Categories
Anime TV

One by One I Watch My Friends Disappear and I Wonder if the Psychic Gun Was Worth It

Spoiler Warning for the complete series and movies for Mobile Suit Gundam, Zeta, & Space Runaway Ideon

“Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam,” the 1985 sequel series to “Mobile Suit Gundam,” is notoriously bleak. The series strikes a much darker tone than the original, removing a lot of the ancillary comedic elements in favor of a more serious war series. The protagonist Kamille Bidan is a good encapsulation of Zeta’s change; he’s headstrong and way more aggressive than Amuro Ray. Zeta opens with him running away from school and immediately getting into a fight with army officers (including all time great shithead and Kamille’s series rival, Jerid Mesa). Kamille has a cantankerous relationship with his parents, specifically his engineer dad who we come to find is not only a leading Earth Federation worker but also a misogynistic adulterer. In the span of 5 episodes, Kamille steals the Gundam Mark II mobile suit from the Titan’s (the even more fascistic wing of the Earth Federation that essentially abuses power without repercussions) and runs away to the resistance group AEUG, only to have his mother killed in front of him (“accidentally” by Jerid) and later his dad (fleeing the AEUG to try to get back to his mistress, truly an all time bad dad). It’s a lot to take in and that’s even before the series starts to reckon with the political ramifications of the original series and the various failings of its two main leads. Zeta also has no compunction of killing its characters and its treatment of women is frequently awful. That’s not to say this isn’t a truly great series that earns a lot of its tragedy but Zeta does come with a lot of warning flags and a bit of whiplash immediately following Mobile Suit Gundam.

Unsurprisingly, Zeta ends on a big down note. The series factions come to a head over two dark episodes, where just about all of the characters meet an untimely end. It stands in dark contrast to Mobile Suit Gundam’s “the characters are all Newtypes now” ending, eschewing shared humanity for a darker exploration of sacrifice. I’m not opposed to a challenging ending but I found it less engaging than one of Tomino’s other works; “Space Runaway Ideon”. Ideon, the series Tomino followed up the original Gundam with, is a show that can be similarly dark telling a story of a group of people stuck in an endless battle trying to keep large institutional powers from acquiring a devastating weapon (one of my all time favorite shows now and I wrote about it last year). Ideon’s main series ends semi abruptly (it was canceled) with humanity being wiped out except for two babies. The 1982 movie follow up, “Be Invoked,” greatly expands upon the ending fleshing out the final battle between the Buff Clan and Solo Ship. Both Ideon and Zeta’s endings cover similar ground, but I find Ideon much more resonant and thematically consistent than its Gundam counterpart. It’s the way Ideon explores death that really sets it apart.

Zeta Gundam Reccoa
Hated Reccoa’s heel turn

The last two episodes of Zeta culminate in all three factions battling it out; our heroes in the AEUG, the ailing Titans and the ascending Axis (formed from the remnants of Zeon). The large-scale fight results in the aforementioned body count including the majority of the main cast. Zeta has a number of “doomed women” and the show’s rough gender dynamics culminate in back to back vignettes. Reccoa finally meets her doom on the other side of Emma’s gun punishment for defecting because she was entranced by Scirocco. Emma is then hit while piloting the Super Gundam which leads to her sustaining mortal wounds. After being pulled out of her suit, she speaks to Kamille about the power of the Zeta Gundam and passes on her life force. It’s a disappointing end for both women, who started out the show as strong individuals. To see them offered up as fodder for the special boy removes some of that core individuality. But the most shocking of death all isn’t a woman; Katz is unceremoniously destroyed when he accidentally crashes directly into an asteroid. All of these deaths plus the previous passing of Four and Sarah become significant, as the souls of these characters join Kamille to defeat Scirocco. The women and Katz allow Kamille to become the ultimate psychic gun to defeat the Titans. It’s a hollow victory as Kamille is left catatonic and his mind seems to be wiped clean. He’s calm and childlike as the Zeta cockpit transforms for him into a white liminal space. 

Gundam themes are often summarized as “war as hell” but are really much deeper. Zeta asks us to reckon with how political structures change in the aftermath of war and how passivity enables new, more fascistic regimes to subsume the old ones. Zeta also interrogates the cost of individual inaction; characters like Amuro stood aside and let the fascists take his place. Other people like Char failed to take a leadership role to fill the Zeon vacuum in the space colonies. What does this all lead to? The fascistic Titan regime on earth and the new Axis of Zeon repeating and creating new steps that harm people in their quests for power. Zeta stresses the need to continue fighting and that acquiescing to political structures leads to the same tragedies. And it all leads to others getting hurt, especially the women serving alongside. Zeta seems to say that these casualties are part of the machine to create the perfect weapon, in this case Kamille. The series highlights the roles these individuals play by showing how insignificant they actually are. What matters is Kamille and the Zeta Gundam and they were fodder for the psychic gun. In many ways the conflict is inevitable and the best we can hope for is a cause to rally behind.

Space Runaway Ideon Characters

Ideon takes a different tact in relating individuals to weapons of war. It’s viewpoint on destruction is also more spiritual; while Gundam often includes spirituality it doesn’t fully explore it in the way that Be Invoked does. Newtypes having a sixth sense and communing with the dead is one thing, but the “power of Ide” and our direct vision of the afterlife is much more overt. As I mentioned earlier, Be Invoked and Space Runaway Ideon as a whole can be pretty bleak. The story pertains to a group of space colonists from earth who accidentally stumble upon an ancient technological power; an interstellar spaceship (Solo Ship) and three vehicles that can form together to create a giant robot, the Ideon. They are forced to board these vehicles after aliens from the planet Buff attack them, the Buff believing that the colonists attacked one of their princesses, Karala (who incidentally is just fine and with the earthers). Before too long the colonists push back the Buff Clan and escape into space, finding that they are constantly pursued by the Buff army. The Buff soon starts to consider that these vehicles represent the mythologized “Ide”, an unlimited source of energy. The Ideon proves time and again just how powerful it is and over time begins to develop even more destructive powers.

Space Runaway Ideon

The series is essentially about how these colonists stay alive and keep the most destructive power in the universe out of the wrong hands. They’re constantly on the run as the show depicts how large ideological organizations misuse power and how their militaristic goals make them inherently untrustworthy. But the show is also concerned with how these same ideologies trap people into performing violent actions. There’s a strong feeling of “if they could only talk this out they wouldn’t fight!” running through this show but the Buff Clan’s warlike culture prevents them from ever having a productive or humanist conversation. The Buff Clan’s has a militaristic (also referenced as “samurai”) social hierarchy which rewards people based on military accomplishments. The Solo Ship acquiescing to them would mean handing a nuke over to an imperialistic force and the Buff would never back down from the perceived threat that the colonists possessed. And the colonists’ own home planet can’t be trusted; who knew the cultures between Buff and Earth would be so alike?

All of this fighting comes to a head in the final episode and movie where the power of Ide is invoked and all human life is extinguished from the universe, save for Lou Piper (baby on the Solo ship) and the unborn baby of Karala. Be Invoked expands the ending by depicting a larger final confrontation stretched out over 90 minutes. Be Invoked is often compared to End of Evangelion, which is fair for multiple reasons. First, it essentially replaces the original tv series ending. Second, both movies have a huge bloodbath as we watch as all of our main characters meet untimely ends. Both films culminate in an unknowable power being invoked but the two couldn’t be more different in their thematic intention. Both are hopeful, but Be Invoked finds hope in shared humanity where Eva finds hurt worth shouldering through.

