Cecil and Carlos: Best love story ever

Cecil and Carlos shirt designed by Melissa Shaw

Cecil and Carlos shirt designed by Melissa Shaw

Last November, I fell head-over-heels in love with a relationship between two fictional characters.

I’d been listening to Welcome to Night Vale off and on since the beginning of 2014, mainly in binges during long car rides. It was November when I finally caught up on the series, experiencing the major arc of 2014 all in a rush. The story was incredible, the expert culmination of two years of plotlines. But what stuck with me most was the blossoming relationship between a radio host and a scientist, played out gradually, naturally, beautifully. I had to go back and listen to the entire series again. (And again.)

When Carlos comes to town in the very first episode, Cecil says, “He grinned, and everything about him was perfect. And I fell in love instantly.” At that point, I honestly never imagined it would turn into a relationship. I figured maybe everyone in town would fall in love with Carlos, the beautiful stranger…that it would just be another weird thing that happened in Night Vale.

(It turns out that even the writers didn’t know Cecil and Carlos would become a thing. It just…happened, organically.)

Cecil’s apparently one-sided crush continues, mentioned here and there throughout the first year of episodes. In episode 16, Carlos calls Cecil for the first time, and Cecil breathlessly tells his radio audience, “Guess who called me this weekend? Carlos!” It’s adorable and funny and a little sad, because you get the impression from that episode that Carlos has no interest in Cecil at all. We have only seen Cecil’s perspective at this point, so we have limited data, but Carlos has been pretty focused on science, ignoring Cecil’s flirting, and he’s always turned down Cecil’s requests to get together. This time he asks Cecil to meet, but it’s about something he’s investigating. So when Cecil says “It’s just coffee, but maybe it’s more! Maybe lots more,” it’s played for humor, because obviously Carlos doesn’t think it’s a date.

We don’t get to hear that coffee non-date, nor the resolution thereof. In fact, we don’t hear about Carlos again for quite a few episodes. Cecil mentions scientists generally in the interim, and maybe one of those scientists is Carlos, but we don’t get any more rhapsodizing about Carlos until episode 25.

If Cecil was upset about the coffee thing, he’s over it now, dreamily describing how wonderful Carlos is and pointing out that it has been exactly one year since the scientist came to town. Cecil plans to give Carlos a trophy to mark the occasion. The one-sided crush humor continues! But then it’s turned on its head at the end of the episode. After surviving a life-threatening situation, Carlos asks Cecil to come meet him. “After everything that happened, I just wanted to see you.” We realize he’s been running from his own feelings, and it is all ridiculously romantic.

This is where a lot of stories end. Happily ever after! But not this story, and that is why I have fallen so hard for it. We get to experience Cecil and Carlos’ first date. We then get little windows into their relationship—Cecil still adores Carlos, but now there are comments like “lovely Carlos, with his perfect teeth and hair and penchant for sometimes chewing a little more loudly than is preferred” (episode 30) and “Carlos says he would like to study it, but that he promised to make a certain person dinner, and he has to learn how to put other things besides science first. Some of this realization might have come with help from those around him” (episode 31) and “I grabbed my phone to tell Carlos that if I didn’t make it home tonight, it wasn’t because I didn’t love him or didn’t want to watch a documentary on special scientific graphs, or was too obsessed with my job to relax and enjoy a good meal and some television” (episode 38).

These examples let us see that they’re negotiating their relationship. They have their irritations with each other, but they’re committed to being active participants in their love story. They’re compromising and thinking about the other person’s needs. The entire plot of the live show episode “Condos” (available on iTunes; I highly recommend it) was built around Cecil and Carlos realizing that perfection is unattainable, and that they wouldn’t want perfection anyway.

So many fictional “love stories” are dependent on the feeling of love enduring “naturally”—that is, without any effort on the part of the participants in the relationship. In those stories, the appearance of any new attractive character puts the relationship at risk. The Night Vale writers actually play on this trope in episode 51, making it look like Cecil might have competition for Carlos’ affection. Cecil and Carlos are talking on the phone, as Carlos is now trapped in another dimension referred to as the “desert otherworld”. Carlos casually mentions someone named Doug; when Cecil asks who Doug is, the call drops. Later, Carlos explains that Doug is apparently important in this world and describes how Doug saved him from falling rocks, and this goes on just long enough for you to start thinking Oh no. But then Carlos says how worried he was that he’d lost his only connection to Cecil when he dropped his phone, that he doesn’t care about making friends in the otherworld, “and the only person I truly care about isn’t in this desert anyway.” The entire Doug thing was a genius troll by the writers and I loved it.

As the storyline with Carlos in the desert continues, a lot of fans have grown concerned that Cecil and Carlos’ relationship is in trouble. I am not one of those people.

Carlos has asked Cecil to stop using the word “trapped.” We don’t know why, but he wants to spin it as though he is there by choice. However, he still hasn’t found a way to get himself back to Night Vale, or to get Cecil to the desert, so obviously “trapped” is still a valid descriptor. Cecil has a lot of trouble with this, but he does his best. In the meantime, Carlos, who had been bad about getting distracted by science and not contacting Cecil, has now apparently been calling (and Snapchatting, and whatnot) regularly. Both of these examples show that Cecil and Carlos are making their relationship a priority.

Obviously, I would love for Cecil and Carlos to be in the same dimension again, but I don’t think their separation spells doom for their relationship. These guys are committed to each other. Everything we’ve seen demonstrates that Cecil and Carlos aren’t depending on some magical outside force to keep them in love with each other. They are choosing, every day, to love each other.

And that is why I’m in love with their relationship.

Outgrowing Usagi and Mamoru

Watching Sailor Moon Crystal episodes 12 and 13 yesterday, I came fully to the sad realization that Usagi and Mamoru just don’t do it for me the way they used to.

Usagi and Mamoru were my favorite couple for many years. I loved their story, loved the idea of destiny and a connection that would find itself again incarnation after incarnation. It all seemed so romantic and magical.

The thing about magical, destined things, though, is that you can’t aspire to them. They either come to you or they don’t. Your actions have no impact. You are reactor, not actor.

Usagi's murder/suicideAnd indeed, in these episodes, it felt like the characters were doing a lot of waiting and hoping. The actions they took often seemed pointless, a stall for time if nothing else. And it wasn’t long before, in despair, Usagi chose murder/suicide as her solution–because “We’ll find each other again the next time we’re reincarnated.”

How awful.

I can’t identify with this anymore. I can’t identify with making decisions based on things that might happen in a future life. I can’t identify with love that just is, that requires no struggle, no sacrifice, no commitment.

I can’t identify with giving up on what you have so easily.

And that’s not even taking into account everything else Usagi is giving up on: her friends, her family, the world. The idea that she can just get a do-over allows her to deny her responsibility to save everyone. This is not a hero. This is a teenager, blinded by selfish emotion.

Maybe that’s who she’s supposed to be, but I find myself longing for the Tsukino Usagi of the live action Sailor Moon. The girl who saw the selfish teenager in Princess Serenity and rejected her. The girl who did what it took to save the world, regardless of personal sacrifice. The girl who struggled. The girl who kept going.

Gender-swapped Welcome to Night Vale

Welcome to Night Vale logoI’ve long been fascinated by the idea of gender-swapping—taking a known story and flipping all the characters’ genders, changing as little else as possible, and seeing what happens. It’s an intriguing intellectual exercise. Does it change our perceptions of the characters? Of the story? Do we start to feel that the story is unrealistic? How and why? Ultimately I think it’s a great way to poke and prod at our own subconscious biases.

Welcome to Night Vale makes for a very interesting gender-swap subject because, unlike many mainstream stories, it is already so progressive. We’ve got a diverse cast of characters, with people of differing gender, sexual orientation, skin color, culture, ability, and more. What happens to this rich cast when we swap everyone’s gender? Anything?

