Aesthetic IS Narrative

Edited by The Davoo

Text version:

A very commonly held belief amongst media critics is that the quality of narrative and character construction are what really matter in a story; and that aesthetic elements, such as visuals and music, are mere enhancements–window dressing to the core ideas of a work of art. Speaking for my personal taste, I can’t even really disagree with this notion–but I do think it’s far too hasty to espouse these values so loudly without questioning them. I mean, I am, myself, a writer–as are most critics. Is it much of a surprise that we value writing more than anything else when we do it professionally? Even if you drew a picture whose purpose was to critique art, a writer would come along and explain that image to other people who value language the most, in an attempt for our group to wrap our heads around it. I’ve written a lot about how Hideaki Anno doesn’t need to explain Evangelion–he already said what he had to say in pictures. I’m really just explaining the messages myself because a lot of us learn better through words; and the fact that I’m doing so at all gets away from the main point, which is already right there in the pictures themselves. If you looked at Evangelion, then the point was already communicated to you. If you didn’t understand it, then that says as much about you as it does about the work.

As a huge fan of illustrative art and music, there are countless ideas in my brain that I’ve never been able to express, because words will not express them–and words are my only expertise. I’ve never taken up drawing or composing to such a degree that I could express all the ideas that I have in those mediums–and that will torture me forever, because there simply are not words that can do those ideas justice. I could explain the logic behind my ideas until I’m blue in the face, but the ideas are not verbal, and therefore are not really being expressed.

Nevertheless, I can’t very well put a picture on screen and say: “you feel something? Good. You get it now.” I don’t think you’re watching my videos to hear that you should have gotten the point already–I’m supposed to explain the point–and so at best, I am a translator. If you know anything about translation–and as an anime fan, there’s a good chance that you do–then you know that there is no perfect translation, because different languages contain ideas that simply do not correlate to ideas in other languages. It took me a whole paragraph in my K-On video to try and get across the feeling of what Fuwa Fuwa Time means, but that paragraph still doesn’t quite mean the same thing as the phrase “Fuwa Fuwa Time”–itself a crossbreed of two different languages, composed that way because the words that comprise the phrase have no real cross-language parallel.

Am I breaking a few writing rules in this video so far? Good. Rules are an afterthought to expression. We come up with rules to figure out how the expression worked–what it did to make us feel what we felt–but those are merely justifications, not truths. Writing itself is aesthetic and has different meanings in how it’s presented. My Cowboy Bebop video gave a lot of people the feels specifically because of how it was delivered–and it was delivered that way because I felt that a rigid script wouldn’t communicate the emotions that I wanted it to in the way that a drunken, unscripted ramble would. Likewise, I can’t rightly communicate the idea that writing has an aesthetic, or that there are forms of art which can’t be explained in the straightforward use of language, while straightforwardly writing a script explaining everything in clear terms.

Still, again, I have to relate to you. My goal here is to prove a point, and so as much as I can prove it in one way, I also have to prove it in the way that feels “official” and “convincing” to the kind of person who likes their answers to come in the form of an analysis video. So let’s do that.

What does this image make you think about? What does it make you feel? The answers will be different for everyone, and you can feel free to pause the video and stare at it for a while if you want to form your own, but I’m going to explain what it makes me think about and feel:

The subject of this image is Lain Iwakura, protagonist of the 1998 cult-classic anime series, Serial Experiments Lain. Both in the context of the TV series itself, and among those who are aware of it, Lain is a powerful symbol, representing, literally, the Goddess of the Internet; someone who arrived at the logical conclusion of technological singularity, becoming omnipresent both in the Wired and, by extension–since the internet eventually becomes indistinguishable from reality–within the physical world.

Lain’s reputation within the show’s narrative was able to become synonymous with her reputation amongst fans because of the potency of the show’s presentation. It was released at a time when the internet was barely understood by most people, and came to be proven prophetic of what it would eventually become in many ways, giving the show survivability as an almost paranormal symbol of futurism. Lain herself is a very sympathetic character with a personality and struggles that many fans could relate to, and has an incredibly striking and memorable design–which has also made her a fairly popular character in her own right. Phrases which exist as memes within the show’s text, such as “let’s all love Lain,” eventually became memes in reality; and the idea of what Lain represents in that world leaked out into representing the exact same thing in real life.

