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Otomo Katsuhiro: Narrative in Four Frames

akirabannerThirty years ago AKIRA by Otomo Katushiro revolutionized western perceptions on what mature animation could be and placed, for a while, Anime’s more artistic and still commercial possibilities at the forefront. AKIRA showed many Americans that “cartoons” were not just an electronic babysitter to accompany sugary bowls of cereal on Saturday mornings. With each waning decade, the Anime landscape has changed with the times, consumer tastes, and marketing teams eager to exploit the saturated environment. While it is fair to say most Anime widely consumed cannot compare to the quality of AKIRA the film’s impact on the global market can still be felt. Instead of grumbling about those changing tastes and return to heavy juvenile themed Anime, I want to focus on the perfection of Otomo’s adaptation of his landmark Manga series of the same name. Specifically, I will analyze four frames from the film, a flashback of sorts, that achieves herculean results in both emotion and narrative with a short series of frames.

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Rather than detailing the plot, which is ably covered by other fans here, I want to focus on the above scene. I have laid them out on the page to mimic the revelatory movement of the camera point-of-view used by Otomo in the film. When I first saw the film it was, like many other Anime films of the time, bootlegged onto VHS. Seen before the domestic release, I can remember loving the mecha and character designs, the lifelike flow of action and a “really cool” science fiction story. As I aged and the movie became destination watching, the more I appreciated the beauty of the post-apocalyptic Neo-Tokyo story. More recently still, I found a revelation in four frames that absolutely floored and gutted me.

Kaneda (left) and Tetsuo (right) are childhood friends who grew up in a post-nuclear Tokyo. As the city rose from the rubble, teens like Kaneda and Tetsuo roam the streets in loose biker gangs battling it out over stakes in turf and machismo. Unlike most western narratives, rather than Kaneda being the thrust of the plot (as he is the prototypical rebellious lead) it is his timid lifelong friend that snatched by the powers of science run amok.

Tetsuo is the teen with the good, but not cool bike, he has a girl who likes him but he isn’t pursued by a gaggle of young ladies like Kaneda. Tetsuo is always coming in second, until fate intervenes and he becomes not just number one, but prime destroyer of the world being rebuilt. Transformed into something physically and psychologically monstrous, Kaneda does not become a monster. Rather, Otomo skillfully shows how the boy with the gifts of gods, is driven mad by those powers but  is still rooted by the naive, introspective little boy who first met his best friend on the playground. It is that playground, that place, that lifts the characters beyond one-dimensional clichés, into something transcendent and beautiful narratively.

In a glimpse into memory, Kaneda and Tetsuo share a moment of recollection of times long past. When they were both boys, content with chalk and macadam, rather than motorcycles and violence. The above frames perfectly capture the essence of both characters. How they retain those boyhood components into adulthood, yet how they are expressed within the story leads to dramatically different outcomes.

The beauty of what Otomo did in those four frames, panning down over the chalkboard art, is tell a story about two boys which magnifies the tragedy of their situation in the present. Kaneda, with the cool leather jacket and motorcycle, is consumed by sword-wielding giant robots, kaiju, tanks, bullet-trains, toppling buildings, and all manner of flame and action. Kaneda’s drawings exude a personality type that as an adult is chalked up to machismo and testosterone. Tetsuo, however, is so very different from his friend. His world of chalk is of families, meandering paths, floating math equations, bucolic homes by seas populated by cetaceans, and punctuations of trees and flowers. Kaneda is primed for future action, while Tetsuo pines for a family lost.

Rather than a bloated rehash or prequelic meander within the AKIRA framework, Otomo and his team perfectly capture of what is possible with visual storytelling. This is a form of exposition, looking back and filling in the blanks, but is no mere info-dump. It is a tour of the boys psyches, their dreams and fantasies. Kaneda, the man of action and hero in short pants. Kaneda is a dreamer, wistful in a world of flowers and family. They both end up in a gang together, but as displayed in the four frames they should never be remotely considered the same. Neither is a lost cause. Both dream. What Otomo does in those four frames is capture childhood by showing its simplicity as not inherent, but as contrast to the dangerous, ugly world which Kaneda and Tetsuo inhabit. For those reasons, I contend, Otomo finds storytelling perfection in four frames.

