Le Critique S’Ennuie

It started in a fairly innocuous manner. It started with a friend of mine (who is younger than me [yes, that matters]) and I started an anime together after I had spent our time together recommending shows that I watch and it ended with a show that neither of us had watched but both have heard of: Food Wars. Now, this anime started out with plenty of promise, the animation was really pretty and the opening reminded me of many of the other shonen series that got me to sell my soul to anime to begin with and before we go to deep in this, this is because the last of the nice things I have to say about this anime. If this is your show: I’m not here to bash you but I know that I can and am probably going to for the remainder of this post sound like an old man yelling at a cloud. Just because I don’t have nice things to say about a show doesn’t mean that I don’t have nice things to say about you.

So back to Food Wars. I’ve run out of nice things to say about this series as far as episode one goes. The plot seems to be yet another “hard/challenging school” plot and the main character seems as bland as wallpaper. Now, I’m an old smut peddler, but typically one doesn’t go full tentacle until episode five and the idea that food can remove clothing, induce orgasm and make boobs grow is just…well, I’m tired, okay? I sat mostly quiet and tried to write while my friend sat and processed the nonsense on the screen and when she looked at me to ask if it was okay to change it I said “No, you’ll never learn unless you really sit and realize your mistake.” I was kidding, of course, but when it comes to anime, you have to sift through plenty of nonsense to find a gem but what matters more is what we watched after we had finished with Food Wars. We watched InuYasha, one of the first anime that really had turned me into someone willing to go to bat for glorious Nihon. And as we watched the opening my friend said something that made me really give thought to a feeling I’ve had for a few years now. She said “There’s been more story in this opening sequence than the entire first episode of Food Wars.” and she wasn’t wrong. We weren’t even very far into InuYasha. I chose episode six: because of course I did. And she was not wrong, in the minute and a half or so of opening, you get so much more of a feel for the anime that is to come rather than just mindless technicolor fanservice. And we had even watched an anime before Food Wars that had plenty of technicolor fanservice in the form of Space Dandy.

Her comment really struck me because recently I’ve had a bit of a crisis of faith. I can say I’m an anime fan but really, there hasn’t been an anime in a few years that has done much for me if we ignore the fact that DevilMan: Crybaby turned me into a puddle of goo and misery and I still watch Free! because of course I do. I haven’t really had any positive things to say about newer anime, especially newer shonen, which is my bread and butter. It was shonen anime that got me through some of the darkest parts of my life and now when I watch what the youths are: I’m just disappointed. I gave My Hero Academia about five episodes before I bailed because it was boring. Sword Art Online is just a rehash of plenty of other isekai anime that have never done much for me. Attack on Titan takes itself too seriously for being as trash as it is and Yuri On Ice is just Gravitation with less plot and more skating. And before you all get your indignant pencils out and say:

Well, you’re watching anime meant for children.

Hello, and welcome to my blog, Strawman #5. There are episode of Fullmetal Alchemist that can still make me feel all the power I need and desire to follow Roy Mustang into my eventual death and Avengers: Endgame made me cry for about two hours in a theater. I may be an old soul but my heart knows no bounds for what I love.

But these series feel hollow to me. They feel cheap to me. If I wanted to watch a cheap knock-off of an anime I love, I’d just watch the series they’re clearly ripping off. Why watch discount Naruto when I can just watch Naruto?

And this feeling has been with me for a while now as I continue to panel. Before panel season really starts, I go on a little binge because the anime the children are watching are the anime I get asked on and increasingly as I try and watch newer shows, I’m forced to come up against this wall of miserable mediocracy.

They’re all so painfully average and none of them have been able to get me really as thrilled about anime, animation or the characters as the shows I grew up were able to do in an episode of less. I remember watching Space Dandy and within moments being absolutely sold on the premise, characters and all and I was well into my twenties when that show was given a dubbed release. It can’t just be my age because as I mentioned with Devilman: Crybaby I was exactly as many years old I was last year and I was pretty sold from jump. So it isn’t just an issue of “I want the backwards comic books to make me feel like I did when I was a kid.” I find a lot of newer shows devoid of passion, devoid of grit, devoid of stakes or consequences and honestly, I have an even bigger issue with newer anime.

I have seen an anime before.

One of the most tragic but also freeing things I can think of when it comes to how I feel about modern anime is this:

This isn’t for me.

And:

If this was my first (insert genre here), then I’d love it.

And this is very true. If MHA hit me at the same time Naruto had then dammit I’d be all over class 2-A and yelling “Plus Ultra!” from the rooftops. But it didn’t.

