Sunday, July 27, 2014

“Heart of Wax”: An Unjustified Lover's Grudge. Let Me Love You Without Revenge

Over at Teatime in Elenore City, webmaster Nozmo has a list of mini-reviews of several animated Dirty Pair stories with ratings out of five. Apparently, this one was terrible enough to warrant Nozmo's lowest possible score: A 1 out of 5. Now, I can certainly see how this episode could rub some people the wrong way, especially if you happen to be of a Hard SF predisposition, as this is essentially the opposite of that. It is *quite* silly and there are times you worry because you're not sure which way it's going to go, but its not long before it becomes clear this is, at least as far as I'm concerned, yet another classic.

For the first time in what feels like ages, though in reality it's only been three weeks, Dirty Pair is actually shooting for the stars and hitting its target. There are moments of undeniable wackiness; almost to the extent of the Mouse Nazis, but this time there's enough charm permeating the whole production that it doesn't feel off-putting or inappropriate. And furthermore, much to my delight, “An Unjustified Lover's Grudge. Let Me Love You Without Revenge” is once more as cosmic and profound as this series has ever been. But before we can get into that, we should square away what is likely the biggest complaint about this episode right away. You would think that after all I've ranted and raved about lately in regards to Kei and Yuri being written badly, badly out of character and the narrative constantly mocking them I would throw an absolute *fit* here. This is, after all, an episode where Kei and Yuri seemingly spend an inordinate amount of time competing for the affections of a reclusive suave bishōnen millionaire, each trying to prove she's a “better woman” then her partner. Well, in between blatant pratfalls at any rate.

Ah, but this isn't even what's going on at a textual level: The girls are undercover again, this time extradiegetically. Kei (natch) even comes right out and tells us (that is, she looks straight into the camera and addresses the audience directly) their mission is to show their client what real women and real love are truly like. They fear Reamonn's dedication to Meshuzura, a plaster statue, is unhealthy and counterproductive, especially as they go in thinking he's a raving misogynist. He's not, just *literally* allergic to women (hence why he only allows himself to be intimate with plaster statues), but his inability to coexist with them is nevertheless seen as a problem that needs to be corrected. So, Kei and Yuri put on various elabourate displays of femininity they assume Reamonn, a dashing, upper-class aristocrat, will find attractive and appealing. Naturally, they fail hilariously and spectacularly, because Kei and Yuri can never and will never be subsumed by traditional gender roles and commonly held notions of ideal femininity.

(This is, in some ways, a scene that is more relevant today then it would have been in 1985, with contemporary young Japanese society *literally* divided along gender lines due to confusion over the collapse of traditional gender roles.)

From this point the episode does indeed get very slapsticky and silly, but I don't have any problem with that here. Firstly because it feels appropriate for the setting and the particularly light-heated tone about it, but also because, really, slapstick is good for women. Women should be allowed to be funny in media: It's an old and tired notion that only men should engage in pratfall humour because women are supposedly more proper, mature and refined. It's just another form of patriarchal objectification, just of the positive discrimination kind. As avatars of reclaimed femininity, Kei and Yuri obviously understand this and are perfectly willing to engage in slapstick, and with wild abandon to boot. Done well, this is a very *good* thing: It's a feature, not a bug, of material social progress. This is another episode I think is extremely easy to read as the girls poking fun at themselves (as opposed to the diegetic narrative poking fun at them, which is an entirely separate matter) in order to tell a story and make a point about what their roles are. And anyway, there's enough tension, action and symbolism to reassure us there's a great deal more going on here than a simple comedic runaround.

The opening scenes of the episode are divided between two wildly different stories: We open in medias rens with Kei and Yuri already involved with a case in progress, embroiled in the midst of an incredibly dramatic and brutal conflict with a crazed military leader who goes largely nameless, so I'll call him Colonel Patch. Not that I'd advocate watching “Pardon Us. Trouble's On the Run, So We're Coming Through!” of your own volition, but if you paid attention to the post credits sequence last week and then watched this episode, you might notice that every scene that teaser pulled from, with the exception of a brief glimpse of the final shot of Reamonn and Miralda, happens in the first two or three minutes. Thus, the “real” Dirty Pair story is of them sparring off against Colonel Patch and his armed forces. But this is not what this episode is actually about: The story we're supposed to pay attention to is quite obviously that of Reamonn, Meshuzura and Miralda, which the episode further spends its opening salvos going out of its way to contrast with the world of Kei and Yuri.

