Pixy Garden

This post actually started as a long youtube comment that youtube decided to eat since it doesn’t like people expressing themselves at length and posting a bunch of links. Thankfully, youtube has no control over what I can write on my own blog, and its crude automated  censorship actually encouraged me to develop the writing I’d done into a more extensive piece about something I’ve wanted to write about for a long time. Much thanks to Vysethedetermined2, for always inspiring me with his videos and his own writing!

Pixy Garden! This game is a trip. When I found the English-narrated intro to the original PC-98 version on youtube years ago, my mind was blown by how creative the game was, especially by fact that a somewhat mainstream game could have a plot so strangely imaginative (watch it the clip!):

The concept of the game and the gameplay itself feels so attuned to nature, and to the idea that what the player is trying to do is actually create natural order. It feels so unlike the tone of most of our games now, which are ever-increasingly competitive and hardly ever relaxed, hardly ever aiming to achieve a state of creative harmony rather than one of competitive discord. The entire tone of Pixy Garden is super relaxed, super thoughtful, colloquially: chill, because it invites the player to create and nurture a small natural area and the fairy beings in it, much in the style of Princess Maker and other raising sims, and especially like Mercurius Pretty, a homunculus-raising sim previously developed by Pixy Garden’s creators. But Pixy Garden has this broader element of bringing order and natural balance to the world itself, as if its creators decided to combine Mercurius Pretty with something like SimCity.

Lately I’ve been reading Rumiko Takahashi’s new manga, MAO, and the titular character in it is an onmyoji, a kind of Taoist magician who’s able to divine the future by reading the very patterns of nature. In the Heian era, onmyoji often gave advice to rulers on how to make choices from an enlightened natural-spiritual perspective, which is much like how we still use the ideas and techniques of feng shui in our modern times, especially as they’re applied to a wide geographic area, like in the episode of Cowboy Bebop where Jet and the young daughter of a feng shui master use the techniques of the art to search for a hidden treasure, primarily through the use of a luo-pan–a sort of Taoist compass which orients the user by measuring the power of natural elements in a surrounding space. Not coincidentally, the luo-pan is very much like the circular measuring-designs you see on the title screen of PC-98 Pixy Garden:

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The game is an imaginative incarnation of the active, creative side of arts like onmyodo and feng shui, where instead of simply measuring the spiritual and elemental qualities of an environment, the player intentionally sculpts and nurtures a harmonious environment where all of the elements and natural spirit-entities are in perfect balance, thereby magically enabling human life to flourish on an alien planet. It’s spiritual terraforming.

Game-wise, the idea reminds me of Square’s Legend of Mana, which has an artifact-placing system through which the player creates the entire game world. The time of year and the relative placement of the different artifact-lands affects the different levels of mana in each land, and the mana determines the occurrence of the game’s missions and plot events. It’s a very complicated system where everything is interrelated, and invites extensive calm rumination from the player.

Focusing on a system like this puts the player into a thoughtful and creative headspace–one that’s placid and reflective rather than nervous or reactive. Along with being heavily influenced by the art of feng shui, this game design approach of encouraging the player to sculpt and read the nearly-invisible but powerfully influential patterns and relationships of the natural world reminds me heavily of Shinto animist concepts, specifically Shinto’s sense that every unique thing in a natural environment is instilled with kami–a particular aspect of manifested spiritual energy. In Shinto, reality consists of a complicated dance of all those hidden energies subtly interacting with one another. Pixy Garden’s creators chose to embody that kami energy in fairies, in a way that seems to mix the concepts of Taoism and Shinto with the spirit of English folklore. I think this was a fantastically creative choice, a divinely inspired bit of video game syncretism, especially since the actual designs of the fairies are great in both of the games, feeling both traditional and anime-inspired. Here’s the cover of the PC-98 version:

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And here’s the art from the title screen of the Playstation game:

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I was surprised by how different and how almost sci-fi looking the designs in the Playstation game were, and at first I wrote them off as being too slick and modern to befit the game’s vibe, especially since I’d really enjoyed the more elemental character designs of the original game. The cute and sexy fire sprites on the cover of the PC-98 game’s OST are a great example. There’s so much personality in this art, and such a vivid feeling of wildness!

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But I took to CHOCO’s pixie designs in the Playstation version when I saw the loving way they were rendered and animated in-game (as can be seen in the video at the top of the post). Really, both versions of the game have their own distinct charm. The original effectively captures the vibe of those old European photographs people supposedly took of fairies, specifically the sense that the then-novel technology-magic of the camera was being used to capture something supernatural, something implicitly present in nature that couldn’t be seen by the naked eye. The game directly evokes that particular feeling in the way the main gameplay screen is literally inside a magical wooden camera box that allows the player to see the otherwise-invisible fairies in their natural environment, but only when it’s peered through at a certain nexus of space and time.

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The Playstation game has a charm all its own, though. The 2D sprites of the fairies are beautifully detailed and animated, far moreso than in the PC-98 version, and all the pixel art of the game’s fungi and plants is incredibly detailed as well, showing the best kind of work from this era when Japanese digital artists so often applied their talents to evoke elements of the natural world. The 2.5D nature of the game’s stages adds a lot to the presentation too. I love the lake and forest and the distant misty hills in the background of the first area, which are so blocky-pixeled they almost look like they’re from Minecraft (once again, check out the video at the top to see this in motion with deep parallax scrolling, which is far more affecting than a mere still shot).

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This diorama-like 3D background is a perfect example of achieving a marvelous effect of perspective and verisimilitude despite working with low-resolution visuals–and in fact, it’s effective particularly because of the limited resolution, because the carefully-crafted simplicity of these visuals naturally inspire the imagination. Watching the game in action, I vividly believe that I could go back there and visit that lake and those hills, and I really want to, because of the way they’re tantalizingly presented in the misty distance and brought to life with the parallax layers. But in practice, the player is so busy managing the lively world of the game’s foreground that they won’t be too concerned about going back there.

The Playstation version of Pixy Garden takes the game’s original concept and graphically enlivens it in a way that’s incredibly immersive and cinematic. But in contrast, I do like how the original game offset the relative simplicity of its presentation by invoking an environment of ages past, using sepia tones and ingame window frames made of carved wood, having the player access the database of information on the different plants and fairies in an actual book:

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This effectively evokes a feeling of gaining occult natural knowledge by visiting an old wise woman’s house in the forest, and effectively puts across the idea that even though the protagonist “Miracle Man” is a super-scientific astronaut visiting other planets, his most important wisdom comes from this connection he has to history–specifically to the kind of natural-intuitive understanding that Shinto and Taoism and the metaphorical belief in fairies all represent. This intuitive knowledge is what causes Miracle Man’s abilities to be actually magical–miraculous–because having a keenly sensitive intuitive understanding of nature and a wisely-arranged relationship with it is what allows us to live richly fulfilling lives, and to nurture the same kind of life in the animals, plants and other people around us. Human beings have had this kind of intuitive wisdom about the patterns of the natural world for thousands of years–since long before we became obsessed with the scientific method–and one can see the practical expression of this kind of wisdom in arts like bushcraft and farming and herbal medicine as much as in the more abstract spiritual methods of feng shui and onmyodo. By being conspicuously vintage with its presentation and evoking an ambiance of sepia-toned mystery, PC-98 Pixy Garden reminds us that this history of intuitive natural technology is still alive and in our world, and suggests that such natural magic can still be learned in the right places, like inside a mystical old woman’s library of anicent leather-bound books, hidden away in her cottage deep in the woods.

There’s something wonderfully creative and enticingly mysterious about this vibe of the original game that really feeds the imagination and makes the player appreciate this particular kind of real magic, and so I think it’s no surprise that another team wanted to re-create and enhance the whole thing on the Playstation, with its much more powerful 3D-capable hardware. It’s interesting that when they did, they chose to re-stylize the title as Pixygarden, probably because they wanted to indicate that their game was quite different from the original. In any case, I think it’s a bit amazing to see how much budget and effort went into the Playstation game. Pixygarden is clearly not an “indie” game or a throwaway title–tons of thought and long hours of focused work went into re-imagining the game, with an enormous amount of the kind of loving attention to small details in the art and design that makes Japanese games from this era so fantastic.

All of the unique art of the game’s main character Neredy feels very alive, along with her every line being fully voiced, which was an extravagance at the time. And then there are the sequences included on the extra disc (seen toward the end of the youtube video) of the interview with the character designer CHOCO, and the outdoor idol shoot and interview with Moe, Neredy’s voice actress. The whole presentation of the game and these supplementary materials is overflowing with otaku love in a way that makes it obvious that the people making the game were totally dedicated to it, and weren’t spending their time fucking around on the internet or distracting themselves constantly with smartphones, most certainly not treating the game like a project they just wanted to get over with. Instead, a lot of them probably slept at the office–and not because they had to, but because while they were creating this game, it was their life, their entire life. You can see in CHOCO’s own workspace at the start of his segment that love of artwork and characters from anime and games defined everything his life was about, and powered the dedication he had to the thousands of hours of drawing that turned him into such a fantastic artist. Powerful creativity is driven by pure passion like this!

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What can we say this about now, in our own culture? Who dedicates themselves so singularly to creating something wonderful? Game companies themselves would ruin something like this now with crushing deadlines and too-small budgets and no sense of real pride in what’s being produced–no real otaku love for it. The studios behind Pixygarden, Escot and Imageworks, were smaller companies, so that must’ve helped even back then. But do we even have “middle-tier” well-funded-but-independent game studios like this now? Maybe there’s a few–CD Projekt Red and Wayforward immediately come to mind. But the few studios like this we do have aren’t making anything so mellowly relaxing and inviting to the imagination as Pixygarden, with the small exception of Atlus and some of the great RPGs they still make for handheld systems. It’s going to be a shame when the 3DS finally dies and we no longer have a go-to platform for these more relaxed and traditional kinds of RPGs and sim games that hearken back to the more relaxed social worlds of the 1990s. I worry that the entire era of retro-style otaku gaming we’ve enjoyed on portable machines since the GBA may soon end. The Switch, for example, is not like the GBA or the DS or 3DS; it’s very purposefully mainstream, and in my opinion the countless “indie” titles that one can play on it for the most part show nothing remotely approaching the level of developer investment and quality of something like Pixygarden. I’m sure there are a few standouts, but overall the scene is nothing like Konami making metroidvania games for the GBA and DS or Square remaking the old Final Fantasy games on those platforms–and certainly nothing like the incredibly large number of thoughtful, imaginative, creative, soothingly engaging games that were made back in the actual era of the Playstation and the PC-98.

When I think about this modern artistic problem, I always console myself by thinking about how we will always have these older games. I just wish more of them were in English. I would love to play and understand Pixygarden if I could. It’s possible someone may translate it someday, though. That’s one really nice thing about our current era, despite the relative lack of new games like this: translation projects of obscure retro games seem to be more common than ever, and even when we can’t directly play them, we can experience them and feel the vibes of a calmer, more creative, more loving era through videos like this one Vyse posted on youtube.

More than anything else, I get such a chill vibe from Pixygarden, with its serene crystalline 90s VGM in the background of the planting and nurturing of plants and fungi,  with fairies happily floating around in the foreground. It reminds me a lot of the “A-Life” Nightopians in NiGHTS Into Dreams, and also of the music and environments of that game. It’s a vibe that’s dreamy, beautiful, relaxed and creative, that encourages the player to fully immerse themselves and engage with the game world–to put down roots and become part of it. I think the relaxed vibe itself is an essential part of feeling, because a person can’t really immerse themselves in something and fully absorb it, experience it directly, if they’re anxious or nervous and constantly distracted.

So many of these old Japanese SNES and Playstation games have beautiful green and blue environments and serene calming music, especially RPGs and sims like this. Such soothing aesthetics ease the player into a state of mind that soon becomes a fully immersed state of flow, like a meditation that’s guided by the game, gently stimulating the brain and promoting all kinds of creative thoughts, opening up imaginative possibilities. I think this kind of entertainment is actually good for our minds and ends up making us better people, because instead of getting wound up and nervous and aiming to compete and aiming to end and win a game or a conversation with a “victory,” we’re thinking about exploring possibilities in a serene and beautifully harmonious world, actively working to create that serenity and harmony ourselves, to open new doors of possibility, to explore on eternally, letting the game go on forever as it inspires the creation of other imaginative games, the chain of inspiration leading ever on, the opposite of being whipped up into a competitive, anxious, distracted and discordant state which is always anxious to end the game and be somewhere else. Such a state has inspired the name of our most popular modern gaming chat app: Discord.

Personally, instead of being on Discord I’d rather be logged into a BBS named “Harmony” in 1999, where myself and other relaxed, playful, pleasant, serenely-minded human beings imagine and role-play and exchange ideas, playing a kind of neverending creative social game where we share our mutual love of immersive inspiring dream-worlds like the ones in NiGHTS and Pixygarden, and dream up our own.