That feeling came up when watching Food Wars. I’m old now. I’ve heard boob sound effects for twenty years. Fanservice doesn’t do much for me unless it’s pretty meta (like Space Dandy) and none of the gimmicks are new to me. It’s another challenging school anime like the fifteen or so I’ve grown up with.

Ennui is described as a feeling of listlessness or boredom that comes from a lack of stimulation and truly, it’s the best way to describe how I feel with modern anime.

That doesn’t mean it’s bad, it just means I’m old now. And here is a point I cannot stress enough. Without giving away my age, you need to understand what I was watching when I came into anime.

My love of anime began when I was six years old with Dragonball. I didn’t know what it was but on the screen in front of me I saw a kid with a monkey tail punch a pterosaur out of the sky while riding a cloud and then cook and eat the dinosaur. I was hooked and from there moved on to Dragonball Z, Sailor Moon, Cardcaptors, Pokemon and the like.

I fell out of anime a bit as a kid but rejoined in full force with YuYu Hakusho and One Piece.

As twelve I was willing to give up all of myself to Splendid Nihon and grew up with InuYasha, Cyborg 009, Big O, Case Closed, Lupin III, Trigun and Cowboy Bebop. I got these anime during formative years of my life.

At fourteen I got to watch Fullmetal Alchemist, Wolf’s Rain, Death Note and by sixteen I had Bleach, Naruto and Ouran High School Host Club. By the time I left high school I had Antique Bakery, Gravitation and too many other series I cannot list here because I would simply run out of time.

I cannot impress to you enough that I was formed in the heart of the best of the best when it came to anime and at the height of power for dubbing in America. I was forged by fire when it came to fangating, gatekeeping and the height of fanfiction and the rise of online communities.

I am a fan forged in darkness, smut and shipping. I grew into anime with the best of the best.

So please forgive me when I sound a little callous. A little jaded. A little cynical. A little elitist.

I have been at this for a long time and it takes a little more than just large boobs and a shiny paint coat to really make me go wild. I grew up in the shadow of giants, so you’re going to really have to show me what you’ve got when it comes to modern anime.

The Media Life, Unexamined

“There is no sin except stupidity.”  ― Oscar Wilde, The Critic as Artist.pngIt started with a rather backhanded comment about movies after what was a days long dive into why I come off so ambivalent about everything in the office. I was commenting on the rape allegory in Maleficent and an acquaintance said proudly:

“I didn’t read that subtext.”

Subtext. SUBTEXT?

I was outraged. I flat out replied “I had a bloody nose from how aggressively that movie punched me in the face with it.” and it led to a conversation that when I think about it, still brings bile up my throat.

I want to talk about being critical and the epidemic (yes, epidemic) of non-critical thinking when it comes to media.

I’ve had run ins with folks more than once about how I feel about movies, television and more. I normally say “It’s fine.” as a shield. It’s an insurance policy that means “I do not actually want to talk about this movie because any conversation about it more than just ‘pew pew pew action, hot actress’ will fall apart faster than a Kardashian marriage and I’m not here for that.”

I’m fortunate enough to be surrounded by brilliant and critical people in my life. When we leave movies, we discuss agendas, biases, hidden messages and more. We also talk canon and how this piece lives up to its name ( Because every movie now is just based on something. Originality, be damned.). So I come off as intensely ambivalent to the untrained eye. And that is just not true. I have wildly strong opinions and the receipts to back them up. If I say:

Avengers: Age of Ultron is a farce because of the way it neuters Ultron’s storyline for the sake of a decades’ old grudge against Hank Pym as a character.

I know what the hell I am talking about. And back in my day of being a fan (when the buffalo roamed), being critical was a major asset. We broke down plot and story and motivations. And that never meant I didn’t enjoy something. The things I love the most, I am the most critical of.

Which brings us to the oh so common phrase of: “Just turn off your brain.”

I’m going to say the strongest statement ever on this blog in 5 years…turning off your brain is how we got Trump as president. Turning off your brain is how we have 5, yes 5, Transformers movies. Turning off your brain is why we have the casual racism, sexism and homophobia in film  to this very day because no one, no one has the audacity or courage to challenge their media and demand more.

