Thursday, May 21, 2009

An Introspective Exploration of Suicidal Intent (Landscape with Flatiron)

(This is an essay I wrote last year for an English class. It was written from the interpretation that the subject was a cautionary tale warning about suicide. I suspect, however, that the author was instead glorifying it. That angle would be too triggering to write about, though.)

I have chosen to write this essay about Haruki Murakami’s Landscape with Flatiron, a short story about three characters in Japan and their experiences one night at a bonfire, symbolic perhaps of their own passion for life. The story features a surreal narrative in which the two main characters contemplate their own preoccupations with the concept of death. It is my speculation that Murakami was attempting to use an allegorical narrative to showcase the suicidal mentality of depressed individuals, using events set after Japan’s devastating Kobe earthquake to create a strong impact in the minds of his intended readership: the Japanese public.

The Kobe earthquake, more officially known as the Great Hanshin Earthquake, caused significant damage to the city of Kobe in the year 1995. As Kobe is central to the production of Japan’s economic wealth, the natural disaster caused extremely adverse aftereffects on a national scale. The substantial loss of life presented by the earthquake was alone enough to negatively affect the Japanese people to a good degree. Social impact of the event is explored in Landscape with Flatiron, in which character Miyake hints at ill events in his past that may have been influenced directly from the destruction brought forth by the earthquake.

The preoccupation the two main characters, Miyake and Junko, have with death carries the implication of depression. When someone is in a state of depression, their natural will to live becomes weak, and death is – perhaps paradoxically – seen by the individual as an escape from the suffering present in life. It is often that the sufferer looks upon death with an air of beauty, and regard themselves as superior to people around them because only they are able to see their viewpoints as an intuitive truth. This is seen in the character Junko, who describes her interpretation of Jack London’s To Build a Fire as about a man seeking death (instead of the traditional view holding that the man was desperate to live) and refuses to believe otherwise. The depressant quality of the alcohol present in the whiskey the characters consume is implied to be responsible for the surreal introspection that takes place, in which Junko and Miyake explore their suicidal thoughts and become resolute in their decision to die together.

The narrative is quite likely to be highly allegorical, as is suggested by Miyake’s statement that he can only paint things that stand for other things. From this standpoint, the previous events suddenly take on new meaning, and the existential tale becomes that much more complicated. The bonfire, chief element in the narrative, is a probable source of alternate meaning. I personally have interpreted it as an allegorical representation of a person’s passion for life. This is supported mainly by Miyake’s statement that when the fire goes out, Junko will wake up whether or not she wishes. I speculate in turn that by waking up, Miyake is referring to dying, a view supported by the context, in which he and Junko are discussing suicide. When Junko then goes to sleep, it is implied she does not wake up in the traditional sense, providing an ironic twist to the sentiment.

In conclusion, I believe author Haruki Murakami to have been depicting the suicidal mentality as a result of depression, using the Kobe earthquake as a catalyst. Depression is a common problem, and suicides among the Japanese people are frequently publicized, making the issue especially relevant. Taking advantage of the known effects of alcohol, I believe Murakami to have portrayed suicidal behavior in a manner in which it could be readily understood by the main public in order to cast light on the taboo subject. The story’s allegorical nature gives it a complexity that increases its value as an informative piece of literature.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

These Things? Pretty Helpful (Buffy)

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a TV show rife with thematic meaning, much of it of a traditional liberal nature. Throughout the course of the show and especially in the sixth season, Buffy has displayed an anti-gun ideology. I both disagree with this philosophy and believe that the show contradicts itself through the promotion of other weapons that fulfill the same purpose.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Sexist Dollhouse Ads

Master storyteller Joss Whedon has become known for his strong female characters and throughout the courses of his shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly overall themes of feminism and overcoming male oppression become clear. Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, an internet experiment carried out during the writers’ strike, was a bit of a departure from his usual political message but still depicted a female character as the only one actually accomplishing anything for the good of society. His latest show Dollhouse is in some ways the most blatant criticism of a sexist culture, but this has been curbed by the ad campaign relying heavily on sexual objectification.

The standard format of the earlier episodes has Echo being imprinted with some identity that leads her into a situation in which she is oppressed by a dominant male force of some sort. Despite her brainwashing, Echo manages to overcome the imprinted submissiveness and makes herself become strong, defying the restrictions put in place by the Dollhouse. She is subsequently wiped of her identity including her experience of being strong, but some little piece of her experience always survives. The Dollhouse itself is portrayed as an evil organization whose members are either simply corrupt or believe their work is humanitarian for giving clients the perfect experience, making a commentary on human trafficking and prostitution.