But what was possible in 1999 is no less possible today. There’s nothing stopping us from making games like this again–from using our minds to dream and create instead of to desperately compete, anxiously obsess, and constantly judge–except for what the internet and constant access to it through smartphones has done to our brains. The net has created a world of constantly-aroused, stimulation-addicted minds, minds which cannot calm down and relax long enough to directly experience reality for more than a few seconds or minutes at a time, and so exist in states of constant anticipation, constant seeking, constant unrest, always searching for an ideal future outcome rather than appreciating what is here now. In contrast, a game like Pixygarden is all about now, about how we can make the present moment of time and space into a beautiful, harmonious, intuitively-ordered place by focusing on our deep unconscious abilities to sculpt the spatial relationships of the natural world around us and wisely determine our own place within them. Down this path of relaxed presentness and openness to the quietly whispered wisdom of our intuitions lies a state of real joy. The path of consistent calm and gentle stimulation of the mind, relaxed excitement, opens up our creative potentials and ultimately leads the kind of deep fulfilling happiness that can only emerge from consistent daily patterns of present engagement and serene open-hearted love. The wellspring of creativity is calm passion, radiant tranquility.

If we’re ever to reach a place like this again at a cultural level, then peaceful relaxed engagement, calming down, is the only path. We’ve been at that place before, vividly and magically, in both the eastern and western worlds. And it was only twenty years ago. What took us away from that place was not a loss, but an acquisition–we have acquired nervous, agitated, desperate habits of the mind, psychic diseases contracted in our near-constant immersion in nervous, frenetic, collectively-imagined worlds on screens that are hostile by default and which create an addiction to hyper-stimulating novelty that we simply did not have before. Even worse, these worlds create a constant terrible underlying fear of being judged and cast out if we do not constantly maneuver our superficial social net-presences to get ahead of whatever ephemeral trend of the day people are competing for fantasy status over.

This is the inevitable digital landscape created by the mass-mind, unconsciously woven by a billion people’s vanities and unacknowledged fears. It is a psychic world so non-creative, so unwise, so hostile toward genuine individual existence and the sanctity of the individual mind that it is almost comically terrible, almost hard to conceive of in its foolishness. No true art, no true love, no true enlightenment can ever come of such an environment. It is merely a flailing morass of mutually-reinforced anxiety, never at peace, never tranquil and calm, never radiating creative love, never genuinely existing in the moment. In order to change the real world for the better, to see the real world directly again and exist in it–truly in the moment and not frantically attempting to escape from the here-and-now–we must reject the endless fever-dreams of the net-world, firmly spurn the very concept of it in its entirety, repudiate its hostile thrashing about with endless tirades and judgments, endless division, endless agitation, endless discord. We must reject all of this in its totality in the same way one would reject and separate from a partner in a hostile and abusive relationship. And we must replace it with what we once had in its stead–a real culture created by individual artists instead of by a mass of fools, a psychic media-tapestry skillfully woven with threads of inspiration and empathy and love by creative individuals intentionally pooling their talents to create works of great insight and vitality, divine dreams culminating in states of harmony and serenity that reconnect us with the deepest roots of our intuitive understandings of ourselves and the world, and thereby revivifying everything valuable in our lives.

If we focus, and actually try, I know we can reach this cultural state again. At least, some of us can. In the past, especially in the twentieth century in America and Japan, artists were blessed by cultures that implicitly and unconsciously supported their work by giving them the license to be who they were as individuals–granting them the psychic space to be themselves, naturally unconsciously appreciating that individuality borne of calm reflection is what produces valuable masterpieces. But for us, now, in a intensely neurotic society that wants only to judge, this sacred creative space for the artist’s individual soul must be intentionally created, and the connection with the endless pernicious neurosis of the mass-mind must be be cut off. Beginning is simple: unplug the ethernet wire, turn off the wi-fi, and breathe. Go outside and take a look at a tree. Then, quietly, begin to dream your own dream.

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When do we really see, and when do we merely dream?

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My father emailed me an article this week, a Wall Street Journal review of a book about “late bloomers” that focuses on the unique value of reaching success later in life, describing how people who wait longer to do their great works have given themselves time to develop their brains and become wiser, and have a chance to approach the world in a more personally genuine way instead of racing to climb a status hierarchy and meet other people’s expectations.

The article had a quote from Bill Walsh in it that I found insightful: “In my whole career,” he said, “I’ve been passing men with greater bravado and confidence. Confidence gets you off to a fast start. Confidence gets you that first job and maybe the next two promotions. But confidence stops you from learning. Confidence becomes a caricature after a while. I can’t tell you how many confident blowhards I’ve seen in my coaching career who never got better after the age of forty.”

Increasingly as I’ve aged I’ve noticed this phenomenon in much younger people as well, that while they’re fond of stereotyping older people as being unable to learn or absorb new information, it’s in fact often people in their 20s who seem to be the most overconfident of their own rather minuscule wisdom and therefore the least able to learn or listen. They often seem to be only able to pay attention to feedback that pats them on the back and reinforces the views they already have, which tends to increase their confidence in their own shallowly-researched worldviews a way that keeps them ignorant of the bigger picture and makes them self-righteous. This is particularly true when they get all their information from screens and from other young people, which creates a sort of vicious cycle of ignorance, unwholesomely cut off from the wisdom of history and of all the living adults they could be learning from.

I definitely had this problem with my own worldview when I was in my 20s. I had the tendency to place people, especially older people with different viewpoints, into the category of “other,” basically considering them to be “un-people” whose thoughts and feelings would be too foolish to even consider. But at the time I was allowing my own worldview to be sculpted primarily by one-sided partisan entertainment like “The Daily Show” and by postings that a bunch of other 20-somethings made on the internet. It wasn’t until I was around 27 and I discovered Alan Watts and started reading him avidly that I began to genuinely broaden my mind and to see beyond the superficial political narratives that had dominated most of my thinking.

Nowadays the situation has ironically reversed for me, and the people who I think of as having viewpoints not even worth considering are mostly 20-something narcissists who are still stuck in the kind of worldview I had back then, but in a much worse way, because the companies that control our pop culture have increasingly attempted to glorify youth above all else, and constantly whisper flattering seductive lies into the ears of young people in order to keep them hooked up to the corporate teat, trying to convince them that they are brilliant wise geniuses because they’re tech-savvy and young and that anyone outside the “youth market” age group is a laughably out-of-date, ill-informed fool. This is the kind of narcissistic cycle you see on facebook, which not coincidentally is a platform founded by an ultra-narcissistic 20-something “wunderkid” billionaire, in reality a black hole of a human being who exists solely to exercise his own warped messiah complex. Every time I see a picture of Zuckerberg’s face I wince. He’s one of the most obvious cases of arrested development I’ve ever seen, and in this way is like a child star like McCauley Culkin who peaks too early in life and becomes stuck in a vicious cycle of personal gratification through wealth rather than actually working toward success and maturing in the process. Just look at his face:

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He looks like some kind of zombified teenager, his over-plentiful youthful energy and corresponding foolishness chemically preserved by billionaire health treatments. In every picture he has these strangely empty staring eyes, and also usually a creepy artificial smile. But in this case you can see the callow wannabe-prophet, hyper-glorified image he has of himself and whatever narcissistic drivel he’s spouting. He’s a mere adult child who founded a social media company, but he thinks of himself as someone who’s “saving the world.” In reality he can’t even see the world–is functionally blind to whatever’s actually in front of him–and anyone sensitive can see this in the strange dead stare in his eyes. All Zuckerberg can see is his own personal vaingloriousness, his self-righteousness, his ego, these things disguised to both himself and the world as altruism.

I see this blindness commonly in the eyes of young people. You interact with them, but they can’t actually see you. Literally, they can’t. There is an incredibly powerful link between thought and vision in humans. Unlike most other mammals, we have vision as our dominant sense, the one that largely controls our perception of the world and shapes our thoughts. I’ve noticed this as I’ve gotten older and small experiences have piled up where my vision was impaired and it directly affected my cognition in strange, unexpected ways.

For example, there have been times when I was about to go outside and I put on polarized sunglasses inside my rather dim apartment and went to pick up a pair of headphones for my ipod, but ended up picking up the hands-free headset for my phone instead. These two things generally sit next to each other, and you could say that I just mistook one for the other, but the way in which it happens is subtler than that. This has happened multiple times: in my half-blindness of wearing the sunglasses indoors, I have a strange mistaken certainty when I go to pick up the headphones; I actually see them there, or to be more precise, my brain imagines that I do, and I am completely sure of what I’m doing when I reach to pick them up. All of this happens in the span of a second, as an unconscious reflexive process like reaching for a towel to dry your hands. It’s only once the “headphones” are actually in my hand that I realize I picked up the wrong object, and I get a sudden alarming feeling of visual and mental disability, abruptly aware that my basic unconscious reflexes were undermined and turned into a strange momentary fantasy by my inability to see clearly.

I think this process happens because my brain, in the relative darkness, is going on what limited information it has and coming up with something on its own. It imagines the headphones there in place of actually being able to see them, because in the dimness, the boundary between what the brain imagines and what it actually sees becomes very thin. We’ve all experienced this in imagining that we saw something scary in the dark, especially if we’re outside when night falls, when every stump and post starts to look like a human figure. Whenever we have adequate light to see clearly, fantasy steps in and at least partially replaces actual vision, and the brain operates a state that’s almost like a dream–a state that makes us “see” things that we expect to see, like a dangerous figure lurking in the darkness, or a pair of expected headphones.

We don’t realize it in our day-to-day lives, but this is what our brains are doing all the time. Everything we see is actually produced by specialized parts of the brain, but we call most of what we see “reality” because for the most part the images our brain creates are representations of concrete, actually present things that are clearly lit in front of us. Even though we still go through our lives mostly noticing the things we’re looking for, seeing what we expect to see, we don’t realize it most of the time, and go through life with the illusion that our vision is objective. It’s only in these occasional twilight moments of half-vision and half-imagination that we notice how deeply thought and vision are intertwined.

One day in my mid-20s, at a time when I was playing World of Warcraft almost constantly and simultaneously existing on internet chat as an incarnation of my character, I got up from the computer to go to the bathroom. The light in the bathroom was off and the room was very dark, and when I walked in I saw my silhouette in the mirror. But the person I saw there wasn’t me. It only lasted for a second, but the person I saw was my character. Pretty vividly. My brain saw my silhouette, a canvas of empty darkness, and filled it with an image born of expectation, its current image of “me”: a green-haired undead mage. The illusion was very brief, but it was so powerful that I took it as a kind of wakeup call. My fantasy existence had become so dominant that it was overwriting my self-concept. At least in that moment, I had become more my WoW character than I was “Lance.”

I think most people live their lives under the happy delusion that they are the masters of their mental universes–that no matter what they expose themselves to on a daily basis, no matter what kind of visuals they constantly plug into their eyes, they can still just be whoever, whatever they want to be. People think their egos, their prefrontal cortexes, have total arbitrary control of their brains. This is especially true of younger people, who have little experience with simply existing as human beings and understanding how their own minds work–how they interact with their sensory systems and are incredibly influenced by them, and how their sensory systems are equally influenced by their minds. Young people are for the most part vastly overconfident of their own potential abilities and think they can do anything or be anything, and that the world’s problems could all just be arbitrarily fixed if people would just stop “being bad.”

All of these things are really just the result of young people existing primarily in idealized dream-states, of having vision that’s focused almost entirely on a fantasy they would like to see. They are much less awake than older adults, who have been sobered by decades of grappling with countless struggles and sorrows that proved to be outside their control. The young person’s overriding idealism is entirely a result of their psyche existing primarily as a dream, and of their mistaken sense that their fantasy of what reality should be actually is what it is, that anything that doesn’t live up to that fantasy is somehow “wrong” and is a mistake that needs to be corrected.

I think the entire process of human maturation is an awakening from this dreaming illusion state of blindness-by-expectation, and the more I’ve thought about it the more I think there is no real difference between maturity and spiritual enlightenment–which is commonly called satori or “awakening.” In fact, modern science seems to think that in human infancy the brain may be literally dreaming in the same way we do when we’re asleep, existing only in a dream state, attaining the beginnings of actual consciousness only after a year or so of age. Considering this, it seems likely to me that the minds of small children still exist at least half in dreams. We also know from psychology that it isn’t until about seven years of age that children can even begin to differentiate the outside world and the events in it from their own bodies, and therefore can stop being entirely egocentric. I think even after this differentiation is made and the brain slowly enters a physical state more capable of genuine awareness, it takes decades of experience to slowly emerge from childhood’s dream and actually see things directly with increasing objectivity, to see the world as being really external to one’s expectations in an immutable way, accepting its obvious realities rather than constantly projecting one’s desires upon it and raging when they don’t correspond with what actually exists. This latter mentality is what we think of as being spoiled, and increasingly this arrested state of mind seems to exist in older adults, especially people who are constantly plugged into the internet, feeding their brains an imaginary version of reality full of “should-be” expectations rather than honest assessments of what is and what has always been.

However, this is not to say that the dreams children and young people are without merit. They are often beautiful, and can be extraordinarily compelling. The actively dreaming wish-projection of youth has produced some of our most powerful rock and pop music and some of our most exciting and inspiring visual art, precisely because these things are the result of idealized egocentric dreams. Think of the most compelling pop songs, almost all of which are about unrequited love, about the aching pain of a solitary heart reaching out toward the desired ideal it sees in another. As people grow older, they tend to realize more and more that this ideal is actually something inside themselves that they project upon another person, and therefore they are less likely to produce music like this–clear-eyed wisdom doesn’t encourage unrequited love. But there’s something beautifully human about the passionate and painful unrequited love of youth, something in fact even deeper than “human” that connects us with other animals and plants in the way life always spreads outward in pursuit of sexual connection, eternally seeking ideal beauty in the other, expecting to find it, every rebirth remaining eternally optimistic, always reaching out toward love. For millennia young men have seen the eternal divine feminine perennially reincarnated in young women, the vision fresh and new each time, and have created beautiful works of art to bring the ideal they see into the world in corporeal form, actualizing it through painting or song or sculpture or poetic literature so the rest of us can feel it just as they do. This is the power of young idealistic art.

