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Review: Legend of the Galactic Heroes (Ep. 1-26)

4 June 2016 1 comment

I started watching Legend of the Galactic Heroes after reading this warisboring article posted by a friend on FB.

So far I’ve watched the first movie (chronologically, the first one to be released), but the backbone of the LotGH universe is the 110-episode series (released between 1988-1997, but presently easy to find online). I’ve just completed the first 26, and I’m pausing to record some of my thoughts so far. (Spoiler: It’s really good.)

I wasn’t particularly impressed by the first movie, and I thought the series started off slowly. The two things I’ll mainly be commenting on are theme and depiction of action.

I’ll start with the second item, because in retrospect, it was interesting to realize how thoroughly my expectations about how war and destruction should be portrayed had been shaped by the genre of the modern blockbuster. War and destruction are always visually stunning (think epic landscapes, VFX), and nowadays to be a blockbuster is to be action-driven, at the risk of a film being critically panned as failing to engage, or even being indulgent.

A feature of the LotGH universe is that space battles feature tens of thousands of ships, and potentially millions of soldiers (e.g. the Battle of Astarte), engaged in long-range interchanges of fire with focused-beam weapons. Though the reported numbers are epic, the visuals of spaces battle aren’t as flashy as in Star Wars, or as close-in as Star Trek (not that there aren’t brutal melees). Watching an LotGH battle, at least in the first 26 episodes, mainly involves abstract visuals of fleet movements (literally moving blocks of color on a technician’s screen), commanders arguing on the bridge, beams of light flashing across long distances between the opposing fleets’ battle lines, and only the occasional close-up of a ship disintegrating or a bridge officer perishing.

In fact, most of the explosions we see are at long range, in the form of sporadic bright flashes on opposite sides of space. The usual soundtrack to epic space-battles is classical music.

Really, what struck me was a difference in the considerations behind depictions of death. Whether in superhero blockbusters or a fantasy series like Game of Thrones, the current conventional logic is that the greater the extent of death or injury, the more catastrophic the portrayal (or the more violent a portrayal that can be justified).

The portrayal of the deaths of thousands and millions in LotGH (at least in the first 26 episodes) goes against this logic. The visuals of entire fleets of thousands of people exploding in space appear as distant, muted, expanding spheres of light, like an unprecedentedly low-key fireworks display.

At first, my reaction was that the music and the portrayal were really due to the technical limitations of the period, or budget concerns, but as time wore on, I came to appreciate that even if these were real limitations, they were masterfully negotiated, because the depiction of death in massive battles in LotGH is really a deliberate challenge to the viewer to try and appreciate the gravity of the lives being expended, very much despite the way it’s portrayed.

The broader effect this achieves is that as we the viewers struggle to do so, we participate in resolving what might otherwise be an irresolvable thematic tension.

*

Part of the experience of watching a sci-fi military anime is learning about the universe (the state of technology, the political structures in place, etc.); but at least for the first 26 episodes, all – literally, all – the drama of LotGH is interpersonal.

This is a point worth commenting on as well, because by today’s standards it would probably have been a weakness. The lack of situational drama is really because we tend to know which side will win. We’re even primed, more often than not, to be able to predict which characters will die. There is even a lack of any kind of existential uncertainty as well, because through the narration and the viewpoint of some of the characters, we tend to know the overall score between the large warring factions as well.

But to return to the point that all the drama is interpersonal, a lot of the first arc deals with things like the main characters’ respective histories (i.e. youth and childhood), and how this shapes their motivations and interactions with other people, etc.; but even things like the outcomes of battles are usually simple projections of the human situation on a command bridge, e.g. is the commander able to usefully process feedback from his staff officers? The outcomes of battles are shown as reflecting directly on the character of the commanders and their advisors.

*

Whether or not the viewer thinks a particular character is a good commander is perpetually (almost monotonously) an issue, and by design our investment in several of the main characters is the direct result of our coming to view them as exceptional commanders, possessing exceptional qualities.

