Thursday, July 3, 2014

“She who lives in harmony with herself...”: Hire Us! Beautiful Bodyguards are a Better Deal

After spending the last two weeks firmly and confidently declaring what it is, what it's about and what it can do, Dirty Pair is now free to go back to gleefully playing around with other shows. And it pulls a real doozy of a meta-romp this time: For my regular readers, one way to read “Hire Us! Beautiful Bodyguards are a Better Deal” is as Dirty Pair's interpretation of the “Gunfighters”/”Spectre of the Gun”/”Living in Harmony” trilogy we looked at *way* back in 1968.

A brief refresher: Long about the same time in the late 1960s, Star Trek, Doctor Who and The Prisoner all did essentially the same story where the show's hero (or heroes) became trapped in the narrative of a Western movie where either circumstances or some external influence conspire to force them into becoming killers (well, The Prisoner didn't really as “Living in Harmony” was hastily adapted from an episode of Patrick McGoohan's other show Danger Man, but that's beside the point). The crux of those stories was that while each show in some way acknowledged the performative nature of its existence, the logic of a Western was in some way anathema to all of them, that this was a role they were not meant to play, and doing so would be tantamount to narrative collapse. As the ever-astute Jack Graham, friend of the blog and frequent commenter, pointed out under the entry on “Spectre of the Gun”, it's telling this is happening against the backdrop of the Cold War, such that the “foundational myth” of the United States is transformed into something horrific, symbolizing an inexorable predisposition towards violence and self-destruction.

Dirty Pair is, of course approaching this from a wildly different perspective. It's not even indebted to Westernism itself as a fundamental ideology, let alone any cultural-specific manifestation of it in the United States. Furthermore, the key thing about Dirty Pair is that everything here is performative: Not only is the series itself recursively metafictional to a frankly silly degree, Kei and Yuri are professional wrestlers, so any violence we see is tacitly meant to be read as make-believe, which is an extremely good thing as an entire planet gets vaporized in this one. So clearly, any criticism this episode will be making of violence is going to be coming from the outside in and localized to the plot of the week instead of being depicted as a looming threat to the show itself. The first place this is obvious is the setting, which, far from cribbing the O.K. Corral shootout event from “Spectre of the Gun” and “The Gunfighters” or the Hollywood Western movie trappings of “Living in Harmony”, is actually doing Cowboy Bebop and Sukiyaki Western Django about two decades early.

Like in the former, we get a science fiction world that, while it is equal parts cyberpunk and old west cliches, is on the whole not actually all that removed from our own: There are street food vendors, boutique shops, Jeeps, semiautomatic weapons and the two rival gangs are both corporate political bodies. And, like the latter, it's as much indebted to a distinctly Japanese literary tradition of wandering samurai stories as it is to Hollywood westerns. This may take some explaining for my readers not intimately versed in the history of Japanese storytelling structure: Basically, the core conceit of 2007's Sukiyaki Western Django was mashing up the spaghetti western genre (which even in name it's a play on) with the rōnin tales of the Japanese feudal period. Traditionally, a rōnin would be a nomadic samurai who lacks a master and travelled the land in search of a new lord to dedicate their services to. The most famous example of this kind of story would probably be Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo, which told the story of a rōnin who comes to a small town caught in a gang war between two rival crime syndicates, both of whom try to enlist the samurai's services as a bodyguard.

This is what Kei and Yuri go undercover to do in this episode. In fact, the setup is a total riff on Yojimbo, and this would have been a lot clearer in the original Japanese: “yojimbo” literally translates out to “bodyguard”. And the show is pretty blatant about this-Notice how the very first thing Kei does upon riding into town is stop and order a plate of noodles, which she eagerly shows off to the camera with a knowing wink. Even for this series this episode is very, very meta: Kei and Yuri spend a *lot* of time speaking directly to the audience in-show, which is something they've never done before, at least not to this extent, and they're even diegetically acting, taking on undercover identities as rōnin gunslingers and role-playing laughably elabourate and melodramatic backstories (watching Kei and Yuri constantly jump-cut into and out of character is as charming and delightful as it is a brilliant use of Dirty Pair's animation restrictions). This is what “A Piece of the Action” would have looked like if Kirk had taken the time to write fanfic of his Mob Boss persona.