I watch a lot of retro Japanese animation, and all of the most kinetic, energetic, and most idealistically beautiful anime I’ve seen came from the passionately dreaming minds of men in their 20s. Young feminine beauty is perhaps better captured in this kind of anime than in any other modern art form–it can be incredible. But at the same time, I’ve found that the the sensitive, empathetic, wise masterpieces that I love the most all came from directors who were at least in their late 30s or their 40s, men whose artistic visions were seasoned by real-life experience. Anime and manga made by people in their 20s can be the most exciting, sexy, and funny, and often best captures the youthful romantic ideal, and the real beauty of young women. It’s full of lust and longing and playful energy, and of the same powerful projection of romantic ideals that you can see in the best pop music or in a classical nude painting.

But it’s almost always the case that these works by younger artists are largely silly when it comes to the way their narratives relate to the real world–funny, fun and sexy, constantly seeking ideal beauty, but usually lacking in deeper truths, especially psychological ones. Typically the worlds of these works and the minds of their characters are made-up exaggerated fantasies, with some honest insight but much more focus on what’s fun and exciting and sexy, because the young artist’s work is mostly an exercise of the libido. This kind of art is gloriously enjoyable for that purpose, but isn’t psychologically or philosophically instructive, deeply literary in the way that the best books and films can be. One simply can’t gain much wisdom from viewing art made by someone in their 20s, other than wisdom about people in their 20s, and it probably doesn’t broaden one’s empathy much either, because works primarily focused on fulfilling personal desires are necessarily selfish. On the other hand, works made by people who have spent decades observing human beings and observing the natural world tend to bring you something real, something deeper that can touch your soul and make you a better person after the experience in the same way that a great novel can, expanding your empathy and your acceptance and understanding of the world. As an example, I’ve recently been captivated by the works of Yasuhiko Yoshikazu, a sometime-director and prolific manga artist who made some of the most authentically and poignantly human, psychologically observant, poetically beautiful, and insightfully honest works of the 1980s. And all of his best work started when he was about 37.

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You can always see the real human soul in Yas’s characters, in a way that’s honestly remarkable in anime, paralleled only by a few other geniuses like Hayao Miyazaki. His characters aren’t silly imaginary creations. Although they’re often quite sensual, even angelically beautiful, they aren’t mere projections of desire. All of them feel like real people, with unique faces and genuine human facial expressions–unmistakable individual identities. They behave and react and move as real people do, and often they’re extremely sensitive, their emotions written on their faces. The Yas animates facial expressions is incredible, especially the way he draws his characters’ eyes and uses them to display their interiors. In fact, Yas’s art sometimes perfectly captures the real physical facial expression of blind youthful idealism–the almost literal physical blindness of it–particularly in some of his young female characters who exist in psychological states of almost purely idealistic anticipatory dreaming. You can see this in the opening of his 1984 show Giant Gorg, which has key sequences focused on Yuu and Doris, the two young protagonists:

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Yuu has a bright energetic smile, his eyes connecting with viewer while he moves forward in a dynamic pose. Although he’s filled with youthful idealism, he’s also very present and sensitive, completely aware of the moment, always seeing the people around him. He ardently wishes for those people to get along and to not fight, and he tends to see the best in people, which tends to bring out the best in them. But Yuu also often catches on more quickly to people’s darker aspects and hidden ulterior motives than some of his adult companions do, because he’s so sensitive and his mind is so keenly present in the current moment. As a boy of 13 he’s a bit idealized in this way–perhaps wiser than his years. But this makes him a remarkably admirable protagonist.

Doris, by contrast, is almost purely idealistic in a realistically feminine way. She wants above all else to be happy with Yuu, and to for the two of them to get through all of their struggles intact. The dream she sees is for the two of them to end up together back in America, away from the dangerous and mysterious island Giant Gorg takes place on. It’s important to note that Doris isn’t stupid–she’s quite intelligent, and sensitive in her own way, especially toward Yuu’s feelings. But ultimately her psychic gaze is always directed at the future she desires, and often Yuu has to console her to help her get through their present hardships, which she typically has difficulty accepting. You can see this in her gaze and in her pose. She’s reaching out toward an ideal future she can see in her mind, something beautiful and full of love that she knows can become real. But this focus comes at a cost: at many times Doris is functionally blind, mentally, when she’s unable to accept a present moment which seems to stand in the way of her future happiness. Even when Doris is happy and fine with what’s going on, it’s because she thinks things are moving toward where she wants to be, rather than because she’s totally accepting of the way things are now. This is simply her nature, and isn’t something that’s going to change, except perhaps when she’s an older, wiser woman whose youthful needs have long since been met.

When I first saw this art–and the identical way Yas depicted the far-off optimistic gaze of the girl Lesphoina in his Greek mythological epic Arion–I was struck with how he’d artfully captured something eternally true. It reminded me of so many young girls I’ve known in my life and still see now, especially ones who are addicted to their phones. There is often this far-off hazy look in their eyes, along with a tendency to rapidly look around everywhere and not be able to focus on what’s in front of them. This is because they are constantly actively dreaming, living in worlds of anticipatory fantasy. Girls like this are constantly checking their phones because their attention is entirely focused on the anticipation of receiving a message from someone, constantly looking around the area they’re in and checking the entrances because their consciousness is fixed on the expectation of a person or group of people arriving. They are living an expectant dream. With his brilliant subconscious skill as a visual artist, Yas channeled his observations of this aspect the young feminine psyche into drawn images, capturing the actual neurological truth of what’s going on: these girls are actually seeing their anticipations rather than seeing what’s in front of them, just as in a dark room with sunglasses on my brain sees the headphones I anticipate picking up, even though they aren’t actually there.

There is a powerful insight here, and not just about young women. All of us exist primarily in a dream, whether we know it or not. Specific structures of the brain create everything we see based on stimulus from external light. This is especially true of complicated and important things like faces, which have very large portions of the brain dedicated to deciphering and remembering their features and expressions and the faces of individual people we know. Ironically, this aspect of the brain is what allows an artist like Yas to bring so much genuine human insight into his work and to create real human faces for his characters, even though their existence is only fantasy. But that itself is the insight, as I said above: powerful true art like this comes from decades of real observation of human beings by an artist who’s gifted with enough sensitivity to absorb these truths and incorporate them into his work. If you look at Yas’s early art, like the character designs he did for the caveman show Kum Kum in the mid-70s when he was 28, you just see simplistic, blob-like, cartoony bodies and simplified faces:

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A decade later Yas was working on the Arion movie, and his characters had transformed from cartoons into extremely nuanced human beings:

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This is one of the most amazing things about art: in watching a career of an artist over the years, you can directly see the development of their mind. You can watch a dreaming 20-something kid turn into an incredibly observant adult, childish fantasy replaced with psychological insight.

I think the peril of our modern era, the biggest single problem we have, is this potential development of wisdom being arrested by people’s exposure to practically nothing but childish fantasy. You can see an extreme example of this in current anime, which has largely devolved to the point that it focuses almost exclusively on wish-fulfillment of the most vacuous and meritless kind, no longer even projecting the ideal but seeking a weaker fantasy that seems easier to control, pandering to young men and women’s laziest and most cowardly impulses. Some of anime’s greatest living artists, like Hayao Miyazaki and Hideaki Anno, have remarked pointedly that most anime is worthless now because its creators do nothing but watch anime and play video games. These young artists have lived their visual lives mostly on screens, and therefore their heads are filled entirely with fantasy, and the effect is that with each new generation of artists the art becomes less real, less vital, less insightful, less meaningful, less divine, because the things the current generation of artists saw on screens were created by the generation before, who had already been mostly influenced by fantasy images and were already only creating “anime about anime.” With this vicious cycle things become a bit more absurd each year, less and less real. Sillier. Weaker and less confident, due to being cut off from the eternally-revitalizing spirit of the natural world.

And also, alarmingly: more narcissistic, more selfish, more disconnected from the larger culture and from “normal” people, and more obsessed with youth to the extent that most anime now no longer even feature adult characters, whereas kids’ shows like Giant Gorg in the 80s were full of them, and full of the kind of rather honest characterizations which are now practically absent, replaced with creatively hollow wish-fulfilling genre cliches. This increasingly fantastical, increasingly silly art feeds darker and more selfish aspects of young people’s delusions, entrenching their callow idea that everything “ought to be” like this or that expectation instead of providing an unflinchingly honest and often painful image of the way human beings really behave, as great shows like Gundam and Giant Gorg did, their creators having grown up in the harsh postwar Japan of the late 1940s and certainly not spending over half their lives staring at illusions on screens. When kids are exposed to honest and insightful popular art made by adults, it helps them accept the world and to grow into adults themselves. But their development is arrested when they’re only exposed to increasingly-pandering narratives mostly created by other 20-somethings and funded by companies that want to glorify youth for profit.

This trend toward delusional coddling wish-fulfillment can be seen in America as well, with the ascendance of glib, smug, overtly PC superhero movies that have no interest whatsoever in being real art or portraying humanity. These aren’t even “films,” really; they’re corporate franchise products designed by committees, engineered to appeal to a maximum number of demographics and stroke as many people’s narcissism as possible, to push delusional wish-fulfillment narratives rather than saying anything honest about how people really are and what nature itself is like. Instead of insightful characterizations that are brilliantly realized, like the way Yas breathed life into Doris and Yuu, both of whom are completely real people in his mind and in the mind of the viewer, we get characters who embody shallow supposedly righteous mass-movements for the viewer to cling to: “Black Power!” “Feminism!” etc. But even in the comics these movies are based upon, the characters were typically much more literary, much more real, existing as genuine individuals, rather than as superficially cool stereotypes or cardboard cutouts standing in for abstract groups. Chris Claremont’s X-Men, for example, were some of the most believably flawed, human, psychologically nuanced and insightful characters one could see on the American comics page back in the 70s and the 80s. Their current incarnations in the films have mostly devolved into being mere extensions of the stardom of the actors who play them. This sells well to mass audiences, but has practically none of the artistic merit of the original work. In the 80s, the current crop of superhero films would’ve been seen as overly flashy, shallow, condescendingly pandering and often coldly inhuman. People would’ve instantly recognized these films’ egregious lack of soul and their lack of mature insight. But people who’ve been brought up watching increasingly silly media with less and less connection to nature and to physical reality in general simply can’t see this. They have generational amnesia.

It’s important to emphasize that all of these observations are not simply an older person’s lamentation of “kids these days,” or a resistance to culture inevitably changing over time. Rather, they’re a recognition of qualitative changes in art that are the result of people disconnecting from reality without even realizing they’re doing it, all kinds of people increasingly living on screens and therefore going cognitively blind in real life, living everyday lives where they constantly see an expected fantasy world through hazy Doris-eyes instead of seeing what’s really in front of them. You can see this when you’re talking to a younger person or any person addicted to technology who isn’t really there with you, because they can’t see you; they’re seeing something else they want, probably thinking about the phone in their pocket. And when they look in the mirror, they perhaps even see a desired fantasy version of themselves instead of their actual reflection. Increasingly, as people curate their identities on social media, allowing only idealized representations of themselves to be seen, I think this must be true. Just as much as I was roleplaying as my WoW character long ago and saw that character actually overwrite myself, my image of myself in my real physical vision, I think perhaps even the majority of people now are seeing themselves as these fantasy internet incarnations of their identities, and the more they do this the more they become unable to accept any aspect of interpersonal reality that doesn’t appeal to them. They become more brittle in their interactions with others. Ruder, more dismissive, more likely to lie without remorse, more eager to cut ties at the slightest hint of discord. Disloyal. Less appreciative of other people’s virtues and of the human nuances of their personalities, of their current mental and emotional states. These things can’t be appreciated, perhaps often even literally can’t be seen, when people’s eyes and minds are filled with deceptive desirous imaginings instead of with the colors and shapes of present reality and the faces of the people in front of them.

It is as if people are being arrested in their development at a level close to that of small children–as if the egocentric view of the world that we normally grow out of as we age and continuously perceive the world around us is not being grown out of precisely because people are not perceiving the world. It is not possible to perceive the world when our minds and our vision are somewhere else, caught up in a fantasy. All of us know this. All of us know the feeling of “not being there” and not noticing what’s going on around us when we’re thinking about something else, usually literally seeing something else with our visual imaginations, whether it’s some past experience or something we expect to happen that we’re mentally rehearsing for. And we know the feeling of what it’s like when someone else does this in our presence, when they don’t truly see us or see anything else around them in the present moment. All of us have these moments all the time, because to be “elsewhere” in this way is one of the primary powers of the human mind–it allows us to learn from the past and prepare for the future, and therefore allows us to become wise. But the entire purpose of this function is to process real experience to enhance our real knowledge and wisdom about the world. What happens when most of what people are processing is just illusionary content they’ve seen on screens, and people are not only increasingly “not there” in their everyday lives, but have gone away to a place that isn’t even vaguely real?

