Now that I am teaching again, I find that I have the most trouble answering questions related to motivation, usually some variation of “Why do we need to study this?” And as awful as this might sound, I truly don’t know how to satisfy that question. I do try — depending on the student, so far I’ve replied:
“Maybe if you study it more, you will learn that you do like it. I used to hate algebra but look!, I’m teaching it to you now.
“Oh, you want to make video games? Well, you’ll need this math when you start programming classes…”
“Yeah, I don’t know why the Ottoman Empire is a state standard either, but you need to study a wide breadth of subjects because you never know where those connections will come in handy.”
Of course, every discipline will have their own specific answers. A US Government teacher will discuss the importance of civic education for a functioning democracy. Or a geologist might just say “‘cause rocks are cool” and that’s a fine and dandy reason. At the very least, I hope I’ve done better than a coworker who told a student that if he hated social studies, “Just wait ‘till you’ll have to take economics. Economics is the worst.” Yeah, sure, that’s a great way to prime students with a good attitude for their required courses in an already maligned field…
I think though, I struggle to answer because I never considered the question important. When I went to school, I studied because I felt that I had no other choice. Then, by the time I reached college, I had developed strong enough interests that I no longer needed to put effort into the choice anyway — I would have pursued the topics that I enjoyed regardless of the opportunity to do so at a university (and as I continue to do now in a hobbyist capacity here).
So, with the students, I’m dodging the question. I give two vague hypotheticals (“Maybe…” “You never know…”) and a cutesy if cynical appeal to self-interest (“You want to make video games?”) but ignore the more fundamental problem of education:
[Short on time this week, so I’m leaning on floaty quotes rather than original writing. A Place Further Than the Universe is excellent, but in the same way I’ve struggled to connect with other triumphs of animation like Spirited Away, it hasn’t clicked with me somehow. Plus, Yuzuki’s far and away my favorite character in the series, perhaps making my concerns here more a matter of disappointed expectations than a genuine story misstep. And I dunno, I’m also a big fan of failure, so maybe I should take it as just another of the series’ good points]
Man, I don’t much often watch good anime anymore. I think I subconsciously avoid it, out of an odd irrational anxiety that if I consume the best too fast, I’ll run out — for good. So, between the masterpieces, I usually content myself with rank garbage …because, yuck, I seem to like it better anyway (and you never know when you’ll find a diamond in the muck!).
Given my preference for trash then, I surprised myself when I watched A Place Further than the Universe (Japanese: Sora yori mo tooi basho, apparently it’s abbreviated Yorimoi?). A friend had recommended it to me and I’ve seen nothing but praise for it online. It even made the New York Times’ list of best television shows from 2018! An anime drawing acclaim from America’s most mainline newspaper? Probably pretty good, right?
Yes, very good. Yorimoi is excellent in just about every way. Buuut… with pessimistic me, there’s always a but. I found it a little maudlin, a bit boring. Yorimoi has a strong coming-of-age message about putting “youth in motion,” explored through an extraordinary journey to Antarctica and captured by one of the highest quality television anime productions I’ve ever seen. But! As the show’s relentless positivity ground down at my pessimism and all adversity collapsed under cathartic crying sessions in the name of f-r-i-e-n-d-s-h-i-p, I began to lose interest. Yorimoi is a startling success. But uhhh… hmm… bleh. I much prefer failure.
I hate to quote Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran again, but he’s too topical (and funny!) to ignore here: “Failure, even repeated, always seems fresh; whereas success, multiplied, loses all interest, all attraction.”
To the extent that success aspires to some fixed ideal — becoming popular or wealthy, having a respected career, achieving truth or virtue or even just simple contentment — good successes all begin to look alike. Just think about the students at Ivy League universities with their immaculate academic records, stalwart extracurricular leadership experience, and identical spiritual epiphanies earned on mission trips to Central America or wherever. Maybe good life choices, but eh… Boring! It’s youth in motion, just on a fixed path towards a stop.
By contrast, a preference for failure opens consideration to everything else life might offer. All of those students have blemishes, no matter how well they hide them in their transcripts and applications. And that makes them so much more interesting. I wrote my own not-good-enough-for-Ivy application essay on my habit of oversleeping before school while half-listening to NPR weather reports on my radio-alarm clock. It didn’t impress any admission committees, but I’m glad to have failed on my own terms rather than conceding to the proper path. Failing sidewise, where will I go? I dunno! Neat. (and… ugh. scary.)
With those thoughts in mind then, I want to focus on what I consider Yorimoi’s greatest failure: the conclusion to Yuzuki Shiraishi’s character arc. Yuzuki enters Yorimoi’s narrative as a lonely, discontent child actress trying to resist her mother’s unwelcome management of her inauthentic career …but then ends the story a passive actor, again acceding to social pressure to take a role in a drama that she doesn’t seem to want to do. Though Yuzuki finds friendship on the journey to Antarctica, in the coming-of-age story, I don’t know if she asserts her youth in the same triumphant way as Kimari, Hinata, and Shirase. Unlike the other girls, who move so fast that it becomes difficult to keep up, Yuzuki… doesn’t. Instead, by the end of the series she’s still charted on that same path towards her mother’s idea of success, into an acting career Yuzuki herself doesn’t seem to enjoy.
Ah, a failure of youth in motion, and all the more interesting in an animation that exalts movement for its own sake! Let me explain where I think Yuzuki came to a stop…
[content warning: discussion of sexual assault in the context of fiction]
[It’s 2am and I can’t sleep because I already slept, all day, on a stultifying migraine. Let’s turn on the blue-light filter and see what comes from this moment of madness.]
