Birth of the Dragon Review

Disappointing as a Bruce Lee biopic, but still leaves audiences with rare insights on kungfu, personal growth, and the benefits of defeat | DVD release: November 21



Historical Premise

Characters and Story: Steve McKeeBruce LeeWong Jack ManMinor characters

Thematic Development: Ethnicity and interethnic loveBruce Lee’s growthThe nature of kungfuVictory and defeat

Thematic Analysis


I went to watch Birth of the Dragon mainly to be completionist, since I’ve been doing a lot of research on Bruce Lee for my dissertation. Appraisals were lukewarm or negative all across the spectrum, from activists concerned about a message of cultural appropriation to general audiences who realized that half the film wasn’t even about Bruce Lee.

Still, Birth of the Dragon does try to innovate upon what we know of the period in Bruce Lee’s life and introduce different stances on the definition of kungfu. Partly because it deals with kungfu, themes such winning and losing, and finding oneself, are handled in a refreshingly different way than straight-up Hollywood films about sports; at the same time, because the setting is the modern US and Lee is a pop culture icon, it also differentiates itself from wuxia films that are ancient, arthouse-y, and enigmatic.

The first few sections are more like a conventional film review about how well the elements of the film come together; the last Thematic Analysis section is where I will give more of a social critique regarding how the messages in the film may impact society.

Historical Premise

In the early 1960s Bruce Lee was teaching kungfu in Seattle and the Bay area, before developing Jeet Kune Do and before his television and film career. In 1964, Wong Jack Man and Bruce Lee had a private match with only a few witnesses; because it was private, there are different accounts of what motivated the match and what happened. Lee’s widow, Linda Lee Caldwell, claims that Wong Jack Man and other kungfu masters in San Francisco’s Chinatown didn’t approve of Lee’s decision to take students of all ethnicities (her account is in I Am Bruce Lee). Wong’s account states that Lee claimed in public he could defeat any kungfu master in the region, so Wong took him up on the challenge. In addition, while some witnesses claim that the match took 3 minutes and that Lee won decisively, others claim that it lasted for over 20 minutes, and the fight was broken up bystanders who didn’t want a death on their hands.

Motivations are unclear and historical details are vague, but its impact on Lee’s later career seemed important – which makes it a good juncture of Lee’s life to elaborate on. While his death was sensational and might make a good film in 50 years, precisely because it is sensational and scandalous, it does less justice to his legacy and also disrespects members of his family who are still alive. What seems to be true regarding the Lee vs Wong match is that Lee was unsatisfied with his own performance, as he believed that an effective fighter would have ended the fight sooner (discussed by Caldwell in the clip); it also seems to be the case that this idea lead to the development of Jeet Kune Do.

Characters and Plot

Steve McKee

Birth of the Dragon added the entirely the fictional kungfu student, Steve McKee. In an early sparring scene, Lee consistently exploits his weaknesses, causing him to be more and more frustrated until he forgets his technique. Lee observe that he has anger / father issues. Steve sees from a newspaper that Wong is arriving and goes to meet him, hoping to learn from him also, but Wong observes that kungfu requires inner cultivation and a spiritual necessity, but Steve is directionless.

Steve finds something to fight for in Xiulan, an indentured waitress in Chinatown, working to pay back the Tong (Chinese mafia) who trafficked her to the US. The Tong forbids her and other indentured girls from learning English, as a means of ensuring their dependence. McKee thinks this is unfair and smuggles her an English textbook. Because the Tong catches her meeting with Steve and teaching English to other girls, they threaten to send her to the brothel and to punish the other girls. The Tong agree to free her on the condition that Steve can arrange a match between Lee and Wong; by running bets on the match, they could earn the money they would lose with freeing Xiulan.

Steve’s story is how the filmmakers elaborate on the murky motivations for the Lee vs Wong match. His function is to bring Lee and Wong together, and to provide an audience-insert character who is in awe of two martial arts masters, and to whom the masters can explain themselves. Another function is that it provides some romance to a plot that is otherwise about fighting (more in the next section about how well this worked). Unfortunately, Billy Magnussen plays Steve McKee’s part in a way that combines hammy and wooden. I’ve only seen him briefly in The People v. OJ Simpson and Into the Woods, and it seems that he does better as characters who are kind of hammy or full of themselves, as opposed to an impulsive but genuine kid that I think Steve McKee was supposed to be.

Bruce Lee

Unlike Steve, Bruce Lee was performed better, and I could tell (as someone who has tried to watch as much Bruce Lee interview footage as I could find) that Philip Ng studied up on the role. Birth of the Dragon included a segment where Lee attends a regional competition / demonstration where he demonstrates to the public his famous one-inch punch. This actual demonstration didn’t take place til a few years later and was in Long Beach, but footage of it exists; in addition, there is Lee’s audition footage for The Green Hornet, where he demonstrates the efficiency of kungfu. Philip Ng’s performance clearly draws from Lee’s showmanship in these kinds of footage.

The drawback, however, is that Lee in Birth of the Dragon always came across like a celebrity who knew he was being filmed, and his lines were declarative, like someone giving an interview, rather than conversational. Granted, Lee was larger than life and was attentive to his image, but in rare fictional portrayal of him early in his career as a local instructor, I would expect that there would be some more vulnerability and intimacy to his character.

That said, why don’t we see him as anything other than a kungfu instructor? Especially since Steve’s subplot has to do with interethnic romance, it would be nice to see Linda Lee in the film (more on this later). It would make his character more three-dimensional if audiences could see how he behaved in a wider range of contexts – though there is a segment where Chinatown filmmakers help Lee shoot a demo reel, and he expresses his aspirations to make films.

Finally, the general problem with using Steve and his romance subplot to motivate the match is that  Lee is reduced to reactive character who gets pulled into the situation that Steve and the Tong set up. The one time that Lee is active – challenging Wong to a match when Wong wanders into the regional competition – Wong declines and walks away. This makes sense for the kind of character that Wong is, but deflates Lee. Even before delving into how the film fails to represent his philosophical journey to Jeet Kune Do, relegating him to a passive role fails to do justice to the enormously active and proactive life that Lee actually lead.

Wong Jack Man

Historically, Wong Jack Man seemed to have arrived in the US shortly before the match, but stayed in the US and taught kungfu in the Bay area until his death (source), making him an American national. In the film, Wong was portrayed as a Chinese national who returned to China soon after the match. In addition, while historically Wong was Cantonese / Southern Chinese who practiced the Northern Shaolin style, the film made him actually a monk of Shaolin. The point of this seems to have been to accentuate the character as a guardian of traditional practice, associated with the old country, whereas Lee is forging the future of kungfu in America.

The film actually starts with Wong; we see him in Shaolin beginning a demonstration match with a visiting taichi master and his pupils. The taichi master gains the upper hand, but Wong retaliates with a lethal kick that was disallowed. The film cuts away to Bruce Lee and Steve at this point. Next we see Wong having exchanged monks’ robes for a fedora and a suit, alighting alone and unrecognized at the pier in San Francisco. Steve only read a snippet about his arrival in a Chinese newspaper and had goes to greet him, but is surprised that a kungfu master arrived with so little fanfare. Since no one else has come to pick Wong up, Steve offers him a lift to Chinatown. Steve later finds out that he came to San Francisco to work as a restaurant dishwasher, which mystifies him.

When Steve tells Lee about his arrival, Lee is convinced that the dishwashing job is a cover and that Wong really came to shut down his school. Wong keeps explaining that this isn’t true, and that his objective is to humble himself after his error. Even when Lee preemptively challenges him after his public demonstration / competition, he just repeats the same explanation and leaves the arena.

Personally, I find Wong the best-acted character in the film. Yu Xia, the actor, is a Chinese national. I had seen him a few years ago in Mandarin-language television and film where his roles tended to be optimistic, pure, and righteous young men. He brings a serenity and restraint to Wong that works well for the character, and also provides a foil for the flashiness and of Ng’s Bruce Lee.

Minor character threads

Other than Steve, the film also focuses on another student of Lee’s, Vinnie Wei, whose family runs a laundromat. It is through his family business that we see the brutality of the Tong, as they trash the place and beat him up, since he has gambling debts and can’t pay their protection fee. He also provides some comic relief. The blandness of Steve McKee, though, makes me wonder if the film would have worked better with Vinnie and Steve’s characters combined.

Xiulan is represented with warmth and purity, which fulfils the character’s function. She is a fairly bland character as well, but still more multi-faceted than Steve and even Lee – we see her as a restaurant worker, as a partner to Steve, and as a ringleader for the rest of the indentured girls who genuinely cares about their well-beingwhen Steve asks her to run away she refuses to leave them behind, the implication being that they might be punished on her behalf. She also seems to be observant and cool-headed, which comes through when the Tong mistress, Auntie Blossom, threatens to send her to the brothel. Xiulan coolly reminds Auntie Blossom that she was likewise trafficked and is now in a guilded cage and doesn’t have true freedom either.

From the look on Auntie Blossom’s face, you can tell that Xiulan is right. Speaking of Auntie Blossom – I haven’t seen the actress before but she put on a formidable yet nuanced performance. She combines the standard brothel madam type with a keeness and commanding presence that strongly suggests a back story of have toughened up while climbing to the top of a man’s world (or underworld). Although their characters are slightly different, I was reminded of Cheng Peipei’s performance of Jade Fox in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: clip here, with spoilers.

Thematic Development

Ethnicity and interethnic love

I have heard some complaints that Steve’s character is unnecessary, either because he distracts from Bruce Lee, who is supposed to be the main character, or because he repeats the White saviour trope. I suppose that he needed to be non-Asian to further the theme that cross-cultural exchange is a good thing – if there’s a debate around whether cultural practices need gatekeepers, there’s no debate that the human traffickers are even more wrong for denying indentured servants access to cultural knowledge that would help them survive in the US.

Unfortunately, the love-at-first-sight trope is too worn be convincing, especially when it multitasks as a love-transcends-cultural-barriers trope. It’s not that this trope is inherently offensive, it’s that the film would need to focus on relationship development for audiences to see more evidence of love. Unfortunately, because the relationship is meant to provide the reason for the Lee vs. Wong match, the relationship subplot has no time to develop specifics and remains a trope.

It’s also not helped by Bruce Lee stating that his wife is a White American, but then we never see Linda Lee at all. Bruce and Linda Lee would have been a story of interethnic love that has  the details to be convincing. I remember reading that their personalities complemented each other (In The Tao of Bruce Lee, the author mentions that filmmaker George Tan joked that Bruce and Linda Lee were like Popeye and Olive Oyl), and Linda saying that they’d run home right after kungfu class to catch their favourite TV shows. They also faced opposition from Linda’s parents but managed to convince them. If it was a problem of representing Linda Lee, who is still alive (though I don’t see why it would), even some more reminiscence from Lee about her would have helped.

(Bruce Lee’s) personal and professional growth

Overall, I understand the arc that the film was trying to establish for Bruce Lee – someone who is rather self-centred and arrogant to begin with, but due to the match with Wong, is able to see flaws to his character and his practice. By some accounts, while Bruce Lee was charismatic, he was not necessarily nice; I remember reading an account by Danny Inosanto who said that once Lee surprised him with a punch as a way of saying “happy birthday.”  I understand that Bruce Lee’s daughter and manager of his legacy, Shannon Lee, criticized the film for not reflecting her father’s life and philosophies, and is making another film (source). Her appraisal is true, but I also don’t necessarily wish to see a film that sanitizes and deifies him either. His legacy and fandom already does that. A film would be an opportunity to show him from the point of view of those close to him, which would show him as human.

In addition to limited view of Lee as an instructor, the film didn’t even flesh this role out very well. It’s hard even to tell what he thinks about using his kungfu to help Steve and Xiulan. At first, Lee believes it is not his fight, and mentions that the Tong don’t collect a bogus protection fee from his establishment because he reached a deal where they steer clear of each other. However, the film seemed to be trying to get at some personal or philosophical reason, because the deal would still be in effect after fighting Wong, but Lee changed his mind anyways. Perhaps the film was trying to say that the match with Wong made him less self-absorbed, and he does make a statement to this effect, but it’s still not clear how the match with Wong taught him this lesson specifically, and how it could have come out of Wong’s philosophy.

Finally, it is true that the film’s events in no way logically lead to him developing Jeet Kune Do. Bruce Lee diverged from other kungfu masters in that he repudiated the mysticism that went into kungfu. Jeet Kune literally means “intercepting fist,” which describes the objective point of self-defense, not something abstract and philosophical like “eternal spring” (Wing Chun). In the match with Wong, there is a scene where Wong floats down from a 2-story height based on powers from cultivating his chi. This was meant to be a point where Bruce recognized the limitations of his own practice, but due to willpower (or something), he also floats down to join Wong. Instead of further pushing him to develop a new practical style, the scene seems to show that Lee was convinced that mysticism was right, which isn’t true to his later philosophies.

The nature of kungfu

Cultural appropriation of kungfu by non-Chinese ended up being a red herring. The film actually takes both Wong and Lee’s historical accounts into account, which is quite an achievement since they directly contradict each other. In the film, Wong is true to his word and does not challenge Lee’s right to teach non-Chinese, but he also doesn’t let the matter slide. Steve asks why anyone would want to guard the knowledge of kungfu, and Wong replies, “Would you give away your nuclear codes?” Steve is taken aback.

Wong has two main misgivings about Lee’s practice, the first of which is that Lee’s kungfu has little spirituality involved. From Wong’s perspective as a monk of Shaolin, kungfu has a deeply spiritual element that cannot be reduced to technique.  Steve is initially a kungfu practitioner who doesn’t seem to have any cause for learning kungfu in particular, and doesn’t seem to know what he’s doing with his life; Bruce Lee teaches people simply to deliver the maximum amount of pain in the minimum amount of time.

The second misgiving is that and Lee teaches whoever wants to pay for his instruction, as long as they are interested. This is very different than a master and disciple relationship, where in theory the master assesses the student’s need to learn, and after taking on a student, teaches the discipline comprehensively regardless of whether the student pays or not (Wong doesn’t actually say this, but since he’s from Shaolin, I’m speculating this is what he would have in mind). Wong specifically asks Lee if he’s aware of his similarity to the Tong, who do not see a sanctity in human beings and traffic them for profit. This comparison and the nuclear weapons one seem out of proportion, but we also need to keep in mind that in the contemporary moment, most martial arts practice is devoid of spirituality and instruction has become a service in the market economy.

When Lee challenges Wong at the regional competition / demonstration, one of his parting shots is “I am the future of kungfu.”  Later, Wong meditates that Lee is right, but also believes that he should make clear to Lee that Lee’s technique and perspective on kungfu has shortcomings. Yet how to convince Lee of this remains a problem – knowing Lee’s personality, beating him would humiliate and anger him, which may actually prevent him from seeing his limits. And so onto the final theme.


Victory and defeat

In the last section I covered the film like an imdb summary that doesn’t give away the ending, but a discussion of this theme requires knowing how the film ends.

When I went into the theatre, I did not actually know that some witnesses had reported that the match ended in a draw, and it was a surprise that the film showed the match in this way. The last scene of the match shows Wong and Lee facing one another and positioned like how the match started, both exhausted, but seem to have reached some kind of unspoken agreement about what the match meant.

