Politics in art and the value of escapism

Warning: it’s a real load of bullshit this time. I talk about politics, angry people on the internet, and the end of the world, and it’s probably a mess. Maybe. Judge for yourself. I had to get this out, anyway. Next time I’ll post something more normal.

I’ve written about politics here on occasion, usually in the context of law when it relates to the main subjects on this site — games, anime, etc. Anyone who knows me well in real life can tell you roughly where I fall politically (because I probably went on about it once in a caffeine-fueled rant to them, something like this one): I believe in maintaining the rule of law, in fair and equal process without discrimination, in improving both the access to and quality of essential social services like public education and health, and in rebuilding and repairing the national infrastructure. I consider one of the most important roles of government to be the maintenance of a balance between individual freedoms and the good of society as a whole. And I wish we’d have a metro system where I live that’s not a complete fucking embarrassment.

Even the shitass train and highway system in my old, long-gone SimCity 2000 save is better that what we have in my city.

But why am I talking about my politics now? Because apparently the subject just can’t be avoided, even if I were to stick to writing about games, anime, and music on this site without any reference to politics. Because the concerns I’ve brought up in past posts on the subjects of access to art, on public censorship and private pressures to freeze out NSFW/18+ work, apparently put me in the alt-right camp where some of these are used as talking points. So I’ve been told in a few conversations. Sure, I’m alt-right… even though I’d be thoroughly despised by just about everyone in that camp for most of the views I expressed above.

But no, they’re correct. I must actually be in the alt-right without knowing it. Well, it makes sense — after all, people with anime avatars and by extension anime-styled game-themed avatars are probably mostly extremist trolls. And do you like the wildly popular Attack on Titan? Be careful — it’s also a favorite of the far right.

Of course, some people believe that all art is political and so it’s only natural that the conversation involves politics. But then I don’t agree with that stance at all. Is some art political? Absolutely. Art has been used to express political ideas for thousands of years. And of course, anime and games are included in that set of work: it would be ridiculous to suggest Legend of the Galactic Heroes doesn’t involve politics for example; it can’t even be talked about meaningfully without bringing its politics up. And some works that don’t explicitly address such issues can still be examined from political, social, and economic angles.

And LOGH is more relevant now than it’s ever been since it aired.

But is all art political? Is a pure jazz album without lyrics or any apparent message like MSB political? What about an ultraviolent over-the-top gangster story like Vice City? What about a surrealistic slapstick gag comedy like Asobi Asobase, or a silly romantic comedy like Uzaki-chan Want to Hang Out? Where’s the politics behind these works? According to the definition of “political” I’ve sometimes seen used, any work of art that deals with any aspect of life at all is political. To me, this definition is so broad that it becomes completely meaningless.

And even if we agree that a more ambiguous work of art deals with politics, how can we pin down what sort of politics it espouses? The New Republic article above is a good example: the author, a professed left-winger and a fan of Attack on Titan, comments on how both left- and right-wingers have interpreted the series in very different ways that fit their own worldviews. By the end of the article, he notes that manga author Hajime Isayama doesn’t want to tell his readers how to interpret his work — a feeling that I understand and sympathize with myself. But the writer of the article seems almost to blame Isayama for not correcting posters on the virulently right-wing sections of 4chan and elsewhere about what Attack on Titan is supposed to mean. As if that would prevent such people from making their own interpretations of it anyway.1

Another problem I have with this “all art is political” argument is that it often seems to be used as a way to argue some work or other is socially harmful to justify its removal from a private platform, or to try to discourage and freeze out NSFW styles of art. I already addressed this argument here, so I won’t go through it again in detail, but the gist of my response was that if a great enough social harm can be shown to justify removing access to the work in question, I’m fine with having it kicked off platforms. However, the justification I hear so often of “because I think it’s distasteful/disgusting” without more isn’t enough to prove this kind of harm. The burden of proof on those arguing to remove access to artistic works has to be set extremely high, otherwise it’s too easy to turn out any work with anything near a sharp edge that might put a few people off. Granted, I’m not talking here about a legal burden of proof — I leave that for arguments involving the First Amendment, which this one doesn’t necessarily. But I think the concept can and should be applied in a similar way when considering not just the creation of art but of access to it.

