Tag Archives: analysis

Winter 2018 Anime and Wholesome Masculinity

One thing I’ve talked about before is that while today’s critics love to talk about “toxic masculinity,” in popular media, no one ever seems to call attention to it when we get the opposite of that. Now I guess it’s nice if a show doesn’t have toxic masculinity at all (depending on what that even means.) But let’s go one step further: what if a show not only avoids toxic, evil, ugly masculinity, but instead has wholesome, healing, warm-and-fuzzy masculinity? Is that even possible?

Because, it could just be me– or more specifically, it could just be the shows I’ve chosen to watch this season. But it feels like, this anime season, there are a whole lot of male characters who are portrayed as masculine while still being allowed to be compassionate, vulnerable, nurturing people; furthermore, these traits are seen as being part of their masculine nature, not exceptions to it. I can’t be the only one who’s noticed.

Before we go any further, important disclaimer: I haven’t been watching everything this season. Maybe if I watch DARLING in the FRANXX, it’ll turn out to be a bunch of shirtless dudes beating their chests and firing machine guns or something? (I admit, I have no idea what that show’s about.) I’m just calling attention to a pattern, not claiming that it covers every anime airing.

With that out of the way, here’s a list of shows this season that feature “wholesome masculinity;” a term I coined because “wholesome” is an antonym for “toxic.” The fact that I had to invent a term for it is kind of interesting by itself.

March Comes in Like A Lion— You could probably talk about masculinity in relation to almost every arc on this show, but I’m going to focus on the recent bullying arc. When one of the Kawamoto sisters is bullied in school, main dude Rei takes it upon himself to help her, only to confront his own powerlessness. At first he thinks of ripping apart the bullies “limb from limb,” but realizes that even if he were actually to do such an absurd thing, it wouldn’t help Hina at all; just present her with a different kind of problem. He then considers using his money (since, as a pro Shogi player, Rei has a lot more cash than a boy his age typically would), only to realize his mistake; even if he were to give Hina money for a private school or private tutors, she wouldn’t accept it, and he’s not going to try to trample her pride. Basically, he soon realizes that force, in any form, won’t solve anything.

While the failure of his early attempts at helping Hina do frustrate him, instead of letting that frustration fester, he eventually comes up with another solution; to simply be there for Hina, as much as possible. He’s there for her in a very physical sense, showing up while she’s on a school trip in Kyoto just to say hi and give her some medicine. But he doesn’t shadow her, doesn’t overstep his bounds; simply lets her know that he’s there for her, and demonstrates it repeatedly. When the bullying situation is eventually resolved by the school administration, Rei is left feeling like he didn’t do enough for Hina; naturally, she knows better.

I don’t want to say that serving as a pillar of support for someone else is a uniquely masculine trait, because that’s clearly not true. However, there is something masculine to me about Rei’s way of going about it; what he primarily offers is his very presence, his physical constancy. He can’t really help Hina by talking out her problems with her (he doesn’t know what to say), but he can help by simply being there when his presence might offer some comfort. That kind of silent vigil, as though saying “I won’t interfere in your life because I know it’s not my place, but I will ALWAYS be there for you, even if being there is literally all I can do,” is a way of using your power to help protect someone while making sure that they won’t ever feel like they need protection from you. It’s the “toxic” idea of the controlling/dominating male turned inside out.

It’s driving me crazy that I can’t find a reference to the quote anywhere now, but I could swear I remember reading that Kentarou Miura, creator of Berserk, once said that March Comes in Like a Lion was one of the “manliest” manga around. It seemed like an odd take at the time, especially considering the source, but I think I’m beginning to see what Miura meant.

Sanrio Boys–As an advertisement for Sanrio products, I’m not sure if this show is working out so hot; we don’t learn a whole lot about the different brand characters, and the episodes tend to fall on the dull side. The show’s overall quality aside though, it makes a few important points about masculinity, and does so repeatedly.

There’s the most basic message, which is that males who like cute or “girly” things don’t have to be any less masculine than males who don’t; an appreciation of something traditionally feminine does not cancel out masculinity, and boys should not carry around any fear that it somehow might. However, the situation is complicated by the fact that all of the Sanrio characters represent points of vulnerability for the main characters. For Kouta, Pompompurin represents his bond with his grandmother, and his fear that he let her down before she died; for Seiichirou, a driven overachiever who is pushed hard by his father, Cinamoroll represents the care-free childhood he was forced to abandon too fast. Each boy has a similar story.

The Sanrio charms the boys carry around aren’t just cute tchotchkes they collect as a hobby, but constant reminders of their vulnerabilities. Once you get past the “it’s okay for a dude to have a Hello Kitty keychain” level, the show really seems to be about how becoming stronger is about accepting and embracing your vulnerabilities, not running from them; that you don’t truly become strong until you stop being afraid of weakness.

Appropriately Ryou, the least traditionally masculine looking of all the boys, has the most problems with accepting this, because he has the most to lose. As a beautiful boy who gets babied by his older sisters, he feels like he has to fight for every shred of perceived masculinity he can get; he doesn’t think he can afford to admit to liking cute mascot characters the way the muscular guys can. When Ryou finally admits to and accepts his love of Sanrio, it seems like he’s become more mature and more manly in the process, because he’s exploring his vulnerability instead of running away from it.

As I said above, it’s probably not a great show. But as a delivery vehicle for the message “Masculinity doesn’t have to be what you always thought it was,” it might just be peerless.

How to Keep a Mummy–This show is mostly just an adorable little ray of sunshine, to be enjoyed and not really thought about much; really, I think trying to analyze this show too much would be doing it a disservice. However, that said, I don’t think I’m being too analytical by pointing out that the male characters on this show are portrayed in caretaker roles; they’re not changing diapers, exactly, but taking care of the little monsters that fall into their lives requires a fair amount of nurturing. Some are more nurturing than others, but there’s no question that they’ve been assigned caretaker roles.

Now that I think about it, it’s actually kind of surprising that this wasn’t a “cute girls doing cute things” series; seeing cute girls take care of cute little monsters sounds like it would be very marketable. In any case, I’m glad the series turned out this way instead. Mummy isn’t didactic about breaking apart old-fashioned ideas about masculinity the way Sanrio Boys is, but just by putting the boys in caretaker roles– in a rather casual way– it challenges negative masculine stereotypes. There is one female main character, but considering the fact that she isn’t treated differently at all, I don’t feel like there’s anything to add about her.

School Babysitters–Now in this anime, boys are changing diapers. Again, we have boys in nurturing caretaker roles. However, one interesting wrinkle that Mummy doesn’t cover is we get to see how the boys are perceived by their classmates as caretakers. Despite the fact that he chases after toddlers and sings lullabies all day long, Ryuuichi is considered one of the hottest guys in school by his female classmates– and the other boy in the babysitting club is a close second (although Hayato isn’t such a great babysitter, but that’s a topic for another time.)

So, not only does taking care of babies fail to hurt Ryuuichi’s chances with the opposite sex, it seems to be helping; the implication is that the girls like him in no small part because he’s so demonstrably nurturing. I don’t know if it’s fair to say that the girls consider him more masculine, but they certainly consider him a nicer and more interesting person than a lot of his classmates. I don’t think the show is really trying to say “take care of babies and chicks will totally dig you, because kindness trumps toughness in manly appeal,” but hey, there are worse takeaways.

Today’s Menu for the Emiya Family– This show is an odd-duck, the oddly bucolic food-porn spin off of the Fate/Stay Night franchise. I don’t have a lot to say about it other than the fact that main guy Shirou is constantly cooking for the other people in his life; primarily women, like Rin, Saber, and Illya. Sometimes the girls cook as well, but Shirou is clearly the main chef.

Being a chef certainly isn’t anti-masculine (as watching any amount of celebrity chef television will show), but it is notable that Shirou’s whole role in this show is to provide food for the ladies in his life. Rin could be all like “Bitch, get in the kitchen and make me a sandwich!” and he would just shrug, because he’s already in the kitchen making her ten sandwiches.

Laid-Back Camp– Now we’re getting into shows that don’t even have much of a male presence, but what presence there is has some significance. There are barely any male characters in Laid-Back Camp; the only one who makes much of an impression is Rin’s grandfather, the man who gave her her first set of camping equipment. So Grandpa decides to inspire his granddaughter not by getting her some cutesy little present, but a tent. So she can go out and camp, alone, independent, in the wild.

Apparently the concept of trying to limit his granddaughter’s autonomy for her own protection has never occurred to Laid-Back Grandpa. He must have missed that day in Toxic Masculinity class.

A Place Further Than The Universe– Another show with a minimal male presence, but that absence is interesting in and of itself. The Antarctic expedition is led by women, but while the civilian expedition is considered controversial in the world of the show, the gender of the leadership seems to have nothing to do with it. People take issue with the fact that it’s a civilian expedition, or that the finances are too tight, but it doesn’t seem to have occurred to anyone to be worried that the leadership is all-female; it’s just a non-issue. You would think there would at least be that one token dude who’d say something like “In a tough place like Antarctica, you need a MAN’s strength!”, but the show doesn’t even bother with that.

I like this show, in part because it’s one of the relatively few shows where having the leads be four teen girls actually accomplishes something other than ticking a demographic box. It doesn’t have much to say about masculinity, but I think it’s worth noting that it doesn’t feel a need to, even in passing.

Ms. Koizumi Loves Ramen Noodles– Okay, including this here is really a stretch, since it’s only tangentially related to the theme of this post; maybe I’m trying to justify to myself the fact that I’m still watching it. However, I do think it’s interesting that the kind of stereotypical “dim guy who just doesn’t get that the pretty girl isn’t interested in him,” character is another girl. All of the creepy behavior targeted towards Koizumi is from Yuu, her female classmate; even when it seems like a guy is after Koizumi, it’s a false alarm and they’re more interested in the ramen she’s eating.

