Monday, July 22, 2013

Watching Sharknado

Apparently the Syfy Channel's executives decided some years ago that instead of trying to make good films, they should deliberately make bad ones that viewers can enjoy "ironically," likely on the grounds that this is easier and cheaper, with the tendency epitomized by the movies made for the channel by notorious "mockbuster"-maker The Asylym. Their most characteristic formula is the combination of a B-movie plot (typically involving monster attacks, natural disasters or a combination of the two), an enthusiastic seizure on the hokiest situations to which their premises can lead, and movie and TV stars who have left their fans wondering "What ever happened to them?"

Of course, great bad movies are generally not planned in this manner. Megashark Versus Octopus (2009), which led to not just a direct sequel (2010's Mega Shark Versus Crocosaurus), but numerous imitations (like 2010's Mega Piranha, and 2011's Mega Python Versus Gatoroid), is certainly a bad movie, but not entertainingly bad in the manner of, for instance, Shark Attack 3: Megalodon (2002).1 In fact, I usually find the effect of these films rather forced, with Sharknado no exception, down to Ian Zeiring's leaping through the mouth of a flying shark with chainsaw in hand.2 Still, the movie became something of an Internet sensation, helped along by some unlikely tweets (most notoriously, a picture Mia Farrow posted of herself with novelist Philip Roth supposedly watching the film together). The result is that we can now expect Sharknado 2, with the action moved from Los Angeles to New York, and the channel inviting viewers to send in their ideas.

1. As you might guess, watching the film I expected that John Barrowman would remain forever obscure. Of course, that wasn't the case.
2. Indeed, the combination of an aquatic natural disaster with a shark attack on the coast of Southern California was previously attempted with 2009's Malibu Shark Attack, starring Peta Wilson (of La Femme Nikita fame). However, that film--a production of RHI's comparatively serious "Maneater" series--does not wallow in its own stupidity to the degree that Sharknado does.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Return(?) of the '80s Action Movie

This past weekend Sylvester Stallone's Bullet to the Head opened to a mere $4.5 million--a career low for the star. This came a mere three weeks after that other giant of '80s action movies, Arnold Schwarzenegger, saw his post-gubernatorial return to starring roles, Last Stand, open to the only slightly better figure of $6.5 million, also a career low.

This is less surprising than it may seem. Stallone's career peaked more than a quarter of a century ago, in 1985, when Rambo: First Blood, Part II and Rocky IV were the second and third biggest movies of the year--after which he did not see another $100 million hit until he piggybacked onto the Spy Kids franchise in 2003, and if one not unreasonably excludes that, The Expendables in 2010. Schwarzenegger's career peaked in 1991 with his all-time highest grosser Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which after True Lies (1994) and Eraser (1996) turned into a streak of weak performers and outright flops (like The Last Action Hero, and Batman and Robin, and Collateral Damage), in the midst of which the lukewarm Terminator 3 (2003) looks like an island of success.

The action genre simply moved on, to other sorts of protagonist, in other sorts of film. The musclebound hulks who cheerfully mowed down hordes of anonymous cannon fodder in the service of ripped-from-the-headlines bad guys (epitomized, perhaps, by 1985's Commando) gave way to speculative-themed, CGI-based spectacles negotiated by everymen, or by full-blown superheroes. The Bruce Willis-starrer Die Hard in 1988 was already a sign of things to come, and with Tim Burton's Batman in 1989 (starring an unlikely Michael Keaton in the role) the new age had already arrived, before the full departure of the last one, the two eras overlapped in the decade of transition that was the 1990s.

Of course, Schwarzenegger and Stallone tried to adapt. Science fiction and fantasy had already been prominent in Schwarzenegger's list (Conan, Terminator, Predator), and he made his share of such films in the '90s, including a superhero movie (Batman and Robin), and other movies where he played everyman types (like The Sixth Day). Stallone made genre movies, too (1993's Demolition Man and 1995's Judge Dredd). But their established image left them swimming against the current, so that their bad luck with those particular films was close to fatal. Schwarzenegger's departure from filmmaking to politics gave the impression of a man leaving a sinking ship for a sinking ship of state, and Stallone was soon enough looking backward rather than forward, with Rocky Balboa (2006), with Rambo (2008), with The Expendables (2010) and its sequel (2012).

The disappointing grosses of Last Stand and Bullet to the Head make it clear that the success of The Expendables (modest compared with the really first-string blockbusters) was the triumph of nostalgia and novelty, not the resurrection of yesterday's hero.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Cult of the Film Star

The old studio system that created the idea of the film star died a half century ago, but the idea of the star has remained, and film industry-watchers continue to view the scene through its particular lens. Actors continue to be thought of as bankable or not bankable, the theory being that this or that individual's presence can guarantee some minimum level of initial success--a "good" opening weekend.

Audiences certainly have their likes and dislikes among actors, which make them more or less likely to buy a ticket, but this is all awfully simple-minded--like the business press's cult of the CEO. Just as in the case of the CEO, what happens is that the most visible, and to the public, most prestigious, member of a large corporate enterprise, gets all the credit (or all the blame) for its doings, as if they were all his or her own. Further removing the tendency from reality is the fact that in today's most successful productions the actors are typically overshadowed by technical spectacle, while cultural flux and the ever-more intrusive tabloid/paparazzi culture make old-fashioned stardom (the identification of an actor with a well-defined, larger-than-life, saleable image) an impossibility.

It seems more accurate, then, to say that stars acquire the image of bankability from their having been in commercially successful films, much more than their having made films commercially successful (just as CEOs derive their prestige from the corporate achievements of their companies). Those who have good, long runs of success owe that success to having been in films with many other selling points (concept, spectacle, the built-in audience brand names bring, a well-timed and heavily promoted release), which went on to do well. That commercial success, however, disproportionately enhanced the auras of the actors involved (especially if their publicists are doing their jobs), and gave them more chances to appear in such films, in a positive feedback loop that culminated in star status.

Especially given the fact that there are just not that many leading roles in major productions to go around, that there are fewer still roles in the kinds of films with a reasonable chance of bringing an actor that kind of attention, that one can suffer only so many failures in a row and still be considered a star, genuine stardom of the kind associated with media ubiquity and seven and eight-figure paydays is elusive, and precarious when one does achieve it. This makes the visibility and stability that a successful franchise can bring to one's career critical to establishing and sustaining star status--while making themselves appear indispensable to a franchise is by far the most obvious way in which an actor can strengthen the idea that they are a draw.

The career of Harrison Ford is an excellent example of this. Picture his list of credits without the Star Wars (1977, 1980, 1983), Indiana Jones (1981, 1983, 1989, 2008) and Jack Ryan (1992, 1994) films (with 1997's Air Force One perhaps best thought of as an "honorary" Jack Ryan movie).1 He had some other successes, to be sure--Witness (1985), Working Girl (1988), The Fugitive (1993), What Lies Beneath (2000)--but if these were all he had to show for his time as an actor he would be a comparatively obscure figure today. And to the extent that his appearance in them helped make them commercial successes, this was doubtless helped by the boost to his standing from his recently playing Han Solo, Indy, and to a lesser extent, Jack--one reason why he experienced so little success after 2000.

And the importance of having a franchise would seem to have only grown since he came onto the scene, to go by the careers of many of today's stars. (Where would Hugh Jackman be without Wolverine? Matt Damon without Jason Bourne? Shia LaBeouf without the Transformers, or the boost he got playing Henry Jones III?) Indeed, the most sensible career paths now seems to be not an actor's moving from one franchise to the next (as Harrison Ford did, getting into Indiana Jones just as Star Wars was running its course, then moving onto Jack Ryan next), but an actor's having multiple franchises going at once. Vin Diesel and Halle Berry, for instance, each came close to having three franchises at the same time--Diesel with the Fast and Furious, XXX and Riddick, Berry with the X-Men, Catwoman and Jinx. Neither actually realized those opportunities, however.2 The only actor who has really flourished to that extent is Robert Downey Jr., with Iron Man, The Avengers and Sherlock Holmes producing megahits year in, year out.