Lain is a goddess of the internet not only because of what she does, but because of who she is. In terms of her personality, Lain is shy, standoffish, and hard to communicate with, seeming to have difficulty with understanding those around her. She escapes into the internet, wherein she develops a different, more outgoing persona, and ends up becoming powerful within that space in a way that those outside of it couldn’t understand. But with the inevitability of the fact that there really is no such thing as “outside the internet,” since the internet is really nothing more than a layer of our own world, her power eventually translates to power over the real world.

Now, knowing what we know about Lain, let’s return to the picture of her laying in bed, halfway lit and halfway buried in shadow, surrounded by stuffed animals. What I find most striking about this image, and about many of the images which artist Yoshitoshi ABe has drawn of this character, is the sensation of loneliness and anxiety. Lain is a character who spends most of her time alone, unable to form meaningful connections with people inside or outside of the internet, and there’s nothing which quite captures that sense of loneliness and emotional longing to me more than being awake in bed.

Being in bed most likely means that you aren’t doing anything. If you’re not sleeping, then it means you probably don’t know what to do with yourself. You’re trapped by yourself with your own thoughts, unable to force yourself to go to sleep and to escape the loneliness of reality, yet also unable to conjure the will to get out of bed and to go do something. Knowing that Lain is a high schooler, whose life is regimented around a schedule that probably puts her in bed when she isn’t really tired, and forces her to think about the next day of walking around confused and scared, wondering when the people around her are going to start becoming intelligible, really takes me back to some of my lowest points in high school and college–grappling with depression, anxiety, and perpetual sleeplessness.

Yoshitoshi ABe was my favorite artist for the majority of high school, and continues to be one of my alltime favorite character designers. The first artbook I ever bought was for Serial Experiments Lain, and I long considered her to be one of my favorite characters, for a cocktail of all the reasons stated so far. Because of that artbook, I’ve read ABe’s one-shot manga, The Nightmare of Fabrication, which presents a far more mentally unstable and paranoid image of the character than what was presented in the show–one who ends up dismantling the very same plushy which is sitting next to her in the image we’ve been talking about.

There’s something fundamentally haunting to me about the idea of this girl–a virtual goddess, revered and even worshipped by many–nonetheless laying in her bed after logging off, trapped by anxiety–nothing more than the scared child that she always was. Her being halfway draped in shadow only intensifies the idea of this duality, as harsh light and shadow contrasts are often used in the series itself to symbolize the idea that the internet is nothing more than a layer on top of the real world–as much a part of its existence as shadow is to light.

ABe nearly always drew Lain with very pained expressions–dark circles under her beautiful eyes which evoke some space between insomnia, insanity, and fragility. She has the face of someone who’s always right on the verge of slipping away–which is why the duality of her omnipresent nature is that much more fascinating. In the same way that a human being can have all the strength, power, and money in the world, and still die out of nowhere in an instant, there’s something chilling about the thought of a young, fragile girl, who is also basically god.

At this point, it’s worth mentioning that what I’ve been showing you all this time is not actually the original Yoshitoshi Abe illustration from the Lain artbook, but a modified version of it made by a fan for use as a wallpaper. It’s been cropped, flipped, and had the lighting altered, as well as photoshopped to include a different version of the floor. If you haven’t seen the original illustration, and found it strange all this time that there were other pictures of Lain on the floor, those are actually the four illustrations which were used on the show’s US DVD covers. The reason I chose to show this one is because it served as my desktop background for nearly two years, and as such has more significance to me than the original, because I’ve stared at it countless times. As for the reason that I chose that wallpaper, that would be pretty much everything I’ve said so far.

And that, my friends, was 1,038 words–slightly in excess of what a picture is supposedly worth, but then I’m sure whoever started that phrase didn’t realize that it only takes like five minutes to say a thousand words; not that I couldn’t have probably been a little more concise.

