The Black Sword

There is the subtle but fascinating fantasy motif I have been dwelling on for quite some time, I recently decided to put my thoughts together on the subject. As you know I am big fantasy fan. It was recently when I was re-reading the Silmarillion and playing Skyrim that I realised there was such a concept as the idea of “the Black Sword”, and that got me thinking where I could find that reference and what it meant. So that is what today’s post will be about.

It all begun with the realisation that my swords in Skyrim had a predilection to be Ebony or Daedric – and not just because they are stronger, but because they look “cool”. The black edge, the lack of shiny steel, it makes the blade look otherworldly. And as it happens, these swords I made would 99.9% of the time be enchanted in such a way that they either increase my stamina/health, or absorb my opponents power/health/soul, whatever you want to call it. I know many of you may think this seems logical – but there are many swords and materials in Skyrim and other RPGs/Action videogames, and certainly more spells than just those. Perhaps it is just a visual aesthetic thing. I noticed this was also my preference when playing Soul Calibur. I never liked Soul Calibur, it looked too neat. But Soul Edge was, once again, cool; it had a presence.

Continue reading “The Black Sword”

Why the West will never understand Anime and Manga

 

Hold thy rage keyboard warriors. For I bring you not an otakus view on the culture of the rising sun, but a curious thought that occurred to me. Something that made me step back and really look at the imported comics and TV we watch today…

Do we really get it? Of course we can understand the stories we’re experiencing and relate to its characters, but is that all that goes in to a tale? Remember that stories are not merely distractions, but landmarks in time that forever immortalise the culture in which it was made. Religion, experience, history, prejudice… all of these go into crafting the backbone of a story, and today I want to draw attention to the first part; Religion. Why? Because when you stop to read between the lines a lot of what we take for granted in anime and manga is heavily influenced by a faith we in the west know remarkably little about. In fact some stories are so deeply rooted in this pre-existing knowledge their meanings are entirely lost on a European or American audience.

The first thing we must accept is that religion may not mean the same thing in Japan as it does to us. Our primary source? The centre of most worship and spiritual cosmology in Japan known as Shinto.

The traditional ‘faith’ in the Nippon realm is Shinto which focuses on ancestral kami and spirit worship. Shinto originates from the 8th century and means ‘Way of the Gods’.
The central belief in Shinto is easy to grasp, but its impact on society is not. Shinto tells that every element of our cosmology owns a spirit- which is in its own way divine- and these sprits are not entirely separate from the souls of ancestors. To take our first easy step into anime connections most people will recognise this theme from the Studio Ghibli films like Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away. In Spirited Away the characters enter a spirit world in which all these ancestral powers gain a physical form, living and interacting like social entities. We see multiple examples of spirits embodying not only animals but also locations and even emotions- such as the foreboding ‘No Face’ which is a spirit of greed and consumption. There is also an implication that is more of a natural leap for domestic audiences, which is ‘ancient’ spirits such as those pertaining to mountains or lakes being considerably more powerful than others. This is seen when the polluted lake spirit arrives at the bath house, demonstrating both power and immense wealth.
Both sides of the globe view spirits and their place in the world very differently. The Western view of ‘spirits’ is largely derived from Celtic ideas of the ‘fairy’ folk, which now describe a specific type of supernatural creature but during the Late Middle English period included all mythical or magical beasts including elves and spirits. Such creatures may be celebrated in the Shakespearian tale Midsummer Night’s Dream but have always been affiliated with mischief, paganism and- in Irish folklore- tales of driving the spirit folk beneath the earth to be exiled from humans!
As such, our idea of where spirits belong in the world has developed very differently.

Princess Mononoke also exhibits traits we, culturally, view differently when it comes to spirits/deities. They are portrayed as neutral beings In Mononoke, with spirit animals being indifferent to humans unless trespassed upon or ‘corrupted’ through the industrialisation and violence against sacred land. This can be seen with the boars being infected with an almost demon-like corruption brought on by the iron from manmade weapons. The Forest Spirit as a key example is entirely passive in his role until harmed.
In most places of the world it is typical to assume a good or evil duality for supernatural creatures- largely influenced by the beliefs of traditional African religions like Santeria and Haitian Vodou. In these faiths spirits and the veneration of the dead are huge elements, with proto African religion commonly focusing on a single Creator God with these spirits, in either good or evil capacities, acting as intermediaries with the living. They are not, unlike in Shinto, seen as divine in their own right.