I don’t think any of the points I’ve made here are particular to a right-wing mindset. To any right-wingers who might be reading, feel free to tell me if I’m wrong, but you’re not the only ones who profess to believe in free expression, are you? On the contrary, we’ve seen throughout history that those greedy for control and power, regardless of their political stance, are happy to deny freedom of expression and to deny the public access to artistic works they dislike. For the most recent major example, see Xi Jinping’s wide-reaching crackdowns on popular culture in mainland China — anything that even smells like a hint of diversity away from the standard he and his CCP hold up seems to be a target now.

But outside of those really oppressive examples, why does any of this shit matter? There’s still another argument I’ve heard that none of the above matters very much in the face of far more serious social, economic, and political problems — another one that I’ve addressed once before.

Again, I’ll acknowledge that the entire human race faces massive obstacles, some of which may not even be possible to get over. To me and to many others, climate change is the greatest of these obstacles. Together with the threat of civilization-scale suicide by nuclear war that’s been around since the 1940s and more generally defects in human nature that haven’t disappeared or arguably even diminished very much since ancient times,2 and with COVID on top of that, it’s no wonder there’s so much talk about apocalyptic scenarios these days (at least for us humans. The roaches will still be around, damn them.)

And yet again, I say: all the more reason to have a permissive attitude towards escapist styles of art. What the hell else are people supposed to do to let off steam? Yoga, exercise, and healthy eating just aren’t enough sometimes, and certainly not now. Art has practical uses in addition to its inherent value. One of these is its use as a way to express political ideas, yes, but another is the power it holds to let people escape from reality for a while into a novel, a game, an anime or TV series or comic — and of course, there’s nothing to say the two can’t be combined in the same work.

A lot of the anger over games and other popular art forms being “attacked” or “invaded” by people with political agendas is misplaced, I think — all art should be open to criticism, and it’s impossible to “remove the politics” from anime and games since some of these works clearly deal with political and social issues. Certain right/alt-right figures in the gaming and film spheres especially have used this anger to stir the pot for their own purposes, making and inspiring arguments based on racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and other -isms and -phobias (see some of the criticism of the last few Star Wars films or The Last of Us Part II for examples — though of course some defenders of these works were all too happy to paint all criticism with that brush, which was completely inaccurate and disingenuous.)

At the same time, I understand the mistrust some fans feel towards the especially vocal critics who speak against works full of sexual and/or violent elements. This debate around the contents of popular media, and especially of video games, has been raging for three decades now, and for what? There’s never been proof (despite constant claims of it) that these kinds of expressions affect real-life behavior for the worse. On the contrary, it feels to me more natural to think that they act as a sort of “release valve” for people to indulge in extreme behaviors they never would in real life. If you’ve played GTA, for instance, how many wild, murderous rampages have you gone on in game? Does that mean you’d go on any in real life? Have these in-game experiences even made you more callous towards real-life suffering? Similar questions can be raised about sexual content in games, anime, and elsewhere.

I just wanted to play GTA for half an hour but suddenly I’m okay with murder as a result. Shit.

Too often I’ve heard it said with complete authority, but no factual support, that “fiction affects reality” with the implication that writers, artists, and others involved in the creative process have a duty to always create in a socially responsible way. Maybe it’s a mark of my embarrassing immaturity, but I can’t agree with that, or at least not in all cases. If the work is meant to address serious issues — if the creators opened that door — then I agree that such criticism is completely warranted. But there has to be room for pure escapism as well. Age-restricted if necessary, of course, but beyond that, without an extremely strong argument I don’t think it’s warranted to call for the removal of games or series from platforms, bookstores, or any other shops or the freezing out of such works on these grounds.

And I don’t think saying so puts me in a certain political camp. Unless that camp is “people who like lewd anime girls”, and despite efforts to make that seem like an alt-right thing, I’m also committed to helping defend democracy from the extremists who would destroy it. Quite literally: I took an oath to defend the US Constitution when I joined the bar, and I take it seriously. I’m also worried about the future of my country for perhaps obvious reasons. That said, I’m not going to simply fold up and drop this other subject, since I feel more than anything that they go hand in hand.

Yeah I picked this screenshot to place here because they’re holding hands, but it’s also relevant because The Expression: Amrilato was briefly removed from Steam for supposedly being too spicy. Which it really isn’t.

As usual, please feel free to tell me if you think I’ve lost my mind. More likely I’ve never found it.

To be more serious, I know my own life experience colors my feelings about all of the above, and though I do my best to consider my arguments fairly and without too much bias, it’s not possible to remove myself from them. It’s probably not advisable anyway, even if I could. Otherwise what would be the point of writing here? But for this reason and others, I’m always happy to hear differing opinions. In the end, after all, we’re all in the same boat — a boat that might be sinking.

