Thursday, March 10, 2011

Chapter 47: In Which I Say Sayonara to One of My Favorite TV Shows

I know I've been neglectful of the blog. Studying for midterms will do that. I plan on doing a thorough writeup of my recent con-going exploits very soon.

It's a very interesting time in the world right now. I will not (I promise) write about current events. Because I realize I am no good at it. America's in economic freefall. The Republicans are using this as an excuse to cherry-pick their enemies like the unions and, even more ridiculously, PBS and NPR. Typical sickening, petty shit, in other words. If there was ever a clear indication that politicians could care less about the smallfolk, there it is. Everybody's losing jobs and they're going to war against NPR. Great.

In Egypt, Libya, Wisconsin and beyond, real democracy is taking place. A good friend of mine has been in the fight in Wisconsin. I wish her all the best with the struggles this weekend. Around the world, people are simply tired of being pushed around. Hell, even the residents of DC are getting in on it. Forget corporate-sponsored "movements" that the GOP creates; there are real movements going on. And I have nothing to say about the current situation other than "Fuck those motherfuckers." That's as eloquent as I get. So I'll leave the political commentary to the experts. What I really want to talk about is...

InuYasha.

Back about 2004, you could not find an anime with more pull in fandom than Sengoku Otogiz┼Źshi InuYasha, or InuYasha, A Feudal Fairy Tale. It is one of the greatest crossover successes the industry has had. It's easy to see why. Rumiko Takahashi, who is one of the best concept people working in comics, took the idea that a comic could be both for boys and girls, a notion that came to prevalence with the Macross series in the 80s and, later, Escaflowne in the 90s. She added in a heavy dose of Japanese mythology, and the resulting TV adaptation was this strange chimerical beast: an action cartoon, with a typical monster-of-the-week formula where the spiky-haired male hero kills endless hordes of demons with attacks that seem to gain their power from how loud he yells their names ("WIND SCAR!" "IRON REAVER SOUL STEALER!") Yet it was also heavy on the romance, with love triangles and quadrangles popping up over the course of the show, and different "ships" you could root for. The story of a Japanese schoolgirl who goes back in time to help a half-demon boy on his adventures was a perfectly packaged pop product, with opening and ending themes by Top 40 Japanese singers; a fantasy anime update of yokai legends designed to have as broad a market appeal as possible.

And I loved it. I tuned in night after night to watch the show on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim. The plot twists were great, as were the new powers and abilities the characters gained. By the way, I loved the characters. Inu-Yasha, Kagome, Sango, Miroku and Shippo were about as charming a group of heroes you'll find. Being the gaijin I am, I got really into the myth. Also, the show had a great overarching plotline: the characters are on a quest to reunite the shards of a sacred jewel, but an evil demon who they all have a personal vendetta against is also after the shards. I would go to anime cons and see scores of cosplayers dressed as InuYasha, Miroku or Sesshomaru. Yes, I cosplayed some characters, myself.

After a while, the cracks started to show. Takahashi is great at generating ideas, but not at crafting complete narratives. Her earlier comics, Ranma 1/2 and Urusei Yatsura, were conceived with no ending in mind. There would never be any resolution to the romances; the characters would simply eternally pine over one another like the Peanuts gang. How does this relate to her later work, InuYasha? The show had a lot of filler. I think there were actually more episodes designed to pad out the seasons than further the plot. I liked many of these episodes (personal favorite: "The Tree With Human-faced Fruit"), but, as I watched them drag its story out with completely inconsequential sidetracks, I began to wonder if the creators of had an ending in mind at all. Long stories are fine, but there has to be an end in sight. Instead of feeling like I was watching an epic, I felt like I was watching another dumb cartoon with no narrative arc. InuYasha and pals would be fighting the demon Naraku forever, just like Inspector Gadget will be fighting Dr. Claw forever. The show's burnout caused a backlash both in America and Japan, and it got canceled after its fifth season, ending on a complete unsatisfying cliffhanger.

Which brings me to InuYasha: The Final Act.

