Wednesday 30 May 2018

Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid

Since it was written in 1837, Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid has baffled and frustrated analysts. On first glance, it seems considerably more violent and pessimistic than the popular 1989 film that rebirthed Disney animation. For example, the little mermaid loses her voice by having her tongue cut out. The sea witch in the story is just a disgusting old crone, not the emblem of voluptuous female sexuality that is Ursula (ironically based on drag performer Divine).

Though having sanitized the original story, as they are wont to do, Disney's film still has unique qualities of its own. Unlike most of Disney's Princesses, Ariel is a flawed character. She is a teenager, rebelling against her upbringing and existential nature to forge her own identity, generally making bad decisions all along the way. It is only the love she has been able to inspire in others that redeems her choices and grants a happy outcome. As with Cinderella, there is a tendency for adult critics to look down on Disney Princesses who are not already full-formed, virtuous adult characters. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that she is also somewhat controversial.

This is not the theme of the original story, however. The little mermaid does become obsessed with the surface world - she had five sisters visit it and come back with marvelous stories about it for half a decade before she was finally able to see it for herself - and there is a prince that becomes the object of her obsessions. What really troubles her, though, is the fact that mermaids lack an immortal soul. It is this puzzle that mermaids should live for 300 years and then dissolve into sea foam while humans should only live for 70 years on Earth but inherit Heaven that draws her to make the choices she does. The Little Mermaid is a deeply religious story that makes little sense without Andersen's own devoutly religious outlook.

The Little Mermaid meets the prince. Illustration by Bertall.

Wednesday 16 May 2018

Sakura Taisen: the Blooming Spirit of Scientific Romance in the Taisho Period

Beginning with an innovative Sega Saturn video game in 1996, the Sakura Taisen franchise grew rapidly to become a Japanese mega-hit and a flawless study in how to make a creatively and commercially successful modern Scientific Romance. Unfortunately, the very things that made it such a creative and commercial success in Japan rendered it virtually incomprehensible abroad. The franchise floated across the Pacific in piecemeal fashion, tantalizing those lucky enough to discover it. 

My relationship with Sakura Taisen (also known as Sakura Wars) began in 1998, at the very first edition of my city's annual anime festival. It was the same year that I launched the very first incarnation of this blog, as a website on the long gone GeoCities server. I had recently discovered and fell in love with the genre of Scientific Romances, primarily as an interesting fusion of my love for Science Fiction with Gothic Romanticism. The Nineties and early-Noughts were an explosive time for modern Scientific Romances, with feature films like Wild Wild West (1999), Back to the Future Part III (1990), The City of Lost Children (1995) and Disney's Tarzan (1999), Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001), and Treasure Planet (2002), comics like League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (1999), novels like The Difference Engine (1990), picture books like Dinotopia: A Land Apart from Time (1992) and its sequel Dinotopia: The World Beneath (1995), theme parks like Disneyland Paris' Discoveryland and Tokyo Disneysea's Mysterious Island, and television shows like The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne (2000) and The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. (1993). It was an embarrassment of riches that has never been matched since. At this anime festival, I was piqued by a new anime series entitled Sakura Wars, which ended abruptly with the fourth episode.

This anime series featured a group of girls in an alternate 1920's Tokyo where steam-power produced far more advanced technology than in our own world. This alternate Japan was recovering from a devastating "Demon War" that happened roughly around the same time as World War One in our history, and it seemed that the infernal hordes were massing once again. Keen to see the rest, I learned to my chagrin that this series was merely a four-episode Original Video Animation (OVA) prequel to the Sega Saturn video game Sakura Taisen released in 1996 in Japan and never imported to North America. Shortly thereafter a second Sakura Taisen OVA was imported, as the sequel to the second Sakura Taisen video game, released in Japan for the Sega Saturn in 1998. This was followed in succeeding years by the OVA prequel to Sakura Taisen 3 (2001, Sega Dreamcast) and a feature film taking place between Sakura Taisen 3 and 4 (2002, Sega Dreamcast), leaving me with plenty of prequels and sequels but no idea of what the actual story was! Eventually a Sakura Taisen television series was imported, ostensibly adapting the first video game, but which altered the story so significantly that even Japanese fans of the franchise found it revolting. Then an official manga adaptation of the first game was imported by Tokyo Pop, which published half of the series before the company went into bankruptcy. By now a decade had passed and I was so desperate that when I went to Japan in 2009, I broke down, found a used video game store, and bought a Japanese Sega Saturn and every possible Sakura Taisen game, fan disk, spin-off puzzle game, and branded piece of hardware available. When I finished the first game and finally saw the hero and heroine kiss, it was like a religious experience! 

What could encourage a torch to be held out for so long? What makes Sakura Taisen the epitome of everything that can and should be done with a modern Scientific Romance?

Boldly, it is not the steam-powered technology in itself that makes the franchise so appealing. Virtually any movie, TV show, comic book, or video game can have attractive Retro-Futuristic technology so long as it has a decently creative designer (though that is harder than it sounds, since there has certainly been no shortage of unattractive designs since 2006). Rather, its appeal lies in the same unapologetic Japaneseness that so easily dissuaded Sega from importing it to North America. Sakura Taisen is an intensive survey of the history, aesthetics, pop-culture, mythology, and geography of Japan... So much so that it is itself a crash course in Japanese culture. To review it is mainly to write an essay on Japan at the turn of the previous century, as I am about to do.

Wednesday 2 May 2018

René Clair's Paris Qui Dort

A lone worker at the top of the Eiffel Tower awakens one morning to find that everyone else has not. By some strange machination, the world seems frozen. Thefts are paused mid-chase, romances are paused mid-kiss, the unsleeping city of Paris is dead asleep. Soon, a plane full of passengers lands and these survivors of some mysterious experiment make the best of their situation, making free use of everything the City of Lights has to offer.

Paris Qui Dort (Paris Asleep or The Crazy Ray in English releases) was one of the first films of French cinema pioneer René Clair. Typically focused on comedy, Clair was also renowned as an innovator and auteur. His first film - Entr'acte - was created as part of a Dadaist ballet in 1924 and began a long career of manipulating and playing with the dynamics and effects of film. Paris Qui Dort, released the same year, does the same with its premise of an absent-minded scientist shutting the world off and on with mysterious rays.