Wednesday, September 28, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: EXTRA LIVES by Tom Bissell (2010)

Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter
by Tom Bissell

Published by Pantheon Books in 2010

"As incomprehensible as it may seem, I have some how spent more than two hundred hours playing Oblivion. I know this because the game keeps a running tally of the total time one has spent with it. I can think of only one personal activity I would be less eager to see audited in this way, and it, too, is a single-player experience."
                                           --Tom Bissell

Tom Bissell is a video game junkie. No question. He is also a very smart and articulate writer, and, like William Burroughs with heroin, he writes about his addiction, his master, with obsessive zeal and even offers up some brilliant critical insights into video gaming as addiction, as a multi-billion dollar industry, as an art form just now being broadly recognized as such, and as a path to self-destruction. His book Extra Lives is an entertaining and disturbing mixture of memoir and journalism. He combines descriptions of his experiences playing video games with interviews with some of the most successful game designers currently working to create an intriguing dialectic between a subjective confessional narrative and a critical consciousness aimed at picking the minds of video game designers and theorists, and exploring what it is that we seek when we play video games.

What is it that we seek when playing video games? For Bissell, it would seem that his title says it all: more lives, more life, we want to crawl into some other identity, usually one that is heavily armed, and essentially immortal and indestructible. Sure, you get killed all the time in games, but then you just go back to your last save point. Video game death is almost never permanent.

But Bissell is also looking for quality stories and characterizations, and he makes the case that video games are in a kind of renaissance in terms of games' capacities for deep stories, open-ended game play, and sophisticated characterizations. Video games are now capable of visual spectacle above and beyond what's possible at the cinema, that earlier, cruder form of virtual reality. Moreover, video games allow you to take control of the action. The player is totally in control.

Except when those arbitrary cut scenes kick in, and then you have no choice but to follow the plan laid out by the game designers. Bissell asserts that this tension between freedom of play and the coercive demands of an overarching narrative that intrudes on the illusion of freedom and empowerment one experiences while gaming is one of the key hurdles video games must overcome in order to achieve . . . but Bissell doesn't resolve the tension. He merely illustrates it.

But if one stops to consider what he's suggesting, he's basically calling for video games to be able to offer completely free-form, endlessly variable experiences. The ultimate merger between the demands of narrative in the literary sense, and what Bissell refers to as ludonarrative, which could be characterized as the the story which grows naturally out of the act of play, would basically be an extra, or second, life. It's a paradox. It's a mindfuck.

Think about it. Gaming is absorbing because it is an escape. And the more detailed and graphically and aurally impressive games become, the more we want to play them. But if a game were to totally replicate the free form experience of being alive, it would include massive amounts of minutiae which might destroy the gaming experience, to make it so demanding that it would cease to be fun. Even if the game was a fantasy experience including magical powers and heroic deeds it would be work to keep up with it. And then you would go looking for some other form of escape . . . to escape your escape . . .you 'd need not just a second life, but extra lives.

It makes me think of the Konami code: up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A, START.

How many lives does the obsessive gamer require?

And talk about a warped sense of entitlement. It's not enough that our high tech civilization gives us such advanced amusements, but now we expect them to substantially or even completely replace our meatspace lives. But maybe there's something to this. If we all just stayed home and became absorbed into virtual existences, maybe we'd be less inclined to drive fossil fuel powered vehicles and engage in real world wars of adventure and folly. Of course, the electricity expenditure would go up, but where are people driving to, anyways? There are no jobs to go to. Most people are overweight, out of shape, and disinterested in meeting face to face.  Now, everyone works from home as the ultimate hi-score warrior, conjuring up second and third and fourth lives from the digital void. Game on!

Bissell's logic is that of the junkie chasing the ultimate high. The junkie who has come up against the outer limits of his accumulated chemical resistances. Bissell doesn't hide the fact that being hooked on video games has come at a high personal cost: a damaged work ethic and seriously strained, perhaps even broken, human relationships. Bissell is to be commended for being up front about this aspect of gaming addiction. He isn't exactly apologetic, but he does acknowledge the rather steep downside of his devotions.

This downside is illustrated by his adventures playing Grand Theft Auto IV while coked out of his mind with a buddy. They made a point of playing GTAIV while coked-up. Sometimes the Scarface poster isn't enough.

Bissell comes across as a guy who is seeking unusual, obsessive, and dangerous experiences. He was in the Peace Corps for a stretch until he dropped out, he's worked as an embedded reporter in Iraq and Afghanistan, he has burned through relationships with women at a rapid clip, and he has also Hoovered large quantities of cocaine with a friend while fanatically playing Grand Theft Auto IV. His consciousness seems to be divided between the here and now and some sort of idealized zone of continuous peak experiences. As a reader, I was captivated by his engaging, intellectually substantive, and humorous writing style, but I also wondered what it must be like to be friends with this guy. I would imagine his friends and family worry about him and his well-being. I hope he gets a handle on his appetites. It would be a shame to lose such a talented writer.


I've talked mostly about the personal side of Extra Lives. But the book isn't all druggie confessional narrative. Bissell went out and interviewed a some of the people who were instrumental in creating games such as Mass Effect, Far Cry 2, Braid, and Fable 2. These are all excellent pieces of reportage and analysis, and the most I can say is read them for yourself. They are most enlightening.

But something about this book really got to me.

 Tom Bissell  writes the single best obsessively detailed description of the experience of playing the original Resident Evil  for PS1 that I have ever read. It is also the only obsessively detailed description of the experience of playing the original Resident Evil that I have ever read, but sometimes you just grok a winner when you're in the presence of one, you know? Bissell breaks down that epochal game's technique: its deliberate pacing, the Mystery Science Theater quality voice acting, the camera angles which obscure as much as they reveal and create anxiety and make you wonder from which direction the enemy will strike, the sinister ambiance of the scoring and soundscaping, and then he goes one better: he creates a brilliant interpretation of why the controls for the very first Resident Evil game kinda sucked. In Bissell's view, the clunky controls augment the terror, the anxiety, the suspense, and function in a way antithetical to the first person shooter games which were then, and still are, all the rage.

In an FPS, you want responsiveness, you want to be able to mow down the enemy, reload instantly, and move quickly to avoid being surrounded or cornered, but in Resident Evil the player character can't just shoot from the hip. You gotta press the button to draw your weapon, then you gotta press buttons to position your character to aim at the enemy, and there's no goddamn cross-hair! There's no on-screen targeting icon to indicate whether you're actually locked on to the zombie or hunter or giant spider or undead attack dog--all you can do is hope you're pointing in the right direction and fire at will. In an FPS, the design of the controls facilitates fluidity and fast paced play. In Resident Evil, you are forced to be deliberate with every step you take, each hallway you choose to explore, every shot fired because you're unlikely to survive too many full-on encounters with the enemy, and the supplies of ammunition are severely limited.

And then there's the typewriters and those ink ribbons. In order to save the game, you gotta find an ink ribbon, and then you gotta get to a room with a typewriter. Every time you save, you use up an ink ribbon. The supplies of ink ribbons are not unlimited, so saving your game becomes as much a part of your strategy as how you use your ammunition, whether you choose to fight every monster you come across, or beat a strategic retreat.

Bissell describes all of this brilliantly, capturing the mindset one evolves to survive in such a dire gaming scenario, and how such games frustrate and addict those who play them in equal measure. As I read Bissell's description, I thought back to when I first got a PS1 and how one of the first games I got was Resident Evil. Most of my Christmas vacation was spent plugged into that sinister mansion. Hours passed like seconds. I played from three in the afternoon until seven in the morning, woke up at five p.m., played 'til seven or eight in the a.m., and I went a week without seeing any sunlight. In Florida. And Resident Evil wasn't all fun. It made me want to pull my fingernails out, just to try and jack myself back into real life with some overwhelmingly agonizing act of self-torture. It made me scream and swear and invent new uses for the words fuck, shit, goddamnit, and mother long before I had ever read a David Mamet play or watched an Angry Video Game Nerd video. It fucked with my patience and my sleep cycles, and it also hooked me like few other things. Playing Resident Evil gave me some idea of what it was like to be a junkie.