 

1 This isn’t to say that an artistic work with an explicit political message is any worse than one with an ambiguous message or none at all. It all depends on how honestly the work approaches the beliefs and the issues it’s dealing with and how much or little credit it gives its audience. i.e. don’t talk down to me like I’m a child or try to pull some silly straw man bullshit to “prove” your stance is correct.

2 Here I’m starting down an entirely different path that involves history, psychology, sociology and a lot of other -ologies (all ending in eschatology, of course.) I love reading and thinking about history, but I’m an amateur at best in that field and can’t even call myself one in the others. Still, here’s my dumbass opinion: I feel we have far stronger norms these days generally speaking that keep us in line and cooperating to some extent (see international organizations and agreements that only became a standard thing after World War II — I’m not counting the clusterfuck that was the League of Nations) but in the end, human nature seems like it’s still more or less what it always has been. Read Thucydides to see a good example of that. What struck me most about his History of the Peloponnesian War, written 2,400 years ago, is how familiar all the political deceit and militaristic dick-swinging he describes felt, especially at the time I read it in the mid-2000s.

But that’s a debate that I won’t engage in any more deeply because, once again, I’m not really qualified to do so. I’m not academia and never have been. Though a gig as a law school professor would be nice — those people are so incredibly overpaid that it’s practically a crime.

Deep reads #6: Artificial life in a natural world

It’s been a while since the last one of these, hasn’t it? It takes a long time to put these deep read posts together, but I always feel good by the end. This time, I dive into artificial intelligence, a field I have a lot of interest in but absolutely no technical knowledge about beyond the most basic level. For that reason, I’ve tried to avoid getting into those technical areas I don’t understand well, sticking to the more philosophical aspects that I can actually sort of write about. If you know more about the subject and can bring your own perspective to the comments section, I’d welcome that.

Also, some story spoilers for Time of Eve, and very very general ending spoilers for the film Ex Machina just in case you plan to watch these and want to go in blind, which is always best in my opinion. Just being safe as usual. And now on to the business.

Sometime in the future, society has started to integrate realistic human-looking androids into everyday life. Rikuo, a high school student, relies on his family’s household android to make his coffee and breakfast in place of his seemingly always absent parents.

One day, Rikuo checks on the movements of this android and discovers that she’s been visiting a mysterious location on a regular basis, a place that he never told her to visit. After letting his friend and classmate Masaki know about it, he decides to investigate by going there himself. And so he finds Time of Eve, a café with a special rule: no discrimination between humans and androids allowed.

Time of Eve is a six-episode original anime series aired online in 2008, sometimes listed under its Japanese name Eve no Jikan. It was on my list to watch for a long time until I finally got to it last year. And while I enjoyed it, the series also raised some questions, or maybe reminded me of questions I’d already been asking myself — questions way too big for my own puny mind about the future of humanity.

Most of the action in Time of Eve takes place in the café it’s named after. Rikuo and Masaki don’t fit in very well at first, though. The lone proprietor Nagi is welcoming and friendly, but she also demands that they stick to the house rule: no discrimination between human and android patrons. This even includes asking whether a patron is human or not, leading Rikuo and Masaki to look around and speculate about all the café’s customers.

But why would this even be an issue? As Masaki explains to Rikuo, Time of Eve operates within a gray area of the law. In response to the creation of humanoid robots so realistic that they’re passing the Turing test left and right, legislators have passed laws that require they use holographic halo-like rings to differentiate them from humans. At the café, nobody has a ring, but Rikuo knows his family’s household android has been here, and considering the house rule, it’s safe to assume that at least some of the patrons are androids with their rings turned off in violation of this law.

Further complicating matters is the fact that all the café’s customers seem human enough from the way they act. When Rikuo and Masaki meet Akiko, a chatty, excitable girl, they assume she’s a human like them.

The next day, while Masaki is teasing Rikuo about his wanting to see her at the café again, Akiko shows up at their school — not as a student, but as an android to deliver something to her owner there, now with the holographic ring over her head. The pair are shocked, and the effect is made all the stranger when she doesn’t acknowledge them there but is just as friendly as before when they return to the café later.

