Monday, January 30, 2012

Analysis: Princess Mononoke

The role of an author, writer, or artist within the confines of a narrative can be an intrusive one. Ideally, the audience should be presented material without comment, so they may apply their own views and experiences upon it and make their own decisions about who's right and who's wrong. However, the guiding hand of narrative control often makes its presence known, adding a sense of moral direction and "this is what you should feel" to an otherwise standard story. 

One obvious example of this is the character of Lady Eboshi from Hayao Miyazaki's much-lauded "Princess Mononoke". While the film has been praised for presenting a fairly grey-vs-grey view of the otherwise-polarizing conflict between man and nature, it's still obvious in many places that the story represents an authorial viewpoint and is occasionally willing to glorify or vilify one side or another to get its point across. I intend to talk about the film as a whole, due to its spectacular usage of historical and natural designs as well as the tangibility of certain effects (such as arrows fired at the "camera"), but I also feel that Lady Eboshi is at the nexus of many of the movie's interesting bits.

Princess Mononoke is set during an unspecified period in medieval Japan, an era when ancient gods still roamed in the dense forests and high mountains. It is a time where humanity is still desperately struggling to survive in a largely hostile world, made even more hostile by conflicts between humans.

Lady Eboshi is the ruler of Irontown, a small mining settlement that is currently in conflict with the denizens of a nearby forest. The cause of their conflict is iron ore, which the people of Irontown need to make a living. Prior to Eboshi's arrival, the people of Irontown had made their living by using the iron-rich sand underneath them. However, when the sand's deposits of iron dried up, they were forced to look to the nearby mountains for ore. Getting access to the ore required that the trees on the hill be removed, which angered the gods of the forest and their clans. Any attempts to get at the ore were met by vicious assaults, primarily by the Boar clan, whose thick hides could not be pierced by arrows. For a time Irontown fell into a decline, forced to use the dwindling deposits to try to avoid starvation.

Lady Eboshi's arrival was both mysterious and decisive: arriving from parts unknown with guns and gunners in tow, her new weapons proved to be powerful enough to pierce the hides of the boars and clear out enough space for the men to work. She also revolutionized and revitalized the town's industry by hiring the outcasts of society - prostitutes, beggars, lepers, and so on - to bolster Irontown's workforce. She is beloved by her people for giving them a second chance, whether they're natives who can return to making a living or outcasts who appreciate being treated like human beings for once. She is shown treating them in a polite and caring manner, and in return they trust her implicitly as a leader.

Eboshi's true role, or at least the reason that she was given access to firearm technology and men capable of using it, was to kill the great God of the Forest, whose head is said to bring eternal life. Yet it is not made clear what her actual "goal" is - whether agreeing to help kill the Forest God was her ambition all along, or whether it was simply an agreement made so that she could help the people of Irontown. This, at least, must be analyzed in terms of her character and her other actions.

Character Analysis
Lady Eboshi is depicted as a bit of a revolutionary, not in terms of overthrowing an existing order but in terms of societal and technological progress. She is an independent woman recognized for her own intelligence and prowess in the sometimes-chauvinistic medieval Japanese society (more on that later). She represents the advance of technology in terms of presenting advantages to human settlement and production, which makes her somewhat of an antagonist in a story founded around the concept of a "green moral", yet the social aspects of her character often endear her even to audiences who have made up their mind to support "nature". To quote Roger Ebert's review of the movie

As Lady Eboshi's people gain one kind of knowledge, they lose another, and the day is fading when men, animals and the forest gods all speak the same language. The lush green forests through which Ashitaka traveled west have been replaced here by a wasteland; trees have been stripped to feed the smelting furnaces, and on their skeletons, yellow-eyed beasts squat ominously. Slaves work the bellows of the forges, and lepers make the weapons. But all is not black and white. The lepers are grateful that Eboshi accepts them. Her people enjoy her protection.

As a character, Eboshi is composed, mature, and kind-hearted without being weak or indulgent. Despite her mysterious origins, her people appreciate her both for what she's done for them and how she treats them. Her innovations have brought prosperity and stability to the Irontown community, who live free of the threat of starvation or the yoke of some feudal lord, and who all seem to enjoy their lives despite hardships and labor. Yet, in most perceptions of the movie, she is not the "heroine" or the "good side", but rather "morally grey" at best. Why? Because she opposes nature. Because her advancements, despite aiding human lives and human habitation, hurt trees and animals. Because her settlement offends the Gods of the Forest, who hound her caravans and threaten her people. This is connected, intrinsically, to the guiding hand of authorial influence.

The Environmental Moral
Princess Mononoke is a prime example of an aesop or moral outside its zone of applicability. In a modern story, there are plenty of reasons to have a pro-environmental message, because environmental destruction is something that has only really begun in the comparatively recent past. The idea of human settlement being overdeveloped enough that it's negatively affecting the environment is based on humans actually having enough influence to do that. The classic "anti-industrialist" story relies on deforestation and pollution being conducted by an entity that is doing it unnecessarily - the profit-hungry capitalist fat cat, or the uncaring consumerist first-world public. In a story set in medieval times, humans are in most places still struggling to survive, and this is certainly true in Princess Mononoke's setting. The people of Irontown are not wealthy; rather, they are an independent collective barely able to maintain their lifestyle due to their economic reliance on the outside for supplies and their constant conflicts with the creatures of the forest. If they don't mine that mountain, which requires the much-hated clear-cut deforestation, they're either going to starve to death or they're going to be taken over by a lord who is undoubtedly going to be less kind and permissive than Eboshi is.