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Fallen Kingdom: Yup, I walked out.

crapassicparkI had the displeasure of seeing Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom last week. I fully admit I saw it merely because the northeast was in the midst of a harsh heatwave that meant the AC in the house needed some alone time. So I went to the theater and chose Fallen Kingdom. Mistake number one. Mistake number two? Thinking I could turn all parts of my brain, save pulmonary functions, in order to watch the newest installment of the din-franchise as mindless entertainment. Yeah, that lasted about three or four minutes. Almost immediately I found basic flaws not only in the plot and character motivation, but some pretty unimaginative film making. What pushed me to the brink and ultimately grumbling out of the theater, was the immensely flawed moral and ethical decision making by the characters. When there was ethical decisions. In a way, the film wants to be an indictment of  neo-liberal economics. However, the fact the movie was made at all, on the heels of a bad predecessor, with every indication the producers will keep dino-ing into the future, the film itself was a gross example of neo-liberal economics. Truly, the only ethical strand fully articulated in Fallen Kingdom were those of the greedy badguys. Their motivations and propulsive force within the film was clear. What moved the heroes of the film? Well it depends where and when you were asked? I don’t mean evolution of beliefs, that’s logical, instead the characters wavered back-and-forth between positions that suggested ethics but were nothing more than a poor screenplay piecemealed together, like the dinosaurs themselves, to create the illusion of drama. Time and again the film chose increasingly stupid choices for its characters. Doorways were ignored. Sprinklers magically didn’t exist, and the nature of nature was patently dismissed. The climax of the film, for me and the moment I walked out, came in two parts. First was Bryce Dallas-Howard’s articulation that dinosaurs were still a myth to her even though there were fossils and evidence. They only became “real” when you could seem them perambulating on some exclusive island. This is bizarrely anti-science. That single line encapsulated the problem with the new crop of Jurassic Park films- they are pseudo-science-creationism. The final straw was a chance at a moral play, akin to a black-box-theater, where the leads could have debated the fate of the dinosaurs with the ticking-timebomb backdrop. Instead, the decision whether the dinosaurs should live or die was made through turned backs, and an atrocious plot-device regarding cloning. The film pretends to be something its not. It is a not an indictment of neo-liberalism, it embodies neo-liberalism’s worse elements. It is not science meddling in nature, it uses the “logic” of Creationism to create disbelief or wonder. And finally, the film fails by spectacularly ignoring the concept of utilitarianism- the right or best action is the one that promotes the most utility or happiness in a group. Rather than looking at the giant beasts, panicked and dying, placed in a world which they no longer belonged, a character made a decision based on them and them alone. It was the inverse of utilitarian thinking. What magnified the final decision was the collection of dinosaurs, who through five movies demonstrated their destructive and deadly power, were viewed as benign…including rapacious carnivores. Yes, there wasn’t a strange moral debate over veggie-saurus vs meat-eaters. Instead the dinosaurs of every shape and size, benign and deadly, were released in a selfish act that forsakes the rest of the world. Maybe this could be a view of who or what could or should be called an invasive species?

But…nah…its about CG dinosaurs and cheap thrills.

Then again, it’s just a movie.

What Solo Gets Right Other Star Wars Get Wrong: Silk + Polyester + Suede = Galaxy Far Far Away

clarkesoloNow, this may seem silly or so obvious it is irrelevant as to why there are a number of us legacy fans (yuck) that just can’t get into the new Star Wars films. Social media likes to make fun of us, call us names (boo-hoo, right?), but I have put some thought into what it is for me, and me specifically, that disconnects from the newest crop of Star Wars movies: costume and material.

I love pretty much every aspect of film making but my first love was special effects. Now, however, with an aged eye and life-experience one of the key aspect to making a film authentic to its source is the material which its costumes are made of.