Today I spent a few hours coming up with a list of gender-swapped Welcome to Night Vale character names. I believe names have meanings we learn intuitively but don’t necessarily recognize consciously; keeping that in mind, I tried to come up with names that gave me a similar feeling, or names that etymologically had the same or similar meanings. I did not mess with non-gendered characters like Alisha or the Glow Cloud.

In many cases, I didn’t feel that switching the genders made much of a difference. In others, it was harder to imagine gender as being irrelevant. For example, changing Michael Sandero into Michaela suddenly turns the Night Vale Scorpions into a women’s football team. This underscores the real-world “truth” that no one cares about women’s sports…apparently not even in Night Vale. (Let me know if I’m mistaken. I can’t remember an example of a women’s sports team in Night Vale, and a quick search of fan transcripts isn’t turning anything up.)

Here’s the list of gender-swapped characters, and my reactions to the swapping.

  • Cecile Gertrude Palmer
  • Carla the Scientist

So far, so good.

  • Steph Carlsberg
  • Cecile’s unnamed brother, married to Steph Carlsberg
  • Johnny, Cecile’s nephew (son of Cecile’s brother, stepson to Steph)

This is interesting, but not problematic. Johnny could be selling cookies (or something else) for cub/boy scouts. I don’t think anything in the story particularly requires these characters to be male or female.

  • Elle Harlan

I think “Elle” is a far prettier name than “Earl,” but it feels similar when spoken, which is why I picked it. In this gender-swap version I guess Elle would have to be a girl scout leader? And it is a little striking to have a female sous chef and a female executive chef at a premier restaurant. In western culture, as soon as a job becomes a prestigious profession, it suddenly seems to be dominated by men.

  • Karen, radio host for Desert Bluffs

Creepy, creepy Karen.

  • Dan Cardinal
  • Terrell Flynn

Now this is interesting. Two of the show’s big heroes are now guys. Does it feel less heroic for the Intern Who Lived and the adolescent resistance leader to be male? I’m thinking of Cecil’s speech about Tamika, where he goes from calling her a “girl” to a “woman” to a “human being.” How would that speech have felt if it was “boy” to “man” to “human being”? Is it different? Is it necessary to point out that a male is a human being, or does it seem silly, as “male” and “human” have been synonymous for so long in western culture?

  • The woman we all believe to be the sheriff of Night Vale

Does being a woman make the sheriff less weird or imposing? (I don’t think so, actually.)

  • The Woman in the Tan Jacket

This reminds me of the Observers in Fringe. (The Observers really pissed me off, especially in the final season.) Like the Observers, the Man in the Tan Jacket is a strange visitor of default gender (male). When we think of a generic person, we think of a male, so making the visitor in the tan jacket female is very interesting to me. The show actually did something like this with the Woman from Italy, but of course, she hasn’t become a recurring character (yet?).

  • Lorne Mallard, StrexCorp executive

Given Kevin and Lauren’s interesting dynamic—Lauren was supposed to be Kevin’s boss, but he seemed to have some sort of power over her—I’d love to see this gender swap, and see Karen really creeping Lorne out.

  • (Former) Mayor Patterson Winchell
  • Intern Maurice
  • Jane Peters, you know, the farmer?

I don’t really have any comments on these three…swapping their genders doesn’t seem to do anything to the story.

  • Heidi McDaniels, literal five-headed dragon

I like this, if only because Hiram is such a fun character and it would be really neat to see a female version. I’m not seeing anything particularly gendered in his story though.

  • The Faceless Old Man Who Secretly Lives in Your Home

Somehow this is far creepier to me than a Faceless Old Woman. But it’s creepier because it feels sexual. I don’t get a sexual vibe from the Faceless Old Woman. I suppose western culture has primed me to expect predatory men.

  • Old Man Joe and the Angels, all called Erik

You know what’s funny here? I have no problem thinking of the Erikas as being male or female or genderless, but having them all named Erik makes me assume they are all male. I don’t think gender-swapping Josie is a huge deal, though. (“Joseph” would be the Desert Bluffs counterpart.)

  • Liddy Lenore, out on the edge of town

There may be different connotations to a woman who lives out on the edge of town versus a man who lives out on the edge of town, but in general, I don’t think there’s anything about Larry Leroy that demands maleness. (Also, I was really pleased when I chose “Lenore.”)

  • Morgan Wallaby, who was born as a grown woman’s detached hand

Ah. It would be interesting trying to characterize Morgan’s looks—in the show, Megan’s manly hand-hair is mentioned, but what would you say about a woman’s hand without falling into the trap so many children’s videogames do—putting a bow on it or something? A woman’s hand doesn’t naturally have an identifier like nail polish. And you wouldn’t expect a pre-pubescent boy to have manly hand-hair. In fact, a young boy’s hand might not look so different from a woman’s hand. So what would be the signifier? Maybe just that the hand looked older than a child’s hand?

  • Tammy Williams, owner of the Desert Flower Bowling Alley and Arcade Fun Complex
  • Tilly the barber

These are fun, but ultimately I don’t think they reveal any gendered stereotypes. They work pretty well swapped.

  • (The former) Martha Vanston

Aha. Now here is a problematic one. Marcus Vanston’s big thing is going around naked. There are extraordinarily different connotations when a woman does this. It would be fun to explore.

  • Naaz al-Mujaheed
  • Michaela Sandero and her father Florent
  • Malique Herrera

Here’s where we get the women’s football team.

  • Big Ricki, owner of Big Ricki’s Pizza
  • Lenny Hart, editor of the Night Vale Daily Journal
  • Mickey Nguyen, owner of Dark Owl Records
  • Sammy Sultan, president of Night Vale Community College, who happens to be a smooth, fist-sized river rock
  • Simon Rigadeau, a transient living in the recycling closet of the Earth Sciences building at NVCC

I’m not seeing any big issues with any of these swaps.

  • Rey, the voice of Night Vale’s numbers station WZZZ

Would making WZZZ’s voice male take away some of its “credibility” as a victim? Would he be less sympathetic to the audience, not being a “damsel in distress”? (I think WTNV’s audience is more sophisticated than that, but it is an interesting thought. Would we have a subconscious aversion to hearing a male voice in that kind of distress?)

That pretty much covers the major and notable characters. There are plenty of other characters, but they’re not as important to the storyline (again, yet). There are a couple of interesting things I thought of, though. Making Sylvia Wickersham into Silvio Wickersham kind of gives the character a Marcus Vanston vibe (rich person doing whatever they want). And what if we turn the “Shawns” from sales into “Shawnas”? Does that make what happened to them more stomach-turning?

Here are a few more names, just for fun:

  • Sullivan Thurgood, publicity director for the Night Vale Medical Board
  • Rhonda Singh
  • Former mayor Daniel DuBois
  • Dab, a sentient patch of haze
  • Dion Creighton, treasurer of the PTA and father to Joss
  • Emile Munton, director of the Night Vale Zoo
  • Francis Donaldson, the tall man with green eyes who manages the antiques mall
  • Leonora Burton, former host of Night Vale Community Radio
  • Joy Eisenberg, dinosaur expert
  • LaShawnda Mason, executive chef at Tourniquet (again, a gendered profession)
  • Marcel LeFleur, head of Night Vale’s tourism board
  • Vincenza LeFarge, head of vigilante squad Grab ‘Em and Sack ‘Em (kind of a gendered profession too, eh?)
  • Trent Hidge, staffer during Mayor Winchell’s tenure

What do you think? Does gender-swapping the characters of Welcome to Night Vale tell you anything about your conscious and subconscious thoughts and feelings? Has anyone else done anything with this idea?

