Thursday, December 17, 2009

Final Essay: Good, Bad, I'm the One with the Gun

On the subject of what’s right and what’s wrong or what’s good and what’s evil, everybody has a very different opinion which they take directly to heart. If a poor man steals a loaf of bread from a merchant to feed his family, then both parties will have completely different views on the whole situation. The merchant may see this as a criminal act since he’s being cheated out of his rightfully-earned profit while the poor man may see it as being just because he needs to do whatever he can in order to help his starving family survive. Some of the best fiction had provided us with stories, settings, and characters that find creative ways to depict how one man’s good is another man’s evil. In many of the films we’ve watched in our Japanese Films course, the filmmakers examine this theme in full detail and show that in many cases, their characters are neither good nor evil, but are just doing what they feel is best for themselves. Going in chronological order, I’m going to examine several of the films from the course curriculum and describe how, and to which degree they relay this theme of good and evil being lost among personal beliefs.

One of the films we’ve watched that gets this point across very well is the original Godzilla, from 1954. What could have easily been just an entertaining giant monster movie (which was what the series quickly turned into after this first entry in the world-renowned franchise) actually turned out to be an interesting look into how people view any of their actions when faced with imminent danger is being okay. During the film, when people discovered that Godzilla, a sleeping dinosaur which was mutated and woken up by nuclear testing, was what had been attacking shipping boats, several world powers donate their help, in the form of military action, in order to vanquish the monster. Although most of these people had not realized it at the time, the film made it pretty clear that Godzilla was not trying to kill all of them off, but rather just trying to survive by finding anything that he could consider edible that was floating near his home. I believe this was made most apparent when he makes his first appearance in front of everybody on Odo Island. Despite looking like a horrifying beast to all those who got a good look at him on the island, he didn’t harm anybody nor show any signs that he intended to. The only instance in which he actually started attacking people was after the American naval forces in Japan dropped depth charges onto his home, so his actions were being represented as self-defense in the film. It was clear that we were interpreting our own actions as being just when attacking Godzilla for his “evil” deeds, while the big lug obviously thought we were the bad guys and that he was right in demolishing Tokyo. Seeing as how there are so many parallels to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in this film, these events could also be meant to serve as a symbol of how both the Japanese and American armies during World War II assumed that they were the ones who were the good guys, while the other power was the true face of evil.

Another Japanese film that shows just how much good and evil can be blurred is Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, which tells a tale of how a village full of farmers must learn how to live and work together with a small group of samurai in order to help save their crops from a bandit gang. The two groups had some tension growing between them initially when the samurai first arrived at the village, but it was when the samurai discovered that one of the farmers, Manzo, had samurai armor and weapons stored away in his basement, that they really started to see each other in a negative light. Several of the samurai immediately realize that the only way the farmers could have gotten hold of this equipment was if they killed other wounded samurai and stole it from them. One of the samurai, Kyuzo, started talking about how he felt like killing every last one of the farmers, because he now feels like they are the evil ones for killing the already beaten-down samurai in order to steal from them. Another one of the samurai, named Kikuchiyo, got riled up from this comment and started telling them that even though every farmer in Japan is likely a coward or a crook, they aren’t the ones at fault for their actions. Rather, according to Kikuchiyo, it is the samurai who are to blame, because they are the ones who originally committed such horrible atrocities to the farmers, forcing them to act as such just so they could have a chance at surviving. He was telling them that it was the farmers who thought they were the good guys and that the samurai were evil, so they felt that their acts were acceptable. Although there were several other instances like this where one side felt like it was being wronged by the other, the two of them were eventually able to overcome their differences and conquer the bandits, thus realizing that they both had reasons for everything they did.