This strangeness ends up hitting Rikuo at home when he realizes that his family’s android — after a couple of episodes finally referred to by a name, Sammy — went to Time of Eve because she wanted to make a better cup of coffee for him and his family. Rikuo first loses it, demanding to know why she was taking her own initiative without any orders. Soon enough, however, Rikuo starts to accept the situation, and we can see him thinking of Sammy as more human-like. This invites mockery from both his older sister and his friend Masaki, who say he’s starting to sound like an “android-holic”, or someone who relies too much on androids in place of fellow humans.

This fear of androids isn’t totally unjustified. Time of Eve presents a world in which these humanoid beings, far more skilled than humans in technical ability, are taking jobs, not just as household servants and couriers but also as teachers and musicians. Rikuo has already been feeling the effects of this change — it’s revealed that he gave up playing the piano because android players were starting to overtake human ones. This is a change that hits Rikuo all the harder because being a pianist was a dream of his before, one that he clearly felt was taken away from him.

Another social change, one potentially disastrous for birth rates, is the new phenomenon of human-android sexual relations. Android-holics are even referred to as living with androids in romantic relationships. These people are somewhat ostracized and are heard being criticized and mocked. However, it’s still enough of a problem that an “Ethics Committee” headed by Masaki’s father works to keep human-android relationships in line, even running ads discouraging people from seeking out partnerships with androids, as human as they might seem on the surface.

All this boils down to a question that works in the sci-fi genre have been asking for a long time now: if an android is created that acts like a human and seems to have thoughts and feelings like we do, is it any different from a human in a meaningful way? Every year, with the development of more advanced robotics, augmented and virtual reality, and AI technologies, this question comes closer to leaving the realm of fiction and entering that of reality. How will people and their governments around the world react if or when AI starts to be integrated into society itself, even into the roles traditionally played by one’s relatives and partners?

I already wrote a bit about this theme in my extended look at Planetarian, a visual novel that’s largely about the relationship between a human and an android. But that story took place in the post-apocalypse. There’s no real concern about society in that world, where civilization has already been destroyed. Looking back, the contrast with Ex Machina might have been slightly off for that reason, though I still basically stand by everything I wrote then. However, I do think Time of Eve makes for a more effective contrast because it deals with some of the same questions Ex Machina did about the social implications of the human-android relationship, but again in a very different way.

I already wrote about all the faults I found with the treatment of this relationship in Ex Machina; you can find all that in the link above. But to put it briefly, director/writer Alex Garland seems to have assumed that humans and androids can never understand or empathize with each other. At least that’s the idea I felt Garland was communicating through the ending of Ex Machina.

Time of Eve, like Planetarian, doesn’t make that assumption. In fact, I’d say the central relationship between Rikuo and Sammy changes throughout the series because Rikuo realizes from his time at the café that they can understand and empathize with each other. The fact that Sammy is an android doesn’t seem to matter by the end; Rikuo accepts that she, Akiko, and the other androids around them may as well basically be treated as fellow humans instead of mere pieces of machinery.

These deeper issues surrounding human-AI relations are still some years off, since we’re still not close to creating a convincingly human android or AI for that matter — certainly not if Sophia is the best we can do at the moment. For that reason, Time of Eve still comes off very much as science fiction to me. Unless some of the wilder conspiracy theories I’ve heard are true, we don’t have realistic-looking human-styled androids walking among us.

However, the AI musician aspect of Time of Eve isn’t quite as far-fetched now as it might have seemed 13 years ago when it was aired, because AI has actually begun moving into — or intruding upon, depending on your perspective — artistic areas that were previously thought to be purely “natural”, purely human. In the last few years, AI tools to generate images, text, and sound files have become available to the general public. I am absolutely not an expert when it comes to the technology behind these tools, but my understanding is that consumer-level AI tools can roughly imitate human-created media by using pattern recognition.

Some of these tools are pretty damn impressive. Some time ago I came across a site featuring AI-generated paintings for sale, each piece created through a process described here. Again, I don’t quite understand the specifics behind how this works, but it seems like these pieces are generated when the AI analyzes human-created art and produces something original based on a particular style.

The AI comes up with some interesting-looking stuff as well. Here’s one example I like. Quite an abstract piece as you might expect, but the AI can also produce human figures and other subjects in more classical or traditional styles.

Visual art isn’t the only place AI has dabbled either. AI-produced music has made impressive strides, putting together songs that sound like something that might have come from a human composer if you didn’t know the difference. The above piece is a pretty basic sort of instrumental rock song, something that you might expect out of a studio that produces background or soundtrack music, but the AI does follow that formula well enough to create something coherent.

