Under Pressure (Digimon Adventure Episode 42)

(If you missed part 41, click HERE. To go back to the beginning of this essay series click HERE)

Just as the Digimon are about to be decimated by MetalSeadramon, Whamon shows up and side swipes the Dark Master. The Digidestined swim quickly into Whamon’s mouth as he prepares to dive below the waves and out of the reach of their foes. Unfortunately, MetalSeadramon has eyes throughout the seas in the form of Divermon who work for him. A group of Divermon begin their pursuit of the Digidestined.

During this episode, we find seagulls flying through the skies, thereby making apparent that the fauna of the Digital World extend beyond the fish and shellfish we’ve seen in previous episodes. Gomamon, we know, has an ability to speak with fish and direct them to act. However, something really weird happens in this episode as some of his fishy friends appear and speak to Gomamon. They tell him that they are being pursued by the Divermon, but what is much more troubling is that the fish are revealed to be intelligent creatures. They know not only how to localize a danger, but can speak and give it a specific name, and work towards the well-being of other creatures in the sea (like Gomamon). All of this seems to infer that the fish are conceptual creatures with minds not unlike our own and yet Gomamon and the others have often been shown catching and cooking fish for consumption. That’s messed up to say the least.

As the Divermon get closer to the Whamon and the Digidestined, he urges them into his mouth once more and dives beneath the sea. However, the Divermon are skilled and they manage to follow Whamon with very little difficulty. Whamon plays his last hand and dives into a deep trench on the ocean floor. The Divermon’s tanks collapse due to the intense pressure and are forced to surface. While inside of Whamon, Izzy uses his computer to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the Dark Masters and comes to a striking conclusion: WarGreymon is a Dramon Destroyer type Digimon whose attacks can shear through Mega-level Metal-type Digimon’s chrome Digizoid Exterior!

After Whamon gets tired of waiting at the bottom of the ocean, he decides to surface. Kari uses her whistle as a sonar device to help Whamon find nearby tunnels to the surface. But once they surface, the Divermon and their master MetalSeadramon are there waiting. Zudomon makes quick work of the Divermon and then Agumon Warp Digivolves into WarGreymon to challenge the Dark Master. The episode ends with WarGreymon clasped between the fangs of MetalSeadramon, just barely forcing his jaws apart to avoid being crushed, whilst MetalSeadramon quickly submerges and brings WarGreymon to a space outside of his element.

Hopefully WarGreymon can turn this situation around, and quickly, because his weapons are well-suited to the destruction of Dramon types (even the toughest with chrome digizoid armor like his own), but that destructive power can’t be unleashed under these dire circumstances. And even if he does defeat MetalSeadramon and Machinedramon with his innate abilities, how can the team be expected to defeat Puppetmon and Piedmon, two intensely agile fighters, with just brute force?

 

Till next time,

The Digidestined Cody

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Outland

(Check out the previous Sci-fi essay in this series here: Minority Report)

In 1981, Peter Hyams (Timecop, 2010) wanted to direct a Western film. However, Westerns had been out of fashion for quite some time and no big studio would take a gamble on making one due to lack of current popularity. However, Hyams was already versed in science fiction (a continuing fascination as his later filmography attests) and realized that the Western as a genre had not totally died out, it was just being staged in a new environment: Space.

In Outland, Con-Am 27 Mining company contains 2144 personnel working for one-year shifts mining titanium ore on Jupiter’s innermost moon Io. Marshall William T. O’Niel (Sean Connery) is the colony’s newest hired gun sent to preserve order and keep things under control. As he arrives, two different cases of men’s psyches surrendering to psychosis become immediately apparent. In the first, a man imagines that spiders are crawling over his space-walk work suit. He attempts to kill them and punctures his suit in the process, thereby securing his own death in the vacuum of space. Another man leaves the colony without a suit and immediately dies upon exposure to the harsh environment on Io.

Furthermore, the new Marshall finds a culture problem within management and in the police force. The manager and operator of the colony’s mining business tells the Marshall to give people lee-way as long as they don’t hurt anyone. He attempts to strong-arm the Marshall into obeying his orders even if it means turning a blind eye to violations of the law. The deputies are trigger-happy and often kill psychotic workers rather than take them into custody.

The incidents get the Marshall wondering and he asks for a report on cases of psychosis-induced suicide or death over the past few years. In the past six months, there were 28 cases. In the six months previous, there were 24. But, in the six months before that, there were only 2 cases. Something is going on. Reports to the space station never contained this information and many of these bodies never found their way to it for proper burial “at sea” (into space). He searches the ship’s compartments and finds a number of dead bodies still in containment bodybags listed as contaminated. He takes blood samples back to lab, where the ship’s doctor finds that the men had taken polydichloricenthanol, a powerful amphetamine that increases worker productivity threefold, but can induce psychosis after about 10-11 months of frequent use.

The compound is synthetic and had to have been sent from the space station and Con-Am Mining HQ to the ship for illicit sale or distribution to the workers, despite its negative mental health effects. The Marshall endeavors to take down the Manager of the colony and expose what has been going on there, but first he must take out all of the Manager’s goons onboard, plus the hired guns the Manager requests from the space station days later.

The final confrontation set, the Marshall finds he cannot rely on his deputies. They are all in on the deal and stand to gain nothing by helping him or saving his life. As the Marshall contemplates the final confrontation while waiting for the shuttle’s weekly supply run, he prepares himself mentally just as a gunfighting sheriff in the old west might. When it comes, the claustrophobia and fear is palpable as the cinematography and the music score evoke the same sorts of scenes in Ridley Scott’s Alien one year prior.

The sheriff was sent to this third-rate mining operation in the middle of nowhere because of his past weaknesses in performance, or possibly even substance abuse or something worse. All we know as spectators is that he has never been known as a great lawman. When he finds that he had the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of those on this mining operation (and if he survives to tell the story, possibly save all future workers from the same problem), to serve and to protect, his old youthful exuberance comes back and he dares not fudge the opportunity. The duel in the cold vacuum of space, on the stark, bleak Io, is an opportunity to put his own will to the test and to see if he has what it takes to stand up for Good in the face of Evil: a classic Western motif.

