The Tiger Manifesto

Criticism with claws

Month: February, 2015

Moto Hagio: Heart of Thomas


Moto Hagio participated in the remaking of Japanese comics for girls. Before the Year 24 group, of which Hagio was a part, girls’ manga––shoujo from now on––traded in pitifully slight fantasies about mistaken identity and had men writing them. Defeat in World War II unleashed major upheavals in all parts of Japanese society, and though the potentially revolutionary energies at work in Japan ran afoul of American and comprador repression, Japanese culture in the 1950s through the early 1970s crackled with invention. Manga and anime as we know it today, along with the classic canon of Japanese films and the countercultural New Wave after it, burst forth in these few middle decades of the century. As an artifact of that time, Heart of Thomas registers the shockwaves of liberalized sexuality and expressive freedom that existed precariously alongside growing commercialization of popular art in 1974, when a weekly magazine serialized it in its pages.

Though I made reference to sexuality, sex itself is anathema in Heart of Thomas, existing only in the painful margins of the story. That tale begins with Thomas, the title character, committing suicide by plunging off a bridge. The subject of his unrequited love, Juli, who is a student at the same German boarding school, receives Thomas’ suicide note, and along with his friend Oscar is the only one who knows that Thomas’ demise was no accident. The cryptic note reveals that Thomas intended his death to carry a powerful meaning for Juli, but this is not unraveled until near the end of this expansive book. Complicating matters is the arrival of Erich, who resembles Thomas so much in appearance that it awakens Juli’s death drive as the latter attempts to expunge Thomas’ specter from his life.


Heart of Thomas is also an origin point for shounen-ai, or “boy love,” casting the roles of the narrative almost entirely with boys who have their own complicated romantic politics. Their loves are always idealized and angelic, having an almost puritanical devotion entwined with sexual desires. The former, as mentioned, rarely figure into the story. Love in this book is internal and mystical, swirling like a torrent around the body but, because the characters are so young, not explicitly sexual at all. To illustrate, let’s take the handling of kisses in the story. Because Hagio injects elements of Christianity into the book, kisses figure as “Judas kisses” more often than genuine tokens of affection, used to spite or as currency for favors. Judas and the fallen angels form perhaps the central motif of the story, symbols of betrayal and loss of innocence. Love and hate, therefore, tend to work on an abstract plane in the story, complemented by the expressionistic use of spacing and composition in the artwork. Characters may be in proximity to one another in the panels but separated from each other by vast distances or, more often, the boundary between life and death. Hagio renders the psyches of the characters as just as literal as their physical forms, constituent parts of their presence in the story. As one might guess, the content of these worlds is often easily read in a Freudian way, a tangle of narcissism, misdirection, and repression that often boils.

Despite the complexity of the multiple subplots and character explorations, the fundamental theme of the story can be simply summarized: how people live with the scars of past torment. Some of these are literal, like Juli’s, while others signify themselves through absence and regret more than transfigured skin. Because the story takes place in what seems to be a Catholic boys’ school, characters sometimes express their troubles in religious language, whether they believe or not. Because of their class status as petty bourgeoisie, their immaturity, and their upbringing, these characters have a highly abstracted relationship to all areas of life, which includes their romantic conflicts. Theirs is a sheltered world, something like the academy in Revolutionary Girl Utena, an island where the larger themes of the story work themselves out almost as actors on a stage; we can sense the artifice of the story but also the integrity of the basic truths being expressed. Unrealistic in some ways, Heart of Thomas maintains an unflinching eye on the subject of pain and trauma, and how the people of this peculiar space deal with their mistakes and the terrible sins committed––by them or against them.

Though Heart of Thomas is unmistakably steeped in the shoujo tradition, it deploys the typical romantic phantoms one would see in those stories in far more meaningful ways than the norm. It accomplishes what all art should: forging truth out of lies, taking the concrete world and rendering it newly recognizable in a fiercer and more lucid form on the page.


