The Tiger Manifesto

Criticism with claws

Month: February, 2016

Anime and the Netflix Niche

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On February 24, Netflix announced that it was partnering with powerhouse anime studio Production I.G. to create and distribute an original series. Called Perfect Bones, the series would debut across all territories with access to Netflix (i.e. most of the world except the People’s Republic of China), a first for any anime. Moreover, it won’t air on Japanese TV at all, and we can assume that it will mostly target a Western audience.

Why a Western audience? Netflix’s choice of collaborator is a key clue. Production I.G. has been associated with some of the most important cross-PAcific hits in the last few years. Attack on Titan was an I.G. production, which for Netflix makes it a proven hitmaker. The director himself is associated with Tarantino, having created the anime sequence in Kill Bill Vol. 1. Note also the, at this point vague, plot outline. According to Netflix’s press release, the show has a science fiction concept:

the 12-episode series is set in the future where scientists have tried to create the “perfect human” in hopes of keeping peace in the universe. After nearly achieving their goal through several children, the scientists send their “new humans” for further training where they are kidnapped by an evil organization set on using their powers to implement their own concept of a new world order.

In other words, perfect fodder for crossover success: it’s in a genre recognizable to Western mainstream audiences, produced by a studio many might have heard of and directed by someone who has experience working with Westerners. Of course, it’s also launching just a few months after Netflix arrived in Japan, and might help strengthen its presence there as well.

There are two analytical points I want to make here.

  1. Japanese media production is incredibly advanced and productive. It has experience and a large, entrenched home market. However, it has always relied on American intermediaries to get its products out to an international audience. Sony didn’t build a Japanese film studio to rival Hollywood; it bought Columbia Pictures. With the exception of Viz Media, which is owned by a Japanese publisher, Japanese companies have relied on American firms to get their work to an English-speaking audience in Noth America. Virtually every Japanese animated film to hit it big internationally has had an American distributor (Warner Bros. for the Pokémon movies, Disney for Ghibli, etc.).
  2. Netflix is able to target and grow its audience through exploitation of niche tastes. None of its original series, including PERfect Bones, ever have to answer to the demographic hungers of advertising firms who want to broaden the appeal of media as much as possible. Rather, Netflix can be both “thin” and “wide” by targeting a very small part of their viewing public and releasing the show in dozens of countries at once. Its infrastructure and access to viewer data are unprecedented, and we can expect anime produced under its aegis to meet a particular standard. Since far more than half of its global subscriber base are in the United States or other English-speaking countries, it can tailor the storyline and concept to fit those expectations.

Hooray for Six Years of Noby Noby Boy!

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Exactly one week and six years ago, Namco Bandai published Keita Takahashi’s Noby Noby Boy on the PlayStation 3. I bought the game a couple of years later when it went on sale, as I recall. Back when it came out I still read gaming media juggernaut IGN, which panned the game for looking like it could have come out on the PS1. Though that claim is obviously false considering its absolute dependence on dynamic physics, I took it at face value and hesitated before buying it.

Now, I play it more than any of the other PS3 games I ever bought. Whenever I need to unwind and experience some nonlinear (or very linear, depending on what we’re talking about) wackiness, I turn it on and play for an hour or two. Sometime I just lie on the couch and leave the controller on the table, letting the strange wormlike Boy wander gently through the procedurally generated landscapes.

Flat and pastel-bright, the planets of Noby Noby Boy are all named after the planets of our solar system. To play the game, you choose a planet, Earth’s moon, or the sun, and launch out of the chimney of a house that looks like a face. There are no goals other than PlayStation Trophies, and the point of the game is precisely that it has no point. You manipulate the lengthy, rubbery body of Boy, stretching, bouncing, and flying through the air while interacting with structures and AI controlled characters.

These curious denizens don’t have much to say––nothing, to be exact––and are usually content to bumble around, riding various vehicles or assorted alien animal beings. Some of them carry signs, while others just stand there or wander aimlessly. While they are aware of you, and will scatter when you try to painlessly devour (and expel) them, they don’t seek you out. That said, they will take a ride on your back if you let them. And their grip is, frankly, stupendous, as they can hang on effortlessly while you corkscrew through the sky.

