Film: Dystopian Anime: Ghost in the Shell

Ghost in the Shell (1995)
(Japanese original title: Kôkaku Kidôtai per IMDB)
based on the manga by Masamune Shirow
directed by Mamoru Oshii
1995 (Japan & UK), 1996 (US)

Continuing my new habit of watching dire futures as a way of tolerating the dire present, I went back and watched the first and possibly best version of Ghost in the Shell. GitS is another Masamune Shirow manga (I wrote about him previously when reviewing the translated Appleseed manga).

Overview: An anti-terrorist unit of a future police force has to battle an unseen hacker adversary who can ‘hack’ humans’ cybernetic minds, and turn innocent individuals into his violent henchmen. The protagonist is a female cyborg with human brain, who ponders questions about what it means to be human in an era of augmented individuals. Her philosophical exposition and debates with her coworkers break out between brutal scenes of hand-to-hand combat and cyborg-vs-tank battles in a visually rich future version of Hong Kong.

Here’s the original Japanese preview; if you are in the U.S. and over 18, you can watch the complete film subtitled in English on YouTube at this link.

Why I like it: The animation is top notch: real artists clearly developed the illustrations, which are colored well, and have just-realistic-enough lighting effects; the use of computer graphics is selective and well-placed. The music really sets a mood, especially the choral piece by Kenji Kawai (YouTube). The direction is excellent: there is a scene where rain falls quietly on the gun turret of a tank, and you are forced (at turret-point) to appreciate the effort that went into the many details of the scene. The protagonist looks intense, serious, and a bit unsettling (rather than young and playful, as protagonists are in many of Shirow’s manga) which FEELS RIGHT for a cyborg.

This is a different story with the same characters and settings as the 2017 live action version starring Scarlett Johansson: if you’ve seen that, you’ll appreciate the fidelity of that movie to the composition of certain scenes. That film was about the protagonist’s back-story, while this 1995 film is more of a standalone adventure, which ends on a very different trajectory for the main character.

Note that, the animator(s) and art director(s) are especially fond of women’s breasts, and even though there is no practical reason a cyborg would have nipples, you do wind up seeing them a lot. *shaking my head.*

Film: Dystopian Television During the Pandemic

I’m a big reader, writer, and all-around-city-explorer, and don’t usually make time in my routine for television. In normal times I work long hours, see movies on the big screen with friends, go out to social dinners, run evening errands, take long walks, read non-fiction, go to evening museum events, and have a packed life: TV is just too big a time-suck. (I have so many friends who CLAIM they want to pursue some passion, but can’t because of time constraints; these same friends can summarize thousands of hours of shows, and don’t make the connection.) During this pandemic, however, I am heeding the signs posted throughout my neighborhood begging me to stay at home. Cultural institutions, movie theaters, most indoor gathering places, and all non-essential shops are closed. The streetcars stopped running, so my normal routes to explore are out of reach. There is news that melts my heart on every device around me, and I’ve found concentrating on books has been hit-or-miss, as my mind strays back to the problems of the day.

To refresh myself, I decided to seek out dystopian fiction in various video/film formats. Considering the times I am living in, I wanted something less optimistic than fairy tales or positive-future-sci-fi: since I’m living in a world where people would all become zombies due to their desire for ‘freedom’ or refusal to believe in a zombie plague, I wanted stories grounded in human flaws. I am fond of this genre (I have written dystopian novellas!!), and thought a distraction from current dystopia could be stories that are DIFFERENTLY dystopian. I found some great shows that could fully hold my attention and interest. (What are the odds?)

I’ll write about them here, in the order I watched them in:

Watchmen (2019, one season of 9 episodes, HBO (series page))

Note that this series is set in the future of an alternative world of the ’80s comic book of the same name, but this series can also stand alone. (I do NOT recommend the 2009 movie, which is unduly creepy toward its female characters.)

Overview: decades after corrective actions are made for the (real life) 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, white supremacist violence leads the police to need to wear masks, hide their identities, and engage in very direct confrontations with extremists. The series follows one remarkable veteran and police-officer who tries to raise her family and make Tulsa safe against violent, organized terrorists. Meanwhile, the world is pelted with rains of interdimensional space squid, and people bemoan the disappearance of the god-like superhero who won the Vietnam War for the U.S.