Space Runaway Ideon Be Invoked Lou Piper

Be Invoked immediately jumps into the final battle between the Buff Clan and Solo Ship. The movie starts with the Buff Clan finally getting the Solo Ship on the ropes with their vastly larger space force. As the circumstances become more dire, the Ideon’s destructive power starts to increase. Both sides receive word that meteors have struck all their planets and colonies completely destroying their corresponding civilizations. The Buff Clan doubles down on the attack, sending an infiltration group including Kirala’s sister Harulu to board the Solo Ship. Harulu kills Kirala and her unborn child Messiah before being taken down herself. The Buff Clans boarding party opens the floodgates and waves of soldiers swarm the ship. One by one, our protagonists are struck down. The leader of the Buff, Doba, continues to order the attack even in the face of unspeakable destruction. The Buff Clan soldiers eventually execute him to stop the attack but it’s too late as the Ideon wipes them out. The power of Ide is invoked as all life is extinguished.

Instead of ending there the final moments of Be Invoked are spent in the afterlife. We see both Buff Clan and Solo Ship characters awaken and rejoice finding themselves free of the weight they carried in the living world. No more are they forced to fight, forced into situations designated by their civilization. Sisters Karala and Harulu no longer have to fight; the former being the deserter and the latter being the military leader hunting her down. There’s none of the baggage carried over and their spirits can once again connect on an unencumbered level. Ideon knows that these conflicts don’t take place in a vacuum; there’s important structures that force them into existence. When they lived, the Buff Clan could never let a powerful weapon be obtained by a different faction as it would threaten their vast empire. In death this no longer matters. The souls eventually fly off together to a new planet hoping to try again. 

Zeta Gundam Emma Death Scene
Emma’s final moments

I much prefer the Ideon’s depiction of relating human lives to destructive weaponry. The Ideon is uncontrollable even though humans try their best to. It’s mutually assured destruction and it eventually led to the end of all civilization. The show Ideon understands the ways in which ideology and society traps people and forces their actions. But it’s in its depiction of the afterlife we get the bittersweet message, how we’re not so different and how we’re all connected. We’re trapped now but on a metaphysical level we’re the same. Zeta’s more cynical ending doesn’t quite land the same for me. The psychic gun instead stands in for the destruction of war, the bodies piled up in the conflict. The protagonist wins, but at an immense cost to our crew. These characters are too trapped by their roles but Zeta’s more cynical worldview highlights the sacrifices over metaphysical exploration. It’s narrower focus is concerned with the immense cost of conflict. Ideon takes that one step further, interrogating the root causes of war amid the obvious connective tissue between people. Both understand why different cultures don’t understand one another and the polarization that power brings, but Ideon digs into the connections that are missed in conflict. Maybe it’s that Zeta was already part of a burgeoning series; ZZ Gundam began airing immediately after and continues the story (I’m currently watching, but still in the early goings). Ideon, with its definitive finale, grasps stronger thematic concepts that elude its Gundam successor.

Categories
2020 EOY Anime Star Wars TV

2020 TV: Exploring Space & Piloting Mechs

Spoiler warning for Clone Wars, The Mandalorian, Mobile Suit Gundam, Gundam Wing, 08th MS Team, & Space Runaway Ideon

2020 was the year I finally got off the new show hamster wheel. I didn’t try as I usually do to keep up with every new series that came out. I lost the drive to be in the zeitgeist with every new streamable thing instead picking and choosing when and what I wanted to watch. Once quarantine started and the “Tiger King” had officially left the cultural consciousness, I settled more on rewatching old favorites or discovering older shows. Some of this is due to the general climate; I really want to watch “I May Destroy You” but at the time of its release my brain was not in a good place to handle heavy subject matter. I did watch at least a few newer shows. I finally sat and watched “What We Do In The Shadows” which is absolutely the funniest TV comedy on right now. “The Last Dance” entered my life for ten blissful weeks of Michael Jordan and 90’s nostalgia even if it had largely stopped being interesting by the end (we’ll still have the Jordan memes). And while “The Queen’s Gambit” has officially entered the oversaturation zone I had a phenomenal time with. Mainly I sidestepped bingeing new series because I officially broke the valve on my anime watching. I had been slowly dipping my toe back into anime over the past few years after ostensibly swearing off it in high school. I’ve found that I can wrap my head around the good and bad of the genre better than when I was younger and liking anime was much closer to something of a personal identity. I’m still not right with a lot of the gross horniness that comes along with the genre but I’m much better at identifying that line within a given series. There are series where women are sexual and there are others where they are sexualized and my brain is much better for learning that distinction.

Instead of this list being the best new shows of 2020, I’m writing about a few different series and universes that I had a great time engaging with. All except one predates 2020 and the majority by multiple decades:

Star Wars: The Clone Wars & Mandalorian

Star Wars Clone Wars

Star Wars is one of those special series that each time a new thing comes out the online discourse becomes absolutely insufferable. There is no better example of a series that should probably be removed from existence than Star Wars. Since “The Last Jedi” the online fan reaction has shown just how awful and abusive fan reactions can be and is the entire alt right movement in microcosm. The Star Wars fandom has a direct line from Gamergate harassment and the Trump presidency at large. The absolute worst thing you can do is bring up Luke Skywalker on Twitter. This is all coming from someone who is a lifelong fan of Star Wars. One of my parents favorite anecdotes is how I pestered family friends for plot information about the original trilogy movies before I was allowed to watch them (this was in the mid 90’s). I grew up with the prequels and loved them as a kid so I have been bought in on the series since I was 3. Still, Star Wars fandom is so incredibly toxic that it would probably be a W for everyone if it ceased to exist. Which makes my Star Wars watching a much more personal experience and not try and lose it over every “The Last Jedi is bad” take. I’ve been able to enjoy the TV shows as I pick my way through them even if I’m largely wary about where Star Wars as a brand is heading.

The Mandalorian premiering last year was certainly big for me. Here was an expensive live action Star Wars tv show that wasn’t about Jedi or Skywalkers. I was definitely excited but even more surprised when the show launched. To paraphrase Gita Jackson at Vice Games, the show is largely “about going to different planets and a new western is taking place.” I was taken aback that this wasn’t a show made in the style of “prestige TV” but rather cable adventure shows from before the advent of streaming. The first season especially eschews every episode pertaining to one long form narrative and instead has majority one off adventures. Mandalorian is a great in a B-tier action sense, which is 100% a compliment. I don’t need a large scale space adventure, give me the lone wolf and cub as they stumble upon different societies in space. It’s messy but in a charming way. Once the Darksaber was introduced at the end of season 1, I knew I finally had to jump into Clone Wars.

Star Destroyers

Clone Wars is similarly structured, albeit slightly more kid friendly and with much larger seasons and arcs. The series covers the interstitial war that occurred between episodes 2 & 3 and retroactively makes the prequels better. Emily and I just started a rewatch of the series starting with the prequels (I don’t care if you don’t think this is the correct watch order) and I was ready to embrace these movies after finishing two seasons of Clone Wars. They’re not as bad as I remember but boy are they boring. Clone Wars gets to benefit from the exciting parts of those series, namely the world building, and expand upon it with interesting stories. We get a look into what it means to be a clone trooper, smaller planets caught up in the wider Republic politics, and clever foreshadowing of movie plot points. The show gets to include all the cool Jedi found in the background of the Prequels and added the unstoppable cultural juggernaut that is Asoka Tano (very fun character). Even the characters from the movies, especially Anakin, benefit from longer form storytelling. Stories like the ones that center around Obi Wan’s romantic feelings for a politician he protected when he was younger make the Jedi orders rejection of Anakin’s love affair even more hypocritical. Also just having Anakin be a reckless general and actually having fun makes for a much more engaging character than the mopey edge lord we get in the movies. Since I’m at the risk of overselling the show, the 22 episode seasons do mean there’s plenty of lag. Some stories are very slapstick, goofy, or plain unengaging like a three episode King Kong riff. I’ve heard the best is still yet to come, so I’m excited to move further into season 3.