The second surprise was that the match wasn’t the end of the film. The Tong want their money, and without a clear winner the bets they ran mean nothing. They put extra pressure on Steve to convince both masters, since he would have vested interest in Xiulan’s freedom. In separate conversations with Steve, both Wong and Lee express an aversion to saying they themselves lost, but they are also uncomfortable with releasing an independent statement that the other lost. Frustrated, Steve goes to the restaurant to try and rescue Xiulan by himself, which results him being beaten up and thrown out.

Lee and Wong decide to team up to save him since their it was partially their indecision that led to this predicament, and they both feel some obligation to Steve as their student. They prop Steve up in the alley and fight their way up through the restaurant building to the Tong’s offices (most likely referencing the pagoda in Game of Death). Having just had most of their muscle decimated, the Tong agree to strike a new deal with Lee and Wong, which is that in return for a winner and loser, all the trafficked women in Chinatown go free. Under these circumstances, Wong tells the Tong that he lost and Lee says that he is satisfied with this statement.

This caps off every character trajectory. Xiulan is free and she and Steve are reunited, and all the other girls are free. Steve witnesses and understands what kungfu can truly do and what is at stake. Vinnie, the other student with gambling debts, earns it back from betting on Lee. As for Lee, he tells Steve that at one point during the match, Wong had him in a headlock, during which Wong actually asked him a question: “Do you understand?” The technique where Wong floated from a 2-storey height, the effort it took Lee during the match, and using kungfu to help Steve has made Lee understand that he still has a lot of room to grow and a lot to think about regarding what kungfu means.

The significance of the (essentially fabricated) match results is the most interesting for Wong though. Since he knows that defeating Lee would teach Lee nothing, and a draw puts other lives at stake, the only choice is to lose. It is not spelled out in so many words in the film, but actually physically losing the match would also not teach Lee anything about his limits, since victory would confirm that he was the best. Thus, the only option is for the match to end in a draw, and for Wong to say that he lost. The generosity of this gesture would be an added bonus to demonstrate to Lee that the discipline of kungfu is about inner character and not just technique. Finally, saying that he lost also rounds off Wong’s mission of humbling himself. In the beginning of the film, Wong’s desire to win outweighed his respect for his opponent and for the rules of the match, but by the end he is able to put his ego aside and prioritize contributing to the future of kungfu and saving the women from exploitation.

The film portraying the match between Lee and Wong as a draw, and how the two characters handle this, makes it very unique and different from Hollywood sports films. I can’t think of a feature film where a draw or losing is productive and desirable. The closest would be war films where soldiers sacrifice themselves for fellow soldiers, but the thematic point of that is teamwork between people on the same side, which doesn’t apply here.

Thematic Analysis

Here I’ll get political – I think the film’s message is important for American audiences to understand. First, as numerous commentators and media personalities have observed, both sides of the political spectrum try to vilify the other and shout them down. This approach may not convince the other side of their shortcomings, but only makes them more trenchant in their beliefs. Birth of the Dragon suggests that by having some humility, or making concessions on some personal matters, we may be more convincing in others. Second, Wong takes Lee’s pride into account when he is pondering a means to change Lee’s mind. This demonstrates something I mentioned in a previous post: when trying to create change, progressives often insist conservatives should know better, without actually taking ignorance and human foibles into account when strategizing. Wong is someone who adopts both humility and strategic thinking, which is lacking in current approaches to social change.

Regarding interethnic romance, there’s still the question of if not Bruce and Linda Lee, whether it could have been another Chinese man and another White woman. After all, it’s not only women who are trafficked and in need of help. While I was distracted instead of offended by the representation of Steve and Xiulan, and I understand other reasons that the filmmakers decided Steve to be White, it certainly does nothing to refute charges that the US is still uncomfortable with seeing men of colour with White women, and overuses White audience-insert characters because it assumes that the audience is White and needs / wants to see themselves.

Finally, even though cultural appropriation didn’t end up being a source of conflict in the film, it still presents a good opportunity to consider how Wong’s perspective fits into this argument. Wong’s lines indicate that the main issue is that he has high and very specific standards for kungfu that he does not think Bruce Lee and his non-Chinese students are meeting. The issue of kungfu as a property of a specific community is secondary, and the nuclear armaments comment is the only thing Wong says about this.

To tackle the secondary issues first: Those who know the history of Shaolin would know that it has been attacked across history by bandits, warlords, and the government. The kungfu practiced in Shaolin is rooted in spiritual cultivation, and has been developed to defend a community’s way of life. If we accept for a moment that kungfu could allow practitioners to use their chi to accomplish superhuman feats such as levitation or kill in a single strike (which Wong of the film could do), then it is not much different from superior technology rooted in scientific cultivation used to defend communities at the scale of a nation-state.

Seeing it in these terms also helps to unpack the primary issue of standards. When it comes to cultural or artistic matters, because standards are often immeasurable and subjective, appealing to standards can seem to be a means of evading objective mass deliberation and thus hoarding the power to assign value. This is not always false. However, if we accept for a moment that spiritual cultivation adds a unique component to cultural practices, the lack of spirituality would result in an incomplete art. Although Wong does not explain it in these terms, if kungfu becomes simply a set of physical techniques that can be bought and sold, there are less checks on the kind of people practitioners are, consequently kungfu could more likely be used to hurt others. Going further with his nuclear power comparison, no scientist in their right minds would think of teaching nuclear science without teaching how to safely use it. Kungfu, like any other system, needs to have an internally coherent set of checks and balances.

Wong is a master of kungfu who has devoted his life to it, and his concerns for the future of his life practice cannot be reduced to a fear of cultural appropriation. However, cultural boundaries may play a part in his misgivings, and an explanation of why they can be legitimate would also clear up criteria in cultural appropriation in general. From Wong’s perspective as a Chinese person in the 1960s (either the real Wong Jack Man or the character), how would non-Chinese access the spiritual dimensions of kungfu if most Chinese masters can’t speak English, if non-Chinese students don’t read Chinese, if these materials have not been translated, and if they live an urban American life that is out of touch with Chinese philosophy and spirituality? In other words, if other social structures are not conducive to sharing the full meaning of a cultural practice, some may legitimately elect not to share it.

In addition, the historical context between the cultural in-group and out-group matters as well. I have already mentioned the history of Shaolin having an impact on what kungfu means to practitioners there. There are also events like the Boxer Rebellion, where allied Western powers decimated Chinese country folk who were trying to use kungfu to stave off an invasion. Not that the Boxers were interested in cultivating spirituality in the same way, but it makes sense that a few generations later, Chinese kungfu masters would still hesitate to teach foreigners.  Thus the burden isn’t on these masters to share cultural practices, but on interested members of the out-group to demonstrate that they and their society have changed. These two examples of cultural boundaries also point to the implications in resistance to cultural appropriation – masters are not saying that cultural practices can never be shared, but that contemporary factors are not conducive for sharing to be genuine, or for what is genuine to be shared.

From the themes presented in the film to the discussions it generated, I think Birth of the Dragon is worth watching, even if it is incredibly uneven. DVD release is on November 21.


Charlie Hebdo and The Interview: Uses and Abuses of Free Speech and the Unmasking of God

“I’m a satirist, so I’ve got boxing gloves on if the person is worthy of satire. But I’m not an assassin.” – Stephen Colbert

“There’s a horror movie called Alien? That’s really offensive – no wonder everyone keeps invading you.” – Twelfth Doctor


From last year until now, the world has been struggling over a series of incidents regarding media representations: first, The Interview was pushed back, revised, and then nearly cancelled due to threats to Columbia, Sony Pictures and theatres over the depiction of the assassination of Kim Jong-un; second, satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in France was attacked by terrorists in response to publishing caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed, in which 11 staff members were killed. In both of these incidents, a Western agency created satirical representations, then non-Western society protested over their representations as offensive, and then the Western content producers protested in return that their representations were justified based on good intentions and free speech/creative expression.

As a fairly pacifist human being and one that does work and research in the arts, I do not condone any kind of attack on creators of an image, however offensive this image may be. However, in discussing this matter with others, I have repeatedly defended the objections of North Korea and of Islamic fundamentalists, and repeatedly found myself on the wrong side of the argument; this post is a means of sorting out and justifying why I think the way I do. One thread in my thinking is related to what we call “free speech,” and the other is linked to representation and divinity.

Organizing these thoughts might start with what seems to be contrasting definitions on concepts we take for granted, and also different weights given to these definition: what is a “representation,” what is an “attack” (figurative or literal, or what is figurative or literal violence), and what is “satire.” There are also different stages to these controversies; of the incidents themselves, there is the stage in which a Western representation takes place, another stage where retaliation takes place, and another stage where protests against these retaliations take place; behind the event itself, there is the long history of global politics.

Working backwards, I believe protests over retaliation on the part of terrorists and North Korea has to do with the sense that their reactions are incommensurate with the representations they find offensive (accepting for a moment that finding them offensive is justified). A justifiable reaction might be also in the realm of representation or in the discursive realm, eg publishing a column protesting The Interview or perhaps a fatwa against caricatures might seem to be responding with a commensurate retaliation (even if the logic behind it seems silly to Westerners), whereas hacking and a terrorist strike aren’t. These “extreme” forms of retaliation are incommensurate because they are material rather than discursive; they cost lives and interfere with livelihoods. Cue the sticks and stones childhood rhyme – words and pictures don’t hurt but sticks and stones do.

Going more theoretical here to cite theorist Jean Baudrillard, there are iconoclasts and iconolators. Iconoclasts object to representations of the divine, because any human imagining of the perfection of divinity or associated figures would be a profanity. Putting aside any debates on whether it’s RIGHT to think this way, it is at least clear that fundamentalists of a number of religions are iconoclast, and they steadfastly proclaim themselves as such. On the other hand, it seems that the Western world is confused about whether it wants to be iconoclasts or iconolators. We believe that representations matter; social groups advocate for better and more authentic representations of marginalized groups, and the childhood rhyme is no longer tenable in school management – psychological bullying hurt as much as physical bullying. Personally, as someone who has done illustration work and researches comics, I have to admit that my Western, Humanities scholar self has a sense of perverse pride that in the The Interview and Charlie Hebdo incidents, representations matter so much. However, while we advocate for how representations matter, we also seem to get bewildered and angry when another community thinks they matter more than we do. Representations matter, but if you’re willing to kill and die over representations, then you’re clearly insane.

In the Western liberal scheme of representations, while we might not believe there is much of a relationship between a representation and the actual thing, it’s not the case that we believe all representations are immaterial or should not have material effects. What, after all, is the end goal of increased and better representations for marginalized groups and stopping psychological bullying among children? It is so that children grow up confident and assured and with psychological resources for better lives. Or that marginalized groups do not run up against a wall of prejudice and can get better jobs and education and better lives, perhaps have lives in the first place (thinking of Ferguson). Even if some Westerners believe that young Black men are more disruptive and tend more towards criminal behaviour, I don’t think we would disagree that persistent media representation of young Black men as criminal at least contributes to increased targeting by police and hence disrupt lives if not cost lives. So, if representations are a matter of life and death, then we should also not argue that, at least on a theoretical level, it is wrong for certain iconoclast religious fundamentalists to be willing to kill and die over representations.

Onto the second thread, which is free speech. Again, as a person working in and around the arts, and as someone who will usually defend fan work over copyright, I believe that society needs both an ideologically generative and economically lucrative structure to protect creativity and “immaterial” labour. On the other hand, in terms of a debate we have had internally to the West, there is the tension between free speech and hate speech, which are part of the convulsions France is currently undergoing. An article from NPR states that hate speech and blasphemy are different under French law. I am not sure about the logic behind this, but it seems that if religion is integral to someone’s identity as their ethnicity (I suppose in certain Pan-Islamic contexts it is more important than ethnicity), and if objecting to someone’s ethnicity is hate speech, it doesn’t make sense that objecting to someone’s religion isn’t. I suppose there is still the sense that the racial/biological part of one’s ethnicity is in some ways innate, and can’t be helped, whereas religion has ideas that one has agency to renounce. But if a religion is the only system of knowledge and truth that you know, and it has structured your life from the day you were born, it’s not so easily to step outside it.

Another argument I have heard in protest against Islamic fundamentalism is that the world needs a system of checks and balances, and no group should be exempt from criticism. Outsiders to the group under consideration should also not fear for their safety due to their critiques. I also do believe that aspirations of a ruling class to be fair and generous towards everyone else usually fails as people tend to protect their own interests, and hence a system of checks and balances needs to be able to function so different elements of a society can critique each other without impunity. However, to me this system of checks and balances has not been actualized, and it is as a lofty and unrealistic goal as noblesse oblige. Checks and balances assumes that each party can have their voices equally heard, and to have their stakes equally measured, otherwise disproportionate power means that there is no checks and balance. And there is no global equality. Regardless of whether the US being engaged in the Middle East was a justified action after 9/11, the UN security council expressed reservations about interventions; the US as a disproportionately strong world power was able to say it would act alone. This is not something that most countries or communities in the world can do. Due to historical colonization of Asia, Africa, and South America, nations in these locations do not have as much political or economic leverage as Western countries, thus they disproportionately have their concerns infringed upon while being disproportionately unable to influence world powers. For example, the term “banana republic” originally referred to Honduras, which could not exercise its sovereignty against American businesses who wanted to grow bananas cheaply there. Most colonized countries have not bounced back from this state of being. There are certain international laws in place to prevent exploitation, however historical legacies are not so easily overcome.

In this context of unequal power, what “satire” is needs to be seriously considered. The famous example would be Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, where he satirized England’s encroachment on Ireland by suggesting that taken to the extreme, the English might like to eat Irish babies. Satire does not exist in an abstract world where each cultural work has the same weight as other cultural works, but a tool of the weak against the strong when no outright critique is possible. In Swift’s case, objecting to the English directly would have resulted in retribution, so satire was criticism disguised as a fable, where on the denotative level there is no criticism, just absurdity. I would argue that if the power dynamics were reversed, it would no longer be satire, but ridicule and psychological bullying. It is true that the average French journalist doesn’t have as much power as the average terrorist (sorry, “the average terrorist” sounds kind of…wrong), however on a global scale I would argue that France and French media command more attention and has more power to shape international decisions than religious fundamentalist teachings and “extremist” policies, which tend to terrorize a local context. Also, if Swift was trying to reveal British atrocities, I’m not sure what the staff at Charlie Hebdo meant to reveal – or at least the throughline between Mohammed being humanized and current extremist policies isn’t clear enough to me from a caricature to be satire. It would take a long exposition about traditions of veneration in Islam, the impact of rigid or literal interpretations of divine texts, and perhaps a statement on the choice to deliberately tackle image-making to move beyond ridicule.