It was to my benefit, when I was younger, that World of Warcraft was not something I could carry around in my hand every day. It was a fantasy reality bound to my desktop computer and to a certain accompanying set of postural associations and physical reflexes, and the people who I knew in real life had no association with it. And they didn’t associate me with my WoW character either. The fantasy version of me that I imagined daily had no influence on my real life acquaintances’ expectations of me, or on my expectations of them. But people now do not have the luxury of this more solid wall between their fantasy and reality lives. The characters they’re roleplaying online every day are themselves, on a network where everyone they know is also playing an idealized fantasy version of themselves, constantly, on devices which everyone carries around in their pockets and accesses without any sense that they’re using a computer to generate a fantasy identity by chatting, tweeting, posting photos of themselves, and generally existing in a communally-imagined super-reality of “how things ought to be.” This is why facebook itself, and twitter, are absolute incarnations of the egocentric self-righteous attitude toward reality, of the sense of “things aren’t how I think they should be.” Social media sites are arenas of virtue-signaling where being more opposed to reality, more unable to accept it, “resisting” it, is the most socially-rewarded attitude, precisely because they consist entirely of people roleplaying as idealized fantasy versions of themselves and competing to be more fantastically ideal, rather than actually growing wiser in real life and improving their real behavior, genuinely working toward becoming enlightened.

It occurred to me recently that the most common use of the word “admit” is one of those small insightful bits of the English language we don’t normally notice. To admit means to let in. So to admit that something you don’t like is true, is part of reality, is to allow it into yourself. This is the beginning of wisdom. In Giant Gorg, Doris normally can’t do this–or rather, she can, but when she does it’s usually preceded by resistance, and then leads into in an emotional breakdown. Here’s a sequence I found remarkable, that really endeared her to me:

Such a human bit of characterization. So real! The two of them are in a crazy situation and Doris is scared, but she hides her fear with this moment of idealism, this happy dream of what might occur when the two of them return home from their adventure as heroes. And of course, in her fantasy the reporter asks them what their relationship is. But in her process of dreamily idealizing in retreat from the scary present moment, Doris reaches a point where the contrast between her fantasy and the place where she actually is becomes too strong, and she breaks down. Yuu confidently consoles her. It’s a sweet scene because her honest vulnerability brings both of them together, and we see that Doris is still grounded in the real world. She isn’t addicted to an artificial fantasy, isn’t living a life of some imagined screen-self. She’s an extremely idealistic 14-year-old girl, but she exists in a sci-fi version of 1984, and everything she deals with is real–people, animals, plants, machines. Although she is almost exclusively focused on her desired future relationship with Yuu, her unsevered ties with physical reality keep her honest, and they keep her empathetic too. She has a good heart, and cares about all the people around her, in many ways embodying the best aspects of what an intelligent girl can be. And we can easily imagine that as she gets older she will grow up, become more awake and more honest with herself about the world she lives in–less focused on an ideal future and existing more in the now.

But what would happen to Doris if she lived in 2019, had a smartphone in her pocket, and fixated almost entirely on that screen? Would she be able to see where her fantasy diverges too far from reality, and then have the necessary bout of tears that brings her back to the present moment, simultaneously bringing her closer to the boy she loves as she shares her vulnerability with him? Or would she be blinded by her smartphone’s screen and not perceive when her fantasy has gone off the rails, and remain distant and shielded and cold when she doesn’t get what she wants from the real world, becoming spoiled and vindictive toward any aspect of reality that doesn’t seem to serve her personal desires? You can see that one of these paths is the mature one, the path toward awakening, adulthood, empathy, human connection and love, whereas the other one is a dark path inward, the road of the dishonest and malignant self-love of narcissism, toward judgment and isolation and endless delusion, eternally-arrested development, forever delaying the moment of awakening when one sees that happiness and joy lie in acceptance of the world and other people, not in an escape from everything that’s real.

One thing I can tell you for sure is that if Doris were a character in a 2019 TV anime, there’s practically no chance she could exist as Yas portrayed her here. She’s too much of a completely honest depiction of youthful femininity, too idealistic in a way that serves her and not the viewer, and too whiny and nagging and humanly flawed in ways that aren’t designed to pander to the viewer’s desires, to artificially please and delude by serving as a kind of animated wish-fulfillment doll. Doris isn’t even one of the more complicated characters Yas has created, but she’s still completely human and real, super-real in fact, because she exists as a vivid living personality in Yasuhiko’s mind, and in mine, and in the mind of everyone else who’s watched Giant Gorg. She isn’t a cliche, a trope, a group-identity power fantasy, or a fantasy of romantic or sexual gratification. Instead, she’s a fantasy incarnation of a real person, as all great fictional characters are.

When people stop wanting to see this, stop falling in love with characters who are deeply honestly real and cherishing them for both their strengths and their flaws, you know something’s gone wrong, that empathy has declined and been replaced entirely with selfish desire. In order to love a character like Doris, who although she’s an idealist is far less than ideal, one has to be able to look at her with honest open eyes, to exist in the moment with her instead of expecting her to be something else that would better serve the viewer. Fanservice-obsessed young male anime fans wouldn’t like Doris now; she’s too imperfect and whiny, too realistic. She doesn’t fit any of the contrived cookie-cutter tropes they expect. And selfish self-righteous feminists would also dislike her; her mind is too genuinely feminine, too realistically focused on family and love in the way most real women are. The way Yas visually portrayed Doris’s mind as being constantly blindly focused on her dream-anticipations is too keen and observant of a portrayal of a young woman for a real woman who has the same kind of mind but wants to deny it to deal with. This is how you know Doris is a great literary character, a genuine work of art: people who turn to entertainment as a fantasy salve against the realities of the world–as a bolster to their unrealistic ego-projections or a pandering dream of sexual titillation–would not be able to appreciate or even tolerate her existence.

The kind of people who would love Doris are the audience she was created for in 1984: real people living real lives, with zero fantasy computer roleplaying involved–people living almost entirely in the real, except for their encounters with books and films and TV shows created by people who were also living primarily in the real, and therefore were able to accept life as it came to them with a greater degree of honesty and empathy and gratitude. In other words: people who hadn’t arrested their development in an egocentric dream-state by focusing only on self-gratifying fantasies, and instead lived their lives as a process of awakening, constantly maturing and becoming more aware, existing in the present moment and seeing what’s in front of them with clear and open eyes.

That’s written in the past tense, but it’s not just a description of “the good old days.” It’s a description of anyone right now who wants to live their life in this way. All it takes is to put down the phone, disconnect from the endless illusonary roleplaying of social media, and shut off the greedy stream of pandering and manipulative corporate entertainment. This is a more difficult path to take nowadays than it was in 1984, when our culture was more inclined to encourage presentness and openness and love, but it’s still the only worthwhile path. The nature of human beings, and of the natural world around us, hasn’t really changed. All we have to do to reconnect with the real is look at it, genuinely see it. And the more we do this, the more people around us may begin to see it too.

 

 

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Images of Yin and Yang Love

I was thinking recently about the power of the yin-yang relationship of love between men and women–between the archetypes of the masculine and the feminine–and it occurred to me that you see this relationship directly symbolized again and again in older Japanese RPGs. Typically it’s the male Warrior and the female Healer, or the Princess and the Knight. And looking through a digital archive of old video game art, I found a couple examples that really struck me.

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This one’s so obviously, classically archetypal in a western way that I needn’t point out why, but it’s interesting that the princess here is drawn to look almost exactly like the character of Clarisse from Hayao Miyazaki’s Castle of Cagliostro. Clarisse is probably the single most iconic “western princess” character in modern Japanese cinema, comparable to what Snow White or Sleeping Beauty is for us, and it’s clear the artist was trying to invoke a pure archetype by using Clarisse as the princess here. And the same goes for the knight–he’s a pure archetype. The two of them are essentially anonymous, and I doubt they even had names in this game. They are purely their roles.

But what I found more interesting is the composition of the image itself. I’m not an expert on art theory, but I know artists often try to have a dynamic angle in a composition, with energy flowing in a certain direction, and you can see that happening here with the two figures, energy moving up and to the right at a 45 degree angle, starting at the bottom of her dress and moving toward the blade of his sword. Rather than merely clinging to the knight, as it initially might seem, the princess is part of him, and he’s an extension of her. She is soft yin, clothed in delicate flowing silk, and he’s hard yang, completely encased in iron. In seeing how this angle of power flows, we can see how the hardness and resilience of the yang springs from  the soft core of the yin that sustains it, actually supports it in this image. It almost looks like she’s holding him up, physically propping up and supporting this rigid man of iron who might tip over from the sheer weight of his armor if his figure wasn’t balanced out by hers–and undoubtedly he would, because his psychological strength is dependent on the delicate evanescence of her form. She is something to care for, his reason to stand and fight–his purpose, his drive, his libido. And simultaneously she symbolizes tenderness, gentleness, and care–the quiet, rejuvenating, “soft” power which underlies and sustains all hard power of the kind the knight has. Without this softness as a form of support, all hardness eventually shatters, like a tree limb which snaps instead of bending in the wind. In the dual figure of the princess and the knight we see a picture of virtue and strength as a whole–true resilience which springs from a kind of hope and faith grounded in well-roundedness.

I know Jung and Campbell would add to this that the Dragon represents the feminine as well, the dark infantilizing aspect of the mother-force that the hero must overcome in order to individuate himself and become a man. The dragon is balanced by the hand with the sword in this image, and in fact the hand looms even larger, suggesting that it’s the overpowering force which will win. And of course, the sword is about as masculine of a symbol as there is–purely phallic. But it’s interested to see the princess and the knight existing in the space between the sword and the dragon, which one could imagine as the more destructive aspects of the masculine and feminine. If you took away the balancing, healing, yin anima of the princess, perhaps the fury of the sword would become the overpowering force, and the knight would become a terrible king–a tyrant. Or perhaps without the positive feminine force of the princess, the dragon would win out and the knight would never take a stand and become a man. Why would you fight a dragon if you didn’t have a princess to save from it? Just for the dragon’s treasure? The princess is always the real goal at the end, and that’s always literally the case in old fantasy games like this, with the final ending screen being the two riding off into the sunset together or sharing a happy moment. The unification of these two figures is always the ultimate desire, not the victory of one over the other, and I think that’s symbolic of a fully integrated personality, and also of the nature of real love between two separate people, recognized by a culture that saw men and women as two essential parts of a whole rather than two opposing sides battling one another.

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This is the other image that immediately struck me when I saw it, and drove me to write this piece because it’s so very similar to the first one–in fact even more blatant in its yin-yang symbolism. Here we have the masculine yang clad in black and fiery red, once again with his arm outstretched and wielding a weapon (one of the many once-popular variants on Rick Deckard’s blaster from Blade Runner) and his other arm clasping hands with the feminine yin figure. She’s in the exact same position as the princess in the first image, to the masculine yang figure’s lower left, and similarly seems almost to hold him up, energy flowing out from her and powering the core of his strength. Her huge mass of white hair complements his black clothing in an obvious way, and together their two forms almost create a circular white-and-black spiral–an actual tai chi yin-yang symbol.

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From the purple and gold the girl is wearing and the tiara in her hair, it seems likely she’s a princess of some kind. Really this image is just a future-fantasy take on the same archetypal relationship presented in the first one–the same figures in a different era with different clothing, the dragon correspondingly transformed into demon robot to match. It’s interesting how the dragon-figure seems to almost pour out from the gun in this image and simultaneously to be negated by it. Just as in the first image, the weapon and the evil force are in perfect balance. I wonder how consciously the artist attempted to do this, or if the form of this image simply emerged on its own as he sketched it out and channeled a deep understanding of his unconscious mind. I think Jung was right when he said that gifted artists unconsciously recreate these archetypes again and again, because they are an eternal part of our psyches.

What I love most of all about this image, though, is the way the two figures face the viewer with earnest and determined expressions. Their faces show an almost stoic confidence flowing from the strength of their union, something like an element of transcendence visible in their calm determination. There’s a tinge of slight sadness as well, especially in the girl’s face, which has just a bit more emotion than his. To me this suggests a kind of compassion for the wayward or evil forces the two will inevitably overcome through the strength of their union–compassion that will also prevent them from becoming tyrannical when they eventually do prevail. But most powerfully, I see a confidence in their faces that no matter what darkness and chaos they come up against, the energy and love that springs from the eternally-resurgent power of their yin-yang relationship will outlast it. There’s a kind of sincerity in their faces, in their expressions of calm steadfast solidarity, that I find quite compelling. When’s the last time we saw an image of a man and a woman like this, in our own popular culture? This image is just from some old forgotten video game, just like the first one–not major cultural works, but essentially throwaways. And yet their artists captured something that we seem to have now lost.

