special, but not special

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 ourselves from physical reality.

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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 happen. 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.

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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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TV Scene

The last topic I wrote about–the entirety of Kill la Kill–was pretty big, so here’s something small: a five minute Urusei Yatsura AMV.

Simple concept here. Lum, the oni alien who’s recently come to live on earth, pours herself a glass of juice and watches TV. She immediately becomes rapt, watching a dramatic scene of two lovers on a sunset beach, and then when this scene ends we seem to transition into her imagination, a dreamy mixture of TV scenes and scenes from her own life, possibilities of dramas that could be.

Aside from the AMV creator’s obvious infatuation with Lum as a conduit of innocent love (which he sells pretty convincingly here) and his pitch-perfect choice of music, we get a lot of stuff in this video that cuts deeply into the nature of human fantasies.

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The trope of an alien being enthralled by human television and pop culture is a frequently used one, both in anime and in western TV and films. We like the idea of an extraterrestrial coming to understand us through our entertainment, probably because that’s the way that so many of us, arguably most of us, shape our own understandings of the world. Lum, the wide-eyed innocent alien viewer, is a proxy for ourselves as children, and even as adults. She loses herself in the drama on the screen, accepting it fully. It informs her of the nature of the human game and its possibilities, of what her place in it could be. TV has a distilled cultural wisdom that she lacks.

The song choice is perfect, with its chorus refrain: You know more than me/You know how it feels.

“Feels” is the key word here, because these kinds of dramas are all about emotions, and in the modern slang sense of the word, feels are what Lum and all the rest of us are looking for. It’s obvious but easily forgotten that what she wants from TV, what we all want, is drama. Not peaceful contentment or simple bliss, but rather a bittersweet mixture of gain and loss. The fantasies that play out on her mindscreen are wistful: some are romanticized, pastoral meetings between lovers. A scene of her and Ataru alone together in a beach house leaning against one another, listening to a record player, has a kind of nostalgic simplicity that personally makes me feel an ache. But amusingly, the majority of Lum’s fantasies here are ones of loss: silent partings between lovers in a bedroom, in an airport, at a train station filled with luminescent falling snow. Scenes that bring out the full extent of a romantic connections by severing them.

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The Japanese love this stuff. I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve seen an anime where a character is watching some kind of exaggerated soap opera scene in the background–usually a tearful parting between lovers, drenched in sunset colors–and we, the viewer of the viewer, get to have a good laugh at what suckers they are. Really, we’re laughing at ourselves, at human nature, because there’s something comical about the way in which we always pursue drama. By turning the melodrama up to 11, these scenes show us a truth by way of exaggeration: we crave emotionality, whether happy or sad, because it makes us feel alive. We love these kinds of scenes because loss, and the potential for it, is such an essential part of the human game. This kind of drama reminds us of the stakes of the game, and reaffirms us for playing.

The deep truth behind Lum’s dreams in this video, and all of our own as we immerse ourselves in fictional worlds, is that our everyday lives are no different in the end. We love the fantasy of these dramas because we’re in love with the fantasy dramas of our own lives. Human love is so dramatic, so beautiful, so poignant, because of its fragility. It always ends. The same is true of life itself. To be a living being is to be a small part of the universe that is dreaming, that for a tiny spark of a moment in cosmic time assumes a role separate from everything else, a role in which through love and reproduction a kind of immortality can be gained, and in which through death and love’s extinction everything can be lost. Outside of us, in objective reality, the universe goes on, but the bargain we make in order to be sentient, feeling, experiencing beings is to be bound to this subjective role. The pact we make with the universe in order to be human is to agree that we will always become lost in dreams, and our fictional dramas are our most vivid reminders of that.

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The brilliance of this AMV comes from the creator being so familiar with the source material. Lum’s “dreams” here are for the most part not actually her fantasies. They’re real events that happen in the show. Usurei Yatsura is an animated comedy that often engages in parody, much like The Simpsons. It goes a step further than showing us a character watching a soap opera and actually has the main characters play out those roles themselves in an exaggerated way.

