Bury It and Rise Above: Chvrches’ “Bury It” Video, Kishotenketsu, and Race

Chvrches’ Bury It video is a great example of something called Kishotenketsu, which I talked about last week. 

Here’s a refresher: kishotenketsu is a mostly Japanese story structure that doesn’t rely on conflict to creat interest. It has four acts:

Ki – Introduction

Sho – Development

Ten – Twist

Ketsu – Conclusion 

Ki – the three young people (animated versions of the band Chvrches: Lauren, Iain, and Martin) are standing on a rooftop looking at a pile of random-looking items they’ve gathered. Lauren raises her hands and concentrates.

Sho – Lauren lifts some of the items telekinetically, holding several up at once. Iain and Martin join in, making individual items spin or lift.

Ten – (animated version of) Haley appears on a nearby rooftop. Random items float up in front of her, forming floating stepping stones, and she walks across the gap between the buildings. She then shows Lauren, Iain, and Martin just how much can be done with their power, including encasing herself in a ball of light and flying.

Ketsu – Lauren, Iain, and Martin join her, and they fly through the city together, happily, fully, embracing their abilities/creativity/identities.

There’s no conflict in the video, although when Haley first appears, she’s introduced the way enemies often are in comics and animation. Animated Iain almost falls when he tries to fly, then catches himself and flies off to join the others, but nobody sabotaged him, and it was a moment, not the main plot of the story.

I believe the story in the “Bury It” video closely follows the kishotenketsu form, whether anybody on the creative team intended it to or not.

There’s one more thing I love about this video: the parent carrying a baby, who was endangered by Iain’s near-fall was a black father. In the past, that would have universally been a white mother.

Black men haven’t been seen as parental in popular culture until recently. Neither were white men, but it was far worse with black men. Little things add up, and every subversion of the “savage black man” and “not a father” stereotypes (invented to justify slavery in the Americas and conquest in Africa) is a good thing, in my mind.

Did I mention I love this video?

Kishotenketsu, Story Structure, and the Nonviolent Imagination 


What is Kishotenketsu? It’s a four-act story structure characterized by a twist in the middle. 

As you can guess by the name, it’s Asian, originating in Chinese poetry and developing in many forms of Japanese poetry and storytelling.  It’s the story structure Studio Ghibli often uses in its films. 

But why should we care? Because unlike western story structures, Kishotenketsu is not rooted in conflict, and doesn’t rely on conflict to maintain interest. 

That isn’t to say that it excludes conflict, but that it doesn’t require it like the typical western storytelling. 

I’m not alone in my belief that we in the western world are primed (through a “mean world” viewpoint) to support war and nationalism by the stories we hear  from early childhood on. 

Western storytelling’s three-act structure is pure conflict: 1) introduce conflict 2) escalate conflict, 3) resolve conflict. And when conflict is resolved, at least somebody is going to lose, to suffer some kind of harm, be it physical or emotional or social.

Traditional three-act storytelling comes down to winners and losers, and I think we can do better. 

Kishotenketsu is a tool to help me do better, as a writer, yes, but also as a person in general. My nonviolent imagination needs nourishing,  just like everyone else’s. 

Kishotenketsu helps me imagine story structures that aren’t just boring navel gazing,  stories where things happen, even action things, but where the very heart of the story isn’t a struggle or conflict.

It’s also helps me imagine win-win situations, situations where conflict can be averted by reconciliation of opposites.

And it’s helped me learn to write short stories, which is something that completely escaped my understanding before 2017.

I think that’s enough for now: I’ll be revisiting this topic soon.

Protesters in Charlotte Hugged the Soldiers Sent to Suppress Them

As I watch MSNBC’s coverage of the Charlotte, NC protests, I see protesters hugging the heavily armed and armored National Guardsmen who had been brought in to push them of the streets in half an hour when the curfew starts. 

I am amazed. 

When Jesus said to bless those who curse you … this must be what he meant. 

Something went wrong the prior night, and violence broke out. The protesters made sure that didn’t happen again.  It was clear the police didn’t have enough people’s to control the protests, but the protestors controlled themselves. 

The national Guard was called in to enforce the mayor’s curfew. 

They came in Humvees, wearing heavy armor and carrying assault rifles straight out of Iraq.

And the protesters responded with hugs. 

