November 16th, 2009

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Something for nothing

One of the things that I've done over the past week to fill the time opened up by quitting RoE is that I've started to watch a large amount of anime. There were plenty of series that I always meant to get around to and since I had nothing to do with all the spare time but brood, I decided to work my way through the backlog.

My relationship with anime in general has always been a bit haphazard and odd. For many years, I think I liked the idea of anime more than anime itself. When in college and grad school, I amassed a ridiculous collection of the stuff, burned onto literally thousands of cd's and yet only watched maybe 4-5% of what I owned. It was as if the collecting the potential enjoyment of watching it was actually better than sitting down and watching the episodes. I think part of that reason is that anime covers such a wide variety of genres and levels of quality compared to animated tv shows in the US. It really is often hit or miss and descriptions or ratings online can be incredibly deceptive and unhelpful in predicting whether you'll like a series.

Anyway, one series I just finished watching recently was FullMetal Alchemist. I had been aware of the franchise for a while, having seen the multitude of product tie-ins for the show targeted towards kids like CCGs and various toys. That perception that it was marketed towards a younger audience produced a ridiculous level of mood whiplash. You think it's going to be something cheery for kids and it begins with a blood mutilation scene followed by the failed resurrection of the kids' dead mother leading to glistening, pulsating exposed organs and a cadaverous death rictus and open mouthed scream by the zombie corpse. Then right after that it becomes all happy and cheerful again until some happy little girl gets melded together with her dog into a chimeric abomination by her father and then has her entire body exploded into a bloody smear on an alley wall. Fucked up doesn't even begin to describe it.

For all that, Fullmetal Alchemist provokes not only rising gorge but thought. The entire series is about two brothers and their experiences with alchemy, which has developed on their world instead of science. Everything is driven by the principle of equivalent exchange. You can pretty much change one thing into anything else as long as they're of the same mass and have similar properties. As one of the brothers puts it in the voice-over intro:

People cannot gain anything without sacrificing something. You must present something of equal value to gain something. That is the principle of equivalent exchange in alchemy. We believed that was the truth of the world when we were young.

Their first indication that there might be something more to the equation is when they try to resurrect their dead mother using all the pieces of a human body including water and carbon and all the other elemental bits and pieces of which a physical body is made of. This ends in bloody failure, costing one brother an arm and a leg and the other his entire body. The rest of the series entails their quest to try to recover what they've lost.

If you think about it, the whole idea of equivalent exchange is even around today and we teach it to our children. How many times are kids told that outcomes are based on effort and that what you put into something determines what you get out of it? It's a way to make the world seem logical and rational. Work hard and good things happen. Do good and good things will come to you. It's pretty much the entire idea of a more direct and immediate form of karma.

Of course, what all kids eventually learn is that the world isn't fair and that not only do you sometimes get something for nothing but very often you get nothing for something. In the anime, this inequity can be powered by the philosopher's stone, an artifact which allows you to bypass the need for equivalent exchange and will basically grand wishes for free. This is what the brothers end up seeking in order to get back the assorted body parts they lost.

The Philosopher's Stone. He who obtains it is exempt from the principle of Equivlent Trade, And Does not have to Sacrifice anything to obtain something. We sought after it, and we found it.

And of course, nothing is ever simple and there is no free lunch. Maybe they should have seen it coming but it becomes one of those endless recursions like what happens when people ask if God made the universe, then who made God? If the philosopher's stone allows you to get something for nothing, then what would you need to get a philosopher's stone? The answer in this case is mass murder and the collection of souls. You don't really get something for nothing. The philosopher's stone is like a debit card where someone's already deposited a large amount of funds by murdering a few thousand people. You can then make withdrawals on that balance and it seems miraculous and free. As you might imagine the anime manages to get even darker after this particular happy fact is discovered.

All in all, I liked FMA, though there were definitely parts of it I found disturbing. I'm pretty sure it's really not suitable for kids given the sheer amount of Nightmare Fuel. Those grabby, big-eyed tarbabies from beyond the gate which detach limbs is something I won't be forgetting anytime soon. For all the blood and guts and insanity though, at the core the story is about the bond between two brothers. The sad part is you get a real Gift of the Magi feel from it as each tries to sacrifice for what they believe the other wants most when what each really wants most is what they think the other wants most.
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Name that voice

According to wikipedia, Japan currently produces 60% of the animated series in the world right now. This results in some interesting cultural differences that should be obvious if you think about it. For instance, I don't know what percentage of movies are made in Hollywood but I figure it must produce a far larger chunk than you would estimate based on GDP or population. That over-representation has led to our country's fixation on media celebrity with the assorted magazines and websites and award shows that come with it. Well, in Japan a similar situation exists when it comes to anime. There, the manga authors and animators and anime directors receive more popularity, recognition, and fame than the equivalent here in the states.

One other difference is the popularity of seiyū, or Japanese voice actors. Not only are they lauded for their roles but seiyū end up being pop stars more often then not, doing voices for anime and also recording songs and putting out CDs. There are magazines devoted to them and fans follow their careers much like you would have fans of Julia Roberts or whatever Hollywood star.

As I've watched more anime lately, I've tried to make a real attempt to recognize seiyū from one role to another. It's harder than it sounds, a lot harder. For one thing, they're often doing a slightly difference voice to fit whatever character they're playing and secondly, it's all in a language I don't understand to begin with. You might be able to pick Sean Connery's voice out in almost every movie role he stars in but imagine trying to figure out if it's Sean Connery when he's speaking Hungarian and trying to do a voice which sounds like a 10 year old girl. Not so cut and dry then.

That said, I'm always unreasonably proud when I manage to sort one out without having to resort to wikipedia. I know it's probably a strange thing to be happy about but you go with what you got. I wonder if this sort of fixation on trivialities is just one step on the path of good intentions to being an otaku. Before you know it I'll probably be collecting little anime figurines and talking to them at night.