I’m an English major, writer and longtime fan. It is my job to be critical of everything I see. I spent conservatively 4 years learning how to train my brain to be aware of what the things I consume are trying to tell me. Comics have always been political and people who say they shouldn’t be or aren’t are wrong and I hate them. Media has always been political, everything is political. Everything, every choice, every aspect of what we do, buy and see is trying to sell you something, even if it’s just an idea. And turning off your brain means you don’t see that and thus you are likely to fall victim to vapid thinking that is damaging to you as a person (i.e. internalized sexism and casual racism) and thus existence as a whole. Critiquing media has given us better representation (most of the time) and forced us to look at the status quo of our current media landscape and demand better.

The people who know me, know my heart and soul know that I am enthusiastic and passionate about media. I have strong opinions and I love what I love and hate what I hate. But in this modern media and culture landscape only emphatic zeal is accepted and nuance goes to die, I must look horribly negative. To an uncritical mind, I must seem like I hate everything. And vice versa, I don’t understand how you can “turn off your brain” and not be critical. I don’t think of it as a stretch to consider a movie what it is, a piece of art. We don’t shame people who critique art pieces. But for some reason, I’m a bad person for demanding more out of my movies. I’m a curmudgeon for wanting complex storytelling. Oh, the hobgoblin I am. How dare I want something from a film or a television series. Shame on me. Shame the non-believer.

Here is where I’ll pause for folks saying:

“Well, if you over-analyze a movie/television show/anime/comic book/manga, you ruin it.”

Sure, it’s why I stopped watching CinemaSins. If you do nitpick on stupid things, you will ruin a movie. I have zero questions about how Captain America and squad got from Scotland to Wakana in zero time at all in Infinity War; I do, however, have questions about how Black Widow can take down Proxima Midnight because I have read at least one comic book in my life. I’ve never been one to over-analyze and it’s never done just to be “that person” (which is only included because I had someone accuse of being a contrarian). If I don’t like something, it’s for a reason. I always give something a chance. And again, having one negative thing to say about a thing doesn’t mean I don’t like it. I rip to shreds the things I love because I have to. I am obligated to as a consumer of media. And if something influences me, I have to be doubly critical of that thing because it then becomes baggage that I carry with me everywhere I go. I carry the media I take consume in a little bag with me and that bag leeches out bias into the things I write, I say and I do. I internalized misogyny for years because of the media I was ingesting. I accepted the casual racism in movies in everything I did. I dealt with how religion is depicted in media. And I don’t ever want to go back to not being aware of the messages being forced down my throat. 

All of this is exhausting. I miss conversation. I miss discourse. I miss and  do welcome thoughtful conversation.

 

The Burden of Knowledge

“Burdens are for shoulders strong enough to carry them.”   ― Margaret Mitchell  Gone with the Wind.png

It was after discussing Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: The Crimes of Grindelwald with a few mutuals that I realized something: I was the only one in the room bothered by a few things that the trailer brought up and made me even more angry than usual at Jo Rowling.

This post is going to be a little self-indulgent and may even come off as a little narcissistic but I want to talk about critical conversations about media when you’re the only person in the room concerned about it.

I’ll preface this by saying I am a well-intending idiot. I’m proud of my education but when it comes to the people I choose to spend my time with, I am the dumb one. Amber can talk circles around me in a dialogue, I am nothing as far as trivia goes in comparison to Victoria and Carlos.

I’m proud of my education and proud of my level of intellect but I am far from remarkable as far as I see it.

That being said, I’m also willing to cope to the remarkable amount of privilege that I have with my ability to be pedantic about comic books.

All of that aside, let’s get back to the topic.

My issues with Jo Rowling’s recent romp are numerous and the most recent trailer only pushed me over the edge with disappointment for Good Ol’ Auntie Jo. Choosing to make Nagini an Asian woman now held in animagus and bondage is vile and a perpetuation of the submissive Asian trope on a Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 level and continuing to allow Johnny Depp to be in anything is a vile cash-grab. Additionally, the continual teasing of “finally getting a gay Dumbledore” have proven to be mostly a queer-baiting PR stunt. I had plenty of new reasons to be disappointed with this movie on top of the foundation of reasons I had to be disappointed with this movie.

And when pressed about my issues and explaining that I was tired of the mystical Native American trope and a world where it’s the 1920s and racism isn’t real but discrimination against non-magic users is a thing, I realized something. I was the only person who seemed to care about these issues.

I was the only person in the room that seemed concerned about perpetuating damaging stereotypes and authentic representation.

And that bothered me.

Time and time again I’ve been told that I’m too critical of media. That I should just turn off my brain.

Let’s kill that in its crib immediately.

I am an English major, literary student, research scholar, writer, reader and more.

My brain is hard-wired to be critical of the messages I see via the media I consume.