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Lupin and Clarisse in Castle of Cagliostro

As I’ve often said before, you can see what a culture values most strongly by observing their popular art. And what I find why I view our modern western culture is that it intensely devalues yin, and in fact typically cannot recognize that soft yin power exists at all. For us there is only yang–zealous achievement and rigidly forceful energy, masculinity, domination. We pair this only with the darker aspects of yin, the ones that seem to lack power or virtue: laziness, idleness, non-achievement, and their necessary result of non-status in society. Since we don’t recognize that all rigid forceful energy is secretly powered by the soft, quiet, tender and nurturing energy of yin, we worship careerism, and we have a contingent of people who call themselves “feminists” who ironically want women to become achetypal men in nearly every way. These people don’t value the yin qualities inherent in actual femininity, or the incredibly necessary healing and empowering force that naturally springs from it, because our culture at large doesn’t value this–it is blind to it. People are slaves to their unquestioned cultural assumptions about what is valuable and what is not–even what exists and what doesn’t–because they have not seen outside the confines of their very small cultural box. This one assumption our culture has: that toil and endlessly active work and the personal status it achieves–just yang rigidity itself without yin tenderness, playfulness, care, love or joy–is all that matters, all that a person needs… This assumption mostly comes from a virulent form of Puritan Christianity that has merely assumed different guises over time.

But no matter the source, the end result is that when yin itself is devalued, the culture also comes to devalue love. Because love is not just yang–it is not just selfish striving toward an independent objective, toward individual accomplishment and the piling up of personal merits and store-bought pleasures. Love is both sides, the hard and the soft, the softness of tenderness secretly lying at the core of hardness’s strength, a reciprocal exchange of energies rather than one yang energy striving alone.

In order for love to be valued, it is necessary we recognize the subtle healing powers of tenderness and care, the enormous importance of compassion and gentleness and self-sacrifice to another–and the corresponding self-sacrificing masculine virtues of devotion, stoicism and courage, which depend entirely upon the feminine ones to persist, as these archetypal images instinctively show us. All these virtues exist at the pole of the mind that is opposite to pure egotism or narcissism–they emerge from a place where action is taken not for oneself but for another, because that other is what gives us our deepest reason to live, to strive, to become something greater than what we now are. And along with that reason, that perfectly-paired yin or yang other provides us with a kind of essential eternally-resurgent energy, forever healing and restoring us through the dance of of two complimentary forces which propel each other forward, their harmonized connection providing us with an infinite wellspring of creative power.

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special, but not special

(The original youtube video I wrote this article about is gone, but I featured its art in the post below. The song itself remains the same, just uploaded by a different person with a different personal choice of art, carrying the same cycle of Touhou culture on.)

While in the gym doing some much-needed cardio and listening to an Alstroemeria remix album I stumbled on this little gem, one which I’d loved in the past but had forgotten.

It’s a relatively simple and unassuming house track, utilizing a looping piano line, some ethereal bells, an organ, and a turbulent 3/4 beat. The beat is the kicker. Its incorporation animates the song and compels the listener to move, despite the music behind it remaining subdued, relaxed, almost humble in tone. There’s something sublime about this contrast. It subverts what we normally expect out of either dance music or “chillout” music, existing in a realm in between. Ideal for exercise, perhaps, or for simple contemplative listening. Not quite background music, and yet repetitive and restrained enough to not overtake the listener’s thoughts, the song feels very zen. And so does its title.

Special, but not special. Or perhaps: spiritual, but not spiritual. It reminds me of the quote: “Zen does not confuse spirituality with thinking about God while one is peeling potatoes. Zen spirituality is just to peel the potatoes.” The ordinary itself is the divine; there is no real borderline between the sacred and the profane, only an artificial one we put up ourselves, an illusory veil of ten thousand separate “things” which cuts off our experienced reality from the unified underlying source connecting all.

It is difficult to put this sort of thing into words. Mystics of all stripes typically define ultimate reality negatively, by saying what it is not. But whoever uploaded this song to youtube did a brilliant job of choosing an image which seems to exemplify the concept.

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As manifestations of nature, faeries and Shinto gods differ only in matter of degree. Suwako Moriya is a diminutive mountain deity from Touhou’s “Mountain of Faith,” a figure representing earth, the yielding action-by-non-action concept of yin, and the physical world of nature. Her primary symbol is the frog–a small, soft creature that is both terrestrial and aquatic. Just as a western fairy serves as a personification of sylvan mystery, of the facets of the natural world that lie beyond our surface understanding, Suwako does as well. She simply exists on a broader scale, encompassing forests, waters, mountains, entire territories. And yet she does not lord over them; she essentially is them. She’s the spirit of the land.

The picture chosen for the video portrays this so well. Suwako is foregrounded, but not quite the focus of the image. She looks to the viewer invitingly, but the invitation seems to be to the landscape rather than to her body. The landscape, in fact, is her body. The light that falls upon her face appears to come from the depths of it, from further back in the forest. The pool in the background seems to flow from her, and she herself melts into the tree on which she sits, her arms and legs disappearing into it. She emerges from the landscape, and it emerges from her. One and the same.

Suwako is special, the landscape is not. But the landscape is special because it is Suwako. The mundane is the divine, and it is this that we constantly forget in our fractured monkey-minding of the world, in the everyday mode of ego-consciousness in which we split everything into categories and remove the particular from its place in the larger whole, severing it from its cosmic significance as we sever our own minds from the world.

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The original meaning of the word “religion” is something like “re-binding.” A process that brings us back into contact with the source. As fragmentary as they are, this one song and one image together constitute a small mantra, a single meditation on a kind of connection. It reminds me why I love Touhou culture so much: it is essentially open-source religion, spirituality unfettered by an authoritarian structure. There is no boss, only a free play of images, sounds and ideas, and while not everything that emerges from it is great or enlightening, it provides an opportunity for serendipitous connections like this to occur. A simple curation of media–the uploading of a song onto youtube–gives a chance to the passive listener who loves the song enough to upload it to add something of their own, to say something about its essence by associating it with an image. The result is a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Which is not to say that there’s anything monumental here. It’s a little thing, not grand at all–just a light reminder of some very primal concepts. On their own, perhaps the song and image don’t accomplish anything but a temporary feeling of relaxation and release from the agitated daily cycles of the mind. A small meditative moment of reconnection. The great thing about Touhou, however, is that this is just one such experience out of thousands–each of them novel and unique, but all of them connected, all emanating from the same source.

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Creamy Mami – “Hello, Catherine”

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Just like with American music, film and TV, I find that retro Japanese pop culture and anime in particular has a sort of iceberg quality to it. Every time I think I’ve discovered everything there is to know about the works of a certain period I realize that there are a dozen titles I’d never really looked into, and behind each of those a dozen more that I’d never heard of at all. There’s always a wonderful feeling accompanying this, when I’m reminded that the world has a nearly inexhaustible supply of art stored up, so much that one could spend a lifetime discovering it all without even delving into the works still being produced every day.

I especially love discovering this older stuff because it has such a rich sense of history to it, and holds such enormous potential as a mirror to our current culture. It shows what we value. This is true of contemporary works as well, but it’s especially true of older ones, since we have a subjectivity that tends to prevent us from seeing ourselves reflected too sharply in our own current art. Hindsight is 20/20, as they say. And even moreso, the popular art of the past gives us a sense of where we’ve been, which is something that with the rise of the internet seems easier to forget every year. As time progresses and change accelerates, we throw off our cultural aesthetic layers more and more rapidly, like a snake constantly writhing out of its skin, spinning faster and faster to a subliminal beat, threatening to reach a threshold where control–of both our expanding technologies and our grip on any sense of shared meaning–is lost. It serves us well to break this cycle once in a while and breathe, to go back and analyze these cast-off cultural fragments. Things which seem whimsical or frivolous at first may in fact hold deep significance, hidden clues to the subtler yearnings of the human spirit that are too commonly shadowed by the much more prominent informational strata of advertising, political noise, and all the other forms of near-compulsory media which choke our collective dreaming like kudzu. When we look at the art of the past with open eyes, unclouded by digital filtration and background noise, the results can be incredibly refreshing.

And of course, if I’m totally honest, the real reason I immerse myself in this stuff is because it’s what I like do to. And that’s the best reason to do anything, really.

Morisawa Yuu

Creamy Mami is a magical girl show produced by Studio Pierrot in 1983, the first of a series of very successful shows by the studio. If you’re familiar with Sailor Moon you would recognize a lot of the ideas in the Pierrot shows, and the launch of Sailor Moon Crystal this Summer was partly what made me want to take a look at these earlier magical girls to see the roots of the genre. It turns out it’s pretty old, dating back to the 60s, but the 70s and 80s were when it came into prominence, and it was in the 80s that it really started to resemble what we know it as now, with protagonists having powers focused on transformation of appearance and identity.

Mahou no Princess Minky Momo was the show that set this trend, in 1982, with a young girl protagonist who literally hailed from a storybook reality and had the ability to transform into various older versions of herself with abilities to fit any given situation. Momo could become a veterinarian, a firefighter, a Tarzan-like jungle princess, or any number of other identities, all of which represented the latent professional and sexual power of the woman inside of her. The show is a great example of the organic and vibrantly colorful style of late 70s and early 80s anime, and it has a wonderful carefree vibe that makes it a joy to watch. Its narratives contain plenty of conflicts and problems, but one consistently gets the feeling that Momo has the ability to handle anything, and her relaxed sense of confidence and playful attitude are infectious. Minky Momo was a hit.

One year later, Studio Pierrot responded with Mahou no Tenshi Creamy Mami, in which Yuu, the 10-year-old protagonist, is similarly able to age herself up with the aid of a magic wand acquired in mystical realm called Feather Star. Unlike Momo, Yuu transforms into only one alternate identity, the Creamy Mami of the title, an unusually beautiful and charismatic teenager who quickly becomes a popular idol. As with Momo, Mami represents the feminine potential inside of Yuu, and she assumes the identity partly because of the crush she has on Toshio, an older boy who is close to her but doesn’t see her as a romantic prospect. Toshio becomes enamored with Mami, of course, but ironically continues to ignore Yuu’s feelings toward him, and this creates the main tension and plot of the show, along with various misadventures Yuu has as she attempts to manage her double life and hide her secret identity like any American superhero would.

Akemi Takada did all of these beautiful illustrations

Yuu is also a lot like Minky Momo in that she has a kind of unbreakable optimism which carries the spirit of the show. She actually reminds me most of the child Goku in original  Dragonball; both of them have a kind of unflinching courage which often seems to border on stupidity, but feels very fitting for a child. While Yuu’s parents, friends and familiars freak out about things that happen in the show she usually remains completely confident, and this dynamic works because in the end she almost always accomplishes her goals. There’s something very zen about this kind of attitude, something our own entertainment doesn’t teach us very often: why stress yourself out when you can just do your best and expect good results? Guilt is largely absent here, and optimism is high.

Japan in the 80s, of course, was an incredibly prosperous and optimistic culture. That comes through here in a lot of different ways, and the show is so positive and cheerful that it seems corny by our modern standards. But it’s also very intelligent and well-written, and it has a great sense of humor that makes it entertaining for adults. There’s something genuinely wholesome about Creamy Mami, overall. The show radiates a sense of trust in human nature, and a message of goodness and compassion that seems joyful and authentic rather than preachy and forced. You can tell they weren’t faking it; the people who made this show were having a lot of fun. Even the animation itself has a playfulness and attention to detail that goes well beyond the functional and necessary, which in anime is always the mark of a show made with love.

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One thing that many reviews of the show have noted is that it is not at all about combat, unlike almost all of our modern kids’ entertainment. Rather than fighting people, Yuu is usually helping them. She even ultimately becomes an idol because of her desire to make other people happy. At first she has no interest in it, and the show presents her taking the role as an act of public service rather than one of personal aggrandizement. Mami’s manager, Shingo, is sort of a comedy relief antagonist: his greed and desire for fame are constantly backfiring on him. But even he is ultimately accepted by the show as being a misguided but well-intentioned person, and his vanity is played for laughs very effectively.

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As in The X-Files and many other shows, the episode structure of Creamy Mami consists of “mythology” episodes that establish and advance the central plot, and so-called “monster of the week” episodes in which Yuu and her alter-ego interact with a new character or creature who temporarily takes the spotlight. With a few rare exceptions, there aren’t any malicious monsters in Creamy Mami. These temporary protagonists are usually people with problems who Yuu helps with her magic somehow, typically by helping them to learn some kind of lesson and become stronger themselves.

Also like The X-Files, these one-shot episodes tend to be the most interesting ones, because they have a lot of variety and they show us how Yuu interacts with the world around her, thereby showing us why her powers are worthwhile to people other than herself. Such is the case with “Hello, Catherine,” the 10th episode of the series, and the one that convinced me of its brilliance.

I don’t expect my reader to watch the episode, so I’m summarizing it here. Hopefully my summary is nearly as fun!

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The episode begins with Yuu and her friends watching at portside as an ocean liner arrives. Mami is going to perform a concert there in a while, and a large crowd is gathered in anticipation. Amidst the tussle of bodies, Yuu becomes separated from Posi and Nega, the two magical cats from Feather Star who originally granted her her powers (their names, as one might guess, are emblematic of their personalities).

Cut to seagulls flying free, and one alighting on the railing of the ocean liner next to an elegantly dressed little blonde girl. The seagull arrives just as the girl, Catherine, is about to make an escape.

