Wednesday, 6 April 2011

The List(tm) of things you know cannot happen

It's Wednesday again...

Back in the early summer of 1987 (or possibly 86, when I was 9, but I have reason to bet on 1987), something happened to me. Up until some point before that, I had been stuck with just three television channels, Denmark's Radio (DR, now called DR1) and the two Swedish public service channels, but then the first competitor to DR arrived, Kanal 2, which could only be watched if you had a special decoder box (a little "research" suggests to me that Kanal 2 could only be received in the Greater Copenhagen area; it wasn't nation-wide as I had assumed).

And at one point, once a week for a very few weeks, Kanal 2 would show a Japanese anime film in the afternoon.

The novelty factor was extreme. I was like: "Wow!!"

I was like: "This is so super cool!"

I had actually watched "The Secret of NIMH" on rental VHS at that time, and, according to English Wikipedia, "An American Tail" came out in late 1986, so it might have been before the summer of 87 that I saw it in the cinema (we get most movies late, then as now, here in Denmark). But those two were still just Don Bluth movies, made by a former Disney-employee, and it was still very much targeted at a children audience. Still very much scripted under principles of extreme self-censorship. Slightly freer (at least "NIMH" was - I still remembered it two decades later, and bought it on DVD a couple of years ago, but notice how I'm pointedly not linking to "Tail") than Disney was, but with emphasis on slightly.

This anime was different. It wasn't good in any sense of that word that I'd use today. One or two of the films were some kind of Macross and/or Robotech, possibly films built out of some spliced-together anime series episodes.

Another was some kind of science fiction or sci-fi about a Captain Nemo in an advanced submarine in the 21st or 22nd century (he had a daughter named Sophia, and I'm pretty sure I heard that name in the dialog, and reasonably sure it was English dubbed rather than Japanese, although at that age I could not follow English dialog at all and so had to read the Danish subtitles). I think this Nemo rebelled against an alien occupying force.

A third had a protagonist called Captain Plutonium or something (one of his allies had an elastic face; they had a spaceship, and at some point had to deal with a plague of retro-evolved humans), and a fourth had some kind of space train (yes, that one was a bit weird) and a girl that became a cyborg and eventually a workaholic, and a young officer (in a space army or navy), almost certainly a lieutenant, and probably some romance between the two (I don't actually remember that, but I consider it a reasonable assumption to make; there was some romance between the young male protagonist and the girl Sophia, in the "Nemo" anime). I think there were a total of 4 to 6 anime movies shown, one per week.

What made them interesting was that they were starkly different from Disney movies. That in itself was hugely fascinating. At age 10 I was already reading science fiction and some fantasy (in the late summer and autumn of 1987, I read the Danish translation of "Lord of the Rings" - it took me 3 months, but what a ride!), so it wasn't the more or less science fictional elements that fascinated me. I already got that, at a much higher level of quality, in written form.

No, it was the much lower degree of self-censorship combined with a visual (thus mass appeal) medium. More stuff could happen, more varied stuff. Important named characters could die. No, I didn't like important characters dying at age 10, because I was a sentimental little boy, but it was interesting and the very possibility of it enhanced the drama. And it wasn't just that.

There's so much, so extremely much, that cannot happen in a Disney story. A few of those things I'm exceedingly happy to be shielded from. Like almost all heterosexual men I'm ever so slightly homophobic, so I'm fine with knowing I won't ever be made to read or watch a graphic description of male-on-male rape. Thank you for that!

But the list of things that I know can never happen in a Disney movie is extremely long. That's a huge intellectual burden for me, when watching it. Those crappy anime movies also had such lists, of stuff that could not happen, but those lists were much shorter.

Perhaps I am the only one in the entire universe, but I am very sensitive to the existence of such lists. I'm profoundly conscious and aware of them. They're a burden when I consume fiction (or participate in interactive fiction, such as roleplaying games), and on some intellectual level I am extremely offended if the list isn't short.

It has to be short. I want to know that the potential for surprise and novelty is huge. I think more so than the actual surprise, I ascribe value to the potential for surprise. Psychoanalyze that, if you want to.

Most often the lengthy list, the heavy self-censorship, occurs in fictions targeted at "children" or so-called "young adults" (the attentive reader of this blog will eventually come to realize that I find all classification terms based on chronoloical age to be abominable), but it can occur in other places. Think, for instance, about John Norman's much-talked-about "Gor" series of novels. As that series progressed, it degraded (although real degradation began to occur later than most people claim) and became more stereotypical. This was bad in several ways, and the growth of the list of things the reader comes to know he won't ever see happen is only part of the problem. But it's there.

The root cause of the problem is the same in both cases. Safety and comfort. Parents want their children to consume only safe fictions (although they worry much more about audiovisual fictions than about written fictions, is my impression), and fans of the later "Gor" novels likewise want to consume fiction that is safe from their point of view, fiction that does not challenge their (pseudo-religious) beliefs.

I'm so not like that. I ascribe high value to having the impression, during fiction consumption (or participation in an interactive process), that there's a wide variety of stuff that can happen. That there's very little self-censorship going on, in the author or in the GM.

The wiki TvTropes talks about the Animation Age Ghetto here. It's not quite the same as my above rant, but it is in places somewhat pertinent.
Peter Knutsen typed these letters

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