Monthly Archives: September 2014

A Handy Dandy Guide to Space Dandy, Season 1

Isn't It Electrifying?

title

“Space Dandy is a dandy in space. He is a galaxy-wide alien hunter. On a journey of adventure to new worlds, he searches for unknown extraterrestrials. These are the spectacular tales of these alien hunters!”

Hey you. Yeah, you, the person staring at the computer screen. You might have heard of Space Dandy, a recent high-profile project by beloved (at least in the West) director Shinichiro Watanabe. You might even have been excited for what looked like another series in the tradition of Watanabe’s earlier successes, Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo. But after those first few episodes, you dismissed Space Dandy, didn’t you? After the humor in the first episode was more hit than miss, after lukewarm coverage in the New York Times and AV Club, after you realized Watanabe really wasn’t kidding when he said it would be twenty-six episodes of “Mushroom Samba.” So I…

View original post 1,840 more words

Advertisements

Review – Hunter X Hunter Episode 148

Hunter X Hunter 1

If there’s one show that makes me wish I had started writing this blog sooner, it’s Hunter X Hunter. The show genuinely surprised me many times over its 148 episodes, and was always enjoyable and entertaining on top of that. For a show that’s meant to be “just” an action show for young teens, it constantly demonstrated a startling amount of depth and maturity in its characters, its themes, and the tone of many of its story arcs. I’ll almost certainly watch parts of the show again when I find the time, and when that happens I’ll probably write about them (I’ve already got at least two potential essays I’ve been blocking out in my head for months). But until that happens, I’ll let this review stand as my definitive statement on the show.

Hunter X Hunter 2

“You should enjoy the little detours. To the fullest. Because that’s where you’ll find the things more important than what you want.”

This episode had a big task in front of it. The final episode of a nearly 150 episode-long journey that started out as a fun adventure and grew to encompass stories about urban terrorism, apocalyptic survival horror, tragic road-to-hell revenge arcs, and even more in between, it had to put an end point on a sprawling, massive narrative that included many characters, settings, subplots, and tones. It succeeds in that task as well as any one episode could be expected to succeed, and the above quote, spoken by Ging in his first ever real conversation with his son Gon and then repeated as the episode’s final line, perfectly sums up the show’s ethos and the central message that ties all its disparate elements together.

Ging’s celebratory speech about the joy of discovery and the way the unexpected brings meaning and happiness to people’s live is one side of Hunter X Hunter‘s central theme, the other side of which is last episode’s somber, intense discussion of cycles of violence, stubbornness, hatred, and reincarnation. The belief that happiness and success come from people’s connections with others and their ability to learn to see from new perspectives, and that evil and failure come from alienation and the inability to let go of destructive desires, has been constant in every one of the stories that make up the whole of the show. This idea has manifested itself in ways big and small, from the framing of even minor conflicts as puzzles that require finding new ways of looking at things to be solved to the show’s occasional use of overt Buddhist imagery to symbolize characters finding redemption through moments of personal enlightenment. Gon originally set out on his journey so that he could meet his father, but by the time he finally finds Ging all the other encounters, challenges, and adventures he had along the way have made him a better, stronger person than simply finding his father ever could have.

It’s appropriate then that the meeting between father and son doesn’t play out like the climactic end of Gon’s journey, but like a reward that Gon has earned through all his other, more meaningful accomplishments. What Ging tells Gon about how life should be lived isn’t a parent teaching his son something he hasn’t already learned, but instead an adult reassuring a child that, yes, what you’ve learned through growing up is true, and you’re on the right path. Instead of dwelling on this long in the making meeting as a destination, the episode treats it like the introduction of another new detour in Gon’s life that he never could have expected. That the audience isn’t shown whether or not he takes that detour doesn’t matter; we know that he will.

Hunter X Hunter 3

In keeping with this tone, the episode unfolds fairly leisurely. There’s no question whether or not Gon will reach the top of the World Tree to meet his father, and all the big climactic emotional moments already came in earlier episodes. From the opening silent, swooping shot across the ocean toward the island Gon first set out from in episode one, to the emotive orchestral arrangements of the show’s theme songs that play as Gon climbs the World tree and tells his father about his adventures, to the ending montage of the show’s many characters and locations, the episode firmly establishes that its only mission is to be the final coda at the end of a long story.

As an ending to the plot, Hunter X Hunter‘s finale isn’t perfect. That’s not too surprising given the show’s cast of dozens and dozens of characters and multi-arc story structure, but the lack of resolution to some of the story elements is noticeable. The most glaring example is Kurapica’s complete absence, aside from some short, wordless appearances in the concluding montage. Kurapica last truly appeared nearly half the show ago, but he was once a main character, and of all the costars his unresolved story threads are the most important. Leorio and Killua may appear in this episode as little as Kurapica does, but they at least got proper sendoffs before the show’s conclusion.

Even with this unfinished business, though, this episode still serves as a strong, satisfying final note. Like Gon and Ging’s meeting restates and reenforces the show’s themes, the montage that ends the episode includes most of the show’s characters and locations in order to revisit the journey they were all a part of, reaffirm how much it’s changed them, and be a reminder of how unexpected and surprising much of that journey was.

Hunter X Hunter
This wasn’t fair, Hunter X Hunter, and you know it.

If Hunter X Hunter has to end here, this is as strong and meaningful an ending as possible. While it leaves room for more theoretical episodes to be made, it doesn’t let leaving that opening prevent it from also serving as a final celebration of the show, it’s characters, and the story so far. It’ll be a shame if the rest of Gon and his friend’s adventures are never animated, but even if the journey continues only in spirit, this episode was as good a place as any for the audience and the characters to part ways.

Hunter X Hunter 4

Akame Ga Kill – Kill the Video Game Narrative

Akame Ga Kill Header

I’ve watched every episode of Akame Ga Kill so far for a single purpose: I figured there had to be something in it worth writing about. A show this clumsy, this lunkheaded, and this downright offensive had to have something about it worth exploring and discussing, right? It took me awhile to find the topic, but once I keyed in on it, it became obvious and made the cause of many of the show’s storytelling problems easier to see.

There are a lot other things about Akame Ga Kill that I could have written about. It’s rampant sexism, for instance. It’s constant homophobia. The nihlistic undercurrent of self-righteous sadism that the worldview it espouses is built on. The black-and-white childishness of that worldview. The show’s equally immature belief that hyperviolence and gore alone make it more serious and adult. It’s stupid use of the “Kill the ____” gimmick for every episode title (at least that provided me with a handy title for this essay)…

I decided not to write about any of these things at this time because most of the discussion of Akame Ga Kill has been about all those issues. They’re all worth talking about, but I also felt that all the discussion of the ways the show is offensive and obnoxious was possibly distracting from another of its series issues: it’s storytelling is downright abysmal.

It’s been obvious from Akame Ga Kill‘s first episode that video games are one of its main inspirations. This is hardly the first instance of a TV show having a strong video game influence; video games have been a part of the culture for a very long time, and video game-inspired stories or references in nerd-targeted shows and movies have been common for years. But even taking this into consideration Akame Ga Kill‘s indebtedness to the video game medium (particularly RPGs) stands out. From episode one it has been relied on the storytelling cliches and terminology of video games, always to its detriment.

