Tuesday, August 12, 2008

On the Wings of Angels, Part III: Help from Nearby, Part II (Fruits Basket)

(Clockwise from Bottom: Tohru Honda (holding Kyo's and Yuki's animal forms), Kyo Sohma, Shigure Sohma & Yuki Sohma)

"Fruits Basket" is an anime that tells the story of a teenage girl of 16 named Tohru Honda (Laura Bailey), who becomes a tenant and housekeeper at the home of three brothers of the Sohma family: the calm and collected Yuki (Eric Vale), the angry and volatile Kyo (Jerry Jewell) and the mannered but juvenile Shigure (John Burgmeier). She then learns of an ancient curse placed on the family where each member is turned into an animal from the zodiac if they are under heavy physical stress or embraced by a member of the opposite sex. Most of the time when people learn about the curse, their knowledge of such is erased, but Tohru is trusted with the secret. So, Tohru spends her new life learning and understanding the Sohmas.

There's a fascinating dexterity in the relationship between the Sohmas and Tohru. On one hand, you have a group of very different personalities consistently crashing into each other; in most cases, multiple times in the same day. Kyo and Yuki are constantly at each others throats, while Shigure sits calmly in the back commenting on the situation. Sometimes he even fans the flames, just to amuse himself. Except for when the doors of the house need to be rebuilt because of their tendency to be broken during these arguments. (This happens quite a lot, actually). That's not even counting the rest of the Sohmas, who are each intensely emotional in their own way. Considering that Tohru herself is not a very socially adept person, she tries to diffuse various situations but usually fails. So there's a great amount of high comedy as we watch vicariously in the same position as Tohru; wishing we could resolve these clashes, but not knowing how. The very premise of the show itself is very much a type of sitcom premise: a normal person moving into a house of crazies. (That never means it can't be original though). Above all, despite their constant butting heads, they are, in fact, a family.

On the other hand, there is a really sad undertone running through the series. Because of the fact that the Sohmas have this curse, they tend be very closely guarded people, often to each other. Every Sohma family member has a deep pang of disappointment in their history of relating to others, ranging from over-protection, outright rejection, or trauma on the receiving side.

Kyo in particular has the curse of the cat, whereby he is forced to be an animal that is not even part of the zodiac; this includes a demonic cat form (which, by the way, looks like a cousin of Frank the Rabbit from "Donnie Darko.") Therefore he is treated like an outsider in his own home. Along with this, Kyo uses his anger to keep people at a distance because he feels that no one will ever accept him as he is, not even his own family. Like many teenagers, he looks out for number one. To contrast, Yuki is a very shy introvert. He is indeed popular at school, where he is called Prince Yuki. Through it all though, he finds the popularity overwhelming. His classmates are in love with the ideal, not the person. Believe me, I know how that feels. He also has a very edgy relationship with his own brother Ayama (Chris Sabat) and was psychologically stunted by the abuse of Akito (Chad Cline), the head of the main house.

Considering the fact that Yuki and Kyo are the rat and the cat, respectively, they have been in a lifelong battle against one another since childhood. Kyo hopes the day will come when he can beat "that damn rat." Yuki shrugs it off nonchalantly, knowing that he would best him easily if they did compete against one another. Kyo believes that when he beats Yuki, he will have proven himself to his family. Yuki, conversely, is somewhat envious of Kyo. Even though Kyo is hostile, he is actually one of the more naturally extroverted members of the Sohmas. So when Kyo gets in a group, he usually eases in pretty quickly despite some protest. This peculiar envy of Yuki is contrasted by Kyo's own envy of wishing to belong in the more closed off realm of the family.

With all my talk about the Sohmas, I haven't even gotten to Tohru. She reminds me of the idea that sometimes a person with the sweetest smile on his or her face is actually one of the saddest people around. Let's elaborate: her dad died of pneumonia, her mom died in a car accident and she's treated rudely by her extended family. (Only her grandfather gives her any respect). At the start of the series itself, she's living in a tent in the woods because her grandfather's house is getting renovated and she doesn't want to be a burden on her protective and caring best friends, Arisa Uotani (Parisa Fakhri) and Saki Hanajima (Daphne Gere). Shortly after meeting the three Sohma brothers, her tent is buried in a landslide, so she relents and takes the offer to stay at the house.

