Birth of the Dragon Review

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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

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Contents:

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

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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
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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
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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

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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

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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.

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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.

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Into the Lifestream: Histories and Philosophies of FFVII

Part I – Personal fannish stuff
Part II – Socio-political stuff (Race and gender, Japanese history, Environmentalism)
Part III – Philosophical stuff (The Lifestream, Aerith’s way, Advent Children extensions)
(Because this WP layout has a static banner, it covers the first paragraph or so when you go to an internal link, so you need to scroll up a bit. sorry.)

One of the biggest pieces of news coming out of E3 this summer was that there will be a remake of Final Fantasy VII, and hearing this has made grown men cuss and cry in front of their children. There are 2 decade’s worth of debates on the game’s impact; while my personal reasons might be rather idiosyncratic, I also think a portion of them might be what a lot of fans find appealing when they say they were impacted by Aerith’s death, but they just haven’t articulated it the same way.

I won’t be addressing the technical aspects of gameplay or graphics advancement in the 1990s, since I don’t know enough to judge. What I’d like to focus on here are the themes and the concepts that the character, plot, and the world-building imply. I think what makes this a good story is that while it’s fantasy, it reflects Japan’s concept of itself in the world, and in the end it has a rather modest and relatable view of good and evil, which are locate in the ways we approach life and loss and the world we live in.

Having said that, though, I do think how characters as gameplay elements relate to characters as narrative elements is important to keep. Some of the later FF games have no specializations for characters and they can grow technically according to player choice. Battle system and random encounter mechanics aside, I do think that stats and specializations contribute to a sense of who the characters are. Relying on the table in Section 1.4 here on character stats, it makes sense that a character like Aerith doesn’t grow in strength as quickly as Barrett, who conversely doesn’t grow in magic as quickly as Aerith.

I. Personal stuff

I’m a big fan of FFVII but not through the typical route of “this defines my childhood.” I watched Advent Children (AC) when it first came out in 2005 with the anime club in university, without knowing anything about it. While it didn’t make much sense to me, it haunted me and I watched it up to 5 times in one semester trying to figure out why. I suppose that having had watched a lot of anime, certain dramatic devices and characterizations, such as angst, was familiar. I was also taking a Bible and Literature course at the time and wrote a response paper on Biblical themes and whether FFVII subverted them by making Sephiroth an antichrist figure (especially with the similarity of “Jenova” to “Jehovah”), and whether there was a subtext of Eastern polytheistic religions compared to Western monotheism. Later in this post I will also justify why think in the thematic scheme of things AC is absolutely necessary, even if it retconned half the characters and nothing particularly different from the game happened.

I got into gaming only in my mid-20s, as my family were relatively poor immigrants for whom entertainment in general was frivolous spending. (Advice for the next generation of parents: start ’em young. Gaming is like piano or martial arts, because it requires a very specific set of sensory-motor skills and a “language” in terms of reading what the game wants you to do. The literacy of videogames are different from other visual media like movies and so forth because there is an interface, both in the sense of the actual menus you see and also implicit conventions in what you can and cannot interact with). I played FFVII when I was teaching English in China because I had more time from not being in school myself, and I was also at a telecommunications / software engineering institution where students exercised free will over their lives for the first time by playing games all the time. They were asked to choose English names for the benefit of foreign instructors and one kid actually named himself Sephiroth. He wasn’t my student, but I found this out during a Thanksgiving event, where teachers announced “Sephiroth will be performing Pachlebel’s Canon in D on the violin.”

