Northern Ireland in movies, Part 2: IRA blockbusters

April 23, 2015 by  
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IRA Blockbusters 1

In contrast to Northern Protestants, there is a wealth of films centring on the experience of Northern Catholics. This isn’t to say that the Catholics get the best deal. Films of all origins since the inception of the Troubles have almost entirely subordinated the identity of Northern Catholics to the exploits of the IRA. There are some sensitive, nuanced and intelligent films (and some stinkers too) from British and Irish filmmakers. However, the most widely watched films on the topic are American blockbusters.

The position of the IRA in Hollywood is as a bizarre and fictionalised trope that bears little relation to reality. Often IRA members are removed from Northern Ireland and placed in some foreign land where they seek to cause havoc of a non-specific kind. If they are permitted a backstory, then they will have a dead daddy, killed by the Brits. Aside from that, they have no political opinions whatsoever. Very often, they are not the mainstream IRA, but some splinter group of psychotic calibre. This serves the dual function of allowing the characters to charge around like drooling, apolitical cartoon monsters and relieving the filmmaker of conducting even the most basic research. This is the IRA of The Patriot Games and The Devil’s Own. So often these films are accused of glorifying the IRA which is absurd. Divorcing the IRA from political context and reducing them to cut out gangsters does not amount to glorification.

Removing the IRA from their political context also allows filmmakers to skirt around the complex, shaded relationship the Catholic community in Northern Ireland has towards them. They are protectors, heroes, a source of shame and a perpetual menace. For some people who lived in the areas where they were most active, they are all four simultaneously. It is worth remembering that the IRA were responsible for more Catholic deaths than any other single party in the conflict. This does not bear much scrutiny in cinema where the IRA are presented as the international representatives of the entire Catholic community.

The most recent incarnation of the IRA as a pop-up baddy is in the television show Sons of Anarchy. They are a splinter group, obviously, the True IRA. They don’t have any political opinions. They don’t even have dead daddies what were killed by the Brits. They are empty vessels devoid of all purpose other than causing mayhem. They blow up targets in America, kill anything with a pulse at the slightest provocation and stand about it fields waving bazooka guns and shouting things like; “I could hit a Protestant from three blocks away with this!” in accents that sometimes sound Limerick, sometimes Cork, mainly American.

Irish accents in American films and television shows are a well-known joke. It is said that the Belfast accent is the most difficult in the world to impersonate effectively. This is a fair point. I struggle with it sometimes and I was born there. Particularly in West Belfast, the accent is thick, fast, unwieldy and things are done with vowels that God neither designed nor intended. Do you know who can pull off a West Belfast accent? Actors from West Belfast. They do not appear in these films. This is because people from West Belfast are irrelevant to films about their community.

Fifty Dead Men Walking is an embarrassment of riches of arrogant dismissal of real people and fantastically terrible Irish accents. (Special awards need to be given to Rose McGowan who delivers all her lines like a woman trying to gargle peanut brittle with her tongue nailed to the roof of her mouth.) Fifty Dead Men Walking is rare from transatlantic takes on the Troubles in that it actually places the IRA in their community and takes real life events as its source – the experiences of Special Branch agent, Martin McGartland. McGartland’s biography is imperfect but it is interesting, novel and often darkly comic and captures the ambivalent and conflicted relationship a young Catholic man from Ballymurphy had with the IRA. It has all the material needed to make a great film and maybe someone will make it one day.

Whatever aspects of McGartland’s story are revelatory and specific to the Northern Irish conflict, director Skogland replaces with well-worn Hollywood clichés. Real life figures Davy Adams and Rosena Brown are replaced with Mickey and Grace – a man who spends his time hanging around in cemeteries making sixth form political statements and crying and a bland, wriggly sex-pot. The rest of the IRA are slobbering vampires whose entire existence is dominated by a craving for the sight of spilled blood. McGartland’s real life girlfriend – a staunch Republican with a complicated personal experience of the IRA, is replaced with a wispy idiot who exists to announce she’s pregnant in a Galway accent at inappropriate moments. The real life happenings documented in McGartland’s biography are all but completely removed in favour of creating yet another gangster farce.

What is most problematic in Fifty Dead Men Walking is not merely the insulting spit in the face it delivers to Martin McGartland (who Skogland sees fit to call a coward in her mawkish self-penned song that plays over the end credits) and his family, but the constant use of dead young Catholic men from West Belfast, whose bodies litter the narrative and who have no significance other than plot devices in what is essentially a generic action film. They are given no names, their faces are only briefly glimpsed, they are barely mourned. Their lives and deaths are fodder for cheap cinematic thrills and nothing more.

Imperialism takes many forms. The co-opting of the political conflict in Northern Ireland and the subordination of the Catholic community to the pyrotechnic potential of a fantasy IRA figure is one of its manifestations. If Hollywood executives find the plight of the Catholic community and the organisation of the IRA so compelling then they must begin to treat it with more responsibility and respect rather than as thoroughfare for endless, crude blockbusters.

Northern Ireland in movies, Part 1: Protestants on film

April 22, 2015 by  
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Resurrection Man 1

There is a perverse pride of being on the side of the fallen angels and refusing to get up. – Derek Mahon, “Spring in Belfast”.

In Northern Ireland, dwelling on the trauma of the recent past is a national pastime, something cinema is only too happy to indulge. What actually happened in the recent past depends on who you ask. It is often said that there are two truths in Ireland – a Protestant truth, and a Catholic truth. Both of which are generally lies.

