she – Electric Girl


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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OUT magazine cover, September 1984

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So, I found this image in a post on Crunchyroll, and prior to this I’d never seen OUT magazine before. Apparently it was an 80s monthly anime publication like Newtype or Animage. This particular issue focused on Macross: Do You Remember Love?, which is why Lynn Minmay is on the cover (1984 MOVIES IN SUMMER!).

What struck me about this image, and made me want to comment on it, is how vividly real it feels, how evocative of a place and time. Minmay is foregrounded, lovingly rendered and shaded in soft pastels by her original designer, Haruhiko Mikimoto. She projects a warm summertime glow, the carefree windblown nature of her hair and outfit embodying ease, lightness, fun. The image is beautiful on its own, but the real genius here was in superimposing it on the photo.

MAPLE FARM looks like a quintessential 1980s summer resort, with its pleated patio umbrella and table with gigantic phone, fruity drink and ash tray (public smoking!). Was this an advertising shot that OUT somehow got ahold of? Where was this place? Japan? America? It’s difficult to tell, but the patrons in the background look Japanese, and MAPLE FARM sounds like a typical pastoral Engrish name to me. (And how classy, “Since 1983”!)

More than just being a brilliant combination of images, however, the very framing of this cover is what makes it work, with the courtyard’s shadows lying mostly behind Minmay, and the sunlight spilling in to her right beneath the cyan waves of her hair. It literally captures–boxes in–a kind of summertime brightness and vibrance, and creates an allure which personally I find hard to resist.

This cover works so well because it successfully sells us an ideal: Minmay’s youth, her beauty, her airy spirit, and a real place in the real world where we could exist ourselves, making this style of life our own. The juxtaposition of ideals and possibilities creates a keyhole for our imaginations, allows us to dream much bigger than we normally would. It tells us that this kind of joy exists in the world, waiting for us, if only we will go out there and pursue it. It gives us license to be carefree.

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Neo Tokyo – Labyrinth Labyrinthos

I’d like to start off by saying that I’m not much of a fan of standard academic-style criticism, wherein the writer attempts to bedazzle the reader with their intelligence and depth of insight, or to gain respectability by showing off their degree of political sensitivity. The fact is, I was driven to write something about this short film because I watched it and it moved me in a particular way. This isn’t an attempt to convince the reader that my interpretation of the film is the only valid one, or to draw support for any political position. I’d simply like to share with you something that resonated with me, and perhaps by doing so I can add a small bit of enjoyment to your experience of the world.

Neo Tokyo, the larger film containing this smaller one, was a 1987 collaboration of three major anime directors: Rintaro, Yoshiaki Kawajiri, and Katsuhiru Otomo. Otomo is definitely the most famous of the three in the West. Even though most English-speakers don’t know his name, many are familiar with his work on Akira. Kawajiri is known for directing Ninja Scroll, which was a cult hit in the 1990s, and for some other artsy action films that have enjoyed underground popularity here. Rintaro is the odd man out, being quite famous in Japan but practically unknown by name in America. His 2001 film Metropolis got some attention when it was released here, but most of his major works are obscure, despite some of them having near-legendary status in Japan (Captain Harlock and Galaxy Express 999 especially).

And that’s all I know about Rintaro, really. I’m rather inexperienced with his output, so I went into Labyrinth Labyrinthos without any expectations. It’s the first of the three films in Neo Tokyo, and acts as a meta-narrative framing device, setting up the viewing of the other two films and then coming back at the very end with a brief finale.

After a rather mysterious and foreboding entrance, the film has its true beginning in a desolate landscape, seemingly post-apocalyptic; towering abandoned structures behind what looks like the remains of a giant dome or egg. Inside this cracked egg, slumped and faintly luminescent, is a circus tent that has seen better days. The colored lights on the sign above its entrance still flash, though it seems long-abandoned, and the wind tears at the tentflaps, ripping off a piece of the fabric and whisking it away. All the while, a young girl calls out for her cat. “Cicerone, where are you?” In the background, “Gymnopédies No. 1″  plays: a fairly famous and contemplative piece of classical music by Erik Satie.

The scene changes, and we see our first glimpse of our protagonist, Sachi. She comes into being amorphously, a creature of animated whimsy. A flickering black morass slowly shapes itself into her silhouette, standing before a blood-red backdrop flecked with whirling red and white petals, or perhaps sparks. Eerie Noh chanting pipes in, and she shapes herself into elegant poses, looking as fierce as a kabuki actor, comically clad in what seem to be a cinched-up pair of her father’s trousers and a red and white striped shirt. A big fluffy black and white cat mrowls and runs though a seemingly endless hallway of her house, the bell around his neck jingling as the hallway’s lines of perspective constantly shift.

Then we cut to Sachi’s mother’s hands, furiously chopping dry noodles, heavy focus given to her red lacquered fingernails. Sachi sits beneath the kitchen counter, toying with a tube of her mother’s lipstick that pulses with a red glow as she twists it in and out. She seems to grasp that this is a powerful transformative object, but rather than playing at being a sexy lady like her mother, she marks her cheeks with red whiskers. A clock’s heavy pendulum swings in the background. She glances up at her mother, and the pendulum swings again.

Then she’s off, bursting through a rice paper screen and bounding up the stairs, where at the top she stands before an enormous grandfather clock. Tick, tock, tick, tock. She stares at the pendulum and her own reflection with an unamused expression, and then, with a shock of recognition, she finds the cat. Now it is her turn to hide, and our turn to follow him, Cicerone.

From the cat’s perspective, the old house comes alive. A window flies open and the sparkblossoms fly in, gossamer curtains billowing in the wind. An old teddy bear on a chair, covered with newspaper and red ribbons, seems strangely menacing. All the baroque fixtures of the place, toys and a fan and a wind-up musical clown, a bag of marbles and an old record player, all come alive and menace our poor feline. Then a mechanical biplane strikes a carving of a woman up on a dresser, and it flips. All goes silent as a mirror is revealed, and then Sachi laughs. She is inside the mirror, Alice through the looking glass. “Come here, Cicerone.” The cat reluctantly follows and is sucked in, then the mirror flips back. The mechanical clown has vanished from his music box. Sachi’s mother calls out for her, in a bored, distracted way.