It is always great to see Sean Connery play in a science fiction/fantasy role and he’s been in quite a few great ones like Zardoz, Highlander, and Time Bandits. But hitherto I had not seen him play a Western type and although an unconventional Western type in this film, he makes it work and is a great physical presence. I had also not seen a Peter Hyams picture before this one and am now tempted to pick up a few more of his films in the future. All in all, I would recommend the film to both sci-fi fans and Western aficionados, but also to those who enjoy watching interesting, novel films in general, as this film is certainly an odd amalgam of many genres and approaches to filmmaking, scenario, and scoring.

 

Cody Ward

Sea-Sick and Tired (Digimon Adventure Episode 41)

(To check out the previous essay click HERE. To go back to the beginning click HERE)

The episode begins with the Digidestined awakening upon a beach far from Spiral Mountain where Piximon sacrificed himself so they could make their escape. The beach is littered with old phone booths that they surmise are identical to the ones they first saw on File Island when their journey began. It seems they have not even left File Island and they are stuck there.

The situation is disconcerting and as such Matt remarks, “So we’ve just gone around in one big circle, huh? Makes the whole thing seem kind of pointless doesn’t it?” Sora responds, “Maybe the pointlessness of it is the whole point!” Are the Digidestined playing roles in a mere exercise of futility? Is there any meaning to their situation or will the meaning come later as the striving toward a goal: namely, that of saving the Digital World? Tai doesn’t seem to think that their questions and assertions on this point hold much weight and decides to go ahead with their quest after replying sarcastically, “Thanks for the philosophy, that’s a big help.”

As they stand by the Digital sea, they hear someone yelling for help and see a life raft out amongst the waves. The Digimon are tired after their multiple defeats at the hands of the Dark Masters and stay back on shore while their Digidestined partners go out in a boat already conveniently placed on the sand. But it was a trick all along and Shellmon attacks the group. Gomamon, Tentomon, Palmon, and Biyomon jump into action and defeat Shellmon, thereby prompting Tai to respond that their Digimon must be getting stronger. Last time they fought Shellmon it took the Champion-level Greymon to defeat, and even then just barely. Now, four Rookies were enough to do the job.

As the Digidestined continue their trip across the desert, they see a snack bar in the distance. Kids will be kids and fall for traps easily. As such, they run off toward the shack and into the clutches of Scorpiomon. Fortunately, Mimi trips along the way and Joe helps her back up. They are stalled and therefore don’t fall into the trap. Lillymon and Zudomon take advantage of Scorpiomon’s slow speed and preoccupation with eating shellfish to save their friends and foil his plot. Tai’s earlier prediction that the Digimon have become stronger and that they must gain more experience to defeat the Dark Masters seems to be proven wrong as it took two Ultimate-level Digimon just to destroy one weak Dark Master lackey. We as spectators are left wondering with him at how the Digidestined will ever be able to defeat the new big bads of the series.

As the group runs from MetalSeadramon- who appears incensed over Scorpiomon’s defeat and the ineffectiveness of his two lackey’s traps- the Digidestined flee into the ocean (Why?!?!). He follows and defeats Lillymon and Zudomon leaving the Digidestined completely open to attack and destruction. As per usual, the episode ends here, on a cliffhanger. Bleh.

 

The Digidestined Cody

[Continued HERE]

Enter the Dark Masters (Digimon Adventure Episode 40)

(If you missed the previous essay check it out HERE. to go back to the beginning of this series click HERE.)

All eight Digidestined are finally back in the Digital World, and all at once for the first time. As they awaken from their crash into the undergrowth of a forest, they catch a fleeting glimpse of something moving that had been previously watching them. The original eight Digimon spring into action and Digivolve to their Rookie forms to combat the snoop. However, Kari exhibits her role in the team as a moderator against needless violence by running toward them and yelling for them to stop their attack. Thankfully they so do, and she finds a terrified pink mouse Digimon, Chumon, cowering in some tall grass. He reveals that he is a friend and that he once helped Mimi and Palmon: The Digidestined are back on File Island!

Things have changed since they left, however. The island has been all but destroyed as the bulk of the mass of the Digital World slowly twined its way into a large twisted tower known as Spiral Mountain (Its basis and underlying structure being Infinity Peak: the one-time headquarters for Devimon). Chumon reveals that a group of powerful Digimon called the Dark Masters have wrought these changes and destroyed anyone who stood against them. Chumon’s friend Sukamon was engulfed in by a chasm years ago when the Digital World began to shift and since then Chumon has been all alone.

A large splash breaks the focus on conversation as a large sea monster Digimon rises from the depths: MetalSeadramon. This Mega Digimon is one of the four Dark Masters and he easily defeats all of eight of the Digidestined Digimon in their Champion forms before throwing them hundreds of yards off into the distance and a deep foggy terrain where haze obscures all sight beyond a few feet.

From this new area, Machinedramon appears and defeats Angemon, thereby forcing him to revert to his Rookie form Patamon. Machinedramon then defeats all seven of the remaining Digidestined Digimon in their Ultimate forms.

The group fall into a chasm and find themselves suspended in mid-air. Their Digimon begin to fight one another against their own wishes. The third Dark Master, Puppetmon, is controlling them and forcing them to act in such a manner. Eventually, they are worn out and all seven return to their Rookie levels. Puppetmon releases the group from his grips and they fall deeper into the pits of the Digital World.

There, they meet the Jester, the Harlequin, the Fool, and the Leader of the Dark Masters: Piedmon. Agumon and Gabumon Warp Digivolve to WarGreymon and MetalGarurumon and attempt to defeat Piedmon, but are again thwarted as they are still inexperienced in their new forms and Piedmon has had sufficient time to become a skilled fighter in his Mega form.