These protesters are so much better than I am, and so much better than the people they’re proposing against. 

All I can do is speak out where I can,  and pray for them.

Three Reasons I Don’t Like the Third (“Modern Psycho”) Joker

​https://youtu.be/If2RbK9vUhU

If you’re not familiar with the Three Joker Theory (which isn’t really a “theory” in the comics anymore), the videos above and below will get you up to speed. 

Apparently, the three Jokers the comics are actually the first (sadistic master criminal) Joker and two versions of the third  (“psychopath”) Joker, the one from The Killing Joke and the New52 Joker (the one who cut his own face off).

Of course the Silver Age “prankster” “Clown Prince of Crime” Joker is missing.  He’s not grimdark enough for DC.

But that’s not really my complaint. Here are my complaints: 

1) Offensive, shallow, juvenile portrayal of mental illness

For 40 years,  the comics have been “exploring the psychology” of this “mentally ill killer” with little or no understanding of actual mental illness. 

Hey,  let’s have the joker cut his  own face off!  That’s crazy! 

And don’t talk to me about “super sanity.” Mental illness isn’t just some random shock value plot device that can mean whatever the author wants it to.

Constant portrayal of people with mental illness as violent, unpredictable killers adds to the considerable stigma they already gave and makes it harder for them to get help and function in society. 

 2) This Joker is no match for Batman without constant help from the writers  

As we see both The Dark Knight and The Killing Joke, “crazy” Joker isn’t really a match for Batman on his own terms, but rather requires the writers to make the various Bats indecisive and ineffective in order to succeed. 

In The Dark Knight, Batman is almost totally reactive and never drives the narrative.  It’s the Joker’s story. 

In The Killing Joke, Batgirl answers the door and just stand there in shock while the Joker guns her down. Batgirl. Not some random civilian.

Sure, it’s not always this way,  but it’s this way a lot, as best as I can tell. The Modern Joker’s superpower is being the writer’s power fantasy stand in, or mouthpiece to rant about everything they think is wrong with the world. 

Batman doesn’t need the Mobius Chair. I can tell him the Joker’s real name: Gary Stu

3) The Modern Joker is no fun 

In addition to being peurile and offensive, the modern Joker is no fun.

Did anybody watching The Dark Knight feel like the joker was having fun? Was that movie fun at all?  I would answer both questions with a “No.”

Heath Ledger gave a great performance, like a virtuoso tenor singing an unnerving, discordant song with lyrics we’d heard 10,000 times, lyrics that spread misinformation that actually makes life harder for people suffering from mental illness. But hey, what a voice.

I’m not saying we need to go back to the Silver Age prankster,  at least not totally. 

40 years of expectations make that untenable in anything but the most self-consciously retro context (like the upcoming Adam West/Burt Ward/Julie Newman animated movie).

To be recognized and accepted as the Joker, a Joker has to be deadly these days. For better or for worse, that’s the case. 

But that doesn’t mean you can’t have a scary, deadly Joker who doesn’t spread harmful misinformation about people with mental illnesses, who is a match for “Batman at his best,” and who is still fun. 

You just have to go back to the first Joker, and maybe bring in some elements from the second. 

Jack Nicholson’s Joker in the 1989 Batman movie was clearly an updated first Joker: a savvy career criminal before he ever became the Joker, his “chemical bath” mostly just took away his fear and inhibitions, making him more dangerous and murderous without sapping his wits.

It took everything Batman had mentally to crack that Joker’s scheme. Even then,  defeating him wasn’t easy.  But at no point did it feel like the writers had to cheat in the Joker’s favor. 

Nicholson looked like he was having fun playing the Joker,  and I certainly had fun watching him. His soundtrack was by Prince, for pete’s sake!

Both Batmanthe Animated Series and The Batman kept their Jokers fun while keeping a surprising amount of menace for a kid’s cartoon. B:TAS even explored deeply dysfunctional and abusive relationships via the new character, Harley Quinn. 

So it certainly is possible. I just don’t think anyone at DC is interested in anything but pop psychology grimdark at this point. 

Come on, guys: Why so serious?

