The Superversive in Film: Char’s Counterattack

Today, I direct your attention once more across the Pacific to Japan. While I can–and do–recommend Hayao Miyazaki’s classic Studio Ghibli films, that’s not the man behind this film. The film is Mobile Suit Gundam: Char’s Counterattack, and the man is Yoshiyuki “Kill ’em All” Tomino.

The protagonist and antagonist are, once more, Amuro Rey and Char Aznable. This movie is the end of their story, which began with the original Mobile Suit Gundam series, and it brings their conflict to its conclusion. However, that doesn’t mean you need to watch that series (or Zeta Gundam, or ZZ Gundam) to appreciate this film; you’ll be fine going in cold.

The reason for me marking this out as Superversive is due to the root of the conflict: Despair-fueled egotism, expressed as fanatical terrorism. Char does what he does out of a deep-seated obsession with Amuro, whereas Amuro had moved on and began to–at last–find the possibility of happiness in a future of family and fatherhood as he serves Mankind as part of an autonomous elite unit. (This is mirrored in Bright Noa, the unit’s commander. He is married and a father, happily so, and has only gotten stronger as a character because of that.)

It is also because of that root of conflict that you need not see the previous series to appreciate this film; the root reveals itself early to the audience, as shown by Char’s behavior before executing the big villainous plot to force Mankind off Earth entirely. That root comes full circle in the end as everyone sees through to that root and Char gets his comeuppance in spectacular fashion in the climax.

The film’s theme of Hope v. Despair shapes everyone in the cast, for good or ill, and while the villain’s plot is ended it comes as a high cost. (Another regular Gundam trope.) You can see how each character’s embrace of hope, or succumbing to despair, leads to that character’s fate. Tomino has his status as a master for a reason, and you see it in action here.

Thus the ending is bittersweet, but overall a positive one, but not without leaving some matters unfinished and exposing others heretofore buried. (This would set the stage for Gundam Unicorn, which takes place three years after this film.)

And, for all the men-with-screwdriver sorts out there, yes there’s plenty of science in this fiction- the plot (as it often does for a Gundam title) revolves around dropping very big things on to very populated places on the surface of Earth. (Remember that this is the franchise that destroyed Sidney, Australia by dropping a space colony bigger than Babylon 5 on it.) The robots, even the psychic powers, are consistent if unreal (and have other purposes for their presence).

Recommended. It’s the final chapter of a classic saga of Japanese science fiction for a reason.

Ghibli Retrospective: “Whisper of the Heart”

What a charming film, and what a tragic history behind it. “Whisper of the Heart” was written by Miyazaki, produced by Miyazaki, and had its storyboards supervised by Miyazaki, but it was not directed by Miyazaki, nor Isao Takahata. The director of “Whisper of the Heart” was Yoshifumi Kondō (creating that line over the o is annoying, so with all due respect to Kondo I’m done with that). Ghibli had a significant problem, then and now, of developing a new class of directors once Miyazaki and Takahata retired (the problem is so significant, in fact, that after Miyazaki’s latest non-retirement is was an open question whether or not Ghibli would be making any more films at all). Some people rose up and made good films – Goro Miyazaki, who directed “Up on Poppy Hill”, Hiroyuki Morita, who directed the sequel/spinoff “The Cat Returns”, and Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who directed “The Secret World of Arrietty” – but none of them were truly designated the successors to the Ghibli brand like Kondo was.

Kondo was to be the next Miyazaki – indeed, Miyazaki himself had essentially hand-picked him as his successor. And it’s hard to ask for a better debut than “Whisper of the Heart”. Tragically, though, Kondo died not long after “Whisper” of an aneurysm, which Miyazaki himself blamed on overwork (another way of saying that he blamed himself for Kondo’s death, being the one who pushed him so hard).

And it’s such a shame, not only for him and his family, of course, but for the world, because “Whisper of the Heart” is truly an excellent film. I’d probably rank it above at least “Ponyo” and “Kiki’s Delivery Service”. “Whisper of the Heart” is the story of Shizuku, a young teenage girl on the cusp of her entrance exams for high school, but whose real ambition is to be a writer. Shizuku struggles from insecurities about her art, as well as the normal trials and tribulations that a young Japanese girl goes through regularly in suburban Tokyo. Along the way she discovers that a boy named Seiji has been checking out the same books as her at the library, and after rocky introductions the two fall in love quickly thanks to their shared ambitions – Seiji wants to be a violin craftsman.

