Chinese Girl Cartoons – Devilman Crybaby

Well, here we are at last. Since this is a new anime, I should probably do a spoiler warning up front because that’s just polite. Having said that, if you’ve read the past few Devilman reviews you know most of the story already. Crybaby is a complete adaptation of the Go Nagai manga, but an “updated” one, taking place in the modern day and avoiding a lot of the goofier shit in the previous adaptations, though it adds some goofy shit of its own. It is a “gore and tits” anime, but perhaps not as leering as productions of that sort usually are. You could see it as a Tarantino style treatment of the classical elements of that genre, the hard edges are smoothed over with artifice and a vaguely anarchic sort of humour. It is a “cool” piece of animation, and in some ways its distaste for being uncool is what makes it not work as well as it could. It is often belligerently self-aware, but it also can’t decide between sincerity and irony, it seems to be uncomfortable with its source material and with itself, and compensates by donning a thick armour of bravado. Maybe this is appropriate to the themes of pubescent insecurity running throughout, but the creative team pulls the rug out from under itself probably a dozen times too many for that perspective to really bear scrutiny.

I don’t want to give the impression, though I probably have, that I think Crybaby is bad. On the contrary, it is a bit of a mess, but a very engaging one. I don’t think I have felt so compelled to keep watching something since JoJo, and while this is a fraction of the duration at ten episodes of twenty-five minutes apiece, it was the desire to see what would happen next that meant I usually let the next episode timer run down on Netflix, something I don’t often do. I know the story of Devilman well enough by now, but the show manages to be stylistically intriguing and unpredictable enough that even though I knew what was coming most of the time I wanted to see how those things would be handled. Of course it was interesting to see how, for example, this new series would present Jinmen or Sirene (that’s Shernu for all you shitdubbers out there)—and in fact Jinmen is treated very differently, the fight has greater emotional resonance for Akira because not only is his mother’s death mask trapped in the shell, Jinmen is actually possessing his father—but the main draw was just to see it do its thing away from all of that.

The art style is quite different from the source manga. That’s been a given among all the adaptations so far, but Crybaby makes a point of differentiating itself from its predecessors. Akira is drawn post-fusion as a supremely lanky brooding teenager with a chin of great magnitude, borrowing just a little from the original character designs for Violence Jack, where every man has a jaw that could be used to crack walnuts. A sort of slice-of-life approach is taken to making becoming a devilman analogous to going through puberty. In Nagai’s manga, fusion or possession is supposed to be representative of the draft, because the manga is anti-war. I was looking up the Go Nagai wiki to confirm some of this stuff and it turns out they know about as much as I do (and they write these things with even less certainty—I guess Nagai is just kind of vague about this stuff), so I guess it doesn’t matter. Anyway, yes, puberty. Akira transforms into a desirable(?) young man with a bulging crotch and an immense appetite, and every girl except Miki, who in the shitdubs of yore almost word for word says “I wish Akira would soap my tits”, seems to lust after him. It’s a strange nod to the harem genre that goes nowhere, but that seems to be the show’s bread and butter; lots of avenues explored with eyes only, rarely does an entire foot make it in. It’s a kind of eclecticism that can feel a little half-baked at times: Hiroyuki Imaishi on an off-day, an especially apt comparison given the show’s approach to sex, violence, and comedy.

While at its best the art direction delivers a kind of vibrant expressionism in which bold unnatural colours heighten drama, it can trip itself up and overwhelm the writing. The real underlying conflict of Crybaby may well be not Devilman vs. Satan but direction vs. script. Director Masaaki Yuasa is undoubtedly clever, but I feel like this cleverness is sometimes indulged for its own sake rather than out of any artistic necessity. Visually and tonally the show turns on a dime, and the contortionist aesthetics maybe needed reining in a little bit to maintain the pathos that the tragic elements of the story need in order to function properly. When the final scene rolls around, what should be an emotionally impactful conclusion comes off a little light because the show has simply played around too much. While it is a full adaptation of the Devilman story, I think it could have benefited from slowing down a little bit and adding more quiet character moments, especially between Akira and Ryo, so that the reveal of Ryo as Satan, and the tragedy of his betrayal, really hits home.

Having said that, the show does do a really good job of showing that Ryo, rather than just being a cold and unapologetic man of questionable ethics, is not quite human. There is something of the serial killer in his development, his recourse to violence against innocents as a child, for example. His back story as presented here is more in line with the manga than the old OVAs, where they didn’t get much past the first arc, but there are some significant changes. Instead of his father being possessed by a demon and going batshit crazy, this time around Ryo is a super-rich scientist whose colleague becomes possessed on a research expedition in South America. He also doesn’t ramble on about Dante, which I think we can all be thankful for. Satan’s awakening suggests that he was in fact placed on Earth as a human infant, there is no mention of parents or anything to suggest earthly ties, he simply came into physical existence at some point, and was befriended by Akira before being adopted (I guess) by the demon Psycho Jenny, an odd choice given that her human form is the least convincing of all.

Going back to bulging crotches for a moment, Crybaby is much more sex-oriented than its predecessors. Previously there was nudity, yes, but no actual sex. Here people just can’t stop banging. There’s dream sex, real sex, demon sex, gay sex, masturbation, rape, necrophilia, semen splatter, and enough bare (and typically bouncing) breasts to fill a decade’s worth of Playboys. I get the impression they tried to get some of Devilman Lady in there, which is pretty much devoted to ogling the main character and showing her in situations of sexual distress as much as possible. Lady, both in its manga and anime forms, also makes itself felt in the show’s featuring of sports and modelling as key plot points for Miki and several other characters. However, the show also avoids the overtly misogynist tone of Nagai’s work, and while women are killed, some quite graphically, there is no emphasis on their suffering over anyone else. Women are vulnerable insofar as everyone is, but there are several instances of women fighting back or being just as fucked up as the men, particularly after Ryo initiates the apocalypse by broadcasting heavily edited footage of the sabbath, which this time around is actually the street name for a Dionysian underground club scene popular among the Japanese youth.

Also popular among the Japanese youth, apparently, is rapping. There is a lot of rapping, which is used to deliver commentary on the state of the world as the series progresses. This comes courtesy of a street gang, which initially looks to be the new version of the thugs who bully Akira in the manga, but eventually its members befriend Miki and gain Akira’s trust. While they are generally presented as good guys, the writing does a nice job of making them individually varied. At least one member never speaks, and he later joins with the mob that assaults the Makimura house during the apocalypse, having previously tried to shoot Akira when seeing the broadcast of the sabbath footage. The “leaders” of the gang are the most honourable and courageous, sacrificing themselves to try and save Miki, which as we know doesn’t go so well. Unlike Amon: Apocalypse of Devilman, Akira is not consumed by Amon when he discovers Miki’s corpse and instead retains his humanity through all his struggles and loss. While he loses the final battle with Satan, he teaches Satan a lesson about love, albeit one which is tragically too late to prevent the end of the world.

It’s unclear after the world is shown made anew if this will lead to Violence Jack or to Devilman Lady, both of which are presented as two alternative futures for the recreated world. Jack is supposed to be the reincarnation of Akira in a world where Ryo made himself an impotent slave to the Slum King (the reincarnation of the demon Xenon/Zennon) as penance for killing Akira, but then in Shin Violence Jack Slum King himself is shown to be Akira, or… something? I think this whole “review Devilman things” thing has imbued me with a morbid fascination for Go Nagai because I’ve started reading Violence Jack in earnest. Devilman Lady is basically “what if Akira was a woman who got raped a lot and Ryo was a woman also?” and I don’t really understand what the point of it is. In any case, given that the final shot of Earth starting anew is presented as a definitive conclusion, it seems like we won’t be getting Violence Jack Crybaby. And what a mercy that is.