Enjoying the game means riding a wave of spontaneous weirdness and glee. It’s an entirely experimental game that requires little of the player except curiosity and the ability to take joy in purely tactile and intrinsic rewards for putting effort into the game. You don’t earn points or get in-game recognition for doing much of anything (exceptions will be detailed below), but I still take immense satisfaction in curling around a giant apple, shoving my body through a tunnel, diving through doughnut clouds, and dancing with strobing lights.

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Takahashi, who also created Katamari Damacy, has once again created a world that is relatively simplistic but also benevolent. Everything moves the way one would expect, and that gives the surreal fantasy landscapes a sense of weight and, ultimately, fun. You, as Boy, are neither the centre of attention in this world nor a nonentity; you’re mostly just glad to exist and knot yourself into a pretzel.
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Like Katamari, Noby Noby Boy has two layers to it, one bound to the Earth and the other much more cosmic. While the game has no progression for each individual player, the length that each Boy (player) stretches is added to the gigantic Girl, a space-travelling bearer of good tidings. As the game kept being played, Girl would stretch to reach more and more heavenly bodies, unlocking new levels. By providing a common goal rather than an individual one, Takahashi gives players both a stress-free experience free from the risk of failure and an end to strive for. Now that Girl has reached all the way back to Earth, though, the game is in a state of limbo. Its space-stretching journey at an end, Noby Noby Boy persists at its most basic level: a wonderful dream to inhabit for short intervals, soaking in its warm and strange energy to make one’s real life a bit more bearable.

That Elusive Cheerfulness

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On bleak and frigid days like today, I often find myself paralyzed by an ailment I once named “historian’s pessimism.” Like “tennis elbow” and “swimmer’s ear,” you can get it whether you are a tennis player, swimmer, or historian, or not. And I have long been susceptible to depressive episodes, particularly during dark and confining winters. Those reservations aside, I think my quite orthodox historical training in university confirmed and sharpened my dark outlook on life.

One could chalk it up to the fact that human history is “just” laden with tragedies and heartbreak, which no one could deny. Still, I feel there is a deeper current of sadness running throughout history as a discipline and, perhaps, all of academia. My suspicion is that this current flows from a basic source: the alienation of academic endeavours from practical and liberating activity.

Universities are generally planned and executed as “thought factories” that manufacture particular kinds of people who think a particular way. Under a capitalist accumulation regime, the major and minor academic institutions are all under a mandate to reproduce the professional class––not to mention their own faculty ranks––through both technical instruction and the cultivation of persons with a particular ethos or way of feeling in the world. Every major and department creates a different sort of output, but in the humanities the emotional tenor of the faculty and student body tends to be relatively cynical, detached, and what Spinoza calls “satirical.” Historians make the best satirists of them all, by which I mean those who parasitize on misfortune for their own happiness.

We can run into this in our own research, in our interactions with colleagues, and when we bring it out into the world outside the academy. Passivity, the passivity of pure scholarship and the detachment of “book learning” to the (expected, obligatory) exclusion of political work and real activity, ingrains in us a sense of superiority that conceals a deep and restless fixation on our own weakness. Some of us, we brilliant satirists, can turn even our own weakness into a joke: I do it for the sake of pure knowledge! Look at those chumps trying to change the world that we can’t even understand with all our ability. For me, at least, the professional and intellectual rewards of academia and scholarship pale in comparison to the active intellect, using tools forged in activity and tempered in knowledge to advance real progress in the world and combat reactionary tendencies.

Perhaps, one could allege, I simply haven’t accepted the limits of my own discipline, its prescribed place in the buzzing hive of academic production. In fact, I acknowledge that, in the guise of a historian, I can do quite little other than provide a knowledge of the past and the limitations that it puts on what we can do here and now. I can project a sense of what human society is capable of, chalk outlines of thought and reality checks on hubris or––and this is crucial––pessimism.

What defines a revolutionary way of feeling and desiring? I believe it is the opposite of melancholy or poisoned nostalgia. Slipping into that familiar academic ennui is not a “natural” state of things native to our body but a learned behaviour, a response that we can, in community with others, seek to overcome. Though some would point to the fact that American corporate human resources departments seem to make similar demands for constant cheerfulness, I would point out that encouraging service workers or office drones to plaster smiles on their faces to drive up productivity and/or sales is not the same thing as combating defeatist  and obsessively pessimistic emotions in our own lives. Imposing a false parody of happiness is surely the fastest way to spread real misery.