Bo Katan & Mandalorians

Clone Wars also benefits by having the main focus be on characters from the movies. This allows the show to avoid weird character guest appearances which was a major problem I had with Mandalorian season 2. Before I get to that, I do want to say that I think this season was a total improvement over season 1. The directing was better across the board so the action scenes were a lot less hokey. The individual stories were all interesting starting with a real winner of space cowboy in Boba Fett, a misdirect that unfortunately doesn’t stick long term. They even included an extended look at the ongoings of the fallen imperial army with a tremendous episode featuring a space Bostonian. They made smart ties to the Clone Wars tv show too with Bo-Katan and her crew from the homeplanet of Mandalore. My favorite episode of the season “The Jedi” evoked classic samurai films to great effect (but unfortunately casting noted transphobe Rosario Dawson).

Where the season gets messy though are those aforementioned cameos. We were teased Boba Fett at the end of season 1 and we get him returning here as a badass warrior, which is hilarious given that his biggest moment in the original trilogy has him immediately ending up in a sarlacc pit. I did enjoy his introduction episode, a fun action set piece directed by someone who knows a thing or two about B-movie action scenes Robert Rodriquez. The show couldn’t escape the feeling of nerd wish fulfillment. Here is the Boba Fett fans have been fantasizing about since his first appearance in Empire Strikes Back. This cool guy in Spartan armor must be an all time badass right? He even looks like the star of this show so bring him in! It unfortunately connects the show all the way back to the movies which it had been so clever to avoid. The movies all suffer from this inertia that everything revolves around this small set of characters. People have made many jokes through the years of just how small the universe is since things always involved the same dozen characters. Mandalorian proves it’s exactly that small with Boba and then the eventual appearance of Luke.

The Mandalorian Boba Fett

This is where the nostalgia gets real messy and opened up the floodgates (literally). People were so hyped that they got to see badass hero Luke swoop in again that it reignited the whole Last Jedi harassment again. Disney has catered so much towards fans and it makes the fandom even more irritating. They want their Star Wars myths preserved, Luke in this case being a total hero rather than morally compromised in Last Jedi, and Disney seems to be cementing that. Really this exacerbates the aforementioned small galaxy problem and makes the storytelling so much less interesting. When your plot is building toward a character showing up, it makes it hard to care about the characters you’re spending time with. It cheapens the whole experience and that’s before you realize half of this season was a backdoor pilot. Disney has instead backed away from the onslaught of Star Wars movies to jam 10 (!!) new tv shows onto their platform (not including other movies in development). It makes you wonder how much narrative they have that can be unique and also cater to the very loud group of fans. Much like the Mandalorian, I will probably enjoy some of it. On the other hand, I’m already tired of it all. 

Mobile Suit Gundam Series

Gundam Wing Protagonists

Here’s where the anime reintroduction officially began. I started to listen to Abnormal Mapping at the beginning of the year (specifically their Outer Wilds episode, amazing game and episode) and slowly started to listen to their wider podcast network. For $1 on their Patreon you get the Great Gundam Project where they watch every Gundam series in release order. They happened to also start covering Gundam Wing this year, one of my favorite Toonami era anime. They also pair all of the Gundam shows with a backup anime to watch along with, which led me to Space Runaway Ideon (more on that later). Needless to say I was very excited to jump back into Wing.

And boy what an uneven show that is. It’s a show that starts pedal to the medal with our 5 teen protagonists touching down on earth to battle OZ. What starts as a straightforward fight against two sides rapidly shifts to changing sides and organizations in power. Also the warring factions fight in giant armored mechs and the protagonists pilot special ones called Gundams. The show really wants to focus on the nature of war, the personal ideologies of soldiers and the machinations of the powerful. Our protagonists quickly find themselves stranded without a purpose as the show burns through an entire series worth of plot in 20 episodes. With so much thematic material covered, the back half of the series is left without a purpose. Wing instead shifts to a message that “war is bad actually” and misguided notions of why war is fought. It all ends with the two sides essentially play fighting and really cool looking fight sequences that are essentially meaningless.

08th MS Team

I remembered at least some of this ideology on rewatch. I remembered it’s intense dedication talking about total pacifism and I thought that this idea extended throughout Gundam. This is a fairly common western conception of the series; Gundam Wing and 08th MS team are by far the two most watched series among US fans because of their Toonami airings (Wing was the first to come over from Japan). 08th runs along a similar ideological wavelength by focusing on the ground troops set during the original Gundam’s timeline. It’s a more on the ground “war is hell” sort of Vietnam story tied up with a star crossed lovers story (people love it, but this part did not land with me). It’s strangely meandering and boring for a series that’s beloved by the fandom. In the end it’s trying to tell a story about finding your place in the world outside of national ideology, which never really landed for me.

RX78 Gundam

These two shows got me interested in watching more so I started watching the original Mobile Suit Gundam from 1979 when it was added to Funimation. The original has a lot on its mind; it’s about the cost of war but also why people fight. It’s about the terrible weapons being deployed for destruction and the Gundam is supposed to be terrifying. Mobile Suit Gundam is also about the mechanics of imperialism (Gundam is a portmanteau of gun and freedom and the Rx78 mobile suit is in the colors of the American flag) and the places caught up in the battle between Zeon and the Earth Federation. This is all wrapped in what ostensibly resembles a Saturday morning cartoon with an overarching storyline paired with climatic mecha battles. It also balances plenty of humor to go with the darker parts of the plot. It’s a tremendous show that stands apart from its later counterparts by having a more nuanced ideology. It complicates the hero’s journey by questioning their reasons for fighting and what forces are influencing them.

Space Runaway Ideon

Space Runaway Ideon Cover

This is a really special show. Space Runaway Ideon aired from 1980-81 and was the series immediately following Mobile Suit Gundam’s cancellation by Yoshiyuki Tomino (Ideon was also canceled). The show still revolves around mecha, this time three truck looking vehicles that form one giant mech. These vehicles are discovered by earthling colonists on a new planet called Logo Dau and believed to belong to what they refer to as the “sixth civilization” (the sixth alien society they’ve cataloged). Before they can understand this new power, they’re attacked by the “Buff Clan” (aliens from the planet Buff) who look suspiciously exactly like humans. The earthlings fight back the Buff Clan and find themselves on the run with this new technology which the Buff believe to be a source of infinite power known as the “Ide.”

Much like the original Gundam this show at first also resembles a Saturday morning cartoon. I struggled with it a bit in the opening episodes as I wasn’t accustomed to this type of anime (less bombastic and melodramatic than the typical 90s fare I saw on Toonami). Why did the two sides have to fight every episode, couldn’t they simply talk it out? That exact question underpins the entire show and Ideon reveals that it’s about how power and nationalism naturally breeds distrust. The struggle for the protagonists is how to handle this immense power and who to trust when you’re literally carting around an atomic level weapon. They don’t trust the conquering Buff Clan who only want to use it to further expand across space and even the Earth military wants to take it for their own destructive ends. It’s less about the alluring nature of power (ala LOTR) and more about how power only brings destruction. The destructive power of the Ideon only grows stronger the more times they engage in battle. In a regular Shonen anime growing power is tied with self actualization and control over yourself. In Ideon, growing power breeds more fear and anxiety and a loss of control. The protagonists quickly realize they have no idea how to bottle it’s increasing destruction as they are continually forced to use it to protect themselves. It can be a pretty bleak show.

