in Japan who comes west to find that an industrial iron-mining operation is moving into a forest that's under the protection of a group of territorial spirits, and tries unsuccessfully to find a way to navigate the process without whipping it up into a war. It's a fairly nightmarish movie, in a lot of ways—in the first scene the main character gets himself cursed by a giant boar, the movie ends with a Godzilla-sized monster made of terrifying black goop tramping through a forest, and in between are a lot of lepers, bleeding pigs and massing of squirming black worms festering inside of wounds, the upshot being that the magical elements of the movie are persistently presented as terrifying and unknowable, even when they're not necessarily malevolent. Moreover, a lot of them are physically amorphous—the huge Godzilla monster at the end is an extreme example, obviously, since it's mostly made of black goo, but even the strange little forest spirits that recur throughout the movie have a melted, colloidal look to them.

The effect of all this is that the spirit world in Mononoke is best understood as a kind of force rather than as a cohesive world that truly intersects with our own. It's more of an immanent disordering principle than a separate setting in and of itself. Mononoke's setting—from its local geography to its details—is extremely, intricately, obsessively fleshed out, but the points at which the spirit world intersects with it, things become fuzzy, and the rules don't really apply anymore, or at least become extremely inconsistent. Much of the movie relies on juxtaposing the human need to impose order on nature with nature's ultimate, uncontrollable irrationality. It's a conceit as old as history that Mononoke repeats enthusiastically.

Spirited Away, on the other hand, inverts this formula. It's set in a vision of modern Japan, a country of infrastructure, highways, and a national economy, which collides with an idiosyncratic vision of a spirit world that isn't immanent in our own but highly segregated, and isn't a disordering principle but a highly ordered one. Our heroine, a girl named Chihiro, stumbles with her parents into an abandoned amusement park (built, her father informs us, during the boom economy of the 1980s, and quickly closed once the recession of the 90s hit) and, from there, into a strange otherworld, in which she worms her way into a job at a bathhouse for the spirits.

Through the entire world-building of the movie, it neatly flips around Mononoke's spirit/human dichotomy: what little we see of the world outside the bathhouse, in the first fifteen minutes of the movie, is an amorphous mass of highway interchanges and houses that flow by outside the window; it's not so much a distinct place as a backdrop, and contrary to Miyazaki's usual obsession with detail, it's absolutely indistinct. There's no way to navigate it; it's an anonymous Potemkin village, seen completely in transit. More than anything in Miyazaki's work, it resembles Ozu's depiction of Tokyo in Tokyo Story in its total anonymity: the infrastructure of contemporary Japan makes it impossible to navigate the outside world as a coherent geographical space, and it becomes more like a subway tunnel, connecting space to space without any real spatial existence of its own. In this way it's as immanent yet indistinct as the spirit world in Mononoke.

Once we get into the spirit world, the movie once again uses the exact opposite effect as in Mononoke. The bathhouse where Chihiro works—once her name has been Le Guinned away from her and she's been rechristened Sen—has a very carefully mapped out geography that the viewer quickly picks up on. The administrative offices are at the top, the boiler is in the basement, the baths are along the ground  floor, the workers' quarters are along the sides; the water is controlled by a system on little wooden cards with painted symbols on them that the staff and the boiler room send back and forth; there's a system of elevators that links the floors of the bathhouse. Even more, there's a system of trains that connects the bathhouse to other parts of the spirit world. They go by at regular intervals throughout the day. The spirits themselves typically look more or less like humans or frogs; when they approach black goo status, as in the character of No Face, it's treated as a bizarre exception. Employment at the bathhouse requires signing a contract; getting into it requires payment whose value is agreed upon beforehand. Diegetically, the spirit world is far more "structured" than the interstitial material world. This organized structure raises a more interesting observation about the spirit world: not only is it structured like a contemporary capitalist institution, but it's also globalized like one.

When we look back at Mononoke, we see that it's set in a medieval past so distant that's it hard to distinguish from fantasy in some ways; communities are totally insular, with no question of infrastructural connection or even necessarily of linguistic compatibility, and the movie hinges around the rampant tribalism and outsider status that this engenders. The main character's Emishi heritage makes him an outsider from the iron-mining community he encounters; the iron miners in turn define themselves as separate from the spirits in the forest. The factional conflict that this creates is worthy of Starcraft.

Tribal borders in Spirited Away, as it were, are far hazier. It's true that when Chihiro first enters the spirit world, she's clearly marked as a human and has to hide from spirits who might hurt her if they knew. However, there's already a bureaucratic solution in place to her problem; all she has to do is make her case to the owner of the bathhouse and sign a contract, and she's immediately accepted as a member of the workforce. This kind of slippage between the human and spirit worlds would be almost unthinkable in Princess Mononoke's world of rigid tribal boundaries, in which the girl-raised-as-a-wolf character of San is exceptional precisely because there's no template for her. Where San functions as a red flag on the tribal boundaries that drive the narrative in the movie, Chihiro's status is unusual but fully precedented.