I guess I took this as a sign and downloaded a PC version of it, though because of my lack of gaming skills meant that I followed a textual walkthrough (from Absolute Steve, who is a great writer for this kind of guide in terms of being clear, comprehensive, and occasionally humorous). It took me a couple of months and the timer in the game clocked out long before I finished it. I didn’t feel attachment to specific characters more to the party as a group, and it got to me to the extent that when I failed to destroy one of the Weapons I actually felt like I let someone down. I did finish everything in the end, though because it too me so long, the emotional payoff at the end didn’t seem as salient. But FFVII stayed with me in a way that has influenced my personal growth; every time I’d get cocky or get overcome with guilt over something I tend to think of FFVII to get me out of it (more about this in Part III, and an excellent interview with Takahiro Sakurai, the voice actor for Cloud, sums this up perfectly towards the end). AsI go onwards with graduate education I also see in FFVII a unique and instructive Japanese approach to the world (Part II). And like most fans of the FF series the music has been a major draw; as a flute player I tend to practice a lot of FFVII tunes (my favourite being “Cloud Smiles”).

II. Socio-political stuff

Race and gender issues

I’ve seen some articles since E3 discussing what should stay in the remake and what should be changed, among them more sensitive topics such as Cloud cross-dressing, and Barrett’s behaviour and speech being racist. While Cloud cross-dressing adds a lot of humour to the game, there is concern that having it simply as a humorous element and having Cloud unmask himself as a “real man” at the end of that sequence sits uncomfortably with queer and transgender sensibilities 20 years on. Though I think even today, if you ask an average straight guy to wear a dress and infiltrate a brothel, he’ll still be uncomfortable, and men he meets in the brothel would still be uncomfortable when they find out. It might be interesting to explore the diversity of orientations if someone were to be attracted to Cloud regardless of whether he’s in disguise or not, even more interesting if a significant character were bisexual or something (oddly enough I can see Aerith being such, also Rufus).

As for the character of Barrett, I would also say that because he’s a rather complex character overall and exists in a fantasy world, I don’t think his behaviour and speech really matter all that much in the end. For Japan, who has its own rather different racial discrimination problems, I thought his character was already pretty progressive. I also don’t know how much of his speech is in translation and how much of it was written in the Japanese version already, and if the latter, whether it signifies differently in Japan (I think in Axis Powers Hetalia, world accents were represented as Japanese regional ones for the Japanese voice acting, so if Barrett has something similar going for him I’m not sure Euro-American fans have enough information to complain). What I would like to see, though, is if he’s meant to reflect a specific racial/class demographic, when the English voice acting take place, the producers would actually consult English the way it’s spoken by that demographic. I’m thinking of the Zimmerman trial where Rachel Jeantel was deemed to behave inappropriately or spoke unintelligible English when it was legitimately a different form of vernacular. Anyways, I always thought his idiosyncracies were more about class than race, and I do think it’s realistic and relatable for a person of colour on the outskirts of the world to have their prior ways of life and economies (in his case, coal) to be interrupted by new technology from urban centres.

I think some things have changed, though, and the sensibilities of a post-9/11 and post-Fukushima world need careful treading around. It might be hard to pull off heroism of eco-terrorists blowing up energy reactors now, even if the heroism is only initial and Barrett recognizes his error later on. Fukushima also makes Advent Children harder to accept, as Geostigma and orphans infected with Jenova-contaminated water is uncomfortably close to the effects of radiation exposure. I’m not sure how the writers plan on handling this sensititive topic.

Japanese history

I’m doing a doctorate in American Studies, which examines the ideas and status of people within the US and the effects of the US worldwide. One of the topics is how Asia has been impacted by the US, and another topic is what Eisenhower calls the military-industrial complex, the consequences of which I think FFVII shows in the Shinra Corporation. If this seems far fetched, a similar thread that fans have also noticed is that Japanese anime, especially pre-2000 ones, has a lot of apocalyptic scenarios involving cities getting destroyed (Evangelion and Akira, to name 2), which people tend to agree has to do with a generation growing up after the atomic bombs.