During the show’s ‘present’, the same main characters tend to be High Admirals (or thereabouts), and this is what leads to a problem of involvement: How do we really sympathize with the potential struggles of these characters, at the head of fleets of millions of men? On the one hand, we are invited to consider their histories and their friendships. On the other, I find we’re also very much invited to critically judge and feel involved in their battle plans.

The parallel problem (to the problem of involvement) is the tension I referred to earlier, between appreciating the gravity of massive-scale death, and how insignificant it looks from a distance, and how insignificant it sounds when recounted as percentage losses to the fleet. That battle manoeuvres are set against classical music and massive death is a fireworks show puts death and violence at an abstract distance for the viewer, yes, but the point is that reconciling the abstractness of battle plans and the lives of the men under their command is something that the main characters are also shown to struggle with. (Though this is certainly not as belaboured a point as, say, whether a commander is able to listen to feedback or not.)

The result is that the viewer has to participate in reconciling the two otherwise disparate realities, and in doing so takes on part of the burden of resolving the cognitive tension arising from having to simultaneously appreciate the moral struggles of the main characters, as well as their obligation to perform what are almost exclusively abstract functions: on a screen, the lines of battle for 10,000 ships are just lines, and the extent of expected losses – also, the very question of whether losses can be avoided outright – is a question of concentration of forces, about shape and density and weight.

*

The point of genius is that, at the climax of the arc (around ep. 23), the thematic conflict is the timeless paradox of whether violent means justify noble political ends. As it turns out, both the protagonists – by now, the respective leaders of the military forces of the warring empires – are confronted with this paradox, in their respective entanglements. In classes about ethics or political philosophy, this is often presented as a primarily moral paradox, with abstract calculation of utility on the one hand, and a consideration of moral duties and ‘bright lines’ on the other.

The drama at the end of the first arc manages to transcend this, I would argue because this is the same paradox that the viewer is confronted with from the very start of the series. The dramatic success is that, by this point, we’re able to not just appreciate the paradox, but we’re able to appreciate the characters’ powerlessness despite their thorough appreciation of the paradox – this is the real drama, the one that inspires pity for the tragic hero(es).

*

Some things change after episode 26. In episode 27, we get our first sustained look at fighter combat (we see only short glimpses before), through the eyes of the supporting characters. The visual presentation changes as well, with some panel composition and montage that forcibly evoked the mecha anime genre. We get more engine whines and explosions in the soundtrack. It looks like things are going in a different direction from here.

The theme music and visuals change after episode 26 as well. From episode 27, an epigraph appears after the title, the translation of which is:

‘In every age,
In every place,
The deeds of men
Remain the same.’

Indeed, the thematic development of the first act culminates in this, now a foreboding of future tragedy, rather than merely an evocation of the greatness of deeds, times, and men.

 

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‘Remedial’

31 December 2014 Leave a comment

Earlier tonight the word brought to mind: wooden benches along school corridors, weapons-handling drills, discourse analysis, and eventually a song.

Before the song came to mind, I was looking for a split-difference in the string ‘remediate’: where might ‘re-mediate’ deviate from ‘remediate’?

I expect mud somewhere down the road, though in the meantime I would that ‘remedy’ (v.) and ‘remediate’ (v. to mean ‘re-mediate’) run separate courses – but seeing as the analysis of ‘remediate’ as a back-formation of ‘remediation’ (with a ‘remedy’ base) is no less likely, I reckon I’d be better off hoping something else.

Further cause for disquiet: ‘remedying’ is even less well-attested than ‘remediation’, and we might have to come to terms with ‘re-mediation’.

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Earthen

8 February 2014 Leave a comment

‘[…] Bearings taken, markings, cardinal points,
Options, obstinacies, dug heels, distance,
Here and there and now and then, a stance.’

(From ‘The Aerodrome’ by Seamus Heaney)

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Turning Back The Time

9 September 2011 Leave a comment

(Written with reference to Chapter 2 of Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson. This is how I apprehended Anderson’s apprehensions.)

Anderson contends that the way we understand time is not necessarily how humanity throughout history (and especially not pre-Industrial, or pre-printing press, humanity) has always understood time.