The more I think about this film the more I realize how much I liked it. The movie is clearly a movie for girls, but it’s more than that. It’s a movie for writers. I don’t know a writer in the world who can’t empathize with Shizukui’s lack of ideas followed by her sudden burst of inspiration that causes her to spend up to four in the morning writing. This happens to me all the time; I’ll be run dry of ideas, and then I’ll get the BEST IDEA EVER, and I’ll have to get the story out RIGHT NOW. It is more than once that I have stayed up until four in the morning writing.

And I can empathize surprisingly well with Shizuku’s romantic life. There is a scene when Shizuku, who has never really shown interest in boys before and is quite shy, is talking with Seiji alone, but unbeknownst to her the entire class is hiding behind a nearby door and eavesdropping. When she figures it out, she’s furious.

This is me. I am not outgoing, and so people find it amusing or entertaining when I take an interest in someone, and I HATE that. I have made excuses to leave my house in order to talk to people without worrying about eavesdropping, so Shizuku’s reaction rang VERY true to me.

The direction in the movie is indeed fantastic, if not quite flawless. Some of Kondo’s visual themes and motifs are brilliantly subtle, to the point where I’ve had to read other reviews to actually catch them, but some are rather on the nose, like the scene where Shizuku tells Seiji that she does not want to be a burden on his life, but wants to aid him, while she is helping him push his bike up a steep hill. This is effective, I suppose, but blunt enough that you can sort of see the gears working in the background. “Hey, you know what would make a good metaphor…” But it’s also something that is quite easy to chalk up to directorial inexperience, and his use of visual storytelling is so on point, so razor sharp in so many other places that his skill and talent is readily apparent.

The script is Miyazaki, and thus excellent. It is much less whimsical than most of Miyazaki’s fare (most; remember that one of the things that makes Miyazaki great is that he could tackle ideas from any direction and knock them out of the park regardless), but it has as much heart as any of them. The story is only barely less slight than “Kiki’s Delivery Service”, but Kondo treats it with the utmost respect; maybe what’s happening here isn’t a big deal in the sense that, say “Princess Mononoke” or even “Porco Rosso” was, but it’s a HUGE deal for Shizuku, and Kondo doesn’t minimize that.

When a boy Shizuku’s friend Yuko has a crush on upsets her, Shizuku and Yuko are both angry, but also both mature enough to talk it over and come to a more rational decision about what to do about it. What happens to them isn’t something for us to laugh at, but a real crisis in their lives that they handle; the only difference is that it happens not to be the sort of crisis we face often as adults. Later, when Shizuku bursts into tears after hearing Nishi’s opinion of her story, we empathize and understand why. To Kondo, being a teenager just means you deal with different issues than adults do, not that they’re less important.

This goes all the way down to the controversial ending. Sure, a marriage proposal is sudden, and they’re too young to act on it anyway, but then the whole point is that being young doesn’t mean your decisions don’t matter. Miyazaki said that the reason he added that ending is that he wanted the protagonists to commit to something; again, it all comes down to respect for the characters. Their choices are not unimportant. They matter. Them being teenagers doesn’t change that.

The ending, by the way, is also EXTREMELY refreshing. Both Seiji and Shizuku, when given the option to go the path of the starving artist to chase their dreams, reject it, and choose to finish their schooling so they could come back to their ambitions after standing on more solid ground. There’s something particularly Miyazakian about that touch, a level of sophistication and maturity lacking in most western films.

Also worth noting: The love story might be the closest of all of them to the Miyazakian ideal of “Two people inspiring one another to live”. This is basically the sole reason Shizuku and Seiji believe they’re suited for each other; both of them are inspired by the other’s dedication to their dreams, and both agree to help the other fulfill them. You can see why Miyazaki decided to adapt the original manga in the first place.

“Whisper of the Heart” is an underappreciated entry in the Ghibli canon. It’s something of a bittersweet pill when you realize we’ll never have another Kondo film to watch, but he left us with – to use a metaphor from the film – a real gem. Perhaps it is rough and unpolished occasionally, but beautiful regardless. And, ah, when it sparkles…!

We’ll never know what Kondo could have been, but we know what he was, and that is the director of a beautiful, moving, and inspiring piece of meticulously crafted cinema. And that’s a better legacy than most of us will ever leave.

Review: “The End of the World as We Knew It”, by Nick Cole

Nick Cole gets it.

Superversive, I mean. He gets it. What it means. How to write it. Every single book of his I’ve read, even the poorer ones, have had at least one moment that pulled me out for a second and made me say “Wow”. And I mean wow as in, “I suddenly got the impression that my world was a little bit brighter and better than it was before”.

