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19 January 2013 @ 03:08 pm
Random thoughts on other-culture narratives  
I've been trying to do more non-internet reading lately, as well as checking out more shows now and then. Two recent works have been outside my comfort zone in different ways.

(I've tried to avoid spoilers for the works discussed here.)

Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord can be called a modified folk tale. It blends Caribbean and Senegalese elements into something that is — as far as I know — new. I don't know that I'd feel a need to re-read it, but I'm glad I've read it once.

It was work to get through, though, and it took me a couple of attempts. [Sidebar: I don't read WIPs because I generally can't retain any sense of continuity (plot or character) with constant interruptions. I tend to process narratives far better if I can consume them at my own pace.] I had thought I would read this book during adoption-hours shifts at the cat shelter, but that didn't work at all.

At first I thought the book just wasn't for me, because I simply couldn't get into it, but the author made me laugh a few pages in. Intelligent humor is a very strong hook for me, and there was just enough humor to make me want to do the work of relating to an unfamiliar narrative style, culture, and setting.

I read this book on my own, without seeking out any other reviews or read-alongs. As far as I know, this worked out; even though the core tales, cultures, worldview, and setting were all "foreign" to me, the book is written in English and apparently for a modern Western (English-language) audience. So I was a little slow to truly understand the nature of the djombi, for example, but that's a minor omission on my part that didn't affect my reaction to or understanding of the narrative. The story didn't employ the characterizations, tropes, or narrative arc I expected, but I was still able to appreciate it without outside influence or assistance. (That's not counting the brief review that led me to pick up the book in the first place.)

Meanwhile, for probably over a year now I've been reading the "reviews" and many of the comments at the Mark Does Stuff sites. (Without those sites, I might never have discovered the Newsflesh series or Tamora Pierce's books, just for two book examples. I can't read at his posting pace — see my comments about WIPs above — so if a book he's currently processing interests me, I read ahead and then follow his slower pace for the discussions. I don't have the same problem with visual media, fortunately, though re-watching Buffy and Angel as he discovered them for the first time was highly entertaining.)

He recently covered the short anime series Puella Magi Madoka Magica. Before his reviews, I had never heard of this series, and I would likely not have had any reason to check it out. I held off doing so even when he was posting the reviews; I didn't have the time for something new and knew no reason to investigate this one.

He gave just enough visible (above-the-cut) commentary to pique my interest, though, so I did eventually check out a few episodes, making sure to read each review and discussion after each episode.

And I quite liked it! The thing is, though, I don't know that I would have liked it, and I certainly wouldn't have gotten nearly as much out of it, without those reviews and discussions. It's an anime, in Japanese, created by and largely for folks within Japanese society and for whom anime is familiar. I didn't know what tropes it was based on to start with, so the fact that it was then deconstructing a wide swath of those tropes would also have escaped me. I would have missed so much about it. (And that's setting aside the language issues, like the major plot revelation that relies on wordplay and that the official sub did not remotely convey.)

It's a beautiful series, with innovative and artistic direction and artwork. I'm also certain there are elements I've still missed or underappreciated. But experiencing it with a guide, a community of translators if you will, made a vast difference to what I got out of it.

This means that, even though I'd planned to skip them, I'll likely now go ahead and pick up his two current visual series: Cowboy Bebop and Princess Tutu. I was never interested in the former; I've only seen brief mention of the latter on my reading lists; but Madoka turned out so well that I should probably check them out.

I don't read or watch much outside my comfort zone of standard English-language narratives. Whedon's trope deconstructions (and similar) are about as adventurous as I tend to get, and I've felt ... disappointed lately by the books and TV series that don't give me the resolution I'm expecting. I've always felt a little bad that my narrative consumption tends to be so culturally "sheltered", but I rarely have the time or energy or knowledge to get into works from other cultures or traditions.

In some cases, there are "other-culture" narratives that are tailored to cater to the inexperienced; I think Redemption in Indigo is one such. But for those that aren't, I think I need the "book club" approach to walk me through it. It's odd; I don't tend to go seeking out communities, for the most part.

But I'm glad when I come across these experiences anyway. The works deserve appreciation on their own merits, and working to appreciate them is good brain exercise.

Originally posted at Dreamwidth | Comment | comment count unavailable comments
X-parrotxparrot on January 19th, 2013 11:51 pm (UTC)
I've head of but never seen Madoka, but Cowboy Bebop is considered one of the greats (I admit I'm not a huge fan myself, I think it's wonderfully done and amazing SF but the characters never really engaged me) and Princess Tutu is one of my favorite anime of all time (and a lot more complex than it initially appears, though it's more a magical girl+extras than a deconstruction like Madoka.) So yeah, would recommend!

If you're looking for anime to try on your own, I could make some recs! (of which my first would be Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood if you're up for something longer; that series is set on an AU Earth in an AU Europe/Germany(?) and other than some of the comedy is not especially "Japanese"-flavored. It works on a lot of genre staples but in a way that's accessible and much of it is very original to anime or to Western fantasy. Also the characters are all 150% badasses and amazing and...er, sorry, I just read the manga and fell in love with the series all over again, so~~~)

--Though, as a general note, if you find anime doesn't reach you the same way - it's not just because you're culturally biased, or at least the Japanese culture part may not be the issue. Most anime tends to be very demographically targeted (and the vast majority targeted to under-20-year-olds) so the 'not for you feeling' isn't just because you don't speak Japanese. (There's a reason why the majority of American anime fans are teens!) Series like Madoka are more an exception than the rule...
michelel72: ATLA-Sokka-CrookedSmilemichelel72 on January 20th, 2013 04:09 am (UTC)
That's interesting — I've heard about Cowboy Bebop rather widely, but everything I'd seen made me think the characters and plots just wouldn't be my cup of tea (in the "it's fine, but not my thing" sense). I'm intrigued to hear that you seem to have had a similar reaction. So I'll be interested if I still get that impression from a mediated viewing experience.