In the recent Ron Howard helmed Solo, there was a bit of a fresh retro-breeze floating through the film. There was suede, silk, satin-lining, and rayon. There were v-necks, capes, bloused billowy trousers, and pant suits. These costumes were confined mostly to the main characters of the film, with a few extras sprinkled throughout.

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Why are these styles of costumes and material important? Well, despite what the late Star Wars costume designer John Mollo said in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, there were “vestiges of the 70’s” in those films.

Star Wars: A New Hope was chock full of costume material that rivets it to the 1970s. Aunt Beru’s denim smock and polyester butterfly collar is the best example.

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The heroic trio of Leia, Luke, and Han were bedecked in polyester, cotton, and suedes.

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Which leads me back to original costume designer John Mollo who was quoted as saying, “As you see, the costumes from Star Wars are really not so much costumes as a bit of plumbing and general automobile engineering” (via Obit The Telegraph December 2017). Mollo also said of his creation of Vader, ” I had to go to three departments:
the ecclesiastical department for a robe, the modern department for a motorcycle suit and the military department for a [Second World War] German helmet and gas mask. We cobbled it all together and there was Darth Vader.” (Obit)

And that is where the newest Star Wars films miss the boat- they rely on copying or mimicking the look of the original films, but never really standing on their own. Never truly cobbling together from different departments or decades. More often than not, the director, producers and costumers rely on the prescribed “star Wars” costuming template all the while forgetting that the universe they cloth was ” plumbing…and…automobile engineering.”

(All images are copyright of their owners. Their non-commercial use here is for illustrative purposes only.)

Peak Star Wars

Since the debut in 1977 the franchise Star Wars has maintained a flowing current through our ever changing popular culture landscape. Unlike Star Trek which ebbed into near oblivion several times since its television debut in the 1960s, Star Wars held on as a memory of longtime fans. Its characters spread throughout the globe with Yoda and the Force two of the elements quick on the tongue of even the most facile devotee.

Then something happened. The franchise that perfected the art of tie-ins, toys, and merchandising exploded again brighter and louder than the two Death Stars detonating combined. It came before the Disney buy-out, when the Lucas-helmed Episodes I, II, and III. Since then, and re-energized by the empire of the mouse, Star Wars has become pervasive, ever expanding, and omnipresent. As a life-long Star Wars fan I never thought I’d say this…we’ve reach peak Star Wars and I am jumping off the bandwagon.

I saw Rogue One a few weeks after its opening. That alone is unheard of for this fan of the Rebellion as every other film in the franchise, in my recollection, I saw on opening weekend. Why didn’t I leap aboard Rogue One? Many reasons. The election wore me out, school has been demanding, and most importantly, I realized I was burned out by all consuming Star Wars.

Rogue One was a serviceable film. Not terrible, but not great. Its flaws were mostly aesthetic, in my opinion. While set in the weeks preceding A New Hope, Rogue One felt strangely discontinuous. The film’s directorial style, guided by the talented Gareth Edwards the man responsible for the solid indie sci-fi film Monsters, was uninspired and akin to 21st century cable film-making. It was supposed to be within and emulate a movie made in the 1970s, in a universe crafted with 1970s hairstyles and costume materials, with gear and guns from World War I and World War II. Rogue One had none of those elements or feelings. What Rogue One lacked was ‘texture.’ It lacked the texture of the time its universe was created, the weapons were plastic, not real steel, the costuming was canvas and leather, not nylon and plastic. The hairstyles were 21st century, not coifs squarely in the heart of the disco-era.

This command to direct a “period” film with modern touches, textures, and aesthetics alienated this old timer. It is tricky to direct a film like Rogue One. It won’t be great film making but it also won’t be good enough for the old school fans, such as me. Ultimately, I do not fault Rogue One or its director. Instead I criticize the business that has turned something that was somehow both cult and successful into a product that has become so bland, at times derivative, that it lacks the energy and innocence. Star Wars was George Lucas homage to Hidden Fortress. Star Wars was space opera. Star Wars was a western in space.