In addition, perhaps specifically related to the Charlie Hebdo incident, the audience matters. I do not know the readership of Charlie Hebdo, but I understand that this magazine has always critiqued French society, and perhaps its satire has revealed to citizens machinations in French politics and enlightened them to make better social decisions. Thus, I am assuming that most of their audience are not Islamic fundamentalists or doubting Muslim followers who are trying to embrace secularism. In which case, if the caricatures are meant to be satire, I am not sure what kind of social change the cartoonists were trying to accomplish. After similar incidents they should know that Islamic believers won’t respond well to caricatures of Mohammed, and probably won’t renounce their fundamentalism after seeing these caricatures. If their audience are other liberal middle class Frenchmen, with the cartoons they are already preaching to the converted (sorry for the religious metaphor there). Thus, the caricatures are not so much socially-motivated satire as an ingroup joke ridiculing those who are already outsiders. From this point of view, this issue isn’t a free speech or hate speech issue on an abstract level at all, but pragmatically a bad allocation of artistic resources.

The Interview is a similar case and perhaps enlightening in terms of caricatoonists’ thought processes. In The Interview, two American journalists set out to prove to the people of North Korea that Kim Jong-un is not a god, but human. In parallel, one way of thinking about caricatures of Mohammed is that by making him ridiculous, cartoonists are stripping him of his divinity and making him human. Both of these stripping away of divinity is supposed to lead to some kind of secular or democratic liberation, as people would be able to see through a lie.

What is interesting is that Dave and Aaron are enacting what the terrorists enacted in real life, which is attack a representation to shut it down. There are three facets of difference: First, the material routed through representations or the material straight up: The Interview is fiction, whereas the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo is a real world occurrence. Second, in the case of Kim Jong-un, the representation and the crafter of the representation are the same figure, Kim Jong-un, whereas in the case of caricatures of Muhammad, the representation and its crafters are different entities. The last facet of difference is Rogen and Goldberg are attacking and taking down a representation of god and showing there is nothing behind it, whereas the terrorists are attacking and taking down a representation of god to preserve the divinity behind it.

These differences are significant, but at a conceptual level both parties were acting under very similar logic. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg can conceive of making Kim Jong-un fall but cannot put it into practice, and so created a representation that they hope will achieve similar real world effects in the long run, whereas the terrorists were different in that they were willing and able to commit real world actions directly. With the second point, a Western liberal question might be to ask why not just attack the images instead of killing the people who created it. In The Interview, Aaron protests against killing Kim Jong-un because another dictator would just be set up in its place, ie it doesn’t really solve the root of the problem. It actually does – conveniently for Dave and Aaron, they can kill two birds with one stone and kill the image of god and the dictator who crafted him in one go, whereas the terrorists don’t have that convenience. The same logic might apply in the terrorists’ mind – just protesting verbally that images are offensive falls on deaf ears and more images would be made; might as well kill all the cartoonists and root out the problem. Third, as I’ve discussed earlier, both the film producers and Al-Qaeda are iconoclasts, just different kinds.

One point this post is aiming for is that for all of lofty Western values, in practice strategies don’t necessarily operate on different grounds than terrorists. Another point is that in the West we need to work out exactly what we believe representations are and what they’re meant to accomplish, and acknowledge some kind of internationally-accepted limit, that’s just as important, I think, as a UN security council. As a subset of this, we need to be clear about what satire is meant to accomplish.

Third, we also need to assess what it means to unmask god. If we are so keen to destroy the image of god of another community and show him to be human, we should also accept that another community might be rather keen to destroy the images we make of their god. Also, regarding allocations of artistic resources: if a terrorist attack doesn’t convince the Western world that they’re wrong in drawing caricatures of the divine and just deeply offends everyone, how would a movie showing a terrorist attack on a man people think is god going to change anything instead of deeply offending everyone? Finally, if we unmask god, what do we put in his place? Do we take a boat off into the sunrise with the dog we rescued? Do we try to become god? How do we teach a community who has lived with god that God is dead and we have killed him?

One Man’s Battle: The Unappreciated Depth of Feng Xiaogang’s Assembly

For a literature course at the Chinese University I’m crrently teaching at, I decided to make the course about Chinese and American blockbuster movies instead. For the genre of War dramas, I put Saving Private Ryan for the American film and Feng Xiaogang’s Assembly (集结号, lit. “assembly signal”) for the Chinese one. While reading up on Assembly, I got the impression that most Western reviewers didn’t really get the point of the film, and especially when they compare it to Saving Private Ryan, they feel that Assembly is lacking. Most reviews seem to laud the technical aspect of the film and praise the heroism of its characters, but are uncomfortable with what they believe is yet another propaganda film saying how wonderful it would be to sacrifice yourself for the Communist government. Actually, I think the message of the film is exactly the opposite, and that the film techniques from Saving Private Ryan is used in a more compelling way.

Assembly was released in 2007 and apparently it was very popular in China, earning a hundred and eighty million RMB after running in the theatres for a few months (Baidu). Feng Xiaogang is also a very established filmmaker, though usually his focus has been dramas involving people in everyday life, like Cell Phone and If You Are the One, and most recently noted on an international scale, Aftershock. There are some things about Feng’s filmmaking that I personally aren’t used to, like the pacing [1] – for example, it’s not a Western storytelling pattern to have a climactic battle 1/3 of the way through the movie and spend the rest of the movie on character digging up a coal mine, but this is a cultural difference that I can’t count against him. Anyway, the story of Assembly is that Gu Zidi, an illiterate commander of a People’s Liberation Army Company, decides to fight to the last man during a battle against the Kuomingtang’s superior forces at an old abandoned mining site; he is the sole survivor, and spends the rest of his life trying to find a place for himself in a post-war China and prove that his company did in fact fight to the last man and didn’t desert or defect. The story pivots on the call to assembly, from the main forces behind them, that would tell his company to retreat, which his superior commander tells him to listen for (they had no radios for communication, by the way – the PLA was rather poor). Due to a blast from an enemy tank close to Gu, he couldn’t hear anything for a while, and while some of his soldiers say they heard the call to assembly, others say they didn’t. Since he is the commander, the decision rests with him, and he decides to stay.

One thing I agree with most reviewers on is that there is displays of heroism and personal growth during war represented in Assembly. Since I had it compared to Saving Private Ryan, I showed students the way Upham in SPR was too afraid to intervene in the knife fight between Mellish and a Nazi soldier, leading to Mellish’s death, and then at the end where Upham shoots “Steamboat Willie” at point blank range for reuniting with his fellow Nazi soldiers and helping to get Captain Miller killed.

Wang Jincun emerging from the trenches to shoot at a tank

Similarly, in Assembly, Gu Zidi picks up a timid man called Wang Jincun as his political commissar (the man in charge of administration and ideology in a PLA company), who at first couldn’t even look at a dead body (33:20), but in the end saw so many of his comrades die that he risks his life shooting at a tank (50:30) and agrees to blow himself up along with the mine (1:53:15).  So, in terms of identifying Assembly as a war movie that glorifies heroism and sacrifice, I don’t disagree.

What Western reviews of the film concentrate on is limited to just this heroism, and refer to it as conventionally following better war films or criticising it as being part of Communist propaganda. Perry Lam’s review in Muse apparently says that the filmmakers put “bad faith and naiveté” in “the value of unquestioning obedience to authority and sacrifice as the highest manifestation of patriotism” (can’t get at original article, only Wikipedia entry for this source). The best praise other reviews seem to offer is along the lines of, China has finally decided to show each individual small human being instead of the power of the masses, like Kozo’s review on, saying that the human element is the focus, but “there’s nothing complex or challenging here.” The review on Twitch was at best an apologist for the film, saying “Every nation has its war stories, and the way these stories are told are as varied as the nations from which they originate. Thus, to criticize Assembly for not addressing specific political issues is to hold the film to a standard to which few films are held.”

I believe that Assembly does exactly what the Twitch review says it doesn’t, which is that it does address political issues. While it does glorify heroism and sacrifice, if that was its only focus it should have ended after an hour. As I said in comments on the pacing of Assembly, the climactic battle starts 30 minutes into the film and then ends halfway through, and the rest is about Gu trying to prove his company’s heroism. After the battle, the audience is given a title card saying that all of the 9th company died except for Gu; then the next scene is Gu in an infirmary for POWs, wearing clothes belonging to KMT soldiers that he stole, and having the infirmary administration threatening to kick him out because they can’t verify his identity. It turns out later that no one can confirm his company’s existence because shortly after the battle at the mine, massive personnel changes took place, and no one can prove how his company died because their bodies were never found. Their families received less compensation for being MIA (vs. KIA), and are suspected to have deserted. He rejoins the army and is sent to North Korea. There he saves the life of his commanding officer, Zhao Erdou, who in return helps him track down his company; he also runs into Wang Jincun’s widow, who heard that Wang was executed by his superiors, and joins him to clear his name.

The second half of the movie is important because it’s not about heroism and sacrifice on the battlefield, but persistence and resolve in dealing with inconsistency, insincerity and bureaucracy on the part of the leadership.

Looking at this as a still picture now, the chair actually looks like it’s going to go into Mao’s face.

The first kick in the teeth is in the infirmary, when an officer tells him that he’s met many men about Gu’s age who pretend to be soldiers so that they could get cheat the military for benefits (1:02:30). Then, when Zhao finally arranges a meeting with the party officials (1:30:40), they return to questioning Gu’s identity, accusing him of possibly being captured by the KMT before the PLA found him and hence possibly a traitor, when Gu has explained that he took a dead KMT soldier’s clothing because he was cold. The meeting ends with Gu throwing a chair at the Party official(!)What was worst started off as good news. The Party finally finds traces of the 9th company, the bugler who was supposed to be the one who blue the assembly call, now working as a groundskeeper in a memorial cemetery. He tells Gu the truth – the call to assembly was never sounded, because their overall commander decided to let Gu’s company sacrifice themselves while they retreated. So the situation was two disasters multiplied; Gu and the good nature of his company was taken advantage of on the battlefield without him knowing, and then the Party refused to acknowledge their sacrifice. In the end, Gu returns to the mine, which is completely covered, and takes it upon himself to dig up his company’s bodies. An official tells him to write letters to his superiors (1:40:55), but he says “I’ve already written nine.”

Full sentence: “Their parents gave them all names…how did they become nameless men?”

Perhaps the scene that best shows the predicament of those who sacrificed themselves is a scene of a makeshift gravesite of nameless soldiers, each with a piece of wood above their graves marked “nameless hero” (1:21:00). Alone, it speaks to the horrors of war, where soldiers die and cannot be identified and of course there are such sites in any war-torn country. But as a film, this scene can be compared to the neat rows of the Normandy gravesite shown in Saving Private Ryan, where Ryan, as an old man, can still identify the gravestone of Captain Miller. What comes from this comparison is not just that the soldiers in Assembly have not been identified, but in context of what has happened to Gu, perhaps the country didn’t care enough to identify them. After all, the whole basis of Saving Private Ryan is…saving Private Ryan, which was an edict issued by the Secretary of State. In Assembly the equivalent organization took decades just to ascertain that Gu’s company were indeed not deserters. Maybe it’s because I’m Chinese and not American, but when I watched Saving Private Ryan, I did admire the soldiers and felt very upset on their behalf, but I not to the extent about what was happening to Gu Zidi. Also, the film makes it clear that Gu is not alone. When Gu returns to the site of the battle after returning from North Korea, the PLA is handing out compensation to the local families who had lost soldiers in the battle (1:14:50). In a seemingly arbitrary fashion, the PLA officer lists one man as KIA and gives his family 700 jin (weight measurement, about 500g) of rice, but then lists several men as MIA and only gives their families 200, despite protests from the crowd. To reinforce this point, a soldier tells Gu over a meal how unfair it is that two soldiers who died with his brother were identified as KIA but his brother wasn’t. For me, this makes the film compelling, because it shows the kind of arbitrary decisions that the average Chinese citizen has to put up with on a daily basis. This I think is the point of the movie, and the first half of the film was just to establish the sacrifice of Gu and his company, so that the betrayal of the Party is that much worse in the second half.

Another criticism from Western reviews, which is mostly Lam’s Muse review about the technical expertise being sophisticated while the ideology was hamfisted, I also take issue with. A lot of people compare Assembly to Saving Private Ryan, and I can see why; SPR shows many sequences filmed in a very in-situ manner, such as making the camera shake as it follows Captain Miller up the beach in Normandy, or cutting off the sound when he is witnessing the beach landing massacre, and at the end again when a tank fires at him beside the bridge he is defending. SPR was revolutionary because it is about “one man,” and not necessarily Ryan; it is about the personal, subjective experiences of soldiers on the battlefield, and taking this humble position paradoxically but successfully makes it more heroic than if it was trying to tout abstract patriotic truths. The cinematography and the sound editing reflect this; the camera does not try to establish what is “true” in war, but instead it of often takes the point of view of a soldier, and implies that this limited perspective is all we can know about what happened. This is what you should have seen if you followed Captain Miller; this is what Captain Miller would have actually heard after the tank fired. The objective truth of the moment is that there is sound in the world, but Miller’s subjective truth is that he can’t hear anything. Thus, the film is unified in its message and execution, and therefore it is successful.

The audience can see similar techniques in Assembly, especially when a shell renders Gu temporarily deaf, and the audience cannot hear anything either, aligning them with Gu’s experiences. While these techniques are also present in Assembly, they are far from derivative because they carry a strong political message that is extremely relevant to Chinese society and politics. In SPR, the subjectivity of the film techniques establishes a general idea that individuals cannot pin down something as big and complex as war, much less pin any truth on war (eg. the justice of sending men to die to rescue one man is questioned but never conclusively answered). In Assembly, the idea is a lot more specific. The one-party system in China has essentially asserted for many years the idea that what the Party dictates is the absolute truth, and of course this is an extremely arrogant assertion. The story of Assembly already shows one man struggling against the Party, and his complaint is essentially that his personal knowledge of his company’s sacrifice doesn’t fit in with the party’s official truth. In this way, all the film techniques on the side of subjectivity in this film implicitly supports Gu over the Party. At the end of the film, Zhao manages to locate the commissar of the main forces and the Party acknowledges that the 9th company died as heroes, however what is interesting is that Gu, who has spend months digging by himself in the mine by now, no longer seems to have public approval as his goal. When he hears the news, his response is, “My brothers, why can’t I find you? Come out for a breath of air” (1:50:40).

The film ends with the bodies being discovered years later during a reservoir construction, and there is a ceremony honouring the 9th company. At the end of the ceremony, the bugler, who is also present, is asked to sound the bugle call. The impression I personally get from the ending is not that the Party is wonderful in doing justice to Gu Zidi and his soldiers, but almost a “too little, too late” kind of feeling. If the assembly call had been actually blown during the battle, i.e. if the 9th company hadn’t been treated like insignificant sacrifices, , then Gu’s life would have been significantly better. A quotation taken from Feng on Baidu says that “This film is not meant to explore themes like the value and meaning of sacrifice and so forth, but personally, it’s a story about a wronged hero who has to endure an eternity of being misunderstood” [2, link]. Also from the Baidu website is a summary of how critics in China have reviewed the film, and one prevailing idea is that “this is a movie for anyone who feels they have been treated unfairly” (link to section). Given my last 5 posts about the state of China, this is practically the whole population. Here is a page on a Baidu page (link)sort of like Yahoo! Answers, and the question was “What do you think about the film Assembly? / We need to respect history…” and the answer with 18 more approvals is “I’ve watched Assembly, and the Party’s unreliable” (the two phrases actually rhymes in Chinese, making the remark humorous in a flippant sort of way). The response to this comment is “I see this comrade has got the point, thanks everyone.” I think the lack of faith in the Communist Party is one reason this film is popular in China. Contrary to Western reviews, it’s not because this film has a safe and happy message, but that it is borderline radical and speaks to buried radical feelings that Chinese citizens have. I especially wanted to get his posted on June 4, which helps reinforce the point of the film. After all, on this day, university students who wanted to make China better died. Even worse than Gu Zidi, the Party not only refused to acknowledge their sacrifice, and then them and their families as criminals, but was the ones who issued the order to kill them in the first place.