Nagisa Oshima was able to address this theme in a different social context in his 1968 feature film, Death by Hanging. In this movie, a Korean man, named R, who’s been living in Japan his entire life and has constantly been hostility from the native people is getting ready to meet his fate. He was convicted of raping and murdering a young Japanese girl by way of the Japanese court system, and so he was sentenced to be hung. R survives being hung only to lose his memory, at which point all the officials involved realize that they can’t execute him because he won’t be able to recognize it as a punishment if he doesn’t remember committing any crime. The officers spend the entire movie trying desperately to make R remember that he committed a crime and must be punished for it, treating him as the villain of this story. R, on the other hand, seems to think no differently of the officers and other officials during the entire time this is playing out. He doesn’t see them as being good or evil, even when he’s finally recovered his memory in spite of the way they humiliated his family and looked down on him simply because of his race, because they haven’t hung him yet. He tells them that if they do decide to hang him, then they will be the murderers. They still execute him without feeling any remorse, and R still doesn’t feel guilty about committing his crime even though he acknowledges doing it. What this said to me was that the director felt that whether or not someone feels like their actions were justified, as long as they don’t feel guilty then they are not the villains of their own story.

There are many who can rightfully claim that there is very little good that can be found in the dark, crime-ridden streets of Neo-Tokyo in the anime action-thriller, Akira. Although there are many instances of a good vs. evil theme throughout this film, I’m only going to stick to the one which I feel is the most important. After Tetsuo had contact with one of the childlike Espers and begins to develop his powers, he starts lashing out at the world and all those who he felt had wronged him during his lifetime, which were his idea of all things “evil”. Among them was his best friend, Kaneda, whom Tetsuo felt had treated him like a defenseless little kid his whole life, and was always coming to the rescue for. Over time, this had built up a very powerful inferiority complex in Tetsuo, which apparently made him feel like was weak, or he couldn’t handle himself. When he got this new power, he realized that he could take on the world that was so cruel and vicious to him, which includes his childhood friend, whom he now sees as evil. Kaneda, now on a mission to kill Tetsuo before his power trip drives to do some serious damage, sees him as being the evil one because he’s completely lost his sense of reason thanks to his newly-developed powers. I’ve always thought that the lesson taken away from this movie was that having ultimate power can corrupt an individual to the point where he becomes paranoid enough that he eventually sees everyone and everything as his enemy, regardless of whether he is a good person or not.

The final movie that I wanted to examine from our class curriculum is a much more recent release, titled Hana-Bi (Fireworks). The plot of this film is that two cops have recently retired from the force; one, Hirobe, being forced to by way of a serious injury, and the other is his partner, Nishi, who retires willfully after Hirobe’s accident. While Hirobe is trying to pass the time anyway he can while slowly drifting off into a manic depression because his family left him after his accident, Nishi is trying to show his slowly dying wife a good time while either avoiding or fighting Yakuza loan sharks. Nishi definitely has the more prominent role than his partner, but what I feel I need to question is whether or not a character like Nishi can really be considered a “good guy”. Granted, he is trying his best to help his wife have fun before she dies and help Hirobe cope with his losses and current state of mind, but when he is dealing with the Yakuza members constantly showing up at his doorstep, he doesn’t pull any punches. He kills and injures these guys in some pretty gruesome, yet pretty cool ways, but it makes him seem like a pretty scary guy whenever he does. I can understand why he’d do all of those things to the gangsters, though, because otherwise they would just keep coming back to get him every time they get the opportunity. Again, this shows that which actions are “good” and which are “evil” are left entirely up to personal interpretation.

The theme of what is truly good and evil has been interpreted pretty widely across the big spectrum of films that have come out in Japan over the last century. Whether the characters are what many people would consider “pure” good and “pure” evil, or whether the line between both seems to be more blurry, filmmakers have managed to make their views on this subject work well in the contexts that they designed. Hopefully, we will see more creative interpretations coming to theaters near us for a long time to come.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Galaxy Express 999/銀河鉄道999: A Journey Through the Stars

For my film review essay, I chose one of my favorite animated movies of all-time, Galaxy Express 999 (Ginga Tetsudou Surii-Nain), which has come to be known as one of the most beloved anime classics ever conceived. It was released into movie theaters in 1979 from Toei Animation, who have released many of Japan’s most famous animated works, working alongside such artists as Hayao Miyazaki (My Neighbor Totoro), Go Nagai (Mazinger Z), and Shotaro Ishinomori (Kamen Rider). Galaxy Express 999 is originally based on a popular manga from Leiji Matsumoto, who had already achieved fame with several of his previous works, such as Space Battleship Yamato and Space Pirate Captain Harlock. In the director’s seat was a man named Rintaro, who had previously worked with Matsumoto on adapting Galaxy Express and Captain Harlock as animated TV serials.

