Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Reading: Destroy and Revolution, by Kouji Mori (issues 1-10)

I've posted about this manga before on the project blog, after reading just the first issue. Now I'm up to #10 and have a better idea of the story.

The high concept: superhero terrorist bromance. Makoto has amazing superpowers he doesn't want anyone to know about. Yuuki is rich, handsome, and charismatic, but hates society and the entire system, which he identifies with his hated Corporate father. Together they set out to destroy society and replace it with a new order — of which, in classic terrorist fashion, they never get any kind of clear idea. (These are not religious terrorists, who do have a clear idea of what kind of order they want to impose: a totalitarian world Ordenstaat run by themselves.)

#10 is a significant issue because it brings us up to where the story began in #1 and thus serves as a natural end point for Book 1: they destroy a subsidized apartment building intended for Diet (Japanese parliament) members, who tend to be quite rich. On the way to this gambit against the Japanese state, we find out a few things. Apparently Yuuki hates Western values and the common people, both of which he seems to think are embodied in the state. He also wears his hair long to annoy his father, a straitlaced Corporate. And he jealously chases away the girl who likes Makoto. #6 made me shake my head: an old man who exists only in that issue appears to give Makoto a mystical experience of the oneness of all things, which Makoto passes on to Yuuki in #7. For Western secular radicals, this New Age (or, in the specific Japanese context, New Religion) thing is an unwanted intrusion into revolutionary theory. So is the Japanese nationalism, since there's no independence to be won like in, say, Iraq (successful) or Afghanistan (ongoing). And the contempt for the common people that is all too common among revolutionary elites will doom his revolution to mere personal tyranny, since classical revolutionary theory states that the common people are the ground of all revolution. Rebellion against the people invariable reduces to a lust for tyranny. How different, then, is Yuuki from his father, really, when his father is already a tyrant, the all-powerful CEO of a giant corporation? Here in America, class warfare against the people is the war cry of the Corporates. Yuuki isn't waging a social revolution, the only kind that can succeed in Japan or any other country with a mature economy. The French and Russian Revolutions succeeded only to the extent that they remained social, and failed when the revolutionaries turned against the people.

In America, with its tradition of superheroes and adventure strips, Destroy and Revolution would have been a rip-roaring action comic with shocking revelations in the tradition of cinematic political thrillers and expository scenes for the revolutionary theory. In fact, that's the way I originally planned my own Chaos Angel Spanner before I turned it from a webmanga concept into a novelized TV serial. In Japan, action stories tend to be age-limited to shounen (boys') manga. The Destroy and Revolution that author Mori created is less action-oriented and more thoughtful, thus more typical of seinen (young men's) manga.

In any case, the first book concerns itself mainly with the issue of "how we got here" to the act of destruction that kicks off the manga from the meeting of two high school malcontents in scene two. It's just setting up the confrontation between the terrorist heroes and the Japanese government. Japanese tradition actually has a higher opinion of terrorists than the moralistic West, since terrorists have purity of heart the ruling class lack. Purity of heart, or samurai spirit, serves the role that flaming Latin machismo has traditionally played among Latin American guerrillas. Western radicals would rather make the case that the side they're attacking is morally wrong — which leads to the paradox that purity of heart and ideology causes more evil than it solves and is thus one of the traditional banes of Western civilization since the medieval revolts of the antinomian Free Spirit sectarians. Al-Qaeda are very much in the Western tradition of moralistic evil. The showrunner of Serial Experiments Lain wanted to provoke different reactions between Eastern and Western viewers, but failed because he never guessed how Eastern the West has become since the British Empire conquered India in the 18th century. Because its heroes are terrorists, a class of vigilante universally demonized in the West, Destroy and Revolution would serve that intention far more effectively.

These are my impressions as of Book 1. Book 2 has also been fan translated, so there will be a follow-up.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Watching: Puella Magi Madoka Magica

Puella Magi Madoka Magica was the biggest anime sensation and Japanese TV hit of 2011. Even the March 2011 earthquake that delayed the final episode couldn't ruin its popularity. However, this not-so-rich anime fan had to wait a year and a half to see it, even as the third movie, which continues the story from the end of the series (reanimated for the first two movies), is in production. Well, I finally saw it. In one five-hour session. And now I know why it got such rave reviews, and why it was Japan's hottest show of last year.

I'd heard this was the darkest take on the magical girl anime genre ever attempted, courtesy of head writer Gen Urobuchi, who's known for some really dark stuff and has even publicly admitted he's temperamentally unsuited for upbeat stories such as, naturally enough, the usual magical girl stuff. But unlike Neon Genesis Evangelion, Madoka Magica turns out not to be an allegory of the showrunner's mental breakdown disguised as a genre deconstruction. In fact, episode 12 contains the happiest ending of any Urobuchi story ever. But then I discovered exactly why it's supposed to be so awesome.

Madoka Magica isn't merely dark. In fact, it's utterly epic.

The deconstruction and grim darkness come from a strategy of taking certain magical girl tropes to such an extreme that they cancel out. The magical girls' motivation for destroying the monsters of the week (here called "witches"), for example, cancels out the standard "power of friendship" theme. In Episode 2, Mami explains to Madoka and Sayaka that magical girls' power comes from "soul gems", which grow darker as they use their power. They can only be replenished by killing witches for their "grief seeds", which are like soul gems only black and dangerous. But there's a limited supply of these grief seeds, forcing the magical girls to compete for them. Episode 5 shows they're perfectly willing to kill each other over them.

And then there's the "Faustian bargain" theme involving that sinister variation on the standard cute mascot, Kyubey — short for "Incubator". Certain witches' names (written in an alphabet of runes specially designed for the show) are references to Goethe's Faust.

The witches appear only in pocket dimensions which manifest only when they need to feed on humans or do battle with magical girls. Both the monstrous inhuman witches and their realms are depicted in flat, jerky, surreal animation right out of the 20th-century avant-garde. This was only the second thing that impressed me. The first was the conventional animation, surprisingly good for a TV show; parts of it are quite beautiful.

Madoka Magica is well known for its Wham Episodes that rival anything from J. Michael Straczynski himself (random Babylon 5 example: sorry, Commander Ivanova, but that presidential candidate you voted for? She's evil!). I won't reveal exactly what happens — that would blunt the shock — but I'll give a few clues:
  • Episode 3: Something horrible happens that establishes the true dark tone of the story. This is followed by the first appearance of the true end credits, one of the darkest and most abstract manifestations of the Urobuchi style, to a J-metal soundtrack.
  • Episode 6: we find out exactly what a magical girl is. It ain't pretty.
  • Episode 8: we find out the exact connection between magical girls and the witches they battle. Uh-oh.
  • Episode 10: the flashback episode was the one that struck me with the true brilliance of the show. We find out who the real hero of this story is (clue: her name isn't Madoka), the nature of her power, and just what kind of hell she had to go through to get to this point. And then it ends with the opening credits, to signal that the story begins where this episode ends.
  • Episode 12: Madoka makes her wish. What she wishes for shocks even Kyubey. And then the show goes cosmic. Did I mention how epic it is?
Right now I can only wonder what the production team have in store for the third movie, the one that extends the story beyond episode 12 (and the second movie). Will it be as jam-packed with plot twists as anything I've written? If anything is certain, I will be sure to find out one way or another...