How was I born? – Yours is the drill

Oh my god, I can’t write this post. Like… this is the end. This is the best, the brightest, the most awesome story ever told, the thing that pulled my soul from living fire with fuming tongs. The thing that made me.

Well, not really, but this is the final post of my “How was I born?” series. Today is all about drills, galaxies, and robots with drills as big as galaxies.

Yup, so, Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann is a neat little anime series from 2007. Humanity has been driven underground into isolated colonies, each eking out a desperate existence, digging and suffering, while the Earth’s surface is ruled by beastmen, the cohorts of the despotic Spiral King.

Enter our fire-hearted heroes, Kamina and SHEEMON! Ruled by their indomitable passions, they break out of their underground prison and ignite a rebellion, fighting first the beastmen, then the beastmen’s boss, AND THEN THE BEASTMEN’S BOSS’S BOSS.

They do so by piloting giant robots that combine into gianter robots! This show is full of them! Also, it’s full of big passions, big boobs, big butts, and BIG, BIIIIGG DRILLS.

If that last sentence made ya think it’s a porno, well, IT IS. But not the way you think.

First of all, Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann is like, the archetypal shounen anime – a show made for boys. In every episode, there’s a big fight, usually a big explosion, and it’s all peppered with the token girl character, Yoko, showing cleavage. So, uh, yeah. It’s not what you call “high cultuer”. And yeah, it’s grimy. BUT IT’S ALSO KINDA AWESOME.

When I said it’s a porno, I meant it. You see, Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann is a determination porno. Kamina and SHEEMON are always fighting as the underdogs, underpowered and underleveled, and they always pull through by sheer will-power. (Usually preceded by a bout of self-doubt by SHEEMON!)

Ya think that’s cheesy? Yeah, well, it is. You can pretty much predict what happens in each episode. But like soap operas, kung-fu films, and, uh, porn, they do the same thing over and over again and it still works!

I mean, this is a show that can’t be spoiled. Even if I know exactly what’s gonna happen in episode 11, I’m still crying. Every single time. Why does it work? And why does it work even though it’s a misogynistic pile of macho turd? Why is it awesome even so?

I admit I’m not too analytical when it comes to this show (I’m too PUMPED UP), but I’m guessing there are two things at work here.

First, Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann doesn’t take itself too seriously. It pokes fun at its characters, its story, its genre ancestors, you name it. It’s not a very serious show – as if you couldn’t tell when Kamina’s robot catches fire and he turns it into a flaming dive kick of men’s burning soul!

…and at the same time, Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann takes itself seriously. Yes, that’s right. It does both, simultaneously. It laughs and cries at the same time. It is heroic and mock-heroic in the same scene.

That’s one of the things that makes it great. If it were only comical, you couldn’t take it seriously, well, uh, because nothing’s for keeps. Conversely, if it were only serious, you couldn’t take it seriously either, because it’s just so goddammed ridiculous. They solve the problem by being both at the same time, which is both genius and deeply natural.

The best heroes are clowns and queens in the same body. That’s what humans are, really. We’re not creatures of either-or.  We’re heaps of odd angles. We’re bags of contradicting passions. And both our heroism and our clownishness shine that much brighter because we have all those sides.

That’s why heroes have their weak moments in films. That’s why, when the underdog comes through, it’s always awesome. That’s why Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann works, even though it puts out the same formula for each of its twenty-six episodes.

So that’s the first thing. The second thing ties up with the first.

Like I said, this ain’t a perfect show. There’s a lot to hate here. But the thing is, there ain’t such a thing as a “perfect series” or a “perfect book”. I’ve touched on it when I talked about knights, and barbarians, and videogames of yore. Things just aren’t ever perfect. They’re always stained in some way. And that’s all right, peeps. That’s just all right.

Art is created by humans, and humans are flawed. If you’re under the illusion that only a perfect creation can be loved, poop it out as fast as you can.

Perfect things are dead. They are stale, inert, lifeless. Even if they could exist – and I’m sure they can’t – they would not suffer human touch upon their sleek surfaces. To enjoy a perfect creation would be made impossible by the perfect thing itself.