Love=Transgression: Against Judgmens in Yuri Kuma Arashi


Though I wrote a small article on Revolutionary Girl Utena, one that will require some future atonement on my part, I have resisted writing much about Kunihiko Ikuhara’s animated shows. This is in part because the fan community around these shows is well-developed, articulate, and far more invested in deciphering the particulars of his intricate, symbol-laden stories than I am. Web forums and fancies host enough close readings of Utena and Penguindrum to fill volumes. I have no interest in that kind of work. Therefore, this post is going to explore his new, incomplete show, Yuri Kuma Arashi (ユリ熊嵐) more broadly, investigating its political commitments and a few of the key social structures in the show’s fantasy world. Since the show’s run is only just over halfway done, there remains much to be seen, so expect a more cohesive and concrete follow-up later on.

For background on plot detail and for concise episode summary and analysis, you could do far worse than ANN’s articles.



Politics: Love and Transgression

There are two kinds of relationships in Yuri Kuma Arashi. One is predatory, manifesting in the act of a bear feasting on a maiden. These are attempts to impose a self-centred, exclusive possession of the other person. That symbolic act of consumption underpins the usual economy of desire in Yuri Kuma Arashi. Ginko lusts for Kureha, who has separated herself from the world in mourning for her dead beloved, Sumika. Secondary characters, who often function as the antagonists for one or two episodes, also exhibit this behavior. These exploitative relationships are often a pretext for the assertion of exclusionary power, especially by the hetero-enforcing Invisible Storm, which polices what they term “evil” individuals who do not conform. The mirror image of these predatory relationships is Lulu, whose relationship with Ginko is self-negating, a meek submission to love vicariously through her companion. On one side of the conflict in the show, therefore, is a whole system of sameness, of enforcing heterosexuality––despite the lack of male characters on the show, meaning that the women have thoroughly internalized this ideology––and utterly rejecting difference.

Arrayed against this Invisible Storm are the few loving relationships. There is enduring love between Kureha and Sumiko despite the latter’s early death. Kureha endures Sumiko’s death, Ginko––whose relationship with Kureha is both possessive and characterized by genuine love––protects Kureha and endures the latter’s cold reception with fidelity. Notably, Ginko and Kureha, who had been great friends in the past and are now approaching love for each other, are from opposite worlds separated by a wall. This Romeo and Juliet setup illustrates a foundational principle about love. That is, it is the unity of two rather than the exploitation of one by another, of different entities who though love come to realize a new subjectivity. Love’s subjectivity is dual, marked by contradictions and at times by great violence, but is also the foundation for a creative resistance to death and the emergence of truth and beauty. I speculate that one reason for the division of the nearly all-woman cast of Yuri Kuma Arashi into bears and humans was to highlight this point despite all the major relationships being lesbian. Suspicious, quick-tempered Kureha and modest, somewhat gullible Sumiko possess important differences but their love, symbolized by a lily garden, is their common property, a world in itself to which they are both exclusive witnesses.

Three characters that seem radically exterior to this turgid tangle of repressed and tragic love stories are the Judgemens. These are Life Sexy, Life Cool, and Life Beauty, three bears who also function as judge, prosecutor, and defense, respectively, in the Court of Severance. The only male characters on the show, they are distant observers who are, so far, rarely shown interacting with the world. Most of the time they exist in a space that is radically separated from the bear and human worlds. They serve multiple functions in the show, from narration to comic relief. But their primary role is to arbitrate women’s relationships. Thus far, therefore, they are God as Lawgiver, transcendent beings who have seeming omniscience and a nosy insistence on regulating bears’ behavior. Their seals and names are also important, as they label Lulu and Ginko “criminal-bears” and also bestow stamps of approval on the bears’ true love. One wonders when this whimsical legal apparatus will fall, given it is capricious and limiting.

