Tuesday, July 16, 2013

A Rudimentary Breakdown of the "Realist" Iyashikei Series: Or, Why Usagi Drop Didn't Tickle One Lolicon's Fancy

First, kudos to rebeccableich's (hence referred to by me as RB) on why the anime series Usagi Drop didn't connect with her, even though she enjoyed it; before you read mine, I recommend that you read hers. In it, she summarizes the premise of the series, provides unflinching commentary, and ties in her own childhood-familial experiences.

At the risk of perverting it, I'll elaborate her process--perhaps take it too far. She tests the elements of premise against her own experiences. The realization is that she has nothing to latch on to: Rin is too ideal, RB herself grew up in a nuclear family, babysat children and was a child quite unlike Rin, around whom the story tension revolves (it's because of her that Daikichi's actions are shifted and limited). It's eerily obvious that the show was not written "for RB" or even "with people like her in mind" (note my quotation marks). The desired audience seems more aligned with the romantic POV of the middle-aged--like parents, for example. There's a definite, but ultimately only shrug-worthy, alienation. Who's telling the story, then? And who's supposed to care?

I'll chime in: I was raised by a single parent, my parent was incredibly sacrificial--but I too have these issues with the show, and maybe they bother me more than they did RB. 'Sides, I've got the hours to kill.

The first time I ever took Usagi Drop seriously--that's to say, in any not-so-primal sense--was in the early months of 2012. I was figuring out how to run a tiny college anime club and we needed advertisements (we'd been posting them for months), so I got into an extended e-mail convo with a friend and older member; he was putting together the new product. He wrote his immediate reaction to what I submitted: "Oh, of course he'd pick another loli for the advert," and then he immediately closed the tab. Retrospectively, this assessment was quite fair--or at least aligned--because in truth I had never thought to myself, "A show about family? Sure'd like to see it."

I don't know if I'd describe my sensitivities as ones specifically incorporating "loli shows," but I do obsess over the pudgy little things. I used to deny that I was--wait for it--a lolicon, but by this point it's a stupid argument. I am a lolicon--I merely have tastes and energy levels. And fears: I once freaked out crossing the Canadian border because I'd spoken to this same guy and heardabout people actually detained there for having chibi nudity stuff. Meanwhile, I had in my possession a hard drive full of loli incest doujin, the border getting closer every minute, and his only tip being--I quote--"Good luck with that."

Usagi Drop is special to me for a couple of reasons, "special" only meaning "attention-piquing." The first is that it didn't do anything for me in my first watching--with that anime club, in the winter/spring of 2012. This friend (won't mention him for a while) would suggest that it was "too highbrow." It turns out that he's partially right, as I'll explain. The second is that it did even less for me in my second watching. The understanding was hazier, a little more pleasant, the first time around (truth be told, I was exhausted then, and depressed, and irritable, and pitiably behind on schoolwork, so I didn't handle the episodes ideally). There were to be no such excuses the next time. But once I got it--the motifs, associations, character contrasts, everything--the collective experience grew worse. I know, right? How does a show manage that?

Yeeeah I get it real subtle.

Is Usagi Drop "a bad show?" I've written before that I consider the word "bad" to be an extremely low-resolution modifier--a verdict I'm both unqualified to make and not really interested in--but my response in any case is no. It isn't bad. It just operates within a framework that's extremely difficult to care about, depending on who you are and what you're looking for. To hold this opinion should be no surprise; many have shared it. In fact, it's almost inane. I'm going to add more: I can't find a single sense important to me in which it is particularly impressive, a single such genre in which it knocks the ball out of the park. Part of my impulse to bang the gavel emerges from a gripe about the fact that Kure-nai is rated lower than it is on MAL (though it irks me that I would even care, since I don't use it). But aside from the fact that KN's a completely different project, wackiness-prone (and endearing as fuck because of it), the thing is that, for all of its labels of "unbelievable" or "nonsensical" in its device or whatever, KN's actually the realist show.

Odd, right? Or both are realist. Or look, it's really complicated.

So this is what I'm going to do. I've chosen four decent labels: "loli," "josei," "realism," "iyashikei." The term "slice-of-life" will come and go; in this post, "iyashikei" will occasionally be subsumed by it, and occasionally subsume it. I think these four labels do a decent job covering claims of what the show supposedly "is." These are all topics I've, either directly or indirectly, griped about before (genre, demographic, mimesis, the offensive, characterization). I'll make an effort to explicate (I evade the word "define" here) these terms, and then apply them to the show in what I guess would be a fifth part. There won't be any "this is why the show sucks" claim--or if one occurs, it'll be very limited, very unserious and tongue-in-cheek. This post explicitly won't be some sort of primer, because I just don't know enough. What it will be is an exploration of a good number of things you should think about when you reflect upon your enjoyment of a show, a show that aims and presumes to "entertain."

I don't know how long this baby'll end up, but I tend to run indefinitely when it comes to projects of this sort. Y'all know me. Like, whatever, man.


