Helping out some friends…

My friend Maria is collecting misconceptions about bronies for a project she’s working on. If you are a brony and have encountered misconceptions about them, tweet the misconceptions @TheMadameMeow. You can also see some of the misconceptions she’s collected at bronymisconceptions.tumblr.com.

She’s also looking for stories of people who met their significant others through fandom, so if you have, please contact her as well.

Meanwhile, three others of my friends are in need of financial help:

  • Charles Dunbar is an anthropology grad student studying Japanese culture and U.S. convention culture (and also my editor). He’s seriously awesome and all of the reward levels on his gofundme are worth it.
  • Kit Paige is a similarly awesome grad student studying Japanese culture. All of her gofundme‘s reward levels are likewise completely worth it.
  • And of course you all know how awesome Viga is, since you can see the kickass logo she designed for me at the top of this page. And, you guessed it, the rewards on her gofundme are bargains as well.

Now hold on, everypony. We’ve done our best to improve supply this year. (Apple Family Reunion)

In the ancient legends of the fritter homeworld, they
call her “The Oncoming Storm.”

It’s December 22, 2012. Top of the pop charts is Bruno Mars with “Locked Out of Heaven,” the video for which fakes video tearing and chromatic aberrations to simulate an aging VHS tape, the filmic equivalent of an old photo album. Number one at the box office this weekend is still The Hobbit.

In the news, right-wing nationalist Shinzo Abe is elected prime minister of Japan, the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar hits 13.0.0.0.0, which the Mayans never believed indicated the end of the world, and PSY’s “Gangnam Style” becomes the first YouTube video to hit a billion views, which very well might. And, of course, the winter solstice was yesterday.

The winter solstice is a strange time. As the shortest day of the year, it is also the point at which the days begin getting longer, and is therefore celebrated as the sun’s birthday (or the Son, if you’re Christian and into puns). Traditionally, it marks the midpoint of winter as well, the day at which the time of cold, snow, and carefully rationed food is half over.

However, at least where I grew up around the middle of the U.S. East Coast, it’s not the middle of winter at all, but very nearly the beginning. It is quite rare to see snow or freezing temperatures before the last third of December, and the peak time for snow is the end of January and beginning of February.

Either way, it is a moment of transition, a signpost that there is cold and darkness ahead, but light and warmth beyond that. “Apple Family Reunion” (written by Cindy Morrow and directed by Jayson Thiessen) is thus an appropriate episode to show here, because after this come four episodes ranging from problematic to abysmal, and then the catastrophe of the season finale (though whether it was eucatastrophe or dyscatastrophe is a matter of some debate). Although the episode itself is bright and entertaining and has one of the season’s better musical numbers, a pall of death hangs over it. The episode carefully steps around mentioning Applejack’s parents, and in doing so clearly marks the outlines of their absence.

It is perhaps the most skillfully executed part of the episode. To a small child who knows little of loss, the appearance of paired shooting stars twice in the episode mean nothing. To a teen or adult viewer, however, the fact that Applejack’s parents do not appear at the reunion and are carefully not mentioned, as well as the timing of when the stars appear–once when Applejack’s thoughts are on absent family and her personal history, and then again at the end of the episode after the reunion’s successful close–makes those stars a confirmation that her parents are dead.

Fans being fans, a proliferation of memes comparing Applejack to Batman shortly followed.

Which is part of what’s going on here. Among other things, my article on “The Return of Harmony” was a sort of Gnostic parable, with Faust as Sophia, Hasbro as Ialdabaoth, and Discord as Christ. This was largely a joke, but at the same time, well, look at the third season. The second season at least had Faust involved with the scripts, and between that and the growing confidence of the cast and crew it managed to be stronger than the first season. But the third season? “Magic Duel,” “Wonderbolts Academy,” and “Magical Mystery Cure” stand out as being excellent episodes in the third season, but would not have made it even into the top five episodes of the second season.

With Faust’s departure, the soul, the magic, is leaking out of the show–and it’s flowing into the fandom. Barely two weeks after the end of the season, the massive fan project “Double Rainboom” will be released. While not very good itself, the resources created for the project such as Flash puppets, and even more importantly the proof of concept that large fan projects coordinated across massive numbers of volunteers are workable, had an enormous impact on the fandom, spawning numerous other creative endeavors, the output of which far outstrips the norm for such a relatively small fandom.

However, there is a problem here. If the magic leaves the show entirely and its quality plummets, then there is no fandom, and all that creative energy just fades away. The show must recover some of its lost magic, or find a way to generate new magic and explore new directions, if it is to continue.

There are basically two ways to do that: experimentation or a return to original principles. The entirety of the season up to this point has been the former, more or less alternating between trying to force Friendship Is Magic into new territory outside its comfort zone (high-epic fantasy in “The Crystal Empire,” after-school special in “One Bad Apple,” surreal psychological study in “Sleepless in Ponyville”) or pulling the standard-issue stunts of a flailing TV show (“evil” twins in “Too Many Pinkie Pies,” the return of a fan-favorite one-shot character in “Magic Duel,” the “boot camp” episode “Wonderbolts Academy). All of these episodes represent trial-and-error attempts to throw ideas at the viewers and see what sticks.