Space Runaway Ideon Characters

I’ve already written about my favorite character, the no holds barred teen Kasha, but the show is filled with other interesting ones. Cosmo is the opposite of the anime boy stereotype, a brash and rude teen who thinks he knows the best in every situation. Sheryl plays the role of devil’s advocate most of the time, but her hard rationalizations can prove correct making her needling an interesting counterpoint to the rest of the crew (her final breaking point at the end of the series is fantastic as well). We get the Buff Clan perspective from Karala, a Buff royal who turns to the earthling side after Buff Clan fighting. Her outside perspective makes the rest of the crew naturally distrustful of her and it’s through those interactions that we get a better look into how the two cultures lock people into specific actions and roles that are often opposed to outsiders. Bes, the ship’s captain, starts out as a loud condescending figure before learning to listen and trust his fellow crew members. We also get this amazing scene from him in literally the first episode.

Ideon barrels to an amazing conclusion that shows how national identity locks people into conflict. The Buff Clan and our earth protagonists find they have no choice but to fight, less the Buff Clan soldiers lose rank and status. The show ends well enough, but the follow up movie “Be Invoked” expands upon it thematically. Ideon knows that these characters have no other path but destruction and the movie can be rough watching the violence overtake the ship. The movie ends on a positive note though, a spiritual counterpoint that shows how live beings are connected outside social and national paradigms. Released from the conflict, they are able to be at peace and join with one another before their spirits fly to a new planet to ostensibly try again.

Ideon Be Invoked

Ideon was never a huge hit here, but made a big impact among anime fans of its generation. The most notable influence can be seen in Hideaki Anno’s “Neon Genesis Evangelion.” There’s a direct through line between the two series and you can see where Anno even lifted parts from it. This is especially true for the follow up movie “End of Evangelion” which practically recreates shots from Be Invoked, albeit with a much darker and less affecting ending. I haven’t seen anything like Ideon and I don’t think I ever will. It’s an effecting story interrogating the reasons and structures that keep people locked in conflict and the metaphysical forces that tie us all together.

Categories
Anime TV

Space Runaway Ideon: Kasha has no Time for Your “Details”

Repetition and archetype are the two adjectives that immediately jump out at me when I think of the old Saturday morning adventure cartoons I watched as a kid. I had to catch the shows week to week so their episodes all resolved around the show’s core premise. The crew of characters are out on some mission or embroiled in some conflict and engage in one off adventures. There is a fair amount of repetition in the episodes which usually climaxed with an action set piece, which afterwards the story was reset. Characters fit nicely into boxes: serious (and usually male) protagonist, goofy comic relief, romantic interest and a shrill girl. That last character is usually always contentious with the other characters, is the butt of jokes, and is wrong in any given situation. These were shows made for boys and misogyny was ingrained in us early.

These structures allowed me to engage with whatever show I was watching, no matter what the premise was. They also governed my initial impressions of Space Runaway Ideon, an anime from the 80s that at first resembled those Saturday morning adventures. My anime knowledge is strictly Toonami related (putting me in the 90s-early 2000s) so I was taken aback when this show felt more like Voltron. The Earth colonists of the planet Logo Dau find ancient vehicles that resemble trucks that form into a giant robot. The earthlings are attacked by aliens known as the Buff Clan, who want the weapons for themselves. The Buff Clan attacks, gets rebuffed by our child protagonists piloting the robot, and retreat to fight another day. The show eventually becomes so much more than that and really exceeded my expectations. Ideon grapples with national identity, imperialism, and ecological destruction over 39 episodes. While there are plenty of memorable characters, none of them stood out to me as much as Kasha. 

Starting the show, I thought I knew exactly what Kasha’s arc would be. She’s part of the group of children from Logo Dau who were destined to pilot the robots. She’s strong willed meaning that the other boys of the group minimize everything she says (lots of “what would girls even know about this?” sort of stuff). She has an antagonistic relationship with Cosmo (our boy protagonist) which in my predictions meant she would end up as the fake out love interest. I thought Ideon was setting her up to be a thorn in the side of the group, the girl who displays reticence in opposition to the boy’s courage and ends up getting dragged for it. The show had vastly different plans.

Kasha isn’t afraid to squish a human being

Kasha ends up being the most blood thirsty character on the Solo ship (the ship that houses our protagonists). She becomes the main pilot for the legs of the robot (Ideon) the Ideo Buster. While she has some initial anxiety over piloting, that quickly gives way to aggressive fighting tactics. Kasha is just as confident as the other pilots and pushes to absolutely crush the Buff Clan whenever possible. When the enemy retreats, she’s the one yelling to finish them off. Kasha brings the get shit done energy. She doesn’t care what everyone else’s qualms are; they are the enemy, they attacked the ship and they need to be stopped. Things are very black and white to Kasha both to her benefit and detriment. That detriment though is fascinating, a true wildcard that has to be reigned in.

She’s also the last hold out on trusting the Buff Clan defectors. Karala (that poor, poor woman) has an absolutely terrible time being trusted by the Logo Dau colonists. She puts up with being imprisoned, belittled and shot to prove her allegiance. Eventually the colonists all come around, but Kasha straight up refuses to trust her. Kasha always lets everyone know that it’s probably a bad idea to trust her because she’s a Buff Clan alien. I don’t think Kasha ever comes around on Gije, who by the time he defects has a much easier time acclimating with our protagonists. You can understand Kasha’s reasoning, even if she’s being overly stubborn by the end.

Launch all missiles!

That stubbornness is what makes Kasha so fascinating though. She’s far from perfect but in a genuinely fun way. She’s like a hardened soldier from the jump, someone who’s seen and knows the enemy and refuses to pardon them for their faction’s violent actions. Kasha’s the perfect devil’s advocate because she refuses to take peoples shit. Her position as both a child and a girl make her aggressiveness even better. She’s the thorn in everyone’s side who operates a giant leg with missiles. She wants decisive action and she wants it ten fucking minutes ago. It’s rare that the unhinged character is a preteen girl which makes it all the richer. I don’t say that as in a “representational” sense, but more in how her gender operates within the usual stereotypes. Everyone dismisses her and makes snide comments about her, but Kasha continues to double down. 

It’s tough to say what the show actually thinks of Kasha. She is usually wrong and more gung ho about going after the Buff Clan than the rest of the team. Characters like Cosmo write her off because she’s a girl and it’s unclear whether the show thinks he’s entirely wrong in that regard. Either way, Kasha fucking shines or more clearly attacks the sun. She’s pedal to the medal and ready for action. I loved seeing Kasha overreact and consistently insist on decisive action. It was a little disappointing in Be Invoked to have her cede her seat in the Ideon, but glad that she goes down shooting. Kasha wouldn’t want it any other way.

Categories
TV

Jeopardy! Has Drastically Improved my Quarantine

I have just been feeling wiped for the past few weeks. My energy levels hit the floor along with my motivation. Writing my Venture Bros blog was like pulling teeth and I loved that show. I’ve been in one of those anxiety/mental health holes that a lot of people have been feeling this year (pandemic, election tomorrow!!!!, rightful civil unrest). I want to preface those feelings a bit; I’m in the very fortunate position of still having income and am in perfectly good health. My girlfriend Emily and I have the ability to work remotely (you can also get her blogs and schedule a coaching session via her website) so we can fully lean in to the quarantine. All in all a very privileged position and I swear that me commenting on my mental health is going somewhere.

