Sunday, January 19, 2014

Goya’s Giants and Attack on Titan

I’ve never watched a great deal of anime, not out of any particular prejudice against the medium, mind you, but for the same reason that I’ve never watched The Wire or Breaking Bad: I am reluctant to make the necessary time investment.  But I heard that Attack on Titan was the shit, and when I watched the trailer for it, I was powerfully struck by the image of the monstrous giants at the heart of the show.

Some background for those who are not yet aficionados.   Attack on Titan is an anime series about a dark future in which the Earth has been overrun by giants (the Titans) who eat humans, and the remaining human population has withdrawn behind a series of massive walls.  The Titans vary in appearance: some have idiot grins plastered on their faces while others glitter with sadism   They vary in height, with the so-called “Colossal Titan” reaching over fifty meters tall.  It’s this Colossal Titan that first drew me into the show.  He looks like this:

It’s probably a failure in terms of my skills as a critic, but I can’t quite articulate the feelings that that image evokes in me.  It’s unsettling and maybe uncanny.  It’s also somewhat moving.  It reminds me of the giants that Goya painted, and which evoke a deep pathos.

And as long as we’re on the subject of Goya and titans who eat people, we mustn’t forget Goya’s famous painting of Saturn devouring one of his sons (which Goya painted directly onto the wall of his house; he theoretically looked at it while eating dinner):
Now, the Saturn picture is just gruesome.  But if we can turn back to his giants, we find a far greater complexity.  They’re these towering piles of flesh and musculature; they’re big, puffed-up towers of humanity.  A giant is likely to have giant-sized feelings: gigantic melancholy, gigantic rage, and gigantic caprice.  It’s this capriciousness that can prove especially deadly for us regular-sized humans, as Goya was quite aware and as proves to be the case in Attack on Titan.  Eren, the protagonist, makes reference to the horror of “living at their mercy.” One has no peace of mind with monstrous forces like this on the loose.  They can kill you at their leisure.  At the time of this writing, I am seven episodes into the series.  Maybe the Titan killing machines will develop a more Goya-esque complexity, as the seventh episode suggests will be the case.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Language is a Virus from Inner Space: Mari Asato’s Gomennasai (Ring of Curse)

*Spoiler alert.  Actually, the ending is really cool, so maybe see the movie before reading the review*

I suspect that ever since the first Sumerians carved their cuneiform into clay tablets, there has been a desire amongst certain people to turn the written word into a deadly curse.  If words are magical (and any animist and anyone with OCD can tell you that they are), then written words are the most efficacious kind, because they have material reality and permanence.  The theme of a book that will kill its reader pops up in different places in modern literature.  I am thinking specifically of Miroslav Pavic’s The Khazar Dictionary, which makes prominent use of a poisoned book, and Enrique Vila-Matas’s Never Any End to Paris, in which he discusses a book he wrote in his youth that was supposed to kill its readers (and I think he actually did write that book, but it has not been translated into English yet; oh, and it probably doesn’t actually kill the reader; I feel like it would be more well-known if it did).  There’s also a J. G. Ballard story somewhere, the name of which escapes me right now, which concludes with the revelation that reading the story will cause one to die (and, knock on wood, but I read that like four years ago and I’m still alive).

All of this is some background context for Mari Asato’s 2011 film Gomennasai (or Gomen nasai), released in the US with the idiotic title Ring of Curse.  But don’t let said title fool you, as this is an excellent movie, and the first Japanese horror film I’ve seen in a long time that doesn’t feature jump scares or the typical long-haired, pale-skinned, water-logged Asian horror movie ghost (“Japanese floaty girl” is how they describe her in the end credits of The Cabin in the Woods).  Gomennasai is about a put upon Japanese high school student name of Kurohane-san who seeks revenge against her awful classmates (not so much her teachers, whom we almost never see; the students spend most of their time at school in unsupervised “self-study” sessions).  She does this by means of her cursed writing, which will kill anyone who reads it, and the movie follows her attempts to disseminate it and the attempts of our hero, Yuka, to defeat her.

Now, perhaps the most satisfying thing about this movie is that we have in Yuka a protagonist who gets it, and who has the critical thinking skills necessary to figure out what needs to be done to survive a horror movie.  After being cursed along with several other girls, who begin to die one by one, Yuka, who knows her shit, realizes that the curse doesn’t kill in the order of exposure to it.  So if A is cursed, and then B, and then C, it doesn’t necessarily mean that A will be killed before B and B before C.  It could go BAC, or CAB, etc.  And so Yuka, harnessing the power of statistics, decides that her best hope for survival can actually be found in actively spreading the curse to as many people as possible.  Because if ten people are cursed, then her chances of dying are one in ten.  If one hundred people are cursed, one in one hundred.  If one thousand are cursed… well, you get the idea.  At the end, she tells us that she has spread the curse so effectively that the odds of dying from it are less than the odds of getting in a fatal car accident.  Also, by watching the movie, and reading the opening credits, we the viewers have also been cursed, and it is in our interests to get as many people to watch the movie as possible.  Now that’s clever.  Yuka actually spreads the curse far beyond what Kurohane-san could have achieved on her own.  It’s not the sort of cold and calculating conduct we expect from our “final girls,” but they would be well advised to follow Yuka’s lead in future.  Or at least to familiarize themselves with the laws of statistics.