Like, his book “The Dark Knight”? I think it was a good book, not great. Except, there this one moment at the end…when one character is caught between saving a library that is essentially the last repository of mankind’s knowledge or saving a 19 year old mentally challenged man…where I just sort of stopped reading for a moment and said “Wow.”

Just, “Wow.”

And “Wow” is sort of “The End of the World as We Knew It” in a nutshell. The book is a little bit like “World War Z” if it were hyperfocused on two characters. The world has ended, and fiancees Alex and Jason – no last names given – are on the opposite sides of the country. When the apocalypse hits, both cheat on each other. Alex is a drunk. She has contributed nothing to her life and knows it, and the thought of Jason, who loves her whatever her flaws, is the only thing that keeps her moving in the apocalypse.

Jason is a rich stockbroker who makes his money by climbing on other people’s backs; he wonders aloud more than once how many people he exploited for his riches. When the apocalypse hits, he cheats on Alex, assuming her dead. After making it out of his office building he takes a train down with the military to California, almost as a sort of penance, in an attempt to find Alex.

Unusually, Alex is much more likable than Jason – this is probably because she seems genuinely repentant and is constantly hoping and praying to find Jason and beg forgiveness. Jason starts off almost dead to the world, but as the story goes on he realizes how much he truly loved Alex, and finding her becomes his mission in life. By the time the book ends Jason has grown much more likable, because he’s thought of someone outside of himself.

But really, that’s not why I’m even writing this. It’s for those “Wow” moments. Like, at the end of Jason’s story, when he rescues a woman who is nearly killed by an explosive strike dropped on a massive zombie attack, to atone for not rescuing the woman he cheated on earlier, only to then see her get embraced by the man who loves her…

That was a “Wow” moment.

When Jason finds the body of a woman who is known only as the Lady, who he has been convinced all along is Alex, but he discovers she’s not, and this prompts the revelation that love truly is stronger than death, or even the of the world as we knew it…

…Wow.

And then the biggest one of all. SPOILERS for the ending.

It is many years later, and Jason and Alex have both dropped out of history. Alex’s story ended with her stuck and surrounded by zombies; we don’t know that she died, but it didn’t look good. Jason’s story ended with him striking out into the North alone to find Alex, armed only with a compass tied around his neck.

The man who killed the last reported zombies from the Apocalypse shares his story from the nursing home: Expecting to find one zombie, there were, in fact, two- a man and a woman.

And…

“He loved her. He wouldn’t leave her,” sobs Cal.

“What happened next?” I prompt. “By the river that day. That last day of summer.” Then Cal remembers. “Can they love each other? Do you know that, boy? Do you know if they can do that?” I didn’t have an answer. Who could?

“The last one was the worst. He loved her. All those zombies, all those years, they’d become nothing more than animals, less than even, and the last of them turned on me in the end. I was glad they were the last. He loved her. He wouldn’t leave her,” he sobs over and over into his nurse.

But of course, that’s not the last thing we learn:

The last two zombies had no identification. Just some personal effects.

The yellowing paper of the official report reads: Female, one diamond ring, left ring finger. Male, one battered army compass, worn around the neck.

Wow.

Sorry, John C. Wright. Nick Cole may be the most superversive writer working in the field today.

The Superversive in Film: Ozamu Tezuka’s “Metropolis”

In 2001, the anime adaptation of Fritz Lang’s 1927 classic Metropolis released in Japan. It came to the West some time later, and–having watched both–I find the adaptation to a more powerful story because it relies even more on the bedrock of Western culture (Christianity) than the original.

The difference is the establishment of a reason for the erection of these skyscrapers and the industrial complex that drives that powerbase: the explicit attempt to create a second Tower of Babel. If you are at all familiar with that story, then you already know how this is going to end.

What matters here is the execution. Instead of our protagonist being the villain’s son, he’s an outsider who visits the titular city alongside his uncle (who’s there on a case) that gets wrapped up in a mess of a plot over a child-like gynoid that’s central to the villain’s plans. The brewing revolution, with ready revolutionaries, from the original is carried over and developed further into a vital subplot whose conclusion ignites the climax.

All of which serves to underpin a consistent thread that, as with the original, the industrialization that the city presents (and represents) is dehumanizing to everyone captured by it. Only our protagonist, being an outsider, retains the human humility necessary to see the folly in all of the plotting going on and implores with the one other character immediately able to stop it to do so- and, at the last moment, succeeds.

The story goes to the effort to show how the apparent peace and prosperity of the city and its inhabitants comes at the cost of subverting the population’s dignity, which they return in kind to the elites preying upon them as well as to the robots who often are the means of this dehumanization, which has exactly the effects that are known to happen to a culture over time: a downward spiral of degeneracy into savagery and despair as the real needs of one and all are unmet as they should, symbolized by the story’s setting degenerating into ever-meaner locations and ever-more-desperate maskings thereof before the pressure is too much as everything (literally and otherwise) blows apart. Fortunately, our hero’s essential innocence allows him the means to see through this tragedy and plant the seed of a better tomorrow.