Now, honestly, I don't think Princess Mononoke is that overt with its message, because again, even people who see it as a "green aesop" can pick up on the virtues of the human faction. In fact, the movie generally seems to have more of an anti-conflict message than a pro-nature one. However, what it comes down to is this: Princess Mononoke is not a movie about "man declaring war on nature". Princess Mononoke is a movie about humans trying to survive, and nature wanting them to die. That's the story. The humans want to dig up a mountain so they can make enough money to continue eating, and the Forest Gods want to stop them. Keep in mind that this isn't the 19th/20th century, with its manifest destinies and industrial revolutions and mass extinctions. This is medieval Japan, at a time where forests covered most of the country. This isn't the last tiny patch of trees in the country or something, this is just "a forest" in a land full of them. 

When it gets down to it, the "nature" faction in the movie doesn't really have a real argument. They don't want humans to cut down any trees, so they kill the humans. The humans weren't even really killing animals, they were just fighting them off so they could get at the iron ore. The forest is important because it is intrinsically valued, not because of any actual traits that can be empathized with, or because of an argument about future sustainability. The fact that the inhabitants of the forest are sentient certainly changes the dynamic, but they were the ones who attacked, and it is the humans who were forced to defend themselves.

The basic problem with environmentalist messages in fictional scenarios is that they always seem to have to rely on some element other than "hey, we live here, don't fuck up the place you live in". There's always some appeal either to the intrinsic value of nature (which is nice, sure, but let's try to get that whole "starvation" thing out of the way first) or the introduction of a sentient species who represents "nature" (the faeries in Ferngully, the Na'vi in Avatar, the Lorax, etc). Princess Mononoke appeals to both: the protagonist, Ashitaka, is disgusted as the abuse of nature until he comes to empathize with the townsfolk a bit more, and the Gods defend the forest for no reason other than "it's our forest".

Lady Eboshi is portrayed as having entirely positive traits with the lone exception of her attitude towards nature. She doesn't even particularly hate nature, she just thinks it's in the way of the process of helping her town grow and her people prosper. She places the welfare of human beings above that of the forest and the animals, and that is her "flaw". Ashitaka, the protagonist, defines it as "hate" because it involves the use of violence, yet can it really be called that if all she's doing is defending her people from aggressors who refuse to surrender even an inch of land?

Eboshi As A Woman: The Feminist Perspective
It's actually somewhat easy to overlook the fact that Lady Eboshi is a strong, independent, well-rounded female character in an otherwise-detailed period piece. It's easy to do so because it's never that big a deal: nobody mentions her gender as being either a boon or a detriment. There's no prejudice against her, even from the neighboring lord who attacks Irontown. It's simply accepted that she's a capable, intelligent noblewoman whose actions have helped her settlement to prosper.

Part of this can be traced to the fact that the treatment of women during much of Japanese history was founded in their capabilities. There are many examples of female warriors or leaders, whether mythical or historical; among their number are Tomoe Gozen, Hojo Masako, Tachibana Ginchiyo, and Maeda Matsu. While there is an obvious bias for male succession and masculine control in these periods, the basic fact was that women were essentially expected to take care of things while their husbands were away, and that included defending the homestead and managing finances. In fact, once the conflicts died down and the position of "samurai" became more of a bureaucratic role than a military one, the status of women fell dramatically. So it's not surprising, in-universe, that a woman like Eboshi would be judged on her conduct and merits, rather than her gender.

The sexual politics of Princess Mononoke largely stem, instead, from the women of Iron Town - the wives, daughters, and liberated prostitutes who serve as an equal part of Irontown's workforce alongside the menfolk. They work, fight, and die alongside the men, with no real distinction apart from the specific tasks they carry out. It is stated that the independent nature of the settlement, and the freedoms Lady Eboshi allows, have made the women of Irontown more open and boisterous than many of their contemporaries. This isn't really contrasted particularly well, because while we are given that information, we do not see many "normal" women of the period to compare them to. The only time it really comes up is when a messenger says they have "brazen impudence" and "need to be taught some respect", but honestly that comes off as more of a commoner/noble thing than a male/female thing.

What's interesting is that, after seeing so many Miyazaki movies and knowing his general stance on feminism, I was actually sort of expecting it to be a bigger deal (and remembered it as being such). Instead, it comes off as very utilitarian: people respect Eboshi because she's capable, and they accept women doing "men's work" (if they even thought of it that way) because they're all working together to keep Irontown running. There was one moment in the movie that came off as being somewhat misandrist, and yet without the pre-conceived influence of Miyazaki as a writer, it might have just come off as regular banter. It was the implicit feeling that the women mocking the men were supposed to be absolutely right when they did it, yet the men remain sympathetic and effective throughout the movie (at least to some extent).

Depiction: The Style & Substance Of Princess Mononoke's Art
Princess Mononoke is, unfortunately, one of Hayao Miyazaki's only ventures into the world of Japanese history. It's unfortunate because he represents it excellently, making use both of the natural world and the aesthetics of the period. These things are integral to telling the story, because without the level of accuracy and detail found in the movie it would be much more difficult to immerse the audience in its narrative.

One might almost assume from the colorful designs found in almost every part of the movie that there were some artistic liberties taken with the material. Honestly, there's not a lot, if there's any at all. Perhaps colors are brighter than they would be in real life; perhaps the grass is greener, and the water bluer. But things like clothing, banners, armor, and so on are exactly as colorful as they would be in real life, if not less. The environments are well-rendered, showing off the natural rises and drops of the mountainous Japanese landscape and the twisting ground of its forests. The historical fidelity doesn't detract from the fantastic nature of the film's premise, but instead grounds it in tangible items and the plausibility of history and myth. The magical or fantastic parts of the films - the giant boars and wolves, or the Forest God - are effectively made more fantastic by the fact that the rest of the film is so realistic.