I think Crybaby is good but flawed. It has an exciting visual style, but this frequently overwhelms plot and character and the show feels somewhat unbalanced as a result. The central relationship between Akira and Ryo is portrayed decently overall, but the emphasis on style can leave a bad taste in the mouth as the resolution of their conflict feels a little synthetic and taken at a glance rather than in depth. The show ultimately undermines itself because it’s too busy trying to be cool when it should be serious, and while Nagai is hardly the best manga writer out there, his story and the Akira/Ryo relationship is one that is tragic and does have pathos, which the show fails to fully capture. However, I don’t think this makes Crybaby not worth watching. Despite the problems I have with it, what prevails is the charm of a work that gets slightly out of hand in deference to a powerful and outspoken creative vision. It’s eminently watchable, easily the best adaptation of Devilman yet made (and probably the last one we’ll see for a good while), and I feel confident in making a recommendation on that basis.

 

Advertisements

Chinese Girl Cartoons – Cyborg 009 vs. Devilman

As I’ve said several times in recent anime reviews, I really don’t know very much about Devilman. Naturally, the best thing to do when you don’t know much about something is to seek out a crossover between it and something you’ve never even heard of. Based on what little I now know, Cyborg 009 vs. Devilman seems like the weirdest team-up I can think of. Okay, maybe not quite, Azumanga Daioh vs. Berserk is probably weirder. But that isn’t real. I really hope that isn’t real. I am definitely not searching for it right now. No sirree. Anyway, as far as I can tell this is a spin-off that doesn’t really have much to do with the original manga of either Cyborg 009 or Devilman. At the same time, it is supposedly quite accurate to both series in terms of lore and characterisation, so that’s something.

Cyborg 009 is a cyborg, and there are other cyborgs with zero-zero numbers, some of whom fight for good alongside him, while the others fight for Black Ghost, which is some kind of evil science organisation somewhere between the bad guys from Escaflowne and Dr Gero from DragonBall. Black Ghost is in league with the demon Atun, who is in fact manipulating them into providing him with a super-powered cyborg host so that he can get swole and—who’d’a’ thunk it—fight Amon. Demons really, really want to fight Amon, remember. Since I’ve been doing the whole “review by synopsis” thing for Devilman related media so far, I thought I’d avoid that this time, partly because I think it’s kind of a lazy way to pad a review, partly because twice (or thrice, if you go by individual media covered) in a row is enough, and also because this OVA came out quite recently by comparison. With that being the case, that’s about as much plot as I’ll give away here.

Compared to what I’ve been looking at lately, this is obviously a clear improvement in terms of animation and overall presentation. The action is fluid and fast and varied, but it isn’t hyperkinetic, which seems to me to strike a good balance between newer and older styles. One of the things I really like about this OVA is that visually it seems to be comfortable handling the worlds of both of its source series. Cyborg 009‘s vaguely chibi style is far less pronounced here than in the panels from the manga that I’ve seen, yet retains a kind of softness and doesn’t shy away from the unique and anatomically quite bizarre character designs therein. The noses on some of these fellas, hoo boy! And to contrast that with Devilman, whose demons are drawn very sharply, with an expressive and aggressive edge, not to mention the surprisingly high amount of gore retained from the source, and to have it actually work, is quite impressive. This is a crossover that understands when and when not to compromise the source materials for the sake of having the two properties gel.

While I don’t remember much of it—what a surprise, am I right?—the soundtrack is actually pretty good. It gets right in under the action and really does its duty. After the muffled “recorded on a TCM-150 from the public toilets across the street from a venue that was hosting a heavy metal concert” feel of Amon’s soundtrack, the really cleanly enunciated guitar riffs of the battle themes and the occasional light string orchestra cues are quite refreshing. I also really like the opening music for a change. It sounds very much like Japanese rock music without tripping over into naff J-pop, and has a kind of ’80s cartoon vibe. It seems to be that the OP is Cyborg 009‘s theme while the ED is Devilman‘s, and like the rest of the show these seem to do a good job capturing the different tones of the characters and their worlds. I also like the voice acting. I don’t know much of anything about Japanese voice acting technique, but compared to a lot anime the acting here feels somewhat restrained and down to earth. It’s also nice to see Ryo be cold and aloof instead of being ridiculous, for once he actually seems like a cool character.

Having said all of that, I don’t think Cyborg 009 vs. Devilman is anything special. While it is mostly a competently told story, at times—and especially towards the end—there are symptoms of “vague OVA syndrome” that creep in, bringing the overall enjoyability down a peg or two. Its action is definitely a step-up from previous Devilman animations, and looks also to be much better than the frankly atrocious looking cel-shaded 3D CG Cyborg 009 productions of recent years, but there is a very strongly felt lack of weight to its combat. Even with a retread of the Jinmen fight, presented with head-popping intact, even with big ol’ explosions and fisticuffs galore, none of the hits seems impactful. I wonder if this isn’t a compromise made to lighten Devilman up just a little that ended up not working out, or if maybe in fact the sound effects just aren’t as chunky as they could have been. For something with a lot of beatings, pummellings, shootings, burnings, explodings and more, there’s a decided lightness or floatiness to the action such that it can’t quite bear the weight its own content demands.

So, I would say that it is pretty good overall. It does a good job of introducing its two different worlds and explaining them without being blandly expository, and it has a feeling for the distinctive characters of both series without making their coming together awkward or disjointed. However, it is rather lightweight as an action piece, and doesn’t really deliver on its own promise in that regard. The final confrontation, however, does have a sort of apocalyptic feel and the ending is satisfying. With a few reservations, this an easy watch that I can recommend.

Chinese Girl Cartoons – Amon: Apocalypse of Devilman

Apparently this is a series I’m doing now? Sure, why not. Amon is the third Devilman OVA, released in 2000. While it is usually grouped together with The Birth and The Demon Bird, really it is its own thing. Not only is it adapting a completely different arc of the manga, it is done in a much different style. Unfortunately I couldn’t find an English dub, so I had to suffer instead through a really bad fansub made with what appears to be Windows Movie Maker that you can find on YouTube. I later discovered another, official sub, which I skipped through to confirm certain things, but it would be fair to say that plot is not really a big deal here. Dubs and subs aside, Amon is probably the weirdest of the Devilman stuff I’ve seen so far. One the one hand it is extremely violent and graphic, seeming to take a kind of Violence Jack level of glee in such things as child murder; on the other hand it is surprisingly tame, cutting away from things that are pretty much standard fare, like decapitation or limb severance and generic mass carnage, and lingering on stuff like Devilman ripping a demon’s breasts off and eating them. I suspect this has something to do with budgetary concerns, but even so, this addition to the series, if it can be called a series, seems much more leeringly exploitative and far less subtle than its predecessors, while also being quite squeamish, somehow. Yes, that’s right, I am saying that Amon in the original Japanese is less subtle than “let’s take a swing at the motherfuckers!”, and you might think that impossible, but with Amon the sky really is the limit in terms of bullshit.

The first scene of Amon consists of what looks like a paedophile chasing a small child down an alley. In fact, it’s a demon chasing a small child down an alley. In fact, it’s a demon chasing a small child who is also a Devilman down an alley. Say whaaaaaat? That’s right, you heard right, there’s more than one now, for some reason, and they come in all shapes and sizes! The little Devilman is in fact luring the demon into a trap, for lying in wait is yet another Devilman, an adult female who pulls down her top and exposes her breasts, which are cannons that shoot acid… or something. Yeah, I’ve got nothing. While at first it seems like acid breast milk will win the day, the unfortunate truth is that these Devilmen ain’t really cut out for the big time, and Akira Fudo has to come to their rescue. After punching it and bouncing it all around the alley like some daftly Lovecraftian game of NBA Street, he disposes of the demon by sucking it into his fist. The life of a Devilman is always intense.