What was already a heavily surreal film now crosses over into total dream territory. The first thing we see is the clown, now a man, smiling at us charismatically and dancing as he erects around himself a daylight world of narrow alleyways with flat wooden fences. Then he prances off and beckons Sachi and Cicerone to follow him. They both gladly do, and they encounter a strangely animated tin can, then ghostly masked children at play, and a disembodied dog with a hovering collar. Sachi and Cicerone seem out of place with all of these things. The clown beckons them on further.

They round a corner and now it is darker, twilight, and rough working-class people walk past the girl and her cat, their forms stooped and their bodies lacking color, heavily shaded and flickering as if half-remembered. An imposing mail-carrier passes by, then suddenly his form snaps into a cardboard cutout, a parody of a shadow of a man, and he tumbles into the other people, all of them cutouts now. They all fall down like dominoes, which our two travelers seem to find sad but somewhat funny. Sachi shrugs and giggles. Then the cardboard people burst into ink-black ooze, crawling up the walls, a nasty dark slick over everything. Abruptly, the sun sets, a lone streetlight blinking on.

And now Sachi is running for her life, from a train full of red skeletons, their bones making lurid xylophone music as she jumps to the side and they pass by. She looks truly taken aback by what she’s just seen. Then comes a parade of identical men in suits, hop-marching forward and chanting Satchan, Satchan, Satchan, Satchan (an intimate form of her name). On the back of all of their heads are ticking clocks, pendulums swinging. She watches them go, not knowing what to think.

Now again we see the clown, flickering briefly, and a poster for the circus. Circus music begins, and a procession of gargantuan lit-up beings walks above the strange alleyway-world, dropping more cirus flyers. A surreal chase that looks like it came from a video game follows, the alleyways turned blue and full of vertical scan lines, the clown’s shadow ever just out of reach and around another corner, signs with hands pointing where to go.

At the end of “Neko-machi Alley” (cat and Sachi alley, perhaps?) our heroes finally catch up with the clown. He presents to them a large wooden door, its surface inscribed with the same female carving that was on the opposite side of Sachi’s mirror. Light bursts forth from it at his touch, and a larger-than-life mirror is revealed. Of course, they all hop in.

What’s on the other side? It’s that lonely, dilapidated circus tent from the beginning of the film, sitting in its strange shattered world. The lights flash and the tent flaps ripple in the wind. The clown is smiling, proud, and with a grand gesture he welcomes them in. Sachi looks at him uncertainly and he points inside, eyes glittering. He looks rougher up-close now, the clown, like he’s been doing this for a long time. You can see his ears aren’t painted. “Here, come in, you two,” a sudden title card says, a silent film fragment that seems incredibly appropriate. Sachi and Cicerone amble in, and the clown closes the flap behind them, looking happy and excited. Time for the show to begin!

The girl and her cat walk to the center of the ring, and a spotlight bursts from the ceiling, blue fairy dust scattering on the floor. They look up into the light, impassive. Then the spotlight moves forward, towards red curtains, and they slowly open…

And that’s the end. Or rather, the beginning of Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s segment in Neo Tokyo. It really could be any piece of art, though, or any animated film, that follows the opening of those curtains. It seems to me that this seemingly obtuse and very surreal little film has some well-thought-out and very heavy philosophy behind it. A philosophy about magic, imagination and childhood, but also about the meaning of life and the purpose of art.

Sachi glides through the world, in the enchanted stage of her childhood where the dead certainties of reality have not set in, and where she truly sees things as they are rather than seeing things and immediately referring them to preconceived mental categories. Her world is not broken down into boxes, labeled and sorted and left for dead. The family’s creaky old house is alive to her, and alive to her through Cicerone, in a way that such a place can only be to a kid. The house reminded me of visiting the home of an old lady where my sister once took piano lessons, where I was left alone for hours and where there was a mysterious English-style back garden and a room full of old leather-bound musty books, things that gave me a direct sense of antiquity that would be lost to me now even if I went in looking for it directly. For Sachi, the mystery is alive, and she has only a dim sense of the many walls and rules that await her in the adult world.

All throughout her journey, the clock is ticking, and we’re continuously reminded of this by the pendulums. Her childhood will only last so long. We can see vague threats of her becoming mundane and detached like her mother, worn down by physical labor and plodding through the world like the cardboard working-class people, and then, eventually, dead; one of the red skeletons on the train. The men with the clocks on the backs of their heads, doing their ritual marching dance and calling out her name, are a blatant reminder. Come and join us, Satchan. Sooner or later, you will be one of us.

This would all be very bleak, if it weren’t for the clown. I think it’s important that he’s shown to be old, a bit worn down himself, but somehow still in possession of that childhood spark, an elegance and an appreciation for the visceral side of reality that seems to be lacking in the other adult characters. The clown is an artist. He lives for his work, while the others work to live.

I think this is the real message behind Labyrinth Labyrinthos, if it was indeed intended to have one. The animation is so rich and fluid, done “on the ones” as they say in the industry, meaning an actual 24 frames per second, rather than 12 frames which are doubled. Everything about the film oozes love for animation itself, style and form and grace of movement, the subtle techniques of the master artist. Rintaro and his fellow animators seem to be saying, “here, look, this is why we’re alive. Because we can create something beautiful like this.” It’s both an answer to an ancient philosophical question and a bold statement about need for art in our industrialized, mechanized and increasingly put-in-a-box world. Art provides meaning.

When the show is over, after watching Kawajiri’s Running Man and Otomo’s The Order to Stop Construction (both of which are magnificent, but I don’t have room to discuss them here), the red curtains appear again and the clown bursts out with a crackle of fireworks. He poses, goofy and happy. Didn’t you enjoy the show? Sachi and Cicerone give him some applause. The clown waves his hands around and takes a bow, pixie dust drifting from his fingers. Then he kicks out a leg, and the thin line of his shadow gurgles up like tar, growing eyeballs and appendages. He scatters more dust with an arm and the same thing happens to the rest of his shadow, viscous liquid popping and churning, the abstract darkness of an absence of light coming to life through pure creative magic.