Not every part of Akame Ga Kill is directly inspired by video games, and not every one of its many faults can be blamed on it’s over-reliance on video game storytelling tropes, or its misunderstanding of how different mediums rely on different narrative tools. Despite that, video games are still a clear inspiration on the show, and examining how that influence has shaped the show’s narrative both explains some of the show’s compromising structural problems and helps reveal others.

The most obvious sign of Akame Ga Kill‘s video game influence has been in the dialogue. Despite taking place in a vaguely European fantasy setting, the script has tossed around video game slang and terminology from episode one. Characters describe growing stronger as “leveling up,” and the strength of the random monsters they encounter are described by what “level” and “class” they are (“high level,” “multi-level,” “dragon class,” and other terms obviously pulled from RPG video games have all been thrown around liberally by the show’s script). But the influence goes deeper than just vocabulary. It’s had a large impact on the shape of the narrative as well, and the first half of episode 12 has one of the clearest examples.

After their base was discovered in a previous episode by an enemy agent, the members of Night Raid (they’re called that because they perform raids. At night.) are forced to relocate. From the moment they arrive in their new location, it’s is described as if it were a level in a video game:

High Level Danger Beasts

This is the only information about the new location that the characters discuss or that is shared with the audience: 1) It’s title (and through it’s name the type of terrain, though this is completely incidental)  2) The “level” of the monsters, aka “Danger Beasts,” that inhabit it (Danger Beasts would be the easy winner for dumbest-named thing in an anime for 2014 if Akame Ga Kill didn’t also have a class of monster called “Evil Birds”). In other words, this new location is introduced only by the information that would be relevant to describing the next stage in a video game: what it’s called, and the difficulty of the enemies located there.

In case the connection wasn’t clear, Night Raid’s leader Najenda then describes her purpose for bringing them to this location:

Level Up 1

As mentioned previously, this isn’t the first time that the phrase “leveling up” has been said before in the show, but it’s usage here is particularly relevant because of the scene that follows. Immediately after the scene where the discussion about how Night Raid has moved to a new stage for the purposes of increasing the characters’ skill levels, it cuts to a scene of Night Raid members Tatsumi and Leone fighting Danger Beasts. After the discussion about how it’s time for characters to level up, the narrative immediately jumps to characters grinding to gain experience points. Aside from the random monster fighting, nothing else happens in this scene: two characters fight monsters (for the explicitly stated purpose of gaining experience), and one (Leone) talks about how the other (Tatsumi, the show’s protagonist) has grown stronger since the beginning of the show.

If the correlation between this scene and fighting random monsters for XP in an RPG wasn’t clear enough, the fight ends when Leone stops the Danger Beasts from respawning by killing the level boss:

Boss Fight 1 Boss Fight 2 Boss Fight 3

And after Leone and Tatsume return to base, this is Najenda’s response:

Leveled Up 2

Anyone who has played an RPG will recognize this sequence of events: move to a new stage, then grind for XP to raise your characters’ stats. In a video game this progression of events makes sense: in order to progress in the story, the player’s character(s) have to reach a high enough level that they can survive increasingly difficult stages.  Where it doesn’t make sense is in a serialized television story (or even in Akame Ga Kill‘s original medium of manga). Characters training in order to grow stronger and overcome challenges is a common plot element in non-video game stories, but unlike with video games, where the purpose of these beats is for the player to play as the character and gain the experience points necessary to then allow them to reach later beats in the story, in non-video game narratives these sequences are supposed to also include character or story growth. The character who’s training in a TV show or a movie doesn’t just go through the motions of training or fighting, they also learn something about themselves: they overcome some personal fear, learn to look at something from a new perspective, or at the very least they have to accomplish something else in addition to working out or beating up random enemies. This is as true for Rocky as it is Akame Ga Kill‘s shoenen-action brethren like Hunter X Hunter and Naruto.

In Akame Ga Kill‘s “leveling up” scenes, none of this scene-justifying character growth is present. Instead they all play out the same way. Characters talk about how they should kill monsters to get better at fighting. They then kill monsters, and they also talk about how at some point in between these scenes of them killing monsters they got better at killing monsters. Any Danger Beast scenes that don’t involve characters grinding for XP are instead about characters gathering food to recharge their energy (another element taken from video games). Like the “leveling up” scenes, these events have no consequence to the story other than “characters gather food to regain energy.” All the dialogue in these scenes involves either the characters talking about how they are collecting food to regain energy, or characters discussing things that are happening or have happened elsewhere and that aren’t being dramatized through their current actions.

The result of this is that large portions of Akame Ga Kill‘s running time is taken up by pointless, tensionless scenes that advance neither the narrative nor the characters. These kind of narrative beats make sense in a video game, where they take place between the points in the actual narrative progression. In video games the player is an agent in the narrative, and their playing ability and decisions on how to use the characters they control affect whether or not the story gets to progress. In a television show, however, there is no player; there is only a viewer. Viewers don’t have that same agency, and the characters and plot develop completely independent of their involvement. As a result, what are necessary stages in the progression of a video game become dead air on TV.

This is made all the worse by Akame Ga Kill’s nonexistent character development, another symptom of its slavish adoption of video game formatting. The show’s character’s don’t really learn anything or grow in any meaningful sense; even Tatsumi’s decision to become an outlaw in the first episode isn’t a change in his personality so much as it is him gaining knowledge that he didn’t have before and then acting accordingly. The characters make decisions and learn new facts, but there’s never any sense that there’s anything more to them than what they were at the moment they were introduced: an incredibly broad personality coupled with a set of special abilities.

This is another case of what works in video games failing to translate to a different medium. Akame Ga Kill‘s characters are formulated and introduced according to the information a player would need to know about them if they were playable characters in an RPG: by their abilities, and by them having just enough personality to have a place in the game’s framing story. Because video game characters are played and not just observed, the player experiences the characters’ growth by acting as those characters. The player moves the characters through an interactive environment, and exercises their agency in the game’s narrative through those characters. When this element of control and participation is removed and the characters are required to exist inside the narrative independently, the criteria of what makes strong and functional characters changes. Akame Ga Kill‘s characters have the features they need to be the starting point of a playable RPG party, but not ones that allow them to stand on their own in a non-playable narrative.

Talent For Killing

Once you realize just how beholden to video game tropes Akame Ga Kill‘s storytelling is, many of its questionable plotting and character decisions become clearer. They certainly don’t retroactively become better, but they do become explainable. A good portion of the story beats in an episode of Akame Ga Kill don’t happen because they make good televisual storytelling, but because the writer has obviously played a lot of video games and often doesn’t know how to translate that inspiration into another medium beyond simply copying the narrative beats as they would play out if the story actually was happening in one of those video games.

To give another example of how this manifests, let’s look at the subplot involving Night Raid member Bulat deciding to train the then-newcomer Tatsumi. Bulat announces that he is going to teach Tatsumi to become stronger. There are then one or two scenes in the next few episodes showing the end of training sessions, and even more instances of characters talking about how Bulat’s training is helping Tatsumi level up (once again this is the terminology that is used). In episode 8, Tatsumi and Bulat are involved in a fight in which Bulat is mortally wounded, but Tatsumi is able to put on and use his mentor’s high-level magic armor, Incursio, something that it was earlier stated that Tatsumi would not be able to do with the experience and strength he had at the beginning of the story. Bulat then dies, but not before commenting that Tatsumi has grown stronger.