As the Devilmen emerge from the alley victorious, who should appear on a giant TV screen that dominates the city skyline but our old buddy Ryo, who tells people that they have to be extremely wary of demonic presences in their midst. After showing footage of Devilman’s birth that he somehow shot with multiple cameras and edited really tightly, which also contains the breast eating shot I mentioned earlier, the people, already paranoid owing to the increase in frequency of attacks carried out by demons in human form, start to riot. Akira tells his fellow Devilmen to go round up the Devilman army, which apparently is a thing, while he goes to check on his girlfriend Miki. Unfortunately, an angry fire-and-pitchforks type mob show up at her house, murder and dismember her child brother, and then kill her too before torching her house. I can only imagine seeing this for the first time knowing even less about Devilman than I already do and not having a fucking clue what is happening or who any of these people are. Miki definitely gets the short straw in this series. In the first OVA she’s around for a few minutes before Ryo shows up and tells her to fuck off; in the second she’s basically demon bait who spends most of her time naked and unconscious; here she’s just straight up murdered ten minutes in, and then a little later she’s murdered again in one of Akira’s nightmares.

Unable to cope with the grief, when a demonic battalion shows up to fight him Akira loses his shit and Amon—the demon he originally fused with in the halcyon days of 1987—takes over, physically manifesting from Akira’s body, while his host’s consciousness now becomes dormant within him. Now Amon, for reasons I’m not entirely clear on, basically wants to kill everything. Demon, human, it doesn’t matter, he will try to kill it, and probably eat it too. To that end he turns from massacring demons to eating the child Devilman we saw earlier, and in this moment the whole weirdness of this OVA’s approach to gore and the extreme is encapsulated. The camera shows limbs and some unidentified fleshy thing (I don’t really want to know what it’s supposed to be) falling on the floor in a pool of blood at Amon’s feet, but when it cuts up to show the actual feasting, were it not for the blood and missing body parts it would appear oddly wholesome, for the action in itself just looks like Amon is trying to tickle the child with his teeth. Also, the people drawing this thing apparently couldn’t decide if the child still has their legs or not, so they disappear and reappear in various shots.

After that mighty pleasant sequence, the tone makes a sudden shift into what I would loosely define as “DragonBall Z on meth”. Amon and Selos, the leader of the demonic forces, duel each other in the abandoned city. Selos is dispatched easily, so Amon goes to confront Satan, who it turns out is a really handsome glitter boy twink with golden wings, and he’s just kind of hanging out atop an abandoned building. After an honest to God, good old fashioned kamehameha beam fight between Amon and a weird thing that is a head with legs, Satan commands Akira to awaken inside Amon, and what I think happens is they have one of those metaphorical contests of brutality that is really all in the mind. Akira transforms into Devilman, but Amon gets the upper hand very quickly, tearing Devilman’s wings off and pounding him into the dirt. When all seems lost, visions of Miki from beyond the grave—or beyond the pyre, I guess—spur Devilman to rise and fight once more. He defeats Amon easily, because it’s not just Akira Fudo, it’s all the friends he made along the away. That’s right, the power of friendship wins the day! Akira falls to Earth, and the adult female Devilman finds him in a Devilman shaped crater. Some time later, there are explosions, and Akira walks past Ryo, who I think is supposed to be Satan? Cue ill-fitting rock music. The end.

This is a real fucking weird one. I don’t really know how to describe it. Like I said earlier, I think there is a seriously bizarre approach to violence, some of it is extremely graphic, while some of it is obscured or even cut out completely. I can understand that time and budgetary constraints will necessitate these choices, but I’d rather watch Devilman brutally massacre an angry mob that just murdered his adoptive family than watch him rip someone’s tits off and eat them, demon or not—call me crazy! The surreal-ish horror of the older OVAs is completely gone, it’s more an action movie with some occasionally nasty gore in it. And the action itself isn’t really all that good, whether its the selectively squeamish gore, or the lack of impact behind punches and whatever else, helped not at all by the crappy nothing of a soundtrack. Say what you will about the quality of its predecessors—I certainly have—but they had something more to them than this. So newer is not always better, and I think that even with all the faults the previous OVAs have, this is by far the worst Devilman type thing I have seen so far. Still better than Violence Jack.

Short Music Reviews: Boulez’s Berg and Salonen’s Mahler

In a lot of ways it’s just right that I should listen to and think about these two composers together. Though outwardly their styles may seem worlds apart, it is the truth that both of them blurred the lines between romanticism and modernism in ways more similar than you might think, and certainly very different to those of the Brahmsian Schoenberg. Berg, whose works included arrangements of Strauss II waltzes, and the Kabarett melodrama of Lulu, might have been the most spiritually Viennese of the Second Viennese School, and his love of Mahler’s music is plain to see in works like the Violin Concerto. Mahler was of course a spiritual father to the SVS as a whole, but Berg seemed to wear that most profoundly in his music, and believed that Mahler’s Sixth was “the only Sixth, despite the Pastoral.”

 

Berg – Kammerkonzert + Op. 5 & 1 (Boulez, EIC, Barenboim, Zukerman, Pay) [1978]

Berg’s Kammerkonzert is a towering work of not only the Second Viennese School but also the chamber music repertoire of the 20th century. In many ways, with its “scherzoso” movement, thematic unity and tripartite structure, the piece is the closest any of the major players in the SVS came to writing a traditional symphony in their modernist output. That it’s scored for such an unusual instrumentation and bursting out of late-romantic convention with modern invention, albeit not to the astonishing degree achieved in the Violin Concerto, only reinforces the case for Berg as successor to Mahler. As is expected of Boulez, the performance is utterly devoted to the music, avoiding all self-serving flash and allowing the wild score to sound out in full richness. Fine if unremarkable readings of the Op. 1 and 5 with Mr Fine-if-Unremarkable himself, Daniel Barenboim, round out the disc, which, like what little else we have of this composer’s music, serves as a grim reminder that here was one of the most brilliant musical minds of his generation, lost like his colleague Webern to tragedy long before his time was due.

 

Mahler – Symphony No. 9 (Salonen, Philharmonia Orchestra) [2010]

I have said before that many conductors like to make a wet handkerchief of Mahler’s music—well, the Ninth may just be the greatest victim of all. After all, who could resist those swooning strings and the grandiose brass climaxes? It turns out that Salonen is one who can, turning in a light, balanced, and fresh feeling take on this often overdone work. But “resist” is the wrong word. This is full-tilt Mahler, just without the imprinting it is so often smothered with.

Salonen takes the marking “Andante comodo” literally, and turns in a first movement of a little under 26 minutes, a little faster than Barbirolli. This is probably closer to what Mahler had in mind than the near or even over 30 minute renditions we often hear. Also like Barbirolli, Salonen stresses balance across the four movements, with the closing Adagio being near enough even in length with the first. The fast inner movements are brisk, and the third movement’s “interior moments” may seem to pass you by, but in its way this is appropriate to the sarcastic nature of the movement, and it’s only in the finale that that theme comes back to hit you in the face with full force.

The recording quality is excellent and lets you right into the orchestra, which plays with cleanness and enunciation. Like Boulez’s Chicago Ninth, there is nothing in the music that fails to make it out into the air. Though it is faster and less affected than a recording like Bernstein’s, it is never rushed or devoid of impact. While I guess you could say it doesn’t reach the highs that more excessive or old school approaches can yield, for the sound quality, excellence of playing, and the conductor’s light and easy touch, this may well be the best introduction to the Ninth on record.