What we love always has an aspect of decay in it. What we love is always partially of the dirt, the worms, and the rot. Who we love are, always, part-time killers, robbers, abusive alcoholics, selfish loafers, rapists, heartless business magnates, bullies.

When I say that, though, I also mean the opposite. Nothing is all bad. Nobody is all bad. We’re wired to not believe it, but this is true: there is more to every murderer than OMG THIS GUY IS TEH EVIL. I’m not gonna say something cheesy like, “There is good in each one of us,” because that’s simplifying the issue, but I mean something like it.

Now, back to Gurren Lagann. Early on in the series, our hero, Kamina, dies. Like, he’s killed. And it isn’t retconned. He doesn’t come back. He’s killed, he’s dead.

That’s where the story really starts. That’s where all stories really start. Something irreplaceable is lost. And then we’ve got to come to terms with it.

That’s what my perfection rant is about. Life is sucky. Our loved ones die. And they don’t die meaningful, heroic deaths, either. They just randomly die. Or we get diseases. Not as punishments for our sins, but randomly. We just get cancer. Or we fall down, randomly, hit our head, and spend the rest of our lives as quadriplegics.

That shit just happens. Life isn’t perfect. Things don’t have meaning.

The thing is, we can push through that, because we can create meanings. We can overcome the suckiness in our lives (partially, at least), because we decide what things are. Fiction is, literally, just that. We create the world into what we want it to be.

That’s why let nobody tell you that fiction is not “real”. Fiction is the only thing that is real.

Okay, so, fiction isn’t real the way rocks are real. But, hey, I said stuff is imperfect, right? Fiction is the best shot we’ve got. Warts and all, we gotta love it, because it’s all we have.

In Gurren Lagann, they really hammer home that point. Our heroes don’t beat their enemies because of their mighty robots, or because they’ve trained so hard, or because they get lucky, or because they’re brilliant tacticians. No, the heroes win because they decide that they’re gonna win.

Reality – whatever that is – doesn’t urge you on when you’re knocked about. Fiction does. Fiction is the small voice in your ear, saying, “Get up. We will win.” Fiction pulls us to our feet. Fiction dusts us off. Fiction creates us. We are nothing but fiction.

Gurren Lagann is that. It’s ham-fisted, it’s juvenile, it’s laughing at itself snot running down its chin, it’s brave, it’s desperate, it’s big, it’s meaningless, it’s a wizard, a pauper, it suffers from incontinence, and it’s the galaxy’s best fighter. All in one bag.

That’s fiction, and that’s us.

 

Anyway, I got nothing more to say. This is the end of my “How was I born?” series. These are the pieces of fiction that made me. Good night, peeps, and remember… yours is the drill that will pierce the heavens.

How was I born? – Giant Robots AND EVERYTHING

If there’s one thing that can compete with knights for my undying love, it’s GIANT ROBOTS. So welcome, peeps! Time for my penultimate “How was I born?” episode! On today’s menu is Giant Robo: The Day the Earth Stood Still.

So what’s going on here? Giant Robo is an anime miniseries, airing originally from 1992 to 1998, comprising six episodes that tell a single story. The plot? It goes something like this.

Kusama Daisaku is a preteen kid. His father created the WORLD’S MOST POWERFUL ROBOT… the eponymous JAIANTO ROBO. Now, Daisaku teams up with an international police organisation, the Experts of Justice, who battle the nefarious BF Group, who are bent on world domination!

Our heroes, the Experts of Justice, are comprised of Chinese magicians, superheroes, blue Amazon ladies who turn into horses, immortal private investigators, and the aforementioned JAIANTO ROBO who can only be controlled by Daisaku. Their opponents, the BF Group, are made up of sorcerers, ninjas, and an assload of gigantic robots that shoot lazers and throw rocket punches. Also, they create a floating Death Star that will destroy everything, unless the Experts of Justice, with Daisaku, can stop it!

Throw in, for good measure, teleporting Chinese chicks, mad scientists, nuclear accident analogies, and a dude who will DESTROY THE DEATH STAR WITH A SINGLE PUNCH. (And Alberto. There’s a guy called Alberto. He’s the best.) And this is neither a comedy nor a parody. It’s all played straight.

