[I believe for the New Year some reflection is in (dis)order. This post is a continuation of recuperate, replug, short-circuit]
When Leiji Matsumoto’s Mahoroba film project first came to light, and it began to appear as if he was going to connect, not all, but a good few of the dots and give us fans an ultimate experience of sorts, I dubbed it Xanadu after the semi-mythical Mongol city praised by Coleridge in his best poem IMHO and being farcically recreated, under lots of criticism, in New Jersey. And of course Leiji himself is sold on these utopian dreams…after all, what motivates his characters is their search for a similar place, Arcadia.
So what is Xanadu?
People sing about it all the time. Just around the time I was born Rush came out with an epic song on the subject based on Coleridge’s poem. A man is obsessed with finding Xanadu. He eventually succeeds and then time stops for him. A thousand years later he’s still around, now wishing it all to be over. Here is a video of it on YouTube:
In an (unintended?) ironic twist, the uploader introduces the song as a “timeless classic”. Yes, “timeless” is the right word. And Time-lessness here is the problem. Xanadu was wonderful when the man sought it, and now he thinks he has found the place and cannot leave, it has become Hell.
One of the most celebrated contests in Western historiography and pedagogy until very recently was the Persian invasion of Greece, framed as it was in terms of a (nowadays utterly politically incorrect) battle of continents: Asia vs. Europe. The Persians never once thought of Europe as a Xanadu, their motives in attacking Greece were much more mundane. But defeating Greece would have taken the Empire one step further toward its Xanadu, which was world domination. The Persians dreamed of it, literally so in the case of Xerxes if you believe Herodotus’ account. Greece was thus the gateway to Xanadu, and Xanadu was for them the possibility of ultimate Persian power itself, Persia as Empress of the World.
Now, to get to Greece the Persian army had to cross over from Asia Minor. The Persian general Artayctes supervised the building of makeshift bridges to bring the army over. He stayed behind while his countrymen streamed into Europe in search of glory. He apparently had a merry time in the city under his control (Sestos) and I bet you on those happy nights he dreamed of Xanadu. Alas, we all know how it turned out. The combined forces of Sparta and Athens first stopped, then defeated the invaders and tossed them out of Europe.
During the Greek push-back, Artayctes was captured. According to Herodotus, the fiendishly clever Athenians came up with the perfect punishment for the Persian general: they crucified him right at the spot where Xerxes’s armies had crossed from Asia to Europe under his supervision. I read once (or maybe I dreamt it) that he was specifically crucified on the Asian side overlooking Europe, as a taunt: “You wanted Xanadu? Here’s your Xanadu!” But of course as he surveyed the scene, suspended from a cross as if suspended in Time (they say crucifixion is an eternity of suffering) I imagine his eyes didn’t register any utopian portals but only the landscape of his personal Hell.
A few years after Rush, Olivia Newton-John came out with her own “Xanadu” song (for a movie of the same name). I was very small at the time, but I remember Newton-John being everywhere those days. Here’s the song and video:
The Xanadu in the song is an unmixed delight, but I actually find that Rush’s intuition of an intimate relation between Xanadu and Time is confirmed for me personally in Newton-John’s version. Let me explain. If I had had a blog circa 1980-1 (assuming such things existed back then and I was old enough to care) I would have never ever dreamed on even mentioning Olivia Newton-John or this song on my blog. My appreciation for the song (and I do like it) has grown on me with the passage of time. Distance has made of this kind of music an auditory Xanadu for me, though I’m afraid it’d take me a hundred more years to get to like that video. (BTW, I think there’s a whole generation of people for which ABBA fulfills this role).
So what is Xanadu? I am at a point in my life where several things and moments in my past seem utopian. As if I’m the reverse of the man in the Rush song. Xanadu is not ahead of me, but behind me. And this means that I cannot attain it, but this is actually a happy thing if you believe Rush’s song.
Leiji himself has no doubts on the relationship of utopia with past time. The phrase Arcadia of my Youth shows up time and time again, the first word sometimes being replaced by a more specific “thing” that instantiates or stands for that Arcadia. For all its sci-fi elements, the Leijiverse looks for its utopias in the past. For example, the last chapter of the Andromeda arc of Galaxy Express 999 is called Galaxy Express of my Youth. The idea is that what will be cherished is not what comes ahead but what just occurred. Tetsuro’s adventure is barely over and already nostalgia (in other words, the first real appreciation of the past) is seeping through.
