The Tiger Manifesto

Criticism with claws

Category: TV Review

The World Today with Tariq Ali

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Though Marxists have been responsible for some of the most arresting and powerful art and design of the last century and beyond, the current state of aesthetics within Marxist circles and the revolutionary left is dismal. Partly because of a lack of resources and skill and partly because of an attachment to motifs and styles that seem as ossified as a Geocities website, left groups tend not to put their best face forward in their propaganda materials. No wonder that Jacobin has been able to distinguish itself from the Monthly Reviews of the world simply by cultivating eye candy as much as––if not more than––their serious reporting. It doesn’t look like something only activists and Marxist scholars used to poring over utilitarian journal articles would read.

The World Today With Tariq Ali is another case of a left media outlet that pays serious attention to presentation. Produced for the Venezuelan television service teleSUR, it’s a one hour weekly news and commentary program that recently wrapped up its first season. All of its episodes are available online for free without commercials, and they include a variety of programming. Most weeks the hour includes an interview or monologue featuring Ali, a feature on the arts, an ideological analysis of some bourgeois media outlet or news item, and an animated short sequence featuring “Larry the Llama.” We’ll do a quick review of the typical format and tone for each these segments before wrapping up in an analysis of what the program does well and where it fails as a discussion space for leftist viewpoints.

  1. Global Empire: This segment is always hosted by Ali himself, consisting of either a topical monologue or an interview with a (usually European) scholar or leftist figure. Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias, Greek SYRIZA figure Stathis Kouvelakis, and Marxist geographer David Harvey have all appeared, and lectures have discussed the British elections, the Vietnam War, the International Monetary Fund, and other topics. Ali’s alignment seems rooted in the Trotskyist corner of the New Left, and he is on the editorial board of the New Left Review. Since the show operates through teleSUR, it is no surprise that one of Ali’s most frequent talking points is the left electoral revival in South America and Venezuela in particular.
  2. Media Review: Contrasting with the scholarly tone of Global Empire, this segment usually delivers information with an acidic and bitter sense of humour. Usually hosted by former SWP member Richard Seymour, it either reviews the history and politics of a particular publication like Al Jazeera or The Washington Post or it offers a snapshot review of the bourgeois media’s coverage of a particular event like the rise of ISIS or the SYRIZA government’s rise to power in Greece.  The format takes cues from comedy news shows like The Daily Show but concentrates on exposés and leaves out most of the jokes. Production values are simple and unobtrusive: a flat table, a modestly-dressed host, cuts to screenshots of news articles.
  3. Rear Window: By far the most varied and inconsistent program, this one takes on subjects ranging from the Surrealist movement to oppositional art produced in Palestine to reviews of the work of major world filmmakers. As one could guess from that list of examples coverage focuses on art with a particularly leftist edge, whether it be embedded in the social realist aesthetics of the Dardenne brothers or the revolutionary-psychoanalytical pretensions of the Surrealists. The format varies from retrospectives to interviews to art criticism to poetry readings.
  4. Llama Time: Rounding out each episode is a short visit from Larry the Llama. Unlike the rest of the regular cast of the show, this opinionated pack animal is characterized as an American. Voiced and written by English comedian and actor Andy de la Tour, the character speaks in an accent that, to me, vaguely resembles a New York accent. This urban feel is further reinforced by the ambient sounds of cars rushing by pumped into the background, which has a strange effect when paired with the abstract backdrops and the fact that the character is a South American animal not usually known for prowling the streets of NYC. Whether the choice of animal was influenced by the South American production of the show (though it’s not from an Andean country in any case) is unknown. The character draws on the traits one would associate with an “everyman” and of the shows the tone here is at its most casual and loose. Larry even makes reference to fictional, unseen characters with whom he has had conversations as a way to transition into the topic of the day.
A screen cap of Media Review featuring Richard Seymour.

A screen cap of Media Review featuring Richard Seymour.

Befitting its production location in London, the majority of the voices heard and issues addressed are European or North American. Ali’s program positions itself as broadly supportive of building mass movements and using electoral tactics to achieve social progress in Europe. Despite its position under the teleSUR umbrella, it rarely talks about Venezuela directly, and never registers significant criticism of left-y figures in South America, usually being content to expose Western hypocrisy and intrigues on the continent. That much is to be expected, as this English-language program is, like Jacobin, a socialist program that seemingly aims at bringing in left liberals and those dissatisfied with the quality of commercial news programming. It also provides an English-language platform for representatives of the anti-austerity left in Europe––indeed, anti-austerity politics are probably its most pervasive concern. In that role, I find it mostly effective despite not sharing the politics of any of its editorial staff or talent.

Larry the aforementioned Llama

Larry the aforementioned Llama

If there is anything I have to say against the likes of The World Today or Jacobin, other than their being wedded to a trade unionism and electoralism I would deem ineffective in a North American context, is that they do no original investigative reporting of their own. If the Left is going to stay in its traditional “comfort zone” of political commentary and criticism, we’re not going to make much headway in the media. Left media outlets should dedicate more of their resources to the task of creating our own news, despite the expenses and difficulty that entails. Considering the high ambition for social change the revolutionary and Marxist left is supposed to embody, I feel we are lacking a real presence in the journalistic sphere, at least in North America.

One Final Note:

As far as the aesthetics of the website and the show itself, the most fascinating aspect of the whole package is the show’s appropriation of Russian Constructivism. The early years of the Soviet Union saw the flowering of a particularly vibrant and fragile avant-garde. It’s curious that Ali’s program, which has rarely every even mentioned the Soviet Union in its programming and avoids mentioning Marx or Marxism in any of its self-description, takes this particular historical style to define itself. It’s aspirational, to be sure, but I would have preferred an attempt to define a unique visual identity in the opening titles rather than a hollow echo of a style with which the show itself has little connection.

Wakfu: Noximillien l’Horloger

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After doing a brief overview of the French animated series Wakfu in the last post, I wanted to investigate a spinoff episode called “Noximillien l’Horloger,” or “Noximillien the Watchmaker.” Necessity dictates a separate post for this episode because it has little to do with the series proper except in a plot sense. Though it was overseen by the same show runner as the main body of the show, it lies outside the timeframe of the main series as far as I can tell, dramatizing the backstory of one of the major antagonists in the show, Nox.

Though it’s founded on a script by main show writers Eric Herenguel and Anthony Roux, this episode’s production is otherwise entirely different than the main show. Where the main show is animated entirely in France using Adobe Flash, “Noximillien” was birthed from Madhouse, the famed Japanese animation studio responsible for giving motion to Satoshi Kon’s feature films and numerous famous anime programs. Moreover, the style of the animation bears almost no resemblance to the main show, largely because the character design for this episode flowed from the pen of wildcat animator Masaaki Yuasa, whom regular readers will recognize as the force behind the truly magnificent Adventure Time episode “Food Chain.”

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The episode’s animation and writing are both terrific, serving a story that sets up a tragic fall from grace––I did warn you this was the backstory of an antagonist. Founded in the science fiction trope of the mad scientist, Nox here fulfills the predestined arc of such characters, tampering with otherworldly forces beyond rightful human control and falling into an obsession with his own power that alienates him from society and provides him with some character complexity and motivation. Madhouse, under the direction of master Eunyoung Choi, brings out the terror inherent in Nox through motion and facial expressions. Early Nox is clean-cut and, while blessed with a questionable hairstyle, generally handsome and animated with a spring in his step. Once he stumbles on the mysterious artifact that leads him to his downfall, however, his liveliness becomes a paranoid jitter, and part of the genius of the episode is how it draws out his downward transformation, maintaining him as a recognizable character throughout by extrapolating the negative sides of the character they already established in the first act. His ingenuity and devotion metastasize into single-minded fixation and the idolization of machines over flesh and blood. Gradually he takes on the appearance of death itself, seemingly undead and detached from his previous life.