Soo… yeah. You think I’m pulling this out of my ass? Nope.

Apparently some Japanese guy was a prolific manga artist, and he wrote a lot of comics. Some were about giant robots, some were about Chinese heroes. Some were about something else.

Then another guy comes in and decides, “Yo, this guy is great! I’m making an anime that combines everything he ever did!

That’s Giant Robo: The Day the Earth Stood Still. Seriously, it has everything. It has wildly mis-matched everything. There’s retro-futuristic robots and lazers rubbing shoulders with medieval Chinese boys whose drums cause soundwaves powerful enough to destroy ninjas. And they all just coexist like it’s cool.

Ya know, I was kinda taught to believe that fiction should be consistent. Like, when you do world-building, you should make sure the pieces fit together. And I’m kinda awed at how Giant Robo blows that clear out of the water. For me, that’s big.

Like, there are rules… and then you can disregard the rules if you know what you’re doing. (And you’ve got eggs of steel.)

Those are the rules we’re taught. There are more insidious rules too, rules that we’ve internalised and so don’t even realise they’re there. They’re rules that whisper into our ears. They tell us to be “proper”. They say, “That’s not what real writers should do.” Or, “That’s childish and stupid.” Or, “That’s okay, I guess, but you should tone it down a bit.”

Giant Robo sorta blows those rules out too, with their insidious whispers. Giant Robo does what it wants, because it’s honest to its wants and it doesn’t give a damn.

There’s something that the wonderful and all-wise Vilja-Tuulia Huotarinen wrote once that’s stuck with me forever. I paraphrase, but it was something like, we’ve all got our own poetics in us. Our own language in which we write. And shame be damned, that language is ours, no matter how gross, fantastic, outlandish, weird, shy, rude, or disgusting it might be. It is our language. It is what we write in.

Giant Robo, its giant robots and ninjas, is what happens when that language is interpreted to its fullest. It’s not “immature” nor is it “over-the-top”.

It is its own truth.

How was I born? – The Knight of Lodis

Hey, more knights, yaaay!

Um, hi y’all, Alice here! The end of my “How was I born?” series nears completion. Only a couple more to go! This here episode is devoted to a little videogame in the Tactics Ogre series, called The Knight of Lodis (2002 for GBA).

So this is a neat little strategy game, kinda like the better known Final Fantasy Tactics. You got your cute little group of soldiers that you manoeuvre around a cute little map to battle your cute little enemies. After that, a cute little cutscene unfolds, you do cute little training sessions, and battle a cute little demon angel in the end!

Seriously, everything is cute and little in this game! Like d’aaaww, lookit your iddle dragon-training knights with their iddle winged helms!

Then you get to the story and the cuteness ends. You’re part of a military order of religious nuts, you go to further the oppression of a small island country, battle its brutal regent lord, kill your battle-brother, and just barely prevent the resurrection of the aforementioned monstrous demon angel. Afterward, your deeds are forgotten by history.

Soo… yeah. Dis game look cute, but the contents? Dark as the international petroleum business.

And, since I’m a creepy bitch, I love it! However, I don’t love it just for the sake of its cuteness (though it’s a factor), or its darkness (also a factor). I love it because it does something grander. On a meta level. Kinda. Lemme explain.

So Knight of Lodis is a videogame, right? It’s pretty fun. It looks attractive, building your army is cool, not to mention digging for treasure and trying to storm that goddam Ostorea Castle! It’s fun. It’s entertainment. As in, it wants to entertain us.

(Your mileage may vary here – dying pathetically in Ostorea for the twentieth time may not be your idea of entertainment, but it was fun for me, at least.)

However, despite being entertainment, Knight of Lodis doesn’t shy away from a mature story rife with heavy themes. And to boot, it isn’t self-flagellant in its darkness (like ooh, ooh, things are so grimdark here, they eat babies, ooh, ooh!), nor does it rub any undue complexity in the player’s face. It’s pretty low-key about its maturity, really.

