“What’s up on earth?”: casual reflections of a first-time MCU marathoner

“What’s up on earth” is a favorite narmy subtitle in the bootleg copy of Inuyasha I watched during my newbie anime viewing years. The sub was for the phrase “いったい何があった!” and variations thereof. They are exclamations approximating “What the hell happened here?” or “What’s going on?”, often indicating the shit’s hit the fan and no one’s getting out clean. It came to mind last month when I was catching up (finally) with the Marvel Cinematic Universe and being struck by the stark contrast between earth-bound and other-planetary beings particularly when it came to the matter of feelings. Because, well, what’s up on earth that we’re doing them so wrong?

I’d already seen and loved Guardians of the Galaxy prior to this latecomer marathon, though it felt so different from my impression of western superhero comics I didn’t even associate it with Marvel. What completely caught me off-guard was how much I’d love Thor. In retrospect, my fondness for the former should have prepared me for it. Both films play on otherworldly sensibilities, tapping into its potential for situational humor (Thor‘s fish-out-of-water setup and Guardian‘s displaced earthling scenario) and theatrical outlandishness (read: perfection). More impressively, both portray characters who are fully present with their emotions, even when they can be deceptive or distrustful in other ways (*cough* Loki).

Compare this to the angsty brooding hero complexes of the emotionally unstable Iron Man, Hulk, and Captain America and I think we get a glimpse of some of that good ole modernity thing that happened on earth. These are grown men suffering from PTSD and anxiety, not managing their pain or their needs, and continually making really bad decisions, individually and collectively. Instead of turning to trusted resources (as Thor does in Avengers: Age of Ultron) or to one another (as the Guardians of the Galaxy learn to do time and again), they stall, allowing themselves to be blind-sighted by the emotions they deny or repress while innocents, including their colleagues and those who they purport to protect, bear the consequences of their subsequent poor judgment. These heroes inconsistently lean on institutions (in the name of “law and order”) no matter how many times institutions fail to be the answer to anything (see: S.H.I.E.L.D.).

I love it when one of Rocket’s outbursts disrupts the plot or flow of a scene and the film just let’s him have it, leaves it be. He gets to be angry when he’s triggered. He gets to mourn when he’s sad. It warms my heart that Groot’s existence is inexplicable and yet so many viewers’ understanding of his warmth and kindness feels self-evident. It moves me that Thor’s intelligence is emotional, reflects an ability to openly love. It makes his instincts honest. There is no drama of ego when his loss of power prevents him from fighting the Destroyer. He prioritizes evacuating civilians and entrusts the containment of the enemy to his friends. It’s both telling and also hopeful that these non-human beings are somehow more in touch with their humanity than we earthlings often prove to be.

english rendition ofトモダチメートル by The Super Ball

Deadlines loom, but I apparently needed to get this out of my system. This is the OP from my favorite show this season, The Morose Mononokean (不機嫌なモノノケ庵), and it has been stuck in my head all week, so I just gave in and got to lyric-ing and English-ing.

As far as shower jams go, it fits right into my playlist of songs of unrequited or one-sided yearning. It also resonates with the series’ theme of teetering in that mystifying space of uncertainty between two worlds: one familiar and one unknown. The distance between the two may feel frightening–it is, in fact, more ambiguous and promising than one might imagine.

Anyway, you can follow along with this video, if that’s your thing. I referenced lyrics from this site in my translation.

Tomodachi Meetoru (Friend Meter)

OP to Fukigen na Mononokean
song and lyrics by The Super Ball

Sometimes I find myself wondering
How you see me in your heart.
Even though I know full well
The two-word answer is “a friend.”

Whenever it’s just the two of us
I’m all smiles before I realize.
But a sharp pain in my chest tells me
My heart strains to keep up the act.

No, I don’t want us to stay as we are
But it’s better than not being with you at all.
Somehow I can’t seem to smile today.
My cheeks, they feel a bit funny.

With just one step forward,
The distance we keep between us would shrink,
But it’s maddening that I can’t see
What lies beyond that closeness.

If I take just one step forward, surely,
There’ll be no turning back to now
So, for today, I’ll keep my feelings to myself.
Ah, I’m such a pathetic wimp.

Whenever we’re walking together
I’m a few steps behind before I realize.
It’s hard to face your profile straight on,
Try as I might.

You ask me what is wrong,
I say that everything is fine.
I’m sorry. Words are failing me
And my tear ducts, they feel kinda funny.

It’s better if we stay this way forever,
Maintain this distance; that’d be nice.
But how can I believe that’s true
When you’re the only one I see?

In order to take that one step forward,
I’ll have to be a much stronger person
Or else I’ll likely fall apart–
Ah, I’m such a pathetic liar.