Those who think of Downey as Hollywood's most overrated A-lister, and a grating screen presence who has already had infinitely more than his share of luck in not just continuing to work but becoming a megastar after his earlier Charlie Sheen-like self-destructiveness; and find Iron Man the most insufferable comic book character on the big screen today; can only wonder where the justice is in that.

1. After all, he played an American President in that movie who has facing a techno-thriller-style international crisis--which was exactly what Jack Ryan had become by the novels of the mid-1990s. However, it is worth remembering that the Jack Ryan films are also a reminder of the limits to any one actor's indispensability. Ford was already the second Ryan, just two years after Alec Baldwin's appearance in the role in 1990's The Hunt for Red October, while there was little fuss over Ford's replacement by Ben Affleck in 2002's The Sum of All Fears. Affleck in his turn has been replaced by Chris Pines in the series' second reboot, the upcoming Jack Ryan, which will make for four different actors in the role in a mere five films.
2. Of course, Diesel walked away from Fast and Furious and XXX to stick with Riddick, which was wrecked when 2004's The Chronicles of Riddick underperformed. Halle Berry, meanwhile, saw the projected Jinx series canceled in 2003 after Hollywood became less bullish about female-driven action movie, Catwoman's flopping insured there would be no sequel, and then she was left out of the X-Men series after 2006's The Last Stand. The result has been a long period of lowered profiles for each, with Diesel only recovering after returning to the Fast and Furious franchise in 2009, and Berry's recovery considerably slower than that.

The Politics of Continuum, Part III

In my previous post on the politics of the Showcase series Continuum I suggested that the future history of the series at least suggests sympathy on the part of the show's writers for the corporatocracy of the 2077 North American Union.

If anything, this seems to me confirmed by the depictions of the two sides in the show's central conflict. The roles of Keira Cameron as good guy/cop and Edouard Kagame's Liber8 as bad guys/rebels in 2077 are reinforced by the associations they form back in 2012, Keira aligning herself with the police, while Liber8 consorts with criminals--associates unambiguously treated as the good guys and bad guys in 2012. Additionally Keira Cameron's struggle to thwart Liber8 makes her a preserver of the timeline from those who seek to alter the course of history--roles normally allotted hero and villain, respectively. Put another way, Keira Cameron is in the position of Kyle Reese, Liber8 in that of the Terminator, in that series' original 1984 film. This conflates her role as defender of the social order in 2077 with a role as defender of the larger cosmic order.

The differing depictions of the characters themselves also seem noteworthy. Rachel Nichols' beautiful, clean-cut, comfortably upper middle-class heroine torn away from a husband and child toward whom she is loving and devoted, and up against a more numerous force of ruthless adversaries, is a natural to win the audience's sympathies--while Liber8's people generally lack that sort of appeal.1 The depiction of the group's two women (and it does seem notable that there are just two women among the eight) is a case in point. Luvia Peterson's tattooed, bleached ex-con Jasmine Garza conveys a threatening "punk" image. Lexa Doig's Sonya Valentine is more conventionally alluring, but her beauty is less glamourized than Cameron's is (or Doig's was on Andromeda), her viciousness instead played up at every opportunity.

More pointed still is the show's treatment of the group's leader, the curiously named Edouard Kagame.2 Made conspicuously foreign by his name, and physically passable as the popular stereotype of an Islamist terrorist (an image reinforced by the long beard he wears), such an association is strongly reinforced by his first and last scenes in season one.3 In the opening we see him making a statement to the world as big-city skyscrapers explode behind him (images clearly evoking popular memory of the September 11 attacks)--while in the season finale, "Endtimes," he becomes a suicide bomber.

The uneven depiction of the show's violence reflects the same tendency, and not just in those politically charged scenes which suggest an equivalency between Liber8 and al-Qaida. It is not merely the case that Liber8 is willing to kill the innocent to achieve its ends, but also that where Cameron's violent acts are merely in the line of duty for an action hero, their acts are consistently sensationalized--as when the Liber8 members attack a group of bikers in "A Matter of Time." (Sonya Valentine, conspicuously violent even by the standards of her comrades, beats an unarmed man to death with a crowbar, the camera lingering on every strike.)

The effect of such imagery is to uphold the conventional format of good guy cops and bad guy lawbreakers--and along with it, the 2077 status quo. The series may do so in shades of gray rather than stark black and white (such matters as the back stories of the various Liber8 members and the mysterious relationship between Sadler and Kagame keep things from looking too simple), but through the first season at least, it has that effect nonetheless. And so in the end what I see in season one is yet another exercise in postmodern muddle, evasive about whether it is saying anything at all (let alone what it is saying), appearing to be thought-provoking when it is really just pushing the viewers' buttons--but at bottom uncritically accepting of an extreme right-wing view of the world that most viewers seem to take in an equally uncritical fashion. In that it is rather like the show that did so much to set the trend for science fiction television during the past decade, Battlestar Galactica.

1. Upper middle-class, after all, is the strata in which television drama tends to find its protagonists--like its lawyers, its doctors and certain notorious ad-men.
2. The most obvious point of reference seems to be Paul Kagame, the former leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Front and current President of Rwanda. A controversial figure who is obscure to an American audience (the politics of Central Africa having been shamefully ignored in the U.S. media in the 1990s and 2000s), it is hard to see what effect this name achieves besides making this apparently non-Rwandan character seem more "foreign" to North American ears.
3. It is notable that Amendola has played Middle Eastern characters before, as on the "Deadline" episode of NCIS: Los Angeles. Other notable roles Amendola has taken in the past, such as Salman Rushdie lookalike "Sal Bass" in the Seinfeld episode "The Implant," and Master Bra'tac of pseudo-Egyptianate Chulak in Stargate: SG-1, likewise have a "whiff of the east" about them.

On Top Gun 2

Over at War is Boring, a post by Robert Beckhusen on the more dramatic appearances of the F-35 fighter has made in Hollywood films--which have not been much more flattering than the real history of the plane's notoriously troubled development program.

The most interesting part of the post, however, has to do with a film that has not moved out of development hell in three decades, Top Gun 2. Apparently recent plans for that film had Tom Cruise returning as an F-35 test pilot before the project was put on hiatus by the suicide of director Tony Scott--while also being troubled by "uncertainty about the F-35's role in a military increasingly focused on unmanned aircraft." This made the film's planners consider the possibility of having Maverick remotely pilot an aircraft instead, then discard the idea, perhaps because the image of a person sitting in a trailer hundreds or thousands of miles from the combat is less dramatic than one in the cockpit of an aircraft taking direct fire. And in any case, the manned aircraft still has some years ahead of it, especially in the fighter role (where drones are still not serious players).1

Still, the scarcity of plausible scenarios where the United States might take on another country with an air force credible enough to engage its planes in a serious battle, and the increasingly remote nature of the more high-tech forms of combat, are making the techno-thriller harder to pull off--and at least where the big screen was concerned, this was already tough enough back when the original was made. That movie, after all, offered only a very thinly sketched scenario involving an unnamed country as a pretext for the climactic air battle. Unsurprisingly, F-35s--and other American fighters--have been far more prone to go into action against quite different sorts of threats, as in The Avengers and Man of Steel, and this seems likely to remain the case.

There has been no word, however, on whether those behind the Top Gun 2 project have seriously considered sending the movie's pilots up against an alien invasion, the way that a plot line involving an alien was apparently considered for the next sequels to that other giant of military-themed '80s action, Rambo--not that I see that movie getting made any time soon.

1. Combat drones have been much more prominent in the reconnaissance/surveillance and air-to-ground roles (as with the MQ-9 Reaper, or the X-47 now in development), rather than the more complex functioning of taking on other aircraft.

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Japanese Box Office 2002-2012: An Untold Story

It seems today that no major event film comes out without a lot of talk in the press speculating about, and then covering, how it does in China.