Lastly, I hope western reviewers stop looking at Chinese media in a unilateral way and label everything as propaganda. This is unfair to the filmmakers who are in fact risking their careers and trying to get their message across at all, and also unfair to the citizens, who are clearly not cultural dupes.


[1]one thing I noticed from watching Chinese movies is that Chinese cinema and drama aren’t affected by Aristotle’s three Unities (action, time, and place) as Western drama and cinema are. I can’t say this is a failing – it’s just a cultural difference that I’m not used to. Western audiences expect movies and stories that follow Freytag’s Pyramid with tight sequence and a climax 4/5 of the way through, but that’s just one storytelling mode.
Time-wise, Chinese movies sometimes talk about a series of events happening over a long time, to the point where the audience feels like they’re watching 20-minute episodes in a miniseries. Action-wise, they also sometimes bring in seemingly pointless characters that seem to do nothing to advance the main plot (this is especially true if you’re watching an adaptation of one of the 4 Chinese classics, like Three Kingdoms or The Water Margin. I couldn’t stand watching The Water Margin especially, because there would be 3 episodes on one character in the beginning, and just when I thought he was the main character, there were 20 episodes about other characters, and then by episode 23 we went back to the first character and I’d already forgotten who he was, and he was one of the main characters after all). Assembly has this trait – Wang’s widow seems to serve no function, and she gets married with Zhao Erdou after no character development on their part. Though I suppose thematically she’s another person wronged by the government, indirectly.

[2] 这部影片并非为了探讨牺牲的价值和意义这种形而上的主题,在自己的心目中,这就是一个在漫长的岁月中不被人理解的“英雄受了委屈的故事”

Youth Culture, Fandom and Social Participation in Durarara!!

I. Personal background
II. Comparing Baccano! and Durarara!!: narrative structures, emphasis, character relatability
III. How Durarara!! shows the condition of an urban setting, with a bit on parkour at the end
IV. How Durarara!! shows different kind of fandom/participation, through character analysis
V. Duarara!! fandom activities

When Durarara!! first started airing on Crunchyroll, I watched the first two episodes because I liked Baccano! and they have the same original author, Ryohgo Narita. I was expecting something along the lines of Baccano! especially because I read on a summary that Durarara!! would also be certain events told from multiple perspectives, but the first two episodes left me feeling a little “wtf?” The issue with Rio Kamichika wanting to commit suicide in the first two episodes, added to the fact that the main characters were high school students, gave me the impression that the series would revolve around teen angst a lot. I feel that I’ve already outgrown that (or maybe I’m just eager to outgrow it), so I dropped the series. It’s a pity that like me, some other viewers also felt that they couldn’t get the point of the series after a few episodes and stopped watching.

Recently, I’ve been intensely absorbed in Baccano! – I’ve been doing translations of volume 8/9 of the light novels over at Baka-tsuki, and recently I just finished the first volume of the story arc. I remember hearing that there was an Isaac and Miria cameo in Durara!! and that the two series take place within the same universe, so I decided to try Durarara!! again. I’m glad I did, because I’m doing some background reading to prepare for PhD applications, and recently came across studies about fandom and Internet culture. To me, these topics clicked with a lot of what is depicted in Durarara!! .

II. Baccano! : Durarara!! :: form : content/theme

Why are people comparing baccano to Durarara? Yes, they’re by the same author. But that doesn’t mean much of anything.
NYA, Random Curiosity

(I have a post about Rashomon, Baccano! and Haruhi in the works but it’s stalling because I couldn’t find anything new and intelligent to say, and also because I have to watch series multiple times before I blog about them, and watching Haruhi repeatedly drives me crazy.)

Both Baccano! and Durarara!! are by Narita and do share some similar structures, in terms of an ensemble cast, multiple perspectives and incomplete information that gets gradually revealed. While at this point I still like Baccano! more, probably due to how much work I’ve invested in it, I have to say that Durarara!! is the more “mature” of the two series. It was written after Baccano!, so from this point of view one can say that Narita has smoothed out his rough edges as he developed his craft.

However, the most obvious difference between the two series to me is that they have different purposes, with one emphasizing form more and the other emphasizing themes more. As an analogy from art history, milestones in the field seem to come either from a radical new subject of the artwork or a radically new way of representing it. For example, Gustav Courbet painted peasants working in the fields in the 1800s and this was shocking because peasants had never been thought of as appropriate subjects of painting. In the early 1900s, Marcel Ducahmp painted works like A Nude Descending Staircase; while there have probably been a lot of nudes on staircases in the history of painting, this achievement was one related to form because Picasso represented the human form as geometrical and also tried to depict movement in a stationary medium. I’m oversimplifying this – Courbet also developed a rougher way of painting that offended the Academy, but one can see these two painters as general examples of how art and literature can develop through form or content, if not both.

Baccano! is very entertaining with its larger-than-life characters and fantastic elements. The “point” of the Baccano! anime seems to me to be a formal/structural one. Within the 13-episode series, there are 3 main timelines that proceed simultaneously, and each episode switches back and forth between these. The OAVs brings the viewer back to Gustav St. Germain and Carol at the end to emphasize that there is no one perspective that can be more valid than any other, and there is no beginnings and endings even though the tidy human mind likes to think there are (from what I’ve read of the novels, this seems to be mentioned in the novels but it isn’t stressed as much as in the anime), and the immortality of the characters just makes this point more salient. The anime is brilliant in that it leads viewers through 3 plotlines to arrive at a resolution for all of them, and one plotline can give clues and answers to events in the other ones. The most dazzling aspect isn’t necessarily the events in the plot (which, to tell the truth, are still pretty dazzling) but how the plot is executed and what this says about human cognition and our need for closure.

Durarara!! is different in that while it does include an ensemble cast and does have narration from multiple perspectives, the execution of the anime’s plot is pretty linear compared to Baccano!. It seems that Narita has confidence in the form that he has developed over Baccano! and is now building up more of the content with Durarara!! Like Baccano!, Durarara!! also has amazing characters – e.g. I feel like Izaya is almost like a more sadistic version of Huey Laforet – but it places its content more at the fore. There is less action and that makes the anime seem slower, but events in the plot, rather than the plot’s structure, is more reflective of the human condition.

Jutester wrote on the recommendations section for Durarara!! in that the two series are similar in that they are both about underground groups in society, and this is true; there are gangs in both – organized crime like the Mafia in Baccano! and youth gangs, underground doctors, and illegal immigrants in Durarara!!. However they are handled differently. Baccano glorifies in violence and gore, like it’s an animated Quentin Tarantino film. The psychopathic Ladd Russo is probably the best example of this – punching an opponent until both fists are bloody, dancing in a pool of blood, shooting a child in the head, etc. But while Durarara!! glorifies in action, such as Shizuo Heiwajima throwing things like pop machines and Celty’s chases on her motorcycle, it doesn’t figure violence in an entertaining way as much as Baccano! does. From very early on in the series, Masaomi narrates that he wants to protect Mikado from the darker side of society, and the actions of the renegade Yellow Scarves members are horrifying rather than appealing. In addition, the “twisted love” in Durarara!! seem more frightening than the twisted relationships in Baccano!, even though technically they’re on the same level of twistedness. For example, Ladd and Lua in Baccano! are pretty messed up, as well as Huey’s relationship with his children, but they don’t seem as creepy as weird love trapezoid between Mika Harima, Seiji, Namie, and Celty’s head, and the entourage of girls who worship Izaya. Speaking of Izaya, I also feel that while the information brokers in Baccano! seem very cool for the extent of their powers, Izaya in Durarara!! is meant to be doubted despite being appealing, seeing as how he shamelessly uses people and puts the focus characters through a lot of misery. In Durarara!!, I think, there are more clear villains.

On the flipside of villains, something which Baccano! lacks and Durarara!! has is characters viewers can relate to. There isn’t really anyone in Baccano! that viewers can relate to right off the bat, because the world it depicts, 1930s American gang warfare and train hijacking, is so far removed from our own, even without any anime-esque twists. While there are elements of profundity like Claire’s solipsism , and his idea that human relationships makes one’s world bigger, there aren’t too many instances of desires or quandaries or losses that exactly match what real people today experience.

Also, the two series are both about gangs but they are very different gangs. In Baccano!, the gangs are well-established organized crime families run largely by adults, but the gangs in Durarara!! are mostly packs of kids, and I think this is the series’ strong point. In Episode 18, Masaomi singles out Horoda for being too old and tells other members not to invite adults anymore, because they’re just junior high students and wants neither to fight against adults nor be controlled by adults. In the end, when Horoda and the Blue Squares members reveal that they’d taken over the Yellow Scarves from the inside, all the remaining members appear to be adult or approaching adult age. I remember in Children’s Literature class, the professor says that a lot of young adult stories “get the parents out of the way” before the story starts – either they’re dead or missing or away on a trip or whatever, because these stories tend to want to build into a world just for children(1). Masaomi’ comments seem to reflect this. All children feel at some point in their lives that parents can ruin things and they just want to bump around and see where they end up, which children’s literature allows them to do. Durarara!! shows a world where there aren’t many adults, and rather it’s up to interactions among teenagers to sort things out, and so the teenage/young adult audience might find the series more compelling than Baccano! because they would see themselves more in the series’s characters. Ultimately, which side of the line Mikado will end up in and how he will get there, and whether Masaomi can extricate himself from a gang war that he’d rather not be in, stand in for all the questing of young people to find their place in society, as trite as that sounds. So, I must admit that I misread the first couple of episodes, and the series actually does have very strong points and a lot of depth.

III. The Urban Condition

So uh, anybody figure out who the main character was? Some say it was Celty, others say it was Mikado, and people even say that there is none. […] In my opinion its Ikebukuro itself, since I felt that the events spiralled around the city itself, but then again, that’s just me.
Click, Random Curiosity

A lot of people who watch Durarara!! noticed that the anime prominently featured Ikebukuro. There is also a discussion on Random Curiosity about the final episode where Simon punches Izaya into a sculpture that says “LOVE,” where fans debate whether it’s in Shinjuku or Ikebukuro and one fan, “ammato,” says that he/she heard that the production team actually went around Tokyo and assigned where certain events would take place. Hence, Click in the quote up there is correct that Ikebukuro is more than just a backdrop – it has its own importance. (I really wish that I had my notes with me, because a couple of years ago there was a seminar on anime culture at Ryerson University in Toronto where one professor talked about the relationships and significances that different areas of Tokyo such as Ikeburkuro and Akihabara had to anime fans. I can’t remember what he said, but it seemed to be along the lines that there are many places in Ikebukuro that cater to fans.) Anyway, in this section the focus is more generally the city and how the city, Ikebukuro or not, provides an important setting that is also a comment on the condition of many young people today, and sets up a lot of tensions in the anime series.

I think urban studies is a specific branch of the Humanities, but I haven’t really done any work in this area. I only have a vague memory that Charles Baudelaire, an early 1900s French poet, had about the idea of the flaneur, which is someone who walks around the city and looks at urban sights and urban people, which is sort of like window shopping + people watching today, and very general stuff from Social Studies class. In the 1800s and 1900s, the city was just developing into the structure it was now. In the Industrial Revolution migration of people from the countryside to the cities, social structures in the country, such as the relationship between landowners and peasant farmers, changed. This caused a lot of concern among the middle and upper classes regarding the breakdown of traditional hierarchies in the city where you could meet anybody. The absence of a hierarchy and the everyone for themselves attitude, added to poor working conditions, also made crime in the city a big concern. In some ways this is still the case.

More abstractly, life in the city also changed people’s self-concept. In rural areas and in feudal societies, a person’s place in society was likely determined by the work that he or she is doing, which was most likely passed down from older family members, plus being a member of whichever church/congregation. Most people lived by identifying themselves vis-a-vis immediate family first, then the community, which was probably a village or a town, and for most people this would have been as far as identification got. Middle-class merchants and craftspeople would have had a bigger world view since they engaged in trade and production, and of course the upper classes had an international mentality and could probably speak a few languages. But most common people would not have had the chance to feel that they were a part of a world or even a part of a country. But being in the city, where there was every kind of person imaginable, plus the sheer number of people, made one quite aware that there was a huge world out there and that one person was quite small.

Also, since the city developed due to industry, there was the sense that the city was a giant machine and people got sucked into it. This idea of the city still stays with us today, because people who work in urban areas like to go to the beach or the woods or something non-urban for holidays. Part of this is true. To be sort of Marxist (not meaning a Communist here though), industrialization does make the individual worker a cog in a machine. In feudal societies, perhaps even peasants had the sense that the land they were working on has been handed down through their ancestors, and it gave them a sense of ownership and pride in the work they put into it, but in the factory, workers do small repetitive tasks for the owner of the enterprise.(2) However, industrialization, while messing with traditional hierarchies and identities, also provided a new playground. It is possible that in the city a lowly peasant could work hard and become wealthy through the capitalist system, whereas this wouldn’t have been possible in the feudal system. (The American dream should be amended to be the American urban dream. Few immigrants go to America to be farmers, for instance). So the city provided a sense of possibility but also a sense of danger in that anything could happen to you, and also a faint sense that taken altogether, the city wasn’t quite human and sort of mechanical (For a comparison between the experience of working with a machine and the experience of being jostled in the city, see Bejamin’s “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” section VII).

Benjamin writes that Baudelaire was caught between two aspects of the city – on the one hand, he could be a flaneur and enjoy the teeming possibility of the city as a detached observer, but on the other hand, as a person being among the city crowds, he was also a part of the masses. A quotation from Benjamin is that “He [Baudelaire] becomes deeply involved with them[city crowds], only to relegate them to oblivion with a single glance of contempt.” (“On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” section VI). I might add that other people also dismiss Baudelaire with a single glance of contempt too. Whereas in a village you knew everyone who lived around you, in the city this isn’t the case, and so critics in the 1900s talked about alienation in the cities, a criticism we still hear today.

So, going by these effects of being a part of the city, there is alienation from the traditional references of personal identity, which are no longer present, however there is also the possibility that people can develop into anything they want. There is fleeting glances of contempt but there is also anonymity if one is trying to escape from the law. All of these aspects of being in a big city is central to the development of Durarara!!. Toshi left an insightful discussion comment on Random Curiosity that if we apply Campbellian archetypes, Mikado is like the young man in tribal societies who leaves his home to go into the forests to become a man. I agree that the Campbellian archetype is still apt even for the 21st century, except boys no longer go into forests to prove they are men anymore, they go into cities. The cities is where a new identity can be forged and sustained through new connections, but it’s also where young people can fall really, really hard.