Chinese Girl Cartoons – Devilman OVAs (1987-1990)

Everyone’s talking about Devilman Crybaby. Not me, I only watch old garbage. This is yet another outing for Violence Jack. No, really. Let’s see, how to explain this… Well, I don’t actually know anything about Go Nagai’s fictional universe and I don’t really want to, but it’s something like Akira Fudo who fuses with the demon Amon to become Devilman is reborn as Violence Jack who is one third of Devilman or something and the other two parts of him are birds. That either sounds stupider than it is or doesn’t sound nearly stupid enough. Anyway, in the late ’80s (naturally) there were a couple of gory shitdub OVAs made of the Devilman saga and I thought I would check them out. I regret that decision, but since I went through with it I might as well get something vaguely redeeming out of it.

The Birth (1987)

Aptly titled, The Birth is about the birth of Devilman. A few million or whatever years before that happens, though, dinosaurs and fairies and crab monsters and weird plant things are at war with each other or something. Apparently some of them are possessed by demons, and we get what in the world of 1980’s anime shitdubs probably passed for an explanation of that a little later on, but for now let’s abruptly skip over to something else. In the present, some people go to a cave, and they die because there is a thing there. Spooky. After that we meet Akira Fudo, as yet not demonised, who is looking after rabbits. Some street punks kill the rabbits and beat Akira up. Now I know what you’re thinking, are these guys leather biker rapists? No, no they are not. Apparently Violence Jack’s world is what happens after Devilman kills or fails to kill Satan or something, and that’s when things really get bad, so these guys are a bit more tame—instead of chainsawing your head off while raping your girlfriend they just menace you with blunt objects and call you names. Okay, okay, yes, they kill animals, but they do that off-screen, which is basically the old school trash anime equivalent of being humane.

The first thing to note is that Akira, despite being a weakling, displays some kind of heroism in rescuing the third rabbit. While he does get the crap kicked out of him, he does indeed protect the rabbit, and the punks even admire his resolve on some level. This goes out the window pretty quickly when his buddy Ryo, who wears a cape for some reason and swears enough for a whole shipload of sailors, shows up out of nowhere. Thanks to the amazing English dub, Akira literally goes from a timid “oh no, who would do such a thing?” upon encountering the rabbits to growling “let’s take a swing at the motherfuckers!” when Ryo enlists him to fight demons, all in the space of about ten minutes. And they say kids grow up too fast these days! I’m skipping a bit of story here, though. Before the demons, we get a nice story with equally nice visuals about Ryo’s dad going insane and butchering the family dog before trying to kill Ryo and then setting himself on fire. Such is the power of demons, for Ryo’s dad was studying them and may have gotten, in a classic Lovecraftian kind of deal, just a little too close for his own good. At Ryo’s house, demons show up because his dad knew too much, and Ryo shows Akira a dead demon’s head, which Akira must put on his head in order to witness what basically amounts to the opening sequence but more detailed and even less intelligible.

With Akira thus fully convinced to take a swing at the motherfuckers, Ryo leads him to a nightclub that is for some reason inside his house and starts getting drunk and glassing dudes in the face. The point of this is to create a sabbath-like ritual of sex, intoxication, and blood, in order to attract demons. I will point out that earlier there were several demons inside his house, but I guess it doesn’t count unless you shout “fuckin’ hellfire!” and faceplant into a naked woman’s breasts. This is where things take a turn for the properly grotesque. Where Violence Jack is basically the Mad Max-style pulp/exploitation post-apocalypse taken to its logical extreme, revelling in dismemberment, rape, torture, and so forth, Devilman is a surreal phantasmagoria of body horror. While it would be a mistake to think of the OVA itself as anything other than Grade A trash, the sabbath sequence (at least before “I did it, I am Devilmaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan!”, after which point it becomes high comedy) features legitimately impressive gruesomeness of a sort that might have amused someone like Dalí for the way it contorts and perverts natural forms. He died in 1989, so who knows, he could’ve seen it, maybe. Probably not but the idea is appealing, kind of, maybe? Guys?

The OVA ends with Akira holding an apparently dead Ryo in his arms and shouting “why God?!” over and over again. And, in a way, that kind of sums it up. As you’ll note I’ve written somewhat less about this one than the sequel, and that’s for a few reasons. First off, it’s pretty slow and most of the dialogue is only memorable because it’s so bad. Second of all, I saw this a few days ago, and now I’m giving my recollections. Thirdly, the sequel is much more fun to talk about.

The Demon Bird (1990)

Akira Fudo, no longer a fresh-faced youth but an angry man with fangs that no one seems to notice, is living with his lady friend (but not in that way) who was briefly (hey, the OVA forgot who she was and so did I) seen in The Birth before Ryo showed up to drive his swearing-powered car (someone give this idea to a wealthy entrepreneur who is not Elon Musk, stat!) to the demon mansion. No longer one to be bothered by street thugs, now he leaps tall buildings in a single bound! No really, he does, parkouring his way about Tokyo or wherever he’s supposed to be. He can also kind of Spider-Man his way up walls by thrusting his fingers into concrete because he’s just that tough. After receiving a strange phone call, he parkours over to a sewer tunnel where some bad shit is going down. Human skeletons and strange hallucinations and a woman laughing lead him to fall through a conveniently placed hole and into an abandoned subway station, where a floating skull talks to him with his mother’s voice, but I don’t know how he can tell, it sounds like the woman who voices the Dark Souls intro started smoking two packs of Bensons a day. Maybe his mother really did sound like that? Not that I expect any continuity between dubs here, and even if I did I probably wouldn’t go back and check.

Anyway, a lizard armadillo demon who speaks with a deep south American accent for some reason shows up with a bunch of pustule-ridden human faces. These are souls that the demon traps on its shell in order to enjoy their suffering. Regressing from Dark Souls to Demon’s Souls hahaha shut up. This demon’s name is Ginman? As in the spirit gin and, well, man? I’m sure the dub is screwing it up somehow, but I don’t really know. Also this is apparently the demon that got Parkoura’s parents because it was indeed his mother calling to him, her soul is trapped in Ginman’s shell. The horror in this section seems considerably lesser than that of the sabbath sequence of yore. It’s true that Ginman can withstand attacks on his shell, which means that more pain is suffered by the trapped souls, including potentially Mama Fudo, but somehow the overall tone and presentation feels more like a Saturday morning cartoon than anything. After telepathically showing him her own body being destroyed, however, it gives him the gumption to get that there demon dead in a pretty anticlimactic fight. Of course, it is only a quarter of the way through, so I don’t know why I’m surprised by this.

After a brief visit with the decidedly not dead Ryo in the hospital, Akira goes to the beach—or does he?! No. No he does not. In fact it’s a pretty cool dream sequence which captures more of the subject matter’s potential for surreal, almost ghost train kind of imagery. If this “series”, such as it is, has a strength, this is it. If it had just been an hour of this kind of weird stuff each way then, despite its considerably lower budget, this could have been among the best of its era. Alas, it ain’t. Now seems as good a time as any, mid-paragraph (we’re really freewheeling now, baby) to talk about just how weird the dub is. All the voice actors are clearly American, but the script seems to have been written in England. If you’ve never heard the phrase “I’m knackered” being spoken with an American accent, this is your chance! It’s bizarre, any minute I expect one of the demons to say “cor blimey, it’s Akira Fudo, ouwight me ol’ china” or “chuffin’ ‘ell lad tha’s buggered that one”. I don’t know if this is in fact some bizarre attempt to make it seem foreign to American audiences while still being in English somehow, but I’m glad they did it, it keeps you on your toes.