(Many thanks to the Night Vale Wiki for its list of characters, and to Lia and aimlessglee for their episode transcripts, which I have imported into Evernote for reference.)

Edit:

It occurs to me belatedly that I didn’t consider the Apache Tracker. Actually, I thought of him pretty early on, realized that swap would be fairly complex, and put it off for later. And then forgot.

So, the Apache Tracker. I honestly don’t know enough about Native American culture to figure out whether or not “Apache Tracker” could be “properly” used for a female character. “Properly” is in quotes because of course the term “Apache Tracker” is purposefully misused for this guy. My issue is, I’m not sure if having a female Apache Tracker would add a completely different element that would change the story or the meaning of the character, in terms of what the words “Apache” and “tracker” mean.

I do think making the Apache Tracker female would add some intriguing nuance to the statement the character is making about cultural appropriation. “That white guy” is a fairly standard (dare I say it) strawman for racism, but “that white lady” has some additional connotations. Women aren’t privileged in the same way men are, but white women have privilege that people of color of any gender don’t. Feminism also doesn’t always have a great track record when it comes to people of color. The white male Apache Tracker gives me a generic, ignorant cultural appropriation vibe. A white female Apache Tracker, though? I start to have feelings of betrayal. As someone who straddles a line between privilege and oppression, someone who knows what misogyny feels like and yet has been treated the way human beings should be treated, she should know better. I find myself far angrier at her than I am at the canon Apache Tracker, who just sort of makes me shake my head and laugh ruefully.

How I Met Your Mother, Redux

HIMYM is over now. Last time I wrote about it, I was upset that Marshall’s career was steamrolling Lily’s yet again; since that time, of course, Marshall has been somewhat redeemed. He didn’t come to the conclusion that he should give Lily her turn logically; he just emotionally decided that he wanted to pay her back somehow for bearing his children. Not the greatest resolution (why does she have to be pregnant to deserve a full life?) but I guess I’ll take it.

The thing everyone’s talking about now, though, is the ending–and for the most part, what people have to say is how much they hated it. I have a slightly different perspective.

Spoilers follow.

About halfway through the final episode, I said, “I get the feeling they’re going to kill off the Mother and have Ted get with Robin. If that happens, I’m going to be pissed.” Oddly, though, as it actually unfolded, I did not find myself angry at all.

I never thought Barney and Robin were a good match. I have always believed they enabled each other’s immaturity, and to me it was perfectly natural that they would divorce after three years. If you think about it, the entire final season being about their wedding sort of underscores the characters’ own attempts to justify the relationship, to make it seem somehow meant to be. Cleverly, the writers slipped in just enough Robin and Ted stuff to cast doubt.

I’ve watched HIMYM all the way through at least three times, and each time I thought to myself, “They are going to have to find someone outstanding to play the Mother, because Ted and Robin’s chemistry is amazing.” They had something that I didn’t see with Ted’s other girlfriends, except on occasion Victoria and Stella. (If he’d married Zoey, it would have been another “divorced after three years” situation.) I never actually expected Ted to end up with Robin, but I wondered how on earth the show could top their relationship.

And I kept wondering about that when the Mother, Tracy, was finally introduced. In the beginning, her brief scenes with Ted did not have what I wanted to see. I felt like she had better chemistry with the other characters than she did with Ted. I think this may have been done on purpose, not to make us dislike her as his love interest but to start subtly chipping away at the notion of “the One” (that there is only one person for everyone). Toward the end, of course, that chemistry was there, and I loved Tracy and was glad to think that she and Ted would live happily ever after. But we got a little foreshadowing in the episode with Robin’s mom, just enough to prepare us for the possibility that things might not go perfectly after all.

When we finally got to the part where the kids reveal that their mother has been dead for years, I was surprised to find that not only was I prepared, but it made perfect sense. Of course Ted loved Robin–as his kids point out, the whole story has basically been about her. Unlike his stories of the Mother, in which Ted omits or glosses over any conflicts, Ted’s been completely honest about Robin, leaving out no detail that might make her look bad. Subconsciously, he’s trying to talk himself out of loving her. His kids see right through that and call him on it.

(I do wish that scene had been done a bit differently. The cuts were pretty awkward. I wouldn’t have shown Josh Radnor; I would have used Bob Saget’s voice.)

We know from the story that relationships aren’t easy, that there’s no perfect person. We don’t know that Ted and Robin will live happily ever after. But we do know they have a fighting chance, and plenty of history to build on.

Life is messy, and things don’t always go as we plan. I appreciate that HIMYM was willing to show the best and worst sides of its characters. Honestly, the reason I could get so passionate about the story was because on some level I felt like the characters were my friends, and it’s always painful to see friends hurting or making bad decisions.

I’ve seen Tracy described as a convenient, disposable wife, there just to make Robin finally realize she loves Ted and then getting out of the way so they could be together, but I don’t see it that way. Bad things happen. I think Ted and Tracy had a good relationship, but the story of HIMYM wasn’t actually about that relationship. I think ultimately that’s why I’m not mad. If Ted had talked about the Mother in each and every episode, if she’d featured prominently as a character throughout the series, it would have been much harder to swallow the kids’ argument that their dad was actually telling the story of his relationship with Robin.

I’m not even really bothered about the fact that Robin remained single (and she may have dated here and there; we don’t know). I can easily see her going back to her career-first mentality after Barney–she was already practically there anyway. With her job taking her around the world, she wouldn’t have much time for a serious relationship.

And so I may be in the minority, but I’m satisfied with how HIMYM ended. The pieces were all there, and they fit together. The resulting picture may not be perfect, but it is representative of life–something that we can’t control, something that’s not always fair. All we can do is our best, and that’s what these characters did.

How I Met Your Mother

It took me awhile to get into How I Met Your Mother–the first episode is so dumb that for a long time I resisted watching the show–but eventually it became my new Friends. I love all the in-jokes and watching the characters grow and change. I’m enjoying the final season; I feel like things are getting wrapped up well.

There are a few things that bother me, though. For one, I’m not a huge Robin and Barney fan. I liked Robin and Don. I liked how much they had in common (even to the point that when faced with huge life-changing career decisions, neither of them thought of the obvious: talk to the other!) and I liked how they made each other better people (when they weren’t avoiding actually talking to each other). I really feel like if they had just communicated a little more, they would have been fine. Robin and Barney, on the other hand, just seem to enable each other’s immaturity.

I also liked Barney and Nora. Nora inspired Barney to grow. The episode in which Barney decided to run away instead of rising to the challenge devastated me. He was so close!

I’ve noticed that in season nine the writers have been retconning in a bunch of backstory to make Robin and Barney work better, and I definitely think that helps…but I still don’t feel like their relationship has much substance. It seems to be based more on grand gestures and “how I feel right now” than actual commitment and mutual respect.

My biggest problem with season nine, though, is the apparent resolution of Marshall and Lily’s Italy issue. Based on the episode in which Marshall has a discussion with versions of Lily in his head, it looks like they will be staying in New York City so that Marshall can be a judge. Imaginary Lily even says “Of course we’re not going to Italy. We have a baby.”

This is total BS, and it quite frankly pisses me off. Having a baby does not make you incapable of living in another country; just ask all the military families and military contractor families living abroad right now. That’s a cop-out reason to stay in the States. What’s really happening here is this: Lily, once again, is being asked to sacrifice her career for Marshall’s.

Lily became a kindergarten teacher after graduating so she could put Marshall through law school. That was time she could have been using building up experience in her own field, but she put her career on hold. This is what you sometimes have to do in a relationship, and it’s a decision she made, and that’s fine.

