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In the Shinichi Hoshi short story Bokko-Chan (which, for those interested, can be found in The Best Japanese Science Fiction Stories), a “bar-master” constructs an emotionless robot girl, who soon becomes the object of many of his patrons’ affections. A sort of futuristic folk tale, it combines dark humour and wordplay, with a clever and totally unexpected ending. While this isn’t the first appearance of a robot girl in fiction (Hoffmann’s 1816 short story The Sandman featured a similar gynoid character), Hoshi’s does seem to have been one of the predecessors to an archetype that would end up becoming quite popular in Japanese comics and animation.

 Neon Genesis Evangelion is one of the most well-known anime series of the nineties, as well as one of the most influential. The character of Rei Ayanami fascinated so many viewers that many of her clones began appearing in other series, to the point where she’s almost become a stock character. (There’s even a chapter of It’s Not My Fault I’m Not Popular where Tomoko attempts to imitate one, with little success.) Rei is not a robot, but she does bear some similarities to Bokko-chan, if only on the surface. With her blank face, bluish-white hair and inexplicable behaviour, Rei is a beguiling character.

The interesting thing about Rei is that she is more than a human who acts like a robot. She also embodies aspects of the kind of mysterious waif character who often appears in fairy tales and mythology. Rei’s true nature is never fully revealed, and there is always a hint of something otherworldly about her. Unlike those fairy tale characters, however, Rei has no knowledge of anything supernatural, and she seems almost as ignorant of the source of her otherness as everyone else is.

Despite her popularity, Rei was not my introduction to this kind of character. For me, it was Echo, from Pandora Hearts. She ended up becoming my favourite character in the manga, but it was only with a series I later watched that I started developing a proper interest in the archetype. (Though when I started reading Pandora Hearts, I had only a vague idea that this archetype existed.)

Echo.

Serial Experiments Lain (the greatest work of fiction ever made) came out in 1998, a few years after Neon Genesis Evangelion.  Its protagonist, Lain Iwakura, has a lot in common with Rei, though the creators of the series claim that they hadn’t seen Neon Genesis Evangelion when they first began working on the series. Serial Experiments Lain is my biggest obsession, so when I found out about this, I became interested in Rei, and other characters like her. The similarities between Lain and Rei are undeniable, but there are differences, too. While both have extreme problems with social interaction, Lain’s comes more from shyness, while with Rei it appears to stem from her upbringing. I see Lain as being what someone like Rei would be in real life, though she also has that same sense of otherness about her. Both have mysterious origins, and both blur the lines separating the artificial and the human.

Lain of the Wired.

Lain attempts to reach out to the viewers.

Despera, a kind of thematic prequel to Serial Experiments Lain, is supposed to be released sometime in the future, though sadly the director, Ryutaru Nakamura, died of cancer. Luckily, they plan on continuing it with a new director, though it will not be the same without him. With a protagonist who, like Lain, has a strange aptitude for computers, it will be interesting to see what sort of character Ain will be like.

Yoshitoshi ABe’s artwork is wonderful.

Rei was not the first socially inept, robotic girl to be featured in anime, anyway. Tokiko, from Key the Metal Idol, came before both Rei and Lain, and it’s difficult to imagine that she didn’t have an influence on either character. The show, with its experimental nature, paved the way for both series to follow. While I didn’t think it was as good as either of them, it’s still interesting watch, especially if you like nineties Science Fiction anime.

Even before Key the Metal Idol, characters of a similar nature existed in anime. Ami Mizuno from Sailor Moon is a quiet girl with blue hair, and Naoko Takeuchi had even planned for her to be a cyborg at first. Like the Zashiki Warashi from CLAMP’s xxxHolic, Ami shows that it’s possible to have a shy character who isn’t extremely troubled or dysfunctional.

Ami Mizuno.

The Zashiki Warashi.