Life Sexy

Life Sexy

So far, the main political thrust of the show has been to emphasize the connection between love and transgression of barriers both internal and external. Because the world of Yuri Kuma Arashi has a host of repressive institutions, on which more in a second, there is plenty of opportunity for rule breaking. There is an anti-institutional bent to the entire show, valuing the pure embrace of love––note, not just friendship, as there is abundant explicitly sexual imagery––as a means of maintaining life and truth in the face of the deceptions and repressions of patriarchy (The Judgemens) and other structures. Speaking of which:

Fragment 1: The Church and Religious ideology

Recently, the show has introduced a religious institution followed by bears. It is dedicated to the veneration of the Holy Mother Kumalia. Kumalia is a comet that incited the division between bears and humans, and its name is basically a combination of “Maria” and the Japanese word for bear, kuma. Mary, of course, is the Divine Mother of Catholicism and Christianity more generally, though the distinctly “high church” affect of the bear’s ceremony suggests an explicit relation to the former. Mary is notable for being, in the Catholic dogma, eternally virginal, taking on the role of symbolizing purity. In a show primarily about love and sex between women, that is a fascinating addition whose role is not yet clear. This church, moreover, incites a crusade against the humans on behalf of this Holy Mother, another theme I believe will be further explored later.

Fragment 2: The School

Wuthering Heights Academy is the main setting for the action in Yuri Kuma Arashi, the most prominent institution in the show. Administered by Yuriika, who was formerly in love with Kureha’s mother, its students and administration both play a repressive role. The students, who have formed a society called the Invisible Storm, police their own ranks and expel all who break the unwritten social rules of the school. Meanwhile, Yuriika herself is more than suspicious, and will likely be revealed as the central antagonist of the story in coming episodes because she has been shown preying on students and keeps drawers of dead girls in her office. Subtle she is not.

Hollywood Film: The Charity of Billionaires


One of the most memorable parts of the––at times excruciating––second volume of Capital is Marx’s discussion of turnover times. That is, the time it takes for a given capitalist or group of capitalists to cycle their capital through an entire circuit from production to realization. For instance, take the film industry, whose products typically emerge through prolonged production times. And at all stages, whether the capitalists will realize the capital set into motion is utter speculation. Even bolstered by hurricanes of expensive propaganda and hedged with market research and franchise tie-ins, films, being cultural events subject to the vacillations of taste and being decidedly discretionary rather than necessary spending, are enormous gambles for capitalists. Considered in that light, it’s no wonder that the studios have become merchandising arms of much vaster concerns, whose purpose is not to produce films but to capitalize on risky products by sucking as much profit as possible from successful investments.

There are two ways to minimize the extreme risk of filmmaking, which relies, as noted, on technical and business elites being able to guess, years in advance, the temper and tastes of an audience. The first way is to produce as many films as possible with moderate capital investment, with the hope that the winners will win more than the losers. The second is to discern as closely as possible a “sure thing” that can be reproduced and aggressively pushed onto the market for guaranteed super-profits.  As documented in Mark Harris’ article for GrantlandHollywood, which has in previous decades favored a mix of these two approaches, is increasingly wandering to the latter extreme. He writes:

What the movie industry is about, in 2014, is creating a sense of anticipation in its target audience that is so heightened, so nurtured, and so constant that moviegoers are effectively distracted from how infrequently their expectations are actually satisfied. Movies are no longer about the thing; they’re about the next thing, the tease, the Easter egg, the post-credit sequence, the promise of a future at which the moment we’re in can only hint.

Harris documents the transformation of Hollywood into what is essentially a rolling freight train of monotonous frenzy, each franchise train car hitched to the next and the next and the next. Having grown up in one of the great railway hubs of the United States and sat many hours in traffic waiting for the great behemoths to drag their sorry cargo out of the way, I can say that Harris’ charts documenting Hollywood’s franchise output for the next half decade evoke the tedium you anticipate when the red lights start flashing and the arms swing down in front of you. Every capital investment has had its risk trimmed by the fact that it is also an investment in future products, a foundation that can be exploited many times over.