When Marshall finally became a lawyer and they started making money, it might have been a good time for Lily to focus on a career in art. Unfortunately, she had racked up a ton of credit card debt. This irresponsibility shouldn’t be ignored; that’s clearly her own fault. I do wonder if that behavior wasn’t her way of subconsciously rebelling against not working in her chosen field.

By the time Lily got around to trying to change her career, she had no direction, no idea where to go. She tried a bunch of ridiculous jobs before ultimately going back to the safe choice of teaching kindergarten. At the time it felt like she had developed a passion for it, and maybe she had. But notice that she didn’t try to do anything fine art-related during that time.

She does start a side project selling her artwork online, and this seems to make her happy, although it’s disappointing that her work appeals to animals rather than people. It makes her degree sort of seem like a joke.

But then she is discovered as an excellent appraiser of art. Suddenly her expertise is valued and she has a real opportunity to do fulfilling, meaningful work in her chosen field. Where Marshall always had the luxury of an obvious path in front of him, Lily had to stumble through the dark to find her way to something that spoke to her and could also support her family. She finally found it at the end of season eight.

And then what happens? Marshall gets offered a judgeship, and so once again Lily’s needs must go right out the window.

There’s a reason Lily fled to San Francisco years and years ago. She’s grown responsible in the interim, and I can’t imagine she’ll run away to Italy without Marshall. But he needs to start reading the signs. One person can’t always be the one making the sacrifices in a relationship. In the conversation with Lily in his head, he learned that he needs to stop thinking of relationship discussions as something to either win or lose. While that realization has merit, he also needs to think about what it means that he has been able to pursue his dreams for the entire length of their relationship, while Lily hasn’t had much of an opportunity to do anything about hers. No, you can’t make a relationship totally fair, but this situation is egregiously unfair. There’s got to be a better balance.

Ultimately, I would like to see Marshall get his head out of his ass and realize that Lily’s dreams are just as important as his. And I’d like to see them move to Italy.

The death of Joss Carter

I haven’t watched Person of Interest since the writers’ decision to kill Joss Carter. Here I’ll explain why that decision continues to upset me.

Joss’s role as one of the three main characters was to bring the show back down to earth, to add believability. The idea of a guy with genius programming abilities and virtually limitless funds joining forces with a guy with action hero powers to fight crime might almost be silly if not tempered by real-world considerations. And as an audience, we can’t truly identify with the superhero. Like Bones needs Booth, like Holmes needs Watson, like Superman needs Clark Kent’s relationships with regular people, the John-and-Howard superteam needs Joss. And so Joss was there from the beginning, balancing John and Howard out.

At first, Joss was something of an antagonist, then she became a protector, and then she struck out on her own. After Fusco’s story arc, Joss’ may have been the richest of all the characters’. We see it as it happens, whereas John and Howard’s character development has largely been flashback.

Beyond being a necessary counterpoint to John and Howard, Joss was the only relatable female character in the show. Root is fascinating, and Shaw is a lot of fun, but neither of them is a person the audience can really identify with. Root and Shaw are also lithe; Joss’ full figure was a welcome change from the Hollywood stereotype. Joss was also the only person of color in the main cast.

In one fell swoop, the writers have transformed Person of Interest into a show about a bunch of larger-than-life white people. Yawn.

The decision to kill Joss was bad enough, but then they had to do it so badly. Don’t get me wrong, the suspense and twist at the end were well done. But there was a completely unnecessary element: Joss and John’s supposed love story.

I have never picked up on a romantic relationship between Joss and John. Retconning it in at the last minute cheapens her death. It seems to say that the reason her life meant something is because she was John’s love interest. That she had no worth beyond that. That John wouldn’t have found her death as tragic if not for that element. (And they’ve already done a star-crossed lovers story for John. No need to do another one!)

Downgrading Joss from main character status to love interest status also reinforces the fallacious notion that men and women can’t have relationships without romantic love eventually coming up. If this were true in the real world, we’d never get anything done.

Joss and John were comrades. Buddies. Friends. Yes, of course they cared about each other, but I would argue that it was in the same way John and Howard care about each other. I highly doubt the writers would shoehorn a love story into an episode about Howard’s death.

I also highly doubt the writers will kill Howard, or John. I don’t feel that Joss’ death has suddenly made the show more “dangerous”, in which “anything can happen”, as the producers seem to be claiming. The writers were able to kill Joss because she was a she and a person of color, therefore traditionally expendable. Her death relegates her to “token black character”. It doesn’t matter that removing her character from the show changes the concept. Audiences have plenty of precedent for minority characters being offed regardless of their importance. We understand it, and unfortunately we accept it.

I have no doubt in my mind that the writers consider killing off John or Howard much more difficult–that such a thing would break the show. Yes, it would change the concept. Joss’ death also changes the concept. But unlike Joss, John and Howard are two white guys, and therefore their stories are “essential”. The producers joke about killing John, but if they do, I imagine it won’t be until the last episode of the series.

Want to know another way in which the show isn’t “dangerous”? They very carefully made it clear that the kids would be okay. First they retconned in Joss’ ex and showed that he had changed, so we know her son will be taken care of. And then they saved Fusco’s son. If this show’s concept was actually changing into a Game of Thrones-style story (ugh), no one would be safe, not even children. No, this show isn’t “dangerous”. Killing the solitary minority character is not a groundbreaking move that changes the paradigm. It is simply a weak decision that follows decades, perhaps centuries, of lazy storytelling tradition.

Feel free to prove me wrong, writers. I never wanted any of the characters to die. I love them all. But now that you’ve killed the “expendable” minority, how about you put your money where your mouth is and make a truly dangerous decision about who to off next?

Creating female characters who are people

Over Thanksgiving, I watched a direct-to-video Disney movie called Super Buddies with my nephew Logan. The main characters are five puppies from the same litter, and in the movie they get temporary super powers from alien technology. It was a cute movie, but despite some obvious efforts to insert “girl power”, it largely falls into the same pattern of minimizing and oversimplifying female characters that we see in so many of our modern stories.

The pivotal characters in the movie are largely male. Four of the puppies are boys; just one is a girl. The kids who own the puppies are the same, and the girl kid owns the girl puppy. The top-billed kid, a boy named Bartleby, and his puppy Budderball are the two main characters.

There are a few incidental female farm animals: two horses, a group of hens and one cow. I only mention them because they talk, but they’re not particularly important. There’s a female TV reporter who gets a few minutes onscreen. And there’s one female alien named Jorala who makes brief appearances at the beginning and end. Otherwise, all the characters are male: Gramps (played by the fabulous John Ratzenberger), Bartleby, the candy shop owner, Sheriff Dan, the sheriff’s deputy dog Sniffer, comic writer/superhero Jack, Captain Canine, the bull who inspires Budderball, the “good” alien Megasis, the “bad” alien Drex, Drex’s assistant Monk-E, and plenty of incidental characters.

Other than the super powered girl puppy, none of the female characters is integral to the plot. Further, all the female characters are either defined by their relationships to male characters or simply by the fact that they are female. The female alien’s purpose is to be the love interest of the “good” alien. (Sure, she’s a princess, but you don’t see her making any decisions that impact the action.) The female puppy, Rosebud, and the female cows continually call each other “girlfriend” and talk about how girls can do anything they want. This may sound empowering on the surface, but ultimately the message it’s sending is that female characters have to prove they are worthwhile by talking about how worthwhile they are. No male character goes around talking about how boys can do anything they want.

While the boy puppies could be considered cheesy archetypes, each one has unique characteristics that define him beyond the fact that he is male. Budderball is the sports puppy; he’s into football. B-Dawg is the cool puppy who speaks in slang and and is into hip hop. Buddha is the spiritual puppy who loves yoga and meditation. Mudbud is the hippie; he’s relaxed and loves to roll around in mud. Meanwhile, Rosebud’s stereotype is “female”: she’s into fashion, she’s “feisty”, and she cares deeply for and is protective of her family. (Her owner is also into fashion. Is fashion the only interest girls can have?)

