Saturday, April 28 2007

The Warning Moment in Anime

Something crystallized for me when I read Steven den Beste's post at 20070426.2300.  He discusses anime that turned out to be different than what he expected at the start of the series.

A lot of series come packaged in a way that sells them as something other than what they turn out to be. If you have the wrong idea about the series, you're likely to be disappointed. Maybe if you know what it actually is you'll be disappointed anyway, but if you know ahead of time at least you won't be surprised. And you have a better chance of choosing things that fit your tastes.

This is something I've noticed over the years as well.  I like comedy anime, but generally not straight comedy.  Straight comedy series generally turn into a series of running gags.  I need plot, and for plot you need tension or conflict.  It can be the neverending series of trials between a couple of romantically involved highschool students or an attempt to save the entire universe from a deranged madman.

On the other hand, I generally hate anime that start as comedies and go all dark and depressing by the end.  If I wanted that, I'd take some horror series to start with.  Too many anime lose all humor by the middle of the series, leaving the end as a depressing slog of angst and despair.

One dead giveaway I look for in the series is the "warning point".  This is the point in the series where the creators give you a hint as to how serious they are going to make the series later.  Generally, it consists of a brief episode of violence far more serious than anything seen before in the series, and generally of a tragic and shocking nature.

If the series so far has consisted of the heroes bashing evil monsters and all of a sudden one of the heroes gets seriously wounded, this should serve as a warning to the audience.  "This is serious combat.  The heroes are not immortal and are at risk.  If we need to, we will kill them."

If the heroes screw up, and innocents are hurt or killed, this is also a warning to the audience.  "The heroes are on an important quest.  If they fail, it will come at a cost."

In lighter shows, often athletic or other contest series which don't involve the threat of death or injury to the main characters, a similar emotional reaction can be had by having our prodigy hero, or their more-skilled teacher, defeated once or twice early on.  The hero may eventually triumph, but the audience is put on notice that there is someone out there with the skill that the outcome is not a foregone conclusion.

Often, the series will then go back to a fair number of lighter episodes before the level of seriousness reaches the same peak or goes beyond it.  Sometimes, the seriousness never materializes.  But the fact that you know, emotionally, that the authors are willing to go to that level adds tension to the series.  Intellectually, you may know its just a TV show.  You may even know how it ends (or at least that there's a sequel in the works).  But that emotional reaction is there.

I have found that If this warning point doesn't appear and the series gets progressively darker and more depressing then I'm always disappointed by what the series ends as.

I think the best non-spoiler example of this I can give is American, actually.  It's part of the central Spiderman backstory that with Peter's powers come great responsibility.  Early on in the movie, Peter doesn't use his power when he has an opportunity, and as a result, his uncle gets killed.  Peter and the audience are on notice that there is a real price to failure in the world of the series, and it is demonstrated with the senseless death of an innocent.

For more examples, often spoilers, click More below:
[Spoilers are for: Martian Successor Nadesico, Trigun, Angelic Layer, Mahou Shojo Lyrical Nanoha, and The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya]


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Thursday, April 26 2007

Guns for the Children

Interesting debate at Jeff Goldstein's site on the FCC's attempt to regulate violence on TV.  There are several interesting musings I have in this topic, but I'll only inflict one on you this evening.

In a previous post, I wrote that I thought that the correlation between the traditional groupings that divided a culture into subcultures (race, religion, ethnicity, etc.) were having less of an influence on what other groupings an individual belongs to.  There are some traditional ways of grouping individuals that are still valid predictors of what other groupings an individual belongs to, or, rather, there are traditional groupings that still can be predicted to a large degree by what other groupings a person belongs to and will continue to be predictable in the foreseeable future.  The one that interests me today is age.

Hobby and interest groupings often develop out of relationships with peers, and especially at the school and college ages when one has copious free time and associates with peers of the same age.