Since Matsumoto literally believes in genetic memory (i.e. that we inherit our ancestors’ memories) Arcadia can lie eons in our pasts and yet dwell in the innermost core of our hearts. And since he believes in the cyclical nature of Time, then these Arcadias are also literally in our futures, although we always only recognize when they turn up in our pasts.
When I was in college the first time around, I had an image of Japan and specifically, Tokyo, as being Xanadu. Living there, that image was quickly undermined and toppled. Then Xanadu moved in my mind to the frosty coast of the Sea of Japan, but eventually I was able to pay the area a visit and that doomed my new candidate. What’s funny is that now I think back to a handful of small and cozy locales in Tokyo (watering hole, shrine, park) and I feel maybe Xanadu was hiding right there between the bartender and I or underneath a particular pond at night. But of course it wasn’t there. It might be there now but it certainly wasn’t anywhere around there back then. (I guess I’m getting old.)
So if you ask me what Xanadu is, the first thing that I can tell you is that it’s real. Tokyo is real, the Niigata coast is real, whiskey bars are very real. Love is real, our childhoods are real, and even the Gamilas and the Mazone are real (though fictional and not actual). What makes Xanadu special is a certain distance.
If you look the word up you’ll find a very real place, the summer capital of Kublai Khan. Marco Polo brought news of it to the West. All his listeners and readers were captivated by it. One of the interesting paradoxes of Orientalism is how Westerners were riveted by Eastern opulence and yet so scornful of the Eastern despotism that created it. And of course the reporters exaggerated both the opulence and the despotism. But this doesn’t to mean the East itself was only a fairy tale.
Nietzsche once said, and I only quote from memory, that anyone who spends a third of each day working (i.e. doing something they don’t like doing) is an idiot. I’m very lazy and a bit of a rascal so I sympathize with this view. However, unlike Nietzsche, I don’t have the financial means to avoid working. If you think working is Evil, then you have to admit that the means by which you avoid this Evil are Evil as well. Consider the Xanadu that is the Old American South (Gone with the Wind etc.). I’ve heard it said that the common man in the Old South believed that to become hired labor, to be under the necessity of working for others, was fundamentally demeaning. Again, I feel an emotional pull toward this view. But of course the folk that held this opinion had that luxury because their economy was founded on slave labor. The sentence I just wrote above is only accurate because in the mindset of the time slaves were not common men, they were not even men to begin with.
So there are little Xanadus and there are big Xanadus, and it would seem that the big Xanadus at least are founded on things and acts decidedly dystopian. Persian world domination would have been the source of pride and glory for Persian rulers for generations, but all sorts of trouble for the rest of the world. The status of the common Persian, oppressed and oppressor at the same time, would have been more ambivalent.
Kigitsu’s manga Arthur Pyuty the Night Witch deals with this matter in a very clinical way: there all fairy tales turn out to be based on distorted historical facts concerning very real higher life-forms that lord it over humanity. These beings are merciless and monstrous. The irony here is that what human mothers tell their children before they go to bed each night, the Xanadu these children are nourished on, is quite literally the exploits of the exploiters who put them down and feed on them. The children want to become princes and princesses, not realizing that their fathers and mothers were the ones who built, at a terrible cost, the very palaces they dream of living in. And at the meta-level we ourselves read the manga and empathize with the heroes (who are the monsters) and smile every time the humans get crushed.
It’s not at all dissimilar to a Marxist writer pointing out that many a countries’ “national hero” was an exploiter of men above all. But you see, there’s a distance there (between humans and monsters, or between the common lot and the powerful statesmen, or even between fact and fiction) wherein Xanadu finds its place. I think Time mediates this distance.