And then there is this episode. The day after the solstice, the episode after the midpoint of the season, where Applejack keeps trying to force the magic into her reunion instead of just letting it happen. Again and again she throws activities at her family or tries to “improve” the old familiar activities they enjoyed in past reunions, making everything bigger and flashier, and in the process all she does is drive the magic further and further away.

In the end, only catastrophe can save her. The barn comes crashing down, her family comes together, songs are sung and memories are forged, and a barn indistinguishable from the original rises again. After that comes a return to the traditional reunion, the activities that worked before. Quieter and calmer than what Applejack had planned, but with space to fit people into it.

And so we can take away two things from this. First, we once again need a catastrophe, a massive and tumultuous change that can then turn out, from the far side, to be not that big a change after all. Second, Friendship Is Magic needs to calm down, stop panicking about losing its parent, and return to what it does best: selling toys to little girls while being vastly better than anyone ever expected a show designed to sell toys to little girls to be.

Too bad we’ve still got four episodes of standard-issue TV flail-stunts to get through first.

Next week: My two least favorite major characters get an episode together. Whee.

MLP Liveblog Chat Thingy: Leap of Faith

How to participate in the liveblog chat:

Option 1: Whenever you watch the episode, comment on this post as you watch with whatever responses you feel like posting!

Option 2: Go to http://webchat.freenode.net/. Enter a nickname, then for the Channels field enter ##rabbitcube, and finally fill in the Captcha and hit Connect! We’ll be watching the episode and commenting there starting at 3:00 p.m. EST. However, I will probably not be participating because I’m busy with family stuff, so I’d appreciate if one of you could copypasta the chatlog to a comment. Whenever I actually watch the episode, I will update this post with my own responses.

Speaking of which, I updated last week’s liveblog a couple of days ago.

Chatlog for “Leap of Faith” below the cut!

[21:55] <Froborr> OMG Big Mac and Applejack splashing SO ADORBS
[21:55] <Froborr> BUT WHY DO THE APPLES GET MORE EPISODES THAN EVERYONE ELSE COMBIENS
[21:55] <Froborr> Is this a Granny episode?
[21:55] <Froborr> Granny is the best Apple!
[21:55] <Froborr> And this silent film thing is awesome.
[21:56] <Froborr> You know, the opening credits need a couch gag.
[21:56] <Froborr> Like, maybe the final picture is slightly different every episode.
[21:57] <Froborr> Dear Princess Celestia: Today I learned that athletic competition should be left to the races that are good at it.
[21:58] <Froborr> Seriously WTF Granny, “Leave it to the pegasi?”
[21:58] <Froborr> OH MY GOD THE FLIM FLAM BROTHERS!
[21:58] <Froborr> I did NOT expect them to come back!
[21:59] <Froborr> Oh my god Doctor Whooves for the better time!
[21:59] <Froborr> YES now they’re the medical-industrial complex instead of ust generic capitalism!
[22:00] <Froborr> Fun fact: snake oil actually IS good for you, it’s full of Omega-3.
[22:00] <Froborr> THEY EVEN HAVE AN AUDIENCE PLANT THIS IS THE BEST!
[22:00] <Froborr> Oh no. Poor Granny. She’s pondering getting them to heal her hip, isn’t she?
[22:00] <Froborr> This is why I never hope. Hope is evil.
[22:01] <Froborr> Also, given that I’m watching Baccano! at the moment, this is gaining extra creepiness.
[22:01] <Froborr> “Horsentery”!?
[22:01] <Froborr> hay fever
[22:01] <Froborr> *groan*
[22:02] <Froborr> Wow, that was quite the final sting.
[22:03] <Froborr> No, there’s no tonic in Equestria that can make an old pony young again, but it’s amazing what a dose of confidence and some old-fashioned placebo effect can do.
[22:03] <Froborr> Granny is going to hurt herself so bad.
[22:04] <Froborr> The tonic is about 80% Flim-Flam pee and 20% year-old cider.
[22:04] <Froborr> Farm pony with big glasses? He’s going to turn into Superpony, isn’t he?
[22:05] <Froborr> Heheh, “Shill.”
[22:05] <Froborr> This is the episode where Applejack teaches someone an important lesson about Honesty and gets her crystal coffer key, isn’t it?
[22:05] <Froborr> And it’ll be Shill that learns the lesson.
[22:06] <Froborr> Apple juice and beet leaves? Ew.
[22:07] <Froborr> Hmm, this is actually a good dilemma for Applejack! Honesty vs. her family’s happiness!
[22:07] <Froborr> And now Applejack is morally complicit in everyone hurt by the fake tonic.
[22:08] <Froborr> APPLEJACK WHAT ARE YOU DOING
[22:08] <Froborr> Either you have somehow forgotten that the tonic is fake, or you are hatching a Wacky Scheme ™ liable to get your GRANDMOTHER injured!
[22:09] <Froborr> Hmm, I’m noticing a lot of the same ponies in line as earlier in the episode.
[22:09] <Froborr> Nothing so toxic or easily manipulated as hope.
[22:10] <Froborr> Yep, and that’s why people with a reputation for honesty have an obligation to actually be, y’know, honest. Including with themselves.
[22:10] <Froborr> Okay, their routine is actually really beautiful.
[22:11] <Froborr> lol, Lyra.
[22:12] <Froborr> This is quite possibly the best Applejack episode ever.
[22:12] <Froborr> She is getting ACTUAL CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT and CONSEQUENCES and DILEMMAS
[22:12] <Froborr> Applejack is going to end up breaking the record, isn’t she?
[22:13] <Froborr> Or not. Dang.
[22:14] <Froborr> Yay, another double-moral1
[22:15] <Froborr> Jimmy Stewart! That’s who Shill reminds me of!
[22:15] <Froborr> That is PERFECTION ITSELF.
[22:15] <Froborr> Yeah, that bit is the next key, isn’t it?
[22:16] <Froborr> Yep.
[22:16] <Froborr> Okay, yeah, that was a really good episode.
[22:16] <Froborr> Not quite MAUD PIE good, but what is?
[22:17] <Froborr> Though structurally, it was notably VERY similar to Rarity in Manehattan. Still, good stuff.

