asiascape vistas

Techno-Culture, New Politics, and Philosophy in East Asia



Asiascape Vistas is a forum for discussion about the many and various dimensions of cyberculture found in or originating from East Asia. Its focus is on the interplay between these media and questions of politics & philosophy. Contributions are from the academic collective responsible for the core project, but other contributions will also be considered by that collective.
If you wish to contribute to Asiacape Vistas, please send an email using the form on the contact page.


Thoughts on the 3rd Mechademia Conference in Seoul

At the end of November last year, my colleagues and I attended the the 3rd Mechademia Conference in Seoul, South Korea. Focusing on Japanese popular culture, especially anime and manga, but also the long-standing relationship that Japan's animation industry has with Korea, the conference brought to my attention many specific areas with which I was unfamiliar. It also happened to be my very first time visiting Korea, so it was a new experience in that regard as well.

The conference had a number of rare opportunities. One was a showing of the first Korean animated film, The Story of Hong Gil-dong, recently restored, and another was talks with people working within the industries. Probably the biggest name was Ohtsuka Eiji, but it also featured interviews with animators Ahn Jae-ho and Watanabe Hideo. Watanabe was especially intriguing because of his long history in the animation industry, particularly with shows meant to sell toys, and I was able to ask him how this affected the ways in which they produced animation. Watanabe went on to explain about his time working on the anime Toushi Gordian, and how an unfortunate situation where the series director had fallen ill left him as de-facto director, and the resulting product amidst the chaos was predictably subpar. However, Watanabe mentioned, the toys sold well enough that they could keep going, and in the end the show finished at over 70 episodes.

For those who don't know about Gordian, think of it as an anime from the "giant robot" genre, where the hero gets into increasingly larger robots stacked on top, much like a matryoshka doll.


Watanabe and Ahn both talked about the Korean involvement in Japanese animation, and probably anyone who's bothered to look at the ending credits of an anime is aware of the fact that Japan has been outsourcing its animation work to Korea for many years. At the conference, one of the topics that a number of presentations either spoke about, whether as its main focus or as a brief point, is the reputation of Korean animation in the world.

The "dilemma" that faces Korean animation is that, despite its notoriety within the overall industry, with work not just in anime but also popular cartoons such as The Simpsons, "Korean animation" as a concept lacks the clout of other cultures' animated works. One presenter argued that animation made in Korea is too culturally odorless, while another attributed the problem to an unfair characterization of the Korean animation industry as one which lacks the talent to generate interesting ideas, a headless body of sorts. Overall, addressing this topic seems borne from the idea that Korea's animators deserve recognition, and I can respect that motivation.

My colleagues and I from Leiden also had presentations of our own. Mari Nakamura presented on the anime Appleseed and its ideas about the post-human, Martin Roth presented on the video game Shadow of Memories and how it played with notions of "time," and I presented on the manga Zettai Karen Children and how it expressed a political science fiction world through a focus on character. The Q&A made for a lively discussion, and I took a lot away from it.

On the comics side of things, one of the panels I attended focused on a topic close to mine, which is the ways in which manga are used in a political sense. In particular, I enjoyed seeing Takeuchi Miho and Olga Antononoka from Kyoto Seika University present on how the conventions of manga could be used to subtly convey strong political ideas, either by having the artwork itself belie a seemingly more banal aesthetic, or using existing tropes as metaphors for heavier arguments.

Attending the conference, I became aware of a recurring mistake made in academic discussions about the concept of kyara moe, or the visual features of a character which generate strong emotion in those who look at it, to put it somewhat succinctly. I want to actually elaborate on this in a future post, so I'll save my thoughts for now.

The last thing conference-related I'd like to mention is Yun Seongcheol's paper on an old Korean comic titled Rayphie (rhymes with "sci-fi"), which I found quite interesting. Unlike modern "manhwa" which can be roughly described as manga-esque, the older Rayphie (unfortunately I can't remember the exact dates, but it was somewhere between 1950 and 1970, I believe) is more of a hybridization between American superhero comics aesthetic and elements of Korean traditional art. According to Yun, the series enjoyed its own fair share of success, but a period of censorship killed it prematurely. While I don't think that current manhwa is simply trying to mimic the popularity of manga, I do wonder what the Korean comics landscape would have been like if comics like Rayphie had been allowed to persist.