The same is even true of writing. This obviously hits home closest for me, since I’m a writer. An amateurish writer to be sure, but I still take pride in my thoroughly unprofessional work full of f-words and mediocre grammar. However, I can’t ignore the fact that AI is edging in on my territory. Predictive writing AI programs like AI Dungeon and NovelAI1 are designed to build stories based on the user’s prompts. Older programs produced pretty obvious nonsense, sometimes ending with an entertainingly bad result — see the AI-written Harry Potter and the Portrait of What Looked Like a Large Pile of Ash for an example of such material. But the newest technology is again pretty impressive, producing text that’s at least coherent most of the time.

The use of emerging technology for the purposes of art and entertainment is nothing new. You could argue that this process extends back thousands of years, through the creation of new musical instruments and drawing/painting tools. In that sense, even a modern innovation like Vocaloid is just one part of that long trend. For all the concern over synthesized singers replacing human ones, Hatsune Miku and her friends are essentially just new types of instruments, only with avatars and some fan-created backstory and personality attached. The songs are still composed by humans; they’re only artificial in the sense that they use synthetic as opposed to acoustic instruments.

Miku is basically a cute anime girl vocal synthesizer you can dress up. The best musical instrument since the piano, and maybe even better, because you damn well can’t put a piano in a cheerleader outfit or a swimsuit.

In the same sense, the trend towards VTubers in place of “real-life” streamers shouldn’t be a concern for people worried about the replacement of humans with AI. Funny enough, the original VTuber Kizuna Ai played on this theme, her character being an advanced AI learning about the human world. However, the only difference between a “real” human streamer and a VTuber is the use of an avatar. The fascination with VTubers might be more a part of an escapist trend, adding an element of fantasy to streaming with its cute angels, demons, and fox/dog/shark girls.2

Even so, between the increased use of synthetic instruments and tools and emerging AI art generation technologies, it’s not hard to imagine a future in which AI can put out work that resembles human-created art closely enough that it turns from a novelty to a viable, cost-effective alternative. This may be especially true of formulaic art created for mass consumption, the sort you hear and see and don’t think too much about. And I’d say it’s already somewhat true of the more abstract-looking pieces you can find on various AI-generated illustration sites — the sort that I could imagine hanging in an office hallway or hotel lobby somewhere, a piece that might just be vaguely noticed and passed by.

There’s an obvious objection to all this: that the works generated by AI lack meaning. There’s no intent behind them. It’s true that the general form of an AI-generated work might be determined by humans, who set the parameters for the program: what style to follow, what colors or tones to use, and essentially what sorts of human art it should imitate when generating something original. But the end result is something that can’t connect with an audience on an emotional level, or at least not intentionally. We humans are great at finding patterns when we want to find them, seeing shapes in clouds, hearing hidden messages in music played backwards. On that level, it might be possible to read some kind of meaning into a piece of AI-generated art, but that reading says nothing about the art itself and everything about its audience.

Shocking news: people who think rock is inspired by Satan hear Satanist messages in rock albums played backwards! I don’t need more proof than that.

To me, this lack of intent behind these artificial pieces of art makes them feel empty. Not that I hate or even dislike them — I find some of them really interesting, but only on a technical level. And some of that interest comes from seeing how these AI-generated works differ from human ones.

I think the lack of human-like thinking and intent is most obvious when an AI tries its hand at realistic-looking human figures; the ones I’ve seen have come out close but somewhat off and wrong, especially in their faces. Not in the way a human unskilled at drawing would mess them up, either — there’s a kind of technical “skill” in the AI work if you want to call it that, but details in the figure make it clear that the AI isn’t “thinking” about what it’s drawing in the same way a human would. See Edmond de Belamy,3 an AI-generated portrait of a fictional French nobleman, and how the face is smudged. Similar paintings that try for more detail seem to do a little worse, misplacing eyes and noses in curious ways and, for me, planting themselves firmly in that infamous Uncanny Valley.

Of course, there’s a lot of argument to be had over how much the intent of the artist should be taken into account when examining art. I take what I feel to be a pretty balanced view: that both how an artistic work is meant to be perceived and how it’s actually perceived are important to understanding it. When art is put out to public view, the public takes their own kind of ownership of it in the sense that they get to interpret it for themselves. But the artist’s intent still matters. Some people may feel differently, but if there is no intent behind the art, I can’t connect with it in the same way I could with a human-created piece.