INFINITE REPEAT AWARD: "Cue 1990s Nostalgia Wave" Edition

Thursday, September 22, 2011


Tetsuo the Bullet Man

Eric Bossick as Anthony
Akiko Mono as Yuriko
Yuko Nakamura as Mitsue
Stephen Sarrazin as Ride
Shinya Tsukamoto as The Guy

Directed by Shinya Tsukamoto
Written by Shinya Tsukamoto and Hisakatsu Kuroki
Music by Chu Ishikawa
Cinematography by Satoshi Hayashi, Takayuki Shida, and Shinya Tsukamoto
Edited by Yuji Ambe and Shinya Tsukamoto
Production Design by Shinya Tsukamoto
Costume Design by Mari Sakurai
Produced by Shinichi Kawahara, Masayuki Tanishima, and Shinya Tsukamoto

A Kaijyu Theatre Production

"You don't want me inside you. You don't know what I'll do."

Anthony (Eric Bossick) has nightmares about a boy with a vibrating face of molten slag. His wife Yuriko (Akiko Mono) has the same nightmares. She's willing to talk about it, but Anthony keeps it inside. Anthony keeps a lot inside.

Like his resentment at how his father, Ride (Stephen Sarrazin) a retired bio-tech researcher, insists on conducting monthly blood tests on Anthony and Tom, Anthony's son. Ride claims he wants to make sure that Anthony and Tom aren't developing leukemia or other diseases. Anthony has tried to convince Ride that they can get those kinds of tests with their regular health care provider, but Ride insists. Ride's wife, Mitsue (Yuko Nakamura), died from some sort of inherited illness. Ride seems to believe that only he can keep his son and grandson healthy from the ravages of inherited disease.

Anthony is walking back from his father's place to his apartment with his son while talking on the phone with Yuriko when an economy car comes zooming down a tunnel. Anthony tells Tom to get out of the road, to stand against the wall. The car comes to a halt a few feet from Anthony. The driver is in shadow. There's something menacing about this vehicle. A father's worst fears are realized when the car backs up at high speed and runs Tom down. Anthony runs after the car, helpless to stop this new nightmare unfolding in waking life, and sees something both horrific and strange: a little arm is reaching out from underneath the front end of the car, fingers grasping the grill of the murderous economy car. The arm is seemingly mutilated, but maybe it's just transformed . . . into the same awful consistency of the molten slag face of the child Anthony and Yuriko both saw in their nightmares. A new vision of horror: steaming blood pours from beneath the car. But the blood looks more like liquid metal . . .

Anthony feels something exploding inside himself. He flips out, his body twitching and vibrating, going into a kind of dance. The crashing music seems to signal the loosing of some strange, awful power, and a new Tetsuo is born!

Much as in Tetsuo II: Body Hammer, the man of metal in Tetsuo the Bullet Man is also born of rage at the murderous loss of his son. This homicidal act also echos the act of vehicular assault which created the Metal Fetishist in the original Tetsuo the Iron Man. Does filmmaker Shinya Tsukamoto have a fear of being run over by a car? Maybe so. I recall reading somewhere that Tsukamoto rides a bicycle, and so maybe he feels some anxiety at being run down by some monstrous machine (bicycles also figure prominently in Tsukamoto's films Bullet Ballet and Nightmare Detective). There's also the tragedy of a parent losing a child. This seems to be a concern which has grown out of Tsukamoto's real world development from a single  auteur filmmaker to an auteur filmmaker with a wife and children who keeps one foot in the world of advertising and for-hire filmmaking. Tsukamoto's movies always seem to reflect his personal obsessions and concerns even when they are works of pure fantasy. Indeed, Tsukamoto's fantasies are never just that. Fantastic powers and mutations come at the potential loss of one's sanity, bodily integrity, and the peril of mass destruction.

This peril of mass destruction is something Tsukamoto seems to have an ambivalent relationship with in the Tetsuo movies. Tetsuo the Iron Man seemed to embrace the annihilation of the old world, as embodied by the city of Tokyo, as something to be celebrated. A lone metal fetishist pursues a milquetoast salaryman with the intention of inspiring uncontrolled mutation and ultimate creative destruction. It also had a sexual element: the unleashing of destructive powers was seemingly some sort of atomic orgasm combined with infectious psychic mutations of the libido. Tetsuo II: Body Hammer involved a whole cult of metal fetishists organized with the purpose of tormenting a salaryman into remembering his secret past. Tetsuo II also addressed the destruction of Tokyo as a necessity, perhaps to make the world safe for parents and offspring. It was to be an end to all wars of mutation, as it were, since it was the city of Tokyo itself, born out of cutthroat capitalism and high technology, that required men of flesh to become men of metal to keep up the pace of production.

In all of these Tetsuo movies, the mutations are triggered by a figure known as The Guy, or Yatsu. (I'm guessing Yatsu must mean 'guy' or 'person.') The Guy, or "That Guy!" as Anthony refers to him at one point, is always played by Shinya Tsukamoto, perhaps as an on-camera manifestation of his behind the lens role as director and mastermind of the on screen carnage. Tsukamoto seems to be saying that each of these movies is a kind of experiment where the author/director is tormenting some poor protagonist to provoke a radical evolutionary response, to become a monster, and always for sinister purposes. The Guy's motives are tied to his resentment of the modern edifice of Tokyo, and perhaps reflect Tsukamoto's dark side as an artist.

Tsukamoto in real life is both an artist with a taste for the dark side and a hardworking family man. These movies seem to be explorations of these sometimes conflicting roles. The provocative artist side of him desires to transform reality, to defeat crass consumerism, and blow minds to bits. The family man side of him has bills to pay, responsibilities to shoulder, and people to love and protect. It's almost like two different personae reside within the same man. One has a serious resentment towards the structures and strictures of 21st century capitalist society, and the other depends on them. Tsukamoto uses these movies to play out these conflicts, and to show the price paid no matter where we fall on the destruction/dependence spectrum.

The Bullet Man is also a creature responding to the pain and cruelty of the world, the world as played by Tokyo. In this movie, the Bullet Man is besieged by grief, a wife who is angry that he let their son die, and the heavily armed contractors of a sinister corporation. Powerful interests want to make this Bullet Man go away, but this new Tetsuo won't go down without a fight. As Anthony's mutation progresses, he becomes a roaring, slag encrusted war machine, bristling with cannons, and enraged by his inability to control his transformations.

Interestingly, and perhaps inspired by American comic book superheroes, the Bullet Man tries his best not to kill people, only to wound and disable them. This creates some dark comedy when the Bullet Man battles the Blackwater-style contractors. Instead of executing them outright, he just settles for blowing off their arms and legs to calm them down. Our hero, ladies and gentlemen.

The Guy, once again incarnated by Tsukamoto, is the driver of the murderous economy car. He knows what Anthony is hiding inside, and wants to bring it out into the open. The Guy tortures Anthony with menacing phone calls and emails. It's a tribute to Tsuakmoto's skill as a director that he is able to conjure menace from economy cars, cell phones, and emails. Part of it is how he directs the movie to put the audience into Anthony's disturbed mental state, but a large portion of the movie's intensity comes from Chu Ishikawa's epic score and sound design. This is a movie which constantly rumbles with ambient menace, and impacts with furious percussion. I can't adequately describe it, it's just something you have to experience. Crank up the volume on this one.

The Guy, who in this movie is presented as some sort of corporate saboteur, has something special in mind for the Bullet Man, something unexpectedly grand and ambitious. It's not the unbridled sexual anarchy of Tetsuo the Iron Man, nor is it solely the revelation of dark secrets from the past, as in Tetsuo II: Body Hammer. It has partially to do with unveiling the past and something else which I won't reveal. But I would say it's rather a clever twist on the surreal logic of the Tetsuo movies. It makes me wonder what Tsukamoto has in mind for Tetsuo 4, and, yes, I do hope he makes a fourth one.

First time leading man Eric Bossick gets put through his paces on this one. I gather from his IMDB profile that he has done voice overs  and motion capture for video games such as Silent Hill 4, and that he has had  roles on Japanese television dramas. There's also a great picture on his IMDB page of Bossick, Tsukamoto, and Robert De Niro together at the Tribeca Film Festival. Bossick is no replacement for Tomorrwo Taguchi  who so memorably embodied the previous two men of metal, and I don't think he's meant to be. Bossick brings more of a fragile, wounded dimension to the Bullet Man. But he is also quite convincingly crazed and fearsome, and a helluva sport to be buried under the elaborate molting slag make-up and costuming prostheses.

The Bullet Man is also a triumph of make-up and practical effects. To watch it go through it's different transformations is quite impressive. As the Bullet Man molts and mutates, his wife Yuriko has the opportunity to show tenderness towards this monster, evoking some version of Beauty and the Beast. The scene of Yuriko pulling the molted chunks of slab from Anthony's head is unexpectedly moving. And The Bullet Man's final form suggests a wholly new and terrifying frontier for the Tetsuo franchise . . . but you'll just have to see for yourself.