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Most of the drawbacks of the story’s approach are found in plot details I don’t want to get into specifically. They specifically involve the off-screen deaths of some central characters that, though they lead to a poignant moment, might have been better handled. I would be willing to engage in discussion over the finer points of that development, particularly since its meaning to the character is rather ambiguous at the point when it arrives.

As with their contributions to Adventure Time, Yuasa and Choi here work in collaboration with Western producers in creating a product designed for Western television but with Japanese oversight and, in this case, animation. Despite the fact that Western producers have for two decades been using anime as an influence in their own visual styles, this is still a notably rare occurrence. What it goes to show is that, despite the flow of ideas and influences, not to mention dubbed broadcasts, being fast and consistent in recent past, the Japanese and Western industries and, to some extent, fanbases, still have little direct creative contact with each other. Language barriers and cultural differences partly explain this situation, but another reason behind this reality is the fact that each industry produces its work primarily for a domestic audience, with any international exposure being a bonus.

Wakfu might have been ideal for this kind of collaboration precisely because it was a French production, and European shows tend to need much more international backing and access to international markets to get exposure, while the animation markets in the United States and Japan are so large that they can target only a domestic audience (or, in the case of the USA, assume that their immense resources can simply “force” their flagship programming into international markets).

In fact, part of the reason Wakfu might have adopted an anime style is that it’s internationally recognizable. Whereas French animation, despite its storied and influential history, does not have a defining look to it, Japanese animation is readily identifiable. Of course, the game adopted the style first, but its style probably made it more attractive as a candidate for an animation production in the first place.

With all that said, I would recommend everyone track down a copy of this episode. It’s not on Netflix as of yet, but there are subtitled copies of it floating around the Internet in fairly obvious places. It’s worth your time to be sure.

Wakfu: French Animation, Japanese Style

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Because anime is my partner’s main field of academic study, we have lots of lengthy discussions about it. Anything from its link with Japanese power projection to subculture formation and, of course, aesthetics, might pop up in these conversations. One of the more fascinating talks we’ve had recently was sparked by a curiosity we found on Netflix. Wakfu is a French show produced by Ankama Animation, the TV production arm of Ankama Games, which produces the MMORPG on which the program is based. Though I want to mostly discuss the spinoff special episode directed by Eunyoung Choi and featuring the design talents of Masaaki Yuasa, a bit of background on the show itself is in order. That will be the content of this post, while Choi’s “Noximillien” special will be the topic of the next one.

As mentioned, Wakfu is based on an MMORPG of the same name, which was published in 2011. The game adopts the aesthetics of Japanese animation and an isometric camera perspective. Its setting liberally mixes anime and Western fantasy tropes––swords and sorcery, anachronistic technology, a smattering of humanoid fantasy races, etc.––and all of it is rendered in Adobe Flash. Unlike many shows that use the venerable animation software, however, Wakfu has a fairly appealing look. Animation is not the most fluid, and tends to flitter around awkwardly, something I know from experience is difficult to avoid when animating in Flash. Overall, however, the production quality is respectable despite an often dissonant English dub job. I’m not sure if I’ll be finishing the show and don’t have much to say about its story or characters, at least not after just two episodes and the special. To tell the truth, the show feels fairly generic and uninteresting at this point. However, there are larger issues of context and aesthetics I thought worth exploring.

The United States is no stranger to television shows that lift anime aesthetics, and often narrative conventions, wholesale. Avatar and its successor Korra are the most prominent examples, with numerous others borrowing elements to a greater or lesser extent. France has also produced a couple of shows in this vein, including the off-kilter Totally Spies, a strange teen-girl filtering of spy movie clichés that miraculously ran for six seasons and cultivated a global fan following. Wakfu, because its premise was generated from a role-playing game, hews closely not just to anime as an aesthetic but to a particular brand of adventure fantasy that appears in both shonen––young boys’––manga and anime and related media, especially video games.

Anime itself, in its infancy, derived from artist Osamu Tezuka’s melding of Japanese visual art conventions with the style of Walt Disney’s animated films. Huge expressive eyes and rounded features defined much of this look, and though the Disney influence has been diluted throughout the decades, Tezuka’s role in creating anime itself, the production industry, and the markets to which it caters still retains considerable influence. Japan’s ballooning postwar economic expansion and large domestic population provided a material basis for the creation of a powerful animation industry.

Combined with an increasing international profile sparked by American fear and admiration of its state-corporate economic model in the 1970s and 80s and the proliferation of VHS and other recorded means of copying and distributing media cheaply, fan subcultures in the West sprouted up. These eventually provided the energies and target market for a whole Western industry importing and translating Japanese comics, television, and, more rarely, theatrical film. Eventually, American and other Western production firms attempted to capitalize on this perceptibly growing fanbase by creating animation that looked Japanese but wasn’t, and therefore could be more precisely controlled and pitched to young audiences in the United States and Europe. As mentioned earlier, their efforts have produced some notable successes.

What Wakfu is doing, therefore, is creating another Westernized iteration of a Japanese cultural form. I previously compared this wave of borrowing from Japan in Western animation to the nineteenth century vogue for Japonisme in painting. There are a few issues here worth commenting on.

  1. Anime’s Cultural Portability: It’s often remarked that human beings in anime often appear European despite being in most cases Japanese characters. There are representations of specifically racialized subjects in anime, often just as embarrassing and stereotyped as early American animation––but for the most part human beings appear light skinned with large eyes. This does not indicate that they were meant to be perceived as European, and in fact it’s usually easy to tell when an animation from Japan wants you to know that a character is, for example, an American. But the lack of specificity inherent in the art form, the ability of Euro-American, Japanese, and French audiences to immediately identify with the characters in anime probably contributes to its exportability and flexibility.
  2. Anime’s Origins as an Import: As mentioned, the aesthetic seeds of manga and anime are both native to Japan, in particular the thriving modern commercial art scene in Edo and Meiji era Japanese cities, and to American animation. In fact, much of Japanese modern culture was imported or even imposed “from above” in order to modernize the country as quickly as possible and help to “catch up” with the core capitalist countries. Nevertheless, the strength of Japan as an empire, a colonial power, and a capitalist country in its own right allowed it––contrary to most other nonwhite nations––to manage this “catching up” and to subject it to its own interests. Now, it is even able to project its own cultural values and brands into the rest of the world.
  3. Wakfu as a Domestic French Production: As a final note,we should recognize that, with the exception of the Choi episode that will be the topic of the next post, the entirety of Wakfu was produced in France, which is not even true of most American productions that outsource the more tedious labour to South Korean or other SE Asian countries. Whatever the debts it owes to the anime tradition, it remains a thoroughly and specifically French creation, one that, like Tezuka, borrows what it likes from another country’s traditions while subjecting these aspects to domestic needs. The quality of the show aside––on which I am not decided––it represents one of the stranger symptoms of capitalism’s extension and autonomous development in Japan.