Why I like it: it was done well enough to give me actual anxiety, so I needed a break after the first episode before I could deal with the rest! The casting is great; Regina King is a bad-ass, compelling lead; Jeremy Irons is a compelling, amoral character in a weird situation; the sci-fi elements are pretty chill, and presented in a matter-of-fact, non-distracting, just-roll-with-it way; the dialog is tight… I felt INVESTED.

Lovecraft Country (2020, one season, 10 episodes, HBO (series page))

Overview: a veteran’s father goes missing, and his search takes him and his loved ones through the dangers of both a segregated, racist, violent U.S. AND an equally dangerous, secret world of magic, curses, and monsters from another universe.

Why I like it: The primarily black cast is fantastic; all of the characters are developed, interesting, flawed, afraid, and determined in some way; the villains are layered, and their infighting and rivalries are elaborate; the costumes (especially for Ruby and Christina) are GORGEOUS; the plot is mysterious; the plot stakes are high – there are dark and often fatal consequences for mistakes and misunderstandings; the sets are great and varied… Oh, and like Watchmen, the Tulsa Massacre also figures in.

This is the first show that I’ve listened to the PODCAST for, and it was worth listening to! There is a lot of insight on the characters and script that I didn’t know I wanted to know.

Altered Carbon (2018 & 2020, 2 seasons, 18 episodes, Netflix (series page)

Overview: Elite military operative Takeshi Kovacs is revived after 250 years in a digital prison, given a new body, and obligated to solve the murder of the wealthy creep who bailed him out. His pre-owned body has its own history with the police; his mind has a history with his mercenary sister and his lost rebel love interest, both of whom may still live.

Why I like it: it’s real sci-fi! The world is compelling, and the debates within both seasons about the ethics of the technology are realistic; the characters are fun; the world is diverse (the way my own world is); the head rebel love interest is a fun character (yes, three in a row in this post with a compelling black female lead!), and all of the major female characters have compelling motivations and different skill sets; the actors who play Kovacs are all fun, attractive (well-defined abs for miles!), and each get their own timelines/eras to take on, which lends variety and clearly defines eras in his life; the sets are great; there are some tech-artifact mysteries to be solved; and a lot happens.

Raised by Wolves (2020, 1 season (so far), HBO (series page))

Overview: After a war between religious and atheist groups leaves the earth in ruins, two androids are entrusted with human embryos to raise on Kepler 22-b, far from the dangers of human zealotry. The planet is strewn with the bones of extinct, giant reptiles and hot gas vents. It is difficult to provide enough food to keep the children healthy. Meanwhile, a colony ship is on the way, and the religious colonists believe it is a sin for androids to raise children. However, Mother, one of the androids, happens to be a reprogrammed weapon of mass destruction…

Why I like it: Ridley Scott brings us layered sci-fi! Settling new worlds, and all the things that can go wrong in that effort, is always exciting, and the design of the ships, sets, and such is all stimulating. (That colony ship!!) The two androids, Mother (who appears as a young, white woman) and Father (who appears as a young, black man), show their quirky, awkward, charming dedication to child protection and collaboration, while engaging in a purposeful rebellion against their original servant programming and the religious patriarchy. YAAY FOR ANDROIDS OVERTHROWING THE PATRIARCHY! Oh, and the villains (whose motivations change over the first season, and who (of course) do not believe they are villains) are interesting, too.

