Quentin Tarantino’s Revisionist History

Over the weekend I saw Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which is supposed to be director Quentin Tarantino’s last film (but he keeps signing on for more films). This experience was different for a few reasons namely that it was my first time going to a theater on my own and secondly that it was one of the first times in a while that I had gone to see a Tarantino feature in theaters. I’ve long since said that Tarantino is my favorite director but I skipped recent theatrical releases of his last two films; but I had a free ticket from Alamo Drafthouse to celebrate my birthday so I decided let’s see a movie and let’s see a movie that I had some mild hype for. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood centers around a mostly washed up actor (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his somewhat sketchy stuntman/friend (Brad Pitt) and it’s all set in the backdrop of Hollywood in the late 1960s. It’s a movie about not being as good as you used to be, an ode to cinema and film-making and a glorious, damn near mastabatory look at the late 1960s through fashion, places and making us all see that apparently you could smoke on airplanes and honestly, everywhere for that matter. As far as the movie goes: I liked it. It’s far from my favorite Tarantino but still is an enjoyable romp with some damn good action. Tarantino is nearly meta in his fetishization of feet (almost like he’s in on the joke now) and the soundtrack is solid and the shots are beautiful. But there are a few things in the movie that kept going back over in my mind and that means I’m going to spoil this movie so here’s your warning but the thought was: wow, Tarantino has a hard-on for changing history. Let’s go over Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s attempts at revisionism first. So there’s one thing about the movie that’s hard to put into words and that is the tension in this film: another character that is heavily featured is Margot Robbie’s version of Sharon Tate. For anyone who has put the pieces together of Sharon Tate, late 1960s and California then cool, you’re thinking what literally everyone else was thinking. Manson and Manson Family nonsense runs rampant through the film, it’s honestly a little distracting and it made me very anxious. At every moment I was concerned about the hippies that may be murderers and as Sharon Tate becomes a more important character I felt like watching a Death Note background character, just sort of waiting for her to be brutalized but she doesn’t. She’s okay. She survives. In fact, the two male leads of the movie kick some serious cultist ass in this weird violent fever dream of a conclusion. It was a shock for sure and it was surreal to think of a scenario where Sharon Tate walked away okay. The movie also indulges in a little bit of great white man fantasy by having Brad Pitt kick the ass of an at his prime Bruce Lee (who honestly in this movie is a bit of an asshat) which is just a little insulting but hey, power fantasy gotta power fantasy. 

In isolation, this movie is a love letter to a bygone era but if you take this movie as part of the Tarantino filmography then a pattern emerges: Tarantino hates history so much that he has to write fanfiction about it. Hot take aside, it would seem like Tarantino has a thing for revising history. Two of my favorite of his films both take a strange power fantasy approach to two of the worst times in human history: World War II and Slavery in the Antebellum South. Inglorious Basterds is entirely about Jewish-American soldiers taking revenge against Nazis and Django Unchained is the story of a black man who takes revenge against the white systems of oppression in place.  

I think this form of revisionism is fascinating because it feels a little like fanfiction. It feels like Tarantino as a director being able to comment or change an aspect of history that is shameful and subverts expectations by giving power to those who typically in those historical situations were powerless. That was what was so brilliant about Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was sort of waiting for Sharon Tate to perish and especially in a post #MeToo-era, I was worried about seeing nothing but an excuse for Tarantino to work out some sexual violence against women (which he seems to enjoy) and honestly, I was happy to see a story where things turned out okay for Sharon. It’s a radical moment and one I didn’t respect to find so empowering. By taking the power away from the Manson Family, Tarantino; like he did in Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained takes away power from those who are at this stage mythological as far as terror goes.The last battle of frantic, sloppy and insane and takes away some of the legend and horror from a force so monstrous that when I said that I was listening to I Am the Walrus when I was in high school, my aunt told me that I could not listen to that song and I saw fear in her eyes for the first time in my life. 

Restraint is not something I’d expect to say about Tarantino but his choice to have a fairly happy ending at the end of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was shockingly touching and I was able to release my held breath when Sharon spoke over the intercom of her gated driveway asking if her neighbor was okay as she was not the victim of the Manson Family’s violence but her neighbor, DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton and his stuntman Cliff Booth are the recipients of that violence and they do in fact conquer over the darkness that would cloak Hollywood for decades in paranoia and fear. 