While serving a prison sentence for his role in the Brighton bombing, Patrick Magee completed his PhD, a study in examining depictions of Republicans in fiction. He concluded that fictionalised accounts of Republicans tended to be over-simplified and designed merely to denigrate the ‘enemy’ and extol the virtues of the ‘right side’ – the enemy and the right side being dependent on the author, naturally. In cinema, this also tends to be the case, and there are so many films to look at. Cinematic depictions of PIRA and those who co-existed with them fall out of Hollywood’s arse on a regular basis, covering every possible angle and agenda. A similar investigation could not be conducted of Protestants. In the cinematic world, that community barely exists.

It is a source of deep resentment that the international reputation of Northern Ireland is so overwhelming dominated by stories of thugs and murderers but from a Hollywood producer’s perspective, it is understandable that a story about guns, flashes, bangs and secret organisations are much more marketable than the lives of the quiet, mainly peaceful majority. But why the fixation with the IRA over the loyalist paramilitaries? There are more films about Bobby Sands than the entire loyalist movement. In fact, there are more films about Americans being inadvertently snarled up in the machinations of the IRA than there are about loyalists. It cannot be due to lack of significance. Loyalists were responsible for just as much death and chaos as their Republican counterparts, thank you very much.

The only film centring on loyalists of any note is Resurrection Man, which claims to be based on the deeds of Lenny Murphy and the Shankill Butchers. It is a garbled pile of anti-historical wank that devotes all of its energy into salivating over hideous acts of sadism at the expense of making any kind of sense. When it was released, a Presbyterian reverend objected to the content – but only because there were homoerotic tones to the relationships between the butchers. This, he said, amounted to a slur on family men. A family member of one of Murphy’s victims tartly responded that it was more of a slur on homosexuals. Everyone else just said it was rubbish. The film quickly sank into obscurity and there it remains.

Gary Mitchell stands alone in his dramatic depiction of Northern Irish Protestants. Mitchell grew up in Rathcoole, a poor Protestant estate in North Belfast. Mitchell writes mainly for the stage but has taken the odd foray into television. He says that he can see how the Republican cause is more attractive to filmmakers. They were the side on the attack, which allows for more creative potential.  Further to that, I would say that the Republican cause fits the classic Hollywood template in that it is positively goal-orientated. The goal of the Republicans was to create a new society. The goal of the Unionists was to maintain the status quo. A film about a group of people trying to maintain the status quo can only end with an unhappy ending or an anti-climactic one – neither of which have any currency in Hollywood. Republicans fit. Loyalists don’t.

Mitchell’s plays often end on a note of anti-climax. The status quo is maintained, for now, but his characters trail debris, violence and uncertainty in their wake. He is hugely effective at giving voice to the siege mentality that exists in the minds of Protestants, the constant griping paranoia and the impotent fury laid against nationalists and the neglectful British government alike that reveals itself in waves of seemingly irrational frenzy. What is particularly admirable is his refusal to idealise his subjects who he portrays in all of their ugliness. His characters are often half-witted, viciously sectarian, sexist and violent with it. Perhaps it was this lack of sugar coating that led to him being forced from his home by the UDA. Mitchell believes that they hadn’t even seen his plays, but that they’d heard that they were popular in Dublin which must mean that they had nothing nice to say about Protestants.

His work is not denigrating to Protestants, apart from those in our number who deserve it. Outside his own community, Mitchell has been critically acclaimed and hailed as “finally providing a voice for working class Protestants.” I respect Mitchell, but disagree totally. His experience is not universal of working class Protestants. Declaring his voice to be the only representation we need is to claim feast from a famine.

In his beautiful poem ‘Spring in Belfast’ Derek Mahon speaks of the ‘sullen silence’ of the Protestants. Years of outrages, derisions, insults and casual humiliations have led to a deep suspicion of any outsider seeking to penetrate this strange, bitter and forlorn community. This sullen silence contributes to the lack of Protestant representation in popular culture. We do not speak for ourselves and we let no one else close enough to speak for us. If it continues, the portrayal of the recent past as dominated by IRA tales put through a mawkish Hollywood sieve will be the only cinematic representation of the Troubles available, and this narrative will be given free rein to dominate portrayals of the country in the present and the future.

The Beginner’s Guide to Anime, No. 103 – Tales of Earthsea

April 20, 2015 by  
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Tales from Earthsea 1

Again we look at an anime film made by the most famous of anime producers Studio Ghibli, and a film that is slightly topical. BBC Radio is currently adapting the work of sci-fi and fantasy author Ursula K. Le Guin. An adaptation of The Left Hand of Darkness has just been broadcast on Radio 4, and later in the month Radio 4 Extra will be adapting her Earthsea series.

However, this is not the first adaptation of Earthsea. There was an anime film adaptation called Tales of Earthsea released by Studio Ghibli in 2006. It is notable partly for being the debut feature from director Goro Miyazaki, son of company Oscar-winning co-founder Hayao Miyazaki. However, more infamously it is remembered because it is widely regarded as being the worst Studio Ghibli movie.

The film adapts elements from the first four novels in the series, although the title comes from a collection of short stories. The movie begins with the world of Earthsea in turmoil. Dragons are seen fighting, seemingly an impossible act; and then the King of Enlad is killed by his own son Prince Arren, who steals his father’s sword. The sword itself however seemingly cannot be unsheathed.