I feel that it’s important to note that all of Leiji Matsumoto’s works take place in a single, shared universe (similar to those of Marvel and DC), so characters from other stories of his either make quick appearances or have very significant roles in the Galaxy Express movie. In order to keep consistent with his other animated features, including the TV version of Galaxy Express, Matsumoto utilized the same animation studio (Toei), as well as the same voice actors that were so important to their completion.

Like the vast majority of Matsumoto’s tales, Galaxy Express 999 is often described as being a “space opera”, which defines as, “any melodramatic literature, motion picture, or television program set in outer space”. To me, this is a very appropriate definition, as there is much melodrama to be found in Galaxy Express. Many of Matsumoto’s stories, whether set in outer space or not, focus on rather deep subjects such as brooding heroes who strive to protect people that don’t want them, and lost souls trying desperately to find meaning in their existence. Galaxy Express 999 is no exception to this, as it asks its audience many thought-provoking questions as the story progresses.

The movie opens with a short narration, describing how the young look to the stars to find their dreams, and the paths they will take to reach them. The story centers on one such youth, a boy named Tetsuro Hoshino, and his quest to travel to the far reaches of space in order to obtain a machine body so that he may live a healthy, efficient life for all eternity. He is doing so in order to live out the last request of his mother, who was hunted down and murdered by one such machine man, a despot named Count Mecha, whom Tetsuro has sworn absolute revenge against. Tetsuro knows that the only way to get from Earth to the mysterious, initially unnamed planet where machine bodies are handed out for free, is to board a star-faring freight train called the Galaxy Express 999. It’s because the ticket prices are wildly expensive, though, that he and a group of orphans scheme to steal a ticket from the train station, which they succeed in doing, but not without being chased throughout the city by the police.

After barely escaping from the authorities and losing his boarding pass in the process, Tetsuro is rescued and given shelter by a beautiful woman with long, blonde hair, who he initially mistakes for his late mother. As he rests in her apartment, the woman uses a device to look in on the dream he’s having, which is a flashback of when his mother was murdered by Count Mecha. When Tetsuro wakes up, he sees her and mistakes her for his mother again, only so she can correct him by introducing herself as Maetel. After telling her about his goals, Maetel asks him what he would like to do with such a long life, to which he responds by saying that he’d like to spend his days sailing the sea of stars and live a life of adventure like his heroes, the space pirates Queen Emeraldas and Captain Harlock. Maetel says that she’s willing to give him a round-trip pass on the 999 only under the condition that she’s allowed to accompany him, to which he gladly accepts.

With this, Tetsuro and Maetel board the 999 together and embark on their long journey through the stars, travelling to and stopping on other planets and celestial bodies along the way. Before reaching the Galaxy Express’ final destination, the two of them encounter and do battle with Count Mecha’s dirty henchmen on several different planets and in space, before finally meeting up with him.

During his journey, Tetsuro meets many people who gave up their human bodies long ago in order to live eternally as machines, only to have ended up living depressingly lonely and cold lives, which they have come to regret. This allows Tetsuro to see the value in being able to live a natural life, in which the people he meets, the emotions he feels, and the limited time he has to live need to be cherished. Eventually, him and Maetel join forces with a large band of space pirates (among them are Emeraldas and Harlock, whom Tetsuro lights up upon meeting each time) who have been fighting armies of machine men on their way to the mechanized world. Although the pirates don’t reveal it until later, they are going there with the sole intention of taking down the giant factory that produces machine bodies.