As for the rest of my brief stay in Korea, my experience can probably be summed up as "food and comics." Whenever I travel I look forward to eating a variety of things, and this was certainly no exception, especially given the strong reputation Korean food has, and of that experience my favorite part must have been going to a night market and trying a variety of things. While I generally enjoy tteokbokki, chewy rice cakes in a spicy sauce, I was especially impressed by the liver I had there. Tasting more like actual meat than internal organ, it was probably the best liver I've ever had. I also took the opportunity to compare bulgogi burgers from McDonald's, Burger King, and Lotteria. My verdict is that Lotteria has the best-tasting meat, while McDonald's has the best sauce.

As for comics, I was sadly unable to visit the Manhwa museum in Seoul, but was able to make my way to a nice comic store in Hongdae called Booksaetong. There, I found it interesting that, unlike the US or countries in Europe, that the manhwa and the manga were all mixed together instead of given their own separate spaces.

So overall, visiting Korea and attending the Mechademia Conference was a learning experience, in more ways than one.

Clive Thompson: The Folding Game

From Guernica Magazine

The info-sharing of early arcade game enthusiasts mimicked the scientific method. Now, video games and collective intelligence could change the way we approach science, shared problems, and school.

On a Thursday night in September, I raced from Midtown to Bushwick for an impromptu conference organized by Arikia Millikan in what was dubbed a mansion, but I understood to be a large house. I sat on a wooden floor as ten people talked for ten minutes each, all speaking about secrets. One such person was Wired columnist Clive Thompson, who told us how gamers had solved a decade-long scientific mystery in a single month. As a suspicious non-gamer, I was amazed to find altruism within the World of Warcraft. Weeks later, we met at a café in Park Slope to discuss how the increasing complexity of video games led to groupthink, and how groupthink has been harnessed by researchers for scientific gain.
—Erika Anderson for Guernica

more here

Final Fantasy: Advent Children & Character Camera

Final Fantasy: Advent Children is a sequel to the 1990s role-playing video game Final Fantasy VII, though it is less a sequel in the sense that it continues the story VII (which it does), and more that it is a return to a previous work, a film akin to the nostalgia of meeting up with an old friend. Final Fantasy VII was an enormously influential game. It showed off the power of the then-cutting-edge PlayStation video game console with its elaborate 3-D graphics, and through those visuals it was one of the first (if not thefirst) Role Playing Game to expand to a much wider audience. For many people, Final Fantasy VII was their first great game, the first to move them to tears, to engross them in its story, to make them fall in love with its characters. Having never played Final Fantasy VII for any extended period of time, I was not one of those people, but I knew quite a few who practically grew up on Final Fantasy VII. In many cases, they saw and still do see Final Fantasy VIIas the epitome of not only the Final Fantasy franchise itself, but of storytelling in video games in general.

Still, despite my lack of personal experience with the original game, I had decided to watch Final Fantasy: Advent Childrenbecause just by being around so many people who played and loved Final Fantasy VII, I knew a lot about it. This viewing for the Vistas blog is not my first time seeing it either. But upon the second viewing of the film, I noticed a detail that had escaped me the last time around. As the film opened and the credits began to roll, I saw “Director: Tetsuya Nomura,” and upon being conscious of his enormous influence on this movie, I could not ignore it.


Tetsuya Nomura had worked on Final Fantasy VII, but it wasn’t in the capacity of director or producer. Nomura was the character designer, and Advent Children feels like a movie directed by a character designer. Not only are each of the characters themselves re-designed with greater attention to detail and updated fashions—compare the heroes of the story with the plain designs of the children around them—but the shots are framed in a way that glorifies some aspect of the characters in them. The movie often lingers on the characters for extended periods, most noticeably in the slow-motion sequences during action scenes, as if the overall shot itself is less important than the character in it, or perhaps, in terms of Advent Children, that the character isthe shot.

