Saturday, February 7, 2015

There's A Whole Damn World Out There

I. Hayao Miyazaki Is Right

A while back I wrote an article about Princess Mononoke. It was something I essentially just dashed off (as all my articles are) and despite this it's now my third most-read article. In that article, I made a lot of points about how the film is fundamentally realistic despite being fantasy. Reality forms the base, and the fantastic elements augment it. The fact that the film is bright & colorful adds to the realism, rather than detracting from it - the idea that "reality is dull" is a false one propagated by regen-health shooters.

I bring this up because I'd like to talk about a few quotes from Princess Mononoke's spearhead, Hayao Miyazaki. While I'm sure some of you have seen the falsely attributed "anime is garbage" pics floating around the internet, there are some actual negative things he's said about anime and its culture in the past.

“You see, whether you can draw like this or not, being able to think up this kind of design, it depends on whether or not you can say to yourself, ‘Oh, yeah, girls like this exist in real life.’ If you don’t spend time watching real people, you can’t do this, because you’ve never seen it. Some people spend their lives interested only in themselves. Almost all Japanese animation is produced with hardly any basis taken from observing real people, you know. It’s produced by humans who can’t stand looking at other humans. And that’s why the industry is full of otaku!” (Source)

The more astute among you might notice that Hayao Miyazaki is basically making the same point that I've been making for years - that real life is a foundation, and fiction should draw from it. Miyazaki finds that he is frustrated with people who learn more from fiction than from reality, and who don't understand reality well enough to depict it. While many of Miyazaki's films are fantastic in nature, there's always at least some grounding of reality, and Princess Mononoke is by far the best example of this.

(In response to the issue of "lovely girls" vs "so-so girls" in anime)  "It's difficult. They immediately become the subjects of rorikon gokko (play toy for Lolita Complex guys). In a sense, if we want to depict someone who is affirmative to us, we have no choice but to make them as lovely as possible. But now, there are too many people who shamelessly depict (such heroines) as if they just want (such girls) as pets, and things are escalating more and more. While we are talking about the human rights for women, why they can do this, I don't want to analyze much, but..." (Source)

Here's Hayao Miyazaki talking about the way that women and girls are depicted in media. He notes that girls are often depicted as being "lovely" so that they will be perceived positively by the audience. In response to this, a culture has developed where artists and audiences treat "lovely girls" as objects or pets. Miyazaki has always been a proponent of depicting girls and women in active roles, and his disdain for this is pretty clear. I wonder if anyone has ever screamed about Hayao Miyazaki being an "SJW". I know there are people on both sides of the aisle who have criticized the politics of "The Wind Rises", so it's possible.

What frustrates Miyazaki is basically the same as what frustrates me - although his love of childlike innocence is totally at odds with my brooding cynicism. Yet fundamentally speaking, Miyazaki is frustrated by artists who don't care about the world around them, writers who treat characters as playthings, and audiences who only expect to be pandered to. An interesting line in that last article occurs when Miyazaki lays out his "ideal" Japan - a low population, environmentally stable, and socially aware. He ends his description by stating "If a mass market for animation no longer exists in such a country, so be it." A curious line for an artist, but certainly consistent with his views of the world. Let's let that lead us into the second half of this article.

II. Why Do People Care

Throughout the life of Exploring Believability, I've tried to explain the concepts of realism in a way that made sense. In my original article, I laid out the three basic values of believability - essentially, what benefits it provides for a story. In the following articles I began to expound on specific details and techniques, and examined existing stories and settings. Eventually, the issue of "art" came into play, and while I certainly had many things to say about it, I think it's time to settle it conclusively.

Firstly, art is a totally subjective term connected to a set of societal values. It's simply unavoidable, from an objective standpoint. I generally focused on the second half of that definition, and there is a reason I did so: because I was attempting to influence people's ideas by using those societal values as a motivating tool. In this article, as well as this one, I used "art" and "taking something seriously" essentially as a carrot on a stick. I don't believe I was being dishonest in doing so; in both articles, I said outright that this was about "the way society views art".

Secondly, if you don't want to care about the "societal values" aspect of art, you don't have to. No one can make you do it. You might remember this message from a later set of articles, such as this one and this one. While many people seemed to think these articles were aimlessly existentialist, it's a pretty important component of the discussion - art only has value if you allow it to have value. It's a societal influence. The only thing it does is change the way people think about things. If you don't want to care, you don't have to. But, as I pointed out, most people do care what people think, whether they want to or not.

Thirdly, there are more important things in fiction than "art". A lot more. A lot more. Fiction affects the way people think. This is barely disputable, yet it is the primary defense of the gaming medium as it exists today. People get angry when you suggest this, even though their anger is often expressed in ways that prove the principle. People don't think they're crazy or irrational. People don't think they're affected. People, in general, think they're being logical and reasonable, even if they're justifying torture or expressing racial hatred or using an overtly fictional product to justify a selfish Libertarian philosophy. Fiction affects the way people think because it, too, represents a set of societal values. What's "acceptable" and "unacceptable" are often established through culture, and fiction is a cultural work.

With that said, what's up with art?

III. Understanding How The Product Works

The thing you have to understand is that there are essentially two "spheres" of art.