This kind of easy slippage between cultural identities extends all the way to the mise-en-scene. In the scene in which the spirits are first introduced, they disembark from a Mississippi River steam ferry and process through a town full of tacky neon lights, many of which say "CafĂ©" in the Roman alphabet, while an Okinawan (not Japanese) shamisen plays in the background. The owner of the bathhouse lives in an elaborate apartment with European decor and wears Victorian dresses. Nobody ever remarks on any of this. Miyazaki seems to be presenting a world in which a huge number of cultural and social influences coexist more or less peacefully—albeit not without corruption—and that's a far cry from Mononoke, which effectively centers around a race war.

If you accept the thesis that the spirit world is an abstract manifestation of Japan's cultural psyche (which is itself a pretty big assumption that I'll leapfrog right over, but if you'd like further reading there's a chapter in Susan Napier's book on anime about that phenomenon) and that the bathhouse is a place where that psyche can be literally purified, then it's telling that Miyazaki goes to such trouble to make it both global and functional. It would be pretty facile to conclude by saying that Miyazaki's rejection of the simplistic antimodern predilections of earlier Japanese films means that he's evolved as a writer past his easy condemnations of tribalism in Mononoke, so I'll just add that if there's any pop culture phenomenon that better embodies the twenty-first century than Spirited Away, a movie that casts a sympathetic eye on the possibilities of pluralist society, using a medium that was appropriated from the west and is now being re-imported as an important Japanese art form, I can't imagine what it is.

Monday, May 14, 2012

He Who Must Not Be Served: The Anti-Aristocratic Sentiments of Harry Potter

- Voldemort

Harry Potter, insofar as it is literature, is pop lit.  The series is built around a slightly mysterious and nite-lite foggy world that can be charitably called "quirky"; despite how much Rowling is able to pack into it, this world has never been anything more than a backdrop to me. As in most plot-driven pop lit, the world is an elaborate prop. Part of the appeal of the wizard world is that so much of it can be twisted around (by MAGIC) to serve any purpose. No wonder Harry Potter fanfiction is so popular. Things don't happen when Harry and his friends turn away, except insofar as they set up the next magical encounter or emotionally salient moment. In fact, one of the real achievements of Rowlings' vision is that the world is a beautifully designed Rube Goldberg machine to put Voldemort back into power. Every nook and cranny in the world is full of implements and techniques that he can turn to his own ends, whether it be unicorn blood or horcruxes.

But this is not (primarily) a whine about Harry Potter's shallow, usefully magical context.  Instead, I want to talk about what it means when this elaborate mechanism is turned to a certain purpose.  Rowling's world is a fable world; it is built and bent for a specific purpose.  It does not strive for realism.  It is a delivery mechanism for a moral spectacle, or, more often, a collection of moral spectacles.

In order to locate Voldemort within Rowling's ethical map, let's take a minute to watch the Death Eaters as they commune:

Voldemort and his cadre are primarily pale, well kept, mannered, thin, and surrounded by austere and antique furniture.  They are, for the most part, well off.  They keep servants. They meet in cavernous mansions.

The pattern here is far from subtle. Rowling makes no secret about the fact that the Death Eaters represent a caricatured aristocracy.  For them, values like love and friendship take a backseat to fidelity, purity, and strength.  Those Death Eaters that aren't valued for their blood or their loyalty are treated like mercenaries or hired help, able to be dismissed via Avada Kedavra at any moment.  When we see the scene above in the context of some of the warm and casual meetings of the Order of the Phoenix, the dichotomy is made bare.

And nowhere is the contrast between the Death Eaters and Harry's contingent made clearer than on the issue of equality.  At Voldemort's ministry of magic, the statue of the wizard crushing the muggles beneath his boots is the centerpiece: the Death Eaters are more powerful than the muggles, and therefore the muggles are inferior. The Death Eater philosophy embraces a "natural order" that goes back to Aristotelianism if not before; according to the Death Eaters, the world is stratified into levels of objective value and all of the levels are better off for it.  The commoners should stay with the common, the mudbloods with mudbloods, the warriors with the warriors, and the house elves with the house elves.  The Death Eaters are reactionary, but they have a positive program.  By contrast, Harry and his friends often seem more defined negatively; they are not the Death Eaters.

