Thursday, June 06, 2002

Japanese Anime

Japanese anime has become increasingly popular in the US, and conventions for fans are even more numerous than Star Trek conventions.

I was recently able to attend such a convention in Dallas. It might be more politic at my age for me to say that I was dragged there by my kids, but the truth is that I went willingly since I've been a fan of anime for some time.

I find anime to be refreshingly free of the political correctness, cant, and propaganda that plagues American cartoons and animation. Anime films can be surprisingly violent and may show explicit sexual material or other material deemed inapproprate in America even where the plot is clearly aimed at children. For example, anime often depicts characters who smoke or drink while American films have banned these subjects even in films for mature audiences. Some anime films take on religious themes that American film makers wouldn't dare touch, dealing for example with Christian beliefs in a way that is sometimes respectful and sometimes not.

Alien Nine is a good example of the contradictions of the genre. On its surface it is an adventure film about Japanese schoolgirls. At a deeper level it is a story that addresses some of the more difficult themes of a child's coming of age.

Unfortunately, the story is not complete. It might be in line with Japanese story telling for it to trail off, as it does, without a definite conclusion, but the series as it is now leaves the western audience wanting more. The DVD is not available for sale in the US, and the copy I viewed was subtitled in English by otaku (amateur anime enthusiasts.) Nevertheless, it is worth the effort to find a copy. It may become commercially available in the US later this year, although there is no point in looking for it on Amercian TV.

At the outset of the story Yuri is distressed at being forced into the role of being one of the three Alien Countermeasures Officers for her elementary school. At this point in the future alien animals from space drop from the sky at random, and Alien Countermeasures Officers, students from the school such as Yuri, are assigned to capture or otherwise neutralize aliens that intrude on the school.

Having a small girl assigned to what proves to be a terrifyingly dangerous job is obviously nonsense, and I believe that this role is symbolic for something else, i.e., contingency, the whole of the limitations forced on Yuri, and on all of us, by our biological natures.

In a couple of ways the story reveals its Japanese nature at this point. First, although Yuri is obviously distressed, even in tears, about the difficulty of her duties, there is no question of her quitting them. Her parents do not jump in to relieve her from the school's decision to assign her this task, and Yuri never seems to think to take the matter to her parents. Second, her friend's reaction to Yuri's distress is telling in the same way. They know that Yuri will serve as asked, and they gamely do what they can to help her get along. Nevertheless, Yuri's instinct is to reject this fate and to fear it, a reaction that is understandable but that she must learn to overcome.

As an Alien Countermeasures Officer Yuri must bond with the bourgo, an alien creature that acts as her ally. The bourgo looks like a flat frog with large eyes and wings. Yuri must wear the creature on her head, which the alien covers like a helmet, and the bourgo from this vantage protects her from the other aliens. The bourgo can speak but reacts automatically to her emotions, reflexively killing any alien that frightens her too much.

It is an interesting bit of symbolism. Since the bourgo is carried by Yuri like a hat, the creature becomes a part of Yuri. We find in the course of the story that the bourgo is the most fearsome and powerful alien of all, capable of killing any other alien with its dozens of prehensile steel tenticles that spring out at any sign of danger from another space alien. Thus, with the bourgo Yuri becomes transformed into a powerful being, from a little girl who sobs uncontrollably in fear at any sign of danger to a person who's emotions can kill.

In her introduction to the bourgo Yuri finds it to be harmless in appearance, but it opens its mouth to reveal its cavernous fleshy interior and its long, prehensile tounge. The bourgo sneezes, blowing mucous all over her, and she is agast -- a reasonable reaction to such a horror. Yuri is repulsed by the slime and flesh of nature alien to her, but it is a nature to which she she is bound and which she has no choice but to embrace.

The important adults in the story, Yuri's teacher and the school principal, prove to be enigmatic and powerful creatures with bourgo-like features who appear to control the odd events to which Yuri and her friends are exposed. One wonders if it is Yuri's fate to take the bourgo's powers into herself in the way these mature adults appear to have done. What in fact is the nature of these strange adult creatures? What did they go through to become what they are?

As the story develops further Yuri gradually learns to adjust to her role in life. Naturally, her biggest threat comes from boys with mindless, lolling grins who have hostile aliens on their heads. In the case of boys, the aliens control them and the aliens are inexplicably drawn to attack Yuri, or perhaps to attack the bourgo that she carries. This elemental portrait of boys caught in the throes of puberty's hormonal urges is rather striking for its lack of sympathy, but it might be accurate from the perspecitive of Japanese girls caught up in their own confusing biological tides. It is the boy's penultimate massed attack that provokes Yuri's most extreme fear and extreme response that with her bourgo makes for a very violent and difficult scene. Yuri is unhurt in the attack, but her development is interrupted for a time when her bourgo is killed.

Later, Yuri dreams that her classmates have all become transformed into bourgos themselves.

"We are all aliens. Our bodies change as we grow older, and we become aliens," her classmates sing in her dream.

The scene changes and Yuri is naked up to her waist in a pool of water made a brilliant red by the reflected light of the setting sun. She awakens from the dream sobbing, her three friends looking on in concerned confusion. She is the oldest of the four girls and the first to face this aspect of her natural, biological self.