There is some creepy, arguably even toxic behavior on this show, but pretty much all of it comes from Yuu; the guys are pretty blameless. I think guys are sometimes surprised by how much ramen Koizumi can put away, but that has more to do with respect for the laws of physics than gender stereotypes, probably. Anyway, it’s not that this show has anything particularly meaningful to say about toxic masculinity, wholesome masculinity, or otherwise, but it’s kind of cool (in a weird way) that Yuu is providing us with some rare toxic-femininity. How’s that for representation?


So yeah. The next time I hear about how anime is just chock-full of toxic masculinity, I want to hear an explanation of this season. Like, did a whole bunch of anime writers just wake up and forget to be toxic one day? Something in the water? I need to know.

Being an Anime Fan is Too Easy Now; Let’s Make it Harder

At a local comics store recently, I found something totally unexpected on the shelves: a used copy of Anime: The Berkeley Journal of Japanese Animation, Issue II. It’s a magazine from 1991, published by a Berkeley-based anime fan club, with a lovely picture of Gainax’s Nadia on the cover. The book is mostly comprised of episode scripts and summaries for Nadia and other contemporary shows, so it doesn’t have a whole lot of value as a magazine (no fascinating articles on anime from an early-’90s perspective), but it was such a cool little piece of anime history that I had to pick it up.

I’m assuming the reason why the book is mostly scripts is because the fans who read this journal were watching Fushigi no Umi no Nadia on raw VHS, taped off of Japanese television, and needed the scripts and/or summaries to follow what was happening on screen. That got me thinking about how much danged work it was to be an anime fan back then; anime didn’t show up to your house, you had to go to it. You had to go to club meetings, to watch grainy copies of a show on a tiny screen in a foreign language with no subtitles, and the only way you could understand what was going on was if you followed along in your guide, which needed to be specially designed and printed by other fans.

And the fans who made these zines and attended these viewings were the lucky ones, because at least they had access to something; in most of the country (basically anywhere that wasn’t NYC or California), the only option was to buy tapes for $34.95 for anime that had come out years ago. This was one instance where geographic privilege was very powerful, because only people on the coasts were likely to even see a show like Nadia anywhere near the time it aired on Japanese TV.

Compared to now, obviously it’s like night and day. I can load up Crunchyroll or Netflix and gain access to more anime than I could possibly watch; not just the old classics that have gained popularity in the West, but most of the same shows that are airing in Japan now. If for some reason you don’t like streaming media, you can buy anime box sets on DVD and Blu-Ray for a fraction of what anime used to cost decades ago, and the visual and audio quality is vastly superior. We are living in an Otaku Paradise…okay, the fact that CR now has something close to a monopoly on anime streaming is not good for consumers, but nevertheless, compared to 1991 we are living like royalty.

And yet, I can’t help feeling we’re missing out on something. When you have to work that hard to do something, you invest in it more, and therefore get more out of it. The Berkeley journal era was before my time as an otaku– I was still into original My Little Pony and She-Ra: Princess of Power back then– but later on, during my teen years, there was still a much higher level of risk involved in being a fan. Anime tapes cost $29.99 or $34.99; when I went to the store, I could only afford to buy maybe one, and it was a serious decision. And if I bought an anime I didn’t like, well, by the time I’d finished watching the tape to death, I would have found something I liked about it. I’d invested way too much in anime to just watch the tape once and throw it in a drawer somewhere.

Still, when I did buy a tape and bring it home from the mall, there was that bubbling excitement; I got a new anime! A whole new anime, maybe even with multiple episodes on it! My anime collection was increasing! There’s nothing like that excitement today; partially because I’m old and jaded, but even young fans don’t feel that same sense of excitement that I once did if they have access to nigh-unlimited streaming anime, I don’t think. I don’t see how they could.

I need to be careful here…it’s true that when you have less, you appreciate it more, and that’s the phenomenon I’m talking about. Yet that comes dangerously close to saying “things were better back when they SUCKED,” which is just stupid. I wouldn’t want to go back to the time when I spent $30 for one episode of the Oh! My Goddess OVA, no matter how excited I was to bring that tape home. No, things are better now, but I don’t think any of us are quite as invested and passionate in anime as fans were circa ’91, or even 2000; it’s just not possible. It’s become too easy, too automatic to watch new brand-new anime.

What I’m wondering now is if there’s any way we can somehow nurture the same passion fans had back when anime was a scarce, precious resource, but without making people jump through ridiculous hoops to cut off access. I mean, I suppose you could make some kind of “Old School Anime Challenge,” where people could opt-in to try to live like an old-school fan for a while and only watch one (raw) show per season or something*, but that seems more like a silly exercise in masochism than anything else. Unless some cataclysm destroys the internet and sends us back to the VHS-and-Betamax days, we can’t return to that time.

I was kidding in the title of the post about how we should make it harder to be an anime fan; obviously, we don’t really want to do that. But I think we should maybe be less forgiving of those who take anime for granted; those “fans” who talk about how every show sucks, how in general anime sucks, how people who are really into anime suck. Obviously, these people have the right to watch anime if they want (although why they even want to, when they apparently have such a low opinion of it, is an open question). But we don’t have to take their opinions seriously either, which is what we’ve been doing for the past 15 years or so.

I don’t really have a plan here. I’m going to be thinking about ways to be more passionate and appreciative as a fan, the kind the Berkeley Anime Club would have recognized, without going to another extreme and becoming a completely non-critical anime zombie. If opening your browser to watch all the latest anime from this season has started to feel more like a chore than a privilege, maybe you should give it some thought too. It could be that you’d be better off watching less anime, only spending time with the stuff you really love, or maybe you could try to have a different perspective on what you’re already watching.

All I know is, this feeling where anime is cheap and disposable is icky and I don’t like it. I’m not going back to hoarding VHS tapes, but I’m going to try to act a little bit more like the person who thought that spending all of her babysitting money on anime tapes was a good idea.

*Only if you live in NYC or California though: if you live anywhere else in the world, you will watch reruns of Golden Girls and you will like it.

Are Video Games Art?, Part III

Let’s take a look at some of the arguments for why video games can’t or shouldn’t be art. These are only the arguments I’ve personally encountered, so I could be missing a lot here. Feel free to provide other arguments in the comments (either in the spirit of “This is why your whole series of blog posts is wrong,” or “This is what my idiot cousin from Philly says,” either is fine with me.)

  1. Video Games Can’t Be Art Because They Are Items of Consumer Electronics and Must Be Judged on That Level

This is, by far, the most sensible argument against games being art, and the one that’s creating a lot of friction among gamers right now. We’re dealing with clashing paradigms that don’t play nicely together.

An example: You can look at the Mona Lisa for a couple of seconds, and unless you’re a real art buff, at that point you’re done with it. Still, despite the short engagement time, that image will probably be ingrained within your mind for the rest of your life, you’ll see references to the Mona Lisa for the rest of your life, and the painting’s value is considered priceless, beyond rubies. If you only engaged with a $60 game for a few seconds, when you were expecting 20-60 hours of gameplay (or even several hundred hours, if you just bought an in-depth SRPG like Disgaea), you just got ripped off.

In theory, someone could make a game that was five seconds long and have it be priceless, but due to the differences between the visual arts and interactive media, that’s highly unlikely. This whole idea of judging something based on how much time it occupies relative to it’s price is something that doesn’t gel well with art appreciation as a concept. No one ever goes to a museum and complains that the exhibit sucked because they only stood in front of each painting for a moment.*

And yet, other mediums have been dealing with this for years, and that somehow doesn’t disqualify them from being art. Films are judged in part by how they use their runtime, and whether they’re an entertaining or informative use of 2 or so hours; a film that seemingly wastes 2 hours of your time is considered a rip-off. However, just because films can be judged in this manner, and are judged that way more often than not, no one then counters that cinema can’t be art. It’s simply different ways of judging the same thing; you can judge film as a consumer product, but that’s not the only viewpoint there is. If this works for film, why shouldn’t it work for games?

One thing fairly specific to games that I don’t believe applies elsewhere is the fact that a game has to be a functioning piece of software. If the X button is jump, the character better jump 100% of the time, not 75%, and the graphics better not bug out every time you enter a new room. A game could have the most brilliant artistic ideas imaginable, but if the controls don’t work, it fails as a piece of consumer electronics, and therefore as a game.

There’s some wiggle-room here; some games with slightly wonky controls and bug issues are often given a partial pass if the content they feature is otherwise high-quality. But in general, a game has to work as software first.

The problem is people think that a game can fail as software, but then use “art” as an excuse to completely avoid responsibility for its failures. “Oh the game is buggy as hell, but what a wonderfully nuanced look at a romance between two one-armed seamstresses in the 1730s!”

And you know what? That happens (not the seamstresses game, although now I’d kind of like to see something like that). Games can fail either in controls or amount of content and use art as an excuse. Sure, it’s a five-minute long walking simulator that costs $60, but dammit, it’s art! You can’t put a price on art!

Actually, you can, and being classified as art isn’t some magical Get Out of Jail Free Card that makes everything okay.  Because you see, bad art exists. If your five-minute long walking simulator isn’t interesting to play and is overpriced, it’s still art; it’s just bad, terrible art that isn’t of much consequence.

Basically, once you accept the premise that art can be bad, you lose the problem with art becoming a failsafe justification for anything. An “art game” can be artistic and also bad, and the idea that priceless art only requires a few seconds of active engagement simply does not apply if the art in question is not good. You can judge games as consumer electronics, and you can judge them as art, but if it fails on the first level, chances are it’s going to fail on the second level too, because the medium is the message. If something has great artistic value in regard to music and visuals or whatnot but fails as a piece of interactive media, chances are it shouldn’t have been made as a piece of interactive media.

2, Video Games Can’t Be Art For STRUCTURAL REASONS Having To Do With Authorial Intent

I first read this in a newspaper, in a film critic’s column. It was a small, regional paper, so it wasn’t like this was coming from a famous critic whose name would mean anything to you. The argument was basically that film directors make choices, these choices create certain responses in the audience, and within these choices we find the art of cinema. In video games, people make their own choices, so games aren’t art; they are simply entertainment.

