Konichiwa my little sugar cubes!
Today I would like to talk a little bit about expectations and how they can potentially colour our expectations of a text. I was inspired to write this because I recently watched Akira (Dir. Katsuhiro Otomo, 1988) for the second time in my life.
I think I was about 12 or 13 the first time I watched Akira, and my reaction was a resounding “meh”. See, up until that point in my life my only real exposure to Japanese anime had been the english dubs of the likes of Pokémon, and Dragonball Z, the kind of light-hearted children’s entertainment with the kind of seizure inducing flashing lights and kawaii moments that made my mother hang her head in shame at what she had raised. By comparison, Akira seemed rather slow, with the sort of symbolism and visual cues that went over the head of my younger self.
However, the images of it stayed in my mind, pupating until a decade and a half of non-stop film/anime viewing later I suddenly got the compulsion to watch it again. What I took away this time was a two hour masterclass of cinematic expression and presentation. The plot follows two tearaway youths, Tetsuo and Kaneda, as a bizarre series of events drags them into the fight between a torn government and a group of terrorists, and finally into conflict with each other.
I’m of the school that believes that film at it’s best is the art of showing not telling, and the tension between hardened street fighter Kaneda and the more sensitive Tetsuo is shown almost straight away through their clashes with a rival biker gang, in which Tetsuo is repeatedly being saved by Kaneda. Through flashback sequences we learn how this has been a recurring motif throughout their lives, with Tetsuo growing more resentful of his own weakness which he projects onto his friend. Later, Tetsuo discovers he is a powerful psychic and his wrath is turned indiscriminately onto anyone and everyone, even the woman he loves and Kaneda in a thrilling encounter between man and demi-god. The power, like his wrath, eventually consumes him and becomes too much for Tetsuo to control. To it’s credit, much of this goes unspoken and is shown to the viewer through amazing visuals and dream sequences that are somewhat reminiscent of David Lynch’s early work.
So much of what goes on in the film is told through background and emergent storytelling that the film begs repeated viewings, which it will most definitely be getting from this writer.
In the last half hour of the film we get the fast paced action and seizure-inducing lights that my younger self would have appreciated and any sense of subtlety is thrown out the window, but by this point I felt like Akira had earned it with all of it’s lovely tension-building and symbolism.
To bring it back to my original point of expectations, my second viewing of Akira lived up to my expectations of “show don’t tell” film making that I have come to appreciate and had an appropriately action packed finale. This is what I wanted and it is what I got, which is why I feel I enjoyed the film so much more this time around.
When audience expectations and text reality diverge then disappointment is often the result. I remember a conversation (argument) I had with someone once about Prometheus (Dir. Ridley Scott, 2012).
In short, he liked it, I thought it was a load of old twaddle that wasn’t worth a tinker’s cuss.
You see, Alien is one of my favourite films of all time and in my opinion much scarier than any of it’s sequels, so when I heard that Ridley Scott was returning to the franchise I ran to my local cinema, spare change of pants in hand and meh-ed my way through the next two hours. However, when asked what I thought was wrong with it, I struggled to find an actual reason. Well, outside of what the fine gentlemen of Red Letter Media had to say. And that whole alien abortion scene was problematic as hell (white men feminists for the win). But my point is that I was expecting a monster-fuelled scare fest and was left sorely wanting.
Changing direction slightly, I’d like to talk about Man of Steel (Dir. Zack Snyder, 2013). I saw this film whilst I was at uni and- controversially- enjoyed it, a fact that led to me having the piss taken out of me by a certain lecturer for the rest of the year (but he’s ginger, so who cares what he thinks). My defense of this film is it does not deviate much from the formula of pretty much any Superman media ever or from any of Zack Snyder’s previous directorial efforts. I walked into the cinema expecting a sexy muscle-bound dude in tight clothes, huge action set-pieces and full on CGI up the wazoo and that’s exactly what I got. If you have seen 300 (2006), one of Snyder’s other graphic novel adaptations, and are expecting anything but that then I’d say that you; sir or madam, are the idiot.
I suppose Watchmen (2009) had a certain degree of depth, but I’d argue that comes more from screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse’s interpretation of Alan Moore’s original graphic novel than anything else. Snyder mostly makes popcorn flicks, and there’s nothing wrong that at all you elitist pricks, but I feel as though you can not go in to a triple-A, CGI galore cinema release expecting emotion and depth when this kind of film is made almost purely for the spectacle.
Earlier I mentioned a formula about how when audience expectations and text reality diverge, sadness happens. Whilst this is often the case, Sometimes a subversion of genre can lead to great things. I recently watched the anime series Puella Magi Madoka Magica, a series that sold itself as being a typical magical girl series.
For the uninitiated, the magical girl anime genre typically features young school-age heroines in cute costumes (super kawaii!!!!!) fighting hideous monsters. Notable examples include Cardcaptor Sakura and Sailor Moon and the typical fan base are young girls, dirty old men. Think Power Rangers in mini skirts and you’ll get the general idea.
They tend to be rather light-hearted in nature, lots of bright colours and power of friendship sort of stuff. The first two episodes of Madoka Magica start out being pretty much what you would expect, cute little girls fighting witches, but takes a major twist when one of the main characters gets her head bitten off.
From here it pulls no punches as the origin of witches and the magical girl powers are explained in every dark, twisted detail. I won’t spoil anymore here, but suffice to say the deviance from genre expectations definitely works in the show’s favour.
So, there’s your lot. I feel like we all learned something today. If you’ll excuse me I have to go try on cat ears and curse the roundness of my eyes.