Friday, September 19, 2014

Fiction Friday: Xenosaga Fanfic, end of Chapter One

Last time, in Der Wanderer und Sein Schatten:
"I don't want to blow up any more than you -- oops." Seth hastily stood and pocketed his tools as the clamps opened. 
"What oops?" Wehj's voice was panicky. "No oops. This is a no-oops zone!"
"It's okay," said Seth. "I accidentally triggered a backup self-destruct."

And now, the conclusion (of chapter 1)...

"This is okay?" demanded Vix.

"Oh, we've got about ten minutes before it blows. Guess it was put in so that people would turn off the other self-destruct, then try to pull the box without noticing this one, and the ship would explode while they were trying to carry it out." Seth grinned. "Plenty of time to run up to the bridge and turn the thing off."

"We're gonna die," moaned Wehj.

"Probably," said Seth, "but not in the next ten minutes, if I can help it. You stay here and watch our AMWS and the box. If we don't call you in eight minutes, head for the Isolde. Vix, come on. I'll need you to cover me. There's still at least a couple of pirates running around the ship."

"Gotcha, boss," she answered, drawing an automatic pistol from her flight suit.

Seth unslung his own blaster rifle from his back and checked its power pack. "Let's go!"

He and Vix leapfrogged up the hall, Vix covering him while he opened each bulkhead, then Seth covering her as she ran for what cover she could find in the next hall. They covered the three hundred meters to the bridge in about five minutes, encountering no one until they arrived at the final, armored door.

Seth worked quickly to open it, and was soon rewarded for his efforts by the hiss of the door opening. A moment later, a spray of bullets sent him diving behind the doorframe.

"Guess we found those couple of guys, huh?" Vix popped out from her own position on the other side of the doorframe, squeezed off a few wild shots just to keep the pirates honest, then ducked back behind cover.

"Shit!" said Seth. "They must have realized how hard removing the box was going to be, so they're going to take the whole ship!" He unslung his blaster and returned fire.

Bullets flew in both directions, and Seth's blaster spat death, but both sides were too well-covered to hit the other. Then Vix rolled in a grenade, and the guns inside fell silent.

"Cover the entrance while I turn off the self-destruct," Seth said, and rolled in through the door, just in case one of the pirates was still alive. None were, however, so he got quickly to work while Vix watched the entrance from just inside the bridge.

After a few minutes, however, she was clearly getting nervous. "Um, cap'n, shouldn't we get moving?"

"Huh?" asked Seth. "Oh, the explosion! Right. Call Wehj, tell him we'll be there in a minute."

"But, the self-destruct!"

"Oh, I took care of that ages ago."

"You... then what are you doing?"

"Done!" Seth announced. "Now let's move! Quickly!"

They ran quickly down the hall to the aft cargo bay and boarded their AMWS. The other two helped Seth get upright, and then he activated his engines and hovered while they hoisted the box.

"Okay, we've got about thirty seconds!" he said.

"Thirty seconds until what, captain?" asked Wehj.

"Until – crap!" Seth barely dodged out of the way in time as two metal ribbons shot past him. The Swordsman hovered in the entrance, its armor scratched and pitted but otherwise none the worse for the explosions Seth had subjected it to.

"Oh hell, a Swordsman?" said Vix. "Who the hell are these pirates?"

"That's what I want to know!" shouted Seth. "Open fire, and don't let those ribbons hit you. Keep moving!" He launched himself backwards, then off sideways and up, firing on the Swordsman all the while.

"That's easy for you to say!" said Vix. "Your AMWS doesn't steer like a cow!" She dove behind a crate for cover, then joined in with her own partacs.

"Yahhh!" screamed Wehj as the ribbons sliced the crate he was using for shreds. "Captain, do something!" He fled behind the box they were trying to move.

"Vix, get behind there with him! Keep the armored crate between you and the Swordsman! If that box is as valuable as we think, he won't slice through it."

Seth began backing toward the box, firing all the while. Vix was closer, and the Swordsman couldn't really hit her without exposing himself to both Seth's and Wehj's shots. It had no choice but to go after Seth. It retracted the ribbons to do so -- and Seth chased them straight up to the Swordsman.

"Don't fire," he whispered, hardly aware he was doing it. "Don't fire, don't fire, don't fire."

His luck held; the Swordsman's pilot, startled by Seth's charge, hesitated, giving Seth time to unload a salvo directly into its cockpit. He launched backwards as he did so, giving the other two a clear shot to lean around the sides of their box and open fire.

The cockpit of the Swordsman burst suddenly in flame, and it collapsed to the floor.

"Yes!" shouted Seth, punching the air with his AMWS' fist. "Let's move, fast!"

The ship lurched, and Wehj yelped.

"Quickly!" said Seth. "We have to go, now!"

"Is the pirate ship attacking again?" Wehj asked.

"No," said Vix, "that was the drive! That was what you did -- you hacked the navigation controls!"

"Nah, the pirates did most of the work. I just programmed it." The ship shuddered several times in rapid succession. "That would be the pirates attacking. They know they can't get out of the way in time, so they're trying to drive the ship off course. Let's move!"

A moment later, Seth's AMWS emerged from the transport. His crew's two heavy lifters were just behind him, carrying the mysterious cargo. The pirate ship and the transport were both moving, deceptively ponderous as their dance came to an end. The pirates' engines flared to move them out of the way, ribbons of red and blue light connected the two ships, and flurries of missiles danced, but it was not enough to save the pirates. They managed the killing blow, and explosions began to ripple through the transport, but it was already moving at too high a relative speed. Even as it died, it slammed into their hull just behind the midpoint.