Steven Universe: “Alone Together” Analysis

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“Alone Together” is the thirty-seventh episode of the Cartoon Network show Steven Universe to be broadcast. Considered in terms of the show’s developing plot, it has little importance, containing no revelations directly tied to its cosmic mythology or the character’s identities. This make it an outlier among the last twenty episodes, which have unfolded various twists and broadened the scope of the show’s subject matter. As its title suggests, this episode retreats inward, following the thirty-sixth episode’s introduction of new characters and complications with a small scale story about a so-far isolated event. In other words, it is light on incident. Its significance derives from its introduction of Stevonnie, a fusion of half-human half-gem protagonist Steven and his human friend Connie.

Stevonnie has inspired an avalanche of fan appreciation, much of it tangible and visible on the tumblr tag of the same name. This appreciation ranges from purely aesthetic to romantic, encompassing forms from cosplay to unofficial drawings. It also tends to accompany speculation about the character’s gender identity, as queer fans discuss the intricacies of whether the character is agender, genderfluid, or whether they fill some other non binary category. More than any other American animated show, the adult and teenage audience for the Steven Universe includes a large contingent of queer people, especially women and those who identify as gender outsiders of numerous stripes.

To fully assess the meaning of this episode, we have to move through a few layers of analysis. First, we will examine the apparatus of production behind “Alone Together.” Next comes an analysis of the class character of Steven Universe’s production staff and the cultural resources it draws on for this episode, focusing on conditions of late capitalism in the United States in 2014. Third, we’ll try to situate the show in a political context, focusing on issues of gender and connected issues of the family and intimacy. Within these three stages, we can address some specific aesthetic issues including the episode’s relation of dance to character relationships and its idealized portrait of gender relations in its universe.

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Part 1: Cartoon Factory

The show is funded, produced, and linked to larger brand efforts by Cartoon Network, part of the Turner Broadcasting System, Inc., which is under the banner of Time Warner. Time Warner is one of the gigantic monopolies that controls the vast majority of mass cultural production in the United States. Cartoon Network is thus a single niche or tentacle for a much larger profit machine, creating programming largely aimed at children and younger boys in particular. Its corporate press page boasts, “Cartoon Network (CartoonNetwork.com) is consistently the #1 U.S. television network in prime among boys 6-11.”¹ Additionally, Steven Universe itself, as of February of last year, ranked number one in its 8pm time slot among both all kids from age two to fourteen and among “targeted” boys 6-11 and 9-14.² Such statements clarify Time Warner’s true interest in the show, which is as a marketing outreach to children––boys in particular, since they did not mention the show’s performance among girls.

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Whatever creator Rebecca Sugar and company wanted to accomplish with the show, the class of big capitalists above them are likely interested in programming like Steven Universe precisely because of the cynical numbers listed above. The show’s vaunted diversity is also much more likely to stir executives’ imaginations because of its appeal to what Nielsen––the company that accumulates and publishes media data––calls “the multicultural consumer.”³ Though the show often takes supposedly progressive positions on gender relations, the family, and so on (more on this in a moment), this may be read not as subversion but as the further commoditization of queerness, the conversion of oppositional populations into rampant consumers who identify with products––including Steven Universe and its merchandise, potentially––as described by Nicholas Martin Arrivo:

Rather, capitalism has co-opted homosexuality and is wielding it as a tool, crafting imagery and definitions of “homosexuality” in order to push products, or rather, push subjectivities, shaping and sexualizing the way consumers view themselves and the world.⁴

So far, there does not appear to be any official merchandise featuring Stevonnie, but the production of products with which the show’s considerable queer audience can identify would be a major source of profit and bonus cultural prestige with left liberals who believe that collusion between big media capital and upwardly mobile middle class, mainly white, queer people to be progressive. We can sum up this way: “Alone Together” is a commodity, the product of a vertically integrated production process controlled ultimately by monopoly capital, which is more interested in marketing to ascendant consumer groups than overthrowing the patriarchy or any other exploitative or oppressive social structure. Of course, the episode cannot be narrowly defined in that way, and contradictions with the simplified scheme just stated emerge as soon as was analyze the class position of the show’s direct producers and creative staff.

Part 2: Knowledge Workers and a Consumer Setting

Cartoon Network Studios produces Steven Universe, on occasion with assistance from Rough Draft Studios in the Republic of Korea. Underneath that umbrella, most of the intellectual labor that goes into creating an episode like “Alone Together” falls under show runner Rebecca Sugar, who was an artist, writer, and songwriter for another show, Adventure Time, until 2013. The animation industry, like all appendages of mass media production, is administered by big capital but its primary “labor inputs” are educated white collar workers who have some advanced technical training––like Sugar’s at art-oriented high schools and colleges––that gives them relatively more control over the content of their work than an assembly line worker.⁵ Of course, their work is always subject to the approval of capital and the primacy of the profit motive, but within certain boundaries (not only monetary but also in terms of content determined by marketing demographic categories) they have free creative play. Mike Wayne reminds us of the dual role of this group as intellectuals reproducing relations of production and ideologies and as productive workers within enterprises:

From the point of view of the impact of their symbolic products, they may be engaged in reproduction (producing ideas and values, otherwise known as ideology, which legitimise the dominant social order); but, viewed from the point of view of production, it is clear that they produce commodities which realise surplus value for media capital, and, indeed, cultural goods as commodities have become increasingly important for capital investments and profits. There is, however, no necessary fit between the economic imperative and cultural values and, indeed, there are good reasons why they often diverge.⁶

In that last sentence, Wayne points to the fact that, though often allied to capital in material ways, the middle class “creative worker” operates at a remove from the values of their managers and employers. Indeed, this “cultural mass” of relatively privileged intellectual workers and white collar specialists is notoriously unstable, to the point where Lenin called them and other petty bourgeois a vacillating class.⁷ David Harvey, for his part, remarks that this class of cultural workers can take on either a parasitic or eclectic role in forming its identity, which is otherwise atomized and nebulous. Subservient to the money power of the bourgeoisie proper to mobilize their creative efforts and yet endowed with “cultural capital” and other privileges, they are subject to “movements of fashion, localism, nationalism, language, and even religion and myth” to a greater extent than other classes with firmer roots.⁸

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Sugar and the staff have created a cast of characters that represent this class above all others. Every character is either a service worker––Sadie and Lars at the doughnut shop, Steven’s father at a car wash––a small business owner––proprietors of the local restaurants––or white collar workers of some sort––Connie’s parents, a security officer and a doctor. Of course, Steven and his family of gems are without remuneration of any kind, and this is never brought up throughout the show. Presumably, the gems have an arrangement with Beach City, the town in which they live, but, again, this is left unmentioned.

Beach City itself is a nostalgic paradise of sorts, an idyllic tourist town apparently oriented around tourism. School appears to be optional, as no truancy officers have been after Steven despite his total absence from compulsory education. Depicted as a collection of soft but imposing hills and cliffs surrounding a nest of low houses and small shops, it serves as the perfect staging ground for the idealized environment the show generally chooses to employ on the show.