Of course, this way of minimizing risk by honing and homogenizing the product and inflating every iteration of it to “event” paradoxically creates a greater and greater risk of catastrophic collapse. Homogeneous ecosystems, as any first-year biology student could tell you, are more vulnerable to traumatic shifts in climate or to disease than more diverse ones. As studios have laid out franchise paths further and further into the future, the entire scheme wobbles against sudden swings in taste or drops in demand. Hollywood has always been a profit-driven machine, a capitalist apparatus that exploits talent and labor to absorb surplus value and keep the cycle of capital accumulation spinning. But now the cogs of the machine are much more visible than before; the scales are dropping from people’s eyes.

Harris’ primary concern is the creative bankruptcy of the American film industry, his anxiety that the magnetized “keep them coming back” quality of television is being foisted on the film industry, ruining the aesthetic integrity of the standalone film. The original story is now more critically endangered than ever, he seems to say. Films become more overworked, less politically or culturally relevant for the sake of greater accessibility. For him, “The grace of billionaires is not a great business model on which to hang the hopes of an art form.” What he does not say after that, though, is that Hollywood always has been the domain of billionaires and kingpins. It may be a mass art form, but the levers of production in the film industry have ever lain with the most rarefied elites. Transforming the cultural industries, these mechanized and sprawling ideological factories, requires a transformation of the society they are meant to serve. Revolution, socialism, the massification and socialization of production and distribution––these are the remedies for the cultural desert of American film.

At the very least Harris can muster a modicum of concern, whereas insipid writing like this posits that digital distribution and wider access alone can provide the mass base necessary to sustain great film in the United States. Not only this! The author of the article, and Harris for that matter, mistake the fundamental problem. Rather than wondering “where will great films come from?” we should be asking “who is making films, and for whom?” Hollywood thrives on contorting people’s aesthetic tastes to its own ends and pandering to those tastes until they are frayed and sullied. Its frankly embarrassing absorption of so many of our world’s resources for the production of empty spectacles is an evil in itself. However much I can revel in the gangly, moribund fairytale nonsense of Jupiter Ascending, I recognize that it has emerged from an industry driven to the twin extremes of waste and banality. I don’t want a culture industry that can squeeze tiny original films through a “series of tubes” to my computer while the local multiplex exhibits its outsized irrelevancies. I want and will work for a film industry that goes “from the masses, to the masses,” that synthesizes the great aesthetic achievements of this art form with a truly democratic and mass content, which I can only begin to imagine since I’m not an artist.

Short Reflection on Learning to Dance

We see, therefore, at first the picture as a whole, with its individual parts still more or less kept in the background; we observe the movements, transitions, connections rather than the things that move, combine, and are connected. This primitive, naïve but intrinsically correct conception of the world is that of ancient Greek philosophy, and was first clearly formulated by Heraclitus: everything is and is not, for everything is fluid, is constantly changing, constantly coming into being and passing away.

–Friedrich Engels, “Socialism, Utopian and Scientific.”

In my humble opinion, there is only movement in heaven and on earth….

–Mao Zedong, “A Study of Physical Education”

For reasons of bureaucratic necessity, I enrolled for my final undergraduate semester in a dance class. Specifically, I am learning the fundamentals of the art of tap, a hybrid vernacular dance form that emerged, after a long and varied gestation, in the early industrial period. Combining the footwork of Irish jig with the expressive movements of African American performers, it is–for my often gangly body–demanding and difficult to learn. My basic lack of lower body coordination and tenuous grasp of balance are my most critical impediments, which I somewhat doubt will be solved in only twelve sessions of practice and evaluation. Nonetheless, I take this task seriously as part of an attempt to harmonize my intellectual studies with a refinement of my physical abilities. There is, too, something about the grace of movement that compels me both aesthetically and politically. Can dance be a tool of political education? Well, if the mere written word, so fixed and apparently silent, can be, why not? One of the most striking parts of Hisila Yami’s excellent proletarian feminist book People’s War and Women’s Liberation in Nepal is not in her impressive prose but rather in a photograph of Maoist cadres performing a traditional dance infused with political significance. Whereas fascism aestheticizes art, Communists have the opposite mission–to politicize art. Absorbing the fact of the universe’s constant change and motion, the foundations of dialectical materialism, in your body, to be able to translate motion into stillness and back into motion, to refine the body and hone your skills to the point of mastery is a worthy goal, to be sure.