This is, of course, not wholly baseless. Hollywood's ever-larger budgets, and the recent fickleness of American audiences, have the industry looking overseas for more and more of its revenue--a pattern reinforced by its increasing emphasis on the kinds of costly but thematically simple films that will perform well globally. And of course, China, which has become the world's second-biggest film market, and is widely believed to be on track to be the first by 2020, figures prominently in such calculations--while that market is becoming increasingly open to imports.

Still, the tone of the American entertainment press in discussing the prospects of Hollywood in these countries tends to be awfully complacent--as one sees looking when looking at one big story it has tended to ignore, namely what happened in what was formerly the world's second-largest movie market, Japan.

In 2002, 16 of the 20 top-grossing films at the Japanese box office, and 9 of the top 10 films, were Hollywood productions, including the six biggest hits of the year--with Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets at #1, Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones at #2, Monsters, Inc. at #3, the Fellowship of the Ring at #4, Spider-Man at #5 and Ocean's Eleven at #6.

By contrast, just 9 of the top 20, and 3 of the top ten were American in 2012, with the year's biggest Hollywood success, Les Miserables, making only the #5 spot.1 (The other two films, incidentally, were Resident Evil: Retribution at #8, and The Avengers at #9.)

One may wonder if 2012 was not simply an exceptionally poor year for American film at the Japanese box office, but an examination of the years in between indicates a steady downward trend in its fortunes, with far fewer American films among the major earners, and these films tending to make less money--collectively, hundreds of millions less than they might have made otherwise in this single market each and every year.2 Additionally, as the hits of 2012 demonstrate, the list of American films that do make money in Japan is more idiosyncratic, Japanese moviegoers not simply going in for the same product as their American counterparts.3 By and large the gap has been filled by Japanese films, just one reflection of Japan's ever-higher profile in the world pop cultural map.4

And that, of course, has been a reflection of Japan's combination of size and affluence as a country of 127 million with a solidly First World per capita income, which is what gave it a domestic market with the purchasing power to support the vibrant film and television industry it now enjoys. Assuming countries like China and Russia continue to expand their economies, there is no reason to think they cannot, and will not, do the same, their own film industries claiming a larger share of those more lucrative home markets, while moviegoers in those markets also become more selective regarding the American movies they see at the theater.5 That these other film industries might then go on to fight for foreign markets as well, competing with Hollywood not just nationally, but internationally, at the multiplex rather than just the art house, is a more distant but far from unrealistic prospect--and underlines the fact that just as Hollywood takes the American moviegoer for granted at its peril, so it does with the world box office.

1. This is, incidentally, a very different pattern from what is seen in other industrialized countries. By contrast, 9 of the top 10 films, and 18 of the top 20 films, at the German box office in 2012 were American, a not atypical figure in that country. A similar pattern holds in Britain, and to a lesser extent, France (where a dozen of the top 20 were American that same year). All of the data used in this post came from
2. Between 2003 and 2007, American films averaged 11 of the top 20 and 6 of the top 10 slots; between 2008 and 2012, just 7 of the top 20 and 3 of the top 10 slots.
3. The weak performance of many of the biggest American blockbusters is worth pointing out. The highest-grossing film at the U.S. box office, The Avengers, admittedly did not do so badly in Japan, still making the top ten (barely). However, the Dark Knight Rises, the second-biggest hit of the year in the U.S., came in at #27; the third-biggest American hit, The Hunger Games--criticized by many even in the U.S. as a rip-off of Japan's own Battle Royale--was all the way down at #95 in Japan; and Twilight: Breaking Dawn, Part 2, sixth at the U.S. box office last year, came in at #106. By contrast, Resident Evil 5, which outdid even The Avengers in Japan, was only a mediocre earner in the U.S., taking in $42 million to be just the seventy-ninth biggest hit of the year in the States.
4. It certainly seems noteworthy that of the three American films to make the list of 2012's top ten earners, Resident Evil was based on a Japanese video game series, while Les Miserables is based on a French musical based on a French concept album based on the classic French novel, rather than being a distinctively or deeply American product. Completing the irony may be the fact that The Avengers was directed by an American widely regarded as owing a significant creative debt to animè (direct or indirect).
5. Of course, this does not always happen. Germany, for instance, with its population of 80 million and GDP of $3.4 trillion could support a rather more robust film industry than it now has (especially with millions more German speakers in neighboring countries like Austria and Switzerland extending the audience for German-language fare). Uwe Boll has remarked on the "art house" sensibility prevailing in German film as a factor, but I have not encountered any explanations of the reasons for this tendency.

A League of Extraordinary Gentlemen TV Show?

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was the comic which introduced me to Alan Moore, and as might be expected, it deeply impressed me with its sheer literacy and density. This did not quite carry over to the 2003 film, but I nonetheless regard it as underrated; the movie was an affable and visually innovative summer blockbuster.

Apparently FOX has just green-lit a pilot for a TV series based on the comic.

The concept could well make for an appealing TV series. Still, a small-screen version will be able to provide only a limited spectacle--the major draw of stories like these for general audiences--and I am not sure how it can make up for it. FOX can only go so far in presenting an adult take on the material, while something as allusive and cerebral as the original is unlikely to keep 10 million viewers tuning in week after week.

Besides, FOX's history with science fiction shows (from Dark Angel to Terra Nova) and comic book-based properties (like Human Target) does not inspire optimism that even a promising show will have a fair crack at a decent run. It is worth noting, too, that while American television has been more open to period fantasies (like HBO's Game of Thrones), the major networks have been far behind their cable counterparts in this area. And the continuing trend on the Big Four--the shorter leashes on which they put their artists, their fondness for reality TV over the scripted kind--suggest the market will grow only less favorable.

If the show ever airs, I expect to watch--but I won't expect it to stay around for long.

The "Experts" on Japan in the '80s, China Today

Back in the 1980s a vast literature analyzing contemporary Japan emerged in the West, and certainly the United States. It became so pervasive, and so influential, that writers about other subjects never missed a chance to comment on the matter, while the concern manifested itself in Hollywood features like Gung Ho and Michael Crichton novels like Rising Sun.1

The larger part of this output was the sheerest drivel, discredited just a short time later.2 (It was taken, for granted, that Japan would never be a great exporter of pop culture, a claim that is now unbelievably embarrassing.) However, worthwhile or not, this stream of writing largely ran dry by the mid-1990s, because American observers had largely discounted Japan as a serious rival--a function of Japan's asset bubble's bursting at the start of the decade, while the United States was becoming heady over its own tech bubble, leading to a new triumphalism, and the end of meaningful debate about the course of the American economy.3 After NAFTA and GATT and Windows 95 the country was committed to neoliberal globalization, and the service-information-FIRE (Finance, Insurance, Real Estate) economy; to the idea that its way was the only viable one in a globalizing world, and that the other courses charted by Japan (and Germany) were paths to nowhere. Europe was synonymous with Eurosclerosis, Japan with the "lost decade," and no matter how hard or how long an Eamonn Fingleton, for example, tried to argue otherwise, the mainstream was simply not willing to give any alternative perspective a hearing.

Of course, Americans have been mindful of China's double-digit growth during these years, which in the first decade of the twenty-first century saw it edge out Japan to become the world's second-largest economy--and had many observers saying that before long it would be first. However, we have not seen anything comparable to that literature emerge in response to China's rise. That is not to say that the country's boom has not been extensively written about, because it very clearly has. Nor is it to say that writers on the subject have refrained from alarmism and xenophobia, because they very clearly have not. Rather, it is to say that where in the '80s we saw enormous, even obsessive, interest in Japanese business methods, in the sociology of Japanese economic life, and in Japanese culture and society more broadly, we have seen comparatively little interest in these aspects of Chinese life.4

I suppose this is in part because the idea of an Asian economic superpower is no longer so novel; because there is less of a tendency to see international politics in stark bipolar terms, or as a competition between social systems, than there was at the Cold War's end; because China is still playing catch-up (its per-capita output, living standards and overall development still far behind the industrialized nations); and because China's success to date does not seem at all mysterious, instead largely attributed to the government's ruthless practice of export-oriented mercantilism and vast supply of cheap labor in a globalizing world.5 Part of it, too, would seem to be the fact of diminished public interest in foreign news and social science, and that writing on the Middle East (again, mostly drivel, though that's another story) has drawn much of what such interest remains in them during the past decade. And it is also the case that the debate which ended in 1995 has not restarted, despite the calamitous events of the last five years.