Reamonn soliloquizes alone and removed from everyone and everything else in his castle atop a cliff with only his plaster statue for company, his iconography immediately reminiscent of about a million different plots and motifs. His love poetry and the theatrical way he describes his plight is quite obviously Shakespearean, both in the level of its bombast and flair and also in the way it's dealing with very mundane, everyday emotions: His allergy to women aside, Reamonn's isolation and crushing loneliness is something a lot of people could probably relate to. His giant, sprawling, more-than-a-little creepy castle also evokes Gothic horror and Gothic romance alike, and his undying dedication to the inanimate Meshuzura seems custom-tailored to remind one of the horror movie Mystery of the Wax Museum and its remake House of Wax, the latter starring Vincent Price in one of his best roles. Both movies concern a quiet and lonely sculptor who channels his passion into a museum of lifelike wax sculptures he considers his only friends. He's driven mad when his business partner burns the building down to collect on its insurance, seeing it as more profitable then actually maintaining the failing museum.

But this seems a world away from the gun-toting drama of Kei and Yuri's story, as the girls dogfight with Colonel Patch's starfleet in the skies high above and beyond Reamonn's castle. The two plots have absolutely nothing to do with each other, and the editing goes out of its way to make this as clear as possible: It almost feels like we've perhaps tuned into Dirty Pair late and have caught the girls at the conclusion of an episode we never get to see, and the camera itself, recognising this, is flipping back and forth between two different channels.

Indeed, this is precisely what's happened. Just like in “Criados' Heartbeat” and “Hah Hah Hah, Dresses and Men Should Always Be Brand New”, we've stumbled upon a Dirty Pair story that exists within the subtext of the Dirty Pair story we're currently watching. Except it's a bit different this time: Given the elabourate and meticulous way this was set up, this is a situation the girls seem fully in control of, and this ties into how they portray themselves in-universe (and incidentally, this also gives further credence to the reading we afforded “Criados' Heartbeat” positing it as an abandoned or ethereal season finale from a potential future). What this means is that the actual Dirty Pair story is intangible and visible only in fleeting glimpses: The real story this week is that of Reamonn, Meshuzura and Miralda, and Kei and Yuri only get involved when they literally crash-land into their world. No wonder the girls seem to slip into the margins as soon as they get to the castle, occupying themselves with a comedy sideshow in order to give Reamonn and Miralda the spotlight.

See, Kei and Yuri were never going to win over Reamonn's heart because they are flatly incapable of being somebody's love interest, or getting one themselves. Their narrative roles will never permit it (unless you read them as each other's love interests). This is why they portray themselves as being utterly hapless and inept at romance: Yuri's overbearing efforts cause Reamonn to break out into severe allergic reactions and Kei's not a whole lot better. But it's OK, because, completely divorced from the micro-plot as always, Kei and Yuri have a far more important and interesting job then getting themselves involved in a Gothic romance. It's Reamonn himself who gives us a clue as to what this might be: As he recites poetry to Meshuzura, he tells her the gods themselves must be jealous of her beauty, and if she were any more lovely the gods would punish them both. Poetry, like all art, is an attempt to reflect some aspect of an indescribable and intangible ethereal drive in material form, and Reamonn's words seem to have touched on some kind of truth as fireball meteors light up the night sky above his home. Fireball meteors that are the remnants of Kei and Yuri's battle with Colonel Patch and a sign of the imminent crash of the girls' damaged fighter pod into Reamonn's castle.