I hate having opinions. Of course, that doesn’t to stop me from actually having them… for example, I enjoy irony because it helps me close the paradoxical loop that “hating having opinions” is itself an opinion. Oh, but that loop’s still a problem. Maybe I should revise…
No, I don’t hate opinions so much as I do thinking about them. You have to justify them, and then consider their rebuttals, and sometimes even rebut their opponents in turn. That’s hard work. Sure, maybe you don’t have to do any of that. You could just content yourself with fluttery feelings: “I like this, not that.” But that approach always seems dangerous to me. What if you need to revise an opinion, like I just did? Or what if you hurt someone’s feelings? Or worst of all, what if you reveal your ignorance, if you’re just wrong?
To have opinions is inevitable, is natural; to have convictions is less so. Each time I meet someone who has convictions, I wonder what intellectual vice, what flaw has caused him to acquire such a thing. However legitimate this question, my habit of raising it spoils the pleasure of conversation for me, gives me a bad conscience, makes me hateful in my own eyes.
I have opinions; yes, it’s only natural. But except for the most serious issues, I never feel secure enough in them to approach a considered conviction. It’s not just my own waftiness either: if I fear the flaws in all of my own opinions, I distrust everyone else’s as well. How can anyone have such surety to upgrade a mere opinion to a conviction? Like Cioran says, the question becomes awkward in conversation: I can hardly criticize someone’s convictions if I can’t counter with my own, beyond the ironic one that I can barely have any to begin with. “Bad conscience” indeed…
I suppose it’s good then that I don’t have any strong opinions on Goblin Slayer. When the series first aired for the Fall 2018 anime season, it exploded into the most polarizing piece of televised fiction I’ve ever encountered. After the rape scene in episode 1, most of the people who would have disliked it bombed the series with negative first impressions before dropping it like a live grenade. That uproar left some severe survivorship bias in its wake: the complete reviews that followed offered little but glowing praise. Given the severity of the polarization surrounding the first episode and the series’ own singular focus on killing goblins, neither this world nor Goblin Slayer’s left much room for ambiguity.
But as someone with little tolerance for certainty, I never understood the hype. Goblin Slayer has little positive or negative to recommend it, even when compared to other works in its stale video-game-inspired fantasy genre. To summarize my ambivalent experience: Goblin Slayer‘s just like… kinda of sad and boring, I guess?
How can I put an even greater damper that opinion…
A few weeks ago, a Japanese acquaintance asked me about my hobbies. I don’t really like the question. Especially coming from an older adult, it feels unfair. Am I supposed to answer “anime and grindy, definition-of-insanity online games” and then wait for that immediate, inevitable look of disappointment? I usually just abbreviate it to a generic “TV and games” to spare myself the embarrassment.
But oh! This time I had a respectable answer! Some real, serious literature! I had recently read Japanese Gothic Tales, a collection of four love-horror stories from the late-Meiji-into-Taisho period writer Izumi Kyoka (translated by Charles Shiro Inouye). Surely that would impress, I thought.
Maybe not. I probably realized my mistake too late. First, having escaped academia, few people really care about literature, especially boring, brooding gothic horror. Second, Kyoka has a reputation in Japan as a bit of an oddball for writing in an obscurantist, intentionally archaic style that few people can stand to read anymore. And third, I caught myself calling shinjuu — the genre of Japanese love-suicide stories common in much of Kyoka’s fiction — “cute.” My acquaintance looked shocked, but remained polite and disagreed before wandering off.
At first, I wondered if I had butchered my already broken Japanese. No, I thought, I know the meaning of “kawaii” well enough. I meant what I said in both languages. But then, I considered the implication of my statement. In calling a collection of love suicide stories “cute,” I had perhaps suggested that I thought the suicides themselves were cute. Ooo… oops. Yikes!
The moment was mostly just stupid foot-in-mouth awkwardness on my part, especially because my limited vocabulary in Japanese makes it difficult to explain the nuances of my thinking. But now that I’m back in an English language environment (hello… blog?) perhaps I can better explain myself. I still consider Japanese Gothic Tales just a little cute. But no… not like that. Not like a puppy or kitten or moe anime girl. I call the love suicide stories cute for the same reason I can’t help but laugh at the terrifying “Here’s Johnny” scene in The Shining. It’s too scary and too disgusting, so much so that I actually seem to wrap around and experience the opposite emotion. Staring at the full horror of Kyoka’s shinjuu stories, I could only think “this is cute.”
I like Sword Art Online. I really do, even if this post’s title might seem to indicate otherwise. With just a little teasing, I enjoy a bit of comforting adolescent mediocrity from time to time and nothing does it better than Sword Art Online. But… (and isn’t there always a “but?”) I don’t know how to keep pace with the series any more.
The franchise has produced so much material that I could never hope to dig through it all. Going by the Wikipedia page, it has more than 20 volumes of light novel, more than 30 volumes of manga, 11 video games across various platforms, an animated movie, two seasons of anime totaling 49 episodes, and the “Alternative” spin-off series with 8 volumes of light novel, 2 volumes of manga, and a 12 episode anime series of its own.
To top it all off, this fall 2018 season has introduced Sword Art Online: Alicization, a four-cour behemoth of an anime that will air for almost a full year from October 2018 all the way to September 2019. I expect to enjoy Alicization but… (that ominous word again) oh my… a year is a long time. The simple thought of engaging with such a long piece of media makes me feel a sort of preemptive fatigue. Instead of hyping up the new series, the feeling leaves me wondering: can I even finish something so long?