I do not believe that Nomura could not have possibly done otherwise, or that all character designers-turned-directors will create the same type of movie. However, I do believe that Nomura’s past with Final Fantasy VII as a character designer influenced Advent Children’s visuals profoundly, and that he would have had to make a much more conscious effort to go against his artistic instincts. I think that Nomura had his own nostalgia for the characters, or that he understood well the number of people who saw Advent Children as a fated reunion. As someone who was not part of that nostalgia but knew its effects, perhaps this is how such a movie comes across for me.

Though I never did play it myself, Final Fantasy VII actually still did influence my life in a certain sense. I remember when the game first came out back in the late 1990s, when discussions about it raged across the video game-loving section of the internet, back when people used the term “Information Super-Highway” seriously. Some fans who self-identified as “gamers,” including those who had enthusiastically followed the Final Fantasy since the beginning, saw Final Fantasy VII as the advent of the “new school” of gamers, the end of the golden age, where the doors of the RPG kingdom and video games in general had been flung open. For years, this was my image of how Final Fantasy VII was perceived. Then one day, I saw a post on a video game forum decrying the state of the Final Fantasyfranchise and the role-playing genre. In it, the poster wishes a return to the great, “old-school” RPGs like Final Fantasy VII. I had actually seen a video game go from new-fangled tool of the whippersnapper to a symbol of the old days. In that respect, Final Fantasy: Advent Children says a lot about where video games have gone in the years since.

Is Final Fantasy Fantasy or SF?

written by Mari Nakamura

Final Fantasy VII Advent Children (2005) is a Japanese computer-animated film. When I saw the film recently, I kept asking myself if it is a fantasy or science fiction (SF). It has both characteristics of fantasy and SF: magic and dragons appear, but advanced technologies also exist in the film. It reminds me of Fredric Jameson’s discussion over fantasy and SF.
In his Archaeologies of the Future(2005), Jameson points out that the structural differences between fantasy and SF. According to Jameson, fantasy has, as a genre, stronger medieval features such as the culture of the peasantry and a Christian nostalgia. It is also characterized by the ethical binary of good and evil, and the fundamental role to magic. Quoting Darko Suvin’s influential conception of SF as “cognitive estrangement,” which emphasizes the commitment of the SF text to scientific reason, Jameson suggests that SF has a long tradition of critical emphasis on verisimilitude from Aristotle on. Yet, he also argues that modern fantasy have some affinities with SF; fantasy have critical and even demystificatory power. He notes that in modern fantasy (e.g., Le Guin’s The Earthsea series) magic, a fundamental motif of fantasy, and its role “may be read, not as some facile plot device…but rather as a figure of the enlargement of human powers and their passage to the limit, their actualization of everything latent and virtual in the stunted human organism of the present” (Jameson 2005: 66).
Although Jameson does not mention any non-Western fantasy and SF in his book, it seems that we can also apply his arguments to Final Fantasy VII. Here, two readings are possible. Firstly, we can see the film as a fantasy: the story revolves around the antagonism between good and evil; some symbolic scenes have Christian characters. For instance, the protagonist Cloud lives in the ruined church; overcoming the sense of guilt, Cloud decides to fight against the evil to save his people; Cloud cures seriously infected children in the church in a climax after he defeats the enemy Sephiroth. Here, the magical feature, Lifestream, the planet’s life force, plays an important role. It can be both good and evil depending on who uses it: Sephiroth attempted to use Lifestream to control the planet, while Cloud use it as a cure. Secondly, we can read the film as SF if we see Lifestream as the novum*. People have been used Lifestream, the technological innovation, in gene engineering and energy generation from age to age; this innovation is surely different from our world. The story has critical element too. The power struggle over Lifestream, the disaster and mysterious disease caused by Lifestream make me think of dark side of technological developments we are facing today, such as energy war, danger and threat.
So is Final Fantasy VII fantasy or SF? Perhaps, it can be both and it depends on how we treat some features such as Lifestream as the magic or the novum. In any case, it has some critical elements.
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*Novum is “the primary element in a work of science fiction by which the work is shown to exist in a different world than that of the reader.” (Prucher 2007)

References:
Jameson, Fredric (2005), Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions, Verso.
Prucher, Jeff (ed.) (2007), Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction, Oxford University Press.