Whatever one has to say about other aspects of Western authors' response to China's long boom, that last fact should be deeply worrying to all concerned.

1. I recall, for instance, Len Deighton's history of the early years of World War II, 1993's Blood, Tears and Folly, which relates how the United States and Britain fared against Germany and Japan during the war to the then-current debate about Anglo-American economic competitiveness against Germany and Japan in the 1990s.
2. Western observers do not seem to have been totally at fault for this. In many cases they repeated what was being claimed by Japanese observers--many of those '80s-era oversimplifications appearing in Shintaro Ishihara's own The Japan That Can Say No, for example. Among these is the idea of Japan's industrial success as fundamentally rooted in culture, microeconomic rather than macroeconomic, with much made of the country's corporate culture as the key. There is, too, the idea of Japan as a society which refines others' innovations (craftsmanship over metaphysics, to paraphrase Ishihara). Equally Shintaro gives short shrift to the significance of the asset bubble by then obvious to all, or that the country was reaching the limits of its export-driven growth strategy, and blithely assumes that the country's boom would continue indefinitely.
3. Few observers seem to have noticed the end of debate at that time. The sole exception I am familiar with is French sociologist Emmanuel Todd, who makes the point explicitly in his book After the Empire.
4. That is not to say no interest--as this round-up of titles George J. Gilboy offered a few years back demonstrates--but much less than was the case with Japan two decades earlier. Moreover, the interest in Chinese business practices seems more reflective of concern with actually doing business with the country rather than its treatment as a model for others.
5. We also did not see such a literature regarding the success of the "Tiger" economies (South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore) because their smallness makes them less of a concern. That South Korea is a country of fewer than 50 million limits its impact on the international economic scene, regardless of how prosperous the country becomes.

Revisiting The Japan That Can Say No

Shintaro Ishihara has made a literary, and then a political, career out of grabbing attention with inflammatory remarks. It was certainly such a remark which drew American attention to him in 1989, specifically his claim in his 1989 book The Japan That Can Say No, that "Japan holds the trump card in the nuclear arms race" (21), because "only Japanese electronics firms have the mass-production and quality-control capability to supply the multimegabit semiconductors for the weapons systems and other equipment" (20-21).1 Accordingly,
if Japan told Washington it would no longer sell computer chips to the United States, the Pentagon would be totally helpless. Furthermore, the global military balance could be completely upset if Japan decided to sell its computer chips to the Soviet Union instead of the United States (21).
There was, of course, a great deal of oversimplification and exaggeration in such a remark, and that too has been strongly reflective of his approach throughout the book. While he presents serious issues, genuine problems and valid criticisms (of his country, and others), by and large he deals with them in the trite, shallow, predictable and rather disorganized manner one expects of today's more successful politicians--and certainly those who have comparable career trajectories.

Instead of a comprehensive analysis, we get a grab-bag of gripes and gloats. In the course of jumping from one to the next, Ishihara criticizes the country's policymaking elites for being insufficiently assertive against the Foreigner, whose displeasure with his government, he insists, is entirely a matter of his bigotry; makes much of the virtue of his countrymen, crediting this, rather than sound policies or historic opportunities, with the nation's economic successes (all a matter of deep cooperation between visionary, production-oriented managers and dedicated, craft-oriented workers, he would have us believe)2; acknowledges the existence of popular economic grievances, while muddling the issue by avoiding substantive criticism of the nation's speculation-mad financial sector or the conduct of Big Business, and even downplaying the existence of inequality and class differences3 (his ire exclusively directed at the retail sector); and lightly dismisses the prospects of other countries (writing off China and all the countries of Europe), which he holds to be doing everything wrong, while expressing complacent optimism about the prospects of his own--if it sticks to his slanted version of what it has been doing all along. On the way, we also get a good deal of anti-intellectualism4, anti-realism and outright mysticism5.

Ishihara's world-view is, naturally, reflected in his vision of the post-Cold War international order, beginning with his explicit dismissal of the prospect of a multipolar world. He envisioned the former Soviet bloc entering Japan's "technological sphere of influence" (109), with the economies of the entire region from Vladivostok to Warsaw revitalized by Japanese technology and Japanese know-how--in part because, unlike debt-ridden America, Japan would be able to finance the aid these countries needed.6 He expected that China would, along with the Soviet Union, actually continue to see its influence decline because of its economic failures, while Europe would fail to come together around a reunified Germany. This would leave the Group of Two (the U.S. and Japan) as the decisive actors, and he imagined that after a "cold war" phase between the two countries (military component included), and the U.S.'s getting its house in order (he actually lays out a program for the United States, in Chapter Eleven, ironically enough), this relationship would be essentially cooperative.7

Of course, he was not even close to the mark. The Soviet Union dissolved, and certainly did not enter Japan's sphere of influence, not least because Japan proved to be in no position to bankroll the kind of aid he talked about. Rather the bursting of the giant asset bubble he downplayed here wreaked havoc with the country's banking system, and helped explode the central government's debt to a level which made the American fiscal situation of which he was so critical look enviable. At the same time, the particular technological strengths he believed to be crucial failed to yield the expected results, Japan's dominance in semiconductors much more fragile and short-lived than he seemed to think, while Maglev rail today looks much like the flying car of yesteryear. China, which he wrote off even more fully than Europe, emerged as the colossus that increasingly dominated Asia, and which would have to be regarded as the other member in any "Group of Two" with the U.S.. Meanwhile, the U.S. failed to get its house in order in the ways he prescribed (or any others), its manufacturing continuing to recede and its trade deficits exploding to levels that made those of the 1980s seem small--this politician famously critical of the United States proving overoptimistic in his assessment of how the U.S. would deal with its '80s-era problems.

To be fair, other visions have dated almost as severely and as quickly, many of them as a result of the same predictions. (Recall, for instance, George Friedman and Meredith Lebard's The Coming War With Japan?) Nonetheless, with well-wrought futurology (like the writings of H.G. Wells recently discussed here) we are usually left with a great deal of food for thought even where it has gone wrong. Indeed, we are apt to find compelling reasons why history could have gone another way, yesteryear's forecast turning into today's counterfactual. Ishihara's work, however, is utterly lacking in such insight, but then that was only to be expected, this book consisting of essentially the same drivel with which Ishihara's innumerable counterparts in America (and everywhere else) fill their speeches and books.