Turning off my brain is not something I think I’m capable of. I was even dissecting casual movies like The Hitman’s Bodyguard because yes there was stuff to dissect in that raging garbage fire of a movie.

Keep in mind, I am a huge nerd. Well, not huge. I’m a very petite nerd. I have YEARS of canon knowledge and trivia. I am also an avid reader who tries to fill the void of existential dread with books and literary criticism. I know my references. And I’m passionate about knowledge and learning more.

And considering that literally every piece of media is trying to push an agenda, it’s vitally important to be aware of what comics, movies, television and more are trying to sell you.

Besides, being critical is sort of my thing. Never in a contrarian sort of way but being more “aware” and “critical” of the media around if has helped me carve out a niche that I’m quite proud of.

Let’s take a moment to remember that being critical doesn’t mean hating everything. Which brings us to the other part of the uncomfortable conversation I had:

Well, do you like anything?

Dear reader, I love many things. That doesn’t mean that anything is perfect. I love John Constantine as a character but he is a tire fire and I am empathetic to anyone who wants to punch him in the neck. I love most comic books but I also absolutely understand that the Marvel movies are just a scheme to funnel cash into Disney’s gaping monopoly. I tear apart the things I love because that’s what a critical reader and viewer does. Nothing is perfect, everything has flaws, everything has an agenda.

And there are times I can be highly critical of a piece of media while still mostly enjoying it. Deadpool 2 is a mostly forgettable superhero sequel with huge problems like another shocking instance of Girlfriend in the Fridge but for the most part, I really laughed during that film.

There are other times, however, where a story’s issues are too distracting like with Black Panther where I was so overcome with disgust at the misuse of words and verbage actual militant African-Americans used that I struggle to get through the second half of the film without a stomach ache.  

And again, I’m surrounded by folks who echo similar feelings to mine. We may not all share the same opinions but Amber and I left Black Panther and talked about race relations for literally about an hour. I walk out of a movie and immediately have a call with Carlos. I get to talk with the other writers of FanGirl Nation and chat about tropes and more. I am surrounded by brilliant human beings who are just as critical, if not more so, than I am and I am a better person for it.

I do sometimes wish I could “turn off my brain” and come down and talk about a movie for just what it is. Increasingly, critical reading and watching is a rarity, kept in niche communities. I do wish I could talk about feminism in movies more and political themes in pop culture more but many just want to “turn off their brains” and enjoy their media.

I sometimes wish I wasn’t aware of how grossly sexist, racist, transphobic, homophobic and harmful popular media can be.

But I am.

And with that heavy burden I will continue to call those things out for as long as I am able.

Genocide Lite: Our Current Media Obsession

_A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic._Joseph Stalin.png

When I was growing up and watching the shows that went on to influence me, the villains were mostly cartoony. And not just by the fact that they were animated but also that their plans were quite out there. Think of The Joker in Batman The Animated Series, his plans were almost always just to ruin Batman’s day and maybe hurt a few people and rob a bank or two. Even Dr. Doom’s plans for Marvel weren’t huge, he just wanted to be left alone and rule his made up world. The villains all had tangible goals and their plots were usually just an inconvenience to the hero. It’s one of the reasons the egotistical Loki of the first Avengers movie was such a trip for me: I’m used to comic book Loki who rather just steal Thor’s underwear or something.

But as you’ve seen during this magical adventure we’ve had this year discussing framing, villains and villainy: you’ve likely noticed a theme. That theme is that the current bad thing of the era is genocide. And I don’t mean that hyperbolically. It’s literally the aim of most evil dudes in movies recently.

A Buzzfeed article recently discussed that the theme of the last 10 years of movies has been animals overtaking humans as dominant species as a social commentary for our misuse of the planet. But I think the real theme of current movie bad is the systematic or sudden removal of a large amount of people. You’ve seen me mention it over and over again as I rant about framing.

And it continues to bother me each time because I get more and more angry that the prospect of hundreds, thousands, millions of people can die in a narrative and we still side with the villain. So in today’s post I want to talk about when that shift seemed to occur in comics and movies and why it’s so terrible.

Earlier I mentioned the motives of comic book villains during the Gold and Silver age. Most of them had pretty small goals or mostly non-lethal lofty ones. There was a lot of desire to enslave a population or take over a planet or rob a bank. Many of the Gold and Silver age villains barely even had a body count back in the day. It wasn’t until the 70s or so that comic villains got more intense about wanting death as part of their domination. This actually starts to appear around the first introduction of Thanos in the comics during the 1970s. Thanos’ goal in the comics was to woo Lady Death and the only way to do that is to send her souls. She’s impressed by numbers (the O.G. size queen) and so Thanos does all he can to add to his body count to please his mistress. We didn’t get a shift in his goals being objectively genocidal until much later in the comics. Then his motivation becomes the weird meditation on resources we get in the Infinity War movie. We’ve seen comic book characters go down this route before. Parallax wants to eat the Galaxy in Green Lantern, Galactus wants to do…whatever his motivations are and that usually involves a ton of people dying.