While not so black and white there are some examples of evil spirits in Shinto, though these are largely not evil by design- rather by circumstances of a previous life or even just neglect.
One of the more interesting case studies is the anime property ‘Ghost in the Shell’ which raises the question of human souls in artificial bodies. On the surface the implication here appears obvious and one most cultures would debate over- what constitutes the soul, and in what forms can it exist? But there is also another theme running through these movies, the second in particular, which ties in with our discussion: Dolls. Throughout GITS in all its forms dolls are a prominent element and are often used as a parallel to describe the artificial bodies the characters use. This isn’t simply visual metaphor either, as dolls are a huge icon of spirituality in Japan. Dolls are seen as perfect vessels for souls, both human or inhuman. As such dolls are a constant of ceremonies for all religions in Japan, extending even into Japanese Christian culture, and there are hundreds of stories of supposedly ‘cursed’ or possessed dolls. There is even a ceremony performed in majorly Buddhist communities where old toys are collected and burned to prevent lost spirits inhabiting them, which continues every year.

For the sake of brevity anime like ‘Bleach’- who’s premise is based entirely around the spirit world and passage to the afterlife- will be filed as “Goes without saying” since their cultural bias is clear even to an outside audience.

While Shinto might play a subtle part in almost every corner of anime it is far less confusing on a philosophical level than some of its counterparts- my favourite example being the strangeness that is Japanese Buddhism. Contrary to popular belief the two faiths are not all that similar with Buddhism arriving in the late 6th century from Korea- specifically the kingdom of Baekje. It might be expected that Buddhism’s influence runs deeper than Shinto given its earlier formalisation in Japan, however Shinto faith is not strictly a religion in the same way; With several Shinto-based churches across the nation but a considerably lower number of participators compared to Buddhism, which makes up almost 40% of the population, it’s easy to think Shinto lifestyle is overwhelmed.
Stick with me and I think you’ll be surprised.

A good distinction to make with Buddhist influence into anime is the divide between Philosophy and Cosmology. Or, as I’m going to document it here, the divide between AKIRA and Dragonball.

The animated movie AKIRA was a smash hit internationally; however the true extent of its message is conveyed in the paperback manga. While the movie merely hinted at a spiritual ascension by its major antagonist Tetsuo the books explore a much more complete cycle- taking him through turmoil, meditation, purification and finally ascendancy. This is a strong parallel to the ideas of ‘Enlightenment’ that are reinforced during the story by frequent discussions of his power and its place in the universe. In fact, AKIRA is drenched in this philosophy and left most readers confused as central Buddhist theory is not a common reference point to international readers. The character Lady Miyako, only present in the manga, is a focus of such teachings and represents the human pursuit of such divine power and understanding- going so far as to berate Tetsuo for his artificial attainment of such power without the knowledge to control it.
All this and more only became clear after the third time reading through these books as, without a significant amount of research to back it up, their exploration of the self and its meanings on the universal scale can be called confusing at best.

On the other foot we have Dragonball, which is a show many have watched, but not everyone will know that Dragonball itself is inspired greatly by the Chinese epic ‘Journey To The West’, a story of Son Wukong (the Monkey King) and his journey to deliver Buddhist scrolls from India through a mixture of Buddhist and Daoist spirituality. While this sounds like a perfect chance to inject all kinds of religious subtext, with the original epic exploring many elements from Buddist ideals of purity right through to the Eleven barefoot Immortals, Dragonball takes a different approach. Its story is a much simpler shonen  adventure that happens to involve numerous characters and symbols from the original tale. Common elements such as a shapeshifting demon and three eyed adversary are present, however these direct parallels mostly fall into the background after the first saga.
This might be an obscure reference to us, however in a culture that is so enamoured with the source material it still has frequent stage plays of Son Wukong’s journey called ‘Monkey’ making circulation, and the successful martial arts movie ‘Forbidden Kingdom’ starring Jackie Chan and Jet Lee still popular through Asia, these are familiar references to their target audience.

So is it all going over people’s heads because of foreign culture? Not necessarily. To raise a counter-point there are plenty of western influences in anime and manga that aren’t readily apparent. For example, there are plenty of Shinto concepts present in Death Note- from the existence of the Death Gods ‘Shinigami’ to the reveal that they may in fact be closer to ‘Urami’, kami spirits of humans who were wronged or dishonoured and exist through violence against the living. However some of its largest subtext is actually Christian in nature. Outside of the artwork which often includes crosses, statues and religious imagery (mostly Catholic) relating to its characters a central example can be seen where the antagonist ‘L’ cleans the protagonist’s feet after stepping out in the rain. This draws parallel with Jesus washing the feet of Peter in John 13:1 of the Bible, which occurred much like this at the highest room prior to their final meeting. In the Bible this was used to express Jesus’s mortality and acceptance of his human side, something we see reflected in L’s humble attitude as he ultimately moves towards what he suspects will be his death. A rather substantial symbolic event, but one often overlooked.