It should be noted that this film is mostly in English, with only a few lines of dialogue in Japanese. This was done, I guess, to try and increase its commercial viability in the United States and other English speaking markets. The effect is uneven. All of the Japanese cast members are clearly speaking their lines based on phonetic memorization, and the effect is rather artificial. Bossick has no problem with the English, and Tsukamoto's scenes with English dialogue are played for perverse humorous effect, and that compensates somewhat for the lack of fluency, but the overall impact is less than perfect. But it does give the movie a strange sound and feel. The dialogue itself is not bad, actually, and shows a good deal of finesse, it's just the delivery is off, and I feel that it puts the obviously talented Japanese cast members at a bit of a disadvantage. But Tsukamoto makes a skilled go of it.

It comes off better than what was attempted in 2007's Sukiyaki Western Django, which was a mash-up of Spaghetti Westerns and samurai movies directed by Takashi Miike. In that movie, all of the dialogue was recorded in phonetically memorized English, and it was all thoroughly ludicrous. The movie featured a hugely talented cast, and some memorably orchestrated carnage, but the dialogue was almost incomprehensible and undercut the whole endeavor. I had to watch it with English subtitles. Tetsuo the Bullet Man deploys it's dialogue much more effectively. Even if you don't catch every last word, the flow of the story, and the emotions of the characters are all pretty easy to follow.

Tetsuo the Bullet Man is a worthy entry in Tsukamoto's surrealistic ongoing saga of rage, mutation, and creative destruction, played out against Tokyo, that high-tech edifice of civilization. Watching it reminded me of a line of dialogue from an earlier Tsukamoto film, Bullet Ballet, where one of the characters referred to Tokyo as a dream. The character, a drug dealing gangster and junkie, seemed to suggest that the mainstream society of civilization and laws was an illusion, and that it was the underground, outlaw existence which was real. Of course, one must consider the source of this bit of druggie philosophy, but the Tetsuo movies seem to be concerned with a similar inquiry:

Is civilization the dream, the fantasy? Is ultimate reality the mutant of rage inside the human heart? Does it take a radical act of creative destruction to unleash reality? Or can we choose our reality, be it civilization or unbridled chaos and war?

Tetsuo the Bullet Man trailer:

Interview with Shinya Tsukamoto by Raffi Asdourian:

Monday, September 19, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: SMARTBOMB by Heather Chaplin and Aaron Ruby (2005)

SMARTBOMB: The Quest for Art, Entertainment, and Big Bucks in the Videogame Revolution
by Heather Chaplin and Aaron Ruby
Published 2005 and 2006 by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

Smartbomb is an efficient mixture of original reporting and research on the state of video games as both an industry and a cultural phenomenon circa 2005-2006 when the book was originally published.

Authors Chaplin and Ruby are focused on how the video gaming phenomenon has evolved in the United States, starting with how accessible computing grew out of  the hacker crew at MIT's legendary Building 20 in the early 1960s, and going on to give in-depth profiles of designers such as Gears of War creator Clifford "CliffyB" Bleszinski, the guru of all things Sim Will Wright,  id Software's John Romero and John Carmack, and Atari's Nolan Bushnell; but they also go in-depth with Shigeru Miyamoto, the resident genius at Nintendo.

Miyamoto's creations, Donkey Kong, Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, and Mario 64 insured Nintendo's dominance over console gaming in the 1980s and 1990s, and allowed them to stay relevant to American gaming into the first decade of the 21st century. The book's later chapters deal with the ominous convergence of gaming and the military-industrial complex's ambitions to more efficiently model "full spectrum dominance" and to better indoctrinate young soldiers with high end first person shooter games. Smartbomb closes with Microsoft's $500 million gala launch of the X-Box, which would go on to become the first console gaming system from an American developer to offer a serious challenge to the hegemony Sony, Sega, and Nintendo had enjoyed over the US and global console gaming markets throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

My favorite chapter was the chapter about Will Wright, founder of Maxis and all things Sim. Wright is portrayed as a kind of plain-speaking oracle: at conventions various aspiring game designers pitch him their gaming ideas, and Wright usually shoots them down. On his downtime, Wright participates in the Stupid Fun Club: an underground robot battling circuit. DIY robot builders meet in a seemingly abandoned warehouse to orchestrate rock'em sock 'em gladiatorial spectacles. He has also taught himself to fly planes, and obsessively collects junked out tech from the Soviet space program as a hobby.

This chapter also recounts a meeting between Wright and Philip Rosedale, the creator of Second Life, over sushi with Rosedale picking up the tab. Rosedale and Wright are both in the business of trying to enhance gaming's capacity to colonize the consciousness of players by offering up complex multi-variable simulations. SimCity puts the player in charge of a complex evolving city. The player is a kind of super-mayor, who must anticipate the needs of the Sim people inhabiting the SimCity. The player must zone property for commerical, residential, and industrial zones, and then respond to the Sims' complaints about pollution, crime, jobs, and other factors. Occasionally, an earthquake or a giant radioactive lizard trashes things, and then the player must respond to the crisis with relief and reconstruction. Rosedale's Second Life is not so much a game as it is . . . well, a Second Life. In Second Life the goal isn't to beat scores of enemies or field an army, or even to play a godlike role lording over a complex simulation. It can be anything you want. The Second Life citizen can meticulously reconstruct prosaic reality, or they can transform themselves into a half-dragon bike punk with a mean tattoo. Men can become women, women can become men. Or you can forge your own bold new gender identity. Or you can re-fight famous battles of World War II. Or you can don the robes of the KKK and burn a cross. Or you can simulate all manner of sex acts.

 Rosedale and Wright rap about "possibility spaces" and how the games aren't so much meant to be goals in and of themselves, but are rather an opportunity to do science.  Specifically, Wright asserts that models and simulations are the new way to conduct science as opposed to experiments. Wright says, "Simulation is quickly replacing experimentation as the central test of a new theory." Wright's talent for constructing simulation programs has gotten him lucrative projects for hospitals, Chevron, and the Pentagon. Wright seems to have few moral or ethical qualms about his work being used for potentially lethal applications, such as designing autonomous vehicles for land based cruise missiles. In fact, he explicitly states that he is more bothered by the lost opportunity from failing to realize an application of a given technology, rather than the attendant moral hazards that come with creating something and implementing it.

Will Wright was seemingly born to be a game designer. He comes off as comfortable in the role of genius game creator. He all but says he prefers to interface with reality via simulation. After all, if you're the simulation designer, you get to decide what's important and what's not. Experiments are messy, and must be rigorously repeated and the results scrutinized and cross-referenced. Dead ends are legion. A sim designer can create his or her own world and come up with wholly new rules and realities. Will Wright has rather joyously carved out his own place in the industry.

But many people in the world of gaming have struggled with being passionate about their profession. They create successful product, and yet they do not wish to be perceived as geeks or shut-ins. Chaplin and Ruby explore these tangled desires with the character of CliffyB the lead designer of Epic Games and the creator of the Unreal FPS franchise. CliffyB would later go on to create the smash hit Gears of War, but Smartbomb covers his pre-Gears of War days. Chaplin and Ruby use CliffyB's ascent to illustrate the rise of the gaming industry overall: from the disreputable basements of skeptical moms and dads to the heights of celebrity, wealth, and worldwide cultural cachet. CliffyB started out as a hobbyist and evolved into a captain of the industry. Along the way, he shed his geek-grunge threads for a personal trainer and bling chic couture, strategically engaging with the pan-optic media culture of the early 21st century. CliffyB has his private doubts, in Chaplin and Ruby's telling, and heavy is the head that wears the crown. In some ways, CliffyB's transformation resonates with the alternate persona existences of those gamers who devote themselves to MMORPGs and Second Life. CliffyB has to step into his persona as a rock star game designer, and then steps out of it in private. Maybe it's more LARPing than MMORPing, but it's intriguing how the global success of gaming has necessitated sundry forms of gamesmanship and image management on the part of the industry leaders.

Chaplin and Ruby also touch on the phenomenon of Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games through a riveting account of the launch of Star Wars Galaxies. Anticipation builds as the authors trace the technical trials and tribulations of the developers working out the bugs in the system prior to launch, and the outsize expectations of legions of Star Wars fans who have signed up for beta subscriptions and can't wait to dive into their new personae. In lesser hands, such an account could be muddled, tedious with technical detail, and of no obvious interest to non-specialist readers. But Chaplin and Ruby keep the high-tech business grounded in human emotions, ambitions, and expectations, and they illustrate the dramatic stakes for all involved. The gamers can't wait to escape meatspace, and the developers can't wait to see if their elaborate scenarios are a hit.