Almost everybody imagines the good parts of their own particular childhood as the exemplar of what a childhood should be.  I get around a table of gaming buddies (one of the hobbies in which I am an age outlier and in which there is a diversity) and in discussions of childhood, everyone had it best in their own particular childhood.  Everyone's TV programs were the best, everyone's movies were the best, everyones genres were the best.  One odd predictor of age I have seen is for those who like Mel  Brooks movies, which movie is the best.  People who were raised on a diet of Westerns like Blazing Saddles, people who grew up to Star Wars like Spaceballs, etc.  It's not a surprising observation as each of his movies was written to track to a particular genre.

How does this relate to violence on TV?  Those of us who remember being children in the 80's and 90's look at TV and already see a children's programming lineup reduced to mush by previous campaigns against TV violence.  Those of older generations constantly remind us of what we missed in the way of the good Looney Tunes cartoons.  The political affiliation of the poster doesn't matter except as in which group of politicians get most of the blame.  The liberals blame the social conservative fundamentalists, the conservatives blame the nanny state non-violent progressives.

The problem is the prime voting age population takes a look at the present situation and sees someone who claims they can make it right by getting all the garbage off of TV, without realizing that the garbage on TV isn't particularly worse then when they originally grew up.  I have my own theories that place some of the blame for the current cultural problems (which are relatively mild when you actually look at the symptoms rather than the hype) on TV, but not in the places where you would normally look.

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Monday, April 23 2007

Anime, Pop Culture, and the Virginia Tech Killings

This post is an attempt to look at reaction to the killings at Virginia Tech through the lens of popular culture, specifically by examining how a isolated hobby such as anime relates to the overall American culture. There is not much that can be said about the tragedy itself that hasn't already been said, but hopefully we can learn something by studying the reaction to the killings without dishonoring those who were murdered.

Hi! My name is Civilis and I'm an Otaku.
Hi! My name is Civilis and I'm an Otaku. The consensus of the English usage of the word Otaku is to refer to a fan of anime, manga, or other Japanese popular culture. It is, at first glance, an odd hobby, and the reasons behind my personal interest in the subject are best left for another time. The reason such a hobby even exists is that it is a product of modern technology and the overall expansiveness of Western and specifically American culture.

In an earlier post, I looked at how people can be viewed as belonging to a number of subcultural groups, based on family background, education, occupation, political affiliation, and other interests. I proposed that these groupings overlapped to some degree, and we can examine where the overlap is greater or less than what would occur by chance and try to identify the roots of correlation. I finally expressed that I was more interested in groups based on hobbies or other interests rather than the more widely examined groups based on demographic factors.

The fact that there could be enough of an interest in a specific subcategory of foreign TV to drive a market is in itself pretty amazing. Commercially, it relies on the ability to be able to produce and distribute to those with the interest effectively, meaning that it has to be cheap enough to produce the DVD and it has to be distributed in areas with enough fans that it makes economic sense to invest in selling the product. The hobby now relies on the
internet to spread interest in the hobby and allow geographically diverse fans to communicate. In short, the hobby is a product of modern economics and communications. Without the ability to use modern communications to reach a widely distributed but thinly spread fanbase, or the economic ability to bring a complicated product over and adapt it across a language barrier, the hobby would not exist.

But any hobby, interest, or other grouping relies on reaching enough people to sustain it, no matter the technology level. Take a look at popular entertainment: theater, music, and (later) movies. Before the ability to record, these had to be produced locally, meaning you had to have sufficient population density to get the talent naturally or a patron with the money to bring the talent together, and you listened to what was available locally. Outside of a major urban area, choice was limited, and therefore the correlation between geographic location and specific entertainment styles was high. If you lived in this area, you listed to that variety of music or saw that sort of theater. The ability to record music or turn theater into movies allowed a wealthy patron (or group of investors) to distribute choice entertainment to a wider audience, so one had gained the ability to choose between what was available locally and what was popular enough to be distributed nationally, and the amount available on a national level expanded as the number of producers of recorded entertainment expanded. Radio and TV enabled the expansion of single source of entertainment, say a radio or TV station, to serve a wider area, which caused competition between overlapping stations (this has, alas, been lost to some degree because each station now seems to be part of a larger, multi-station chain).

To summarize, technological improvements have meant that producers of hobbies and interests can produce more effectively, which has enabled more choice for consumers, and has driven the explosion of diversified interests we see today.