When Eisenhower came up with the term “military-industrial complex” he was referring to the conjoined interests of legislators, military leadership, and the arms industry in the US. Since industrialization in the Euro-American world, a lot of the industry was privately and not state-owned; governments and militaries would contract out arms production to these private companies, and in turn government legislation would ensure that these private companies would be able to produces armaments smoothly. In broader terms, the military-industrial can also arise from the joint effects of military and economic influence, which would be different from a strictly economic force such as foreign direct investment. Japan would be the Asian nation which has felt the effects of the US military-industrial complex the earliest, with commodore Perry and the navy opening Japan to economic development in the mid-1800s. Rationale for this on the part of the US is numerous, some of which involving needing Japan as a fueling station of sorts, and also wanting to control shipping routes to China, which was seen as a huge market. Japan industrialized quickly and even defeated Russia in modern warfare, but the US didn’t pay it much mind since it was still preoccupied with Europe. Japanese and American interests around the Pacific began to clash during WWII; the incident Americans tend to know from this is the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour in Hawai’i. Then the US dropped the atomic bombs on Japan, leading to the withdrawal of Japan from the Pacific theatre of WWII.

Common knowledge about the US’s involvement in Japan usually ends here, and most people assume that Japan got itself back on its own feet. In the treaties after WWII Japan was forced into complete disarmament due to its encroachment on its Asian neighbours. Instead, the US stations military in Asia and the Pacific region to secure the places that Japan withdrew from (such as the Philippines and Pacific islands like Guam, as well as Korea). In addition to military presence, the US also heavily influenced (if not dictated) the direction of Japanese economic and industrial development into the 50s. Part of the result, intentional or not, was that the Japanese economy also became a military-industrial one to provide support to American engagement in the Korean War, and American influence in South Korea also created institutions to support its engagement in Vietnam. During these Cold War engagements, Japan, Hawai’i, and Thailand served as R&R stations for US soldiers on leave, which some people argue was the start of making Hawai’i into a tourist-driven economy.

I can’t draw a direct connection between Japan’s relationship to the US and Shinra, but I also think that an energy corporation with a paramilitary presence like Shinra would come uniquely from a country which has lived through national development influenced by a combined foreign military and economic force, and it would be harder for Euro-Americans in the 90s to conceive of this particular combination. This is especially salient due to the presence of Yuffie and Wutai in FFVII. Wutai’s cultural aesthetics are heavily Japanese-inflected; it was supposed to have been a strong warrior nation, but because Shinra wanted to set up a mako reactor and Wutai did not, and a war ensued that Wutai eventually lost. In addition, along with becoming a source for energy extraction, Wutai also became a resort destination for non-Wutai tourists, which Yuffie and other Wutai resistance fighters are ashamed of.

This lack of self-determination in Wutai reflects the history I have outlined above, where both Japan and Wutai have little choice but to become a proxy or service for another nation which is stronger both militarily and economically and uses the former to secure the latter. Reading Shinra as the US military-industrial complex might be stretching it, since the US didn’t explicitly carry out military-lead resource extraction; however, a number of US industries and scientists were folded into the nuclear development program during WWII (a good book just published about this is here), and it’s kind of unsettling to add the fact that the US dropped nuclear bobs on Japan to the fact that the nuclear reactors at Fukushima were designed by General Electric, which we tend to associate with benign home appliances. While the intentions of the US and of Shinra might be different, the result they have left on Japan and Wutai are not so different. Because Yuffie is the representative of this, though, the message is “safe” in that most people wouldn’t read threat in a young woman who’s annoyingly cheerful and slightly incompetent. There’s a whole area of research into why Asians like to convey messages in cute things, which I won’t get into, but recommended sources would be artist Takashi Murakami’s Superflat aesthetic (which he links to WWII here), as well as the chapter on cuteness in Sianne Ngai’s Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting.