The first mark in the shift of genocide as plot point can be seen in a comic that means a lot to me but I don’t get to discuss enough: Watchmen. Moore’s brilliant graphic novel tackles this issue incredibly directly with Ozymandias’ terrible plan being spelled out quite clearly: killing millions, to save billions. There, there’s the shift. Suddenly, the madman isn’t mad, he’s just an extremist looking for the most rational solution to a major problem. And I adore Adrian’s plan. His motivations to stop the war by zapping in a psychedelic interdimensional space squid to wipe out most of New York is flawed but that’s the beauty of Moore’s prose: you can sort of see where he’s coming from. But even though the framing tells us Ozymandias’ plan is rational for that universe, the way everyone else treats him after the reveal of his plan reminds us that this is terrible. The movie is a hot mess but the film also does a great job of demonizing Ozymandias’ dumb plan even though he uses Dr. Manhattan nonsense to vaporize a bunch of folks rather than the space cephalopod.

The only mass death in comics that could possibly rival death toll mounted by Ozymandias was House of M for Marvel. This storyline saw the end to mutants in the decades long run of Marvel comics and in a simple phrase more than half of the characters that made Marvel great simply vanished. It was a heartbreaking event in the comics and we considered Scarlet Witch to be a villain for years after her fateful choice: even if we could empathize with her grief that lead up to the choice to utter that powerful phrase, she’s still a monster for wiping people off the face of existence.

DC Comics did have Crisis on Infinite Earths and there were many many deaths as a result and Blackest Night which is a crisis entirely created by Booster Gold because he wanted to be the hero, dammit. But as we’ve discussed, no one considered Booster Gold to be a hero of anything.

Most of the genocidal villains we get in comics and movies are framed as bad guys because that’s what bad guys do: they suggest that removing an entire section of population is expendable. Think of Star Wars: Darth Vader wipes out an entire planet and we know he’s a bad guy for it and earlier when Vader is still just annoying Anakin, he slaughters a bunch of children and Tusken Raiders and it is firmly shown that he is a bad guy for that. And even though Vader is ultimately a very sympathetic character, we don’t ever forget that he’s still a mass murderer.

Speaking of the 2000s, it’s around this time that genocide seemed to be less of a taboo. By this time, I was watching a ton of anime and several series flirt with this idea: you’ve heard me discuss Death Note frequently but also Bleach flirts with a subplot of wiping out souls and Soul Reapers for the sake of a goal, Trigun hints at this with Knives’ subplot and even if it isn’t straight up death as the goal, several anime focus on purity or a unique group rising to the top. Japan is very eugenics-friendly, which should terrify everyone. Media be it Western or eastern has a ton of focus on Chosen Ones and more pure people and if any part of that sounds scary to you, good. We’re on the same page.

Here is the problem with romanticizing genocide and eugenics: we’ve had actual genocide happen in the world. Hitler wanted to remove Jews and other “undesirables” from Germany, Pol Pot wanted to forge a new future by eradicating the past, ethnic minorities all around the world face persecution and death simply for being a little bit different. This is a real thing with real consequences and our continual sugar-coating of the slippery slope nonsense logic that continues to minimize the dangers of racism, misogyny and homophobia only makes those problems worse. When Thanos’ idea in Infinity War doesn’t sound so crazy, that’s a problem. When Killmonger’s Reconquista sounds logical, that’s a problem. We live in a world that is full of natural disasters, terrorism, racism, homophobia, sexism, hatred, bigotry and population concerns: these are real problems and to far too many people the idea of simply poofing some folks out of existence sounds like a great way to solve all of these complex problems.

I think it’s a sign of the times that genocide seems to be our main macabre obsession as was slavery and colonialism were the macabre obsessions of the Gold and Silver age of comics. We have to confront that if eugenics, social Darwinism and wiping out parts of the population for a “clean slate” ticks any box for you, you are on a dangerous path. I’ve had to confront that in myself and it’s made me infinitely more critical of the media I ingest.  

I hope you enjoyed this discussion on the deaths of too many fictional characters.

I promise the next topic will be lighter.