One part of the movie that deserves note is Ashitaka's cursed arm, the result of an early battle with a demon. The arm has surges of strength that allow Ashitaka's bow-and-arrow to be fired with much more power than normal. The contrast between an "unpowered" shot (which glances off armor, or pierces flesh) and a "powered" shot (which removes limbs and heads) is a simple, yet effective, form of showing the magical as simply a modification of the mundane. Ashitaka accomplishes many unbelievable feats during the course of the movie, yet all of them are justified as products of his arm. The contrast between "what a normal person can do" and "what Ashitaka can do" helps to make the impact feel more real.

The one thing that I felt was represented poorly was the movie's guns. Guns in Princess Mononoke are superweapons; they fire powerful explosive shells, and a single volley can wipe out an entire unit of soldiers. It can be argued that this is to make them more plausible as a war-winning weapon capable of holding off invading samurai, or it can simply be a dramatization of the weapon's effect for reasons of visual distinctiveness. Maybe it was even meant to be an exaggeration for purposes of the environmental message - "look how loud and destructive these guns are". Whatever the reason, it just came off as being weird to me.

When viewed from an authorless perspective (i.e. taking everything at face value), Princess Mononoke is a perfectly legitimate, well-represented, well-thought-out movie. Its only problems, in my opinion, come from the things that one might attribute as being part of Hayao Miyazaki's personal agenda. It doesn't even really matter whether or not you agree with that agenda, it's an issue of the film presenting things in a judgmental or biased matter. A storyteller ought to be neutral, so that the audience may judge content for themselves. I focused on Lady Eboshi throughout the article because she is a prime example of that: viewed without the assumption of "nature is good on its own merits", she is unequivocally a positive, kind, and caring character, and it is only when the movie begins suggesting that nature is worth preserving even at the cost of human life that her character becomes "grey".

Aside from that, Princess Mononoke is an absolutely wonderful example of the way that realism and fantasy can be combined to enhance both things. This applies to both its visuals and its story - the consistent logic and characterization helps to immerse the audience just as much as the representation of the costuming and environments. Yet it was the sense of authorial interference that occasionally broke that immersion, and that ought to serve as a warning (or at least a suggestion) to future writers and directors.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Style & Substance, Continued

In the last article I talked about the difference between style and utility when designing characters, with the general idea that the majority of combatants are going to prefer the latter while still including elements of the former when they don't interfere significantly with it. However, it's also true that there are situations where "utility" isn't quite as important as it usually is, as illustrated by the examples involving Japanese culture I provided. So let's give the other side a bit of a fair shake and look at two examples where winning, or even surviving, isn't everything.

Gladiators & Arena Fighters
Whether in the Coliseum in Rome, in a provincial arena, or even as part of a travelling show, the gladiator is the prime example of "combat as a spectacle" in history. As such, gladiators fulfill a special role when discussing utility and style, which is that they (or more likely their handlers) cared very deeply about both, and couldn't usually sacrifice either of those aspects. A poorly armored and equipped gladiator won't last long enough to make the fight good, but a boringly armored fighter is no fun to watch for the crowds - and they're the people you've got to keep happy, because it's entertainment.

One example of this is found in the different "classes" of gladiator. A gladiator's class or type was determined by the weapons they used, the armor they wore, and the tactics they adopted. They presented a sort of pre-packaged, easily communicable concept for fight advertisement. If a fight was going to be between a velites and a thraecis, the average spectator knew what they were going to get. Certain classes were commonly paired against each other based on how exciting it was to watch them fight. Classes ranged from common sword-and-shield fighters like the secutor and the murmillo (who were distinguished primarily by the shape of their helmets) to more exotic styles like the net-and-trident-wielding retarius, or the enigmatic scissor, who apparently fought with an arm-encasing steel attachment.

As mentioned, gladiators were a necessary cross between style and substance. In many cases a gladiator would be armored only in areas where it was actually likely to be lethal, so that there could be exciting, blood-drawing cuts on less vital areas like the arms or flanks. Helmets were almost always used because of the lethality of a head hit, and to balance the sort of "boring anonymity" a helmet provides, the helmets would be given interesting and recognizable shapes. This was compounded with heraldry emblazoned upon shields, so that their bearers could be recognized even in their armor. All these things, while part of the "style" aspect of the equation, are also utilitarian: the purpose of a gladiator was to draw a crowd and to become popular, not just to win. As such, a gladiator's costume was designed to be exciting and enticing as well as protective.

Interestingly, the idea of gladiator combat as a to-the-death bloodsport was not always true. For a brief period after Emperor Augustus took power, it was actually illegal for fights to be "to the death", and combat involving edged weapons became fairly rare. During that period, "gladiator" was about as hazardous a profession as boxer or professional wrestler. There was definitely pain, crushing impacts, and the risk of serious concussions or broken bones, but those are byproducts of a show, rather than the goal. It totally changes the dynamic of the event in terms of win/loss relationships as well, since "losing" doesn't mean "dying". A story set in a similarly staged setting would have overall less tension than one involving fights to the death, but would also provide a reasonable way to show that the protagonist doesn't win 100% of the time without killing him off.