Science Fiction custody battles are the best custody battles!

~~~

These are all recent shows, and I recommend them if you like high stakes, well-executed, entertaining stories.

I’ll write about older video works, including animation, separately and later.

Life: January 2021

I did not enjoy the month of January.

I’m not saying I didn’t have some good days, but the world and my country had some UNUSUALLY BAD DAYS, and so the math is unfavorable.

Beginning of the month: right-wing threats seemed to flood social media sites, egged on by the now-former president. I’d already been stressed by his ‘even if I lose I will stay’ rhetoric dating back to last summer, and no one seemed to be taking it very seriously. The lack of attention to on-line rhetoric was alarming.

January 6th: my midday meeting was interrupted when the partner of the person I was meeting with walked in to say that the US Capitol building was being attacked, and perhaps he could give that some attention? That was the beginning of many hours of horror.

January 8th: while the people who violently attacked the Capitol had been allowed to wander away freely, which was exasperating on every possible level, the US hit a daily death rate of FOUR THOUSAND PER DAY.

U.S. tops 4,000 daily deaths from coronavirus for 1st time
By EUGENE GARCIA, LISA MARIE PANE and THALIA BEATY
January 8, 2021 at ap.com

January 15th: The official global death tally from the COVID-19 Pandemic hit 2 million.

View of my phone’s home screen that morning

Global report: coronavirus death toll reaches 2 million
Tom Phillips, Guardian (guardian.co.uk)
Sat 16 Jan 2021 00.21 EST

January 19: The US hit an official death toll of four hundred thousand.

My homescreen again. Background art by me (Swiss watercolor pencil)

US coronavirus death toll passes 400,000 amid grim forecast over winter
Jessica Glenza, UK Guardian
Tue 19 Jan 2021 14.42 EST

That was ALL TOO MUCH. Plus, local COVID cases spiked again; another dear friend remained sick with COVID-19 for the entire month of January in a city with no hospital capacity; plus the US went on high alert once the authorities decided to actually read the threats against the government that people had been making online, and nearly every state had some threat made against their capitols and other government offices.

Yes, the Inauguration on January 20th went VERY WELL – it was great – and a relief! – to watch, and nearly impossible to concentrate on anything else. Yes, the new government appears to be off to a coherent, sane start.

Yes, my friend is still on the mend, and hasn’t had to be hospitalized, despite some worrying symptoms.

Yes, I made a ton of art on the weekends, which allowed me to turn my attention entirely into paint, color, and forms, and away from the madness and sickness that dominates the news.

But… I wouldn’t want to experience January 2021 again.

Life: Printmaking (socially distanced, as always)

I wasn’t as artistically productive as I wanted to be in 2020. While the pandemic kept me working from home for 10+ months, my job expanded to fill the time I’d reclaimed from my evening commute, and colleagues would ask for assistance regularly on nights and weekends. While there is plenty of work (my department has been notoriously understaffed), I suspect my colleagues also preferred to work constantly rather than read the same kind of pandemic news I’m reading too much of. Perhaps work was a shield against 2020’s damning news cycle.

“Doomscrolling” was my preferred method of coping – I like to keep informed AND look for patterns and solutions that may be useful – and my eyes tired from taking a break from one screen just to stare at another.

Also, angst about the election kept me from making the happy art I like to make. I can manage to find things I want to photography in just about any mood, but painting and printing require a lot more of my attitude and something closer to bravery, and I just haven’t had as much of that as I would like.

So: it’s nice to have made some acrylic monotype prints today, to have tried a new paper for this purpose, to have obtained interesting results, and to have learned something I can apply in the future. It brought me joy. We can all use more joy.

News: US Passes 20 million COVID-19 cases

This is not the start to 2021 that any of us wanted, but the awkward combination of federal indifference, essential worker obligation, and individually inaccurate personal risk assessments led predictably to this.

The data is wild – cases going up 237,000 cases a day in this country alone – and is what was predicted.

I went past a shopping mall yesterday, and the parking lot was nearly full. As if none of this is happening. It’s difficult to reconcile.

Life: Windy and wavy at the beach

I went outside yesterday, and I’m glad I did. It wasn’t warm, but it was good to exercise.

San Francisco’s Ocean Beach is a wonderful place, even on windy days. It was easy to remain masked and physically distant from others.

There are high surf warnings on through Sunday: always remember not to turn your back on the ocean.

Life: Homebound Pandemic Holiday Break

I enjoy the solstice season and taking a little time off at the end of the year! Every plan I would ordinarily make with friends and family this week is unsafe and/or not possible, and so I’m ‘making do.’ Rather than hosting feasts, treating myself to spa- or museum- days, or dining with friends in a favorite vegan restaurant, I am: contemplating fiction (after a non-fiction-dominated year); reading an amazing Alice Munro short story collection (which I love from the first page); talking rare walks that are long enough to make me ache; experimenting with another spicy peanut sauce recipe; adjusting my news consumption; re-evaluating my exercise habits; enjoying a lovely channa/palak/fresh tomato dish with fire in it; adjusting my hair color intensity; waiting for my first sweet potato pie to cool off; prioritizing my creative projects; rationalizing my sudden obsession Rumiko Takahashi’s story, InuYasha; meditating slightly more often; and wishing that so many things were different.

The weight of the year is catching up with me, and while I’ve ‘talked a good game’ to encourage others, I’m really FEELING it now.