It’s easy to fabricate a video of Lum living out her melodramatic fantasies in a daydream, because as a character that’s who she actually is. She is a melodramatic daydream of Rumiko Takahashi, but a self-reflexive, comedic one. That’s the great wisdom of comedy. Drama is the format that allows us to most deeply feel and appreciate the extremities of the human condition, and comedy is what always puts things back into perspective for us. In a sense, it wakes us up.

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A Blade That Cuts Irony: Kill la Kill

“The essence of all beautiful art, all great art, is gratitude.” – Nietzsche 

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For nearly thirty years, the Japanese animation studio Gainax has been telling one story: a story about human yearnings and dreams, about the power and potential of love, ingenuity, and the human spirit. In an odd twist of fate, the studio’s most well-known work in the west has always been Neon Genesis Evangelion, an obvious and enormous exception to this theme, a story about the walls between people and the things that keep them from realizing their dreams and knowing love. Perhaps because of the simple human affinity we have for focusing on the negative, or because of our more specific bias toward praising suffering in art, Evangelion has achieved more international recognition than any other Gainax production. And it certainly deserves the attention. It’s wonderful.

But alongside Eva stand around a dozen other incredibly human works, the latest of which comes from Trigger, a new studio formed by most of the creative talent Gainax had at the start of this decade. One of the two founding members of Trigger is Hiroyuki Imaishi, an animator and director who worked on many of the great Gainax titles, and who directed the epic Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann and more recently the raucous comedy Panty and Stocking With Garterbelt, which I wrote about previously on this blog.

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Trigger burst onto the scene last year with Little Witch Academia, a short feature with movie-quality animation that seems to have enchanted everyone who saw it. LWA followed a host of timeworn anime tropes and familiar characters through a story structure resembling an anime Harry Potter, except with an all-female cast of witches. Pretty much everything that happened in its story was predictable, and one could see from the beginning that the ambitions of its clumsy, big-hearted heroine to follow in the footsteps of her own witch heroine would be realized. But the telegraphed nature of the plot took nothing away from the film’s effect, simply because the proceedings were imbued with so much love. Every frame of Little Witch Academia drips with attention to detail and playful artistic charm, and the underlying message of the whole thing seems to be one of sheer gratitude for being able to work in the medium of animation and for having the good fortune to stand on the shoulders of the creative giants who came before. With Little Witch Academia, Trigger immediately established themselves as the proper heirs to the Gainax throne, and the kickstarter they put up to fund a sequel earned more than half a million dollars. But before LWA 2 was to be released, Trigger had something else up their sleeve.

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In October of 2013, Trigger unleashed its first full-length anime TV series, titled Kill la Kill. The initial plot of the show revolves around Ryuko Matoi, a rebellious transfer student who arrives at a school that functions something like a fascist dictatorship. The students at this school are ranked in tiers, and the higher their rank the finer the regalia they get to wear. The fun part is that their uniforms are imbued with the power of “life fibers,” which enhance their natural abilities and grow increasingly stronger as the ranks go up. The school is ruled over by Satsuki Kiryuin, the student council president, a girl with a crushing demeanor and a strength of will that makes most villains look like dilettantes. Ryuko suspects that Satsuki is the one who killed her father, which is what brought her to the school in the first place, and she begins fighting Satsuki’s lieutenants one-by-one in her quest to take on the main girl herself. And, importantly, Ryuko has some special clothing of her own: a living seifuku named Senketsu who was bequeathed to her by her murdered father, and with whom she can speak. Wearing Senketsu and wielding a wicked red scissor blade with the power to slice life fibers, Ryuko begins cutting her way toward the truth.