Autobiographical Story About Time Travel and Fairies, Part 1

I put aside the soldering iron and sat back to survey my work. It wasn’t the neatest job I’d ever seen, but then, I’d never been much of a modder. Oh, just like everyone else I’d modded a PlayStation to play import games, but that was almost twenty years ago now, and I hadn’t exactly done the neatest job back then, either.

The point was, it was finished and would probably work. If, of course, the website I’d ordered the mod chip from wasn’t a hoax. I’d been burned before with seemingly legitimate websites that turned out to be much shadier than they looked, most recently picking up an HDMI to VGA adapter which turned out to be (a) illegal and (b) almost completely non-functional.

I was pretty certain the mod chip I’d just installed in my new camera wasn’t illegal, because the tech was too new to be banned yet. I worried anyway, though I could no longer tell how much of that was due to legitimate concern and how much due to the inevitable jitters engendered by three days of high caffeine and low sleep.

Regardless, I put the back of the camera back on and screwed it into place. It was time. I turned the camera on. For a moment my heart froze in my throat, where it had decided to take up new residence, as the camera’s screen stayed black a little longer than I expected, but then it booted up normally. I selected the little icon of the clock in a crosshairs and carefully picked my date and location. Then I pointed the camera and took a deep breath.

“Are you really sure you want to do that?” asked a high-pitched voice like the tinkling of tiny bells.

I looked up and around. A soft pink ball of light was hovering outside my window, where the sound had come from. As I stared, it tapped against the window pane with a gentle tink.

I blinked a few times. It was still there. Tink!

I walked slowly over to the window and bent down to examine the pink thing more closely. As near as I could tell, it was just a fuzzy pink ball of light. Tink! Tink!

“Will you let me in?” the ball demanded. “It’s cold out here, and I think it’s starting to snow!”

For lack of any better ideas, I opened the window and the thing darted inside. It darted about the room a few times, then zipped up into the air in the middle of the room. I got the sense it was trying to orient itself.

Then: “Aha!” went the bells, and it floated over to my desk, where it settled down next to the camera. The light began to fade, to reveal a slender woman about five inches tall, with dark-chocolate skin, a pretty, triangular face, and a large (for her size) shock of pink hair. A pair of antennae protruded from high on her forehead, and four iridescent dragonfly-like wings from her back. She could not be anything but a fairy.

“Great, I’m hallucinating from lack of sleep,” I said.

“Quite possibly,” she answered, “but that’s not why I’m here. The Hallucination Fairy is a completely different division. I’m the Continuity Fairy.”

“…the what?” I might as well play along. It’s not like you can make hallucinations go away by ignoring them.

“The Continuity Fairy. Well, a Continuity Fairy, anyway.” She pulled a tiny little index card out of–well, out of nowhere I could see, actually–and read from it. “We have detected a probability nexus resulting in retrotemporal distortion originating from this location in approximately twenty minutes. As the Continuity Fairy, it is my responsibility to ensure that such distortions do not occur.” She smiled brightly and put the card away wherever it had come from. “So: don’t do it, okay?”

“Um,” I answered.

“Something the matter?” she asked.

“If you’re the Continuity Fairy, how come you needed to read that off a card? Haven’t you been doing this for millennia or something?”

She pouted. “If you must know, I’m on interoffice loan. I’m normally a Parking Fairy.”

“A what?”

“You know, I cause open spaces in crowded lots, that sort of thing.”

I pondered this a moment. “You must not be very good at your job.”

She put her fists on her hips and leaned forward. “It’s not my fault!” she tried to yell, though it came out as more of a squeak. “We’ve always been understaffed, and now with you, you… you mortals running around inventing Time Cameras and Time Tunnels and Time Machines,  half of us have had to move over to assisting the Continuity Fairy! Poor thing is so overworked her antennae are drooping!”

I held up my hands to ward her off. “Sorry, sorry!” I sat back in my chair and studied her a moment.

“Well?” she asked.

“Well what?”

“Well, will you promise not to go back in time and muck up all our paperwork?”

I sighed. “Sorry,” I said. “I have to.”

Am I the only one who feels this way?