It is fitting that in a series populated with protagonists who often stand in for philosophical concepts like postmodernism, post-structuralism, and nihilism, that the final evil is the jester. Friedrich Nietzsche believed that homo sapiens were the tightrope between pre-historical man and the Ubermensch to come. The prophet Zarathustra was his figure of the religious figure using a hammer to destroy old conventional wisdoms and forms of herd morality like christianity to move man in the direction of the Ubermensch. We need a figure like this because of the negative influences of the Jester who only destroys those things that make one serious about fate and the future. The Jester seems like a Nietzschian figure on his face as he tells truth to power and deconstructs all metanarratives, but he does so in a way that makes us laugh and belittles the struggle. He moves us toward safety and closure and joy and more than anything else, toward complacency. The Jester prefigures the Last Man, and the Last Man bodes not well for the human spirit and its will that dies upon his arrival on the existential scene.

Piedmon, as Jester, is the most dangerous of all forms of philosophical evil, because he uses the tools of postmodernism and poststructuralism and nihilism and radical doubt in a radical way that ultimately supports, rather than subverts, the conservative social structures weakening the species. The Digidestined have hitherto fought various forms of ideologically-weak evil, but this alluring figure raises the ante. And not even sincerity and hope and courage and friendship and honesty and responsibility have the power to break this allure naturally. His “Comedy of Errors” (an allusion to a Shakespeare play that uses slapstick and false interpretations of situations and identities to create a humor that is ultimately subversive) has been planned and implemented perfectly to put the Digidestined through the Dark Master’s wringer.

As Piedmon throws his first dagger toward the heart of the child of Sincerity (Mimi), Chumon flings himself from her arms and blocks the projectile. This sacrifice may be the answer to disarming the Jester who survives through jokes and play. But death wrought by his designs and the destructive nature of his aims (as opposed to the prophetic Zarathustra’s who destroy and create anew in the process) is laid bare through Chumon’s sacrificial act. The Jester becomes naked and Chumon is the first to alert others to this reality.

Piximon appears and whisks the Digidestined away in the nick of time, but he is followed making his escape. Piximon sends the children on without him while he attempts to stall the Dark Masters, all the while knowing that his destruction is inevitable. Will two sacrifices be necessary to preserve the Digidestined Mission? Or will Piximon escape intact from their clutches?

 

Later,

The Digidestined Cody

[Continued HERE]

Blade Runner: Replicating Replicants

(To check out the previous essay in this Blade Runner series click here: The Nexus Production Line)

There are two technological patriarchs at the heart of the Blade Runner universe. These two men make things tick and ensure that human society not only continues to exist, but can potentially flourish through the proliferation of the species into off-world environments like new planets. Their work on genetic design and replicant (or biological android) technologies made them the two most powerful human beings on the planet during their times. These two men are Eldon Tyrell (of Blade Runner) and Niander Wallace (of Blade Runner 2049). However, their ingenuity and skills are not equivalent. One man is working on a much higher plane than the other.

To see why this is true, and pretty obviously so, I’ll give a brief history of the work of both men within the franchise. Eldon Tyrell is the creator of replicant technologies. He is the originator and the mastermind behind the whole enterprise to begin with. His artificial animals are indistinguishable from real organisms because they fundamentally are real organisms, biologically and genetically engineered in a lab, but living and breathing and operating in just the same manner as their more natural counterparts (that no longer exist in Blade Runner’s post-ecological catastrophe worldspace).

Eldon Tyrell’s Nexus models 1-5 were steps in the process we are not privy to as spectators. But we can safely assume that these replicants were steadily more complex and more human-like in nature. The Nexus 6 models had finally registered real emotions and complex inner lives unlike previous models. The Nexus 6 also had a limited life-span of four years due to their tendency toward rebellion that could not be curbed at the time. Tyrell improved upon the formula in his Nexus 7 models, which likewise had four-year lifespans, but were also flush with memory implants that helped to create an even more complex inner world that sustained them emotionally and made them less likely to rebel against their masters. Finally, his Nexus 8 production models no longer needed a limited lifespan because of the sheer amount of emotional stability that their advanced memory implants gave them.

Regarding Tyrell’s experiments with prototype Nexus models, we have two major examples (for further clarification on these theories check out the previous essay in this series): a Nexus 7 prototype and a Nexus 8 prototype. The Nexus 7 prototype he named Rachel and she was endowed with the physical ability to give birth to a child. The Nexus 8 he named Rick and he was endowed with the ability to pass on his genes. The two were set up on Earth as his receptionist and as a Blade runner in a convoluted manner so as to ensure they meet as equals, develop a bond of love, and procreate to proliferate¬† a new race of replicants for reasons unknown.

Niander Wallace bought the patents to Tyrell’s technologies years later after proving his own prowess as a genetic designer of crops and animals for consumption. In 2022, a group of Nexus 8 models rebelled and took down all digital records on the planet through a huge EMP pulse. This demonstrated that the Nexus 8 was not full-proof and could still err on the side of violence and uprising. Wallace created his own Nexus model based on the Nexus 8, but with a new feature: Built-in Obedience. The Nexus 9 models, when given the imperative, choose to kill themselves over causing harm to a human being. Furthermore, they are programmed to always listen to the commands of their human owners and to protect humans whenever possible (as long as this does not conflict with their orders).

Unfortunately for Wallace, these Nexus 9 models could only be programmed so well. The psychological imperatives to obey and to not harm are only psychological limiters. Enough traumatic stress experience in a Nexus 9 can break them of their imperatives and allow them to act on their true wills. This is why a number of Nexus 9 models in 2049 have allied themselves with an underground movement of Nexus 8 models to fight back against their owners. As such, Wallace’s technological innovation is faulty.