Kill la Kill, above all, is a love letter to anime as a medium in the same way that Little Witch Academia was. The plot description above accurately conveys the sequence of initial events, but it doesn’t describe the show, much in the same way that a description of the structure of a Led Zeppelin song doesn’t convey the song’s sonic content. On the screen, Kill la Kill explodes with life. It’s the antithesis of animation-as-product, of pandering to an audience by using a cheap and proven formula. It constantly surprises the viewer with artistic invention. But at the same time, KlK uses nearly every shounen anime cliche in the book, and yet still manages to feel like the creators are getting away with something they shouldn’t. There is a constant sense that they are playing, creating art out of joy, doing what they do purely for the sake of doing it. This is what all great artists do, and it’s why we usually pay them so much: we love to watch them play.

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The tropes being played with here are shopworn: the hot-blooded shounen hero (Ryuko), the plucky and loyal-but-silly companion (Mako Mankanshoku, one of the show’s greatest creations), the enemies who become strong allies after winning their respect through battle (Satsuki and her lieutenants, the “Elite Four”), and the True Villain, the figure who represents the decline of humanity: in this case utter decadence, enslavement to clothing and superficiality, lack of love for one’s offspring, and a strong love of Thanatos (Raygo Kiryuin, Satsuki’s mother and a villain to remember). All of these tropes have been used hundreds, thousands of times before, and at times Kill la Kill can feel like deja vu because the creators choose not to deviate from the well-beaten path of the shounen plot arc. It is so earnest, so unironic in its presentation of events that it can almost feel embarrassing, as we often feel when we watch television from decades ago and find ourselves laughing defensively. Aren’t we more savvy than this, we thinkmore ironic? I would never be caught dead being emotionally affected by something like this.

But Kill la Kill’s impact does not come from postmodern irony or guile. It comes from pure, visceral style that hits the viewer with megaton force. Imaishi and his animators are absolute masters of their art form, and the things they accomplish with a TV series animation budget are breathtaking. Kill la Kill often has a loose, puffy style to its designs, a style that the animators exploit to wring the most frames of animation and the most possible action they can out of a limited amount of time and money, but this style falls away during more dramatic and important moments to reveal something as honed as a blade. When Trigger put in their utmost effort, the results are amazing. Some scenes in Kill la Kill go beyond the quality of animation that one would expect even in a movie, the actual animation being bolstered by incredible direction with a constantly swooping camera that finds the most dynamic and powerful angles in any given scene.

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Style is pushed to the limit in Kill la Kill, and so is sexuality. When I wrote about Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt, I noted that the luscious transformation sequences of the show’s titular angel characters felt unlike most “fanservice” moments in anime because they were so completely lacking in shame. Japan does not share our western sense of sexual guilt in the sense of “original sin,” but they do have a nearly oppressive sense of modesty, and of shame for indulging in certain lifestyles, anime fandom being one of them. Imaishi’s projects at Gainax always had a sort of punk rock feeling to them because of their rebellion against this attitude. It’s quite apparent that he and his coworkers do not give a fuck about society’s general opinions of their work, and also apparent that their pushing the envelope with unabashed, glorious sexuality was deeply tied in with their larger project of celebrating everything great and strong about the human spirit. As I said, Japan has never equated sex with sin and death in the way that Christianity does, except for perhaps in the pernicious western moral influence that infected the country after WWII, the influence that leads them to mandatorily censor their porn even to this day. But Kill la Kill will have none of that. The main good guy organization in the show is an underground movement called “Nudist Beach” which opposes oppression by clothing. Nudist Beach are comical, but the issue is addressed very sincerely by Ryuko and Satsuki, who in their most powerful transformations become scantily clad. Ryuko is embarassed by this at first, and concerned about the judgments of the crowd, but Satsuki has no qualms. She condescends to Ryuko for caring about the opinions of the rabble around her, and states that she would bare anything in order to accomplish her goals. She feels no shame whatsoever, and the crowd has no choice but to respect this. To a westerner, especially in our hypersensitive modern era which obsesses over body images and wants to moralize every depiction of female beauty, this sentiment comes like a slap in the face. And it should, because there is an intense kind of truth here. “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” Shakespeare opined, and perhaps the connection between the two is that while they can be covered up, neither can be denied once brought into the light. In one of the central visual motifs of Kill la Kill, the act of a character disrobing is often accompanied by blazing clusters of four-pointed stars, stars that also appear when a character is donning a uniform and truly making it their own. This other quote from Nietzsche seems appropriate:

“Most people are nothing and are considered nothing until they have dressed themselves in general convictions and public opinions–in accordance with the tailor philosophy: clothes make people. Of the exceptional person, however, it must be said: only he that wears it makes the costume; here opinions cease to be public and become something other than masks, finery, and disguises.”