Like the twilight visible through the clouds
You’re a brilliant orange that lights the hollows of my heart.
Even if there’s no way out, my feelings remain true.

With just one step forward,
The distance we keep between us would shrink,
But it’s maddening that I can’t see
What lies beyond that closeness.

If I take just one step forward, surely,
There’ll be no turning back to now
So, for today, I’ll keep my feelings to myself.
Ah, I’m such a pathetic wimp.

old meta: pacific rim (2013)

backposting a bit today to clear out the cobwebs that have been sitting in my file folders. i just started a post on an older but more recently watched scifi/fantasy film that moved me, which reminded me that i’ve been meaning to post this somewhere in life. might as well be here. this was written in spring of 2014, when i first watched the film, with revisions along the way.

The dynamic of the white hero and his loved ones in the typical Hollywood disaster film usually follows the following trajectory: regular joe rises to the occasion by combining an ability to think outside the box (read: break rules and protocol designed for collective safety) and claim the authority to risk or at least learn from the sacrifices of others’ lives (presented as less significant to narrative, but, also, overwhelmingly, coded as some combination of unattractive, old, poor, criminal, black, disabled, queer, femme, POC) to the benefit of his particular in-group. The pacing and plotting accommodates their at times perilous progress towards salvation, dramatized by sacrifice/loss of aforementioned others and technically embellished acts of what amounts to good fortune and amazing breaks. Without much regard to contextual specificity for anyone (including the white characters), it ultimately affirms the value of white life and the struggles of a good, white family as a stand-in for the universal struggles of humanity. tl;dr: no thanks.

There are doubtless tons of things that can and have been said about Pacific Rim (2013, dir. Guillermo del Totoro Toro) in terms of the way it draws on histories of non-western genres (mecha, kaiju) and plays with them through an international, mostly non-western storytelling sensibility. These are all things I appreciate and that no doubt play a role in why I liked the following three narrative moments and choices:

“that’s my son you got there”

Let’s just start with the gut-wrencher, shall we? Can I just say that I love that parent-child relationships in this movie are not normative, homogeneous nuclear family units nor are they coded as performances of stereotypical third world “authenticity” (i.e. emotionally constipated working class/Asian/trauma-ridden family). Communication is difficult because it requires work and conditions of forced intimacy–whether via state sanctioned normativity, tribal dynamics, cohabitation, or being uncomfortably in each other’s heads in order to pilot mecha robots–do not necessarily make that work easier.

The Hansens are a white family with specificity built into their characterizations and relationship. I like how their story, especially in the scene of this line’s utterance, dispenses with the whole “older generation must sacrifice for the younger generation” thing. Who ends up in that Jaegar in the end is treated as a matter of circumstance; it is not over-romanticized or dramatized. Neither are we encouraged to read it as this redemptive act for the younger Hansen, aka the jerk character (as if the only ways jerk characters can redeem themselves and become likable are through life-sacrificing heroic acts…I mean, no one is obligated to give a toxic personality the time of day, but it would see to me more appropriate–not to mention humane and effective–for one’s redemption be “and then he stopped being a jerk”–as is in this case–instead of “and then he died.” no?). His behavior is never affirmed or actively enabled by the people around him; it’s mostly tolerated, as if they know that there’s a backstory and try to treat him with compassion. His father mediates his relationships with others around him because he must understand this and feels responsible for it. I can only imagine how strange it must be to share what he does with his parent. The way he’s seen right through by Stacker at the end feels like a merciful diffusion of the tension surrounding that relationship.

And that is why this moment damn near killed me. At this point, I’d pretty much forgotten that they were father and son. The daily strain of their relationship did not remind me of a typical way that dynamic plays out: that is, estrangement, abandonment, or abuse fueled by cisheteropatriarchal values. Their dog–a mutual companion to whom they can manifest care in general and for one another–and Stacker are there to help them mediate the things that are still too true for either of them to say or hear, because neither impending death nor apocalyptic warfare can quite undo the fact of how shared head-space has made their relationship unnaturally “equal.” When the older Hansen says, “that’s my son you got there” to Stacker, it’s also for his son’s ears. It’s the only chance he has to re-claim a bit of their relationship as father and son, which has been hijacked by the needs of the resistance. To me, this is, in many ways, a more subtle and poignant acknowledgment of sacrifice.

“do not touch me” and “it’s not obedience; it’s respect”

In other words, shut up, white boy.

So, can we talk about how POC are portrayed in this film? We have a black man in charge, a woman of color as the lead, neither of which allow the main character to patronize them, AND they are in a multi-racial family relationship together.