Environmentalism

Another issue related to the military-industrial complex is environmentalism, which is on the forefront in FFVII. Environmental activism can date back to the 60s as a major movement and isn’t particular to Japan (though it did take place around the same time as civil right and anti-war movements). An excellent academic book that touches on this (and readable for laypeople / Japanese pop culture fans) is Anne Allison’s Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination. Allison argues that Japanese popular culture reflects the social conditions and aspirations that Japan has lived through post-war; one of the effects of industrialization is that areas of untouched nature shrunk, and thus many Japanese people feel a great deal of nostalgia for a natural or pastoral landscape (as a Canadian person, I was amused to learn that Japanese people really like Anne of Green Gables and are the largest group of foreign tourists to Prince Edward Island, which they apparently see as an image of what Japan had been). Allison spends a great deal of time talking about Pokemon; she writes that Tajiri, the creator of Pokemon, borrowed from his childhood experiences of catching insects and fish in his town and tries to recreate this experience of nature as playground, albeit a fantastical natural ecosystem of “monsters.” Allison doesn’t discuss this, but a more sober and ambivalent work in Japanese popular culture regarding the loss of nature would be Princess Mononoke. It’s also no accident that these works emerge in the 80s and 90s, which is when the generation born after WWII in Japan had matured into adults. Thus, while the environmentalism presented in FFVII seems to be a universal issue, it’s also very specific to the Japanese.

III. Philosophical stuff

Another rather Japanese-specific theme in FFVII that gets into philosophical territory is that “nature” in FFVII is not simply a material existence but a spiritual one, and is fundamentally no different from human beings. Hippies and esoteric beliefs aside, most people living in the Euro-American world would see nature as a resource (energy, raw materials) or as a setting for human activity and enjoyment (leisure, beauty, being in touch with ourselves). If we “respect” nature it’s more that we need to survive sustainably rather than for nature’s own sake, or when we fail to predict or control nature, disasters happen and we are humbled. If we “return to nature” upon our deaths, it is decomposition on a material level of the body, which we have in common with the natural world. Judeo-Christian-Islamic thinking has influenced most of us to think that human beings are exceptional for having souls, while beings of “nature” lacks it, even if we are not all religious adherents. The Lifestream in FFVII is a very different world view, where human beings are not exceptional, and everything returns to the Lifestream; thus, everything has some degree of soul, if that’s still the right word for it. Thus it also makes sense that Aerith’s flowers grow best in a church.

The Lifestream and good and evil

Because of this underlying spiritual element to FFVII, I think there are two parallel but linked frameworks of good and evil in FFVII. On the one hand, there is the familiar good and evil of an adventure story where Cloud and his friends, as the heroes, save the world from villains, which are both Sephiroth and Shinra. But what makes Sephiroth and Shinra the villains? And while Cloud is flawed, what makes him good, and what makes Aerith good? I think the other framework of good and evil is whether one acts according to the Lifestream or not. Two attributes of the Lifestream is that a) it is a continuous cycle where, in due time, everything on the planet dissolves into and b) in the flow, everything is broken up, remixed, and appears in a different form. The opposite of these would be a) taking something out of circulation and b) persisting in one form that does not distintegrate or recombine. In terms of nature and environmentalism, this would be plastic in a landfill. In the case of FFVII, it’s true that Sephiroth has killed innocent people, but I think his evil has more to do with being bent on continuing Jenova’s takeover of the planet, which directly affects the Lifestream; and Shinra Company’s evil is that they process the energy of the Lifestream into mako and use it up without replenishing it (an interesting article here argues that Shinra represents capitalism). Sephiroth is also guilty of this; in AC he explains that his aim is to spread his influence with the remnants of Geostigma victims, take over the planet that way, and use the planet to sail somewhere else to find another planet. This is definitely not sustainability either.

These are concrete ways that the Lifestream is affected, however there are more abstract versions of the two attributes. As life attitudes, the attributes of the Lifestream would translate to moving on when it is necessary to do so, and being flexible about what one needs to be. Here is also the reason I think Aerith is such a compelling character, and why Cloud is at first Sephiroth’s shadow but manages to be his own person. This is also where I think Advent Children shows a quite different manifestation of the same theme, a side which is important to consider.