Once an MMORPG is launched, the troubles have just begun. Even if it is massively popular from its first launch, all sorts of bugs and kinks can only be worked out, sometimes painfully, via the gamers' contact with the game. The life of an MMORPG as both a cultural and business entity is one of constant adpatation, mutation, evolution, and transformation.

Smartbomb is five or so years behind the times, but it's a great place to start if one wants to pick up on the dominant currents of video gaming as both an industry and a culture. It's written with keen perception into the business, human drama, and cultural aspects of this multi-billion dollar industry. A solid volume for any library on the history of video games.

Sunday, September 18, 2011


The Most Dangerous Game

Directed by Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoedsack
Written by James Ashmore Creelman from the story by Richard Connell
Produced by Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper
Music by Max Steiner

Joel McCrea as Bob Rainsford
Leslie Banks as Count Zaroff
Fay Wray as Eve
Robert Armstrong as Martin

An RKO Radio Picture

"The world's divided into two kinds of people: the hunter and the hunted. Luckily I'm the hunter. Nothing can change that."
            --Bob Rainsford

Pity poor Bob Rainsford. He has no idea what he has inspired . . .

Bob Rainsford (Joel McCrea) is a world renowned big game hunter who's written some bestselling books about the Tao of the Hunter, as it were, which seem to be proto-Ayn Randian works pitched at a thoroughly wankerish level of Neoconservative spankery. But Bob seems like a nice enough guy. He seems like the sort of guy who probably took a hard line when writing the books, but is much more self-deprecating in person, know what I mean? Like, you don't think those right-wing pundits are really that assholish in real life, do you? They're just puttin' on a little show, bro, they got families to feed, ratings to spike, and they gotta strike a tone that resonates throughout the decadent and glutted mediascape, so what's a few lies and exaggerations and fish stories to pad out the page count, eh? No big deal. Rainsford's got books to sell, product to move, world-around cruises to bankroll. Let a player play.

Anyways, Rainsford is on a pleasure cruise with a bunch of his wealthy friends regaling them all with his philosophy which divides all living beings into the hunter and the hunted, when the ship cracks up on a reef. Rainsford is washed ashore on an island and he makes his way inland to a strange castle which has a big sturdy door with a demoniacal knocker on it: a snarling centaur, an arrow piercing his breast, and a helpless woman in his arms . . . you have to pull down on the woman in the arms to make the thing work. Rainsford is admitted into the castle which is a wild-ass gothic affair presided over by the dashing and demented Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks), formerly of Russia, but his accent makes you wonder if that was Russia by way of the little theatre production of Dracula. Count Zaroff is no vampire, however, at least not the supernatural kind. You could say he's the real world version: he gets excited by the thrill of the hunt, he goes into quasi-religious ecstasy at the sight of his prey's blood, and he is oh so glad to meet Rainsford.

The Count is not alone. He has a couple of menacing henchmen for servants, and a couple of other folks who're also shipwrecked: the lovely Eve (Fay Wray) and her supremely obnoxious brother Martin (Robert Armstrong). Martin is a goddamn drunk. He's Arthur before Arthur. The kind of guy who wakes up drunk. Martin's speech is so slurred that it is starting to mutate the English language into a wholly new, sublime, and ludicrous dialect.

Rainsford and Zaroff get to talking, and Zaroff realizes he's talking to the Rainsford, the one who wrote all those books about the hunters and the hunted. Books that Zaroff has read, adored, studied, memorized, and taken on as a kind of philosophy of life. Rainsford is taken aback by all this, and seems like maybe he didn't quite mean every last bit of his argument . . . you know like when the far right crowd starts showing up at Presidential Town Halls strapped and chromed and loaded for bear and then they gotta say, "Oh, we're not advocating violence. We're just advocating showing up at a public event attended by key political leadership of the opposition with loaded assault weapons. That's all well within our Second Amendment rights, yessir!" Rainsford gives the impression that maybe he doesn't believe as fervently in the stark dualism of hunter vs. hunted, but Zaroff will have none of that, and after enduring Martin's exhortations to party down now, and hunt later, the Count drops this:

"He talks of wine and women as a prelude to the hunt. We barbarians know that it is after the chase, and then only, that man revels. You know the saying of the Ogandi chieftans: "Hunt first the enemy, then the woman." It is the natural instinct. The blood is quickened by the kill. One passion builds upon another. Kill, then love! When you have known that, you have known ecstasy."

Rainsford is taken aback by this, but doesn't quite get the full picture until Eve clues him in: apparently some other shipwrecked sailors were taken by the Count on a tour of the Trophy Room and never returned. Eve fears the Count has done something wicked to the able seamen . . .

But why should I give the rest of the movie away? The movie is in the public domain and you can watch all 63 minutes of it in glorious black and white on the embedded youtube video below. You can also probably find it some other places, whatever your preference. 

A few more remarks about this movie: this is one of those movies about hunting humans. Yes, Count Zaroff sees people as "The Most Dangerous Game," and so he hunts them for sport to satiate his bloodlust. This is all pretty obvious once the Count starts talking. What wasn't obvious was just how harrowing that hunt ends up being. For a movie from 1932, this movie moves at a brisk clip, and, once the hunt is on, it doesn't let up. It's a descent into stylized savagery, and the movie plays like a blend of the silent Germanic Expressionism of Lang and Murnau with the pace cranked way up, and the fists landing with audible thuds straight out of the old Saturday Matinee action serials. This movie was also shot concurrently with the original King Kong utilizing the same cast, crew, and lavish jungle sets. The producers doubled-up their productions, and got maximum value for both pictures. Do I need to say that The Most Dangerous Game and King Kong make a thrilling double feature? Hey, I said it. 

As stated above, this is one of those movies about hunting humans, maybe the first. It is derived from a short story by Richard Connell, which, if memory serves, was more about a one on one battle between shipwrecked Rainsford and the villainous Zaroff on a remote island, but the movie version increases the number of folks involved and makes quite a memorable villain out of Zaroff. 

Zaroff is played by Leslie Banks, who had suffered a real life World War I injury which partially paralyzed and scarred the left side of his face. This injury is incorporated into the character of Zaroff as an injury suffered while stalking a beast in the wild. It is implied by the movie that this injury may have nudged Zaroff towards the dark side. In some ways it also seems to play on the notion of shell-shock, the nervous breakdown experienced by veterans of WWI's brutal trench warfare. Maybe you could even look at Count Zaroff as a melodramatic and villainous cousin to the haunted Septimus Warren Smith from Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway.

The Most Dangerous Game has seemingly given birth to a whole sub-genre of films dealing with the idea of some sort of life and death bloodsport played out like some kind of evil big game hunt: Hard Target, Surviving the Game, The Running Man, and, most spectacularly,  the year 2000's  Battle Royale adapted from a novel published in 1999. 

Battle Royale concerns a fiendish game orchestrated by a totalitarian Japanese government which pits teenage students against each other with a variety of randomly distributed weapons. It's like a massively multiplayer online shoot 'em up made real. The referee of this sick game is played by Takeshi Kitano, one of Japan's living national treasures. Kitano is a novelist, filmmaker, actor, comedian, talk show host, visual artist, video game designer--he's done it all. Kitano was also once in a motorcycle accident which left his face partially paralyzed . . .

So, there you have the Takeshi Kitano/Leslie Banks/The Most Dangerous Game/Battle Royale connection, trivial and coincidental though it may be . . .

Full Movie:

Tuesday, September 13, 2011


The Crimson Labyrinth 
by Yusuke Kishi

Originally published in Japan in 1999.
English translation by Masami Isetani and Camellia Nieh
English edition published in 2006 by Vertical, Inc.

Fujiki wakes up in a canyon of red rock. He doesn't remember how he got there, but he remembers who he was: an unemployed salaryman who was down and out on the streets of Shinjuku, sleeping in a park, and dumpster diving meals from discarded bento boxes out behind a convenience store. Now, he's seemingly been transported to another world, or maybe another reality, by parties unknown.

Fujiki's abductors have left him with a box full of nutrition bars and a handheld gaming machine (think Game Boy) that tells Fujiki that he is trapped in the Mars Labyrinth and that the game has begun. What kind of game? The machine elaborates that Fujiki must survive in order to return to Earth and receive the prize money. Further, the machine states that the players of this game must make their way to various checkpoints and make decisions which could determine whether they live or die.

Is this some sort of elaborate prank? Is it a hallucination? Is Fujiki really on Mars? What kind of people would render you unconscious and toss you into the middle of an elaborately staged survival game? Reality television producers? Are these people even human? Or are they Martians?