I liked this movie. This isn’t my favorite Tarantino as it is a slow burn and I am bored and want more hyperviolence but it’s good. It’s a masterclass in set up and pay off that should honestly be studied in film classes as well as some of the best character acting and cinematography I’ve seen in awhile. It’s a good film and I’m glad I saw it and I’m glad that in this reality that Sharon Tate is okay. 

Before we go, there’s one scene that to most would be a throwaway but as I talked about it with Carlos, it really ended up being poignant. In the film, Sharon Tate visits a theater where one of her movies is showing. She’s asked to pose next to a poster and sits in with the audience and watches her own feature. She smiles as people smile and comment about her performance and she laughs when the audience laughs. But in the film, it isn’t a weird Margot Robbie clone as Sharon Tate in the movie, it’s actually just the film she’s in: The Wrecking Crew. And if you think about it, if you didn’t grow up during this time or if you were a kid during this time, you may never know Sharon Tate as an actress, just as a victim. You know her as a notch in Manson’s belt, not a vibrant and brilliant and talented woman who was lost too soon and that choice to humanize the real Sharon Tate was wonderful and I cannot thank Tarantino enough for the chance to truly see Sharon Tate as she would want to be remembered: not as a victim, but as a star. 

Growing Up With Your Characters

I have been writing since I was 10 years old. Back then it was mostly poetry or at least, what a 10 year old could call poetry. It took me a long time to sort out fiction of my own but as soon as I found that world, I fell in faster than Kagome fell into that damn magical well. Fiction was a beautiful escape from my comic book protagonist reality: I had recently lost a parent, I was living with my strict aunts, I was teased in school but in fiction, oh in fiction, I could be anyone. And so I was.

I, like many early fiction writers, had a flock of Mary Sue original characters. Now, a Mary Sue, for those who do not know is a female character who is just too darn perfect. They’re usually self-insert characters made to allow mostly female writers to simply place themselves into the narrative. This means usually doing not so great writing things to pair off with the fictional character you want and to do whatever you fictionally want. Many grow out of the Mary Sue-stage but some stay there. And boy, did I stay there during those early years. I also don’t think I can impress upon you just how many fandoms I touched back then and still do. It was a lot of anime and manga sure but comic books, video games, books: basically if I was into it, I likely had a project relating to it (and possibly still do.).

The characters I wrote back then were almost all female and almost all were very strong: all the things I wanted to be. But they also reflected the concerns I had at the time, many were cursed or held under the thumb of the villain. And if you knew me during that time, you’d be able to see that in my own life. I was held under the thumb of strict aunts and wanted to badly to break free but never felt like I could so despite displaying outward strength, I was never and thus my characters were almost never, strong enough to leave their binds, their curses, their fates. Luckily, there were plenty of angsty male characters to “rescue” them and thus me back then.

High school, oh high school. I was for sure starting to develop more as a writer back then and that often meant that my writing reflected the things I was interested in: boys, intimacy and gender. By high school, I had this funny feeling inside of me that “female” only felt so right. I started writing more and more male characters in high school. I found immense power and comfort in writing as a male.  That also meant writing things of a more… carnal nature. I won’t go into detail here but let’s just say high school me’s writing very much was a look into my concerns and psyche: I wanted attention, I wanted intimacy, I wanted control and I wanted things just as I wanted them. These characters back then, especially the male ones, were melodramatic, self-absorbed, somewhat useless but well-intended and always, always rescued by a handsome prince/host-type. And these were long projects: some of them I just finished recently, recently, dear reader. But let’s not lose that train of thought, remember that duality of spirit I mentioned? That duality: the two types of male characters I wrote, would continue to be a duality even in my character. Part of me is a useless blob of self-indulgence and another wants so desperately for those around me to feel special because I know what it was like to even for a moment not feel important. It would be a duality that I struggle with even as I continued to write when I was in college.

I didn’t have much time for fiction in college. I was an English major. I had plenty of other things to write but my somewhat rigid schedule gave me all the time in the world to dive into a world I had dipped my toe into while in high school: roleplaying. I found a partner that I loved more than anything else and got to play characters I loved more than anything else. I was back to playing mostly host/prince types and living my best truth. In college, I found myself even using more and more male nouns in common speech. Writing fiction kept me going through school, stress, work, the loss of my mother and more stress. Fiction did for me then exactly what it did for me as a stressed out pre-teen: it gave me a place to escape but only so much so to keep me grounded by with a pleasant little distraction to power me through the rough times.