An aphorism tailor-made for Kill la Kill. On several occasions in the series, characters accuse other characters of not truly wearing their clothing, saying that in fact they are being worn by it. The implication is that they have not self-actualized, that they are merely playing a role for the sake of a certain audience. In the metaphorical superhero logic of the series, this translates into a lack of physical strength and fighting power: a person who is being untrue to themselves cannot stand in combat against one who has embraced all of what they are, and there is beauty in that truth. In fact, all of the beauty in the series springs from this: Trigger are largely independent artists who work for themselves, who do what they do primarily because they love to do it. And it shows.

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It is no coincidence that Kill la Kill, being an expression of love for great artistic work, is also a celebration of great human beings. Ryuko and Satsuki are female characters in traditionally male roles–the shounen hero and the temporary antagonist foil who becomes his strongest ally–and they embody masculine virtue in the original sense of the word, the Latin virtus: strength. But they also represent pinnacles of feminine beauty, and they have a kind of softness to them in some moments, a nurturing love that would be difficult to achieve on the same level with traditional male protagonists. In short, they come across as apex human beings. They represent the greatest qualities of both the masculine and the feminine, fused together into characters who above all are meant to do one thing: inspire. Both of them blaze with a fire that sets one’s neck hairs tingling, and their passion and conviction make many of our own superheroes seem embarrassingly bland. There is no sense of winking irony in their portrayals, unlike what one finds in nearly all modern western superhero films. Studio Trigger is not trying to be “cool” in Kill la Kill. They don’t need to do that, because they have such strong conviction about what they’re doing, such love for the material and such a powerful sense of style. Tough-guy irony is a crutch they simply don’t need.

ddL09OZ The strangest thing about this lack of irony is that Kill la Kill is overflowing with metafictional references to older artists and series. Typically we associate references with jokes, to the extent that they have even taken the place of actual humor in some modern shows like Family Guy. Japan often does the same thing these days, but in Kill la Kill every reference seems to be played as a straight homage. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, as they say. The shows’s first ending theme sequence, shown above, cribs blatantly from 1985’s Sukeban Deka, another TV series about a fighting delinquent schoolgirl. The references in Kill la Kill are so ubiquitous that fans decided to compile a massive list of them, and reading through it is rather mind-boggling. There’s so much love for anime, television and cinema crammed into KlK, so much gratitude for other works of art and inspiration taken from them, that it’s no wonder the show has such passion. It reminds me of another old saying: “talent borrows, genius steals.” But in this case theft doesn’t seem like the correct metaphor. Rather than trying to claim all these things as their own, Trigger seems to be celebrating that they exist as part of our cultural heritage. What a great thing it is, that we still have all of this art to enjoy. The series leans especially heavily on the works of Go Nagai, an infamous mangaka whose art constantly pushed the envelope in his own time. Nagai’s sense of chaos, the fierce and fanged nature of many of his characters, and his drive to be sexually transgressive are all very apparent in the show.