While there’s no confounding of language, the result is the ruin of the attempt and its abandonment by the survivors in favor of reconciliation and reformation into something that this renewed humility in the (surviving) people can accomplish without dehumanizing themselves, their creations, or each other. As both an homage to the original that equals, if not surpasses, Lang’s film as well as on its own merits this is a story that ends in a bittersweet, but, hopeful mood after seeing great amounts of hubris result in self-destruction as pride goes before a fall. Recommended.

If you would like to see for yourself, you can buy a copy of Osamu Tezuka’s Metropolis at Amazon. The soundtrack is also worth getting a physical copy of, as this playlist shows.

Do You See the Crystal Spire?

With the imminent release on Thursday 15th June by Superversive Press of Jon del Arroz’ second novel For Steam and Country, I have dared to produce a promotional video to capture its epicness, with some capable help from Sean McCleery and Shawn King.

Do You See the Crystal Spire?

Do you see the Crystal Spire
That adorns Rislandia?
You’ll want to join the Crystal Knights
To guard her land, her sea, her air.

When the beating of your heart
Echoes the thundering of the guns,
Then you’ll be sure to play your part
When the battle comes.

The invading Wyranth soldiers’ eyes
Emit an eerie glow;
The ground is shaken by a force
Whose source you’d like to know;
So now climb up this rope,
Renew your old hope as we go!

Do you hear the turbines roar
As we soar into the sky?
This great airship offers more
Than just a simple earthbound life.

When the fire within your heart
Mirrors the glorious setting sun,
Then you’ll be sure to play your part
When adventure comes.

 

The book is currently available for preorder at the bitly shortlink given in the video, but Jon would prefer people to buy on the release date itself so as to maximise the Amazon ranking on day 1, meaning the book becomes more visible within Amazon’s maze of recommendation algorithms.

Miyazaki Retrospective: The Final Analysis

I have sometimes heard a term used when talking about Shakespeare called “Bardolatry”. Essentially it refers to the assumption that because he is Shakespeare, every single thing he wrote is a perfect masterpiece that we should be falling over ourselves to praise. A good example is “Titus Andronicus” a play universally considered absolutely terrible right up until the second half of the twentieth century, when people mysteriously “discovered” how brilliant it was. But it’s not. It’s terrible, Shakespeare or no Shakespeare.

Does this take away from Shakespeare? No, of course not. The five great tragedies (“Hamlet”, “Macbeth”, “Romeo and Juliet”, “King Lear”, and “Othello”) are even today unmatched masterpieces, and his best comedies and romances are brilliant as well. It’s just a good reminder that just because a certain name is attached to something doesn’t make it good by default.

This is all a preface for me to say that while I am trying to avoid engaging in “Miyazaki-dolatry”…it is REALLY hard. The truth is, the hype surrounding this guy was so huge that really, who could possible live up to it? I wasn’t *expecting* him to live up to it. It would be unfair to, really.

…And then, dammit, he did. He really, really did. He was as good as promised, and in some cases *better* (“Howl’s Moving Castle” particularly). After viewing his filmography in full, there are four main things I took away:

  1. The man is good at EVERYTHING. Slow moving and idyllic slice of life films? Brilliant. Biopics? Brilliant. Epics? Brilliant. Comedies? Brilliant. Action movies? Brilliant. He has movies that are powered mainly on the strength of his dialogue (“Porco Rosso”), movies powered by the strength of their action scenes (“The Castle of Cagliostro”), movies most notable for their scope and complex plots (“Princess Mononoke”, “Nausicaa”), movies carried by the sheer beauty of the animation (“Ponyo”), wonderful romances (“Howl’s Moving Castle”), and then movies that are so original, so purely Miyazaki, that you’re simply in awe at the uniqueness of his vision (“Spirited Away”). Never have I seen a director who isn’t just good at *something*, but who has mastered every aspect of his craft.
  2. The consistency of his brilliance is remarkable. There is not one single “bad” movie in Miyazaki’s filmography. His worst film, “Ponyo”, is absolutely gorgeous, has lovable characters, and bursts with atmosphere. “The Castle of Cagliostro”, probably his second worst movie by default, has action scenes that are still revered by directors today. In my “Spirited Away” review, I pointed out that I’ve seen at least six different films all ranked as Miyzaki’s best on one list or another – and every decision is completely defensible.
  3. He knows how to do female characters better than anyone else I’ve ever seen. Miyazaki creates female characters that are brave, tough, kind, beautiful, admirable, and very, very feminine. And all with distinct personalities as well; you can palette swap the average female Strong Wymyn Character in western media today and come up with basically the same character with a different name, but Miyazaki’s female characters are all *different*, yet all *admirable*. It is a little sad that this is so remarkable (a writer can create interesting and competent characters, stop the presses), but that is the situation we’re in right now.
  4. He is the most superversive director ever. I’m not really sure how you can dispute this. Every single one of his movies contains at least one moment of love or beauty that points the viewer towards away from themselves, and towards the divine. Miyazaki’s characters literally and figuratively look upward – towards the rising wind, towards something bigger than themselves, towards things worth risking their lives and making sacrifices for. He has heroes who are truly heroic, villains who are truly villainous, and characters with understandable goals and motivations that nevertheless are not excused for their actions, because they live in a world where morality is real and there is such a thing as making the *wrong* decision, both practically and morally. If C.S. Lewis is the patron Saint of superversive fiction than Miyazaki is the current king of the castle.