Like, it’s entertainment, but it still assumes you got a brain. It lets you use that brain, too. But it isn’t like, “Oh, you gotta figure this puzzle out in order to GET ANYTHING!” It’s just, yo girl, dis world pretty complex, like da real world, jus’ try to get your army around as best you can, alright?

Okay, so, I’m kinda excited and can’t put this into writing very well. What I wanna say is, The Knight of Lodis recognises that there’s no line between “serious art” and “entertainment”. It’s all one big category where everybody’s fucking everyone else.

Like, you can have a brain and be pretty. You can be a killer and be loving to strangers. You can be a Red Cross volunteer and molest children in your spare time. And, folks, you can be genuine in all the categories. Y’all understand? It’s not like, you’re a brainiac under that nail-polish shallowness – like one category is a fake, and beneath that you’re the true you.

No, the true you is both. The true you is like, I wanna paint my nails and have fake eyelashes and bling on like crazy, and these new cancer meds need more tests, Imma be in my lab.

So, like, Knight of Lodis was one of the first games to tell me that. Like, you can overclock cuteness with your angel knights and contemplate the lure of authority at the same time.

I know Knight of Lodis isn’t the only game (book, film, you name it) to do that, ‘course. It’s just that for me, it was the first. Or the one I remember, anyway. If you’ve got your own games, novels, or films that did the same to you – please, tell me, I’m all for finding new ones!

Okay. Until next time, peeps. And remember, it’s always AND, never OR!

How was I born? – Seven Swords

Heya peeps! Alice here. Time for another peek into the favourite things of my heart.

So, in each installment of “How was I born?” I’m gonna introduce y’all a piece of fiction that has a special place in my heart – a piece of fiction that made me who I am. Today it’s a film: Tsui Hark’s Seven Swords (2005).

Seven Swords tells the story of seven magic swords, their wielders, and how they fight villains. Each of the swords is funky in an over-the-top way (like the “two-bladed” sword), and all of the villains are painted white, dressing in black leather and spikes. During its most coherent moments, the plot is still a jumble, and the characters try to display grand emotions while falling, mostly, flat. Soo… yeah. Seven Swords is not really a great film.

Why did I pick it, then? Well… I’m not sure. I’ve got a soft spot for Chinese films, particularly wuxia, but there are tons better than Seven Swords. Why this film, oh, why?

I think because, ultimately, it’s like a showcase of the things that made me first fall in love with wuxia, back when I saw A Chinese Ghost Story. I was fourteen, maybe? To me, that stuff was just wild: everybody was flying, swords were spinning faster than I could comprehend, blue light flooded the forest, there were demon trees, Taoist magic, and crazy old geezers doing spins and kicks. Like… whaaat… and… woooow.

Seven Swords is full of that stuff. Say what you will, its direction and cinematography are jammed with the most garish and striking scenes and images. It’s so over-the-top and unapologetic that I’m like, “Okay, film, you got me there, you’ve got the eggs.”

I don’t really know what it says about me that I like this kind of film. I mean, okay, I love fantasy, and wuxia films are fantastical to a bizarre degree. And I guess that’s a part of it. The bizarreness.

I mean, correct me if I’m wrong, but it feels like nowadays people are churning out fantasy that’s firmly rooted in reality. I mean, realistic, gritty fairy-tale retellings? Yup. Fantasy protagonists burdened with everyday affairs? Yup. Heroes with psychologically appropriate responses to violence? Yup.

Don’t take me wrong, nothing bad in that by itself. It’s just that maybe I’ve had too much, and I want something else.

Something like Seven Swords. Y’know, fantasy that doesn’t pretend any connections to any world except its own land of make-believe magic and make-believe emotions. Like, instead of, “Emma felt the pangs of regret as she let the dead daisy slide from her soot-smeared palm. Had she unwittingly become an agent of this ecological destruction?” I’m looking for, “OOH, I’m so hungry Imma eat the WORLD! And I can grow spikes from my hands! SWISH SWISH SWISH! Oh HI MOM! You’ll be my bride, and give birth to my DAUGHTER, WHO IS ALSO MY SISTER! I’ll teach her my DRAGON MAGIC!”