I can’t shed the worry that I’ve actually posted this thought before, but a search didn’t reveal it, so: Am I the only one who’s more interested in the next X-Men movie than the next Marvel movie? Obviously, it’s hard to judge a movie by its trailer, but based on what I’ve seen, neither the new Captain America nor Guardians of the Galaxy looks like it’ll be up my alley, though at the moment I plan to see both. Meanwhile, I really enjoyed X-Men: First Class and I love stories about time travel, especially ones that follow events in both time periods. (Once again I point to Frequency as the closest to perfection of any movie about time travel I’ve ever seen.) So I find myself, even though I disliked X-Men 3 and deliberately avoided the Wolverine movies, much more interested in Days of Future Past than anything Marvel’s got lined up this year. (Though what I’m really anticipating is the Black Widow movie, but that’s still a good couple of years off.)

Gradually and indirectly, over time, gain in political significance (I’d Never Allow That to Happen)

A wild OKTAVIA attacked!
It used Sword Dance!

Magical girls have always been witches.

In the extradiegetic, historical sense, this is clearly true. The magical girl genre emerged as a direct result of the surprise popularity of Bewitched with a generation of Japanese schoolgirls. Samantha is the archetypal magical girl, conventionally attractive, traditionally feminine, with tremendous power tightly constrained within a limited sphere, and subject to the anxious masculinity that hedges her into that sphere. She can–and frequently does–assert herself, but ultimately she is trapped by the limitations of the norms of television in her time, bound to perform femininity with perfect makeup and hair, cute dresses, and a socially approved role as a wife and mother.

While there are manga examples predating her, the first animated magical girl was likewise a witch, in Magical Girl Sally. Much, much younger than Bewitched‘s Samantha, Sally of course does not take on a role as wife or mother, but instead performs a child’s femininity, being sweet and cute and, despite her power, fundamentally harmless.

So it went. By Sailor Moon, the norms of the genre were largely set. Magical girls, like witches, gain their power from otherworldly sources, whether granted by the ruler of the Mirror Kingdom, accidentally released from a mysterious book, or inborn as a result of their past lives in the royal courts of the Moon. Magical girls, like witches, have their familiars, sentient creatures taking on animal form. And of course, magical girls, like witches, wield tremendous and varied magical powers.

But curiously, those powers are always directed at enemies as otherworldly as the magical girl’s origins–indeed, often the enemies are tied intimately to those warnings. As a general rule, magical girls do not fight government corruption, corporate malfeasance, or even that mainstay of the masculine hero, street crime. Their power, in other words, not only comes from the fantastic, but can only be directed against the fantastic.

Which is the other sense in which all magical girls are witches. The figure of the witch is a symbol of the fear of female power; in a world where masculinity is identified with hegemony and dominance, femininity must be identified with powerlessness, submission, or restraint.The traditional expression of this idea in Japanese culture is the figure of the yamato nadeshiko, the feminine ideal for whom Hitomi is the closest match in Madoka. Possessed of tremendous social intelligence, the yamato nadeshiko rules utterly in the domestic sphere, having mastered many arts, but all are for the pleasure or support of her family, particularly a husband. Said husband, meanwhile, is the only one who is allowed to assert power outside of that sphere. Japanese folk and pop culture are rife with tales of the “bad” woman who wields power outside “her place,” from the wife who turns out to be a shapeshifting kitsune to the cannibalistic old mountain hag to the seductive snow-woman who sucks the life-giving warmth from her paramour.

Of course the good girl/bad girl dichotomy is hardly unique to Japanese culture. In Western folklore and pop culture it is represented (among a multitude of other representations) by the passive princess waiting to be rescued and the wicked witch who threatens her and the hero alike. To wield power is inherently to be the bad girl, the witch, a menace to the status quo.

The power of the magical girl is usually sanitized in two ways. First, as already mentioned, her power is not permitted to impact anything the viewer might recognize as part of reality, but is instead almost invariably focused on fantastical opponents. Second, she is made to constantly perform femininity (remember, the counterpart to hegemonic masculinity is performed femininity), with frilly or skimpy costumes, elaborate poses, and of course the nude dance of the transformation sequence all serving to remind any potentially intimidated male viewers that she is still subject to the male gaze and still submitting to the social norms of the “good girl.”

It is no accident that Sayaka’s transformation into a witch immediately follows her using her powers on a pair of misogynists. She has stepped outside the boundaries of the good girl and challenged the status quo, and therefore is a bad girl, a wicked witch.

But this episode interrogates and ultimately subverts that binary in multiple ways. The most striking comes during Kyouko’s fight with Oktavia, Sayaka’s witch form; we see blue and red swirls of blood forming stylized images of Sayaka and Kyoko, which then swirl together into a rose, highly reminiscent of the opening to Revolutionary Girl Utena. That series also had a princess, the Rose Bride, who turned out to be a witch, and who (side by side with a swordwielding tomboy that positioned herself as the protector and rejected the usual feminine role) ultimately passed from submissive “good girl” to powerful and treacherous “bad girl” before finally breaking free of the entire system. That this is to be taken as a universal seems likely, given that said blood then splashes down in a shot framed to look like it is flowing from between Kyouko’s legs.

In Western culture, the menstrual cycle has sometimes been posited as a particular punishment to women for their innate “badness,” because of course it is the nature of performed femininity that to insist on being true to oneself is “bad” and leads inevitably to the label of witch. Thus all women have a “bad” streak, which is to say a coherent self that seeks expression.