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We quickly see why, as no sooner does the seagull touch down than Catherine’s governess, Mrs. Lampling, comes charging onto the scene, demanding that Catherine get back in bed because she “has a fever.” From her imperious tone and severe style of dress we immediately sense the darkness of this woman. She represents repression, control, and fear of the unknown, and she’s hellbent on locking down her young charge lest some terrible disaster befall her.

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Mrs. Lampling is the voice that all children hear at some point, telling them that they are weak and fragile, that the world outside is too dangerous for them to deal with, and that they are safer going back to bed. All of this is quickly conveyed from her appearance, her frantic rush onto the scene, and a couple lines of dialogue. And the ease of that depiction tells us something: Mrs. Lampling is a familiar archetype, something we have likely encountered before in both reality and fiction, and the creators of Creamy Mami are interested in commenting on her somehow. For the moment, Catherine responds to her in the best way possible:

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Whoa! One seldom sees child characters so boldly calling out authority figures to their faces, especially in Japanese media. With this declaration, I went from being mildly interested in the episode to completely rooting for Catherine and wondering where the story would take her.

For now, she takes a fall to the deck below, but survives intact and runs away. Meanwhile, Yuu is reunited with Posi, who is unable to contact Nega through the telepathy they share. It seems Nega got a bump on the head when he fell.

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Catherine, who is crawling through the crowd to escape the searching Mrs. Lampling, comes across him. Despite his initial annoyance, she carries him off to ice down the bump, and uses one of her red ribbons as a bandage.

Catherine explains to Nega that she escaped the ship because she wants to go see the house where she was born, where she left something important years ago.

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If she gets it, she tells him, she can go anywhere.

Cut to flashback, where Catherine tells the story about how six years ago, when she was a small child of four, her father came back from one of his business trips on the Silk Road and left her a wooden box.

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Upon looking into the box, the young Catherine finds herself flying through a fantasy world, gliding over mountain ranges, visiting the great pyramids, New York City, Athens, and the Taj Mahal. The box takes her to all the places where her father goes, and frees her from the confines of her room. It salves her loneliness. Without being directly told so, we get the sense that Catherine has always been a very isolated child. And as we might expect, even the imaginary freedom that the box provides is too much for her to be allowed.

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Just before the family moves from Japan to America, Mrs. Lampling insists the box be taken away, and Catherine, desperate to preserve it somehow, buries it in the back yard beneath a tree.

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Back in the present, Nega muses that if he had the box, he might be able to see Feather Star again. But Catherine can’t hear his voice. She expresses joy at being back in Tokyo and having a chance to retrieve it, and then sadly reflects that even now Mrs. Lampling was trying to keep her confined, even though she “didn’t have much of a fever.” A small expository fragment that tells us a lot about her world.

Catherine resolves to go look for her former house with Nega, but it isn’t long before she has to stop and rest, having never walked so far before.

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She hails a taxi, but when the driver stops at a police box to ask for directions she fears that he’s turning her in as a runaway, and she and the cat flee.

On foot again, the two stop at a park, and they bond at a fountain where Catherine holds water in her hands for the cat to lap. They proceed down a busy street with carnival amusements set up, and watch excitedly as a train goes by. One gets the feeling that Catherine is exploring–testing boundaries and playing freely–for the first time in her life.

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Eventually the two of them locate Catherine’s old house, only to find Mrs. Lampling waiting there, having anticipated the girl’s movements. They circle around to the back gate, which they find is locked, and then sneak inside a laundry truck and wait for it to hopefully go inside.

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Their tactic pays off. After a dramatic encounter with a barking dog, the two escape the truck and manage to find the box, still buried beneath the tree. Catherine’s hands are so soft that digging in the earth hurts her, but she goes on doing it anyway, pushing through the pain until Nega helps out by bringing her a trowel.

Finally, the moment of truth comes. Catherine brings the time-worn, dirt-covered box back to the park she passed through earlier. She sits down on a bench, reluctant to open it.

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Interestingly, although Creamy Mami is a show where magic exists, and although we’ve watched Catherine push herself so far in order to accomplish her goal, it isn’t hard for us to guess what’s going to happen next.

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There is nothing in the box.

Catherine can’t believe it. She insists to Nega that the box used to show her things, that she wasn’t lying. He says he believes her, but that now she knows what it really is: just a box. The dreams were all inside her head. Catherine still can’t hear him speak, and asks him why the box won’t show her anything.

Catherine and Nega head back to the ship, and Nega meets up with Posi and asks her for a whispered favor. Then some silly stuff happens where Yuu dresses up as Catherine to distract Mrs. Lampling.

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Yeah, right, that specific wig was just lying around.

Back in her cabin on the ship, Catherine speculates that maybe the box lost its power from being buried underground for so long, and thinks that maybe if she cleans it off it it’ll be restored. Nega sneaks out of the room to meet Posi and Yuu, and Yuu uses her magic.

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Cleaning the open box, Catherine notices that Nega is gone, and then looks down to see a glow spreading across its interior. The glow congeals into the form of the cat, who speaks to her audibly for the first time. Catherine is shocked and elated. Posi appears too.

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Catherine asks them to show her a vision, like a desert town. But Nega says they can’t. “This is the end of your dream box,” he tells her, and when she asks why, he explains what we all know: in her reliance on the box, she stopped dreaming on her own. Perhaps at one time she needed it, but she can’t go on keeping all her dreams in such a confined thing.

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Catherine seems reluctant to accept this, even questioning the idea that she can make her own dreams. But Nega tells her that she’ll be fine, and urges her to think about it during her trip home. Wishing her well, the two cats disappear, and Catherine’s red ribbon falls into the box from Nega’s vanished head. But Catherine isn’t ready to be left alone. She begs them to stay for just a little longer, to no avail.

What happens next is a timeworn plot device. The ocean liner’s foghorn blows, signalling a transition of scene, and we see Catherine waking up in bed, hovered over by a doctor and Mrs. Lampling. Catherine wonders aloud if she was dreaming, and Lampling asks her what she means, then scolds Catherine for how much she made her worry. Catherine asks where the cats are.

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Amusingly, Mrs. Lampling seems to be genuinely at a loss here. She asks the doctor if he’s sure Catherine doesn’t have a fever, and for the first time we feel a kind of sympathy for the woman, because of her cluelessness and the fact that she obviously thinks she’s doing the right thing in life. She’s not intentionally evil, just very misguided.

Catherine sees that the box is on the bed next to her pillow, checks inside, and finds that her ribbon is still there. This is the trope we’ve all seen before: confirmation from a physical object that a magical experience was not a dream. She’s overjoyed.

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Rushing outside onto the deck of the departing ship, she waves toward the shore as colored streamers drift by on the breeze and calls out to Nega repeatedly, thanking him and promising him that she’ll think about what he said. She’s still stuck with Mrs. Lampling for a while, but we get the definite impression that Catherine is going to grow.

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Pretty touching, right? Some would say cloying, I’m sure. The episode is full of cliches that we’ve seen before, and it’s sentimental in a way that we find embarrassing nowadays. But for me at least it was hard not to care about Catherine, an innocent with a pure spirit and an independent will, striving to build an identity for herself and expand her world despite some very strong limitations. Her struggle felt real to me.

The metaphor of Catherine’s boxed-in existence resulting in her imagination taking the form of a literal box seemed especially true, and was something I personally related to. In fact, after watching the episode it suddenly occurred to me that the very day before I had gone out and acquired a dated, scratched-up box, specifically for the reason that it had once been a conduit for my own imagination.

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As a kid, my original Game Boy held a special fascination for me because of the disparity between its size and the size of the worlds it contained. Its RPG games in particular were huge, holding seemingly endless landscapes and horizons, worlds that fit on tiny cartridges that plugged into a box I could hold in my small hands. It amazed me, and the simplicity of the black-and-white games and their chiptune music provided fertile ground for my imagination in a way that few other video games have. Like Catherine’s wooden box, which hails from an era before the existence of portable screens, my Game Boy was an object that enabled me to dream.

What I found upon purchasing this GBA SP and playing some of Sword of Mana–a remake of one of those games I used to love–was that I felt rather nonplussed. The experience wasn’t bad, but in many ways I’ve grown out of it. While I still enjoy video games, they aren’t large enough to contain my imagination as they once did. My imagination is now manifested most vividly through acts of creativity, like writing. I often create worlds now, rather than just passively experiencing them, and that’s really what Nega was urging Catherine to do. Her world was all interiors, all observance, and her furthest horizon was the inside of a box. By getting out and interacting with the world for the first time in her life, she discovered how much more she was capable of.

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What really makes us happy?

It seems like a quaint story for children, and I almost feel embarrassed to write all this about it. But to be honest, aside from the Game Boy thing, it made me think a lot about my own life, especially about the amount of time I spend on the internet. Relatively little of my day is typically spent outside interacting with other people and with the physical world. When I do go out it’s usually either to go sit inside another box for a few hours doing a rather niche activity (graduate school) or to go stock up on supplies inside some other larger box. I think this is why I’ve come to enjoy bike rides so much. They always give me an opportunity to explore and broaden my literal horizons, and I usually return from them feeling relaxed and free. I only wish I could meet other people on them more often.

I think the boxed-in way in which I live my life is pretty common, nowadays. How much time do we all spend staring at the insides of boxes daily? How much time every week do people collectively spend gazing at their smartphones, scrolling on their laptops  through clickbait lists and outrage porn articles, posting with their small group of friends on facebook or other narrow niche communities that draw them into smaller and smaller circles of existence, limited bubbles that discourage adaptation the broader outside world with all of its variations? Is Catherine’s story really a childish one, or is it one we’d like to feel we’re above because the alternative–not having learned her lesson–is what’s likely?

The story of Catherine is great because it provides a rather ironic comparison: we spend so much of our own lives boxed into rooms, staring into smaller boxes, narrowing ourselves, but for most of us there is no Mrs. Lampling forcing us to do so. What one little girl would do anything to escape we subject ourselves to voluntarily, because it’s safe and easy and predictable. And the further we go down this path, the more we separate ourselves from each other and lose the ability to truly empathize, to relate to other people who aren’t like us at all. The effects of this can be seen in our society, and seem to be getting worse daily. The media–especially online media–is more and more full of finger-pointing and constant attempts to jockey for victim status. More often than not, the goal of our talking heads seems to be to drive us apart into segregated groups and increase the animosity between woman and man, black and white, gay and straight, and so on. The wool is being pulled over our eyes by greedy people who exploit our insecurities for their own profit, financial vampires who thrive on fear and rage and absolutely do not want Americans to see eye-to-eye and live together constructively in the real physical world. Strife in notional spaces is what brings these people profit, and the more each of us narrows the band of reality that we perceive, the easier we can be convinced that those who we don’t understand and interact with are our enemies.

One could of course say the same thing about my own focus here, about this article. How obscure and narrow and odd, to focus on an episode of a magical girl anime from thirty years ago. My interest here is certainly niche. But I think niche interests are great. We all get excited about specific things that other people probably don’t enjoy as much. The thing we should probably ask ourselves is whether we come out of our niche activities feeling more self-assured and excited to share our passions, or more walled-in and convinced that we’re on our own in a hostile world. For myself, I find that it’s often the latter, and that’s something I want to change.

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Creamy Mami and “Hello, Catherine” in particular are psychologically powerful for me because I feel like the people who made this show, rather than trying to force some kind of lesson on the viewer, were just sharing a wonderful feeling they had. They were artists projecting their confidence into the world, resonating on the frequency of a society that was full of optimistic harmony, and their sentiment carries just as much weight now as it did then: while it’s tempting to do so, don’t choose to limit yourself. Our saddest moments always come when we are isolated and alone, and our greatest joys are always when we reach out and expand our worlds.

Thanks for reading all of this, if you did! If you’re interested in watching Creamy Mami,  you can find it at animesols, a crowdfunding site affiliated directly with Studio Pierrot.

http://animesols.com/series/5?page=6

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Drew Tucker and the Original Artists of ‘Magic: The Gathering’

I started playing and became enthralled by Magic: The Gathering almost exactly twenty years ago, in the Summer of 1994. In the two decades since then I’ve played the game sporadically, and I’ve watched as it underwent drastic aesthetic and mechanical changes, in the course of doing so becoming one of the most successful game franchises in the world. Today, the game has profits somewhere close to $250 million per year. It’s surprising how successful Magic is considering how long it’s been around, and a large part of its success undoubtedly lies in the fact that it’s an incredibly well-designed game. Many people think it’s the greatest non-video game ever made.

However, one of the main reasons Magic became a success to begin with, probably the main reason outside of Richard Garfield’s game design, was the strange and memorable art on the cards. And ironically, the history of Magic serves as an excellent example of the many different ways in which capital-A Art and financial enterprise do not mix. Even more than that, the development of the game over the past two decades mirrors broader changes that have occurred in the world at large over the same period, changes wrought by increasing reliance on digital technology to structure everything in our lives and an increasing lockdown of the individual in which avenues of choice become narrower and profit-minded bureacratic systems become more and more powerful. Constant calculation and rigid control have come to the forefront of human experience more than at any other time in history, and we are overloaded with excess information. In contrast to all of this, I think the art and the style of game design from the first few years of Magic: The Gathering are evidence of a less neurotic and more relaxed mode of existence, a mode of thinking and creating which is strikingly imaginative and powerful because of its acceptance of–and even reliance upon–the unconscious and the unknown.