Steven himself is a consummate consumer, a typical child of late capitalism. Obsessed with pop culture ephemera, food product mascots, and low-quality local food, he has been modeled after Rebecca Sugar’s own younger brother Steven and can be read as the show’s “typical” child. His life embodies that of the production team’s class upbringing: eclectic, rootless, urban (despite the small-town setting), and oriented around consumption as an identity marker. Of course, this is peripheral to the focus of the show, which is on his heroic adventures and coming of age, but his characterization is so firmly rooted in consumer culture that it cannot be ignored. My main conclusion in this section is that the show’s setting embodies the class assumptions of urban knowledge workers in being disparate, eclectic, and rooted in the consumption of identity, which is otherwise difficult to form for such an atomized and individualistic social class.⁹

Part 3:  Political Stakes of the Family and Gender

“Alone Together” is the example par excellence of the political stance the show takes on gender and family issues. Steven’s domestic system is essentially three non-human characters identified as female or feminine raising one boy. There are no biological underpinnings for this relationship, since Rose, Steven’s mother, was not shown to be related to any of the gems. Rather, the family is founded on friendship and mentorship. There is a significant age and power imbalance––all the more profound since the gems are centuries old––but it is not a traditional family in any sense except that the relationships play out within a single home structure. Most of the time this unusual arrangement goes unquestioned, though in the episode “Fusion Cuisine” Steven’s friend Connie is embarrassed to introduce this strange family to her more traditional parents. This shows that Steven Universe is not merely naïve or idealistic, but that it is fully aware of what it is doing. Though the show does not have an overt pedagogical bent, in that there are no Very Special Episodes or didactic asides about the importance of tolerance or whatnot, it serves an important role in forming subjectivities and in transmitting messages about political issues to its largely young and young adult audience. We can return to Wayne, who reminds us, “Under capitalism, the elaboration and dissemination of ideas become specialised within a particular category of people who monopolise premium modes of knowledge.”¹⁰

Most of the time, the creators of Steven Universe have remained resolutely apolitical in discussing their creation. See several of Rebecca Sugar’s interviews for examples, including ones in which she mostly disregards her status as the first and only woman show creator in Cartoon Network’s history.¹¹ Interviews are always directed at other ends than just answering questions, so it is likely that this reticence to talk politics comes from both personal reluctance and the diplomacy of doing art under corporate auspices. Naturally, none of this reduces the political content of the show, since it is championing what I would define as a liberal pluralist politics of representation and “diversity.” It advocates multiculturalism and inclusiveness through representation, which is, not coincidentally, perceived as a genuine weapon of ideological struggle by its large adult fanbase.

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That commitment to representing marginalized populations extends beyond unconventional families. In “Alone Together,” Stevonnie has a child’s mind but an adult body, one that is drawn and portrayed though situations as immensely beautiful and capable. We see the character sprinting with ease, diving off of a cliff into the ocean, and dancing with instinctual virtuosity. Every character shown interacting with Stevonnie is smitten or awed with their beauty. This includes both male and female characters, notably in an early scene in the doughnut shop where the friendship/possibly romantic duo of Sadie and Lars give Stevonnie free doughnuts out of bashful amazement. At first, the new fusion revels in this attention, just as they revel in the pure expression of bodily autonomy––recall the running, dancing, and acrobatic dives. But the true arc of the episode comes from the writers exposing the continued rifts between the two minds inhabiting the body of Stevonnie and that body itself, or more precisely how people react to them.

The second half of the episode, which takes place at a local rave in a ruined building, their enjoyment of dancing evaporates, replaced by social anxiety and withdrawal. The episode visualizes this in a dreamlike sequence where Stevonnie is trapped inside a gigantic disco ball ringed with crystals. The bright lights and intense gazes of the other people at the rave are oppressive to them. Kevin, a young male character previously shown standing against a wall with contempt for the others, is impressed by their dancing skills and breaks through the crystal wall, addressing Stevonnie directly. He mistakes them for a woman, calling her “girl,” and “baby,” and begins sexual overtures, dancing in a way that is meant to impress his new love interest. The two children-in-one-body have no framework for dealing with this kind of cynical attention and bolt from the dance floor. Despite their joyous unity, the two characters feel isolated by people like Kevin, who are giving them unwanted attention. Finally, they split apart and laugh uproariously, finally relieved of the bizarre body that brought them initial joy and ultimate anguish.

Other characters sexualize Stevonnie, but they have no reference for reacting to this since they are mentally children. Here we see the show’s creative staff developing their premise in a believable way, but to the detriment of Steven Universe’s otherwise idealized portrayal of how gender politics are handled in Beach City. Introducing elements of real sexuality into the show, even subtly, leads to some thorny contradictions that leave the episode in a thematic jumble by the end. This is not wholly unwarranted, but it exposes the ungainly contradiction between the show’s need to keep itself appropriate for boys of a younger age while catering to adult fans. In fact, the children-vs-adults tensions in “Alone Together” could be seen as a loose allegory for this contradictory need to please two audiences: children who just want to have fun and adults who enjoy the show for its realistic social situations and willingness to deal with heavier dramatic material.

Steven Universe has never had pretensions of being a revolutionary show. It fastidiously avoids dramatizing political issues except in the most tangential of ways. Mostly, it functions as a fantasy, not just in the strict sense of genre but as an escapist outlet for imagining a more tolerant and easygoing world. Though it has worn its love of Revolutionary Girl Utena prominently on more than one occasion, it has none of that show’s engagement with larger political structures, preferring a softer and gentler approach that might court controversy but ultimately prefers to tease and insinuate rather than confront. There is merit to this approach, of course, but this conservatism has to be recognized and criticized if we are going to discern the truly revolutionary from the merely subversive. Subversion of this kind is easily encapsulated and marketed, and while it’s true that even revolutionary art can be commodified, Steven Universe’s origins in big capital and its creators’ own restrictions make it less exciting than it could be.


Notes:

1. Cartoon Network, “Cartoon Network Viewers ‘Believe in Steven,’ February 7, 2014, https://pressroom.turner.com/us/cartoon-network-viewers-“believe-steven”#.VQsmw0Id1V4.

2. Ibid.

3. Nielsen, “The Multicultural Edge: Rising Super Consumers,” abstract. March 18, 2015, http://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/reports/2015/the-multicultural-edge-rising-super-consumers.html

4. Nicholas Martin Arrivo, “Selling Sexuality: A Critical Genealogy of Homosexuality and Capitalism,” https://twp.duke.edu/uploads/assets/Arrivo.pdf.

5. Mike Wayne, Marxism and Media Studies (Sterling, VA: Pluto Press, 2003), 17.

6. Ibid, 21.

7. For one among many instances see: Lenin, “The Class Origins of Present-Day and ‘Future’ Cavaignacs,” Pravda 83 (June 29, 1917), https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/jun/29.htm

8. David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1989), 347-348.

9. For a kind of origin story for this brand of consumer “liberation” see John F. Kasson, Amusing the Million (New York: American Century).

10. Mike Wayne, 17.

11. Eric Kohn, ‘”Adventure Time’ Writer Rebecca Sugar on ‘Steven Universe,’ Being Cartoon Network’s First Female Show Creator And Why Pop Art Is ‘Offensive,’” Indiewire, November 1, 2013. http://www.indiewire.com/article/television/adventure-time-writer-rebecca-sugar-on-steven-universe.