As Tetsuro starts to form his own opinions on the values of human life, director Rintaro and creator Leiji Matsumoto hope that the audience will do so as well. During the dialogues with those people who gave up their natural bodies a long time ago, it’s very easy to hear the sorrow in their cold, emotionless voices, and see it in their robotic movements and behaviors. Then, there are also those who have suffered at the hands of Count Mecha’s and the mechanization planet’s machine men armies, which are composed of men and women who are no longer able to feel emotions like pity and guilt, so they kill and harm others without any sense of remorse. According to one character, Tochiro Oyama, many of those people, including Count Mecha, used to be very nice and compassionate until they got their mechanized bodies. Trading their flesh for iron dulled their emotions and gave them eternal life, which reduced them to such boredom that they would start hunting humans for sport. It’s easy to see that the writers really wanted to get the point across to the audience that one’s own humanity and emotions are not something to be cast aside, but rather to be embraced as a beautiful thing.

When Galaxy Express 999 was initially released, many people had a rough idea of what to expect, mostly due to the fact that much of the original manga had been released at the time, and the TV adaptation had finished roughly half of its run. Having said this, despite the audience knowing the plot and characters pretty well, they had no idea how the movie version was going to end. The movie concludes after putting a nice cap on several plot twists that nobody had seen coming, that are all explained during an explosive, climactic encounter on the machine world. I can easily imagine the audience walking out of the theater not only feeling blown away by the unexpectedly dynamic space opera-style ending, but also having a new view of their own lives, and how they should enjoy the precious time they have. After all, it’s just as easy to follow Tetsuro’s adventures as it is to put ourselves in his shoes, since there wasn’t a time in anybody’s life when they didn’t question which paths they were going to take in life, and how they were going to get there.

From the very first time I saw Galaxy Express 999, I’ve loved every bit of it, and I enjoy it even more every time I watch it. From its whimsical, fairy tale-style atmosphere to its philosophical views on life to all of its sci-fi action sequences, this movie really appeals to me on not just a level of sheer entertainment, but also on a very personal level. Since Tetsuro is so young and is still growing up, it really takes me back to when I was his age, when I was also learning how I wanted to live my life, which lessons to take to heart, and even what falling in love feels like. If anything, I feel that this is the true appeal of the movie, because these thoughts and feelings are universal, and can be applied to anyone. This is the adventure that the Galaxy Express 999 will take you on; a journey through the stars…

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Afraid of Myself (1st Blog Essay)

There’s a famous saying that goes, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”, which is actually true in most situations. I’m convinced that whenever people claim to be afraid of such things as the dark, invading armies, insects, or monsters, they aren’t actually afraid of the objects themselves, but actually afraid of what may become of them after being exposed to these things. Whether people like to admit it or not, they all fear the unknown to a degree, and their behavior in the face of such terror can lead them to act out irrationally and make uncharacteristically impulsive decisions. These kinds of decisions that anyone in a paranoid state of mind make can end up make them a bigger danger to themselves than what they claim to be afraid of. In my Japanese Film course, we’ve examined a few films which I felt explore this theme in great depth, and show what can result from the actions of those facing their worst fears right in the face. The films that I am going to discuss are Godzilla and Seven Samurai because I felt that they demonstrated this concept the best, out of all of them films we’ve watched so far in class. In this essay, I am going to use these famous milestones in Japanese cinema to demonstrate how fear and paranoia can make people a much bigger threat to themselves than the initial danger that they are facing.

