Wednesday, August 20, 2014

A stray thought regarding Terry Pratchett and Ferguson, MO

I forgot to queue up Wednesday's regular Sailor Moon post, and unfortunately the chatlog is on a computer I won't have access to until tonight. So have Thursday's post today, and Wednesday's post will go up tomorrow.

The other night, I was rereading Terry Pratchett's Night Watch, and I wondered: would Ferguson be as bad as it is if all cops were required to read the Watch books?

And the answer is, of course, yes, because the human ability to compartmentalize and justify via special pleading is infinite, but still, I can't help but think that things might be slightly better if the prevailing cultural image of cop-as-hero was more Vimes and less Dirty Harry.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Aperiodic State of the Blog

So, the general consensus I seem to be getting regarding doing solo Let's Plays is "don't." So scrap that idea.

I'm in a bit of a writing slump lately, and being ill hasn't helped. (I am basically mildly ill about 90% of my waking hours this past month, occasionally flaring into something more debilitating. I know what it is and what caused it, it's a chronic thing I've had for years. There's basically nothing I can do about it in the short term, and I'm already working on the medium term. Long term... well, in the long term everyone's got the same prognosis eventually, right?) My own stuff has been kind of lagging, particularly the Madoka book, but I've got some guest posts and collaborations coming up that I'm pushing my way through. As those go up I'll link them here, of course.

Anyway, I'm going to try to keep churning through the last couple dozen pony posts each weekend, and I'll try to keep up with quasi-interesting daily thoughts as well--and as I mentioned elsewhere, I have already written a six-part series to go up on alternate Wednesdays after I run out of Utena--but I make no promises regarding Fiction Friday ("oh no!" cried all zero fans of Fiction Friday) or anything else really.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Holy guacamole! (Power Ponies)

Sorry this is so late. I was ill again this weekend, and spent much of it asleep as a consequence.

Twilight is all wrong here. Everyone knows, primary
colors are for heroes, secondaries are for villains!
It's December 21, 2013. The top song is Eminem feat. Rihanna with the interestingly layered "Monster." The top movie is still The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. In the news, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, while Ukrainians protest the ties between the two, a conflict which will only grow in the coming months. Same-sex marriage becomes legal in New Mexico and Utah. And Uganda passes its controversial and brutal anti-homosexuality law with heavy backing from U.S. right-wing Christian leaders; the law will be struck down by the courts on a technicality in the summer of 2014.

In ponies we have yet another case of interpenetration with an outside context with "Power Ponies," written by Meghan McCarthy, Charlotte Fullerton, and Camp Lakebottom co-creator Betsy McGowen in her first and only Friendship Is Magic writing credit to date. The episode is largely an entertaining bit of froth, in which Spike (yes, the same Spike who defeated Sombra) is feeling useless and gets an opportunity to prove otherwise to himself, while maintaining a rather higher standard of good behavior than is the norm for Spike-focused episodes.

Despite said frothiness, however, the episode does continue the season's exploration of its recurring theme of encountering the alien. In this case, rather like "Daring Don't," it's an interaction with an alien setting and genre; however, where "Daring Don't" tries to bring a tonally incompatible story-space into Equestria, "Power Ponies" sends the cast out into a new, ideologically incompatible story-space. In this respect it is rather more like "Read It and Weep," down to using a book as the device which transports the readers into a new world; in this case, however, the book's magic and resulting transportation is literal, rather than metaphorical.

Unlike the Indiana Jones-esque adventures of Daring Do, the Mane Six and Spike slot quite neatly into the superhero/comic-book world into which they are transported. First, their role within Equestria is arguably that of superheroes, protectors with access to a unique power that allows them to confront threats to the realm. Second, though both adventure serials and comic books arise from the pulp tradition, comics, particularly the Silver Age style which the titular Power Ponies seem to be evoking, are more brightly colorful, more prone to silliness, and more likely to leave their villains alive at the end of the story. In this respect, Batman has more in common with Friendship Is Magic than he does with Indiana Jones; both Batman and the ponies are largely unable to kill off their villains, Batman because of the general unwillingness of comics to let go of a potentially compelling character, and the ponies because murder is generally not something parents want their small children to see. The outcome is that both the ponies and Batman become defined, where their villains are concerned, by hope; just as the ponies keep stubbornly trying to show Discord what real friendship is, Batman keeps stubbornly returning the Joker to Arkham Asylum in the hope that this time he'll reform.