Okay, so…where do we even start with this? It’s contingent on the idea that game creators don’t make choices. Like, someone just starts making a game, throws the telephone-book sized design document out a 100-story window, and says “let’s do whatever, no big.” I could say that this might be true if you’re just screwing around in RPG Maker, but I have screwed around in RPG Maker a lot, and I’m pretty sure it’s not true even then. This argument is just complete, utter nonsense.

The problem is that it uses intelligent-sounding terms like “structural” and “authorial intent,” so people still get snowed by it. I find most of the ‘intellectual’ arguments against games being art are all very much like this; they might sound logical at first, but they make less and less sense the more you think about them.

3. Video Games Can’t Be Art Because They’re Addictive

Video games can be very addictive, but if you don’t think reading good books can be addictive too, man have I got a nice bridge to sell you. It’s not exactly the same thing; games tend to create more of a dopamine rush than reading does, making them more addictive for many people. But so what?

Video game addiction can be a real problem, and it’s something we’re going to have to grapple with more and more as virtual worlds become more important in our lives. But it’s irrelevant to the question we’re trying to answer.

4. Roger Ebert/Hideo Kojima/Insert Famous Person said that Games are Not Art

I have a lot of respect for late Roger Ebert, and many people doing media criticism today could learn a lot from him. That said, his medium was film, not games, and he freely admitted that he didn’t play games or know much about them. You can have all the respect in the world for Ebert as a film critic without thinking that his opinions on all other media were equally valuable.

Hideo Kojima though…man, that kind of gets me. I mean, the only excuse for most of Metal Gear Solid 2 is art; if you’ve played it, you know exactly what I’m talking about. So I don’t really understand where Kojima’s coming from there, but what’s more important is, no one person– no matter how famous, no matter how talented– is qualified to be the sole arbiter of what is and is not art.**

5. “I Don’t Need Games to Be Art.”

I’ve heard this one from several people lately, and I think I know what they mean, but the logic has already struck me as a little odd. I mean, I don’t NEED for Van Gogh’s Starry Night to be art either; some snooty agency could put out an international bulletin, “Starry Night NO LONGER ART!” and it wouldn’t cause me to think that my needs had been compromised; my needs are pretty irrelevant to the whole situation.

What people mean when they say this, I think, is “I don’t need the intellectual validation of games being considered art; it’s okay with me if games are just entertainment.” This viewpoint depends on believing in the art/entertainment divide, and I already explained in Part 1 why I don’t buy that. So in essence, while I think I know what people mean when they say this and I see the validity of those feelings, the reasoning itself is irrelevant to the question. You might as well say “I don’t need Nutella to be a sandwich topping,” or “I don’t need Die Hard to be a Christmas Movie,” (yeah, I went there.)

Sometimes people say this because they find the whole debate tedious as hell and want to move on, and given how these discussions tend to go on social media, I can’t say I blame them. But the debate doesn’t stop existing just because you happen to be tired of it, you know?

6. Games Can’t Be Art Because [Insert Bad Game] Exists

“LOL, you think games are art? Look at this screenshot from Custer’s Revenge, and try to say that with a straight face. Oh and Superman 64 LMFAO CHECKMATE.”

As we’ve already covered, bad art exists. I would bet money that right now, there are at least 10 nearly-blank canvasses hanging in museums all over the world, with one tiny dot of black  paint the only point of interest. And the titles are something like “The Overpowering Oppression of Whiteness,” or “White Supremacy, Visualized,” or even “Unbearable Loneliness No. 8.” Chances are, if you’ve ever been to an art museum even once, you have seen this sort of thing. Lots of it.

This is terribly lazy, cynical art, but it doesn’t invalidate painting, or the visual arts more generally, as an art form. It may lead you to wonder about the motives of some museum curators, but that’s a different problem.

————————————————————————————-After going through it all, the only genuine area of concern we seem to have is the one about the expectations for consumer electronics and the expectations for art being different things at this point in time; that is changing, however. Every other argument against games being art seems to depend on some kind of false technicality, an appeal to authority, or pretending that bad art is something that doesn’t exist. I don’t see how you can be a logical person and find any of these arguments convincing.

And yet, after all this, I’m not entirely without sympathy for those who don’t want Tetris included in the hypothetical World Pantheon of Art. There’s something special, something refined about sitting down with a 19th-century novel that I don’t get from a JRPG, no matter how good the game is. There is something special about the texture of paint on canvas, the sound that comes out of a beautiful brass instrument, the mesmerizing nature of classic film. These are all special things.

I think people are afraid that if we allow games to be classified as art, we are somehow making all of the above less important, less special. And if you’re worried about that, games qualifying as art can seem extremely threatening. But we have to face facts; there is no good reason why games aren’t art, and if that makes us have to reconsider the value of other art forms and how they stack up against the interactive version of themselves, then that’s a challenge we’re going to have to grapple with whether we want to or not. Right now, I think a lot of people are running away from that challenge, and we can’t afford to anymore.

*This does somewhat work with music, because if you went to a concert and it was only five minutes long, you’d probably feel pretty cheated. That doesn’t mean the one song that the orchestra played during that five minutes wasn’t priceless, though.

**Well except for me, obviously. I wrote these blog posts and everything.

Are Video Games Art? Part II

Art Is Cooperative

To illustrate how the viewer always customizes the experience of art, let’s turn away from videogames for a moment and look to something that is clearly “Art with a capital A,” painting. There’s a Kandinsky painting called Inner Simmering that I have a special connection with. I don’t know what Kandinsky intended with the painting; if I ever read any sort of commentary on it, I’ve long since forgotten. However, for me the painting is about the turbulent feelings of going from childhood to adulthood.

When I was 11, my mother took me to the Guggenheim Museum to see a Kandinsky exhibit. I was tremendously excited to be going to a museum and not a “kids” museum; a serious art museum for sophisticated, cultured adults. Inner Simmering was the painting that stuck in my mind; I felt like I was “simmering,” boiling over with excitement at taking the train, then the bus, then going to the museum, then going to a trendy cafe for lunch, all being treated like an adult and seemingly being initiated into this beautiful adult world of symposiums and garden parties. But I was also still a child, and I was a little afraid, worried the wonderful day would somehow fall apart, and my mother would lose me somewhere. Maybe I’d get lost in the city and end up begging in Central Park, or run over by an angry cab driver; there were dangers everywhere. My stomach wouldn’t stop churning.

Even now, over 20 years later, I can’t look at an image of that painting without thinking of the “simmering” feeling I had that day, the day when I felt my childhood and my adulthood bumping into each other in the pit of my stomach. This feeling was probably not what Kandinsky intended, but I think most appreciators of art would agree that my personal interpretation is a valid one; that, without getting into a tiresome “Death of the Author” debate, it’s widely recognized that the viewer’s experience of every work of art is customized to their own experience; not by choice, but by necessity. I can never be in Vassily Kandinsky’s head, only my own.

Returning to games now, I have the same kind of customized experiences. Tomb Raider was about the fantasy of overcoming my own natural timidity and going out to explore the world, maybe not ancient tombs but, say, hiking on a local trail without fear. Parasite Eve was about a fantasy version of Manhattan, a Manhattan that, while being full of monsters, was mostly devoid of people, meaning I could explore at my own pace; something I’ve never felt able to do when I’ve actually been in real-life Manhattan (and to this day, I feel far more at home in PE’s horrifying version of Manhattan than I do in any of the actual locations featured in the game, despite having visited many of them several times.) Final Fantasy VII was about…Final Fantasy VII was about a lot of things, and I don’t want to go on for 30,000 words here, so I’ll leave it at that.

I’m pretty sure Vagrant Story was somehow about sex, but I’m still figuring that one out; yes, Ashley’s famous pants played a role there, but that was only part of it. .hack was about trying to figure out why imaginary items in imaginary worlds were so important to me, among other things, and I still haven’t cracked that one; I keep replaying the .hack quadrilogy once every couple of years, hoping to figure it out. In fact, I think one of the reasons why I’ve never been able to get into World of Warcraft is because I’m still waiting for the simulated MMO of .hack to reveal whether or not I should care about real MMOs or not.

I think everyone has these kinds of personal experiences of games; they may not all be as elemental as my association with Inner Simmering, or even Parasite Eve, but they’re still there. However, this is where we get into how videogames differ from other media; because while we all perceive a painting differently, we’re all still standing there in front of the canvas, or the browser; our “participation” as it were, is all in our heads. In videogames our different experiences are acted out, sometimes in relatively simple ways (ex. taking a different route in a platformer), and sometimes in more complex ones, like purposely playing the game “wrong” to create a different experience. In games, the cooperative nature of art– something that has always existed– can be taken to the next level.

My Affair With Yuna

Screenshot taken from Youtuber Hellbent Revenge’s Yuna Only Challenge video.

Time for a confession: while I’ve never recorded myself doing Super Mario Speed runs or tried to beat Resident Evil in under 2 hours with only the knife, I am a challenge gamer at heart. In fact, I am the originator of the Final Fantasy X Yuna-Only No-Summoning Challenge.

*Pause for most people to go “the hell’s that?” while everyone who’s actually played FFX winces in terrible, sympathetic pain.*

For a while after FFX came out, people were making up all kinds of difficult challenges for the game, like the No Sphere Grid Challenge and the Tidus-Only Challenge. This sort of thing is pretty common among Final Fantasy fans in general, but it seemed like this trend was reaching its peak around the time X came out. While eventually every character had their own solo challenge, for years, Yuna was left out. Yuna was considered a bad character to try to solo with, because the whole premise of the game was that she was too weak to survive without protection. Yet, if you allowed her to summon her Aeons, then she became the most powerful character in the game*, completely destroying the “challenge” element of a solo run. The conventional wisdom was that a solo run that allowed summoning was too easy (and given the length of the summoning animations, too tedious anyway), while prohibiting summoning made it impossible.