But what if the art in question is so convincing and feels so meaningful that you can’t tell the difference? At that point, does the divide between the artificial and the organic even matter? This comes back to one of the central questions asked in Time of Eve. By the end of the series, Rikuo answers this question for himself by returning to the piano and playing for the café’s audience. By returning to the music he’d previously rejected because he felt it had been invaded by androids, he accepts them.

It’s clear enough that the androids in Time of Eve are essentially human in this sense. They’re completely differently when we see them in the outside world — Sammy and Akiko both act in a sort of robotic “just carrying out commands” way while in sight of humans, as if they’d get in trouble if they acted otherwise. When they’re in the café, by contrast, they act much more naturally, as if they’re letting out their breath after holding it in for a long time. It seems that all they want is to be spoken to as equals, as though they’re humans as well; the fact that they’re synthetic and we’re organic doesn’t make a difference.4

That’s the key to that central question in Time of Eve. Its androids are self-aware and have that intent and even emotion behind their actions. I think if a real-world AI can express that intent through the creation of original art not just based on analyzing scraps of existing human-created work, that would be a sign of AI so self-aware that it might essentially be considered human in the same way.5

Of course, as far as we know, we’re nowhere near that point yet. Any AI out there that the general public knows about (leaving a gap there for any possible ultra-secret experiments in progress) still thinks like AI. When I’m out driving and I have Google Maps guiding me, it still tells me to take a left turn by swinging through five lanes of busy traffic over a few hundred feet. That direction might make sense to an AI, but any human who’s ever been in a car will understand why it’s actually a terrible direction to give.

Maybe that’s the real test: when the AI understands what I’m going through when I’m driving my car in rush hour traffic and empathizes with my experience. At least enough to not suggest such a suicidal route.

Hey Google, I get that this is technically the fastest path to my destination by one and a half minutes but maybe consider my fucking blood pressure too. (Source: B137 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0.)

As for Time of Eve, there is one criticism I can make: that it might be a little too optimistic, especially for the reason that it doesn’t really address the whole “humans losing their jobs to more skilled androids” problem beyond just acknowledging it. It is absolutely a problem, in some sense one we’ve been facing for centuries now with automation of work starting in agriculture and leading up to the development of advanced AI today. It’s not a problem we can’t solve, but it is one that will probably cause a lot of social strife before that point.

Then again, this series provides a nice counterpoint to all the overly pessimistic science fiction we have today, the sort that’s practically anti-scientific development. Again, I’m definitely biased on this subject, but the Luddite approach to this problem is absolutely the wrong one. We shouldn’t try to limit our development out of fear of what might happen as a result.

Time of Eve doesn’t imply that everything will be sunshine and rainbows in the future. But it does deliver a more hopeful message than we usually see out of Hollywood these days. As much of a pessimist as I am generally, I can really appreciate that, and I’d say it’s absolutely worth watching even if you end up coming to a different conclusion. I, for one, welcome our new android friends, and I sincerely hope they don’t become our android overlords instead. 𒀭

 

1 AI Dungeon and the AI writing programs that gained popularity afterward make for another potential deep read rabbit hole subject. AI Dungeon was previously the premier AI story creation tool, but developer Latitude placed sexual and other mature content control filters on the program leading to suspensions, bans, and an exodus of users to alternative services.

I’ve messed around with both AI Dungeon and the much newer NovelAI, and while they’re interesting (well, AI Dungeon was interesting before it was utterly fucked by its own developer — the filter was supposedly meant to prevent certain types of extreme/gray-area material from being written, but it didn’t work properly and was extremely overbroad) the few times I tried writing a story with them, I ended up taking the prompt away from the AI and continuing it on my own. And now I have the rough rough draft of a very short fantasy action-adventure-romance novel that will never be published. Not unless there’s a market for shitty novellas that indulge in escapist fantasies that are somewhat different from the Fabio-on-the-cover supermarket romance trash variety.

Not that my story isn’t also trash, because it is, but I still like it. Maybe I should rework it into a visual novel script?

2 The parasocial relationship aspect of VTubing is still another deep dive that I’m sure a few people have taken already. I don’t know if I’m qualified to address it myself, but it is an interesting subject. Maybe it’s one I should address — not like I’m qualified at all to be writing about AI, yet here I am completely bullshitting about it.

Actually, I do know more about this other subject, since I’ve spent enough time in VTuber chats on YouTube to know that at least a few people are quite serious when they send love confessions and marriage proposals to their beloveds. Then again, that’s always been a thing idols have had to deal with, so maybe nothing’s really changed.