How does this relate to the reaction to the shooting at Virginia Tech? There seems to be a rush to blame one or more cultural factors, and specifically cultural factors that are subcultural groups that tend to correlate with teens and college age adults and those which have an established correlation with antisocial activities: video games, violent movies, and rap music. I play games, including video games. I am constantly amazed as to the sheer inaccuracy of media reporting on this subject, and on any hobby I have knowledge of. I suspect it is because the sheer number of cultural groups is such that most members of the media have little experience with many hobbies and interests.

The killer played video games. Therefore video games must be bad. We see this sort of logic all the time. In an earlier post, I looked at why there may be a correlation between political leanings and interest in anime, and saw that while there may be a correlation, it is based on indirect factors. But talking heads, especially talking heads with an agenda, can't or won't take the time to see if the correlation is indirect. Perhaps anti-social kids are more prone to find video games an engaging source of entertainment and are more prone to having destructive psychological problems build without receiving intervention.

Is there a negative correlation between being heavily involved in politics and playing video games? Of course, between the age and the time factor, there are obvious reasons most people in politics don't have any first hand experience with video games to see how absolutely incoherent their knowledge of the subject is. Similar conclusions can be drawn from other hobbies blamed for violence.

At some fundamental level, American and Western culture is both strengthened and weakened by the overwhelming number of hobbies and interests anyone can choose to invest time in. Fundamentally, we must recognize that we have much less in common with our neighbors and colleagues than we once did, and that this freedom to pursue different courses of happiness is a fundamental good that nonetheless has a cost.

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Thursday, April 19 2007

Firearms Ownership and Crime Rates

[Seems that the tragedy at Virginia Tech has taken over my train of thought recently.  Don't worry, I'll be tying it all together.]

I had some thoughts in regard to the discussion of gun control and measures that could be taken to prevent a repeat of Monday's massacre, sparked by the discussion here, here and here.  The substance of the debate lies between two general positions, one which says that reducing the number of guns by increasing restrictions on gun ownership reduces violence and one which says that increasing the number of gun owners licensed to carry decreases violence.  Each position insists that it is correct and that the other is wrong.  My position is that both groups are correct, depending on circumstances outside the scope of the debate.  Note:  this is all speculative, as anyone can find the statistics to prove what they want anyways.


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Tuesday, April 17 2007

Thoughts on the Virginia Tech Tragedy

This post may turn out to be unexpectedly serious.  Both my immediate supervisor and one of the secretaries at work have sons at Virginia Tech.  Both are alright, as are their immediate circles of friends (as I understand it).  My bosses' son had a class scheduled in the building at 11:00.  The secretary's son was just entering the building when he was warned out.

Its too soon to draw conclusions from this event, aside from the obvious. This is a serious tragedy. Our condolences go out to all the families and friends of those killed.  There were heroes among the dead, and a few among the living.  Beyond that, not much is certain.

Part of me wants to second guess the actions of all involved.  Part of me realizes that its too soon to do so.  Perhaps when the facts come out we can look back and come to some sort of idea.  But the emotions are too raw to allow anything other than anger or sadness to come out.

While I won't attempt to analyze the events themselves yet, I will take a look at how I and others outside the events look at what happened.  It took a while after the full extent of the tragedy became known before the reality of what happened sank in, but I feel the reflected shock from coworkers with a connection to the tragedy.

I see anger from coworkers, superficially directed at the authorities of Virginia Tech, as if the perfect vision of hindsight should have been obvious.  It's anger at the impotence of being unable to do anything, of not having a perfect solution.

In the real world, there are no perfect solutions.  Everything has a tradeoff.  Imagining that some perfect level of gun control or perfect freedom of self-defense would solve all the problems is a luxury available to those living in a world of ideals.  Everything can be better for a sufficiently defined value of 'better', but no one can agree on defining what 'better' is.

I'm going to go back on what I said earlier.  I will make a statement regarding contributing cultural factors to this incident after hearing in the background a press talking head asking leading questions about gun control to one of the state law enforcement chiefs.


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Monday, April 16 2007

James Bond versus the Conspiracy Theories

I like a good spy action movie, and for decent production values, few do the genre better than James Bond.  In addition to the normal Bond question (Sean Connery), an interesting question to ask when discussing the movie series is: which is your favorite Bond movie?