Since I talked about female warriors and how best to depict them in the last article, I'd also like to talk about female gladiators here. It's difficult to gauge how common female gladiators were, and whether or not they were "taken seriously", based on the varying evidence that historians and archaeologists have produced. However, we know for certain that they existed, and some evidence suggests that they were fairly widespread. Their main draw to a crowd came not from their combat abilities, but rather titillation, scandal, and the thrill of the exotic. This was even more pronounced if the female gladiator in question was a noblewoman who'd volunteered for thrill-seeking reasons, a group that Juvenal condemned in his satires for essentially stepping out of their rightful place in society (though Juvenal was critical of more serious female combatants as well, leading one to believe that he was just a good old-fashioned sexist).

The treatment of female gladiators, and the crowd's general reaction to them, reflects the gladiator's status as a form of entertainment. People didn't go to see them because they were good at fighting, and they didn't seem to respect them as combatants: they went because they were women who often fought with breasts exposed, and the manner in which they conducted themselves represented an attractively decadent breach of polite society. They were a sideshow, not a serious competition. It's somewhat disheartening to draw similarities between that treatment and, say, how female pro wrestlers are portrayed, or female characters in movies and video games.

In fact, as a whole, it's sort of interesting how comparisons can be drawn between gladiator culture and our modern entertainment industries. They serve the same purpose: get an audience who'll pay to see whatever you're providing by creating a product designed to attract their attention. The purpose of a gladiator's outfit is to be memorable and to attract fans and followers who will pay to see him or her fight. The purpose of a fighting game character's outfit is to be memorable and to attract fans and followers who will pay to play a game featuring that character in it. The field of gladiator-styled settings is a rich one, as it excuses many stylistic or artistic decisions by the fact that the justification is the same in-universe and in a meta sense.

Rituals and Pride
I discussed the Japanese in the last article, and how the nature of their warfare permitted them, or even required them, to combine the utilities of combat with a sense of decorum and style. The reason they did that is because their wars were about more than just winning battles and conquering lands, but were also about personal and family integrity and reputation. The meaning of "war", for them, was different than for most other parts of the world, and when there was a culture clash they had to adapt to it. They were used to war being a part of life and social interaction, even though a great deal of Japanese history is actually very peaceful. The natures of war, when they arose, were still bound by the traditions and cultures of the people that fought them. Certainly most cultures have some "rules" for war, but these are usually for moral or diplomatic reasons. The "rules" being about honor in a martial sense are more rare, and usually tend to be associated with a more religious or spiritual view of combat.

The idea of war as being more ritualistic than utilitarian is known as endemic warfare, which is also called (fittingly enough) ritual warfare. Many cultures around the world practice or practiced this sort of warfare, and it's useful for those cultures when combat is considered a necessary part of society and masculinity. In some ways it is to war what farming is to plants and animals: a way to consistently create a required product with little fuss. Sure, people die and all that, but it satisfies a cultural need for violence (for multiple reasons) without actually doing a huge amount of damage. Actual "real warfare" is conducted only against those who present a legitimate threat, or "don't play by the rules". Basically, though, the fact that the war is conducted for social reasons, rather than strictly utilitarian ones, means that there's a different set of criteria used for how combat is conducted, what rules are involved, and so on.

A good example of such a society is the Aztecs and their "flower wars" (that link is worth reading if you're interested in the concept). Flower Wars were basically fought by the Aztecs and their allies against their essentially-pacified neighbors, who were too weak to legitimately resist them. The reason for, and exact nature of, these wars is argued, but a popular consensus is that they were fought to provide slaves for sacrifices (as "captured in combat" was a necessary attribute for certain sacrifices), as well as to provide combat experience for Aztec warriors, which was integrally tied to societal status. This justification established that Aztec warriors would need to capture, rather than kill, their opponents, since one can hardly sacrifice foes who are already dead. The ritualized nature of the combat meant that the Aztecs and their neighbors often had incredibly extravagant outfits related to their position within Aztec society, because it was as much a religious or cultural ceremony as it was a battle.

Like the Japanese and the Mongol invasion, the Aztecs had their own culture clash when they were faced with Spanish conquistadors. The Aztecs, who'd been fighting in a ritualistic fashion for centuries, suddenly found themselves fighting an opponent who actually took it seriously, and their need to adapt cost them several early battles (though the speed at which they adapted varies by source). War, to them, was a sport, with rules to be followed. They weren't stupid, of course, but they had to change their tactics and their ideas when confronted with people who were doing things in a manner other than that which they were used to.

Examples like these reinforce the importance of a culture's perception of death (or "death perception"). If you're of the opinion that death represents the end of existence, then of course you're going to fight as seriously as possible unless there's a mitigating factor such as saving one's friends or family members. On the other hand, if you believe in an afterlife, or especially a warrior afterlife that rewards bravery, it's going to change the way you look at things. The intangible world of the spiritual is a major motivation if you think it exists, because it's a goal to work towards. Your life can be used for something, rather than simply "ending". In such cases, "style" gains a utility all its own. Of course, even Vikings, who believed in Valhalla, tended to wear sensible mail armor and helmets, so maybe in some cases it's better to take precautions just in case.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Character Design: The Style of Substance

So there's a post that I think we should talk about. This one right here. This is a post by an artist for League of Legends defending a female character's design in meta-terms such as "readability" and "engagement" and "silhouette" - the usual terminology, common in gamer knowledge basically since Valve explained their character designs for Team Fortress 2. In essence, his argument is that character design in a meta-sense (i.e. characters designed by artists for an audience, rather than characters made to look believable) explains why the character is the way it is despite the occasional protest from those who feel her design is somewhat unbalanced.

Here's the character he's talking about.