Interestingly, Rei Ayanami was named after another Sailor Moon character, Rei Hino, in an attempt to convince Kunihiko Ikuhara, a friend of Hideaki Anno, to work on Neon Genesis Evangelion. Ikuhara’s own series, Revolutionary Girl Utena (which is often seen as the shojo counterpart to Neon Genesis Evangelion, a shonen anime), has two characters who resemble Rei: Anthy Himeymiya and Miki Kaoru (who is male). So far though, I’ve only seen two episodes of Revolutionary Girl Utena, so I still don’t know how far their similarities go.

Anthy Himeymiya.

Miki Kaoru.

While I do love this character type, there is one thing about it that unsettles me. Though I did not know about it at first, I later learned that there are some people who sexualise this sort of character. While there’s nothing wrong with feeling attracted to fictional characters, turning them into sex objects is not a good thing. All it shows is that you don’t have any respect for the character, and it reflects how you see people in real life, too. (And it’s also really creepy.)

Review: Plainsong

For those who love books, I cannot recommend the Dalkey Archive Press highly enough. Recently, I ended up buying a small pile of novels and short story collections from its libraries of Japanese and Korean literature- luckily, they were all quite cheap. One of these was Plainsong, which turned out to be just the sort of book I had been in need of right now, filling the gap left inside of me after finishing Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen. In fact, I needed it so much that I read almost the whole thing in one day. (It’s been a long time since I’ve had the chance or the enthusiasm to do something like that.) This book is wonderful. While in no way is this a fluffy diversion, it is still gentle and light. Recently, I’ve started spending many hours of my spare time in a nice, quiet cafe, drinking green tea and reading books. This is the perfect kind of book to read in such a place. It’s mellow, calming and reminds me how much I’d love to visit Japan myself someday.

Even when reading Science Fiction or Fantasy (my favourite genres), I prefer stories where not that much happens. I don’t mean stories where nothing happens; just ones that take their time with a few small events. The personal matters more to me than the global. For all those reasons, Plainsong is the sort of book that suits me, even if it isn’t SF or Fantasy. It doesn’t have any plot (unless you count the nameless narrator’s attempts to befriend a neighbourhood cat), it makes no great observations about life, and none of the characters achieve anything major, but that’s what I love about it.  To me, Plainsong describes the ideal sort of life, and shows how such a way of living does not have to be boring. The characters who end up living with the narrator are all lightly eccentric, but thanks to the author’s style, none of them seem larger than life. The side characters, such as Yumiko, Ishigami and Mitani, are all wonderfully detailed, and from the narrator’s conversations with the first two, we get some insights into how, even though a person may try to avoid a certain way of thinking, it’s impossible to keep yourself from it altogether. I especially enjoyed the telephone calls to Yumiko, with her providing plenty of cat-related knowledge, as well as general criticism.

Plainsong is a lovely, mellow book. I’m glad I read it.

Originally posted on Flavorwire:

They were brought to Japan on ships during the mid-sixth century to protect sacred Buddhist scriptures during transport, but quickly became a central element of Japanese life, appearing in art and folklore throughout the ages. Cats populate the ukiyo-e woodblock prints of the Edo Period (1615-1867). Japan Society Gallery will be presenting a selection of these historic prints, which include the longest-lasting image of a cat in Japanese literature and more. “Much that is fundamental to the Japanese character can be gleaned from these historic popular prints that feature cats in everyday life and lore,” notes Miwako Tezuka, director of the gallery. Half of the works will be on view through April 26, while the rest will be exhibited from April 29 to June 7. Bewhiskered kabuki actors, exotic predators, anthropomorphized felines, and other cats await you in our preview of Life of Cats: Selections from the Hiraki Ukiyo-e Collection

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stealing sheep

Originally posted on the sunday experience:

Oh really, so you make a brief ghost like appearance, a twenty six second visitation that from its sounds promises something mystical and magical, strange though seductive, eastern and ethereal and set it upon a surreal moving picture montage before swiftly disappearing in a puff of smoke leaving us in its wake jaws agape needing more and then you tell us we have to wait until April. Now perhaps it’s just me but I’m of the thinking, and I could be wrong, that there are European conventions outlawing such practices. I fear spontaneous combustion might curb the expectancy. This dear readers is the video teaser heralding new happenings in the Stealing Sheep camp with the announcement of a new full length entitled ‘not real’ through heavenly……expected April…..