Star Wars today, all of its sequels and ‘Star Wars Stories’, is a machine without inspiration or texture. It sits on a mountain of toys and diffused financial interests. It is less about entertainment and more about capital. Movie-making is a business, full stop. I get it. But what has happened to a film franchise known for its kit-bashed aesthetic and boot strap ethics? It panders to fans who refuse to leave the past behind. It regurgitates the same basic story over and over. It i a franchise which has lost its energy and has confused the bottom-line with genuine entertainment.

A copy of a copy looses its vibrancy and its texture. Rogue One, as Star Wars goes, has lost its texture.

 

 

 

Star Wars Movies Need to be Period Pieces

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The costumes! The weapons! The Hair!

To me when I think of Star Wars I think special effects, Chewbacca, Darth Vader, and sideburns. What? Let me explain.

I finally got around to re-watching The Force Awakens last week. I found it fairly entertaining the first time, but during the second viewing I was a little bored. I am not sure why and it is not a wholesale indictment of the film, my disliking it. There was something off. Perhaps it was the vague whiff of rehash of a New Hope. Or maybe I couldn’t ignore the echoing howls from fans demanding a romance between characters. No offense folks, but I paid to see a Space Opera not a Soap Opera.

However I realized between the first and second watching of The Force Awakens there is a certain amount of aesthetic authenticity missing in this nascent cinema go-around. Yes, The Force Awakens looked sort of like Star Wars IV, V, VI in costumes, but the blasters were a weird mix of cheap plastic feather-light Nerf props and weird 21st century video-game plasma melee weapons. The new Stormtroopers looked like an advance generation of the classic design, so that worked. Same for the new X-Wings and pilot jumpsuits. Then what was off, aesthetically? Everything. Yes, I know The Force Awakens takes place some 30 years after Jedi and only Rogue One and the other spin-offs take place in the same time frame as the “original” trio. Let me explain.

First off, this is not an indictment of lens flare or director choice color pallets; nor a complaint about casting or even the basic plot. My beef is the original Star Wars movies- New Hope, Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi- weren’t movies conjured from a galaxy far, far away. No, they were creations of aesthetics of the 1970s and very early 1980s. This is vitally important to understanding why for some of us, the new films seem a little off and we can’t put our finger on why. Go back and watch the Star Wars prequels. For all their issues, they are films that look kind of like Star Wars but not really. They crib from the design sheet of the original trilogy but lack the production/costume/makeup/hair continuity to them. Stylistically it would make sense to have pushed the aesthetic to the dawn of the space age, say the early 1960s. Instead they look like late 1990s movies.

But back to aesthetics, let me show you.

Via starwarsscreencaps.com

The above image of Luke and Aunt Beru is vintage 1970s. Hair especially. Clothes, like Beru’s wide collar farmer print shirt and denim smock, are products of costume designs of the 1970s. Now, remember, its about aesthetics.

                                                     Via NotShallow.org

Above is a classic denim ad from a department store catalog. Bits and pieces of these everyday clothes could have easily been thrown on working class extras at Mos Eisley or blue milk farmers.

via Starwarsscreencaps.com

Here, in the infamous scene where we see Vader encounter skeptical techno-crats, the style of the Star Wars universe is directly influenced by the aesthetic of the 1970s. Gloss black table, probably plastic, and the single piece chairs are the sleek yet dated decor of four decades ago. They work because they are objects out of time. Also, notice the hair again. By example, here is a 1970s coffee table.

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Very Star Wars like, no?

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Finally, the Cantina. This is 1970s barroom at its most glorious. Plastic race-track top, padded bumpers and a kit-bashed appearance that made a New Hope so different. It was design in a messy way. It was the original shabby-chic. One part production design, one part budgetary constraints.

So, my point is this…if you want to make a aesthetically authentic, therefore subconsciously pleasing Star Wars film without having to slavishly meet the needs of fandom, production and costume design the movie as if you were making a film in the 1970s or even early 1980s, about a story set in a distant time. Think coarse polyester and rotary phones, think American Hustle or Studio 54; and expunge touchscreens or cellphones from your creativity memory. Future Star Wars movies need to aesthetically echo the time the universe was originally created, not just mirror a design philosophy in perpetuity. A copy of a copy gets dull with each pass.