One of the recurring themes of his defense of this character is the need to identify the character's gender. Whether it's in terms of her equipment or her physique, there's this sort of overwhelming need for gender to be reinforced by her design. To cherry-pick some quotes:
"So, we do often I believe have to make sure we're making sure to make sure that the figure is readable as a guy or girl. How do we do this? Well, proportion, accentuation, exaggeration, etc."
"If we make her too broad, you might mistake Sejuani for a male, that'd be, ya know, not what we want."
"Thickening her up, while addressing how a chick could wield such a weapon comes at a risk of her looking like a male also."

Here's a question that I don't think is unfair to ask: why is that important? Because that's the #1 thing he focuses on, apart from the occasional mention of "working within pre-established motifs" (which has its own problems, but one step at a time). Shouldn't a character's status as a warrior or a mage or a thief or any other class/profession be more important than their gender? It's just generally established that you need to be able to tell what gender a character is, because if you couldn't then (???).

Additionally, a huge amount of his post is dedicated to the idea of a "silhouette", which I think you'll notice has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that she's wearing a bikini top. He's doing a bit of a clever job with word usage, making it seem like he's actually justifying that design, and all he's really saying is "we wanted it to make it look like a hot chick and our target audience wants to see hot chicks, ergo she's a hot chick, deal with it".

His justification reminds me a lot of my complaint with Soul Calibur, which was that many of the characters were designed in that meta-sense of appealing to fans and not in the sense of actually connecting their design to their characters or using them to illustrate something about said characters. However, the contrast was that Soul Calibur also had a few more reasonable characters (including female characters) whereas League of Legends' lack of such characters is why there were complaints in the first place. To sort of "work our way up from the bottom", let's look at the basic things that should go into believable character design.

The first aspect of a character's design - and I say "first" because the other bits can be sort of layered over it - is utility, which refers to the aspects of a character's design that are based on cause-and-effect relationships. While what might spring to mind most readily is something like reasonable armor or clothing, this also includes things like a physique that matches a character's lifestyle and skillset, and physical attributes such as scars or even a character's hairstyle (such as the Norman and Japanese hairstyles designed around cushioning helmets) that can be connected to their background. Basically, I'm talking about anything that the character would choose to wear for a logical reason in-universe, or any part of a character's design that makes sense as something that happened to that character.

The purpose of utility in character design is to illustrate how the character is affected by the world and how the character intends to affect the world. The thing about "meta-designs" is that they sort of exist in a vacuum: the artist sat down and made something s/he thought looked good, and that's the end of that story. In contrast, a character's utility or justified lack thereof says a lot about how seriously they take their work. A character clad head to toe in armor reinforces the idea that armor helps avoid dying, which then reinforces the idea that dying is a bad thing, which - simple as it may sound - creates tension. A character who bundles up in an arctic environment is conveying the climate as something other than "the ground is white and there's flakes in the air". A character who is scarred is an obvious veteran; I mean, that's basically the simplest indicator of veterancy there is. If you took two characters and drew scars on one of them, bam, nothing else needed, the scarred one has seen some serious business. If there's a story behind each scar, even better. The elements of the design help tell a story with the character, and thus become relevant to the story.

Conversely, a character who intentionally shuns utility, or in the case of physical modification has managed to avoid such things, is made actually interesting if "utility" is the norm. For example, if there was a character who chose not to wear armor out of a sense of personal chivalry or honor, that would be far more meaningful in a setting where it's established that not wearing armor is a bad idea. It would be established that the stakes are higher for the character because people who don't wear armor tend to end up dead, which (again) creates more tension. If a character is unmarred in a world where every other warrior is realistically torn up and mangled, the audience (or readers, or players) can note the difference rather than simply writing him off as another regular guy. The contrast needs to exist in order for those things to be meaningful.

It's also possible to have designs that have only partial utility - that recognize a concept like "armor is good", but don't exactly follow it through. This is also the field of the meta-design, where parts of a character's design are used as a sort of visual shorthand without actually understanding the basic principles they're meant to represent. Skyrim was guilty of this quite a bit, which honestly was worse because of the fact that the game was so good at representing weather effects. Both the "armor" and "clothing" aspects of steel plate are sort of not-quite right: there's a solid cuirass with a warm layer of fur underneath it, but then there's no arm coverage at all and the shape of the plate itself leaves some unnecessary openings. Essentially, they included two elements that were reasonable, theoretically, but then didn't actually think them out in terms of how the character wearing them would react.

The benefit of having utility be fully, rather than partially, represented is that it allows the audience to tap into a lot of the sensory information lacking in an audio/visual medium, whether it's something as intense as pain and impact or something as simple as warmth or chill. I singled out Skyrim in the last paragraph because, as I mentioned, they did very well with the weather effects, enough so that I was able to truly imagine the feel of the wind and the cold air. It was therefore reasonably unimmersive when I couldn't really get any clothing that seemed up to the task of keeping a character warm under such circumstances, which is strange when you include the fact that "it's cold here" was basically the entire theme of the game's setting. It represented a break in an otherwise well-rendered product, which made it more severe.

Finally, "utility" is basically going to be the same for a man and a woman. There's no way around it, at least for the majority of situations. A suit of armor is not going to need to be significantly different for a man and a woman because well-designed armor is shaped to be effective, not to be representative of its wearer. Unless armor is very thin, there's basically no need to make it conform to a character's physique, and even if that is done, there's right ways and wrong ways to go about doing it. Clothing is pretty much similar; a parka's going to be a parka no matter who's under it. The problems with female designs almost always arise from it being designed "by artists, for audiences" rather than being examined from an in-universe perspective. Yet, strangely enough, this same phenomenon is one of the most persuasive in terms of actually conveying the benefits of believability. People who don't really care about armor design or reasonable clothing in fantasy are still often a bit "put off" by the depiction of female characters, which raises questions about utility, which then lead to questions of their own. Basically, I'm saying that people who don't really care about believability are confronted with female designs so ridiculous that their suspension of disbelief is shattered and they begin to say things like "wait a minute that doesn't make sense from multiple perspectives", which is a net gain for people like me.