In referring to time as we understand it, he uses the phrase ‘Homogenous, empty time’. ‘Homogenous’ indicates that time is:

1. Unitary: precisely measured/consistent standards are maintained, therefore it is also
2. Simultaneous: it applies similarly across observable space.

‘Empty’ implies that time:
1. Is decoupled from routine.
2. Has a contingent rather than an inherent value.

The idea of simultaneity is central to Anderson’s argument. His basic contention is that our understanding of ‘simultaneity’ is radically different from how a pre-Industrial Revolution (or pre-printing press), rural agriculturalist might understand simultaneity.

Time as apprehended by our hypothetical pre-Industrial rural agriculturalist is bound by the immutability of routine (as compared with ’empty’). The most common routines would have to do with agriculture, which is necessary for subsistence, and religion, which was believed to be such. Time would not run separately from these routines as much as it would have been marked by these things. For imaginings beyond his local experience, he had the conception of a God who transcends the bounds of his time and space.

What led to the decoupling of the passage of time from routine was technology that allowed its passage to be precisely tracked. It was consistently adopted because of technological development and economic forces which made relevant a conception of the simultaneity of time across long distances.

I. Precision & Consistency

Prior to the development of reliable mechanical clocks, timekeeping was an imprecise business. (Lunar or other systems could still be very accurate, but its precision tended to limited to the day.) Time was most readily apprehended in the movement of the sun in the sky, the phases of the moon and the passing of seasons. (Astrologers could also observe patterns of movement of the stars in relation to other celestial bodies and attempt to apprehend the passage of time in that way.) Larger communities might develop mechanisms for coordinating things like communal prayer, economic administration or military activity. However, timekeeping would remain imprecise and largely inconsistent between geographically removed communities.

With the advent of reasonably reliable mechanical clocks and watches, things like clocktowers might become a chronological reference in a town or city. Timekeeping might be consistent within these large communities, or even among a few large communities. In such a case we see a much improved level of precision, as well as some cases of consistency.

I recall an account of one of the effects of the advent of railways in America. Prior to their spread, mechanical watches were already quite common among those who could afford them. However, a man set his watch to his own preference and convenience. Someone’s watch could say two o’clock, and his neighbour might have his watch read four o’clock. The point was that there was no standard time (or at least no Time accepted as Standard). In this case, we have time that is precise, but not necessarily even locally consistent.

This changed with the advent of the railway, because railways did have standard times. These were important because trains needed to meet schedules: if it leaves a station in one part of the country at a certain time, there is an economic incentive to work towards being able to predict its arrival at another station distantly removed, so that, for example, it is possible to arrange for the workers required to load/unload the train of its freight to be present, or, for that matter, to be able to predict and obtain the quantity of fuel needed for the train to make its return journey. Railway time eventually became the reference for standard time, because it was consistent across space.

That time is standard, i.e. it is the same time in this place as well as some place 50 miles north, is something we take as a given, and it informs our idea of simultaneity: the term ‘space-time’ is most probably a familiar one, and when Anderson refers to ‘transverse’ or ‘horizontal’ time, it basically refers to a conception of simultaneity as two events happening in different points in space but at the same point in time.

space
|
|-_  _-A
|  --
|
|   _--B
|_--
|
|------------- time

II. Contingent Value & Decoupling

We are bound by time and space, i.e. we can escape neither. Furthermore, space is time in the sense that any movement in space is accompanied by a movement in time, because it is not yet possible to time-travel or exist in two places at once.

Insofar as our physical bodies require sustenance, and most of us are not directly engaged in agriculture and buy food with currency, something else we are bound by is money. In a sense, time is money, because time is space, and space is money too. With the railway in mind, the main cost of freight is in fuel, and fuel cost is a function of distance travelled, i.e. space. The value of time is therefore contingent on economic factors, like the price of fuel, demand for the good transported, etc.