Sometime in 2006, during a cold Albany winter (which was probably more relevant to all of this than you might think), I had a dangerous thought: What if a No-Summoning run with Yuna wasn’t impossible, only extremely difficult? I had to find out.

People on Gamefaqs were skeptical. How will you get past this boss, they asked, how will you survive this section where the enemies can kill poor little Yuna in one hit? And yet, I always found a way. I discovered that if you were willing to spend enough time leveling up Yuna by herself, you could pretty much brute-force your way through the entire game. Between farming for rare offensive weapon drops and power-leveling to get Yuna a support spell she wouldn’t normally learn until the end of the game, it all became possible. Check out this FAQ for more details; the user named Crystal Bangle is me.

What this meant, practically, was that I spent dozens of hours in front of the TV, staring at Yuna’s back. It was a time in my life when I needed a distraction, and did I ever find one. It was also a time when I felt very alone; I had moved to Albany after college with high hopes of building a new life for myself there, only for my few preexisting relationships to sour, while I was stuck in a dead-end job where I never met anyone. It felt appropriate to have Yuna’s companions run like cowards and leave her alone to face the monsters; it felt right for her to be all alone, hour after hour.

Even though I knew I was intentionally playing the game wrong, doing something players weren’t supposed to do, it still colored my perception of the game’s story. When the characters would talk about their duty as Guardians to protect Yuna, I found myself thinking. “What are you talking about? You guys haven’t done SHIT to protect Yuna, she’s all alone! Shut up Auron, even though you’re hot.”

What I essentially did was made another game within the larger game of FFX; a game where instead of being treated as a precious resource who was to be protected at all costs, Yuna was cast aside and had to fend for herself. While I’ve played through the storyline of FFX normally a few times, I can’t think of the game now without thinking of this “alternate” game, where all of Yuna’s companions abandoned her every single battle; hundreds, probably thousands of times over the course of the game.

To this day, I’m not sure how to feel about this. On the one hand, I proved that a challenge that people assumed impossible was not, and that’s kind of cool. On the other hand, I projected my problems onto this game, and spent dozens of hours staring at Yuna’s back when I could have been doing something to actively fix my problems. Maybe in a way I was addressing my problems, and I needed to do something like the Yuna No-Summoning Challenge to process what was even happening to me, but that’s an area of inquiry that goes beyond the scope of this discussion.

My torrid affair with Yuna was the only time I did a “challenge” with very specific parameters, but I’ve still spent plenty of time making games-within-games, albeit in a less anal manner. I’ve played the quest mode in Ehrgeiz as a religious zealot, using the game’s obtuse (and usually ignored) religion system to power up my weapons and steamroll through the game. I’ve played Vagrant Story while only using certain weapons, or certain spells. I’ve played Parasite Eve with a kind of God Eater Aya, using odd exploits in the game to power up the character far beyond what’s necessary to complete it. I’ve played X-Men Legends in an effort to experience the kinds of team-ups I wanted to see happen in the comics, but never did.**

Even when I’m playing the game the “normal” way, I still have certain quirks that usually customize my playthrough to a certain extent. Since I like exploring mechanics and hate replaying boss fights, I’m usually stupidly overleveled in any game with a leveling system. I also hoard items like a Doomsday prepper, regardless of whether or not I actually need them. I enjoy picking my favorite characters and giving them “Most Favorite Character” status: giving them all the best weapons and armor and stat boosts, while their teammates lag behind. This is especially satisfying to do when my MFC is technically one of the weaker ones, and I make her into an insane powerhouse for no earthly reason.

To return to my earlier point, I think having these kinds of customized gaming experiences are very much like my special meeting-of-the-minds with Kandinsky. I know I’m looking at the game in perhaps a different way than was strictly intended, yet looking at it in more than one way makes my personal connection that much more powerful. However, in traditional art, the personal experience is expressed as a kind of declaration: “To me, this painting is about ____”. In video games, it’s more of a dialogue with the game’s creators. Why did you make this character do this, when she could have done that? Why are you trying to encourage me to fight this boss now, when I still have imaginary crops to grow? Why are you trying to sell me on the power of friendship, when I feel more alone than I’ve ever been?

Let’s Play (Another Version of) This: Gaming As Performance Art

I didn’t record my YONS challenge; it was still hard to record gameplay at that time, and to be fair, it wouldn’t have made for very interesting viewing anyway. But the growing popularity of Let’s Plays adds several more dimensions to this idea that we create customized narratives and experiences within games. With an LP you can:

A) broadcast your customized narrative, so other people get the benefit of seeing the game through your eyes

and

B)Turn your gaming experience into a kind of performance art, using custom images, songs, and even roleplaying to add an element of improv theater to your gaming.

and

C)Turn your gaming experience into a communal experience of performance art, with viewers sharing their own custom art, songs and roleplaying.

Obviously I find the artistic possibilities of Let’s Plays and other performative gaming events to be fascinating, but let’s not ignore the obvious; a lot of LPs, perhaps most, are not worth watching. Most are riddled with lines like “I thought there was a health potion over here in this corner, oh wait it’s a green herb,” stuff about the logistics of playing that doesn’t add much to the experience. In a lot of cases the only reason to watch an LP is either because you’re such a huge fan of the game that you’ll watch any content related to it, or you’re stuck somewhere in your own first playthrough and are trying to figure out where you need to go next.

Sometimes though…sometimes people hit it out of the park. Take this Animal Crossing Screenshot LP, where someone turned a seemingly innocuous children’s game into a harrowing tale of psychological horror. Some LP’s can become hilarious screwball comedies, others can introduce a level of poignancy that wasn’t in the original game, particularly when the player shares a personal story that resonates with the games themes. I don’t know if I would consider Let’s Playing an art form– it’s more a weird, bastard child of several art forms, including theater and graphic novels– but to deny that there’s at least an element of art to a good LP seems quite ignorant to me.

Not only that, but the community that can build around an LP– suggesting strategies, coming up with character names, drawing LP-specific fanart, or just making funny quips at the right time– is also a creative entity. It’s art spiraling out and creating more and more art, as art in general tends to do, but this time, maybe even more so.

LPing may not be the most fascinating thing in the world, but let me put it this way; if there aren’t at least 20 Master’s Theses being written about LPing in Media Studies departments all over the world,  right this second, then I no longer have any hope for academia. Because you can scoff if you want, but this is the future of art; not all art, certainly, and not all the time, but some art. Maybe even Art with a Capital A.

In the third and final article of this series, we’ll look at some of the arguments against games being art and why they’re all shallow and dumb break them down a little bit.

*I’m a big FFX fan so OF COURSE I know that the most powerful character in the game is actually Wakka once you get Attack Reels, don’t send me hatemail. Or, do send me hatemail, that sounds interesting, just not about Wakka. 

**Just FYI, Jean Grey is stupidly overpowered in the original X-Men Legends. I mean, canonically, she should be, but what’s kind of funny is I think it might have been accidental.

 

 

 

Jews, Otaku, and People of the Book

I’m Jewish. You could probably tell due to my penchant for using words like “shtick.” Even if I hadn’t mentioned it before on this blog, which I’m pretty sure I have, this would be one of those reveals that surprises no one.

What’s odd is, I don’t really believe in the Old Testament. I believe that parts of it are historical (or at least based on real historical events, the facts of which have become distorted through time); I believe that some Biblical stories have good morals, and I believe the entire thing has value as a piece of literature. But if you were to ask me, point-blank, “Do you believe in the Torah?” the answer would have to be no.

And yet, if I don’t believe the Torah, doesn’t that mean I’m not a Jew, pretty much by definition? If you want to be pedantic about it, I’m a Jewish-born person with non-Jewish beliefs, I think. However, many Jews, if not most, are like me: people who self-identify as Jews, but don’t take the Torah literally, or even think about the Torah much in particular. How does that work? How do you have a group of increasingly secular people who still cling to a religious label, and cling to it with no small amount of pride?

I think the answer lies in the fact that the base concept of Judaism is the idea of a People of the Book, and what that means when you really break it down. If you really love one Book, chances are you’re going to want more than one. You’re going to write books about the one Book, then commentaries on the books about the Book, then eventually other books entirely. And the more you get into all these different books, the less importance the original Book has to you.

Really, a religion of People of the Book is self-annihilating, because once they become People of BOOKS, PLURAL, they’re not the same people anymore. The irony of Jewish history is that people were trying so hard to kill a religion with built-in obsolescence. It’s like, guys, stop trying so hard to kill the Jews. You’re just expediting the production of stuff like Maus, where People of the Book become People of the Comic Book, and then the whole thing goes topsy-turvy and we don’t know who’s who anymore.

Wow, I may have reached a new level of twisted logic; asking the people of Earth stop killing Jews not because it’s wrong, but because it creates literary confusion.

Anyway, this has relevance to the sciences, where a lot of the people who came up with all the great stuff about physics that tells us about how the universe actually works were Jews. It’s primarily the people who are supposed to value the Book of Genesis most who have told us all the reasons why the Book of Genesis is a fairy tale that makes no sense.

Where am I going with this, other than Judaism is weird and I too am weird? Well, I think that the core idea of being a People of the Book is something that may have started with Judaism, but now extends far beyond. To me, the enthusiasm for the likes of Star Trek, X-Men, anime, etc. is the new version of being a Person of the Book; having tremendous enthusiasm for one text, a text that is parts fictive and parts real. Nerd arguments are the new Talmudic Commentary. They say that the great Rabbis go to the Academy on High after they die, where they can argue about Torah for all eternity in heaven; I wonder if the same thing is true of TV Tropes. Anyway, Jews could cease to exist tomorrow (don’t get too excited, alt-righters), and our culture would still be deeply embedded with the legacy of Judaism.

Now, I have a certain amount of respect for Orthodox Jews; I mean, if you’re going to live by the Bible, do it, don’t half-ass it because you want to go to the movies on Saturday and shrimp happen to be delicious. Commit to it, own it, the way the Orthodox have. However, I don’t feel much kinship with Orthodox Jews; we may have common ancestors, but that’s about the extent of the connection. I feel more of a connection with the people arguing about whether or not Avatar: The Last Airbender counts as an anime than I do with “my people.” In fact, anywhere people are arguing about the minutia of a book, or any piece of art really, that’s where I feel like I’ve found “my people.”