I stopped writing when I graduated. The years between college and career were less than kind and while I kept up some fiction writing, I had mostly abandoned my other projects. I had to build a portfolio and keep writing things that mattered to employers.

In 2014, I moved and that changed many things. I chose a partner who loved my fiction writing and encouraged me to do so more. I did so for them. They were my reason to keep writing. Which was all fine and good until that person left me. I didn’t write for months after that breakup, I couldn’t go back to the worlds we built together without them.

However, I’m a stubborn thing, it took me a while to get back to it but I did. Trust me, I did. I even finished a project I began when I was in high school and then immediately built upon that foundation: I’ve managed to add to it ever since then.

I manage to find time and inspiration in bursts. Maintaining my blog is a bit more of a priority to me than fiction mostly because I don’t see myself publishing that anytime soon. Not that I don’t think it’s any good, just that I think that phase of my life is over. Who knows, I may change my mind one day.

It’s amazing and sometimes a little painful to go back and read those old pieces and even more interesting to read the long-term projects. It’s amazing to see how my writing has changed, how my characters changed, how I changed. How I accepted myself and accepted the parts of my past that I was desperate to work through in writing. It’s fascinating to see how I’ve matured and how my characters matured.

It’s simply amazing to see a record of who I was, who I am, and who I can be.

Sympathy vs. Empathy

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” ― Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird.png

If there was one concept I could just magically teach people when it comes to the matter of how to be more critical readers and more skilled writers, it would be understanding the difference between sympathy and empathy. And it’s a lesson that it took me a while to learn as a writer and reader, myself. There are apparently very few sage teachers in such a discipline. The two words are used pretty interchangeably in common speech but they are not the same at all and understanding that key difference makes for richer reading experiences, better movie watching and a better understanding of the real people around you.

Let’s firstly go over some basic vocabulary.

  • Sympathy
    • The fact or power of sharing the feelings of another, especially in sorrow or trouble; fellow feeling, compassion, or commiseration.
  • Empathy
    • The psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.

These definitions seem very similar, hence this little discussion. We’re going to boil things down here: sympathy is understanding a feeling while empathy is feeling that experience as well. I can sympathize with a person and not empathize with them and vice versa. I can sympathize with Erik Killmonger in Black Panther with his feelings of anger after the loss of his father, but I cannot use his grief to rationalize him being genocidal. I can empathize with Edward Elric from Fullmetal Alchemist, his use of pragmatism and cynicism to cope with the loss of his mother is almost exactly how I dealt with the loss of my own father and I could even sympathize with his decision making, even when it was less than ideal.

By now, you may be asking: well, why does it matter if these two words seem so similar?

It goes back to the theme of this year’s blog posts: framing.

Framing gives form and shape to empathy and can influence, force or even create sympathy.

Let’s take an example that I’ve beaten nearly to death: Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War.

Thanos’ motivations seem so rational, so easy to understand, his pain so real. Because Josh Brolin is an amazing actor and there’s fantastic writing behind his portrayal of The Mad Titan. And that is a huge problem. Thanos’ point of view is insane but clever writing made him seem like the most rational character in the damn film. That feeling of looking down the road and seeing only one crazy choice is one many feel now and for some reason in our hellscape of a current world: The Mad Titan’s plan doesn’t seem so mad. And that is bad.

Here’s one of the most interesting parts of this discussion: for the most part, it’s entirely subjective, too. I have the background of the average anime antagonist, so it’s easy for me to empathize with them and thus sympathize with them. It’s harder for me to wrap my head around characters that are more outgoing or optimistic; their motivations are foreign to me and thus, it’s difficult to build a sympathetic bridge to understanding them. Your world view changes how you feel about characters and narratives and it absolutely can change and grow over time. Characters that I looked to with great admiration when I was younger suddenly seem entirely too impulsive and egotistical now as an adult.

One of my favorite things is looking at a movie from my admittedly jaded worldview and listening to a friend who didn’t see or feel the same thing that I did during a movie. I may gloss over an issues that is morally repugnant to others. I may take immense umbridge with a scene that others think is fine. Our experiences shape how we view narrative but there is where writers and creators also have to be careful: writing is a powerful tool and a good story line and likable characters can turn evil into something not so deplorable.

I’ve used this example before but he really illustrates the point: Richmond Valentine from Kingsman: The Secret Service. Valentine’s motivations are straight up genocide but Samuel L. Jackson is so charismatic and his plan almost doesn’t seem like it’s so bad: hell, he seems logical and rational with his plan to wipe out a majority of the population and let the cream of the crop reign over a newly mostly emptied world.