But, this being Dirty Pair, there's more to this story's mash-up of Yojimbo and Hollywood spaghetti westerns then just comparing the superficial similarities. The obvious thing to do with a setup like this, and indeed what Sukiyaki Western Django largely does, is compare the archetype of the rōnin with that of the lone gunman who cleans up a one-horse town and becomes its new marshal. And Dirty Pair does do this here, but it also goes one step beyond, and this is where the show either reveals its age or delivers one of its most barbed critiques yet, depending on what your perspective is. See, the reason the planet-of-the-week is modeled off of a wild west town and features two rival monolithic entities is because this story is a direct condemnation of modernity, and not just Western modernity. The hired goons Kei and Yuri beat up look exactly like the classic 1980s street thugs, complete with the leather jackets, green wolf hair and star earrings. Those two rival crime syndicates? Not only are they corporations as I pointed out earlier, they're also the United States and the Soviet Union.

They are, after all, hoarding an extremely rare and valuable natural resource in the Newstone Ore for themselves. They're also fighting over a massive weapon that has the potential to destroy the planet if it's used, and the “solution” they come up with is basically tantamount to Mutually Assured Destruction. And, through the people they hire (the aforementioned goons, but also dangerous specialists like the rōnin Kei and Yuri are playing) they're forcing people to fight in proxy wars to consolidate power and territory. This becomes the most clear when the girls' cover is blown and Kei and Yuri are forced to fight one other, both sides striking a temporary truce to watch them beat the tar out of each other to satiate their bloodlust for lurid and violent spectacle. Any public political disagreements between gigantic institutions are set aside if it means they get to enjoy screwing over everyday people together. So, trapped in the conflict between two indifferent monolithic corporate-state powers, the Angels respond with that most Dirty Pair of concepts: Fake fighting that they sell like absolute champions. 

Dirty Pair is saying that, just as the two crime syndicates are basically the same thing, so are the US and the USSR. One may sell itself on the virtues of its free-market capitalism and the other may trumpet its so-called communism, but they're both talking bullshit and are in truth just two different flavours of authoritarianism. Two symptomatic facets of the same modernity plague that is rapidly plunging the entire world into peril. And, lest you think Japan is being spared here, think again: There's a reason this story invokes a classic story archetype of feudal Japan here and why the setting draws equally as heavily on Japanese imagery and symbols as it does anything else. Modern Japan is just as much a part of the problem through buying into the same toxic and dehumanizing ideology, and it deserves no quarter from the cleansing fire.

Which is why there was really only ever one way for this episode's climax to resolve itself: The whole planet gets blown to hell. No more proxy wars, no more jockeying for position, no more resource hoarding, no more nothing. The universe has to live or die by its own merits. It's worth remembering here not just this story's antecedent in The Prisoner, but also this show's own premier episode. Though BRIAN is a supercomputer, his role in “How to Kill a Computer” was very much the voice of the planet, or perhaps the voice of nature. His feelings of betrayal came about because of the installation of the Z-Box without his knowledge, a device textually coded like a nuclear launch button. Through the Cold War, crisis of modernity that it is, we have turned our backs on the world and forgotten how to live as part of the cosmos. In other words, those who sell their souls to modernity for promises of short-term material gain are no longer “living in harmony” with the universe.

Those are dark incantations. And dark magick must always be opposed by Angels and their cleansing light.


  1. What a great reading. The idea of the cleansing fire makes me think of framing the Dirty Pair with another goddess related to Tantra - Kali who as well as being a destroyer of dark, evil forces can also be benign in some aspects.

  2. One of the strange and wonderful things about Yojimbo is how the story has been translated across various genres and media forms. The basic story was adapted from Dashell Hammett's Red Harvest, a novel featuring the Continental Op, one of the original "secret agent" characters. From there, it is turned into a samurai epic by Kurosawa, and then a western, A Fistful of Dollars by Sergio Leone, master of the spaghetti western.

    And in this episode, we have our secret agents, dressed as cowboys, acting as bodyguards ("yojimbos"), playing one side off the other. And just last episode, they raided and destroyed Poisonville, the name of the town in Red Harvest. Brilliant!