In the first half of the anime, Mikado repeatedly emphasizes that he wants his life to become more interesting, and that’s one reason he accepted Masaomi’s offer to enroll in Raira Academy in Tokyo. This is the aspect of Mikado that would take advantage of a city’s possibilities. The first episode seems a bit confusing but that’s probably exactly what the producers want us to feel, which is to feel like Mikado experiencing the city intimately for the first time, with its legends and rival factions and quirky characters. It also makes Mikado and the audience feel that there’s a whole web of material that we don’t know about, which there is, and this is the aspect of the city where individuals might feel alienated and insignificant. Some audiences (like me) might have felt alienated enough to drop the series, but I think the point of the series is that the audience should overcome what amounts to culture shock along with Mikado.

Because anything in the city is possible, there’s a question of where Mikado would go, whether he will be swallowed by the anonymity of the city and become a drone, or whether he will become a man in the wilderness. He obviously doesn’t plan on becoming a drone, however soft-spoken and awkward he is. But “becoming a man” is also fraught with danger, since anything is possible and there are all kinds of people in Ikebukuro, from mad otakus to headless fairies to hell-bent traffic officers to rival street gangs. Many young characters of the series is in a similar situation as Mikado, in that they are trying on identities and allegiances and fandoms in order to find who they are. The question surrounding Mikado becomes: what aspects of the multitudinous city will he imbibe to form his identity as a man, and are they the right ones?

(Before I get into answering this question in the next section, I want to add that part of the mechanicalness of the city is that it controls the flow of human bodies. To drive in the city you have to obey traffic lights, for instance. But something we might take for granted is that most public places are ordered into grids or webs of some kind, meaning you can’t take the most direct point from A to B “as the crow flies.” Most people probably don’t see this as a restriction, since we generally still end up where we want to go. But we still find that breaking these rules seem pretty cool. In Durarara!!, Celty is amazing for her mastery of the Ikebukuro streets on her motorcycle/horse, and Shizuo is amazing because he can literally change the urban setting by picking up and throwing almost anything that’s not a concrete building. I thought that part of the humour of how he used a highway signpost to smash the car that Saki’s captors were fleeing in (Ep. 21) lies in that he’s abusing an urban sign which is normally used for peacefully directing traffic to completely smash someone’s vehicle, not to mention deprive other drivers of directions, at least until it gets fixed.

Even if Shizuo can’t pick up buildings, He and Izaya both know parkour, which is sadly underemphasized in the anime. Wikipedia says that the objective of parkour is to “take the most direct path through an obstacle as rapidly as that route can be traversed safely,” or in another words, A to B as the crow flies and working around the obstacles that the city places in the way. In the philosophy of parkour, “Urban reclamation,” which is “the idea that by creating an urban landscape around us, society has robbed us of something dear to us” and “We re-imagine the concrete and architecture as we see fit, and are no longer bound by the rules of ‘stairs’ and ‘barriers’ and ‘fences'” (Tran, “Two Theories on Parkour Philosophy”) For Izaya, who manipulates humanity, parkour can be seen as another kind of manipulation, but at least Shizuo can be a force for good even if he doesn’t always feel that he is. In Celty, Izaya, and Shizuo, there are characters who are not physically bound by the limitations of the city.

(Interestingly, in the article “Two Theories on Parkour Philosophy,” there is a section on “Human Reclamation” that contrasts the movement of parkour to movement up the social ladder of capitalism, which most people are “conditioned” to believe they will be “perfect capitalists,” but
“reality and statistics have only shown that this is a very rare occurrence and most people will remain in the same place or social stratum for most of their lives.” So, this goes back to the idea of the city as being a place where anything is possible – but actually few people “make it.” Working around the boundaries of the city becomes symbolic for working around the system of capitalist production that the city stands for.)

IV. Different Kinds of “Fandom”

With “fandom,” I don’t mean just fans of particular media productions – I mean more loosely groups who actively participate in anything that gives them a sense of identity.

Durarara!! shows many different ways that its urban youth focus characters engage with society to build their identity. There’s Izaya, who manipulates everyone while claiming to love humanity; Anri, who can’t engage with people, and Saika, whose relation of “love,” similar to Izaya’s “love,” brings destruction; again, the love triangles between Mika, Seiji, Namie and Celty’s head; the scary makeup girls who bully Anri, who seem to be swallowed in commodity culture, and their rapidly gesticulating boyfriend; Walker and Erika, the otakus with a twisted sense of reality; Masaomi, who becomes the leader of the Yellow Scarves and is mired in gang warfare; and Mikado, the anonymous leader of the Dollars.

Basically, I see Durarara!! showing two kinds of social engagement. One is an obsessive, (self-)destructive engagement with one aspect of society that makes everything not of this aspect to be expendable, and another is a balanced engagement that takes into account both one’s private sense of self and one’s social roles with a sense of responsibility. Some characters have a sense of this all along, and some grow into it. One can say that Celty and Shinra, two older characters, also go through this path as well. Shinra, being in love with Celty, wants to hide the knowledge of her head from her, but realizes that he is perhaps being selfish. Likewise, in the beginning of the series, Celty is very adamant about finding her head, but she comes to accept that lacking her head does not unmake who she is.

To start with more minor characters, the creepy makeup girls and their boyfriend. They seem like they’re trying to fit into a certain popular image, which in the representation of the anime, seems outrageous and ridiculous because it’s overdone and pretentious. The boyfriend, especially, seems to reflect how young people will overload themselves with signs of a subculture to shore up their sense of belonging to that group, hence the hair and the gesticulating that proclaims himself as part of street culture, but again, overdone.

I don’t know how to analyze Izaya, and it seems to me that he’s one character in the series who isn’t quite human in character – all other characters, when they do wrong, seem to have a reason and a background story to explain it, but Izaya doesn’t. Anyway. The obsession on the part of Mika, Seiji, and Namie doesn’t really need to be explained, except to emphasize that Mika is so blinded by her obsession that she’s willing to accept a severed head in Seiji’s possession and would get cosmetic surgery for a chance to be with him, and Anri also said that Mika and Anri were only friends because they each used the other to make themselves look better. And Seiji is willing to grievously hurt Mika to protect the relationship between him and the head, and Namie is willing to completely disregard the law to protect Seiji, kidnap people to do experiments on them, etc.

Next, there’s Walker and Erika. When I first heard about them, I was immediately interested, because having anime fans in anime is a very brave thing to do because the production is confronting the audience with themselves. I first thought they were sort of cute, and it was very brave of Walker to save Saki. His otaku-esque rant while he is confronting the Blue Squares who kidnapped Saki was one of the highlights of the episode : “In real life, people don’t come to the rescue like in movies and cartoons, and so this girl’s been trashed like she has. So I was thinking…if a hero appeared now to save her, perhaps the world would become two-dimensional, and I’d become the saviour of the world with superpowers at my command!” (ep. 18)

Basically, Walker and Erika espouse the philosophy that reality and fiction aren’t separate. This is perhaps what enables Walker to walk up to a gang and save someone they’re torturing – he sees his actions as a part of a fictitious story, a two-dimensional world (which it is from the audience’s POV, hence part of the fun in this scene). I think this episode portrays an obsession with the two-dimensional world in a positive way, because it gives people courage to do what they wouldn’t dare do otherwise.

However, Erika and Walker quickly become extremely creepy. I haven’t read the novels but apparently they torture people according to how people in anime, manga and light novel series are tortured. The most disturbing of all is Erika in episode 21. While Izaya is goading Masaomi with the theory that he will always be haunted by his past, Erika is basically saying that Masaomi can just pretend that the conflict with the Blue Squares never happened. Later, scenes of a troubled Masaomi pacing the streets of Ikebukuro are interspersed with Erika and Walker in an anime store, and Erika saying hat she can edit reality to be what she wants and can get rid of everything that she doesn’t find interesting. The scene shows her casually throwing one of those ball container things into a garbage can. While this isn’t as bad as educational critics saying that violence in the media causes incidents like the Columbine shootings, it has a more troubling undertone in what it says about how a engagement with fiction might distort a person’s social outlook. From this, I find how Narita handles Walker and Erica to be very realistic, by neither criticizing nor glorifying the otakus, and hence I still like Walker and Erica as complex characters.

Saki’s situation is also troubling. Again, not having read the novels, I’m not sure exactly how Izaya collects girls who have been traumatized in their past, but Saki as the one example in the anime would do anything for Izaya, as she states in Masaomi’s flashbacks. During the conflict between the Yellow Scarves and the Blue Squares, Saki gets kidnapped and tortured and hospitalized on Izaya’s orders. I suppose, purely theoretically, being traumatized in some way is a big wound to anyone’s self-concept, especially children. Izaya might exploit this fragile sense of self and give the girls a sense that they have a legitimate place alongside him, and they do as he commands because he is the only person in their lives to offer them a sense of place. Saki’s change through the series seems to be that she has found another reference point for her personal definition, which is Masaomi. A lot of fans seem to find her really creepy too, but I think the last episode redeems her, when she calls Simon’s sushi restaurant and tells him everything that Isaya plotted in an effort to save Masaomi.

Masaomi’s situation has a slightly different inflection than the other characters. He’s no longer trying to be a part of something to give himself a sense of identity, but trying to get away from certain things in his past that makes him someone he doesn’t want to be. This can be just as bad as unquestioning participation. One thing in his past is the Yellow Scarves, whose leader position he grudgingly takes up again, and another is Saki, whom he couldn’t bear to visit and whom he wants to break up with. At first, around Masaomi are two competing choices. One is Izaya’s philosophy. Izaya says to Masaomi in Ep.20 that since people use their accounts of the past as a guide for their actions, then it is possible to think of the past as “God.” Izaya uses this chain of reasoning to tell Masaomi that since he feels guilty about what happened to Saki in the past, then Saki will be like Kida’s “God,” and that he will never shake free of it. The other philosophy is Erika’s philosophy that Masaomi can believe what he wants and forget about what happened to Saki if he doesn’t like it.

However, Kyohei (Dotachin) gives Masaomi another choice, and that is to overcome his guilt and “be responsible to both the past and the future.” This was stated in rather abstract terms, but Masaomi manages this by the end of the series. Not wanting a repeat of what happened between the Yellow Scarves and the Blue Squares, Masaomi goes to face Horoda, the upstart leader of the Yellow Squares, proclaiming that he’d been running from his past but he is going to actively catch up with his past this time.

Lastly, there’s Mikado. Contrary to Masaomi, who just wants to be a normal high school student, Mikado wants his life to be extraordinary, which is one reason he went to Tokyo. This makes Mikado the character that most of the audience can relate to, because most audience members are probably teenagers and young adults who wished that their lives were more interesting, and not the reverse like Masaomi, which is wishing that their lives were more normal. Hence, what Mikado does in the series would command the most attention, and more than anyone else, his path serves as a guide among all the other clearly dysfunctional paths other characters take.

Unlike other characters in this section, Mikado doesn’t jump into a social faction to find a place for himself and he doesn’t commit himself to actions just to prove himself. For instance, he advocates peace when some of the Dollars members agitate for conflict with the Yellow Scarves, even when he doesn’t know that the leader of the Yellow Scarves is really Masaomi. In other words, he seems to feel secure enough in his position (and the position of Dollars) that he doesn’t feel that he needs to prove anything by committing everyone to a gang war. He’s already proved himslef. In the middle of the series, when Mikado is dealing with threats from Namie, he has proved that he can mobilize all of the Dollars members and overwhelm Namie with numbers acting in a pacifist way. The nature of the Dollars, contrary to other youth gangs, is nonviolent; Mikado tells the Dollars members only to stare at Namie and her employees, but not to actually do anything else to them. He has tried to influence the Dollars to become a socially benevolent group, for example through public acts of charity. Most importantly, he can let go and disband Dollars when it seems that being a member risked targetting by the Yellow Scarves. All in all, for Mikado, the Dollars is important but not such a crucial part of his identity that he would hold on to it above all other things, such as the safety of its individual members, and it doesn’t colour his perception of his own situations to the exclusion of everything else. In this way, Mikado strikes a balance that many of the character in the series lack.

One quote from Celty that strikes me is in episode 23, when she says that Anri, Masaomi, and Mikado need to meet not as the leaders of their respective factions, but as themselves. But what is “self” but a collection of identities, and what are identities except that they describe the self as belonging in various groups? So how can there be a self for the three Durarara!! characters totally apart from their identities as Slasher, Yellow Scarf leader, and Dollars leader? What Celty seems to be saying is not that there is some abstract “self” apart from identities found in social groups, but that one’s investment in one social group should not overwhelm the other aspects of one’s identity. In this case, it would mean that none of the three characters ought to place their relationship to their respective groups above their friendship for one another.

In this respect, Durarara!! is extremely postmodern. In postmodernity, everything is constantly shifting, there is no fixed centre of reference and nothing is absolute. Postmodernity describes secularization, since less and less people are sure about all-powerful deities and their absolute authority. Postmodernity also rewrites history, showing that multiple events and people contributed to the unfolding of one event rather than attribute the event to one remarkeable person.(3) It is where we get novels like Wicked, and where we get narratives structured like the ones in Baccano!. Identity, too, is part of this. There is no single “self” that is always going to be stable through time. All the other gangs in Durarara!! seem to espouse an older and outdated sense of identity, where there are feuds between factions and revenge; Yellow Scarves members calling Masaomi “Shogun” seems to reflect that they are more traditional in their idea of hierarchies.

Dollars reflects a more postmodern sense of identity. There are no hierarchies, no defining characteristics, no fixed memberships, and an unknown leader. In Episode 21, some members of Dollars call out in the chatroom for their leader to do something about the impending gang war, and also question the leader’s choices and capabilities. However, the members come to the agreement that it’s not up to their leader but themselves, because the group has gone beyond the conventional notion of gangs where a group of people “belong” to a person who leads them, but rather, “It’s not about who Dollars belong to – it belongs to us.” In this move, Dollars crosses the line between the social and private self. We see in Masaomi the conflict between what he wants personally and what he must do as the leader of the Yellow Scarves because the Yellow Scarves is external to his sense of self and calls on him to negate other aspects of his character to prove his allegiance to the Yellow Scarves. Group membership is the worst peer pressure. However, in Dollars, there is no difference between the outside group to which one belongs and the members’ sense of self, since they can join and leave as they please – in another words, participating in Dollars would never risk one’s self-concept because Dollars never tries to impose on its members that it’s more important than any other identity that its members might hold. The fact that Dollars members refuse to disband comes from their own sense of self as responsible individuals and not because the leader of the Dollars calls on them to prove their allegiance.