In my case, the answer is hard to say.  I like the one where the bad guy is trying to get the two big countries to go to war against each other by faking attacks between the two.  Tomorrow Never Dies?  No, the other one.  The Spy who Loved Me?  No, the other other one.  Diamonds are Forever?  The Living Daylights?  You Only Live Twice?

The plot is a fairly common one.  Two enemies, currently at a (relative) state of peace or at least a cold war, are pushed into a deeper conflict by a third party.  It's been done in anime (El Hazard is probably my favorite example).  It's been done with the third party being the good guys (Yojimbo / A Fistful of Dollars / Last Man Standing).  Just about every Saturday Morning Cartoon show has used the plot at one time or another.

How do we recognize this plot?  We look for one of two things.  One, the presence of a party to the conflict that is supposedly neutral that deals with both sides and profits from conflict between them.  Often an arms dealer or something similar, he first shows up about the time of the first incident that escalates the conflict.  Alternatively, a militaristic member of one faction willing to go to any length to get ahead of the traditional enemy and resentful of the more diplomatic approaches taken by the current power structure.  Once you see one of those in the plot, you know he'll be the ultimate cause of the war, and it becomes up to the heroes to deliver justice and stop the villain.

Where else do we see this plot?  The conspiracy theories that have sprung up around 9/11.   It all falls into place when you assume what the conspiracy theorists assume about the administration.  Each and every member is a wannabe General Ripper.  Depending on the personal bogeymen of the individual involved, the International Jooish Conspiracy, the Military-Industrial-Oil Complex, or the Fanatic Christianists take the role of the neutral third party.  If you know they're evil, you know there's a plot involved somewhere, or else there wouldn't be a story.  If there's no story, there's no way for you to be a hero.

This idea of fitting facts to a preconceived narrative is everywhere in the news.  If you see a poor minority woman claiming to be oppressed by a group of rich young men, especially rich jocks, you know that the narrative demands that the woman be the good guy and the jocks the bad guy no matter what the evidence tells you.  When the lone, plucky scientist stands up against big industry, he's always the good guy.  Its a tempting trap, and its one we all fall into.

To start, we need to examine the way culture at all levels shapes the way we think and act.  But that is a later discussion.

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Sunday, April 15 2007

Weekend Horror: A Trip to the Gaming Vaults

Well, it's Sunday, and I'm completely burned out.  However, I somehow managed to complete my  taxes, so I have an excuse.  Rather than try to find something to create a profound comment on, I've decided to go in to the horrors of my hard drive for something to scare or at least amuse you.  I have a collection of gaming files I have created, from character designs to abortive attempts at fan fiction.  If you are curious what my mind does when it isn't trying to make a profound philosophical point out of the geekiest bits of modern American culture, read on...

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Thursday, April 12 2007

Objectives, Games, and Ludicrous Conspiracy Theories

(Before we get started with a discussion of games and how they relate to logical analysis of current events, read this article by Bill Whittle at Eject! Eject! Eject!)

As I have mentioned, one of my hobbies is playing games of all sorts.   Card, board, miniature, roleplaying, computer, console... you name it. Although it may seem simple to say, the key to success is to always remember what the objective of the game is.  Again, this is often something that seems simple to do.  In chess, your objective is to put your opponents king in a position where he cannot save it from capture.  In Clue, your objective is to determine which suspect, location, and weapon card have been set aside.  This is generally pretty easy to do.

Matters are complicated when you start determining what series of steps are necessary to reach that final objective.  There is an old board game called Assassin.  It's generally similar to Monopoly, in that you travel around a board amassing money and resources, with the added step of then using the money to hire assassins to attempt to kill the other players.  The objective of the game is to be the last player alive.  But you can't do that without hiring assassins to remove other players, and for that you need money, and so most of the game is about making money.  The problem gets to be with players who focus on making money to the level of forgetting about the part about spending the money to off the other players.  He who dies with the most money, still dies.

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Categories, Classes and Groups

Well, in my first post I promised that I'd tie everything together into one big picture.  I must then start tying things together with the post where I promised I'd tie everything together.  Damn those meta-narratives. 

