Friday, January 16, 2015

Robot Ghosts And Wired Dreams: Japanese Science Fiction From Origins To Anime

"If someone were to ask what characteristic lies at the core of science fiction, I believe that many fans would still say it is 'grand narrative' or 'grand vision.' For science fiction to be science fiction, some kind of a vision must be proposed, even if it is a vision of science's failure or of a dark, foreboding future." -Azuma Hiroki, SF as Hamlet: Science Fiction and Philosophy, Robot Ghosts And Wired Dreams: Japanese Science Fiction From Origins To Anime (p.78)-

As I mentioned in the year end retrospective here I had been taking a bit more time for myself in 2014 to read, write and quote unquote "paint." Ha. At least that's how my family sees it. But I remain steadfast in my efforts despite all jocularity surrounding said painting. And, of course, With family commitments (football games, dance, etc.) taking the bulk of my time the blog has indeed suffered. I do feel badly about that, but I certainly haven't given up on it entirely as you know. Still, I have been slacking.

To set the tone for yet another year here at Musings Of A Sci-Fi Fanatic I thought touching upon the very definition of Science Fiction would be a nice way to start things off and offer a nice reset going forward.

I loved this brief observation about science fiction taken from the aforementioned collection of essays, Robot Ghosts And Wired Dreams: Japanese Science Fiction From Origins To Anime (2007), a collection I'm quite enjoying actually even if I don't entirely connect with the theories set forth by some of the writers or agree with their academic arguments entirely.

This post actually started out as one thing and mutated into a brief book review in the lead in to another post. As many who visit here know I do have a thing for these reference books on film, television and anime of the academic variety. This is precisely why it was such a pleasure and an honor to contribute to Back to Frank Black: A Return To Chris Carter's Millennium (2012) and be part of an analytical publication specific to covering what really amounts to an underappreciated American classic in television. I'm biased, but the evidentiary quality of Millennium speaks for itself and the aforementioned book really drives those points home with great care and detail.

I digress. Today, my book of choice has been a work steeped in Japanese science fiction and Anime. Robot Ghosts And Wired Dreams runs a massive historical timeline and thus feels a bit disjointed, but the quality of effort here is truly exceptional. Again, even if I agree to disagree with all of the points made it remains a fascinating collection and I commend and applaud editors Christopher Bolton, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr. and Takayuki Tatsumi for such an ambitious effort.

My favorite essay is When The Machines Stop by Susan J. Napier subtitled Fantasy, Reality and Terminal Identity in Neon Genesis Evangelion And Serial Experiments Lain. This is not only an academic piece but a fascinating offering on both series particularly Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995-1996). Napier, a professor of Japanese studies at Tufts University, penned another of my favorite Anime reference works called Anime From Akira To Howl's Moving Castle: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation (2005). Still, her contribution here is a splendid complement to her earlier, extensive publication on the subject of Anime. Napier genuinely plumbs the depths of the Anime medium and manages to explore the misunderstood medium on a more scholarly level. You have to appreciate that.

Another real highlight in Robot Ghosts And Wired Dreams is The Mecha's Blind Spot: Patlabor 2 And The Phenomenology Of Anime by Christopher Bolton. It is a terrific offering for those in love with labors and all things Mamoru Oshii. Bolton takes us deeper into Oshii's world and mind reflecting on the line between "technological amplification" as Bolton calls it and the potential to succumb to dehumanization from that connection.

Another gem that delves into all things Otaku is Otaku Sexuality by therapist and psychoanalyst Saito Tamaki translated by Bolton. It is a thoroughly exhaustive look at what it is to be Otaku and one that really offers an understanding and even defense of another completely misunderstood fandom. I had no idea how completely frowned upon the term was in Japan itself.

Also, Sharalyn Orbaugh's Sex And The Single Cyborg which includes some interesting perspectives on Neon Genesis Evangelion as well as Ghost In The Shell (1995) makes for an interesting read. Orbaugh teaches at the University of British Columbia in Asian and women's studies. I didn't particularly connect with her perspective on the subject entirely, but given her profession and where she is approaching the material from her argument is certainly understandable.

Last but not least, there's also a rather interesting take in the book on Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001), a film I've always loved and admired despite its box office failure, which offers a number of points I certainly hadn't thought about. Some of her general summaries here are terrific. Other more technical ideas are less significant to me or generally uninteresting to me personally, but it is an in-depth piece and perspective by Livia Monnet. The essay is called Invasion Of The Woman Snatchers. Monnet, who teaches at the University of Montreal, does hit on some points about the film that will offer those who missed a lot of what was going on in the feature a little more insight. But her conclusions and perception of the film differ quite markedly from my own. I've always had a quite positive take away from the film and could easily offer counter point to her own (and someday hope to). Monnet's analysis is a decidedly negative view of the film ultimately. I simply couldn't agree as much as I appreciated her thoughtful perspective. I know it's a flawed film with its fair share of imperfections. But there are some harsh assessments here. I couldn't help but wonder how director Hironobu Sakaguchi, who clearly poured his heart and soul into this film, would feel after reading an article like this. I couldn't help but wonder how that director felt after receiving a fairly tough critical response upon the release of his film overall. It must not have been easy. My heart kind of goes out to the man. Still, it's certainly not the writer's job to hold back from honest expression nor should it be. But Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within really took its fair share of direct critical hits upon release. Monnet's offers yet another, but it is indeed a pensive work and at least people are still talking about that generally influential film. A review of that film is forthcoming for another day.