Seth turned to watch as explosions burst through both ships. There was a brilliant flare from the transport, then a second, and both ships were gone.

"Woo!" called Vix. "That'll be a story to tell. The three of us against a pocket cruiser, and we won!"

"Sounds like somebody has some words to eat, huh?" Seth grinned as he signaled the Isolde to pick them up.

"Hey, I still think it was a crazy, stupid thing to try. I'm just glad it worked. I'd hate to have to kill you after we were both already dead. Too confusing."

Seth laughed. "All right, guys, let's pack 'er in. I want to fix up my AMWS and then find out what's in that box."

***

Half a galaxy away, a young woman opened slightly protuberant, dark eyes to look at the controls of her gray and gold AMWS. The mech was tall and slender and somehow feminine in its construction, which in one sense belied the short, bulky young woman at its controls, but in another sense expressed perfectly her air of abstract grace.

"Our attempt to acquire the Original has failed," she said.

A face appeared on her screen. It was likewise young, but severe and drawn, with sharp, pale features and narrow, ice-blue eyes. The hair was cut too short for its color to be readily apparent, but it might have been white or very light blonde. "They defeated our attack, Dasra? I thought Nasatya predicted they would not."

"No," Dasra answered. "My sister's perfect record remains intact, Calvin. There was... interference." She transmitted a summary of the attack to him.

"Is that..?"

"I believe it is, yes."

"They have the Original?"

"Almost certainly," answered Dasra.

"Can you watch them?"

A hint of strain appeared around Dasra's eyes. "It is... difficult to follow those not of the Chosen, but I can continue to do so for some time yet before I require rest."

Calvin permitted himself a tight smile. It did nothing to make his face less forbidding. "Find Aser. Show him what you've shown me, and tell him where to find them. He will do the rest. I will inform our master. He will wish to offer a prayer of thanksgiving for this opportunity. This is a miraculous event, Dasra. Truly, we are the Chosen of God to accomplish his work."

Dasra refrained from pointing out that a better class of miracle would not have required the death of an entire ship's crew. Calvin did not take kindly to such thoughts. "As you say," she said. "May your feet find the hidden road."

"And yours," Calvin responded, then cut the connection.

Dasra closed her eyes and relaxed. As her awareness expanded to encompass all the universe, she gave thanks for her gift. The coincidences Calvin marveled at might or might not be God's work, but she had no doubts where her own ability came from. She might doubt Calvin, might doubt their methods, but there could be no doubt about the rightness of their cause.

End Chapter One.

I plan to post something else, a bit of original fiction, next week. Chapter Two will resume the following week.

In addition, here's something hopefully fun: I have never written a plot outline for this story. I made a soundtrack instead. It serves the same function as a plot outline would, anyway--reminding me of future events, keeping me on track with characters and themes, and so on. All are taken from video game soundtracks, mostly the games you'd think, but not entirely. Anyway, I plan to post the relevant bits of soundtrack at the end of each chapter.

This chapter has four associated tracks, all from Yuki Kajiura's work on Xenosaga Episode II, which is odd because that's my least favorite soundtrack in the series:

Seth's Theme



Seth and Izzy (Code Inspection)



Scavengers vs. Pirates (Space Battle 1)



The Chosen Ones (Ominous Cryptic Observers Observe Ominously and Issue Cryptic Omens 1)


Thursday, September 18, 2014

A revelation regarding Peter Capaldi's Doctor, plus books

Last night, I was attempting to explain to a friend why I love the Twelfth Doctor so much when, let's be fair, he's a colossal jerk who is utterly dismissive of everyone around him and just plain mean to Clara. And I was arguing that he's the cantankerous old man who slowly warms up, the wizardly grandpa or uncle sort, insert various other clichés regarding the First Doctor.

Except then I realized I wasn't talking about the First Doctor at all, because I honestly don't know the First Doctor very well--I've seen maybe four or five episodes, not even whole stories, unless you count "An Unearthly Child" as a standalone. No, the reason I irrationally love the Twelfth Doctor so much is because of a completely different character.

Because who is the Twelfth Doctor? He's a grumpy, callous, cold, Scottish man in a nice suit who has a long history of using his unparalleled resources to go on amazing adventures. He's Scrooge McDuck pre-nephews. My ENTIRE CHILDHOOD has programmed me to love him!

Anyway, some thoughts on books.

My Little Po-Mo 2 is chugging away. The content is 100% finalized and formatted for print, I'm just waiting on the final cover design to send it to the publisher. The cover designer says she should have it for this weekend. After that it's 2-3 weeks to get and check the proof. While I'm waiting on the proof copy, I'm going to do the formatting for the e-book version, so I can launch both the same day.

The Very Soil has been kind of my odd project out the last few weeks, but my plan is to knock out most of the content and reading for my new AUSA panels this weekend, and get back on track with The Very Soil in the coming week. Goal is to send it to the editor before AUSA. Still hoping for a Cyber Monday release, but that's foolishly optimistic.

Considering fleshing out and reorganizing my Utena and FMA comments, adding some cites, maybe tossing in some of the Madoka articles that aren't part of The Very Soil and calling it an essay collection on anime. Would there be any interest in that if I did it? I'd probably have to Kickstart it, is why I ask.

ETA: And by "AtLA" I mean "FMA." Oops...

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Utena Dump: Episodes 36-39

And so at last we come to the end of me dumping thoughts about Utena. I'm a bit sad. For things I literally just dashed together as comments on someone else's blog, I feel like there was some good stuff here. Also any time spent thinking about Utena is time well spent.