But as I said above, there is still an underlying incompatibility between Friendship Is Magic's storytelling and a superhero comic, one ideological in nature. This is perhaps most clear with the figure of the Mane-iac, the Power Ponies' nemesis. She is treated as a fairly standard Silver Age comic-book supervillain, which is to say that the explanation of both her motivation for destroying Maretropolis, and her convoluted scheme for doing so, is a vague "insanity." Played simultaneously as comedic and destructive, this "insanity" consists of her concocting elaborate schemes around the theme of hair, stealing and destroying property, threatening the lives of the Power Ponies and citizens of Maretropolis, and laughing constantly. Contrast to the depictions of psychological distress elsewhere in the series; while at times generically "crazy" ponies have appeared as part of a brief gag, such as the "barking mad" pony in "Read It and Weep," most of the depictions of psychological disorder have been much more sympathetic, usually involving the Mane Six themselves. These include Pinkie Pie's pathological need for constant peer approval ("Party of One"), Twilight Sparkle's destructive perfectionism ("Lesson Zero"), and Rainbow Dash's learning disability ("Testing, Testing, 1, 2, 3"). By contrast, the villains of the show have been largely free of obvious psychological disorder; they're just selfish, self-centered, or mean.

This differing treatment of mental illness and villainy is an artifact of, as I have said, ideological differences between Friendship Is Magic and the genre of the superhero. To finally address those differences, the core conceit of the superhero is that the powers that be are lacking in strength, will, or ability, and thus cannot fully contain threats to the well-being of the people. Fortunately, a singular, heroic individual appears, superior not only in ability but also in will and morality, to the common folk and their leaders. This unelected hero is able to rise against the corruption within society, and enact justice and the will of the people outside any structures (or strictures) of law and the courts.

The superhero, in other words, is fundamentally a romantic conception. It is rooted in the notion that human society is corrupt, "the masses," are base, but that there is nonetheless a pure will or spirit of the people--Hegel's zeitgeist--which can be expressed through an individual ubermensch. It is inherently anti-democratic and anti-rule of law. Indeed, this particular expression of romantic ideology--the superior human who cuts through the necessary compromises of liberal society in order to enact a nebulous "will of the people," not might makes right or right makes might, but might is right--is a passible capsule summation of the essentials of fascism.

Which is not to say that any superhero, or any of their creators, are themselves fascists! (Well, maybe Mr. A.) Rather, it is simply that by drawing on a similar philosophical tradition--the Continental romanticism of Hegel and Nietzsche--the superhero genre ends up necessarily sharing some concepts in common with fascism. Included within these romantic notions is an equation of beauty, health, and goodness. Evil is seen as a sickness, and by extension, sickness is evil. Superheroes and villains very often share similar types of origins--exposure to a vat of strange chemicals, for example. But because Barry Allen is a superior man, his strange chemicals make him the heroic, classically handsome, empowered Flash; the Joker is an inferior man, so his chemicals make him psychologically broken, ugly, and evil. Up until the 1960s and the beginning of a conscious effort to create flawed and vulnerable heroes, there were few exceptions to a general rule of superhero comics: heroes are noble, healthy, attractive, and strong, villains are bestial, broken, ugly, and flawed.