Now I wish to introduce the following idea. Between the age limits of nine and fourteen there occur maidens who, to certain bewitched travelers, twice or many times older than they, reveal their true nature which is not human, but nymphic (that is, demoniac); and these chosen creatures I propose to designate as nymphets.

- Humbert Humbert (narrator), Lolita, Ch. 5

Exhibit A.

Believe it or not, all secondary questions--like sub-types and clothing, or whatever-- necessarily follow this question: is this a loli? If not, why? If so, why?

Let's begin. This is Ichigo Morino, a cunning and creepy character from the Daume series Please Teacher! Her age? 21 years. Her physical and metabolic age? Passable as 15 years (mainly because anime viewers have seen the like before), but her stature is inarguably diminutive. It's meant to be observed as diminutive, and is acknowledged as such. We can only deduce that she is at most 15. Why is she 21? At least six years previously, her development was entirely halted, and fairly likely played a role in why she looks the way she does. No need to go into the details; watch the show.

Wikipedia states the term loli as having "come to be used as a general reference to a sexually attractive, seductive, or precocious young girl." The reason, however, that I've quoted a passage from Nabokov's novel is so that I can give you the context. Humbert Humbert is a pervert and an unreliable narrator. That much is true. As a forty-year-old, he plots the seduction a 12-year-old (succeeds), murderous vengeance on her behalf (succeeds), and even daydreams, if not conspires, to get with her children (fails). Nabokov doesn't really care if you sympathize with the guy; he's committed to doing a good job of getting you to understand him, which is all a great artist has to do.

To this statement, Humbert quickly adds that his brackets of nine and fourteen are spatial, rather than temporal--"mirrory beaches and rosy rocks" (16)--which suggests a societal (or individualistic, artistic) rather than a scientific vantage point. If it were empirical, his statement would have little weight. But his passages will continue to go into all sorts of scientific, historical, and aesthetical depth, all in order to bolster his (rhetorically questionable) point. That's the sort of contradiction you have to deal with when reading Nabokov. Great stuff. Humbert also says that conventional prettiness does not indicate that a girl is a nymphet. Neither does vulgarity disqualify said candidate.

Year One's thirteen-year-old Holly Robinson counts, too.

Humbert's view is not the same one driving anime fans, and yet it is. Like Humbert, anime fans (or whoever else is into the extended, global phenomenon) are drawn in by something visceral, aesthetical, maybe philosophical (though I doubt it). But in the end, a nymphet is not a loli, not by the narrator's strict terms. Here are a few of the reasons why:

* Nymphets are specifically between the ages of nine and fourteen (even though his standards are ultimately invented as part of an artistic fantasy or metaphor). Lolis are not bound by this constraint; how many of us can easily distinguish between seven and nine? I know I can't.

* Nymphets are explicitly not "provisionally plain, or just nice, or 'cute,' or even 'sweet' and 'attractive,' ordinary, plumpish, formless, cold-skinned, essentially human little girls, with tummies and pigtails" (17). Some lolis are viewed as being part of the kawaii phenomenon, and the ones that are centrally or inextricably tied to it would be disqualified. Of course, Humbert is notoriously dishonest about his feelings, which do change over the course of the plot.

* They are not merely tweens or teens who happen to retain some diminutive traits, because after all, it isn't about the diminutive, per se. It's about the bewitchment. Humbert would know: he tried out a few such prostitutes and writes about his loathing.

True, one could merely conclude: the difference between Humbert and us is that he lived in a presumably real world, whereas 2-D freely emerges from a shadowy world of representation and dream. Both fiction and the visual are representations, which I'll get into later. But anime is allowed to get crazy, whereas Nabokov was confined by his genre (and of course, no writer is necessarily so bound). With 2-D, if you can conceive an idea, you can draw the characters to sell it.

As many lolicon whine, "They aren't real." True. Maybe they translate into your real-world fantasies. Maybe they don't. Maybe society has a right to be nervous. To say that you'd abide by the laws isn't necessarily enough to calm people, once they know things about you (of course, that's always true). These are the sorts of things border patrol worries about, presumably.

Imagine being asked whether you want to boink a little kid, your retorting, "No, that's sick!" And then, being asked after an uncomfortable silence: "But you were thinkin' about it, weren't you?"

Some would attempt limits here. For example, the choice of fictional dream, the portrayal, conveyance, whatever has to be X (e.g. "ero-kawaii"). You can't or can like them for being children in themselves, as opposed to being drawn in the style of children, or as if they're children. The feelings can or can't be platonic. The characters in question must derive from Japanese animation, because you know, a specific model of neotenous characteristics (except that anime is technically only animation "conceptualized" by the Japanese, since even the artwork may be outsourced). Is this starting to sound like it's shading into incoherent bullshit? Yeah? Good. 'Cause--and this bothers me--it ultimately is.

I wanted that awesome GIF of her worming her way into a pair of pants, but Bing fucking FAILED me.