Next week is another Sailor Moon liveblog. Week after that, a new feature that'll run on alternate Wednesdays through, if I've done my math right, most of the rest of the year. (I probably haven't; calendar math is hard.)

Episode 36:

There is a fairly slim chance that the "doorway of night" is a Tolkien reference. Specifically, the Door of Night is the gate between Arda, the universe of material existence that includes Middle-Earth, and the void. It was created at the end of the First Age to seal Morgoth, the first and most powerful Dark Lord [ed: and blatantly modeled on the popular Christian conception of Lucifer, so there's your connection to Akio], into the void. So if it's opening...

More likely, however, it's just a cool- and ominous-sounding phrase that evokes darkness and the day's end.

Actual thoughts on this episode mostly involve Touga and Saionji's friendship, and what I think is going on in the sidecar scene. Like a lot of conversations in this show, it's heavy on fugue, which is sort of halfway between code and subtext. It's like a code that is perfectly understandable to the people using it and opaque to everyone else, not because they've agreed on some symbolic schema beforehand, but because the people using it know each other well enough to understand what the other person means.

So for starters, this is CLEARLY Touga doing his "Akio Jr" schtick, and Saionji wanting none of it. From there we get Saoinni saying he doesn't like Touga's manipulation of him. Touga's response is care and concern for Saionji, his way of saying "I actually don't like hurting you and I'm sorry I'm a dick."

And from that point on, Saionji is snarkmaster, no longer chasing after the incatchably pedestal-occupying Touga ribbing and advising his friend. And Touga accepts this with good grace. They're equals...

...which means they have the closest bond of any pair Anthy and Utena have ever faced, and are therefore the most dangerous foe. The false Rose Brides have previously always been associated with the cars, and here for the first time both cars and duelist attack Utena. Touga and Saionji are working together, and therefore almost as dangerous as Utena and Anthy.

Which brings us to the ending. As others have pointed out, Anthy knew Utena was not really in bed and likely to wake up. It's very probable she planned, or at least hoped, for Utena to see her. One final effort to drive her off?

Episode 37:

So. Very. Much. is happening in this episode.

[Last episode] I talked about fugue. Today is the best example in the series, the poison scene. But sometimes fugue and implication aren't enough, which is why we get one of the most important moments in the show... But more on both scenes below.

Mostly, this episode is a reflection of Episode 12, “For Friendship, Perhaps.” In that episode, Utena’s confidence was shaken by her defeat at Touga’s hands, and she temporarily abandoned her quest to become a prince and became more “girly.”

Here, Utena is not trouble by a [personal] loss, but rather by a feeling that she has lost her nobility and worthiness. She feels betrayed by Anthy and Akio, confused, dirtied by the echo between what she’s done with Akio and what she saw Anthy doing, and she feels she can no longer be the Prince. On her date with Akio she wears a red sweater like the one Anthy made in the cowbell episode; as always, costume changes suggest a character is filling a new role, and in that episode the sweater represented Anthy weaving the bizarre situation. Here Utena is playing the part of Anthy’s victim, wrapped in her spells and manipulations, seeking rescue by the Prince from the Witch.

But Akio isn’t interested in the stars. He isn’t interested in romance or playing the role anymore; there is no salvation for Utena with him, only another trap. Utena even begins to recognize this--Akio's comments about how girlish she looks are couched as complements, but really they’re statements of contempt. Sure, she can become his Princess in the castle, but in so doing she is just another Rose Bride, forced to play nice or else be labeled as Witch, blamed for everything that goes wrong in everyone’s lives, and stabbed by the swords of humanity’s misogynistic hatred.

Nonetheless, even Akio knows the choice belongs to Utena. She can still choose to reject the roles created for her by others, if she can withstand humanity’s judgment. But does she even want to? She sought to become a Prince, joined the duels to save Anthy. Now--just as in Episode 12--she questions whether Anthy is even worth saving. Both times it was because Anthy “cheated” with the person Utena was starting to think might be her Prince. But this time Anthy is still around for Utena to vent her frustrations, and she shreds the letter inviting her to the final duel. Akio is on the verge of victory; he feared the relationship between Utena and Anthy, and it is on the verge of falling apart.

But then comes the glorious, glorious badminton game, where Utena sees that her friends--and Juri, Miki, even Nanami are now clearly her friends, though Nanami remains one of those people who expresses their concern by yelling at its object—support her. Maybe she has to choose between surrendering to Princesshood or becoming a Witch in the eyes of the world, between the trauma of breaking the world’s shell and dying without ever truly having lived as herself--but she doesn’t have to do it alone. There are people who support her. Who know who she is and see that she isn’t the Princess and value her anyway.

It is here that Utena realizes what a terrible friend she’s being to Anthy. The Shadow Play is all about the trap Anthy is in, where the only way for B-ko to find her place in the world is to play the “whore” part of the Madonna/whore complex; the casting couch is a horrible thing, but our social structures force B-ko to use it (and the media-scandal route to fame, which is a sort of media equivalent) if she is to get the role she sees as the only path to her dreams. However, just because this is the way our society is constructed does not excuse C-ko’s judge character from moral culpability for his choice to benefit from it, any more than Akio’s claims that “the World” is the source of Anthy’s pain excuses him from his choice to aggravate it.