Alienation from History in Steven Universe

Children in animated media meant for kids are often orphaned or somehow isolated from their parents. Steven is no exception, but in this show the disappearance of his mother and relative absence of his father connect to a larger theme––that being alienation from the past. Both Steven and the Crystal Gems are defined by their separation from the past. Steven is kept in the dark about his mother, whose dissolution was somehow necessary for his creation, and the Gems, in turn, are divided from their home world because they chose to defend organic life on Earth against Gem colonization attempts. They are isolated from their history, personal in Steven’s case and more cosmic in the case of the Gems. In some ways, their identities are defined by the absence of their origins, since the Gems Steven lives with are Crystal Gems only insofar as their loyalties are set against the rest of their race and Steven, who carries his mother’s gem, can only exist through her negation.

Beach City, and the broader universe in which Steven Universe takes place, therefore, is a land of “shallow history,” aesthetically eclectic and isolated from the rest of the world. Throughout the show, rootlessness and absence are constant themes. This includes the “Cookie Cat” backstory, which actually foreshadows later revelations about the gems, and the later episode “On the Run,” dealing with homelessness and wandering. Unfortunately, the first season is not yet over, so there is more to be seen, but this is a thematic thread to keep track of.

Steven Universe Series: Introductory Review

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The following is a basic review of some themes and aesthetic qualities for the show Steven Universe. I plan to write two more posts about it this week, including one on the theme of alienation from the past and another that will do a closer reading of one episode in particular, “Alone Together.”

Steven Universe is first of all a fantasy, dreams filtered through the lens of technical studio production and broadcasting. Its protagonist is Steven, a portly preteen boy who resides with a trio of magical beings called Crystal Gems. He is a human-gem hybrid who possesses similar powers, though at the beginning of the show he has little control over them. His housemates, the fastidious Pearl, feisty Amethyst, and stoic Garnet, are his guardians and mentors, bringing him along on their adventures while slowly drawing him into their own troubled histories. Along with his vagrant pet Lion and a smattering of other residents, they inhabit idyllic Beach City, protecting it from bizarre creatures and other threats.

At first, therefore, the show appears to be a conventional power fantasy, though certainly much more feminine and inclusive than the vast majority of superhero stories. Beneath the show’s buoyant, rounded aesthetics and speedy pacing, though, the major themes that emerge revolve around disconnection and amnesia, the struggle to connect with others and guard them against lurking dangers. Because only an intrepid few would immediately connect with a show that begins by expecting viewers to figure out a complicated world, “Steven Universe” anchors the viewer to Steven’s perspective. Since he is only partly privy to the world of the Gems and lives a carefree life little boys can only dream of––no school for him––he and the viewer can share in the shock of new revelations. Most of these start have come in the second half of the season, which expands the world both spatially and temporally in some tantalizing ways, though its potential has yet to be realized.

Steven’s mother, Rose Quartz, gave up her physical form in order to produce a child with Steven’s human father, Greg Universe. Steven’s only relic of Rose is the gem embedded in his navel, the source of his powers. His attempt to control these abilities mirrors his growing knowledge about his mother, whom the show implies was an imposing magic user. Where the early episodes of the show play as pure fantasy, later revelations complicate Steven’s childlike view of the world, and as the show develops his companions’ imperfections become more obvious to him. Steven Universe never ceases to be a fantasy, but, like its protagonist, it becomes both more enlightened and less sure of the basic goodness of the world it portrays. The bonds established between characters early on take on renewed significance when placed in peril by the normal friction of human interaction––not to mention omens of impending trouble.

Aesthetically, the show is similarly fragmented, awash with visual jokes and references to everything from Revolutionary Girl Utena to Hayao Miyazaki’s Future Boy Conan, both classic anime. Like its premise, the look of the show is warm and inviting, combining nostalgia for classic video game sprites with clean, flat compositions and soft color palettes that are heavy on secondary colors. Beach City and the many fantasy landscapes the show introduces are not over-rich with detail, but they all combine small-scale familiarity with an element of the fantastic. A significant part of the show’s animation is its characters’ ability to transform and fuse into one another, giving them fluid forms at times charming and at other times frightening. Despite being so friendly, the show has managed to use its animation to make some truly revelatory images, which are best seen rather than described.

Though it is not yet through its first season, Steven Universe has already outgrown its limits several times. Later episodes, particularly “Alone Together,” take what creator Rebecca Sugar has called the “safe space of fantasy” and used it to results that are moving and careful depictions of social anxiety and the liberating feeling of closeness with another person. It is not a political show per se but rather an idealized space, a fantasy of universe that is not devoid of threats but that deals with them together. I invite anyone interested in animation to take a look, because I expect that few will be disappointed.

Sam and Max: Freelance Kitschmongers

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Human beings seem to have this idea that, if animals could talk, they would be terribly cynical about everything. One of the archetypal examples of this is Hobbes from the Bill Watterson comic strip. Even though Hobbes is a bouncy, joyous character, his view of humanity is pitch black. I bring up Calvin and Hobbes because those title characters make an informative comparison to Sam and Max.

Both are duos of comic characters created in the 1980s who have a great deal of cultural prestige despite not being as popular as, say, Snoopy. Where the two diverge is in tone. Calvin and Hobbes certainly had a satirical streak, overtly parodying Flash Gordon, Dick Tracy, and Superman‘s overheated prose styles and flashy artwork. Wattersons’ characters also often took opportunities to mock disposable American consumer culture, conveying their creator’s well-known aversion to commercialism. The comic strip could also have a genuinely curious spirit to it, mocking hypocrisy but openly celebrating creativity and the wonder of nature. Sam and Max, however, descends from the Looney Tunes lineage. In all of its incarnations, the characters are manic, frequently self-aware, and almost totally amoral, committed to causing chaos and raising Cain. It’s not hard to see the deranged, sharp-toothed lagomorph Max as a 1980s update of Bugs Bunny with an appetite for destruction and a craving for stomach-churning junk food.

But now I want to focus less on the characters of Sam and Max themselves and more on their relationship to that junk food. And cheap toupees, celebrity-shaped gourds, circus freaks, and the world’s largest ball of twine. Yes, this is another salvo in my ongoing discussion of kitsch, the commoditized lifeblood of the American art market, the river of tripe that New York galleries blissfully glide over like unicorns in a summer meadow. One of Sam and Max’s defining characteristics is their prostration before almighty plastic doodads and greasy processed foods. They are head-over-heels ironically in love with everything chintzy and pandering. In many ways, they are the ideal post-Fordist consumers: ironically detached and able to mock the hell out of knick-knacks and fried foods but only too willing to purchase tons of it. In the comics, games, and the television show Sam and Max: Freelance Police (the first game being our main topic for the evening), the characters have an ambivalent relationship to filth and junk. They are “skeptical hedonists,” savants of the known-to-be-bad. Observe the following typical exchange:

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Text: Sam says, “It’s one of those impossible-to-win carny games that have been ripping off the American consumer for decades!”

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Text: Max says, “I love capitalism.”

 This conversation happens early in the game and serves to establish the tone of the piece. Sam, the more moral one of the pair, sports both a faux-Bogart voice and a withered sense of duty. Max, on the other hand, is more like the aforementioned Bugs Bunny mixed with the Tasmanian Devil. His heart is in it for the anarchy, with any attachment to the cause of justice being tenuous at best. Jokes like this function in a specific way: they call attention to social problems, trite tropes, or other unpleasant business, but lacking any kind of critical edge. There is no imperative to the punchline because the jokes are subsumed in a text that dissolves everything into a cartoon triviality. The pace of such lines works differently in an adventure game than in a television show, of course. In a TV show, episodes develop themes and incidents over time in a linear fashion, which means that jokes can play off of one another and relate to each other in time in a very specific way. In a game, on the other hand, every joke is its own self-contained bit.