A lot of what I’ve just described was very personal, and probably didn’t relate to your experience of the image at all–at least not immediately, and especially if you didn’t have any context into the character. I think that this is more or less the case every single time that anyone talks about art, and that many of us are very quick to take it for granted that other people feel similarly to ourselves. In the same sense that the colors green and red mean little to the colorblind, a spear to a nomad might be a symbol of safety and the means by which food is gathered–while to a civilization it symbolizes war and death.

Much of art criticism seems to be dedicated to defining the lowest common denominator elements of what the largest number of people can relate to about a work, and then evaluating the work’s ability to incorporate those elements well. I find this to be the most boring form of criticism. The place for defining basic rules of art is in textbooks, encyclopedias, and classrooms. Journalism, when it comes to the realm of judging art, is always gonzo, and should be treated as such.

This is not to begrudge the short-form written review; but I do think that any critic who takes for granted that their audience is going to follow the same standards that they do–as well as any audience member who takes it for granted that a review is going to pander to their interests–is lazy. Critique is its own art form; and as an artist, a critic has a voice. In the same way that I have my favorite directors, musicians, illustrators, and writers, I have my favorite critics, because they are the ones that I relate to and glean insight from. It is not because of their ability to speak to the greatest shared experiences of humanity, but because of their ability to speak to me, personally.

I’m not sure if this video will mean much to someone who’s never seen any of my videos before, and I’m okay with that. I have plenty of videos that make for great hooks, and even a few that are so broad that they can probably be easily appreciated without digging any further. As an artist, though, I also have a vision that I’m hoping for my audience to understand, which is built upon by every piece that I produce. My goal is rarely to write a video which the audience already agrees with, or which reflects a stance that I expect to be broadly accepted–my goal, instead, is to be understood in my positions well enough that they can be applied to your own. I don’t want you to agree with me, I just want you to get something out of my videos that you can use for yourself.

I’m talking about all of this because in my video on Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress, I insisted on referring to that show as an artbook, while extolling the virtues of its aesthetic strength and the show’s ability to connect with visceral emotions through music and pictures alone. I provided examples such as Ikoma’s transformation into a half-Guyver towards the end of the series, but in the name of maintaining an aesthetically brisk and fast-moving script to reflect the show’s pacing, I may have undersold it.

In Japanese media, a character having their hair cut off is a very common symbol for conquering some kind of emotional burden and re-emerging with newfound resolve as a butterfly from their hair’s cocoon. Speaking as someone who only gets his hair cut once every few years, I appreciate why this symbol works–long hair very literally weighs you down. In the first place, Ikoma’s design was meant to make him look like an outsider–he’s hidden behind long hair and glasses, has nerdy, obsessive interests, and no one ever listens to him–and then he gets turned into a monster and has the living shit kicked out of him by the very society which he’s trying to protect.

The character whose entire existence symbolizes the strict moral code of that society spends most of the early part of the series acting as Ikoma’s chief aggressor, only warming up to him after Ikoma proves himself in several big ways. This very same character is the one who offers both acceptance and faith in Ikoma during his darkest hour, inspiring him to re-emerge as a confident protector of his society, now sans his glasses and most of his hair.

Ikoma’s raised-hair appearance is badass in a way which is almost specific to late-80s and early-90s anime, when greased-up high-school gangsters were the in crowd of shounen protagonists. For an example of this as even more of a plot point, look at Parasyte–a manga from that time period recently adapted to animation–in which the main character starts off wearing glasses and looking average, but develops into a muscular badass with naturally sticking-up hair as a result of the powers granted to him by his alien host. Sound familiar?

It is no accident that this show would utilize the aesthetic sensibilities of 90s anime for a pivotal moment of characterization. The show’s character designer, Haruhiko Mikimoto, is best known for his work as one of the most iconic designers of the 80s and 90s, who provided the designs for the original Macross, Gunbuster, Gundam 0080, and Macross 7. Kabaneri’s production team didn’t stop at using his designs to create a throwback aesthetic, though: they went all-out on animating these characters with a level of shading which is almost never seen in modern anime.