To bring this back to Otaku, I’m not saying that Otaku are Jews, really; more that they are a step on the same continuum. The Japanese are a different kind of People of the Book, starting with The Tale of Genji, the world’s first proper novel. After World War II, Japan reinvented itself partially based on manga, on a book of a different nature. For the Japanese, the key foundational document isn’t the Torah, but Tezuka’s Astro Boy. Oversimplification? Of course, but talking about any topic this huge is going to require that.

But think of Comic Market. Hundreds of thousands of people, sweltering in the summer and shivering in the winter, standing in line for hours because they want to get a book (doujin) that’s based on another book (manga) that’s all ultimately based on something Osamu Tezuka and his friends drew in the 1950s, after a cataclysm. If you don’t see a parallel with religion here, well, I don’t know quite how else to put it to you.

I guess all this is a roundabout way of saying that I feel close to Otaku because I recognize fellow People of the Book, which has long ceased being defined by religion; Most of the passionate People of the Book are not Jews, do not need to be Jews for any reason. That’s why I didn’t feel like I had to marry a Jew; I married someone who loved the same things I loved. I’m not religious, but I am in the sense that I am the natural evolution of a people who believed the things they believed very passionately, and maybe that makes the question of whether or not I’m religious a non-issue; I’m not religious, but religion created me. Maybe God did too, but I’m not talking about God right now.

This is why whenever your typical smug internet atheist talks about religion being stupid, or how it makes no sense that the Red Sea would actually split in two, blah blah blah, I have to file that under the category of “not even wrong.” Like sure, that whole part about stoning people to death for not following the Sabbath is pretty dumb and self-defeating and I think even the most Orthodox Jews can admit that now, but that’s not why religion is important in this day and age.  There’s a reason why, even though I believe in the Big Bang Theory (the actual theory, not the sitcom, although the sitcom is okay) and not the Garden of Eden that I still call myself a Jew instead of, say, a science-believing person. I don’t see a conflict there, because being a Person of the Book was always going to include science eventually.

I don’t know, maybe this post is just hilariously offensive not only to Jews, but to everyone who likes Star Trek and Yowamusha Pedal alike. I’m not a good judge of what’s offensive anymore, if I ever was. It’s just me trying to explain my world view, which is that while I feel my Otaku and more general geek interests are entirely consistent with my Jewish background, I don’t feel like these interests are in any way limited to people of Jewish lineage. The idea of a People of the Book may have started with Judaism…or maybe with some other people that history has forgotten, who knows (and I’ve heard some provocative things about the Zoroastrians.) But the concept has spread far beyond a small and insulated group of people, far beyond DNA, and now exists out in the wild.

Synagogues are nice, and the art is beautiful, but wherever people are arguing about anime or Battlestar Galactica on the internet, that’s where I feel “my people” truly are. Someday, I may succeed in getting this to make sense to someone other than myself; I sense that day is not today.

Are Video Games Art? Part I

This is an interesting topic that I feel doesn’t really get its due. People argue about it a lot, but what they mostly seem to argue about are issues regarding accountability and pretentiousness, and not the very nature of art and whether or not that can change. I want to attempt to get to the heart of the matter, with the caveat that any question about art can go off in a lot of different directions, some of which may not seem relevant.

I should probably start out by saying that I’m conflicted on the existence of a division between art and “entertainment.” Some people answer this question, not just about games but with any medium, with the statement that something can be art, but it isn’t necessarily art just by virtue of belonging to a particular medium. For example, Schindler’s List is an example of the art of cinema; the latest Michael Bay explosion-fest is not. This is a useful way of framing things, because it allows for a pretty broad view of what art is without seemingly cheapening the very idea of art by including any piece of nonsense that just happens to be recorded on paper or film. The reason why I can’t quite buy this is because sometimes, works of supposedly derivative, cheap entertainment have more meaning to me (and are therefore more artfully done, in my view), then so-called artistic productions, meaning I would be a hypocrite to say I really believed in the art/entertainment distinction. I kind of wish I could, because it has a lot of advantages, but that’s just not how I see it.

Okay, disclaimers out of the way, is a video game art or not? Well, you’ve got a bunch of concept artists creating visuals for the game,  sometimes making beautiful watercolor paintings of the characters and settings, which is unquestionably art. You’ve got musicians writing scores for the game, which is unquestionably art. You’ve got writers writing scripts for the games’ story, which is a little harder to justify as art (since a lot of people have a low opinion of games writers, and not for nothing), but nevertheless, fiction writing in general is art. That doesn’t seem to be in dispute.

So in order for a game not to be art, you would need for all of these different artistic elements to be combined, at which point they somehow magically cancel each other out and the finished product is not art. Despite the watercolor paintings, despite the musical scores, despite the character writing, despite the cinematography, they are not art. Art +Art +Art +Art= NOT ART.

Does this make sense to anyone? Because I’ve never seen the logic of it myself. I guess people use the entertainment/art workaround to say that in the case of games, Art +Art +Art= Entertainment, but as stated above I’m not comfortable with that distinction. So, just based on very simple logic, it seems clear that games are art. However, that covers the act of making the game: the game was made by different kinds of artists, who expressed their feelings within the game to some extent. Fair enough, not too controversial. However, is there art to playing the game? Are you experiencing art when you level up in an RPG, or are you just like a digital hamster on a wheel, finding a pleasant (if somewhat numbing) way to pass the time? This is where things start to get interesting for me.

The Art of Item Farming

I picked an image from Atelier Rorona as the header for this post for several reasons. One, I think it’s a good game and I had a lot of fun playing it, and two, I think it provides a good illustration of the problem we have if we just glibly say “Games are art, dammit,” and leave it at that.

The Atelier games have pretty, detailed character images, soothing music that makes you long to explore the world, and well-realized characters that all have their own struggles and quirks. The quality of the art that goes into it– drawing, scoring, writing– is always solid, if not exceptional. It seems like a no-brainer that Atelier contains lots of art, and therefore is art, but what are you actually doing when you play the game? Well, if you’re anything like me, you’re hoarding tons of imaginary items, in the hopes of making better imaginary items, in hopes of accessing the area where you can get the very BEST imaginary items, at which point you will no longer need any of them, because you already beat the main game 50 hours ago.

Is that really the food-for-the-soul that art is supposed to be? Is waiting for a rare drop– a kind of playing chicken with a soulless random number generator that seems to be unique to video games– really an enriching experience, something that makes you question your perspective, your entire reality? Does it make you feel and think the way art is supposed to?

Well, from experience I can tell you that hunting rare drops does make you wonder “Why am I fighting this monster for the 500th time to get the rare wand it’s probably never going to drop? What am I doing with my life? WHAT IS MY LIFE EVEN????” so, err, I guess if you want to be strict about it, even the most banal parts of video games are thought-provoking; it’s just that the one thought they usually provoke is that you were stupid to get so obsessed with the damned game in the first place. But, beyond provoking that particular line of internal questioning, does often tedious gameplay qualify as art?

I’m still working this out. To return to Atelier, the game has definitely made me feel things; I am slightly in love with Sterk, Rorona’s gruff but caring protector. I felt pride when I got good scores on my alchemy tests, an almost parental sort of pride that I was turning Rorona into a skilled alchemist. I’ve related to some of the characters stories, which made me experience certain emotions, albeit not super-strong emotions; Atelier isn’t a dramatic type of game, but you don’t have to break down in tears for something to have touched you emotionally, right? So, I feel safe calling at least part of the experience art.

However, the time I spend hoarding items, grinding, and experimenting with the crafting system– sometimes spending hours to accomplish something of no more significance than adding a few points to the stats of one imaginary sword– is that art? If it’s not, does that mean that the experience of Atelier Rorona is only intermittently art? So I’m consuming art during the story sequences, or when a particularly nice track of music plays, but not during the bulk of the experience, which is the play itself?

The idea of intermittent art probably sounds weird, but I think it’s one possible way of viewing the experience of video games. The alternate way is to include the entire thing as art– even those hours of seemingly pointless item farming. This may seem like a stretch, but bear with me here: after all, what disqualifies this experience from being art, exactly? It’s tedious, but as tedious as making it all the way through Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time? Doubtful. Don’t get me wrong, Proust’s saga is a work of genius and all, but anyone who’s read it and claims never to have been even a little bit bored or annoyed is a liar, full stop. The operas that make up Wagner’s famed Ring Cycle take about 17 hours altogether; riveting for some true opera fans, but stultifying for others. And in the visual arts, well…just imagine looking at a whole exhibit full of Jackson Pollocks. The first one is kind of cool, but by piece number 5, you’re left with nothing left to keep you occupied than try to spot the cigarette butts still sticking out of the paint.

So clearly tedium isn’t a disqualification, in and of itself. However, with Proust and Wagner and Jackson Pollock, at least they created things that meant something, right? Sure they could be tedious to consume at times, but in the service of a noble goal. On the other hand, plugging away at video games is completely and utterly pointless, and therefore, not art, right?

Except…what is the point of a narrative where a man recounts his boring childhood in ridiculous detail and never amounts to much of anything? What’s the point of slapping some paint on canvas and putting it on the wall? I’m tempted to say “What’s the point of a Wagner opera?” only I’m afraid music fanatics would hunt me down and shoot me*, so let’s just say that everything that Wagner created is an end in and of itself.

Seriously though, of what practical use is a lot of art? In the pre-photography age, portrait painting at least qualified as a form of documentation, but that hasn’t been necessary for a long time. The only use for a lot of art, maybe most art, is “I enjoy it,” or “It makes me feel something,” and so on.  Those are justifications that can apply to video games too. What’s the difference?

This is where I fully expect to lose people. “Okay, so maybe most art has little practical use, but still, there’s a huge difference between looking at a Rembrandt and grinding for a rare item in Final Fantasy! What the hell are you even saying?”