Of course, people don't only choose to wear what makes sense in a utilitarian sense. People have their own sense of aesthetics and fashion that affects what they choose to wear and in which situations they choose to wear it. The problem with this in a lot of character design is that (a) "style" is treated as being totally the opposite of "utility", as opposed to something that can be blended with it, and/or (b) the "style" in question is usually the artist's, not something justified as being related to the character's mindset. A character's sense of style can say as much about that character as their choices with regard to utility, so conveying that aspect of a character is just as important in terms of character design as an aggregate of a character's choices.

Let's start with style as a reflection of the character. There's plenty of ways that a character's culture and background can be tied to their visual appearance; in fact, pretty much anything the character wears (or any modification they make to their body, such as piercings, tattoos, and hair styles) can be representative of a culture if done properly. Let's say a film is set during the Crusades. By contrasting European and Middle-Eastern fashions, it's easy to establish who belongs to each culture. Furthermore, due to the long-term nature of the Crusader Kingdoms, many crusaders became somewhat "nativized", adopting Middle Eastern customs out of either utility or simple appreciation for their culture. Hence it was often easy to tell the difference between a first-generation Crusader, new to the Holy Land, and a second-generation Crusader, born to those who'd been came before. This is only one limited example, but it illustrates the ways in which an aesthetic design can be used for something beyond simple audience reactions and actually provide context and clues for the audience as well.

Furthermore, it's utterly fallacious to say that "style" by necessity means sacrificing utility. In some cases, of course, it does, but there were many ways to combine a sense of style and utility in cultures all around the world. The thing is, armor was worn by people, and people generally have a sense of style even in serious situations; they just look for ways to include stylistic choices without compromising an outfit's utility (and they know that if they DO compromise utility, they're going to pay a price for it). Even looking exclusively at clothing worn with armor (not even the armor itself), there's surcoats, tabards, jackets, skirts, tunics, puffed shirts, capes, cloaks, robes, plumes, and flags worn on your back. Some of you might notice some less-than-utilitarian items in that list, at least for combat purposes, and my counter is that they were generally useful in another sense, whether it was warmth or recognition (by other people, not by the audience). If you said they'd generally take those items off to fight, because a hindrance is a hindrance no matter how you cut it, you'd be totally right. I'm giving you a lot of credit here, but I think you've earned it, hypothetical reader.

I'd like to link to a rather interesting thread that notes (based on translations of French texts) that the Knights Hospitallier, almost intrinsically linked with the monastic concept of wearing robes into battle, in fact objected to them on utilitarian grounds and were eventually permitted by the Pope to not have to wear them if necessary. When I was talking earlier about "a contrasted lack of utility", that's the kind of thing I'm talking about. That situation would never arise unless the effects of clothing on combat effectiveness was represented, because everyone would wear what they want. Hence the religious devotion of wearing robes on the battlefield was established by the fact that the robes got in the way, which may seem like a little thing, but it's more than "they wear robes because they're monks, the end".

I talked about female designs from a utility perspective (that perspective being "there's no reason to have female designs be different from male designs"), but I'm also going to address them from the viewpoint of a character's style. This is because "style" is one of the most common arguments that I, personally, have seen in defense of female characters having overtly feminine designs, refusing to wear helmets, dressing in titillating manners, and so on. While it's certainly true that many female characters could be justified in dressing in such ways (fairly easily, at that), the more important point is that designers don't really care. For Soul Calibur, I objected to two characters: Isabella Valentine, the chaste noblewoman alchemist who dresses like a dominatrix, and Sophitia Alexandra, the pure religious devotee who by SC4 is wearing literally two thin strips of linen over her breasts. I also pointed out several characters who lived in climates that supported more skimpy clothing, or who had personalities/backgrounds that would justify them. The problem is not "girls dress skimpy" or "girls have big tits" by themselves, but rather the fact that these attributes almost always feel like "the artist needs to include some boobs so that 14-year-old boys will buy it". A character's style and sense of fashion are reflective of their characters and their cultures, so there are ways to basically justify any outfit you care to name - it's just something you have to actually do, rather than relying on the audience (including the ever-critical feminist audience) to be like "oh okay that makes sense you've objectified her, good enough for me".

I'd like to take some final time here to acknowledge medieval Japanese designs, which serve as a quite interesting examination of a sort of "tug of war" between style and utility. Basically, the samurai had a lot of little things that started as utility and turned into style, or started as style and turned into utility, or even just sort of moved between them. Some examples:

- The samurai haircut, or chonmage, started as a utilitarian concept: it was designed to hold one's helmet in place. However, the fact that it became so common among samurai for that utilitarian reason meant that it became a sort of cultural standard, associated with the samurai class and the tradition they entailed.

- Samurai armor was both useful for defensive purposes and highly stylized due to the nature of its construction. The combination of lacquered scales/lames, colored lace (used to hold the armor together), and the clothing worn underneath meant that samurai were highly colorful and noticeable without sacrificing much in terms of defense. Later, during the Sengoku period, mass-produced breastplates made of banded steel plates were actually designed to look like older, more fashionable lamellar. That's not to mention helmet crests, which got more ridiculous the further up the chain of command you got (essentially trading combat utility, which was less needed if you were a high-ranking officer, for recognizability).