Ripples (Words and Actions Have Consequences)

​https://youtu.be/1VR3Av9qfZc

Sometimes we aim to misbehave

Most often, we don’t aim at all

In an intricately interconnected world

Our actions and inactions have meaning

Beyond our circle of friends
Beyond our monkeysphere 

Beyond our field of vision

We dance on spider’s silk

Intricately interwoven

Each step sets the strings vibrating

For good or for ill

For ourselves and for those a world away

Myths of violence prime our minds for war

Spinning up from children’s cartoons

To novels and political speeches

Desensitizing, Dehumanizing

One American life is worth

How many Pakistanis? 
How many Afghans?

How many?

Chocolate grown by slaves tastes sweet,  but not to them 

Clothes, Coffee, Rice, Diamonds, Gold

Products of foced labor, by children

So many things it’s hard to know where to start

None of us is pure.

I doubt we can be in a world like this.

Where powerful interests throw their rocks and hide their hands 

What can we do?

I’m no expert, but I have a few ideas.

Ironically, the first comes from Ayn Rand: Call evil “evil.”

Don’t give your silent sanction to things you oppose

Don’t give unspoken approval to things that appall you.

The second is simpler, but requires some self discipline

Pick a few things that are products of slavery,

And stop buying them.

Buy more clothes second-hand, if you can.

If you’re 6’7″ like me, that may not be possible.

Find something you can do, even if it’s small.

Only buy chocolate that’s ethically sourced.

Change where your money goes.

The third is simpler yet: spread the word

Sign petitions. Write your congress people

Post to social media. 

Get the word out, to people who matter.

Praise President Obama and the responsible legislators of both parties for tightening restrictions

For keeping dozens of slavery products out of the US  

Even if you don’t like their other policies

Fourth, if you are a writer or content creator

Be sure that what you create reflects your heart

Every work has a message

Every work shows and tells how it’s world works, 

How things get better or worse, 

What brings happiness and justice

Money? “Winning” the sexy love interest?  

Outwitting a nagging wife? 

Killing or beating up the right bad guys? 

Every story tells a story… or it wouldn’t be a story. 

Pure entertainment doesn’t exist

All Things Right and Good

You’re going to reach a point (We all do)

Where you must decide whether you will be right or good.

I know, Jesus never found Himself in such a spot

But he was God made flesh. You and I are not.

And when I reach that point, I want to say:

“I don’t know if this is right.

I don’t know how it fits in with systematic theology

With moral law, with moral codes

But I know how to be good.”

I’ve learned the hard way that right, like rights,

Can be abused, can be abusive:

  • Right and wrong (who decides?)
  • Legal and illegal (who makes the laws?)
  • Winning the argument
  • Contempt for the loser
  • Insiders and outsiders
  • orthodox and heretics
  • Moral panics
  • “They deserve it.”
  • “They would do the same to us.”

These are tools of domination. These are acts of violence

They’re labels and weapons the powerful use to maintain their supremacy

Be it white or male or hetero/cis.

It’s all the same. Power. Money. Control.

The rich men who wield it

The rough men who enforce it

The abuse and domination of women

And the blood of dark-skinned people

And anyone different in religion, sexuality, or creed

The enslavement of millions in for-profit prisons

And the torture of the few with neither trial nor hope

We can be right.

We can be in control.

We can hold the moral high ground

Or we can be good.

Or we can love as Jesus loved.

But we cannot serve both God and mammon.

A Missed Opporunity: Transformers Prime and the Smurfette Principle

 

[Note: I’m a little short of time to get this post up. It’s been a long week. So I’ve looked into my archives and found something I wrote but never published a few years back when I finished watching Transformers: Prime. The series was very well made, but like I said about Voltron, it’s neck deep in the myth of redemptive violence. It also suffers from a significant gender imbalance, both of which seem to be epidemic in our popular culture].

Quick glossary if you’re not familiar with Transformers. Autobots are good guys. Decepticons are bad guys. Optimus Prime is the good guy leader, a sort of father figure to the rest of the Autobots. That and the 1-minute clip I showed above is all you need to know.

 

It’s no secret that I like cartoons. One that I enjoyed recently was Transformers: Prime, a CGI-animated series aimed at older elementary children. It had ongoing plotlines and darker elements that made it a poor fit for little kids, but Transformers: Rescue Bots has covered that age range admirably.