As performance magicians, Kei and Yuri are both divine avatars and ordinary people. Mantling the angels and being guided by the cosmic oversoul, they, as we well know by now, speak for the universe, are guided by its drive to better itself and bring about the cleansing fire wherever it must be spoken. Though they didn't mean to hurt Reamonn and the “death” of Meshuzura isn't their fault, Reamonn is made to change and grow and move beyond her because it is imperative that he must do so. This isn't, I don't think, an idolatry motif: Meshuzura may be a “fake woman” and thus, I suppose, a “false goddess” but she's real enough to Reamonn because magickal symbols gain their power through belief and, after all, Dirty Pair has done sacred totems before. Meshuzura is also, at least at first, the only woman Reamonn is allowed to be with and her “death” is a very real and visceral thing that causes him much anguish. More relevantly, Kei and Yuri are not vengeful Old Testament gods who go around smiting people for idolatry. No, the problem with Meshuzura is that she symbolizes unnecessarily false love, and even if he doesn't realise it yet, Reamonn must be made to understand that his self-imposed isolation with Meshuzura is hurting him and, more to the point, Miralda.

Because he doesn't realise his allergy doesn't extend to Miralda (or rather doesn't apply to someone he discovers his true love for) and doesn't understand that Miralda's dedication as his butler is the only way she knows how to express her love for him, this means Reamonn is not living as true and fulfilling a life as he could be and is not experiencing a truly harmonious and liberated existence and is similarly keeping someone who should be his equal and lover from doing the same. Whenever one person discovers their own path towards material and spiritual enlightenment the universe on the whole benefits, so, on its behalf, Kei and Yuri play cosmic matchmaker; accidentally on a diegetic level and very purposefully on an extradiegetic level. This is the job of ideals: Kei and Yuri don't tangle with the complexities of love and relationships themselves, but instead tell us a story about how the importance of love manifests in other people. A love story.

Yes, Reamonn and Miralda's tale is as tropish as they come. Note, in fact, how Miralda is every ounce the Yamato Nadeshiko Yuri wears the stylized, caricatured Kabuki mask of-Once she lets her hair down, it's even revealed she has a near-identical character model to Yuri, save for her elegance, poise and proper jet-black hair to contrast with Yuri's cartoonish blue. Miralda is just about as stock and demode as they come, but she is the kind of heroine this story would have, and this is the kind of story that would have her as its heroine. It's the sort of story one might expect to be targeted at Dirty Pair's original demographic and, as usual, Dirty Pair has rehabilitated it into a story that works.

This episode even takes care to keep the Lovely Angels on a separate narrative level: Tacitly and arguably fictional characters in-universe, Kei and Yuri's fiery showdown with Colonel Patch is an awe-inspiring, catastrophic spectacle playing out in the night skies above Reamonn's castle, a story within a story within another story (and one that satisfyingly returns at the opposite end of the episode). Heroes and villains, they are our new narrative gods and goddesses, and when they fight there's no room for the mundane and everyday. But that doesn't mean they can't teach us something important about it: Indeed, the twisted, tormented melange of romance and horror themes joined of course, by the shared lineage of Gothic fiction, is a kind of voyeurism for emotions as grotesque and captivating as the imagery on display. Many such stories gain their strength by the way they magnify and highlight such things in order to say something about the everyday, and Kei and Yuri are not above telling this kind of a story...though they are above the story itself.

And in being so, perhaps it's now clear how Kei and Yuri also symbolize the true nature of Nietzsche's Übermensch as Avital Ronell sees it: Not as an Übermann, or “superman”, but as someone who is “over”, as in being “done with”, the idea of man, mankind and the certainty and singular, unified Master Narratives that go along with those concepts. Not “superior”, but “beyond”. In other words, transhuman. Ronell argues that Nietzsche saw the Übermensch as the philosophy of the future, a philosophy whose truths would lay with women, whom conventional philosophy does not understand and cannot read.

And, as they do for Reamonn and Miralda in this network of stories, maybe it's our divine, transhuman, cosmic avatars of reclaimed femininity who can show us how their future can help us usher in our own.


  1. Another fascinating instalment in your detailed exploration of Dirty Pair. I have to say, though, I'm intrigued by Ronell's reading of Nietzsche. I agree with her (and the wider post-Deleuze camp) that Nietzsche is ultimately a progressive philosopher, theorizing a constructively transformative image of the beyond-human. But associating that image with women doesn't seem to jive with Nietzsche's own ideas about gender in general and the female in particular.