So what do I want us to take away from this?
Really that it’s all a matter of our cultural lens. That we may view things in ways they weren’t intended, or miss subtext that is outside our scope. This is upsetting yes, however it does mean other cultures will often apply their own perceptions on a piece- be that anime or anything else- which puts the art in a different light. To see why this can be a good thing let’s turn out attention to video games for a moment and the horror title Fatal Frame. It’s considered one of the scariest games of all time in the west… but not as popular in Japan where it originated. Why? Because much of its style and mythos are based on old school Shinto mythology and are steeped in its iconography. To an outside audience this is both super interesting and adds a new level of alienation: It’s something we aren’t familiar with, aren’t comfortable with. To its native users these symbols are linked to the history they learned in school and the religion of their forefathers, not a mysterious culture filled with possibilities (and often, terror). This is an example of our outside lens changing how we see the game and, in this case, actually making it considerably stronger than its original form.

And if you think this only applies to horror just look at Yokai Watch! To us this may seem like another Pokémon imitator but in Japan the term ‘Yokai’ literally means Ghost/Demon/Apparition and refers to a variety of demonic spirits that come in a huge variety of forms- including neglected toys and house appliances! In its home country Yokai Watch is a game about turning ancestral dark spirits into digital pets. How’s that for culture shock?

After reading this you might be wondering how far the religious influence spreads in anime- after all not every manga artist is religious, right? That raises a fascinating point I alluded to earlier. Studies in 2008 by the Dentsu Communications Institute in Japan showed that over 40% of its populace identify as ‘non-religious’ BUT still adhere to the traditional ceremony, worship and prayer to spirits and gods- increasing to 80% with crossovers into shinbutsu-shugo (Shinto-Buddhism). With only 4% identifying as part of an organised sect of Shinto religion!  Meaning even people who do NOT consider themselves religious in Japan still abide by the Shinto culture! It’s a part of daily life that we in the outside world have difficulty grasping.
Stranger still? Scholars Isomae Jun’ichi and Jason Ānanda Josephson found that the Japanese term and concept of ‘Religion’ itself is called ‘Shukyo’ and appeared as late as the 19th century! Meaning Japanese culture does not view religion the same way as the west and, prior to this point, worship of kami was never considered a religious act to begin with.

With this in mind most of what we perceive as religious/cultural messages in anime and manga is simply reflecting the very unique world it was created in. It’s clear to say that a considerable amount of subtext in the stories we love really is lost in translation- and not just because the dubbing sucks.

GOJIRA! 60 Years Since Godzilla

This is just a piece of cinema that all geeks must love. The corner stone of monster movies, another amazing creation from Japan with deep historical connotations about the trauma from the war. Godzilla is a cult classic, I dare say a work of art. I am unsure if I am happy to make the same statement about the 2014 movie, but I think that shows how important this is within popular culture.

W.U Hstry

In case you were not aware of this, 2014 saw the 60th anniversary of the original Godzilla movie! It was only last year  that our screens saw the new interpretation of this film, which is an icon of 20th century cinema. But there is much more to Godzilla than just photo-grams. Therefore, here is a little insight for you into Japanese culture, cinema and social anxieties.

The first Godzilla movie was directed by Ishiro Honda, who had worked for many years as the assistant of the renown director Akira Kurosawa. He served his time under the Japanese army during the Second World War, and in fact was imprisoned in China and made a war hostage. This had a huge impact in the production of his movies, and of course is reflected in Godzilla, but this was a shared memory and feeling, which makes the message only coherent for those who…

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Tyranny: Sometimes Evil Wins

Tyranny, a new RPG game on PC developed by Obsidian with publisher Paradox just came out recently. I’m sure I’ve only scratched the surface so far, as this is the sort of game I can see going on for a long time, but I think it’s worth looking at some of the many things it gets right to make a great RPG computer game.

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Obsidian Entertainment were the developers of a lot of great RPGs in the past such as Knights of the Old Republic II and Fallout New Vegas. Before the founders made the company they had previously worked on some classics including Neverwinter Nights, Icewind Dale, Planescape: Torment and Baldurs Gate. Their biggest recent success was the Kickstarter campaign launched in 2012 to fund Pillars of Eternity, an old school RPG very much in the style of Baldurs Gate or Planescape that launched early last year and was widely praised for its return to the good old days of PC RPGs.