As for Tutu, I know one or two folks on my flist have enjoyed it, and I thought I might maybe someday check it out if I could find a way to do so, with my Netflix-not-having ways. (That's a huge advantage of the mediated approach, too — links! That are apparently legitimate and above-board! I ... hope!) I didn't look too deeply because it looked less noirish SF and more maybe-fantasy, which I find more intriguing. So I'm more hopeful about that one. And it helps to know what genre to expect, so thanks for the comparison to Madoka!

I should perhaps have mentioned that I've watched one other anime: FMA. Love! My getting into it was entirely random and fortuitous: A friend and I tripped over and got sucked into what I later learned was the third episode. (I did later see the first two episodes, but I have my doubts that they would have won my interest the way seeing the boys' backstory did.) I still don't feel I know most of the anime tropes, or even have a feel for how many different anime (sub-?)genres there are, but I did learn a few very minor things through FMA. (The faux-Western setting and the dub helped a lot, though, I think. I'm all about subs for live-action films, but I've heard compliments for the FMA dubs even from folks who otherwise prefer subs. And I know sub-vs-dub is a conflict in anime fandom, heh; staying far away from that ....)

I have an Ed figurine on my desk. I named one of my cats Winry.

I got into the FMA manga (I think the only manga I've actually read) because I was enjoying the anime so much, and I was clear that the two were ultimately following different plots. Unfortunately, I got into the 'verse before the manga closed in Japan, and I was relying on the delayed US/English compilations, so I kept having that "re-read the entire series to this point to remember the details" problem.

Even with all that, I hadn't known Brotherhood was coming out, and when I did hear of it, I had trouble finding out its difference from the first FMA anime for a while. (I get it now.) I even bought the series to watch with the same friend, but we never found the time, so now I'm figuring to wait until the planned "Mark Watches Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood" series, since I'm enjoying the mediated experience and want to see how much (if at all) it enriches my experience of a work I'm already familiar with.

But it's kind of hard to keep waiting .... :)
X-parrotxparrot on January 23rd, 2013 06:42 pm (UTC)
I haven't seen Cowboy Bebop in - 10 years, I think? So my own opinions on it might have shifted; I'll be curious to see your response! Tutu I've seen several times and absolutely adore; it may seem overly precious at first, but stick with it, I guarantee it has some real meat. (though it is also definitely precious, and adorable, and has one of my favorite het pairings of all time, so...)

There are several places to get anime legitimately - Hulu and Crunchyroll.com are the main sources I know of, there's likely more (...most of what I watch is legally-vague fansubs, though I try to buy the series I like when they become available...)

Genres in anime are odd - there are the broad categories (shounen and shoujo, literally "boys" and "girls", as well as mens & womens) and then subcategories within those genres (fight shounen, magical girl shoujo) - but anime especially can fall out of the genres (all "shounen" or "shoujo" etc really means is the target demographic of the magazine the manga was published in, so series like Madoka which were an anime first don't fit as neatly into any space. Not to mention a lot of the magazines are known for hitting outside their target - Shounen Jump, the #1 most popular manga magazine in Japan, is technically aimed toward teen boys, but at least 30% of their readership is female and they cater to them as well. And anime often caters to women even more (since girls are more likely than boys to buy merchandise and such...anime & manga is all about the marketing, but the Japanese methods are, I daresay, more refined and better at actually targeting their audiences' tastes than America...)

...er, oops? I can go on about this forever, I find the culture of anime as fascinating as the shows themselves ^^;

--where was I? Oh yes, FMA! I was a fan of the original series, started watching it with the second episode - but then was rather frustrated by the end; the story lost me around the time it ran out of manga to adapt (I wasn't reading the manga, but it felt to me like it lost its direction.) I didn't bother to keep up with the manga, so when I finally watched FMA: Brotherhood last year it was a new thing for me - and amazing, I absolutely loved it. And now I just read the manga (which Brotherhood follows pretty much precisely) and oh, so so very good, all the way to the end! So I much prefer it (though I might be biased, as two of my very favorite characters - Ling and Olivia - don't even show up in the original anime...)

If you haven't read the end yourself, personally I'd say it's good enough to watch now and then watch again with the Mark Watches...but I can see how it'd be fun to experience it that way, too!

If you feel like any more anime recs, just ask! (...or rather, tell me to shut up if you don't feel like any more ^^;;;) (Juuni Kokki/12 Kingdoms and Durarara!! would be my next suggestions - Chinese-flavored high fantasy and urban fantasy in modern-day Tokyo, respectively - both are gorgeous and complex stories with characters I love to the moon and back. My other favorite series are more parodies that make more sense if you're familiar with their genres. And One Piece, of course, but that's its own special category of crack...!)