Fireworks break out above as Sachi and Cicerone look on, slack-jawed and amazed, and the shadow-slime beings, clad in fabics of many colors, slide along in a grand parade. Goblins and lizards careen through the air doing circus tricks, while the whole procession goes around the ring and more fireworks explode. Sachi taps her foot happily to the music, and the animators just go wild with these creatures, bending their faces like putty and reveling in their grotesque forms. A half-dozen creepy-crawly arms reach out for Sachi, and she jumps up into their embrace, overjoyed, latching onto the shoulders of the clown as a the fireworks go crazy. The whole big ghoulie group leaves the tent and they march along, Sachi riding on high, twirling and looking as happy as she could possibly be, and the music stops as she looks into the camera with a great big smile.

Then, gradually, we pan out, and see Sachi and Cicerone, who have been watching all of this on a nice big 1980s TV with a good sound system as they are floating through space, backed by peals of eerie laughter. At first, I didn’t realize why Rintaro did this. It seems like an arbitrarily artsy ending. But then it hit me, joyously: he’s reminding the viewer that they are part of this experience, and reminding them that fiction works as an art form because, for a while, you become someone else. He’s saying, “Sachi is you! You’re that kid. Maybe you’re old now, but deep down, that part of you is still there. Don’t forget to use your imagination, and to appreciate the world like this.”

At least, that’s what it seems like to me. In any case, Labyrinth Labyrinthos made me feel happy to be alive, and greatly reaffirmed my desire to create and experience art. I hope a bit of that elation has rubbed off on you, too.

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Japan’s New Mythology

The internet has changed the world in myriad ways. It’s changed how people relate to each other, changed the stories they tell about themselves and the way in which they tell them. One of its most notable effects is that it has enabled people to participate creatively in the pop-mythology narratives that they partake of, rather than merely being passive observers. This has allowed the creation of communities that, if they possibly could have existed before the advent of the digital world, would have been much smaller and much less apparent to anyone not in them. In the past decade, Twilight and Harry Potter have probably provided the most visible examples of such communities in the West. There is an enormous outpouring of creative works affiliated with both of these series on the web, things like fanfiction, fanart, and cosplay. Some people have come to define themselves by their participation in such communities, and many fledgling artists begin their careers by producing works that are part of them.

As huge as both Harry Potter and Twilight have become, there is a series in Japan that eclipses them both in terms of creative fan output, so much so that it seems it should be considered as a different kind of phenomenon, almost a kind of cult or religion instead of a cultural fad. That series is Touhou Project.

“Touhou” literally means “the East,” or “Eastern.” It’s difficult to define what Touhou is in a brief statement. What it began as was a series of top-down shooting games set in the fictional land of Gensokyo, a sort of spiritual echo of Japan’s agrarian past. Gensokyo is populated by a pantheon of supernatural beings, ranging from shrine maidens and witches to demons, ghosts and goddesses. It was dreamed up by a man named Jun’ya Ota, a reclusive figure who doesn’t give many interviews and is best known among fans for his oft-professed love of alcohol.

Ota, more commonly known by his creative pseudonym, “ZUN,” began making Touhou Project games in 1996 when he was a member of a video game development club at Tokyo Denki University. He’s been quoted as saying that the reason he started creating games was because didn’t like the games that other people were making and wanted to see what he could do himself. The first game he made, Highly Responsive to Prayers, was programmed for the PC-98 home computer platform and was a relatively simplistic block-breaking action puzzle game in which the player controlled a Shinto shrine maiden named Hakurei Reimu. Ota proceeded to make four more games in the series during the next two years, all of them top-down shooters featuring Reimu and other characters. However, the PC-98 was dying as a platform at the time, and Ota’s personal game creations were more of a hobby than a vocation. After releasing the fifth game at the end of 1998, he abandoned the series and started working on games professionally for Taito. Then, in 2002, Ota finally released another Touhou Project game, this time for Microsoft Windows. The game was called the Embodiment of Scarlet Devil.

For most people, this is where the Touhou phenomenon began. Scarlet Devil looks crude by today’s standards, with primitive 3D backgrounds and very simple sprites, but there’s an eccentric charm to it that’s immediately apparent upon booting up the game. After a loading screen featuring rather precious Engrish (“Girls do their best now and are preparing. Please watch warmly until it is ready.”), the player is greeted by a misty, shadowed picture of Reimu sitting against a wall, wearing an outfit that looks like a frilly Gothic Lolita version of a shrine maiden’s costume. Her appearance is doll-like, and the amateur nature of the artwork makes it hard to tell how intentional that is. The delicate, tentative music playing in the background somehow makes the whole scene work, though. One feels as if they are entering a realm of mysterious and hidden history, something like exploring an antique shop in a foreign country. It’s a very unusual sensation to have during the intro of a computer game based around dodging bullets and shooting things, and it’s a perfect example of why Touhou has become the phenomenon that it has. Ota is enormously talented at evoking atmosphere through the combination of visuals and music, and the content of the Touhou series typically resembles ballet and opera as much it does a standard arcade shooting game; the refined and intentionally spiritual nature of his dreamscapes contrasts with the frenetic content of the gameplay to create an experience that often approaches the sublime, and sometimes reaches it.

As for the gameplay, the fine details aren’t particularly important; the player shoots down enemies (many little fairies and occasional abstract shapes), collects power-ups and bombs, and attempts to get a high score while dying as seldom as possible. This is all standard shooter fare, but it should be noted that Ota does it quite well, with intricate point systems that vary by game and a large variety of player character options. The difference from more mundane games lies in how Ota crafts his scenes: everything is cued with the music, waves of enemies and boss characters arriving at just the right moment. As the games progress, the patterns of bullets that the player character must make her way through become increasingly elaborate. Often they are stunningly beautiful, even mesmerizing: neon explosions that form shifting star flowers and digital mandalas. These too go along with the music, to the extent that they almost seem to become the notes. The thing that makes all this truly wonderful, however, is its participatory nature. Rather than being a mere observer of the spectacle, the player must dance along with it, weaving through the patterns and becoming one with them. The games are often very difficult, and improving one’s gameplay is like learning to play a piece of music. The patterns are always the same, so all the player has to do is practice. Completing some of the harder patterns can be extremely gratifying, and the intensity of the concentration that is required combined with the hypnotic beauty of the swirling patterns can create a strangely transcendental experience, one that feels almost inappropriate coming from a video game.