Fujiki starts to find his way to the first checkpoint. But he's not alone. He encounters a woman named Ai Otomo, who has also been conscripted into this game. Back in Japan, she drew pornographic manga. Now, she stumbles around a maze of red rock, at just as much of a loss for explanations as Fujiki. Fujiki and Ai put their heads together and figure out how to count off their paces to find the first checkpoint as per the handheld gaming device's instructions, and they find the other Japanese citizens who've been conscripted to play this twisted game: all of them are people recently unemployed or forgotten in the wake of Japan's exploded bubble economy. Perhaps that's why they've been abducted. What's a few less jobless folks to worry about? No, these people will not be missed. And what else, if anything, does that say about the motivations of the unseen abductors?

Each player has been provided with a handheld gaming device. At the first checkpoint, where all the players are gathered, they are beamed more information about the nature of the game, including the following prohibitions: no climbing the canyon walls, no drawing large figures in the sand or on the rocks, no making multiple fires in close proximity, no making whistles to emit loud noises, and no signaling with mirror-like objects. Violators will be severely punished. The players are then presented with the following choice of initial paths:


Wouldn't you know it? Fujiki and Ai end up going north. Fujiki, who specialized in game theory at college, reasons that the abductors must have some reason for offering up such a seemingly impractical choice as an initial opening move of the game. Fujiki also reasons that if this is indeed a game, then the very first choice will probably have far-reaching ramifications, maybe even life and death consequences, and so that first choice had better be a damned good one. Of course, as Fujiki also realizes, game theory depends on the rather huge assumption that all the actors in question are rational, which is scarcely a given in real life. Therefore, game theory as applied to real life is, as Fujiki puts it, "worse than useless." But why would the people behind the Mars Labyrinth design a game that could not be rationally solved? Even if Fujiki is wrong, surely there must be some design, some underlying logic to be figured out that one might win? But such thinking assumes that the game has been designed in such a way that actual victory is possible, that it has been constructed to be fair.

Hey, real life ain't fair. Games exist as a part of real life. Therefore . . .

 . . . Fujiki and Ai set out along the northern path in search of information.

The Crimson Labyrinth is a lean but protein rich meal. It's one of those books you just about have to read in one sitting. It's all plot, and pacing, and suspense, with just enough precise characterization to keep you intrigued. The setting is rendered with enough detail to bring it to life, but not so much that it becomes a travelogue. It has one of those highly exploitative yet engaging premises that you just have to get to the bottom of, even if you suspect the conclusion might not be as satisfying as the journey. As it happens, author Yusuke Kishi knows how to parcel out the suspense even once he's tipped his hand. He's not just concerned with a big payoff, some out of left field shocker of an ending, but he also wants to ask some tough questions about human nature within the context of the survival game:

Are these players faced with a zero sum game, where only one can win? Or is there a possibility for a cooperative victory?

What are the penalties for violating any of the five prohibitions? Why have such prohibitions in the first place?

If you're faced with a zero sum game, where you have to compete with your fellow human beings for a single victory position, what are you willing to do to win? If it's a zero sum game, can Fujiki and Ai both win? Can Fujiki and Ai trust each other?

Who are the abductors? Are they human? Are they telling the truth? Why would they lie? Why would they be honest? Can the information provided by the handheld gaming units be trusted? Whoever the abductors are, they must be some sort of organization with considerable resources, perhaps even paranormal powers. What kind of an organization would put on a survival game of this nature? What are their ethics and/or morality, if any? Is there some larger agenda? Is it all just for kicks?

Maybe none of this is real. The point of view character is Fujiki. Can his perceptions be trusted?

How does one make an ethical choice within the context of a zero-sum game? Is it possible? Is ethical decision making entirely dependent upon context? That is to say, if we can only choose from the options that are known to us, and none of them are ethical, how do we decide what the most ethical of unethical choices is in a given situation?

What about good and evil? Are these things inherent in who we are? Or are they products of the choices we make? Are they woven into the fabric of reality, or are they just illusions we project onto our daily lives? We typically imagine ourselves to be good even when we do evil. Don't we typically let ourselves off the hook for transgressions large and small?

Does one have to play the game, or can you just walk away from it?

The Crimson Labyrinth is one of those books with such an over the top premise that it inspires all sorts of speculations as you read it.

Of course, I can't tell you what the Mars Labyrinth is. You have to read it for yourself . . .


Okay, digression time.

What is it about stories about sick games played with unwilling participants for life or death stakes?

The Crimson Labyrinth was published in 1999, the same year that saw the original publication of the notorious cult classic Battle Royale. BR was all about a group of young Japanese students who were pitted against each other in an elaborate death match for sinister purposes by the government.

I suppose it goes back to "The Most Dangerous Game," a short story by Richard Connell published in 1924 about a depraved aristocrat who sets up expeditions to go human hunting for fun and profit. This short story was knocked off in 1993 for  the Jean Claude Van Damme epic Hard Target which reset the action from a remote Caribbean island to New Orleans and tossed in motor cycles, martial arts, and assault weapons.

In 1987 you had the Schwarzenegger classic The Running Man which was about a futuristic televised gladiator spectacle involving condemned prisoners going up against high tech assassins in a bombed out dystopian landscape--all set up by evil, Reaganomic corporations which had overrun America by that time.

In 1997 there was The Game, directed by David Fincher, which was about a wealthy man, played by Michael Douglas, who is conned into participating in what starts out as some kind of alternate reality LARP which turns into a deadly, all out assault on his financial assets and his life.

I've heard some people compare The Game to John Fowles's 1965 novel The Magus about a man being manipulated by elaborate illusions that might threaten his life.

Then there are the Dream Park novels published throughout the 1980s and 1990s by Steven Barnes and Larry Niven which imagine a high tech theme park where the participants engage in LARPing scenarios writ large derived from world mythologies, sci-fi and sword and sorcery literature and gaming products. These novels intertwine murder mystery plots with unusual pastiches from sci-fi and fantasy literature and offer intriguing takes on the line between reality and fantasy. Unusually, the participants in these Dream Park games are willing participants. Do people like to have their reality toyed with from time to time?

Most all of these stories seemingly involve conspiracies of one kind or another. The players come to think of themselves as being persecuted, of being at the hands of heartless machinations by powerful evil forces. In the case of The Running Man and Battle Royale, the bloodsport is explicitly set up by the ruling classes for purposes of control and pacification of the general populace. In those works in particular the suspense doesn't derive so much from the unraveling of secret conspiracies as it does from the life and death struggles of who survives and who dies.

"The Most Dangerous Game" and Hard Target are about smaller scale operations. In the former, it's one Russian aristocrat, and in the latter it's a New Orleans based gang that hires itself out to wealthy degenerates who wish to hunt homeless people on the streets of the Big Easy. The cops don't exist on the crazy Russian's island, and in the New Orleans scenario they've been bought off, as per usual, by the criminal organization of interest. Depraved gamesmanship doesn't necessarily need the backing of oppressive governments or rapacious corporations. It just needs the desire and sadism within the human heart. Maybe a few bribes for the local gendarmes if the operation involves a couple dozen players or so.

Maybe these kinds of stories (if indeed they can be said to be of a kind, or kinds, I'm casting a wide net here), work on an author's and an audience's sense of fair play. Even when these stories seemingly cheat, it's within the context of the game. A betrayal of the rules within a game is that much more stinging. A gaming scenario is also a quick and dirty way of contriving drama, of manufacturing conflict.

Corruption of varying degrees figures into these sagas. Is a human life worth sacrificing for the sake of sport?  Are we all just pawns in the gamesmanship which goes on between nations and transnational corporations?

Where do our true loyalties lie as humans? To Team A or Team B? What about Team C? Why Teams? Should we try to reach out to our fellow humans as humans, and discard such childish pursuits?

Is it possible to say no to the game, whatever that may be? Do we have to play?

What if you want to play? If everybody quits, and you're the last gamer, how does that position differ from its opposite? The lone quitter and the last gamer . . . are they that far apart?

Maybe there are more subtle grades of distinction to be made, but most of these stories, excepting the Dream Park books, deal with the terrors of bloodsports, of zero-sum games at their most naked and savage--stripped of all economic, nationalistic, and ideological posturing and hand-waving. In the end, those that make the games want you to play. They won't let you quit. They want to put you on a team, dictate the rules, and set the terms of victory. At most, the player might be able to choose their team or what weapon they'll use to kill the other guy.

You can't win if you don't play. But what price victory? Sometimes you lose even if you win.

