Sunday, July 6, 2014

“It is lonely when you're among people, too”: What? We're Heinous Kidnappers!

Even the best of shows can have bad days. Yes, unfortunately, it is in fact possible for Dirty Pair to go off the rails, and this is a good example of what it looks like when it does. The streak is over: For the first time, we've come across an episode of this series that doesn't really work.

The basic premise is a sound enough one. Throwing Kei and Yuri into a high fantasy story and seeing what happens is an entirely reasonable idea for a Dirty Pair episode, especially in the context of the way the genres of high fantasy and science fiction have evolved over time. Though the most famous iteration of it began as technophillic futurist speculative fiction about logic puzzles, sci-fi as of the 1980s is a profoundly different thing. This is in part due to Star Wars making it OK again to do sci-fi stories on a mass-market scale not in the US Golden Age Hard SF vein, but other ways of doing high-tech stories about starships and space travel and things like that have always existed. This secondary tradition is one Dirty Pair is very much a part of, in part because of the differences between US and Japanese Golden Age science fiction, but also because Dirty Pair is the kind of sci-fi that is able to divorce a futuristic setting from futurism: This is not a series that speculates about future technology, it uses its setting as metaphor and allegory for the issues it's trying to look at. Again, this is a hallmark of Japanese science fiction in general, but Dirty Pair takes it to its logical endpoint.

(The crowning achievement in using sci-fi settings and imagery as narrative is, of course, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, the film version of which it is quite clear to me that the writers of this episode had seen, if not actually understood. More on this later.)

Because of this, perhaps counterintuitively, science fiction is uniquely suited amongst genre fiction to looking at extremely ancient and esoteric themes: Look once again at, for example, BRIAN's role in “How to Kill a Computer”, or indeed, the resolution of last week's episode and the Lovely Angels themselves. The Dirty Pair Strike Again effortlessly tackled really complex and heady themes about spiritual enlightenment and material social progress. High fantasy (and by this I mean the kind of tradition that sprung up in the wake of people like J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and that George R.R. Martin seems to be a part of), by contrast, tends to be very gritty and political, focusing on the nuts-and-bolts of human society and, due to its fixation on things like kings and queens and knights and princes, enjoys gossiping about the goings-on in the halls of power and nobility. Exploring the space between these two poles and the way the two traditions have developed the way they have is right in this show's wheelhouse.

But then there is, of course, the problem. “What? We're Heinous Kidnappers!” is a story of two halves, to the point it almost feels like a different person wrote the last few acts. It genuinely feels like a switch was flipped during the commercial break and some other script took the place of the thing we were watching. The first half of the episode is perfectly executed Dirty Pair, with a lot of enjoyable banter between the girls, really tight action setpieces and a lot of musing on the lineage between science fiction and fantasy and what the role of contemporary sci-fi is. The second half...isn't, mainly. After picking up the young prince during the car chase, Kei and Yuri are as charming as they've ever been, acting like simply the coolest babysitters any kid could ever hope for. After that commercial break, they become utter buffoons, their incompetence and failure being the butt of constant jokes (and they fail a lot). All stop, you just don't do this in a Dirty Pair story. That's a fundamental misreading of the entire series: The girls are not hopeless stooges, they're consummate professionals who are chronically unlucky. Writing them as anything else is sexism plain and simple.

This is also where the Nausicaä parallels start to become more noticeable: There's a barren desert with a handful of nomadic people vying for the attention of huge imperial powers, the mounts our heroes try to escape the duke's aircars on bear a striking resemblance to horseclaws (though they could also be Tauntauns from Star Wars I suppose) and the prince himself is an untouchable paragon of virtue. This kid is seriously pushing Mary Sue territory: He renders Kei and Yuri breathless with his goodness, nobility of character and unwavering determination. Aside from that just being insulting and wrong on principle, the major issue here is this sort of character simply does not work in the setting the episode has built for itself.

The thing about Nausicaä is that she isn't a real princess: She's an animist warrior-shaman who is trying to reforge the bond between human society and the natural world, a bond which she herself embodies. “Princess” is an honourary title people bestow upon her in gratitude, just like “Legendary Saviour”. Yes, Nausicaä is very much meant to be better than us, but that's owing to the cosmic wisdom her unique perspective affords her. She's a person all of us can aspire to be. This guy, by contrast, really is a prince: He's next in line to be king of a planet-state that's a major economic power and his inherent goodness is explicitly stated to be due to his royal birth and upbringing. So, he's supposed to be our role model and we're all meant to be in awe of how wonderful he is because he's part of the aristocracy which is...Yuck. I can't even begin to wrap my brain around how completely and fundamentally wrong that is. This goes against every single one of this show's themes and virtues.

So let's talk about the first ten minutes of the episode instead. Aside from featuring one of my favourite Gooley moments in “Stop whispering so obviously!”, which doubles as a nod to the show's by-now familiar internal meta-logic and another callback to the working class humour of “Lots of Danger, Lots of Decoys”, the episode's opening scenes do an altogether more solid job of dropping Kei and Yuri into high fantasy. Though it's explained diegetically as her fancying the idea of shagging a prince, I did quite like how Kei adopts the formal, slightly stilted style of fantasy speech when talking to the royal court (another scene that would have made more sense in the series' native language: Formal and casual spoken Japanese are dramatically different): Once again, Kei is acting undercover-She's completely riffing on the expected tropes and cliches of the setting, although that said, Yuri of all people shouldn't be so surprised to see her do this.

(And even Kei's supposed crush can be easily explained: In a typical sword and sorcery story, the hero always shacks up with the damsel in distress. As the roles are reversed here, Kei obviously expects she's going to be rewarded with a grateful and handsome prince to rescue.)

Also great is the scene at the university where the girls try to sneak into the boys' dorm to contact the prince about the need to take him under guard now that his grandfather is dead, he's next in line for the throne and the duke is after him. They make small talk on the side of the building fifty feet up about how awkward the situation is and how they're not entirely sure how to proceed. And then the dorm explodes, sending them flying into the air. The girls' espionage was first-rate; they didn't do anything wrong that would blow their cover, it just so happened that the duke's bomb went off at the precise time they were standing outside. Not only is this a perfect microcosm for how Dirty Pair plots are supposed to work, it's another way of the narrative pointing out how this is a story Kei and Yuri don't quite belong in.

The only thing really wrong here is that after this the second half of the episode happens, so we don't get any kind of development or resolution here. As a result, like the episode on the whole, the first half ends up feeling unsatisfying and like it didn't pursue every potential avenue it could have with this setup, which is something Dirty Pair usually has no problem with. One can very easily imagine a version of this story that did manage to go all the way: There's a possible examination of the differences between science fiction and high fantasy here and a defense of what sci-fi now has the power to do, but “What? We're Heinous Kidnappers!” fundamentally fails to explore this on any level other than a superficial one. Dirty Pair can't just riff on genres for the hell of it, and the moment it drifts into pure superficiality that's as good a sign as any that something has gone wrong.

Though I will say this: This episode may be bad, and it's not the only episode of this show that fails to launch either, but even here Dirty Pair remains an absolute privilege to write and think about. And I don't often get the chance to say that.

1 comment:

  1. Yes I agree, this one did not grab me especially. I even dozed off (!) in the last half.