Utena soon realizes she’s done something similar to Anthy, judging her for her “choice” to sleep with Akio when there is every reason to believe she’s being coerced. And all it took was some friends showing they support Utena for Utena to realize she has the strength to break out of society’s Princess/Witch trap; maybe she can do the same for Anthy, and the fugue/poison scene is her attempt to do just that, to find out what Anthy would do if she weren’t trapped and support her in that goal. Unfortunately, in light of episode 38 it’s clear that Utena and Anthy were reading that scene differently; what I posted above is deliberately the read of a person who (like Utena) doesn’t know what’s to come (paraphrased):

Anthy: Are you familiar with cantarella? Also, do you like the cookies? I made them myself. (I’m dangerous, poisonous. I’ve hurt you and will continue to hurt you.)
Utena: I poisoned your tea. (I hurt you too.)
Anthy: It’s delicious. (I know, and I still value your friendship.)
Utena: So are the cookies. (Likewise.)

But Anthy knows what’s coming, so to her the conversation is very different:

Anthy: Are you familiar with cantarella? Also, do you like the cookies? I made them myself. (I am going to betray you and hurt you very badly. It might even kill you.)
Utena: I poisoned your tea. (I hurt you too.)
Anthy: It’s delicious. (You aren’t a threat to me.)
Utena: So are the cookies. (I’m too naïve to recognize how dangerous you are.)

(Cantarella is a great choice of poison, too, given its association with the Borgias. Lucrezia Borgia is the most famous of the family, supposedly for killing a whole bunch of people. Historians agree that she almost certainly didn’t, and everything written about her is basically centuries of people piling lurid, made-up detail on lurid, made-up detail, until what actually happened is utterly obscured in favor of a depiction of a most likely ordinary woman as a terrifying monster. Sound familiar?)
Utena’s ensuing promise, revealing she forgives Anthy utterly--that Anthy’s last and most desperate attempt to drive Utena away before she is destroyed by the powerful energy field of fucked-upped-ness that surrounds Akio and Anthy has failed--forces Anthy to an even more desperate move, a suicide attempt. I’ve seen some fans questioning whether Anthy can even die--aren't she and Akio heavily implied to be eternal?--but that’s mistaking this for what Gayatri Spivak dismisses as “gossip about imaginary people,” the form of reading/watching in which fiction is treated as a window into a consistent and coherent other world, as opposed to a deliberately constructed artifice in which all elements are entirely invented and entirely under the control of the author(s). Anthy wants to die so she tries to die; it doesn’t actually matter whether at some other point in the story she survived being impaled with hundreds of swords. Or, to put it another way, in real life there are “layers” of reality, sets of experiences which vary in how real they are, with material reality the most real, followed by the consensus reality of social constructs and perception, and then the unreal, such as fiction and dreams. Most fiction mimics this structure, but there is no actual requirement that it must, since of course all layers in a work of fiction are part of the unreal layer in real life. Utena is an example of a series that doesn’t bother; the events we see unfolding around the characters when they are awake and active are no more or less real-within-the-show than a Shadow Girl play or a dream sequence.

Or if you prefer, maybe the Rose Bride is eternal but exists on the layer of story, while Anthy is mortal on the material layer--in other worlds, she’s only immortal and eternal when she’s playing the role of the Rose Bride.

Regardless, this suicide attempt, on which more when I talk about episode 38, serves to patch things up for Utena and Anthy. Utena now realizes her real role; she is not the Princess or the Witch, and maybe not even the Prince. She’s the Fool, one of the great literary archetypes—she belongs in a class of characters that includes such luminaries as Twoflower, Sam Gamgee, and (he grudgingly admits, still hating the characters) Isaac and Miri. [Note for non-Watchers: I picked these three particular characters because all three works, The Colour of Magic, The Lord of the Rings, and Baccano!, had been covered by Mark Watches at the time I originally made these comments, and thus could be presumed familiar for the audience.]  She’s the one who has no idea what’s going on and therefore can cut through the biases and assumptions of others. The one who, in her obliviousness of what is and isn’t possible, can accomplish the impossible. The one who, precisely because the normal sources of wisdom are denied to her, possesses intuitive knowledge unavailable to the wise. The one who possesses the power of an adult and the naivete of a child, and therefore can bring about new beginnings.

She is the One Who Brings the World Revolution.

And, Anthy at her side, she is heading for the arena.

The Duel Named Revolution has begun.

Episode 38:

So, one thing people occasionally ask is whether and how much Akio was manipulating Touga. The answer is Yes and Lots. But I think, given the amount of panic he shows when he first says it, that Akio is honest about wanting someone to beat Utena in the Car Saga duels. He clearly wants to take the heart sword of the One Who Brings the Revolution of the World, but he's also clearly worried about Utena and Anthy's closeness--Anthy is also necessary to his endgame. So plan A was to work with Touga to get someone to beat Utena and become the OWBRW. But Akio is a master manipulator; he knows better than to assume Plan A will work. So Plan B is to get close enough to Utena to drive a wedge between her and Anthy and make her surrender the sword herself, becoming a pseudo-Rose Bride. Plan C is to take the sword by force in a duel. And Plan D? Anthy backstab.

So he reveals himself as the Prince, and nearly persuades Utena to become his princess. But as he feared, she is too close to Anthy, unwilling to leave her behind and ascend to eternal bliss with Akio. The key moment is Utena's flashback to the aftermath of last episode's suicide, the overt version of what was merely implied in the cantarella scene: Anthy has been manipulating and using Utena both in an attempt to alleviate her own pain and at her brother's behest. But Utena doesn't blame her; Utena at last realizes her own greatest flaw, her "cruel innocence" and savior complex.