As for Wallace’s innovations, he has become obsesses with replicating replicants, but keeps failing to create viable subjects. Once he finds out that Tyrell was able to create a pair of replicating replicants, he is incensed and ramps up his efforts. But to no avail. The better of the two genetic designers is made apparent and the young Wallace seems doomed to forever walk in the shadow of his predecessor Eldon Tyrell.

Eldon Tyrell is the God-Designer. An artist can create works of art that will far outlive himself. But the tides of time and the efforts of nature’s destruction and erosion can destroy them. Wallace’s sterile replicants can only live as long as normal human beings, so once Wallace dies, his art dies with him, and he remains only a creator. Tyrell has moved beyond the artist and plays the role of Father. His replicants are more than feeling-thinking automata, they are creatures and beings who can replicate and proliferate through the stars. In this way, Tyrell’s act of creation is like birth. His is the gift of life that does not end with one living being, but keeps on giving and allows for the possibility of eternal life in his creature’s species.

The Biblical Creation alluded to here by my wording and use of language is no mistake. Tyrell regarded himself as a God in his own way as is apparent when his ‘prodigal son’, the Nexus 6 Roy Batty, descended to Earth to show him his powers. Tyrell’s female replicating replicant, The Nexus 7 prototype Rachel, draws her name from the Hebrew ‘Rahel’ or ‘ewe’, the young progeny of two sheep. The name is an allusion to the Artificial Sheep that Rick Deckard coveted as a status symbol in the film’s source novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. However, it also signifies that Rachel is one amongst Tyrell’s flock of creatures with autonomy.

His male replicating replicant, the Nexus 8 prototype Rick, draws his name from the old English, French, and Germanic root ‘ric’ meaning ‘leader, ruler, king, and powerful’ presaging his role as the patriarch of a new race. In the full name Richard, the ‘hard’ denotes ‘strength, bravery, and hardiness’, all traits that Rick Deckard exhibits throughout his quest as a Blade Runner in the first film.

Whereas one creator was a mere copier without the ability to introduce truly powerful and novel new features into his automata creations, the other creator became a Father and a God of sorts through his work perfecting the Nexus. Werner von Braun and other great scientists propelled the U.S. forward into space with powerful new technologies undreamt of for millenia prior. Later scientists could not harness the same ingenuity and skill and we as a nation slowly lost our capacity to go to space and land humans on other astral bodies. Likewise, Tyrell was the original with the skill and the ability and the vision. And replicant technology has only degraded since his achievements. Whether Niander Wallace can step out of his shadow and become the Elon Musk to Tyrell’s NASA remains to be seen. But I doubt it.

 

Cody Ward

The Age of Innocence: A Preamble to Modernity

(Check out more Martin Scorsese essays here: Raging Bull and Kundun)

On the year of my birth, in 1993, Martin Scorsese released a period picture drama adapted from Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. Titled The Age of Innocence, the film and novel are both meant to be ironic, as the time and place they explore (1870s upper-class Victorian New York society) are anything but innocent, idyllic, and pastoral. As something of a preamble, or a preface, to modern society, the lives of the film’s characters are complicated and any moral positioning of one over and above another is made difficult at every turn.

Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a lawyer working for a New England firm. His family has had longstanding ties with another large family, the Welland family, and Newland spent much of his childhood it seems fraternizing with the daughters of this family. He has grown something of a fondness with May Welland (Winona Ryder) and the two are set to announce their engagement in the coming weeks, when from out of the blue and into the dark heart of bourgeois New York society flutters in May’s cousin, The Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer).

Ellen is married to a European Count who has treated her badly and often neglected her in the home. He gained her as just one of his many trophies of status and she grew to hate the man, reasonably so, over time. The rumor is that she cheated on the Count with an attache of their stately home, something of a bell-boy, and when the Count found out about her infidelity he flew into a rage and she escaped to the new world where she now seeks a divorce from the man.

Newland is immediately enamored with this lady as she is not just physically attractive and alluring, but liberated from domesticity. She is well read and enjoys the theatre and art and the museums of Europe. Whereas the New York bourgeois elite openly profess conservatism, but backbitingly practice immodesty in the dark, Ellen is open about her transgressions and finds no fault in them. Newland himself is openly representative of Family and Tradition, but secretly questions the validity of social mores. As such, her liberated aspect is more than enough to draw his heart and his mind toward her.

The two form an immediate bond of fondness and secret yearnings for one another, but they do little to act on these desires beyond the occasional kiss and clandestine meeting. But before these meetings, their separation as lovers is sealed by what Wharton and Scorsese obviously view to be arbitrary and limiting coercive social forces. It would be improper for Newland to support Ellen as her lawyer in the divorce proceedings just to then marry her himself. Especially when she is seen as a damaged woman by the New York elite and his reputation and the reputation of his family would be tarnished. When she asks him if she should divorce her husband, he advises she not do do so, because at the time he is unsure of whether he should leave his wife for Ellen and as such, thinks the situation should remain in limbo for a while while he figures everything out. But he is too late, as his family arrange the wedding between Newland and May a mere month ahead.

Later, when Ellen secures a small stipend from the matriarch and Empress Dowager of the Welland family, she decides to leave for Europe permanently in an attempt to get away from Newland and prevent them both more needless pain and difficulty. Meanwhile, he has had more time to get to know his bride May over the course of their year-long European honeymoon and months back home in New York. He finds her vapid and stupid. He often muses on whether she even has a mind behind all of her of childish activities like badminton and socializing. He thinks of her as a beautiful young body covering over a void and even muses over whether he should kill her. It would be so easy to poison the woman, but his decency prevents him from such an egregious action. When Ellen leaves, he endeavors to go to Europe and leave his wife for good. He has had enough of the situation. But just as he announces his intentions to leave, May reveals that she is pregnant, and he again sacrifices his own happiness to rear his children.