Arren wonders the desert, but is saved from a pack of wolves by Sparrowhawk, a wizard known as the “Archmage”. Arren accompanies him to the troublesome Hort Town, home to dodgy vendors and slave traders, where Arren helps to rescue a young scarred girl from some slavers, but the girl flees from Arren in anger. Arren however, ends up being captured by the same slavers, only to be rescued by Sparrowhawk again. The two travel to an old friend of Sparrowhawk’s called Tenar who looks after them, but then Arren discovers that Tenar is also looking after the scarred girl he rescued earlier, who is named Therru. As Arren tries to make friends with Therru and become both wiser and stronger, the evil Lord Cob, a man who is trying to seek eternal life and who is master of the slavers, tries to come up with a plan to control Arren and to eliminate Sparrowhawk.

Tales of Earthsea is primarily noted for being the biggest blot on an otherwise great record of films from Studio Ghibli, even though the film still reached No. 1 on the Japanese box office. The main problem raised is that is not a faithful adaptation. This is a 110 minute film that tries to cram into it four different novels. It was never going to go off smoothly. In fact, it deviated from the original novels greatly, and we have no great source for this than Ursula K. Le Guin herself.

Le Guin said the film differed so much from her own work that it was like, “watching an entirely different story, confusingly enacted by people with the same names as in my story.” She summed the film up by saying to Goro Miyazaki: “It is not my book. It is your movie. It is a good movie.” Thus reaction to the movie is often described as “mixed”, but given how widely lauded the rest of Studio Ghibli films are, “mixed” is about as damming as anyone is willing to say. The only real positives given to the film tend to be about the visual aspect of the movie.

One other factor Tales of Earthsea had was on the reputation of Goro Miyazaki. The original plan was for his father Hayao to work on the film, but Hayao was working on another movie. Hayao actually disapproved of the move to make his son the director saying he lacked experience, and the two did not talk to each other during Earthsea’s production. Because the movie got the reaction it did, his later works have been treated with some scepticism. His next film was From Up on Poppy Hill (No. 53), which was considered to be a much better effort, but some critics did say that this was not surprising as there was no way Goro could do any worse.

This film will therefore mainly appear to Ghibli completists, who are interested in collecting all of the films made by the studio. It demonstrates that no company has a perfect record, and that you have to accept that even the best things often experience things that go wrong.

Tales from Earthsea is released on DVD and Blu-Ray from Studio Canal.

Women’s Television

April 17, 2015 by  
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Call+the+Midwife

What is women’s television? On the face of it, it is a programme featuring lots of women doing womanly things that women in the audience can relate to. The epitome of women’s television is Call the Midwife. It’s about women, going about delivering babies, eating bits of cake, washing the dishes, crimping their hair, twittering about boys and patronising old, demented biddies. Sometimes to spice things up someone will have a post-natal psychotic break or use someone as a sex slave or there will be a bomb scare or something. But even when something interesting does happen, the women deal with it like women do – they talk to people reasonably, make preachy speeches about the essence of life itself, wag their fingers about and make it boring again. There is nothing so interesting that Call the Midwife can’t make tiresome and twee. Men do not want to watch it.

Place this in contrast to the manliest of all of the manly shows in the history of men – Sons of Anarchy, and ask yourself – what would you prefer to watch? The Real IRA having a shoot-out with a motorcycle gang in a multi-storey carpark or two women bickering about the best way to organise the seating plan for a vaccination clinic? Obviously, I’d go for the latter. I am a woman; I am often bickering, I have been in waiting rooms and have many opinions about seating options. This is very relatable stuff. On the other hand, I have never killed a man by backing an articulated lorry through a solid brick wall. Not through lack of trying; I just couldn’t figure out how to get the thing into reverse on account of my vagina impairing my ability to understand motor vehicles. A man would have handled things differently.

Men need action, intrigue and someone who knows how to throw a punch. So what about Orange is the New Black, a show where a dominantly female cast engage in power plays, acts of savage violence, casual sex and witty repartee? That’s got enough action in it to keep anyone going. Men would watch that, wouldn’t they? Well, no they don’t. It’s a woman’s show. It’s got all women in it and stuff. Given that, it’s hard to come to any other conclusion that women’s television is a television show dominated by a female cast and scorned by a male audience, so saturated with privilege that they can’t stand even one hour where women are the centre of attention.

But is that really true? What do Orange is the New Black and Call the Midwife have in common? On the face of it, not very much but they do share one common feature – they both feature zero interesting male characters. In Orange is the New Black the men are stupid, wispy or just plain psychotic. In Call the Midwife, they are quaintly chirping nausea factories or evil exploiters who stalk around punching anything with a pair of tits. Really, it’s insulting.

Essentially, women’s television is a television programme featuring a predominantly female cast completely devoid of male characters with any emotional depth or interesting motivations. Of course, programmes of this nature exist with the genders reversed, it’s just that we don’t call that ‘men’s television’. We just call it television.

Women watch significantly more television than men, yet are under-represented in its production. Currently, women make up only 40% of television producers, 26% of television writers and only 13% of television directors and this disproportionate representation is reflected on the screen with only 38% of characters on prime time television being female, and only 44% of these even having a job. Women are accustomed to viewing programmes where there are no positive or even interesting representations of our gender. After all, if we started to get sniffy about it then we wouldn’t have a whole lot to watch.

The role of the Crazy Bitch

April 15, 2015 by  
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Play Misty for Me

Bitches! What are they like? Crazy, obviously, and Hollywood feels your pain. By now, film watchers are familiar with the motif of the crazy bitch. At first she looks like she fits into one stereotype, normally the carefree seductress and then, all of a sudden, she reveals a complexity that the male protagonist was not expecting – she wants to be more than just a cheap one night stand and she’s going to be all bolshy and insistent about it too. Naturally, the man baulks with horror but thinks it’ll be easy enough to convince her otherwise. And if she doesn’t get the hint at first, what’s the worst she can do? She’s only a woman.

