I finished reading Yokohama Kaidaishi Kikou
, by Ashinano Hitoshi. I loved it.
It is a brilliant stroke to tell a story about transience through immortal cyborgs. Maybe many Westerners would even find that counterintuitive, because transience--more specifically, mono no aware
, the nuances of which I will not belabor here, but if you are not familiar, look it up, it's a treat--is a particularly Japanese literary theme, and most Western works focus only on the rapid change the future brings. But there is a constant in that, change and transience, and though we have the saying "the only constant in life is change", I don't think Americans have come to understand that paradox fully. It's given token observance in some speculative fiction, usually in passing dialogue, but nowhere in Western media have I seen the constant side of transience explored with a fraction of the depth given in YokoKai.
This is a world where few things are explained. In that way, it reminds me of Haibane Renmei
. Mysteries are left open, and the characters come to open-ended conclusions about everything. There is no closure, and no loose ends are tied together. In this sense, YokoKai defies a cardinal rule of Western storytelling. And yet, it works beautifully. The mystery lends to the gorgeous atmosphere, and the gentle sense of wonder. The artwork is stunning, simple yet powerful pen-hatching.
This is a story about humanity, though sparse and pervaded by nature. An unelaborated ecological disaster has cleaved the human population, sea levels rise and carve out new landscapes. Life is simpler in this story, slow. This is, as Alpha says, the twilight of human existence. Humans will pass from this world, and the world will continue on without it. Yet, the world has been changed by the presence of humans, aside from the disaster--plants resemble human technology, and humans have left behind robots, sentient beings who will survive beyond the twilight. There is a gentle optimism in this, a strange constant in a story pervaded by mono no aware, an awareness of transience. But this is transience backed by the constant of nature, and of evolution. It is sentience that is sacred. Robots are treated no differently from humans, for they are human in that most important way. And sentience, the ability to reflect, has marked the world, leaving psychic residue that manifests as shadows, such as the plants.
The multi-task, multimedia-saturated generation must find it hard to imagine such a simple and slow life. The only technology seen in the manga is moderately old or unobtrusive--motor scooters, cameras, coffee makers. The characters communicate by snail mail. Nary a cell phone or mention of the internet, or even television, is seen. Alpha spends entire days doing nothing but painting the shop, riding about on her moped to take photographs, or fixing up an old well. Such a slow pace, unencumbered by entertainment, must seem like the setting for a profoundly boring life. I admit, though I can sit and daydream far longer than most of my peers, I usually want to be doing something cerebral, like reading, or playing a video game. I don't know if this is mostly because of my desire for 'efficiency' (like sitting around leisurely is a waste of precious time) or my scattershot Gen-Y attention span. I admit I have that urge to sit in front of my laptop far more than I should, as do all of my friends--you should see some gatherings, where everybody is in front of a screen--even though I know reading blogs is just as unproductive as sitting around daydreaming. But there is that illusion of productivity, when we sit in front of technology. Then again, plant me in a library, and I'll be entertained from opening to closing. Is reading a physical book any more inherently good, though?
This is also a world of work-life balance. The overworked Japan of today is gone. People work as much as they need to, with ample leisure time. Alpha frequently leaves her cafe for days at a time, and often receives only one guest per few days. And they can sustain this lifestyle because there is zero commercialism--they work for money to purchase what they need. No keeping up with the neighbors. No consumerist lifestyle. Sure, they live in simplicity, but they're happy. They have the basic creature comforts--nay, luxuries, like air conditioning and running water--but that is all they need. We could all take a lesson from this, given our hyper-commercialized and overworked lives. These people shy not from good, hard work, but they work to achieve a goal, not to spin their wheels, or produce more beyond what is needed for the sake of an edge. There is no blind cycle of consumption. And I have found hard work with a purpose is far more cleaning, and fulfilling, than work half as hard with no purpose.
Inherent in seeing the beauty in YokoKai will be the fact that some people will accuse of thinking too hard about all this crap. On its face, this is a manga about nothing, just mundane details of daily life, making coffee, re-building a cafe, riding into town on a motor scooter. That is a deeply Japanese aspect of the work, showing beauty through the mundane without further elaboration. It's left for the reader to decipher. I can't think of any American works even remotely in the mainstream (or sub-mainstream) that have such slow pacing. In pacing, it's decidedly un-American, un-Western. Quite literally nothing happens for long stretches of story arc. Finding meaning in it must seem to many as though one is trying too hard, or is being pretentious. And being accused of being pretentious is almost worse than being accused of being a hipster. I really think only a Westerner with zero exposure to Eastern works could think that.
Let us look at the concrete details. It is a story about cyborgs, the dying human race, and a world after an ecological disaster we caused. How many stories encompass these themes? And yet, YokoKai is utterly fresh, new, and brilliant. I do not say this lightly. Perhaps because I've had such extensive exposure to brilliant interpretations of the ways technology and life will intersect in the future, I've become vastly harder to impress. A lot of mainstream American science fiction has nothing of interest to offer me. See, for example, Avatar
, which explores nothing new in science fiction, and explores it far less deftly than many earlier works.
I think some people interpret my cynical criticism of such movies as just that--the hallmark of a critical, cynical, and jaded person. I've been accused of 'looking for things' to gripe about. But I fancy that it is a sign of a life more deeply contemplated and exposed to superior, stunning art. I don't think this makes me inherently better than anybody else, but I do resent being accused of faux-jadedness, jadedness for the sake of being cool. I can be quite the enthusiastic appreciator of beauty.
I think the accusation of 'looking for things' to gripe about, be offended by, etc (itself a classic derailing tactic) occurs when somebody with a deep, extensive understanding of a subject (either through exposure, like art or ally activism, or through living it, as in the case of a member of an underprivileged group itself) is quick to see things others either miss entirely or see as entirely novel. There is a level of expertise common in the accused. Not that there aren't cynical, unhappy people who do find fault with everything, but activists and scholars deeply resent being lumped into that juvenile camp. And because it's an accusation hinting at juvenile nihilism or blind rebellion, the derailing tactic doubles as a discrediting tactic. That nihilism is the flip-side of hipster irony, liking kitschy things because of their perceived lack of value, but in appreciating irony you have to acknowledge there is something inherently inferior or unlikable about the subject in the first place.
Overall, Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou
is a real treat. It's grand, sweet, and breathtakingly beautiful in its simplicity, yet brilliantly imagined. It features a world that unfolds organically for us to discover, and leaves us with a sense of open wonder. It makes me want to drive a moped down an open country road, just for the thrill of being