The little gag shown above happens when the player inspects a carnival game, which may not ever even happen. Of course, for the joke to work it still has to be in-character and have good internal timing, but the flow of language in the game is not predetermined or holistic but highly contextual: click on something and be rewarded for a joke. It’s a different kind of humor, and because of that these “political” jokes have even less impact than they would in the show. Lines like this pertain to a single situation, producing a witty retort or maybe some back-and-forth leading to a punchline, after which the player clicks on something different. There is a flow, and themes and plot lines do develop, but there’s nothing incisive or biting about it; it’s parody but, ironically given Max’s grin, toothless.

Chuck Kleinhaus notes that parody is “persistent under conditions of advanced capitalism. Parody stands as a means of accommodation to things that people think they cannot change.”¹ Sam and Max are almost utterly unprincipled, which is a winning trait for cartoon characters because they can embody a pleasant fantasy of consequence-free mayhem. It would be wrong of us, though, to mistake wry jokes as being in any way subversive. Let’s look at another gag to see another example of what I mean. The setup is that Max is appalled by the fact that the Siamese twins who own the local carnival are technically naked since their skin just grows as green vinyl––it makes little more sense in context––whereupon Sam reminds Max that he is also naked. Max responds:

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Text: Max says, “Yeah, but I’m cute and marketable.”

I have to concede that, of the two technically naked characters in this scene, Max is easier on the eyes. More to the point, what we have here is a self-aware commodity. Not only that, but the mascot characters in this capitalist entertainment product are fully aware of their being shills for a game company. What’s notable is that not only are Sam and Max utterly at peace with their kitschy American world, they are knowingly kitsch themselves.

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Pictured: the kitschy world of Sam and Max: Hit the Road.

To delve once more into the scholarly realm, let’s quote Kleinhaus one more time:

The characteristic parody of self-aware kitsch promotes what John Fiske has called “skeptical hedonism” in audience response to much mass-culture documentary, that is, we all know this is a fantasy, but we want in on the fun of such phenomena, for example, as television wrestling or supermarket tabloid headlines. In this duality of response, self-aware kitsch is related to, or overlaps with, Camp.²

What we have here is an explicit example of what modern advertising thrives on: its ability to convince its audience that it is in on the joke. At this point, satires of advertising are often actually advertising themselves, showing to me that satire is ultimately toothless as a tool for social change. As long as capitalism needs to stoke consumer demand to absorb its immense surplus and avoid crises, advertising will evolve in response to culture’s attempts to render it impotent. People become aware of advertising ploys and, like in Sam and Max, call attention to them and make a show of being unaffected. Coincidentally, Bill Watterson provides us with an apt demonstration of this process:

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Text: Calvin says: “Another thing to remember about popular culture is that today’s TV-reared audience is hip and sophisticated. This stuff doesn’t affect us. We can separate fact from fiction. We understand satire and irony. We’re detached and jaded viewers who aren’t influenced by what we watch. ” Hobbes says: “I think I hear advertisers laughing.” Calvin says: “Hold on. I need to inflate my basketball shoes.”

Ultimately, Sam and Max make for weak satirists because they rarely draw connections between the obvious shortcomings of their daily lives and deeper social determinants. That doesn’t make them unfunny or bad cartoon characters, but as parodies or satires go, they seem distinctly lacking in substance. There’s no edge to them, which makes them, as Max astutely points out, marketable. But that tends to mean the opposite of critical, and Sam and Max tend to want to have their cake and eat it too a little too often. Though, with sweet teeth like theirs, I’m sure that sounds delightful to them.

Notes:

1. Chuck Kleinhaus, “Taking Out the Trash: Camp and the Politics of Parody,” in The Politics and Poetics of Camp, ed. Moe Meyer (New York: Routledge, 1994), 171.

2. Ibid, 160.

“Food Chain” and Adventure Time

Apparently on a field trip to a natural history museum in the desert, the candy children in “Food Chain” don’t care much about their biology lessons, preferring instead to muse about whether nonhuman beings play football or galumphing about the building cheering at the top of their lungs. Meanwhile, Finn the human and Jake the dog are similarly unimpressed until, on the way to the museum snack bar, they encounter the mischievous (and more than a little malign) Magic Man, who gives them a rather direct and harrowing lesson in empathy for the little creatures. What follows is a kaleidoscopic journey through the food chain, where our heroes go from decomposing corpses to ravenous predators, hungry caterpillars and plants that are horrifyingly conscious of being eaten.

While its value as an educational tool might be dubious and its narrative can be charted in a four-step circle, the episode is noteworthy for showing why Adventure Time is such a reliable font of wild creativity. The show is rooted in characters’ personalities rather than narrative tropes. Unlike a great comic strip like Krazy Kat, where the characters are put through infinite variations of the same plot for results both poetic and funny, Adventure Time takes its characters into the unknown more often than not. And though “Food Chain” is breezy and self-contained, likely having no impact on the rest of the show’s world (the episode’s setting is left almost totally abstract) its gratuity is a virtue rather than a problem. Though the show has no problem venturing into emotionally fraught, mythic, or heavily plotted  territory, I feel that it’s never more at home than in episodes like this, including the “Graybles” episodes. The children can enjoy its pure colorful weirdness and musicality––and maybe learn a thing or two about biology––and animation obsessives like me can marvel at Masaaki Yuasa’s mastery of his craft, along with the stark depiction of death and animal drives the episode contains. It’s not profound, but rather gratuitous and joyful.

Both the current episode and the Graybles start from the standard format of a children’s educational show: a patronizing narrator telling children what’s up. From there, “Food Chain” gets into the meat and bones of what the food chain really is, taking a humorous look at its grotesque aspects, speculating about how different species perceive the world in different ways. At the end of the episode, Finn is enlightened, having transcended pure book knowledge and really grasped how the food chain works. It’s tremendously optimistic and constructive filmmaking, even if it’s also very fluid and lively. I find it an irresistible pick-me-up, almost like a song in that I can watch it over and over again without tiring of it quickly. Indulge your creative side and give “Food Chain” a look or ten.

Wolf’s Rain: Apocalyptic Sentimentality

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“Why do humans always look to the sky? Why do you try so hard to fly when you don’t have any wings? We wolves work with what we were given.”

“They say there is no such place as Paradise. Even if you search to the ends of the Earth, there’s nothing at all. No matter how far you walk, it’s just the same road, it just goes on and on. But in spite of that…Why am I so driven to find it?”

I have already written one post in the last year about the end of the world, and in the interim the subject has lost its appeal. Culture is afflicted by an eschatological fixation, making the End of the World the subject of so many recent films, television series, video games, and books that I find myself drowning in dystopia, choking on so much dust and rubble that I’ve gone hoarse. In this period when we are becoming more and more conscious of not only the human but the ecological consequences of capitalist exploitation, indeed of the indivisibility of the two, media has given us the worst kinds of fantasies with which to exorcise our anxieties. These tend to be the type encouraging peevish and nihilistic defiance (The World’s End), otherworldly escape (Knowing, Christian apocalyptic entertainment), or simply reveling/wallowing in the despair and often cathartic anarchy of the End (many video games on the reveling side, books like The Road on the wallowing side).