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But it should be mentioned, amidst all this serious art talk, that the greatest aspect of 
Kill la Kill is possibly its sense of humor. Humor is present in the show always, a sense of lightness and playfulness being the background from which all of its dramatic events arise. As in Gurren Lagann and Panty and Stocking, Trigger refuses to take themselves too seriously. Every stern scowling line delivered by Satsuki is coupled with a derisive aside from her tiny lieutenant Nonon, or an insanely rambunctious outburst from Mankanshoku Mako. Mako often punctuates the show’s most intense, most serious moments with sudden interruptions, a musical chorus shouting “Hallelujah!” in the background as she proceeds to pantomime her particular screwball take on what is going on in an attempt to sway the opinion of Ryuko or one of the antagonists. Interestingly, this almost always works. Mako has a divine foolishness which cannot be denied, and she is consistently respected for it, along with her tenacious sense of loyalty. There is something deeply marvelous about her character, so silly and yet so freely expressive, and Trigger has more fun with her than they do with any other character in the series. It’s impossible to be totally tense with Mako around. Pure foolishness restores.

In the same vein, another great character of the series is Harime Nui, the “grand couturier” of Ragyo’s clothing company, and the most menacing figure in Kill la Kill.  Nui is cute as a button, obnoxiously cute, pink frilly dress and massive curls of blonde hair, often flouncing around with a fancy umbrella. She wears a purple patch where she lost an eye, and her manner throughout most of the series is mocking and unflappable. Moreover, she cannot be stopped by Ryuko or anyone else. She’s like some kind of gothic lolita terminator, and her overly cutesy appearance and behavior, which most people would already find annoying, are made even moreso by the fact that she seems to break all the world-rules of the show. Nui also routinely breaks the fourth wall, in ways that even Mako seldom does, and all of this adds up to make her one of the most effective “love to hate them” villains in recent memory. Never has cute been so intimidating and so irritating.

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It’s worth mentioning too that all of these characters are brought so vibrantly to life not only by the skill of the animators, but also by the voice talent. The energy and intensity that the actors put into their performances reaches levels that are not often seen outside of animation–the closest analogue in America would probably be the kind of dramatic monologuing in films like Braveheart or A Few Good Men. The almost total lack of irony in the series gives the actors free reign to be completely committed to their performances, to scream and roar in the booth with every ounce of passion they have. This kind of stuff is more common in anime than it is in western films, but Kill la Kill excels in the emotionality of its voice acting even by Japanese standards, and the rousing soundtrack by Hiroyuki Sawano gives the actors a fantastic base to stand on. The show’s recurring musical themes are unflinchingly ardent, some sounding angry and rebellious and others wonderfully noble. All of them inspire emotion, and the music ties up the total package of the show beautifully. It’s hard to imagine anyone giving serious attention to Kill la Kill without having some kind of emotional response.

The response, on the internet, has certainly been emotional. The show has been extremely divisive, attracting many devoted fans who maintain that it is “saving anime” (a claim that seems to resurface every few years, usually attached to a Gainax production), and a large group of people who decry the show as being juvenile, overly bombastic, too action-packed, and too self-serious. Many take issue with the show’s nudity as well, displaying a sort of puritan squeamishness and prompting others to make apologetics by way of saying that it’s a satire of fanservice, or a “deconstruction.” The show spells out clearly in words that this is not the case, but people will go a long way with their cognitive dissonance when it comes to sexual discomfort. The main issue, however, is that many people seem to be very uncomfortable with the show’s guilelessness. If one is accustomed to shielding oneself by maintaining an ironic distance from the world, a work of art like Kill la Kill can seem threatening. In a way, its lack of irony is rebellious.

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One of the main things Kill la Kill and the internet reaction to it brought to my mind was a 1993 essay by David Foster Wallace, titled”E Unibus Pluram,” where Wallace pondered the ways in which American television has descended further and further into defensive layers of irony, and the futile ways in which we have reacted to this cycle by bashing TV and trying to become more and more ironic ourselves (while still constantly watching televison). After wrestling with this seemingly intractable issue for 42 pages, Wallace comes to the conclusion that the only way out, the only true way for the contemporary artist to rebel in a climate where irony has rendered rebellion obsolete, is to embrace earnestness. He suggests that such rebels would “have the childish gall actually to endorse single-entendre values,” and would “treat old untrendy human troubles and emotions…with reverence and conviction.” The risk of this, he points out, is the risk of disapproval: “the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the ‘how banal.'” And that is the negative reaction that Kill la Kill has gotten, from some people. Specifically, detractors have accused it of being a show for teenagers or children, implying that to be an adult is to hide behind a redoubt of irony. This reaction comes as no surprise.