Rosebud is so defined by the fact that she is female (rather than actually having a personality, even a stereotypical one) that her character profile on Disney.com reads thus: “Rosebud’s mission in life is girl power. Never one to slow down, Rosebud loves that her Power Ring kicks it up a gazillion notches.” Note that her super power is related to the female stereotype of being “gabby”. She talks fast and a lot; her power is moving at super speed.

The most recent Tropes vs. Women in Video Games from Feminist Frequency, Ms. Male Character, discusses the phenomenon of characters being defined solely by their gender. I definitely recommend it; not only does it explain the issue well, but it includes some examples of how to avoid it when creating characters. I also recommend Parts 1 and 2 of Damsel in Distress for examples of female characters used solely as plot devices for male characters.

I’d like for girls and boys to have some female characters they could want to be like. When I was a kid, there were plenty of male characters I wanted to emulate: Donatello from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Marty from Back to the Future, Lance from Voltron, Cyclops from X-Men. I doubt many boys grew up wishing they could be April O’Neil, Marty’s girlfriend Jennifer or mom Lorraine, Princess Allura, or perpetual love interest Jean Grey. When I was younger especially, I often felt that the female characters were annoying and that people only kept them around because they had to, or because there was some appeal to them I didn’t understand. (As I got older, good female characters started popping up here and there, like Gosalyn in Darkwing Duck and Dot in ReBoot. Gosalyn was such a breath of fresh air after DuckTales’ Webby.)

Ultimately, I would like to see movies and TV shows have a 50/50 male/female split in cast. I’d like the female characters to be just as important to the plot as the male characters. I’d like the female characters to have personalities and interests that go beyond female stereotypes. Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a good example of how to do it right. I hope more shows and movies go down that path.

Effective feminist criticism

Often when people attempt a feminist critique of a story, they’ll focus on characteristics of the women in the story. For example, Pacific Rim‘s Mako Mori was criticized for not having much of a speaking role. This sort of criticism does no favors to feminism and actually perpetuates one of the worst aspects of patriarchy: the determination of who a woman is “supposed to be” by someone who isn’t that woman.

Just as we reject that all women must be submissive, passive, good with children, helpful to a fault, etc., we must also reject that all women must be anything. Some women are loudmouths. Some women are quiet. Some women are great with kids. Some women hate kids. Some women want to be lawyers. Some women want to be designers. Some women find nothing as fulfilling as being a homemaker. And men are the same. People have different beliefs, backgrounds, interests, and skills, and they make different decisions.

An effective feminist critique of a text, then, is not one that judges how “badass” or outspoken a female character is. Instead, it focuses on how the film portrays her life. Does she make choices? Are her choices realistically effective? She doesn’t have to be right or successful all the time. She does have to receive the same story treatment as a male character. Does she serve a purpose in the plot beyond furthering a male character’s story? Does she have her own story? Does her story make a difference in the world of the text? Is she essential, or could she be lifted right out? These are the questions to ask, not whether a female character fits some sort of template for the “modern woman”.

We are people, we are different, and we deserve to be portrayed in myriad ways. There is no catch-all character who can speak for “womankind”.

More on Man of Steel

I am a huge fan of Man of Steel in that it is a flawlessly executed movie. However, there are some thematic elements that I found problematic, and I wanted to go into those.

Put bluntly, the film is fundamentalist. It’s anti-science, anti-progress, and deeply suspicious.

Where in other incarnations of the Superman myth, Krypton fell due to the ills of its society despite its technological achievements, in Man of Steel these technological achievements are implied to be the reason for the societal ills.

Kryptonians developed the technology to reproduce without requiring a woman to endure carrying and birthing a child. Then they went beyond this level to the point of specifically designing each person.

Jor and Lara don’t like chance being taken out of the genetic equation, so they decide to have a child naturally, including 1) not manipulating genes in any way and 2) having Lara undergo pregnancy and labor. Why they didn’t just do 1 and spare Lara 2 isn’t addressed. The issue is treated as black and white: either you choose genetic manipulation/science, or you choose the natural way/tradition.

When you compare and contrast Kal and Zod in this context, the implication is that a large reason why Kal is “good” and Zod is “evil” is because Kal was born naturally. You even see this in Kal’s upbringing as Clark. He seems to be innately good; he doesn’t appear to have learned his goodness from the Kents. The question is never “Should I be good?” but “How should I express my goodness?” Meanwhile, Zod even comes out and says that he is acting as he was designed to act, that he can’t fight his own nature. Zod can’t be redeemed; he must be killed to be stopped.

This, of course, makes the more general, dangerous implication that some people are born “good” and others are born “bad” and that it’s impossible for a person to change.

Man of Steel does some unfortunate things: it treats complex issues as black and white; it rejects progress in favor of tradition; and it paints anyone who diverges from what’s “natural” as irredeemably “bad”. In this way, I’m sure the film is appealing to people who’d prefer a homogenous society. To someone like me who favors diversity, change, and the benefit of the doubt, though, it’s pretty troubling.

Review: Man of Steel

Kal and LoisMan of Steel is one of the best films I have ever seen.

It took me awhile to get around to seeing it. Part of the delay came simply from how busy I’ve been lately, what with travel to Augusta and Rhode Island and getting a new job. Part of it may have been superhero movie fatigue. Sean has also been reluctant to see the movie, likely due to the mixed reviews it’s getting. I finally ended up seeing the movie by myself yesterday afternoon, and I’m so glad I didn’t wait any longer.

I don’t pretend to have extensive Superman comic knowledge, but I do have general Superman origin knowledge. I have also seen all the other Superman movies, Lois & Clark, Smallville, and the various animated series featuring Superman in the Paul Dini DC Animated Universe. Bear this in mind when reading my review.

I didn’t seek out reviews or spoilers beforehand, but with the sheer number of conversations about the movie taking place around me, online and off, there was one spoiler I didn’t manage to avoid. The subject of that spoiler ended up being the only issue I had with the movie. I’ll get to that below.

After seeing all the trailers, I wondered how the Man of Steel could possibly cover so much ground. And indeed, the story is dense…but it is expertly woven, never dragging. No story element is introduced without being addressed. Everything in the movie exists for a purpose. Callbacks abound, but they’re hardly trite. It all fits tightly together in a strong, cohesive whole.

There is so much depth to the story, so much that isn’t explained–but enough is explained that you never feel lost. This is the hallmark of good storytelling: showing only what needs to be shown and implying the rest. The audience doesn’t need to know all the details; they just need to know the details exist, that it is truly a robust world. On this point Man of Steel delivers in spades.

(This is where spoilers begin, so if you haven’t seen Man of Steel and want to be surprised by this new take on Superman, you probably want to stop reading.)

Kal-El’s is the first natural birth in centuries, a fascinating twist on the Superman legend. The conflict that this creates between destiny and desire is ultimately played out between Zod and Kal, between Krypton and Earth. Zod is the embodiment of the warrior he was designed to be; Kal has been allowed and encouraged by both sets of parents to find his own path. Krypton, as Jor-El explains, has lost something vital: chance. The younger Earth still has that chance, and with Kal’s help may be able to find a better fate than Krypton’s. This theme is introduced in the very beginning and executed perfectly throughout the movie.

The resolution of this conflict is Kal-El’s decision to help Earth–his realization that Krypton cannot be saved. The metaphor for this is Kal-El breaking Zod’s neck, killing him.