What’s accompanied the absolute bottoming out and uptick in anxiety is a general lack of malaise about everything. I’m keeping plenty busy but I just can’t seem to make the hobbies click like they used to. That means that writing for this blog has also been next to impossible. It’s not that I haven’t been enjoying playing things, watching things, or listening to things it’s just I can’t seem to find a way to type and talk about them. I’ve been pushing my way through Hades which is absolutely a great game. Problem is I just don’t have any interesting things to say about it. “It plays great and the characters are good” is about all I can pull up for something that will be on my top games of the year. There’s a lot to love there but I can’t find anything interesting from my personal playthrough to write about. I will probably have more to say about “Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory” which also says alot about my tastes.

I’ve been watching a few anime recently, all which I’m finding mostly enjoyable. My main motivator for watching is keeping up to date with the “Great Gundam Project” podcast that I jumped into this year when they watched “Gundam Wing.” They’ve just started the “08th MS Team,” a series I’ve heard discussed in very reverent tones. So far, I’m finding it pretty mediocre (only two episodes in though). It has very cool mecha action in the jungle but everything outside of it doesn’t have much interest. It’s clearly aping the Vietnam War and a “war is hell” message but it’s not very deep yet. Between this show and the podcast’s back up show, Gunbuster, I was broadsided by two underage nudity scenes. My recent dive back into anime has been pleasant and I’ve largely missed some of the horniness that comes up in these shows. It was only time that it eventually caught up with me and I knew what I’d get going back to the genre. I can only blame myself. That shouldn’t be an indicator of the quality of Gunbuster though which is really great. I think it has the chance to be vastly better than Anno’s later work “Neon Genesis Evangelion.” Maybe one day my brain will be able to form cogent thoughts about this weird show that seems like a mashup of Top Gun and Starship Troopers (even though it predates the latter). I’ve also watched about 13 episodes of the original Mobile Suit Gundam (I was inspired by the podcast) and it just absolutely rules. Again if the brain starts turning the gears again there’s definitely lots to write about.

Jeopardy! Greatest Tournament

Instead of finding anything long form to write about those interests, I would much rather talk about my new obsession: Jeopardy!. First some background; Emily and I like to try and watch shows together with our evenings. We’d hit a rut and didn’t have the energy to try watching anything new. We stuck to rewatching Bob’s Burgers and Gilmore Girls, our eternal fallbacks. We don’t have cable sticking mainly to streaming services, some of which we pay for and some of which we trade logins for. Emily started idly digging through Netflix and found that they had whole collections of old Jeopardy! reruns. I have fond memories of Jeopardy! but my family wasn’t consistent watchers. Emily and I decided why the hell not; seemed like a perfect distraction for 20 minutes. It might be the best decision we’ve made all quarantine.

Jeopardy! Contestants

There’s something so special about the way Jeopardy! handles its place in the game show pantheon. If game shows were a sport, Jeopardy! would be golf. It’s not flashy, it’s not in your face, and is much more subdued. It’s a competition, but there’s no loud studio noises or over the top reactions from contestants. These people came to answer trivia dammit and only in the form of a question. It makes it much less grating and really strips down to what makes game shows fun to its essence. There’s still the drama and the contestant storylines just Alex Trebek isn’t shouting it at you. There are underdog wins, unstoppable champions, and light rivalries formed in between lightning fast rounds of questions. We’ve formed bonds with contestants and had our hearts broken over tough losses. Jeopardy! is subdued but only to give you the actual meat you want out of a game show.

The trivia questions allow for a lot of couch participation. The cleverly titled categories range from tv, to geography, and sports. Most of the time, we’re participating as questions come up. Why of course we knew that was King Tut. What is Cheers Alex? There’s a different sort of media interaction that we don’t get from watching scripted shows. Instead of sitting back, absorbing a show and analyzing it, we’re trying to dig up random facts from the back of our brains. I’m less inclined to sit on my phone because I want to make sure I don’t miss a question. It’s played a weird trick to my tired brain; making it active without making me feel taxed. It helps that the contestants know way more than I do so I get to receive dopamine by proxy. O right, that was Mesopotamia I knew that. Meanwhile you are being guided along very quickly by Trebek’s quiet authority. And he’s not afraid to throw a lot of shade.

You know Alex Trebek. He’s an icon just for being the host of Jeopardy!, but also for his effortless guidance of the game. He only interjects when he needs to or when to needle a contestant for missing a question. He’ll quickly add updates into the game, like when someone moves back into a positive score. These are very sly cues to the audience of the story of the game and the narrative for individual players. Commentary clues like “back on the board” or “you’re on a roll” come out so fast that you barely register them. He also stops people from carrying on to long; keep it short and concise is the name of the game. He commands the show without it ever seeming unfair or his ruling ever coming off to mean. His presence is above the game and his interactions with the players reinforce this. Does he actually enjoy this man’s story about the renaissance faire or is he silently judging them? Probably both but it’s hard to tell.

All in all Jeopardy! has been a weirdly soothing tradition for the past week. I’m excited when we cue it up after I’m finished for the day. My tired brain craves the pleasant excitement of the board and the thrill of Double Jeopardy! being unearthed. It’s strange to have an old cable game show be the thing we’re binging but it’s fit right in.

Categories
TV

I’ll Miss Growing with the Venture Bros.

The Monarch gave roughly a million monologues. He would have a slight moment where he felt he had the upper hand, a brilliant opening or he just settled for everyone’s undivided attention. The Monarch knew when to immediately launch into his evil diatribe about how he was going to crush his enemy (usually Dr. Venture) with a number of extravagant and detailed metaphors for pain and suffering. More importantly, Venture Bros knew how to stage a perfect monologue. Shape camera angles and ominous music played up the intensity of the speech. Venture Bros also knew that if someone actually launched into these on a regular basis it would be fucking weird.

I am still grieving over the sudden cancellation of Venture Bros. Not that I was expecting season 8 anytime soon, but the series felt like an immovable object. There was always that future date when they would announce new episodes and I would be suddenly reminded of my love for the show. Long production cycles meant I had plenty of time to revisit the series over and over. It was a show laser targeted toward my interests; parodying old adventure cartoon shows, comics, music culture and a number of extremely nerdy things. That longline isn’t unique now and wasn’t really even then. As part Adultswim, it was nestled between other shows doing similar comic deconstructions like Space Ghost and Harvey Birdman. As Venture Bros aged, it showed an interest in actually exploring the lasting consequences of people’s actions. It moved away from mining humor out of “wouldn’t it be awful to be a real person in this scenario?” to “how do you live with the trauma?” It did that and so much more all without diving into a grim dark atmosphere that makes most “superhero exploration” fiction. Venture Bros balanced its sense of ridiculousness with a deep reverence for the genres they were sending up. Venture Bros cared for its characters and their growth and loved mining episodes out of their ever shifting lives.

Venture Bros’ other Adult Swim brethren all share a certain callousness. Absurdity is matched with heightened states of sex and violence all played for laughs. There’s usually no permanence; it’s easier to dive into increasingly bizarre scenarios if the world is reset each week. The ones that do continue their storylines tend to have a bleak worldview. Rick and Morty for example reinforces that the universe is awful and the best you can do is put aside your selfishness every now and take care of your own. The characters live with their trauma but it only makes them more aggressive to the world around them. 

