Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Major Problems with the new Ghost in the Shell

As a quick preamble, I became aware of the new Ghost in the Shell series via Women Write About Comics, where they are doing a great multi-part series on The Major, Motoko Kusanagi, the female lead of all the GITS incarnations. You should go check it out.

And in a likely vain and futile attempt to fend off whatever comments might come about not appreciating the origins of the characters, I am well aware of Shirow's original GITS work, and many of his other works, in which there is ample display of, to put it mildly, sex. That, however, is a whole other set of issues, and I'm not up for tackling tentacles and the issue of consent in anime/manga today.

Now, on with the main post...

Normally I'd save this kind of post for a Saturday, as it is partially a review. But there were so, so many issues with what I saw in the first episode of Ghost in the Shell: Arise, that it really warranted it's own discussion. Heck, it warrants a lot more than I can discuss in a single post, which is why I intend to also live tweet my rewatch of it. Which would be a terrible sacrifice of my time and sanity, were it not also a tremendous opportunity for snark.

I have to believe Arise was meant to be snarked at. The only other explanation is that the animators were all a bunch of teenage fanboys who can't get dates of their own and wouldn't know a real interaction with a woman if she came and yanked them out of their dark, underground cubicles. Lest you think I'm exaggerating or being cynical, I could have titled this post "The Major's Boobs" and it would have conveyed one of the primary motifs of the first episode. ... And calling it a motif is being generous. 

There are good points to Arise, which is clearly meant as a prequel to any of the original GITS material and, more specifically, to the last GITS on television (as far as I know), GITS: Stand Alone Complex. It's even being produced by the same studio, though I can only surmise there have been some changes in executive decision making in the intervening years.

There are callbacks to GITS: SAC right from the opening credits, and it's a promising sign that they even go so far as to replicate the skyline. As in a standard prequel, there's the introduction of characters, the bringing together of the team, and there are hints of some of the complex plots that made SAC such an enjoyable series to watch.

Even the clear decision to represent the Major in a younger body is in keeping with her backstory from both the original manga and SAC, and present opportunities for some interesting character development and psychological discussions. After all, in a truly cybernetic body, what governs the decision to "age?" What are the decisions the Major makes to upgrade from where we see her here to where we know she's going.

Only I get the distinct impression that with Arise, it will mostly be the opportunity for TNA. In fact, there was so much gratuitous nudity, partially nudity, and blouse-popping cleavage, I feel the acronym for Arise ought to be GITS: TNA.

Maybe the whole point of the title is meant to be innuendo?  Though that would imply a certain meta-level of cleverness that I don't think we're going to see from the rest of the series.

Which is a shame, because there are moments of some smart storytelling, and some glimpses of what could be some great explorations of the issues raised by the very premise of the show. There's a potential here for some real imagination in the storytelling.

But I think mostly what, or rather who, we're going to get glimpses of are the women, in outfits - or the lack thereof - that will leave little to the imagination.

Some exhibits for the prosecution:

The shower scene. Ignoring the thinly-veiled attempt to portray this new Major as vulnerable by resorting to the cliche tactic of having her naked, there is absolutely no reason for the behind-the-frosted-glass-door strip that occurs before it.

Commander Busty, or alternatively, the Breasts With No Name. The Major's commanding officer is not, so near as I can tell, even given a name. Instead, she's given cleavage, and a shirt that apparently cannot be buttoned above her navel. Or maybe the army just doesn't have shirts that fit her.  Granted, my own experiences with the military are limited to four years of JROTC and a year on scholarship, but I seem to recall more staid uniforms being regulation. Again, she is not named. She is just the BWNN who commands the Major's unit.

Motoko's bra. This should almost be it's own character, it's on screen so often. When she's not naked in cyberspace - which she is in every single such scene, knees clasped to chest, probably again meant to invoke "vulnerability" - she apparently has no clothes to wear aside from her uniform. (Wait, maybe this also explains the BWNN's own outfit issues. Future Japan's military doesn't know how to provide clothes to it's female soldiers.) So when she's not in uniform, she's in her underwear. This leads to a number of fan-service scenes. 