Well, a lot as it happens. Crazy bitch characters move on from being an inconvenience and a source of social anxiety to out of control lunatic in the flick of an eyelash. Mallets are swung, bunnies are boiled, hostages are taken and shit gets monumentally real.

The original crazy bitch film is Play Misty for Me starring Clint Eastwood and Jessica Walter as Evelyn, an Edgar Allen Poe quoting, local radio phoning, bat shit bitch from the bowels of hell. Eastwood is a freewheeling bachelor and a local radio DJ who attracts the affections of hot, young Walter. After sleeping together, he promptly discards her, much to her chagrin thereby prompting a series of events which end with a frenzied knife attack and Jessica Walter plunging off a cliff.

The same sentiment is echoed in Fatal Attraction, the epitome of all crazy bitch films. Alex Forrest, played by Glenn Close, has a brief steamy affair with a married man who appears both intoxicated and as besotted with her as she is with him. Of course, reality sinks in and he drifts back to suburban comfort. When she discovers she is pregnant, he refuses to meet up to his responsibilities and her sanity unspools iconically all over his daughter’s bunny rabbit hutch. Thankfully, his wife gets in on the act and shoots the interloping hussy dead, thereby removing her rival and her husband’s unborn bastard child in one fell swoop.

Not all crazy bitch films have an ill-fated liaison as their genesis point. A twist on the genre is Misery, a truly terrifying film dominated by Kathy Bates in the most incredible performance of her career. Annie Wilkes does not fit the stereotype of the good time party girl at first, but an even deeper entrenched female role – the nurse. Paul, the ill-fated writer caught in an accident, is flattered, patronising and only slightly grateful for this woman taking him into his home and thoroughly expects himself to be nursed gently back to health and sent to go on his way. Instead, he finds himself confronted with an absolute raving psychopath. What role does Annie want to play? His co-writer, his muse, his mother, his lover? Paul and the audience have no idea and, apparently, neither does she. The terror of Misery stems from Paul’s helplessness, both physically and psychologically. He cannot move and he cannot fathom the best way to deal with his capricious demon whose moods and motivations veer wildly at the slightest provocation. In the end, his only recourse is violence.

What all of these films have in common is a woman who will not stay in the role the man assigned to her at first sight. Evelyn should have accepted the one night stand for what it was, Alex should have been the soul of discretion and Annie should have fixed Paul up and let him go free. Each of these women was supposed to be used and then discarded. Each of these women refused to go quietly. That’s what truly makes these horror stories – women not doing what the man expected them to do. (That and all the blood and unsuppressed psychotic rage). Eventually, they all die to restore equilibrium in the cinematic universe. In Hollywood, the best crazy bitch is a dead one.

Gone Girl

The most contemporary of the crazy bitch film is a very different beast from these classics. Amy Dunne of Gone Girl is the crazy bitch wise to why she’s so crazy. She has tried to be the Cool Girl for her husband, she’s gone along with his every need and desire. She moved away from her life in New York, sank all of her savings into buying him a bar, put up with his apathy, his indifference and his cold complacency until, somewhere along the way, she grew tired of the act and started to act as she actually is, a human being, not a male fantasy. Naturally, her husband hates her for it and goes off with a younger model.

Of course, what a proper woman should do when a man takes your youth, your money, your dignity and discards you like a used wank rag is to remove yourself from the equation with grace and let him get on with things without you. “Bullshit,” thinks Amy, as well she might, “I’ll fake my own murder, frame him and land him on death row,” which isn’t where I’d have continued the line of thought, but you have to admire her ingenuity.

Amy knows every single trope of gender by rote and uses them to her advantage. In order to inflict maximum damage on her husband, she turns herself into the nadir of American media feminine gold – white, beautiful, rich, pregnant and a victim.

Gone Girl has come under fierce criticism for its apparent misogyny. This argument is centred on the fact that Amy is not a nice person and that she lies about sexual assault. This line of argument is bullshit. Not every woman portrayed on film should have to be an ambassador for the sex. Ironically, the women who would prefer to only see representations of their gender as the ‘good woman’ – honest, loving, high fliers in waiting and victims of nasty, brutish men – are parroting the same lines deftly exploited by Amy in the story.

Instead of becoming a victim of gender roles as her crazy bitch predecessors, Amy uses their grip on society for the purpose of wreaking havoc, and eventually getting her own way. What all these films have in common is a woman seeking to be more than the role she has been pigeonholed into. The result is mayhem. But while in the past, these Frankenstein’s monsters could have been easily sorted out with a bullet to the chest or a trip down a ravine, the modern day crazy bitch can’t be dealt with so easily.

The return of Alien, Ellen Ripley, and the role of the phallic woman in the 21st century

April 14, 2015 by  
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Alien 1

Early this year Neill Blomkamp, director of District 9, shared some unofficial Alien 5 concept art on Instagram. Come March and there’s some exciting news; Fox have given Blomkamp the green light, Sigourney Weaver is set to return as Ripley, and fans are speculating like mad as to what the new installment will bring. Since its release in 1979, Alien has become an extremely important, if complex, canonical film in feminist film theory. If you invest even a minimal amount of trust in the extortionate amount of scholarship on the subject, Alien becomes inextricable from the world of gender, sex and sexuality. Hence, if we consider the changed nature of the feminist discourse and gender studies in today’s world, the rebooting of the franchise must raise questions beyond the typical “It’s back” flurry of excitement amongst die-hard science fiction fans.