Venture Bros never completely succumbed to that dark viewpoint for its characters but instead explored how they could grow. That’s not to say there aren’t lots of traumatic events that happen in this show; Dr. Venture, both senior and junior, are at the center of a lot of horrific events in the show. Starting back at the beginning of season 2, Venture Bros asked how Dr. Venture can live with the collateral damage that his life inflicts on his children. Dr. Venture’s escape shows him start to crack under the constant cloning rebirths (and also makes for a killer intro). By the end of the episode he’s back to bottling his emotions but it sets up a long running theme around his duty to his twins and their mortality. After the explosive end of season 3 wipes out all the clones, Dr. Venture actually starts to participate in their lives. He’s still the same self-centered man who favors one of his sons, but nevertheless shifts his behavior to actually help them grow.

Venture Bros Season 5 Episode 1

That definitely doesn’t mean he’s the perfect parent; he’s a scheming narcissist raised by an emotionally abusive narcissist. His actions paint him more as a villain (most of the “good” guys really) as he irreversibly upends multiple people’s lives. He wants to be a good person though even if he has no idea how to actually be one, something that his channel counterpart Rick could never be even in his best moments. He’s much more delusional than that, believing himself to be a super scientist even though he doesn’t know the first thing about it. He dives headfirst into reckless projects, like in season 5 where he mutates a giant population of grad students. The show before that even plays with that idea by giving him a choice in the season 3, “Doctor is Sin.” Henry Killinger sets up an impressive operation and hands him the keys to his own super villain empire, but he can’t take it. Dr. Venture is for all intents and purposes a villain but he could never classify himself as one. He wants to be the super scientist that his father was but his feelings of inadequacy have haunted (literally and figuratively) him at every turn and cause him to act recklessly and selfishly.

Venture Bros Venture Libre
“The Bat”

The Venture bros experience the largest amount of growth once they’re actually able to grow up. Hank, always the one who’s most game with any scenario, works to find his own path in the good vs evil business. He experiences rejection at the hand of Sphynx even though he is almost ridiculously overqualified. He also has to deal with his father’s favoritism towards Dean and constantly has to push back against his fathers wishes for him (mainly, for him to go to college). He’s always goofy, but he’s even more fun to watch when he embraces being a kid at heart and starts kicking ass in later seasons.

Venture Bros Season 5
The black Speed Suit is always the best look

Dean meanwhile works in tighter constraints; meek and quiet at first he starts to push back aggressively to the path he’s being funneled into. Out of the two brothers, he’s the sensitive one meaning he ends up feeling more betrayed and heartbroken. His childhood crush goes unrequited (although him yelling “Fuck you” at the Outrider is a highlight), his dad funnels him into a super science career path, and he’s the one who finds out the boys are clones. Dean gets to experience a goth phase and eventually attend college on his own. He drastically changes over the entire series and the selfish, angry nerd we see by the end of it is very different from the quiet and anxious one that starts it. Watching Dean break only to put himself back together was a true delight to follow along with.

The villains change drastically as well. Monarch has a wild ride going from comfortably arching Dr. Venture with his large trust fund to losing almost everything. He even moonlights as the “what if Batman killed people” debate for an entire season to great effect. He’s constantly just outside his preferred equilibrium, eternally hating and arching Dr. Venture, and consistently having to shift to achieve his goal. He’s backed up and eventually surpassed by Dr. Mrs. Monarch (fka Dr. Girlfriend & Dr. Fiance respectively) who was always the more competent of the pair. Initially just a cheap joke about a woman with a deep voice, her stories center just how awful it would be to be a woman amongst an industry dominated by male narcissists. She’s always one step ahead of everyone else and her eventual rise to Guild Sovereign is well deserved. That promotion also sets up the biggest test of her and the Monarch’s relationship, which is less about him being emasculated as the main villain but more that she won’t help him get back to arching Dr. Venture. Their main henchman 24 goes from Simpsons comic book guy to Brock competitor after the death of 21 (why would you buckle your seatbelt?). He brings a true outsider perspective to the arching business and is one of the many characters serving as the nerd audience stand in. His naivety drives a lot of the audience’s understanding of being a villain. He learns the likelihood of survival (don’t prepare), navigating love (of course they swing), and the ruthlessness that comes with fighting (you can’t save everyone). While I love Gary’s arc, nothing will ever pass one of the single greatest moments ever committed to film.

This type of characterization extends all the way down the character list. The majority of side characters are treated to similar arcs from Dr. Orpheus navigating being a single father to Billy’s capableness being abused by everyone around him (the most tragic of all the characters). It was a delight watching these characters fail over and over again throughout the years. Seeing events pay off years down the road was gratifying, even if those payoffs were only small character moments. I will truly miss this weird, one of a kind show that understood how to navigate nerd culture without completely fawning over it. Venture Bros. was an off kilter version of “having your cake and eating it to” that somehow strangely worked.

Venture Bros David Bowie
We’ll always have David Bowie (?)
Categories
TV

Cardcaptor Sakura’s Teacher Relationships are Breaking My Brain

Quarantine and the general state of the world has warped my girlfriend and I’s viewing habits. We are in a very fortunate position and don’t have to leave our house to work, which has afforded us extra time to sit down and start new shows. The heaviness of current events has led us to steer away from more intense tv series. Luckily Netflix added Cardcaptor Sakura earlier this year. It was a show I watched more than a decade earlier on Kids WB and was surprised to learn just how much of that version had been edited down. It’s been a great salve, a slice of life show with adventure fantasy wrapping. It’s a show made for children too so it’s light and has relentless positive energy even when it’s tackling difficult subjects. Sakura has been great to put on every time our mental states are just worn out. The only thing puncturing this positive bubble is the weird existence of teacher – student relationships. 

Cardcaptor Sakura follows ten year old Sakura Kinomoto as she collects the magical “Clow Cards” that she accidentally unleashed. These cards all pertain to specific elemental or magical properties and cause havoc in the world. They range in intensity as well: some cause windy days or snow storms while another has Sakura caught in a time loop. She’s aided by the card’s protector Kero who has lost his true form and now appears in the form of a small bear with wings. The show generally sticks to a “monster of the week” format where a new Clow Card surfaces and causes some level of menace. Sakura learns how to beat, captures it, and wins the day.

Sakura Tomoyo

Sakura’s mission is much more of the background in the show though as the A plot usually sticks to more of a slice of life. Cardcaptor Sakura is much more concerned with school, hanging with friends and general home life than it is with any card capturing. The lessons Sakura is primarily concerned with center around growing up and learning empathy toward others. Sakura hangs with her good friend Tomoyo (who takes great delight in making her new costumes for battling Clow Cards), crushes on her brother’s friend Yukito, and deals with rivalry from a new classmate Syaoran Li. The whole cast is endearing and the show really takes time to develop them. Each of the side characters are well rounded with their own goals and issues. Li for instance learns to understand his emotions better through his competition to capture the Clow Cards. While Sakura. Sakura’s brother Toya, while initially painted as a nagging older sibling, is shown to be the true caretaker of the household. There’s a running gag of Toya constantly appearing to have a new job wherever the characters are visiting, but it shows how much effort he puts into taking care of the family since they lost their mom.