As I mentioned before, a key theme of this series is that the concept of the savior, the "prince" in the show's own parlance, is inherently flawed. Saving others is about providing the help you want to give to the problems you perceive them as having--it is entirely about yourself. Helping others, by contrast, is about reaching out to them and letting them decide what you can do for them. It renders you vulnerable, but is the truly altruistic option. For the first time, Utena realizes that in trying to save Anthy she has been treating her as an object, talking over her, perpetuating a system that victimizes her, failing utterly to try to learn Anthy's point of view.

Utena recognizes this at FOURTEEN. Some people spend their entire lives without understanding the difference. This is a pretty huge achievement on Utena's part.
So Akio falls back another technique, a classic tactic of the abuser: gaslighting. That is, he attempts to convince Utena of things she knows aren't true, so that she will lose confidence in her own perceptions and attitudes and rely more on his. His opening move is to reveal that the castle in the sky is (as Saionji said it was in the first episode!) an illusion created by his planetarium, the dueling arena itself simply his bedroom. Everything that Utena experienced there, he claims, was his creation. (This is nonsense, of course. Even if the imagery was his, the dueling arena has never been about the images; it's about the emotional realities of the clashing characters, and that is their own creation, even if Akio has been exploiting it.)

He tries to undermine her moral sense, too, pretending that a 14-year-old girl being seduced into an adulterous relationship by an older, more experienced man is just as bad as an adult who rapes and abuses his underage sister. Unfortunately, Utena doesn't have the words in the heat of the moment to articulate why it's different--again, this is classic gaslighting. Finally he tries to convince her that her goal is false; Anthy does not want to be rescued and there is no such thing as a prince.

But Utena stands firm, and forces the duel.

I adore this scene with the Student Council that follows, the first time all five of them have ever been in the same scene together. The egg speech has always been another core theme of the series. As I explained before, it is a Hesse reference, and describes the necessity of either breaking the world's shell, the social structures that both maintain society and oppress individuals, or living out your whole life and dying without achieving your fullest potential. It is the arc of most characters in the show: In the beginning is the fairy tale of childhood, where you are safe and protected and powerless like the princess. Then comes adolescence, where you begin to assert the power that all human beings naturally possess, albeit in varying measure--physical power, social power, moral judgment, sexuality--and become aware that the world is not a safe and comforting place, but corrupt and full of darkness and dangers, as well as confining, arbitrary social norms that deny you full self-expression "for your own good." That is as far as Akio can reach--but the other characters, most notably Utena but the entire student council as well--is on the verge of reaching beyond that, to adulthood, where you recognize that much of what holds you back is your own shortcomings and start working to overcome them; that much of the rest of what holds you back is arbitrary judgment by people you don't actually have to listen to, so you stop listening to them; and that what remains can be defied and fought.

The Duel Named Revolution is fought against the world, yes, and all the judgmental and manipulative bastards who want to prevent you from being who you are, too, but it's equally fought against oneself. (That's a clue to whose duel this really is, by the way. Utena's internal conflict here is nothing compared to Anthy's.)

But mostly I love this scene because the five of them have finally come around to supporting Utena wholeheartedly. She represents them all against Akio--and they all have some pretty darn legitimate grievance against him!

Their five colors plus the Prince come together as one: Utena's pink.

At last the duel proper begins, as Akio talks about his unstated "ideals" which are so lofty that Utena cannot comprehend them, and which justify his actions. The planetarium immediately belies his words, displaying Black Rose Saga-style desks with nothing on them. The Black Rose duelists all had a signature object that signified what it was they were seeking after; Akio has nothing. He believes in nothing, and his ideals are as much an illusion as everything else.

And Utena reveals that Akio has failed; she will not abandon her own ideals. Here the prince has ceased to be Dios, the savior, the empty myth that becomes Akio; now the prince is the ideal self, the Utena-who-is-a-better-Utena. Dios shatters, the castle crumbles; Utena has taken the concept of the prince away from Akio and made it her own.

Anthy wakes, and sees that Akio no longer has the power to face Utena. With no other options left, Akio throws Anthy at her. And for just a moment, it is almost enough... Anthy hesitates.

But in the end she does what her brother wants. The world revolution is too new, too frightening; better the eternal familiar agony than the danger of hoping and being disappointed.

Anthy stabs Utena, her dress spreading out around them like a pool of blood.

The Duel Named Revolution...

...continues.
Episode 39:

Akio’s greatest weapon is the internalized misogyny of others, as Anthy demonstrates when she explains her reason for stabbing Utena: girls can’t be princes.

Akio’s second-greatest weapon is blaming others for his own treachery, as he does when he tells Utena he warned her.

Juri’s story is interesting; it is again a story of the prince, and showing yet another flaw in the ideal: you might fail and be forgotten. Fooooooooooooooooreshadoooooooooowiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiing.

But there is another source of foreshadowing here: Anthy hesitates to give Akio the sword. She cares about Utena, regrets stabbing her—and Akio deftly makes it all about him. Subtly he blames Anthy even while forgiving her (arrogating to himself the right to forgive her!): She knows he blames her for him no longer being the prince, so when he says this might be different if he were still the prince, it’s a subtle way of blaming her while appearing to blame himself. Their oddly ritualistic exchange about knowing and loving is similarly abusive; Akio is saying that someone who truly knows Anthy and still loves her is rare. It’s the classic “no one could ever love you but me” trick; like gaslighting, its goal is to undermine the other person’s confidence and increase their dependence on their abuser. (The Raven pulled precisely the same trick on Rue in Princess Tutu.)