1. The bibliographical information for my edition was as follows: Shintaro Ishihara, The Japan That Can Say No. Trans. Frank Baldwin. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991.
2. The truth is that business is rarely far-seeing and production-oriented, except when it is incentivized to be. Ishihara overlooked the crucial role of government policy in building up the country's industries--and the dramatic way in which policy was about to fail by permitting the emergence of the massive speculation and financial corruption that did so much damage to the country's economy.
3. This attains an absurd extreme when he characterizes Japan as having one of the world's most egalitarian class structures (81), even offering an implausible anecdote about Lech Walesa touring Japanese factories and declaring "Japan the ideal socialist country" (82).
4. Ishihara dismisses the rise of a "knowledge economy" not on the grounds of the numerous practical arguments against it (the limited demand for high-skilled personnel, etc.), but because "all brain and no brawn cannot be good for the country," which is "better off if our Olympic athletes won a basket of medals and the younger generation did strenuous work" (19).
5. Ishihara gleefully announces the end of the "modern era" with its faith in "materialism, science and progress" (123), his discussion of which references Oswald Spengler, whom Ishihara writes claimed that "the solution is to attain a higher level of civilization blended from diverse cultures" (124)--which gives me the impression that Ishihara has confused Spengler with Arnold Toynbee. Even the best-informed of us err, but somehow it is hard to picture someone who has read either of those authors actually confusing the one with the other in this way.
6. Reading this prediction I found myself wondering if this was an inspiration for the scenario in Ralph Peters' The War in 2020, which has the U.S. and Japan fighting a proxy war over a crumbling Soviet Union.
7. Ishihara's recommendations to the U.S. are a mix of the substantive and the vague, the irrefutably sensible and the deeply dubious, and the larger part of them inconceivable within the U.S.'s corporate culture. Ishihara, for instance, was entirely right about the problems of U.S. short-termism, and the country's obsession with speculation and merger and acquisitions games at the expense of manufacturing (which by 2008 reached the astonishing levels seen in the cases of General Electric and General Motors). However, it was certainly not the case that post-Reagan America was in desperate need of a lower capital gains tax or more incentives to oil exploration, or that increased consumption taxes were the best way to raise the revenue needed to redress the budget deficit (while he totally avoided touching on the role of upper-income tax cuts in creating the problem).

Looking Back: The Politics of The Dark Knight Rises

Watching The Dark Knight back in 2008 I was deeply impressed by the film's use of the Joker as a Trickster/Shadow figure, and the construction of a Jungian psychodrama around it. I was much less impressed by the film's rather muddled politics, and took little interest in the attempts to read a statement about the War on Terror into it.

However, watching The Dark Knight Rises avoiding politics seemed impossible, least of all the class politics so explicit on the screen.

What did I make of them? The attempts to equate Bane with Mitt Romney's Bain Capital have struck me as overreaching of the worst sort. Bruce Wayne's casually expressed cynicism about other rich people and philanthropy and loss of all his money, the involvement of his business rival John Dagett with the villain's scheme, Commissioner Gordon's misgivings about the lies he told about Dent's death and reading from A Tale of Two Cities at film's end, also seem of ambiguous significance.

Far more substantial are Bane's anarchism, and the pack of right-wing ideas which are the foundation of its treatment--the distrust of the "average" person as a rational or ethical being, and corresponding justification not only of elitism, but the excesses of Leviathan and vigilantes alike; the imagery of revolution as chaos, and revolutionaries as undeserving looters waiting for the chance to grab other (better) people's stuff; the idea that the revolutionary's egalitarian rhetoric is merely a mask for their nefarious real agenda, which is destruction rather than salvation, driven by hatred rather than love, etc..1 Salon's Andrew O'Hehir called it all suggestive of an inverted "Soviet-era revolutionary epic, in which the masses are the villains and their onetime overlords the heroes"--and indeed, watching it time and again I felt that I was looking at something spun out by a stiff-moustached Victorian bourgeois who had become hysterical after reading a piece of yellow journalism about Communards and their Infernal Machines.2

The question, then, is not whether the film's content is right-wing, but rather how we are to take that right-wing content; if we are to take it straight, or see the film as problematizing or satirizing its material.

There is some reason to think this is less than serious, in how over the top the film goes--arguably, to and past the point of absurdity, all the way to schlockiness in significant parts (all the more apparent because of the film's generally high level of technical accomplishment). There is, for instance, the film's bizarre treatment of the passage of time (night turning to day with extreme abruptness, months going by with the feeling that nothing happened in the meantime).3 There is the silliness of the unnamed Nowhereistan from which Bane hails in this version of the story.4 There are the conditions of Batman's imprisonment by Bane, permitting him an escape that would embarrass the very dumbest Bond villain. There is the goofiness of the scene where Gotham's Finest charge a pack of armed criminals like warriors in a pre-gunpowder melee. There is, too, the film's oddly skipping over what happens to Revolutionary Gotham after Batman's departure from the stage and the presumed restoration of order.5 Long stretches of the film are in fact so flimsy as to cry out for the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment.

Yet, the claim that the movie must be satirical simply because significant parts of it are so badly made that we cannot take them seriously seems excessive, especially when over-the-top is standard operating procedure for the genre to which the film belongs. Besides, people can and do make bad movies with total earnestness (especially when their political passions get the better of their artistic inclinations), and it is not inconceivable that this would be such a film. The difficulty of the balancing act between the grit Nolan strives for and the spectacular heroics audiences expect of comic book protagonists, and the pressure to top the previous installments in scale (this is undoubtedly the broadest of the trilogy, and in its looseness often feels like a story that simply got out of the author's control); the exhaustion of a series' concept by film number three (revenge for daddy, big city held hostage by big bomb--hardly on a level with the preceding films' inventiveness); and plain old creative misfire (Batman: Escape From Nowhereistan!); all seem sufficient to account for the mess.

Certainly I have a hard time remembering a moment when the film signaled anything like a satirical intent the way that we saw in, for instance, Starship Troopers (1997)--the last big-budget summer entertainment to seriously play around with ideas like these.6 Additionally, where satirists are often frank about their politics, DKR's writer-director Christopher Nolan has been evasive, not only about the content of the film, but about his own political opinions.7 And if one does, at the risk of reading too much into it, try to glean something of those opinions from what he has said--that he was writing "from a place of 'What's the worst thing our villain Bane can do? What are we most afraid of?'"--one finds little reason to do anything but take the film's politics at face value.

1. Given the film's shooting schedule it is possible, even likely, that Bane's attacking Gotham's stock exchange is not a comment on Occupy Wall Street (the movement only began in September 2011, with the production underway). However, given Bane's larger plans, it is hard to read the film as anything but hostile to that kind of protest--just as the Dent Act and Blackgate Prison come across as an advocacy of the suppression of civil liberties and basic human rights, irrespective of whether or not they say anything about the Patriot Act or Guantanamo specifically.
2. Such an inversion is hardly inconceivable or unprecedented. As Thomas Frank demonstrates in Pity the Billionaire, Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged is "reverse-engineered" proletarian literature.
3. The sky changed an awful lot in those forty-five minutes before the bomb was set to blow.
4. It often seems as if the entire region of northern Africa and southwestern/southern/central Asia are a single, homogenous ethno-cultural mass in many minds. Sometimes the confusion gets even worse, with Eastern Europe thrown in there as well to give us characters like Borat.
5. It is as if the writers forgot about it--or thought it better not to linger on it, like the bloody aftermath of the Paris Commune.
6. Starship Troopers, of course, satirized the right-wing politics its producers considered the Heinlein book to embody. The film's efforts were not unproblematic--the spectacles of martial might, the grandly staged (if ludicrous) battle scenes left it open to the charge that it was having its cake and eating it too, and the film fails to take on important dimensions of its milieu (like class and economics, largely passed over). However, the movie is peppered with bits where the intent is unmistakable--the scene in which the film's screenwriter Ed Neumeier is condemned to death; the old-fashioned narration in the media clips (previously employed as satirical vehicles in other Verhoeven science fiction films like 1986's Robocop and 1990's Total Recall); the irony in the remark of a disabled veteran that the Mobile Infantry made him the man he is today; etc..
7. Starship Troopers' director Paul Verhoeven and screenwriter Ed Neumeier, for instance, have been quite frank about that film's politics, and their own politics (in among other places, the commentary on the DVD of the film).

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Rise and Fall of Great Powers in Science Fiction

Originally Published in THE FIX, January 1, 2008

One of the most popular games in international relations has always been "Guess the Next Global Hegemon." Naturally, the game seems to become most popular in the superpower of the day when a higher than average proportion of its people become convinced that there will be a Next Hegemon, after them – which is to say, when they wax anxious over national decline.

Science fiction traditionally reflected those anxieties. In the post-World War I period, Olaf Stapledon and Aldous Huxley imagined that the future would be American - correctly as it turned out. American writers, in their turn, expressed the same worries when American supremacy appeared in danger. James Blish's Cities in Flight cycle, the four novels in which were written between 1955 and 1962, posited the triumph of a dynamic Soviet Union over a West in the throes of a Spenglerian decline. In the 1980s cyberpunk writers often presented the future as Japanese.