Anime has had its own apocalyptic fixation for some time now, with its best and worst excesses found in films like End of Evangelion, which, though relentlessly anti humanist, is at least fascinating in the kind of spectacle it offers. Akira is a more compelling example of this postmodern breed of apocalyptic animation, leaving human society intact while inaugurating a whole new solipsistic universe in its ending. These last two are at least compelling diagnoses of nihilistic tendencies in our hyperdeveloped capitalist societies, even if they still assuage our pathological need to be amused with brilliant spectacle. Unlike these two films–and most Japanese filmmaking concerned with the end of the world–Wolf’s Rain evinces little anxiety for fiery decimation. This show, from writer Keiko Nobumoto and director Tensai Okamura (of Cowboy Bebop and Darker than Black, respectively), finds a world likely already reduced to dust by some mass catastrophe. When we enter the story, the world is already lifeless, in the midst of an interim between its destruction and the inauguration of a new world.

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Enter Kiba, Tsume, Hige, and Toboe, four wolves. This species is supposed to have been extinct for two hundred years, but the wolves have not died out but instead taken human shapes, blending into the decaying human society. That society is almost entirely atomized into enclosed city states, more-or-less sheltered bubbles that temporarily preserve humanity from its destined extinction. Kiba, the leader of the pack, is the last of his clan and driven by an irresistible call to seek Paradise, a world that can only be opened by wolves. As the white wolf, Kiba is the one chosen to open it, but he and his three friends are contested by Darcia, a descendant of the aristocratic human family that doomed the world.

In this world, humans were created from wolves but are inferior creatures, while the ruling class of humans, the nobles, are wolves who fell from grace and forgot their true forms. Darcia is thus a Lucifer figure, the site where the contradictions of the narrative find their closest contact. He is both human and wolf, “natural” and “artificial,” dying during the purification of the world but continuing to poison everything with his corruption. The shows themes are unrelentingly hostile to human separation from nature, showing that people are directly descended from animals but hunting them to extinction, creating a world of ecological disasters and frightening war machines. The quotation I gave above, from late in the story, demonstrates the extent to which the show despises technology and fetishizes nature. Its sympathies are with the primitive animist tribe that dresses like Native Americans and, of course, with the wolves themselves. Each of the human cities we encounter is a temporary shelter at best, disturbing Orwellian states at worst. In the last of the domed metropolises, the domain of Jaguara, people sleepwalk through life, disaffected and unconcerned with the wider world. Though the show wants to make a trenchant criticism of human society’s separation from nature and the zombifying aspects of consumer capitalism, it has no answers other than acceptance of entropy and the joy we are meant to feel at the devastation of human civilization.

The apocalypse in Wolf’s Rain is a creeping ice sheet that overwhelms everything, reduces the Earth to a dim white ball in space. Its human characters are inadequate to the task of finding Paradise, eliminated one after another as the narrative reaches its climax. Their deaths are usually at the hands of natural caprice, as mostly-sympathetic characters Cher and Hub are killed by hostile mountain conditions that even severely wounded wolves can easily endure.

Kiba and the other wolves are driven by a primal instinct to seek Paradise, even though it is not a realm of happiness but merely the continuation of the world as it already is. The show makes a consistent point that myths and fantasies, even hateful ones, are at the core of what drives us in life. The wolves all have their passionate attachments, most of them deeply personal, and these, we are meant to think, are the sum total of what we can achieve in life. There is only love, there is only the pack, there is only the instinctual drive to pull together that is left when the world is at its end. We are passionately enjoined to action, to reject life if it has no meaning. But the show has no concrete hope to offer, nothing that is worth seeking. We are supposed to, of our own will, find and pursue a purpose regardless of the risks. There is no hope in society, no meaningful change, no history. There is only personal will, the conscious choice to remain committed. Committed to what? The show has only a hollow answer.

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Is it too much to ask of mere entertainment to provide a good reason to keep living? Yes, of course. I find, however, that the show attempts to do this, and I can evaluate its attempt and find it wanting. Wolf’s Rain, masterful as it is, is all the more dangerous because of its artistic beauty. We can be easily beguiled by the energetic burst of new life accompanying the show’s ending. It is easy to sit back and wait for the inevitable death of our planet, to resign to the despair and believe that it is all decided in one initial moment of corruption. Ultimately, Wolf’s Rain is skeptical where it should be and also skeptical where we should remain more realistic.

Sentimentality is not only confined to sappy-happy endings a film or show pulls out of its ear. It is not just cheaply-bought resolution but also cheap ambiguity and facile moralizing about humanity’s inhumanity that fails to note that history runs in a straight line, constantly in flux. While this show often makes a big deal out of the “path,” its path is ultimately Sisyphean, a circle where nothing of note ever happens, and where every life is completely captive to what point in the cycle they occupy. Wolf’s Rain is thus sentimental because its criticism is deficient, leading to a mixture of triumph and melancholy that are as false as the Paradise it leads to. Of course, if I affirmed a belief in an actual place of perfection, I would be guilty of rank idealism and escapism. On the other hand, the show falls too far in the other direction, not recognizing the depths of historical change and how it affects societies and individuals. History develops, repeating with differences. It does not always move in a progressive direction, but it is constantly changing, not a static cycle. To say so is to quarrel with the underlying sensibility of the show, but if criticism aspires to be more than a machine for generating recommendations about the worth of art works, it has to engage with this depth dimension of art as well as its surface content and effectiveness. In its commitment to the unchanging nature of society and its individualism, it reproduces the values of the dominant class even while showing the calamities that resulted from unjust class rule. The wolves are an underclass without the option of radical change. Their only recourse is something of a world kill switch.

As an example of apocalyptic art, therefore, Wolf’s Rain is a beautiful failure, which is perhaps all we can expect of most works of art. It is, undoubtedly, politically incorrect and riven with contradictions it cannot resolve. Is the path straight or a circle? Is the apocalypse the end or the beginning? Are the wolves saviors or death-dealers? Is there hope or not? Its ending, which attempts to resolve these contradictions, is ultimately undone by Darcia, the only character that remains outside, an exile because of his hybridity and strangeness. Yet he is the necessary to the entire scheme of the show, both because it needed a villain and because he is the mythical figure who absorbs all the poison that leaks from the gaps between these contradictions. Looking back, it seems he is the only potential bridge between the world of wolves and that of humans. And yet that is impossible, because the show is too invested in the purity of nature, ignoring the fact that nature depends on humans as much as the other way around. Ignoring the fact that our current arrangement came into being not through a cosmic Fall but from the progress of history. Of course our current arrangement is unsatisfactory, but it can be undone and replaced with a new one, not through the efforts of a chosen one but through the collective efforts of society, the social world without which our lives and the show’s narrative is without function or meaning. This is why the show’s ending is apocalyptic sentimentality: it essentializes, reduces, and then prettifies.

Because of its artistic merits and the quality of the animation and writing, I would recommend everyone watch the show. Be prepared to engage it swords drawn, however. Often the most beautiful dreams are the ones we mistake for reality because we want them to be true. However, it is irresponsible to accept easy surrender. I should probably write another piece praising aspects of the show that do deal with complexity and the dialectical relationships that define life in a better way, but the ending is the message, and I believe that the way the show ends is something of a betrayal of its own ideals. It rejects false Paradise? Good. It also rejects the prospects of real advancement, which is the furthest thing from good.