By contrast, Friendship Is Magic is set in a world where everyone has both something to contribute and something to learn. The very concept of the cutie mark and "super special talent" implies that every pony is heroically capable in some narrow field. As many or more episodes are spent dealing with the Mane Six's neuroses and struggles with everyday life as are spent battling evil threats to Equestria. Ultimately this is rooted in a humanistic, Enlightenment worldview in which all people have value and can better themselves, in which the world is not divisible into "good" and "bad" so much as "enlightened" and "ignorant," with the latter needing only to learn a few lessons in order to change. Goodness is not inherently connected to attractiveness or health, which are not inherently connected to each other; rather, all people have flaws and issues with which they struggle, but said flaws can be overcome by working together. The Mane Six are not superior because they can battle powerful evil; indeed, this is not even the source of their worth. Rather, they have worth because they are people, and they improve themselves and their world by exploring their own potential, which may or may not involve confronting villains (primarily depending on whether this is a season premier/finale or mid-season episode).

Ultimately, Friendship Is Magic is as far from fascism as one can get while still remaining within more-or-less modern ideologies. Namely, in its emphasis on self-discovery within a cooperative community, it takes a fundamentally socialist worldview. Each pony contributes what they can contribute, and explores ways to better themselves and thus contribute more. Because each pony is equally valuable, these contributions are thus also of equal value; Spike's efforts, his desire to help, and most of all Spike himself are not worth less (let alone worthless) just because the rest of the Mane Six are able to take care of the task of cleaning the castle without him. Spike lives in a story where people have value regardless of the size of their contribution, and so he has value; Hum Drum, by contrast, lives in a story where one's contribution to society is the source of one's value, and so he is the smallest, least powerful, and least able to do good of the Power Ponies.

In the end, this incompatibility between the liberal values of Friendship Is Magic and the romantic values of a superhero comic reiterate the tensions often present in modern comics. Explorations of the fascistic roots of the superhero have become increasingly common in the last few decades, starting with the work of Frank Miller (who wallows in them) and Alan Moore (who exposes and uproot them) in the 1980s, and continuing as a thread down to the present day--the film Captain America: The Winter Soldier, for example, unites the heroic SHIELD and villainous HYDRA into a single organization dedicated to totalitarian control, making the titular hero complicit in the very fascist ideology he was created to fight.

Ultimately, Friendship Is Magic has no answer to this tension except to retreat from it, back into the safe and familiar space of its more humanistic worldview. But this notion of the Mane Six as heroes, a superior breed with the power and responsibility to protect others, will return. They undeniably do have power, in their own world just as much as in the comic. If not fighting villains, or not just fighting villains, what are they to use it for?

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Kill la Kill Liveblog Chat Thingy

Sorry to get this up so late, as I mentioned I've been ill the last few days.

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 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.

Following the Kill la Kill liveblog we will take a short break, and then watch Sailor Moon at 3:00 p.m. EST.

Kill la Kill chatlog below the cut!

Friday, August 15, 2014

Fiction Fridays: Fragmentary Fanfiction

Here's a fragment from a fanfiction that's been kicking around in my head since, I dunno, seven or eight years ago? I won't tell you the context or what it's a fanfiction of, because whatever.

“So you’re saying this is destiny? That we’re, what, the Chosen Ones or something?”

The pretty young man laughed. Behind him, the vines covering the wall wilted, turned brown, and began to rot away. “Don’t be ridiculous. None of you are special. There are trillions of people in this universe–there is absolutely nothing any of you could do that someone, somewhere, can’t do better.”

“Then why–”

“Because you're here. They're not. Each and every one of you made decisions that led to more decisions, little ripples in the fabric of time, spreading out, intersecting, interfering with and influencing one another, coming together until you form the bubbling front of a colossal wave, a wave which is coming ashore here.”

The stones beneath his feet cracked with age, splintering into dust as he spread shining wings. “Chosen Ones were how he operated. Me, I decided to wait for the Choosing Ones.” His wings continued to unfold, bigger than eagles’, than swans’, than airliners’. Where they brushed against the steel catwalk above, rust spread across it, red-brown on beams suddenly sagging with metal fatigue. “Now choose!”

The protons in the air around him decayed, blue sparks of Cerenkov radiation lashing out from where he stood. Space shredded with the shriek of tearing silk, if silk could bleed. Wind, hot and stinking, blew past them as he glowed brighter and brighter. “Show me the light of your wills!” he cried. “Show me the power to make the universe other than what it is!”

Then he attacked.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Seeing as my office has decided this is a games site...