Aerith’s way

In their own extremes, Sephiroth represents stagnation and self-absorption, and Shinra represents waste, while I think what makes Aerith “good” is that she lives her way according to the Lifestream and something like the “middle way,” and through her Cloud learns to do so as well.  This is also why I think it makes sense that Sephiroth reappears in Advent Children, since he is so bent on revenge and world domination that he does not allow his consciousness to dissolve in the Lifestream when it should. Near the end of FFVII, there is a discussion on Cid’s airship regarding whether Aerith planned to sacrifice herself, or whether she planned on returning to her friends (When Sephiroth tricks Cloud into giving one of his avatars the Black Materia to summon Meteor, Aerith leaves the party and goes to the city of the Ancients to summon Holy with her White Materia). The conversation ended on a note that leans towards the latter, but one wonders why, if she didn’t plan to sacrifice herself, did she leave alone and didn’t ask for help.

It’s debateable whether Aerith needed to die to save the world. She could have finished summoning Holy, and if Sephiroth’s power prevents it from taking effect, the party would have finished off Sephiroth in the Northern Crater, and Meteor would have stopped. However, it might be the case that even if events had unfolded this way, the party wouldn’t defeat Sephiroth in time and the Meteor would still be on its trajectory. There are different ways of interpreting the scene at the end of FFVII where the Lifestream rises up to counteract Meteor. It’s possible that the Lifestream would have done this anyways if the Meteor got too close (which is what Marlene describes in Advent Children), however since there is a shot of Aerith’s face in the glow of the Lifestream at the end, and in AC her voice seems to emanate from water, I prefer to think that Aerith was the one that instigated the Lifestream from within to counteract Meteor, and she could not have done this while alive. It’s not that she would have known when Sephiroth kills her that she needed to be dead, either; it’s just that she does what she can while alive, and also does what she can after death as well. This is in line with the attributes of the Lifestream, which is that she accepts what happens to her, moves on and takes on another form, which both is and isn’t Aerith, and makes it work.

Cloud also learns to do this by the end; on the airship he says that they all need to let go of Aerith’s memory; as he and Tifa are hanging from a cliff in the Northern Crater after defeating Sephiroth, he says that he is beginning to understand what the Promised Land is, and he could meet “her” (Aerith) there. Perhaps the Promised Land is the Lifestream and they will all “meet” Aerith upon death as everything recombines; perhaps it’s a place of mind where he understands that she is with them but in another form. Hopefully players also understand this by the end, know that hacking the game to keep playing her character rather defeats the purpose of the game’s thematic development, and most likely Aerith wouldn’t want that to happen. I remember reading fan confusion regarding the intention with her death, with the producer Kitase saying that the developers wished to reflect the meaninglessness and suddenness of death in real life (against the trope of sacrificial deaths in popular media, where sacrifice or love is usually a clear-cut meaning); on the other hand, resurrecting Aerith would take away the meaning of her death. I think what he means is that there is no inherent meaning in Aerith’s death, but her death is meaningful for the emotional and intellectual struggles of Cloud, the party, and the player as they come to terms with it. Paradoxically, one of the ways of making meaning of her death is to accept that it has no meaning to death; if this seems nihilistic, her death has no meaning because it’s a non-event, and she is not really gone, and you can meet her in the Promised Land.

Cloud takes quite a long while to get there though. If Aerith goes with the flow of the Lifestream and accepts that she dies and takes another form, Sephiroth and Cloud are too wrapped up in maintaining their self-image, to their detriment and the detriment of others around them. Sephiroth, for his part, goes on his rampage after discovering that his status as an elite SOLDIER was due to being experimented on by Shinra and Hojo, and strives for revenge and to continue Jenova’s supposed legacy of taking over the world (This second goal never made particular sense to me, since going from “Jenova was meant to take over the world millenia ago” and “I have Jenova cells” to “I must take over the world” seems quite a leap, and my only explanation is mako and Jenova-induced mental instability on Sephiroth’s part, as well as a slightly hamfisted way of introducing the theme of legacies). Cloud is so invested in being a member of SOLDIER that he adopts Zack’s memories as his own and deludes himself and everyone else into thinking that he had been in SOLDIER. Even as a boy, as he explains to Tifa when they are in the Lifestream, he told himself that he was superior to the other children when all he wanted was to be included. And of course, when Hojo reveals that he had experimented on a series of beings (?) in an attempt to create Sephiroth clones, Cloud begs Hojo to give him a number so that he has something to latch onto for his identity. After Tifa helps him to piece things together in the Lifestream, he accepts that he isn’t who he thought he was, and that’s all right, since the party together, with the memory of Aerith, will do what needs to be done.