Now, you might be wondering, just who or what in the heck that title is referring to. At first I thought it might be about the Violence Jack bird, it isn’t about that, thankfully, but there is indeed a demon bird. Sort of. It’s actually a naked woman with some avian features, and I guess if the Saturday morning kids’ show theme is what we’re going with, she’s Devilman‘s Rita Repulsa. She brings down a couple of demons from a thunder storm, who has some kind of light-based power that allows him to appear in mirrors or something, and there’s another one who is water? Is this a JoJo ref- No. Stop that right now. This is where we get another action sequence, and it’s a pretty weird one. The demons assault the house, Akira’s lady friend Miki (finally remembered!) is almost drowned in the bathtub, and her parents are phased into the architecture. The dub makes it kind of difficult to tell who is who, but as far as I can tell Gelmar is in fact the mirror and water demon (any reflective surface will do, it seems), and the other one is some kind of almost-snail with teeth and tentacles that speaks through a reverb effect that makes it impossible to tell what it’s saying. Reverb Snail is dispatched first, and then Akira uses his hot hands to set a bedsheet on fire which causes the water portion of Gelmar’s body to evaporate. I don’t really understand how the house isn’t a burning wreck but whatever.

Anyway, Akira kills Gelmar, and then the bird lady, whose name, according to the dub, is Shernu (hey, you want me to do research? pay me), swoops down and takes him for a ride. After Ryo, who is telepathic somehow, takes his swear-powered car and heads for a tall building, from which he shoots Shernu with a sniper rifle that he has because he does, things take a turn for the worse. The ensuing battle is kind of a tonal mess, jumping from spectacular explosions and gore to bloodless slapfights and back again. Things get even sillier when Shernu chants for Satan’s help, and the ever helpful Prince of Darkness sends a rhino demon who speaks like he’s doing a voice over for a coffee commercial down to Earth. There follows a conversation about whether or not Shernu should fuse with the rhino, and for some reason this is supposed to be an emotional moment even though we’ve never seen one of them before, and the one we have spent time with has spent that time doing nothing but shout “I’ll tear you limb from limb!” over and over again while getting punched in the face. It turns out that the rhino has been in love with the bird lady “since the dawn of time”, and in its ham-fisted way that makes no sense this is about as close as we get in this whole sordid affair to a romance. Anyway, the noble rhino rips his own head off and Shernu inserts herself feet first into the gaping neck hole, so I guess this is the closest we get to a sex scene as well, and by golly it was consensual! The power of love proves strong, and Devilman in fact loses the fight. Of course none of this actually matters because Shernu was about to die anyway, and Ryo shows up to put some bandages on Akira so everything is okay. Even the credits don’t think this is important, they just unceremoniously start up over Ryo and Akira’s conversation, and the dub credits even black out half the screen so that the whole thing ends with the kind of incoherence with which it began.

So that’s Devilman. The better part of two hours of people swearing at each other and dying in horrible ways. Of the Go Nagai adaptations I have seen it’s definitely the best, but given that the others comprise the Violence Jack trilogy, I’m going to go ahead and say that in the grand scheme of things it’s not all that great. It has moments where cool things happen, but then either the original direction or the atrocious dubbing completely ruins the effect. Taken as action horror it’s too goofy to take seriously, taken as a so-bad-it’s-good trainwreck it’s nowhere near shitty enough and most of the dub just isn’t that funny. But it has its moments of imagination, and for that I can’t really say it’s bad, it’s just very poorly balanced in its tone, with characters that are whatever they need to be for a particular scene, their traits being served up like a Woolworths’ pick ‘n’ mix rather than in accordance with any kind of developmental logic. It’s too all over the place in terms of quality to be mediocre, but it probably averages out to around that level. In conclusion, I guess you could say Devilman is a thing that exists.

Listening 2018/05/11: Borodin, Ferneyhough, Beethoven, Bartók

I now have my good headphones back in working order, so it’s time to get some musicking going on. I didn’t actually go into this with a theme in mind, but it turns out that everything I’ve really listened to since quality audio was returned to me is a string quartet.

To begin with, I’d like to make a display of my ignorance by talking a little (very little) about listening to Borodin’s String Quartet No. 2 for the first time today. Borodin is probably the finest of the Russian romantics, along with Rimsky-Korsakov and Mussorgsky he makes up the best of the Mighty Handful. While he is known to me for the opera Prince Igor, his two symphonies, and In the Steppes of Central Asia, he was most prolific as a composer of chamber music. Thinking about it now, it is strange to say I haven’t heard the quartet before, since so many of its themes, particularly of the third movement, were instantly familiar to me. Not being a fan of musical theatre, I feel like it’s a safe bet to say that I don’t know them from Kismet, but whatever. The music is sweet and lyrical, but in the finale you see how robustly contrapuntal Borodin can be, and in some ways, though it is in sonata form, the movement feels like a compact response to the Große Fuge. It’s a fun piece with rich themes and a gently lilting tension and release running throughout, some excellent gestural and contrapuntal writing on display.

Next, Ferneyhough’s string quartet Dum Transisset. I am not a huge fan of Ferneyhough. I think he composes the same way he speaks, that is to say “jargonistically”. His music can be interesting, but I feel very little when I listen to it. Listening to him speak about his work, it seems almost that he composes more for the gratification of the performer than for any audience save perhaps himself. This is fine, for to presume audience is condescension of the highest order; if you aren’t composing for yourself today you are wasting everyone’s time. Dum Transisset sounds pretty much what I expect Ferneyhough to sound like. Fragments play one after the other seemingly unconnected but for their proximity, occasionally a kind of sweetness will emerge, and there is much Webern and even a little Bartók lurking in there. The final movement is perhaps the most exciting, but Ferneyhough is too obsessed with superfluity to make a convincingly conclusive end statement. Maybe that’s the point? Maybe I don’t care? It’s an okay piece.

The Beethoven late quartets have held a special place for me since I first encountered them, and they are probably my favourite works by the composer. Today I am struck by the elegance and tenderness of the brilliant String Quartet No. 12 in E-flat major, Op. 127. It is not sweet music, Beethoven’s mature music is always possessed of a kind of violence, which is precisely why something like the Große Fuge seems never to age, even against the developments of our time it retains its vigour and freshness of spirit. No. 12 is the same way, even though it is a four movement quartet with adherence to classical structure. Beethoven layers the music with idiosyncrasies, and his characteristic method of constructing complicated movements out of simple ideas exists here in a very easily digested, time-flying sort of way. While among these formidable late quartets it might seem the least remarkable, the music is one of constant movement, the way sonata form is stifled in the first movement is arresting to the ear.

Bartók’s six quartets are regarded generally as the finest of the first half of the 20th century. I think that might be pushing things a little, but it’s hard for even the most curmudgeonly critic to deny their vitality and unique character. The fourth of six is the one I’ve been listening to the most, mainly because I love the aggressive, infernal dance of the final movement. But the rest of the quartet is full of invention, too. It is comprised exclusively of mysterious dissonant dances, breaking only for a slow central movement that is merely dissonant and mysterious. The flow of the quartet from the outset is dictated by jagged gestures hitting against each other in compact formal spaces, swirling and dizzying and claustrophobic. Yet, as is common with Bartók, this kind of violent writing comes out of the folk music of his native Hungary and Romania. As an ethnomusicologist he transcribed and arranged vast numbers of tunes from the peoples of those lands, and incorporated them and lessons learned from them into his original music, marking himself out as one of the foremost nationalist composers of his generation. This comes to a head in the finale, following the unique pizzicato-only fourth movement, thrusting and kicking its way through a brutal village dance until it collapses in on itself.

2018: A Batshit Odyssey – #2. Batman (1989)

What might be considered the first major cinematic outing for the caped crusader finds Michael Keaton behind the mask, and Tim Burton at the helm, both of whom had worked together the previous year on Beetlejuice. Tim Burton has made some weird movies, and most of them have not been weird in a good way, but there was a period in which he directed a solid stream of good films, and this is one of them. But going in, it’s worth accepting that you are going to get more Burton than Batman. Say what you will about Burton, like Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder after him, he has a particular vision and—whether you think it’s absolute pants or not—the sense of “auteurism” is strong in his take on Batman.