No, seriously, for the past two weeks the automatic content filter at my work has started blocking all of MLPomo, and informs me it's classified as "Games" when I try to visit. No idea why it's blocked while, for instance, Nintendo Project Reloaded is just fine.

Anyway, if this is a games site, let's talk games. The window to record anything with Viga is now basically over until the end of the year, and uncertain then. So if I do Let's Plays, it'll be just me for the time being.

I ran some experiments and it looks like I can more-or-less successfully record off my PC. I'm thinking of doing an FFV Let's Play--I haven't played it in a long time, I like it, and it's not something you see covered a lot.

My main question is: should I try to be funny? Or intelligent/analytical? Or both?

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Utena Dump, Episodes 21-25

Continuing the fortnightly series of posts collecting my comments on the Mark Watches reviews of Revolutionary Girl Utena:

Ep 21:

The only real support for fans who regard the Black Rose Saga as a filler arc, so I'm going to limit myself to noting [in response to Mark commenting that, had he watched this series in high school, he might have avoided some toxic relationships] that alas, Mark, I'm not sure watching this would have helped. I DID watch this show in high school, when it was new, and I was still all Nice Guy Syndrome until my mid-twenties.

Ep 22:

Mikage's chalkboard when Akio visits him in the flashback is interesting. For a big scientific research project, it contains very little math. It does have what look like I Ching hexagrams and an inverted symbol of Venus/feminine/copper. Something to do with the Eternal Feminine, maybe?

As several people have noted, time is SERIOUSLY broken at Ohtori, possibly as a result of the project Nemuro was working on. Clothing styles have gone from 70s to 90s, and Tokiko has aged from maybe early 20s to maybe 40, but Mikage and Akio haven't aged a day. Neither has Mamiya, but either his death was faked or he's undead. Meanwhile, there's hints of time going faster than it should (the tea, the cats reproducing in the course of a conversation), slower (the stopped hourglass, the teacup still being there), and even backwards (the butterfly becoming an egg on a leaf).

Meanwhile, we see the duelists planting trees, and their sacrifice is so that one day the path to eternity can be opened from the school. Saionji stated that the upside-down castle is the place where eternity can be found; the implication would seem to be that the goal of the project was to create the dueling forest and arena.

The Shadow Girl play seems to be about Mikage, an apparently unfeeling robot. But note, it says it never gets lonely because it has the monkeys for company--that lack of feeling is just Mikage denying his emotions and therefore being controlled by them. (Hi there, Spock!) The monkeys he catches are, of course, the Black Rose duelists. The implication, then, is that his nefarious scheming is a doomed attempt to cope with his loneliness.

Of course, there's another way to read the play: Who else do we know that hides (from) their true feelings, pretends to have no will of their own, and has a monkey for a friend?

Oh, and I forgot: on the time is broken thing? That's the common fan theory on why Miki is always fiddling with the watch. He's noticed, and is trying to catch time in the act, so to speak. Note also that he's the first character to know anything about Nemuro Hall--I suspect he's figured out its somehow connected to the time distortions.
Ep 23:

Best duel song of the arc, IMO. Weirdly straightforward Shadow Girl play, too: it's pretty clearly about how pathetic it is to cling to past accomplishments instead of moving forward into the future and forging new ones.

Mikage/Nemuro's goal, we learn, was to make his memories eternal. I'm guessing what happened was, roughly, that they opened the path to eternity just too late to save Mamiya, and Nemuro burned the place down in rage and grief, or possibly as part of a bargain with Akio to make his memories of Mamiya last forever. (It's not Nemuro Memorial Hall because Nemuro died there; it's called that because his memories are stored there.)

Either way, the result was a haunting. Anthy in the form of Mamiya stuck by Mikage (which is why she's been so tired--being two people at once must be exhausting), and the two preserved memories--ghosts, in other words--lingered on the campus, stuck in their pasts.

(I mistyped the preceding line as "stuck in their pasta." VERY different show, that would be.)

The question then becomes, what was the point of all this? What did Akio gain by manipulating Mikage into manipulating the students?