This is the plot point that was spoiled for me; I’d heard somewhere someone saying that Superman killing Zod doesn’t feel right, that Superman doesn’t kill. I wondered if this moment would be given the standard Western hero cop-out treatment, in which the villain dies due to the fight with the hero but there is no way the hero could save him. This trope has been used to absolve many a hero of guilt. He/she feels guilty, but “There’s nothing you could have done.”

Things are not so clear-cut in this case. Kal screams at Zod to stop, and Zod shouts, “Never!” This is not simply a conversation about what Zod is doing at the time. If Kal had wanted to stop Zod from killing people with his heat vision in that particular moment, he could have blasted off into the sky with Zod, forcing him to aim his eyes elsewhere. But this is a conversation with deeper implications. It is telling us, and Kal, that Zod is not going to stop trying to destroy humanity. He will keep killing people.

At this point we don’t know about Kryptonite. With the phantom drives gone, there’s no means of sending Zod away. We know he could be contained in an environment that replicates that of Krypton, but how to stop him until one is developed and he can be contained there? How to ensure that he never escapes?

And so Kal kills Zod.

This is the point that sticks with me, though perhaps not as strongly as if I’d been unprepared for it. The message seems to be that sometimes there is no choice but to kill. It’s not a message I really like seeing out of a Superman movie.

It’s not a message Kal likes either. His howl of frustration, of anger at himself and the situation, lets us know just how strongly he did not want to kill. I think perhaps this moment salvages him as Superman. He’s not a grim general, sacrificing anything and everything to achieve his goals. He’s not Zod, at least not yet. And as long as he has this reaction, he won’t be.

That said, I hope future movies will feature Superman’s no-killing rule rather than its exception.

One cardinal Superman rule that I was delighted to see broken was the Lois rule. Man of Steel‘s Lois, brilliantly portrayed by Amy Adams, is everything Lois Lane should be: smart, brave, dedicated. It only makes sense that she uncovers before anyone else not only that there is an alien among us, but who he is and where he’s been hiding. There are strong echoes of Smallville in Lois’ dogged pursuit of super-saves that ultimately leads her to the Kent farm and Jonathan’s grave. And then there is her willingness to give up the story for the sake of humanity itself. I’d say Lois is my favorite part of the movie, but honestly, the movie is amazing on so many levels.

The score is fantastic. I was not sorry to see John Williams’ classic theme go. Williams’ score is wonderful, no doubt, but it comes with so much baggage. I was excited to hear a new take, and Hans Zimmer does not disappoint. More than that, he captures every mood of the movie, from Clark’s fears and longing to Kal’s determination and strength. The main theme builds, laying a foundation that echoes the love inherent in Kal’s birth and Clark’s adoption and then rising into the new power that emerges from both: Superman, product of two worlds, last bastion of one and savior of the other, surging forth to forge a better destiny.

The casting is also spot-on. As I’ve already mentioned, Amy Adams is brilliant as Lois. And Henry Cavill is Clark, is Kal, is Superman. There is so much in his performance that feels…right. And the two of them together are fabulous, especially in the very last scene, which made me grin from ear to ear. “Welcome to the Planet,” indeed!

As far as I’m concerned, get Lois and Clark right and you’ve won me over, but the rest of the cast are perfect as well. Zod and Faora. Perry. Dr. Hamilton. Col. Hardy. I absolutely loved Russell Crowe as Jor-El and Kevin Costner as Jonathan. Diane Lane’s Martha is a new spin on the character that feels familiar and true. She’s not into abstract art like Lois & Clark‘s Martha or a savvy businesswoman like Smallville‘s. She’s a strong Midwestern woman. “It’s just stuff, Clark.” Meanwhile, Ayelet Zurer’s Lara is a woman who chose to go through the pain of natural childbirth in the hopes of changing the future of her race, who moves with grace and dignity yet strength and purpose. With the exception of Lois, the women of the Superman mythos have traditionally been plot facilitators more than anything else. Here, they shine and even occasionally eclipse that role (though not nearly as much as the women of Smallville did).

The visual effects are extraordinary. For the first time, I truly felt what it would be like to have a Superman on Earth. The destruction in Smallville, Metropolis, and beyond was unflinchingly rendered. People very obviously died. And Superman’s powers themselves were so realistic. The ground breaks beneath him; he starts floating instinctively in response. Trying to fly forward out of his enemy’s reach, he’s caught by the cape, leaving him stuck briefly in midair before the Kryptonian soldier flings him backward. Even little things like having young Clark scrunch a fence post…it all makes Superman real.

There are other touches that I was thrilled to see as a Superman fan: Kal, weary, reaching out toward the light of the sun. LexCorp trucks. The Smallville High letterman jackets.

Krypton doesn’t look the way I expected it to, but rather than disappointed, I was intrigued. There are more curved lines and warm colors. Jor-El has a large flying creature for a pet. There’s an organic feel to the technology that speaks to the Kryptonians’ mastery of genetic manipulation. Metropolis is perfect; as I watched the fight range around the sprawling city I imagined that someone, somewhere had designed the whole place, and how neat it would be to look at a map.

Everything–the story, the casting, the music, the effects–comes together in a film that is expertly crafted and beautifully rendered. I was mesmerized from start to finish. I knew that the film was extraordinary almost from the very beginning, and that impression never wavered as I watched, nor faded afterward.

Man of Steel is our generation’s Superman.

Harry Potter musings

I’m rereading the Harry Potter books–I just finished Prisoner of Azkaban last night. This is the first time I’ve read all the books straight through, from 1 to 7. I’m really enjoying noticing all the details that continue from book to book, and the foreshadowing I never saw before.

I also recently started playing Pottermore, an online Harry Potter game that allows you to unlock new information about the wizarding world. There are also achievements and Houses and points and whatnot, but I don’t really care about those, especially since I was sorted into Slytherin.

As I’ve discussed my dismay over my sorting with friends, it’s grown abundantly clear that I am the only one who finds this bothersome. I’m hoping as I reread the books that I will come to a new understanding of Slytherin, at least enough so that I can understand why Pottermore would sort people into it rather than leaving it as the antagonist group it was in the books.

Friends tell me not to look at it in black and white, that of course the books are prejudiced against Slytherin because they’re written from Harry’s perspective. I can understand this argument, but I’m not sure the text backs it up. Ideally, if Slytherin had good people in it, we would see them. All the Slytherins I can recall seeing in the books turned out to be jerks, if not entirely evil. While you can argue that we simply didn’t see the good Slytherins, I would counter that this omission is a flaw. If there are good Slytherins, we should see them. At least a few examples. Something to demonstrate that the world isn’t black and white. But all I remember from my first and second readings of the later books is that all the Slytherins turned out to have Death Eater parents. Everyone who was remotely antagonistic in the books–even the executioner from the Department of Magical Creatures, who really should have been anonymous and unbiased–seemed to be a Death Eater. So sure, you can argue that being a Slytherin doesn’t automatically make you a Death Eater, but it dramatically increases the chances. And meanwhile we never see, that I recall, a Death Eater who is from a house other than Slytherin.

I am paying close attention to the Houses this time around, hoping to find some evidence to counter my prevailing impression. For example, I never saw any mention of which House Peter Pettigrew belonged to. It seems logical for him to have been in Gryffindor (thus making “all evil comes from Slytherin” false and also making “all Gryffindors are brave” false [Edit: I’ve just started Goblet of Fire, and you could argue that briefly standing up to Voldemort on Harry’s behalf is brave…maybe]), but as far as I’ve seen, there is no evidence of which House he was in. Pottermore may have this information; this essay seems to indicate so. It also states that Quirrell was a Ravenclaw, which I don’t remember from the book, but that’s also counter evidence if true.

But if all the information that would redeem Slytherin comes from sources other than the actual books, I will be disappointed. I would hope, that as the years pass and Harry grows up, he would start to recognize gray areas. Surely our hero isn’t so myopic that he would never see a good Slytherin or a bad member of another House, if those allegiances actually exist.