During the 1990s New Economy hype banished such concerns for a while, creating a confidence - at any rate, in the U.S. - that the twenty-first century, too, would be an American century. (The attitude may have been exemplified by Arthur Herman's 1997 book The Idea of Decline in Western History, in which, with limitless smugness, he dismisses such anxieties as nothing more than the neurosis of pathetic failures.)

Of course, the 1990s did not last, and neither did such certainties. For the United States this is another moment of anxiety, and while there are those who look across the Atlantic at the European Union as a contender, most look across the Pacific instead to China. Reading short fiction for Tangent and The Fix this last year, tales of taikonauts leading the way to the moon and beyond seemed to be a dime a dozen.

Indeed, it seems to strike a great many people as extraordinary that this hasn't been the case all along, that the past hasn't been more Chinese than it was actually (certainly more than saw Japan or the Soviet Union as "natural" world leaders). Some of these go so far as to see the recent centuries of Western dominion as a blip on the historical radar screen. Back in 1998 the noted historian and social scientist Andre Gunder Frank published REORIENT: Global Economy in the Asian Age, which makes exactly this case. Not surprisingly, such thinking has been reflected in recent alternate history, in which a small alteration to the timeline eliminated that blip. (The November-December 2007 issue of Interzone for instance, contained two pieces exploring exactly this theme, Chris Roberson's Metal Dragon Year, and Aliette De Bodard's "The Lost Xuyan Bride.")

To be fair, this isn't completely new. Many Westerners over the last two centuries appreciated that China at least had the makings of a great power, Napoleon, for instance, famously remarking that the country was a sleeping giant. However, it was not quite a contender in the game, at least for the time being, by practical decision-makers, and again the case of Britain circa 1900 is exemplary. British strategists, aware their country was being overshadowed by bigger, more modern powers, worried that the Germans would find their "place in the sun," that the next century would be an American century. To a lesser extent, they also worried about the Russians, the French and the Japanese, at least in certain neighborhoods. China, however, was something to be fought over by the other great powers that had colonized it, like all the others on this list.

The idea of China as a great power therefore appeared most often in the abstract, especially manifesting itself in science fiction. In the invasion stories that were the Victorian and Edwardian era's predecessor to today's Tom Clancy-style techno-thriller, the Chinese were routinely aggressors. M.P. Shiel famously produced The Yellow Danger, and Sax Rohmer, stories about the villainous Fu Manchu. Buck Rogers fought the Han, while Flash Gordon battled a fairly obvious caricature in Ming of Mongo.

Later writers treated the theme somewhat more seriously. In his novel First and Last Men (a book which is, ironically, constantly slammed for poor futurism), Stapledon pictured global dominion coming down to a contest between the United States and China - an idea today extremely commonplace. The theme appeared in Robert Heinlein's novels as well, the final act before the rise of the Federation in Starship Troopers being the war against the Chinese Hegemony by a triple alliance of the United States, Britain and Russia, which happened in the late 1980s.

Still, all this is a long way from our present moment, in which so many take the idea so seriously, and not without reason. The United States is not coping particularly well with an enormous trade deficit (much of it with China), exceptional oil dependence and decrepit infrastructure, among other problems. At the same time there is China with its billion-plus population and marathon economic growth rate during the last three decades, reflected in just about everything you own having a MADE IN CHINA label on it.

The numbers crunched by the economists seem to bear this out. By the more generous measures, its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is three-quarters as large as that of the United States. By contrast, the Soviet economy had attained perhaps sixty percent the U.S. level at its nearest point, and Japan's was about the same. Additionally, where both those economies stagnated after hitting that level, China's double-digit growth rate shows little sign of such a dramatic slowdown, so that the gap seems likely to continue to close, with a rough parity appearing perhaps by the 2020s. Such wealth equals power, especially when there is a willingness to translate that wealth into military might - something that nuclear-armed China seems far more likely to do than the European Union, for instance.

In short, size, combined with momentum and will, seem to make this a no-brainer. But is it really? As I said before, the high estimate of the size of the Chinese economy is the one provided by the most generous measures - and that different indexes provide a much different picture.

The key issue at the moment is a device used by economists called Purchasing Power Parity (PPP), an idea that may seem esoteric, but which is actually quite important, and not all that hard to understand. It is a method for calculating the correct value of a nation's currency, as opposed to its market value, so that you can compare the economies of two different countries using two different currencies. (Put another way, what is the real difference in value between the American dollar and the Chinese yuan? In PPP, you establish this by figuring out how much of each currency you need to buy the same basket of goods or services.)

Measured without PPP, using just the market exchange rates of American dollars and Chinese yuan, China's GDP is about $2.5 trillion, just a quarter as large as in the other figure. However, when PPP is used (in other words, the fact that a U.S. dollar goes further in China than the exchange rates suggest), you can get a Chinese GDP of over $10 trillion, roughly equal to three-quarters the size of the economy of the U.S.

This makes the calculation of PPP crucial, and the particularly large gap between the nominal and PPP-adjusted figures in China's case (a factor of four) has always made me wonder, so much so that I usually qualify my statements when discussing China's economy more than I would in statements about the economies of other countries (as in the press release mentioned above).

As it turns out, I was right to be suspicious. Recently, the Asian Development Bank has released data indicating that the PPP used to calculate the size of China's economy has long been overestimated by a substantial margin, the nation's GDP forty percent smaller than the high figure indicates. Instead of a GDP of $10 trillion, it would be in the neighborhood of $5 trillion. This still qualifies it for the Number Two spot, but a much more distant one.

It also indicates that China's growth rate has been slower than advertised for many years, meaning that as a challenger, China has a much, much longer way to go before it becomes Number One. This is all the more problematic when one consider that this GDP is divided up among over four times as many people as the United States, and in a noticeably less egalitarian fashion.

Even assuming this not to be the case, China has its own problems, some of them actually the same problems. The United States may run a trade deficit with China, while China runs a trade surplus, which is in China's benefit - but only up to a point. China's rise to the status of "sweatshop of the world" depends on the capacity of foreign markets to absorb its deluge of low-priced manufactures. Should those trade deficits force other countries to cut back, China's growth will suffer, barring the unlikely event of more egalitarian policies which foster the nation's internal market.

It should also be remembered that China is a voracious oil consumer, and that should the world be in for an oil shock, which many believe to be plausible in the next decade, China will be extremely hard hit. (I myself argued this in the U.S. Army War College Quarterly Parameters, and do so again in my upcoming article in the journal Survival, "The Impending Oil Shock.") Nor is this the end of China's ecological problems, China's willingness to exploit its workers matched only by its willingness to befoul its environment and poison its population, with disastrous consequences. This includes the killing of the Yangtze and Yellow rivers, the rendering of the air toxic with the burning of dirty coal, and desertification on a vast scale, now said to be adversely affecting some 200 million people - a population the size of Britain, France and Germany combined - and given its effects on agriculture in the world's most populous country, global consequences. Once again, the kinds of policies that would be needed to seriously address the situation do not seem to be forthcoming.

I could go on, but the point is that the story is at the very least more complicated than the hype suggests, and at worst, that (barring a change in course) China's story in the twenty-first century might be marked not by a rise to global preponderance, but turmoil of a sort too familiar from the nation's long history. Where science fiction is concerned, this might make the fashionable tales of a Chinese future seem awfully dated in a few years, the stories assuming another, increasingly familiar form - ecologically ruined dystopia, of the kind that make nineteenth century-style realpolitik count for a whole lot less.

What goes for China goes to a greater or lesser degree for every other major power, and most of the little ones, too, which are on the whole aging, debt-ridden, ecologically strained, economically weaker than they look and prone to caution over boldness because of that frailty. There is simply no present-day analog to the dynamism of the British Empire's ascent from Cromwell to Victoria, of Prussia as it united Germany in the nineteenth century, of the expansion of the United States from sea to shining sea, which may be just as well. We live in a changed world, where developments ranging from nuclear weapons to climate change make the risks of old-fashioned power politics greater than ever before, and the rewards more meager, for all concerned. Any plausible vision of the future can not but reflect that.