None of this would work as well as it does if the music it was set to wasn’t memorable. But it is, extremely so. Ota began writing songs when he was in junior high, and musical composition may be his greatest creative talent. His style is difficult to pin down to a genre; he is fond of elaborate arrangements that are nearly impossible for a person to play at full speed, of intricate piano lines that fit together like the teeth of combs, and of gradiated arcs of rainbow pitch that swirl around his melodies. For instrumentation, he keeps it light and simple: mostly synthetic pianos, strings and brass instruments. Much of his work has an airy, ethereal quality to it because of this, and a feeling of detached elegance. The most important thing, though, is that Ota is incredibly competent at writing catchy melodies. It’s a talent that has made him one of the most-covered musicians of all time.

That probably sounds like a dubious statement, but the fact is that there are over five thousand albums published by groups covering Ota’s music, and countless more cover songs that have not been officially released. His songs have been reinterpreted in genres as diverse as classical, electronic, jazz, and heavy metal, often with impressive results. The Touhou music scene is so vast that some of these works become memes in their own right, and occasionally they pop into the American cultural consciousness. The stylish shadow-art video for “Bad Apple,” an electronic dance cover of a song Ota wrote for one of the PC-98 games, managed to make its way onto a viral media segment on CNN. American Touhou fans were outraged that CNN got most of its information wrong in the segment, and someone reposted the video on youtube with a disparaging overlay: “Cirno News Network.”

Here we come to one of the other primary reasons for Touhou’s popularity. Ota’s greatest talent may lie in his music, but he also has a knack for creating stylish characters that are archetypal while still seeming unique. Cirno, for example, is an ice fairy who first appeared in Scarlet Devil as the whimsical guardian of a frozen lake. She reappeared in the next game, Perfect Cherry Blossom, and two years later her popularity exploded when Ota included a small notation in an instruction manual for another game, Phantasmagoria of Flower View. Various items on a screenshot of the game were marked with circled numbers, Cirno being marked with the number nine, which in the key was jokingly notated as “idiot.” This is a pretty good example of how fans hang on Ota’s every word, as “circle nine” and the idea of Cirno being a fool instantly became a meme, spawning countless pieces of fanart, songs, flash videos, and other parodies.

This fanaticism isn’t baseless. Much like how the games wouldn’t work if the music wasn’t any good, a character like Cirno wouldn’t be so popular if there wasn’t something there to draw interest in the first place. While Ota is a notoriously unskilled at drawing the human figure, nearly incapable of drawing hands or even natural-looking arms and legs, he makes up for it with a keen eye for fashion. Cirno is a light-blue-haired girl with a big blue bow on her head, poofy white sleeves, and a cerulean dress with a zigzagging white pattern at the bottom. She has wings, made of huge transparent ice crystals that seem to float independently behind her. It’s a simple, attractive design, easy to recreate and fundamental enough to allow for many stylistic variations, and it seems likely that Ota’s inability to draw his own characters well is one of the things that spurs so many people to re-draw them for him, to bring out the full potential of his ideas. On the online Japanese artist community Pixiv, there are over seventy-five thousand pictures featuring Cirno. All in all, Pixiv has over one million Touhou images. To put that in perspective, deviantART, the American equivalent of Pixiv, has about nine hundred thousand images for Twilight and Harry Potter combined. It would take a person months, if not years, to see all of these Touhou pictures, and in the meantime thousands more would be produced. The rate at which fans create these works seems to be growing, too. There were roughly forty thousand Touhou pictures posted on Pixiv in October of 2011 alone.

Cirno, as depicted by a Western fan

Even more remarkable than this is the semi-professional doujin scene, the core of the Touhou fandom. “Doujin” means a group of people who share a hobby or an interest. The word is often translated in English as “circle,” and usually refers to communities of artists who create comics, music or games that are self-published in small print runs. Such items are referred to as “doujinshi.” Touhou itself is a doujin game series, and Ota originally distributed his games at Comic Market, Japan’s enormous biannual doujin meetup in Tokyo. At the December Comic Market in 2003, after Ota released Perfect Cherry Blossom, there were seven circles selling Touhou doujinshi. By 2008, that number had grown to 885 circles. In 2004, Ota started his own Touhou-centric doujin gathering called Reitaisai. It had 114 participating circles in that year, and in 2011 it had approximately 4,940 circles. This is where all of those CDs from bands covering Ota’s music come from, and it’s also the source of thousands of comics and dozens of fan-made games.

This massive quantity of for-sale derivative works may come as a surprise. Selling works based on other artists’ material is basically unheard of in the West, but it’s actually a common thing in Japan. There seems to be an unspoken rule that as long as the fan productions are small-scale and independently financed, they’re ok. The most unexpected thing about the Touhou doujin scene, however, is how high the production values generally are. Touhou doujinshi comics are usually printed with dense glossy covers, some of them embossed with holograms, and the interior pages are often thick and expensively printed, looking much more professional than what you would see in a Western fanzine comic book. Many of these doujinshi creators make no profit on their works, breaking even at best because of the high production costs. It’s a labor of love, and it’s rather astonishing that so many people participate in it.

Touhou doujinshi (click for big)

There is a definite danger of Touhou becoming commercialized, though, and Ota has fought a continuous battle against that possibility. In the past two years, people have begun to produce anime works based on the games, and Touhou goods like figures and models have become more and more common. Ota has forbidden the games to be ported to cellphones, and demands that people selling derivative works limit their channels of distribution to doujin events and small stores where such items are typically sold. Mostly, he just requires that people give him credit for the characters and music that he creates, which seems amazingly generous considering the mind-boggling amount of things being sold that are based on his art. ZUN could probably be a millionaire if he wanted to, but he seems content to be a sort of patron saint of independent artists.