Science fiction’s ability to undermine “traditional boundaries between states of normality and abnormality, masculine and feminine, truth and fiction” (Barbara Creed) has always been fascinating for feminists. Alien was born during the psychoanalytic boom of 1970s and 1980s film theory, which built on Freud’s notions of castration anxiety, scopophilia, penis envy and the Oedipus complex—all, its fair to say, pretty discomforting ideas. A psychoanalytic feminist reading seeks to address the “gendered process of spectatorial desire and identification” and offers an analysis of the distribution of sexual power, between the normally active, desiring, voyeuristic male and the passive, desired, ‘to-be-looked-at’ female; for Freud, the female is nonetheless threatening to the male, as she represents the lack of a penis, and threatens castration.

Its not too hard to find the sexual imagery in Alien; whether it’s the derelict spaceship looking like a pair of outstretched legs, the crew entering it through a vaginal like opening, or the alien which orally rapes people with a phallic protrusion. It’s all about as subtle as a brick in the face. But most critical attention has focused on the design of the alien itself—both phallic in the tubular, stomach-rupturing form of its ‘birth’, and vaginal in its double lipped, dribbling mouth. In Freudian psychoanalysis the ‘phallic woman’ refers to a woman who is endowed with the phallus, or otherwise has phallic attributes, a fantasy most commonly associated with the maternal figure or body—in Alien, it is a fusion between the Alien and the ship, aptly named ‘Mother’. Maternal infanticide is often considered the most heinous, unnatural crime imaginable, and it’s this fear of the murderous mother that Alien can be shown to exploit. After giving birth to the crew within her sterile womb, the Mothership’s computer brings about the death of all but one. The alien, then, represents the mothers’ phallus, in the perfect embodiment of Barbara Creed’s ‘monstrous feminine’, a form of the phallic woman.

Ripley, in all her gun-toting, androgynous-looking glory, is associated with the phallus herself to a degree, as are many action heroines. According to Mulvey, our desire to ‘look’ in the cinema is stimulated not only by voyeurism, but by narcissistic visual pleasure—the ability to identify with the figure being looked at. Ripley’s androgyny in Alien allows for both male and female viewers to identify with her character; she is still a suitable object of desire in Mulvey’s hetero-normative equation, but has been adjusted for female empowerment, too. It would too easy, however, to see Ripley simply as a positive female figure and leave it there. The time in which feminist film scholars were satisfied simply with these ‘positive’ figures is long gone, and with the emergence of the new cinematic woman in the 80s, the need to “understand the all-pervasive power of patriarchal imagery” (Smelik) remained key.

The problem with psychoanalytic readings—and perhaps the reason for their post 80s decline—is the culture of misogynistic thought they have inherited. Luce Iragaray has shown how canonical thinkers, such as Freud and Lacan, undertake a systematic favouring of male subjectivity at the expense of the female. The Freudian notion of the phallus/man as positive or essential, and vagina/woman as negation or inessential is far too embedded in the thinking of a psychoanalytic reading of Alien; this reading has not just been concerned with analysing and exposing phallocentrism, but surely has itself participated in, propagated and upheld it.

Does Alien’s phallocentrism amount to sexism, though? Given the fluidity now involved in our understanding of gender and sexuality, would Alien, which preys on latent fears of sexual perversion, have been received in quite the same way today? Whilst we still enjoy a femme fatale or two—modern examples include Marion Cotillard in Inception, or Rosario Dawson in Sin City —and look no further than Shutter Island’s Michelle Williams for the ‘monstrous feminine’ in the modern era, are we really still comfortable with typological approaches to female characters? Do we, for instance, still accept female figures that serve as one-dimensional plot-drivers—the vamp, for instance, or the sex kitten? Writer David McIntee believes Alien appeals to women because they “love not being cast as the helpless victim”. This may be true, but what about women, or mothers, being cast as monstrous, murderous and profane in their occupation of both the female and male position? Is this something we are still okay with, in a largely post-psychoanalytic school of thought, in which gender is understood as performative, acquired and un-fixed? Probably not. Perhaps, after all, Alien is best left in the past.

The Beginner’s Guide to Anime, No. 102 – The Little Norse Prince

April 13, 2015 by  
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The Little Norse Prince 1

For the next few weeks The Beginner’s Guide will looking at some anime films. This time we are looking at the debut feature film of one of co-founders of Studio Ghibli, the most successful anime production company.

Directed by Isao Takahata, the man behind films such as Grave of the Fireflies (No. 40) and Pom Poko (No. 41), The Little Norse Prince as it is known in Britain (originally known in Japan as The Great Adventure of Horus, Prince of the Sun, and sometimes also known as Little Norse Prince Valiant), was released back in 1968 by Toei Animation. Fellow Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki worked as the concept artist for it. It was the first project the two worked on together.

The film follows the lead character known as “Hols” in the British translation of the film but as “Horus” in the original Japanese – which is slightly odd given that the name “Horus” is associated more with Egyptian mythology rather than Norse. For this article we will stick to Hols.

Hols is a boy living with his dying father in a cold northern land, armed only with a hatchet on a rope and with a talking bear named Koro as his best friend. Hols accidentally wakes up a stone giant named Mogue, who claims to have a thorn in his shoulder. Hols removes it, and discovers the thorn is actually a sword. To be precise, the mighty “Sword of the Sun”. Mogue tells Hols to re-forge the old sword and that he will come and see Hols when it is done.

Hols returns to his father, who tells Hols that they originally came from a village that was destroyed by an evil ice devil named Grunwald. As he dies, his father also tells Hols to return home and carry out their revenge. Hols and Koro travel back home, but meet Grunwald on the way. Grunwald asks Hols to serve him, but Hols refuses so Grunwald throws him down a cliff. However, Hols survives and is taken to a nearby fishing village. Here, he makes a name for himself slaying an evil pike fish that was sent by Grunwald that destroyed the livelihoods of the locals.