One thing that always struck me when reading blogs is how often I would come across a blog that frequently covered two or more seemingly unrelated topics that were both interests of mine.  Stephen den Beste and's own Pixy Misa were both bloggers I started reading because of an interest in politics.  I was pleasantly surprised to find both had interests in anime.  I don't see a particular direct correlation between political interest and anime, and most of the indirect correlations (age, education, etc.) would lead me to believe that most Western otaku would have a different set of political leanings (something that tends to bear out on other rare occasions when politics and anime combine).

It became interesting, then, to try to look for similar small-scale correlations outside politics and to speculate on what could cause such correlations.  Its kind of a group version of Seven Degrees of Megumi Hayashibara (or Kevin Bacon, if you prefer.)  For example, politically one might guess that Heinlein fans might tend to be more Jeffersonian in foreign policy outlook, based on the combination of respect for the military and small-l libertarianism in his works.   Can we connect then Heinlein fans to anime?  Heinlein had a healthy respect for technology and progress, so Heinlein fans are likely to be technophiles.  Perhaps that's the next link in the chain.  Heinlein also had, shall we say, differing social mores.  Anyone who has watched anime can say the same applies to Japanese culture.  Perhaps that's the next link.  It's not that the links are deterministic.  One could easily take the overly wrought environmentalism of some recent anime and guess that anime fans would be progressive.  And we still haven't looked into whether den Beste or Pixy Misa are Heinlein fans.

How does all this tie into the big picture of human society as a whole?  Considering the big picture is a snapshot of little pictures over time, we can examine the big picture by looking at trends in group dynamics, and we can examine particular facets of the big picture by choosing a subset of groups to examine.  If we choose to examine society as a whole through the lens of  racial, ethnic or religious groups we may miss trends that show up in  the group dynamics of other types of groups.  Also note that so far I haven't described myself as a member of a racial, ethnic or religious group.  Individual identification is no longer as tied up in those types of groups as it once was.  We will eventually then have to look at how technology and culture have changed group dynamics.

For the record, I'm ethnically American, with ancestors of primarily mixed German, Irish and English descent, and I'm Roman Catholic.

Posted by: Civilis at 07: 26 PM | No Comments | Add Comment
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Welcome to the Dork Side

To start with, how about an introduction to your guide to this cryptic repository of thoughts and musings?  I'll throw in some idea as to what I'm trying to accomplish by putting my thoughts on paper as a bonus.  Sound good?  Read on...

My nom de blog is Civilis.  Its supposed to sound somewhat Greek in the wise philosopher mold one expects of a sage, but it means nothing.  The origins might be explored somewhere down the line as an aside, but for now they mean nothing.  I am around 30, live in Fairfax County, Virginia, in the suburbs of Washington, DC, close enough that I have something of an up-close perspective on the workings of the Federal government, but not so close that everything I see is through the lens of federal politics (a common problem among many who live off the political or government sectors of the local economy).  I work in computer support at the local government level.  My serious interests are history, international relations, politics, and technology;  my hobbies are reading, games of all types, and anime.

I write for two seemingly contradictory reasons.  I often feel the need to put my thoughts down on paper, or at least in a digital representation that is reasonably permanent.  This is selfish and somewhat egocentric;  I have no reason to believe that my thoughts are any more brilliant than those of anyone else.  I also feel the need to put thoughts out there for comment or criticism.  Its only after they have had a chance to survive the ebb and flow of debate that they fully mature.

What I hope to accomplish with this blog is with the help of commenters come up with a coherent and rational understanding of modern culture and how all the little pieces fit together.  To that end, I intend to try to link my posts to previous posts to eventually arrive at the big picture.  Wish me luck.

And you're all invited along for the ride, by the way.  Heck, if all you want to do is admire the wreck, you're fine with me.  Pull up a chair and sit down for a while...

Posted by: Civilis at 05: 33 PM | Comments (1) | Add Comment
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Welcome to Dork Side Pundit.  I am your host, Civilis (a psuedonym).  At the moment, I am arranging things in my new home.  Expect some posts this evening (Eastern Daylight Time).

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