I might object less if it was at least a sport bra, but it's clearly some strappy black thing. Okay, again, the animators are teenage boys who know nothing about breasts or bras, but still, a quick Google search... actually, come to think of it, that's probably what caused this problem in the first place.

Also, and it may just be me, but I swear the Major's breasts are bigger when she's just in a bra. Maybe her uniform is really binding? Hard to say.

The Lolita landmines, or rather the mobile, robotic landmines, that from a military purpose seem absolutely useless for the battlefield unless you're fighting a war at a lollicon convention.

And those are just the things that stand out on the first viewing...

Admittedly, Stand Alone Complex had it's own issues with the Major and sexuality, to say nothing of the original manga, and in the first season of GITS: SAC she was dressed in that same ludicrous outfit you'll see if you bother to Google-search her. And there were the highly sexual overtones of that episode with the nurse, just to name a particular incident. But by the second season, they'd dressed her in a more practical outfit, and by and large it did not seem a series devoted to fanwank.

Arise, on the other hand...

It's sloppy storytelling, needless hyper-sexualizing, and unfortunately symptomatic of larger cultural problems within a number of communities, from comics to games to movies and television. (Star Trek: Into Darkness, I'm looking at you.) Maybe I'm just more aware of the gratuitous placement of women in skimpy outfits now that my daughter is nearly at her teen years, or maybe it's just that it's become such an overwhelming tide that it's impossible not to notice it anymore.

Anime and manga are probably the wrong places to look to start stemming that tide, but as this version came out of the same studio that, in the last incarnation, had the audacity to (in the second season, anyway) clothe the Major in not the thigh-high boots and garters but an actual functional outfit and an overcoat, of all things, there was at least a precedent to hope for here.

While it may not be fair to hold Arise to higher expectations than the culture, as a whole, and anime in particular seems incapable of lately, it has to start somewhere. And maybe starting in an arena that has a bad reputation for how it handles (or more accurately manhandles) women, might send the message that this is something that has to change.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Kat & Mouse: The Interview

Time for something a little different. I generally don't do guests - because, let's face it, this is basically the local cable channel equivalent of the internet - but this one made an exception for me. I'm not sure why, though I'm guessing his stylish fedora was on a bit too tight. 

Anyway... Abner Senires is the author of the Kat & Mouse books, which aside from satisfying this writer's own personal sci-fi craving, also reinvents/pays homage to some "classic" ideas, some more classic than others.

S: Welcome, Abner.

A: Thank you, Sean, for having me on the show today.

I see you have questions for me. Have at them, sir.

S: Indeed I do. So, first of all, where did the name come from? And if you say Tom & Jerry, know I'm going to be torn between disappointment and geekish applause.

A: It came from, you guessed it, Tom and Jerry.

(waits for disappointed applause)

S: I think we all knew that was coming. But, seriously...

A: Real answer: I had other names I was playing with. In one version of my notes, Kat was originally called Blackwolfe and she went solo. In another version, they were a duo, Kat was still called Blackwolfe and Mouse went by the name Boomer. All handles, of course, just as they are now.

And then one day the phrase "playing a game a cat and mouse" popped into my head. I think I might've been watching something or maybe read it somewhere. And it stuck. I thought, "Why not call them 'Kat' and 'Mouse,' to play off that phrase?"

Hence the name.

S: And has to be easier to type than Blackwolfe & Boomer, I imagine. Kat & Mouse are serialized fiction, a form that hasn't been done much since the days of Dickens, at least for literature. What led you to write Kat & Mouse in that manner?

A: When I decided to write Kat & Mouse, I had the notion the stories would be told in a specific sequence. I could have just written the stories, submitted them for publication, and had them appear that way. But the possibility arose that I would, say, write and submit stories 1, 2, 3, and 4 but have them end up being released as 4, 1, 3, and 2.

Which would defeat the purpose of the sequence, especially if I had a connecting storyline running through and connecting one story to the next.