- Ritualized combat between warriors during battles was an expected norm during feudal-era battles, and this was arguably due in large part to Japan's insular nature. Japan's early civil wars were as much a ritualized affair of honor and personal esteem as they were about actual conquest. As such, most "battles" in Japan consisted of individual Samurai challenging each other to duels - because "style" was more important than "utility". For much the same reason, the Japanese eschewed the use of shields despite the importance of the bow in their culture. While many tenets of Bushido were created long after the period was actually over, martial honor in Japanese society was still very influential with regards to how their tactics evolved.

- The ritualized nature of samurai combat was most notably tested during the Mongol invasion of 1274, where a Japanese force met a combined group of Mongols, Chinese, and Koreans, using weapons and technology from the far reaches of their empire. The Japanese, who hadn't had a "proper war" in decades, attempted to carry out combat based on their ritualized, honor-based system. This failed miserably. It was several strokes of luck, such as delays on the parts of the Mongols and famously stormy weather, that beat the Mongols back, not martial prowess. When the Mongols invaded again in 1281, the Japanese were more ready for them, having fortified the coastline and adapted their tactics to a more skirmish-oriented mindset. Again, of course, it was the storm that truly won the battle, but it's a clear example of the Japanese adapting to a new enemy, trading style for necessary utility.

The reason these examples interest me is because they're stories about changing environments. They're an evolution, and in some cases a tradeoff. The rules of reality still applied to the samurai, just like they did to everyone else. It's just that, in most cases, they didn't care because combat was about ritual, not results - and when they found reasons to take it seriously, they moved towards utility. I could easily cite dozens of other warrior cultures that had similar concepts, such as the gladiators (whose outfits were designed entirely to draw a crowd, and yet still always included a helmet), but the point is made, I think. It's entirely possible to make a character whose design is (a) distinctive, (b) stylish, (c) justifiable, and (d) relevant, all without having to resort to bikini tops on your winter-themed warrior characters in the name of "silhouettes".

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Analysis: Clash of the Titans (2010)

Clash of the Titans is a movie that's a remake of a movie based on the myth of the Greek hero Perseus. While Hollywood tends to do poorly with both modern remakes of classic movies AND movies based on history or myth, I'm going to go ahead and say that neither of the sources that CotT 2011 drew upon were particularly "deep" to begin with. So I'm going to cut Clash of the Titans a bit of slack on that regard, and I'm going to try to look at it as it is: a movie about a man who goes on a quest to kill a monster.

I didn't expect a lot out of Clash of the Titans. I knew there were going to be some obligatory Hollywood things - the crew-cut bland protagonist who's on his way to Space Marine status, the love interest, the explosions, etc. The fact that I went into the movie essentially glossing over the existence of these things, though, allowed me to be surprised by the fact that there were some things that I legitimately liked about it. So let's talk about those things, and pretend Sam Worthington doesn't exist (not that that's particularly hard).

For reference purposes, here's Clash of the Titans' story in a nutshell. Perseus is a foundling who ends up in the city of Argos after his foster family is killed by the collateral damage of a vengeful God. In Argos, the same God, Hades, states that he will destroy the city for its impudence and its pride. In the film, this stems from the city's rejection of the Gods' rule; in the original myth it's a different city (in Ethiopia) and Poseidon is going to destroy it because its queen boasted she was more beautiful than his Nereids.

Perseus is identified as a demigod through essentially unknown means (we see Zeus and Hades talking about how he is, and then we cut back and suddenly the humans know too). The people of Argos force Perseus to  find a way to kill the Kraken that will be loosed upon the city. Perseus sets out with a group of soldiers (including a few veterans) and some monster hunters for hire to find a way to do so. This way turns out to be the head of Medusa, which can turn the creature to stone. The rest seems pretty self-explanatory, so I'll cut it short.

In the past I've talked about "power levels" for characters, and how a character being too powerful, or inexplicably powerful, robs a scene of its tension. As a big ol' blockbuster Hollywood movie, I was expecting all sorts of that stuff from Clash of the Titans, and while it is technically there, I think it's also important to note how it's justified enough that it works.

Point #1: Perseus is a demigod. That's part of the myth, too, not just part of the movie. Perseus isn't a normal man, he's one of Zeus' many bastards. The fact that he's half-human makes him vulnerable, as he remains throughout the movie, yet he's also stronger, faster, and tougher than the average man due to his divine blood.

Point #2: Perseus doesn't travel alone; he's got several groups of companions. First are the soldiers of Argos, who are joined to his quest because, well, it's their city. They serve as the weakest members of the group, apart from a few veterans. Second are the monster hunters, whose job is specifically to deal with the kind of enemies they face. These individuals join the quest because it interests them, and leave when the stakes become too high (which shows a level of actual independent thought and agency, rather than slavish devotion to the protagonist). Finally, there are the Djinn, desert sorcerers who have replaced much of their body with enchanted wooden prostheses. These individuals help Perseus and his group because they wish to subvert the power of the Gods, though only one actually joins Perseus' quest rather than providing passive assistance.

So we have a pretty efficient tier system set up. At the top is Perseus, who is a demigod, albeit a relatively inexperienced one. He has the highest potential, but is dragged down by the fact that he's a fisherman, not a warrior. Yet they make a point to illustrate that his reflexes and skills are sharper than a veteran's simply by his birthright. He is an interesting case because he is both better and worse than he could be: the advantage he is given puts him only slightly ahead of his fellows, whereas if he'd trained as much as them he'd be untouchable by mortal hands.