As Hols becomes popular, Grunwald comes with new plans to destroy him, using the jealous local village rulers who are being overshadowed by Hols. Hols meanwhile meets a beautiful singing girl named Hilda in an abandoned village and invites her to stay with him – unaware that Hilda is actually Grunwald’s sister, under his evil powers. These schemes culminate in an attempt to get rid of Hols before the Sword of the Sun can be re-forged.

Amongst the points of interest regarding The Little Norse Prince is the age of the movie. It is as far as I’m aware the oldest anime ever released in the UK on DVD, and also the only one to date back to the 1960s. The only older anime I can find on DVD in English come from the USA. If it was not for the fact that it was directed by Isao Takahata, this film would probably have never made it to Britain.

It is a shame that so few older anime get released in this country. It is mainly down to cost, with only wealthy companies willing to distribute such films. This, like all of the Studio Ghibli movies, was distributed in the UK by Studio Canal, a well-established firm. I doubt they or any other UK-based company would be willing to distribute any anime that are older, although I could see a specialist organisation such as the BFI willing to do something. The BFI have released several classic life-action Japanese films such as the films of Akira Kurosawa, including his earliest films dating back to the 1940s, and have also released many books on anime. I would appeal to them to release some of anime’s early classic works, like the very first anime feature film Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors, which admittedly is a piece of children’s WWII propaganda. Asking to watch Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors is a bit like asking to watch Triumph of the Will or The Birth of a Nation: it is of great academic interest, but you do feel guilty writing about it.

Some aspects of The Little Norse Prince are surprising to say the least. For example there is a scene where Hols is getting dressed and during this scene you briefly see his penis. It’s on for less than a second, but you do see it. I say that this is surprising, because in the UK this film is released with a “U” certificate. You get the feeling that if this was live action it would have got a higher rating. However, I have no complains about it personally about nudity, regardless of age.

However, the reason why this film should be considered to be in high regard is because it helped to establish the working relationship between Takahata and Miyazaki, who would go on to establish the most successful of all anime production companies. The Little Norse Prince was the foundation that helped to make Studio Ghibli the success it eventually became.

The Little Norse Prince is released on DVD by Studio Canal.

The Beginner’s Guide to Anime, No. 101 – Kimba the White Lion

April 8, 2015 by  
Filed under Features

Kimba the White Lion 1

As is my custom (well, the third time anyway), every 50th article since this column began covers a work by the man known as the “Godfather of Manga” Osamu Tezuka, who was responsible for making anime and manga the art-form it is today.

Having begun with the first manga to be turned into an anime, Astro Boy (No. 1), and one the most first successful anime to be aimed at girls, Princess Knight (No. 51), we move onto the first TV anime ever to be made in colour. However, it is also famous for another reason – for being the subject of what some might call anime’s greatest conspiracy theory, but to many in the anime world it is a theory that certainly holds water. The theory being it was stolen by Disney, who used it as the basis of The Lion King.

Originally entitled Jungle Emperor Leo in Japan, this series ran as a manga between 1950-54, and was first turned into an anime between 1965-67, with many follow-up series, sequels and films taking place. However, when the series was first shown in the USA they changed the title. “Simba” means “lion” in Swahili, but for some reason the name was changed to “Kimba”. Some say this was to get around trademark laws, others say it was just to create a unique name that could be copyrighted. Whatever the reason, this name change was just the start of a series of problems that would later haunt Disney.

The story primarily takes place in a part the African jungle ruled by Caesar (Panja in the original Japanese), a mighty white lion who protects the animals in his kingdom. However, hunters successfully capture Caesar and his pregnant mate Eliza. Caesar is killed for his hide, while Eliza is put on a ship to be taken to a zoo. On the way there Eliza gives birth to Kimba, and Eliza teaches him about Caesar. Then a storm wrecks the boat: Kimba escapes but Eliza drowns. Kimba then learns to swim from fish, and using a series of stars that form the shape of Eliza’s face, as well as a stream of butterflies, he makes it back to Africa and his home, where he becomes the new king of the jungle.

In the jungle, Kimba is guided by his friends including Bucky (Tommy, a gazelle), Pauly Parrot (Coco), Dan’l Baboon (Burazza the mandrill), his love interest Kitty (a lioness cub) and human named Roger Ranger (Kenichi), who first takes Kimba on a tour of human civilization before living in the jungle with Kimba and his friends. Together Kimba and his allies make the jungle more peaceful, are taught to speak human languages, learn how to farm, avoid killing over animals for food, and learn how to co-operate with good humans and vanquish bad humans who want to hunt them.

Over the course of the series there are some recurring villains, which include Mary, a woman who was in love with Roger but ends up suffering from memory loss and ends up hating and hunting animals; and Claw (Bubu), a villainous lion who wants to take over Kimba’s kingdom, assisted by his advisor Cassius (Toto, a black panther) and comic sidekick hyenas Tom and Tab (Dick and Bo).

Kimba the White Lion should be remembered for the fact it was the very first anime TV series to be made in colour, for its technical achievement, and for its messages of peace and anti-violence. However, the main reason Kimba is now remembered is because many people believe that Disney copied it to make The Lion King. Not only is there the issue of the similar names, but both Kimba and Simba have at least one dead parent (both are dead in Kimba’s case), their dead parents form visions in the sky (whether it be stars, clouds or the Moon), both have mandrills as assistants, and both have main villains in the form of older lions who are assisted by comic hyenas – and that’s just the start.