The great surprise, however, is how popular Kill la Kill is. One of the delightful things about our modern era that Wallace couldn’t have seen back in 1993 is the degree of cultural cross-pollination we have reached, where the Hot New Thing in Japan is simultaneously a big deal in America. Kill la Kill was simulcast on Crunchyroll, the largest American digital anime site, and US fans were able to experience it at the same time as fans in Japan. The amount of fanart, cosplay, internet posting and general excitement and hype surrounding the show was greater than any other in the past few years, and after the airing of the series finale last Thursday it seemed that most people were very pleased. The critical reception, for the most part, has been highly positive. Interestingly, it’s hard to imagine the response being the same if Kill la Kill had been an American show. The series is profoundly Japanese, and perhaps something about it being so foreign allows an irony-inoculated American audience to accept it and revel in it, rather than rolling their eyes and turning away. For whatever reason, Japan has still not reached the level of irony saturation present in western culture, and our increasingly close relationship with them allows their bright-eyed take on the world to penetrate and influence our own.

But, as I said before, Kill la Kill is amazingly earnest even compared to other anime. And the reason for this, above all, seems to be love. Trigger is an anomaly, an animation studio formed by seasoned auteurs who maintain nearly complete creative control of their projects. They are “artist’s artists,” people who have nothing in mind but creating something which they themselves adore, and they expose us to a truth which is easily forgotten in a jaded and overly-marketed world: the most successful art is always art created in a state of play, created to please and satisfy the artist rather than some imagined mass audience. Kill la Kill is a success because, no matter how much farther we travel down the irony rabbit-hole, people will always respond to art made by and about people who are striving to be true to themselves. In short, the outpouring of gratitude, love of craft, and power of style in Kill la Kill are things which simply can’t be faked.

 

 

The fan-compiled list of references in the show: https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/225692543/References.html

Watch it on Crunchyroll! http://www.crunchyroll.com/kill-la-kill

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she – Electric Girl

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I always find it interesting how some musicians exist in a sort of publicity void, too small-time and obscure to be acknowledged by mainstream reviewers, and yet somehow too raw or guileless to be rated by the likes of Pitchfork or Consequence of Sound. Often these artists are cult acts, and often their music is just a little too openly emotional or too negligent of current trends to be acknowledged by the hipsterati. There seems to be an unspoken rule: if your heart is worn openly on your sleeve, then you better be pretty damn hip to make up for it. As I noted in an earlier post on this blog, Mindless Self Indulgence is a pretty good example of this phenomenon. Frankenstein Girls Will Seem Strangely Sexy, a crass and incredible cult classic that goes well beyond making a joke about the art of trying to look cool, is an undeniably infamous album. It has left its mark on the goth/punk/industrial subconscious, and MSI has a sizable following. But good luck finding a review of the album outside of Amazon. It’s somehow unrateable.

Lain Trzaska exists in a similar realm. He’s currently one of the most prolific underground electronic artists in the world, with 11 EPs and full albums released since 2004 and 11 singles in the past eight years, all of which contain material separate from the albums. He has a serious love for making music. Most of it has come under the banner of “she” (not capitalized, likely in deference to Yasutaka Nakata’s capsule, one of his biggest influences).

“she” is the aural equivalent of an electrical fever dream. Trzaska is the kind of producer who can’t keep his hands off the knobs for a second, and every single track oozes with an obsessive attention to detail. He cuts up vocals, pours on the filters, abuses sidechaining, and layers all of his sonic elements with such dizzying speed and precision that a track can often literally leave one breathless. On Electric Girl, a blistering song called Voltage is punctuated at its end with a dreamy fluttering interlude where a girl hums to herself, breathes, smacks her lips. It’s a literal “breather,” a necessary and earned release from the unfettered sonic blasts that come before it, and the contrast feels sublime.