 

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A young girl emerges from a cocoon to find herself in an idyllic, yet enigmatic town which seems to be a sort of afterlife. She has no memories of anything before this, apart from the dream she had of falling while in the cocoon. The girl finds herself among a small community of winged beings named Haibane, who inform her that she is one of them. She is given the name Rakka, which means “falling”, as all of the Haibane are named after their cocoon dreams. Soon, she sprouts wings too, and is given a halo, which somehow hovers over her head. (Even if it does cause strands of her hair to stick up messily.) The scene where Rakka gains her wings is strangely cathartic. It’s bloody, and it’s obvious that Rakka is going through great pain, yet this is accompanied by beautiful music, with Reki, the second-eldest Haibane, staying by Rakka’s side the whole time to help and soothe her.

This scene gives you a good idea of what Haibane Renmei can be like. For the most part, it’s calm and gentle, but it’s never the sort of series to deny the existence of darker things. It’s not that the world Rakka finds herself in is a dystopia disguised as a utopia; the town genuinely is a nice place to live in. However, there are some aspects to the setting that are puzzling, and even unsettling. It is never explained what is beyond the walls of the town, or why the Haibanes can never leave. There are strange taboos they have to abide by, and while they coexist peacefully with humans, there seems to be a sort of distance between them. In some ways, it reminds me of real life, in that we are brought into a society that we did not choose to belong to, with rules and boundaries so rigidly constructed that we can never break them. The difference is that we enter that society as babies, and are brought up to take all of that for granted. The Haibane may have no memories of their past lives (if they even had past lives), but all the main characters are old enough to already have formed ideas of what is normal. The town itself is like what you’d get if you applied the idea of mukokuseki to a setting rather than to a character. It would be hard to place it within any set time period or culture; it’s the sort of vague place where you know that something isn’t right, but there are too many familiar elements to pinpoint what it is.

Haibane Renmei is the creation of Yoshitoshi ABe, one of my favourite artists thanks to his character designs and other work for Serial Experiments Lain, the greatest work of fiction ever made. (I am a little bit obsessed with Lain.) Both series have many things in common, though I’m afraid that after Serial Experiments Lain, I found Haibane Renmei slightly disappointing. ABe’s designs are beautiful, as always, but his detailed artwork doesn’t translate well to the style of animation used here. Compare the two images below:

While the animation is still nice, it looks a little flat when put next to the original artwork. The animation used in Lain wasn’t perfect either, but its use of darkness and shadows gave it more of a texture. Haibane Renmei is a far more light-hearted series, with most of it taking place during the daytime, so visually, it loses that sense of depth. And while it is slow-paced, it never quite reaches the same level of subtlety as Lain. While I mostly enjoyed its combination of slice-of-life humour and the supernatural (I found it kind of similar to Xxxholic), it sometimes resorted to anime conventions that kind of took away from its tone.

The creators of the show were apparently influenced by Haruki Murakami’s novel Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. (Which happens to be the first of his books that I read.) Half of the book took place inside the protagonist’s mind, in a walled fantasy world constructed in his dreams. The other half  takes place in a dark, slightly futuristic world that reminds me of Serial Experiments Lain. This makes me wonder if maybe the connection between the two series is more than just a stylistic or thematic one. Crows are used as a motif in both series, Rakka and Lain  are similar in both appearance and personality, while Hyoko and Midori are basically just older versions of Taro and Myu-Myu. Maybe Haibane Renmei is just an alternate reality created by Lain Iwakura. The only problem with that theory is that Alice seems to be absent from it. Reki, the older, caring character who develops a strong friendship with Rakka, is in some ways similar to Alice, but then there are other ways in which they are different, and I cannot imagine Lain wanting to exist in a world without Alice. Unless, of course, the crow is meant to be Alice.