So, yeah. Psychological realism is all cool, folks. But it’s not the be-all and end-all of writing. Humans aren’t psychologically realistic either, after all.

All they are is psychologically real.

(Or maybe just psycho, and real.)

 

Fun fact: when writing this post, every time I wrote “Seven Swords” I tried to misspell it as “Sven Swords”. So, HÄR KOMMER JAG MED SVÄÄÄRDET, HAI-YAH!

Don’t try so hard

Hi peeps! Alice here. So here’s something I’ve said before, but in our overcharged atmosphere, it bears repeating. Endlessly.

Don’t try so hard. Work a little less. Don’t try to achieve your dreams. Don’t beat yourself up if you haven’t achieved success. Do a little bit of nothing. Procrastinate. Ooh, that’s right, procrastinate.

When did that become a dirty word? Procrastinate. Do a little bit of nothing. Get bored. Skip doing things. Spend time staring at the dust on your floor. Procrastinate, then procrastinate some more, and then some more.

Procrastination is good. Procrastination is heavenly. Procrastination is magic. Procrastinators are my new heroes, because they understand the deeper truth of the world: there’s no point in trying so goddam hard.

Also, fuck all this noise:

Society telling you to work harder and fulfill your dreams. People telling you that perseverance leads to success. Tips to optimise your schedule. Society shaming you for not working, doing, or being enough.

They’re all lying.

God created us imperfect; procrastination is when He smiles upon us. Heed the call.

How was I born? – Hot medicine

Heya my little marshmallows! What up? Time to get ahead with my “How was I born?” series!

First, a shout-out to Madame Writer! This one’s for you, my friend. Remember that time we talked about Mononoke, and I said I was gonna do a post about it? This is it, at long last.

Soo… I’m bit of an anime fan-girl. Was since I been seventeen or so. I’ve suffered through a fair few animes, and despite my fan-girlness, I don’t hesitate to say most of them sucked. Occasionally, however, I’ve come across a gem.

Like Mononoke.

Now, don’t confuse this with the Miyazaki flick, Princess Mononoke. Despite similarities in name, they’ve got zero to do with each other. Mononoke, our topic of the day, is a 2007 TV series, made as a spin-off of another series from a year earlier, Ayakashi: Samurai Horror Tales.

Mononoke takes place in 19th century Japan, and plays out kinda like a supernatural horror whodunit. We got our investigator, the sweet, hot, awesome, deadpan guy known only as “the Medicine Seller”. He’s got a special mandate to seek out and destroy troublesome Japanese ghosts. Then he does just that, first finding the people the ghost is bothering, then interrogating them to find out stuff about the ghost, then finishing by destroying the ghost. Simple!

Weird fact: I didn’t discover Mononoke through Ayakashi, as you might think. I first watched Ayakashi about halfway through, then dropped it out of boredom. Later, I found out about Mononoke from another source and fell in love with the Medicine Seller and we lived happily ever after it. Then, through whatever perversity, I got back to Ayakashi and watched it to the end… finding, to my surprise, that the last three episodes deal with the Medicine Seller’s adventures!

So, what makes Mononoke so great that my loins boil every time I think about it? A bunch of things! Like, the art is trippy. You think horror’s gotta be dark in colour? Wait till you see them red ribbons! EEEeeeewww!

The awesomeness of the visuals isn’t restricted to the acidic art, though! The animation is a sight to behold, too – oddly, because it’s so restrained. Often, though there’s barely any movement at all, there’s a sense of kinetic magnificence. The animators clearly made a decision, and it was not to animate. ‘Course, when they do make stuff move, you see that they know what’s what.

And then the direction! The cuts! The angles! Ooh, aah… and the goddam expressions the people wear! Like, y’all ever read Blacksad? The expressions are awesome like that, except in a way all their own.

Anyway, as dazzling as all those visual fireworks are, that’s not what really grabbed my heart and squeezed it dry of its juice. It’s not the creepy stories either, or the bodily horror. It’s not even the sweet, hot, awesome, deadpan lead character.