If the nymphet experience is general, if we're working with what is an essentially fantastical genre, if we disbelieve Humbert and discredit him, then lolis can basically be whatever the hell you want or need them to be, as long as you can work the instance into the definition. If there's an unnamed character in some random scene and she tickles that spot, you pass. We can work with both the written and visual media. Count a seventeen-year-old who stylistically looks slightly young but is millennia old. Count a five or four-year-old who ages a little fast. Or doesn't. And do they even have to be human, or can they be merely anthropomorphic? Diamond Tiara, I'm looking your way.

We may seek to partially redeem Humbert's description, though, for fear of waste. I'm game for that. In that case, we must add this qualification: you must feel drawn to the specific candidate. And, uh that's it, really. Sounds silly, but it is what it is.

I'm discouraged, too. Not even touching the word lolicon.


"How can this be?" one retorts. "Surely these grouping terms can afford us some use!"

Such reservations are reasonable, and I can justify them from a few different angles. First, lolis may be anywhere and nowhere, but society doesn't necessarily agree; not everyone who believes himself to be attached to a loli will be affirmed in that belief. Secondly, words do have connotations, not just denotations; at the cost of compromised resolution values, definitions can also be constrained, merely articulating margins of error. Thirdly, societies deny or enforce tropes--which is where we get our genres, or rather, our articulations of them. Even the matter of psychological study comes into play.

Her widdle cwutching hands

That's why it's so appropriate for me to transition into this next category: because Usagi Drop was originally a manga title, and because the demographic was geared toward adult women, the straightforward conclusion is that Rin Kaga was not designed to be a loli, should not be seen as a loli, or is incorrectly seen as a loli. There's one obvious sense in which this argument is quite right, and there's another in which it doesn't matter: text is text. And of course, that sounds kind of evasive, so let me say it in a less disingenuous way: whether or not she is sexualized, Rin is certainly fetishized, and the writers cast lines toward fondness in a way that shades into the sort of attachment that both lolicon and otherwise on-and-off likers of animated children might find themselves in. Whew.

The question that then follows is, "Well? How close? Does the text really suggest anything, or are some viewers just fantasizing?" To me, it seems that any hyper-sexualization here would be imaginary. More importantly, this show isn't about romantic love (I'll get into this in when I talk about realism). Even Kure-nai features all of those suppressed love interests. But why should all of this matter? How far from fetishism is lust? Everyone knows it's distinct--supposedly. I'd like to be able to defend fetishism with the claim that you want to observe the thing in its beauty, or protect it, let it alone, whereas lust is about immediacy and appropriation. But isn't that silly? I mean, that distinction isn't even true, and I can't even find a better dichotomy. How many times have you seen a mom rush over, start pulling cheeks talking about how much she wishes she could take a child home? How many times have you heard a lolicon or a moe-obsessor rant about wanting to protect a character (such things have even been argued to be conceptually inherent). Let's face facts: aside from the familial desire to protect Rin (which is noble, we are very much obliged to acknowledge), the rest of the character emotions--or, we should instead say, the narrative tone--do seem to come down to an idea, a classical one and an ancient one, an idea from which (if you buy into the model, at least partially) both lust and fetishism would derive: eros. There are better things to protect, certainly, but there are also nobler ways of conveying narrative tone. And there are highbrow lolicon. Zing!

Okay, okay. Bad form. I shouldn't have dropped the Plato. But my real point is, I don't think the placing-upon-a-pedestal of Rin is anywhere near as scrupled or principled as various people would have us believe. A lot of it really does amount to cuteness for cuteness' sake, whatever thematic whatevers we're supposed to be drawing from it. The only difference is that, instead of stylizing it obviously (positive arrangement), one simply elects to center scenes around it (negative arrangement). They both amount to stylization, by the way, but I'll get into that later.

Looks pretty damn sparkly to me

So we turn to distinguishing the characteristics of a recently-conceived (30 years) target demographic known for being recipients of "more realistic," "not necessarily comic" stories that handle issues "more relevant" or "more interesting" to older women. Now, we know who these stories are for: women of ages ranging from their early-mid teens to their mid-forties. We'd presume that these stories are less sexualized, but that quite simply isn't true; titles associated with the demographic tend to be explicit (so it's about what gets sexualized). You get a little deeper into trying to separate the threads and you start wandering into nonsense about eye sizes and lashes, toned-down sparkles.

I don't deny the existence of correlations, or of confounding feedback loops that influence the decisions of an author. Hell, we don't even have many of these titles. But I ultimately don't think the demographic itself has much to do with this situation. Which is an odd thing for me to say, because accusations of pandering and wish-fulfillment do fly--josei, for instance, as a front for more explicit homoerotic titles (unfounded claim). This is why I think we need to look to the mangaka, Unita Yumi. She draws josei and seinen. There are sketchy entries online suggesting that she's done stuff classified as shounen, too.