However, this was not always the case. Such theoretical valuations are useful only because they approximate reality, and that reality is necessarily technologically advanced enough to allow for long-distance travel and precise and consistent timekeeping. (For example, in Paul Krugman’s ‘Theory of Interstellar Trade’, he has to assume the development of sufficiently sophisticated futures markets in his analysis of trade involving close-to-lightspeed travel, where the apparent passage of time is slower for the ship captain; this is a special and, the author avows, not a general case of relativism in academia.) But what if it wasn’t?

In a situation where time is both imprecise and inconsistent, its value cannot be contingent on wider economic factors (or at least not in the same way that we understand ‘economic factors’ in the context of industrial society). The chronological units by which one may be a function of the other are not defined, and would in any case be irrelevant, without the technology for long-distance overland freight. Instead, the value of time would be tied intimately to the routines of the individual and his household, and his local community. These routines would either be relevant in sustaining agriculture (which is necessary for life) or they would be of a religious nature (they were believed to be necessary for life).

The individual’s conception of simultaneity would also be limited to his immediately perceivable reality. Although he would surely be able to conceive of how someone else on his field or on a neighbouring field might be working at the same time he is working, that conception is bound by his local and present experience in a way that ours is not. The bounds of space are defined by how far he can travel on foot or by horse with a load of provisions for the journey, and the cost of such an undertaking relative to staying put (it would be prohibitive). What remains most real is the local present.

In this situation, we see that time is tied to the local present in a way that the post-Industrial conception of time (space-time) is not. Time in its post-Industrial conception is decoupled from the routine of agricultural activity and the local present and attains a status as an abstractly apprehensible parameter in itself by virtue of it being standardized, i.e. precise and consistent. In that sense, it is ’empty’, as compared to time bound by routine in accordance with the natural rhythms of the days, months and seasons. Time in the latter situation has a pre-defined occupation.

Thus far we have been describing the small-ness of our hypothetical pre-Industrial rural agricultarist’s conception of the world as compared to ours, but we would be in error to assume that it follows that his imaginations were comparatively limited; in some ways he lived in a world that was vastly larger, for that which was unreachable or rarely reached was filled with his imaginings. The most comprehensive (all-encompassing), catholic (related in some manner to all) and coherent (Alpha and Omega) of these was God. In imagining his relation to that vastly larger world, he could imagine it in terms of his communion with (or, perhaps, the ability of his soul to apprehend the substance of) God.

Categories: Curiosities

Not All Views Are Equal

24 March 2011 Leave a comment

I clarify: not all ‘views’ are equal.

I was thinking about what makes a ‘view’ a view on Youtube. I knew that in iTunes, 1 play is counted when a track reaches its end, regardless of whether or not I skipped around (or skipped to near the end) while playing the track. The same standard would surely result in a poor measure of viewership on Youtube, and it would likely have been vetoed for sheer ease of abuse.

The immediate thought was a simple proportion of the video, for example 3/4 or 1/2. However, it was obvious that a fixed time like 0:45 or 1:00 would make more sense. After all, the video wasn’t skipped over in that duration. The next things I thought were, ‘The attention span of the average human has surely declined,’ and that if the standard time was found and published at all there’d probably be work with the time-mark as a basis. Also, would setting a longer requirement be in itself incentive enough for viewers to pay attention for longer periods of time before we made a judgment? (Perhaps a time limit before the like/dislike buttons are activated? Then maybe ‘Friday‘ would have slightly fewer dislikes because you’d have to sit through two minutes of it first.) And how problematic would it be to set that kind of limit with that kind of intention? (‘The chorus only comes in after 2:30 because the industry is too commercial already, and I reject that.’)

Next, I thought if this would apply to longer videos. If I skipped to the next episode of ‘Top Gear’ after five minutes because although the hosts were entertaining as always, I was starting to find the subject boring, should that view be counted? On the other hand, shouldn’t my five minutes of attention have been registered as a view?

So I went to read up a bit and was reminded that there are several places to watch videos (Vimeo, Dailymotion, etc.) and hence standards were different, that I’d also have to consider factors like embedding and whether full repeats of a video from a single visit from a single IP would count (apparently yes on Youtube, if it’s not embedded).

So it seems that most views are indeed unequal.

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