This difference between Dollars and the other groups is most saliently expressed in the colours of other gangs versus the Dollars’ transparency. What I have been talking about with Masaomi, the scary makeup girls, the otakus, and Seiji, Mika, and Namie is that something external to themselves – either a group or a person – has drawn them into an allegiance where all other allegiances are rendered unimportant or impossible. If one participates in a colour gang, for example by joining the Yellow Scarves, one has to be yellow and no other colour, and this is often shown on the characters’ clothing. However, Dollars does not require this of its members, and it has no outward sign of membership. Not requiring that its members show a particular colour symbolically means that it lets its members take on other identities in addition to being a Dollars member. The anime handles this well stylistically, by making unnamed colour gang members gray silhouettes with only their colour to identify them, making the majority of passers-by grey, and having all the members of the Dollars suddenly erupt into their full spectrum of colour when they choose to act on Mikado’s call to stare at Namie.

V. The Fandom of Durarara!!

The Dollars ARE real. And you’re a part of them. We are real people trying to make a real difference in this world. And we don’t WANT the world to take us seriously, because then our group would be infiltrated by a bunch of assholes that just want to ruin everything. Yes we all have different cells (our friends, and people near us), but that doesn’t make us separate gangs as long as we all continue to collaborate and contribute by keeping communications with these forums.

— Umbra Serpens, ID TzE2UXLq, Dollars BBS

People speak of Urban youth culture a lot, and in general the city is seen as a place where youth culture is established, because the city has spots outside adult surveillance and young people can move freely to find themselves. While the roots of urban youth culture isn’t going to disappear any time soon, I feel that in the West at least, the Internet is the home to more subcultures than the streets.

In some ways, Dollars is extremely similar to the medium it operates through, which is the Internet. The Internet is postmodern because there is no centre and technically no hierarchies; there is no central website that governs other websites, and people connect to the internet and leave, whatever identities they have outside it. The Internet is anonymous, which translates to the Dollars’ transparency. In addition, the Dollars is shown to be all-pervasive in Ikebukuro even though they aren’t seen by marked symbols of membership, such as when member after member pop up and help Anri escape from the Yellow Scarves on an unplanned relay rescue. Similarly, the Internet today is ubiquitous, as smartphones can connect to the Internet and one can access the unseen Internet almost wherever one goes. Mikado’s words as the anime ends is that Dollars can be considered the city, but I would say that Dollars is the Internet as well.

Or maybe another perspective is that Dollars and its members are the go-between between the virtual world and the concrete one. Many people join Dollars (or any other group) because group membership makes them feel that they are affecting some positive change, if this change is only just to make oneself happier. A group like Dollars may start on the Internet, but it has real life consequences for the characters, for example when Mikado sees on the news that graffiti has been cleaned up overnight due to his nudge the day before, not to mention Dollars helping to save Anri’s life through the cell phone network. The importance of the Internet to Dollars is that it provides a network that can be called upon to change the world.

At the next level, although Durarara!! is an anime, it has real life consequences for the audience’s real life. There is a Dollars BBS made to look like the one in the anime. It’s a mind-blowing project, because as you face the log-in page, you feel that the difference between reality and fiction is collapsing. Like Dollars in the anime, people can come and go as they please, use different user names if they choose, follow other members’ proposals or not. It’s all entirely voluntary and there is no leader, other than perhaps administrations. As implied in the quotation opening this section, some people are concerned that this kind of group cannot last among a world still dominated by hierarchical groups. But just as parkour is a symbolic rebellion against the tiers of the capitalist system, Dollars can be a symbolic alteration of conventional hierarchy. The fact that some members don’t need to be “taken seriously” is like what I said about postmodernity, that there is power in being fluid, unstable, and outside the system of punishments and acknowledgements. In addition, the problem that I looked at in the last section with everyone except for Mikado comes from taking their groups too seriously, making it more important than anything in the character’s life. Not insisting that the real world Dollars be taken seriously by the rest of the world may also protect members from investing too much in the group itself to the exclusion of other aspects of their lives.

On the BBS there are also threads proposing missions to better the world in small ways, such as giving others confidence and helping each other with life issues (I’ve barely scratched the surface of the missions – I’m sure there have been other worthy projects that I haven’t seen). It was started by fans of the anime, and it’s still bound to its roots, but it has great potential to become a major force. I am slightly worried that the enthusiasm with the real-life Dollars group will fade as fans move on to other animes, but I hope that this will not be the case. For everyone who wishes their life were more interesting, if members do complete small acts of kindness in their life and get positive reinforcement from other members, this will constantly remind them of what it means to be a part of Dollars. Then, when a crisis does come, members may remember that they are a part of Dollars and react accordingly. For example, if an earthquake hits the city you are living in, it would be wonderful if a message can be sent to all the Dollars members in the city, and whomever is safe and has no other obligations can meet up and try to help others.

The whole last section was spent analyzing different kinds of social participation, with the conclusion that the colourless nature of the Dollars helps its members to stay and do good without compromising their selfhood. What the Dollars in Durarara!! did for its members is what Durarara!! would do for its audience – make the audience into intelligent and socially responsible people and not Walkers and Erikas, who simply put reality they don’t like in the trash. And it looks like it’s working.

(1) The first example that comes to mind of children’s literature where there are no parents is Harry Potter. Of course Harry doesn’t want his parents to be dead, but it means that his adventures are negotiated through an interaction with his peers rather than through teachings by his parents. And step-parents don’t count as parents – I remember my prof for Children’s Lit saying that having step-parents in a story is an automatic cue for readers to hate them as surrogates for all the adults ruining their lives. Hence the Dursleys.

(2) This is an oversimplification and I don’t entirely agree that the two systems are so different. One could say that in feudal societies, a lot of work that peasants do is for the landowner and not themselves, and in contemporary production there are still many incidences of small business and individual craftsmanship. But it’s more a question of the scale of the two systems.

(3) For example, in recent decades historians have been trying try to explore the Holocaust and WWII in the West through examining social forces rather than put most of the blame Hitler, but many people are unhappy about this because that seems to absolve him of guilt. Personally, I don’t think it does, because explanation doesn’t absolve guilt, it just explains guilt.

Lost in Sinophobia: The Mummy 3, Hero, and China on the World Stage

I watched The Mummy 3: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor in the summer of last year, and I have wanted to write something about it ever since, but things like thesis and TESOL and moving to China got in the way. Before you get excited, I have to say that I don’t have many good things to say about it.

Well, the good thing I have to say about it is that the director, Rob Cohen, really seemed to have put his being into it. Watching the Director’s Commentary is like watching a completely different movie, almost like a historical documentary, because he explains with enthusiasm the historical details of the Emperor’s tomb , the contraptions in the tomb and their technological significance, etc. His fascination with China comes through clearly, and it’s passed my green light for not being an Orientalist rant. As the movie shows the first sights of the tomb, Cohen says, “The horses and chariots you see in the back of each frame, these are magnificent things you can see at the tomb site in Xi’An, at the museum, if you’re so lucky as to be able to go to China to see this, it’s something you will never never never forget.”

Cohen seems to have a lot of archeological knowledge about the Xi’an tomb. For example, he says that he tried to model the tomb in the movie on the actual tomb. He added details like the astrolabe, even though it wasn’t invented until later in history, just because he thinks of it as a Chinese technological breakthrough that should have screentime. The vapourized mercury put in place to kill grave robbers and the crossbows were all “true Chinese design.” He explains the significance of water wheels for Chinese irrigation. It goes beyond just oggling at foreign curiosities. Cohen says that in the movie, he made the emperor buried under the rest of the tomb based on the fact that Chinese archeologists actually discovered that there might be an underground chamber, but also tells the viewers that China doesn’t want to dig it up yet. He says he understands that finding the actual remains of Emperor Qin might be a “complicated idea” for Chinese people even though as an enthusiast for this sort of thing, he doesn’t quite understand why. To rein in his enthusiasm and to admit that he doesn’t understand is quite an achievement.

Cohen ends the commentary by saying he normally doesn’t agree to direct sequels because he doesn’t want to beat a dead horse, however his love for China made him take on this project. You can hear from his voice that he probably means it, especially when he begins with Michelle Yeoh and Isabella Leong’s beauty as a metaphor for how he wants the viewer to appreciate China. “”I look at the beauty of Isabella and Michelle, the face of Asia is what I wanted a lot of people to see in the film, to look and feel my love and respect for Asian culture, Asian cinema, and Asian history.” Normally, my hackles would be rising at a White man gushing about how pretty Asian women are, but in this case I feel that Rob Cohen is being humble enough vis-a-vis his object and not boiling in White superiority: the beginning of the film shows a map of the world, and the point of view of the camper focuses on China as if the viewer was falling into it. Cohen explains, “I wanted to make sure that the audience understood the relationship between North America and China, and to get the feeling of the scale of that country, and its position in the world.”

Granted. Cohen loves China. The problem is that unless you watch the director’s commentary, you don’t really take away the relationship between China and the world that Cohen seems to want you to get. The Wikipedia article on this movie says that Chinese reactions has been negative, and cites Perry Lam’s article in Muse, which says that the move is a “clever and malicious political metaphor” for the rise of contemporary China. This is exactly what I was thinking as I was watching it. Chinese products are flooding the Western market; the master depends on the slave even if the slave works in a sweatshop thousands of miles away because if all the women and children in sweatshops do go on strike, the master has absolutely nil. China is a power that can stand up to Western imperialist powers, for good or for ill, evident in China’s stance against the Western powers regarding Libya and willing to say that they are not necessarily liberating heroes. I’m not saying that everything that China does is right (this blog is usually blocked, after all. Today somehow I managed to log on and this is why I’m writing like crazy), but at least it serves to balance out some of the Western powers’ self-righteousness.

This obviously makes the western world nervous, and it’s evident in this movie. On the one hand, you have the Qin Emperor, who wants to enslave humanity for no apparent reason, and on the other hand, you have the British + American duo, Rick and Evy O’Connell, whose mission is again to protect humanity. Especially with the problems that the West has with China’s human rights record, it’s very easy to slip into portraying China as an old, peculiar nation with their cruel habits of dealing with their people. Historically, the Qin Emperor did mobilize a huge number of people to build the Great Wall and probably did treat them without today’s conception of human rights, but the Emperor Qin mummy’s megalomaniac speech is a little over the top. “Today you wake to a world in the grip of chaos and corruption. I will restore order, I will retain what is mine. I will crush any idea of freedom. I will slaughter without mercy. I will conquer without compassion,” the Emperor Qin mummy says. Wow. Where’s Rob Cohen’s love of China now? In the end, the China of the movie just seems like a superpower poised to take over the world.

Emperor Qin Mummy is just a stereotypical villain – there isn’t even a love of his life thing to soften his evil like there was for Imhotep in the last two movies. However, General Yang, the under-villain if you will, is rather interesting. I feel bad because Anthony Wong, the actor for this role, is capable of extremely poignant nuance, and there really wasn’t many places to show that in this movie. However, he does tell Emperor Qin mummy, “I love this country. Only you can bring it back to greatness.” So, instead of being the incarnation of pure evil, he’s just a patriotic guy who is resorting to extreme means. In the actual historical time period that this movie is set in, China was extremely chaotic, since the Japanese invasion in WWII had just ended and the Communists and the ROC would start duking it out in the Chinese Civil War. Perhaps resorting to extreme means is understandable. However, you own community’s patriots are called patriots, but another community’s patriots are called fanatics. Never mind that in Rick and Evy, you have the union of the two strongest imperialist powers in the West, America and Britain; they’re still heroes and General Yang, his lovely sidekick, and Emperor Qin mummy are still doomed to defeat as the villains. Shanghai is the way it is in the movie and in actual history, eclectic, because each foreign country that came to China carved out a piece of it to be their own territory. Rick and Evy’s chase for archeology is never presented as imperialism, whereas Imhotep’s and Emperor Qin’s ambitions are always presented as such. Rick says that the Eye of Shangri-La “belongs to the Chinese people.” That’s a wonderful sentiment, but I don’t know how much that reflects reality. If you go to the British Museum, there are tons of artifacts that should belong to the people of X country but are not in X country.

One thing about General Yang’s resorting to extreme measures bothers me in ways that go beyond the world of the movie. General Yang is willing to support an incarnation of pure evil to achieve his means, but what about the Chinese actors? The movie is an adventure movie, a 3rd sequel whose greatest intention is to thrill and dazzle. On top of that, it portrays China in a rather villainous light, despite its pretty astrolabes. Yet three of China’s top actors, Jet Li, Michelle Yeoh, and Anthony Wong star in this movie. It seems that Chinese actors are resorting to some extreme measures to be exposed to the international audience. Exposure might bring the Chinese movie industry into greatness, but if General Yang’s approach is misguided, I think the actors’ approach is also misguided. I am not saying that Hollywood is an incarnation of pure evil like Emperor Qin mummy is, but appearing in foreign films just so that you can be more known outside China, without careful consideration about what kind of message you are endorsing, is wrong.

I am especially disappointed about Jet Li’s role in this movie, given that he played the lead role in the movie Hero. Hero is a very nuanced movie, despite Zhang Yi Mou’s dazzling colours and the actors’ martial arts performances. Its structure is like the Japanese movie Rashomon, where many different versions of the same story is told, and different “truths” emerge depending on which version you believe. In Hero, Jet Li plays the assassin (named “Nameless”) that comes to kill the Qin Emperor, because the Emperor is conquering too many lands and is getting too powerful. He gains an audience with the Emperor and does not reveal who he is at first; he pretends that he supports the Emperor and brings out the swords of other assassins who have failed in their task and tells the story of how he defeated them. For example, a lover’s quarrel between two of the assassins made it easy for them to defeat each other. However, in the end the Emperor detects that he is not telling the truth, no matter how many times he has told the story. In the end the Emperor realizes that the nameless assassin is about to kill him. However, the nameless assassin tells the truth. One of the lovers, who came close to killing the Emperor, realized at the last moment that a unification of China is not necessarily a bad thing, despite the sacrifices that are taking place. His lover, unable to comprehend his change of heart, refuses to speak to him, and that is the real reason of their quarrel. Rather than being defamed, Emperor Qin is a hero in Chinese culture, as he standardized the Chinese language as well as many other factors, long before most of the cultures in Europe had an idea of what a nation is. In other words, he had a great vision that most people didn’t understand. Jet Li’s nameless assassin also realizes this and decides to walk out without completing his mission. However, Emperor Qin orders him to be killed because he was a rebel who wanted to assassinate his king. Emperor Qin did not want to do this, but his law demands it; he looks on and sheds one tear as the palace archers execute the one man in the nation who truly understands his vision.

Jet Li’s role and the portrayal of Emperor Qin in Hero makes the Emperor Qin–supervillain role in The Mummy 3 extremely frustrating. If other actors didn’t pick up on the bland one-sided portrayal of China and the Emperor in The Mummy 3, at least Jet Li should have, having acted in at least 3 versions of the assassination plot of the same Emperor and portrayed a character who died as a result of an epiphany about another point of view. The director’s love and respect for China and the actors’ desire to push Chinese cinema onto the international stage just gets lost in action sequences, special effects, and an extreme fear of Chinese power. Especially with the actors, a desire to partake in either soft power or capitalist glory has created a kind of self-betrayal. The problem with The Mummy 3 is exactly why I wasn’t thrilled about the 300 movie, even though most people were awed and impressed by it, because it turned a decent comic into a pretty piece of Islamophobic propaganda. Of course international criticism is necessary to keep each other in line, however there is no point in pandering to international fear-mongering. Perhaps sometimes art and literature is to help its audience diffuse their tensions, such as the countless Japanese villains in Chinese TV programs giving Chinese viewers an outlet for the bitterness of WWII, but there is a point where such things can just continue to fuel pointless hatred while not really suggesting any concrete solutions. Viewers can’t go to China and defeat a 5000 year old incarnation of pure evil and save the day, and those involved in filmmaking ought to give more thought about what kind of connotation the film has.