 

 

Cusp of New Year

Hello friends…

I wanted to write a quick note to both occasional visitor and loyal reader. The blog has obviously been on an unannounced hiatus during the summer and fall. For a variety of reasons- from a serious health scare to classes- the world of Asymmetric Creativity has taken a back seat.

We are a week away from 2016 and I hope to be blogging regularly as the last of my medical issues go by the wayside and I settle in once again as a full-time college student.

Again, thanks for continuing to visit the site and I look forward to seeing you all next year (in a week.)

K

Assault on Original Sci-Fi: Have Fans Become Agents of the Machine?

Something has happened to original celluloid science/speculative fiction in recent years. Creators of new ideas, those stories generated through inspiration or ideas scribbled in notebooks as a child, are assailed and mercilessly pilloried for seemingly minor entertainment transgressions.

Somewhere along the line some vocal fans- yes every film is designed for public consumption as part of the entertainment industry- have gone from spectators to participants in the shaping and marketing of science fiction films. Money is to be made by giving the fans what they want, true. But what about original works that make it the silver screen? Advocates for original, not adapted stories, are few and far between. It seems a fashion to deliberately mock and attack creators of original science fiction ideas on film.

If you await the next big-named science fiction/superhero franchise, there is no quarrel. We find comfort in the familiar and escapist. But the quarrel lay with those who hoist these new movies above all others and denigrate ideas that aren’t spawned, in particular, from sequential art exemplified with the recent release of Avengers: Age of Ultron.

What seems to happen as of late are directors berated by “sci-fi” fans for their efforts. I posit that fans seeking voice online are in fact fans of the comfort/familiar form of science fiction, particularly from comic-books And in a way, many have become agents of the studio marketing machine. By enlisting in this marketing effort would-be pundits become thought-leaders and influencers of the wider viewing public, especially online and within their social media circles. Just as we love comfort, we also as a species love to follow the leader. In war-time you can always tell a leader on the battlefield by the person waving their hands and shouting the most. That is the marketing role adopted, seemingly unwittingly, by many devotees of high visibility, comic-book type science fiction. I enjoyed the inaugural Iron Man effort, thought Captain America: Winter Soldier had a plot and turns worth investing it. And Guardians of the Galaxy was a riot of space opera fun.

In the past decade we’ve seen a plethora of superhero science fiction franchises dominating the box office. The Avengers I and II, Spider Man, Thor, Captain America, Wolverine, X-Men and Iron Man have been tent poles, well-known titles that have become the standard bearer of movie science fiction. Appealing to a broader crowd than tights and superpowers crowd have been YA book spin-offs Hunger Games, Maze Runner and Divergent. Each of these projects relies on such rigid source material that any deviation is unthinkable, resulting in at times bland, consumed with CG that renders the film a two hour video game, or such ham-fisted films that defy the most generous label of good films. When a film does deviate, like Man of Steel, the vox populi erupts with such righteous indignation that attempting to defend the project makes you a scurrilous Neanderthal who knows nothing about morality in science fiction film making.

Related, tangentially, is actor/writer Simon Pegg’s comments on the dumbing down of the industry and film-goers here and here.

But back to the issue of originality.

When was the last truly original science fiction film that transcended the genre viewer and become a lasting cultural phenomenon? In James Cameron’s Avatar we had a massive financial success, but as pointed out in Forbes, the film left no footprint on the wider popular culture. Last year’s Interstellar from Christopher Nolan, was an achievement in blending in-camera traditional visual effects, digital creations and a thought bending plot. Yet for all the money it made, the critics were numerous and many came from the hallowed halls of science fiction websites. The last ground-up science fiction franchise to peak culturally was the Matrix trilogy. Funnily enough, the Wachowski’s most recent effort, Jupiter Ascending, was joyfully picked apart and derided for its story telling, style and even its creatures. Uh, like grown men running around in skin tight primary colored uniforms is a shade of reserved normality? And cheese filled dialogue and banter worthy of a adolescent’s joke book is the height of mature story telling.