So I decided I'd do it as a serialized story. This way, I could control the sequence of the stories and, in terms of the overarching storyline of each season, control when and where I'd drop clues and hints and foreshadowing.

S: Speaking of old-fashioned forms, Kat & Mouse seem very much a throwback to the cyberpunk days of the late 80's and early 90's. Which, as much as I adore it, is a sub-genre that seems to have already had its heyday. So why resurrect it? What about that setting appealed to you and made you say, "Hey, I want to set stories here?"

A: The appeal for me was the intersection of the modern and the near-future. The fact that cyberpunk was rooted in a very recognizable world – today's world – but had bits of slightly advanced tech that wasn't too far removed from the now. It wasn't Star Trek or Star Wars tech. No transporters or warp engines. But people had robotic prostheses and self-driving cars and the ability to insert a program chip into a slot in your head and instantly know, say, Conversational Italian or Japanese or the equivalent knowledge of a graduate in Corporate Law.

And since I wanted to feature modern weapons in my stories, writing cyberpunk was the best way to do that. I already had experience in weapon use and I'm familiar with some of the typical techniques of our military special warfare operators. And these were the types of skills that Kat and Mouse use in their adventures.

Another thing about weapon use--at one point I wanted write sword and sorcery. But I'm not well-versed on fighting with swords, particularly techniques of that era. I didn't want to portray a swordfight between my mightily-thewed hero and the evil sorcerer's henchman and have those in the know say "Bullsh*t! You're doing it wrong." There's a part of me that wants to depict those kinds of things realistically. Or at least as realistically as you can get in a dramatic portrayal. Yes, there are creative licenses a writer could take but I really wanted to keep things firmly rooted in some kind of verisimilitude. I'm kind of a stickler for that sort of thing. Writing cyberpunk made more sense in that department. I could use modern weapons and not worry that my descriptions of their use would offend those in the know.

I suppose you could say "Why not write a techno-thriller instead?" But much of techno-thriller writing is rooted in today's world and dealing with the geopolitics of the day. I wasn't interested in that sort of thing. What I was interested in was the stuff I saw from Robocop and Terminator and Terminator 2 and Demolition Man.

Cyberpunk. That was the field I wanted to play in.

S: I can't believe you just cited Demolition Man as an influence. Though, admittedly, it was a fun film.

Again, I've not quite worked my way through the first volume, but there were to my mind definite echoes in this of not only William Gibson, but also various Japanese anime, and maybe even a little – minus the fantasy elements – Shadowrun RPG. Any of those influence you, and if so, how much? Or were there other influences elsewhere?

A: All of it. Gibson. Anime, specifically Gunsmith Cats, Dirty Pair, Bubblegum Crisis, Appleseed, and Ghost in the Shell. And, yes, Shadowrun minus the fantasy elements, as well as another RPG from the early 90's called, appropriately enough, Cyberpunk 2020.

And the influence was huge.

My template for the visual aesthetic of the serial was Blade Runner. Of course. Classic film cyberpunk. Hopefully I've captured some of that in what descriptions I've written in the stories.

S: I think you have, yes.

A: From Shadowrun and Cyberpunk 2020 I essentially borrowed world-building details, particularly when I wrote out the timeline of the world of Kat and Mouse.

From Gibson, specifically the short story "Johnny Mnemonic", I borrowed the voice. That minimalistic style. I also cribbed a little of that from Raymond Chandler and Robert B. Parker and from James Cameron's screenplays.

The influence from anime resulted more in the desire to write about kick-ass female leads. And you get a lot of that in anime, especially in the titles I mentioned.

S: Would you rather see a live action movie, a television series, or a Japanese anime (or even comic book/manga) adaptation?

A: Yes. To all.

While I did write a Kat and Mouse screenplay (which I then adapted as the Season 1 episode "Easy Money") I would love to see a television series.

S: If I had the money to be a producer, I would see this happen. ... Dream cast for the above?