3 You can say this image lacks intent and meaning, but it sure as hell doesn’t lack value: it sold for almost half a million dollars when it was put up for auction a few years ago, probably for its novelty value since it was touted as the first piece of AI-generated art to ever come to auction. I wouldn’t buy it for more than $20 myself, but since I’m not a member of the idle rich set, my opinion doesn’t matter when it comes to these big-ticket auctions.

4 Of course, there’s also a religious aspect to this question, since many people believe that a God-given or otherwise divinely created soul is the most essential part of what makes us human. That’s a debate I don’t feel qualified to get into — I leave it to the scientists, theologians, and philosophers to argue over all that.

5 To complicate matters further: you could argue that this is exactly what we humans do when we create art, since everything we make takes at least some inspiration from past works of art. But there’s usually more to the creation of art than just copying our influences — we filter those older works through our personal experiences and feelings and create something that’s our own, even if it’s somewhat derivative. The same can’t be said for these AI artists, at least not yet.

Artbook reviews #3 (Shunya Yamashita, Kantoku, Kazuma Kaneko, Rie Tanaka)

I recently bought a large haul of books, CDs, and doujins straight from Japan. Since I didn’t get the chance to deepen my debt at an anime con last year thanks to the virus, I decided to do that shopping over on Suruga-ya and managed to get these, all used but very affordable considering the outrageous prices some dealers charge at conventions here (this is not a paid promotion by the way; I’m still the same poor bastard you’ve always known without any sponsors, and that probably won’t ever change.)

I was able to pick up some interesting artbooks in this lot, a few of which I’ve coveted for a long time and others that I just discovered. So I’ve decided to have a look here at a few of these books, in the spirit of two past posts I wrote in 2018 and 2019. Which I believe makes this the laziest and least regular post series on the site, even more than that “games for broke people” one I started years before. I should really pick that one up again. Anyway, first up is:

Wild Flower (Shunya Yamashita, 2008)

Here’s an artist I’ve never talked about here before, but he’s a great one. Artist and character designer Shunya Yamashita has worked on magazine covers and games as varied as Final Fantasy X and Makai Kingdom, but he seems to be best known for exactly what you see above: fantasy-themed sexy girl stuff. That’s not everything in this book — there are also some male character designs and monster designs, as well as a few pieces of art with really nice backgrounds, but the book’s cover gives a pretty good idea of what you can expect. If you’re not a fan of the “extremely impractical bikini armor” look then you probably won’t like this stuff; some of these women’s outfits are very skimpy and involve some gravity-defiance (one of the benefits of drawing, I guess.)

It also looks like Yamashita takes a lot of inspiration from western pinup photos, those vintage ones from the 50s and 60s. In that tradition, everything racy in here is kept strictly erotic without crossing into truly 18+ material, though it’s still not a book you’d necessarily want to have out on your coffee table, unless you just really don’t give a shit. There are also a few pages of short notes on each piece by the artist in the back, though they’re all in Japanese (this is going to become a pattern — none of these books seem to have English editions.)

15th Anniversary Book (Kantoku, 2018)

If Shunya Yamashita’s style isn’t your thing, you might prefer Kantoku, an artist who also draws a whole lot of girls but this time in a very cute style as supposed to the former’s sexy one. I wasn’t too familiar with Kantoku before buying this artbook, but he’s done work for quite a few visual novels and light novel covers none of which I’ve read, as well as an anime series called One Room that I haven’t seen. But I do like his style. While the girls seem to always be the focal point in his art (I don’t think there’s a single male character in this book, not that I could find anyway) Kantoku doesn’t skimp on the backgrounds at all — in fact, I’d say those backgrounds add a lot to his work. I love the attention to detail in his art, and I’ll be on the lookout for more of his stuff in the future.

For Japanese readers, there’s also a nice treat in this book: a very long interview between Kantoku and several other artists whose work is also featured in here near the back. Of course, I mostly can’t read it, but if you can, it might be something to check out if you have any interest. From the bits I can read, they’re talking about character design and art, but you could probably guess that anyway without knowing a word of the language.