But if magical girls and witches are truly one and have always been one, then what are we to make of Sayaka’s transformation? Fortunately, the episode gives us the answer: it is the result of the system imposed by Kyubey. The magical girls’ entire world has been imposed on them by the one significant male character, who holds total hegemony over them. His argument is that they have consented to take part in his system, which is of course absurd since he deliberately concealed crucial information from them; there are distinct shades of rape culture at work here, in the sense of the hegemonic male employing complex and nonsensical standards for what comprises consent, manipulating these definitions to place the blame on the victim.

But remember, Kyubey is a signifier of the implied author, who is not truly Gen Urobuchi but a gestalt entity formed from the combined efforts of writer, director, character designer, animators, voice actors, composer, and so on, an entire industry of creators. He spent this episode tricking Kyouko into treating Sayaka as someone to be saved, when he knows that Sayaka cannot be saved–after all, if she’s been a witch all along, what is there to save her from? After successfully manipulating Kyouko into taking over the protector role–the same role which Sayaka was trying to fill–he tries to persuade Madoka to sacrifice herself similarly.

There is a term in anime fandom for a character (or, more accurately, a character trait) that invokes this protectiveness: moe. For an extended period in the late 2000s, an aesthetic rooted in that concept grew to dominate anime in general and magical girls in particular. According to this aesthetic, the value of a character lies in their ability to evoke this protectiveness in a presumed-male audience, and the features which evoke it are helplessness, “cuteness,” emotional vulnerability, and weakness, all coupled of course with a conventional and generic attractiveness. This is, of course, an extension of the same process that put Samantha under the thumb of her milquetoast husband and forces Sailor Moon to strip naked before she can access her powers; it renders the character harmless and therefore a “good girl,” non-threatening to the inherent anxiety innate to hegemonic masculinity.

Kyubey stands revealed as the representative of a system that robs women of their power and makes them perform for his benefit, while also placing them into a position where their suffering is seen as proof of their need to be protected, which robs them of their power still further. He is, in other words, serving as an avatar of gender roles themselves. However, he is simply an instance of a larger and vaster system, which extends far beyond him; Madoka itself is enmeshed in a larger culture, and while it can criticize ugly choices made in the name of economic viability, it cannot entirely escape them.

Nonetheless, the episode remains remarkably consistent. Sayaka’s attempt to save others, to be the protector, transforms her into a monster. Kyouko and Madoka’s attempt to save Sayaka gets them killed. Kyubey’s quest to save the universe perpetuates a destructive and miserable system. And as we will see in the next episode, Homura’s attempts to save Madoka are likewise doomed.

To seek to protect or save another, it seems, is inherently to rob them of power. But at the same time, the series has repeatedly vilified Kyubey for his lack of empathy, so it cannot be endorsing Objectivism. Is there, perhaps, a difference between helping and saving? Or, as Urobuchi wrote in the Fate/zero author’s notes, is it simply that we are helpless, and everything is doomed to become worse as all systems, universes, societies, and psyches alike, hurtle toward heat-death?

Next week: Reversing entropy.

Are deliberately confusing premieres a thing now?

Started watching Baccano! along with Mark Watches. The first episode confused the heck out of me, and it occurs to me that the first episode of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is probably almost as confusing for someone who doesn’t already know the characters. (Though, admittedly, at least FMA:B’s first episode occurs in linear time, with one clearly demarcated flashback.)

This isn’t to say I’m not enjoying it, just… that was clearly designed to be disorienting, which for me is intriguing, but it’s also surprising. Most series start out by trying to ease new viewers in, take them by the hand and explain things to them. There might be, for instance, a bizarre opening scene that will eventually be explained, but the entire first episode of Baccano! is essentially made of scenes like that.

Again, I’m not complaining (except about Ladd, he’s horrifying and awful), just curious if this is starting to be a trend. Is it an adaptation thing? FMA:B is obviously based on a wildly popular manga, and Baccano! is based on a light novel series. Is the idea for the first episode to showcase all the characters and have a lot of cool moments for the current fans, as opposed to explaining things to new fans? Does that mean that, like FMA:B, the next episode or two will be about spelling things out for us newbies?

Well, I guess I’ll find out as I go.

THIS IS A SPOILER-FREE POST. PLEASE DO NOT POST ANY SPOILERS IN THE COMMENTS. IF YOUR COMMENT REVEALS KNOWLEDGE OF *ANYTHING* NOT APPARENT WITHIN THE FIRST EPISODE OF BACCANO!, PLEASE DO NOT POST IT HERE.