Despite this heavy tragedy, part of what makes this series great is Tohru's hopeful personality. Her constant optimism in the face of adversity is like a beacon of light in a really dark room. She refuses to give up on accepting the Sohmas for who they are and is emotionally open to each family member's baggage. Most of this mindset comes from her mother, who taught her many lessons about people and life before she died. These lessons often appear spoken through Tohru or in simple flashback stills. Aside from all that, we as an audience would not empathize with Tohru unless she was performed exactly right and she is. Laura Bailey plays Tohru with sensitivity, grace and care. Personally, I find this sort of surprising since the only other role I've seen her play was Lust from "Fullmetal Alchemist." What a switch!

Ultimately, the series is about people relearning to be people, where the characters let their emotional guards down so they can finally complete one another, for their own sake.

---

The events in the final two episodes of the series involve Tohru finally seeing Kyo's demon cat form, which marks the most difficult test of acceptance in the show. Inspired by the events in those episodes, I've created a short film (expression, soul poem, AMV, whatever you want to name it...) using the song "Angels Too Tied to the Ground" by U2. The piece is entitled "Pain Toward Healing (Acceptance)."

Hope you enjoy it.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Concert Memories: Radiohead (August 3, 2008)

(Thom Yorke and Colin Greenwood of Radiohead performing)

Any study of modern rock music will eventually come across Radiohead. This English quintet has become one of the most critically acclaimed bands by doing essentially what a good band should do: carve its own path. After their 1993 hit "Creep," the band refused to be pigeonholed creatively. With 1995's "The Bends" and 1997's "OK Computer" they made other alternative music sound tired and flat. After that, they pulled a 180 and released their techno landscaped "Kid A" in 2000, which proved they could change up their game, without sacrificing excellence. In addition to all of this, their seventh and most recent record, 2007's "In Rainbows," was released via the internet where listeners pay for the amount of the album their own way. This is unheard of in this day and age of music piracy and iTunes domination.

Personally, I have an immense fondness for this band. Listening to an album of theirs is lucid dreaming on record, even more than Pink Floyd sometimes. That doesn't mean I worship at the alter of everything they do. About half their records are not as high on my list of acclaim, but that's okay; you can't win 'em all. So after years of waiting, I finally got to see these guys live. Usually, they are placed high on lists of the best live acts ever and the footage of them on YouTube has always intrigued me, highlighting their prowess and confidence.

Sure enough, they simply walk out on stage, bow and immediately start into the twitchy opener, "15 Step" with the same kind of confidence as I see in those videos. Still, during the first two songs, guitarist Ed O'Brien kept fiddling with his deck. Poor guy. It probably still was acting up from Lollapolooza or something. After that though, they didn't slow down. Not for a bit. Even when guitarist and mad scientist Johnny Greenwood and vocalist Thom Yorke were trying to figure out starting chords, they didn't take forever, it was almost systematic.

The main way you can tell when a band is having fun onstage is one of two ways. Either, they're smiling and really enjoying the energy around them; or, they are in intense concentration, giving the feeling that nothing else matters at this moment except the music. Radiohead has always been a band in the latter category. Not even rowdy crowd members, flashing lights or loud amps can stop these guys. The best example is Johnny Greenwood, whose face you never see, only his black hair being visible. His head is always down to his instruments in deep focus. The only way you could possibly get his attention is if you smacked him on the back of the head and insulted him, but I'm not sure if even that would work. You could also say the same for drummer Phil Selway, whose eyes are either continually forward to the drums or closed in diligent calm. He takes keeping the band in time together very seriously and you never get a sense of wear and tear from him. He just keeps plowing away with vigor.

Now this doesn't mean that the band is serious all the time. As I watch Thom Yorke move his head around and dance, I always get the feeling that the music is continually playing in his head and he must get it out, or else. He concentrates, but almost in a trance-like way. The music is his muse and he must follow it. The bassist Colin Greenwood however, is the only member who outwardly looks like he is having fun all the time. You see him smile, bob his head in rhythm and put his arms in the air to get the crowd going. This makes for a cool contrast between him and Phil, giving the rhythm section a fiery energy. The one member I couldn't read as well was Ed O'Brien, but he seemed to be sort of ticked off the entire time. Probably because of his deck acting up, throwing off his groove.