That’s a problem.

Anime historically had a problem with making bad ideas sound great, Death Note despite being one of my favorite series has a major sympathy and empathy problem. If you were anything like me: too smart for your own good, cynical and bitter and angry at the entire world; Light’s plan of wiping people out using a magical murder diary sounds excellent. I was proudly Team Kira during most of my high school years. The work however does all it can to show that Light is the bad guy. We almost immediately meet L who calls Light exactly what he is: a murderer. And that shift in framing greatly dampens how easy it is to empathize with Light’s murder plan but by the time it tries to establish Light as a bad guy, many have already gotten on board with his delusional idea.

Let’s use a really tricky example and one that actually touches my personal life: Tony Stark.

Stark as a hero is complex. He’s the first to say he isn’t actually heroic but his story is more universal than I think many give credit for. His descent into substance abuse and excess is not too uncommon for many who lose their parents and have the world in their hands. While we all may not be billionaires many of us who lost the thing that keeps them grounded are playboys and are addicted to something be it a substance or to a person. But many can see themselves in Stark, even if their pasts are not as dark or extreme as his. He’s charismatic even when he isn’t likable and there are rationalizations even when he makes the most reckless decision (another good comparison on that front is Peter Quill but I dislike the Lord of Stars so I rather not talk about him). And we see this come all to a head during Age of Ultron the hot hot mess that it is. Stark’s choices are the reason we have Ultron in the MCU (which is a whole other can of worms but back to sympathy I go) and he’s made bad choice after bad choice in the comics. But dammit it’s easy to let him off the hook because we can either  personally understand how grief affects judgement and decision making or we are willing to give him a pass because he’s just so damn smooth.

This liberal dosing out of passes is especially problematic when more troublesome matters in media are perpetuated. Comic books still have a major issue with trivializing trauma and exploiting the death of women as a plot point (looking at you, Deadpool 2), modern romance movies often end up being a series of stalking or downright blatant examples of harassment (looking at literally most of the romances Chris Pratt has been a part of film-wise [we’re touching on that, don’t worry]) and television continues to perpetuate a casual level of misogyny that is just gross (looking at you, Big Bang Theory, you loathsome toad).  But oh, those likable characters. It makes it so easy to gloss over their nonsense.

Speaking of Mr. Pratt…I want to use this time to explain just how much I can’t stand the movie Passengers and how we ultimately are held hostage by not only Chris Pratt but how passable movies and tricky writers can manipulate you into caring. If you haven’t seen Passengers, there’s a spoiler warning here. So long and short is Pratt plays a guy who is on an interstellar cruise from Earth to find a new planet. He’s in a stasis pod and suddenly, he is woken up years (hundreds of years) before he is set to. He is alone. No one else is awake on this cruise ship version of the S.S. Enterprise. He has a weird robot bartender friend but no other companion. All his physical needs are met by the ship and the ship’s robots but no one else to talk to. He spots a woman (played by Jennifer Lawrence at maybe her laziest) who is still asleep as she should be. Pratt wakes her up. He destroys her pod and wakes her from her beauty nap but he doesn’t  tell her that he did it. When Lawrence comes to, she asks what happened. Pratt lies. They spend blissful time together and try to solve the “mystery” as to why they woke up. And in the end, it is revealed that it wasn’t an accident that woke Lawrence and damned her to frightful mortality, it was Pratt and his selfish loneliness. She forgives him because movie has to movie and I left fuming at this. Pratt’s character ruins any chance Lawrence has at making it to the planet they are spiraling in space towards. His act removes her agency and choice but because Chris Pratt is such a nice guy and we spend so much time with him and we watch him struggle with being alone: it’s okay that he damned a woman to die because his sassy queer robot from wasn’t enough companionship for him.

That’s where sympathy fails us as an audience. Pratt is the villain of this narrative and any other re-telling of the story is irksome and troublesome. Sympathy bypasses the logic centers of the brain and allows characters to murder, rape, assault and more under the guise of romance or charm.

It’s why I much rather have an empathetic character. One that I can absolutely feel for but still can disagree with. I love Light’s world view in Death Note but I can agree that the way he wants to craft his new world is awful. I can admit that Samuel L. Jackson is the second best part of Kingsman but still say that his plan is terrible and also genocidal. I can feel Edward Elric’s loss and not let him off the hook for being abusive to those who care about it.