NOTE: The downward revision in the then-prevailing estimates of China's GDP was widely accepted, and more recent figures have reflected the adjustment. According to the CIA World Factbook, China's GDP was in the $11 trillion range in 2011, about 75 percent of the figure given for the U.S. (slightly over $15 trillion).

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Reading Shintaro Ishihara's Season of the Sun

Last year a story in The Japan Times asked "Is Shintaro Ishihara The Most Dangerous Man in Japan?"

Ishihara is a far-right Japanese politician, first elected to the House of Representatives in 1968, who has at various points in his parliamentary career held the posts of Director-General of the Environment Agency and Minister of Transport. He resigned his seat in 1995 (interestingly, just after the attack on the Tokyo subway system by the Aum Shinrikyo cult, with which he has reportedly been associated), but was elected Governor of Tokyo in 1999, and held that job until 2012, when he was returned to the House of Representatives.

During his time in politics Ishihara has been notorious for his long record of making inflammatory, ultranationalist statements, such as calling the Rape of Nanking a fiction, defending the colonization of Korea, and branding the 2011 earthquake and tsunami "punishment from heaven" for the nation's "egoism."1 He helped to provoke the recent row between China and Japan over the Senkaku Islands with his proposal that the Tokyo Governorate buy the islands. He is also a hard-line culture warrior who has heaped endless racist abuse on immigrants and foreigners of all kinds, and on the country's pop culture and its fans, claiming that otaku have "warped DNA."

It was consequently a great surprise to find that Ishihara was not just a celebrated novelist (we don't often see those in politics in the States), but that he had been a prominent figure in the country's postwar youth culture, at once symbol and influence after publishing the novel Taiyo no Kisetsu--Season of the Sun in English. My curiosity piqued, I hunted down a translation, which took some doing because the book was published in the English-speaking world as Season of Violence, and is collected with two other stories by Ishihara ("The Punishment Room," "The Yacht and the Boy").

The three of them combined come to about a hundred and fifty pages in length--Ishihara's novel in fact just a novelette according to the usual standard.2

Season of the Sun (I will use the usual, literal translation of the title) is the story of a college athlete named Tatsuya who divides his time between boxing, petty criminality and the pursuit of sex, which he finds about as often and easily as James Bond once did. His relationship with Eiko proves more complex, however. A young woman who has been similarly cavalier and similarly callous toward her lovers, she proves a greater than usual challenge for Tatsuya. However, after the two end up having sex on his boat, and each realized they are in love with the other, Eiko softens toward Tatsuya--while Tatsuya becomes increasingly sadistic. This hits its low point in his "selling" Eiko to his brother for five thousand yen (about a hundred and twenty-five dollars in today's terms)--taking the money to walk away so that his brother can try to seduce her. Eiko, however, is uninterested in Tatsuya's brother, pays him back his money, and keeps after Tatsuya, even as he sells her again and again. By that point it is apparent that she is pregnant with his child, and Eiko informs Tatsuya of the fact. He rejects her and the baby, which drives Eiko to get an abortion, during which she dies--after which Tatsuya sees in her death the loss of "his favorite toy," and Eiko's "supreme challenge" to him.

This story of bed-hopping, Porky's-style humor (the "shoji screen scene" anticipates that film's most famous gag by a generation), girlfriend-selling and abortion was, we are given to understand, taboo-breaking at the time, but to say that it is a substantial piece of fiction would be something else altogether.3 Ishihara's characters never convince on the level of personal psychology. And the connection between his characters' behavior and the larger societal context on which Ishihara so clearly wishes to comment is even more problematic. Instead of revealing that relationship through the personal histories and inner lives of his characters (if only through the straightforward telling to which writers must often resort), he merely insists on the existence of that connection in the frequent passages in which he stops telling the story and instead tells the reader what to make of it--an unintentional but still palpable admission of inability to properly support, explain or even just depict those things to which he refers. (Thus does it go with such things as his telling the reader that Eiko's promiscuity is a response to her earlier loss of beloved male acquaintances.)

And so in the end Season of the Sun is not a deep and incisive work of literature about the struggles of youth in the confusing post-war world in which so much appeared discredited, but a sensationalistic melodrama cashing in on the 1950s-era hysteria about "out-of-control kids" that was pervasive across the industrialized world at that time, complete with a tragic ending fitting perfectly into the "often licentious but always Puritanical" mold of popular entertainment.4 The sort of thing that, far from illuminating its issue, frightens parents, sets the tongues of the stupider "moralists" wagging, and excites real-life adolescents precisely because they lead much more circumscribed lives than the hype claims.5

In all that, Ishihara the novelist seems to be of a piece with Ishihara the politician, a shallow, muddled thinker and professional provocateur who got ahead by pushing people's buttons, especially the buttons of the sort of people who respond to the eternal lament of "THESE KIDZ TODAY!"6 He got so far ahead, in fact, that he ended up a figure of international standing whose words have geopolitical consequences--and the world is worse off for it.

1. For the real story of who was at fault in that disaster, I suggest you check out Greg Palast's Vulture's Picnic (reviewed here).
2. The bibliographical data is as follows: Ishihara, Shintaro, Season of Violence, trans. John G. Mills, Toshie Takahama, Ken Tremayne (Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle Co., Inc., 1966).
3. Indeed, it seems that many contemporary Japanese critics did not regard Ishihara's self-styled "novels of ideas" as literature.
4. The 1966 Charles E. Tuttle edition certainly played up the sensationalist aspect of the works. The translation of "Season of the Sun" as "Season of Violence" aside, the tagline on the book's cover reads "Prize-winning stories of Japan's infamous SUN TRIBE--teen-agers who reject the morals of the past in favor of women, money and violence!", and the translators' introduction begins with the sentence "The stories in this collection of translated works are, in a word, shocking" as it goes on to explain just how representative the volume's contents supposedly are of the lives of Japanese youth.
5. As film critic Michael Raine notes, that "frustrated young people" identified with Ishihara's characters took "quite a feat of imagination" on their part, "considering that Japanese youth were paid one-tenth what their American counterparts were and could only dream of nightclubs, motorboats, and villas by the sea." Likewise, they could only dream of the wildly implausible autonomy and leisure enjoyed by Tatsuya and company (parents, like all other authority figures, are either coddling or absent, and no student ever seems to study or go to class, while beating up people who anger them without any repercussions--even dad getting a sock in the gut and letting it go).
6. The irony, of course, is the extent to which Ishihara has gone on contributing to that culture, not only with his sensationalist fiction, but its various spin-offs. All by itself Season of the Sun made him a success across the media spectrum, with a 1956 film version, two television versions (a 1986 episode in the anthology Animated Classics of Japanese Literature and 2002 live-action miniseries), and even a 2011 video game (of the eroge genre). He may abuse the otaku, but clearly is happy to take their money.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

What Would You Like to See on This Blog?

The title of this post says it all--I am asking what you, the readers of Raritania, would like to see me doing here on this blog, whether that means this blog's doing more of something or less of something, whether you have in mind a single-post treatment of some topic or a longer-ranged shift in emphasis, or even simply some change in the design or the line-up of feeds in the blog-list at the side of the page. I am interested in what you didn't like as well as what you did.

To get your message to me, just leave a comment below (or if you prefer, send an e-mail to the address provided on this page). I cannot assure you that I will be able to use all of your suggestions, but I do promise to answer every comment and question appearing on this page, the comments section of which will, I hope, become a forum for such ideas.

On Warehouse 13's H.G. Wells

I have recently had occasion to return to the work of H.G. Wells--and found myself thinking of Warehouse 13's inclusion of a Victorian figure by that name in the core cast.