The stage was set with a back row of screens and several rows of rod lights which set an appropriate tone with each song, including some bright back lights for effect. Even if those rod lights were eco-friendly, they certainly lit up the night beautifully. I turned back a couple of times and saw a crowd beneath the cover of radiant colored light. The screens themselves showed off each band member, but with a kind of voyeuristic feel. You never see their faces directly often, as you would a regular concert. Usually, they're shown in very arcane angles, keeping with the setup they established in both "Thumbs Down" and "Scotch Mist" video podcasts; both shot during the promotion of "In Rainbows." It's a great continuation of the idea established in U2's groundbreaking ZOO TV Tour where you use video screens to obscure rather than enhance the action onstage. Although that didn't stop Thom from gooning in front of the camera during "You and Whose Army?"

But even if you have the lights and attitude, if you don't have a good performance, it's all for naught. Thankfully, that was never an issue. Apparently their four weeks of rehearsing 70 songs paid off in full. The band played with precision and tact with each member switching to different tasks and instruments, not unlike the way The Band used to do. The set list was varied, both in date and musicality, even picking good songs from "Amnesiac" and "Hail to the Thief," albums I don't care for as much. It also impressed me that they played "In Rainbows" in full throughout the show, whereas most bands favor the tired old hits for their gigs. Even when they went back to earlier material, the band picked many hidden gems, including two of my personal all-time favorite Radiohead songs: the haunting "How to Disappear Completely" and the elegiac "Exit Music (For a Film)." They didn't ignore their hits entirely though, they ran through awesome renditions of "There There," "Pyramid Song," "Karma Police" and the poetic show closer, "Street Spirit (Fade Out)."

Overall, they have gained a higher esteem in my mind from this outing. I do hope that they continue setting their own vibe; otherwise they'll be just as innocuous as most of their peers.

As a final note, the opening act was independent act Grizzly Bear, which I didn't have the privilege to see because of tardiness on my part.

Main Setlist:
1. "15 Step"
2. "Bodysnatchers"
3. "There There"
4. "All I Need"
5. "Pyramid Song"
6. "Nude"
7. "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi"
8. "The Gloaming"
9. "Climbing Up the Walls"
10. "Faust Arp"
11. "Videotape"
12. "Morning Bell"
13. "Idioteque"
14. "Reckoner"
15. "Everything in its Right Place"
16. "Just"
17. "How to Disappear Completely"

First Encore:
18. "You and Whose Army?"
19. "Bangers and Mash"
20. "Exit Music (For a Film)"
21. "Jigsaw Falling Into Place"
22. "Karma Police"

Second Encore:
23. "House of Cards"
24. "The National Anthem"
25. "Street Spirit (Fade Out)"

Sunday, August 3, 2008

On the Wings of Angels, Part III: Help from Nearby, Part I (Haibane Renmei)

(Rakka from "Haibane Renmei")

Let's face it: It's common in fiction to have the main character be the person who needs his or her friends to face a problem. That doesn't mean that supporting characters in a story aren't allowed to have problems of their own or allowed to be three-dimensional. It's just that most storytelling revolves around how our hero is in a pickle and how the others have to get him or her out. But isn't it interesting when a story decides to have the main character's problems be the basis of helping someone else with a much worse problem?

"Haibane Renmei" tells the story of a young girl named Rakka (Carrie Savage) who starts her new life born as a Haibane, which means "Charcoal Feather," in a place called "Old Home" headed up by Reki (Erika Weinstein) along with her fellow "older" Haibane, Nemu (Kristy Pape), Hikari (Hunter MacKenzie Austin), Kana (Zarah Little) & Kuu (J-Ray Hochfield). The Haibane themselves are mystical humanoids who have wings and halos but are not angels, so go figure that one out. They live in a walled-off town named Gile where every Haibane works in the community for the appreciative majority human populous. That is until their "day of flight" comes and they are allowed to leave the town and its walls.