The way this subplot plays out feels less like a television character’s dramatic arc than it does a series of cutscenes or between-fight dialogue exchanges from a video game with all the actual gameplay (and thus character development) cut out. Without that connective tissue, Tatsumi’s progression from newbie to badass feels completely unearned. The audience is told what’s going to happen, and is then later told that it has already happened at the point the story required it to have occurred. In the same way, Tatsumi being able to use Incursio doesn’t feel like an accomplishment for the character that the progression of the show’s narrative has been building to. Instead, it feels like what happens when an RPG party member dies: another party member picks up the fallen character’s items and uses the ones that his class and experience levels allow him to.

There are even more examples of this kind of badly translated cross-media storytelling, going back all the way to the first episode. Not only is the first scene of the show a random monster encounter, but the way the plot of episode one plays out is incredibly similar to what a player would expect to find when their characters enter the first city in an RPG. Many of the interactions Tatsumi has when he reaches the Capital (that’s the city’s actual name, by the way; just the Capital) involve him running into incidental characters who simply decide to start describing the country’s history, who the important people are, and what the show’s themes are going to be. Using incidental characters to give establishing information is another storytelling device that isn’t unique to video games, but the sheer number of these characters (travelers, guards, barkeeps, etc.) and the graceless way these characters dump unsolicited information through dialogue feels distinctly like the kind of thing you usually get through NPC encounters. Once again, it’s the kind of thing that makes sense in a video game, where the player has to move their character to these encounters and often perform their own exploration/investigation through an interactive environment in order to get information, but makes no sense outside of that specific context.

The most egregious example of this NPC-ification of the background characters and explanatory dialogue comes in what is still Akame Ga Kill‘s most awkward bit of storytelling. It comes at the end of episode one, during Tatsumi’s first encounter with Night Raid, when said group of outlaws stages an attack on a corrupt aristocratic family. During the attack, a guard (who is never given a name and is only introduced in this scene) is killed. As he dies, the guard gives the following monologue:

Rotten Soul 1 Rotten Soul 2

This kind of dialogue, where a character offers up random facts about themselves without solicitation, isn’t uncommon during encounters with video game NPCs. But once again, this kind of information delivery doesn’t work the same across different mediums. When they happen during gameplay, the playable characters often choose whether or not to run into the NPCs and thus hear the information they have to share because the player has to actively guided them into the encounters. It’s debatable that this particular bit of scripting wouldn’t be awkward even in the context of a video game, but it would certainly make more sense coming from a dying NPC that the player can choose to have their character speak with. What in one medium could be a passable bit of background flavor and discoverable content becomes an example of laughably incompetent storytelling in another.

Because of its faulty and misguided adherence to storytelling methods that don’t translate to its medium, Akame Ga Kill has a fundamentally compromised narrative structure. It may not be the show’s only major flaw, but in terms of storytelling at least it’s the most important. This one problem has been present throughout the show, will likely be present throughout the rest of it, and will be one of the biggest roadblocks in the way to it ever becoming a properly functioning story.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Hannibal,” “Millenium,” and the Macabre as Art Design

The currently airing NBC series Hannibal took many people by surprise. When it was announced, there wasn’t much excitement around it and most people assumed it would just be another unremarkable entry in this entertainment era’s remake, reboot, and reimagining craze. But once the show debuted, it immediately started generating strong buzz and attracted a cult audience. And for good reason.

Hannibal 3

Listed in the credits as being based on Red Dragon, Thomas Harris’ first book to feature his famous cannibal psychiatrist, Hannibal takes place in the time before Dr. Lecter’s unmasking as a serial killer and subsequent arrest. Aside from taking place during a period that none of the other Lecterverse (do people call that? I don’t actually know) material has covered, the show has quickly established a unique identity for itself. The show overcame its first obvious challenge, finding a new Hannibal that can replace the iconic Anthony Hopkins, by casting of Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen, whose detached and cooly aristocratic Hannibal contrasts with Hopkins’ famously snide, sneering portrayal yet still manages to capture the character’s weird, off-putting charm. It also managed to escape the dual trap of being just an exercise in brand recognition and yet another network police procedural, using the familiar characters and scenario of the Hannibalverse (still not sure what to call it) and the recognizable format of cop shows as jumping off points to tell an engaging, long-form story of psychological torture and the darker side of human behavior. And perhaps most noticeably, developer/executive producer/writer/director Bryan Fuller and his production team gave the show a unique, striking design that makes it one of the most interesting looking TV shows currently airing.

All of the previous entries in the Cannibalverse (fuck it) had distinctly different looks from their counterparts, and this newest one is no different. Hannibal makes excellent use of set design and staging not just to establish it’s own a visual identity but also to very effectively enhance atmosphere. The team making the show obviously pays very close attention not just to having a wide variety of looks to the sets, but also to how those sets affect the blocking and placement of actors, which in turn affects the mood of a scene. Hannibal has some of the best use of space in a television show. As just one example, Lector’s psychiatry office seems to be designed so that characters often seem to be just too close or just too far away from each other, creating a visual representation of Hannibal’s duel settings of aloofness and intruding into others’ personal space. And of course there’s the show’s most noticeable visual feature: a shocking amount of beautifully rendered gore.

When Silence of the Lambs introduced Hannibal in 1991, it was with that famous slow pan across the lower levels of the insane asylum that finally stopped when Hopkins’ smirk and unblinking stare were in center frame. In the television show, Mikkelsen is introduced quite differently: the first part of him to appear is his hands. Specifically, his hands as they chop, massage, season, and otherwise lovingly prepare a tender looking cut of meat as he stands in his kitchen, preparing what by all appearances will be an incredibly sumptuous meal. The food is the main focus of the scene, and it is filmed with a gourmet’s eye, every shot further accentuating the impression of a truly mouthwatering meal in the making. The show never tells us exactly what it is he’s cooking. It doesn’t have to. Any audience watching Hannibal already knows about Lecter and his dietary habits, and the horror that comes with knowing that we’re almost certainly watching a murdered human’s carcass being prepared for consumption stands in vivid contrast to the alluring presentation. The scene is inviting and grotesque at the same time. It not only introduces the show’s title character, it also introduces Hannibal‘s main visual modus operandi: turning the macabre into the beautiful.

Hannibal 1

It’s not just Lecter’s meals that have this dichotomous element. The murder scenes that the show’s cast of FBI investigators find every episode are presented in the same way: horrifying yet alluring. Murdered and mutilated bodies are staged in increasingly disturbing but strangely beautiful ways. Corpses hung on antlers like hanging pictures, a tower of dismembered bodies, bee hives growing out of emptied skulls. Hannibal‘s gore content is surprisingly high, especially for a primetime network show. Yet it’s presented in a way that’s not just meant to be shocking, but also intriguing and in many cases uncomfortably pleasant to look at, even as viewers recognize it for what it is. This not only increases the horror value of the show, but it also mirrors the storyline of characters entering the mindset of the deranged, murderous, and twisted in order to catch them only to find that they can’t quite make their way back out.