A simple summary: when scenes focus depict on Rin's quivering little body as she pulls flowers (trust me when I say, as a knower, that the well-known PBS cartoon Caillou, for example, would handle this completely differently) or resolves to do stuff or whatever, it doesn't necessarily translate to must boink. It certainly didn't for me. But then, lolicon and lolis aren't even necessarily or wholly defined by that. Tchaaa!

MIMESIS: "What's Real?! What's Really Real?!"

At first glance, mimesis seems to be a stylizing of reality in which the ordinary features of our world are brought into focus by a certain exaggeration, the relationship of the imitation to the object it imitates being something like the relationship of dancing to walking. Imitation always involves selecting something from the continuum of experience, thus giving boundaries to what really has no beginning or end. Mimesis involves a framing of reality that announces that what is contained within the frame is not simply real. Thus the more "real" the imitation the more fraudulent it becomes.

Michael Davis, The Poetry of Philosophy, p. 3

Recognize this? Don't worry if you don't; I quoted this passage (taken from Wiki and a book intro) in an earlier-written, discussing the importance of world-building detail in characterization and plotting. My simple conclusion: stories, no matter how realistic, are fake. The key is just to keep people plugged into your fictional Matrix. The challenge is to incorporate enough detail in a conceptually unified or identifiable way (however that might look), one that gets people to feel as if the world really is bigger or more than the medium that contains it, than the words on the page. You can do this poorly, or you can do this well. You can choose to avoid the entire question, if that is your actual project.

How, then, does the quotation work its way into all of this? Well, the Aristotelian idea is that art is distinct from nature, something akin to a distortion. I could extend this idea to a more modern understanding. Basically, the potential for art is everywhere. It is not the object itself, merely (and that object need not even necessarily be crafted), but the stuff beyond it and that object. Art is not your claim that something is beautiful--like when you see a field of flowers--and it isn't the visual snapshot of the flowers in itself. It's that distortion, the particular feeling, the intimation of a blurry something, the deceptive re-experience of those flowers in a new way. It's well, I guess, sort of a lie. Or, at least, "something more."

The Realism movement, on the other hand, reached its peak in the mid-19th century. Its most famous authors wrote that famous adultery trinity: Flaubert (Madame Bovary), Tolstoy (Anna Karenina), and Fontane (Effi Briest). Each uses a different approach. Flaubert obsesses over details and creates a symphony of different time scales: while A is happening at this speed (say, dog running), B is happening at that speed (flyers are floating in the wind)--creating something like a photo (or maybe slow-mo animation). Tolstoy is argued to have appealed to what, if I recall, is something like a reference code of values (some system that a culture agrees to), and tests character actions against it. Which worked very well in his case, because Russian high society at that time was quite uniform. What makes his work brilliant is his sheer precision in getting down human sociology and psychology. Fontane was a beast at weaving a story and getting us to constantly reconsider what we had read before, kind of hinting how the mind works. Characters realistically repeat themselves. For all of their labor and anxiety over the philosophy, all three people genuinely acknowledged the inherent artificiality to their work, which is more than can be said of a lot of thinkers at the time, whose assumptions about the nature of truth were shaky, who were concerned with what is, as in what we can more readily see.

Realism and verisimilitude are related, but distinct. Both are distinct from the movement I mentioned in the previous paragraph. Verisimilitude is ultimately about the internal consistency of the work--really, of the mere expression of the work within its medium, rather than the objects themselves. We often butcher the idea down to fictional logic and believability, but the word is broader in scope than that. If I poke your nose and you turn, without explanation, into a pink elephant (one will never be provided), I'm going to be expecting that the next time around. Realism (not talking about the movement) is what people usually associate with the idea of the possible or the probable, whether something could happen. Verisimilitude is what Digibrony talks about with his cousin in his , when he talks about the conceits of the kaiju genre. It may or may not ever become believable--even to us--but the contrivances hold together. The unity derives not from speculative physics but from textual, literary pattern. This also applies to the wackiness we encounter in MLP:FIM or even Looney Tunes. The memes, crazy as they are, are grounded in a logic that mimes or apes reality. When it's done most sympathetically, we really care about what we're experiencing. Even aping reality is still a framing imitation of it.

Back to fictional dream, particularly in the context of animation. I quote RB:

I think it fair to warn you now, that although this is a happy show, this will not necessarily be a happy post. I will be talking about how idealistic the world portrayed in this show was and the fact that people tend to romanticize childhood-their own in particular. This show portrays that concept to an extreme. Anime tends to put things in the realm of fantasy or idealism, but Usagi Drop does a particularly good job of butchering reality.