A quick look online will reveal that many of the stills in The Lion King are practically identical to those in Kimba the White Lion and its follow-ups. When a new Kimba film was released in 1997, Disney filed a lawsuit to stop this film being shown at the 1998 Toronto FantAsia Film Festival. Simba was even going to be a white lion, but even they thought that was too similar.

Anime fans and critics tend to believe that Disney is guilty. My personal favourite indication of this is in the index of Jonathan Clements’s brilliant book Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade, where if you look up “Kimba” the entry says: “see Simba”. If you do it reads: “Simba: see Kimba”. The whole Simba/Kimba similarity is even referenced in an episode of The Simpsons.

The other major problem is that no-one in the anime world has ever tried to officially settle this, because Disney is such a powerful company with great lawyers and huge resources. No-one has dared to make a legal challenge and it is unlikely anyone ever will, so legally the whole issue is problematic.

All you can do is look up the evidence and see for yourself. For what it is worth Disney claims that the whole thing is just a coincidence. It has to be one pretty massive coincidence mind.

The original series of Kimba the White Lion is available on Region 1 DVD from Right Stuf and can be streamed legally via Manga Entertainment’s YouTube channel. Both are English language dub only.

The Beginner’s Guide to Anime, No. 1-100 – Updates and Corrections

April 2, 2015 by  
Filed under Features

Icons No. 51-100

It has been two years since this column began. Since then series have been re-commissioned and other have been made viewable elsewhere. This column is a quick list of updated information.

April Fool

For anyone who failed to realise, the article on Feline & Lupine (No. 100) was an April Fool. No such series ever existed, even in pre-production. The drawing used to illustrate the image was created by Peruvian artist Bokuman, and the two characters in the picture are actually based on my actual transgender American lover Jason (not his real name) and myself. The outfit Jason is wearing (see the colour picture) is one he actually has, made by French fashion label Kiss Me Kill Me. The outfit my character is wearing is my own attempt to create a male version of an outfit in the Kiss Me Kill Me style (sadly they only really have women’s clothes at the moment). Thanks to everyone who helped me create this hoax.

Re-commissioned series

Here is a full list of series re-commissions either yet to be aired or new to the column. This section ignores serial series that always have new episodes made, normally every week.

  • Junjo Romantica (No. 5) – A third series will be aired in July.
  • Attack on Titan (No. 11) – Two compilation films have been made. The first, Crimson Bow and Arrow was released in Japan in November 2014. The second, Wings of Freedom, is schedule for release in June 2015. A two-part prequel OVA (Original Video Anime) called No Regrets began in December 2014, with the second part to be released later this April. A live-action Japanese film is also in production, scheduled to be released in two parts, in August and September 2015.
  • The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya (No. 14) – A new spin-off anime called The Disappearance of Nagato Yuki-chan begins on 3rd April, but it looks like it will not be legally streamed in the UK.
  • Free! –Iwatobi Swim Club (No. 17) – Following a successful second series last year, a new prequel film entitled High Speed! – Free! – Starting Days is to be released in Japan in December 2015.
  • Hetalia: Axis Powers (No. 26) – A sixth online season has been commissioned.
  • Strike Witches (No. 72) – A three part OVA is in production, which started in September 2014 and will finish in May 2015. A third season has been commissioned.
  • Girls und Panzer (No. 81) – A new movie will be released in November 2015.
  • Lupin III (No. 90) – A new TV series starts this April.

Online Streaming

There are plenty of anime currently available via online streaming in the UK. Here are the main websites. Please note that these website might not stream all the episodes and some series are split over more than one website.

  • Crunchyroll: currently streaming at least some episodes of Black Butler (No. 10), Attack on Titan (No. 11), Bleach (No. 15), Free! – Iwatobi Swim Club (No. 17), Sword Art Online (No. 34), Durarara!! (No. 48), Fairy Tail (No. 52), BTOOOM! (No. 54), Cuticle Detective Inaba (No. 65), DRAMAtical Murder (No. 66), Humanity Has Declined (No. 71), No Matter How I Look At It, It’s You Guys Fault I’m Not Popular! (No. 85), Love Stage!! (No. 87), Yu-Gi-Oh! (No. 88), Cardfight!! Vanguard (No. 89), Cute High Earth Defense Club LOVE! (No. 94), Naruto (No. 95) and Moyashimon (No. 98).
  • Animax: currently streaming at least some episodes of Death Note (No. 8), Bakuman (No. 9), Bleach (No. 15), Code Geass (No. 22), Black Lagoon (No. 32), Durarara!! (No. 48), Fairy Tail (No. 52), Magi (No. 67) and Vampire Knight (No. 75).
  • Netflix: currently streaming at least some episodes of Death Note (No. 8), Black Butler (No. 10), Attack on Titan (No. 11), Fullmetal Alchemist (No. 13), Pokemon (No. 25), Sword Art Online (No. 34), Gurren Lagann (No. 50), Fairy Tail (No. 52), Robotech (No. 64), Vampire Knight (No. 75), Blue Exorcist (No. 77), Kill la Kill (No. 80), Ghost in the Shell (No. 83), Yu-Gi-Oh! (No. 88) and Blood Lad (No. 92).
  • YouTube: You can find legal streaming channels for Manga Entertainment and Funimation. There you can find UK legal streaming for at least some episodes of Astro Boy (No. 1), Ouran High School Host Club (No. 3), Junjo Romantica (No. 5), Fullmetal Alchemist (No. 13), Free! – Iwatobi Swim Club (No. 17), Martian Successor Nadesico (No. 23), Hetalia: Axis Powers (No. 26), The Irresponsible Captain Tylor (No. 30), Aria (No. 35), Strike Witches (No. 72), Baka and Test (No. 78) and Ghost in the Shell (No. 83).
  • Other: The latest (but only the very latest) episodes of the latest adaptation of Sailor Moon (No. 63) can be streamed legally on NicoNico.