Manga and anime are forms of escapism, tickets to little Xanadus for their fans. We need to admit that there are a lot of disturbing things going on in these Xanadus. A clear example from the Leijiverse, and a dear one to me as it’s covered by the red rabbits, is the manga Gun Frontier. The story takes place in the Old West, and the best way to describe its tone is as “happy go lucky”. People get killed by the droves, towns get burned all the time, and yet the three main characters keep on wandering and wondering what the next town will be like.
It’s not hard at all to find the impetus of this work in Leiji’s own childhood. He grew up watching and loving Westerns in the harsh postwar era of Japan. The manga is a travelogue of one of the author’s Xanadus. But as I’ve just said, terrible things do take place, and by far the most terrible thing in this manga is what happens to the main female character Shinunora. Basically, she gets raped in almost every chapter. We’re supposed to feel a bit better about it because a) she’s strong, used to it and doesn’t seem to find it painful and b) the rapes don’t usually last very long. This last bit is related to a particularly disturbing fact. Her friends Tochiro and Harlock usually arrive just after the rape has begun! Somehow, they never seem to arrive in time to prevent it.
Int he latest chapter on red rabbits, a Japanese woman kills herself after she is raped because she is ashamed of her dishonor. Tochiro, who is originally Japanese as well, expresses sympathy with her actions. Shinunora looks at him and say “If I were going to behave like her then I’d have died 100 times already!” That’s how bad things are for Shinunora.
I don’t know about Japan in the 1970s (nor, for that matter, about Western films in the 1940s and 50s), but for myself and most of the people I know, rape is a heinous thing and something we wouldn’t even fantasize about. So I try not to dwell too much on that aspect of the manga. But it’s clear to me that this little Xanadu is meant to include this crime for some reason. And since this crime, fictional as it may be in this case, is founded upon the reality of rape itself, we have found ourselves face to face with Evil at the foundation of Xanadu again, and this time in a relatively small-scale Xanadu.
And I suspect it is there even in the smallest and most harmless of Xanadus. I remember standing breathless over a mountain range in South America and wishing the moment would never end. I was breathless in spirit, but the people managing the cable cars were breathless from working long hours. I remember looking over a gorgeous rapeseed field (politically correct name: canola) in Europe and wishing I could stay among the flowers forever, but I know the farmers have a less romantic view of the existence and purpose of those flowers, colored as it is by all the toiling involved in actually caring for them. If I willed these Xanadus into being and somehow made them permanent, how much sorrow would I cause these people?
Even if we don’t fantasize about rape, or slavery, there is still a good measure of Evil in our fantasies insofar as they involve stripping others of their freedom. I’m speaking both of real people and characters in fiction (and if there are characters in our favorite shows that would be down with fulfilling these fantasies then it just goes to show you the exploitative nature of so much fiction). We want to be actors in Xanadu, but we can only admire it from a distance, suspended. And the irony is chances are good that day by day we are automatons in another’s Xanadu and never even know it.
NOTE ONE: DEFINITION OF EVIL
I guess I can’t get away with ignoring this question, since the word is in the title!! The thing is, I’m not interested in defining evil in any absolute sense (if that is possible) but in describing a certain set of actions with that name. Just like scientists can go crazy trying to decide whether viruses are alive or not based on debates around the definition of life, and yet we can usually look at something and agree all around for practical purposes that it is alive in contrast to it being dead, I’m describing acts that inflict pain on and/or take away freedom from others as evil. In this way slavery and rape are about as clearly evil as you can get. If you give up your labor willingly then by definition you’re not a slave, and sex works in the same way. However you may wish to define the Good, we tend to think about utopias as good. So, there’s an opposition between our assessment of Xanadu and the way this Xanadu gets constructed (regardless of our moral evaluations).
NOTE TWO: END OF THE NAKAMURA SAGA?
I went at some length on the career of Miu Nakamura in my old post on these topics. Since then she’s announced her retirement and, as a parting shot/gift/gimmick, has released her first (and supposedly last) nude photos /DVD/comic, all under the title “a will”. The gossip is that her career is derailed and she’s desperate. She claims she’s really retiring and has no interest in doing porn. We’ll see.
Stephen Hawking and Leiji Matsumoto both agree that our future lies in space. Since I’m an Adult Swim freak, I’ll leave you with a brutally appropriate clip on what that might involve:
HAPPY NEW YEAR!!