The show has an obvious feminist message, one which stands in contrast to the Dollhouse ad campaign. The advertisement for the show is ironically heavily sexually exploitive, featuring actress Eliza Dushku in various sexually alluring poses. The ads, with the exception of the Dollhouse-themed Hulu ad, do not really convey the nature of the show, instead advertizing the hotness of the lead female. This is blatant sexual objectification, sexist and in total conflict with Joss Whedon’s feminist message.

Overcoming the sexual objectification perpetuated by the Dollhouse is really what the show is all about. This is most blatant in the earlier episodic storylines, where there were only a few basic themes and elements present. In the later episodes, where the stories are more complex, the feminist theme is not as ubiquitous but it still remains a fundamental attribute of the show.

Although Dollhouse has now been (somewhat miraculously) renewed for another season, the amount of people watching the show got pretty low for a while. I have to wonder if at least some of the reason why the show didn’t perform that well is because of the inconsistency between the content of the ads and the content of the show. The average ad talks about the Dollhouse’s business, shows some action, some shots of Agent Ballard talking about rescuing the Dolls, and concludes with an alluring shot of Eliza. Seems more like the typical ‘guy’ action show than what Joss tries to deliver. I can imagine the average male viewer coming in expecting a lot of sexy female Dolls performing various male fantasies for clients, the Dollhouse accepted as morally wrong but a useful plot device for all that hot Doll action, while Ballard comes in at the end as a knight in shining armor who boldly saves the damsels in distress – obviously not Joss’s kind of show. So, most of the average guys drop the show and leave it for the geeks and feminists and such.

In conclusion, I find the ad campaign supporting Dollhouse to be inconsistent with the progressive content of the show. This inconsistency may well subvert the goal to bring regular viewers through the ads, thus being a cause of the show’s lack of viewers. On the other hand, advertising to a rather sexist market could have the benefit of sneaking in feminist morals to a crowd that would otherwise avoid it. Though it may not contribute to great numbers, the folks from the sexist market who stick around could become more open to opposing viewpoints. I do hope this to be the case, but I hope more that next season’s ads will be less sexually objectifying and more true to the proper nature of the show.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

An Overzealous Search for the Number Seven (Halo)

Seven. It’s the lucky number. It’s a holy number. It’s the number you need to win several gambling games. It’s also Bungie’s favorite number, and the source of much annoyance in the Halo community when it comes to Halopedia’s list of references to the number.

"Some of you may be wondering - "What's up with this unhealthy obsession with the number 7?" This page offers some insights."
Luke Smith, linking to Halopedia

The number seven appears in the Halo series quite often. It is Bungie’s calling card, like how Weird Al uses the number 27 in a ton of songs, or how Ahnold always says “I’ll be back.” People expect it and they actively seek out any references to the number seven. However, this search can be quite overzealous.

In their efforts to find anything that could be a seven reference, people often hit upon random connections that Bungie did not intend. The human brain is built to recognize patterns, and this can make it hard at times to determine whether there really is a pattern or if we’re just examining random data.

I decided to try and figure out how common seven references really are. I read through the book Halo: Ghosts of Onyx and made a note of each number and whether or not it related to seven. My data and results are accessible here. The short version is below:

There are a total of 921 unique numbers referred to in Ghosts of Onyx. 15 of them are unrelated scientific facts that should not be considered as part of the result. Discounting the 15 unrelated, there are then 906 total numbers. Out of these, there are 772 negative hits, which have no reference to the number seven. That makes 134 potential references.

The potential references are made up of four different categories: explicit (containing the number 7 itself), exponents, other multiples of 7, and multi-step addition (numbers that are broken down into digits and added up). There are 95 explicit hits, 2 exponents, 5 other multiples, and 32 multi-step numbers. I personally find everything but the explicit instances and the exponents to be tenuous at best, which would leave a total of 97 potential references out of 906 (or 921) total numbers.

As you can see, there are far more negative hits than there are even potential hits. Many of the potential references are sketchy, leaving only a few certain references, K7-49, for instance. That’s the explicit number and an exponent in one. Others, like the drug 88947-OP24, are probably just total coincidences. While shows like Lost may make every effort to fit each number into their mythology, this doesn’t seem to be the case with Bungie even with their love of 7. Maybe Ghosts of Onyx is just a bad choice for representing seven references, but given that it’s a pretty hefty Halo book, I believe it’s wise to consider that there aren’t as many seven references as people often think.