One has to wonder, though, why Touhou has become such an incredible hit; why it has come to define the doujin community in the way that it has. Ota is an amazing auteur, and Japan’s particular attitude towards fan-made works is conducive to the phenomenon surrounding his art, but he is only one man in a country full of talented creators, and his skill alone can’t explain why so many people’s imaginations have been captured by Touhou.

The real reason for the phenomenon may be that Touhou constitutes something of a modern Japanese mythology. Gensokyo is transparently representative of pre-industrial Japan, a world in which mystery and magic still existed, and Ota has said directly in supplementary materials that it was “sealed off from an increasingly scientific and skeptical world in 1884.” The guardian of the border between Gensokyo and the modern world is Hakurei Reimu, the anchoring character of the series who tends a simple Shinto shrine at the place where the two realities meet, and on whom the task falls to re-balance the world when things go wrong. The games always start with the premise that something has upset the natural order in Gensokyo. In Embodiment of Scarlet Devil, a red mist covers the land and Reimu, along with the Occidental witch Marisa Kirisame, go to discover what has caused it. In Perfect Cherry Blossom, Spring fails to come to Gensokyo and the two set out again to discover why, along with an erstwhile antagonist from the previous game. In Imperishable Night, there is a night that seems will never end, and once again the heroes seek out the reason for the disturbance. While on these journeys, they invariably encounter a cast of demure supernatural creatures, all of them female, who engage the protagonists in humorously combative conversations before launching into their personal bullet-ballet sequences.

Reimu and Marisa

Invariably, the cause of the disturbance in Gensokyo is something benign, like a diminutive vampire who wanted to make it dark so she could enjoy drinking her tea outside, or a ghost who stole the Spring because she was using it to grow a gigantic cherry tree. Rather than striving to change the world, Reimu and the other protagonists spend their time addressing such incidents to keep the natural order in place. When they’re not resolving these issues, they are portrayed as having idyllic, pastoral lives; living easily in a world that largely takes care of itself.

This reverence for the cycles of the nature most likely comes from Ota’s childhood. He was raised in a small mountain town, far away from the bustle of modern cities, and has said on his blog that growing up in such a place gave him a lot of inspiration in life, even if it was a little lonely. It’s easy to see how isolation combined with immersion in untouched rural beauty could be the catalyst for Gensokyo, with its  near-fantastical nature scenes and its population of friendly supernatural women. It as if Ota took the world he knew as a child and filled it with a collection of imaginary friends, some of whom seem to be directly inspired by one of his other main influences, Agatha Christie. One of the most popular Touhou characters, a puppeteer magician named Alice Margatroid, is clearly named after Miss Murgatroyd, a character from Christie’s A Murder is Announced. The refined, subtle nature of the conversations between Ota’s characters seems to show Christie’s influence as well.

For the most part, though, Ota’s influences are of the East, and his games sometimes contain direct references to real places in Japan. The tenth game in the Touhou series, Mountain of Faith, is a love letter to the Grand Suwa Shrine, a 1,200-year-old Shinto temple close to a lake and the mountain of the title. The enemy characters in this game are two Autumn spirits, a curse-goddess, a kappa, a mountain tengu, and ultimately a rival shrine maiden and her patron gods.  It doesn’t get much more Japanese than this. Fans of the series adore the cultural tributes, going so far as to make pilgrimages to the actual shrine, and they leave prayer plaques there, decorated with art depicting the fictional shrine maiden and her deities. Although this is not the first time that Japanese fans have made media-related shrine pilgrimages, the Touhou ones have occurred on a massive scale. One American visitor remarked that there were too many Touhou plaques at Suwa for him to photograph.

Suwako, one of the deities from Mountain of Faith

Shinto is an animistic religion with the idea that everything in the natural world contains spirits, and that concept seems very close to the essence of Touhou itself. The characters, even the mortals like Reimu, are heavily archetypal, and they seem to exist as ideas or modes of being as much as they do as defined individuals. In the games, we come to know them only through their character designs, their bullet patterns, and some sparse dialogue, most of which is humorous in tone. Ota sketches them out a bit more in supplementary materials, but the information he provides is mostly trivia, small facts about their personal tastes and habits. The way he describes his characters is often whimsical; he has a tone of open-ended exploration and imagination rather than one of authorial finality, and he’d rather tell you an amusing anecdote than give you the lowdown on what everything is really about. Ota seems content to dream up these characters and then set them free into the vast world that exists in the imaginations of the fandom, where they invariably mutate. Many of the characters have taken on significance that he never intended in the first place. Kaguya Houraisan, a character from Imperishable Night based on a lunar princess of Japanese legend who spent a thousand years in isolation, has been depicted by the Touhou fandom as a hikikomori, a house-bound person who spends all of her time on the internet and shuns human contact. Here we have an ancient mythological character that has been repurposed for modern times, an archetype collecting dust in the cultural subconscious that suddenly has relevance and meaning again. The Japanese fans seem to treat Kaguya as a sort of household goddess, and it seems likely that the loneliness of some has been assuaged by the humor of her character.

However, the dichotomy between the characters created by Ota and the ones that emerge from the fandom’s collective dreaming can be extreme, and some fans despair that Ota’s works are dumbed down by the masses. The most notable schism lies in the fandom’s romantic imaginations, where countless pairings of the characters exist. There is practically no romance in the games, either explicit or implied, and it can be disconcerting to see how much of the fan culture is based upon these imagined relationships. American Touhou fans are often careful to distinguish between the canon mythology of the series and the one created by fans, the “fanon.” But given that Touhou is such a world unto itself, it is no surprise that the erotic and the romantic dwell there along with the spiritual and the philosophical. Every character has a different significance to every person, and the intersection of these private conceptions is realized through the public display of art: a million images of Hakurei Reimu and her cohorts are lined up alongside one another forming a digital tapestry, a whole much greater than the sum of its parts, a world woven together by the spinning threads of a million dreams.

Truly, Touhou would not be what it is without the fan culture. For many, it has become an emergent mythology: a collective, public fantasy world on a scale rarely seen outside of the major religions or other massive cultural phenomena like Star Wars. Touhou is something special because Ota has allowed it to belong to everyone who experiences it and contributes to it, just as much as it belongs to him.