Right from the start it is easy to see that Tyranny is heavily based on Pillars of Eternity, with almost identical gameplay and interfaces. But with these games most of the value comes from the story, exploration, and roleplay potential. Despite Pillars receiving such praise last year I found myself getting slightly bored of it after a while. While I could see the great amounts of depth and detail in the game and story, it just didn’t grab me. It was a fairly basic fantasy world in which the player character, with whichever backstory you make or choose, suddenly becomes some sort of special chosen one with extra powers, and you need to figure out what happened and why from there. I can appreciate the open ended start, but I didn’t find it particularly compelling.

Tyranny however really had my attention before it even came out. The simple premise is that in this world, the Evil empire has already taken over, and you work for it in whichever way you see fit. As a player who usually struggles to take the evil route in RPGs and always ends up being the typical lawful good paladin type, I thought this might make an interesting change. And so far after playing it, it has more than lived up to expectations. Continue reading “Tyranny: Sometimes Evil Wins”

Women of Colour: Geekdom and Some Recent Developments

A little while back I heard someone complaint about the lack of women of colour in the geek industry. I do not remember whether the person in specific (some blogger somewhere) meant this in a specific media or genre. In any case, the comment stuck in my head for a while, and made me actually put an effort into finding women of a non-white background, in my comics and TV series, particularly women of ethnic origins with darker skin – leaving the Asian far east for another occasion. And I don’t know if it was serendipity or fate, but almost as soon as I started, these girls started cropping up. And let me tell you, they are all kickass!

My first point of reference was obvious. Any browncoat would immediately call Zoe into action for that. What more could anyone want than Zoe? Clever, disciplined, reliable, honourable, knows to handle her guns, fights for what is right. She may be a woman of few words, but when she speaks it is to be heard. But, of course, Firefly and Serenity are not the most updated data on the subject. Yet, it didn’t take me long to find an example everywhere I looked. Following the sci-fi train, I soon enough met Dutch: the fearless badass main character of Killjoys. Dutch is no lady, she is a killer, a trained assassin, a renegade princess. Guns (and Johnny) are her best friends. She is bloody-minded, not scared of using any of her charms and skills to get the job done. But she is also fragile, has a lot of baggage and issues. Yet, at the end of the day, Dutch always delivers. Her wild looks remind us that, in an age ruled by fear of terrorism, people from the Middle-East are not just the messed up criminals you see on the news – they can be dystopian saving freedom fighters too; the good guys, or girls in this case. But that was almost an easy find: you all knew about Killjoys presence in ManaBurnt before this right? Well, let’s give you some other examples of non-featured before series:

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The Skyrim Diaries – Los Diarios de Skyrim vol.9

“It took some time to get used to the new me. And I don’t mean just the face…”.“Me llevo un tiempo acostumbrarme a la nueva yo. Y no me refiero solo a la cara…”.

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“Things felt different. I did. I started spending more time on my own, even in my own new house that I had designed for the purpose of having a peaceful live with my family. I must admit, this new solace that I found in the bottom of my soul kept me quiet for some time…But one clear morning, I guess I just realised that either way, I was just the same Luthien. Just with more baggage”.

“Todo parecía distinto. Yo me resultaba distinta. Empecé a pasar más tiempo sola, incluso en la nueva casa que había construido para vivir en paz con mi familia. Debo admitir que este nuevo consuelo que encontré en el fondo de mi ser me mantuvo callada durante un tiempo…Pero una buna mañana en la que el cielo estaba despejado, creo que simplemente me di cuenta de que seguía siendo la misma Luthien…Y con más problemas”.  

Continue reading “The Skyrim Diaries – Los Diarios de Skyrim vol.9”

When did Fantasy get so Vanilla..?

When did fantasy get so “vanilla”?! I mean, seriously, when did this happen?

I remember being a child and experiencing epic stories, being exposed to Warhammer, Tolkien mythos, Dragon Lance and other classics. Movies such as Dark Crystal would form my teens. We got Buffy! Even Charmed (if you ignore the later seasons). And now…What do we have now?!

Of course, Game of Thrones is killing it on TV (…literally…) and the Song of Ice and Fire series are bestseller books. Even the Harry Potter universe has changed from Dementors and evil wizards to this insipid play published just a few months back (in my opinion any way – and I am no Potterhead but many of my friends agree it is really not what they expected or wanted…and the upcoming movie, which, although looks really pretty…Is it going to be an epic fantasy story? Well, I reserve my judgement until I see it). Yet you go to any bookshop, and for some reason the fantasy section will always be bigger than the sci-fi and other geek lines of interest. Hell, I’ll rather buy Waterstones entire selection of fantasy books than their comics section. It seems strange that having such a powerful flourishing field with fantasy created in all shapes and forms on paperbacks, yet the rest of the media seem to have gone incredibly quiet…

Continue reading “When did Fantasy get so Vanilla..?”