Tuesday 9 July 2013

Transformers, Culture in Disguise

Our existence and our routines blend together and are fundamentally one and the same; the vast majority of creatures on earth move in sync with the orbits and rotations of the astral bodies.  Of course, life is not an endless string of identical days and weeks, and it’s never long before something out of the ordinary happens. 

As much as routines are integral to our ways of life, humans often feel the need to purposefully break the monotony.  Every individual will do this to some extent, whether it be walking down a different street on one’s walk home, feeling the urge to jump on a plane and visit a far off land, or leaping off a cliff dressed like a giant rubber squirrel.

In the same way, stories will often follow one, or more, of a certain number of basic predetermined paths that have existed since storytelling began.  The twists and turns, the delusions and red herrings, the uncanny characters, intriguing subplots, mystical locations, and so on, that appear along the way are what make a story worth reading to the end.  The patterns that we can see in storytelling teach us about the patterns that appear in real life.  They almost set the guidelines for what we are supposed to be and the expectations for what we are supposed to become.  And they are set from an early age.

One mechanism used extensively in modern Japanese storytelling is transformation.  Transformation is often only temporary and is only performed when absolutely necessary.  This will be familiar to almost anyone with only a microsecond’s glimpse worth of Japanese pop-culture knowledge.  You only have to look at Ultraman, Power Rangers or Dragonball, some of the most well known creations to cross the oceans, to get an understanding of this.

Some cynics might say that transformation is only used to increase the profits of production houses, and it’s understandable that they would say this.  After all, if the most popular characters can transform, it means a whole new set of action figures, a new video game, trading cards, chocolate bars…  If you can think of it, they’ve probably already slapped an image on it. 

Those cynics are partly right, and transformation, as a storytelling mechanic, is certainly heavily exploited in order to squeeze every last of those yennies out of parents and fans alike.  However, transformation is also deeply set into the modern Japanese mindset and, like any kind of moral storytelling device, it is a self-reinforcing, super-charged, transforming robot-beast.

So if characters in Japanese popular culture aren’t really transforming for profit, then why?  The obvious answer is to beat the villain who is tougher than the last one in order to save the world, or play out some other such flimsy plot progression gimmick.  Obviously this means extending the series and boosting profi… 

What generally has to happen before the transformation can occur, and the next baddy be destroyed, is some kind of learning experience.  This might comprise of intense training for an extended period (lengthens series by several episodes), some kind of epiphany that provokes a change in the hero’s way of thinking, or a heavy defeat to the aforementioned bad guy (followed by intense training).  Whatever has to happen before the big transformation doesn’t come for free and is the product of some form of exertion on the part of the hero.

Dragonball Z serves, again, and definitely not for the last time, as an excellent example of this.  When Goku is killed by his brother, Raditz, he forgoes his passage to heaven in order to train with the esteemed King Kai in a limbo world existing between heaven and earth.  Goku’s defeat to his brother led to the realisation that he was incomparable in power to his future enemies and he chose to try and increase his strength, eventually returning to Earth and defeating his next foe, Vegeta.

Often the main character will start out as bit of a weakling, with nothing but a dream, a couple of buddies and maybe a couple hundred yen in his pocket.  We can draw a parallel here with many pop-culture characters that have appeared in modern Western storytelling, but that’s pretty much where the similarities end.

Let’s take a look at some examples.  Here is a random selection of characters that popped into my head: Cinderella, Snow White, Spiderman and the frog prince.  All of them start with pretty much nothing.  Cinderella is abused and locked up in a cellar, Snow White is also abused and then runs away from home, Peter Parker is an orphan who gets bullied at school, and the frog prince is just a squishy green lump with a long tongue.

We are all familiar with what is in store for each of these characters.  So to paraphrase, Cinderella puts her foot in a glass shoe and becomes a princess, Snow White gets a snog and then also turns into a princess, Peter Parker gets bitten by a radioactive spider and turns into Spiderman, and the frog prince gets a good tonguing and turns into a prince.

The common point is sex that none of these characters do anything at all to actually earn their new-found positions.  All of them become something “greater” practically in an instant.  Fair enough, all of them had to go through some kind of hardship before the changes were bestowed upon them, but the resultant change was not their intended goal, except for maybe the frog because he wanted to be returned to his original state.  (Actually, maybe the frog is a bad example because he had to woo the girl (while still in frog form) before he could be restored as a human, but the girl becomes the princess just for kissing a frog (good kissers I hear), so I am right.  Sort of)

What these stories teach us, unlike their Japanese counterparts, is that no matter where you come from or how tough things might be for you now, you always have a chance for a better life, and multiple chances at that.  This is a good thing.  It gives us hope when things are looking down, but it might also be breeding generations of kids who grow up believing they are the real princes and princesses and that everything they want is already owed to them.

On the other hand, the Japanese stories may teach people, contrary to Western beliefs, that they are worthless until they have been through extreme, self-inflicted hardships.  The plus side of this way of thinking is that people grow up with a sense that the sacrifices they make now will be beneficial in the future.  However, it may leave people feeling out of place or left behind if they don’t know where to begin, struggling to find the belief to start at all because they already think it’s too late.

These conclusions are rather simplistic, it must be admitted, and reality is, as always, far more complex.  There are many exceptions to the supposed standards mentioned above, and traits, such as work ethic, focus and self-belief, that can be taught supplementary to mediocre fairy tales and misleading cartoons.

However, these repeating themes in modern storytelling must have roots somewhere.  Perhaps they have been apparent since the receipt of post Second World War indemnities and the subsequent recoveries of certain countries that were involved.  Perhaps it even goes back further than that -consider the Meiji Restoration and the colonisation of the New World.  Or even further still to the very nature of the figureheads of Christianity and Buddhism.  We can speculate only as far out minds will allow us, and I suspect I lack the knowledge to give a definite answer that isn’t lacking in substance. 

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