But the world is full of dense and pounding computerized music, and loud/soft dynamics are nothing new either. What sets she apart is the emotionality. Trzaska, perhaps better than any artist I’ve ever heard, puts the lie to the old cliche that electronic music lacks the human element. His music is nothing if not human, and the energy of some she songs is so undeniably real and infectious, the sense of catharsis so strong, that one almost has to gasp. Trzaska manages to harness the same essence of youthful abandon as punk rock, but mixes it with such a masterful control of electronic sound that the result is an effervescent landscape of emotional peaks and lows, sometimes bottoming out but always bouncing back in cathartic exultation.

In “Touch and Go,” a blazing track of just under 2 minutes from 2008’s Coloris, tension builds through a wakka-chikka guitar, stacked vocal samples, a wicked real bassline, and a lead synth that whines and screams like an electric guitar. Just after the minute mark, almost everything drops out. “I don’t know what it is,” a girl says shyly, “but my life’s just really messed up. I try to fix it, but it doesn’t fixxxx.” The song explodes, the bass ascends to a peak, and then suddenly it cuts out and drops the listener into waves of gorgeous flowing synth pad. It’s a sensation that almost feels like flying, and with a catharsis like this, who needs to be fixed? The song is a realization of life, a gush of bottled joy.

“Touch and Go” represents she at at a frenetic peak. Trzaska’s albums have always contained slower tracks, dreamy interludes between his most impassioned bursts of emotional noise, but with 2012’s Electric Girl something changed. It was hard for me to pin down at first, and when I first listened to the album I felt a bit disappointed. It was Trzaska doing what he had always done, but the tempos were perhaps a bit slower and the atmosphere a bit more meditative and melancholy. It took me a while to realize what he was doing, and to feel that it might be greater than anything he’d ever done. Like most of the great albums I’ve come to love in my life, Electric Girl is one that grows on you.

The first track, “Electric Girl,” serves its function as a successively building intro, and “Be Alright” builds further on this energy, propelling things forward but not quite feeling like the main event itself. Things start to solidify in “Headshot,” a punchy pop-and-lock number that stands up with some of she’s best material. The song is short and direct at two and a half minutes, but it has a fantastic breakdown.

At four tracks in, “Closer Together” is the point on the album where I started to raise my eyebrows. In the past, Trzaska has typically confined his vocal elements to samples, but this track contains a lot of actual singing. And even more oddly, given his consistent fondness for female vocals, one of the singers is a guy.

Perhaps to initially roughen what becomes soft, the track begins with off-kilter chip noise, a woozy alien lead synth and bursts of gritty sidechained bass, seguing into a heavy beat. But then smooth layers of pads come in, and a positively heavenly filtered female vocal rises above the mix before slowly submerging back under them. The pads flash and pulsate. Within the first minute, through the power of immaculate production, we’ve been drawn into a dream. We can feel the infatuation growing.

As if to confirm this, the beat kicks in and two voices sing together: “Standing in your dream/Hoping to meet you.” The way the voices wind around one another, subtly trading volume levels, slightly echoed, shows an incredible attention to production detail that is unsurprising coming from Trzaska, but amazing nonetheless. The message is conveyed by the delivery: the masculine and the feminine are merged. For them to be “closer together” would be hard.

This song positively radiates love. It literally pulsates, the core of its melody constantly throbbing, breathing like human lungs, the drums beating like a heart. The aural analogy is so obvious that there’s little doubt it was intended. Through amazingly detailed electronic manipulation, Trzaska draws out the very biological rhythms of longing and affection, the subtle physiological flows of human need. The lyrics are plain, simple and cliche. And why not? There’s no cleverness involved in truly loving and needing someone. “I wonder what you see, in me,” they sing. “There is nothing more to this broken machine/And it’s you who can replace it/As long as you are here with me, together.”