Obviously, this is an excellent point, and is a great place to start talking about the show more seriously. Usagi Drop is highly verisimilar, but fairly unrealistic (I want to call it highly unrealistic), mostly in reference to the central cast. The thing is, as RB would probably tell you--or that aforementioned friend, or joshspeagle (JS), or Alex (AW)--with all of whom I shared my immediate reactions that first time around this isn't evil, or even a big deal, because art does this all of the time. Artists sacrifice brute, precise "reality" in hopes of a better payoff. At worst, this case seems a bit nefarious because josei is (wrongly) assumed to be more realistic, or less vulgar, simply, or because the premise seems so wholesome.You can only really call it wrong (which I sometimes think about, and thought about way more in the past), in the context of aesthetic morality, which is ultimately about the maturation of a society (or race, by which I mean the ostensible human race), one that can handle sincere (and inevitable) change without stagnating or destroying itself.


Let's consider RB's passing mention of the nature of "me time," y'know, from that scene in the final episode. I wholeheartedly agree. I do call bullshit on that, because my mother rants about this very issue constantly and even now, considering that I'm a NEET. She always has. My older, better-behaved cousin wasn't necessarily parented as guidingly as I was, and perhaps that shows. Our extended family may hide its crazier issues, but we were never particularly self-reliant. So this isn't realistic; I venture, not even for the Japanese, who may at times be tempted to think in the ways the fictional characters do. Its goal is the faithful depiction of some things, fewer than we would expect from a realistic story doggedly pursuing possibilities and eventualities. The show may be concerned with a truth, but it's taking another path there, or an unusual path. It's, again, highly verisimilar--which logically demands that we ask what the message of the show is. If we understand the structure, its "reality" (a word I should stop using instead, how about "sphere of verisimilitude?"), then we can stop griping about realism, figure out what it's doing, and evaluate that project. As the author John Updike once wrote, describing how literary criticism should be written, "Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt."

The idea is easy to pick up on, so much so that it can be rather disappointing for the viewer seeking realism or great fun. That is, doing what feels responsible, and letting the chips fall where they may. Doing good and then following suit by reordering your life as may be necessary. On the other hand, not babying people or crowding them out. The trick is to find wise things to do, things that you can do. Nothing goes wasted. Nobody is exempt from the thread of tradition and heritage that preceded him and gave birth to him.

Usagi Drop advances this tension (again, not much honest, obsessive thought is put into the causal possibilities), by juxtaposing characters and scenes. Unlike a children's cartoon, whose messages would be hazier, more thematic and sketched, Usagi Drop has a very obvious, didactic point. For me, the illogicality (for the moment, I'm professing ignorance) is the endeavor itself. If I wanted to toss argumentative nuance to the wolves--there will be nuance in the next section--I'd say that Usagi Drop tries to get us to the good without tipping us off to the negative feelings of the work involved. It insinuates difficulty, for the most part, and its vehicle is essentially the conveyance of ease. As if detailing the troubles isn't worth the trouble or, God forbid, that'd botch the whole thing.

The complication (not the nuance) is most readily elaborated in the final scene of the final episode, wherein Daikichi mentions the likelihood of his fussing over the littlest things. The good in parenting is not only in the happiness and the smiles, because a child's being in the right place, or in the right place for her or him, isn't really about that. The series defines the nobility of its own premise by stunted terms. Even so, an artistic argument is an artistic argument. I get it; the goal is to understand why Rin's mother left her, why Daikichi's cousin runs away, how better parents behave, what kids have to deal with when annoying teachers try to force them to comply with a system. When should we comply with a system, anyway? Or does it only come down to dialectical perception of a tradition (the familiar argument that once you have settled for the illusion or image, you have deceived yourself)?

And here's where I let loose for a moment: to me, Daikichi's a loser, not for any rational reason I can easily articulate. It isn't merely about him, mind you; it's about the mangaka. He has no real sensitivity to anything that's worth thinking about, and I can't help but see this project as not worth thinking about. He just listens, and does the right thing, and supposedly selfish people blab, and he fantasizes, sometimes doesn't sympathize, and problems resolve themselves because people resolve to try harder. There's complexity here, because there are limited points of view, but it's hard to care about because it's arranged too simplistically and limply. Nothing painful is really presented, only hinted; since there's no visceral sensation of failure or hard choices (the mother is the only case, and Daikichi rips on her coldly, if that's even possible), we don't get the kind of story wherein characters are forced to choose between two convincing goods, or two convincing evils--the kind of shit noble fiction is expected to do.

However pernicious this project is, we have to acknowledge the truth--the story has a point, and a strategy. Maybe this amounts to nothing but dangerous, destructive fantasy. That isn't my call to make. I just dislike the thing. Really, if you can appreciate the strategy and the point separately, nothing really prevents you from having a good time. But, in more detail, what is the strategy?

"IYA-WHATSIT? IYA-SHEKI? IYASHIKEI?" Aristotle's Theory of Tragedy, Lite

What tickles me about discussions of the iyashikei genre (meaning "healing") is how meek people can seem to be about its potential or its effectiveness. I by no means claim it to be a monolith that could shape the world, one moeblob at a time; who would? But the way talk about it unfolds, you'd think it was a guilty little pleasure. I loved Binchou-tan, but back when everyone saw it, feelings were mixed. People reduced it to the sum of its most overt parts: moe, slice-of-life. Which wasn't inaccurate, unjust, or wrong. All the same, the reason why getting embarrassed or caveating your feelings about such works is ultimately fruitless is because a) for fuck's sake, like what you like, and b) all stories are fucking fake.