Anthy’s dress stands empty. The Rose Bride was as much an illusion as the arena. The true Anthy is, has always been, impaled on a million swords of human hatred, imprisoned in the realm of the rose gate. This is the true function of the Rose Bride: to be Eve. To be the woman blamed, to take the swords of humanity’s hatred in the place of the prince, the savior, the true villain who wants humanity to suffer so he can play at rescuing them.
The Rose Gate is, of course, the same as the gate to enter the arena way back in the first episode. It’s as yonic as ever, and Akio approaches it by attacking it with a phallic symbol. He is wielding the sword of Utena’s heart destructively, and it puts her in agony.

Meanwhile, the “true” prince appears, and he’s not all that different from Akio, looking down on Utena, seeing her as weak and childish and in need of protection. Akio isn’t the corruption of Dios; they are Abraxas, one being with two faces. The “good” and “evil” faces are both masks over a single underlying reality, a being that sees itself as superior. Akio, Ruka, Touga, Wakaba’s Onion Prince; all are the same twisted approach to life expressed in different ways.

And Utena is having none of it. She stands. Even as her heart(-sword) breaks, she stands. She shoves the prince, the ruler of the world, out of the way, and as she does we see a brief glimpse of Wakaba. Wakaba, Utena’s friend for whom she started this all. Wakaba, loyal, loving Wakaba who faced and overcame her desire to be special in the Black Rose Saga; Wakaba, who doesn’t need to save others, just to be with them. At the same time, Akio speaks of his quest to win the power to revolutionize the world, because power is all he knows and all he understands. He wants to stand alone, to wield the power alone, and looks down on those who depend on others.

Which is his mistake. He insists on being the one with the power, on refusing to become vulnerable. Utena doesn’t. She admits that she loves Anthy, that she needs Anthy, that she cannot ever be truly happy without Anthy. Utena’s tear falls and becomes the drop of water that opens the gate. (Yes, once again and as always, the key to making the flower open is getting it wet.) But less crudely, the swords stop, as they must. They represented that the world hates Anthy, that it refuses to accept a woman who chooses not to be a princess. But the world doesn’t hate Anthy; misogynistic assholes like Akio do. Utena loves her.

Utena opens the coffin, her coffin, which is Anthy’s coffin. The eternally pierced Anthy was an illusion too; the real Anthy is the cowering, frightened girl, hiding in a terrible dark place because she fears the world outside is even worse. But Utena holds out a hand and lets Anthy decide whether to take it; no longer saving, but helping, letting Anthy make the choice. And as the heartbreaking strains of the series overture swell, Anthy does it. She takes Utena’s hand, willingly tries to take her hand. The arena, Akio’s corrupt system for controlling and manipulating others, Anthy most of all, falls apart as Anthy rejects it, choosing real love over the abuse she has known.

And then she falls.

Because the danger of helping instead of saving is that it means surrendering control. The other person might fall, leaving you with hand outstretched. Even worse, the world loves a savior, but often hates a helper. By helping someone the world has targeted you become a target yourself. Utena is not a princess, not a prince; in the eyes of the world, she must therefore be a witch.

Yet the series is not over. The shadow play girls step in to discuss the future--yet, oddly, there is no shadow, the familiar buildings emerging instead into light. Utena has been forgotten, and yet, much as with Mikage’s erasure before, some of the changes she helped create remain. Miki is teaching Tsuwabuki to use the stopwatch; Miki is moving on and needs someone to take his place. Saionji has abandoned dueling and wants to move ahead with his studies; he and Touga interact as friends and equals once more. Nanami has a tea dispenser similar to the one Wakaba had when she was living with Saionji; it’s ambiguous, but I think it’s an implication that Nanami and Saionji are dating--and their interactions and growth in the last arc suggest to me that they might possibly be good for each other. Or spectacularly terrible; either way, it implies both of them have moved on from their respective obsessions. Juri is still captain of the fencing team, but Shiori is now on the team with her; their relationship, too, has moved into new territory. Even the barbershop trio have transferred their interest from Nanami to her former minions, who appear to now be an independent gang of their own. Most interestingly, Wakaba seems to be shifting into an Utena-like role... (Who is that pouncing on her, anyway? A-ko? Keiko? [Another Mark Watches commenter suggested it is the girl from the first episode who told Wakaba her "boyfriend" Utena had gone on without her. This appears to be correct, and is intriguing.])

The only one who hasn’t moved on is Akio. He has moved backwards, intending to start the cycle of duels over again from the start with a new batch of duelists. He can’t move on, because he can’t let go of his power and control. As much as he uses his power to manipulate others, in the end he is enslaved to it more than anyone else, a pathetic figure gnawing away at the bottom of a pit that he’s persuaded everyone is a giant phallic tower. But he may have no choice but to change now, because the unthinkable has happened: Anthy rejects him and walks away.

And then we come to the closing credits, as my favorite track in the entire show, the triumphant "Rose and Release," plays. (And for the second time in the episode, the first being "Overture," I cry. Even on what must be my 20th viewing by now.) Anthy walks out of her prison, as she always had the power to do and yet never could before. She is free; she can grow up.

Of course she is doing it to find and save her love. Clad in Utena's pink, she takes on Utena's role as quester, protector, bringer of revolution, fool.

And what is it she walks out into? What are the images behind the credits? A gate. Trees, suggesting a forest. A long road winding into the distance. The common element is that all of these are liminal spaces, places you cross on the journey, not destinations in themselves. And indeed, we see Anthy walking ceaselessly and without hesitation through them. She does not stop until she is past all of them.