Yukito Toyo

Romance is also a big thing in Cardcaptor Sakura and for the most part the show handles the respective crushes with great care. Sakura pines for the gentle and caring Yukito in a very pure, grade school appropriate way. She swoons when she thinks about him and is embarrassed when he’s around and Yukito is nothing but warm in return. The show also has a majority queer romances as well which was edited out of the original American version I watched as a kid. It’s evident that Tomoyo has romantic feelings toward Sakura, ones that she knows go unrequited. She wants nothing but the best for Sakura and gets validation from making her new costumes and outfits. It’s a tender portrait of a lesbian girl with a crush on her best friend. Li meanwhile is instantly attracted to Yukito, lending another thing to rival over with Sakura. He’s a young boy that doesn’t know how to express his emotions, so his feelings come out in gifts and silent stammerings (something I very much relate to). Yukito only had eyes for Toya though and it’s evident Toya feels the same. They are very close friends at first that are slightly removed from making their feelings known. The show portrays them as two people who enjoy each other’s company that are unsure how to move forward in a very high school sort of way. All of these relationships are handled with great care and it’s been so nice to have a show where everyone respects one another’s feelings so well. 

Fujitaka Nadeshiko
Exhibit A

Which leads me to the truly baffling decisions made around two important relationships. There are two student teacher romances in the show, both of which pertain to the Kinomoto family. In episode 10, it is revealed that Sakura’s mother Nadeshiko and her father Fujitaka met when he was a student teacher in her high school. Tomoyo’s mother Sonomi, a cousin to Nadeshiko, reveals during the episode that she blames Fujitaka for her death. The family had forbade Nadeshiko from dating Fujitaka, but she did anyway and was ousted. I hate to say it, but I’m on her family’s side. A teacher dating a 16 year old is creepy and predatory, even if said teacher is only in their twenties. It adds a whole layer of grossness to the story and the show doesn’t seem to realize the implications there. It’s treated as a love against all odds as Sonomi comes to at least slightly forgive Fujitaka. It’s also generally dismissed to the background and never brought up again. My girlfriend and I were floored by the revelation, especially the implications that Tomoyo was now a cousin to Sakura. 

Mizuki Toyo
Exhibit B

Then to double down on it, the show reveals that Toya was involved in a teacher student relationship when he was in junior high. Episode 26 introduces Sakura’s new teacher Ms Mizuki who also mysteriously has a tie to the Clow Cards. At the end of the episode, it’s revealed that Toya recognizes her. Episode 27 has Sakura trying to reign in the Return Card and ends up in the past watching Toya and Ms Mizuki. She was formerly Toyas student teacher when he was in eight grade and they entered into a relationship. The exact details on the relationship are unclear, but it is evident it was romantic. Ms Mizuki broke it off after a year when she left to go teach in England and says that Toya will meet the person who was truly meant to be with (Yukito). Again it’s treated fairly romantically but has such gross implications. It’s weird that the show provides an example of predatory behavior from both male and female teachers. Ms Mizuki might have ended things after a year, but entering into that relationship is profoundly manipulative to a minor. Toya and Ms Mizukis relationship isn’t dismissed as Sakura’s parents as Ms Mizuki interacts with Yukito multiple times over the course of the first season. Yukito seems to understand that they had a past relationship and wants to know more. That’s where the show draws the line though and never calls attention to the fact of the power and maturity discrepancy between Toya and Mizuki. 

Syaoran Li Yukito

It’s truly baffling that these relationships exist in this show that treats other romances so thoughtfully. I can’t disengage with them especially when Cardcaptor Sakura reminds the viewer about Toya and Ms Mizuki’s relationship often. The face that the show seems to tacitly agree that they were ok is truly wild. It takes me out of an otherwise truly pleasant and positive experience. No adult that engages in a romantic relationship with a minor, let alone a student, is a hero. Cardcaptor Sakura doesn’t seem to understand that. I’m still loving the show, but everytime this subject matter comes up I can’t help that it breaks my brain.

Categories
TV Uncategorized

Twin Peaks, Meditation, & the modern push-back to Mindfulness

After years of light (read: constant) suggesting, I’ve finally gotten my girlfriend to watch Twin Peaks. It is one of, if not my actual, favorite shows of all time and this will be my fourth time through the main series and second watch of The Return. Much to my relief she is really enjoying it and has allowed me to not feel completely like the annoying film boyfriend who won’t stop lecturing his partner about movies (I very much am, but I’m working to improve everyday). There’s so much to love in those original seasons: small town drama, over the top drama and characterization, supernatural mysteries that are just the right amount of dark and ominous. I knew she’d love Dale Cooper, the charismatic oddball and lead protagonist, but I didn’t guess the reason why. As a writer, she covers topics related to modern mindfulness and mindset and Dale Cooper is the embodiment of being present. He is always in the moment, paying attention to the shifts in nature and is constantly curious and interrogative of his surroundings. Dale’s personal practices had me reflecting back on mine and how his meditative practices are interpreted today.

Mindfulness and meditation are very much modern buzzwords and for good reason. The act of grounding yourself and centering your mind back on the present has widely benefited people. It’s easy to get lost in your brain, constantly reflecting back on past mistakes or worrying about the future. As someone with lifelong anxiety, finding meditation helped me tremendously. Learning to identify when I have negative recurring thoughts has allowed me to identify triggers and create ways to help manage them. My anxiety also manifests in the creation of long to-do lists or minute weekly schedules; taking even ten minutes to breathe and let my mind wander helps me dismantle these rigid checklists before I let them spin me out.

It’s these types of benefits that has people evangelizing mindfulness, but a lot of talk about it is overly prescriptive. The way meditation is often described sounds much more like a magic cure all, a way to remove or erase those negative side effects related to mental disorders. There’s been a push-back to this narrow definition and in some instances has made people feel worse for not being able to tap into the “amazing” positive benefits it’s supposed to yield. There is more than enough outside stimulus and mental health side effects that prevent individuals from being able to tap into this practice. The best discussions of mindfulness discuss it as a tool to be incorporated into your mental health toolbelt (and to toot my partner’s horn, something she does quite well in her writing). On my best days, meditation can help calm my anxiety and leave me feeling centered. On even my mediocre days, it can be an exhausting experience and leave me discouraged that I wasn’t able to fully ground my mind. Meditation is very important to me, but being realistic with its benefits is what truly allows me to keep my practice. I will always have anxiety and it will not solve my mental health problems, but it has allowed me to process my trauma. This does not mean that meditation and mindfulness is right for everyone though.

Twin Peaks Sheriff Department

Agent Cooper embodies the ideals of a mindfulness practice not only in his present focused mindset but in how he communicates it to other people. He is interrogative and curious about everything. His famous lines about food and coffee come from his well of presence. He notices the mundane and celebrates it because he’s present in those moments. He notices the trees and wants to know more about them. He notices peoples habits and body language, the sign of a great investigator but also the sign of someone who is in the moment. It’s a perfect example of the touted positive effects of mindfulness, being ever present.

Dale’s practice is deeply personal and it informs how he interrogates and investigates the world. He’s inquisitive and has learned to trust his intuition even if it’s a bit off kilter. The rock throwing scene from the third episode demonstrates this; the investigation is at an impasse so he uses his intuition to guide their next step. Each rock thrown represents a different person that could be involved with the case. A missed rock means they’re not involved, skimming the bottle means connected but not the person Laura wrote about, and the eventual bottle break means Cooper is dead on. The process is semi-spiritual as a discussion of the Dalai Lama precludes it, but it’s more about tapping into a gut instinct. Without any further physical evidence to go on, Cooper moves to a more grounded practice to inform the next step. The rock throwing is a guide into where to step next not a guilty verdict. He uses his practice to take a step back and tab into his unconscious.