Newland will never again see his Countess. As the years pass, his adventuring youthful spirit dies a little bit more all the time. He settles into his role. When May dies in her 50s, the 57-year-old Newland is broken. His children have grown up and he is old. He is left with nothing but progeny he never really wanted in the first place. His son Ted is getting married and wants his father to come with him to Europe as a last hurrah and last father-son trip for his own life of domesticity as a husband and future father. Whilst there, Ted unveils that his mother told him about the Countess Olenska. The secret of Ted’s decision is revealed as an attempt to bring his father and his lover together now that they are both free to pursue their past love. Newland mulls over visiting Ellen, but decides for uncertain reasons, to return home without even so much as glancing at her.

In his youth, after his honeymoon with May, he returned to his aunt’s home where Ellen resided. As he went out to the sea to find her, Newland glimpsed the woman standing on a pier overlooking a lighthouse. He told himself that he would only approach her if she turned and looked at him before a passing ship passed the lighthouse. She did not turn and he did not approach her then. As the old Newland sat outside the Countesses apartment in Paris, he waited to see if she would peer out of her window and look into the courtyard below where he sat. She did not and he chose not to go up to see her. Both of his decisions were arbitrary, just as universally arbitrary as the social mores and standards that kept him from being with her and calling off his marriage in the first place. But he did not realize this and lost everything for it.

Today, these barriers are easier to overcome. People struggle and are hurt in the process of their overcoming, but the pain of a husband leaving his wife might just be better than the pain of living a lifetime as an unloved wife. The social mores have evaporated largely over time, but new ones are always forming. Our modern world is different, but we have our own challenges and maybe the best approach in the face of challenge is to attack them head on. To not give in to what others expect of us, to be brave and courageous and fair to ourselves and to others in the process. Morality is a shifting target, but common human decency is not. The decadent American gutter poet Charles Bukowski once wrote that the world is not good because “people are not good to each other.” Hopefully we can learn to be.

 

Cody Ward

Howl’s Moving Castle: Is Life Worth Living?

(To check out the previous essay in this Studio Ghibli essay series click Spirited Away. For the first title in the series click Lupin III)

Pacifism and war, magic and realism, feminism and ecology, Shinto and a romanticism of past ages and an imagined Europe. These are all themes one can find in most any Hayao Miyazaki film. There’s been no lack of scholarship on these concepts and themes in Miyazaki’s ninth feature film either. Here, I would like to continue the main thrust of my essays thus far and focus on an overlooked or underdeveloped point of view or question, and in my approach to this particular film I will be breaking from the role as commentator or exegete or explorer to be a little more brutal with the film and to take on the role of critic.

Miyazaki said of the film, “I wanted to convey the message that life is worth living and I don’t think that’s changed.” Too often critics evaluate films on the basis of their own criterion, but my idol and main influence in my approach as a critic is modeled on a different stream of thought derived from Roger Ebert. He pointed out years ago that one must evaluate a film based on its own criterion, that one mustn’t compare every B-movie to Citizen Kane for example, or else 1. you will be giving out bad reviews to nearly every film released and 2. you miss the point of what the director was trying to do. So the question for Howl’s Moving Castle, as a critic, becomes this: Does the film do what Miyazaki created it to do? Namely, does it evoke a life-affirming response in the viewer?

In Howl’s world, magic and science function interdependently. Both exist and can help to modify the other and advance society, but there are whole classes of rogue Wizards like Howl and evil Witches like The Witch of the Waste who reside in the Wastes as the dregs of society who constantly place curses on people. Howl operates under multiple pseudonyms throughout the kingdom and sells townsfolk medicines and charms to make money, but he is also for his infantilism and occasional rages. Townsfolk think of Howl as a dangerous drifter who moves from place to place seeking out beautiful women just to use them and leave, thereby breaking hearts, and in some people’s fictions, even consuming said hearts.

The Witch of the Waste, an ancient and morbidly obese witch who keeps herself looking relatively young through magical means, hunts down Howl and places curses on any girls he comes into contact with. She is the one who places the curse on Sophie in the film’s beginning that turns Sophie into a ninety year old woman: a curse she would of had to live with for the rest of her short life if she had not happened to find Howl’s Moving Castle.

In our own world there is no magic. People suffer and die and live and breathe and eat and defecate and things move forward unrelentingly without care for human pain. What Miyazaki’s film shows us is that even with magic and instantaneous cures, power dynamics and selfishness and egocentrism would still exist as part and parcel of the human condition. Neither world is better or worse and both are problematic. The absence of magic in our world and the fact that life would be hard for the average person in either world does nothing significant to get to Miyazaki’s point of reinforcing a yes-saying to life. If anything, it tells us that life cannot even theoretically be much better in a world totally alien to our own.

In Howl’s world, the drums of war beat just as a violently. The nation-states there fight wars for no obvious reasons beyond prejudice, unwarranted suspicion of one kingdom taking another’s Prince hostage (he was actually turned into a Scarecrow by a Witch), and just because they have the resources to do so. Even at the film’s end, when the war is dissolved, it only happens because the Prince is found and returned to human form by Sophie’s kiss, thereby breaking his enchantment. The war, which was mostly pointless in the first place is shown to be completely pointless. While it was raging, Wizards turned into beasts, never to return to human form, and all in the name of country, but for a purposeless war. The bombers destroy innocent lives and break down technological progress and harmony by attacking cities. The murderers lie on both sides with neither one occupying a just war position.

Miyazaki did not create this world in a vacuum. This world was supposed to be a direct parallel to the world today and an ideological and emotional gut-level attack on the purposeless imperialism and warmongering of the United State. The film was released in 2004 and Miyazaki meant it to be specifically against the Iraq War in which American troops and bombers killed over a million innocent civilians (including many women, children, and elderly persons) for no reason. There were no WMD’s and there were no good reasons to believe from reports by UN inspectors that there were any. No 9/11 terrorists were from Iraq. And after we deposed Saddam Hussein and allowed his people to kill him extra-judicially, we barred his Ba’ath party members from holding positions in the new government, and all the instability in the nation and outrage from his party officials created the core of more terrorist groups like ISIS we have had to fight for more than a decade, resulting in more civilian deaths. Pointless civilian deaths.

