Ideas Beyond Death

I was reading twitter half groggily on the train this morning and stumbled upon 8c’s typical late-night banter. Crazy college kids:

You can trace back from this tweet, preferably using a threading tool. Or just look at this picture.

Ultimately I think the problem is a fixation on story. It may very well be a semantics problem as 8C/JL likes to point out. It may very well be better solved if instead “story” we use some other word. I’m going to just call it an idea for now. Because, to me at least, stories are just expressions of ideas that conform to some convention. The way I see it is that a story has 2 parts:

Concept – what

Expression – how

Story, thus, is an idea or ideas where the idea is expressed through the narrative. A narrative, naturally, is a way of storytelling (which is just a way of telling a story). I use the term expression to encapsulate this notion. Conversely, concept is the “raw” idea as expressed through a story. It is with these raw concepts that we describe a story. For example, we can say that Gurren Lagann presents the idea, or concept, about challenging problems that are seemingly beyond your capabilities.

It’s preferable to separate the “content” of an idea versus the presentation of it because frequently in lit and pop media, stories are layered things. One unit of a particular medium (eg., a 12-episode TV anime series) may have several stories within it. These stories can combine to form a theme, for the most common example. We generally spend most of our time talking about the presentation and not the content of stories. In fact, without these fancy layers around them, ideas are still just ideas. It’s like saying 1+1 versus Sqrt(4), to use a crude example. But we can quickly refer to the message or substance of a story in such a way.

I find Scamp’s notion about society’s pursuit of story interesting, because I find it to be true to my personal experience. After all, we all want to know what we are saying and what other people are saying. We rarely care about how it is said. There’s a means-justifying-by-the-ends kind of thing going on, and frequently a story is little more than a verbal transaction in terms of its delivery. But when we take a step back and look at literature and entertainment, what is important isn’t as much of what is being said but how things are said and the way ideas are expressed.

Actually, it’s really both. The problem with separating “concept” from “expression” is that it isn’t how it really is. The two are intrinsically tied on a fundamental level. This is partly what I see as what Scamp is getting at, and to a degree, why 8C finds animation itself to be something worth watching for. In a way this is very much true for all sakuga otaku types, just as much as it could be for seiyuu-ota and people who consume media based on genre.

With that concession out of the way, though, it is imperative to realize that what I’m referring to story has nothing to do with what typically passes for story; it encompasses that and much more. It is closer to “the point” of a show. What is “story” most of the time is just the narrative and its meaning as determined by plot. A good example of this is sports anime; Ro-Kyu-Bu or Cross Game, for instance. It tells a story about some people, doing things, going through ups and downs, and arrive at some kind of conclusion. OTOH, people watching Mawaru Penguindrum can understand that narrative isn’t always something determined by plot. The metric ton of symbolism in that show, for example, is a strong storytelling device, and it both runs in parallel and runs together with the going-ons of the anime. But there’s no real plot-reason why Masako has to say her catch line every time, or the Princess has to disrobe every time she clicks her heels. Better yet, it doesn’t have to be the case where Shoma, Kanba and Himari are running in different directions in the 2nd OP. Those things are there for reasons beyond what is typically considered as story, yet those things are still a part of the overall story of Penguindrum, and part of the smaller, sub-stories that Mawapen tells.

The nature of the animation–which I expand to mean things beyond just that and include layout, storyboarding, direction, choice of music, writing, voice acting, color direction, costume, character and prop design, mecha design, etc–is similarly a narrative device in the show that is rarely talked about. I believe that is what 8C is referring to as with his visual media literacy aspect (which could include communication and industrial design, music appreciation, film, etc etc). And I am inclined to agree that those things are not natural nor often taught in a typical K-to-12 curriculum. Well, maybe a little. The impact of that illiteracy vary, but I suppose it is possible that people may clash in their opinion of what passes for story because one person may not realize that there’s all this stuff going on in the background of otherwise a normal-seeming presentation of the ideas typical for, say, late night anime.

With the recent report on Oshii’s talk it made me think about what he meant by control over details. And the intangible connection between expression and what is being expressed only highlights the incredible potential that animation as a medium has. I mean, 8c raises at least one good question: is the discussion space on narrative in the non-plot-driven space underrepresented? What sort of stories do sakuga otaku seek in anime? Do they seek stories at all? I think if we look at anime BGM types, there’s clearly a representative majority of people who follow “stories” in soundtracks, among composers and in terms of the stylistic expression that conveys thematic concepts. And BGM is a very vibrant space to express ideas, as many of them exist purely for that reason.

When it comes to preferences, though, it’s an Apple Jacks problem as we couch things in the context of what we “like.” Perhaps “banging head on wall” is a poor example. It is just that (for example) liking music and liking animation and liking anime are overlapping interests, so naturally those people will mingle with each other within the same fandom. I’d like to argue that you pretty much have to appreciate every element of anime to even try to fully understand it, and to pursuit all those elements is going to give you a better idea about anime than only working within the framework of just one or two elements. At the same time, someone who is focused on just a single aspect of something can get a different perspective and that still could be valuable. I’d just chalk it up to that we’re all ignorant, and be thankful that ignorance never stopped me or pretty much anyone. For some it can provide additional motivation to go and see what people has to say about things! Maybe there is something to learn from banging Scamp’s head on a wall repeatedly until he likes it.

Lastly, though, I think ultimately there’s a timelessness in which stories can carry a message beyond the constraints of time or the barrier between the screen and your brain. It is thus we express ourselves in ways beyond bits and bytes and firing neurons, where a borg-like, all-expressive existence will find deficit. It is the marriage of beauty and truth, and I don’t see why we should limit ourselves to the pursuit of either or both.

2 responses to “Ideas Beyond Death

  • Taka

    Great post in my opinion a lot of people discount how much the little things affect their enjoyment of a given show. I’ve always said placing too much weight on the story (or plot in this case) ignores the benefits the visual medium affords as opposed to say reading a book. It’s the same argument I had for the people to hate Avatar. The movie looks fan-fuckingtastic, I don’t give a shit if the plot is a ripoff of Dances With Wolves.

    The biggest problem arises though when we begin to consider author intent. Some people believe that the work should not need to be interpreted through the creators eyes but I think it’s important to try and understand what the creator was trying to do and to partially base judgment on whether that succeeded or not. To go back to Avatar, the content of the Avatar script was filled with stage directions and complex special affects, Cameron was creating a world, the plot was an afterthought. He shouldn’t have to face undue criticism for something he never devoted all that much energy toward in the first place.

  • dm00

    I was going to comment here, but 5camp also posted on this himself (sort-of), and I commented there, instead.

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