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Categories: Perspective

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.

 

Building Around Language, Ideology and Power

20 January 2016 Leave a comment

When did I start thinking about the nature of identity and the social world? The first answer that comes to mind is literature classes, which started in secondary school. These were things I didn’t have any difficulty seeing the importance of and the interest in, which I suppose I should count as fortune.

To have had the opportunity is something I also count as fortune. From what gets put about in the news etc., it would appear the trend is that fewer and fewer are allowed the same.

On my mind tonight were some of the things Singaporeans have made of which I’m fiercely proud, as well as a really quite good (if not exactly comforting; really the opposite) speech from K. Shanmugam. Perhaps some of his points about the really quite rare kind of society Singapore has become resonated a bit more against the background of the other things I was thinking about – but, actually, I’m generally quite appreciative of the marvels large and small that have been achieved here.

The meat of the discourse, however, was about the larger currents and more immediate management issues that exert considerable influence on the shape of that society. (Smallness again raises its head.) I was quite impressed with how he drew the link through discourse (‘how public discourse [was] conducted’), ideology, and the basic conditions constraining human agency (economic situation, social context, technology, etc.).

I’d definitely recommend reading it, say from about paragraph 10 to 42 (the before and after being the usual-serious-polite stuff). One of the things it made me think about was what I mentioned at the start of the post. What that course of thought suggested was that it would be a good thing for us – perhaps even a modestly marvellous thing – to make the genuine attempt to engage as many as possible in that reflection. I think literature is an exceptionally engaging, rich, and profitable medium for that project.

Categories: Perspective Tags:

Not A Refrain Sung Lightly?

19 November 2013 Leave a comment

The whole tawdry Purple Light ‘saga’ has been generating a ton of discussion in my digitally extended social circles, much of it in earnest, and all the more frustrating for that.

There is very little to disagree with as far as the rightness of the actual actions taken regarding the offending lyric is concerned. AWARE was right to raise it. MINDEF was right to ban it. Singing songs about rape is wrong and damaging. With the last point especially, the opposite position is morally indefensible.

Yes, it is true that there are those who seem to want to defend their right (or something) to do the indefensible. Yet I would contend that most people recognize that this would be an error.

There are those others who manage to avoid actually defending the indefensible, and still manage to be implicated as doing just that. These tend to be the ones criticizing the military higher-ups, or resenting the angry feminists. I cannot defend those males who feel that their status is being impinged on in some way by qualified feminist criticisms. Furthermore, I think it is not an easy thing for critics to patiently and untiringly put across those criticisms and take the time to qualify them, and I am persuaded that it is already an injustice that such qualifications and such criticisms need to be ceaselessly reestablished. But these things do not make unqualified criticisms any less unhelpful.

For those who’ve tended to criticize the military’s response, I don’t think their response is justified, but I do think they have been misinformed. I’ve argued elsewhere that how the ban was presented in ‘The Real Singapore’ (from what I know, the first popular faux-news source to pick up AWARE’s announcement) was highly misleading. The easiest way I can put it across is that the report came across as something like, ‘Wah MINDEF ban Purple Light!’ This naturally elicited the response, ‘Wah lidat also ban.’ This was my immediate response, and I would be confident in saying that that would have been the immediate response of many NSFs and NSmen, if  only because the discourse about the tendency of higher-ups to concern themselves with trivial things and deal with them in ham-handed ways is a pervasive one. During your full-time NS it seems as though you’re confronted with examples of it every day. Many servicemen eventually realize that part of it is structural, due solely to the size of the operation, etc., although though it never actually disappears, because the fact is that military life is fundamentally tedious. If I checked my immediate response, it was because I have been persuaded not to be so ready to think of the higher leadership as incompetent.

This is precisely where those who persistently argue that by expressing ire over the reported ban, the general run of males, barring a few or even a generous many exceptions, have shown themselves to be ready to defend rape culture because they’ve been socialized by the patriarchy are wrong. Most of them who are annoyed at the ban are annoyed for a different reason, and if you’ve not served NS or experienced something like the constant tedium of military life, it is indeed something you would not immediately understand. Within the attendant discourse, the action of banning a song does indeed appear trivial.

The problem is that the banning of a song (or a verse – whatever) was not the substantial action. What was the substantial action was the institution’s acknowledgment that the verse is bad, that the singing happens, and should be stopped. This is a moral response, in keeping with the institution’s values (as they wrote). The moral issue was treated as such by AWARE and MINDEF. It was not represented as such by ‘The Real Singapore’ and subsequent reports.

Let me affirm that the existence of the alternate context and discourse does not preclude socialization by the patriarchy and its discourses. It is clear that this is pervasive as well, from many of our responses. And it is wrong that rape culture can still be lightly justified, either in the song or in our responses to this spurious saga.

At the same time, none of this makes the majority of readings-into about why so many young Singaporean males (either my news feed, or because the older ones are further away and wiser) are upset (‘butthurt’) any less patronizing or misguided. If these readings-into happen to occur alongside legitimate criticisms, so much the worse.