So yes, I’m keeping my eyes open as I reread. If I come across any good information from the original source material–the books themselves–I’ll update this post.

In the meantime, I’ve pretty much decided not to play Pottermore anymore.

Edit 03/03: I am now into Order of the Phoenix. This book, along with Dumbledore’s speech at the end of Goblet of Fire, contains the first broad-spectrum view of the wizarding world, exhortations for the four Houses to unite. Harry is of course still anti-Slytherin and can’t imagine working with them. In Half-Blood Prince will come the examples of “good” Slytherins Snape and Slughorn (or at least, Slytherins with whom people from other Houses can work). I’ve already mentioned my problems with Snape and Slughorn; I’ll keep my eyes open for other Slytherin examples. It would be nice if my memory is wrong or incomplete and there is more to this than simply “work with whoever you can get, even the lesser of two evils, even if you have to spend copious amounts of time keeping them on track.”

The Ballad of Narayama

The Ballad of NarayamaLast night I watched the 1958 Criterion Collection film The Ballad of Narayama on Hulu. This film deals with the possibly mythical tradition of ubasute, literally “discarding the elderly”. While Hulu’s plot summary made it seem as though the film is about a man struggling with having to leave his mother in the mountains to die, much of the story comes from his mother’s perspective. I would characterize this film more as the contrasting reactions of a very close mother and son to a tradition that forces them apart. (Criterion’s plot summary is much better.)

Where mother Orin is profoundly interested in tradition and saving face, son Tatsuhei is more strongly affected by the now, by the people and things he personally cares about. This contrast is plainly evident from the very beginning of the film; Orin is excited to have found a new wife for Tatsuhei, someone who can take care of her son once she’s gone to Mt. Narayama to die. Meanwhile, Tatsuhei is still mourning the loss of his first wife, and the thought of a new one simply causes him to worry about food supplies and remind him that he will lose his mother soon.

Tatsuhei’s son Kesakichi, a worthless layabout who has gotten his girlfriend pregnant, is often a catalyst for dissent in the family. He objects to getting a “new mother”, wanting to maximize available supplies for his girlfriend. He incites the local children to sing songs about demons with 33 teeth, which shames Orin, who at 69 still has 28 teeth. She is so unhappy that people and gods might think she is prideful or that she won’t accept her death at 70 with grace that she smashes her mouth into a cooking pot to break and knock out her own teeth. Tatsuhei is horrified; sobbing, he insists that Orin eat the special treat of white rice she has made for the festival, frustrated at the idea that she might no longer be able to enjoy food.

As Orin continues to put her affairs in order, Kesakichi continues to be obnoxious, bringing his girlfriend to live with the family and giving her most of the food, asking Orin when she’ll be going to Narayama. His girlfriend becomes bold too, joining in on these torments, but Orin accepts it all calmly, repeating that she’ll be going to Narayama at the New Year, the year she turns 70. Tatsuhei can say nothing to dissuade her and hides his face under a towel to cry.

Orin and Tatsuhei’s new wife Tama bond immediately, and their relationship is one of the best parts of the movie. Tama loves Orin as a mother and mourns almost as openly as Tatsuhei at the thought of her impending sacrifice. Unlike Tatsuhei, however, aside from one comment at their first meeting, Tama says nothing to Orin about her choice. She makes no attempts, subtle or otherwise, to change Orin’s mind. Perhaps she respects Orin’s independence over her own selfish desires. Or perhaps she recognizes the futility of fighting tradition and simply doesn’t want to make the event even harder on the family.

Neighbor Mata is already 70 and has resisted going to Narayama. He is starved at home and comes to Orin for food. Mata serves as an example of the cost of fighting tradition. In the end he is bound, dragged into the mountains, and flung off a cliff by his son.

And in the end, Orin’s wish to follow tradition is honored by her son, who carries her into the mountains on his back. Following established ritual, they are not allowed to speak once they enter the Narayama area, and so Tatsuhei stumbles unwillingly, silently through forest and rock and then piles and piles of skeletons as crows look on.

The sets in the film are fascinating; obviously the backgrounds are paintings, and transitions are done by cutting the lights and moving large props to reveal new scenes such that it feels like watching a play. But the sets are sprawling and elaborate, larger than any theater could contain. The camera pans along them, following actors as they move down paths and into detailed structures. The Narayama skeleton set is eerie; I honestly didn’t expect it, and I stared speechless at the clusters of bones surrounding Orin and Tatsuhei.

boneyard entrance

Tatsuhei and Orin in the boneyard

The final scene, showing a train pulling out of a station called Obasute, looked too real by comparison to all the other sets; it was jarring. I’m not sure what the point of that scene was, other than perhaps to make the point of the movie obvious. In my opinion it already was, so the scene is unnecessary.

I’m unclear on whether or not ubasute ever actually occurred. From the movie, I can understand why it might have–food supplies being low could inspire communities to dispose of their least productive members. Indeed, the film includes a different example of such a thing happening; an entire family is killed after it’s discovered they have been stealing. In this sense, I find the contrast between Orin and Kesakichi fascinating; of the two of them, Orin is far more useful to the family. (Orin knows how to catch trout, and shares her secret only with Tama; she admonishes the other woman not to tell anyone, perhaps highlighting the need for someone in this community to be of use. If only Tama knows the secret, her value goes up.)

What value does Kesakichi bring? He adds a mouth, eventually two mouths, to feed and doesn’t do his share of the work. If there was a “just” system for rooting out those who didn’t contribute, Kesakichi would be the first one kicked to the curb. But of course, getting rid of the young isn’t the tradition.

And despite the way he treats her, Orin loves Kesakichi and takes care of him and his girlfriend just as well as she takes care of the rest of the family. She is willing to sacrifice herself for the sake of tradition, but I wonder how she’d feel about others? After all, while she chides Mata for not going to Narayama, she still feeds him. Somehow, I can’t see her doing to Kesakichi what Kesakichi did to her.

Then again, even if she did, Kesakichi wouldn’t care. He’s not interested in tradition or saving face; he’s just interested in himself.

I’m sure this contrast between Orin and Kesakichi was intentional, meant to underline the importance of valuing our elders instead of tossing them aside. And I have to say it was effective, because I love Orin and I hate Kesakichi.

I found myself relating to and sympathizing with Orin. Her need to be accepted, to fit the mold others had created for her, was tragic, and cost her her life while she was still perfectly healthy. But she took it all with a smile, with no complaints. This made the message of the film far stronger than had she rebelled against her fate. We saw the lengths she was willing to go to stay in people’s favor; we understood the sheer ridiculousness of it; yet we knew she really had no choice, and that made her devotion to her reputation come off as brave rather than pathetic.

Orin in the snow

Orin waits in the snow to die. The Ballad of Narayama, 1958

Sherlock deductions

Sean and I finally watched series two of Sherlock, finishing up last night, and I’m so excited about my Reichenbach deductions that I wanted to write them out. If you haven’t seen series two, stop reading now and go watch it on Netflix. Then come back.

Here are the things we know:

Sherlock chose the final meeting place with Moriarty.

Sherlock doesn’t fulfill Moriarty’s demand until John arrives. He tells John exactly where to stand and watch, and he also tells him some very specific things, saying it’s important.

When Sherlock jumps, he doesn’t go head-first. As smart as he is, he’d know that would be the best way to die. Instead, he jumps in such a way that he’d seemingly land on his hands and knees.

After the fall, the first thing that happens is John is clipped by someone on a bike. He’s disoriented. By the time he’s back on his feet, a crowd has clustered around the “body”. John runs over, but time has passed. And the crowd, while letting him get a look, ultimately doesn’t let him examine Sherlock.