Advent Children extensions

In Advent Children, though, there exists the opposite problem, where Cloud, presumably coming down from the high of defeating Sephiroth, no longer knows who he is at all, nor do the people who used to live in Midgar. This is the opposite extreme to what Cloud manages to conquer in the game, which is overweening pride; in AC he falls into despair. Geostigma infects people who have lost their will to live, and what looks to be acute Geostigma attacks occur during moments of despair or doubt, such as when Denzel first accidentally calls Tifa and tells her that he doesn’t know what to do with his family dead and home gone, and in midst of crying suffers an attack and passes out. Rufus is correct in saying that Sephiroth, by holding onto himself in the Lifestream, is responsible for Geostigma; his malevolence in the Lifestream overpowers those who let themselves go. Cloud, especially, isolates himself when he’s ill with Geostigma; this would be taking himself out of circulation in social terms. Cloud and other Midgar denizen’s issues in AC also show that while Aerith goes with the flow of the Lifestream, this doesn’t mean that she lacks direction or personal integrity. Whereas Tifa tends to hold back, Aerith acts; in addition to going to the City of the Ancients by herself, one detail I remember in particular is from recruiting Vincent. After Vincent explains that he decided to sequester himself in the Nibelheim mansion due to his inability to save Lucrecia, Aerith responds, “So you decided to punish yourself by sleeping? That’s kinda weird.” Aerith would (and does) disapprove of the way Cloud is behaving in AC, though at the end she acknowledges that he’s grown up a bit more.

I think the events of AC makes sense; heroes don’t save the world and live happily after. Sometimes overcoming a catastrophe means there are still pieces to pick up, which might call on different skills and attitudes from the catastrophe itself. There needs to be a medium between arrogance and despair, between action and waiting, between identity and adaptive flexibility, and finding a way of taking on someone’s legacy without becoming a puppet, which is what Sephiroth accuses Cloud of being. I find that the conflict of AC is more internal than in the game, though because it’s a CG movie it needs to show off visual aesthetics with visible antagonists. Oddly enough, in AC it’s Rufus who becomes the most erudite advocate for a healthy attitude, when he tells Kadaj that it wouldn’t matter if Sephiroth were to return; the cycle of the Lifestream means that history might repeat itself, and any number of Jenovas and Sephiroths would not stop those connected to the Lifestream from living as life mandates.

To put FFVII in context, I think that perhaps Japan, with their pride and ambitions during WWII and quick fall into defeat and surrender, particularly needed these popular culture texts to think through what it means to find a middle way. In the context of Japanese society, I suppose I also understand why Advent Children in the 2000s is tackling despair as the problem as opposed to pride in the FFVII game; the pressures of the education system, plus the recent 1997 Asian Financial Crisis and poor employment, likely gave rise to a lot of young people not knowing what they should be doing with their lives and with some becoming hikikomori in extreme cases.

However, I understand the golden age of Japanese popular culture to be in the 90s, when creators were really trying to grapple with the history of their country and what it means to live life to its fullest potential. Since then, I’m rather disappointed to see tropes recycled a lot without much substance behind them, and also Japan’s national branding project in the 2000s (the Cool Japan cultural policy) means that Japanese popular culture may be more devoted of its global image to non-Japanese, whereas self-searching is perhaps put on the backburner. With a new FFVII remake, I hope that it would carry forwards the social and philosophical ruminations of the original game and AC, and even be thematically different from the game so as to continue to reflect what Japan is internally going through today. Regardless, as a major fan of FFVII, I’m looking forward to what the reunion might bring.