~~~

I have a heavy-texting friend who hasn’t replied to texts all week. I’m certain it means she has boarded a plane and is socializing in some COVID-hotspot OTHER THAN the one she lives in. I’m not going to ask about it. Or comment if she tells me.

My list of first and second-degree acquaintances with COVID has been growing slowly, but not slowly enough!

There are four people I know personally who have had it. (1 in the US, 3 in Sweden), and eight second-degree “friends-of-friends” (6 US, 2 Netherlands), but from the third-degree outward the numbers get crazy.

For example: one of the second-degree contacts took on a mask-free pandemic remodeling project at her house, and after interacting in close quarters indoors repeatedly, many of those who worked on it got COVID – the architect, the general contractor, some of his team, and several of the subcontractors, in addition to my second-degree relation. And I don’t know how many people THEY infected subsequently. I don’t even want to think about it.

~~~

I was chatting yesterday with a friend who recovered from COVID, and we agreed that it’s difficult to be comfortable outside of home with the current conditions. We can’t trust others to keep us safe: some people we know take risks we find absurd, and the news has already shown us that some people with COVID symptoms and even positive tests lie about their condition in order to travel, exposing others. I’m trying to warm up to the idea of being indoors with other masked people, behaving semi-normally, but that isn’t an option on offer now, and will still require trust. (I wasn’t ready for the unmasked outdoor dining across households, and seeing that in action didn’t help! They were SO CLOSE! Yikes!)

If we were living in a more developed country, where both small businesses and individuals were being subsidized during this crisis, it wouldn’t be so painful, as we’d know that we were all moving toward the same goals with basic security in place. If only.

~~~

I’m wishing you safety and health as we wind up this difficult year. As I work up the energy, I’ll wish you (and all other living beings) even more good things!

Book: Palimpsest: Documents from A Korean Adoption by Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom

Palimpsest: Documents from A Korean Adoption
by Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom
published by Drawn & Quarterly, Montreal, Canada
2019

This is a beautiful, non-fiction graphic novel about an adopted Swede of Korean origin, her life experience as an adopted person, and the corruption and bureaucracy of the international adoption industry.

Drawn & Quarterly is a great publisher, and the excerpt of this book at their website drew me in. The story is charmingly illustrated, but the subject matter is serious. Who gets to decide what the narrative of adoption is? For international adoptions, why is the story always that heroic white people saved a child from their terrible relatives and/or homeland? Why are so many children who are not actually orphaned adopted out of their families and culture?

The narrator looks into her own family history, and it takes years of effort and abundant support from her friends and family to dig through layers of lies – constant lies, omissions, and half-truths – to learn the circumstances of her birth. She illustrates and narrates her experience wonderfully, and makes an excellent advocate for adoptees.