Vertical, Inc.'s The Crimson Labyrinth page:

Thursday, September 8, 2011



Tomorowo Taguchi as Tomoo Taniguchi
Nobu Kanaoka as Kana
Keinosuke Tomioka as Minori
Shinya Tsukamoto as Yatsu (The Guy)
Hideaki Tezuka as Big Skinhead
Tomoo Asada as Young Skinhead
Torauemon Utazawa as Mad Scientist

Writer/Director/Co-Producer/Art Director/Co-Cinematographer 
Shinya Tsukamoto

Original Music by Chu Ishikawa
Special Effects by Takashi Oda
Cinematography by Fumikazu Oda, Katsunori Yokoyama
Produced by Hiromi Aihara, Hiroshi Koizumi, Fumio Kurokawa, Fuminori Shishido, Nobuo Takeuchi
A Kaijyu Theatre Production 

"I don't want money. Destruction is all I need."

A drunken salaryman staggers through a subterranean underpass somewhere in the bowels of Tokyo. The camera, slasher movie style, seems to stalk him, putting the audience in a first person POV. A hand, the hand of the stalker, makes a gun and pretend shoots the salaryman. The salaryman is irritated by these juvenile shenanigans, but not for long. Two loud bangs, and bullets drill into his torso. He slumps to the ground, one of the comparatively few people in Tokyo who will be classified as a gun homicide that year.

The stalker is revealed in a reverse angle shot as a strange man with a smoking arm attended by an awestruck young man with a shaved head. The stalker seems to be pretending that his arm is some kind of gun. What kind of pretend results in actual bullets and an actual dead body, though, seems to be the question at hand . . .

Tetsuo II: Body Hammer resurrects the themes and imagery of the first Tetsuo movie, but dials back the surrealism a little bit. Or maybe it dials it up to eleven. I guess it depends on how you reckon such things. The first Tetsuo movie was a creation of pure sensation and outrageous imagery with little regard for the usual film grammar and character motivations. There was a story, and there were characters, but these things were subordinate to the overall spectacle of uncontrolled psychic and biological mutations. No motivations or causes are given for the wild transformations in the first movie, and Tetsuo II is comparably mysterious, but the sequel offers more of a science fictional rationale for the mutations. They are seemingly tied to rage, to deadly threats to one's survival, and memories of the past long suppressed.

In the world of Tetsuo II, mutation is also a matter of applied willpower. From the wellsprings of one's rage, one can focus thoughts into mutagenic agents.  An arm and a hand can be morphed into a cannon. Soft flesh becomes layers  of breathing, sweating steel. The most advanced mutants can seemingly manifest concrete as well as steel to further armor up against all enemies. Such thoughts can also be focused into a magnetic field, like Magneto in the X-Men comics, and used defensively and offensively against other metal mutants. Tetsuo II brings an amusing comic book logic to the story which makes it more of a traditional narrative experience than the first movie. Some people I've talked to don't like this aspect of Tetsuo II, and prefer the pure lunacy of the first movie which was totally unbounded by narrative and logic. In fact, it seems that many people were let down by Tetsuo II. Maybe I'm too much of a fan to see this movie in a harsh critical light, but I've always found Tetsuo II to be commendably ambitious. It takes the notions of mutation and creative destruction out of the purely internal, surrealistic mode of the first movie and amplifies them into instruments of mass destruction. In the sequel, it would seem that anybody has the potential to grok the Tetsuo state of mind.

Tomorowo Taguchi is back for another round of mutation and creative destruction as the suit and glasses stiff who transforms into the Iron Man when pushed to the limit by a mysterious tormentor. Shinya Tsukamoto writes, directs, operates the camera when he's not in front of it, art directs, edits, and incarnates a new version of his metal fetishist character from Tetsuo, the Iron Man.

 In the first Tetsuo film, the characters were broad types sketched in by enthusiastic actors. This time around, the characters are given a little bit more in the way of human details and specifics. Taguchi's character is given a name, Tomoo Taniguchi, and a chic apartment in ultramodern Tokyo. He shares it with his wife, Kana, who is played by Nobu Kanaoka. Kanaoka had a cameo as a woman possessed by a piece of biomechanical scrap metal in the first movie. Tomoo and Kana have a young son, Minori, and to all appearances their lives are not the stuff that films are made of, seeing as they live in a comfortable home and even sleep together in an adorable cuddle every night. Tomoo's got a secure job, presumably in some cubicle warren in some skyscraper, and Kana is a devoted mother, preparing breakfast each morning, and encouraging her husband to exercise regularly. Their apartment is a modernist refuge from the biological and technological chaos of the living city. Tomoo makes his way to his office job, wearing a dorky little backpack like a student, on foot and by bullet train and during these trips he is portrayed as having some bizarre anxiety, some sense of being engulfed by the city and its crowds, and yet also passed by, maybe even superseded . . . Tsukamoto shoots Taguchi standing still and staring into the camera as the crowds, backs to the camera, rush by him on the subway platform at high speed. Taguchi, as Tomoo, seems to be standing still, and yet vibrating with repressed energy at the same time. He has a power he wants to unleash, but can't tap into it. He's been too rundown by the workaday grind, by easy living, and he can only sense in an oblique fashion the potential within him.

Tomoo, Kana, and Minori are at the shopping mall one day when they run into a pair of trenchcoated lunatics. One of them zaps Tomoo with some kind of injection gun, and then snatches Minori. Tomoo staggers around in shock and pain, while Kana zips off after the kidnappers. Tomoo finds his way to the mall rooftop where he has the shit knocked out of him by the kidnappers, one of whom sadistically dangles him over the side of the building, while the other one threatens to throw Minori from the roof. But the kidnappers back away at the last moment, leaving Tomoo hanging off the building's ledge like a hero in some old silent film. Kana rescues him at the last moment, pulling him to safety, and they see that Minori has been left behind.

What the fuck was that all about? Were they really kidnappers? Maybe yakuza? Or were they were just particularly sick pranksters? Kana pressures Tomoo to start pumping iron at the gym, maybe to be able to better fend off the rising tide of punks and criminals infesting Tokyo these days. Tomoo can't lift the weights at first, but then he thinks of the leering faces of the thugs who assaulted him and his family, and he finds himself to be stronger than he thought. Next, he hits the workout bike, and his breath capacity and leg muscles have all been augmented by Tomoo's rich inner vein of rage, fear, and paranoia. Is Tomoo on a trajectory to become Tokyo's version of Paul Kersey?

Meanwhile, in the depths of an iron foundry, a small army of cultish skin heads lift gigantic weights crafted from discarded scrap metal and chunks of concrete. Fire and smoke and liquid metal pour from demonic apparatus, and the skinheads are seemingly trying to make their bodies over in the image of junk and machines. The kidnappers are revealed to be agents of this cult, and they hand their strange injection gun over to a portly mad scientist direct from central casting for maintenance. The leader of this cult, played by Shinya Tsukamoto, appears to be the shooter from the opening: a man with a scarred lip who luxuriates in a Jacuzzi filled with molten metal. The kidnappers describe Tomoo as a "mild specimen" and suggest that they have injected him with some kind of substance which will transform him. Tomoo is, perhaps, the subject of some sort of bizarre experiment.

The kidnappers strike again, stealing Minori from Kana and Tomoo's apartment. Tomoo gives chase, ending up on the apartment building's roof. He battles one of the kidnappers, who taunts him by telling him that he threw Minori off the roof. Tomoo goes berserk, and he mutates his right arm into a long, penile cannon straight out of the H.R. Giger calender. Tomoo blasts away . . . and ends up obliterating his own son, whom the kidnapper uses as a human shield. Kana witnesses this accidental homicide, and begins to see her hubby as some kind of monster.

The cult then kidnaps Tomoo, taking him to their lair in the iron foundry, and hooking him up to some sort of bizarre machine that looks like a BDSM version of virtual reality gear. The mad scientist,  at the direction of the cult leader, probes Tomoo's mind, and agitates his memories of the kidnappers and the death of Minori. These memories are like some sort of malignancy, and the mad scientist encourages them to grow and colonize more of Tomoo's consciousness. These cancerous thoughts give Tomoo a jolt of rage, which causes his body to begin to mutate into a living weapon, bristling with bouquets of penile cannons. Tomoo yells and screams in supreme agony, and fires his cannon appendages indiscriminately in the armored testing facility. The cult leader and the mad scientist are satisfied with their new creation. The mad scientist speculates they can use this new process of induced mutation to make piles of money enabling customers to transform themselves and others into screaming, writhing, bio-mechanical weapons batteries.