    I always read Nietzsche as having developed what kind of morality that a post-human person would have. I work through a lot of this in fiction (and possibly film, if my new collaboration comes together well) with my character of Alice, which we've discussed before. Which I suppose does fit with Ronell's interpretation of the post-human as woman, but I'm skeptical that Nietzsche on his own could have come to this conclusion.

    Do you have any sources (open or pirated) where Ronell spells out her ideas in this regard? Particularly whether she's trying to say that this is what Nietzsche intended (a dubious goal at best, though one that arises all-too-frequently in the purely academic context) or whether Nietzsche is a launchpad for her own philosophical development (as I prefer to use the history of philosophy).

    1. The source I always keep at arm's length for summaries of Ronell's philosophy is her 2010 book Fighting Theory, which is a transcript of an interview Anne Dufourmantelle did with her in France. Ronell runs through her history with and conception of philosophy, expanding on a lot of her signature topics and talking about why she's come to the perspectives she has.

      The book has a ton of my favourite moments of hers, like her interpretation of television in the wake of the AIDS and Rodney King piece she did and her explanation of how she came to her brazen defense of Valerie Solanis in her introduction to The SCUM Manifesto reprint, both of which are things I wish I could cite more often.

      The bit on Nietzsche, like the bit on Solanis, strikes me as Ronell quite clearly engaging in what we'd call a redemptive reading: While she seems to stop short of saying Nietzsche actually intended the radically progressive stuff she attributes to his work (most prominently in The Gay Science and Beyond Good and Evil), she doesn't outright deny it's a possibility either.

      Ronell's big point is that the text leaves itself open to her interpretation, especially given the way she chooses to translate it (she charmingly calls Nietzsche "pregnant" from the closing moments of Beyond Good and Evil) and that it's our responsibility to mobilize what we can for the forces of material social progress. She stresses his fixation on the figure of Eve, calling science "Eve's abandoned kingdom". Following from this, Dufourmantelle describes Nietzsche as "a symptomatologist".

      Which is why I tried to take care to attribute the transhuman Übermensch stuff not to Nietzsche necessarily, but rather to Ronell's reading of him. I should probably make that a bit more clear in the final sentences.

  2. Wow Josh thanks for a great essay and what a wonderful episode. I do actually feel that this is my favourite story out of them all so far (Sunrise) and I really would watch this one repeatedly.

    I love the moment at the beginning with Colonel Patch where he states in one sentence what is brilliant about Kei and Yuri, in his surprise at two women doing what they did to his unspecified evil plans. Wonderful.

    I think of Kei and Yuri being the healers for Reamonn and thus also Miralda in this story. The first scene change from the colourful explosions into Reamann's grey/blue house is akin to Poe for me with it's doom laden, portentous feelings and the revelling completely in emotions of utter sadness and loneliness. His relationship to his statue feels like a removal from life, almost like a worship of death (that eyeless face) where any connection to the world is expressed through poetry and a longing to transcend the earth.

    His allergy is interesting as I see allergies as a resistance the natural world, where our bodies systems overreact to aspects of life we are meant to interact with and treat them as predators.

    Kei and Yuri then for me represent full-on Goddess-charged life crashing into Reamann's world and heart. This is shown through the almost sensuous scene with them in their bright pink pod as it plummets to the earth like the star or comet Reamann called for - as contrasted with the deathly hues of the dinner scene. And boy do they bring him back to life!

    Great to hear Nietzsche here - I have read works such as Beyond Good & Evil and do see glimmers in that work of an attempt to inspire us into a greater life more filled with aliveness and expression.

    1. A lovely reading befitting our Lovely Angels. Wonderful.

      I love the way you've evoked themes of animism, healing and artistic expression. I love how you read Reamonn's allergy as an overreaction to nature-That's literally what it is, and speaks volumes about our disconnect from the world we inhabit and are meant to coexist as a part of. I love the phrase "worship of death" to explain Meshuzura's symbolism, that is, an elevation and objectification of death to an unnatural podium, and I love how you link that back to art and creativity.

      I wish I had more to add aside from "I think you've nailed it".

    2. Hey thanks very much! This one really hit home for me and touched the heart of what is important to me at the same time. So thanks for your comments and for your essay Josh.