The Beginner’s Guide to Anime, No. 100 – Feline & Lupine

April 1, 2015 by  
Filed under Features

Feline and Lupine A

At last we reach triple figures and I’m marking this milestone, oddly, with a touch of sadness. People talk about the worst that can happen to an anime: angry complaints from viewers, arguments between people involved in the making of the show, or the death of a major figure involved in the making of it; but I would say the worst fate of an anime is not to be made at all.

Feline & Lupine (or Neko e Okami in the original Japanese) is, or rather was meant to be, a six-part Original Video Anime (OVA) by a long-forgotten Kobe-based company Studio Eclipse in the mid-1990s, directed by a man named Shinji Matsui. Because it never got released, many print and online sources omit this series from their records. Not many visual images of the series survive. The above image is one of the few original sketches, with the image later used in the article being a piece of fan art based it and other surviving material.

The series was going to be a parody of one of the anime-specific genres. In the same way that anime like Ouran High School Host Club (No. 3) messes around with the harem genre, Gurren Lagann (No. 50) is a funny over-the-top take on mecha, and recent success Cute High Earth Defense Club LOVE! (No. 94) parodies magical girls, Feline & Lupine is a parody of the female-aimed male homoerotic world of yaoi and shonen-ai, especially classic sci-fi yaoi Ai no Kusabi (No. 37), while combining it with moe anthropomorphism: the act of taking something in humanising it in a cute way.

Feline & Lupine is set 3 billion years into the future on the planet Tlaloc in the Andromeda Galaxy. Tlaloc is a “rain planet” full of constant storms, and as such intelligent life is loathed to live on it, but recently a new race of beings evolved from a mixture species of human/animal hybrids have started inhabiting Tlaloc. Thus the main populations are humans with animal features: catpeople, birdpeople, fishpeople etc. These people live in gigantic cities constructed inside geodesic domes to protect them from the rain. There is also an encouragement from the Tlaloc’s dictatorial government to encourage a mass breeding programme in order to populate the planet.

The “Feline” and the “Lupine” are the two main characters. The “Lupine” is a wolfman simply known as TCW. He is one of the higher-ups in Tlaloc society and treated with respect, but is unhappy with his life. The reason for TCW’s respect is that he’s been genetically engineered for breeding purposes, and as such his body was altered before his birth to produce large amounts of semen for use in artificial insemination. This is also the reason for TCW’s unhappiness, because his semen needs to be constantly collected: he has to be put into artificial sleep so he can be milked at night, while during the day he is either mating with people without passion, or forced to wear a special machine which inserts a catheter into his testicles and his semen is collected in two side containers he has dangling from his waist. The only time he feels free is outside of his private dome and in the true stormy climate of Tlaloc.

The “Feline”, a catboy named Jason, is an escapee for a secret government lab which is investigating whether the breeding programme could be improved by creating new genders. Jason was tortured horribly in the lab, but manages to break out from the government’s restricted dome. After several days on the run in the permanently torrential downpours, by chance Jason encounters TCW and asks for refuge. TCW is immediately taken by Jason’s beauty. Jason becomes TCW’s lover, but TCW has to hide the fact that Jason is hiding with him, so they try to carry out their relationship in secret as much as they can, but there is always the risk it will end in tragedy.

Feline and Lupine colour

Regarding the parody element of the story, this comes in several forms. Firstly is the way it gets around Japan’s censorship laws. As stated before in articles covering series like Urotsukidōji: Legend of the Overfiend (No. 49), you cannot show genitalia. In that anime they instead showed penis-like tentacles. In Feline & Lupine it instead focuses on what comes out of the penis, namely huge amounts of semen in TCW’s case. This also ties in with another parody element, regarding Japanese-specific sexual activities. For example there is “bukkake”, the act of ejaculating over a person, and “gokkun”, the act of drinking semen.

Another example of this is one scene parodying the act of “nyotaimori”, the act of eating sushi of a naked person. There is one scene in which TCW eats off Jason’s body, but with a twist. As TCW is a wolfman and he needs to consume large amounts of protein to produce his semen, he’s a carnivore and so he eats meat of Jason’s body. There are some rough sketches of Jason covered in chops, steaks and pies, with sausages used as phallic symbols, and perhaps in the kinkiest scene, using meatballs as anal beads. This scene was one of the big problems with putting Feline & Lupine into production. The plan was to make the meatballs to be like English faggots, but some people considered this to be homophobic.

This was one of many problems Studio Eclipse had. Another plan was to parody the way woman are portrayed in yaoi. I previously argued in one of my columns that yaoi is feminist, but many say women are often the villains in yaoi and female fans hate them. Feline & Lupine was to parody this have having one main heroine, an assistant to TCW, and one horrible villainess, the scientist operating the lab Jason escaped from, but people still claimed the parody was misogynistic. Some even argue the series isn’t even a yaoi, because Jason is not strictly speaking a male but transgender due to the experiments on him and because he spends most of the time crossdressing. In the end it was nature that stopped the plan: the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake destroyed the studio and the company never recovered. It folded and director Matsui left anime, taking up a job at Sony.

Even if this sort of thing is not your cup of tea, it has to be said it is a shame it never got made. It would have been nice for Feline & Lupine to at least be given a chance, even if it was not strictly speaking a Japanese company.

For more information on Feline & Lupine see here.

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