It’s the fact that I know fuck all about what’s going on.

In Mononoke, they sure don’t lead you by the hand. They tease, they imply, they omit, they plain-out hide. It’s up to you to figure the puzzle out, and they keep mixing the pieces. Sometimes it’s easier, like in “Umibōzu”, and sometimes it’s plain impossible, like in “Noppera-bō”.

It’s just head-spinningly awesome. I love it when I don’t know what’s going on.

I also love it when I have to use my own brain to figure it all out. And I love it even more when, despite all my efforts, I don’t discover everything there is to discover! I love it when things stay mysterious.

Needless to say, Mononoke stays tasty through multiple watchings.

As a writer (and reader), there are two take-aways here. First, we gotta trust our readers that they will get our hints – we mustn’t explain things through. Not even when our readers demand us the answers. Especially not then.

Second, we gotta trust ourselves, trust that we’ll get through without hints. We don’t have to know every goddam secret to enjoy a thing. In fact, there’s a great power in being comfortable in a situation where you know jack.

Peeps, you see, life is chaos. And in chaos, you can’t know everything.

How was I born? – Deep in the dungeons

Okay peeps, put yo hipster glasses on. Time to see who did what before it was cool!

Jus’ kidding. But, today Imma talk about NetHack, which came about pretty much before any of us were born.

What the heck is NetHack? It’s a videogame, one of dem “dungeon crawlers”, i.e. where your alter ego tromps through underground caves and tunnel systems, fighting monsters, foiling traps, and finding treasure. In NetHack, you travel deep underground, find a magic amulet, then climb back up and become a god or whatever.

Like with any self-respecting dungeon crawler, the story is bollocks. Like, there barely is any story – you just go into the damn dungeon, grab the amulet, and get out. If you can. But, the super wonderful thing in NetHack is that you can do anything. Or, like, you are stuck in the dungeon, but within those limits, you can do anything.

You can kick dogs and farm slimes. You can rob a shop by digging through the floor. Then you can evade the police by leading them into traps of your own design. You can wish for a dragon and get it – only if it is hostile, it’ll kill you.

The “anything” in NetHack is really quite overwhelming. You can do thousands of things, and nobody tells you how. On the other hand, you don’t have to know jack. You can just tap away and hope luck carries you till the end. Usually you just die, though. In that vein, NetHack was Dark Souls before the first King’s Field came out.

Soo… within dem limits, NetHack is so open-ended as to be kinda crazy. And, coupled with the fact that the story practically doesn’t exist, it creates a kind of magic: I can actually decide what the story is.

The story is what I do.

From a writing perspective, you’d think that’s kind of a nightmare, right? Not much use for a writer in a game like NetHack, right? After you’ve outlined the plot (“Player goes into this dungeon, at the bottom of which is the Amulet of Yendor. They get the amulet. Then they get out.”) you’re basically out of the picture… right?

Yeah, so, lately I’ve been dabbling in making videogames. I got nothing concrete to show you peeps yet, but I done a crapload of thinkin’ and adjustin’. That is, adjustin’ my writer self to the fact that writing can be a hell of a lot more than just words on paper and stories about characters who do stuff, save kingdoms, and grow as people as a result.

From a game design perspective, writing can be almost anything. Writing is deciding what the monsters are like, what weapons the player uses, and what the winding paths of the dungeon are like. (Oh, hello, world-building!)

I know some people are gonna say that those things are not writing decisions, they are game design decisions, but hey fuck y’all, this is about the revelations I’m having.

The revelation is that you can build it all. Nothing in a game comes pre-determined. (Kinda.) In the same vein, nothing in writing does, either. (Also kinda.)

In that regard, it’s ever more amazing to me how often people stick to grindingly boring and obvious clichés. Okay, so you’re making a new game? That’s great! What’s it about? Oh? A hero who’s a chosen one, gifted with magical power so that he alone can defeat an ancient evil rising from a thousand-year-old slumber, an evil bent on devouring the green crystal that keeps the world in balance?

O… kay…?

I know there are psychological reasons why people stumble onto those clichés time and time again, but… just… gimme a moment here. My mind boggles.