Why I love Anime Boston

A short list of just a few of the reasons that Anime Boston is my favorite anime convention:

  • Great panels: Charles Dunbar and Kat Paige’s Kill la Kill panel convinced me to give the show a second chance by arguing that it’s readable as a criticism of State Shinto and the resurgence of nationalism in contemporary Japan. Kat’s panel on tricksters and Charles’ panel on Studio Ghibli were also great. I finally got to see the Geek Family’s panel about happy and silly shows, and it was as good as I hoped and full of things I’d never heard of. Other highlights included the latest versions of the perennial Craziest Mecha Moments and Bad Anime, Bad (I can now say that I have seen all of the train wreck that is Garzey’s Wing), and a couple of panels by people I don’t know, one on music in anime and the other on visual storytelling in Miyazaki films, both of which were fascinating new perspectives given my usual focus on the verbal.
  • Great panel audiences: Anime Boston continues to have the best and most interesting audiences of any convention I go to. The questions I got during both Postmodern Anime and Analyzing Anime were solid, interesting, and occasionally challenging, and Latin Latin Madoka More Latin resulted in two separate multi-hour conversations with attendees, the first about epiphenomenology, qualia, and theory of consciousness, and the second about Buddhism. The latter has already significantly altered my perception of what’s going on in the last three episodes of the series and Rebellion.
  • Ego boosts: I was asked for an interview, invited to speak at another convention (which will take some negotiating, since it can only happen if they pay at least hotel cost), and, best of all, asked if I taught a class anywhere.

So yeah, hung out with friends, recharged, and generally had an excellent time that has rejuvenated my seriously flagging convention mojo.

Do it again, Megan! Make it go away! (The Ghost of Paradise Estates)

Well, that escalated quickly.

I’m at a convention this weekend, so have another guest post on Gen 1 My Little Pony by the ever-excellent Spoiler Below.

Apologies for the wonky formatting, I don’t know what’s going on.

The Letter:

Dear Princess Celestia,

Sometimes it is difficult to understand that the world can never be returned to the way it used to be. Nostalgia can be a powerful feeling, and change can be hard to accept. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t hurt others trying to undo what has happened. Some things simply can’t be undone, and have to be gotten used to. But in time, you’ll soon find that there are things to enjoy about the new status quo, and a place for yourself in it.

As always, your faithful student,
Twilight Sparkle

What is it? A four parter about a terrifying ghost that haunts the baby ponies and prevents them from getting to sleep.

What is it about? The nature of cultural forces imposing an external narrative onto events that transforms them into a continuity and retroactively implies that said forces have been present all along, thereby making said events inevitable and correct according to the nature of the world and thus not worth resisting. But this is clearly not the case, as a simple paradigm alteration will show that said events can be viewed through many different lenses, and things which seem inevitable in hindsight are almost never necessarily so.

Is it worth watching? Sure, it’s pretty good. This is the last episode George Arthur Bloom will contribute until Tales, and he displays here the same energy and style that he used in Escape from Midnight Castle. As has been pointed out by others, he seems to work much better when he’s not trying to fill a movie length feature, and instead has to cram all his ideas into 40 minutes. Sure, there are 4 songs, 3 of which are, to be charitable, not so great, but that’s the nature of the beast for children’s television.

What else was happening? 29 September-2 October 1986. Ronald Regan signs the Goldwater-Nichols Act into law, reorganizing the US Department of Defense so that command is structured by region and function, rather than branch, and streamlining the chain of command, in an attempt to cut down intra-branch rivalry and allowing the commander in charge of an operation to exercise full control over the all differing forces involved without having to negotiate with each individual branch. An assassination attempt is made on Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, who had taken over from his mother, Indira, in 1984. He will be killed along with 14 others by a suicide bomb about five years later. “Stuck with You” by Huey Lewis and the News is number one on the charts this week, off of their quite excellent album Fore! and Crocodile Dundee is released this week, letting us all have a good chuckle at how bad some folks are at surviving outside their native habitats, a theme we’ll revisit in just a moment.