And listen to that song again. "Rose and Release" is very obviously the opening credits music, but with the lyrics replaced by vocalizing. They are ostentatious by their absence, so let us consider them.
Heroically, with bravery
I'll go on with my life,
just a long, long time.
But if the two of us should get split up
by whatever means,
let go of me,
Take my revolution.


"If we are separated, one of us will have to change the world."

In the sunny garden, we held each other's hands,
drew close together and soothed each other with the words,
"Neither of us will ever fall in love again."
Everytime
Into this photograph of us
smiling cheek to cheek,
I took a bit of loneliness,
and crammed it inside.


This is clearly Anthy talking about the keepsake photo she took with Utena, which appears again at the end.

Revolution!
Even in my dreams, even through my tears,
even though I'm being hurt,
reality is approaching now, frantically.
What I want now is to find out
just where I belong,
and my self-worth, up through today.


Again, very clearly something Anthy would say, and not Utena. This and the preceding section establish this is Anthy's song.

Heroically, I'll throw away
my clothes 'til I'm nude,
like the roses dancing all around me, whirling free.
But if the two of us should get split up
by whatever means,
I swear to you, I will change the world.


"Wait for me Utena! Even if it means destroying my brother's system, I will find you!"
Song and imagery taken together make it clear: Yes. Anthy finds Utena. They are together in the end, hand in hand. Someday, together, they shine. (Note that the title of the episode replaces the normal "to be continued" card. This is the end of the show, and the end of the show is Anthy and Utena, shining, hand in hand.)

Utena failed to save Anthy and failed to be the Prince. That's because, as I've said before, the ideal of the savior is fundamentally self-contradictory and flawed. But, perhaps without realizing it, Utena helped Anthy, gave her the tools she needed to finally walk out of Ohtori Academy and the cycle of abuse she'd been trapped in for what seems like centuries. Utena is the vehicle by which Anthy escapes Ohtori, but it's Anthy in the driver's seat.

Which brings me to one final image and question: every duel in the series ends with the clanging of bells as the winner is revealed. But when the swords destroy the arena, there are no bells.

Not, that is, until the end of the episode, when Anthy tells of Akio and walks out. Then they ring riotously as Anthy sets off. In other words, the duel didn't end with Utena's defeat, it ended with Anthy's liberation.

The Duel Named Revolution is over.

Anthy won.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Upcoming Convention Appearance: Anime USA

I'll be giving several panels at Anime USA (October 3-5 in Washington, DC):
  • Analyzing Anime 101: Probably my most popular panel, definitely the one I've given most. Basically a compressed overview of basic analytic techniques with examples from anime.
  • Postmodern Anime: Brief discussion of postmodern techniques and concepts, then a bunch of anime examples.
  • BESM: Introduction to the anime tabletop RPG--where to find it, basics of play, recommendations of approaches, and then having the audience collectively build a character.
  • Break the World's Shell: Anime Apocalypses as Social and Personal Revolution: Title basically says it all. Briefly tracing the apocalyptic genre from its origins in the ancient Near East (Utnapishtim, Atlantis, Revelation), through Hesse and 50's science fiction, and then plunging into specific anime for the majority of the panel (including Akira, Saikano, PMMM, Evangelion of course, Utena, and others). Central thesis is apocalypse as metaphor for massive change on a cultural or personal scale (or both).
Don't know times/days yet, but all those panels have been confirmed. BESM and the apocalypse panel are both entirely new, Postmodern Anime I've done once before and Analyzing Anime 101 I've done probably a dozen times.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

And tell that big dumb scary face to take a hike and leave you alone and if he thinks he can scare you then he's got another thing coming and the very idea of such a thing just makes you wanna... (Pinkie ApplePie)

Oh wow, I'm really sorry about this one. I fucked up and queued it for the wrong day, and because I was staying with family overnight and all day I didn't notice that it didn't go up. I'm putting it up now, then once my service successfully picks it up and posts it to the various social media, I'll backdate it to where it's supposed to go.

That, or Pinkie's been wifing in the club.
It's January 11, 2014. The top song is still "The Monster," and the top movie is something called Lone Survivor, which I've never heard of despite it spending the next five weeks in the top five. In the news, Australia beats England at cricket to reclaim The Ashes, as far as I know the only major international sports trophy to originate as a joke; Janet Yellen is confirmed as Chair of the Federal Reserve by the U.S. Senate, becoming the first woman to hold the position; and Spain invites the Sephardim, a large Jewish ethnic group exiled in 1492, and who now comprise the majority of Jews in North Africa and Western Asia, to return.

On TV, we have "Pinkie Apple Pie," a very strong first effort by new writer Natasha Levinger that sends Pinkie Pie along with the Apple family on a road trip to discover if Pinkie is actually a distant Apple cousin. The episode weaves two strands together, Pinkie's eagerness to be a part of the Apple family, and the Apples' own struggle to keep up a good image of their family.

Then Slender Man shows up.

It's an obvious move, really. The show's been throwing sly references to pop culture over the target demographic's heads for nearly its entire run, and has also incorporated at least two characters invented entirely by Internet fandom, Derpy Hooves and Dr. Whooves. It's also been spending much of this season feature alien intrusions into Equestria and the pony's lives, from the physical to the conceptual.

Slender Man, meanwhile, is public domain character created entirely by his own Internet fandom. Originating in a Something Awful thread about photoshopping old photographs to add ghosts, he is an impossibly tall, tentacled, faceless figure in a black suit, standing in the background of a photograph of children happily playing on a playground, his position and the composition such that he isn't immediately apparent on first glance.