Hannibal 2

If Hannibal‘s gore-as-art approach has any direct antecedent on network TV, it’s the late 90s Fox show Millennium. Created by The X-File‘s Chris Carter, Millennium was a much moodier, gorier affair than Carter’s other, more famous show. It also didn’t last nearly as long and never attracted anywhere near the same audience numbers as The X-Files, probably due to both it’s incredibly bleak style, subject matter, and content, as well as its schizophrenic nature. Millennium lasted for 3 seasons, and each one could have been from a different show. Season 1 was the closest in content to Hannibal, a nominal procedural that was really an exploration and meditation on the darker side of human nature, but with a focus on the vaguely occult as well as the cultural anxiety that permeated the late 20th century. Season 2 switched to an ongoing storyline that made it something like a much bleaker, focused, and ambitious X-FIles, with religion and apocalypse cults instead of aliens and an and incredibly pessimistic outlook on the future (technically, Millennium took place in the same fictional universe as The X-Files, but the concrete ties between the shows were few and tangential). After the experimental Season 2 failed in the ratings, Season 3 tried to have the middle ground. It kept the shadowy religious cults in the background while largely reverting back to a case-of-the-week format, but failed to do as well creatively as either of the previous seasons or to pull in the ratings needed to keep the show on the air.

Millenium 1

Hannibal and Millennium are two incredibly distinct series, yet they share many things in common. Though they were created nearly 20 years apart (Millennium debuted in 1996, Hannibal in 2013), they are both very much products of transitional times for television, and as a result were both able to push the boundaries of what could appear on network TV. Hannibal comes at a time when the old networks are facing declining ratings due to both a rapid increase in the number of available channels and the subsequent increase in quality (and edginess) of the content available there. Millennium ended in 1999, the same year that The Sopranos first started airing, and was part of a crop of shows that were forerunners to the HBO era. Shows like Millennium and Homicide: Life on the Street (another supposed police procedural that, with its Baltimore setting and participation of David Simon, can be seen as a direct ancestor of The Wire) may not have gotten away with what the HBO, FX, and AMC shows of today can get away with in terms of content and breaking standard TV show formula (or, in some ways, what Hannibal can get away with on modern day NBC), but they were constantly pushing against the constrictions of what network shows were allowed to do.

Like HannibalMillennium was sometimes shockingly grotesque in its depiction of murder and mutilation, yet also brought a strong sense of presentation and art direction to its gore and violence. Also like with Hannibal, Millennium gleefully forced its main character to explore depths of the human mind that are better left unvisited knowing full well he might not recover from doing so.

At first glance, Hannibal‘s protagonist, the neurotic and jittery Will Graham, might not seem very similar to Millennium‘s older, morose family man Frank Black. They both share a profession as psychological consultants for the FBI (Millennium has the distinction of coming from a time when the criminal profiler was a new and novel thing to have in a TV show), but in age, looks, and personality they’re quite different. But the journeys that their respective shows put them through are very similar.

Top: Will Graham (Hannibal)
Will Graham (Hannibal)
Frank Black 1
Frank Black (Millennium)

The overarching story of Hannibal‘s first two seasons has been Dr. Lecter’s systematic mental manipulation of the psychologically vulnerable Will. Will’s ability to wholly empathize with any mindset, including those of deranged killers, makes him incredibly adept at analyzing and catching psychopaths and serial killers (it also makes him a subject of Hannibal Lecter’s curiosity, whose interest takes the form of a months-long campaign of mental torture). This ability to slip into dangerous and homicidal frames of mind makes him psychologically unbalanced and unable officially join the FBI, and he instead has to settle for a teaching position and being hired as an independent consultant. In Millenium, Frank Black is a former FBI agent who now works for an independent investigative firm, after years in law enforcement that ended with a mental breakdown. Able to adopt the point of view of serial killers and other deranged people, Frank quit his job after a stalker began threatening his family. Obsessed with finding the stalker and unable to shut off his ability to think like him, Frank’s inability to catch the man led to a nervous breakdown, and then a move across the country. He’s since returned to investigations, but tries to keep his new, ideal suburban yellow house a sanctuary from the horrors that he deals with on a daily basis (with less and less success as the series goes on).

Exploring the similarity between the criminal mind and those who investigate it is hardly unique to either Hannibal or Millenium, but it’s not hard to see the similarities between the two. An older Will Graham would probably share a lot in common with a Frank Black. Both shows also represent the way both characters see the violence and horror that their mutual job subject them to, and how they find it both repugnant and familiar.

The two shows share another common element in the use of fantasy sequences to represent when their lead characters are peering into the minds of others, and how the experience of doing so affects them. Both shows use this dramatic technique, but have differing approaches that highlights the ways each use the gore-as-art aesthetic. Will’s visions are long, clearly lit, and usually involve recreating every detail of a scene in slow motion. Frank’s, on the other hand, have a dark, grainy look that wouldn’t be out of place in the music video for Nine Inch Nail’s “Closer.” They’re also quick, usually lasting less than a second. They’re impressionist flashes, rather than Will’s detailed reconstructions.

The differences in the two styles of fantasy sequence also relate to each show’s individual approach to art design. Hannibal looks incredibly modern, and often sets its action in sleek-looking, well lit rooms and polished metal labs. Millenium has a distinctly late 90s approach to portraying its air of darkness and anxiety, with an emphasis on heavy blacks, smudged browns, dirty yellows, and nighttime settings, brought to life with a much more limited late 90s TV budget.

While still allowing that Millenium and Hannibal are in many ways distinct from each other, the two of them do share a common legacy in the use of the macabre as a key part of art design. Both came about at a time of transition in TV entertainment, and the freedom that allowed them resulted in leaps forward in the design aesthetic for mainstream TV.

Review – “Mushishi”

Mushishi is the story of Ginko, the white-haired, one-eyed traveling mushishi (“mushi master”) of the title, who wanders a fictitious 19th century Japan. Part folk doctor, part primitive scientist, Ginko travels from village to village solving the various problems that occur when human beings encounter mushi, ethereal spirits that exist halfway between the physical world and the spiritual one. Mushi exist mostly unseen and unfelt by humans, and only appear when something in nature is out of balance or when the universal law of averages dictates that it’s time for some poor sap to be really unlucky. Unlike most people, Ginko has a special connection with the mushi. Not only can he see them, he also attracts them. This connection to the ethereal keeps him from being able to stay in one place, out of fear that the flood of spirits that’s always flocking to him will negatively impact the people around him. Unable to settle down, he travels from town to town, only staying long enough to solve whatever mushi issues may be happening there before moving on again.

Mushishi 2

Based on a description of the series alone, Mushishi‘s feudal setting and stories about magic spirits make it sound like a fantasy series. Despite those trappings, Mushishi‘s main concern isn’t the supernatural. Mushishi is a mostly interested in humanity, and it’s episode long vignettes serve as dramatized studies of the relationship between people, their communities, their environment, and what happens when those things become out of sync with one another. Episodes of Mushishi deal with topics such as distrust in a community, conflict between generations, dealing with famine, and fear for one’s family. The mushi and their supernatural effects take the form of dramatic metaphors for those conflicts, leaving Ginko and each episode’s supporting cast with the task of dispelling the mushi by resolving them (or in some case failing to do either).

Mushishi follows a case-of-the-week story structure that may not sound like anything novel and, like simply describing it’s premise, doesn’t truly articulate that Mushishi is one of the most unique anime TV series in recent memory. Thanks to its subdued production design, its moody and atmospheric direction, and its Eastern spiritualism-inflected worldview, what could have been an unremarkable procedural is instead something stunning and original. It’s not often that there’s an anime series that feels this unique.