Ultimately I feel a little like I did when I discovered the excellent show “Justified” for the first time and learned there was still one season left: Very, very lucky. Miyazaki is not done: He is is still drawing, still writing, still creating. And I am absolutely thrilled to be lucky enough to watch him do it one more time, right in front of me, and experience his movie when it’s released as it’s meant to be.

And you can be sure when that happens, the retrospective will be updated again!

So what’s next? I am done?

Nah. I’ll move on to more Ghibli (but NEVER “The Grave of the Fireflies”). “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” should be in the mail right now, so that will probably be the next in the retrospective. Stay tuned!

Ah, and one last thing. My personal ranking (Note: Every movie is recommended, and all should be watched at least once)…

  1. Princess Mononoke
  2. Spirited Away
  3. Howl’s Moving Castle
  4. Castle in the Sky
  5. The Wind Rises
  6. Porco Rosso (Note: I rewatched it recently and liked it a lot more, but am still surprised to find myself putting it higher than a couple of these movies!)
  7. My Neighbor Totoro
  8. Nausicaa in the Valley of the Wind
  9. Kiki’s Delivery Service
  10. The Castle of Cagliostro
  11. Ponyo

The Superversive Gundam Series: Gundam Unicorn

“Superversive” and “Mobile Suit Gundam” doesn’t get associated often. Over the course of the history of this giant franchise of Japanese science fiction, there’s been a strong note of despair and incidents of nihilistic excess that cannot be ignored. (If Yoshiyuki “Kill ‘Em All!” Tomino is involved, be ready for it.)

This is not universal, and recently a series not only shook itself loose of that legacy but managed to be Superversive. That series is Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn Re:0096, and you can watch it free and legal here (subtitled into English) or (for American readers) on Adult Swim’s Toonami block on Saturdays (dubbed). If you prefer (and you can find them, and read Japanese) there are print versions; Unicorn originally was a light novel before its series adaptation.

The reason I mark this series out as Superversive has to do with the subject of the story, which concerns itself with the origin of this setting’s creation and the corruption that took root at the beginning to subvert the real potential for the uplifting of Mankind into a more perfect form- Newtypes (i.e. psychics, telepaths). The conflict of the story revolves around those seeking to maintain the undermining lie upon which all of this meta-narrative’s conflict revolves, or expose the truth to all of Mankind and thereby risk the collapse of a corrupt order into utter chaos in the effort to restore the original intention of the founders of the Universal Century era.

And by saying that much, I likely spoiled some of it. My apologies.

This is a series featuring giant robots fighting battles where our protagonist is reluctant to fight, tries to love his way through it all, and–especially once he gets a literal princess at his side–actually manages to pull some measure of it off. Why? Because that desire to love his enemies leads him to the truth, and that truth is the means that leads him to achieve his victory in the end despite facing down multiple superweapons and just as many black-hearted antagonists who’d throw billions to Baal (not so figuratively) than admit that they serve a lie.

While many Gundam series conclude with bittersweet success for the protagonists, if they succeed at all, this time it’s properly uplifting. There’s a reality to it that isn’t present in others, and a decided lack of nihilism despite all of the suffering and death that occurs. While I’ve yet to watch a Gundam series that lies to me, this is the first one that ended in a way properly uplifted me, like after I watched Star Wars the first time lo those many years ago.

In short, this is a beautiful series in all ways possible. Short of a Miyazaki masterpiece, it is rare to get such a treat in most franchise anime. Recommended.