While it has its flaws, Haibane Renmei is still wonderful. (The final episode is especially good.) It’s also commendable for its depiction of female characters. Most of the main characters are young women, all of whom are treated as people rather than objects. Some of them are quite androgynous, but are still comfortable in their femininity. The tomboyish Kana is just as much a girl as the more traditionally feminine Hikari. In fact, it’s never even treated as an issue or anything, with the other characters seeing this as totally normal. So, while the world we are presented with does seem to be in some ways a problematic one (if I found myself there, I’d probably start to feel like everything is pointless), living there also has many positive aspects, too.

“If I were you, I’d check your urine.”

This is undoubtedly the greatest episode of Sabrina ever. It’s not as bizarre as the pancake episode (which is also terrifying), but it does have some unexpectedly dark moments, which are quite jarring when placed in the midst of the show’s characteristic niceness. I remember watching this episode years ago, but it only struck me recently how weird it was. I love Sabrina, and Archie Comics in general, but I always find it quite funny when they try to include something edgy like this. Such attempts only serve to remind me what a cute and sweet world the Archie universe is. It seems like the writers were aware of this, too, because none of the darker jokes are played too seriously.

For reasons that are left unclear, Sabrina has decided that she hates Christmas. Considering how obnoxiously jolly Sabrina’s aunts are, this is hardly surprising, but it’s difficult to feel any sympathy for her. Her determination to ruin Christmas for everyone else, including her two best friends, soon becomes annoying. Still, it does lead to some funny moments. Her sarcasm in contrast to Harvey’s ditzy niceness is hilarious, as is the montage where Hilda and Zelda force Sabrina to enjoy Christmas. (I’m convinced that Harvey is what Andy from Parks and Recreation must have been like as a teenager.) There are many other amusing little details, too, such as the girl who does a dance for joy after hearing that her tests are cancelled (she’s one of my favourite characters now), and Salem’s yearning for a snowboard. I have no idea why he’d want one, or if cats can even operate snowboards, but at least the threatening letters he sends demanding one is in character. (It’s always nice when the show reminds us that Salem is a criminal who was once bent on world domination.)

However, it’s only in the second half that Christmas Amnesia becomes truly brilliant. Sabrina goes to a party in the other realm, made up of people who hate Christmas. Its tone is surprisingly mean, and includes a dartboard shaped like Santa’s head that bleeds when you hit one of the eyes. Sabrina was invited to this because she was “cool”, which suggests that the residents of the Other Realm have incredibly low standards of coolness. Luckily, though, Sabrina soon realises what a twit she’s been, and rejects their smug, ironic nastiness. Unfortunately, when she switches off the TV there, Sabrina somehow erases Christmas (this sort of thing happens a lot in the series) from the minds of everyone except for her and Salem. This is a pretty good twist, and makes what was already an entertaining episode even better. I can only imagine how miserable it would be if Christmas disappeared and I was the only one who remembered it. Salem reveals that something similar once happened to him, and if she doesn’t manage to bring back Christmas in 24 hours, it will suffer the same fate as the now-forgotten Bobunk. And so, Sabrina does as many Christmas related things she can think of, which only serves to make her look like she’s having a mental breakdown. She even ends up getting suspended. Of course, though, Christmas does eventually return, thanks to a sudden pillow fight and Sabrina learning a sentimental but harmless lesson at the end.

As someone who used to adore Sabrina the Teenage Witch, watching this was nostalgic and fun, even if it did bring up a multitude of embarrassing memories. 3/5.

I want to do individual posts on both Julianna Barwick and Ikue Mori at some point, but I’ve been so busy lately that I haven’t had time to do a full post in ages. So, for now, I’d just like to share this collaboration between the two of them.

The moment I listened to the above piece, I instantly became a fan of both artists. It’s heavenly, combining the signature styles of two ethereal musicians. There’s nothing earthy or guttural about it, but at the same time it isn’t trite or saccharine. It’s the perfect kind of music to study to, especially if you have two extremely difficult exams approaching next week.

Their combination of delicate blips and clicks, gentle drones and Barwick’s unearthly voice is close to perfect. The only way I could imagine it being any better is if they had teamed up with Grouper and Noveller, too. Maybe that will happen someday, though if it did I could end up losing myself in their clear, soft waves of spaciness for good.

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