Sunday, July 13, 2014

“...passages that will invite Cthugha unto our plane”: What's This?! My Supple Skin is a Mess

Perhaps, ironically enough, because it is so reminiscent of the original light novels, this is one of my favourite Dirty Pair episodes we've seen so far. The girls are actually solving a proper mystery that has real cosmic ramifications for the first time since the beginning of the series. As a result, it's tight and engrossing in a way the show hasn't quite been lately, largely because it takes itself quite a bit more seriously then it has in the past. That ends up being *really* cathartic, especially after what we've seen the last couple weeks. Don't worry though, Dirty Pair hasn't lost its sense of humour: In fact, the entire episode is one of it's most elabourate and clever jokes yet.

Once again, the show is being rather blunt and upfront about what it's doing here. However, unlike the Mouse Nazis, this time it largely doesn't feel the need to scream this in our faces every five seconds, for which I am extremely grateful. That the monsters-of-the-week hail from the “Lovecraft Galaxy” basically tells you everything you need to know about what's going on and what's being pastiched. And Dirty Pair throws H.P. Lovecraft under the bus pretty much from the start, dispensing any and all pretenses that this is going to be some nihilistic work of cosmic horror by having the requisite Eldritch Abomination show up in the sewer under the girls' apartment building. Not only that, but even though the episode raises the stakes every act (first there's one monster, then a whole colony, then an even bigger monster that snacks on the other monsters), it absolutely refuses to let this overwhelm the rest of the story. There's certainly nobody driven mad from unknowable truths here: Though the smaller monsters do eat people and the big one is definitely a serious threat, everybody knows exactly who and what they're dealing with. Kei and Yuri even spend a good amount of time doing zoological research and give the maintenance workers a briefing on the creatures' life cycles and how to combat them.

We really shouldn't be surprised at the tack Dirty Pair takes here. The thing about Lovecraft is, beloved and influential as he may be, there are serious flaws underlying the philosophy and worldview he explores in his horror novels. The whole impetus for Lovecraft's oeuvre is a combination of dumbfounded, slack-jawed reaction to the vastness of the universe: The point of the Old Ones is that they're so beyond human comprehension they could wipe out reality as we know it and there would be nothing we could do to stop it because of how insignificant and helpless we are. Combine that with the fact that Lovecraft was also demonstrably a racist and it starts to become clear how uncomfortably indebted to xenophobia his work really is. There's also the matter of Lovecraft's legacy among other writers: Though his actual stories weren't expressly magickal per se, they've had a tremendous impact on those people who do have an interest in more spiritual and esoteric matters. Robert Bloch we've already talked about in the context of the original Star Trek, but for our purposes now it's maybe worth talking about Kenneth Grant.

A pupil, like Bloch, of Lovecraft's and further influenced by Alesteir Crowley, Grant was a ceremonial magician and Thelemite writing in the 1970s whose particular interpretation of magick revolved around what he called “divine madness”. By this, he meant that any path which leads us closer to enlightenment will, by definition, also reveal the incomprehensible horrors that exist on the cosmic scale. In fact, to Grant, enlightenment *actually means* accepting and internalizing the inherent chaos of the universe, and he explicitly cites Lovecraft as a primary inspiration and someone whom he felt understood the truth about the way the universe works. Now, I am *positive* the writers of Dirty Pair were not up on their mid-1970s Western psychedelic literature, but, simply because this show has the lineage that it does and is doing a blatant critique of H.P. Lovecraft this week, this puts it in direct conflict with Grant by default. And it's really not difficult to figure out why this might be the case. Although it borrows some trappings from Western esoterica, Dirty Pair is primarily operating from a syncrestic fusion of Buddhist, Hindu, Tantric and animist philosophies.

Actually, it's even possible to read The Dirty Pair Strike Again as the complete inverse of Lovecraft's perspective: The massive, pan-dimensional inhuman collective consciousness is inherently good and peaceful, and anything evil and monstrous that happens is expressly due to human hatred and greed. What Boralura wants is to show humans how they're connected to the rest of the cosmos, not dwarfed by it, and we're obviously meant to sympathize with it as Kei and Yuri explicitly become its avatars, a textual allegory for the role they play as divine avatars of the cosmos throughout the series on the whole. So, when proper Eldritch Abominations finally show up in this episode, not only do they have actual encyclopedia entries written by scientists who've studied them, Kei and Yuri turn out to be experts on Eldritch zoology and ethology themselves and use that knowledge to save the day. And, while they certainly respect the creature's power, their primary concern is getting it safely out of the sewers and back to its home: Notice how they don't kill it, but freeze it with liquid nitrogen for later transport. This is closer to the ethos of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind than anything in “What? We're Heinous Kidnappers!”.