Well, it's hard to say what he gained, but something did change: time is now even more broken. Mikage never existed to begin with, and the memories of the Black Rose Saga are, for Utena, seemingly erased? Did the Duels happen without them ever figuring out who was behind them? Or did they all just get a couple months' break from dueling?

More importantly, Miki remembers that the building is called something Memorial Hall... But if it wasn't rebuilt after the fire, that means it was named that BEFORE the event that caused it to be renamed!

So now the question shifts: Who and what ARE Akio and Anthy? It's now clear that Anthy's insight and the strange events that happen around her aren't coincidental... She has power of some kind, and she's actively working with Akio. But to what end? How much is her involvement willing and how much is it coerced, given the abusive sexual relationship between them? (Her smile at the end of this episode suggests that she did derive some pleasure from manipulating Mikage.)

And what on Earth could their goal be, that breaking time is part of it? Are they after eternity, or something else?

Ep 24:

I kind of perversely love this episode? I mean, objectively it's not very good, but the sheer audacity of doing a clip show made of clips from filler episodes fills me with glee. The only clip show I like better than this is the Greatest Clip Show of All Time, from Clerks the Animated Series. (It was the SECOND EPISODE. They only had one clip. They showed it about 20 times over the course of the standard-issue clip-show frame story.)

Anyway, this makes perfect sense. It's the end of the arc, so we need a clip show. But the conclusion of the Black Rose Saga retroactively deleted the entire plot, so what can we show clips of? Why, the not-plot, obviously!

There's also something a bit subtler going on, too--the last episode showed that Anthy has (currently vaguely defined and of unknown origin) Powers, that her manipulations and insights are NOT an accident but tied in directly to the weirdness of Ohtori Academy. This episode thus does to the Nanami Has Wacky Animal Adventures episodes what the previous clip show did to the Student Council arc, namely recontextualize it to show how it all tied together into an ongoing plot orchestrated by a hitherto unsuspected shadowy figure.

EVERYTHING bad that has happened to Nanami thus far is Anthy's doing. Remember the elephant she drew in the margins of her textbook during the study session with Nanami and Miki? And now we see that she fed her curry to the Barbershop Trio and elephants, creating elephants that wanted to pursue Nanami.

This is a silly, pointless filler episode--TVTropes calls it the only entirely dispensable episode of the series. Yet it's also the episode that demonstrates PRECISELY how powerful, dangerous, and frankly sadistic Anthy can be when provoked. She is not the innocent princess--but that does not necessarily mean that she is pure evil either, of course. Thus far there have not been any purely good or purely evil characters in this show--even Mikage was more misguided than malicious in the end, and Akio, for all that he is a sexual abuser and Mikage's puppet-master, has also been giving Utena actually pretty good advice all arc.

(Also, surprise return of the monkey-catching robot, who carts C-ko off into space in a ship that looks suspiciously similar to the one A-ko and B-ko left in at the end of the last arc. Does that mean we're going to get a D-ko taking over Shadow Play duties? Or Shadow Play Girls In Space? Only time will tell...)

 Ep 25:

Oh man. So much momentous stuff happens in this episode. The new arc really kicks off with a bang. Too bad it then immediately loses all momentum while it spends the next six or seven episodes cycling through the contractually obligatory duels with all the student council members. Have I mentioned that I really dislike the Car Saga enough times yet?