I'm a long way from my Adult Swim days, and I hardly have the time to sit down and watch an entire anime series. But this is InuYasha, so I made an exception. A 26-episode series to wrap up the story? I'm in.

Some observations:

I had no trouble getting back into the groove of the show. The characters and all their dynamics were still there, as if they'd been waiting for me all those years. I jumped into it without missing a beat.

This time, the storytelling is really lean. This creates some confusion, as demonic antagonists keep popping up from out of nowhere to challenge the heroes. I feel, in the manga, they probably got more characterization and setup.

Like any good climax, there is a feeling of high stakes. The overall mood is dark and violent, with a focus on body horror. The good guys are in desperate straits and their best efforts can't stop Naraku as he reassembles the jewel and grows in power. There are hard choices. Sacrifices are made.

Best of all, Inu-Yasha confirmed what drew me to the show in the first place: it's a good story. This is just a really good fantasy story. Through cutting the fat, I realized that the only thing the first series had against it was length. With a limited number of episodes, the creators could focus more on their splendid concepts. A monk with a wind tunnel in his hand that will eventually devour him. Two lovers who are tricked into killing one another. A girl who slays demons with a weapon made from the bones of demons. An cold-hearted demon who finds his humanity through a healing sword that he originally thinks of as an insult, and the love of a little girl who he rescues with it. A half-demon--violent, arrogant, hateful--whose whole world is changed when he meets a woman from another time. All of these concepts got buried under so much filler that I forgot about them, but in The Final Act there are brought to the forefront with emotional resonance. There is also a good re-emphasis on the tragic aspects of the characters.

The romance works better as well. The first series got bogged down in the cutesey-pie stuff: Kagome telling Inu-Yasha to "Sit!" all the time, or Miroku rubbing Sango's butt all the time. Moe fanservice kind of stuff. In The Final Act, the different couples are just that: couples. Miroku and Sango, who suffer some intense plot developments this time around, are devoted to each other to the point they don't even have to say it. They want to spend their lives together, they want to raise a family, each is willing to put their lives on the line to save the other. The same goes for InuYasha and Kagome. Takahashi's story is about Love with a capital L. The kind that can defeat evil. The kind that can bring people back from the underworld. I think of InuYasha and Kagome the same way I think of Lancelot and Guinevere: as characters who embody the very concept of affection.

This is also a story about heroism. When the protagonists' make their final stand against Naraku, the iconic theme music blasting, it has all the effect of a classic showdown. Even the comic relief characters show their mettle. I was not reminded of anime when watching this, but of medieval Romances like the Knights of the Round Table. Since this is Takahashi's medieval Romance, it makes sense. With this story, and its characters, and its music, she is crafting modern myth. It rocks.

It's also a story about understanding. There is a theme that I've always liked in anime: the humanizing of the enemy. Its something almost entirely absent in American entertainment. As a viewer, I can understand the human motivations behind what Naraku does. InuYasha and Kagome come to an understanding with their  respective romantic rivals, Koga and Kikyo, which offers a good message: having the capacity to love doesn't make someone evil, or worthy of your hate. If anything, the fact that you love the same person makes them more relatable. There are still things you can learn from them, no matter the wounds of the past. Kagome ultimately becomes an ally to Kikyo, her rival for Inu-Yasha's affection. On that note, Inu-Yasha comes to a truce with his half-brother Sesshomaru (but not before they have an awesomely apocalyptic fight scene).

Such a good ending. And I think I might go back and rewatch the first series. Ironically, after all that time complaining about filler, I wanted more. I wouldn't mind watching an episode where these characters write secret admirer notes or help Kagome study for a test or whatever else irritated me at the time. I wouldn't mind watching the movies, which are complete sidestories. I enjoy spending time with the characters. Knowing that there is an end, and it is satisfying, makes all the difference. A story well-told will always be that. InuYasha is such a story. I honestly think it will stand the test of time.

End/geekery. Next week I'll have a con writeup. In the meantime, keep an eye on Wisconson.

"This is war."-Michael Moore

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