The two most interesting characters Ota has created may be Maribel Hearn and Renko Usami, humans who do not live in Gensokyo and who appear only on the covers of his music compilation CDs. They are in college, Maribel a student of “relative psychology” and Renko of “super unified physics.” One believes that truth is found in the subjective, while the other worships the objective. They wear black and white hats, yin and yang, and together they form a two-person club concerned with the paranormal. Maribel, the relativist, is the one who sees Gensokyo in her dreams.


Article sources and further reading:

the Touhou wiki

an American’s trip to Suwa

a Tumblr dedicated to ZUN (you can get a good sense of his character here)

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Show Review: Descendants of Erdrick at Emo’s – 8/17/11

Standing in the crowd midway through Descendants of Erdrick’s set last night, I was suddenly reminded of the Buzz Rickson’s MA-1 flight jacket worn by the protagonist in William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition. A painstaking recreation of Cold War military garb crafted by Japanese otaku designers, the jacket is a near-perfect simulacrum down to the last stitch, with the few added stylistic flourishes intended to enhance or slightly exaggerate the qualities of the original piece, rather than to provide a different take on it. This kind of analogy would probably not seem complimentary to many bands, but I think the spirit of perfection in replication is what the members of DoE strive for, and to me it is commendable because it indicates a love of the music that goes beyond fame or fortune.

I first heard the Descendants when I walked by the room they were playing in at an anime convention. I stopped in my tracks, as I was immediately struck by how unexpectedly tight their playing was for a band in that kind of situation. Drawn into the show, I found myself watching two girls and three guys who seemed to be bursting with joy and energy as they poured out their musical hearts for a smallish crowd of con-goers. I’d heard video game cover bands like the Minibosses before, but the jubilant spirit of DoE’s beat-perfect recreations immediately struck a chord with me. These people were really into this music in a charmingly guileless way. The joy they took from their meticulous recreations was readily apparent on their faces, and there wasn’t a trace of cooler-than-though posing going on. It was sort of like finding an alarmingly precise Metallica cover band playing at a small casino in Vegas, except with more smiles and kinetic energy. Memorable.

Last night, about six months after the first time, I saw them again. The crowd at Emo’s was expectedly geeky and mostly male, and I noticed more than a few attendants wearing DoE shirts, a sure sign that the band has developed a following. After a short sound check, bassist and frontman Chris Taylor greeted the crowd with a few remarks from center stage. A big bearded guy in driver’s cap and a bright orange Mario shirt, Chris seems to be the anchor of the band both personally and musically. He kept the words to a minimum though, and quickly announced that their first song would be from The Legend of Zelda. As one would predict, the crowd went wild.

Immediately, I noticed that DoE have gotten better at what they do. The physical interplay between the band members seemed more attuned, and once again they were all big smiles as they segued smoothly through the Zelda medley, not missing a note. Koji Kondo is one of the greats from the golden age of video game composing, and DoE’s rock band arrangement teases out the full power of his simple, rousing melodies. The band’s idiosyncratic inclusion of Lauren Liebowitz on flute works especially well here. When they let her take up the lead melody it soars joyously above the rest of the mix, and conjures up visions of Link’s magic ocarina.

The band followed their Zelda medley with more medleys from Mega Man 3 and Ninja Gaiden 2, and this was where the Buzz Rickson’s comparison popped into my mind. I was imagining the people who had originally written this music, composers employed at Tecmo and Capcom in the early 90s. These people received no direct credit for their compositions at the time, and probably worked insane hours for mediocre wages. Somehow, under these austere conditions, incredibly catchy and emotionally resonant music emerged. A theory I’ve heard before is that the strength of many 8-bit melodies comes from the limitations of the medium: when all you have to work with is a few simple waveforms, you have to work hard and use a lot of harmonies to make something memorable. Or maybe the kind of simplicity inherent in 8-bit musical architecture is an inherent booster for creativity. In any case, it seemed somehow amazing and culturally significant to me that this music written by obscure developers for Japanese NES games 20 years ago was being played to a packed bar in Austin Texas today. Listening to Descendants of Erdrick is proof that there’s more to the appreciation of these tunes than simple childhood nostalgia or geek love. Most bands would kill to have the inspiration necessary to create these kinds of compositions; the intro theme to Mega Man 3 alone employs bittersweet, complicated harmonies that say more in a few bars than many bands can get across in an album, and its chorus rocks in such a precise-but-pure way that one must be made of stone not to be swayed upon hearing it live in the way that DoE present it. The crystalline purity of these songs channeled by such a skilled, amped-up rock band is truly something to behold.

Segueing into their Metroid medley, the band didn’t bother to explain to the crowd what they were doing. Cheering erupted when the tune became recognizable after the first few crashing chords, as Amanda Lepre and Mike Villalobos, DoE’s twin quasars of guitar rock, began bouncing the spooky spaced-out alien melodies off each other. Lepre is an absolute firebrand; she seems to have as much physical energy as the rest of the band put together, and an exuberant rock star bearing that makes her stage presence something like a female Mick Jagger. Villalobos is no slouch either, and he and Lepre seem to be having a constant contest to see who can have the most fun onstage. This is incredibly gratifying to watch if your typical live show diet consists of listless indie bands who shuffle around and spend more time worrying about their poses than they do simply flowing with the moment. Drummer John Pike deserves a solid mention too; he has a background in metal bands and it shows in his impressive chops. The band couldn’t ask for a more voracious timekeeper, and his skills are necessary for their high-speed beat-perfect renditions of retro Japanese console rock that often wanders into metal territory.

Villalobos once told me that he constructs the band’s covers by taking waveform tracks directly from an emulator and assigning each to a band member, a method of reverse-engineered composition that guarantees maximum accuracy. When the band runs into songs with more tracks than they have members, such as some Final Fantasy music, they improvise and make the closest approximation they can. The last medley they played at Emo’s was their Final Fantasy one, starting with the deliciously rock-y Mystic Quest battle theme and working their way through FF4’s battle theme and finally the classic victory tune. One would be hard-pressed to point out what was missing in any of these. The Mystic Quest track in particular sounds like it was absolutely made to be played by a rock band, and I don’t know if any band ever represented it before with the degree of loving precision that Descendants of Erdrick do. Listening to them play this song feels right, like something that was meant to happen, and for me that makes them something more than just a geeky curiosity. Judging from the emotional reaction of the roaring crowd, I think it’s safe to say that they felt the same way.