Categories: Perspective Tags: , , ,

And We Should Endeavour

7 October 2010 Leave a comment

I’ll limit myself to three things, for the moment.

  1. We don’t take ourselves seriously enough to feel like we have to trace the downfall of a dynasty through a selection of recent reigning authority figures. However,
  2. We can take ourselves seriously enough that it would be entirely disproportionate to feel as though the ground has fallen away from beneath our feet. To borrow a metaphor, when Barad-Dur collapsed, Middle Earth was still there, though when the Tower was standing, the fact seemed less obvious.
  3. When I walked the ground today, there was confusion, distress and, to a limited extent, even something like mortification; but there was also introspection, mutual regard, and something like humility. Both the bad things and the good things were more than I expected, and where I encountered them they had less to do with scandal than they had to do with care for things which had yet to be done and the hope of things yet to be but seemingly afar off.

The colours have not changed, and so a knight I shall continue to be.

Categories: Perspective

Solitude Is Also A Place

5 September 2010 Leave a comment

For some time, now, I’ve been finding it difficult to say whether I’ve been going through a how-are-you-good patch or not. Not being in the middle of any of those 4-, 7-, 9-, 13- or 17-week sprints I’ve known before at work has been very good for my sleep cycle and reading, and also good for that feeling of being ‘up-to-date’, which is real in some senses (current affairs) and not in others, and perhaps not exactly consequential even when real.

I am reading my first paragraph and thinking, ‘What an unpromising first paragraph,’ what with all the strings of hyphens, numbers and long-drawn-out sentences; in this case, the writing does reflect my state of mind quite visually: not narrative, but logical; syntax, but no vision; not focused, but diffuse (all over the place); crowded.

Lately, I’ve been much more relaxed and less stressed out in general, but that really doesn’t define my life, though extreme stresses have served to change it and mark it. Writing and reading are things I have found that I seem to want to do even when I’m busy, because I do find a special kind of solace in writing and reading (here I am referring to an introspective, reflective kind of ‘reading’), but I haven’t engaged in very much of either activity recently. Part of it has to do with being connected to information streams (rivers?); I actually relished being able to immerse myself in it again after the experience of having no choice but to give them up, because of conscription, among other things. It is an odd feeling, and one representation of the experience I’ve seen comes to mind:

From Alan Moore's 'Watchmen'. Image from: http://dicecreator.wordpress.com/

In Watchmen, Ozymandias uses words like ‘imagery’, ‘juxtaposition’ and ‘undercurrent’ in his observations, and, according to his observations, invests accordingly, though I also note that his investments were the minor concern of his at that point in the novel; when his aides ask if he was worried that he might become ‘drunk from such a concentrated draught of information’, he replies, ‘It is the most sobering potion I know.’

Ozymandias’ hand-picked aides carefully prepared the bank of monitors for him, and the idea of preparing such an expensive array for the peculiar purpose of being immersed in information would have been novel a couple of decades ago. As I write this, though, I have seven tabs and four windows open; one of the things I observe in some of the tabs I have open is how information tagged as related or relevant has been made readily available to me, by means that are automated to a degree made possible by the advancement of technology. There is no immediate human direction involved in many of those instances. In other instances, technology seems to have made my social contacts a means of filtering information; this seems altogether more insidious, especially in the light of the third observation I have, which is that information is being made available to me as a service, but there are other customers, including advertisers. The total effect of these factors is an intense stream of information, and one that is becoming ever more intense at that, because of technological change driven by economics. This is sobering knowledge, indeed, at least at this point in time, as I write.

But the rest of the time, the experience is probably more intoxicating than bracing. Earlier, I observed to a friend that, through the Internet, information of interest is so readily available, it seems almost spoon-fed, and easy to choke on; alternately, it’s a web that’s easy to get lost in: on the Web, information leads to more information, related, relevant or otherwise. Lately, I’ve had the opportunity to immerse myself in the information stream on a regular basis, but I’ve been writing less because it’s hard to process it all.

Earlier, I came across comments from an interview (via this post I saw on Freshly Pressed) with Jonathan Franzen, an American author. I was motivated to read the post because a few weeks ago, Franzen was featured on the cover of Time as the ‘Great American Novelist’ of the current time, and  I resolved to keep that issue of Time because the cover didn’t feature technology, economics or war. Franzen comments on what he feels is a novelist’s responsibility in our age. His comments on writing, communication, isolation and solitude were what motivated me to write this post. I quote, from http://www.avclub.com/articles/jonathan-franzen,44716/:

I think novelists nowadays have a responsibility—whether or not my contemporaries are actually living up to it—to make books really, really compelling. To make you want to turn off your phone and walk away from your Internet connection and go spend some time in another place. That’s why it takes me so long to write these books. I’m trying to fashion something that will actually pull you away, so I’m certainly conscious of the tension between the solitary world of reading and writing, and the noisy crowded world of electronic communications.