Empathy is just as subjective as sympathy but it brings with it the wisdom of hindsight. I get where Bruce Wayne is coming from as far as using trauma and grief to be the best version of one’s self and knowing that feeling from my own personal life means that when Bruce Wayne is a garbage fire of a human that I can recognize it even faster because during those times I was also likely a garbage fire of a human.

Strive for empathy in your critical watchings and writings. Strive to understand motivations while also being able to admit something is troublesome. Call out troublesome things in media: things only get better the more we express being tired of stalking as romance and the girlfriend in the fridge. Be critical of everything you ingest media-wise and hold your characters accountable, even the ones you didn’t create yourself.

 

Framing Is Everything

“The tyrant dies and his rule is over, the martyr dies and his rule begins.” ― Søren Kierkegaard.png

There was one aspect of Black Panther that settled in my stomach, rough and raw for weeks after I saw the film. It left a bitter taste in my mouth and left a haze of a film that I had mostly praised.  It was around the issue of Erik Killmonger. I mentioned it in my review of the movie so I’ll get straight to the point. The issue I have with Killmonger is a framing problem. His actions, his motives, his motivations, his everything is framed as “perfectly fine” and that is to be very frank, troubling as hell. Killmonger is compelling, heartbreaking, tragic, real and very valid. His anger is rational and he is very much a sympathetic character. So when Erik says radical things like “Hey, maybe we should make our own militant colonizing force.” and similar statements, he sounds like a rational, logical young man. How else would one expect for someone in his position to feel and act?

And in his final moments, there was the line that burrowed deep into my gut and remained there. “Death over bondage.” (Yes, I’m paraphrasing but in my horror, that was all I heard.). And that brings up to framing.

Framing in film language is how a thing is set up. We code (another film and sociology term) lots of things about characters and setting based on framing. A hero is a hero because of swelling music, bright colors, bright clothes and handsome looks. A villain is a villain because of dark music and tones and velvet and other things that make a villain a villain.

And framing done wrong is just as bad as framing done not strongly enough. Poor framing gives up the Victorian mustache twirling villain and the overly Jesus-like hero. Now, weak framing does a similar thing were a bad guy doesn’t seem so bad. Let’s take a scene from Rent that Folding Ideas and Lindsay Ellis both took umbrage with and that I mentioned in my post about Rent. There’s a scene in both the musical and movie during the whole No Day But Today thing where Mimi stands out in the cold with her posse that doesn’t know here while Roger remains in his ivory tower refusing to come down and play. But the framing makes it look like Roger is a stuck up mean guy for not wanting to leave his lonely life but really, his concerns are valid. Mimi is a known stripper and drug-user and Roger is a recovering drug addict with HIV. He has every reason to not want to be with her but the framing makes Mimi’s lack of care, concern or logic seem good and warm while Roger’s very valid logic and hesitation is framed negatively and that’s just not fair.

But plenty of films recently have had framing problems. A big example that comes to mind is actually both Kingsman films. We’ll use the first one mostly because it’s my favorite. Valentine is compelling, charming, charismatic and in parts of the movies just plain right. He has lots of ideas about how the Earth is going to hell and how to stop global warming. The problem is that his plan involves a violent mass genocide. But by the time he gets to the “I want a lot of people to die.” part, he just sounds like a pretty okay guy with a good plan to save the world. And that is a framing problem. The film around him has done a piss poor job of saying “Hey, watcher of this film, this man’s ideas are not good.”

Anime has had this problem for easily 20 years with antagonists and villains who are far more relatable than their hero mains. I’ve been paneling about this topic for literally almost 5 years. Many times, this is done to create more empathetic villains while also giving the hero/main something to do but again, it’s weak storytelling when your villain is more compelling than your protagonist.

Which brings up back to Black Panther. Erik’s sympathetic backstory makes it easy to ignore some of the venom that drips from his mouth. And in today’s current socio-political climate, I am sure that many see his vision as logical, sure a little radical, but surely sound. We’ve seen militancy fail over and over again for African-Americans. And while Black Panther does kill off Killmonger, his actions and words leave a heavy shadow over the film.