The cult leader isn't interested in money, though. His stake in the project is highly personal. For he and Tomoo share a secret history that the salaryman has all but forgotten. But the cult leader has forgotten nothing. He seeks not only to mutate Tomoo, but to reawaken his buried memories.

Tomoo's mutations progress into wilder, outsize forms. Eventually, he resembles a kind of lopsided golem fashioned from mud, concrete, and steel. His mutations increase as the cult leader agitates them by dropping hints of their buried past together, and threatening Kana's life. One of the dilemmas that Tomoo faces is that as he mutates and increases his power, he seemingly must struggle to control his destructive tendencies. Sure, he can kill and destroy property at will, but he cannot save any of the people he cares about, and  these frustrations only amplify his rage. Usually, in films about people with superpowers, the powers they gain or are granted are used to increase their agency, and to do good. But in the twisted universe of Tetsuo II, the powers come at great cost. One's body is subjected to out of control transformations, and it is all but impossible to unleash the powers within without causing massive unintentional casualties.

There is also a nasty rust disease which can afflict those who decide to unleash their inner Tetsuo. The cult leader starts using the injector gun on his skinhead disciples, and the war with Tomoo escalates.

Tetsuo II suggests that the mutational process can be guided, maybe even controlled and transformed into a commodity. Such a reproducible mutation process could even be co-opted by extremist political elements. The skinhead cult seems to exist as some kind of fascistic organization, all the members of which have been recruited from boxers, bodybuilders, and other devotees of physical culture. The leader seems to see such people as prime candidates for mutation. His motivations are murky, but he seems to have some aim beyond tormenting Tomoo. The imagery of the skinhead cultists and their willingness to be mutated into living weapons suggests some resurgence of Japan's militaristic past.

There is also a theme running through the movie that the city of Tokyo itself is somehow a repressive force, one that is ambiguous: it is the fruit of Japan's struggle to rebuild itself and thrive after World War II, and is therefore an improvement upon the imperialism which once led the country to total destruction. Everyone is employed, well-fed, and safe. But much of this security has a hidden cost. Society is ruled by powerful corporate interests. The common citizen is expected to practically kill themselves to make good grades in school and land in a plum corporate office job. Those that don't make the grade can look forward to a life of manual labor or maybe something in the service industry. Not everyone fits into such a conformist society. Tsukamoto, as a nonconforming artist, rather perversely suggests that there are those who would choose to obliterate such a society almost as an act of creative expression.

Tetsuo II is that rare fantasy movie that doesn't deal in simplistic conflicts between good and evil. In this reality, comic book superpowers offer their own peculiar kind of bondage. Men of metal suffer from rusty leprosy. Painful memories metastasize into psychic cancer. A sinister tormentor may organize a cult only to get you to remember what you've forgotten. And maybe that tormentor is a psychopathic murderer willing to put your family's lives at stake, but shouldn't any lover of truth be willing to go the distance? Moreover, in the world of Tetsuo, the most dangerous WMD is not a nuke or a biological agent or a bunker busting bomb. It is the rage simmering within the human heart. After all, isn't it that rage, combined with fear, hatred, and distrust, which builds the weapons and wages the wars?

Tetsuo II: Body Hammer trailer:

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: MEDIC! by Ben Sherman (2002)

MEDIC! The Story of a Conscientious Objector in the Vietnam War
by Ben Sherman
Published 2002 and 2004 by Ballantine Books/Presidio Press

Ben Sherman was willing to serve his country, he was no protester, but he saw little point in invading Vietnam. He did not believe that Vietnam was a clear and present danger to the United States. He had serious moral objections to taking human life. But he didn't want to break the rules. He did everything in his power to legally register as a conscientious objector and seek alternative service status. He filed all the necessary forms in triplicate. He was directed to attend a hearing before a board of three World War 2 veterans. The Selective Service Board No. 23 in Sacramento, California asked him esoteric philosophical questions about how he would decide who would die in a situation involving a bus full of crippled school children, failing brakes, a precipitous cliff drop, and a baby left out in the middle of the road. Sherman asked them who left the baby out in the middle of the road, and they asked him if he was a communist. The board voted down his appeal 5-0, even though there were only three members present.

Sherman was inducted into the US Army. He tried to tell his superiors that he would never fire his gun at another human being. They called him a fucking commie. But Sherman was otherwise a model soldier and performed well at boot camp. But all that CO bullshit landed him in barracks arrest for four months, followed by an office assignment, and then, finally, due to recognition of his competence, he was placed with the Medical Corps.

Sherman went to Vietnam as a medic, and endured horror and folly. He survived and after many years wrote this book which is disturbing not so much for its descriptions of the horrors of war, although that is very much a part of his story, as it is for how the mobilization of a nation to war can destroy the capacity for individual citizens to make moral and ethical choices.

 People got drafted into military service back during the Vietnam War, which meant, if you were an American male of appropriate age, and your number came up you were going into some branch of military service. Your legal choices were limited. You could apply for conscientious objector status. Some got student deferments. Sherman was consistently denied in his legal appeals to become a CO.

 You could go outside the legal choices. You could desert. Some people faked mental illness, or went on the lam, or did everything in their power to convince the military gatekeepers that they were pinko commies or homosexuals or otherwise unfit for service. Those were the options. You went when your number came up, you tried to get a student deferment, you applied for objector status, or you left for Canada, or you tried to go on the run in the US, or you used deception to get booted out of the system.

Sherman went through all the legal channels to apply for objector status because he wanted to be honest, because he believed that stating his convictions clearly and unambiguously and within the legal framework was the honorable way to go. It would seem that honesty is not always the wisest strategy to get what you want. At the very least, Ben Sherman will never be known as a liar.

It's an open question whether the same can be said for Mr. Sherman's government.

 Why did we wage war against Vietnam? You could fill a library with the books that have been written attempting to answer this question. To fight communism? To counter the Domino Effect? To prop up a massive military industrial complex with an excuse to crank up the arms factories? Maybe it has something to do with who shot JFK if you're a conspiracy fruitcake.

Let's keep things simple: did Vietnam ever pose a true strategic threat to the United States? No. Could they have ever invaded our shores? No. So why did we go to war over there? I know of no sane answer. And, no, I'm not a conspiracy theorist, but I can sympathize with those that see far-reaching plots and schemes behind all the folly and bloodshed. I can understand why so many Americans came to lose faith in their government. Considering our early 21st century invasion of Iraq, and the open-ended War on Terror, we seem hell-bent on reenacting the same mistakes over and over again, on a geometrically expanding scale. Vietnam was a matter of invading just one country. Now we are committed to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with no clear parameters for victory. Presumably, we are staying until we kill all the terrorists. This is probably neither possible, nor morally defensible when one factors in the inevitable destruction of civilian lives as collateral damage and the certain blood sacrifice of American and allied soldiers and contractors, but that doesn't stop dreamers from dreamin'.

But Sherman's book is no left-wing screed, I'm just bringing my own rants to the party. And even if you're a right-wing warmonger, there are plenty of reasons to read Sherman's book. The man writes vivid, no bullshit prose. Sherman includes many of the letters he received from the Army to document his ongoing status as a draftee, and his efforts to assert himself as a conscientious objector. He also includes personal letters exchanged with family and loved ones. All of this illustrates the kinds of words that he was confronted with, and what those words meant for someone who lived in the era of the Draft.

Sherman begins with a description of his first assignment as a medic: the body bags and the corpses that got stuffed into them. Sherman and the others on Graves Registration duty treated those dead soldiers with utmost care and respect, carefully brown bagging all the personal effects and belongings, and grooming the unkempt faces, to restore their dignity, and so that they got back to family and friends in as presentable a shape as possible. Sherman talks about the near unbearable smells, and plugging rectums with cotton balls.

Sherman begins with this description of Graves Registration duty, I believe, so that the reader knows right from the beginning that people get killed in a war. It's not Nintendo. It's not a game. When the decision is made to invade another nation with military personnel, people are going to die on a massive scale.

 Soldiers, no matter how well-trained, no matter how noble the cause, will be killed on the battlefield. They will not be coming back. Civilians will die. No matter how careful, no matter how grand the strategy on the part of military planners and leadership, unarmed non-combatants will be killed as a matter of course. Property and infrastructure will be obliterated, and whole populations will be displaced.

The costs are enormous both to the invader and the invaded. Politicians are fond of saying that there's no such thing as a free lunch when it comes time to do away with entitlement programs for the poor, but they never seem to apply the same logic to defense entitlements. Drawn out military engagements drain the coffers and do damage to the trust that citizens are willing to put into government institutions. Many soldiers come back traumatized by the experience of war to failing economies, scant job prospects, and inadequate health care.