The concept of a gigantic, 100-meter tall aquatic dinosaur that’s emits radiation everywhere it goes sounds frightening enough, which should be more than enough to blind any given man with fear to the point of insanity. In Godzilla, one of Japan’s first films of its signature Kaiju (giant monster) genre, it makes a point in showing how just the thought of such a creature existing can strike fear into the heart of any human being, even if it is not doing anything to significantly endanger the human race. That’s right, with the exception of needing to eat, the monster, Godzilla, rarely ever surfaces from his home at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, where no human being has immediate access to, anyway. All of the researchers and natives panicked upon seeing him when they were visiting Odo Island and he started walking around on the land, but he didn’t attack them or show any signs of wanting to harm them when he peaked his head over the cliff that the expedition team was climbing. Godzilla just looked at them and turned the other way, and headed back to his home at the bottom of the sea. Out of undeniable fear of the monster, the American Navy and the Japanese Self-Defense Forces start dropping depth charges into the water, in hopes of luring him out into a military trap. These actions, obviously, cause Godzilla to retaliate out of a natural instinct to protect his home, as well as himself, and attack Tokyo, which leaves the city a flaming, uninhabitable wasteland. Everybody was quick to keep pushing the blame on the creature, but the real fault lied in the xenophobic tendencies of those in charge at Japan, who were too afraid of the risks associated with keeping him alive to just let him live out his days without bringing any harm to anybody. All it would take to avoid him is to learn the exact coordinates of his habitat and instruct boats to avoid that area, which is what we ended up doing with the Bermuda Triangle. There was no need for our fears to drive Godzilla into such an unnecessary frenzy in the way that they did.

People’s natural tendencies to fear what they don’t know doesn’t extend to just the supernatural, but also to other people, whom they have no idea which kinds of behavior to expect from. Kurosawa Akira’s classic film, Seven Samurai, tells the story of a village of farmers who get robbed every year by a large group of bandits, so they hire a group of masterless samurai for a pittance in order to defeat the bandits and finally bring peace back to their village. Unfortunately, the idea of the samurai, of whom the farmers have so many reservations and fears about, coming to stay in their village has everybody on the verge of a massive panic. This originates when Manzo, one of the farmers who claims to know how all samurai act and behave, makes it clear that he’s terrified of what he believes might happen when they all arrive in the village. Manzo says that all the samurai that he’s met were all womanizers, and that they would come into the village looking to take all of their daughters for their own. It was because of this generalization that he thought it would be a good idea to force his daughter, Shino, to start looking like a boy, by forcibly cutting her long hair, in order to keep the samurai from eyeing her during their short stay in their village. After the rest of the farmers had heard of the ridiculous things that Manzo was doing in order to safeguard himself and his family from the samurai in the event that they turn out to be lechers, thieves, or simply bullied, they all rushed to go to equally great lengths to prepare for the worst for when the samurai do finally arrive. Upon finally coming to the town, the seven hired samurai were all baffled at why people were holding up inside of their houses, until one of them, Kikuchiyo, decided to act like a lunatic and ring a very loud bell in order to get their attention, in which case he made it very clear to them that they were not there to harm them in any way. He single-handedly proved to all of the farmers that their fear of these samurai, whom they had never met or known anything about, that had driven them into a self-destructive frenzy was for naught, and that they had only themselves to blame, for letting their fears of baseless rumors and gossip devour their peace of mind. Although I do feel that taking some simple precautions against strangers, particularly those with swords, would have been ideal and highly recommended, letting such paranoia get to them to the point where they were bringing more harm to themselves than most samurai ever would to any innocent bystanders was not only uncalled for, but also a little bit stupid. If the samurai did, in fact, turn out to be criminals, then the farmers could’ve overtaken them with superior numbers, if it ever came to that. There were so many better ways that they could’ve handles this situation, but their fear blinded them to this fact.

In many cases, the fear and paranoia that people bring upon themselves will bring them far more pain than what they were originally afraid of. It doesn’t matter what they are terrified of, whether it be a giant monster, people whom they know nothing about, or even something like everyday stress, the sometimes needless worrying and fretting about what could be is potentially the most dangerous thing that could happen to them. The irrational decisions that people make and the distress that they inflict on themselves could cripple their minds and bodies, as well as those of anyone they care about, into a very dangerous state. Japanese film directors knew that, so they tried to make it apparent to their audiences by giving them visual examples in their movies, hoping that they would understand the life-improving messages being played on-screen.