The film opens with the wonderful Danny Elfman theme, which I would characterise as “neo-Wagnerian”. Just listen to those opening harmonies and that orchestration, they could have been lifted straight out of Der Ring des Nibelungen. As they play on, dark textures and shadows unfurl across the screen to slowly reveal the Batman symbol. If there’s a better opening sequence to a Batman film, well buddy, I ain’t seen it. It perfectly prefaces the look, style, and mood of the film, highlighting the Gothic and expressionist sensibilities of Burton’s early work. Gotham City is presented as a rich amalgamation of Gothic and art deco architecture shot through with preternatural spiderwork of industrial pipes and catwalks—New York City as a cartoon labyrinth.

The story is fairly straightforward. Jack Napier is an unhinged gangster who is having a secret affair with his boss Carl Grissom’s daughter. It turns out to be not so secret, and for a multitude of obvious reasons Grissom plots to have Napier’s next job, clearing incriminating documents out of the Axis chemical plant, go horribly wrong, using Lieutenant Eckhardt, his inside man on the police force, to coordinate a raid on the plant with orders to shoot to kill. Commissioner Gordon is tipped-off about this at a party at Bruce Wayne’s mansion, and Bruce uses his surveillance system to eavesdrop on the conversation. As Batman, he takes off to face down Napier, who, during a shoot-out sequence—with hints of The Third Man—at the chemical plant, falls into a vat of chemicals, apparently dying. In fact, he survived the submersion but has been permanently disfigured and driven insane. With his faced fixed permanently into a grin by severe facial nerve damage, he becomes the Joker. When he kills Grissom and takes over his criminal empire, Joker positions himself to take on Batman, who has attained a status of myth both in the criminal underworld and in the mainstream media. Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne becomes romantically involved with Vicki Vale, a photographer who has come to Gotham City to try and catch Batman on film, and must wrestle with keeping his dual identities separate, especially when Joker himself begins to develop a perverse interest in Vale.

Michael Keaton is not a square-jawed, buff dude, so his casting might seem a little odd in comparison both to the typical depiction of Bruce Wayne in the comics and what we’ve come to except from Hollywood action movie stars. Keaton plays Wayne as an unassuming, charming, and witty eccentric, his lack of imposing stature and physique makes it that much easier to believe his secret identity is secure, because Batman’s sculpted body armour makes him look much bigger. Even so, when as Batman he must rescue Vicki Vale from the Joker he is careful not to have her see him too close in good lighting. The identity issue is one he goes back and forth on as he gets closer to Vale, and while he thinks hard over the question of whether or not to tell her it is actually revealed to her quite unceremoniously, as Alfred allows her into the Batcave. It can be assumed that Bruce wanted this, or gave up and realised that it would be better to show her than tell her who he was, since his reaction is completely without surprise or worry when she arrives.

The film features an extremely theatrical Batman. He does a lot of impractical things for dramatic effect, for image’s sake, to lend himself a kind of supernatural mystique. Compared with later more “realistic” interpretations, it is pretty far out there in terms of how he acts and how people react to him. It’s very stage-y, and your willingness and ability to accept that realism is not what Burton is interested in will probably impact heavily on your overall feelings about the film. This is not super-genius ninja Batman who takes out a whole room full of thugs without them even seeing him. In some ways he’s more like Marvel’s “anti-Batman” Moon Knight, who makes sure the bad guys see him coming and who will gladly withstand being beaten half to death if it gets the job done. In a time before superhero films and TV shows started to get gritty, the hits Batman takes are fairly soft, and there isn’t much blood in the film, but he does find himself on a couple of occasions in real struggles with Joker’s henchmen. I think this works here mainly because Keaton is not a big beefy dude, he’s an average-sized dude, and he uses his gadgets and his wits to get the upper hand on opponents who are often physically stronger than he is. This Batman, to the consternation of a good many comic book fans, also appears to kill several people, although many times he ties people up or knocks them out. For me this is not an issue, but Batman is the quintessential hero in the comic books in that he never kills anyone, he believes in crime and punishment, and in redemption and rehabilitation. This Batman is less moral, it could be said, which might reflect on the darker portrayals of the character in comic books around the time the film was produced.

Opposite Keaton, Jack Nicholson is cast as the Joker. I almost don’t want to talk about it, because it is such a classic, ubiquitous performance, and the one to which I gravitated the most as a child. I was a ’90s kid, and I loved Batman. Batman: The Animated Series, the two Burton films, the ’60s Batman show, all were among my favourite things to watch. For me, the Joker is best in motion when played by two people: Jack Nicholson in live action and Mark Hamill in animation. Nicholson’s Joker is a mobster, sociopathic, highly intelligent, and completely off-the-rails following his emergence from a vat of deadly chemicals. He delights in theatrics, pranks that result in death and disfigurement, and symbolic displays of power. He revels in the grotesque, and has a perverse aesthetic sensibility in which mutilation and murder are artistic acts. It is an amusing touch, when Joker and his henchmen tear up an art gallery, for him to restrain his right-hand man from defacing a work by Francis Bacon. Nicholson had previously starred in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Shining, both of which saw him play at insanity. For the Joker, we see him combine the two, the pretend craziness of R.P. McMurphy, and the deep-seated homicidal psychopathy of Jack Torrance. Joker likes to play up to his audience whether he is intimidating a single person or luring thousands of people into a nerve gas attack, and he turns on a dime from clown to maniac and back again to terrorise them emotionally as he terrorises them physically. Like the figure of Batman itself, there is something mythic, almost fairytale-like in the way Nicholson carries himself in the film.

While Burton is often quoted as saying that he was never big into comic books, much is made of his endorsement of The Killing Joke, an Alan Moore one-shot that came out the previous year, and whose depiction of Batman and Joker has coloured pretty much everything since. Alan Moore himself, noted curmudgeon who enjoys shitting on mainstream comics whenever he gets the chance, said that it was “far too violent and sexualised a treatment for a simplistic comic book character like Batman and a regrettable misstep on my part”. But Moore’s insistence that Batman just doesn’t have the complexity as a character to handle that kind of material has fallen on deaf ears, generally speaking. In any case, for all that Burton apparently makes of Moore’s disowned work, it doesn’t actually seem to have imprinted on the film at all. The film has its moments of violence, but sex is pretty much out of the picture entirely, we know that Bruce Wayne and Vicki Vale sleep together at some point, but it isn’t the point of their relationship, and there is no sex scene. The closest we get to on-screen sex is when, for a few seconds, Vale feigns being won over by the Joker’s warped affections in order to distract him while Batman moves in for an attack.

Burton’s love of classic horror cinema makes itself felt in several key scenes. When Joker’s plastic surgery treatment is concluded and he impatiently tears the bandages from his face to see himself in the mirror, we do not see his face, only his reaction, smashing the mirror and laughing hysterically. This recalls Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, but it is also tonally steeped in the dramatic expressionist style of the classic Universal monster movies of the 1930s. And as he leaves cast in shadow up a staircase he briefly reminds the viewer of Nosferatu. Eyes Without a Face is more literally referenced when Joker reveals the face of Grissom’s daughter from behind a mask, who has been disfigured with some kind of acid, something that may sit more uncomfortably than ever with today’s audiences. Oftentimes Gotham City seems to point in its outsized architecture to the warped cityscapes of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The final confrontation with Joker atop a huge church tower that seems to stretch and shrink as the drama demands lends the impression of a “living city” that twists itself in response to the grandiose characters and their conflict. This again compounds the sense that Burton wants to deliver a mythic Batman, a Gotham where everything is not quite real, but real enough, an exaggerated artist’s impression that provides a stage broad and yielding enough to accommodate flights of fantasy.