That guy in the black shirt is Drew Tucker, one of the original Magic artists. You don’t really need to watch the video, but the reason I include it here is that it was the spark that caused me to write an article about all this. Tucker is a real character, an artist’s artist, a man who serves the cultural role of bringing us closer to something like a dream state or a drug experience. If his work doesn’t tell us something about our own unconscious minds, it certainly tells us something about his, and I love the way he earnestly talks about his creative process. “There’s moments in here where I didn’t know what I was doing,” he says, describing a painting, “and so I went like, okay, here’s an aggressive stroke…Often it’s for the motion, or for that feeling. This whole painting is a feeling.”

Rather than fitting the mold we would expect for a fantasy illustrator who makes art for a card game, Tucker is a painter in the vein of Monet or Picasso. His work is rather abstract, and his passionate description of himself creating it immediately reminded me of Brian Topp, the tortured artist caricature from Spaced.

“Anger, pain, fear, aggression…” Indeed. I wouldn’t be surprised if Tucker’s creative process actually looked something like this, albiet less silly. And the interesting thing is that in the early years of Magic, this kind of artist was not an exception to the rule. Here’s a card Tucker did for Alpha, Magic’s first set, in 1993:

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When I started playing Magic in ’94, my friends and I often made fun of Drew Tucker’s art, because when you’re a nerdy teenage boy you want to see dragons and angels with breasts, not vague and abstract watercolor pieces. But I did always like Clockwork Beast. There’s a kind of razored intensity to the edges of it, and the way it’s leaning forward lends a frightening amount of weight to the composition. This is a thing you would not want to be caught underneath. Its face, something like a lizard or a dog, is a jumble of angles that seems nearly impossible to look at directly. This has an unsettling effect on the subconscious mind; the indistinct nature of the art helps to fire the imagination, and in this case my own came up with the creaking, rattling sounds it would make as it lurched forward after being wound up. The rich rust-colored background brings even further life to the piece, and feels suggestive of a place of origin: this thing is made of junk from a scrap heap, but when its gears are wound up it becomes kind of alive in a really creepy way. Clockwork Beast is prime Drew Tucker art. It shows his talent for evoking nightmarish feelings through suggestion, and it reminds me strongly of the work Masahiro Ito did for the Silent Hill games, especially his infamous “Red Pyramid Thing.”

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Tucker would be tapped repeatedly to illustrate horror-themed cards throughout the first few years of Magic, and he contributed many pieces to the The Dark, one of Magic’s first expansion sets that had an atmosphere befitting its name. Interestingly, The Dark was influenced heavily by the art team during its design process, and one gets the sense that development was more focused on flavor and aesthetics than on mechanical utility. Because of this, the set ended up being unpopular with players (including me) due to its relative lack of powerful and valuable cards. But its sense of flavor is powerful, and it seems remarkable when compared to the kinds of cards that are made now. A horror-themed set called Innistrad was released in 2012, and in comparison to The Dark it feels like a cartoon. Innistrad full of vampires and werewolves and things that go bump in the night, but its setting has no spiritual or psychological weight. It just feels like a mundane “dark fantasy,” with all the typical tropes one would expect to find. There is no surprise, and little sense of the frightening unknown. Most importantly, everything is controlled top-down by a rigid bureaucratic style guide that leaves no room for individual imagination, and that kills off the fear factor immediately. People are afraid of things they don’t understand, not things they’ve seen a million times. The Dark, in comparison, was actually pretty unsettling. It contained a lot of things that made me squeamish as a 14-year-old and still do even now, and it’s a good example of how original Magic was a game created by and for adults.

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What the hell is a “Season of the Witch”? What does that mean? It is vague, undefinable, and creepy. It is something close to a vibe or a feeling, and the fact that it’s a “season” and that the art is a depiction of a natural landscape is very emblematic of the vibe of The Dark, and of early Magic cards in general. And then, of course, there is the witchcraft element. During the mid-1990s America was still subject to the kind of hysteria that had surrounded Dungeons and Dragons in the 80s, with parents concerned about their children engaging in clandestine devil-worship through tabletop gaming, and early Magic, in retrospect, is actually not so far off from those paranoid fantasies. It’s not that anyone I knew was trying to use the game to engage in actual occult activities, but rather that the feeling associated with cards like this was pretty spiritual and raw because they were so effective at stoking the imagination. When you’re a kid, you still have some belief in the supernatural, and cards like this seemed genuinely profane to me. Season of the Witch is not especially powerful and I don’t think I ever played it in a deck, but I remember that its existence creeped me out in a good way. It seemed like it was probably based on something real, like some forgotten pagan tradition from the time before Halloween. It made me think of days growing shorter in the Fall, and nights growing longer. In my mind, at least, this card had a powerful connection to both human spiritual traditions and to the cycles of the natural world. It was a magic card, literally.

As for what it functionally does, it’s a black enchantment (a kind of permanent spell) that drives all creatures in the game into a frenzy, forcing them to either to constantly attack or to die, and every turn you must pay some of your precious lifeforce to keep it in play. Note that the spell costs three black mana to cast, which is a very heavy color commitment. This card is all about flavor, about evoking a feeling of what “black magic” means in the game, and color-saturated cards like this were pretty common in The Dark. The art is notably by Jesper Myrfors, the original art director for Magic and one of the main card designers for the set. Because the card and the art were most likely both designed by Myrfors himself, Season of the Witch is a perfect example of what it meant that The Dark was a set created by artists. My youthful impression that the card represented something meaningful and real–that it contained some kind of actual magic–was inexorably tied to the artistic vision that Myrfors had, and the fact that he left the fine details of what it meant up to my imagination and therefore allowed me to create along with him. In this way, early Magic was much like a tabeltop roleplaying game, which is no surprise since that was the culture it emerged from. As the decades have passed, Magic has become much more like a video game, with ironclad rules, firmly established worlds with little-to-no room for player storytelling, and a general lack of abstract or mysterious cards that fuel the imagination. But I’ll talk more about that later.

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Here’s another Drew Tucker card, also from The Dark, and another one that I enjoyed even as a kid because of its flavor. It’s a great example of how Tucker’s style is ideal for presenting something mysterious and forcing the viewer to imagine. In the foreground, we see a man crossing a fallen tree, perhaps over a stream, and when we follow his view we see that he has spotted two vaguely-defined figures to the left, one of them tinted the ochre of fallen leaves, its head cocked oddly to the side, and the other more shadowed, half-hidden behind a rock. The foreground figure, onto whom we project ourselves, seems to have frozen in his tracks upon spotting the People of the Woods, startled and uncertain of what to do next.

The flavor text on the card is perfect, as it tells us nothing about the People other than that they have bows and arrows and that they are so reclusive that they don’t even bother to loot the bodies of those they have killed, choosing instead to melt back into the shadows of the forest. This is the essence of how green magic is represented in The Dark. In orginal Magic overall, green represented forests, druids, elves, animal and plant life, and the indomitable spirit of nature. But in The Dark, most of the green creatures and spells were similar in tone to People of the Woods, evoking  the way in which unexplored nature hides countless secrets and holds dangerous threats for an unprepared traveler. Green magic in The Dark teases out the way in which the natural world is fundamentally something we don’t understand, something we can’t comprehend in its entirety. There is a cast of mysterious lurking creatures, forest hags, leeches, venomous snakes, carnivorous plants and camouflaged woodland bandits, the kinds of things that might be dwelling in the back of your mind as you set off alone on a journey into a twilit thicket. And most of them, like People of the Woods, are not explained. It’s left up to the player to imagine the origins and actions of these things, and the story of what they are is told through the interaction of their cards in the game.

Past its art and its flavor text, People of the Woods is also an elegantly designed and well-balanced card, and its mechanical functionality is an ingenious representation of its flavor: the more forests a player controls, the more toughness People of the Woods will have. If a player controls a vast domain of woodlands where the People have free reign, they will be incredibly elusive and therefore impossible to kill for even the most powerful of opposing creatures. The more forests the People have to dwell in, the more mysterious they become. And that is a brilliant design decision: the “toughness” stat on this card, rather than representing a large body or heavy armor as it usually does, represents mystery. One can imagine the legend of the People spreading through the forested lands, and populations growing more and more wary to venture into the woods. This is what The Dark was about: your own personal game of Magic representing certain ideas, horror-themed ideas that fuel the imagination specifically because the human mind is so good at visualizing dangers.

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Cave People is yet another Drew Tucker card, and you can see that they were doing the same thing here with red magic that they did with green in People of the Woods. The card’s functionality perfectly mirrors its aesthetic concept, and mystery is at the forefront of the presentation. Who are Cave People? We don’t really know. They are elusive, and like People of the Woods their toughness comes from their reclusiveness. I don’t think this card’s art is quite as good as the art on People of the Woods, nor is it as mechanically strong, but as a combination of mechanics and flavor it’s a winner. Cave People, like a couple other cards I will discuss below, also rewards a player for committing heavily to a single color, and even gives the player advantages over others playing the same color (in this case, the mountainwalk ability). This has the effect of making the game feel more flavorful in the same fundamental way that putting more red kool-aid in glass of water increases the taste. The Dark encouraged players to explore the aesthetics of the different colors of Magic by making it lucrative to invest more fully in them.

39Elves of Deep Shadow is one of the most iconic cards in all of Magic. Obviously painted with a real model (apparently a girl named Amber who lives in Seattle and has a band called Varnish, how 90s is that?), it has a naturalistic, human-hearted charm to it that you simply won’t find in any modern Magic card. Depictions of real people like this were pretty common in Magic’s early days, but the straightforward charisma of EoDS is particularly memorable. It’s simple and direct, and like other cards in The Dark it’s powerful because it’s evocative of something real: in this case, the 1990s goth scene. In the 90s, Magic culture and tabletop gaming culture in general were strongly linked to counterculture movements and music, especially goth stuff. The card store I frequented in 1994 was full of people who listened to The Cure and dressed at least a little bit gothic, and many of them also played White Wolf’s “Vampire: The Masquerade,” a game that fascinated and kind of frightened me at the time. Even more to the point, The Dark was released in August of ’94, the same month that Wizards of the Coast released Jyhad, a collectible card game based on “Vampire.” Many of the artists who worked on Jyhad had been simultaneously working on The Dark. It wasn’t a coincidence that these two gothic horror card sets were released at the same time, and it’s fun to imagine how a team of artists and designers came up with the cards in The Dark while the artists were simultaneously dreaming up morbid depictions of vampires and the World of Darkness that surrounded them. It’s a lot like if a band was doing a concept album and some of the members had a similar side project going on. This is how art is made, by people who are inspired with ideas and create things in the moment based on feelings and aesthetics, who create things primarily for themselves, because they are excited by them. Art like this has staying power.

As a card, Elves of Deep Shadow is an elegant, flavorful subversion of an original Magic card, Alpha’s Llanowar Elves, a 1/1 green creature for one green mana that could tap to provide one green mana. EoDS is Llanowar Elves corrupted, a green archetype gone goth. It’s a creature that refuses to do what’s expected of it, and pays the price of social exclusion for expressing its individuality (see the flavor text). All of this is is expressed mechanically through the fact that it provides black mana, and through the loss of life when using its ability. It’s a simple concept: being different is painful. If this card had a theme song, it would be “Every Day is Halloween” by Ministry. This is the raw idea of “being goth” condensed into a discrete functional element of a game environment, and it’s one of the best examples of how early Magic cards could brilliantly serve the dual purpose of allowing players to play with ideas while simultaneously playing a fun and well-balanced card game. This was truly admirable game design.

It’s worth noting here as well that White Wolf’s gothic “World of Darkness” games–including Vampire–were also genuinely subversive, but not in the literal devil-worshipping way that conservative Christians must have imagined at the time. While Vampire: The Masquerade was a game in which players could literally imagine themselves as vampires, its real power was as a creative space in which people could tell meaningful stories about themselves and about the world as they saw it (World of Darkness games even referred to the person running them as the “Storyteller,” rather than using a term like “Game Master”). By telling such stories, people could forge new identities, and could create new narratives about the world that had nothing to do with the concepts of value imposed on them by mainstream American culture, with all of its corporate and literalist-religious influences. Vampire and its sister games provided an avenue through which people could create value in their lives, and that, combined with the games’ obvious attachments to the artistic and musical subcultures that shared their ideals, was the secret of their success. While it’s a formidable work of art on its own, Elves of Deep Shadow is also an example of how this kind of cross-pollinated gaming and art culture spilled over into Magic. It’s a nexus point of real world meaning and playful, fantastical creation, and because of that it’s a shining example of what art in general can be, inside or outside of a game.

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Less gothic but still exemplifying The Dark‘s green magic theme of sylvan mystery, Scarwood Hag and Hidden Path both reward players who commit heavily to green by giving them thematic and mechanical control of the woodlands. It’s easy to see how the team that came up with People of the Woods was the same one that came up with these cards, all of which care very much about the land in play and want you to play many forests. It’s clear that the designers wanted players to really feel like they were mastering this school of magic with these cards; not only did dedicating most or all of your landbase to forests give you powerful green spells, it gave you an edge over other green players who were still flirting with other colors. Scarwood Hag especially does this, with its ability to deprive your opponents’ creatures of forestwalk (which is great if you’re using Hidden Path). It’s the same dynamic they were exploring with Cave People.

