Winter 2021 – Week 13 in Review

Hello everyone, and welcome back to Wrong Every Time. Lately I’ve been thinking, as I often do, about just how terrible fandom can be. In the past, I saw fandom as just another natural expression of art appreciation; but lately, it’s beginning to feel like art appreciation and fandom are actually contradictory poles, antagonist routes you can pursue in your relationship with art. Obviously, a great deal of fandom is harmless and empowering – sharing personal experiences of shows you loved, creating new art based on them, etcetera. But fundamentally, a great deal of fandom seems to be about the search for community and validation – we find the works that resonate with us, and then build a home inside their fandom. We accept a fictional universe as it is, and set to work cataloging it, rather than questioning or critiquing.

In contrast, to actually grow as an art creator or enthusiast, we must seek the new. We must broaden our horizons, accept the limitations of our existing perspective, and embrace humility as we explore new artistic experiences, rejecting the idea that we are “bonded” to any one work in particular. These two instincts don’t have to be at odds, but they often prove to be – and with fandom at this point overwhelming art discourse in general, often any pointed criticism or urges for expanding your horizons are met with an emotionally empowered wave of anti-intellectualism. When you gesture towards the distant, alluring mountains of artistic history and achievement, fans frequently respond with “there are no mountains, all ground is equally flat, and how fucking dare you imply otherwise.”

Fans see their favorites as their identity, and thus a call to expand their horizons sounds like an attack on their personality – but in truth, the fundamental error here is defining your identity by your favorites in the first place. Art can play a different role in different people’s lives, and there’s no shame in simply not being that curious about exploring art – but in an era where consumption is identity, art critique can often sound like character assassination. And of course, production studios are happy to encourage their fans to be rabid defenders of their IP; if they could sell audiences the same product every year forever, they’d be delighted to. We’re currently at a point where fans are defending their right to be condescended to from the “mean” critics, who are bullying them by pointing out that other art exists. It’s a strange state of affairs, and I’m not really sure how we can “fix” this discourse, but it’s been on my mind lately, as I watch folks hang up their artistic curiosity and become Brand Defenders.

Anyway, I also watched a bunch of great movies this week. Let’s talk about those.

We returned to some genuine classics this week, beginning with Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of The Outsiders. The first thing that stuck out to me about The Outsiders was its ludicrously overstuffed cast of up-and-coming actors. Along with youth stars of the era like Emilio Estevez and Ralph Machio, the film also features Rob Lowe and Tom Cruise at absurdly young ages, as well as Patrick Swayze as Ponyboy’s (C. Thomas Howell) older brother. With such an excellent cast captured at such a young age, The Outsiders’ characters feel like genuine kids, full of nervous energy and lots of bad ideas.

I haven’t read The Outsiders since middle school, and watching this film, I could only ask myself why children are forced to read The Outsiders in middle school. Its story of greasers rallying against their limited life opportunities, and losing what little freedom they possess in the process, is a quintessential story of youth and loss – but it’s the kind of story you can only appreciate from the far side, looking back on youth. Johnny’s directive to “stay gold, Ponyboy” feels like it could only punch that hard from the perspective of an adult, someone who’s well aware that Robert Frost told it true, and that none of us get out of life alive. As a kid, this story just felt rambling and distant from my experience – as an adult, I can appreciate the commonalities of youth, class, and loss which span across subcultures and generations, and define the ephemeral beauty of adolescence.

Coppola’s direction doesn’t really draw much attention; he wisely lets the strength of the script and the youthful vitality of his actors hold the spotlight. Based on an undeniable classic, and featuring some of the best performances I’ve seen from actors like Lowe and Machio, The Outsiders is an easy recommendation for any drama fans. Now we just need to check out the other Coppola/S.E. Hinton classic, Rumblefish!

After that, I watched a film I’ve been meaning to watch for years, and probably the film I should have started this whole filmic odyssey with in the first place: Yasujiro Ozu’s masterpiece, Tokyo Story. Centered on an elderly couple visiting their adult children in the city, Tokyo Story is intimate yet majestic, preoccupied with the tiny details of daily life, yet capable of arranging those details into a tapestry that evokes universal feelings on aging, disappointment, love, and regret. Essentially, it is exactly the kind of thing I most love in film – the quiet beauty and humanity of works like Naoko Yamada or Hirokazu Kore-eda realized in flawless form, depicting both the story of one family, and the sentiment of an entire era.

There is so much I could say about Tokyo Story that it’s hard to know where to start. Perhaps the cinematography? Ozu’s style is as deliberately stripped-down as possible; there are virtually no camera movements, and most of the shots are placed at the floor’s level in the family’s various homes, cataloging their experiences without embellishment. You might think this would make for a visually dull experience, but it is so much the opposite. Every one of Ozu’s layouts captures multiple layers of lived-in domestic life; his shots peer through multiple sets of tatami walls, illustrating entire worlds of incidental personal details. Admiring his shots, it was clear to see where Kore-eda got some of his own techniques – and along with their enthralling visual effect, these shots essentially conveyed characterization through set design, revealing through all the accoutrements of daily life everything that the characters weren’t actively saying. Tokyo Story is an absurdly beautiful film, and its beauty consistently elevates its emotional and narrative intent.