輪るピングドラム (Mawaru Penguindrum)

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What’s odd is that I have traveled to India in an effort to reconnect to some memory that I left long ago. When this tiger gained human intelligence, he made a decisive break with the world of nature. It is not a total or uncomplicated break, as I am, from the tinge of my fur to the centre of my marrow, still a feline. More to the point, I still inspire a primal fear in all the people I meet. Airport security is unforgiving at best, and food vendors and train conductors tend to tense up and lose their charity when a six-foot-long striped cat is trying to get some service. All this trouble I have endured is all for the sake of my own selfish reasons. The people here are a blur. To be honest, most people travel to see rocks and water, artfully arranged steel towers, oil paintings and abstract sculpture, historical sites. Dead things. Nonliving things. Tourists put their hosts in the awkward position of being parasites, obstacles and poorly-paid gatekeepers designed to drain as much money out of visitors as they walk from one dead thing to the next. They may as well be automated toll booths. The whole of France would be nothing but a precisely automated moving walkway with automatic toll gates and a tendency to burst into violent riots.

Mawaru Penguindrum, referred to hereafter as Penguindrum, is a show about fate, sharing, and the [dis]connections people share. Our main characters move about Tokyo’s many wards in a sanitized elevated train system, navigating a maze of abstract inhabitants. All of them look alike. None were chosen by the show’s creators to be intriguing to us. We know nothing of them and they, protected by the diegetic umbrella, are blissfully ignorant of us. They, like the teeming masses of India through which I push and barge, trying to reach the open jungles, are the inhuman ones. Of course, the Indian people I have met all have their own stories, personalities, families, networks of relations personal and economic and political. But to be honest neither you nor I care about any of them. Penguindrum makes the stylistic choice to forgo background characters, to render the vast majority of the humans who ever appear onscreen as nothing more than bathroom-sign figures. Stand-ins for real human beings. Before going any further, I should give a paragraph about how special this show is in the world of animation, and why people who are interested in television and especially in animated television as a medium should seek out anime whether it’s your cup of tea or not.

Animation is far from an artistically impoverished medium in the West. This is especially true in the world of television and shorts, where great talents seem to pop up in big lumps or clusters and produce a hot streak of great work before either diminishing into creators of loopy mediocrity (see Don Bluth and to a lesser extent Ralph Bakshi) or moving onto the hopefully greater prestige and financial reward of live-action work (see Brad Bird and Andrew Stanton). Today, American children’s television can claim a handful of artistic triumphs including Regular Show, Adventure Time, and Gravity Falls, all of which make the most of their medium while telling intelligent, visually engaging stories. I regret that the animated feature film landscape in the West is so starved of variety at the moment, but it’s a relatively healthy medium. With that written, there is a way in which the ghettoization of animation into either pure children’s fare or adult comedy deprives the West of a more nuanced and varied output from its animation industry.

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All of that to-do was for the purpose of setting up just how singular Penguindrum is, and how it would be impossible to imagine it being produced anywhere other than Japan. Truth be told, this is a weird show, and I try to keep the w-word out of my normal lexicon because weirdness has a more specific meaning for me than I suspect it does for most people. Weirdness is often bandied about as a synonym for artistic ambition, stylization, “personal” projects, and surrealism. There is no doubt that all of those attributes could also be constituent parts of a weird film or television show. They are not, however, the same as weirdness. Weirdness is a quality of work that is going its own way, that is relatively uninterested in the audience, that operates on a logic one could not find in the real world. Weirdness connotes a certain amount of mystery and the allure of the different. But weirdness is not comforting. It tends to be more alienating in a way that will make it either laughable, disquieting, or both.

To get at the distinction, let’s have an example. Adventure Time is frequently surreal, but rarely does it find itself in the realm of weirdness as I define it. The Graybles episodes certainly do, along with “Finn the Human,” but these are exceptions to the rule. This is mainly because most of its episodes have fairly standard plot structures and have a relatively kid-friendly edge. Similarly, the film Yellow Submarine is free-form in terms of plot, psychedelic, and surreal. But I wouldn’t call it weird in this more specific sense, because it’s ultimately comforting and leaves my view of the world mostly undisturbed, thank you very much.  Penguindrum is weird because it’s a serialized show that is continually upending itself, distancing itself from formula, reveling in plot complications, visual flourishes, and characters with everything to hide. It’s weird in a fully fleshed-out and subversive way, a show that deals in symbolism, dream logic, and magic with a subtle but mounting density that threatens to overwhelm but mostly enhances what is a truly unique twenty-four episodes of animation.

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The premise of the show revolves around a small family of young people, 16-year-olds Kanba (red hair) and Shouma (blue) as well as their younger sister Himari. Their apparently mostly happy situation is disturbed when Himari falls ill and dies. This is far from the end, however, as she is revived by the penguin-shaped headdress you see in the picture above. Through it, Himari channels the spirit of the Princess of the Crystal, a brash and demanding figure who promises to keep Himari alive if her two brothers can retrieve the Penguin Drum, an enigmatic object of unknown significance. Other characters become entangled in their mission, including fellow high school student Ringo, who is initially obsessed with her teacher/stalking victim Tabuki, and Masako, an incredibly wealthy CEO of the Natsume Corporation with some kind of connection to Kanba.

The show, from the first episode, is constantly ruminating on the interaction of fate and free will, as well as how the destinies of various characters intertwine. At around the midpoint of the show, the tone shifts, and what was previously a mostly lighthearted affair with some heavier undertones flips the script and becomes bleaker. This turn is handled well, as are most of the ever-accelerating twists that pile on toward the final episodes. Characterization is strong, and despite the narrative gymnastics the viewer is never wholly mired or driven to cry “what the hell?” Careful attention, as always, is beneficial to fully appreciating the show, but the relationships between the characters evolve and are depicted in believable ways, which means that you can ignore some of the denser mythological or thematic aspects of the story and still have a solid core. That said, you would be missing out on what makes the narrative of Penguindrum so fascinating. The show continually ramps up the stakes and complicates our understanding of the characters, and in the end neither exonerates its characters for their past misdeeds nor frees them from fate, but finds a way to affirm their humanity nonetheless. Might be worth another post or two later on.

I’ve already mentioned the visual abstraction of the show. I should mention that, despite the relative sterility of the environments here, there is also a good deal of fireworks in the vein of the dazzling Cybody sequences from Star Driver. When the show delves into thematic abstractions, it is visually fearless. Its narrative is pinned irrevocably to its often astonishing visuals, which lean heavily on pure whites and primary colours. It also perfectly manifests the alienation its characters experience in the world. I’ve found that the stories that work best for me in animation are either low-key and naturalistic (think Grave of the Fireflies or Watership Down) or visually expressionistic and daring. This is one of the latter, though the story’s setting in contemporary Tokyo means that it’s not always being visually strange or surreal. Rather, it has an unsettling and uncertain relationship to magic and fantasy, which is part of its appeal both visually and at a more contemplative level.

Penguindrum is emotionally affecting, intelligent, and weird, truly and gloriously weird. What makes it all work is that it is not at all clunky or alienating, at least a good majority of the time. Knit together by the strength of its characters, its narrative is able to endure all kinds of tweaks and outright revolutions without losing its spirit. Few shows evolve so much over their run as Penguindrum, and it represents a masterful addition to creator Kunihiko Ikuhara’s body of work.

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Oh, yes. There are three or four adorable penguins who get into all kinds of hijinks and personify the word “adorable.” Just in case you were wondering. One even reads dirty magazines all the time. ❤

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