Now, I really enjoyed Transformers: Prime, even though it kind of ran on the Smurfette Principle:

  • one female Autobot, Arcee, out of a team of 5-8 (depending on the season) total Autobots
  • one female human “companion,” Miko, out of three
  • one recurring female adult character, Jack’s mother
  • one female Decepticon, Airachnid, out of a much larger cast of villains

Watch this if you’re not familiar with the Smurfette Principle:

 

The female characters were at least interesting.

  • Arcee was by-the-book and extremely competent, but haunted by the loss of two previous partners.
  • Miko was fearless, reckless, and brave in a way that seemed to fit her youth and personality.
  • Jack’s mother was a smart, competent nurse who was trying to raise a teenage son alone, and doing a good job of it.
  • Airachnid was diabolical, and smarter than most of the other Decepticons.

The truth is, the male characters were often less interesting than the female ones. And that leads me to the missed opportunity, arguably the most boring Autobot of all: Ultra Magnus.

 

It’s not really a spoiler to say that at some point in the series, Optimus Prime is missing and/or injured and/or captured and/or just not available to lead them, and the Autobots are scrambling to regroup and find a way to be effective without their great leader. That pretty much happens in every Transformers series. It’s a tradition.

 

And during this time, a space ship lands, opens its hatch, and out steps Ultra Magnus. Arcee is immediately relieved (and actually shows some happiness, which is rare for her). She knows Ultra Magnus is a powerful soldier and Optimus Prime’s old second-in-command. He can provide the muscle and the leadership the Autobots need to regroup.

 

The only problem? He’s Lawful Stupid. He’s so by-the-books he makes Arcee look like a 1960’s hippie. He doesn’t value the “indigenous organisms” (humans), and he has trouble getting along with the former Wreckers (Autobot special forces: Bulkhead and Wheeljack, who really are indispensable at this point, and Miko, who’s become an honorary Wrecker). Over the next few episodes, he has to learn to bend a little, and the Wreckers (especially Wheeljack) have to learn to listen and work with the whole group.

 

It’s kind of a cliched and lukewarm side-plot that doesn’t really make a major splash in the storyline. Worse, it’s something we’ve all seen a dozen times before. That side plot felt like a rerun, and so did Ultra Magnus.

 

So what’s the missed opportunity? What small change could they have made that would have cascaded into something a little more complex and a little more new?

 

Instead of Ultra Magnus stepping off that spaceship, it should have been Elita One. And they should have used the same exo-armored, broad-shouldered look they used for Ultra Magnus. Just give her a more feminine face and more rounded (but similarly massive) torso, and have a woman do her voice.

 

You instantly add several more wrinkles to the old story of strict authority vs “gets stuff done rogue” that we haven’t seen so much before.

 

It would implicitly raise the question: “is Wheeljack really just against all authority, or does he have a problem taking orders from a woman?” Maybe you don’t even have anybody breathe a word about that on screen, but it still hangs in the air and gives the viewer another angle to think about. Now, given the way Wheeljack chafed against Optimus’ orders, I think the answer to that question would be “he’s got a problem with authority, male, female, or other,” but at least the question would be available to consider.

 

If Elita One is drawn more like Ultra Magnus, then it give an unspoken nod to people who don’t fit in traditional gender roles or lines. Arcee is clearly very feminine. She’s the smallest Autobot by far, and she has curves that look very much like a human woman’s. Ultra Magnus was one of the biggest Autobots (excluding giants like Omega Supreme or Metroplex), and he was clearly built for power. Making Elita One his size and built (but with enough feminine curves to visually convey “female”) would show more body diversity than most shows that have a main cast of ten women.

 

Arcee could look up to Elita One as a career icon, the first woman to hold a position of high command in the Autobot army, the person who inspired her to join the military in the first place. That could make the conflict a little more personal, and the stakes a little higher than just “Lawful Stupid vs. Chaotic Effective.” Now Wheeljack isn’t just bucking the chain of command, he’s personally insulting Arcee’s idol. That could also lead to some drama when Arcee realizes that Elita One isn’t perfect, and turns against her for a little while, until Arcee realizes that she’s idolized Elita One, instead of accepting her for who she is.

 

There you go: one simple change, one little twist, but it transforms (no pun intended) a cliched, lukewarm subplot into something unexpected and rarely explored. Nothing in the main plot has to change a bit, but the subplots and subtext become (ahem) more than meets the eye.