He quickly became memetic, and as image posts, CreepyPastas, and eventually blogs and YouTube serials about him proliferated, a consensus of a few core concepts accreted around him. He is silent, and rarely actually seen to move, but can apparently move tremendously quickly or teleport when not being observed. He causes video and audio distortions in cameras when he's nearby, most often visual tearing or loud droning static. He seems to focus on particular people, being seen by or near them, and the people he focuses on tend to develop coughs, delusions, hallucinations, obsessions, and paranoia. Supposedly his preferred targets are children, but nearly every story has him stalking young adults in their early 20s. He tends to be found in liminal spaces such as forests, porches, windows, doorsteps, and hallways. He has no known weaknesses, has never been harmed, and was created by a Something Awful thread about photoshopping old photographs to add ghosts. Slender Man, you see, is a fictional being within his own stories. The more stories are told about him, the stronger he becomes.

He is among the most alien intrusions imaginable,  short of going completely Lovecraftian, and both a physical presence and a concept. This is the perfect season for him to cameo in.

Like most creatures of horror, Slender Man can be read as expressing a particular set of anxieties. He has the appearance of a faceless, anonymous being clad in the ultimate symbol of adult responsibility and tedium, the office worker's suit. He destroys children, which is to say childhood. He is encountered in spaces that exist on the edge between two adjoining realms--the forest that lies between civilized regions, the hallway between rooms, the door and porch and window between the safe, contained Inside and the vast, unknown Outside. 

Slender Man is adulthood itself, and so of course he is stalking Pinkie Pie, who is probably the most childlike and childish of the Mane Six. Alone of them, Pinkie neither lives alone nor is the head of a household; she frequently appears to not understand serious situations such as Discord's disruptions in "Return of Harmony"; and appears motivated almost entirely by pleasure-seeking.

Or is she? Because in this episode we see something new in Pinkie Pie. In discussion of past episodes, I've noted that Pinkie Pie has a severely stunted remembering self, and as such generally neither plans for the future nor dwells on the past. But here, right from the start of the episode, she is already intently interested in a particular aspect of her past, her ancestry.

The reason becomes clear when we consider what, precisely, piques her interest, and what it is she doesn't want to remember. Pinkie Pie was miserable as a member of the Pie family, as shown in "The Cutie Mark Chronicles." (This statement is complicated, but not negated, by "Maud Pie," as I will discuss further when we get to that episode.)  She loves them (as, again, shown most clearly in "Maud Pie,") and does not want to stop being a Pie, but if she can acquire an additional family with whom she fits in better, that is a major gain for her. Joining the Apples, in other words, is Pinkie's first real attempt to fix the misery of her childhood rather than hide from it, and as such is inherently an attempt to regain her remembering self.

To that end, the efforts of the Apple family to seem "perfect," and the high importance Applejack places on making the Apple family welcoming for her, are intriguing. Applejack is, in a sense, the anti-Pinkie Pie, in the sense that, while her case is less severe, she also suffers from the stunting of one of her selves. Most obviously in "Apple Family Reunion," where she focuses so much effort on making the event memorable (the goal of the remembering self) that she forgets to make it enjoyable (the goal of the experiencing self), Applejack has a tendency to be too willing to sacrifice the present for the sake of the future, to focus so much on goals that she ignores her experience of the present. That she is so eager to invite Pinkie Pie into the close-knit Apple clan is primarily because of their friendship, but it is also suggestive of Applejack trying to invite some of Pinkie's immediacy and fun into her life.

If so, then it follows that Pinkie is trying to accomplish much the same, deliberately seeking out an opportunity to build good memories as opposed to simply enjoy the present. Her constant snapping of photographs throughout the episode, and construction of a scrapbook at the end, strongly imply that her purpose in this journey is to remember it after, and her speech to the Apples--that she feels they are a strong family because they can get angry at one another--shows a much greater understanding of relationships than Pinkie has demonstrated in the past. Ultimately, her argument is that the Apples are a good family because even though being together isn't perfect every single second, in the long run, they cherish one another. That is a very remembering-self type of argument.

Slender Man is, thus, not an alien presence at all. The specter of adulthood is present in the scene where Pinkie Pie makes her speech to Applejack, not because he is an invader from a realm of horror far outside the conceptual spaces of the show, but because the specter of adulthood is present in the scene. One important part of growing up for most people is leaving one's family (generally not entirely, but at least partially) and finding a new family in the form of (traditionally) a romantic partner and children, or (frequently) close, lifelong friends. (Often both, of course, and sadly sometimes neither.) Pinkie has found a family in the Apples, possibly not a family by birth, but definitely a family by choice. This is probably the most adult thing she's ever done.

Slender Man vanishes as quickly as he appears, never to be seen stalking Pinkie again. He doesn't need to; the specter of adulthood has been met, and matched, and accepted, and thereby defeated and absorbed. There is, perhaps, a lesson here for all the other qlippothic invaders we've faced this season. Fighting them went rather poorly in "Princess Twilight Sparkle." It might be better--and more in keeping with the spirit of the show--to invite them in. It worked for Rarity last episode, and Pinkie now--who will it work for next?

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Kill la Kill Liveblog Chat Thingy

How to participate in the liveblog chat:

Option 1: Whenever you watch the episode, comment on this post as you watch with whatever responses you feel like posting!

Option 2: Go to http://webchat.freenode.net/. Enter a nickname, then for the Channels field enter ##rabbitcube, and finally fill in the Captcha and hit Connect! We'll be watching the episode and commenting there starting at 2:00 p.m. EST today.


Chatlog below the cut!