In both Howl’s world and our world, wars are very rarely fought for moral purposes. Neither a world of magic or a world of technology is less susceptible to war. People will suffer and die in our world and continue to do so and later, political leaders can end conflicts without too much trouble, because the conflicts are largely reasonless in the first place. Is life worth living in a world where, as Charles Bukowski used to say, “People are not good to each other.” Is it worth living when all people, even the most evil and hateful have, as Jean Renoir stated, “their reasons”? These are personal questions that don’t make sense outside of the context of each and every individual’s life and experience and state of mind. But the film doesn’t seem to sway me or anyone else I’ve met and discussed this topic with toward a life-affirming stance.

However, maybe Miyazaki meant for the film’s final scenes to restore hope in humanity and in our ability to change. Howl becomes less infantile and begins to care more about those around him as he gains back his heart after Sophie sets it free from the fire demon Calcifer’s curse. The Witch of the Waste unlearns her hatred for those who stand in her way and her one-pointed, self-centered focus on taking Howl’s heart wanes as she lives with Sophie and Howl in the Moving Castle. Suliman, the head magician and real puller of the levers of power in her Kingdom, decides to call off the war as she realizes its meaninglessness. But there are still other aimless Wizards with the power and will to manipulate weaker, normal human beings for their own purposes. There are still dark forces in the Wastes who prey on the weak and revel in disorder. The same politicians who started the pointless war still rule in their Kingdoms, absolutely, and they pass down their powers to their children and proteges who are reared or trained to become much like themselves.

In our world, wars still plague us. There are still leaders, maybe more now than any time since pre-World War II, who believe toughness and the will to war are great political and economic tools. They believe this even in a world where they may lose all economic and trading support from partner nations for their actions. And though international realities may curb war overall throughout the world in the coming years, automatic death technologies like drone strikes and future kill-bots seem to ensure that indiscriminate and pointless killings will continue. Add to this fears of a world of surveillance states where freedoms are gradually taken away to create a sense of false security, a “Security Theatre” if you will, and we have no great reason to believe the world will be drastically better in the coming years.

Miyazaki’s film provides very little hope for me that human beings will do the right thing when they continue to have many incentives not to do so. He wanted to convey the idea that life is worth living, but seems only to make me more depressed. He believes that life has been worth living for some time now (“I don’t think that that’s changed”), but existential dread and aporia and malaise are basically products of modernity that replace earlier pre-modern fears while leaving the fear and hopelessness of situations intact. And if the point is that it only takes one well-meaning, good person with a pure heart like Sophie to change the world for the better, than I’m still not very optimistic. Cause I’ve never met one.

 

Cody Ward

[P.S. Life can be worth living even in the midst of all the world’s problems. But I can’t give you a reason, that’s your quest. And it may be the only quest you undertake in life. So go well and keep seeking.]

The Battle For Earth (Digimon Adventure Episode 39)

(To check out part 38 click HERE. To go back to the beginning click HERE.)

Parts of this final episode in the first season’s Myotismon arc are pretty odd and unexplained. It begins with the Warp Digivolutions of WarGreymon and MetalGarurumon and their battle with VenomMyotismon. As it becomes apparent that they have the powers to defeat him but need the help and coordination of all the other Digimon to do so, Angemon and Angewomon ramp up their efforts and all the other Digimon Digivolve to their Champion forms. They all attack the beast at once and WarGreymon tears a hole through the core of their adversary leaving a black void and leading the Digidestined to believe they have won the fight for good.

However, VenomMyotismon is OP and the true beast within him appears in the core of his body, thereby sealing the hole. Its face is rather goofy and it yells “Nyah!”, leaving viewers thinking what the hell is this! He doesn’t really do anything, but just sits there derpy as all the Crests and Digivices alight and send out rays of power that bind the arms of VenomMyotismon, thereby tying up the defense. MetalGarurumon passes the TV Tower Ball to WarGreymon who kicks it directly into the core of VenomMyotismon and the beast within, ripping a hole into his core once again and finally destroying the beast for good.

At this point, I would like to talk about a theme in Digimon that I missed a few episodes back. When all the Digimon defeat Myotismon they revert back to their lower forms. Because they were all at Ultimate level before they reverted, minus Angemon who is a Champion and could expected to revert back to the Rookie Patamon, one might expect them all to revert back to their in-training forms. However, this is not the case. Because Agumon and Gabumon have turned into their Ultimate forms so many times, they don’t revert back all the way to their in-training forms. This demonstrates that through training, the Digimon become better at managing their energy levels or become stronger overall. Whereas, the other four original Digidestined partner Digimon revert to in-training forms in this sequence, Angewomon strangely enough reverts back only one step to her champion form Gatomon. It makes sense seeing as she has trained hard under duress in the dungeons of Myotismon for many years to be able to retain her champion form consistently, but in this episode’s final fight with VenomMyotismon she reverts back to her Rookie form Salamon even though she exerted less energy in this fight than in the former and should have remained Gatomon. Weird.

Second thing. We know that Digimon can sometimes direct their Digivolution through the power of volition, or will. We know this because Gabumon, who wears a Garurumon pelt and idolizes Garurumon, is a lizard Digimon, but manages to direct his Digivolution into Garurumon at the Champion level. Later, Patamon sees that T.K. idolizes the Angel in the painting in Devimon’s mirage mansion. Further, Patamon wants to be a protector of T.K. So he directs his own Digivolution and becomes Angemon through willpower and yearning alone it seems. Gatomon is likewise. As a Rookie, she was Salamon and if she had met her Digidestined partner Kari earlier in life, she may have Digivolved into Angewomon straight away at the Champion level just as Patamon did with his Angemon form. However, she was trained wrongly and cruelly by Myotismon and became her stunted, only slightly stronger than Rookie form Gatomon at the Champion level. Digimon need nurturing and a deep reasoning to grow to higher forms and gain immense strength it seems.