This quasi-Manicheanism illustrates one of the fundamental tensions of the book: Harry is a Death Eater in disguise.  He comes from a pureblood background, wields great power, and sits on immense wealth.  His identification with Voldemort is even less a coincidence in these lights.  When de Tocqueville came to America, he saw an aristocracy increasingly held to the standards of the growing middle class.  They had to be useful and humble; unlike their european counterparts, they did not have history and culture to support them.  The "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" mentality simply would not allow them to sit idly on the same patrician chairs they did in Europe.  Harry is the American aristocracy to Voldemort's old world traditions.  No wonder He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named has such a refined accent.

Compromise is key to Rowling's contrast between good and evil; Harry and his friends realize that morality is painted in shades of gray, in sharp contrast to the absolutes of Voldemort et al. But for me, the truly interesting negotiation of both Rowlings' books and the movies is finding exactly where the compromises stop for Harry and his friends. Like so much morally concerned pop media, the problem negotiated is where to find the moral rock to stand on. Harry will kill, but only the right people.  He'll use unforgivable curses, but only in the right situations. Rowling and like minded writers are concerned particularly with placating middle class moral anxieties. In the face of globalism and pluralism, aspects of the western middle class ache to find principles to found a new set of timeless values. This is why Voldemort represents a threat; against a marketplace of fluid values and ideas, the Death Eaters stand as anachronistically principled and insular. Malfoy makes his friends by connecting with the families his family has connected with for centuries; there is no comparison of shared interests, little uncertainty, and limited negotiation. By contrast, Harry's relationships seem more tumultuous and varied, and thus Harry's greatest strength is his unerring intuition. He can feel through his relationships and moral quandaries, and though he may sometimes stumble or compromise, he always ends up in the right and we envy him for his successes. This is yet another contrast;  Harry and his friends feel what is right while the Death Eaters know what is right.

This negotiation of modern value confusion animates Harry and his friends and, at times, is their heaviest burden. For example, the very fact of Slytherin's continued existence pulls at the bounds of tolerance, another middle class anxiety. Everyone at Hogwarts knows that "those people" tend to be bad for the most part, but we allow them their say, because, after all, everyone has a right to their say.  The tolerance of intolerance is a heavy burden to modern liberalism, and Harry and his friends bear it resentfully.  In fact, whenever a Slytherin turns out good, it is seen as a happy, surprising exception and celebrated as a success of Harry's openness. To be welcome at Harry's liberal consensus, you need only be willing to enter the dialogue.

I do not mean to reduce Harry Potter to the modern anxieties it expresses. In many ways, Harry's story is structurally similar to stories told in the Western tradition for thousands of years.  But even the fact that it is not a straightforward repetition of those stories casts light on part of Rowling's narrative agenda. Harry Potter is successful in large part because it succeeds at being what it tries to be; an anchor and an anthropological document for a generation of middle class desires and insecurities.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Chameleon Circuit: Doctor Who and Postmodernism Lite

Postmodernism had been around for a while – since Borges, Nabokov, Rauschenberg and Warhol, but awareness of the phenomenon outside of France didn't blow up until the culture wars. The Yale School did most of its publishing in the eighties; campus speech code controversies picked up in the late eighties and early nineties; Harold and Allan Bloom (no relation!) wrote their big, fat books about the problems with intellectual culture around the end of the eighties; Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont wrote Fashionable Nonsense in the middle of the nineties.

This had a Reaganomic effect on culture: postmodernism trickled down from journals to grad schools to undergrad philosophy departments to high school English classes – where students now have to learn about "the other" – and, inevitably, into television. And what this trickling down congealed into, if you ask me, was the revival of a show called Doctor Who.

Doctor Who owes a lot of its popularity right now, I think, to the ways people think it differs from the "average" science fiction show. There's something about it that – speaking from personal experience, before I fell off the wagon – feels a little fresher than your average science fiction show, and I think it owes a lot of that to its adherence to the aesthetic dictates of a kind of Postmodernism Lite, the kind of Readers Digest postmodernism that you can explore in a forty-minute episode without cutting too many of the effects shots. But to explain exactly what that means, it's useful to look at the "average" science fiction show, and for that I'll turn, obviously, to Star Trek.

Marshall Berman defines two dominant threads in modernist expression: "cultural despair," the type practiced by Eliot, Faulkner, Sartre and Stravinsky, which is your average gloom and doom about anomie, alienation and ennui, and "modernolatry," the type found in the International Style and Futurism, which is all about enshrining the machine age, embracing globalism, and the belief that all social problems can be solved by strong central administration and efficient use of resources. This is the big utopian historical-narrative type of modernism that led to Pruitt-Igoe and the moon landings, and I don't think it's a stretch to see Star Trek (or at least the 1960s version) as an incarnation of it.