If you’ve ever heard of the anime youtuber and writer Otaking, then you may be familiar with a series of rants that he did in the late 2000s about how 80s anime was way better than modern anime because of how much shading it had, before going on to spend five years animating a Star Wars fan film in the style of an 80s OVA. The 80s OVA look isn’t just a time and place thing, but an ongoing cultural idea–and one which Kabaneri is deliberately playing into. If you want to see what Mikimoto’s designs would look like in a more typical modern anime production, just look at Tytania.

Every aspect of this image is designed to evoke the sense of 90s cool–and that only becomes amplified after Ikoma makes his transformation into a fully-formed Kabaneri. Back in those days, one of the popular genres for badass, high-intensity action scenes, was the transforming hero genre. Shows like Generator Gawl, The SoulTaker, and Guyver featured heroes who transformed into brutal bio-engineered beasts–themselves a grittier take on the more kid-friendly transforming heroes of the 70s like Casshern and Yatterman. By the time Ikoma completes his transformation, he is a walking symbol of an idea of badassery which has all but been lost to time–restored, now, in glorious high-definition and spectacular digital effects work, and ready to pummel the shit out of everything in his path–such as a whole goddamn train.

Not all, or even much, of what I just described might be meaningful to the average viewer. For some, none of this context is needed to appreciate what’s so cool about this artwork–after all, it came to be popular in the first place because it was cool-looking in the first place. To those who never appreciated this artstyle to begin with, it probably means less than nothing. Nonetheless, there is meaning here.

Is there as much meaning as I might have gotten out of a brilliant script which weaves a great story full of memorable characters? Probably not. Is there more meaning here than there would be in a mediocre story which breaks neither rules nor conventions? Possibly. There certainly is enough meaning for me in the images of this show that I was able to enjoy it in spite of the lack of a great narrative. Had the series contained both a great narrative and amazing artwork, then it would be that much better in my eyes–but I don’t think I could even begrudge someone if this was legitimately their favorite show, above others with phenomenal screenwriting, just because they like the art so much. The art is fucking awesome.

This video is not a cry for critics to start incorporating more aesthetic analysis into their reviews, or even to take aesthetics into account when giving a score to something. At most, it’s a cry for critics to recognize that prioritizing the script is a bias–even if it’s a widely-shared one–and that it may be helpful to address it as such. At the very least, it’s an explanation of why I might claim that a show deserves credit for being an artbook, and what kind of values I might get out of something like that. I would love to see a critical landscape emerge in which more critics are able to explore their ideas about a work in a more personal way, with less concern over the perceived opinions of the consensus–and to see audiences embrace the idea that a review which doesn’t agree with their preconceived notions is often even more interesting than one which does. If I’ve made you appreciate either of the images that I’ve talked about in this video any more than you might have otherwise, then I’ve already proven the worth of that kind of analysis.

More than anything, though, I hope that we can come to respect the idea that there are concepts which exist beyond the ability to be put into words–and that the impact of these concepts may be felt to an extent beyond what we are able to explain with language. I think if we can recognize this, then some of the frustrations and tension between people who engage with works on fundamentally different emotional levels can be mitigated.

Thank you very much to anyone who made it through this entire gauntlet of pretentious-sounding esoteric complaints regarding the nebulous concept of aesthetic criticism. This kind of stuff probably only matters to people who spend way too much time consuming media reviews, but thankfully I think a lot of my audience is comprised of people like that, so I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, consider supporting my channel via patreon so I can keep writing stuff like this, and subscribe to my vlogging channel for even more stuff along these lines. In the process of developing this video, I ended up making whole separate vlogs analyzing the aesthetics of Sword Art Online, and why they elevate that show above The Asterisk War, as well as theorizing about the reason we have more movie critics than we do music critics. Check out my other channels while you’re at it, and as always, thanks again for watching, and I’ll see you in the next one.

1 thought on “Aesthetic IS Narrative

  1. Pingback: AniWeekly 91: On The Beats of Angels - Anime Herald

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