Category Archives: Millennium Actress

Remembering Ebert

Roger Ebert died this past week. He was not only a star-like entertainment figure, but he popularized the movie critic and turned it into a legitimate thing to be. May he rest in peace and my condolences to his friends, colleagues and family. That said, I never really held his opinions in much of any esteem. Rather, I enjoy his prolific and professional approach to that core task he does so well–reviewing movies. It’s in his rather-concise form in which I learn about movies I typically never get to see (and probably don’t want to watch). It’s his consistency, approach and criticalness that is truly worthy.

The one thing I always found interesting is how Ebert put Graves of the Fireflies on a pedestal. It’s at least his favorite piece from Ghibli. It hung with me because I watched Graves for the first time only a year ago, so for the longest time I wondered how well it stands against the expectation and weight from the raving reviews and trigger warnings people give. After seeing it, everything makes sense. It certainly belongs to his 100 great movies.

I also think it’s a great demonstration of what I call “anime no chikara.” And by that I simply mean the power of the animation medium, style, format, whatever.

In his review of Graves of the Fireflies Ebert spelled out in a way why he likes it so much. However I think he spends most of the review explaining what makes Graves a great film–the “chikara” part. The part how anime makes a movie about the torturous fate of two war orphans during Japan’s WW2 period? He points it out in a couple sentences here and there–something about imagination and the ability to convey realistic human emotion without the constraints of realism.

Compare that to a later recalling in Ebert’s review of another harrowing anime film, Tokyo Godfather:

…the themes are so harrowing that only animation makes them possible. I don’t think I’d want to see a movie in which a real baby had the adventures this one has.

I mean, in terms of the story, Tokyo Godfathers is a movie that really can be only done via something like animation. [As a bonus note, it’s always fun to see one of the most popular and accessible movie critic trying to explain to everyday Americans how “real” anime expresses itself.] But in a way the power of anime is most potent when it deals with the most harrowing, the most tragic, and the most depressing.

Did anyone ever write a paper about how Japan’s collective trauma plays a part in this? Anyways.


Of course, this doesn’t mean sadface anime tend to do well. I think to Takahata’s credit, a film like Graves of the Fireflies also had that patient, measured and poetic rhythm, something that few anime has; it’s not slice-of-life for the sake of being a portrayal of life, but rather the impact is the best when presented in the silences of everyday life. It’s driven by the sinking realization of hopelessness, not by exasperation of melodrama. It is in the gap where we see Setsuko playing with piles of mud that we rend our hearts, not because, for example, it’s a pain in the butt to go home in Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 (not to single that one out, just the first to come to mind).

On a more positive note, did you know Satoshi Kon’s best-reviewed film on Rotten Tomato is Millennium Actress? Ebert didn’t write that one up.  The news about Ebert only serves to remind me the passing of Kon, as these two, in my mind, are the greatest figure for anime in the movies in the 21st century from a westerner’s point of view. I just hope someone who will not die any time soon will show up and change my mind.

Pimping for Haikasoru, Talking about Butt-Kicking Girls, Talking Trash on Moe

Japan loves their badass chicks. Kuudere or tsundere or just a pretty face with a good head on her shoulders, there are all types and it comes in all forms and shapes and sizes. Even if they tend to be small and yet larger than life.

So I decide to spin this essay topic out in to a blog post, partly because I don’t feel ethically 100% about applying for a freebie (dudes Viz send Jtor some review copies?), but also because I am going over 200 words. (Plus I am going to buy a copy of Mardock Scramble anyways.)

The immediate thought that came to mind is how these girl protagonists run the gamut from cardboard pinup to full-blown mind-virus that consumes the audience. It’s like Satoshi Kon’s Chiyoko, the Millennium actress herself. It’s that feeling of wonder and adoration and moe a person has with his or her idol. She is gender unspecific in a way that she both is adored but she is also a force of nature, a perfected understanding of womanhood, the ideal that is somehow also mono no aware. You can empathize with her, and you admire her because she is your better and she makes you aspire. These things are universal, not limited to a heterosexual orientation.

Chiyoko is probably simply a polished version of another SF heroine, a personal favorite: Priss literally fights with tooth and nail against the things holding her back. But more like a punk rocker than someone driven by universal love, her rebellion is one that highlights human hypocrisy and failing rather than to extol some virtue universal. To me she’s timeless, having survived the 80s, 90s and the 00s. She puts on an act, as in her music gig, but it’s just an extension of her persona.

Which is to say that is yet entirely different than, say, Harmony’s instigators, who are more victims and pawns than human beings capable of their own wills, or are they even such things to begin with? Like puppets in a puppet show, I think that is quite all right. The storyteller has a story to tell, and I paid the admission fee expecting that.

Yet different still is Ibis, who is more robot than a girl, and I mean it in gender terms. The funny thing here is exactly how Ibis (and more pertinently, Ibis’ AI friends) are of originally fancies of otaku. It is through their masters’ drive to fulfilling their wishes that they were born. (As to what I mean by this you can load up a video of Dead or Alive Beach Volleyball for an example.) They bear the shapes of the fancies and fantasies of their masters, even to their personality and desire for non-conflict (although at that point we’re talking about something more Asimov-ish, rather than late night anime or galge). Somewhere between the space, lack of a better term, from the words and ink on a page to the abstraction in the mind of the reader, we’ve inflated these simple ideas like balloons, and injected feelings as if we perceive these characters as some kind of, well, girl, or whatever. Helium or Xenon or what have you, whatever floats your pickles.

Which is still to say that there are a group of people out there, you know, that seek this feminine protagonist, that these protagonists may kick butt in more ways than one, and that is that. And that is the moe problem in a nutshell. It isn’t that these cardboard-cutout characters are deep, insightful, and reflective of the human condition, but their collective existence upon the mind of the otaku social consciousness is notable and profound. They are art imitating life imitating art, except there is no master storyteller here; there are just tens of thousands of storytellers, each seeing the scene with his or her own eyes, each telling his or her own story. It’s a metaversial harem.

Thankfully when we have few substitute for words when it comes to written prose, rather than a flash of a pair of panties or a longing look back with her long blond mane flowing in the wind, pondering about that Distant Avalon that never comes, but kinda should have already given how much money they’ve made on PVC alone. Such simple but indestructible barrier to human communication safeguards, to some extent, the ever-cheapening nature of the database animal. In as much as you can write a book about these 2D cardboard cutouts, it still stands with more dignity than an anime of the same put together. After all, a picture of a butt-kicking girl is not the same as the words “butt-kicking girl.”

[As an aside, I more or less kept my resolution in 2010 about talking about moe. I ought to continue, but it feels right to use the term here. You will have to forgive me.]