David Lynch Twin Peaks

It makes a lot of sense that David Lynch has stated that Cooper is essentially a stand in for himself. As Lynch said “He says a lot of the things I say.” You can really notice as well when David Lynch left Twin Peaks in season 2; the sage wisdom tips and curious nature slowly drops away. When you read interviews with David Lynch or watch his new daily weather report, you can see a lot of the same mannerisms. David Lynch is a lifelong evangelist, saying it completely changed his mindset and creative process. It shows in his works, pieces of slow-moving, dark, interrogative pieces of film. The minutiae of life, everything from electrical sounds to blinking light fixtures, factor into the story and mood of his films. You can easily draw the parallels between his work and his dedicated transcendental meditation (TM) practice. 

In fact, he really pushes TM through his David Lynch Foundation. Their stated goal is to provide TM for any child that wants to practice it. The website and PR around his foundation has lots of incredible claims around the positive benefits of the practice and how it allows people to access a deep well of creativity and happiness. It’s unfortunately a really good example of what really pushes people away from mindfulness in the first place. Incredible claims around happiness and positive life benefits tie into that aforementioned image of the cure all. It implies that without the practice you won’t be able to access this deep well that the foundation alludes to. What if someone is unable to practice mindfulness? What about the outside factors that contribute negatively or prevent someone from having 20 minutes a day to set aside? It makes it all seem very out of touch and only accessible to the most comfortable of us (rich white Americans) especially when the social proof is from powerful white celebrities like Martin Scorcese and Hugh Jackman.

Which is a shame because it grinds against the depiction of Dale Cooper. He never glosses over the dark details; beneath his grin is someone with deep inner turmoil. His practice allows him to weigh both the good and the bad and presents a vehicle in which to process it. Mindfulness might have changed his life, but he doesn’t present it that way to people. When he offers advice, it’s practical in a way that’s accessible to others. And we can all learn to follow some of his best tips.

Categories
TV

Legion proves that Marvel shows can be about the Journey

Marvel shows (specifically Netflix) try to be about the journey. The majority of a season’s running time is devoted to character interactions, mostly revolving around discussing and reacting to major events. Many episodes take place in single locations devoting an entire hour to characters denoting their feelings on the current plot happenings. It’s important for shows to have downtime, but Marvel shows tend to overly traffic in that. Action set pieces only come once every 3 or 4 episodes, with the interim episodes dedicated to reacting to them. This type of television storytelling doesn’t necessarily have to be a negative, instead making the show ostensibly about the characters rather than the fights, but in Marvel’s case this becomes their biggest flaw. The journey the shows provide is usually pretty thin and the 13 episode count barely hides a story that’s been stretched thin. Another show to come from Marvel comics, Legion, proves to be their stylistic antithesis; a superhero show that is entirely about the characters that intrigues the viewer as it slowly teases out it’s plot. Legion’s odd-ball sensibilities prove that superhero shows light on superheroics can be interesting.

Marvels Defenders

Marvel’s Netflix series do a poor job of masking little story momentum. Most episodes following big pivotal moments are met with hour long episodes of major downtime. Luke Cage has an entire episode of him recovering in a tank, Daredevil is chained on a rooftop, and Jessica Jones faces a moral dilemma in her apartment. These episodes are frustrating as part of their own series, but when it’s an episode concept that’s repeated across all 5 (6 included Defenders) shows it becomes overly tiresome. It doesn’t help that these episodes are also incredibly thin; there’s nothing meaningful in the character dialogue. There’s usually some new heroic resolve (that Luke Cage can show weakness, Daredevil’s vigilante actions are only one step removed from murder, Jessica sacrificing family to do what is right) but this is arrived at through static shots of actors speaking lines to one another. I remember feeling that the original Daredevil season felt like it had some padding but by the time I was watching Jessica Jones season 2, the same season structure pushed me away.

Legion Syd Barrett
LEGION — CR: Frank Ockenfels/FX

Legion on the other hand makes episodes that might seem like filler exciting. In its current season, Legion dedicated an entire episode to probing Syd’s backstory to great effect. David traversing of Syd’s childhood, which means taking a break from the main overarching story, doesn’t feel like filler because it adds depth to the character not only through the real-world examples it provides, but also through David’s problem-solving in escaping Syd’s mind. What turns out to be a test from Syd shows her motivations as a character and creates a new thematic path forward. Syd communicates to David that while love can be a motivation for doing the right thing, your tragedies and experience are the tools in which to do enact it. This is all helped through Legion’s cool as hell style (more on that in a moment).

Marvel Defenders Hallway

The Marvel shows all tend to be cut from the same cloth, stylistically speaking. The descriptor of “house style” that people use for the Marvel Cinematic Universe also could apply for their Netflix shows. All of the shows tend to look just about the same, with minor changes in hue to differentiate (more purples for Jessica Jones, a dustier brown for Luke Cage). They all tend to have fairly boring locations to; rustic New York apartments and warehouses make up the majority. The one way they do vary is in their themes. The shows smartly play up what makes each superhero unique. Luke Cage is a commentary on being black in America (emphasized through his bulletproof skin), Jessica Jones is about finding female power against male oppression/abuse, and the Punisher ties his revenge to a story about being an Army veteran. These different themes prove to be enticing, especially during the better (early) parts of each of those shows. They really start to wear though when the shows quickly run out of ways to talk about these themes. Marvel shows tend to drag a lot towards the end for a reason; they have run out of ground to cover. Daredevil suffers more dramatically than the other 3 in this regard. It covers a lot of the same things that the Nolan Batman series did better; mainly what constitutes the line between being a hero and a villain. Vincent D’onofrio’s first season villain helped pave over some of the well worn territory with sheer acting ability, but the second season really suffered without a notable antagonist (it’s over reliance on Elektra and the hand while under utilizing Jon Bernthal being its downfall). The shows also have a problem of telling rather than showing. It’s one thing to have the characters verbalize the theme; it’s another to actually use the medium to visualize it.

legion fukyama

Legion on the other hand blows the other shows out of the water. The show explores the psychological effects David’s powers has on him and smartly visualizes his supposed “insanity.” The show obscures reality with its off-beat set design. The locales all take a cues from 70’s style, with lots of rounded edges and sunken rooms. Characters dress in jumpsuits and woolen athletic clothes with a pastel color palette. Modern and futuristic technology intermingle with this look, creating a place out of time. It’s hard to tell if these places are real at first; David as the protagonist is unreliable and doesn’t offer the viewer any footing. The psychedelic nature of the show really comes through in its non-linear story structure. The first season explicitly bounces around David’s past and present, while the second plays with time in a different way. Both these elements obfuscate the true nature of the story while using visual and auditory symbols to cement the style. Hushed voices are used to great effect and visual abnormalities such as a large monster and Minotaur highlight the thematic ideas. David’s telekinetic abilities thus become the very structure of the show itself. The unwieldy nature of peaking into everyone around mind’s are illustrated through Legion’s puzzling style.

Legion Oliver Dance

Marvel’s Netflix shows are sorely lacking in this type of cohesion. Instead they opt for a more bland, generic type of genre show where Legion takes superhero ideas and runs with them. Marvel shows skew towards one type of style and storytelling, making the shows more or less identical. It also doesn’t help that Marvel shows barely offer a payoff for the investment either. If we are going to continue seeing multiple seasons of the same type of Marvel show, they could do worse than start taking cues from other shows like Legion. Leveraging their superheroes unique identity not only leads to more fertile storytelling, but unique style of direction as well.