I admit, I’m not entirely sure yet. But it seems like the tedium of most gameplay is rejected as art not because it’s practically useless (which most art is anyway), but because supposedly it doesn’t make you feel and grow and change. If you spend an hour looking at a great painting versus an hour playing a game, in the first instance you have presumably thought various deep thoughts and in some sense, enriched yourself; in the second instance, you have only passed time with an activity.

Is that really true though? Are we all effectively brain-dead when we play games, and when we stop playing, it’s as though we’ve awakened from sleep? I don’t think so. I know I’ve had thoughts and feelings while doing tedious tasks in games; sometimes, I think it’s because of the tedium that I have deeper thoughts– the front of my mind is occupied with game mechanics, while I’m contemplating something a lot more important in the background.

To bring it all together, if the defining difference between art and not-art is that art enriches as well as occupies you, who decides what counts as enrichment? And if you honestly feel more from playing a certain game than you do from looking at a certain painting– even if the gameplay is derivative and repetitive– is that a flaw in you? Or a flaw in our conception of how art is supposed to work?

Still love this game even though I can't stand gore, go figure
This is what poor Claire used to look like when I played RE2; in desperate need of a green herb.

Nostalgia for Terrible Controls

Another problem with trying to excise the gameplay from the definition of art, while allowing other elements to remain art, is that gameplay can enhance other artistic elements. For example, the early Resident Evil games were notorious for their sluggish “tank” controls; it was hard to get your character to go anywhere fast, which was a problem when surrounded by ravenous zombies. Some consider the controls to be a shortcoming of what was otherwise a good horror series, but personally, I think they were an integral part of the experience.

Traditionally, zombies are slow enemies. The pitiable regular enemies in RE moved at a snail’s pace; if your character was nimble, how would they even catch you, let alone hurt you? The controls, along with the claustrophobic way the environments were designed, were what allowed the game to feature challenge. More importantly, the controls intensified the feeling of helplessness and despair that the game was trying to evoke. Have you ever had a dream where something terrifying was after you, but your legs felt like lead and you couldn’t move? That’s what the RE controls were like. This is a case where mechanics interfaced and contributed to narrative intent. If the mechanics are playing a role in the narrative, aren’t they part of the entire emotional package, otherwise known as art?

Things have changed in regard to game controls. In the ’90s, while people certainly complained about controls, there seemed to be a certain allowance for games having idiosyncratic control schemes that took a while to master. Currently, if a game’s controls aren’t immediately intuitive to the majority of players, that seems to be considered a flaw. So if anything, it seems like controls being reflective of narrative is something that’s becoming LESS important over time, but nevertheless, it’s still a phenomenon worth considering.

Also, don’t get me wrong: a lot of people hated the RE controls with good reason. Making the controls sluggish as a way to control the game experience was not necessarily the best way to create a certain mood; nevertheless, it worked, at least for some players. Another seminal game where the controls were integral to the experience was Tomb Raider; how did we know that Lara was cold, aloof, stand-offish? For one thing, because no matter how you fiddled with the controls, you could never get her to turn around and look at you.**

So if we want to separate game mechanics from the more obviously art-qualifying parts of video games, like story and visual design and music, we would have to discount the way that the controls and general gameplay can interact with those artistic elements. Which they do, always and constantly, in every single game.

So, yeah…being able to make a clean separation between game mechanics and other game content would give us a clear line of demarcation. Unfortunately, in order to divide games into parts that are art versus not-art, you would have to ignore how all the different parts of games play off and resonate with each other, and who wants to do that? No one who cares about video games, that’s for sure.

So far, we’ve looked at the creation of games and the consumption of them as two different elements; in the next part, we’ll go into how a big part of art is creating your own experience of it, and how that applies to video games.

*I’ve read that Wagner always ranks really high whenever anyone does a ‘Best Composers of All Time’ list, and music lovers seem to be quite enamored with him. Saying that Wagner’s work is “pointless” may be grounds for war among chamber orchestra members, and I never pick fights with people holding brass instruments.

**This is an oversimplification: You could see Lara’s face in the early Tomb Raiders, but usually, only if you backed her into a wall…which, err, is not as bad as it sounds. Still, most of the time you only saw Lara’s back.

 

 

 

Winter 2018 Anime Impressions, Part II

This season, I find myself gravitating towards slice-of-life shows and comedies more than anything else. I know there are action shows this season that are getting people excited, but I just don’t feel the urge to watch that kind of thing right now. Maybe it’s because there’s some challenging stuff going on in my life that makes me long for the anime equivalent of comfort food, or maybe I’m just not in the mood for giant robots doing fisticuffs.

Perhaps I’ll check in with some of the flashier, high-profile shows sometime midseason, but for now, here’s the rest of the warm-and-fuzzy stuff I’ve been cozying up to.

Card Captor Sakura: Clear Card Arc– It’s impressive how good the art and animation was in the original series back in the late ’90s, because this show simultaneously looks state-of-the-art and just like the CCS you remember. Yes, there’s a bit more detail and the CGI effects for the magic are more sophisticated, but it just feels like proper CCS on some level I can’t explain– as opposed to say, Sailor Moon Crystal, which always seemed a bit off to me.

I read a little bit of the manga for this arc while it was running in Nakayoshi, and it kind of seemed like same-old, same old. Oh noes, the cards have changed again and Sakura has to hunt them all down, how can this beeeeeee? Still, it’s interesting to see the cards becoming more aggressive, like Windy becoming “Gale.” If there’s some larger theme about the stakes escalating as you get older, I’ll be impressed.

Really, the only thing I don’t like is the fact that they’ve added about a foot to Sakura’s height. I know this was to be expected, but dammit, it’s Sakura! I never wanted her to grow up to be a CLAMP Noodle Person! I feel like Sakura’s original design was like the Golden Mean or something, it was the essence of perfection the way it was and messing with it is just stupid.

“But she’s in middle school now!” you say? Yeah I don’t care, too busy making Short Sakura-chan FOREVER banners to plaster all over my neighborhood.

School Babysitters– Moe shows (or shows with cute-appeal for the uninitiated) harness our natural desire to love and protect children to get the viewers to have feelings for the characters; usually moe characters aren’t young children, but they have sufficiently childlike proportions that our protective instinct is invoked. What’s special about a show like School Babysitters is that since it’s actually about really young kids, you’re kind of cutting out the middle man: straight-up cuteness without having to do the mental gymnastics to convince yourself that everyone is really in high school or whatever.

This kind of show defies analysis, at least at this point; it’s just a piece of feel-good mind candy that makes the world a slightly better place whenever you watch it. The only thing that mars the perfection is the fact that one character hits his kid brother– and I don’t mean a spanking (where at least you are bonking the kid on their natural shock-absorber), but he hits the kid in the head. Kind of disturbing, but considering the fact that the hitting clearly creates more behavior problems than it solves, it doesn’t seem like the show is condoning this behavior; more just acknowledging that it happens.

One nitpick is that several of the kids in the daycare program look like one-year-olds and speak more like three-year-olds, but that’s the kind of thing only viewers with kids will probably notice or care about. I’m still a little bitter about Hanamaru Kindergarten from years ago, so maybe this will be the show about adorable little rugrats that pulls out all the stops.

Karakai Jozu no Takagi-san– Kind of weird that there’s no official English title for this one. This has a really simple premise: a clever girl teases the boy sitting next to her. Unbeknownst to him (but totes benownst to us) Takagi actually really likes the object of her torment, Nishikata. Nevertheless, liking him doesn’t stop her from messing with his head in every conceivable way.

This show reminds me of Tonari no Seki-kun, with it’s emphasis on two kids goofing off in the back of the classroom. However, whereas the genius of Seki-kun was that it was ambiguous how much Seki-kun was actually trying to distract Rumi, and how much he was just amusing himself, the deliberate nature of Takagi’s teasing can get kind of annoying. Considering the amount of mental anguish Nishikata goes through trying to anticipate how she’ll torture him next, sometimes she just seems like a cold bully instead of a charming scamp.

Still, considering how ingenious Takagi’s schemes are, it’s probably for the best; if she weren’t so busy teasing her crush, she’d probably be hatching supervillain-level plots to take over the world. Way to take one for the team, Nishikata.

Anyway, this one is in the “maybe I’ll keep up with it if I’m in the mood” pile. Whether or not I watch it probably depends on how nostalgic for Tonari no Seki-kun I’m feeling on any particular day.

Sanrio Boys– Considering that I was expecting this show to feel like a commercial for Sanrio products, it’s doing a pretty good job telling an actual story, albeit a simple one. I mean yeah, it is a commercial for Sanrio merch, but the main character spends the first two episodes going through an actual emotional arc and everything. Add the fact that it’s exploring the feelings of teen boys who enjoy things that are considered non-masculine, and how they reconcile that with their still-emerging gender identity, and there’s some genuinely interesting stuff here. All shows that are meant to pimp tiny little erasers and keychains should only be half this interesting.

All that said, I have personal baggage here that makes it difficult to fully enjoy Sanrio Boys. As far as I’m concerned, Badtz-Maru, the grumpy penguin, is the best Sanrio character by a country mile, and all of the other ones are just taking up space that should rightfully belong to my Badtz. As I write this, there is a Badtz-Maru plushie staring at me from the exalted shelf meant for Special Toys that Little Hands Are Not To Touch.

GREATEST. BOY
BEST. BOY.

So when the guys on this show go on about their love for Pompompurin, or Hello Kitty, it’s like, hello, aren’t you forgetting someone?!? They’ve shown Badtz-Maru briefly (in a scene using live-action footage from a Sanrio store), but he’s clearly not a favorite for any of the boys on the show, thus will likely play a diminished role, if any; we’ll be lucky to see him show up in group shots with all the Sanrio characters. He’ll probably be standing behind Keroppi and we’ll only see like, one of his hair spikes sticking out or something.