It also helps that Tokyo Story’s cast are so perfectly attuned to the material. Apparently, many of Tokyo Story’s cast are long-time Ozu collaborators, and that clearly shows in how well family patriarch Shukichi (Chichu Ryu) matches the subtle tenor of each shift in the narrative. Ryu’s performance is a master class in restraint, as he is perpetually let down by his children, but maintains his dignity and easygoing affectation regardless. Ryu condenses his sadness and disappointment into a tiny lump in his chest, visible only in the slow nod of his head, or the wet glint at the corner of his eye. Meanwhile, the widowed daughter-in-law Noriko spends the film wearing a bright yet utterly false smile, with each crack in that façade feeling like a dagger in the heart.

So much else in this film felt beautiful, revelatory, or simply, painfully true that it’s hard to catalog it all. The lovely transition shots, and how well Ozu uses his rare, well-chosen long shots. The rambling pace of the narrative, and how it mirrors the temporal vagueness of memory, only to accelerate to the pace of finality and grief. The pointed reflections on family, aging, and identity, always conveyed with a naturalistic frankness that makes them hit that much harder. Tokyo Story’s melancholy never feels artificial or melodramatic; Ozu dispenses with any trickery that might invoke an unearned emotion, letting the simple reality of these people and these lives reveal what it will. Life will disappoint us, but there are many beautiful things. I’m glad we took this trip to Tokyo.

After that, we turned our eyes back to anime, as we checked out the ‘89 OVA Riding Bean. Riding Bean is one of those curiously beautiful artifacts from the ‘80s OVA era, when a whole lot of money was being pumped into productions that embraced the lack of restrictions prompted by circumventing the TV market. Unsurprisingly, this means Riding Bean is full of people getting shot to pieces, boobs are fully on display, and the whole production embraces a kind of gleefully grindhouse tone endemic to the era. That, combined with the outrageously exaggerated quasi-American touches (the protagonist Bean refreshes himself with a stack of ribs and an entire case of beer), makes for an oddly charming watch, like a nostalgic kickback to watching late-night TV long after you were supposed to be asleep.

As a narrative, Bean is a sturdy, straightforward crime/racing caper, as Bean finds himself caught up in a kidnapping, and pursued by both police and nefarious villains. The plot isn’t the point here; the film is full adrenaline, and blessed as it is with such generous mechanical animation, its chase scenes are a consistent thrill. Plus, at only 48 minutes, it’s as small of an investment as you could hope for to check off another piece of anime history. Fifty minutes of top-shelf action entertainment; Riding Bean is a tidy and highly recommendable production for the majority of anime fans.

I followed that up with Pom Poko, one of the few Ghibli films I still hadn’t seen. And what a fool I was to put it off! All I knew of Pom Poko was that it was about a bunch of tanukis, and that their magical testicles featured prominently in the narrative; less frequently touted were its biting, unmediated meditation on urban sprawl, its ambitious narrative reach, and its absurd beauty. Though Miyazaki is frequently lauded for his films’ environmentalist themes, none of them have hammered those ideas in with the urgency and ferocity of Pom Poko. Once again, Isao Takahata has absolutely blown me away.

Pom Poko centers on a community of raccoons living in the hills surrounding Tokyo, whose home is under threat from the ambitious “New Town” construction efforts. As the film playfully conveys through oversized construction vehicles crossing a miniaturized map, entire mountains are being scooped out and destroyed, only to make way for row after row of suburban sprawl. Though this process is initially conveyed with a light, cheerful tone, the film’s lighthearted visual digressions ultimately serve the same purpose as its choice of tanukis for protagonists: they cheekily dull the edge of an incredibly sharp narrative, allowing Takahata to illustrate a story more frank and unflinching than almost anything in the Ghibli catalog. 

Over the course of Pom Poko’s narrative, its ensemble protagonists try again and again to thwart the humans, employing tactics ranging from outright sabotage, to spooky illusions, to even negotiating with the enemy. Their personalities are bright and distinctive, their determination is palpable, and their motives are pure – yet time and again, they fail, failing harder each time, losing more resources and more lives in their fight against humanity’s greed. Though it’s steeped in details relating to Tokyo’s actual expansion, Pom Poko’s story feels far more universal than that, echoing countless stories of colonization, environmental destruction, and the difficulty of maintaining hope and solidarity in the face of overwhelming institutional power. It is a tragedy, and an essential one; in spite of starring a bunch of transforming raccoons, it relentlessly avoids pat, sentimental conclusions, while still championing the resilience and charm of its beleaguered heroes. I’ve never seen an anime film depict the uncomfortable tensions of what is essentially a labor union council, as they bicker regarding the merits of direct rebellion, negotiation, or appealing to a higher authority. Having watched Pom Poko, I feel even more acutely what an essential voice Takahata offered, and am that much more determined to finish out his work.

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