The reality of what happened between the United States and Vietnam, once upon a time, is perhaps too grim  to face. It's better to marble it over with movies and books about heroic strategies, valorous sacrifice, and the might-a-beens: if only we'd used this strategy or that strategy, if only we'd cut off the food supplies by seizing the rice paddies, and what about nuclear weapons? My own father, a Vietnam veteran, perhaps insincerely, told me he thinks we should've used nuclear weapons in 'Nam. I say "perhaps insincerely" because I want to give him the benefit of the doubt. But, as nearly as I can tell, war has a capacity to distort people's sense of morality and decency. So maybe he meant it. Even if there were no serious plans by the leadership to do such a thing, and I don't think there were, the overall adventure left a lot of people feeling betrayed, angry, and disenchanted. Those that feel let down may harbor deep resentments and occasionally entertain ghoulish fantasies of retribution and victory.

But Sherman didn't let his experience with war cloud his judgement to such a degree. Instead, he decided to confront it as best he could by telling his story from his perspective. In a way, it's rather inspiring to know that someone could go through such things and still have a grasp on reality. Why don't guys like this run for elected office? Maybe we don't want that much reality.

Ben Sherman's website:

Radio Interview with Ben Sherman in two parts:

Part 1:

Part 2:

Thursday, September 1, 2011


Infernal Devices
by K.W. Jeter
With an introduction by the author, and an afterward by Jeff VanderMeer
Originally published 1987 by St. Martin's Press
Republished 2011 by Angry Robot Books

Infernal Devices is a ripsnorting, grandly comical Victorian-era potboiler that is far more entertaining than the most recent Indiana Jones movie; indeed it is more exciting than any big budget Hollywood blockbuster that I have seen in the past five years. It is that rare book that is both literary and cinematic. You can't help but pine for a movie version even as you realize that it could never be as good as the book. It's full of crazy, clockwork automatons, cliffhanger chapter endings, sinister conspiracies, and gloriously impossible super-science. It is a book which will transport you to another reality. By book's end, I was satisfied, and yet felt it a crime that there was just the one book. Surely, this would be a series worth following. 

Infernal Devices is also a seminal text in the so-called steampunk movement in speculative fiction and pop culture. According to the author's introduction, and the afterword by Jeff VanderMeer, Jeter coined the word steampunk as a riff on cyberpunk, which was the sub-genre of note in 1980s science fiction. Jeter was poking fun at the tendency to put any old random word and the the word punk together to mint a new stylistic category. Jeter was on to something. Cyberpunk is still kicking, and we also have steampunk, which is getting a lot of play these days, and let's not forget biopunk, cypherpunk, and even cthulhupunk. 

What is steampunk? It's a kind of fetishism of old technologies, especially anything that's made of rivets, gears, steel, and is powered by steam. Do a google image search of steampunk, you'll pick up on it. Trains, flying devices that use huge flapping artificial wings made of wood, metal and canvas, clockwork automatons  and clockwork cyborg prostheses, and various forms of Victorian-inspired fashions, sometimes with kinky, anime-inspired adjustments for a more sexually liberated age of cosplay and Lady Gaga. In the author's forward, Jeter speculates that the vogue for steampunk fashion and apparatus comes from a desire to escape the bland plastic smoothness of computers, cell phones, and other electronic amusements that have become none too amusing these days. Jeter likes his machines as machines. All the better to distinguish them from an increasingly machine-like humanity, now beavering away in cubicle cultures the world over . . .

Some other notable steampunk works include William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's alternate history epic The Difference Engine, K.W. Jeter's own Morlock Night, which is apparently a sequel to H.G. Wells's The Time Machine, and the criminally underrated anime feature film Steamboy, which was created by Katsuhiro Otomo, the mastermind behind the manga and film of Akira. Steamboy in particular is a good place to start if you want to get a handle on some of the more fanciful possibilities of steam-based retro-technology and alternate history. In Otomo's world,  a genius inventor finds a way to make steam power the atomic power of its age. Massive weapons of war are developed, and the nationalistic world powers all want in on the action. But the genius inventor has no interest in the machinations of warlike governments, and so he tries to fend off the schemes and dreams of spies and arms manufacturers.

Gibson and Sterling's The Difference Engine constructs a reality where Charles Babbage's analytical engine was brought to fruition in 1824 and brings on an early onset of accelerated technological progress including ubiquitous personal computing and a worldwide communications network very much like our own internet. Gibson and Sterling's book embodies that aspect of steampunk which seeks to pose alternate possibilities of technological progress: just because we don't do it with punch cards and steam engines doesn't mean we can't make it happen that way. It may seem whimsical on the surface, but it raises some fascinating possibilities, and also forces us to confront the all important issue of who controls the means of production when it comes to technological advance and why that matters. It's not arbitrary, and it could change any day. 

But you don't need prior interest in or knowledge about steampunk to enjoy Infernal Devices. It begins with an uptight young man who is in a bit of rut . . .

George Dower has inherited his deceased father's clock repair shop in Victorian London. Dower doesn't have the mechanical touch, though, and so he struggles with the various clockwork gimcracks that his father's former clients bring to him with the expectation that mechanical genius is hereditary. Dower doesn't have the genius, but he's a tenacious worker, and he's aided by his father's loyal servant, Creff. Creff shows Dower the basics, and by sweat and struggle Dower becomes a good enough clock repairman. Now and again, someone will bring in something truly bizarre, some contraption of gears with chains as fine as silk threads which is beyond Dower's prowess. The son has to send these people away, openly confessing his lack of skill.

One evening, a strange man, whom the excitable and somewhat racist Creff immediately accuses of being a thief of Ethiopian heritage, brings Dower a strange box which contains a totally incomprehensible clockwork regulator device of some sort. The mystery man comes to be known as the Brown Leather Man due to what Dower perceives as his dark, ritually scarred skin. The Brown Leather Man exhorts Dower to figure out what the device is for, and Dower, despite his lack of confidence, promises to find out the device's purpose within the week.

But a strange thing happens as Dower shows the Brown Leather Man around the workshop. The Brown Leather Man accidentally cuts his arm on a piece of junk . . . and seemingly bleeds briny water . . .

The Brown Leather Man leaves Dower a strange coin as security before he exits. It depicts a weird face, part man, part amphibian in appearance.

There are other people who want to know what the regulator is good for, people who are willing to lie, to steal, and possibly even to do murder to obtain the device and put it to some sinister use.

The action of the book concerns Dower's efforts initially to hold onto the regulator and to solve the mystery of the man-fish coin. At first, it would seem that Dower doesn't need to stray too far from his shop to pursue adventure. Thieves and schemers are all too happy to come barreling through his door or window. Among the memorable rogues Dower must deal with are the duo of Scape and Miss McThane, who seem, by their crude patterns of speech and extensive use of slang, to be Americans. The two are engaged with exhibiting clockwork amusements at inflated prices to small-town audiences, and they have a keen interest in getting their hands on the regulator.

Scape and McThane are two of the delights of Jeter's novel. Scape is a burly, swaggering bullshit artist who affects hipster shades with blue lenses and thinks he's got the world by the balls. Miss McThane is a comical strumpet, her every impulse designed to offend and unsettle Dower's ridiculously uptight Victorian sense of propriety. Jeter brilliantly puts anachronistic American slang and profanity into Scape and Miss McThane's dialogue which alternately bruises and confuses Dower's fussy gentlemanly decorum. One gag involves Dower hearing Scape mutter something under his breath that he thinks is a portmanteau of the words "cogs" and "succor." Perhaps an obscure religious entreaty? Miss McThane, who has a liberated sense of sexuality, sees the uptight Dower as a challenge and constantly tries to seduce the Englishman. Personally, my favorite scenes in the book involve the goofy dynamics of Scape, Miss McThane, and hapless Dower.

Another source of humor is Dower's hidebound nature. There are many times in the first person narrative where the reader will find themselves two steps ahead of Dower in deducing what exactly is happening. You want to shout and wave at the guy, try to steer him on to the right track. But even so, the book still plays its cards close to the vest, and it will keep you guessing as to the overall design of what's happening and why.

It would be a crime to give away any more of the story, but suffice it to say that nothing is as it first appears. Jeter is not afraid to go right over the top in terms of the underlying logic of his make believe world.It is not realism, but I found it weirdly convincing. I wanted very much to believe in the reality of this make-believe world.

Also, after you read the book, run this theoretical through your analytical engine: what would it have been like if it had all been told from the perspective of the Brown Leather Man . . .