A: I don't watch too much current TV (I'm a few seasons behind and only get my fix via Netflix and Hulu), but from actors I've seen so far I would realistically cast the TV series as follows:

  • KAT: Meghan Ory (Ruby/Little Red Riding Hood from Once Upon A Time)
  • MOUSE: Allison Scagliotti (from Warehouse 13)
  • REVELL: Anthony Stewart Head (Giles from Buffy)
  • FAST EDDIE: Dominic Monaghan (from Lost and Merry from Lord of the Rings)
  • SPECS: Lee Arenberg (Leroy/Grumpy from Once Upon A Time)
  • JAKE STEELE: Sam Witwer (Aidan from Being Human)
  • CONNOR MURPHY: Josh Holloway (Sawyer from Lost)
  • JADE: Emily VanCamp (from Revenge)
  • SAKURA: Kelly Hu (from Warehouse 13 and Lady Deathstrike from X2)
  • ABSINTHE: Amy Acker (Fred from Angel)
  • VALKYRIE: Felicia Day (from The Guild)

S: I'm sad to say I only recognized about half those names. Clearly, I too, am behind in my TV watching. Because I read a lot, he says. Moving on...

Last but not least, aside from serialized fiction, you also do your bit for radio drama, another arguably archaic art form (say that 10 times fast) that has made something of a comeback in podcasts and the like. What got you into that?

A: Several years ago I had it in mind to get into voice-acting. You know, for video games, cartoons, animated films, that sort of thing. I took classes for about a year or so and started looking into possible work. Somewhere in my Internet searches I ran across an open audition call for voice actors. Someone was producing an audio drama as a podcast, it happened to be unpaid, totally volunteer, and they were looking for people. I decided "Why not? It might be unpaid but I'd get some experience performing on the mic. And the credit wouldn't hurt." So I auditioned and got the part. Small supporting one but a part nonetheless.

And it was a fun experience.

So I went looking for other opportunities and found this niche of folks writing, directing, producing, and acting in audio drama podcasts. Tons of people. So for about two or three years, I was auditioning and getting cast in a whole bunch of audio dramas. At last count, I think it was about forty-something appearances. Some were one-time roles. The majority were as a recurring character over several episodes.

It's been a while since I last did audio drama, though. Other things cropped up. Plus, I wanted to put focus back into writing in general and Kat and Mouse in particular.

S: Any projects we can look forward to, either of your own or someone else you want to give a shout out to?

A: There are more Kat and Mouse stories on the way. I've sketched out the overall arc for Season 3, sketched out the episodes, am revising the first 2 episodes and have outlined and started episode 3. I'm hoping to start "airing" them at the serial site by mid- to late-November, depending on how things work out over the next several weeks.

S: Excellent. I won't hold you to that calendar, though. And other things?

A: There are a couple of other writing projects in the hopper. One is a space opera piece. The other is a story that actually takes place in the world of Kat and Mouse, about the members of a cyborg SWAT team. Both of them are still in the pre-writing phase. No idea yet when they'll get to being written. Right now the focus is on the Ladies.

As for shout-outs, there's some great comics I recently ran across that I think everybody should be reading. RACHEL RISING by Terry Moore, RAT QUEENS by Kurtis J. Wiebe and Roc Upchurch, and LAZARUS by Greg Rucka and Michael Lark. Excellent stuff. I believe RAT QUEENS and LAZARUS have two trade collections out at this time and RACHEL RISING is on trade collection number four. So go and get them. Now.

S: You heard the man, folks. And if you haven't read Kat & Mouse yet, you need to do that, too.

Abner Senires writes sci-fi pulp adventure and probably drinks far too much coffee. He lives just outside Seattle, WA with his wife and a pair of rambunctious cats. WEBSITE:
BLOG: TWITTER: @abnersenires KAT AND MOUSE, GUNS FOR HIRE: PAYBACK Things are heating up for near-future female mercenaries Kat and Mouse as they tackle even more hair-raising jobs for shadowy clients and run afoul of terrorists, freedom fighters, hired assassins, a Japanese crime syndicate, and warring punkergangs. And smack in the middle of this, an enemy from the past is back and wants revenge on the duo. Now these two sassy sisters-in-arms must fight back and survive...and still get their jobs done. Available from: