I’m fascinated by how motivation and deadlines work. For all of my life as a young adult, I’ve gotten assignments turned in at the buzzer. Inspiration seems to be an apparition until the cold reality of the next day is staring me in my face. In some instances, like the deadline for this paper, I think that’s a good thing. Desperation is animalistic and we should aspire to be more like animals. I have two things inspiring my writing tonight, one being my immediate physical and sensory surroundings and one being a quote from an essay I like very much. I look around my workspace and see comfort items I’ve purposefully and meticulously arranged, as my at home desk is inhabited with my favorite faces and muscles in animated pop culture. Statues of Broly and Vegeta (Dragon Ball Z) or All Might (My Hero Academia), an aged and scuffed figure of The Simpsons’ very own Superintendent Chalmers, my favorite volume of the Naruto manga, or my small army of Pokémon miniatures clutter my desk and lend me their creative prowess the way the people of Earth lent Goku energy for the spirit bomb. Also pertinent to the conversation is the 24-hour loop of Drake songs that has been moving relentlessly in my ears since the beginning of August. Right now, his classic aural assault of an outro “6pm in New York” is playing, and hearing it feels like sinking into an arm chair whose exterior has cracked enough to accommodate my personal shape and smells like home. Half of these entities are products from an era I missed by the skin of my teeth, while products of my own era occupy the other half. It’s an interesting spread, considering the “elitist” air I carry myself with and the implied prestige of the things I so often write about/defend. To the untrained eye and perhaps my own, I seem to be waist deep in a bog of kitsch and non-substance. Dragon Ball Z is largely hollow and repetitive, and Naruto and My Hero Academia are its undisguised byproducts. Regardless of what it meant at one point, The Simpsons is the most egregious example of capitalist models triumphing over art and intent in contemporary America, which one realizes when presented with the fact that the deified and adored seasons of the show account for about 1/7th of its total time on air. The Pokémon series was conceived as a multifrontal instrument of monetary warfare, being released unto the world in the form of video games, trading cards, television shows, feature films, plushies, and figures, the ultimate parasite on the bank accounts of unsuspecting parents. Drake is, boiled down to a single sentiment, perhaps one of the most reductive, damaging, and derivative figures in contemporary music, if not all pop music. These are clearly visible as products and not true art as evidenced by the fact that I have merchandise of each displayed in my workspace and can see clearly all the theft and unoriginality that runs through the group, and yet… I love these things.
The second contributing factor is the following quote from Pauline Kale’s seminal 1970 essay, Trash, Art, and the Movies. Read this closely and consider for a moment, as I’m sure I didn’t the first two times I encountered it. “It’s preposterously egocentric to call anything we enjoy art—as if we could not be entertained by it if it were not; it’s just as preposterous to let prestigious, expensive advertising snow us into thinking we’re getting art for our money when we haven’t even had a good time.” This quote, to me, seems to carry with it everything I need to justify my love for pop cultural landscapers like Drake and Dragon Ball, as it simultaneously elevates the importance of enjoying media while decrying the false messiahs of middle brow faux-art house faire, crucifying Oscar bait while bowing to the pure joy of a good Itchy & Scratchy sketch. Before any readers get too excited, this doesn’t mean I’m going to pass up a chance to debate your love of Stranger Things or Tame Impala, only that there exists a space where conventional metrics of quality and taste are irrelevant in the face of personal enjoyment, and that I have a timeshare there.
So, to use the most direct parlance possible as Drake’s now 7 year old hit Started from the Bottom reverberates through my brain (I know, it feels like yesterday for me too), how do we interrogate or discuss this seeming oversight in taste/thinking? First we have to acknowledge the value of kitsch, which is a word that Wikipedia says means art that doesn’t appeal to academic taste and rather plays to popular values (look I know how lame that is but it’s like 10pm and I had work and class and human emotions today, film writers can take shortcuts the same as anyone else.) The contemporary artist Jeff Koons has dedicated his career to large sale recreations of kitschy objects such as balloon animals and figures of Michael Jackson’s pet monkey Bubbles, as well as placing objects like Hoover vacuums in curatorial museum settings to provide them with value. Ever since the days of Brecht, and later Pollock, the label of “artist” and understanding of art have been ripped away from their classical conceptions and warped into something simultaneously more human and more distant; while some onlookers could only see Pollock’s splatters as pedestrian and unchallenging from a technical point of view, others realized that Jackson had destroyed the need for mastery and claimed the canvas (as well as Rauschenberg and Emin’s beds) as boundless canvases. In an era of such radicalism, many works by great artists became self effacing as they rushed to the same conclusions. The world of entertainment art has followed a similar pattern, as opera has consumed itself and the theatre has largely given way to the cinema. We are left, it seems, with great fictional edifices Dragon Ball Z, Naruto, and the new language of Japanese anime and American comic books, which have intermingled to create the flawless spectacle known as My Hero Academia. I would like to simultaneously end this essay and promise more next week with the description of an arc from My Hero: the Lemillion saga.
Open, My Hero Academia season 4. Our protagonist, Midoriya, encounters the permeable man Lemillion, who can phase through solid objects. Lemillion tells Midoriya that his goal, as one of (if not the single) strongest men alive is to save one million people. His eyes are small cartoonish blips and his physicality echoes Superman’s. After tracking down the location of a small girl who has been tormented and vivisected ad-nauseum by a sociopathic Yazuka boss, Lemillion breaks away from the cadre of heroes he has arrived with in hopes of rescuing the young girl on his own. He vows to make her smile every day that is to come and never be responsible for her tears again, as he had previously failed in an attempt to save her out of fear for his own life and that of his partner. Lemillion arrives at the villain’s location to see the young girl in his possession, and he proceeds to wallop the evildoer until he, himself, is put in a compromised position: save the girl’s life and lose his vaulted powers and future or lose the girl’s life and continue his trajectory to save a million lives. Lemillion, being the man he’s written to be, puts himself in the way of the power stealing bullet, and remarks, “If I can’t save the single girl in front of me, how am I to save a million?” In a moment, everything he’s sweated and worked years for is gone, but Eri is safe. Young Midoriya defeats the villain and remains the pillar of the next generation, but Lemillion, at least in his super powered state, is gone, perhaps irreversibly.
Tell me then, reader, how the most popular character in Hulu’s most streamed anime of the season, differs from the character Marie in Bresson’s Au Hazard Balthazar? Marie sacrifices her virginity and years of innocence to save the donkey Balthazar, a being she loves unselfishly and views as the last bastion of her childhood innocence. Place Lemillion’s gained power as an equivalent to Marie’s virginity (which isn’t an unthinkable equivalent, especially considering the way Shonen manga puts strength and physical ability on a pedestal), and we see a similarly selfless sacrifice taking place, in the context of each world. Both are examples of brilliant, transcendental storytelling, one a French parable imagined right after World War II, one a serialized Japanese reflection of American hero culture which has been imprinted on the country like a brand. Regardless of the pedigree of either work, time, loss, and tragedy are portrayed in the same Shakespearean dialect, and both hold the same base system of values.
The point I’m trying to make is that regardless of the year of their release or their medium, the contemporary pop cinema/anime/music releases carry on the spirit of the art house releases that preceded them, as we can only assume that Akira Toriyama and Kohei Horikoshi are as well versed in visual media as Drake is in hip hop, which he constantly shows an encyclopedic knowledge of (check the Wu-Tang, The Roots, and Biggie references in Nothing Was the Same). These releases carry the superhero spirit the way pre-Disney Marvel comics used to and have a degree of beauty stored inside, however formulaic and insipid they seem. Surely, Kevin Feige and Zack Snyder have robbed us of our love of these characters, but the east is still finding a way to manifest joy and creation from these hack archetypes without resorting to the need to satiate the lowest common denominator, check One Punch Man or My Hero. I’m well aware that I’m ending this paper far before I pick up my gloves against the true enemy, but let’s save that for next week. For now, let’s leave it at this; I like things I like, and I’m becoming more comfortable with that fact as I find new facets of value in things that seem worthless. Shonen anime and pop rap bring me a lot of joy and maybe that’s ok, a good balance never hurt anyone. Do the best you can and enjoy enjoyment, we’ll both go Plus Ultra and make something really great next week. Until then, au revoir.