A frequently cited cliche is to never judge a book by its cover. But how about by its title? Some are purely functional (e.g. The Communist Manifesto), some are symbolic (e.g. If on a winter’s night a traveller…), some are descriptive (e.g. The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, &c. Who was Born in Newgate, and during a Life of continu’d Variety for Threescore Years, besides her Childhood, was Twelve Year a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her own Brother), Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, liv’d Honest, and died a Penitent. Written from her own Memorandums), and some… Well…
Sometimes the title of an episode contains a major giveaway of its contents. This is often the case with titles with names, events, and other descriptive bits. No one could tell you what Don Delilio’s White Noise is about based purely on the title, but it’s a fair bet that Alexander Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo probably has something to do with the Count. This isn’t always the case (Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory isn’t about a place where they build White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, and Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman are far more heavily the latter than the former), but often times it is. This is especially true in the naming of serial television episodes, where the title would often tease which episode the hero would be facing. The classic example here are the many adventures of Doctor Who with a named monster in the title, where the first episode wouldn’t feature the enemy at all until the cliffhanger, “Oh no! Not that monster!”, as if the audience hadn’t been waiting for 22 minutes for the Cybermen to show up in “The Continuity Error of the Cybermen”. 
And so the fact that there isn’t actually a ghost at all is really a neat trick to pull. We should have come to accept by now that My Little Pony is a show where weird left turns in plotting are the norm. Where lesser authors would be content to walk out 4 episodes with continually escalating ghostly escapades, perhaps drawing out Molly offering to stay with the baby ponies until the end of the first episode, until Danny too agrees to spend the night in the room and is too convinced of the ghost’s existence and making Danny’s ghost catching plan the entirety of the second, Megan’s unbelieving glower staring down imperiously on all her subjects all the while…
Megan is right, of course. There aren’t any ghosts. Not in a world with talking ponies, anthropomorphic cats that grow to the size of buildings, magical mushroom wizards, volcano dwelling witches, Shelob-sized spiders, the Smooze, evil centaurs that can transform princes into monsters and ponies into nightmares… The existence of ghosts would be a ridiculous thing to consider. Instead we get a completely separate plot about an evil octopus trying to flood the valley to restore it to the way it was when he was younger, before the waters receded and he was replaced by the shapeshifting bird tribe that stole his magical Flash Stone and forced him to accept the changes that nature had wrought on Dream Valley. But “The Shapeshifting Bird of Paradise Estates” just doesn’t roll off the tongue the way the actual title does.
But that’s because Megan is always right. Such is her prerogative as lawgiver and ruler of the ponies, and as such, it would be strange if the world didn’t also obey her and alter to suit her whims, the way it does when children play with their toys. A land with houses and pools doesn’t have room for ghosts. And this is what the ponies want, mind you. For episode after episode, all they have wanted is a nice, safe place to live. Are things as basic as shelter and security really such bad or unreasonable things to want? Of course not. They’re basic human (pony?) rights, up there with food and water. But the pony’s overwhelming desire for a place to live, the focus on civilization and permanence… None of this was here in the carefree days of Midnight Castle. Sure, they already had the formidable fortress of Dream Castle, but they seemed to spend most of their days sleeping on the fields or in the orchards. Paradise Estate is a modern home for a modern world, which needs to be painted a slightly different shade of pink to make it just right. Their old home is gone, destroyed by the Smooze. Dream Valley is a different place, and it has different creatures with different desires living in it now.
Considering its inhabitants and its history, we get a grossly simplified version of the march of evolution from aquatic creatures to birds to mammals… Now, far from being a sure or predestined thing, evolution merely is a winnowing down of that which cannot survive to produce offspring in the current environment. It does not favor the weak nor the strong, and traits which are well suited to one environment may be terribly unsuited to another. The ability to process airborne oxygen is useless in a watery environment, while the ability to withstand massive water pressure is likely to result in death on the land. The idea that evolution has somehow colluded to create the best or most perfect species that has ever lived is appealing to some, but is utterly unscientific. And very few species ever reach the point where they can alter their environments drastically to make otherwise hostile places suitable for life. Humans are the most obvious example, but ants and beavers do it too. Certainly this is what Squirk is doing when he plans to re-flood Dream Valley. But isn’t that exactly what Megan and the ponies were doing with Paradise Estates at the beginning of the episode also? Dream Valley may not be flooded anymore, but it doesn’t contain any natural bright pink building with inground swimming pools.
Unlike the ponies and the horrible Smooze, Squirk lost his old home to the force of nature, which Phluma is unable to explain. No one knows why the water receded, but it did. He has to live somewhere different now, and is obsessed with expanding back to the boundaries of his former kingdom, and regaining his former power. Squirk is the third enemy in a row, now, to have an extreme focus on the past and “the way things used to be”. But while Rep longed for the days when Katrina wasn’t an evil drug addict, and Hydia pined for the days of her foremothers when the witches were powerful and respected, Squirk himself remembers the old days firsthand. He is hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years old. However unlike the contentious and ill-considered land rights dispute of Over a Barrel, it is difficult to see how Squirk’s claims to a land he occupied hundreds, maybe thousands, of years ago, which no longer can sustain him without massive overhaul that would destroy the environment presently there, and which was completely unsettled before the Moochick gave the ponies a home there, can possibly be valid. The world has changed, but he refuses to change with it.
He will do this via the Flash Stone, a magical amulet similar to the Rainbow of Light, which runs on willpower and will do whatever the possessor desires. Like most aged rulers, it should come as little surprise that Squirk isn’t much of one for thinking or creativity. All he does is shoot small blasts of energy and shift water about. His one brief moment of inspiration, changing sea creatures from one to another, hybridizing and chimerizing them into all sorts of different things, seems only a brief infatuation he soon grows bored with. He’s old, he’s stale, he can’t think past himself. He doesn’t even know what to do when Danny and the ponies pretend to surrender and submit to his rulership. Even when we saw him in charge during the flashback, all he did was shoot at his starfish and slap Crank around, no different than his actions now, hundreds or perhaps thousands of years later. The old bullying tyrant who just won’t go away.
There’s an odd criticism of some forms of government that I never understood before reading Buruma and Margalit’s Occidentalism. One of their major theses is that one of the major differences between worldviews of the “West” and the rest of the world is the very stark separation between the church and the state, and that as western liberal democracy is incompatible with a divine or otherwise “special” ruler, there is necessarily a tension between the two ways of thinking. Thus, it would not be inappropriate to describe otherwise atheistic systems like Maoism or Stalinism as “religions” in this sense, as they rely on this style of devotion to a powerful and special ruler and/or party, and a strictly enforced view of the world that is laid out in advance and which permits no deviation. It doesn’t matter if the world is saying otherwise, and suggesting that the old theory should be discarded or altered, as it is in proper science. The world must be changed to fit the view, be it a disastrous agricultural misunderstanding that leaves millions to starve to death, or an misunderstanding of how literary interpretation works that leaves the world being only about 6,000 years old. Or, in Squirk’s case, trying to bring about another flood to destroy all this nasty civilization that has cropped up since his time passed, and to remake the world the way he remembered it being. Tyranny does not require God; it simply requires a tyrant and followers to build the tyrant up.
Megan, on the other hand, has bigger dreams than that. She has the power to transform the world, reshape it to her vision. “In no time at all, we’ll put things back in shape. Everything will be the way it was” she sings as she repairs all the damage from the flood, effortlessly using the Flash Stone in ways of which Squirk never could conceive. But it isn’t the same, not quite. It’s the way it was after she arrived and started changing things. Paradise Estates is filled with human furniture, which would be quite uncomfortable for ponies to use, but perfect for Megan and her siblings. But the ponies will learn to use it. A proper and dignified pony like Rarity would never consider sleeping on the ground, even when out camping. Megan then destroys the Flash Stone; she already has the Rainbow of Light. Why keep more power than she needs? It could be used for evil, after all.
But, quite importantly, she differs from a tyrant like Squirk in a major way: she desires no legacy. There are no statues to her, no holy book of her teachings, no mention of her in Tales, G3, or Friendship is Magic. The only time she is placed on a throne, it is at the pony’s request as guest of honor as their costume party. She may be their ruler for now, but after she has taught them the way to live, she will pass into memory and then be forgotten completely. The important things: caring, friendship, responsibility to one’s offspring, fairness, duty, having fun… these will remain. It will not be all good, of course. There will be petty jealousies and bullying and pollution from industry and a loss of the old ways that will never fully be regained. But without her, they would have been wiped out entirely. Civilization is never perfect. But in this case, it is was not communism that was haunting Dream Valley. It was the ghost of tyranny.
And you thought this was just a silly animated series quickly dashed off to sell cheap plastic toys, didn’t you?