The show’s uniqueness is apparent from the very beginning. Anime is a medium that’s most often thought of being loud: garish colors, flashy character designs, heightened emotions. In almost every way, Mushishi defies those trends. Its animation is lush and beautiful, but is also much more subdued than the usual anime fare. Its character designs are fairly realistic, and its palette consists of soft, muted earth tones and natural greens that are occasionally punctuated with more vivid, glowing colors. The more brightly colored moments usually come in the form of the spirit-like mushi, which glow and pulsate with light in a way that gives them a unique appearance and makes them stand out from the rest of the world. The effect heightens the spirits’ alien, ethereal quality, and creates the impression of otherworldliness better than any dialogue could. It’s a stunning use of the medium’s visual tools, and the effect contributes greatly to the show’s striking, hypnotic style.

Mushishi 3

Mushishi doesn’t just create a unique visual world. It transports the viewer into that world fully. The show is propelled almost entirely by its brooding, mesmerizing atmosphere, which it accomplishes so well that many of the show’s moments feel not just visual, but tactile. This is even more remarkable because of how alien the show’s world is, both in location and cosmology. Not only is the show set in a foreign, feudal location, but it also spins its episode-long fables out of a mythology that feels vastly different from the magic and fairy tales of Western tradition. The show’s strangely named creatures and Eastern animist philosophy could have been very disorienting to Western viewers, and could have made Mushishi an interesting but ultimately alienating experience. Instead, the show’s world still feels approachable and inviting, and its atmosphere carries the viewer along with it into a place they may not be familiar with when they enter, but which they will quickly understand.

Considering whom the show’s director is, the fact that Mushishi is a triumph of atmosphere isn’t surprising. In between the two seasons of Mushishi, director Hiroshi Nagahama also directed the similarly styled Flowers Of Evil. Anyone who’s seen the controversial Flowers Of Evil is familiar with the slow, deliberate style that Nagahama has taken to using. Mushishi‘s pace isn’t as glacial as Flowers Of Evil‘s, and the atmosphere it gives off is much more somber and occasionally meditative than the latter’s thick, sticky miasma of teenage angst and despair, but both shows succeed thanks to Nagahama’s control of tone and ambiance and his ability to suck the audience into the story almost through mood alone. By themselves some episodes of Mushishi‘s individual plots are underwhelming, but thanks to Nagahama’s stylistic control even the weaker written episodes still pulse with the energy and life.

Mushishi 4

Musishi isn’t just an overwhelming sensory experience because of its visuals. It’s sound design is incredibly subtle, but it’s an important factor in the show’s success. The soundtrack is filled with haunting, simple cues orchestrated for traditional Japanese instruments. Some of the songs are so sparse they are more ambient noise than hummable tunes, but the simple, elegantly crafted music design fits the visual style so well that the two blend together into a complimentary, holistic combination. From the opening themes “Sore Feet Song” and “Shiver,” both soft, warm ballads, the show’s sound invites the audience into the show and then holds them there. The voice acting fits this sonic profile as well. In place of the usual over-emoting and theatricality of anime voice acting, Mushishi‘s cast give much softer, naturalistic performances that fit the subdued ambiance, including the casting of actual children for many of the younger roles.

The show’s production design may be its greatest strength, but it would all be pretty wrapping on an empty box if the stories didn’t work. Mushishi‘s episodes are fully formed mini-dramas with a completely new cast of characters, the wandering Ginko the only constant (aside from a few recurring minor characters in cameo appearances). And with each episode, a new cast of characters and their unique dilemmas are introduced and explored. Despite not having the benefit of being able to build up its characters over multiple episodes, every episode of Mushishi establishes its characters, conflicts, and themes well enough to give each self-contained story impact. Some of the stories may not be very substantive, but many more pack a surprisingly strong emotional punch. Despite having a formula that it sticks to with nearly every episode (Ginko passes through a town, notices a disturbance involving mushi, and then tries to figure out what’s causing it), there is still enough variety in how each story plays out that the show avoids feeling stale.

Mushishi is a special series, both unique and powerful. Many shows that try to stray as far from the norm as Mushishi does are interesting curiosities, but fail to fully come together into something truly compelling. Mushishi doesn’t have that problem. It is both a triumph of ambition and a joy to watch.

“Captain Earth” Episode 24 – The Show That Couldn’t Explain Itself

Everything Will Be Obvious Soon

If it was ever in doubt before, episode 24 shows once and for all that Captain Earth has some serious problems.

The episode is the beginning of the climactic battle. Preceding episodes set the stage and the stakes. Like most of writer Yoji Enokido‘s other work, Captain Earth‘s main concern has been self-discovery, of teenage characters coming to grips with their own identity and overcoming existential paralysis to become their true selves. Throughout the show, the most meaningful part of the battles that Daichi and the Midsummer’s Knights took part in were their internal struggles. The emotional arc of every act and chapter of the story was the characters looking inside themselves to find strength, identity, and the resolve to stand up to external threats. The lead up to the climax had hammered home a clear message: victory and growth is achieved by finding personal resolve. The strength that matters is the strength inside of you, and the people close to you can help you find it.

So then why is episode 24 all about the temptation of inhuman power and the beginning of a fight to kill God?

Captain Earth 3Captain Earth 4

Episode 24 of Captain Earth ends by finally revealing the Killtang’s robot ally Puck’s plan: to ascend to godhood by taking over the minds of every living thing in the galaxy. This fits well with the thematic arc of the episode, where the Killtang mock Daichi and the Midsummer’s Knights for being small and insignificant for lacking their power, and then offering to share that power with them and make them immortal. What all this doesn’t fit well with is the thematic arc that’s run through the rest of the show. Instead of  “will Daichi find the strength within him?” episode 24 suddenly asks “will Daichi succumb to the temptation of being offered power?” instead.

Before this episode, Daichi’s arc has never involved the threat that he would be tempted from his path by power. The Killtang have never once showed any inclination to offer their power to him or anyone else before. And although it had long been clear Puck had a hidden motive, the majority of his onscreen time was spent being curious about and exploring the joys and pitfalls of being an individual human consciousness (emphasis on “individual”).

The shift in theme could have been a natural progression, if Daichi’s journey of self discovery led to arrogance or overconfidence and his battle with himself switched from overcoming doubt to overcoming conceit. Or if the main obstacle to self-discovery turned out to be the power structures that keep people in their place (which is ground that Enokido has covered before). But none of this ever came up in Captain Earth before now, leading to an incredibly ungraceful swerve from one message to another. Episode 24 doesn’t feel so much like a natural thematic evolution for the show as it does like someone changed the channel from an adolescent existential angst-themed Bones robot show to Let’s Play footage of the final God-slaying boss battle at the end of a JRPG.

Even the set design for the scene of the final confrontation looks like it came out of a video game.
Even the set design for final confrontation scene looks like it came out of a video game.
As does the staging - both sides stand in opposite facing lines and jump out one by one to smack each other.
As does the staging – both sides stand in opposite facing lines and jump out one by one to smack each other.

It’s entirely possible that by next episode, Captain Earth will have returned to it’s normal setting of Daichi looking inside himself to overcome his timidity and win the final conflict. In fact, it wouldn’t be out of character for the show to introduce a new element in the front end of the finale but then abandon it before it finished at all. Episode 24’s tonal messiness is an example of Captain Earth‘s continuing issues in microcosm: the show isn’t very good at telling its own story.

This isn’t a case of Captain Earth not knowing what it wants to say. It knows exactly what it wants to say, but it isn’t very good at saying it. It’s introduced characters, tones, ideas, and now themes it’s had no idea what to do with once they’ve been put in play:

Remember Tepei’s father (the show sure doesn’t)? How about the giant crystal on the moon’s surface?

Why did half the show have to pass before even introducing Hana’s character arc and defining personality traits?

If the show felt the need to spend an entire act of the story giving individual Killtang their own episodes, why did none of that development matter afterward and the entire Killtang gang all but disappear for most of the rest of the show? Especially when putting the Killtang center stage meant that the at that point still barely developed Midsummer’s Knights had to tread water for six episodes while this mini-Black Rose Arc played out?

If Kube’s only real importance in the plot was eventually being taken over by Puck, why did he get so much screen time that ultimately went nowhere?

If Puck’s ultimate goal had nothing to do with him wanting to gain individualism and a (singular) human consciousness, what was the point of the show spending so much time showing him doing just that and nothing else?

Why introduce the idea that the Livlaster’s are interdimensional beings and then do nothing with that idea for so long?

If any of these questions are going to be addressed in the last episode, why were they left unanswered for so long?

Captain Earth 24

The longer Captain Earth has gone on, the more hanging questions, loose ends, and clumsily handled pieces it’s accrued. Many parts of the show still feel vaguely defined, half formed, or not properly addressed. The shows constituent pieces have never properly gelled, and the thing they form together feels rough and shaggy in many places as a result. Excellent animation and strong production design, all presented in a vibrant and colorful palette, have often made the show easy to watch in spite of this, but the more of the show that passes the more obvious the problems become. At first it took several episodes for larger issues with Captain Earth‘s tone, construction, and character development to come into focus. Now that the endgame has begun, it’s all been made starkly clear in one individual episode.

6 Lessons I Learned From A Year Of Watching Streaming Anime

This post was originally written in January 2014 and published on another (now defunct) blog. The example shows are out of date, but I felt the “lessons” they talked about were still relevant.

It’s a new year, which means it’s time for Year End Lists. Since 2013 was the year I started watching the online streams of currently airing anime, I figured I’d do something a little different than the usual “Top 10” or “This Year’s Worst.”  So here I give you my year end list, “6 Lessons I Learned From A Year Of Watching Streaming Anime.”

6. Some Shows Are Better With A Crowd

Attack On Titan was this year’s anime blockbuster, and the show that inevitably blew up Twitter the second a new episode came online. Needless to say, people were talking about it a lot. And I didn’t really, really get into the show until I joined in the conversation.

I liked Attack On Titan well enough from the first episode, and it has plenty to recommend it.  But it also has some very noticeable issues, namely 1) occasionally fitful pacing, and 2) obvious budget limitations that resulted in some at times ugly and laughably limited animation. None of these were big enough problems to derail the show entirely, but they were definitely easy to dwell on.

I watched the first half of Titan’s episodes several weeks behind the broadcast dates, as I preferred to watch the show by marathoning as many episodes as possible at once. That way, that the poorly paced episodes where little happened would quickly lead into the ones where shit jumped off and the crazy, kinetic plot twists and action sequences overshadowed the limited animation that came before. By the time the show hit its halfway point, I was all caught up and too hooked on the story not to watch each episode as it came out.  But I was also weary that having to take episodes individually was going to make all of the show’s problems stand out, possibly to the point of diminishing my enjoyment.

Turns out I didn’t have to worry about that at all, because being up to date on the show meant that I could take part in the conversation that was going on online.  And once I got to talking with everyone else about the show, I discovered that Attack On Titan becomes a hell of a lot more fun when you watch it with a crowd.  Like any good blockbuster, Titan is meant to be experienced by a large group of people at the same time, one that cheers, claps, and gasps collectively at all of its big audience-rousing moments.  Why bother dwelling on how off-model the faces were in an episode when you can take to Twitter discuss that episode’s revealing character moment,  its unexpected deaths, or its sudden plot revelations?  The show seems almost scientifically designed to make social media traffic explode, and being a part of that explosion was integral to enjoying the show to the fullest.

As with any show discussed rabidly on Twitter and elsewhere, spoilers were inevitable. It’s easy to understand why: Titan is the kind of show that is built around the buildup to big “OH SHIT, DID YOU SEE THAT?!” moments, the kind that you can’t help but talk about. Which meant that anyone watching it had to watch the newest episode right as it came out (if they didn’t want everything to be spoiled all over their feeds and timelines, anyway). A big part of the pleasure of streaming content is that you can watch it whenever you please, but Attack On Titan reminded me of that there’s also joy to be found in having a set weekly time to park my ass on the couch with a group of likeminded friends so that we can freak out about a TV show as it happens (thank goodness Titan aired on Saturdays). The fact that those friends were all contacted digitally was incidental. The key to truly enjoying Attack On Titan was being a part of the mass audience that was there to cheer with you when things (rarely) went right, be shocked with you when things (often) went wrong, and provide group therapy when things became almost nihilistically depressing (there’s an episode in the second half that takes place in the woods… things happen… it’s not pleasant).

5. Some Shows Aren’t Worth Finishing

I’m the kind of viewer who likes to stick with things. I like to examine and pick apart the media I consume, so even when I’m not enjoying a show I’ll often keep watching just to come to a more concrete grasp of why it’s failing. After all, knowing what you don’t like and what doesn’t work is just as important as knowing the opposite, and I’m a firm believer in examining and reevaluating why I watch things and what I’m looking for in art and media. The best case scenario for sticking it out is having one of those revelatory moments when you realize that the only thing wrong with something was the way you were looking at it.

Unfortunately those moments can be incredibly rare, and you’re often just better off jumping ship once you realize a show is headed in the wrong direction. Which brings me to Gargantia On The Verduous Planet.

Gargantia (the newest series from anime’s current new wunderkind, writer Gen Urobuchi of Madoka Magica, Psycho-Pass, and Fate/Zero fame) starts with an incredibly strong first episode that sets up a promising “stranger in a strange land” premise: a marooned soldier from a fascistic space army is stranded on a flooded planet and is taken in by a native sea caravan, where he learns to deprogram himself from his single-minded, militaristic worldview. And immediately after that first episode, Gargantia begins a long, all too apparent descent into disappointment and mediocrity. But I continued to watch, hoping that the show would turn itself around, that the promise of the first episode would appear again, despite all of the evidence that it had completely evaporated and was never to return.

Surprise surprise, it never did.  Gargantia was a dud, one that I knew would fail to deliver no matter how long I watched it. But I’d made it that far, so I might as well keep watching, right? That’s the thought that kept me tuning in every week, even as I started resenting the show for wasting my time. The last episode came and went with no enjoyment to be had, and I had to admit that I should have listened to me self when I had realized six or seven episodes before that there was no reason to keep watching. That’s a lot of time spent on something I wasn’t enjoying or learning from in any way. Sometimes, walking away is the only sensible course of action.

4. Some Shows Are Worth Sticking With

My reaction to watching each of the first four or five episodes of Watamote, aka No Matter How I Look At It, It’s You Guy’s Fault I’m Not Popular, was always the same: “I really don’t think I can keep watching this.” Whatever else you can say about Watamote, you can’t say that it’s an easy watch. Any show that revolves around the daily life of a teenager suffering from debilitating social anxiety is probably going to have moments of awkward viewing, but Watamote takes it even further than most fiction dares to go. It’s unflinching in portraying the unpleasant circle of embarrassment, seething hatred, and self-loathing that its main character Tomoko is trapped in, and it never diminishes or apologizes for how nasty and awful a person she can be because of it. In the very first episode, Tomoko has a panic attack throws up into a trash can simply because she can’t stand to look at herself in the mirror. In an episode not long after that, she sits in a classroom seething with rage and wishing that the other “bitches” and “sluts” in her class all get raped because they have the confidence to talk to boys that she doesn’t. Every episode has at least one moment of cringe-inducing horror and embarrassment. Whether taken in pieces or as a whole, Watamote is the nearly hopeless tale of a mentally disturbed girl who seems irrevocably trapped in a recursive cycle of shame, anger, and a self-fulfilling prophecy of eternal isolation from the rest of the world.  Oh, and it’s a comedy.

While watching the first half of the show, I wondered aloud why I was putting myself through the experience, and often convinced myself that whatever episode I had just watched would be my last. But week after week I came back, and I’m happy I did. While at times Watamote is so difficult to sit through that watching it can feel like an act of ritual self-flagellation, it’s also probably the truest, most personal portrayal of mental illness and depression I’ve ever seen, in anime or otherwise. It’s an amazingly compelling character study of a type of character that usually never gets fair or accurate treatment. Tomoko is the story, and the people telling it not only clearly understand her and her problems, they also want to make the audience experience and understand them too, even when it’s not flattering or sympathetic to her. Her story is tragic, upsetting, funny, alienating, endearing, and always compelling. It might not be an easy watch, but Watamote is worth it.

3. There’s No Accounting For Taste

Most of my communication with other anime fans happens on Twitter, and I like to keep my feed free of bullshit. I don’t have time for all of the petty, rancid nonsense that you can find flooding most nerd forums courtesy of obnoxious people who want to ruin everyone else’s day or can’t accept anyone else’s opinion as genuine, so I don’t bother following them or interacting with that kind of people. The result is that the online crowd I run with is one that, whether we agree on the merits of a particular Japanese cartoon or not, there’s still a productive discussion to be had… most of the time.

Gatchaman Crowds was possibly this year’s best example of a controversial show. Not just because it garnered extreme reactions both positive and negative, but because the lines that divided the audience were so unpredictable. Gatchaman Crowds wasn’t divisive in the way that harem comedies or ecchi shows are. The appeal of those shows for its audience is simple and obvious, and the fights over them are always the same old group of people who love and angrily defend them against the same old group of people who despise and dismiss them, and always for the same reasons. Crowds, on the other hand, was divisive in a way that split the audience along much different lines, and one where reading the praise its devotees lavished upon it made me think I must have been watching an entirely different show than they were.

Was Crowds a clever, compelling show filled with relevant social commentary and irreverent deconstruction of the tropes of the sentai/superhero genre? Some people certainly think so, and have passionately and eloquently argued their case. But no matter how well they did, none of them has even dented my impression that the show was a sloppily told, overly didactic mess with a penchant for moralizing with the unpleasant grace of heavy machinery, yet still couldn’t make a cohesive point. When Crowds fans all agreed that the show’s hero Hajime was lovable and inspiring, many people hated her for being an obnoxious Manic-Pixie Mary-Sue whom the show would bend over to accommodate and deify no matter how nonsensical or simpleminded her actions and words were. And while the show’s defenders have a point that the casting went out of its way to be progressive in its representation of gender, sexuality, and identity, how are they not bothered that most of those characters amount to nothing more than cardboard cutouts, there either to constantly fellate Hajime with their praise or else act as easily confounded straw men for her to overcome with constant, irritating ease?

Even though Crowds started airing nearly 6 months ago, it’s still a semi-regular topic of conversation on my feed. And neither side seems closer to understanding the other than they were before. As I mentioned above I like to keep my fan interactions to people who are sane and reasonable, so this hasn’t resulted in any serious feuds or ruined friendships.  But Crowds shows that there will always be something that the group will never be able to agree on, and that you have to learn to take it in stride. After all, there are people on my Twitter feed who like Bakemonogatari. I try not to judge them for it too harshly. It’s not easy, but I do my best.

2. Be Willing To Be Surprised

If someone had told me before Fall of 2013 that there was going to be a show about a scantily-clad schoolgirl trying to tear people’s clothes off that was not only incredibly entertaining but successfully managed to include an allegory about the relationship between societal control mechanisms, oppression, sexuality, and clothing, I probably would have stopped taking their opinion seriously. Then Kill La Kill came out.

I never thought I’d actually enjoy a slice-of-life comedy about Japanese high schoolers forming an idol group, but Love Live had such an infectious, dopey 80s-movie charm that by the time the first episode ended with the main character joyously singing and dancing into oncoming traffic I had to admit there was something enjoyable there. (I’ll watch more that series one day, I swear I will!)

When it was first announced, it was easy to think that the rotoscoped Flower’s Of Evil would only be an interesting novelty that would stay interesting for about one episode, a curious anomaly that only existed because the director couldn’t get a live action series approved.  Despite the fact that they were obviously chosen to look as bad as possible, the screenshots that the show’s opponents were fervently passing around to anyone they could get to look at them didn’t help with that perception, either.  But then it turned out that Flowers Of Evil was actually brilliant, and that the stark, alienating look of its rotoscoped faces and hyperrealistic backgrounds was all essential to how it built and told its story.  It was the first great series of the year, and a lot of people decided to hate it before it even came out and never reconsidered.  Too bad for them.

1. No Matter How Bad It Looks, There’s Probably Something Worth Watching

Every time a new season’s shows were being announced, it was easy to grumble. Every new season always seems to be packed full of things that were sure to be awful: Another I Can’t Believe My Little Sister Wants To Ride My Balloon Pony. Three more poorly animated dating sim and light novel adaptations. A handful of shows about hideously deformed boobs and the manchildren who love them. Volume 26 of Studio SHAFT Throws Random Shit Onscreen For 22 Minutes In Hopes You Won’t Notice This Is Just Another Insipid Otaku-Pandering Comedy (That Might Be Legally Classified As Child Porn In Some Jurisdictions).

 And yet a few weeks into every season, all the grumbling was forgotten because every time there was at least one surprise hiding in the lineup that made it easy to forget about all the crap. 2013 might not be a standard year, seeing as it gave us a murderer’s row of great shows with Titan, Flowers Of Evil, Watamote, Kyousougiga, The Eccentric Family, Kill La Kill, and all its other gems. But it does make for a good demonstration. Every season, I worried that it looked like there wasn’t going to be much that was good. And then every season, I found there were more good shows than I had time to watch.  Which is why if this list wasn’t already so damn long, my other lesson learned would have been “You’ll Never Have Time To Watch Everything.”