How do we correct such framing issues? Well, by simply not rewarding them. We’ve talked about characters getting what they deserve in a previous post and that is one of the best ways to combat poor framing. At least in Black Panther, Erik does not make it to the end of the movie but his message lives on and forces T’Challa and the people of Wakanda to think more closely about their isolationism. Not glorifying clearly horrible things is easy to do in real life but difficult to impose upon fictional characters. Consequences are vital. Erik’s rage rightfully makes him too unstable for this world and his exit is a pained sigh of relief. And those consequences don’t always mean death. Think of Loki in the rest of the Marvel movies: he is denied empathy at every turn despite his actions being mostly reprehensible. And movies are particularly fertile ground for framing issues. When you’re a handsome and well-known actor, you want screen time and being a mustache-twirling villain can be fun but often means that you are not on screen very long. Additionally, movies are a complex and visual media, creating sympathetic and likable characters is vital to keeping your audience’s interest. And I’m happy to see more complex characters, it has come at the cost of clearer storytelling. And I love morally ambiguous stories but those still have the stakes and consequences vital to keeping such narratives afloat. Valentine still dies at the end of Kingsman. Poppy for sure dies at the end of Kingsman 2. And if we’re talking anime then most of the time, the villain goes down with his or her overly complicated plan in a blaze of flames and glory.

Framing is a vital part of writing but an even more vital part of film and other visual media. How a character, scene and act are framed tells you a lot about how to feel about this character, the scenario and about the work. And when you frame a bad guy as a pious saint, you not only risk betraying your work but you risk muddying the waters of your own narrative.

Thine Vengeance Be Done

-On wrongs swift vengeance waits.-Alexander Pope.png

There’s something wonderful about seeing a character get exactly what they deserve. There’s something satisfying about seeing Valentine get impaled at the end of Kingsman. There’s so much weight to watching Aizen finally bound by Urahara-nonsense magic in Bleach. Our media including anime, TV and comic books, normal books and the like are so full of dastardly characters and when they get exactly what’s coming to them; it’s just delightful. And with all these troublesome characters, it’s even more needed to see their actions treated appropriately in their respective stories. 

In the last post we talked about this I brought up an example from my childhood (ugh) InuYasha. I mentioned how in the anime that InuYasha treats Kagome like hot trash while treating Kikyo like a princess but what’s even more egregious in this series is a character many ignore: Hojo. Hojo is one of Kagome’s classmates and he adores her. He loves everything about her, is attentive and kind and supportive. And what does Kagome do? Ignore him. She totally ignores him. In fact, she chooses the man who actively preferred chasing his dead girlfriend to her company. I’m not bitter. This hasn’t been something brewing in me since I was 13. None of the troubling parts of the series are brought up. No one changes. No one learns a lesson. All that happens is Kagome dumps Hojo to go run around with a forest furry who barely remembers her name and wishes she would go back to the time she came from.  

A series I’ve now mentioned a few times is Antique Bakery and I’ve been nothing but complimentary of the series. Yusuke Ono is a flawed character and guess what? He has to change and be a better man to get to the pure cinnamon roll that is Chikage-san. And when something awful happens to him, you empathize with him because he admits that while what happened wasn’t great and is still terrible he admits that he didn’t exactly do much to not be in the situation. The same goes for the main character Tachibana-san. Tachibana in the start of the series is revealed to say and do terrible things and guess what? The series entirely holds him accountable. He has to constantly face his former homophobia and prove himself to Ono again all the while realistically dealing with the trauma of his childhood. No one was unjustly rewarded in the series except for maybe Sakurako, who got a daughter out of Chikage without him really understanding what being a sperm donor is, and anything be it a bakery, closure, a man or a woman is worked for.

If you’ve ever read my fictional jaunts and other creative pieces, I’m known for unreliable narrators and troublesome characters because they are the kind I love the most. I love the control of information in a narrative and just how much the story changes based upon who has the point of view. Think about how empty Tsubasa is if you take it from Fai or Kurogane’s perspective. It has to be mostly focused on Syaoran and Sakura: there’s no plot otherwise. Or even Bleach is a fantastic example. If taken from the view of the Soul Society, the main plot is just a series of incident reports and a  bureaucratic nightmare as some ginger kid runs around with Hollow powers and not listening to orders. But one of my main tenants in my fictional works is simple: it’s to rewrite or to fix a wrong. Slytherins aren’t portrayed well in Harry Potter. Guess who wrote literally hundreds of words to correct that?

But in addition to my desire to keep tight control of my narratives, I also don’t like crappy behavior go without comment or punishment. If a character is awful, they are seldom rewarded and that is directly related to the less than ideal narratives I read as a young fan. So many times flat out criminal behavior was rewarded in anime and manga. Stalking? No, he’s just very attentive. Manipulation? He clearly cares so much to turn your friends and family against you to keep you isolated. Physical violence? No, she hit you because you deserved it. You shouldn’t have done something to make her hit you. That carried on into, tragically, some of my very earliest relationships. I remember being 14 and 15 years old assuming that if a boy treated me the way InuYasha treated Kagome, he wasn’t an abuser, he was just playing hard to get. I, luckily, grew out of that pretty quickly (just kidding, it took literally years to retrain my brain and to demand more from my partners and to treat my partners in turn better).

I think that’s why as an adult I love more complex narratives so much. I’ve mentioned the character of Klaus von Wolfstat a few times now and he’s from a little series called Maiden Rose. It’s a war-era boy’s love series and Klaus is the overbearing and obsessive lover of military leader, Taki Reizen. Klaus is…complicated. He’s done terrible things, is a literal addict (but it’s okay because it’s historical, right?) and somehow even as a chibi manages to be taller than everyone else and still somehow have a 6-pack.  But within the canon of Maiden Rose despite how troubling and upsetting Klaus’ behavior is, he is seldom rewarded for his actions. Taki rebukes him often, is cold to him after an incident of less than desirable attention being provided and he is generally hated by the rest of the cast. Every time Klaus is slapped, injured, shot at or yelled at, it somehow lessens the dull pain of how awful of a character he is. No one is there to romanticize his actions or say that what he’s doing is actually okay, he is only met with cold indifference.

On the other hand, there are instances where the wrong character does seem to get picked on as almost a scapegoat to ignore a more disturbing part of the narrative. Let’s take a character that I actually love and does not get the credit she deserves, Millie. Now, Trigun’s an anime that ruined me as a kid. It was probably one of the biggest series to cement my love of dubs and good American voice acting and had characters I’ve loved for years. But a character that is almost entirely ignored despite how important she is to the narrative is Millie. She’s often overshadowed by Meryl because, well, Millie’s not bright. But her optimism is inspirational to the bulk of the cast and she could even be compared to Rem as far as being innocent and fair goes. But what happens at the end for her? Well, Trigun’s ending isn’t exactly favorable to anyone in particular. The ending is unsatisfying for many and disappointing to say the least and leaves our two main females in nearly the same place they started and Millie is even more left into obscurity because she does somewhat fade during the 3rd Act.  Is she at all rewarded for her bravery or empathy or kindness? Nope unless you count getting to bang Wolfwood once. No one is really rewarded for anything in that series so it’s the perfect example, really. Nothing matters. Just like Vash entered in like wrecking ball and so he leaves in quiet cloud of melodrama. Again, I’m still clearly not bitter over this. I clearly haven’t written 15 better versions of this ending since I was 16 years old. No, I’m a well-adjusted adult.  

For an example that isn’t as dated as I am, BoJack Horseman is great about making sure that bad deeds in the show are properly dealt with. BoJack doesn’t get away with anything and honestly, he’s probably punished too severely for some of his actions. Really, the only character in that show that does get away with murder regularly is Mr. Peanutbutter and well, we all know how that works.  

I do think the current cynicism of the world is better about holding characters accountable. Under the Red Hood is probably one of my favorite Batman movies and I love it so much because it makes Bruce Wayne face one of his greatest failures. His inaction cost Jason Todd his life and thus created the Red Hood. The Red Hood is a phantom Bruce made and in letting him live and refusing to kill The Joker based on some falsified moral high ground, now he has to face his demons and a vigilante that can take down enemies in a frighteningly efficient manner. We desire as a community and as a world justice. Why do you think Law and Order: SVU is still running? Only in a fictionalized New York do the police always answer the phones and every case at least seems some sort of justice. We now crave for bad things to happen to bad people and frankly with how the world is right now, I’m okay with that.

Are any of you surprised? I’m Team Kira, after all.

Hold your characters, your media and those in your life accountable, dear readership.

 

About The Journey

You still are blind, if you see a winding road,'Cause there's always a straight way to the point you see..png

I was late to watch Moana. That tardiness was intentional. I balked a little at its overwhelming praise and in pure cynical, hipster fashion I had to wait a full year before I sat down and watched it in full despite the few times I tried to watch it via clips and less than great downloads. I can’t say that the film Moana means to me what Up or even Princess and the Frog does but I can see why, how and where it’s important in the discourse. But I wanted to talk about the heroine’s journey, finding yourself and your culture and knowing the difference between your voice and the voice of your people.