Funny enough I did do a review of the film in a collaborative effort with Francisco Gonzalez and J. D. LaFrance called 15 Of The Apocalypse (2012) for The Film Connoisseur. That creative collaboration was a great deal of fun a few years back. I never carried those reviews over to Musings Of A Sci-Fi Fanatic, but still plan to expound and broaden my looks at those five films one day. Those films were Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, Mad Max 3: Beyond Thunderdome, Reign Of Fire, Damnation Alley and The End Of Evangelion. One day soon I hope to at least offer a more comprehensive look at Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.

Turning are attention back to the aforementioned quote above taken from the book, Science Fiction centering on science's failures is always a highlight.

A dark, foreboding future is another classic arena thematically in sci-fi like the settings in those earlier mentioned apocalyptic films.

In making efforts to grapple with the very definition of the genre it is clearly not an easy task, which is probably why science fiction is so much murky, academic fun.

Themes and concepts attributable to science fiction include space and time travel, alternate timelines and histories, parallel universes, outer and inner space tales, dystopian and post-apocalyptic worlds filled with alien invaders, monsters, kaiju, mutants, robots, androids, super humans, mind control, teleportation, wormholes much of which is framed in steam punk, cyber punk, anime sci-fi, military sci-fi, space opera, space western and often packed to the hilt with an abundance of spaceships and weaponry. The very best of these stories utilize these elements as a backdrop or as details to service a story that explores mankind's courage and/or arrogance and most of all the overarching depth of the most fascinating aspect of science fiction - the human condition.

But these endlessly creative ideas are the perfect mechanisms and delivery systems for wonderfully human stories that offer real mirrors to our past, present and future realities in this endlessly fascinating genre. Robot Ghosts And Wired Dreams delivers an interesting mining of the world of science fiction and Anime through a Japanese prism and the book was a good bit of fun which inspired me to write a bit about it. For fans of the subject the book comes recommended.

More on science fiction coming soon.

Images utilized for this post are intended to complement the content mentioned or explored in the publication Robot Ghost And Wired Dreams. Some images speak directly to their themes.


El Vox said...

Final Fantasy was one of the first or earlier CG films to try and depict a human form as I recall. I enjoyed the art, but for me the story fell short, but I'll say I just can't remember much of the story now. It probably would have had more impact on me if I had played the game it's influenced by, and I think that may have been its weakness as I felt I was missing something.

How would the negative reviews be if I were to make something like that? Well, sure it would be disappointing. But at the same time, just getting it made is somewhat an accomplishment. Plus being paid for your efforts is better than a sharp stick in the eye. I'd certainly accept the money reaped from it, and he probably enjoyed the challenge of having it made.

Not everyone bashed it however. Roger Ebert gave it fairly favorable reviews:

I'd like to see your artwork.

SFF said...

It was one of the first. And yes story had problems.
I recall the roger Ebert review very well. He was one of the few out there advocating for it. It was nice to see.

As far as I know it has nothing to do with the game and I never played the game myself.

Final Fantasy Advent Children, the film that followed, was more game inspired.

And you know it must have been hard because from what I understand the film really cost the company Square Enix dearly. So it was unfortunate it did not do as well as they had hoped.

But, as you say, hopefully it was gratifying artistically.

Thanks el Vox.


Roman J. Martel said...

That is an interesting book. I remember reading a few of the essays in it, but never finishing the whole thing. Some of the views got a bit too academic for my tastes. You Mention Napier, and I had her book (but my version was the older "Akira to Ghost in the Shell" version). And I found her examinations starting in interesting places but wheeling wildly into bizarre corners of academia that just confounded me. I should give it a another shot, because at the time I was such a big anime fan any harsh reactions to my favorite series was met with dismissal. These days, I know better than to write off contrary or unique perspectives. Many times they are good for a chuckle or two. ;)

You've mentioned your appreciation for "Final Fantasy: the Spirits Within". It's good to know I'm not alone in that. I thought the movie worked very well for the most part and delivered some amazing visuals and a theme we hadn't seen much in science fiction at the time. Been a while since I revisited the film, I might need to do so.

Great to have you writing again (and about anime no less). Looking forward to you further explorations.

SFF said...

Hi Roman.
I completely understand and I found many of the essays do get a bit too academic. You're not wrong. Robot Ghosts was read one essay at a time with varying degrees of interest, but I did appreciate it even if some got a bit too far out there.

Well said on FF, I'm glad you're with me. I really approved of that film and as science fiction goes it was something quite different to me and it really had a unique er herm spirit of its own. So, yes, it had problems but I wouldn't go so far as the writer did in this book. She really saw a lot of sci-fi influence here and the examples she utilized simply did not ring at all true for me to speak to your point about different opinions on our favorite anime and films.

Yes, I found Final Fantasy to be something unique and at the time, for me, a bit magical as a viewing experience. I liked it a lot.

Also, I suspect I see a good bit of Anime in the future here. I'm kid of really into it at the moment. Thanks Roman.