We don’t see the funeral. We therefore don’t see if it was open casket.

We don’t see what happened to Moriarty. No one but Sherlock knew he’d “shot himself”.

More generally:

Sherlock Holmes, like James Moriarty, is an actor. He can pretend anything. He can even be friendly if he wants to; he just rarely wants to.

Sherlock and Moriarty have similar intellects and drive. They are both willing to go beyond what would normally be considered, well, sane. We know this from the end of series one, not just from the conversation and suicide one-upsmanship at the end of series two.

The information Moriarty has on Sherlock comes primarily from their interactions in series one and from Mycroft. This means he is estranged from new information, especially after Sherlock finds the hidden camera.

As Sherlock has never indicated any interest in Molly beyond using her as a tool, Moriarty has no reason to think she is important to him. Indeed, Sherlock confirms this when he asks, “Watson? Mrs. Hudson? Lestrade?” (Technically Molly may never have caught Sherlock’s notice if she hadn’t observed his mental state, but that’s tangential. The point is, up until then Sherlock never would have considered Molly a part of his “team”, and so Moriarty doesn’t either.)

I believe that at the point Sherlock told Molly he thought he was going to die, he had already deduced 1) how Moriarty had managed his break-ins; 2) how Moriarty planned for his taking-down of Sherlock to end–suicide in disgrace. He may have even deduced 3) how far Moriarty was willing to go to ensure Sherlock killed himself. And as he knew Moriarty would have plans in place to deal with Watson, Mrs. Hudson, and Lestrade, this knowledge didn’t help him come up with a way to outfox Moriarty, because if he enlisted their aid, Moriarty would know…hence Sherlock’s desperation, and his sudden epiphany that he could rely on Molly.

(I imagine the writers are making a point about the importance of human relationships here, a theme I think the Holmes-inspired House could have used a bit more of…but perhaps I’m reading in a bit too much ;)

And so Sherlock’s plan to save his friends and best Moriarty depended on two things: Moriarty not knowing he was relying on Molly, and Moriarty continuing to underestimate him. Sherlock had to act out his deductions as if he were having them for the first time on the rooftop, too late to do anything about them. But in reality, he’d already set a plan in motion through Molly that would allow him to jump from the rooftop, appear dead, but emerge unscathed. This plan had the crowd below, the guy on the bike, and even the medical team that picked up his body in on it–just as Moriarty had people at every level in on his break-in scheme.

Further, I don’t think Moriarty is really dead; he goes on and on about how hard it is to keep on living when everyone is so dull, but the sense of self-preservation isn’t that easy to kick if you’re not actually depressed…and Moriarty isn’t depressed. He’s bored. “Killing” himself probably seemed like a fun idea. Sherlock probably knew Moriarty wasn’t dead, as well, but he’d tried the verbal jousting route and the safest way to protect his friends was to go through with the fake suicide plan.

What I’m interested in seeing is where things go from here. I don’t quite remember from the stories, but I believe there was one in which Sherlock was said to have survived Reichenbach Falls after all. Maybe in the interminable time before series three I’ll go back and reread.

Otome Youkai Zakuro

Otome Youkai Zakuro

This week I watched the 13-episode series Otome Yokai Zakuro, or “Demon Girl Zakuro”, on Crunchyroll. It’s based on an ongoing manga series about a half-spirit girl named Zakuro, her half-spirit and full spirit friends, and the human imperial army officers who team up with them to form the Ministry of Spirit Affairs. The story takes place in 19th century Japan shortly after the Meiji Restoration, during a time of unrest and change due to westernization. In this slightly-altered history, humans and spirits live side-by-side, but westernization efforts are marginalizing the spirits, causing conflicts to arise. And of course, there are evil spirits, too. Zakuro’s team takes requests from various parties, then attempts to nail down the problems that are occurring and resolve them.

One thing I noticed right away was that the male lead, Agemaki Kei, was voiced by Sakurai Takahiro, who also voiced my beloved Shibuya Yuuri from Kyou Kara Maou. He plays a similar character here, so his voice is pretty much the same as Yuuri’s. It was really nice to hear it again. At the end of the series, he even has a very Yuuri-esque line about people coming to understand one another. ^^

I found the setting extremely interesting. While the spirits live in a traditional-style Japanese house, and many people on the street still wear traditional garb, there were also plenty of people wearing western-style clothes, and the army officers’ uniforms were of course western-style. The characters took trains, new to Japan, to reach distant clients. Much talk was made of the “new calendar”. (Japan adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1873.) Overall, there was kind of a Victorian-meets-traditional-Japan vibe.

I loved seeing Zakuro and her friends’ reactions to things like cookies and milk. While the others were generally cheerful and open-minded, Zakuro often complained about cultural items and practices she dubbed バテレン–bateren, a word referring to Portuguese Jesuits or simply to Christianity itself. (The Crunchyroll translator subtitled it as “Jesuit”.)

The artwork was quite pretty, and the animation was very smooth. The story didn’t shy away from some particularly nasty concepts, such as a spirit that liked to eat women and children. There was some stylized violence, but not fountains of gore.

Pacing was Zakuro‘s weak point. I didn’t realize going in how short the series was, and as various concepts were introduced I imagined it would take many episodes to resolve them all. The series climax seemed to come out of nowhere, and the resolution seemed to drag while still somehow feeling hasty. With all the threads the story had woven together, we needed more time with the Ministry of Spirit Affairs to see their bonds grow, more time seeing Onodaka leading from the shadows before it became obvious who he was, more time to spin out Zakuro’s story so it didn’t feel like we had to choke down an entire buffet line of exposition during the series climax.

I did like the denouement…even the two-second, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it car passing by to answer the question of what happened after the fire. It all left me with a good feeling. (Except Zakuro’s persistent tsundere tendencies. Honey, at some point you’ve got to just roll with it.)

I also liked the flashback scenes with Zakuro’s mother, in no small part because they featured Morikawa Toshiyuki, who played Conrad in Kyou Kara Maou. He changed his voice for this part, but I still recognized him right away. Love.

I usually get a little annoyed with anime that feature twins, and I expected that to be the case here, especially when Bonbori and Houzuki told Ganryuu he should be in a relationship with both of them. But somehow they didn’t irritate me as much as I expected they would. (Maybe they would have if the series had been longer.)

I absolutely adored Susukihotaru’s relationship with Riken. I know, it’s extremely cliche: the proper lady and her strong and silent man. Shut up. It was sweet.

Agemaki and Zakuro’s relationship was great, too. I think it needed a little more time to truly flesh out before it got to “I love you”, but there were some extremely impactful moments, especially when Agemaki was captured and Zakuro found the candy ticket, and when Agemaki asked Zakuro, of all people, to come with him to deflect some of his father’s gregarious attention. If the series could have been longer, I would have liked to have seen more done with the Agemaki-Zakuro-Hanadate love triangle, and with Agemaki trying to make himself worthy of Zakuro. I’d also like to have seen more of why Agemaki fell in love with Zakuro. I think it partly has to do with how her abrasive personality paradoxically made him more comfortable being around spirits, and partly with her beauty and battle prowess, but I’m sure there’s more to it, and I would have liked to have seen that explored.

Ultimately, seeing this series has simply made me want to read the manga! I’d love to see how this story was originally told, and what other stories the author has come up with. The characters are interesting, the story is fun and complex, and the setting is fascinating.

And now, some spoileriffic screencaps:

Agemaki looking flabbergasted

“You’re the worst!” …not really the desired reaction, here.

Zakuro and Agemaki about to kiss

THIS is the desired reaction.

Agemaki sprays milk EVERYWHERE

Aaaaaand here’s the aftermath.