A Final Fantasy

The anime film Final Fantasy VII Advent Children is a demonstration of what computer-animated imagery is capable of today. The detail of the animation, movement and gestures (ok, not all gestures) is astonishing. In a sense, Advent Children expresses the superhumanity of its characters through its speed (assuming that the scenes are still fluent and coherent if played in slow motion), where the movie The Matrix chose the opposite approach by introducing “bullet-time” (slow motion). To be honest, the action scenes were beyond my sensual capacities, making the attempt to grasp the details a pretty exhausting experience.
To this extent, Advent Children shares some commonality with what Walter Benjamin (1936) called “shock effect of the film” in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. He used the term to describe the interruption of any associative process due to mere speed of changing images in movies. Benjamin considered this shock effect to be an equivalent to the peril of his time, and even argued that it helps people to get used to the permanent and growing danger that surrounds them.
Couldn’t it be that movies like Advent Children demand a new kind of literacy from their audience? While for Benjamin, the movies of his time prevented the viewers from contemplating their content, Advent Children seems to suggest to abandon any hope of sensually perceiving its content fully in the first place. Maybe the experience is more relaxing if we don’t try to decode the fast movement. Instead, we might have to encode the complex action, meaning to perceive a high speed battle as singular algorithmic event and concentrate on its result, 0 or 1, win or loose and its connection to the next event or unit. In this sense, it resembles the genre of role-playing games, in which its model, Final Fantasy VII, is located. Even the development of the protagonist of the movie is expressed in terms of the character development in video games, namely increased fighting skills.
Such literacy would not only target the content, but also the visual representation of the movie. In this respect, Advent Children reminded me of my own experience and observations of the first-person-shooter Quake III Arena. Here, the player can configure and adjust her graphics in order to change the information sent to her screen. Referring to Retaux and Rouchier (2002), Jesper Juul (2005: 139-140) for example illustrates how the player can reduce graphical detail (see figure 1).

Figure 1: High (top) and low (bottom) graphical detail in Quake II Arena. Source: Juul 2005, p.140.

If my memory of the modification Quake III Rocket Arena isn’t mistaken, the players can further manipulate their camera to depict a wider angle, thereby increasing the range of vision. This leads to a distorted view that has something of a fisheye-lens, in exchange for more information on the screen. According to Juul, this is not only done in order to improve performance, but also shows that “[e]xperienced players shift their focus from the fictional world of the game to the game as a set of rules. […] Skilled players know that the textures on the wall are not relevant to the playing of the game.”
In a similar way, Advent Children seems to demand from its viewers to develop “functional viewing strategies” – including a new kind of configured visualization. Maybe it shows one (distant but possible) future of movie experience. Parallel to the individual configurations allowed in Quake III, a new kind of individualized movie could allow the viewer to decide, how much information she would like to get. Although still very much related to varying internet connection speed, video streaming often facilitates a choice of high and low quality (resolution). In a sense, this already is a first step in the direction of individualized visualization. Does Advent Children point in the direction of such a final fantasy of computer-aided viewing? Would we want it to?

“Tiger Mask” donation and Superhero Illusion

written by Mari Nakamura

A number of children’s homes in Japan have been receiving anonymous donations of school bags and other gifts since Christmas Day, under the name of manga hero “Tiger Mask” or “Naoto Date.” Tiger Mask is the ring name of a professional wrestler in a popular Japanese manga and anime in 1960s and 1970s. In the plot, the hero of the manga, Naoto Date, who grows up in an orphanage becomes a professional wrestler, donates his winnings to the orphanage to his childhood orphanage. Inspired by “Tiger Mask” donors, such benefactions to the children’s homes have become a nationwide phenomenon – the number of donations has reached 290 so far, according to a report in the Nikkei Shinbun. Not surprisingly, the mass media in Japan have covered this phenomenon as a heartwarming story.

Indeed, it is supposed to be welcoming news since it brings peoples’ attentions to children’s homes, in which more than 30,000 youngsters age 1 to 18 are living. They are often neglected by the Japanese society. Nevertheless, this phenomenon, to me, is not merely “a heartwarming story.”