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The Perfect Kiss

Sometime around five years ago, I bought a “BBC Radio Live in Concert” New Order album on the strengths of the famous “Blue Monday” and the absurdly catchy “Bizarre Love Triangle.” I had never listened to a full New Order album, and this stuff was definitely not the music of my generation, but I dig synthpop and the excessively reverent way I had heard the band described on the internet piqued my curiosity.

As it turned out, the album was awful. The band seemed to be drunk, or at least playing sloppily, and the crowed could be heard actually booing at the end of one song. I was disappointed, but I listened to the CD a few more times anyway because there was something special about the overall vibe. Eventually, I realized that underneath the poor quality of the performance was some remarkably strong songwriting. The thing that stuck out most was the nearly 10 minute long new wave dance-rock epic, “The Perfect Kiss.”

I sold that album pretty quickly and forgot about the song, but I rediscovered it on youtube recently (youtube is great for rediscovering things). The video, which is an actual 10-minute live performance of the song, both amazed and amused me.

For starters, there’s the deadpan nervous way the band members glance at each other during the intro, with the singer Bernard Sumner licking his lips in anticipation and keyboardist Gillian Gilbert trying to put on a poker face. She looks like an older, darker version of Molly Ringwald’s character from The Breakfast Club, doing her best to ward off a potentially unpleasant situation. Stephen Morris, the drummer (more like drum programmer, here) gapes his mouth and fidgets like a middle school kid at his first dance. These people are all in their late 20s in a very successful band, and only the bassist Peter Hook looks like a seasoned adult who isn’t really worried.

At 1 minute in, with Gilbert staring up almost angelically at the synth module and showing great concern, I realized I was probably going to like this despite the strange pretenses. The music gets lush fast. People look back on 80s synthpop with a lot of disdain nowadays, but it isn’t hard to imagine how incredible the layered synths in this song sounded at the time. They’re pretty necessary too, because Bernard Sumner is a terrible singer by conventional standards. It’s another mark of the era and something to think about that this group could be incredibly successful with such a run-of-the-mill vocalist. Apparently they chose him to do the vocals because he played guitar, which was the easiest instrument to play and sing. In our current times of autotune, he’d either be pitch-corrected into oblivion or simply replaced, and the band would’ve probably had a much greater struggle to get recognition in the first place. Or maybe I’m wrong… There are probably plenty of awful indie rock singers out there, but I’m not seeing them on the charts.

In any case, the strength of the melody and the depth and complexity of the instrumentals more than make up for the sub-par vocals, and Sumner does have a strange kind of innocent charisma.  He gives it his all in a guileless way that seems to characterize the spirit of the group,  invoking a youthful fragility that many bands fail to produce by trying too hard at it. Being innocent and baring your soul is something that’s hard to fake.

At 4:45, the song starts to get really interesting. Hook beats the hell out of a drum pad with accompaniment from grinding, devilish synths, and Morris starts playing, yes, a cowbell. We all need some chillout time after this intensity, so we’re treated to some gently layered synth pads and a smooth guitar, segueing into a chorus of croaking frogs. It’s hard not to laugh during this part.

The frogs don’t last long, though. The electro-pulsing synthesizers return (with more cowbell!), and the group really starts to jam. It’s like this was the card they were holding up their sleeve the whole time. Hook slowly ascends to the skies in a solo, moving up to what looks like the highest possible notes you can play on a bass. Sumner joins him momentarily with rhythm guitar, bobbing and weaving, and it seems like Hook is fighting with his bass to keep it from flying away due to the unfettered power of the jam. This is pretty heady stuff, and pretty surprising too. I think I kind of woke up the first time I heard it, because I wasn’t expecting a group I had pegged as robotic, drum machine and sequencer pop act to suddenly show so much soul. They even smile a bit!

Finally, it ends, with a single finger hammering down to play what sounds like a sample of a car crash. Cheesy, but effective. The members exchange wry looks, seeming a bit pleased with what they’ve done but certainly not overconfident. Gilbert gets the final shot, her eyes narrowed and the lines around her mouth tight as she walks out of the frame, like she’s leaving a funeral.

What to make of this? I had a good laugh at the absurdity of the group’s demeanor the first time I watched it. It seems like such a far cry from anything you would see in a music video now. Sure, we have more pursed-lipped poseurs than you can count, and nearly everyone nowadays tries to act hard, but there’s a kind of genuine uncertainty in New Order’s posing that gives me pause. These people aren’t trying to give us a hard sell; instead, they’re just throwing it down on the table and saying, “there it is.” The strange thing is, one gets the feeling that they would be bothered if you were to reject their offering. They’re vulnerable to your lack of approval, and they’re not too proud to show it. Maybe it’s all just an act, but I doubt it. Having an official music video filmed live must have been a lot of pressure, and in our modern age of computer-correction it seems like something only fools would do.

That said, it seems like New Order were geeks even by 1980s standards, firmly in the heart-on-the-sleeve category with The Cure, The Smiths, and all those other borderline-goth mopey bands. I think they’ve aged well, though. While their demeanor may seem absurd, it doesn’t cross over into annoying. It’s hard to call them whiny, but easy to call them weird.  Fortunately, weird is usually synonymous with interesting.

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Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt

Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt apparently resulted from a drunken retreat held by Hiroyuki Imaishi and some of his staff from Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann after that airing of that show, in which they all swapped ideas for the new project they would work on, and decided upon a theme of “vulgar and indecent jokes.” “If we are going to do this,” Imaishi said, “we will try it thoroughly.” That’s an understatement.

Panty and Stocking, which at first glance seems like a TV-MA version of Powerpuff Girls, pulses with the same youthful spirit that made Gurren Lagann so electrifying. While the latter was an insanely over-the-top 52-episode anime that ended with a conflict of literally galactic proportions, Panty and Stocking discards the serious tone of epic drama in favor of all-out anarchic fun for its own sake.