Here's what I propose: I think the iyashikei genre may be understood as a shaky iteration (by which I mean, stylization) of Aristotle's theory of tragedy (holy fuck, holy FUCK, I just discovered that I wasn't even the first person , though I'm going to take it further). I propose that iyashikei need not be slice of life or realist (though I would obviously be unable to think of any exceptions); it simply uses the ideas as part of its premise. I propose that it need not feature cuteness or lolis, or any of that. It simply comes down to the precise and skillful achievement of narrative catharsis.

What is catharsis, as Aristotle meant the word? Scholars are still a bit unsure, because before his Poetics, he had only ever used it in reference to bodily fluids. It's been translated as "purgation," but the more sensible term is probably "purification," "clarification"--or, the one I'll use in this specific context, recalibration. We view a scenario, become attached to the immediacy and muddle of it, and are suddenly alerted to the real consequences and contingencies of the situation. Thanks to a particular, specific narrative situation amidst the sea of possibilities, generalizations, and moralism, we recognize it "for what it is"--or get a more precise understanding of what's going on. We let go of our overattachment to pity and fear. So:

* Static situation,

* Probable character choice

* Change: characters thrust into suffering or inconvenience

* Character choice, probable or possible

* Suffering or inconvenience is alleviated

* New static situation

Numbers 1-4 can and do repeat, but ideally 5 would keep bursting in on characters, ideally involving misfortune or unsatisfying resolution rather than alleviation. Number 6 would be understood loosely by the standards of tragedy; the idea is that even if a murder ends an entire family, it's still a form of stasis, a new stable situation.

How close is the iyashikei model to Aristotle's? Not very. Or rather, not necessarily "very." Aristotle is all about truth, beauty, and philosophy. To that end, a horror movie that appears to rid one of a deadness to or obsession with fear would seem cathartic, as would a sentimental work like Clannad. Then the conundrum: a drug can be medicine or a poison, which is exactly why "purgation" can be a problematic translation of the term (there's also the matter of context). There are his sociological assumptions, based on the time, history, and culture he cared about, lived in, and had access to. Lastly, Aristotle is concerned with overarching plot, while iyashikei is said to lack one (which is why I discuss the role of scene). Even so, the genre has many similar marks, most of which I've already discussed: mimesis (which inherently means distance from and closeness to a premise), commitment to some bracketed sense of realism, inculcation of reflective wonder.

More important than all of this is the fact that iyashikei relaxes in a heck of a lot of ways: scenery, pacing, and the like. Why only focus on characters, then? Because character and plot are the most obvious realization. Now hang on, because I'm not obsessing over character or whatever, here. The scenery and pacing are important--and you can even, hypothetically, achieve pathetic fallacy through it--but any work could do that stuff, literarily-speaking; what makes it special is how it is used and why, what it contributes to. The thematic point isn't mere escapism; in fact, I'm sure artists would argue their work to aim a little higher. For a few moments, you invest yourself in the exploration of a world, you understand its actual issues and let go of your own.

This is why everything I said about mimesis (and blathered on about in that previous post) is so relevant; I wasn't just pulling it out of my ass. As Sasa writes, Aristotle's argument is that the fictional world must be sufficiently different from nature, from the real world, full of contradictions, resisting perfect systematization (so far). This is the ideal situation for the processes of catharsis to have maximum good effect. There is a sense of melancholy that persists throughout the work, scene after scene (for instance, YKK). And the relevant differences ought to be articulable. With respect to MLP:FIM--a highly conceptual series, from episode to episode--I have referenced various instances that ultimately turn out to be useless head-scratchers, because the mimesis (and said mimesis is for children, mind you!) utterly fails the test. The more central the situation to the fabric of the textual understanding, the more important it is that the mimesis succeeds.

Oh, thank heavens.

Let's go back to Binchou-tan: a bigger, plot example, and then a small one. At one point she gets sick, which is horrifying because even though she has friends (vestigially-attached to them, before this point), they all live far away and she wouldn't really ask them for help, anyway. Besides, she's sick. Like, really sick. Without anyone at all to look after her, she passes in and out of consciousness, and we're biting our fingernails (sorta). It turns out that her friends figured out what was going on and came to the rescue. This is catharsis. We know why the impoverished, orphaned Binchou-tan would do what she would, she's reached limited options, decay and death looms. This series is just so fuckin' chill that we aren't thinking about it. The narrator doesn't freak out all like that. We realize how great friendship and family is because we see what might have happened without them. Here, we are moved to pity and fear. This isn't necessarily the best kind of tragic reversal (you get something better when the character has the power to flail around to the very end, doesn't even see imminent demise, like, say, Noriko from Gunbuster).