Aside from rocking the commander look, Stacker proves to be a resourceful and effective leader without being either inhumane or inhuman. When the higher ups try to bullshit him with capitalist demands (we threw money at problem; why problem not solved?), he reminds them that it’s his men who are paying the price of their misapprehensions of the situation. When they withdraw his funding anyway, he brokers with underground organizations to keep the project going. As in the last scene discussed, he evaluates and engages his soldiers as human beings, not pawns. He is not above partnering with one of them if it is what he has to do and can do so without airs, staring death in the eye, and STILL say exactly what everyone needs to hear–which, not surprisingly, is also exactly what is true. Remember “we are cancelling the apocalypse”? Pithy, precise call to concrete action.

As a black character miraculously not stripped of his humanity, he is not impartial or unfeeling, a point that becomes obvious in his relationship with Maki. This, however, is also not treated demonstratively or in a showy way and, as part of his private life, is not something he feels he needs to make public or explain. The scene where he tells Becket to back the hell off when Becket tries to get into his head and run his show is one of the most powerfully staged confrontations between a black man and a white man I have seen on screen. He says in no uncertain terms that Becket does not get to know him, that he should stop stepping on his boundaries, and that he should watch his own shit instead of walking around telling a superior officer, the head of this whole damn operation, how to do his job.

Later, when Becket and Maki are given a second chance, it isn’t set up to happen after everyone’s been wiped out (an “i told you so” trope often used to legitimize the “rule-breaking” tendencies of the main-characters) and they’re our last hope are whatever (although the Russians and Chinese are conveniently made long & terrible example of–go democracy!); it is because the energy their older model suit uses is best matched to hold up against the enemy’s destructive capacities (the whole nuclear power thing and how it is situated in this mess is a whole other aspect of this movie I am not expert enough to comment on).

Boundary-drawing and non-complicity with white nonsense is also emphasized in Becket’s interactions with Maki. Although Becket does make some moves that create opportunities for her to be selected as his co-pilot, she never jumps on his boat of enthusiasm or overstates her thanks. She doesn’t give him any more access to Stacker’s secrets than what drifting with him reveals of it in her own past, nor does she betray her relationship with Stacker on his behalf. There is one moment, one of the first times he tries to confront her about what’s up with Stacker, that he kind of gets into her space and oversteps with his words. This makes me kind of uncomfortable because it clearly makes her uncomfortable. The next time he tries to corner her this way, she looks him dead in the eye and says, “it’s not obedience; it’s respect.” In other words: don’t shoot your mouth off about shit you don’t understand, especially by assuming that I follow the orders of my commanding officer and father-figure because I’m timid and am trapped by a system of order you assume does not apply to you.

The amazing thing is, in this movie, Becket learns. For me, this is probably the most moving part of his journey and transformation, the most convincing basis of his developing relationship with Maki. At the end of the movie, he no longer reacts to Stacker’s orders with bravado. This time, instead, he pulls Maki back when she loses sight of the mission and reminds her that they need to respect Stacker’s decisions. When he gives her his oxygen, it is also not portrayed as a dramatic gesture. He downplays the act, assuring the unconscious heroine, “all i have to do is fall…anyone can fall.”

And their relationship brings me to the wonderful fact of…

NO UST!!!!! NO PDA!!!!!

Oh my god, thank you, thank you, an action movie that resists every opportunity to sex things up for the male gaze. This is something that so many mecha series can’t even resist, especially with all the pitfalls of “syncing” or “joining parts” or, in this case, “drifting” that comes with the territory. (I mean, come on. Post-apocalyptic worlds don’t exactly strike me as offering a buffet of opportunities for sexy, sexy fun times, right?)

I mean, it’s fine for two characters on screen to have sexual attraction for one another, but it’s not overdetermined here. The Maki-Becket fight is about compatibility of something else…brainwaves. or something…ok, so I don’t know really about the science of drifting, but it seems to be about some kind of instinctive connection and trust, not necessarily about attraction or one-upmanship (which is often the basis of UST). It’s about letting the other face your entire exposed self and to trust they will not judge, not fixate, but just let it pass over them and be (this is also why Becket using what he sees in the drift to confront Stacker is kind of a dick move). It becomes something that sits in the space between you. It’s intimate, but it does not necessarily mean understanding and it most definitely does not mean ownership.

And then there is the whole survival aftermath, when Maki busts Becket out of the pod and, for a moment, thinks he’s dead. When he comes back, when they realize neither of them have been lost, they don’t engage in some long, tongue-y make-out session (which #a. the film doesn’t set up and #b. ugh–boring). They rest their foreheads against the other’s. They hold each other.

scene: You’re here. I’m here. I’m so glad.

me: How. Incredibly. Refreshing.

Maybe they’re bracing each other. I mean, mentally, they’re probably as shocked as they are relieved and the losses that got them to this place are about to hit them like a ton of bricks. Physically, they’ve just gone to hell and back and lost tons of oxygen in the process. The adrenalin’s gotta wear off soon and I’m sure that there will be intense fatigue, if not pain, involved.