The premise is that two fallen angel sisters, the titular Panty and Stocking, live in Daten City (a Japanese pun, sounding like datenshi, or “fallen angel), where they pass their time engaging in excess and debauchery, attempting to shirk their episodic duties of tracking down and killing “ghosts” which give them coins that will allow them to pay their way back into Heaven. Their weapons are magically transmuted from their undergarments, and the villanous ghosts are typically incarnations of such gross-out fare as boogers, vomit and shit.

On the surface, this sounds terrible, and if it were an average anime made by an average studio it undoubtedly would be. But Panty and Stocking is solid proof that you can’t judge a show by its premise any more than a book by its cover, and it represents a truth I’ve noticed before in art: style is usually far more important than substance.

And boy, does this show ooze style. First of all, there’s the obvious love for American cartoons on display, particularly Genndy Tartatovsky’s work. Imaishi and his team embrace the thick lines and boxy style of Dexter’s Lab and Powerpuff Girls, and even go so far as to introduce each episode with punny title cards reminiscent of those 15-minute Cartoon Network shows, referencing things such as Fight Club and High School Musical. The style quickly transcends this influence though, and is obviously fueled by a much higher budget than those shows were allowed. The show constantly bursts with explanatory images and stylized sound effect text, and breaks into both super-deformed segments which are hilarious in their even-further simplification of style and occasional “realistic style” segments which are alarmingly beautiful in contrast to the normally uncomplicated character designs.

The most obvious of these is the sisters’ magical girl transformation sequence in the first episode, which, after watching ten minutes of cartoony comedy, is jaw-dropping. Even though I feel like it loses some of its impact without the built-up contrast, I feel obligated to share it with the reader here in order to showcase its magnificence:

With pumping house music and stripper poles, this is the classic magical girl transformation taken to its logical conclusion. The interesting thing is, like everything else in this show, it doesn’t feel like a parody or a satire, and I don’t believe it’s intended to be. This sequence exists only for the glory of what it’s showcasing: the mesmerizing power of female beauty.

Most of Panty and Stocking is equally risque: the girls are paragons of anti-virtue, but in a charming way that makes it hard not to love them despite their rampant selfishness. Panty is an unrepentant slut who gets it on with some dude in nearly every episode, Stocking is a lazy sugar-addicted narcissist, and even their afro-priest mentor Garter has his vices on display in his attempts to ogle high school boys and to seduce Brief, the hapless tag-along nerd who the girls refer to as “Geek Boy,” and who Panty relentlessly taunts sexually.

A friend once told me of his theory that 90% of what makes a rap song good is the beat; the music behind the words. I think at least half of what makes Panty and Stocking so great is the involvement of superstar musician Taku Takahashi and his associates. Taku, known for his production work in M-flo and currently one of the greatest DJs and producers in Japan, offers a gleefully infectious compilation for the soundtrack of Panty and Stocking. The soundtrack, which came out at the end of December on CD, is perfect for a dance party, and showcases some great examples of Japan’s modern take on house music. Newcomer Teddy Loid offers up the most addictive tracks, including the “Fly Away” theme to Panty and Stocking’s transformation, and the theme of their demonic rivals, Scanty and Kneesocks, which steals the show with its gothic organs and devilishly delicious chorus.

Scanty and Kneesocks show up halfway through the show, and prove to be as devoted to “rules” (pronounced in delightfully refined r-rolling Engrish) as Panty and Stocking are to breaking them. While it’s cliche at this point in both East and West to juxtapose the roles of demonic and divine, the show doesn’t seem interested in explaining to us why the demon sisters are the authoritarian ones. It’s too busy serving up comical vignettes and incredibly frenetic battle sequences, like an insane scene with a pink roofless hummer driving through the entire roof of a black hummer limo while guns blaze and blades clash. The choice of simple, blocky designs gives Imaishi and his animators room for incredible fluidity and dynamism, and while it isn’t all intense action, there’s seldom a moment in the show that isn’t bursting with color and style.

The exception to this, and perhaps the most interesting episode I’ve seen so far was one where the title characters barely appear, and the animation style shifts to something more like the work of Studio 4C. Set in “Little Tokyo,” the episode chronicles a day in the life of an incompetent, graying salariman and his pathetic co-workers at a typical Japanese company. Everything about the episode is disgusting. The color palette is brown and muted, the characters all evoke the worst aspects of Japanese physical appearance, and the horrors of being stuck in a mundane soul-crushing job and watching your life and dreams drift away seem all too real. I actually began to feel physically ill watching this episode, and had to struggle to sit through it. Sure enough, the ghost at the end was a personification of vomit, summoned out of the pathetic salariman after his co-workers force him to drink a massive amount of beer at a company outing, which seems to be a common occurrence in Japan. Panty and Stocking arrive in this scene, maintaining their regular style and color and seeming like cartoon fairies in contrast with all the drabness. This is as close as the show gets to sermonizing: rather than explicitly telling us how destructive to the soul modern society can be, it builds up its fantastical world of color, light and unbridled creativity, and then drops us into the polar opposite so deeply that just a brief appearance from the heroines seems like a reprieve from the abyss.

If this show has any underlying purpose at all, it seems to be a strong assertion of the vitality of youth and the value of free artistic expression in the face of an increasingly dull, corporatized and locked-down world. This would go along well with the lack of trendy “moe” stereotypes in the show, and the fact that the fanservice feels more like a glorious party than it does like pandering to lonely geeks. The music, the characters’ attitudes and the overall presentation seem to send the message that the viewer is expected to be cool; hip to the artistic expression going on rather than eager to consume a packaged product.

For this reason, the show has been very divisive, with many internet commentators immediately hating the style and tone and others spouting hyperbole about how Panty and Stocking will “save anime.” I wouldn’t go that far, but this show is exactly the kind of thing that got me watching Japanese animation in the first place. It has more style and energy than it knows what to do with, and is clearly the work of artists who are far too good at what they’re doing to take themselves seriously.

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