Other Bits:

-Why does Spike live in a storage closet? Poor guy. It’s the one dirty and unfurnished room in the entire estate, too.

-From invisible and multiplying beds to ponies changing color to the humans suddenly having time to get dressed between episodes, this is one where a lot of mistakes crept in. I’m not going to be cool and seize on one of these and make some huge metatextual point about something. Sometimes animation errors and just animation errors.

-George Arthur Bloom, as mentioned above, now bows out of the series for a few years, reappearing as a writer of Tales. But the framework which he built is obvious, even today, and without his contributions to the world and its lore, there is no doubt that none of us would be here reading or writing these words. Bloom was finally able to get Travis Fine to help him make a feature film that he’d been trying to put together for years and years. Any Day Now, the story of a gay couple trying to adopt a child with Down’s syndrome, is well worth your time. If you needed any more proof that a deeply open and inclusive message has been with MLP from the very start, you need only look at its first writer and his work.

MLP Liveblog Chat Thingy: For Whom the Sweetie Belle Tolls

How to participate in the liveblog chat:

Option 1: Whenever you watch the episode, comment on this post as you watch with whatever responses you feel like posting!

Option 2: Go to http://webchat.freenode.net/. Enter a nickname, then for the Channels field enter ##rabbitcube, and finally fill in the Captcha and hit Connect! We’ll be watching the episode and commenting there starting at 3:00 p.m. EST. However, I will not be participating because I’m at Anime Boston, so I’d appreciate if one of you could copypasta the chatlog to a comment. Whenever I actually watch the episode, I will update this post with my own responses.

Liveblog below the cut!

[02:28] <Froborr> Rarity ep? Rarity eps are fun.
[02:28] <Froborr> …Bwah? Isn’t this the order Sapphire Shores placed back in season 1?
[02:28] <Froborr> TIME IS BROKEN
[02:29] <Froborr> Sweetie Belle, you are being selfish.
[02:31] <Froborr> Sweetie Belle is going to turn into a control freak director, isn’t she?
[02:33] <Froborr> Ah, this is going to be about Sweetie Belle being overshadowed by her more talented sister, eh?
[02:34] <Froborr> Sweetie Belle sounds  very Diamond Tiara-like in that rant.
[02:35] <Froborr> Great, an Idiot Plot.
[02:35] <Froborr> JUST EXPLAIN WHAT THE PROBLEM IS, SWEETIE BELLE.
[02:36] <Froborr> WTF Sweetie Belle, why are you evil?
[02:37] <Froborr> I like how this obvious ream sequence has noticeably less depth of field than usua.
[02:37] <Froborr> I don’t think that would have worked in previous episiodes.
[02:38] <Froborr> Okay, I *do* like the Luna-Sweetie Belle character parallel.
[02:42] <Froborr> Meh, extended predictable dream sequence is extended, predictable.
[02:43] <Froborr> At least we’re probably getting a chase sequence?
[02:44] <Froborr> Bald security pony is the best. His cutie mark is a lock!
[02:46] <Froborr> Okay, so you can STOP AND EXPLAIN NOW.
[02:46] <Froborr> Argh.
[02:46] <Froborr> Never mind about liking the chase sequence.
[02:47] <Froborr> *wanting the chase sequence I mean
[02:49] <Froborr> Eh, that episode was okay but not great.
[02:49] <Froborr> I *am* liking Dreamwalker Luna, but this wasn’t the best execution of the concept.