Also, maybe they are not romantically involved–certainly not at this point, but maybe not ever. Maybe they’ll learn to be friends that support one another in the aftermath of survival, as former partners who shared a whole lot in ways that they may never be able to share with anyone else. Maybe they’ll drift apart and have their own lives and sometimes meet up with their old resistance friends. Maybe they’ll both help lead relief and recovery efforts and fall in love and raise a bunch of multi-racial babies, some with blue-streaked hair. Or, they’ll adopt kids and old people who were left alone in the crisis and care for them, platonically and/or with other life partners (and/or their gay neighbors Newton and Gottlieb). Who knows?

The point is, outside of Hollywood, there is more than one possibility and it’s in a future that this movie’s proceedings has not only ensured, but also left open.

“it’s been a long time…

…we shouldn’t have left you/without a dope beat to step to”

So Timbaland opens “Try Again,” Aaliyah’s lead single for the soundtrack of 2000 film Romeo Must Die, in which she stars with martial arts movie star Jet Li.

The video features copious amounts of reflective & backlit surfaces, romantic wall-walking, and Corey Yuen’s martial arts stylings weaving between and within intricate, understated dance choreography. It also includes some lovely wining by the late great diva.

I admittedly haven’t seen the film (at least not in its entirety), but I’ve always enjoyed its existence and this video as part of a long history of intersections between Black and Asian creativity, one that, while certainly riddled with racism and appropriation, has also, at times, been blessed with innovation and collaboration.

In college, I joined and helped run a dance company where I reinterpreted the video of “Try Again” for a stage number. As one of the Asian members of the group, and someone who had spent many years learning Chinese folk dance, I tried to incorporate martial arts and Chinese folk dance elements into Monternez Rezell’s choreography. It was a lot of fun.

The group was founded by black students and featured “dances of the African diaspora,” namely, African, Latin, jazz, dancehall, and hip hop. On a campus that, at the time, still had closed support groups for students of color, it was a space where issues of social justice and politics of difference found articulation and mediation through collective participation in the arts. It was no utopia of black, brown, yellow and white. As expected of any space where people get together to work on a thing, there was drama as hell…but, I’ve learned in retrospect and also through the friendships I’ve kept that there is a particular bond that gets forged when you inhabit space and rhythm together, experience one another’s bodies and beings through movement, vision, and storytelling.

Dance was something I was surprised to let go of when I started grad school. It felt like there was no time to be managed and no avenue leading to spaces I had grown to find familiar (i.e. not mostly white or straight). I was in the Midwest, where the shift in the way I was received in public space taught me, for the first time experientially, the significance of identifying as Asian American. There were so few of us, so many came from refugee rather than immigrant backgrounds, my department was mostly international Asians, and people stared and talked to me like I was alien (“you speak English real good” etc.). I joined up and even co-ran, for a semester, the Asian grad students group. The summer after my first year, some friends from there took me to–not polka, which is all I got when I chanced to ask some long-time locals about the dance scene, but–salsa night. There was salsa and bachata, merengue and reggaeton, black and brown bodies alive and on beat. It was a glorious time.

Then I went on to more school in New England, where the experience can pretty much be summed up by the following description in Kurahashi Yumiko’s “Partei” (1960), which appears in English in This Kind of Woman (1982), an anthology of works by Japanese women writers translated and edited by Yuriko Tanaka and Elizabeth Hansen:

“…for the time being I had no hope, and I was doing nothing more than scratching at a frozen sky in the midst of starless darkness, trying to leave some streaks of light there. I could not believe for a minute that these streaks would lead to the possibility of revolution. I believed only that the organization that limited my freedom also gave me freedom I could not have attained myself.” (12-13)

The first few years, I roomed with a childhood friend from the Chinese folk dance ensemble I’d been in. I went to a few of the martial arts classes she took up to stay connected to the movement vocabulary we’d both grown up with. I attended one social gathering on campus where my attempts to dance (on the dance floor) were met with wide-eyed disbelief and respectable frowns. (There might have been Zumba later, long after I’d started this blog. Lol.)

I guess this is all to say my long hiatus from this space has been filled with many processes that mostly involve recovering and retrieving myself from the fictional ruins of postwar and contemporary modernity (to be only a bit dramatic). And, well, dance is one strain of that narrative that has tended to give me life rather than destroy me.

As with many things that fell by the wayside, I feel inclined to pick up here where I left off. At the same time, there is a lot to talk about otherwise. I’ll probably be making more use of this post space and putting the essays on the backburner for as dissertating allows. To borrow from the lyrics in “Try Again,” I’ll just do my thang and see how it goes.