The show's premise regarding the character is that H.G. Wells is not the famous writer we knew, but his sister--never mind that he had no sibling named Helena, and for that matter, no sister by any name in his lifetime.1 The show then goes on to claim that the man we think of as Herbert George Wells was really Charles Wells (why we thought of him as H.G. is never explained), and made his fame with Helena's ideas, for which he claimed full credit--again, never mind that Helena was bronzed in 1900, while the H.G. Wells we know not only lived another forty-six years, but was productive throughout that period, giving the world such novels as A Modern Utopia (1905), The War in the Air (1908), Tono-Bungay (1909), The History of Mr. Polly (1910), The New Machiavelli (1911), The World Set Free (1914) and The Shape of Things to Come (1933), and nonfiction works like Anticipations (1901), The Outline of History (1920) and The Science of Life (1930), an opus hardly reducible to pre-1900 inspiration.

For anyone who assumed a connection to Wells' actual biography this can only seem confusing, the liberties the show takes too great for the concept to work as a compelling secret history (not that Wells is much of a candidate for such a story anyway, given how public a figure he was for a very long time). So what, one wonders, is going on here? Are the writers of this famously concept-light show playing a postmodern game with the audience?

If this is a game, it does not seem much of one, actual use of Wells' character or ideas being very scarce, as was probably inevitable. For instance, how likely is American television to feature a character making the case for a secular, socialist world state? (The closest we come to this is Helena's expression of disappointment at the state of the world she found a century after her bronzing.) No one seems to have noticed the shocking disparity between the rationalism for which Wells so famously stood, and the magical artifacts with which the warehouse deals.2 And even superficial reference to the stuff of Wells' best-known books is rare. (We do see Helena employ a time machine of her own design at one point, but it bears no conceptual resemblance to the device of that novel, or even physical resemblance to the iconic realization of it in the 1960 film version of the book, and in the end the plot of the episode really looks like just an excuse to send Myka and Pete back to the era of Don Draper, lazily milking the Mad Men cult just like everybody else on American television.)

And so it seems less an attempt at a game than the mere spicing up of the show with a character named so as to grab a bit of unearned attention from the steampunk-inclined. On the whole I do think the show is better off for Helena's (and Jaime Murray's) presence in it, but it has to be admitted that tying her character up with H.G. Wells in the way that they have is rather lazy and cheap--and for an admirer of Wells, rather grating in its disrespect for the great author and his achievements.

1. Wells' parents in fact had only one daughter, Fanny, who died two years before Herbert George was born.
2. George Orwell famously paid tribute to Wells as the English-speaking world's prophet of reason in the first two decades of the twentieth century in "Wells, Hitler and the World-State"--in which he ironically went on to lament that "since 1920 he has squandered his talents in slaying paper dragons."

Monday, July 1, 2013

Filming John le Carrés The Honourable Schoolboy


Two years ago a film version of John le Carré's classic Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy hit the big screen. The film was certainly not perfect from a purist's perspective. As was perhaps inevitable in any viable two-hour film, it did not quite do justice to the novel's sprawl and feel (the tangle of the back stories, the wooliness of the investigation, the shabbiness of imperialists living "after-the-empire"), and less inevitably, included some questionable additions (the dubious symbolism of Smiley swimming in a pond, bits of violence apparently intended to spice up a story lacking in action, but which seemed merely repellent and even propagandistic).1 Nonetheless, the script was an impressive feat of compression and rearrangement, rendering a book that often seems opaque not merely intelligible, but accessible, while retaining something of the original's complexity. The film was also bolstered by strong performances from the cast and skillfully edited (the closing montage justly drawing favorable comment). The result was a critical success, and on its modest terms, a commercial one as well, which has led to some talk of a sequel, focusing on Smiley's People.

Of course, Smiley's People is the third novel in the "Karla" trilogy, not the second, such a plan necessarily skipping over the series' second book, The Honourable Schoolboy--despite not only the fact that the events of Schoolboy bring about the situation we see at the start of Smiley's, but that it also seems to be the more highly praised of the latter two novels. Nonetheless, it is worth remembering that, difficult as Tailor was to compress into a two-hour movie, Honourable (the longest of the three novels) is harder still, as it tells a larger, more complex story following two different but related and ultimately converging tracks--the maneuverings of Smiley and his people in London in the aftermath of the unmasking of Bill Haydon's treachery, and Jerry Westerby's field work in Southeast Asia on Smiley's people's behalf. This is compounded by the fact that what were at the time of the novel's writing recent events are now relatively obscure history, particularly the complex of interrelated Southeast Asian wars (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand) that form a significant part of the backdrop. A great deal would have to be explained to the audience, which afterward might still have a hard time following along, easily thinking that Westerby is still in the same country, and confronted by the same conflict, even as he crosses from one country (and one war zone) to another.2

Moreover, Westerby's adventure is nothing short of an epic journey across the region at the time of the fall of Saigon--the kind of thing which would be hugely expensive to shoot faithfully. Where Tailor mostly gave us small groups of people talking to each other in mundane-looking rooms, Honourable is packed with such spectacles as the high life at the Happy Valley Racecourse and the siege of Pnom Penh, while, uncharacteristically for a le Carré novel, there are a number of elaborate set pieces involving blazing machine guns, explosions and swooping aircraft.

I have not heard any estimates of what the budget would have to be to get it all on screen, but I would not be surprised to hear a figure upward of $100 million--in contrast with the $20 million spent on Tailor. Of course, such sums are spent on movies all the time. (I counted at least twenty major releases with such budgets in 2012 alone.) Nonetheless, a blockbuster budget can only be raised when there is the prospect of a blockbuster gross, and one has to recall that Tailor was a hit on a much smaller scale, earning $80 million not in the first weekend of its North American release, but its entire global run. And the prospects of a film version of Honourable Schoolboy doing much better, let alone well enough to justify a $100 million-plus production budget, seem slim given not just the limited size of the built-in audience created by the original book, and the previous film, but the source material itself, which in its structure and course is no more the stuff of blockbusters than Tailor was.3

The fact that the Circus is here working against Chinese intelligence is also likely to be an inhibiting factor, given the leeriness of the film industry about doing anything which might seem offensive to those in command of what is now the world's second-largest movie market--fears that loom all the larger when one talks big budgets. Those particular fears are not at all allayed by the fact that a major part of the story is set in British-ruled Hong Kong, and that unlike in Tailor (which switched its Hong Kong scenes to Istanbul), the location cannot be changed without doing considerable violence to the plot. (One might add, too, that the story is not especially flattering to the U.S. either. In fact, reading the book I had the impression that, after writing of the end of the British Empire in Tailor, le Carré decided to take on what looked to many at the time like the end of the American empire.)

Of course, book-to-screen adaptations make compromises all the time, but the tension between art and commerce here would be considerable, and the results likely to displease fans without reaching that more general audience necessary to make the project profitable. By contrast, Smiley's People is a far easier movie to make, with a simpler, more compact story making far fewer demands on a production's resources. The Russian-set bits are easy enough to do on a sound stage, and the rest of the location shooting poses little challenge, while the large-scale spectacle and elaborate action of Schoolboy are totally left out. All of that makes this turn of events unsurprising, even if it is disappointing to fans of the trilogy who would have liked a big-screen version.

1. In particular there are two graphic killings which have the effect of identifying the Soviets with senseless, misogynistic violence.
2. I suspect that even Americans familiar with the era are scarcely aware of the war in Thailand, or that the United States continued to conduct an air war in Cambodia for several months after the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam.
3. Consider, for instance, the finale to this rather more ambiguous, personal tale: Westerby betrays the operation to save a woman with whom he has become obsessed, and is killed by his colleagues in British intelligence for it. After that the prize defector at the center of the game winds up in American hands, with the British cut out of the debriefing to follow; and Smiley himself gets pensioned, while his "people" are also squeezed out of their present jobs, reassigned when not retired. In short, Smiley does it again--despite which Smiley's people lose, hardly a crowd-pleasing finale.

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