I continue to believe it’s a phony palliative, most of the noise. […] All of that stuff, you have the sense, “Yeah, I’m really engaged in something. I’m not alone. I’m not alone. I’m not alone.” And yet, I don’t think—maybe it’s just me—but when I connect with a good book, often by somebody dead, and they are telling me a story that seems true, and they are telling me things about myself that I know to be true, but I hadn’t been able to put together before—I feel so much less alone than I ever can sending e-mails or receiving texts. I think there’s a kind of—I don’t want to say shallow, because then I start sounding like an elitist. It’s kind of like a person who keeps smoking more and more cigarettes. You keep giving yourself more and more jolts of stimulus, because deep inside, you’re incredibly lonely and isolated. The engine of technological consumerism is very good at exploiting the short-term need for that little jolt, and is very, very bad at addressing the real solitude and isolation, which I think is increasing. That’s how I perceive my mission as a writer—and particularly as a novelist—is to try to provide a bridge from the inside of me to the inside of somebody else.

The thought of having a mission as a writer has not crossed my mind, but what he describes is what I feel; I do have something else to say about solitude, though: it’s not just isolation.

In the frame before the one from Watchmen I included above, Ozymandias’ aide excuses himself, saying, ‘We know that you prefer to be alone down here,’ to which Ozymandias replies, ‘Yes, that’s right. All alone… Just me and the world.’ Even before the discussion about whether Ozymandias is a hero or not, we should examine what Moore shows us of Ozymandias. He seeks solitude at the point where the accomplishment of his life work is about to be decided, his life work being his plan for saving the world from nuclear Armageddon. ‘Just me and the world’ is the man and his mission, and the man seeking all the clarity and focus he can before everything is accomplished; he finds it in solitude.

When I do write, I have to find the space for it. Writing is a way to be alone with my thoughts and then come out from it with something, whether it’s clarity, a sense of humility, gratitude, renewed purpose, or being tired enough to get to sleep.

The Visit (incomplete)

24 July 2010 Leave a comment

I’ve just returned from watching Project Yum!’s production of The Visit by Friedrich Dürrenmatt. At the end of the play I was considerably off-equilibrium.

I’m not going to comment very much on the staging, because it only infrequently detracted from the ideas and themes being communicated, and because I’m under-qualified to comment on production matters anyway. I am going to comment on said themes and ideas, because of the effect the play had on me and the thought it aroused. The rest of the post will mostly only make sense if you’ve seen The Visit performed, but you can find a blurb or plot summary at the Facebook page for the event or the Wiki respectively.

One word I used to describe my emotions after I’d walked out of the theater was ‘horror’, because the theme that stood out the most for me was our potential for depravity. It was odd that I’ve been reading Salman Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh again, and here I quote:

‘Human perversity is greater than human heroism […] or cowardice […] or art, […] For there are limits to these things, there are points beyond which we will not go in their name; but to perversity there is no limit set, no frontier that anyone has found. Whatever today’s excess, tomorrow’s will exceed-o it.’

In Rushdie’s novel, the narrator evinces a horror at his life and his family’s during his frequent surges of self-disgust and regret that is not always compelling; often it seems that he has those feelings only after reflection on the events he recounts and after attempting to reconcile them with some norm of behavior which he was not mindful of as a participant. In any case, there is a certain distance between the text and the reader to begin with, and the reader can participate at his own pace. Watching a play is different in that the audience is subject to the pace the playwright and performers set, and the impact of the players’ words and actions are immediately felt. We are subject for as long as the performance lasts, and in The Visit, the accelerating descent of the people of Guellen provides the drama and the horror.

Up until the intermission, the behavior of the Guelleners was easily dismiss-able as greedy and false. They were merely wretched, of a type, and types do not convince. (‘Meh,’ is one possible word.) The frightening descent only became evident as the Guelleners’ individual meanness progressed through angry self-justification and eventually to a collective and unanimous fervor.

False hospitality towards Claire Zachanassian in the hope of cash becomes something else altogether as the townspeople attempt to persuade Alfred Ill to docility. Their attempts to persuade Ill are as much attempts to convince themselves that they are not complicit in whatever treachery they fully expect someone else to perpetuate; they refuse to feel responsible, and rebel against their guilt. In their expectation that the billion-dollar bounty on Ill’s head will prove irresistible to at least one poor soul, they begin to buy things on credit, and in their collective expectation, they sink deeper and faster into debt, binding themselves to Claire’s contract, yet having to constantly and loudly protest that they will do good by Ill to avoid being elected to actually carry out the killing.

The Guelleners are bound, but, having protested their humanism too long and too loudly (‘This is Europe!’), are unable to deliver a death unless its consequences are mutable; it cannot be murder, but it can be justice served, or even repentance, or redemption. At the town meeting, they passionately pledge their commitment to humanity and justice for the cameras – twice. It is creed and ritual, and old Ill’s death, alternately for his sins and from joy, is their redemption and salvation; the corruption is complete, for in their fervor for salvation, they worked the opposite.

It is the townspeople in their final, monstrous state that I tried and failed to reject. Is that a human potential we see fulfilled, or are they monsters? The problem with denouncing them is that they damned Ill; could I damn them for the same reason they damned Ill, namely to avoid having to accept the truth of what they were capable of?

Categories: Events, Perspective