The rant ends here, though I have to say, I am apprehensive for the same reasons about a movie version of The Horse and His Boy form the Narnia series, because the book is loaded with firepits of discrimination towards the Middle East. I’m sorry to say that my own idea of what the Middle East is like is very much coloured from reading Narnia books when I was younger.

Revisionism x Patriotism: Teaching Revised US History in Secret Identities: The Asian American Superhero Anthology

In the beginning of May, I went to University of Toronto’s 3rd annual New Narratives Conference. Since I hadn’t presented at academic conferences before this, it was an eye-opener. With such a growing field as comics and animation, it was amazing how everyone’s presentations gelled together.

I wasn’t going to post my paper, but I just realized that even though I’m writing my thesis on comics and I’ve read tons of comics and tons of criticism, I haven’t posted anything related to comics at all. So here it is. The Secret Identities Anthology can be found here. It’s a great read even if you’re not interested in racial politics per se.


Eammon Callan, in his discussion of multicultural education in the US, worries that multicultural histories may be “too shameful to warrant anything other than revulsion,” and that national heroes “lose their God-like status and become richly ambiguous human beings, just like the rest of us” (Callan 475), thereby creating demoralized and apathetic future generations who do not have faith in the national community. However, recent researchers into superheroes comics such as Mike Dubose and Matthew J. Smith have shown that superheroes change according to their cultural climates, and are no less national heroes for this. Callan’s concerns and comics scholarship on superheroes meet in Secret Identities: The Asian American Superhero Anthology, published by The New Press last year. The comics collected in this anthology span from the days of railroad building into the near future, directly engaging with topics such as the incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII and the murder of Vincent Chin during the downturn in the US automobile industry in the early 1980s. Arguably, historical events presented in Secret Identities could disrupt founding US myths such as freedom and democracy. However, the diverse Asian American superheroes featured in this anthology share one goal, which is to strive for and maintain these values. In addition, the editors have also put together an extensive teacher’s guide. Far from demythologizing US history, Secret Identities creates an alternate body of US myth in the form of superhero narratives. I will briefly outline issues with multicultural education and the potential for comic books as education materials before examining Secret Identities in more depth.

I. Comics in education:
Although we think of comics as only recently become a tool in education rather than a distraction from it, comics in education is not new. During WWII, the Office of War published comics instructing its young readers to fulfil their “patriotic duty” and stay in school (Zorbaugh 196, cited in Dorrell, Curtis and Rampall). As a popular medium, comics intimately reflect their times, and even overtly discriminatory comics of the past can “present a number of social phenomena, including gender, race, and sexual inequality or stratification, and violence” and especially “superhero comic books also reflect cultural assumptions about gender and American values” (Hall and Lucal 60). Indeed, Hall and Lucal suggest that X-Men be supplemented by texts such as Omi and Winant’s Racial Formation in the United States to discuss identity politics (62). In a sense, Secret Identities is riding on a long-established tendency in using comics as education materials as well as a recent resurgence.

II. Multicultural education
the classroom is one of the early “contact zones” (Edelstein 28) between cultures, where both students and teachers are increasingly coming from diverse backgrounds, and where school texts may describe communities different from the school community.
Edelstein writes that criticism of multiculturalism have come from both the right and the left, with the former “bemoaning the loss of a supposedly ‘common’ culture” (21), and the latter faulting it for being too much of a token and superficial approach without affecting any change in power and privilege. Although liberal scholars recognize that the idea of a common culture is absurd, it does not rule out the problem put forth by Callan, that teaching disparate histories of oppression may demoralize readers and contribute to a loss of faith in the national community. The other large issue is finding ways of engaging more deeply in multiculturalism beyond, say, setting up food festivals. I will argue that SI works to resolve both issues.

III. Myths, Superheroes, and US identity
Callan specifically discusses Benedict Anderson’s influential idea of “imagined communities” (qtd. 469), and argues that although Anderson does not explicitly state it, myth is central to building communities because “myth inspires in a way that plain facts about predatory warfare, self-serving elites and downtrodden or resistant masses cannot possibly equal” (469) [Richard Reynolds: Superheroes: A Modern Mythology] Dubose examines national myths specifically as it relates to Captain America in the 1980s. What is particular about Captain America is that he changes as the socio-political climate of the US changes. Although he serves as a soldier in WWII, after rehabilitated from his plane accident (comics serialized in the 1960s), he is sensitive to the “doubtful status of morality” in the 80s and even admits that America isn’t living up to its own dream (927). Dubose writes that ultimately Captain America is a hero because he transcends politics – that he represents the abstract concepts of liberty, justice, dignity, and the pursuit of happiness. To develop upon Dubose’s argument, because one superhero character outlives individual creators and readers, he/she builds an imagined community not only through space but also through time, and is a “contact zone” (to borrow from Education) where citizens, through time, negotiate cultural values (Alilifu Nama: “psychological sandbox”). Other studies, such as Matthew J. Smith’s “The Tyranny of the Melting Pot Metaphor: Wonder Woman as Americanized Immigrant,” also focus on the evolution of one superhero figure along with changing American cultural climate. What Secret Identities presents is not so much the evolution of one figure but the evolution of the idea of superhero as it relates to nation. Arguably, an anthology of superhero comics by Asian Americans could only have arisen recently in the US, as there would not have been Asian Americans working within the comics industry, and with the resources, to put together this anthology. Realizing this allows us to better examine multiculturalism and superheroes in conjunction.

I. Minorities and superheroes
One of the central ideas behind the anthology is the similarity between the Asian American experience and the situation of superheroes. The opening page of the section, “When Worlds Collide,” features Asians of various national backgrounds gathering, paired with deliberately ambiguous words that could refer to either the immigrant experience or alien superheroes. Similarly, the publisher summary on the back cover begins by describing a “quiet and unassuming guy with black hair and thick glasses,” which describe the Asian stereotype but also Clark Kent. Granted, not all previously conceived American superheroes are from another world; even so, immigrants, with different ideas, abilities, and appearances, are comparable to superheroes due to their difference from the majority. “Taking Back Troy” is the fictionalized story of Vincent Chin. Historically, in 1982, as imported cars from Japan led to layoffs in the American automobile industry, two workers took Vincent Chin for a Japanese man at a strip club and murdered him after a dispute. In this comic, the Japanese professionals behind the more desirable import cars are directly compared with superheroes (Asian Americans especially have been labelled the “model minority” for their work ethic, which has earned both ill-will and praise from the majority). “No Exit” is similar in that Enayet and Rahmat are arrested because of their foreign appearance and their Muslim religion.
However, one trope of superhero comics is the masked and costumed hero, which should hide visible racial markers (though I will be discussing exceptions featured in the comic “9066” shortly). In many cases in SI, dressing in the same attire as other American superheroes enable Asian American superheroes to belong not only to the superhero community but also the national community, and in many ways the comics depicting military combat in WWII present the military uniform as another kind of superhero costume, which further emphasizes the national dimension. By presenting Asian Americans superheroes, SI positively reconceptualizes difference while also tapping into the superhero’s inclusive potential.

II. SI and its way of addressing history: not just “cultural tourism” (Edelstein)
The superheroes in the short pieces of Secret Identities certainly address both the history of discrimination experienced by the Asian American communities, and also provides the positive models for integrating the complex history and overcoming marginalization. In addition, the anthology consciously works with and presents itself as part of the American superhero tradition. Thus, as a text for multicultural education, it is not simply “cultural tourism,” nor does it engender apathy and ethnic separatism.
1) First of all, the volume deals explicitly with the history of Asians in America, and the effects of discriminatory events on Asian Americans today. Campus activism in the 1960s has lead to broader consideration of minority histories, however these narratives still rarely emerge in popular culture. The twenty-six stories in the anthology are arranged largely in chronological order, from “Driving Steel,” which traces the conflicts between Irish and Chinese railroad workers, to “Peril,” about a young man trying to clear his father’s name and prevent his research on advanced weapons from being abused. In SI, most comics centre around one or two heroes of specified ethnicity during a specific time or political climate. For example, “9066” and “Heroes Without a Country” are early stories dealing with Japanese-Americans during WWII and particular sentiments during this time period. The title of “9066” refers to the executive order signed by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1942, which called for the internment of Japanese Americans living along the coast of the Pacific after the bombing of Pearl Harbour. In this comic, the main character is an unidentified Nisei (or second generation) Japanese American superhero, who feels that he has overcome the racial barrier. [Example: “I thought that it didn’t matter who we were when our masks were off” (Tsuei and Ma 27). However, after Pearl Harbour, his fellow superheroes tell him that if he resists their arrest, they would take him by force. The Nisei superhero goes quietly because he is “afraid of what a fight would do to others that look like [him]” (27). Although a fictional account, this narrative reflects widespread attitudes within the Japanese-American community that while their internment was unjust, they would comply to avoid further dividing the nation. It also points to a failure of both the superhero ideal and the American idea, which in this comic especially are intentionally conflated.
2) Despite the comics in the anthology showing the mistreatment of Asian Americans at the hands of the majority, they also insist that Asian superheroes in America are Americans. This insistence on American citizenship also balances diverse Asian-American voices in these comics with a unifying theme (and also reflects earlier directions in Asian American cultural studies). “Heroes Without a Country” fictionalizes the historical all-Japanese 100th Battalion. In the comic, the leader of the battalion, Captain Matt Kim, is based on Korean-American Young Oak Kim, who refused a transfer from the 100th battalion because both Koreans and Japanese Americans are Americans. Also, in “The Citizen,” Franklin D. Murakawa (who goes by his superhero alias, “the Citizen”) had tried to arrest a former US president for war crimes and was sealed inside a spherical chamber, until President Obama releases him to fight off the Nazi mutant soldiers of Operation Robot Stomp.

Example: As the Citizen emerges, he tells Obama, “I work for the country, not the government.”

The title of “Heroes Without a Country” echoes Captain America’s alternate superhero profile, “Nomad, Man Without Country,” during a period when he disagrees with government policies and operated separately (Dubose 927). Despite this, he is still an “all-American superhero,” and readers (and perhaps to a certain extent the citizens of the Marvel universe) recognizes that to be truly American in spirit requires that he recognize when it is straying from his values and refuse to participate. Though Asian Americans can only do so at a greater risk (as shown in “9066”), the superheroes of SI choose to identify with the foundational tenets of America rather than America as a geopolitical entity. Patriotism, in Callan’s definition, is “active identification with one’s particular nation as a cross-generational political community whose flourishing one prizes and seeks to advance” (468). Hence, Franklin D. Murakawa is truly “The Citizen,” though it may take rehabilitation by a later president, and as a fictional character only be popularized generations later than Captain America.
3) As Captain Matt Kim allies himself with Japanese Americans, many Asian American superheroes of SI ally themselves with other American ethnicities. Edelstein discusses the dangers of ethnic or racial separatism in multicultural education, suggesting that “forging coalitions, not only ‘among various oppressed groups’ but between oppressed groups and ‘members of dominant groups,’ is crucial in order to move toward these goals” (36) “Heroes Without a Country” emphasizes that Samson is the most decorated American superhero and is Jewish. Graphically, Samson is shown in newspaper clippings to have a large star of David on the front of his costume. This comic does not only evoke the internment of the Japanese with the depiction of Nazi camps, but by evoking this parallel shows the similarity in history between various ethnic groups who have faced persecution around the world. Other comics show historical alliances between the Asian and African American communities. In “Driving Steel,” the Chinese railroad worker “Jimson Fo” is accompanied by an African American youth, “Jack,” as they compete with an Irish railroad worker team who is cheating to get farther into the mountain. While it might seem that Jack is Jimson’s sidekick, the comic ends with John telling Jimson, “Jack is what Creeder [the Irish overseer] calls me, suh. My real name is John. John Henry.” Jimson replies, “I will call you John Henry, if you will stop calling me Sir” (Yang and Jew 24).

example: The last large panel shows the two men from behind, side by side, both looking into the mountains. Before setting out into the rest of America, Jimson and John Henry establish an equal relationship.

In addition, readers should realize by this time that young “Jack” is the African American folk hero John Henry, who challenged rail workers using a steam drill and won. Chinese labourers on the American and Canadian railroads are an important component of Asian North American history, and “Driving Steel” not only features an alliance between two minority characters but also a marriage between their cultural legends, enacted upon America during nation building.
4) In addition, by asserting themselves as superheroes of the American cause, the Asian superheroes already establish their alliance with the dominant group. Perhaps the most morally complex comic in this collection is “The Blue Scorpion and Chung.” In the opener to this comic, the comics creator Gene Yang and the director Michael Kang talk briefly about the role of most Asians in action films as sidekicks, which is demeaning and emasculating. Therefore, it is important to “tell our own stories, on our own terms” (Chow and Baroza 62). “The Blue Scorpion and Chung” fulfils this obligation in somewhat unexpected terms. Chung, a Korean-American, acts as a sidekick and chauffeur to the hero Blue Scorpion, who is often drunk and makes jokes bordering on racist. After defeating a Korean drug trafficking station, the captured drug dealer asks Chung, “So why do you put up with this pile of garage? You do all the work, he gets all the glory” (Yang and Liew 70). Chung answers, “The Blue Scorpion is justice. Sometimes justice requires sacrifices” (74). The “own terms” of “The Blue Scorpion and Chung” shows that the heroism of Chung is less that he can fight off drug traffickers and more that he makes sacrifices to ally himself with “garbage” for the sake of something greater than any individual. The comics in SI are certainly not separatist in this regard. The anthology ends with a timeline diagram showing when the comics are situated, and how characters relate to one another across time. Secret Identities Universe On the website, this diagram is captioned, “Multiple creators. Disparate stories. One universe?” I believe that this qualifier operates at a few different levels: to echo the vast and complicated “universes” created by Marvel and DC, to create one universe for disparate Asian stories, but also to forge one universe and one community with existing superhero and real world stories from different cultural backgrounds.
5) Using superheroes to discuss the history of Asian Americans also answers another charge of multicultural education, that present and future generations would feel that nothing can be done about repeated oppression of racial minorities. Although critics of superhero comics sometimes argue that these comics do better when focusing on action sequences and do not lend themselves well to serious social critique and contemplative subject matters (eg, in Wright 162-163), SI uses the martial definition of “action” to drive its activism. One comic, “The Hibakusha,” deals with the aftermath of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki still impacts families today, and in teaching this topic is it difficult to avoid black and white portrayals of US as the “bad guys” and Japanese citizens as helpless victims. “The Hibakusha,” whose title is a transcription of the Japanese expression “explosion-affected people” (SI Study Guide, 3), deals with young adults who have developed superpowers as descendants of the atomic bomb survivors, who are training in a facility run by a man known only as “Mishira.” The story does not sidestep the horrors of the atomic bombs even though it deals with amazing superpowers.