“The Wolf of Wall Street,” Narrative Friction, and The Power of the Pitch

Sell MeThis Pen

The first thought I had when I walked out of The Wolf Of Wall Street was, “I want a smoke.” I had quit smoking months before and hadn’t felt the desire to light up again in some time, but Wolf tickled my hedonistic addiction center something fierce. The smarter part of my brain was louder than the part that wanted to indulge, but several hours later I still felt the urge. No matter how much I knew better, it wouldn’t go away.

Martin Scorsese’s new movie has attracted a lot of controversy, with many people decrying it as an ode to selfishness, hedonism, and immorality. To be fair, they’re almost right: protagonist Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) spends almost all of the movie’s 3 hour runtime bragging about how clever a scammer he is, to both other characters and the audience. The movie opens with Belfort smugly monologuing and puffing out his chest as he walks the the viewer past his mansion, his sports car, and his supermodel wife. Belfort’s ill-gotten wealth is so substantial, his chutzpa so galling, that it’s easy to focus entirely on his siren song and overlook how during this same monologue, he also mentions being under investigation by multiple federal agencies, recklessly bets stacks of money on dwarf tossing, admits to serious issues with drinking, gambling, drug use, and whoring, and is so high on cocaine that he has a near-drug induced panic attack while engaging the services of a prostitute.

That near breakdown stops the momentum of his posturing and blowhard pontificating entirely. His voiceover stops, the soundtrack cuts out and his cool, alpha male exterior vanishes in an instant. He quickly regains composure, but we’ve seen the truth: Belfort, Wall Street crook and spokesperson of the fortune-making power of jackassery, isn’t just a liar. He himself is a lie.

Wolf of Wall Street 01

While Wolf‘s detractors rightly pick up on the fact that the movie is not a simple morality play, where the narrative takes a righteous stance against the misbehavior of its characters and uses their story to create a cautionary tale of justice done, they are failing to notice that the movie shows a wide disparity between what narrator and central character Belfort wants his audience to believe about him and who he actually is. From that opening montage all the way to the movie’s conclusion, there’s a distinct gap between the image that Belfort tries to present and what is shown by the movie’s pictures and sound.

Wolf effectively tells two overlapping stories at the same time: the one in Jordan Belfort’s head, and the one that the audience actually sees. By itself, that second story, the one told by the moving pictures and the dialogue and the soundtrack, mostly takes a neutral stance on Belfort and neither interrogates nor speaks out against him. It simply tells his story, and lets him talk over it. But when those two versions of the story are played at the same time, the friction between them becomes obvious. The narrative doesn’t need to condemn Belfort, because Belfort’s lies do the condemning for it.

Belfort characterizes his wealth as righteous returns from a life of hard work and applied brains, while his actions paint him as a thief and a cheat whose only intelligence comes in the form of a cruel cunning for sniffing out ways to manipulate people. He describes his debauchery as if it makes him glamorous and enviable, yet it’s constantly driving him to new heights of idiocy. He clearly believes himself to be a true talent and an inspiration, when his only real talent is weaponizing his own greed and using it to whip other people into the same unsatisfiable frenzy for more, more, more that he lives his life inside of. And after he finally self-destructs, gets caught, and loses most of what he’s earned, he tries to pass off his story as something to be learned from, a teachable moment of reaching too far and getting burned by the sun. But that’s the biggest lie of all: that the story of his rise and fall has any value to anyone.

Saying that The Wolf of Wall Street tells a person’s meaningless story makes it sound like a movie without a purpose, and that the the movie’s critics are right about it lacking morals. But just because Belfort’s story itself, especially the way he recounts it, doesn’t have any value on its own doesn’t mean the same is true of the movie itself. That lack of anything useful about Belfort or his tale is, in fact, the movie’s point. This is driven home by the movie’s final scene, where an older, post-disgrace and imprisonment Belfort is seen employed as a motivational speaker with a paying audience waiting to hear words of wisdom from him, a confirmed spin artist and fraudster. The movie shows Belfort to be a meaningless person with no worthwhile talents, but there he is, still being praised and, even worse, paid. By any metric that accurately measures logic, morality, or sanity, Belfort never deserved any respect in the first place, and he certainly doesn’t deserve to keep it. What The Wolf of Wall Street is ultimately about, what it’s real meaning is, is to remind us all that the world we live in, the one driven by money and sales and who can move the most product out the door, doesn’t care about any of those things.

Wolf of Wall Street 02

In one of Wolf Of Wall Street’s early scenes, a successful stockbroker (Matthew McConaughey) explains to  Belfort that the reason people buy a seller’s product is a simple one: people are addicts. It’s not actually a salesman’s job to find what someone needs and then give it to them, or to explain why what they’re hawking is necessary, or helpful, or good. They don’t even have to know anything about what it is they’re selling beyond talking points. Their job is to make the person they are selling to want what they’ve got and feel good about getting it. “We don’t create shit,” Belfort’s mentor says, in between bragging how his success is possible only because his total self-absorption and disinterest in anyone else. The people in Belfort’s world who are most successful aren’t those who provide the most valuable service, they’re the ones who pick a mark and make him or her feel the best about believing in the bill of goods they’re selling. And because Wolf‘s Belfort is a character based on a real man, one who found incredible success and whose name still carries enough respect that he is still employed as a financial guru, the truth of his universe is the truth of the audience’s, too.

Even if you’ve never worked with the masters of the universe in the financial sector, this is all familiar territory to anyone who has worked in sales. It doesn’t matter what the product you are selling is, your sales manager will hammer home the same lesson until you learn it or lose your place on the team: “make them want what you have” (whether they need it or not). Don’t look for signs that they need you, look for things you can use to make them think that they need you. Even accounting for those salespeople who make a living for themselves being honorable, the ones who are the most successful are almost always those who care the least about whether their clients need their service or not. You don’t talk to customers, you talk to marks. What you’re selling doesn’t matter, all that matters is your pitch. And the only pitch that matters is the one that makes the person you’re pitching feel good about being pitched.

When people complain that Wolf endorses Belfort’s immoral activities and lifestyle, they’re picking up the same vibes I did when watching the movie gave me the urge to smoke again. It’s the same urge that Belfort (and every other savvy salesman) taps into when they call your phone or knock on your door. Everyone knows on some level that that’s how the sales game is played, and yet people still fall for it all the time. The world is still filled with Belforts big and small who make their living making pushing things that no one needs, but that they’re still able to make people buy. There will always be a part of us that wants something. The scammers and disreputable salespeople of the world know how to give that something a name.

The real world Belfort sold stocks. Wolf‘s Belfort spends the movie actively pitching the audience on the allure and primal satisfaction of his success. “I’ve got all this, and it makes me feel so good. Don’t you want it too?” Even as his life of luxury is shown over and over to be filled with self-destruction and deception, even as it eventually collapses on itself, he can’t help but give his spiel. That’s his skill, after all: making you think you need something that you really don’t need at all. Even as we see him for what he is and watch as the life he’s been pitching is revealed to be a sham, we still can’t help but feel the appeal. We know it’s wrong, but we want it to be right. So we want the movie to tell us that it’s wrong for us, to “make it real,” as McConaughey’s character would say, so that we can wise up and “get off the ferris wheel.”

But instead of reassuring us, of giving us a helping hand and pointing a scolding finger at the liar who won’t leave us alone, The Wolf of Wall Street lets Belfort talk. It let’s him make his sales call, and refuses to tell us that it could never work on us, we know better than that. It lets him give his pitch, and refuses to reassure us that it doesn’t have any power.