Note once again the completely mysterious nature of both of these cards. Who is the hag, and how does she get her powers? She seems to be a witch that has melded herself into the land, and the art depicts this wonderfully with her head rising out of a woodland pool, a fallen leaf nestled in her hair, her flesh nearly the same tone as the branch just behind her. The rest is up to our imaginations. The source of the magic in Hidden Path is an enigma as well, and the flavor text describing “strange, floating lights” adds the perfect ambiance to the card. One can’t help but think of animistic religious beliefs, or of old European faerie myths. The mystery of the natural world is alive here, and as I said before, one can see how Christian groups would have been very bothered by these cards at the time. In fact, militant atheists would be pretty bothered by them too. These cards, while not being tools for use in literal magical ceremonies, are magic in the sense that they invoke the unknown as a canvas for us to illustrate as we choose. They don’t encourage actual superstition as much as they invite us to remember the significance that has been seen in the natural world throughout history. They remind us that there’s something here that we don’t understand, and that something is the thing invites us to tell a story. This powerful, active sense of being personally engaged with the “magic”–an effect resulting from the interweaving of imaginative, suggestive abstract art and flavorful card mechanics–was the formula which led to the huge breakout success of early Magic: The Gathering.

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In contrast, here is Lost in the Woods, a card from Innistrad block that has a classically flavorful mechanical design that would’ve fit into The Dark perfectly. But look at what a missed opportunity the art is. It’s an incredibly literalist, overly-detailed depiction of some guys who are lost in the woods. All we can see of the woods they’re lost in is a smattering of trunks and branches above their heads, and the focus is inexplicably placed on the men themselves, who are completely uninteresting. Why are we staring at the bottom of some dude’s neck? Is that perspective supposed to be scary? Why is the other guy looking at us with some kind of smug expression? And really, who gives a damn about the details of their armor? This art is technically proficient and not unimpressive in terms of lighting and shading, but it gives us nothing to imagine, and in fact shuts down our imaginative process right as it begins. There’s the guys who are lost in the woods. Yep. Move on. This is what most modern Magic art is like, unfortunately. Note also the inorganic and overly-designed modern green card frame, which adds basically nothing to the presentation and distracts us from the art. They reinvented the wheel with this, as one of the other main reasons for Magic’s early success was the simplicity of its overall visual design. The cards were very easy to read, especially compared to most other collectible card games, and their outer frames consisted of naturalistic paintings which effortlessly invoked their color archetypes. Most importantly, the frames looked real, providing the illusion that the cards were printed on some kind of magical parchment. In comparison, the frame on Lost in the Woods looks like something that was designed on a computer.

Close your eyes and imagine this card with the original green frame. Imagine its art zoomed out incredibly far, above the tops of the trees, far enough that we can see the vast encompassing darkness of a midnight forest, a cluster of tiny faintly-glowing torches visible in a small clearing within it, perhaps a bird flying across the nearby night sky to give us perspective. That’s a scene with memorable impact, a scene that emphasizes the power of the unknown and practically forces us to use our imaginations. If Lost in the Woods had been a card in The Dark designed by Tucker or Myrfors, I’d wager its art would look something like that. The people who designed The Dark knew how to create open-ended visions that would stick with you, visions that would lead you to tell your own stories… Stories you’d try not to think about when you were going to bed at night.

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Join me next time when I talk about more art from early Magic, including more pieces from Drew Tucker and cards from the game’s first stand-alone expansion, Ice Age!

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Alstroemeria Records – Killed Dancehall

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This has been my jam the last couple of days. I’ve been listening to this circle’s stuff for the better part of a decade, but I’d slacked on keeping up with their output recently, and last week I realized I had about five albums to go through dating back to 2011. I listened to two of them, and then “Killed Dancehall” totally grabbed me and I couldn’t stop replaying it.

Alstroemeria Records is the label of Masayoshi Minoshima, an artist who’s been putting out doujin electronic albums since 2002, focusing mostly on trance and progressive house arrangements of Touhou melodies. The albums are usually compilations, mixes weighted heavily with his own work and punctuated by tracks from other artists in his circle.

Alstroemeria is serious, heavy dance music. Minoshima and his coterie take influence from contemporary Western DJs and electronic musicians, and their mixes never fail to sound thoroughly polished and professional. I’ve always found them to be a strange phenomenon, an aberration in Touhou doujin music culture, simply because they seem way too cool for the rest of it. Minoshima himself has a look one would expect from a popular DJ, a suave handsomeness coiffed with cool haircuts, and you could play many of his tracks at a normal American dance club without people batting an eye, except perhaps to notice that the vocals are in Japanese. So why are he and his friends part of the Touhou music scene?

The answer, I’m fairly sure, is inspiration. For one thing, Touhou offers a vast storehouse of accessible, powerful melodies that are culturally acceptable for anyone to appropriate. I wrote in a previous blog post about how ZUN, the creator of Touhou, is probably the most professionally-covered musician of all time outside of the famous classical composers. Alstroemeria Records exemplifies why: Minoshima and the other artists on his label use Touhou songs as flavors, with familiar elements of melodies and famous hooks worming their way into their slamming electronic mixes at just the right moments. Often, Alstroemeria tracks have only the faintest resemblance to the Touhou songs they ostensibly cover, and sometimes no resemblance at all.  This is Touhou-as-muse, as pure inspiration rather than distinct form to be rearranged. Other artists have used this same approach, but few with such popular success. Alstroemeria has produced smash hits, their rendition of “Bad Apple” being the biggest so far, so big its video became something of an internet meme and showed up on CNN.

The main effect of this powerful muselike influence is that Alstroemeria albums are the strongest example I’ve ever encountered of what a musician friend of mine once called “night music.” He categorized his own electronic band in the genre, declining to say what exactly he meant by it. But I knew. Certain music only feels appropriate to listen to at night. Often it’s instrumental and electronic, and often it has a kind of yearning emotional quality that only feels quite right when driving through the night, or when on a darkened dance floor. This describes Alstroemeria Records. The circle’s lyrics, all written by “Haruka,” are despondently emotional, focused on pining and lost love, and the deliveries by the female vocalists are almost invariably ridden with strife.

Most of all though, “night music” means dreaminess. Nighttime has always been for mankind the domain of the spirit world, the land of imagination and mystery, and the time of sleep. There is much of that dreaming feeling here, and it’s accomplished by various means. First off, the house and trance genres lend themselves naturally to becoming “night music,” and trance acquired its particular name for a reason. This is music that often operates on something of a subconscious level; on the surface it can seem repetitive, loopy, “stupid” in the way that dance music is often slurred, but the cyclic repetitions and the strength of atmosphere created by the artists’ production skills creates an atmosphere that is genuinely trance-like. Alstroemeria albums feel like experiences more than most records do, being intentional mixes. Every track is crossfaded into the next, creating one long incantation, an emotional spell that isn’t broken until the whole show comes to an end, and this gives the music a quality that repels the kind of playlist-snipping we commonly prefer in the modern era. These albums beg to be heard as a cohesive wholes.

“Killed Dancehall” is an ideal example of this, an album with tracks that all mix together into one extended rapture. It starts out with “Undercover/Romantic Children,” the typical duo of buildup track and attention-grabbing banger that Minoshima likes to lead in with, and the results succeed as usual. “Romantic” is a reworking of a relatively obscure song from Mystic Square, one of the older Touhou games, and it’s a perfect example of what Minoshima does best, using an original melody as a sort of canvas to cut pieces from, taking the phrases he likes and rearranging them into something vital and new. It’s also incredibly, heavily atmospheric, drenched in many layers of synth and driven by a hard pounding bassline. When “Undercover” transitions into “Romantic” at nearly two minutes in, one can’t help but visualize a dancefloor catching fire. This kind of formula is not new or experimental; it is established, and it’s established because it works. Making people dance and making them dream are not very disconnected goals, and both are accomplished here with scientific precision. This is powerful music, music that takes control.

Nachi Sakaue’s vocal in “Romantic Children” is plaintive, evoking amorous longings. Her voice is strident, insistent, and a register or two higher than what we expect from our female vocalists in the west. The high pitch sharpens her delivery, makes it pierce clearly above the rest of the song’s mix, and at times the wracked affect of the words feels like the twisting of a knife. The bittersweet is embraced here, cherished even, and the sentiment resonates just as much as it does in most pop music. It’s a celebration of the full range of human experience. To live and love is to suffer, and the vulnerability of the singer invites us to accept and explore our own. Ironically, it’s the music of pain that invites us to love.

The album’s third track goes even further with Minoshima’s re-interpretative aesthetic. “UN Owen Was Her” is one of the most famous and widely covered songs in the Touhou canon, but I had to look up “Unknown” to realize that’s what it was based on; the title is the only obvious clue. The track is entirely an original creation, and its tone is exactly the same as the last, with heartfelt vocals sung over a rapidly shifting electronic landscape, this time incorporating wobbling dubstep elements. Mei Ayakura has a beautiful voice, more breathy and less nasal than Nachi Sakaue and pitched slightly lower, closer to what we’re accustomed to. The melody of her vocal seems to fly in circles, looping back upon itself, struggling with internal emotional conflict or perhaps just eternal recurrence. It’s lovely how, without even knowing the lyrics, so much of the content is conveyed simply through the tone and the melodic structure.

“Phantoms In Da House,” a track by Minoshima’s compatriot Nhato, reverses the trend of the first few songs by nearly being a straight cover. It leans heavily on “Phantom Ensemble,” a song with one of the strongest melodies in Touhou, first bringing in the melody via scratchy, cheap-sounding horns, and playing around with cut-up orchestra hit samples and a liquid synth bass that squirms around wildly like a snake refusing to be pinned down. The melody returns again in the form of a ghostly reverberating synth that can almost–but not quite–be pinned down to some kind of real instrument, there is a gloriously free-flying arpeggiated synth solo, and finally, exactly at the four minute mark, the song surges into into the frenzy it’s been building toward the whole time, a mad dance of a dozen instrumental elements swirling and exploding around one another, all propelled by a single pounding 4/4 beat. This section of the song lasts for only thirty seconds, but it’s so gloriously cathartic it feels worth the entire four minutes that preceded it. It’s a culmination that almost literally shimmers, so spirited and vibrant that it isn’t hard at all to imagine a hall full of intangible phantoms, floating and glowing in the air, rollicking back and forth as they bust out the most heavenly jam they can conceive.

Without a doubt, it’s this kind of imaginative, directly fantastical inspiration that gives Alstroemeria Records their power. “Phantom Ensemble” is canonically a song played by a trio of spectral musicians, and that inspiration probably never left the composer’s mind. Many of Alstroemeria’s attributes that I’ve discussed so far are common to house and trance music in general, but there is something that is special about the tone of their music. Persistently, across a dozen albums, I’ve seen them evoke a kind of bittersweet nighttime reverie that I’ve heard nowhere else.

It is unspoken, but known by everyone who participates in it, that Touhou artistic culture is a bastion of public dreaming. Because of the particular rules set out by ZUN, the man who created and owns all of the original music and all of the characters, Touhou is a thing that cannot be corporatized. He forbids any works based on it to be produced on a scale beyond the small-time and independent, and the result is one of the world’s last true remaining bohemias, one that exists on the internet and in people’s minds instead of in a physical place. It’s a genuine subculture that cannot be absorbed and spat back out as crass marketing, one in which sex sells but genuine love does as well.

“Flowering Night” is one of the iconic songs of Touhou, and I think there’s a kind of reverence in the fact that Minoshima didn’t rename his cover of it. This is the obvious pinnacle of “night music,” the word right in the title, and Flowering Night is also a yearly live Touhou concert held in Japan, one which Minoshima has performed in before. Amusingly, speaking about the original song, ZUN said “What’s weird to me is that if you think it’s going to be an Asian piece, it sounds like it, but treat it as Western and it sounds like that too. If you think it’s childlike, it’s childlike, and if you think it’s more mature, it sounds that way.” This describes basically all of Touhou music.

Masayoshi’s version of the song is his own style distilled. “Alstroemeria” itself means a kind of flowering plant, the “lily of the incas,” and the dreamy blooming of this piece personifies his musical ambitions. The first minute and a half of the song is pure buildup, synths like waves of sand rolling over dunes, and ayame’s vocal in the verse has the same kind of tentative, recursive quality as in so many of Minoshima’s other songs. When it comes to the bridge it ascends, all the musical elements swelling in strength with ayame’s now double-tracked voice, and then the chorus takes this inertia and simply glides along, sailing through a beautiful dream. You can close your eyes and almost see it. This sublime, visceral dreamstate is what trance music has always aspired to, in all cultures, and somehow Minoshima has captured that feeling and taken it a step further. There’s something about his dream that’s incredibly lucid, crystalline pure, perhaps because it was allowed to flower in the neo-bohemian garden of Touhou culture.

Flowing directly out of “Flowering Night” is “Underdog,” Minoshima’s last track on the album, a creation completely of his own. The song pulses and scintillates, brims with life, rich digital synths evoking the driving soundtracks of the 1980s, its tone right on the edge between making you bang your head and making close your eyes to wistfully daydream. Alstroemeria Records gives me hope that, no matter how cynical the recycling of music culture becomes, it will always be sincere art that rules and expresses our dreams.

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