So, uh, on the one hand, this show is a pleasant surprise; on the other hand, they are not focusing on my favorite Sanrio character and thus should be punished severely. I haven’t yet figured out how this punishment will be meted out, but trust me, it will occur.

…crap, I’m going to end up buying Sanrio merchandise again thanks to this show, won’t I? Goddammit.

 

Winter 2018 Anime Impressions, Part 1

It still kind of takes me by surprise just how much new anime there is each quarter. You’d think I’d be used to it by now, but when I look at Crunchyroll’s list of updated titles at the beginning of the season, I find myself saying “Wait, that’s out? And that’s out? And that too? These are all airing this season? They’re using up all the anime, there won’t be any left for next season!” Apparently it doesn’t work that way.

I’ve watched a bunch, and still only sampled maybe half of what I’m interested in trying from this Winter Smörgåsbord; here’s what I’ve caught so far. If you’re going to use this post to help evaluate what you plan on watching, keep in mind that my biases include cute things, food porn, and uh…actually, I’m sure I must have more biases, but those are the only two that come immediately to mind.

Laid-Back Camp— My overriding thought concerning this show is “Hey, I’ll bet I can get my Dad to watch this with me!” which makes it hard to focus on much else. Still, I think there’s a little bit of a conflict here between the comfy, relaxing mood the show has going on and the inevitable cute girl antics.

Whenever main gal Rin is out camping, looking at the beautiful scenery, you feel like you can smell the smoke from the campfire, feel the warmth of being all bundled up in long underwear and sleeping bags, and the bracing, invigorating chill of cold, clean mountain air on your face, and it’s just lovely. It’s experiencing the best parts of camping without having to deal with bugs and dirt. Then the other girls come on and act quirky or whatever and you kind of want them to just shut the hell up and let Rin camp in peace. However, this is clearly a deliberate choice (especially because even Rin herself acknowledges it), so I have hope that the show is going to get better at marrying it’s soothing elements with it’s genki-girl shtick.

A Place Further Than the Universe—  As much as I dislike icy roads, single-digit temperatures and having to deal with piles of snow, cold-weather tourism has a huge romantic appeal to me. I’ve read all about the Ice Hotel in Sweden, and the idea of going to Lapland, Iceland, or even Greenland, is something I think about often. Unless I get over my huge fear of flying, I’m never going to get anywhere near that whole region, but hey…there’s nothing wrong with imagining it.

I’ve never really felt a pull to go to Antarctica though. Penguins are awesome and all, but I think the fact that it’s just so remote is what renders it unappealing to me. If you go north, even pretty far to the north you’ll still find cities and towns where people live, albeit sparsely. There are no towns in Antarctica; I mean, maybe I’m mistaken, but unless I’ve missed something in the past ten years, no one goes to Antarctica and comes back raving about what great restaurants they have there. It’s something apart from human culture, like the surface of the moon.

This show is almost in my wheelhouse, since I relate to the wanting- to-go to-a-mysterious-far-away-cold-place aspect, but I’m having trouble getting psyched about the girls going to Antarctica in particular. So far it’s well-written and well-produced, with the chase scene in episode 2 a particular stand out, but I’m not completely sold yet. I think the test of whether this show succeeds will be if I start to find the idea of going to Antarctica exciting myself, instead of just wishing the show was about a group of girls going to northern Finland.

Ms. Koizumi Loves Ramen Noodles  This sounds like a bad idea on paper: a Food Wars!-like show that features people having foodgasms, except they can only eat one type of food. Why would you do that? Why would you make a food porn show based on only one food, and make it a full-length, 12-episode series no less? This seems like the kind of thing that might work as a 3-minute short, if that.

The first episode was pretty dull, but after the second, I think I might be on board Ms. Koizumi’s little train here, perhaps against my better judgment. The characters are better defined than they usually are in this type of show, and there’s more nuance to the world of ramen than noodle-neophytes might think. At first I couldn’t imagine how they were going to get 12 whole episodes out of this concept, but now? I think I get it. The show is trying to do something pretty simple (decent character interaction +constant ramen facts!), but what it sets out to do, it succeeds at…I think? Maybe I’m just giving it a pass because I’m hungry.

Who am I kidding? I’m a vegan now and the only way I get to enjoy meat is when I watch anime characters eat it, so I’m going to watch all 12 episodes of Koizumi stuffing her face with pork-and-chorizo ramen, then I’m going to watch it all again. If you can actually eat ramen in real life, you probably have little use for this show (and I’m trying very hard not to hate you right now), so keep that in mind.

Dagashi Kashi 2— Speaking of food shows that shouldn’t work, here we have a second season of Dagashi Kashi, the show about cheap candy and snacks that usually don’t look very appetizing. At least the Japanese audience has nostalgia for these products, but for foreigners, we lack that powerful childhood connection. In theory, the show doesn’t have much to offer the international audience.

And yet, I found the first season of this show absolutely delightful two years ago. Maybe it’s the characters; maybe it’s the fact that I want to live in a world where penny candy could possibly make anyone this happy. For whatever reason, they could probably make  12 seasons of Dagashi Kashi and I’d be cool with it. I was a little concerned with the change to half-length episode format, but if anything, cutting down the running time seems to have improved matters; they have just enough time to freak out over the latest fried octopus flavored gobstopper or whatever, then it’s on to the next thing.

I feel like I should have some sort of comment on the change to Hotaru’s design, but honestly? Unless I’m looking at screenshots side-by-side, I can’t tell the difference. So sue me.

The Ryou’s Work is Never Done!It has to take a certain amount of chutzpah to put out another show about shogi during the same season as March Comes In Like A Lion, right? I mean, let’s face it, even if Ryou does really well for itself, it’s always going to be “that other anime about shogi with cute girls in it.”

Right now though, anything else the show might have to offer is overshadowed by the 4497th incidence of the Loli Controversy: the show has a young girl in it who is sometimes depicted with non-detailed nudity, and even though no real children are involved isn’t this just edging dangerous close to child porn, blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. Don’t get me wrong, I think there’s something worth discussing in there somewhere, but this happens so often that the fact that it’s even a controversy anymore is kind of strange to me.

Hey, speaking of lolis, who else remembers the original Lolita, a.k.a. Dolores Haze, lust object of one Humbert Humbert? And how the genius of Lolita is, even though a child is raped every day from the age of 10 onwards, the reader is seduced by Humbert to some degree, and thus is made to feel somewhat complicit in Lo’s situation? So that, at the end of the book, while you’d like to just write off HH as a total monster that you have zero sympathy for, you just can’t, and that opens up a Pandora’s box of uncomfortable questions?

I’m not trying to argue that this show, or any of its contemporaries are on an artistic par with Lolita; that’s ridiculous, and also not the point. The point is, we have all these shows with “lolis” in them, named after a character in the most deliberately, brilliantly offensive and disturbing book of all time, and people are still complaining that these “loli”-themed shows make them uncomfortable. Shall we also complain that swimming pools are too wet, deserts too dry, Godiva truffles too chocolatey?

I don’t plan to continue watching this show, since Lion provides all the hot shogi-explaining action a girl could possibly need. But I find the dialogue surrounding it kind of sad, and it’s only going to get worse once they do a beach episode or something. Get ready for “But real 9-year-old-girls wear bathing suits just like one Ai was wearing all the time!” “Yeah but that DOESN’T MAKE IT RIGHT!” and so on and so forth. Ack.

Slow Start— This is an interesting experiment in just how minimal an anime premise can be before it ceases to have any premise at all beyond “cute girls are friends.” The hook here is that the main character missed her high school entrance exam and had to take it the next year, so she’s secretly one year older than everyone else in her grade. She’s trying to hide it, but considering that this is perhaps the least juicy dark secret anyone could possibly have, it’s hard to feel invested in what’s going to happen if anyone finds out.

It’s not bad; if you find it soothing to watch cute girls eat boxed lunches and do sports and stuff, this show has that. There’s some humor, and some maybe-they’re-really-lesbians teasing. The animation is above-average, at least so far. It’s just that there’s really no reason to recommend this show over pretty much any other show that features girls in a school setting. Three Leaves, Three Colors didn’t really have much of a premise beyond “girls are friends,” but made up for it with characters who were really fun to watch. I don’t think Slow Start has that, which is a bit of a shame.

How to Keep A Mummy I had no idea this show existed until I saw it on Crunchyroll, and I’m glad I fell over it. It’s about a tiny little mummy creature who’s incredibly cute, and you just want to go “awwww!” and hug him about 100 times in the first episode. It’s possible this trick will get old, but I’m a sucker for tiny little cute things and will probably keep saying “awww!” throughout the entire season.

However, based on the OP, there will be more monster characters, so the show should have a lot more going on than just cuteness appeal. I would say moe appeal, except Mii-kun barely even has eyes, and I’m not sure if it counts as moe without big eyes. I need the International Moe Council to revise their guidelines on this.


So, what do you guys think of these seasonal posts that cover a whole bunch of anime at once? I know that for SEO purposes, I’d be much better off doing a separate post for each show, but never in my life have I done anything that’s good for SEO; why start now?

Okay, I shouldn’t joke about that, MAYBE doing things to improve the visibility of my blog would be good, but for now, I like my stupidly impractical 2000-word posts. Life is hard, let me please have this one thing?

What’s the Point of Aniblogging, Anyway?

I realize the question I’ve posed above has a very simple answer: there is no point to anime blogging; there is no point to anime, for that matter. In fact, we are only primitive water-based lifeforms clinging desperately to a piece of spinning rock in space, and ultimately, nothing matters. Now that we’ve covered the ultimate answer, which I see as a matter of doing my due diligence, let’s move on to something worth talking about, because the ultimate/existential answer happens to be really boring.

Seriously, why do we blog about anime? To entertain? To some extent that’s true, but then you run into the problem that certain kind of shows lend themselves to that much better than others. I had a lot of fun blogging Wizard Barristers, which was a pretty bad show, primarily because it was a mess and it gave me tons of material to make fun of. I also had fun with Madhouse’s X-Men anime.* However, doing episodic blogging of a show that’s actually good is of questionable value. For a lot of shows, all you’re left doing is speculating about what’s going to happen, which is kind of pointless; it’s not like you’re going to win a prize if you’re right. And for some shows, like Girls Last Tour or even March Comes in Like a Lion, providing the kind of flippant commentary that blogging seems to lend itself to would feel downright disrespectful.