We, perhaps, can see this phenomenon as a reflection of peoples’ illusion in the Freudian sense. For Freud, ‘An ‘illusion’ is a belief which may or may not be false, but which is held by the agent because it satisfies a wish.’ (Geuss 1981: 39)*. Becoming a hero is a belief which may or may not be false and one’s chance is rather slim but the reason one still believes that one will become a hero is that this belief satisfies some wish one has. In other words, the agent can fulfill their wish of being a hero via the “Tiger Mask” donation. Donation is a convenient means of fulfilling their wishes in this case. Making an anonymous donation in the name of manga hero is a process of wish fulfillment of the agent. This may appeal to some people with the illusion since this is more real and successful than other attempts to become a hero, i.e. playing video-games or cosplay (costume-play). One’s goodwill action as a hero is also acknowledged by the recipients, and the acknowledgements will be reinforced in the widespread reports of the mass media.

Of course, I do not want to criticise those donors and claim that all donors hold such illusions behind their goodwill. However, in some cases anonymous donations have reportedly been made under the name of other cartoon characters, such as Yabuki Jo, Laputa, Ayanami Rei, etc. If these donors simply want to make a donation they do not need to do it under the names of hero. They, more likely, want to fulfill their wishes becoming a hero.

If anonymous donations are driven by aforementioned illusion, it may be very interesting to think about the following questions: to what extent people’s external behaviors are driven by their illusions; what is the relationship between the reality (i.e. reading manga or making donations) and the illusion (becoming a hero)?

At any rate, the “Tiger Mask” donation is certainly more than "a heartwarming story."

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*Geuss, Raymond (1981) The Idea of a Critical Theory Habermas and the Frankfurt School, London: Cambridge University Press.

What Is That Funny S-Shape?

In the history of comics, one of the great success stories has to be Thomas Nast, whose political cartoons were key in removing the corrupt New York politician William “Boss” Tweed from office and crippling his established power base. One of the reasons Nast’s cartoons worked where other avenues met with less results was that they could be understood by the illiterate; one only needed to see the fat man with a sack of money for a head to connect 2 and 2 together.




Nast is certainly not the first instance of using images to circumvent illiteracy, but as literacy rates have improved drastically in the 130 years or so since Tweed, you don’t really see comics having to deal with a population of specifically illiterate adults. Yes, there are works for children that do so, but because they are aimed at the young you don’t really get the same effect. And yes, you still have political cartoons that are easily understood on the visual level (name your favorite politician and put a Hitler mustache and/or devil horns on their head), but they’re again created in an environment where literacy is assumed.


When I look at that drawing of Boss Tweed, or pictorial depictions of Biblical stories from the Middle Ages, I don’t see that as specifically Tweed and that it’s a statement of corruption or that this painting is indeed the story of Job. I feel as if I do not have the right context, too far-removed from those times, and that in addition to that limitation I am also in a way restricted by my ability to read. I cannot capture that circumstance; while I could easily pick up a current comic or cartoon meant for adults in a language I do not understand and would most assuredly succeed in not reading it, I would still have a work that was created and meant for an environment where the average adult can read, no matter how minimal the text might be, and I might not have the proper cultural context.
I of course am not encouraging or promoting illiteracy, but as the world has moved away from it, I have to wonder if we’ll lose that method of creating comics for an adult audience, a style that arose out of a particularly great limitation. I also am curious about Japan, where literacy rates have been remarkably high for a number of decade and where comics culture has also developed greatly during that period.

What are multi-vistas?

One of the strengths of the Asiascape programme is that it combines varying cultural and educational backgrounds through its contributors. Posts under the “multi-vistas” label aim to make the most of this opportunity, focusing myriad perspectives on specific topics, such as how markets for similar products differ from region to region and how each contributor approaches specific pieces of media, in order to provide a more well-rounded view overall.

As only a handful of different writers could not possibly constitute a truly “complete” image of anything, the goal of multi-vistas is not to be a comprehensive showcase. Rather, it is to encourage everyone, including those involved with this blog, to be conscious of the fact that there are always gaps in knowledge and understanding, and that the first step to filling them is to be open to the views of others.
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