As the song nears its end, the voices become wordless, harmonizing cries of passion. A shimmering lead synth takes over, and after a time they appear again briefly, dissolved into snippets of ecstasy buried within the mix, linguistic expression overtaken by emotion. Except for one final question: “Wonder what you see?”

This is followed by a track called “Yes OK” which is classic she, an absolute sonic celebration. Nothing but unbridled joy: breakneck sample editing, grinding jagged synth bass, bouncing waves of aural positivity. A rapping robotic voice a-la Daft Punk propelling the track on, its only decipherable utterance being: “super music.” Upon this exclamation, the track bends and sways like a building about to collapse. “I love you,” a digitized girl intones, and waves of warm pads spray onto the song like liquid bliss, pouring from some shining computer-sprinkler. There’s a heavily filtered breakdown, and then the song slams back into gear again. Yes, OK.

“All I Need Is Music” is a similar mission statement, a bit subtler and slower-burning. But the same sense of delight is palpable throughout. Writing this, I realize that it’s actually difficult to listen to she closely. Every song is so complicated that isolating the individual elements becomes overwhelming; the emotive response one gets from a close listen is powerful, but experiencing the music this way for more than ten minutes at a time is like constantly staring into a dizzying kaleidoscope of sound. One can only wonder what it was like for Trzaska to make the stuff. It’s probably why his albums contain so many breathers.

The last track of Electric Girl, “Heartbeats,” is something different from the rest, and seems to be what “Closer Together” pointed us towards. It’s neither breather nor banger, and upon hearing it I realized Trzaska had truly accomplished something new. There’s a tenderness and delicacy here that’s been hinted at in past tracks, but the melancholy confidence that seems to flow from the song is entirely new, and the emotion is bolstered immensely by the vocals and the lyrics. Like “Closer Together,” male and female vocals are intertwined, but the lyrics are more poetic, more abstract, letting go of connection and structure: “And all the things you say/feel/slowly/fading/away/so they say/so they say.”

“Heartbeats” is powerful because it’s so restrained. Lain has the ability to throw the kitchen sink at the track, but he doesn’t. He holds back, and the relative minimalism shows his real strength as a songwriter and producer. The song is elegant, and despite being far simpler in its structure than many of his other songs, its beat is far more sophisticated than what one would typically find in the genre. There’s a buoyant, rebounding quality to it that suggests a confidence in recurrence, a soul returning to the source of its strength. When the synth solo kicks in halfway through the track, it soars with a relaxed and casual mastery that can’t help but provoke a smile. The backbeat continues to surge upward behind it, pushing forward again and again. This is Lain at the top of his game.

It feels odd for a she album to end on what is essentially a breakup song. Often in the past Trzaska has ended things on slowed-down notes, as in Chiptek‘s “1997,” a wistfully nostalgic ode to some private memory of that year, or in Orion‘s titular closer, which floats ethereally along with water sounds, birds, Japanese narration by a female vocal, and a resurging beat not unlike the one in “Heartbeats.” But Heartbeats” is very specifically about loss, and it carries a much heavier and more direct emotional punch than these other songs did. The song sounds like it’s the point of Electric Girl, rather than being a dreamy way to come down from it.

“This beat sounds/harder than your heart,” the vocal in the chorus repeatedly reminds us. Perhaps the song was spawned by some kind of loss, but if that’s the case the loss seems to have only reinforced Trzaska’s confidence in his own abilities. The track is more of a celebration than a lament, and the complexity of the sentiment it conveys proves that electronic pop can go far beyond the “dance music” cliche it’s normally relegated to. There is a great depth of humanity here, one that without the sophistication of Lain’s instruments couldn’t be adequately conveyed. Not calculated enough, perhaps, to achieve critical acclaim, or simply not traveling along the same aesthetic rails as the critical judges of Western culture, Trzaska’s music nonetheless remains a fine example in its achievements: it squeezes blood from a stone, liquid emotions from silicon.

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