Next in line are the specialists: the Djinn and the hunters. These are individuals with skills and knowledge above the common soldiers' for justified reasons. The Djinn are sorcerers who have augmented their bodies and can use magic. The monster hunters are all veterans who specialize in fighting the various beasts and creatures of Mythological Greece. Both are more skilled than the average soldier for justifiable reasons that helps flesh them out as characters, however shallow their characters may end up being otherwise.

Finally, there are the soldiers. The soldiers are never depicted as being "incompetent", per se. Rather, their enemies are simply powerful beings: giant scorpions or harpies or gods. They die easily, as humans would logically do in such circumstances, but they also give a good fight of it whenever they can. Working in teams, they're able to bring down larger enemies even when they're obviously outclassed. What I appreciate about the soldiers in Clash of the Titans is that they provide a much-needed grounding element. Unlike some movies or games, where the soldiers would be actually weak, the soldiers in Clash of the Titans are normal, which helps illustrate that everything else is strong.

So let's take a look at a short scene from the movie, a fight against a suitably monstrous foe.

Let's list off some things that are notable from this fight.

First off: everyone's moving quickly. "Everyone" in this case includes the scorpions, which gives the scene a sense of dynamic action. The movements of the humans, whether striking, blocking, or leaping, is as fast as the movements of the scorpions, who stab and thrust with their pincers and tails. What a lot of games and movies end up doing to make large opponents more "simple" is to basically slow them down a bunch. Think back to the lazy swings of the Cave Troll in Lord of the Rings, for example. Yet here the speed of each set of combatants makes the situation more tense, because it feels like everyone's giving it their all.

Second, there's impact from strikes, again on both sides of the fight. The human swords tink and clink off the scorpion's chitin, though a two-handed axe strike naturally has more success. Meanwhile, the scorpion attacks in two main ways: a bash from a pincer, or a stab from either a pincer or tail. The former is used more obviously in this clip, but the latter gets used later in the fight and takes down a few soldiers. The threat of the latter also helps reinforce the importance of shields and armor; even though both are pierced by a direct strike, Perseus evades death twice in that clip alone: first by his armor deflecting a jab, and second by holding a shield in front of him to block the stinger.

Third, the presence of the regular soldiers helps to ground the whole affairs in a few different ways. It helps establish that a normal human has to deal with these fast, poisonous monsters in a pretty straightforward affair of blocking and stabbing at vulnerable points. It also means that there's essentially jobbers around: guys who die in order to make the monster more convincing and portray it as being a threat. While that feels fake in scenarios where the "jobbers" in question show no skill and die easily, the fact that some of the soldiers make progress against the monsters makes their deaths more believable and less "oh yeah they're redshirts".

The end result is that the monsters establish themselves as being solid threats, both in terms of their depiction and in the damage they inflict, and also the soldiers present themselves as being pretty solid, too. It's a situation where both sides are actually pretty evenly matched, rather than one side curb-stomping the other, and those who are more powerful are justified in being so. The previously established hierarchy of power explains why Perseus is fast enough to survive while others don't, and yet his weaknesses also show that he is still in danger, thus preserving the tension.

Now here's another fight scene, the climactic battle against Medusa. Medusa is a classic "puzzle boss", as many Greek monsters are, requiring a combination of brains and brawn to defeat. The premise is simple: if you look into Medusa's eyes, you turn to stone. The warriors must defeat Medusa without looking at her while in her own territory. They must track her by sound and smell alone, with only the barest glances at the edge of their vision to help them visually. Also, she has a bow for some reason.

So, naturally the two soldiers die first. They died because they're normal humans in a wholly disadvantageous situation, and reality catches up with them pretty quickly. This leaves Perseus, the Djinn, and the veteran (who's taken an arrow but is still trucking along). Perseus' plan is to make Medusa chase him by winding through narrow areas where she can't shoot at him, hoping the other two will be able to ambush it at some point along the route. Because of the nature of this plan, this isn't so much a "fight" scene as it is a "chase" scene: Perseus is basically just running away, and the physical challenges he endures are more related to sprinting and jumping than swordsmanship.

After his two companions are taken down while dealing damage to the creature, Perseus stumbles upon his famous solution of using a shield's reflection to get a general sense of where she is, and then attacking. I felt this scene managed to be tense despite the somewhat over-the-top jumping decapitation they went with in the movie, because there's still a sense of both exertion and fear on Perseus' part. Indeed, even after the attack connects he is obviously short of breath and shaken a bit. The reason he was able to pull it off is because he's a demigod (and because of his epiphany regarding the mirror) more than because he's a protagonist.

The final thing I'd like to say about Clash of the Titans refers to a stylistic design contrast. Most of the equipment in the movie is reasonably well-grounded; I'm sure there are quibbles about their actual construction and design, but swords look like swords, shields look like shields, and armor looks like armor. The one exception is this an enchanted sword that Perseus receives from Zeus, which is depicted to the right. The thing about that sword is that it's actually pretty simple and standard for common fantasy. However, much like Demon's Souls, the "alien nature" of the sword is made more evident because the rest of the weapons in the film are so comparatively believable. The weapon doesn't look like it was made by human hands, and in most fantasy it would be like "yeah they all do". In Clash of the Titans, that appearance is actually important, because it wasn't. The contrast between a relatively simple human-made blade and an engraved, artistically designed divine blade helps establish a level of magic or sorcery in the setting. There are a few other examples of this coming up as well, such as Perseus replacing his broken shield with a scorpion's carapace, or the general look of the Djinn compared to the dirty, fleshy humans. The thing that I think Clash of the Titans does best, and why I like it despite its flaws, is convey the sense that this is fantasy overlaid upon reality, rather than fantasy with rules separate from reality. It's "real Greece" (to an extent) combined with monsters and Gods. It's what people actually believed life could be like.