The one film that seemed to rebel from the stigma of original sci-fi pillorying was the magnificent Mad Max: Fury Road. Yet if you look at box office totals Fury Road still could not find the pole position in its first week.  Losing to a musical sequel, Pitch Perfect 2, despite being in over 200 more theaters Fury Road pulled in $20 million less for the weekend.

There should be comfort science fiction- popcorn movies. But there needs to be room for original ideas, something created through a life-time’s worth of sensory experiences. Not every original work will be flawless, but neither are the glut of superhero science fiction films overtaking the cinemas. Search out, hard, for complaints about plot holes and leaps in basic film making with the genre and you’ll find them. We face an adventure and science fiction film landscape where Hollywood studios and genre fans have become intertwined. Hollywood is all about making money, its their goal, and they follow the trends. Right now its all about  the superhero and for that reason we all lose.

The Great Vaccine Debate: What’s Old is New Again

smalllpxIn recent weeks the debate over vaccinations has risen to a fevered pitch, pulling in every walk of American life into the argument. I find it interesting to look back into Colonial American history to see our earliest collective discourse on the safety and validity of vaccinations.

We can return to 1721 Boston when smallpox was a true scourge of the peninsula town. A pitched argument was underway between clergyman Cotton Mather and university trained physician William Douglass, the former a proponent while the latter a vocal opponent.

For a complete overview of the 1721 debate and perspective on how some anti-inoculation beliefs of the period have echoes today, check out this Harvard piece on the subject.

Time Away

Hello readers. I wanted to write to apologize for my absence in recent months. I have been dealing with some personal issues (yes I am sure many a blogger has typed those very words) and I hope to get back into the posting flow in the coming weeks.

Just a quick note of apology and thanks to those who continue to stick with Asymmetric Creativity.

Thank you so much.

Asymmetric Creativity: Writing Through Personal Problems

We’ve closed the most public period for writers in the age of social media- NaNoWriMo. This one month free-for-all of would be authors and established writers plugging away at new projects or long-delayed ideas. The shared encouragement, venting or problem solving is a unique way for the otherwise solitary profession to become communal.

The rest of the year writers occasionally divulge projects online, give us sneak peeks at frustration or triumph. And in those good times the ecstasy is something a writer wants to share. Yet when the block strikes like an iceberg, the pain and frustration are legendary exemplified by dozens of writers block suggestions that make the rounds daily.

There is another trouble plaguing writers (and those of all professions)-  returning to work after trauma. Whether its mental or physical trauma the ability to recover one’s creative self and return to writing can be incredibly difficult and sometimes feel impossible.

We often see it online when writer websites go quiet for weeks or months without explanation. Inevitably we come to expect the standard off the shelf explanation- too busy with life. Often, I’ve come to realize, this is code for a personal problems or issues that has gutted or slowed the writer. It is a very personal act, creation. It is also a personal act to admit when life has dealt us some tough times. Yet our ability to share online those traumas that halted our creativity is incredibly hard. Call it the artist’s temperament, we writers can be a fickle and emotional lot. We tend to clam up or over share.

But we are creatures that explore and explain through our creations. We burrow deep within our minds and imaginations, so should we be surprised that when life deals us troubles that it is especially daunting to return to the creativity that defines us?

Perhaps the key is reminding/remembering every day through these traumas and trials that we are creative and it has been with us in good times and bad. There is no reason why we should use the tribulations as a new way to create. Perhaps its purging the ill feelings through fiction or song? Maybe these life problems are merely potholes in creative highway. You wouldn’t  stop driving down a road just because there were a few potholes. You drive forward, you keep an eye out, but you roll on.

Roll on, fellow writers, past the potholes of life and realize that no matter what is happening your creativity is who you are. It sees you through adversity. The rest are just potholes.