To finish, a couple of reminders from Spinoza, the master theorist of happiness:

“Cheerfulness cannot be excessive; it is always good. On the other hand, melancholy is always bad.”

(Part IV, Prop. 42)

And:

“And although men are subject to numerous emotions, and so few are found who are always assailed by one and the same emotion, yet sometimes we see men so affected by one object that they think they have it before them even though it is not present. When this happens to a man who is not asleep, we say his is delirious or mad, and no less mad are those thought to be who are fired with love, dreaming night and day only of their sweetheart or mistress, for they usually provoke ridicule. But when the miser thinks of nothing but gain or money, and the ambitious man of honour, they are not reckoned as mad, for they are usually unpopular and arouse disgust. But in reality avarice, ambition, lust, etc. are kinds of madness, although they are not counted as diseases.”

(Part IV, Prop 44. Sch.)

Academics obsessed with their own impotence, I would wager, are just as sick––and more likely to slip into actually harmful behaviour, a tendency I notice in myself more than anyone.

Shearwater: Jet Plane and Oxbow

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I met my future significant other at a Shearwater show in February, 2012. Technically, it was a Sharon Van Etten show, but I was there for Jonathan Meiburg and company. They opened with a set of songs from Animal Joy, their latest release at the time, and cemented themselves as one of my favourite working rock bands. Amid the general exhaustion of rock music’s vitality in both the mainstream and underground scenes, Shearwater has endured and evolved to produce numerous creative successes. Jet Plane and Oxbow proves that rock can still support more than endless recreations of cherished old sounds and introspective banalities.

Of course, the album is still partly an exercise in period-piece revivalism. Specifically, Meiburg has said in interviews that Jet Plane evokes 1980. The opening of that disastrous decade certainly boasted a set of landmark musical releases that would define pop going forward. Peter Gabriel III introduced gated reverb to listeners in its opening track, Brian Eno and David Byrne produced one of electronic music’s blueprints in My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, while the latter also released Remain in Light with Talking Heads. Jet Plane channels these influences in its use of analog synths, peculiar percussion instruments like rototoms, and, on tracks like “Filaments,” grooves that clearly nod in Byrne’s direction.

Beyond all these 80s stylistic signifiers, of course, is Meiburg’s writing and vocal delivery. His voice has always been dramatic and unnerving, his lyricism drawing on his scientific work with birds and ecosystems to produce songs that sweep over their subjects with broad brushstrokes. Like many rock lyricists with an interest in “big” subjects, Meiburg prefers a suggestive and indirect approach to songwriting, using words that are specific enough to affect listeners without articulating his own point of view in much detail. This is especially evident because his writing in Jet Plane is more overtly politicized than I can remember it being before. From “Quiet Americans,” we have this stanza:

“Shake the memories off, hide the evidence under
Piss on the world below
Like a dog that knows its name
Where are the Americans?”

It’s far from the Marxist particulars you would get from The Coup, Bambu, or Pete Seeger,  but this is as explicit as the invective gets on Jet Plane. Meiburg clearly expresses his antipathy for American arrogance and entitlement, but carefully couches these thoughts to avoid sloganeering or calls to action. When he’s successful, he can produce remarkable results like this bit from the end of “Pale Kings:”

“You know how sometimes
You’re so tired of the country
Its poptones and its pale kings
And its fences like knives
But in the same breath
Your heart breaks with the feeling
With love and with grieving
For its irrational life.”

Spread out in the context of the song, with its dense production and complex rhythms, these words convey ambivalence and heartbreak. At other times, the vagueness can feel evasive, as if Meiburg is uncomfortable with naming names. Ambivalence is not necessarily a useful or even a beautiful or truthful emotion when protesting violent dispossessions and enclosures. More often than not, though, the songs work for me because I appreciate the way the songs contextualize these half-formed protests in vast landscapes. “Glass Bones” captures a shifting geography “anchored in rust, erasing the wilderness,” captures a sense of paranoia and loss connected to the environment. Nature has always been at the core of Shearwater’s work, and the words and music here are much better at capturing the awe and sad spectacle that define our current relationship to nature than they are at articulating our political situation.

Without overblowing its significance, I can say that Jet Plane and Oxbow is another strong release from Shearwater. If nothing else, it reminded me what intelligent and well-written rock albums can achieve given a bit of ambition, and I imagine I’ll be enjoying this album long into the year. As our bizarre winter winds itself down, maybe a calm spring will follow.

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