Batman is my favourite superhero film. It is by no means perfect as a film, and certainly not as an attempt to bring Batman to life, but even now, shorn of nostalgia, it mostly holds up. There are one or two goofy effects, like the CGI parade balloon, or the weird animated composite shots looking down over the city, which neither look real nor appropriate to the somewhat unreal tone of the film, but these complaints don’t count for much against the fantastic visual design of Gotham City, and the excellent make-up, costumes, and practical effects. The score by Danny Elfman reinforces the distinctive look and pace of the film with its Wagnerian grandeur and brooding harmonic ambiguities. Keaton and Nicholson are brilliant and I could watch them all day. I’m not crazy about Kim Basinger as an actor, but Vale is a fun and likeable character, one notable issue with the portrayal—and this is not necessarily Basinger’s fault—being that she screams and faints and all that stereotypically womanly stuff despite supposedly being a hardened war photographer. It’s something that feels a little dated now since women have become more prominent and active in action movies, and especially superhero movies, in recent years, but even without all that taken into consideration it’s just not great writing. Warts and all, I love this film, and while I understand the many criticisms levelled against it, I just don’t give a damn.

Some Thoughts on “The Name of the Rose”

Umberto Eco’s first novel is my second Umberto Eco novel. Originally published in Italian as Il Nome della Rosa, it was Eco’s response to a request to write a short detective story for a small publisher. He had responded to the call for stories by saying that if he were to write a detective story it would be 500 pages long. His proposal was rejected on that basis, but he gradually came to work on it as an independent project. The book, which is indeed 500 pages long, mixes Eco’s love of the paranoia that leads people to believe in grand conspiracies, his deep knowledge of Mediaeval history, and his own innovation, in the form of the field of semiotics, into a rigorously researched historical fiction, which is a philosophical yet entertaining murder mystery.

The story is set in a Benedictine monastery in northern Italy in the year 1327. Pope John XXII clashes with Holy Roman Emperor Louis IV; debates rage over the poverty of Christ; mendicant monks are branded heretics; the spectre of Fra Dolcino looms over Italy; and a young Benedictine monk has just been found dead—an apparent suicide. William of Baskerville, a worldly Franciscan and former inquisitor from England, and his assistant, the Benedictine novice Adso of Melk, who also narrates the story, arrive at the monastery to take part in a debate on Christ’s poverty between the soon-to-arrive legations representing the Empire and the Church, but are soon tasked by the abbot into investigating the circumstances of the suicide.

In a nod, one of many, to Borges, one of Eco’s heroes, the book in fact begins with the discovery of Adso of Melk’s manuscript by an unnamed scholar, perhaps Eco himself. Eco was a noted bibliophile, and his collected library at the end of his life amounted to some 50,000 books, for him not a conquest or a boast, but a symbol of all the things he didn’t know. The book is written in that bibliophilic vein, and is in fact about books, specifically the quest for knowledge, and whether knowledge is to be attained or merely to be preserved. The librarian of the monastery presides over a labyrinthine library, with secret rooms and an esoteric indexing system. It is his job to retrieve books for the monks so that they may study them in the scriptorium, but more importantly, it is his job to refuse to do so. The monastery is as much in the business of keeping secrets as it is in the business of devotion to Christ, and the library labyrinth is its beating heart.

The secrecy surrounding the library and its contents is one of William of Baskerville’s most pressing obsessions during the investigation. With the coming of Matins each day at three in the morning, more monks are discovered dead, it is quickly established that all of them are linked to the library in peculiar ways. As the story progresses, it turns out that a lost work of Aristotle, the second book of the Poetics, which, since it really is lost, Eco takes some licence in imagining as a work extolling the virtues of laughter, seems to play an important part in linking the victims further. Does the Philosopher’s mythical lost work reside within the library? If it does, does it contain something so dangerous that someone might be driven to kill to keep its secrets? Is it just one of the many red herrings and side alleys, plots real or imaginary, lingering like the ghosts of dead monks in the Ossarium?

The concept of preservation vs. attainment of knowledge is perhaps the book’s central theme. Almost every episode of the story depicts this central conflict in one way or another. Jorge of Burgos believes that all necessary knowledge is contained in scripture, and that everything else is either superfluous or heretical. William is much more of the belief that books are to be read, and that knowledge can be found not just in the divine revelation of the Holy Bible, but in the writings of the Arabs, the Romans, the Greeks, and others. To that point, much is made of William’s use of reading glasses, possibly a defiant act, for did not God make it so that he would not be able to see text clearly enough with the naked eye? This is contrasted with Jorge, who has the novices read aloud to him, he is also a masterful preacher, as shown by his performance during one Compline service. For him it is enough, and perfectly so, that Christ could speak. All is oration, the spoken Word, in Jorge’s world.

Eco takes much inspiration for his characters and events from the real history of the time. Bernard Gui, who really was an inquisitor for John XXII, arrives at the monastery to investigate the murders, and in his piety drives confessions out of heretics who may not in fact have anything to do with the real crimes taking place. Meanwhile, Michael of Cesena, and Ubertino of Casale, two leaders of the Spirituals, the most strict followers of the rule of Saint Francis, take part in the debate on poverty, the Pope’s side of which Bernard Gui has also come to represent. With these examples I scratch the surface of a history I do not know, but one which Eco knew well from his academic studies, and which he researched further in preparation for writing the book itself. His grasp on the intellectual life of Mediaeval Europe is astounding, and the theological and political debates and their corollary plots form a rich backdrop against which the action takes place. There is also much made of technology of the era, William of Baskerville being a proponent of the “magic” of Roger Bacon, who was mentor to him.

Another source of inspiration is of course literature, and Eco delights as much in pulp as he does in “serious” fiction and philosophy. William and Adso bear much in common with Holmes and Watson, and Eco lays this out from the start, with Adso’s description of William’s physical features being very similar to Watson’s description of Holmes. William’s methods of deduction are also quite Holmesian, and rely on his extremely keen observational skills and logic to support what is, as he frequently admits, more or less educated guesswork. There is also something of Occam’s Razor in his approach to the investigation, and he does indeed cite William of Ockham, the originator of the concept, as a good friend. Elsewhere, Eco delights in referencing Borges. The character of Jorge of Burgos is a wise but intensely pious old monk, blind for half of his life, who takes a special interest in knowledge and is a central figure in the book’s dialectic between attainment and preservation. The library itself, and the many books found in the scriptorium, give Eco, through William, plenty of opportunities to show off his wide reading and knowledge of ancient manuscripts.

Though they are a Holmes and Watson, and though the official relationship between them is merely monastic, the young novice acting as assistant to the learned Franciscan, William and Adso also display something of a father-son bond, and often become teacher and student, mentor and protégé. Eco is often criticised for writing flat characters, and I suppose they are not the most richly defined in all of literature, but I feel that there is more to these two than a simple Doyle homage. But Doyle provides skeletons on which Eco can layer sinews and flesh. Maybe it ends up being a bit thin, but then maybe that fits the austere world of the monks and their ascetic, ritual-bound lifestyles. Entering the murders into that world and breaking up those lifestyles, shaking the certainty in which the monks have lived until then to its core, is how Eco bares that flesh.

Quite apart, however, from being a straight murder mystery, much of the book deals with debates on the nature of various things, and is as much at home discussing the writings of Aquinas or the philosophy of the Mediaeval Muslims as it is herbalism, the logic of navigating a labyrinth, and other things I don’t understand. It is as much a philosophical mystery as it is a pulpy whodunnit, as much a portrait of a time and place in history and theology as it is an excuse to indulge in a world of literature. One of the great things I have gained from this book, beyond an entertaining narrative, is an interest in learning about the history of the Holy Roman Empire, the Catholic church in Europe, and a reinforcement of my so far half-heartedly followed up on commitment to get to grips with philosophy.