But examples don't have to be so significant; ripples do just fine. And this tickles meh fancy:

To be sure, Usagi Drop has plenty of these moments, but they don't matter the same way, and they don't have the same effect. The project is different, because the moralizing character recognizes everything all the way through. Nothing's ever really beyond him, because the other, oft-taken options are never explored. In Kure-nai, for example, Shinkurou made the mistake of locking up Murasaki in the house alone, and learned from it. In the very scene I depicted, there's really just silence, and there's no hand-holding.

In Usagi Drop, Daikichi never (I'm supposed to say rarely, aren't I?) makes a mistake (except that stupid move of working late at the very beginning of the story) worth fretting over in any social sense. Kids always get upset over these sorts of things, so the mimetic frame necessary for getting us to understand such a situation sincerely is impotent, blurred. Unita's idea is to create a character unlike a kid, and yet a kid. Her idea is to build a verisimilar world that feels distant. It's kind of a silly idea already, but it might have actually worked in the end. The problem is that the story is too damn vocal and eager about its desire to place itself within the very world it's trying to escape. If the central characters are noble, then failures should advance the story except there are no failures. Do you see the problem? Frames keep eluding us. We end up with fetishism because the little risks are too marginal, because we can't reassess the situation (recognize the scene for the artifice that is not our lives) and sincerely let go. The risks are marginal because its protagonists are hamfistedly, loudly, obnoxiously noble. Rin gets everything she wants and needs (the stuff she doesn't get is bound by significant characterization and plot contrivances, both of which take us beyond iyashikei), and even if she didn't, it isn't even like she'd complain.

You can't distance yourself from a romanticized world that is continuously suggested as possibly or probably being your own; you just end up wishing you possessed it. This is precisely why and where Yotsuba&! succeeds. Masterfully-conveyed iyashikei, then, is revealed not to be so much about moralism or idea, as it is about deftness with scale.


I'm just gonna, like, y'know, gush. Y'know, be a total douche and just say what I feel, without qualification:

Usagi Drop is a TERRIBLE iyashikei series because IT DOESN'T DO WHAT IYASHIKEI IS SUPPOSED TO DO.

Rin is a BAD LOLI because she isn't SEXUALIZED ENOUGH, and the story won't LET HER BE HELPLESS ENOUGH.





[Deep breath.] Moving on. It's time for me to begin active work with the series.

So we've come to recognize that the loli thing is too hazy, and that the demographic demands ultimately don't raise it to some new kind of level. Claims of realism aren't particularly useful. The show can't properly be understood as iyashikei in a holistic sense, because it tries to convey a real, significant plot arc, full of supposed paradigmatic change and stuff. It's also an unhelpful term because the iyashikei phenomenon only rears its head in certain scenarios, rather than constantly. The show does relax (whether it heals is highly debatable), but it does so mainly (if not only) by sedating and deceiving.

Freakin' genius.

Some writers like to ramble about why plots fail, or why stories are incoherent (I do this, lol). Here we have a story that seems to work, and of course nobody rants about it; I've been in this boat before, though, so whatever. Anyway, as I wrote in the post introduction, I don't think there's any reason to hate Usagi Drop. I just have a lot of trouble caring about it. I already knew everything it had to say, so I didn't really learn anything; didacticism is never enough for this kind of thing. The iyashikei is clouded by the goals, the realism is countered by the romanticism, the mimesis is confounded by the didactic voiceover. Sentimentality is abruptly jarred by the whiplash of frigidity: the mother's arc isn't handled very sincerely at all.

The series lacks all of the variable pieces that would lend it--whatever project it was aiming to be--viscerality and fortitude. The wrong topics are avoided. Why insinuate the possibility that Daikichi doesn't necessarily have a great job (what does he do with all that overtime pay?), when you obnoxiously and constantly state a whole bunch of other things? How does that organically convince us of risks, resolutions, and rewards? Why make Haruko's husband an essentially faceless personality if you presumably want to legitimize the reality of both situations (Unita doesn't even do that right, because it just deteriorates into rambling conversation)? Why rely on the clichof being changed by the visitation of a long-abandoned child? To say, "What matters is the children," really is bullshit, really is just whatever. The point is, I don't fucking understand why this mess is so praised. If the story were written from the reminiscing point of view of a romantic father (perhaps one who actually lost his daughter), much more would have come together.

Cheer up. There is one way this text could really work, a haphazard way. I suggest that we view the series in sections: iyashikei sections, plot sections, romantic sections, etc. It renders the work an incoherent mess, which is of course inevitable. And no, I'm not going to pick my way through it. What I'm going to do is state the parts that worked best, and take them apart, get at why I liked them. In order to do that, I need to quickly detail my experience and tastes.