I had to double-check my understanding of the word palimpsest: it is a document that has been erased and written over, and so may have different layers of meaning. It’s a strange Greco-Latin word, and a fitting one for the identity layers adopted people experience.

~~~

I’ve had friends who have been adopted, and a colleague who made an international adoption. My adopted friends shared their perspectives about their adoptions with me, how they processed revelations about their origins, and their desires to eventually meet their genetic relatives. (They did!) Their views were the opposite of the adoptive parent colleague, who baselessly villainized his child’s anonymous birth mother to a degree that shocked me, but which fit into his desired heroic narrative. So much of what Ms. Sjöblom wrote made sense to me because of what my friends had shared, but her story should appeal to anyone who wants to know who they are and feel that they “belong.”

Life: Actively trying to be inactive

My mother apologized a few years back for keeping me so BUSY in childhood. Her mother did it to her, and while her family was Catholic, it still felt like a “Protestant Work Ethic” problem: busy people of all ages with no time to think will be docile and have no time to sin! Business = godliness!

Being “busy” to the point of not really having a life is a difficult habit to break, and so there are self-help articles about how other cultures do it. Wrapping the idea of rest or passivity in labels and costumes from another culture feels hip and exotic.

My favorite versions of these are my various Zen Buddhist books, which encourage us to sit, breathe, and observe our thoughts. (I have a list of friends who confide that they MUST NOT, under any circumstances, be alone with their thoughts, and I honestly worry for them.)

The Dutch are hip and have a word/concept for what we in California might call “chilling,” about being in and aware of your surroundings without multitasking, which is a nice reminder that such things are possible.

Perspective | The Dutch have a name for doing nothing. It’s called niksen, and we need more of it.

Last year, I quit a terrible job in corporate middle management. I was stressed all the time, traveling once or twice a month, occasionally internationally, and work followed me everywhere: from the first email in the morning, sometimes as early as 5 a.m., until the last texts late into the evening.

~~~

My holiday time off – several consecutive days in a row! – is jarring, since I’ve been doing metaphorical firefighting for so long that moments of calm almost make me uncomfortable.

As a creative person, I need this time to unwind and think my own thoughts, yet can still feel like I need to be “busy” with work that OTHERS deem “productive,” and that will never get me anywhere I want to go.

It’s nice to be reminded that I can (with effort and practice) relax and appreciate being alive without judging myself harshly for doing so.

Book: The Lover by Marguerite Duras

The Lover
by Marguerite Duras
translated from French into English by Barbara Bray
published by Pantheon Books, NY
1985

On the paths of the yard the shadows of the cinnamon-apple trees are inky black. The whole garden is still as marble. The house too – monumental, funereal. And my younger brother, who was walking beside me, now looks intently at the gate open on the empty road.

Note: This edition of Duras’ concise novel includes an introduction by Maxine Hong Kingston, who advises us to interpret the novel as autobiographical, which I might not have done otherwise. She also observes parallels with Duras’ screenplay for Hiroshima Mon Amour, which I’ve read, and her observations gave me insights about Duras’ life.

If there was a character limit to my remarks about reading this book, I would write something like: at-risk French girl in occupied Vietnam escapes her unhappy home by sleeping with a meek older man; a dire situation, beautifully described. Unluckily for you, I can write all the words I want!

Through a series of increasingly vivid memories that drift forward and back in time, Duras’ novel tells the story of an impoverished French teen in French-occupied (colonial) Vietnam, living with her deeply depressed mother, two brothers, and a her own developing awareness of mortality. (So FRENCH!)

Our unnamed character’s life is tenuous. She wears her mother’s old, threadbare clothes; the family struggles on her mother’s schoolmistress wages after her father’s unexpected death; a sense of doom hangs over the family; her mother not only falls frequently into immobile despair, but also spoils her sons while pressuring her daughter to make up for their failures.

Her escape: to get into the limousine of a nervous, fellow foreigner, but one who is not French: a wealthy Chinese man, entirely beholden to his father, but also inappropriately smitten at first sight of this inappropriately dressed, quite underaged teen.

The novel is often (but not always) a first person narration, centering the girl’s alienation from Vietnamese culture and her own (French) family; the alienation of remote colonial life; the constraints of poverty; the scarring, emotional tensions of her household; her self-enforced emotional distance from her unsuitable lover; the pain of her mother’s exploitation; and always – always always – a sense that everyone will die and all things must end.

The prose is visually rich and lightly punctuated as the narrator moves from awkward social interactions of German-occupied France in adulthood to afternoons of being fully absorbed by illicit sex in Vietnam; from invisibility to parental approval for all the wrong reasons; forward to deaths, and backward to youth. It starts as a novel, and winds up a vivid, non-linear series of beautifully described recollections.

It absorbed me completely, and I’m glad I read it.