There is, it must be stated, something of an East vs. West theme here. It could be argued it's really only possible to come to this viewpoint from an Eastern positionality. If you grew up in Western modernity, even if you have no idea who H.P. Lovecraft or Kenneth Grant were, take a moment to think to yourself how many times you've had the universe described to you as “vast”, “empty” or “incomprehensible” and how humans are just “insignificant specks of dust” when compared to it. It's an omnipresent theme in the West: Carl Sagan makes reference to this all throughout Cosmos, and I think even Calvin and Hobbes made this point a couple of times. Modernity simply does not like animism. It's a philosophy completely anathema to it (I'll also just briefly mention here how massively influential to and beloved by Nerd Culture Lovecraft and his work is, which is also a culture almost overwhelmingly made up of New Atheists, and leave it at that). There's no way Dirty Pair was ever going to invoke Lovecraft straight up, and no way I was ever going to not side with the girls.

Along these lines, one of the very best jokes in the episode goes completely un-telegraphed, and it's the revelation that said Lovecraftian Eldritch Abomination is actually somebody's escaped exotic pet. Suddenly it becomes a lot more clear why this episode largely takes place in a sewer: It is, amazingly, mashing up Lovecraftian horror with the urban legends about people flushing unwanted pets down the toilet and them turning into mutated horrors underground. Once again, it feels like Kei and Yuri have peered into the future here, because it's really, really difficult now to *not* read this as a meta-commentary on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as well, but no, the famous cartoon show wouldn't premier until 1987 and this is still 1985. The original independent comic would have been out by now, but I find it hard to believe that was something that was regularly circulated in the Sunrise animators' room, but I dunno, maybe it was. Certainly the original comic's satirical send-up of the Frank Miller style of cartoonishly dark and gritty comic book writing seeped in adolescent male power fantasy is something I could totally see Dirty Pair on board with, and Miller's own flagrant xenophobia (and subsequent deification by certain segments of genre fiction fandom) makes a nice point of comparison with that of Lovecraft.

All while this is going on, this episode is also subtly adding more nuance to Dirty Pair's conception of class. We've talked at great length before about how Kei and Yuri are working class characters and what a good thing this is, but any discussion of class does have to ultimately move beyond simply glorifying and valorizing the working class. While it's terribly important to draw attention to the plight suffered by such people, we must always be careful to avoid, through this, slipping into either a justification of the class structure itself or uncritical embrace of the status quo. Way back in the comments under the post on “The Ultimate Computer”, the story that first made Captain Kirk the working class spaceman, blog friend Adam Riggio pointed out that as much as we want to raise awareness of the working class, many real-life cultures inhabiting that caste reinforce very dangerous and outmoded ideas of violent hyper-masculinity as a way of dealing with the physical and emotional stresses their lives force them to endure. This is as much patriarchy and rape culture as if it were perpetuated by authority, and this is what Kei and Yuri are up against in the person of the maintenance manager.

The manager is an eminently unlikeable character, though unlike Graves from “Do Lovely Angels Prefer Chest Hair?” he doesn't make your skin crawl every time he's onscreen. He's one of those characters who you enjoy rooting against because he's funny and has a charismatic and magnetic stage presence. One can at least understand why he feels they way he does and sympathize to an extent, which we really couldn't with Graves. His biggest vice is his intense hatred of Kei and Yuri, which the show barely even attempts to dress up as anything other than a metaphor for misogyny. Especially considering the girls are the most professional and competent they've ever been depicted on this show, which is just triumphant coming after the way they've been treated the past few weeks. Part of the reason the manager puts them on this case is because, in his misogynistic mind, he thinks forcing what he considers to be prissy and spoiled women to work in a filthy sewer will somehow teach them a lesson.

But, of course, the girls have no problem with this (there are one or two offhand remarks, but they, like the title of this episode, are all clearly designed to be feints for people who might be inclined to share the manager's predispositions), and they spend the majority of the episode literally soldiering through the dirt and grime with the maintenance workers and regularly putting their lives on the line for them. And yet the manager never comes to appreciate them for this: It's sobering to watch the girls start out cheerful and eager to help, then stoically start to leave once the manager starts going on emotional tirades and hurling verbal abuse at them. You can read it all on Kei's face: They've been hurt terribly by his outbursts, but they understand why he has them. The Angels know when they're not wanted and not appreciated, and it's nice they have the power to leave a situation like that if they wanted. And yet even so, they continue to do their job to the best of their abilities and when Kei finally does crack and backhand slaps the manager across the face, it's genuinely unexpected, shocking and *deliciously* cathartic.

Basically what I'm trying to say is that, in this episode, Dirty Pair is criticizing Lovecraftian Horror and genre fiction grimdark by likening them to the endemic toxic masculinity that transcends class and culture boundaries, and it delivers this message through the medium of toilet humour.

Prophets, I love this show.

1 comment:

  1. "said Lovecraftian Eldritch Abomination is actually somebody's escaped exotic pet"

    Yes! I thought that was so brilliant. I see the narrative of the universe where Kei and Yuri reside being *so* much larger than the Lovecraftian one, the Tantric Goddess cleansing the cosmos and these ancient timeless beasts being reduced to a more minor aberration.

    I have always found HP's work far too serious, I have read it and enjoyed it, but not so much now. I don't really gel anymore with the idea of a shaping a narrative of the universe that is there to make us feel that we should tremble before it in our worthlessness rather silly.