I had a lot of fun with The Name of the Rose. Like Foucault’s Pendulum, which I read some years before, it presents riches which are open to you if you know how to access them, but the puzzles to which you don’t have the solutions are just as tantalising. This book is less grand and all-encompassing than its follow up, but it drinks deep of the literary and cultural history of Europe, and weaves an exciting mystery through it. Perhaps best of all, it has succeeded in interesting me in reading the real histories of these times and places. But still, there is something puzzling in how it has been so adoringly received since its first publication. On the one hand, with its Holmesian double act of William and Adso, and the compelling mystery that seems to insinuate itself into every part of the life of the monastery, I can see why it was such an international success; on the other hand it seems, with its theological debates and deep symbology, like it would be something far less palatable to the general public, who would enjoy the murder mystery were it not for the impossibility of disentangling it from the philosophical questions that drive it. It is a story of books, written for people who love books, and I am one of them.

 

2018: A Batshit Odyssey – #1. Batman (1966)

The 1960s. Vietnam, flower power, Beatlemania. The good old days, when 20th Century Fox was shoving Frank Gorshin’s prodigious green bulge in your face instead of terrible Spider-Man spin-offs. Yes, that’s right, a time before Warner Bros. executives got their greasy mitts on Batman and turned him into a series of gruff growlers, self-serious scientists, and quizzical quippers. A time when everything was labelled and everyone spoke in alliterative exclamations of exasperation. Unfortunately, during my soujourn into those heady cultural pastures of mid-century life I did not have my ballpoint banana ready to take notes, but here’s my recollection of a certain episode of Batmania that fell upon me all of a sudden in April of 2018.

To begin with, we get a SNATCHER-esque opening dedication, but rather than cyberpunks who fight against injustice every day of their lives, Batman is for crime fighters, escapists, and people who like weird things. It’s more inclusive, and, since it is 2018, I’m sure we can all get behind that. Also there’s a couple necking in an alleyway, which forewarns you of just how sexy this film is. Indeed, it is not long before so many male bulges, off-set at least a little by the permanently erect nipples of Lee Meriwether, are on screen at once that sometimes it can be hard, no pun intended, to know where to look! Somehow, even this is not as gay as the way Batman looks at Superman during their Dawn of Justice when the former tries to run over the latter.

What I particularly love about our introduction to Batman and Robin in this film, and indeed the film itself, is that almost everything takes place in broad daylight. Bruce Wayne happily steps out for a night on the town with Miss Kitka (a barely disguised Catwoman) as an unwitting part of a plot to lure Batman to her secret hideout, but Batman himself likes the sun. There’s no sneaking around or hiding awkwardly in the corners of rooms in order to surprised the police for no apparent reason. In fact, Batman’s awkward relationship with the police is nowhere to be seen here, as he and Robin are officially recognised and deputised. He can fly around in the Bat-Copter and wave at people as he passes over head, the police even take their hats off as a sign of respect when they see him go by. It’s quite literally a night and day contrast from all or most non-comic book Bat Media that has come since.

The major plot thread involves a tetrapartite conspiracy between Penguin, Catwoman, Riddler, and Joker. Joker last because, contrary to modern Bat Cinema, he isn’t the main character. And no, Suicide Squad with its abysmal bit-part does not count! The wacky foursome have contrived to kidnap one Commodore Schmidlapp, an English sailor who says “pip pip”, because of course he does, and have ingeniously stored him in a replica boat (where he can catch up on his Dickens) so that they can steal his dehydration device. While this device is used to try and sneak a dehydrated army (five people) into the Batcave, the real plan is to dehydrate the leaders of nations in the United World Security Council and hold them to ransom. I guess the UN would not lend the film its official support, and it’s easy to see why given that the film depicts the Security Council as a bunch of self-important fools shouting over each other ad infinitum to little purpose, and the final joke of the film doubles down on that in the most glorious way. Batman has a surprising amount of topical humour about politics and international relations, and while none of it could be called incisive or biting, it obviously wasn’t supposed to be. High camp is high camp, this is a comedy in which everyone is a target, but no one is hurt.

Maybe even “comedy” is not an all-encompassing descriptor here. The dialogue might at times be more towards the nonsense of Edward Lear, which is not outwardly “funny” but rather “silly” in an endearing way. The performances, however, show a clear comic/straightman dynamic. Batman and Robin are broadly speaking straightmen, no pun intended, foils to the villains who are constantly goofing around and hamming it up. Adam West’s totally serious, news-anchor-esque delivery in the face of exploding sharks, bad Russian accents, Frank Gorshin’s bulge, Burgess Meredith’s waark-waark-waarking, not to mention Burt Ward’s exclamatory puns and other assorted insanities, provides much balance, and is made all the stronger in its balancing by the ridiculousness of the Batman costume itself. For people who know the original TV series, this will hardly come as a surprise, and on that front it’s pretty much business as usual, but unlike most TV shows making the transition to feature film, here’s one that didn’t sacrifice all the things that made it good in order to be “cinematic”.

When thinking of classic Batman villains, I at least would be hard pressed to come up with a more iconic group than Penguin, Catwoman, Riddler, and Joker. They aren’t necessarily those characters as you know them from more recent films, but they are delightful to watch as they prance, dance, slither, and waddle around with exaggerated bravura. Burgess Meredith growls and squawks, equal parts bird and sinister businessman, a cigarette holder dangling permanently from snarling lips as he pumps green knockout gas from an umbrella. Catwoman plays both seductive and silly, and is perhaps the funniest of the four, because she is at once the most outwardly normal and the most insane. Lee Meriwether only played the role this one time, but she did it brilliantly. Frank Gorshin’s Riddler, bulge aside, seems at times like some kind of proto-Kramer; the way he delivers his monologue as he plots how to defeat Batman once and for all (this involves catapulting Batman into an exploding octopus) reminded me so much of Kramer in episode 78 of Seinfeld, “The Marine Biologist”, when he talks about his plans to go out to the beach and hit golf balls into the ocean.

Last, and perhaps even least, Cesar Romero’s Joker has surprisingly little to do. I think this is mainly a temporal thing. My history might be wrong, but since Alan Moore’s one-shot The Killing Joke was blown out of all proportion it seems that we’ve come to think of the Joker as Costello to Batman’s Abbott, an inseparable duo, diametrically opposed, who, underneath it all, might be more similar than they think. It’s a classic set-up, and it’s easy to see why it’s so popular—well, maybe it won’t be any longer thanks to Jared Leto’s er… questionable interpretation—but I wonder if back in the golden or silver age this wasn’t a bit less the case. Knowing his performances for the TV series, maybe he doesn’t need to be so prominent anyway, simply because let loose he could well overshadow the others. He’s also a lot more fun than some of the more recent interpretations, even just seeing his well-trimmed moustache peeking through his make-up is funny.

Adding to performance and plot, Nelson Riddle’s score carries the action on a sonic bed of surf rock, lounge jazz, surf rock, orchestral swoons, and more surf rock. From the very beginning the music helps bring you into the film’s heightened camp version of the mid-’60s and underlines with knowing winks the silliness of the script and the performances it calls for. Taken all together, it’s a really fun film. It knows it’s silly, and it revels in it. I’m not sure I would call great comedy, but it’s a very entertaining piece—certainly more so than Batman’s two most recent outings, by turns ludicrous, dire, insulting, and bland—and a great place to commence my adventure through the Bat Annals of Bat History. That does it for this edition of the Batshit Odyssey. Tune in next week, same Bat Time, same Bat Channel, when we’ll check in with 1989’s Batman.

Minor Update: No Music Posts for at Least Two Weeks

For the past week or so I have been working with an old set of cheap headphones, but these themselves have now given up the ghost. While I still have audio, I don’t have anything sufficient for composing or for proper listening to music. I can’t afford to order replacement parts for either of my good pairs of headphones until I get paid in a couple of weeks’ time. So the title is somewhat misleading: it will probably be closer to three weeks until normal working can be resumed.