After the battle with VenomMyotismon, a rip in the space-time continuum reveals the Digital World in a huge band across the sky in the Real World. When planes near the portal, they do not go through however. Instead they freeze and fall to the ground. Kuwagumon and various other evil Digimon are streaming through the portal and they also have the power to freeze anything they touch in the Real World, while they seem invulnerable to attack. The Digidestined reason that the few days they have spent in the Real World are like years in the Digital World, and as such, the situation there has had a long time to grow worse and devolve into a new problematic situation. They resolve to return and after a tearful goodbye to their families, their Digivices alight and create a rainbow portal into the sky. The eight Digidestined children ascend back into the Digital World and begin a new and final chapter in this first Digimon saga!

 

Au revoir,

The Digidestined Cody

[Continued HERE]

Prophecy (Digimon Adventure Episode 38)

(If you missed the previous essay check it out HERE. To go back to the beginning of the series click HERE)

“The sky will be darkened by the wings of many bats. The fallen people will invoke the name of the undead Digimon King and when the clock strikes the hour of the beast, the undead King will reveal himself in his true form as the beast. Then Angels will shoot arrows of hope and light at the loved ones of those they’ve been sent to protect and a miracle will happen. Please always recycle.”

Gennai appears after the Digidestined defeat Myotismon the first time and claims he thinks he knows the key to defeating Myotismon once and for all. He has found an ancient Digital hieroglyph with a prophecy written upon it that seems to correlate to the events occurring in the Real World currently. The message is obscure and includes the odd last line about recycling, making it all feel as if the whole situation were just one big joke planned by a programmer of the Digital World. Left confused by the message, the Digidestined decide to take the little downtime they have to go back home and check in on their families (at least for the children whose parents and families are not still under Myotismon’s sleep spell in the Convention Center).

during this downtime, we get a glimpse into some important plot points and character progressions for Joe and Izzy’s characters, something we have had little of for some time due to the break-neck pace of their quest during the last dozen or so episodes. Joe returns home to find his parents away on business. His brother Jim is still and home and managed to evade the Bakemon by hiding in a closet during the whole siege. We learn that Joe studies so hard and pushes himself academically because of his father’s wishes for both of his sons: to become well-paid doctors. The problem is that Jim wants to use his skills to help as many people as possible and is planning to become a doctor for small towns in either some African nation or a South American. this way he can save as many lives and do the most good possible. His father isn’t too keen on the idea and wants Jim to stay in Japan. the other problem blocking their father’s dreams is that Joe can’t stand the sight of blood and is thus unable to become a doctor, but he has yet to build up the courage to tell his father.

Right now in the story, we know that Izzy knows he is adopted. But his foster parents have never told him outright that he is. When last he ran off to fight Myotismon, they were not sure if they would ever see him again and the pain of that thought spurred them on in this episode to reveal the truth about his past. Izzy’s father was a prestigious mathematician and lecturer at a huge local University (which accounts for Izzy’s latent intelligence). his father and mother were killed in a car crash when Izzy was young and his foster father was the only relative his true father had left, though a long-lost cousin. His foster parent shad a child of their own who died very young and they felt Izzy was a blessing in disguise, so they took him in to their family. Once Izzy overheard them talking about his true background years ago, late at night, when he should have been asleep but wasn’t. This made him lose part of his connection to his foster parents and withdraw into the Digital World and computing (which accounts for his trained talents). Now, they are reconciled and the situation seems resolved.

One by one, the events in the prophecy begin to come true as bats darken the sky and destroy Myotismon’s leftover and defeated henchman Digimon, absorbing their energy and bringing it back to the shade of Myotismon. Next, the fallen people in the Convention Center, who have been put under Myotismon’s trance-like spell, begin to chant his name. Matt’s father interprets the hour of the beast to be 6:06 pm and 6 seconds. At this point, the references to the Book of Revelation in the New Testament of the Holy Bible are inevitable and obvious. I’m not sure if these were added by American dubbers or if they existed in the original narrative, but they turn the whole story on its head and begin to weaken the underlying philosophy of Digimon thus far.

Much has been made in this essay series of obviously intentional relationships between the big bads of the series and their henchman and the tenets of postmodernism, post-structuralism, and nihilism. Sometimes I have drawn conclusions where there obviously were none, but all in all I think my analysis has been pretty correct for the most part. Now, this new metaphysic of Myotismon as the AntiChrist positions the Digidestined in a traditional, conservative role as the forces of Good and Creation against those of Evil and Destruction. This metaphysical heuristic is the most common one in the Western narrative tradition and appears commonly in comic books, superhero narratives, Westerns, morality tales, and in conservative sorts of fictions now deemed old hat and antiquated. So a return to such a narrative seems more than a little bit lazy and too obvious.

What I will say in their defense, I guess, is that a vampire narrative fits more comfortably into this particular narrative framework or worldview than any other. So, I can’t totally blame them, but vampires, like zombies are also undead, neither living nor dead totally. They therefore break down, or deconstruct, the false binaries between the concepts Life/Death and the adjectives Living/Dead. This means there is room for an existential, postmodern, or poststructuralist vampire narrative, they just don’t use it. Anyhoo, back to the story.

At the hour of the beast, Myotismon appears in a new Ultimate-Mega Hybrid form as VenomMyotismon. He consumes his last friend DemiDevimon and attempts to make his way across the city to the Convention Center to consume his entranced human prey, but the Digidestined do their best to stop him. MetalGreymon and WereGarurumon attempt to defeat him, but are too weak. Angemon and Angewomon have a better go of it, but ultimately cannot stop him either. In a last minute ditch attempt at stopping VenomMyotismon, they reread the prophecy for clues and decide that the angels refer to Angemon and Angewomon, those they’ve been sent to protect are T.K. and Kari, and their loved ones are their older brother Tai and Matt. This means, they hope, that the arrows of hope and light should be shot by Angemon and Angewomon toward Tai and Matt! The two tell their little siblings to direct their Digimon partners to shoot them and in a tense moment, the action is completed, Tai and Matt are unharmed and their Crests and Digivices glow brighter than ever, emitting signals for Warp Digivolution to MetalGreymon and WereGarurumon changing them to their Mega forms as WarGreymon and MetalGarurumon! This is the miracle foretold in the prophecy and a feat supposedly not replicable by the other Digidestined (until Digimon Adventure Tri that is!). The episode ends and we are left hanging on the edge of our seats once more to see how these knew godly forces will destroy their nightmarish AntiChrist opponent.