I grew up in a family that tried to do things "both" ways--y'know, the way real people do things. Obviously, it didn't go anywhere near perfectly. My mother went to master's courses and dragged me along. Sometimes she picked me up late from school. I remember chillin' in a hot car drinking cold Mountain Dew Livewire and reading The Bell Jar while she took her teaching exam (I had the freedom to run around and play outside, relax). I had very little spending money growing up (as in none at all). Past a certain point, I owned no toys (didn't get into gaming until senior year of high school). Sometimes, she borrowed the money that extended family gave me (which was righted by her getting me better gifts in the long run). But I did a heck of a lot in my childhood, and admittedly a lot of it revolved around me. It worked for us because we made it work. Grandma helped out ridiculously. That's how the message of Usagi Drop presumably functions: nothing gets wasted, you don't do this stuff actually expecting refined happiness in the end, most of the stoic parenting isn't happy, you rush back out into the storm from temporary refuge.

One element of my past that really sticks out is my affection for children's slice-of-life cartoons. I mean the really young ones. There were the worse shows (like Tots TV, which I somehow couldn't stop watching), but my favorites were the classic Arthur (the first few seasons and no further, when they started lecturing everything), Paddington, and Caillou. There were the Curious George books, even the old, puppet VHS tapes (I'm fairly into the new cartoon, but it's often too obviously about counting and shit). There is a link between slice-of-life (which children's educational cartoons shade into) and iyashikei, and there is a reason why iyashikei focuses on realism: iyashikei uses probabilities of regular life because the issues are most-easily scaled in a way that draws you into caring inordinately for characters. It isn't, mind you, sentimental--not necessarily. It's about luring you in with characters for which the smallest things genuinely seem like a big deal.

The real difference, say, between the new Curious George series and Binchou-tan or Yotsuba&! is that the first is targeted toward kids learning how the world presumably works, and that the others are targeted toward adults who constantly need to be jostled into wondering how the world at times might work. If you believe that any text is fair game, however, it would be difficult: both work using slapstick and dry humor in tandem (particularly the new PBS cartoon). And to a degree both are similarly-framed: the kids' cartoon would just stop for commentary where the adult one would keep silent. Most confusingly, what's the real difference between the needs of the juvenile audience and those of the adult audience?

While you guys were glorifying Rin, I kept my eyes on the real prize

The show is hopelessly amorphous, but I think Usagi Drop is at its best as an iyashikei show, and (I confine the possibilities even more) most like a children's cartoon. That would be the episodes that do not seek to sanctify hardship, or to fetishize Rin, or to moralize. These are the episodes that best capture convincing wonder at the various possibilities and mysteries of the world. I do not reduce the show to entertainment, here, but hope to elevate it to the better methods of elaborating the project and message it does have. Beyond iyashikei, you jump into nice platitudes that are confusedly conveyed, lazily conveyed, or immorally conveyed. The best examples I can think of are episodes 9 and (second place) 6--and only significantly part of the way through. Well, no, let's just take or leave them. I'll take them. Let me spam a bunch of pics depicting the show at its most graspable (by which I mean, we really get invested and begin asking questions of the text). Upon rewatching the ep, it's all uphill from here. This is what hopeless romantics mean when they say that art is irreducible:

Why would the reader even bother trying to state the obvious? The art transcends lecturing and message. This scene isn't special because it's never been done before or because it has managed something unique; this has been done countless times. It succeeds because it coheres. Unita got a little confident and decided that she'd done enough, so she put in a number of these and did whatever she liked with the rest, but that "rest" coheres nowhere near as well. That, of course, assumes that the corresponding manga scene is patterned similarly.

The rest of the plotline involves trotting through the typhoon blasts (the kids messing around with puddles and stuff). Drying off, maintaining the house. Nitani comes by, there's the invitation to dinner, making dinner, etc. This is not lecturing (for the most part--like I said, take it or leave it). This is not mere slice-of-life. This is not merely iyashikei, with depicted disingenuous, limited points of view. This is not only entertainment. This is deep message, too.

What do you know? It turns out that the key, all along, might well have been to reduce the talking, present the paradigm-shifting characters (e.g. like the co-workers with children) less-than-fruitily, bring the whining closer to reality (which also means reducing it), give the mother (and Daikichi's sister) a more comprehensible, believable range of expression, give the protagonist's parents a nobler role than doting grandparents, just to show some lazy change in them. The key might have been to cluster closely the actual plot pivots of the story (e.g. job changes) and present them in a way that changes the storytelling aesthetically, closely attune the character periphery to the limitations of the character (rather than slipping them in as the narrative messages demanded). None of this would necessarily have required a change in the author's choice of narrative dream. Rin might still have been mysterious, but that mystery would have been worked with and against as the plot went on. Her role would have remained grounded, though moving, rather than "important just because."

Kinda liked Special #4.

There's a heck of a lot to appreciate about the show, hypothetically. There're the visuals. There's "realism." There are relaxing, "ordinary life" plots. There's wistfulness and "I wish I were there."&
Full Post

No comments:

Post a Comment