None of this saves me from being a terrible dancer at this time. But it fortifies my resolve to keep going and discover where the motions of my own body can take me.

Panda Bear: Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper


Noah Lennox, the Lisbon-based musician who releases his solo work under the Panda Bear name, takes pains to avoid sending out bad vibes with his music. Following the radiant work of psychedelic pioneers like Brian Wilson and later innovators like Spacemen 3––one of whose members acts as producer here––he fashions songs that use sunshine to internalize emotional turmoil. “Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper,” the fourth Panda Bear album, functions as a feel-good trip, banishing the January clouds with a new emphasis on drum production and return to the beautiful melodies that made 2007’s “Person Pitch” so lauded in the musical press.

If the album can be said to be about anything, it would be the enjoyments and anxieties that typify the experience of a successful artist. That is, the music touches on both the pleasure and precariousness of someone living a middle-class life who fears that stability might be short-lived. A good analogy for this might be the experience of taking a passenger ship on a capricious ocean: paradise that can turn into a hurricane at the slightest drop in the barometer. Indeed, Lennox has noted that several songs in the latter half of “Grim Reaper” resemble sea shanties, song that are intended as both celebrations and coping mechanisms for the hard life at sea. Accompanied by the lyrics, the music can’t help but assume a neurotic guise, a wall of sound protecting the psyche from an approaching tidal wave.

This ambivalence is, paradoxically, most evident in the happiest of the tracks, “Crosswords,” where the narrator reminds himself that “You got it so good. So good, so good.” Sheer repetition wrings the sincerity out of these nostrums. They begin to seem more like words of comfort than arrogance or complacency. Meanwhile, in “Boys Latin,” Lennox frets about looming dark clouds, but sounds arguably more chipper than in “Crosswords.” These emotional disconnects, which can be difficult to hear because of the album’s dense production, settle well with the happy but unsettled mood of the album.

It might be introspective and concerned with self-reflection, but it lacks any investigation into the sources of this anxiety. Insulated from both the class struggles erupting in his native United States and the unrest in Portugal over austerity, Lennox plays the apolitical game rather well, merely reflecting a kind of radically centrist approach to music. Its vagaries are purportedly “universal,” according to the artist’s own words. Sanitized and without specificity, Panda Bear’s writing makes a good companion for the music, tending to be masked by it and somewhat difficult to hear. At the same time, this insularity whitewashed to look like universalism is hardly aspiring to anything great or engaging in the concrete lives of its likely audience. Panda Bear sounds more and more distant the more you listen––distant in space, distant from his own time––and as a result can be profoundly dull, not to mention dreadfully formalistic.

Lyrics come second in Panda Bear songs, though. Despite the tracks here being far more straightforward than comparable ones on Person Pitch or Tomboy, the songs communicate primarily through musical shapes and flow. Drastic changes in tempo are largely absent. Beat-driven songs like “Mr. Noah” maintain a constant, anchored rhythm impervious to the electronic shimmering around it. Synths and strings provide the tranquil mood for “Tropic of Cancer,” which pushes along as a gentle lullaby before ending in an truly strange instrumental coda. After a blister of noise, “Lonely Wanderer” leads the listener into the end of the album with a reflective, piano-driven ballad. It’s all almost stiflingly consistent. Despite the threat of monotony, however, Lennox and company are able to offer enough intriguing sounds to end the album with a salvaging flourish or two. It’s music for relaxation and comfort.

Panda Bear’s music has always scrubbed the detail from the lyrics only to refill it beyond capacity with production and instrumentation. Like most psychedelia, its universalism is meant to be a gateway to personal reflection on behalf of the listener. On what they are meant to ponder, however––that much is still unclear. “Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper” makes only halfhearted attempts at working through its emotional conflicts, but it makes for a fuzzy, indistinct, but pleasurable listen.

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