The Major Sphere is the experience. Why do people go to movies? Emotional gratification. Regardless of the genre - action, drama, comedy, romance, "thinky", etc - that is the common goal. In almost every scenario, the reason is that the audience wants to feel something. They want to feel intensity, or they want to feel moved, or they want to feel like part of something, or they want to find themselves deep in thought. Movies are a space wherein emotions can be manipulated, and people go to movies because they want their emotions to be manipulated. The same is true of books, movies, paintings, etc. Ultimately, all creative products are an attempt to provoke emotion of one kind or another.

What's the difference between that and, say, a chemical injection? Or a drug hit? Can a sufficiently well-made drug be considered "art"? Can the resulting high be considered an "artistic experience"? Well, if the goal of art is to provoke emotion, why wouldn't it be? Or, instead, what about a rollercoaster? Movies are often described in similar terms, or - more directly - are simply described as "a thrill ride". The only difference is that a rollercoaster isn't trying to tell a story (usually). You get on the ride, you have your emotions manipulated, you get off the ride. It's fundamentally the same.

When people talk about moviemaking, or about writing, or about music, the majority of what they talk about is how to make the experience work. How do we make the audience feel this? How do we make the audience think that? How do we make the ride do what we want? Remember when the RedLetterMedia guys talked about Star Wars? Ultimately, their premise was "how do we make the movies work", and "why don't they work as-is". The character motivations, effects and storyline were all discussed in terms of why people didn't enjoy the experience. RLM has done a lot of other reviews since then, and that's really the common factor amongst them - they very rarely stray from this sphere. Their vested interest lies in examining the emotional thrill-ride of the moviemaking process. Occasionally one of them will have an insight about a real societal issue, but those are few and far between. Which leads us to the second act.

The Minor Sphere is the context. Which is to say, the minor sphere is what connects the work to real life. In most cases, the minor sphere is drawn upon to support or bolster the major sphere. For example, the purpose of an action movie is to make the audience excited, and in service of that, action movies will generally make villains of people who are hated by the audience already. An audience might balk at an action movie about killing innocents; this would distract from the experience the creators are trying to provide. However, using "bad people" would make killing acceptable, and thus allow the audience to successfully find pleasure in the act.

Stories cannot exist without context. Every value of our society is integrated into the stories we see; that's why we like them. The classic conflict-based story is built around seeing a protagonist succeed and an antagonist fail. The reason we root for the protagonist is that they represent concepts that we like; the reason we despise the antagonist is that they represent concepts that we hate. Luke Skywalker fought for freedom against an oppressive empire. John McClane was protecting innocent civilians from murderous thieves. Batman fights crime. We root for people we think are good, and we don't root for people we think are bad. And, of course, words like "good" and "bad" are personal, which is why people end up sympathizing with Walter White and Tony Soprano - because there's plenty of people for whom masculine values override "not doing horrible crimes". That's just how people work.

As established, fiction does change people's minds about thing. Whether it's torture or violence or politics, a fictional narrative can convince people of things even if they don't think it does. After all, do you know where your values came from? Can you pinpoint the exact time and place you first felt something was good or bad? Probably not. That's not how values work. Values are shaped, not chosen. And, of course, people generally think of themselves as logical and rational; they don't want to hear that they're ignorant or naive or foolish. When fiction reinforces their beliefs, they just accept it as being "honest".

IV. So What's The Point?

As a person, I try not to judge the Major Sphere. I don't judge musical tastes or fashion sense or preferred aesthetics. While I certainly have opinions about those things, I don't think they're worth judging. It's just what you like; it doesn't matter. The flipside, of course, is that the major sphere ends up seeming pretty unimportant. If something's not worth being judged or examined, it's probably because it has no real value. And that's not totally true - if you like something, it has value to you - but at the same time, I'm certainly less intense about those subjects than a lot of people.

That's because I reserve all my judgment for the Minor Sphere. And it's strange, isn't it? Because with the minor sphere, you have context, and with context, you have "things people want". You have desires and goals that are expressed through simulation. People use stories to pretend that they have power, or to pretend that they're desirable, or to pretend that they're wealthy and influential. And yet "judging this" is not always popular.

People will scream about art, they'll scream about metaphor, they'll scream about musical types and painting types and prose and poetry. They'll get all in a dander because someone likes a band that they don't. And yet those people balk at the idea of judging a story, because they don't want to get political about it. That's weird, right? It's nonsensical. It defies explanation.

So here's the point, and I'll bring it back to Miyazaki.

I brought Miyazaki into this conversation because he's demonstrating some concepts about the Spheres that I think are important. He feels that anime fans are too far divorced from reality, and too obsessed with their own experiences. Or, to rephrase, he thinks that they don't care enough about the Minor Sphere, and they care far too much about the Major Sphere.

Let's go back to that little quote: "If a mass market for animation no longer exists in such a country, so be it." Animation is undoubtedly important to Hayao Miyazaki. This is not arguable. But the fact is, he'd rather have a country that was happy and healthy and sustainable than to have widely-popular animation. It's an "anti-art" statement. Truth is, he thought it mattered. He thought that animation mattered. But does it bollocks, not compared to how people matter.

Art is nice. But people are what's important. And, you know, before last summer, it would have been hard to make a case about what that has to do with games, or movies, or whatever else. But now it's easy to make the connection. Art does affect the world. Just not in the way that a lot of people want it to. People wanted it to be nice and easy - just provide a soothing experience, and that's art. That's making the world a better place. But they're wrong. The world's more complex than that, and yet so much simpler. And there's so much more to do than to make people think they've had a meaningful experience.

There's a whole damn world out there.

There's a whole damn world.