 

Till next time,

The Digidestined Cody

[Continued HERE]

Minority Report: Cinematography

(To check out the previous essay in this month’s Sci-fi series click HERE)

I’ve just had the pleasure of being initiated into the Minority Report experience. I’ve heard a lot about this film over the years and had a DVD copy of it in my room for about six months now. People constantly praise the look of the film, the story, the tautness of its action, how fast the film feels for its two and half hour run time. It’s an adaptation of a Philip K. Dick short story and some of the greatest sci-fi films of all time have likewise been adaptations of his works (Blade Runner, Total Recall). Plus, the film was directed by Steven Spielberg, whose classic Sci-fi film Close Encounters of the Third Kind I consider amongst the top ten sci-fi pictures ever made (And if you missed seeing it in theaters this year for its 40th anniversary, you missed possibly the most important film event of the year). Needless to say, I had high hopes.

Right now, I’m in the process of interning as a grip for a small film production studio in Shelby, North Carolina in the States called Electric Films. I’ve been learning the ropes, how to operate our Red camera, and picking up a bit of editing in the process. The name Janusz Kaminski constantly comes up in conversation as the favorite director of photography for both of the owners and his work on big Hollywood features, and especially with Spielberg, is pretty extensive and impressive as one of the best at his level (on par with Roger Deakins). Kaminski was cinematographer on Minority Report and did quite a few interesting technical things to make the film look unique as possible.

But first, just what is the look of the film? Taking the neo-noir moniker of cyberpunk films really seriously, the filmmakers immersed themselves in classics of film noir like The Asphalt Jungle and The Maltese Falcon. Spielberg was so influenced by film noir that he placed a cameo of a classic film noir sequence into the background of a scene in the film (though I am unfamiliar with the particular film and can regrettably find no reference to which one it is online). But in the modern era of filmmaking, big budget Hollywood pictures with $100 million on the line need to be in color and film noir gains its aesthetic grittiness from black and white. Furthermore, the chiaroscuro, dutch angles, expressionistic lighting, and high contrast between light and shadow in a film noir are much easier to capture in a stylish and pleasing manner in the black and white medium. Minority Report is not a Black and White film, but it evokes film noir and its techniques by using rich shadows and dark colors, de-saturated film, and extremely high contrast photography.

Throughout the film, there are examples of daytime scenes when lighting is more straightforward, most color seems like it has been sapped from the film leaving a black and white aesthetic on top of a color palate that merely evokes color while being subtly monochrome. Most scenes are shot in this manner, but there are extreme variations and interesting experimental shots in the film even beyond this off-putting neo-noir experiment itself. for instance, when the psychic precogs have a vision of a future crime in the film, and the sensors in the DC PreCrime Division render them visually for the PreCop’s analysis, the scenes are anamorphic-like and squished-in on the sides. They are even less clear and more noir than the normal style of the film and seem to have been shot with handheld cameras emphasizing movement and a subjective viewing state. The scenes are erratic with quick cuts between shots, no establishing shots, lack of clarity of detail, and an overall feeling of intense emotional disturbance and pain on the part of the precogs who are fated to experience visions of future murders all their lives.

John Anderton (Tom Cruise) often watches clips of his past when he is alone. These are videos of past experiences with his disappeared child and his ex-wife. They are also the only the scenes in the film with regular color photography. This emphasizes the vibrancy of Anderton’s past life in an idyllic world with violence, but freedom, before PreCrime changed American society into a surveillance state in the early 2050’s. It also emphasizes the difference between his life back then as a romantic romp of innocence and his new life as a single man whose son was taken from him years ago and who has experienced significant mental and emotional traumas because of the process, thereby leading him to seek ‘clarity’ in an illegal pill form on the streets and live in dejected gray world.

The scenes of the precog visions were created by a team of pick-up photographers for the film, while the color cinematography was probably shot by Kaminski. These are easy to understand in terms of technicality and the process of their making. However, the overall regular look of the film was achieved using a process unique to the medium the film was shot on that needs some explaining. Spielberg usually shoots all of his films on filmstock, even in the age of digital, and even with the higher costs of film today. This allowed Kaminski to create a new look for Minority Report by doing what is called bleach-bypassing. In this process, as i understand it, the lab skips the normal step of bleaching out silver emulsion in the processing. This leaves the silver in the final photograph, thereby leaving a black and white photo on top of the color photography underneath. This silver retention leaves the film looking grainier and increases the contrast, just as one would like in a film noir.

Furthermore, the process reduces saturation of the color photography underneath, thereby decreasing brightness and colorfulness of the final photography. This part of the process makes the resulting cinematography more matte and higher contrast and produces a better picture when the original work was slightly underexposed (as again, much film noir originally was). But even with this process, the colors in the film were too saturated for Kaminski’s and Spielberg’s tastes in this case. So later, in editing, they reduced the color by around 40%.

The resulting cinematography is highly unique and fits the maxim of the best cinematographers: Don’t approach a film with a style, fit a style to the film’s needs. Of all modern cinematographers, Janusz Kaminski (and Roger Deakins) seems to be the best at this approach. And the proof is in the pudding as they say. Look at the featured image for this essay. That’s not just a beautiful promotional photo for the film, that’s actually in it.

 

Cody Ward

[Next up: Outland]

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