In fact, Star Trek really has it all: a multiethnic, utopian Worlds Fair of a crew who never broach the topic of race, a Futurist fetish for speed and violence, a progressive and omnipresent administration, and, most importantly, a highly self-contained and cohesive universe. It's true that there isn't a real geography in Star Trek (not there is in other fantasy, like Tolkien, anyway) but we know that when we encounter a Klingon, he isn't just a monster of the week; he's part of a faction that has institutions and politics of its own. We know that there's a Starfleet organization; there are things happening on Earth and on every planet that we visit. The crew are just the lens that we view things through; other stories, we can imagine, are being told elsewhere in the universe. The series works very hard to make sure that nothing in the show every breaks the illusion of the coherence of the universe – not the jokes, not the time travel, not even the music is allowed to interrupt the show's universe. Everything works on one register. In other words, it's a utopian, humanist, rationalist approach to constructing a fictional universe – an approach that's colored, I'd argue, by nothing as much as International Style modernist ideology.

Doctor Who, right from the beginning, has taken the opposite tack. There's no effective universal administration, no multiethnic crew members (at first, they're all white; as the show goes on it starts to deal halfheartedly with class and race), and certainly no preoccupation with speed and motion. In fact, there's no real sense of space as such in Doctor Who – the Tardis basically takes on whatever interior dimensions are convenient, and they never rationally fit inside of the phone box; moreover, it doesn't fly off into the stars like the Enterprise, it disappears and reappears somewhere else with apparently no motion involved at all. When characters do talk about "flying" the Tardis, it's abstracted and usually not particularly convincing; one of the show's running gags is how the knobs and levers in the Tardis can't really be assigned specific functions. It seems to move in some sort of frictionless way. The only real analog I can think of for the way the viewer understands the Tardis's motion is the hypertext link, actually: we find it in a new place, without even imagining that there might be intervening space between where it takes off and where it lands. Marinetti would be horrified.

But the real thing that I think sets Doctor Who apart from Star Trek, and from most science fiction shows in that mold, is its utter disregard for a cohesive universe. Doctor Who's focus on travel through time means that literally any character from any time period could potentially appear in any episode. This foregrounds the artificiality of the whole thing, demands that the reader view the episode not as one of many potential stories unfolding within a self-contained universe, but as something that could only happen under the exact circumstances of the episode. Even when the show does linger in one setting for a long time, even when it works at setting up a self-contained universe to inhabit for a few episodes, we're so colored by our experiences of all of the previous episodes and their own universes that we refuse to accept it on any level as absolute. Star Trek's universe has narrative impact because it feels new and fresh; the modernist ideal of art always plumbing new depths. The societies the Doctor encounters ultimately always seem like constructs, backdrops for the episodes, rather than places the viewer could really inhabit; their narrative impact comes simply from their exposure to the Doctor, and not from anything distinctive about themselves. A season of Doctor Who samples a lot of different settings; none of them suggests wider narrative any more than a three-second sample of the Amen Break really suggests the entirety of "Amen, Brother." Doctor Who's narrative avoids the totalizing, rationalist outlook that Star Trek seems so wedded to embraces meaning constructed out of the juxtaposition of elements, and throws in its lot with artificiality, irrationality, fragmentation and playful irony – all things that any freshman humanities textbook will tell you are emblematic of Postmodernism.

But clearly none of the really difficult aspects of Postmodernism come up in Doctor Who. Doctor Who is interested in the Nam Jun Paik/Grandmaster Flash kind of postmodernism, the kind that's fun and colorful and isn't heavy on theory. There's no micropolitics in the Tardis, no infinitely deferred meaning, no exploded subjectivity unless you count all the regenerations. For all its innovation, Doctor Who is ultimately humanist in the same stale way as Star Trek – it's more reductive in its humanism, certainly, but still humanist. Star Trek had the comfortable modernist belief that people, organized by administrators, could solve all their problems. Doctor Who also believes that people can solve all their problems, but legitimizes this, at least in the new series, not by endorsing universal government but simply by letting the Doctor talk about human potential until his face turns blue. It's always unconvincing, and it comes across, I've always thought, as a kind of ideological concession, a way of propitiating the ghost of Star Trek humanism even though Doctor Who, in the twenty-first century, knows a lot more than Star Trek about how insurmountable our problems are.
I read this as a real reluctance on the part of modern culture at large to embrace the kind of pessimistic outlook that Doctor Who's sense of rootlessness, isolation, fear and artificiality could engender. The audience is more than willing to consume Doctor Who if it tempers the threatening parts of its narrative with token humanism and whimsy. So as much as Doctor Who seems like it could qualify as a "postmodern" show on some level, it's really rooted in the same humanistic tradition as any other science fiction show that's on TV right now. It blends in, but it's smaller on the inside than the outside.