So, big revelation number one: Akio is named after the Japanese name for the Morning Star, and I'm just going to quote (warning: the text I quote in the next few paragraphs is safe, but the rest of the article contains extensive spoilers for the Madoka Magica movie, Rebellion) myself on this:
There is a recurring myth in the ancient Mediterranean. In it, the Shining One (Hebrew: Helel, Greek: Phaethon) tries to usurp the Sun or the supreme deity, and is cast down or punished for his presumption. This is a familiar myth in our culture, due mostly to the Greek version. The Semitic version is less well known, in large part because one of the few written references we have to it has been lost in translation, Isaiah 14:12-15 (NIV version):
"How you have fallen from heaven, morning star, son of the dawn! You have been cast down to the earth, you who once laid low the nations! You said in your heart, “I will ascend to the heavens; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, on the utmost heights of Mount Zaphon. I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.” But you are brought down to the realm of the dead, to the depths of the pit."
The English term "morning star" is being used to translate the Hebrew Helel. We can imagine the mythology here fairly easily--the brightest star in the sky, refusing to share its place with the other stars, and instead jumping up into the sky at dawn, ahead of the sun. Then at sunrise it is wiped away, only for the story to repeat the next day, an endless cycle of celestial hubris.
Of course, most of us are more familiar with another translation, the King James, and another variant of the myth, which uses the Latin name for the morning star: Lucifer.
So that's the first big revelation: Akio's relationship to Dios, whose name comes from the Latin for God. Akio is casting himself here as the noble Satan from the common misinterpretation of Paradise Lost, who deems it better to "rule in hell than serve in heaven." Of course, in the actual epic it's blatantly obvious that Satan is expressing sour grapes and trying to look good in front of his followers when he says that--it's still open whether Akio is the same.

His role as a Satan-analogue is even clearer in the car scene, where he tempts Saionji by showing him the world. It's a pretty blatant reference to the story of Satan doing the same to Jesus, only with Saionji it, y'know, works.

Of course, he and Dios are also the same. The last two lines of the egg speech from Demian, which the student council always leaves out, are "The bird flies to God. That God is Abraxas." Abraxas is the two-faced god who created both good and evil.

Second big revelation is that apparently the Black Rose Saga DID happen in some sense, even if no one except Anthy and Akio remembers it: First and most obviously, the gondola appears. It appears that, just as Mikage was used to create the path to the dueling arena in the first place, he was used again to create this new path, which apparently leads to a higher order of duels.

More subtly, Anthy and Utena are now close enough for Anthy to draw Utena's soul sword the way the Black Rose duelists drew the student council's. Notably, however, it is Utena who wields the sword; Mikage mentioned that most people aren't strong enough to wield their own swords, but Utena apparently is.

Trigger warning: discussion of rape in the next two paragraphs
Third revelation is that Anthy definitely does have a will of her own, confirmed by the fact that Saionji says she doesn't. Er, I mean, confirmed by the fact that she initially resists Akio at the end of the episode. So he rapes her. (There are fan theories that Akio is LITERALLY the Devil, but I think that cheapens his horrifying actions. He is a man, who chooses to do incredibly evil things to children. Pretending he's some kind of supernatural, cosmic force is too easy, it lets us pretend that evil is somewhere Out There instead of right in here.)

(I am honestly not sure whether to call their previous sex scenes rape. The relationship is clearly abusive as fuck, but that doesn't necessarily make the sex nonconsensual, and I'm not sure how age of consent applies to someone who may or may not have been 14 for the past several centuries or longer.)

Trigger warning over

Going back to the car, it's common in the fandom to view it as a metaphor for sex. I think that's true but incomplete. No one in Ohtori is allowed to grow up (which is one of the most horrifying things I can imagine). Akio is showing people trapped in a perpetual adolescence a glimpse of the adult world. Sex is definitely a part of that, but so are power, freedom, and sophistication. Notably, Nanami emphatically rejects the sex but accepts the temptation, so it must be more than just sex.

So, my interpretation is that Akio expected the Sword of Dios to vanish, but that Anthy helped Utena more than she was supposed to. I think this was a test of whether Utena has become strong enough to wield her own soul sword; the goal of the next series of duels is to refine that sword to the point that Akio can use it to open the Rose Gate after all. But then why is he upset by the end of this duel?

The only explanation I can see is that Utena was supposed to use her soul sword, but Anthy wasn't supposed to help. The fact that she does so not only means she choosing to help Utena of her own accord, beyond her role as the Rose Bride; it also means that she feels a bond to Utena as close as the Black Rose duelists to the people they pulled swords from--siblings, close friends, years-long crushes. Abusers depend on isolating and controlling their victims, so Anthy developing that kind of bond is incredibly frightening to Akio.