Moana is a story about the titular Moana on an adventure where she discovers that she is from a long line of sea-faring people and through her bravery and cultural identity, she fixes the problem, becomes princess and all the things are good again. What is the most touching part about Moana is that it is a journey with her and through her culture to find herself. Moana is her people but in that she is also something so much more.

The idea that especially female characters have to go on some epic road trip isn’t a new one. Most female characters in great works tend to sit and stay in various castle or castle-like arrangements but anime and comics and some young adult novels are great in giving us tales of women who have to go on an adventure and hopefully find something more than just a man at the end. Rukia in Bleach searches for strength and her overbearing brother’s approval. Ino in Naruto uses her time during missions to find and learn new things and hunt for a replacement for Sasuke.  If you want an entire playlist of “girls on an adventure” stories look at the library of Hayao Miyazaki: most of his stories center around young girls that have to go out on an adventure to do something or learn something or to just save your pig-parents because capitalism. And if you must give  Disney more credit then they probably deserve, Merida in Brave has to go on a quest to find a solution to the whole…mom and bear thing before Moana aired. Lilo has to go on a self-discovery mission with her new alien friend in Lilo and Stitch and this was also way before Moana hit theaters.  And while the quest isn’t always literal: the need to put a heroine in the place of the hero on a journey is now a pivotal part of telling a female’s story. Though I will personally advocate as an out of shape person more metaphorical journeys.

Dear readership, you’ve been there with me as I’ve struggled with being more than my skin tone and that struggle has continued on for most of my life. I’m the dictionary definition of cultural abandonment. I’ve always prided my voice over the voices behind me. Look at my current situation with my family. Like the anime boy I am, I broke from tradition and forged my own path: for better or worse. I chose to listen to my own voice and ignore the voices that shouted so loudly behind me. My voice became the last one I heard and valued. But it’s lonely being on the top.

I work through being culturally abandoned through other cultures. I just said at dinner “I’ve given up so much for Japan.” . I work through my angst of not being “black enough” by turning my back on being black, being American or even being traditionally Southern or female for that matter. I embraced Japan, France, Austria, Germany…I embraced all of these cultures and countries as I did my best to come to terms with how wronged and left behind I felt by my own. I was never black enough to be black but could never and never wanted to be white. I just wanted to be me and in books I can be anyone or anything.

Amber and I are road-warriors and considering that we are both black women, it’s no surprise that many of our ventures have us facing the history and legacy behind us. We retrace the stories of rebellion, history and the complicated stories of complicated men and women. We venture out with our mythical steed (usually my Prius) and we go out to find our voices. She really only takes me along because I speak a few different languages and that there is still awe in my eyes when we find something genuinely interesting. She takes me because she knows she can probably still shock me and make me feel something. We go because I’m hoping for an experience that will shake me from my usual cynicism and will either make me feel immense shame or pride of the mix of both that comes with being a dually-conscious black person.

In my haste and desire to find my voice, I silenced out all the other voices that were kind. There are survivors of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study in me. There are Airmen in me. There are veterans, scientists, government officials, activists and writers in me. There is greatness in me and their voices are just as loud as mine. Those voices also do a wonderful job of drowning out the not to positive voices that still echo in my heart.

And while I’m not an airman or a survivor or even a full-time activist: I am me. I’m not in competition with their greatness and their weight isn’t a burden: it should be a comfort; albeit a bit of an overwhelming one. Their desire and the path they paved to let me be a cosplayer, writer, panelist and all should be enough. It is enough.

So, of course, it makes a lot of sense that I found the story of a young Polynesian girl discovering her voice and path through the stories lost to time immensely powerful. I had already bonded somewhat withe the stories of Mother Tahiti and of Polynesia during my time in Hawaii. And I’m not going to say the film’s perfect. I’m contractually obligated to mention the film’s not perfect. I was annoyed by Maui’s portrayal and most of the humor came from a literal dumb chicken. Being meta actually weakened the film a lot. Admitting that Moana in so many ways is just like the princesses that came before her actually weakens how special and unique her story is. But framing Moana as a light-reboot of  Pocahontas actually helps remind the view how different the movie is from all those that came before it. Moana achieves her goal through persistence and listening to the voices in her heart that can help her while shrugging off the ones that cannot.

That’s a lesson even a cynic can get behind.