Ryan Suda, who is given more back story than the other characters, is recruited to train with the other young superhumans.

Ryan Suda, who is given more back story than the other characters, is recruited to train with the other young superhumans. Ryan’s father loses his temper at the agent, telling him that his own father’s skin was peeling, his mother’s kimono was fused to her skin, and his wife was interned in the US. However, Ryan sees things differently, and agrees that it may be a “silver lining of a genocide,” a chance to overcome mutual hostilities for one, and secondly a chance for Ryan and others like him to be valued and to act on their abilities, despite being made inhuman. By focusing on the imagined superhuman abilities that could come from such a horrific historical event, the comic itself focuses on agency instead of victimhood. In addition, creating an anthology of superhero comics is an active method to teach students history that may be otherwise neglected, and also to assert current Asian American talent in the comics industry.
6) Historical background not included in the comic is covered by the Secret Identities Discussion Guide. Although the medium of comics has been praised to be effective in education, a criticism has been that the comics industry is slow to adapt to the protocols of education and academia (Coogan, qtd. in Hudson 23). Multicultural history, with its possibly depressing and difficult content, may need even more scaffolding to become successful in education. Keith Chow, one of the four editors of SI, is a specialist in comics and education, and thus has developed extensive teaching notes to SI. As of December 2009, discussion guides to the first three sections of SI are available online, covering “War and Remembrance,” “When Worlds Collide,” and “Girl Power.” Each corresponding section of the guide contains the social or historical background to the setting of each comic, followed by discussion questions. The entire section concludes with “Resources and Further Reading,” which lists books and articles. “War and Remembrance” and “Girl Power” also includes lesson plans with essential vocabulary and assignment plans.

Works Cited

Callan, Eammonn. “Democratic Patriotism and Multicultural Education.” Studies in Philosophy and Education 21 (2002): 465-477.

Dubose, Mike. “Holding Out for a Hero: Reaganism, Comic Book Vigilantes, and Captain America.” Journal of Popular Culture 40.6 (2007): 915-936.

Edelstein, Marilyn.”Multiculturalisms Past, Present, and Future.” College English 68.1 (2005): 14-41.

Hall, Kelley J. and Betsy Lucal. “Tapping into Parallel Universes: Using Superhero Comic Books in Sociology Courses.” Teaching Sociology 27.1 (1999): 60-66.

Hudson, Laura. “Comics in the Classroom.” Publishers Weekly 255.51 (2008): 22-23.

Nama, Alilifu. “Brave Black Worlds: Black Superheroes as Science Fiction Ciphers.” African Identities 7.2 (2009): 133-144.

Reynolds, Richard. Superheroes: A Modern Mythology. London: B.T. Batsford, 1992.

Secret Identities: An Asian American Superhero Anthology. Eds. Jeff Yang, Parry Shen, Keith Chow, and Jerry Ma. New York: The New Press, 2009.

“Secret Identities Discussion Guide: Section One: War and Remembrance.” Web. 18 Dec. 2009. .

Wright, Bradford. “From Social Consciousness to Cosmic Awareness: Superhero Comic Books and the Culture of Self-Interrogation, 1968-1974.” English Language Notes 46.2 (2008): 155-174.

Reading _Reading Lolita in Tehran_ in North America

As usual, I am slow on the uptake, and so although this book was published 7 years ago and I wrote a reflective entry on it a year ago, I procrastinated on posting anything. I had wanted to write an entry on this after my term of being a TA for Women’s Studies, but other academic things got in the way. The first part of this entry is what I wrote immediately after I read it, and the second part is my reassessment and considerations after a year of more work and school. As I listened to the audiobook, some of my spelling may be off.

This is what I wrote right after I read it:

2 weeks or so ago, I got the audiobook for Reading Lolita in Tehran from the library, and I just wanted to see if it merits the praise and popularity it garnered – and also because Susan gave it t my mother for Christmas once, and it’s sitting on the shelf in PEI. So far, I’ve got the last 2 disks (out of 10) to go, and I need to rant about my reaction to it.

Before I start, I need to say that of all the books Nafisi mentions in relation to their lives in the Islamic Republic, I haven’t read any. Maybe this is a part of my reactions.

1) I don’t feel touched. The characters seem real to me enough, but I don’t feel bad for them like I should.

2) I find Nafisi petulant at times. This may not be justified because I haven’t lived through something like that, and I can’t say what changes to one’s character may result. I’ll come back to this later. But what I mean as “petulant” is…she seems to say these things about people, like how the “Little Great Gatsby” professor was someone who constantly worried about himself, and then the example she gives would be that he was worried about being sacked during the time of unrest. I find her statement unfounded. She paints him to be a bad person, but the example she gives seems like a natural worry to have. Also, her saying that the mediating woman professor was ambitious and used people – I find her criticism sort of coming out of nowhere. Yes, that professor tried to make people compromise, but there isn’t a clear connection between that and Nafisi’s statement about her intentions. she does say that it’s hard for her not to “pontificate” but I find that she takes her position to be able to pontificate for granted, like she has a right to criticize those around her and enjoys making fun of them on some level (eg calling the professor “Little Great Gatsby”). I’m not sure exactly where I get this impression from.

3) Not really about the book itslef, but about its literary/media context (got to than ENGD03 [course on Culture and media theory] again). A huge theme, and undertone, running in the book is the unfair censorship of…everything. That many works of the West are banned at Iran at that time. I feel like her book is involved in an equal but opposite problem. How many books, in the West, are from people in the Middle East who are praising such revolutions and praising components of religious fundamentalism? Yet these books which include within them a denouncement of Islamic and heavily religious-based societies are popularized in the West, translated. Same with Persepolis (btw, I never felt a moral superiority or petulance from Persepolis as I mentioned in 2)). although she may not have any control over the context her book is published in, it detracts from her arguements somewhat.

4) (really 2 b) – not just her characterization of individuals but also of organizations. People in revolutionary groups and extremist groups are pretty much always shown in a negative light, either character-wise or physically. Guards, students, etc…she accuses the government of being too black and white but I don’t feel like she gives much gray area either. I noticed this part also in Kingdom of Heaven. Some people said that this film was a fair treatment of Muslims and Christians, but some said it wasn’t — I thought it was pretty fair in a liberal humanist way, but then noticed that no one on the side who wanted war with Saladin was portrayed very well. It’s this sort of exclusive linking of character and ideology that I find disturbing.

On the whole, Nafisi’s narrative voice reminds me of a professor I had once, both positively and negatively – someone with a lot to say, a sharp and discerning mind, but seem to carry on a bit into the extreme ends when they’re trying to make their point.

5) Another thing was when I was reading about romantic relationships that Nafisi’s class was having. I think it was Nassrin, who called off her relationship with Ramin (sp?) because he differentiates between girls he respect and share intellectual life with and girls that he’s sexually attracted to. He categorized Nassrin with the former, and Nassrin felt that a fulfilling relationship should also have physical attraction. I agree with one point, that in a monogamic society he should not have a wandering eye to her sister and other women when in a relationship with her, but I have to disagree that wanting a relationship based on sharing intellectual life and respecting them is a wrong ground for a relationship. She and Nafisi seem to be suggesting that this is inadequate and part of the regime’s education, and on the one hand, it is – but I think it’s not as absolute as they portray it to be. Many of my friends and I struggle with the males in our society all the time because they cannot get past the bodies of women when assessing them for relationships, which is the opposite problem to women of Nassrin’s position. I think we would appreciate someone like Ramin who at least is willing to use other criteria.

6) another thing I started to think about when listening to the audiobook is the status of literature. I absolutely agree that literature gives people a way of looking that is “democratic,” as Nafisi states. But I disagree that literature should always appreciated as literature without becoming a model for actions. Specifically, she decries the regime for stating that Western literature spreads decadence, and hence censored many texts; her argument seems to be that they’re “just words” and have no power to make anyone decadent, even if they portray decadence in the first place. However, this seems to be at odds with her view that texts make people see the world democratically – isn’t that an impact of literature? So even if she disagrees on portrayals of decadence, it seems strange to disagree that words have power of reality and people’s actions.

A more pressing point is the relationship of literature to class and to Communism. I’m not saying that Nafisi disparages lower classes – in fact, the fact that she doesn’t make much distinction between classes or mentions much about it to me is a sign that ultimately she doesn’t even begin to discriminate based on class at all. But I do feel that her perspective on literature reflects a “bourgeoisie” sentiment. What I am saying is that books like Persepolis and Reading Lolita in Tehran reflect the attitudes of only a certain group of Iranians (and this is perhaps a part of my ignorance too – I have a conception that there was a gap between intellectuals and non-intellectuals in terms of their reading in 70s and 80s Iran, and my assumption is based on this). The status ascribed to literature as a remedy to an oppressive regime only applies to well-read people who can use (probably not the best word, but I can’t think of a better one) literature this way. And partly, too, maybe those who don’t read James Joyce and Fitzgerald and so forth don’t have a problem with the regime, or not as much as a problem? I realise this could be a chicken or egg question – correlation or causation question. I’m not too clear on it either.

7) This brings me to a more personal note. I think that despite living in canada and educated by very open and Westernized parents, somehow I also espouse a lot of quasi-Marxist-Leninist values, probably from my brief schooling in China and the fun grade one readers featuring Lenin and so forth. I do believe that Western culture, under certain circumstances (especially rapid introduction to a country) can make people “decadent.” eg, the people I live with, rich Chinese kids who are using their parents money for their international tuitions, who throw perfectly good food away and take taxis to school even though it’s 15 minutes walk away – because their families have always lived well in a capitalist environment and never learned from poverty not to waste, or appreciate the work of production. I also believe that literature is not necessary to a society. This may be from years of my parents telling me that my chosen field of study is useless, but it’s not entirely…well…you can say that X major is useless because it’s useless to you personally or useless to society in general – and although my parents have used the former form of argument, I feel what’s really behind what they’re saying is the latter type of “useless.” Eg, “studying literature is selfish because you aren’t applying your abilities to the needs to society.” (I feel bad for my mother in a way, because I think she’s conflicted without knowing it, because her chosen work is a Scientist and the conflict has never been the crux of any vast decision she had to make; in the cultural revolution in China she pretty much had no options to choose anything related to humanities, because of the political atmosphere. Unlike me, because choosing my goal in careers is a vast decision, whereas societal pressure, direct and indirect, put my mother on the path of science without her having to agonize over her own principles. I feel that she’s conflicted because although she really is a ‘patron of the arts’ and loves music, literature, and painting, she still feels from her Communist training that these are extraneous and unnecessary pleasures.) and so I espouse also, partly, that literature and art are extraneous. So while they can give people a democratic outlook, by my way of thinking, democracy as most people conceive of it is a goal for an individualistic society and strongly only one class of that society. I’m personally torn between agreeing with Nafisi as pertaining to literature and not.

8) The book did me a great good, though, which is perhaps not the good that most women in the West would get out of it. Most females who are living in the West would probably feel good about not living in a society like the Islamic Republic because if they were, then they would be oppressed in many ways by many parts of society (family, community, government). for me though, I am glad I live in North America not because what would be done to me but because of what I would do. There is a part in the book where a revolutionary student and ex-soldier set himself on fire and ran down the halls. I wouldn’t go so far, I think, but I would probably be among either the women guards / inspectors who keep tabs on girls who break the laws, keeping them in jail and so forth, and maybe even torturing them, for the sake of maintaining a supposedly higher standard of morality. In such a society, I would become the fundamentalist, or one of the Marxists in the book, who are no better (I had previously taken on the fervour behind the Russian Revolution with admiration, and that was just reading about it).

My thoughts a year later:

Starting with 8): Last term I went through “feminist colonialism” with first year Women’s Studies students over and over again. This refers to the tendency of feminists in the Western world to assume superiority to societies that are seen as more “backward” and in need of “help.” I feel that the majority of Western readers would unknowingly and well-intentionedly take this stance when reading Reading Lolita in Tehran. I just read on the book’s Wiki entry that certain scholars attacked the book for being a propaganda tool for the Bush administration. If it is true that most women reading Nafisi’s book would feel a Western superiority (or at least Western relief), when I would have to agree with the criticism that Reading Lolita in Tehran is a propaganda tool.

HOWEVER. I took a somewhat mind-boggling Asian North American Literature course last term, in which we talked about the debates that went on within the Asian American community over Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior. The book was contentious because some Asian American writers felt that it set forth descriptions of Asians (specifically Chinese) as misogynist, which would play into mainstream stereotypes against Asians and hence reinforce Orientalism and Western superiority. The general consensus among the class, other than maybe one or two people, seemed to be that one artist cannot be responsible for faithfully portraying a whole culture, and if she tried, she’s be upsetting someone somewhere down the line anyway, and it was up to readers to take the author’s words as only the author’s words and not representative of an entire culture. I feel both ways about this, as I did about the (over)reaction on the part of Iranian officials regarding the move 300, and didn’t say much. One thing I was thinking, though, was that if readers need to get to a point of reading critically, they need to be taught by writers to do so. So in some senses it is the writers’ responsibility.

How this relates to Reading Lolita in Tehran is that after thinking about this question a lot, I have to ask why academics attacking Nafisi for being a tool of the Bush administration are attacking her and not the Bush administration. If I have learned anything from graduate studies so far is to think beyond the one artist, to think big. My discomfort with the climate the book was published in (as I talked about in 3)) is part of this thinking big, and added to the debate on The Woman Warrior, I have resolved my discomfort – I take issue not with Nafisi but with the sociopolitical climate. In the Consumer Culture course that I am TAing for, we are talking about Identity and Community this week. In times of crisis, people tend to dig in their heels that much harder regarding the self and the Other. Nafisi’s book was caught up in this sort of entrenchment, but that does not devalue her criticisms against the regime in Iran, unless someone can prove that she actively and deliberately took advantage of the political climate, or jumping on the bandwagon. I would think it’s more the case that Nafisi has thought about this deeply and felt like she needed to voice her criticism since living in Tehran, but the political and publishing climate hasn’t allowed chances for her to voice them until post 9/11.

To conclude by expanding out from Reading Lolita in Tehran – It seems that recently many creative works have been caught up in the same sort of debates. I mentioned 300 already, which I felt was using stunning graphics and a heroic plot line to almost subliminally reinforce the difference between East and West. Another example is the films of Deep Mehta, such as Water and Heaven on Earth. One of my friends in the department criticized Water for showing a phenomenon that rarely happens anymore, which people watching would not know, and would just assume that India is a nation that oppresses women. As someone who feels more attached to my ethnicity than my gender, and as someone who still shares some values in Communist social responsibility, I mostly stand on the side of these “conservative” criticisms. I feel that artists cannot just be individualists pursuing individual visions – they should provide a context for their visions (though that is not to say that all literature has to be “useful” in a Social Realism / artistic skills for propaganda sense). The larger burden of providing the context is perhaps not, after all, the job of the artist, but those working with arts and literature, such as academics, curators, publishers, etc. After all, we talked about how Kingston did not want her memoir to be titled “The Woman Warrior,” and it being marketed as a memoir rather than fiction wasn’t something she had much control over.