So episodic aniblogging can be entertaining, providing you’re covering a bad show that wouldn’t be worth watching on it’s own merits…meaning, it’s a format best used for shows that really shouldn’t be worth the effort in the first place. For better shows, especially shows of a more serious nature, it’s better to watch the whole show (or at least a significant chunk, like a season), and then blog about it. This produces better writing, at least in my experience, but it does feel rather limiting. So you watch a 12-episode show, about 4 hours worth of anime, and then produce maybe a 1,000 word essay. That’s it? Seems a little anti-climactic.

There’s another problem with episodic blogging, regardless of show quality, and that’s the tendency for the blogger to become a wanna-be writer; we start predicting where the story’s going to go, then get upset when it doesn’t necessarily go there. With a lot of shows I’ve written about, I’m not sure if they were disappointing because the writing wasn’t that good, or because I was irritated that the show didn’t do what I felt it was supposed to based on the hints that I thought I’d picked up on. So in this case, reading an episodic blog of a show is watching the blogger finish the story in their head, then have a gradual angry breakdown when the story reveals itself to be something entirely different. Maybe that’s fun if you have a sadistic streak, but it doesn’t seem like something we should be aiming for here.

I guess what I’m really wondering is, what are people really looking for from anime blogging, assuming they want it at all? I like it when a show first airs and people are posting all kinds of screenshots, jokes and speculation; I like the community that forms around that process. It’s a lot of fun, but it’s something tailor-made for social media and chat services; Twitter, Discord, etc. It’s a collaborative play on the show that needs multiple people to work, and not something a single blogger can do.

Well, I suppose you could do a blog about an anime and just post screenshots and jokes and silly captions, but then you’re just doing what social media does, only worse. I’d like to think that there’s still some use for the blogging format without watering it down.

I like writing about anime, and I’d like to continue doing it. I don’t think it’s pointless, even though some of the more popular models of anime blogging seem increasingly pointless to me; I think there’s a better way of doing it, and I just haven’t figured out what it is yet. I feel like there’s an obvious answer right in front of my nose, and one day I’m going to smack my forehead and yell “Aha! This is how anime blogging should work in 2018! This is what this format really has to offer!”, but that day is not today.

If you’d like to help me out, you could let me know in the comments what you enjoy about anime blogging and why. Then, if I ever discover the secret to Aniblogging 2.0, I’ll be sure to credit you in my upcoming book, “How to Justify Spending Huge Amounts of Effort on Wastes of Everyone’s Time.” It’s a working title.

*Blogging about X-Men was a little different from blogging about another bad anime because the X-Men were pretty much my first love when I was first getting into the whole geek lifestyle. I wanted that show to be good, and when it wasn’t, I enjoyed making fun of it, but it was still kind of bittersweet overall.

The Comforting Bleakness of Girls’ Last Tour

[Spoiler Warning for all of Girls Last Tour. Normally I don’t bother with spoiler warnings, but in this case, I wanted to play it safe; because if you haven’t seen the show yet, you really should watch it in its entirety before you read anything about it.]

It’s funny. Until recently I would have thought the words “bleak” and “depressing” were synonyms, but after finishing Girls’ Last Tour, I have my doubts about that. Because while the show was incredibly, unrelentingly bleak, I never really found it depressing.

I guess the difference lies in whether or not there’s a sense of wrongness, a sense of “should”– when things should be different than they are, should be better than they are, that’s depressing. In GLT however, there’s a sense that everything that’s happening is inevitable, and there’s nothing wrong with that; it’s not good, it’s not bad, it’s purely neutral. It’s the end of all life on Earth, God is in his heaven and all is right with the world, and so on and so forth.

Usually with this kind of post-apocalypse story, it’s meant to serve as a cautionary tale. “Don’t make these mistakes; don’t let humanity end like this.” And you can make the argument that GLT is the same way; the video montage in the last episode, which makes it clear that the kick-off for the apocalypse was a war initiated by Japan, implies that. However– and I freely admit this could just be me– I didn’t get the pleading “don’t let this happen to your world!” feeling from that sequence. I get the impression that, if Japan hadn’t started the war that led to the end of humanity in this continuity, it would have been somebody else. Maybe it would have been 100 years later, even 1,000 years later, but still, it was going to happen.

To be honest, I’m having a hard time processing a show about the end of humanity that doesn’t seem to be warning against it like it’s a bad thing. There’s a kind of comfort there; maybe, some things are just out of our control. Maybe getting all caught up caring about geopolitics is a fool’s game, and eventually, it’s going to be Chito and Yuuri, or some people very much like them, scavenging the ruins of old munitions factories for abandoned rations, no matter what we do. Then you can just stop worrying about nuclear holocausts, or international pandemics, and all that terrifying horrible shit, because it doesn’t really matter which one ends up being the culprit; the end result will be the same.

I hadn’t given this any thought until recently, but when it comes to “the future of humanity,” most people seem to be kind of stuck between considering two possibilities. One is the “we’re all going to die, because we suck and we deserve it,” Planet of the Apes scenario; our greed and stupidity gets the better of us, and we take ourselves out before our time. The other possibility is the Star Trek-style post-scarcity world, where scientific advancement has solved a lot of our practical problems, and the whole nature of life in the universe (human and otherwise) takes on a very different character. The world of GLT is certainly a lot closer to the first scenario than the second, but I think it does raise the question that it could be neither.

After all, the civilization in the show has progressed further than ours, at least technologically. Maybe humanity in this show didn’t end before it’s time, but right about when it had exhausted its potential; they’d already built massive structures that reached to the sky. Maybe there was nowhere else left to build, because there was no oxygen left. Maybe the apocalypse was downright overdue.

I think that’s a really scary idea, personally; a future that just kind of meanders while we wait for something to happen. I mean, of course a nuclear holocaust is scary, but you kind of know what you’re getting with that. I wouldn’t want to live through one (or er, be murdered during one) but conceptually, you know what’s going on there. What about a world where we neither self-destruct prematurely, nor do we develop sufficient technology to solve our most pressing problems? We just keep existing, keep having the same basic problems, over and over, in gradually more sophisticated housing units, waiting for a dramatic change that’s never going to occur?

Can you imagine if, 5,000 years from now, we’re all hanging out in these super-futuristic houses that look like they came out of The Jetsons, only we’re still having the same exact conversations about health care and income inequality? Will there be enough good stuff left to watch on Netflix for life to still be worth living at that point?

I’m getting kind of far afield of the show, which is the danger when you talk about any show that’s really worth talking about, I guess. But to return to GLT more specifically, what makes the show especially bleak is the fact that no one on the show believes that any kind of civilization is desirable, or possible. When Chi and Yuu run into other people, as they sometimes do, you’d expect them all to get together and pool their resources; maybe work together to try to build a new life for themselves in this mostly-empty world. But they don’t stay together, because they don’t see any point to it. You get the impression that maybe 100 or so years ago, the survivors of war tried to get together and start a new, peaceful civilization, only for that to end in a bloody conflict that killed 90% of the remaining human population, and now no one has any faith in human cooperation whatsoever. Chi and Yuu are perhaps the great-great-granddaughters of the last person who actually believed that there was merit in humans working together. Even the partnership between the two girls is tenuous, at times; the girls depend on each other, and obviously love one another, but it’s made clear in the first episode that complete trust is off the table.

Girls Last Tour isn’t a perfect show; sometimes, I think it’s too on the nose for it’s own good. After watching an entire episode of the girls scouring old military bases for food, I really didn’t need Yuu to say “If only people back then had made fewer weapons and more food, we’d be in better shape right now.” The staff of this show seems to have decided from the beginning that subtlety just wasn’t something they were interested in, and I have mixed feelings about that. On the one hand, in a story where 99.99999999999999999% of humanity is already dead, what is there to be subtle about? On the other hand, some things are more powerful if left unstated, and the sometimes the girls drain the power out of a scene by spelling out what it’s about in so many words.

Even so, I can forgive all that for that one scene where the girls fall over some beer, get tipsy and start dancing. That moment, and other moments when the girls discover simple pleasures– the music of rain, the taste of a freshly-grilled fish– are what give the show it’s odd mix of unrelenting bleakness and life-affirming joy. That shouldn’t be possible, right? If we’re sharing the girls’ joy as they dance, then that’s a happy moment, and thus a break from the bleakness, in theory. But I don’t think you can ever really separate the girls’ pleasure from their dire circumstances. In the dance scene, for example, I was worried that a drunken Chi was going to accidentally push Yuu over the edge of the platform to her death, only to realize that even if she did, would it matter? She would be saving her from a death of slow starvation, the most likely end for both of them.

I felt gutted after watching episode 12 of Girls Last Tour. I know the manga is still ongoing, and with the revelation that the contents of the highest level of the city are still unknown, anything could happen. Conceivably, there could be a group of survivors on the highest level who’ve hoarded enough food to last for decades, and the girls could be welcomed into a whole new life. But I don’t believe that’s what will happen; that would feel like a cop-out to me, even though there’s no logical reason why it should be. I feel like I just witnessed the final activities of the last two humans on Earth, and having the story reveal itself to be anything less extreme than that, any less brutal than that, would feel wrong on a level I can’t really articulate.

And yet, once again, I’m not depressed. I’m not depressed because even though the characters on the show have given up hope for civilization, I haven’t yet. Maybe I will someday, but as of now, it’s still up in the air. Just because I’m afraid of what might happen in the future doesn’t stop me from being able to imagine the good things that could happen, or the neutral things that could become good if we have the right attitude. And if the future really does end up resembling the one in Girl’s Last Tour, well…at least there’s dancing. We could do a lot worse, and I don’t know about you, but I find that pretty comforting right now.