When I look at Gile, it reminds me of Judgment City from Albert Brooks' 1991 film, "Defending Your Life" for a couple reasons. Gile, in itself, is not a nasty urban town where everybody's rude and stupid. The town and its inhabitants are mostly really friendly and accepting of the Haibane. Haibane don't even have to pay cash to the townspeople; instead, they inventory each transaction in a little book given to them by the Toga (the guardians of the town). Some Haibane don't get along as well between each other, but that's really the extent of the nastiness of that community.

Like Judgment City, Gile seems to function as a sort of Purgatory. Only the Toga are allowed to enter and leave the town at will and if a Haibane tries to leave the town before their "day of flight," they get punished. Rakka, herself, gets a hardcore fever at one point for just even touching the walls (the walls are really cold).

Also, like Purgatory, every Haibane has a personal and metaphysical quest they must follow based on a dream they have before they are born. When they understand the dream, they can understand an important part of themselves. Unfortunately, if you become lost in your quest and become spiritually despondent, you become sin-bound, and if you remain so past your "day of flight" you are never allowed to leave Gile. It reminds me of the idea presented in Richard Matheson's "What Dreams May Come," where you create your own heaven or hell in your mind and it follows you into the afterlife.

In the case of Rakka, her pain extends from deep feelings of worthlessness. After a fellow Haibane and good friend, Kuu, takes her "day of flight," Rakka takes it really hard. It pushes her insecurities back into the limelight with a vengeance. She begins to wonder if she was ever really important in another person's life, both in Gile and in her previous life which she cannot remember too well. Eventually her wings start blackening and she becomes sin-bound.

Personally, I know exactly what Rakka was going through. I spent an entire year of my life confronting that particular demon. Sure, I was appreciated and liked, but would it really matter if I just disappeared off the face of the earth? I would be lying if I didn't actually say no to that question when I was fighting my mental strife. It almost consumed me sometimes.

When all seems lost though, the dream starts piecing together in Rakka's mind. In the dream, which is the first scene in the anime, she is falling from the sky with a crow. While the crow tries to pull her back up, Rakka shakes her head and says to the bird: "I know... you can't, but thank you anyway." It showed her that even something as abstract as a bird can represent someone or something always trying to reach out to help you; even in the most isolated of places. Sometimes you can save someone, sometimes you can't, but you always have to try. In my case it was four somethings (all works of art) that saved me from true despair: Fran├žois Truffaut's "The 400 Blows," J.D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye," Green Day's "American Idiot," and the Season Four Raven Arc from "Teen Titans." Though it's a demon that confronts me still, it isn't as draining and intense as it once was.

This discovery from Rakka is not the end of the story, however. Rakka's exact problem is actually a much more deeply rooted problem in Reki. Despite her pleasant attitude lies a very broken woman. Reki feels her own sense of worthlessness after when her original caregiver dies and her failed attempt to escape the walls with a fellow Haibane, Hyohko, results with the two of them never being allowed to come near one another again. Not only that, she has spent years and countless sleepless nights trying to figure out her dream through painting, but it always fails. Even when she saw Rakka start on her path to being sin-bound, Reki knew exactly how to treat Rakka's blackened wings, because she lives with it every day.

It all comes to a head when Reki's own "day of flight" is coming and she is still in her own private hell, refusing to forgive herself and letting someone help her. Rakka then realizes that the crow in the dream is her and she must save Reki from herself. The most emotionally powerful moment in the series is when Reki is about to disappear into that hell for good with her demons holding Rakka back when Rakka yells in desperation: "Just call my name! Please! Say that you need me!" Quietly afraid, Reki finally says softly, "Rakka... please help me." At that moment, Reki's demon finally breaks and Rakka saves her from the hell tearing her asunder.

Reflecting back, I'm reminded of U2's song "One." The song is usually misunderstood as a simple love song. In actuality, the song is a prayer for spiritual unity despite difference. As The Edge stated in "U2 by U2:"

"But on another level there's the idea that we get to carry each other. 'Get to' is the key. 'Got to' would be too obvious and platitudinous. 'Get to' suggests it is our privilege to carry one another. It puts everything in a different perspective and introduces the idea of grace."

Rakka and Reki both realize that they are never alone; if there's just one person that truly cares about you, when you need help, they will reach out to you. It proves that despite how strong we appear, we should never be afraid to ask for help.

On a personal side-note, I'd like to give special thanks to Arinahime for recommending this anime to me and I am very grateful.