Digital Devil Apocalypse (Kazuma Kaneko, 1999)

It would be a real disappointment if I didn’t post anything Megami Tensei-related, right? So here’s one of those books I mentioned that I’ve wanted for years: Digital Devil Apocalypse, featuring the work of the great Kazuma Kaneko. I’ve written a bit about his work in my running MegaTen deep reads series — he’s responsible for the great majority of its iconic demon designs and for a lot of early character designs up through the Shin Megami Tensei games and the first few Persona games. I really like his surreal designs, even when they get truly bizarre (Mara, but he’s not the only one, just the most infamous.)

There’s also a very long interview in this artbook with Kaneko that I mostly can’t read, so that’s nice. I really need to pick up my Japanese studies again, because I’d like very much to fully or even just mostly understand it. In addition to the interview, we also get some photos of the man himself looking cool and smoking a cigarette (but really, don’t smoke, kids. It’s extremely bad for you.)

The only real drawback to this book aside from the language barrier, which is entirely my problem, is that it’s currently 22 years old and doesn’t contain any of the many new character and demon designs from Nocturne on. However, I’d say Digital Devil Apocalypse is still very worth buying for MegaTen fans, especially for those who know Japanese. Even if the pentagram cover makes it look like some kind of Satan book. (Well, Satan is technically in it, and Lucifer too, but you know what I mean. Speaking of them, my next deep reads post on Megami Tensei will hopefully be coming soon! Dealing with some potentially touchy subjects this time, but in a mature way I hope.)

Irodorie (Rie Tanaka, 2009)

Hey, yeah, that’s me on the left in the reflection of the cover. It’s the most you’ll ever see, too, at least on this site.

The subject of this book isn’t so reserved, though. This obviously isn’t the same kind of artbook as the above three: it’s instead a photobook featuring the prolific voice actress Rie Tanaka. If you’ve watched many subbed anime series or played many Japanese games, you’ve almost certainly heard her voice at some point. The list of anime and games she’s acted in is very long; among many other characters, she’s the voice of Neptune from Hyperdimension Neptunia, Chii from Chobits, and Lacus Clyne from Mobile Suit Gundam.

And as seen above, she’s also the voice of Mitsuru Kirijo from Persona 3, center, and Suigintou from Rozen Maiden, right. This book isn’t nearly as racy as the cover makes it look; most of it just involves Tanaka cosplaying as characters she’s acted. In fact, I’m pretty sure both this book’s covers were chosen specifically because they’re so eye-catching, making it look like a gravure work of the kind that contains near-softcore photography.

But that’s not what this is. Really, this book is just kind of a weird curiosity to me, even if there are a ton of similar photobooks featuring popular VAs, actresses, and idols out there. I’m not into the idol scene at all (unless we’re talking virtual idols of course) so this is all pretty foreign to me, and I don’t have any particular interest in buying more of these kinds of photobooks. This is a nice one, though. I’m also a fan of Rie’s work — and if I’m being totally honest, she’s pretty damn attractive, so it’s not like I disliked what I saw in here from that angle (especially the bunny suit photos, which are about as spicy as the book’s contents get not counting the front and back covers.) But that aside, the cosplay stuff itself looks great. Not that I’m much of a judge in that area.

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That’s all for now, but I might write another one of these posts in the near future. Things at work are heating up, but I’ll do my best to post as close to weekly as possible. Until next time!

Two new artbook reviews (and an announcement)

I went to an anime con recently and came back weighed down with a few new artbooks. These are my only real vice as far as buying things I don’t technically need to live. However, I would argue that having these increases the quality of my life in a real way — reading through them and seeing the art inside, alongside a cup of coffee or strong tea, makes me feel better and helps calm me down after a stressful day at work. I used to use whiskey for that instead. I’d say making that change was worth dropping some money on.

So I thought why not briefly review these books for the benefit of the interested reader? You might see something you like here. If you’ve been following my site for a while, the books I chose to buy will come as absolutely no surprise to you.  I do want to apologize for the shitty, awful-looking glare in a few of these photos though; I don’t have anything like a professional setup here, but I hope these give you an idea of what’s in the books anyway.

Finally, I’ve got a massively important (well, to me anyway) announcement to make that you can skip down to right away if you don’t care about the artbook stuff.

Shigenori Soejima Art Works 2004-2010

I’ve been looking for an affordable copy of this artbook for years now, and I finally have it. The Japanese version was originally published several years ago, but it must have gone out of print for a while because I never could track down a copy under 80 dollars or so, shipping included. Even after I managed to get Shigenori Soejima’s second artbook, 2010-2017, on Amazon for a deal, this one eluded me. Thankfully, both this and 2010-2017 have gotten full translations and are now being sold at cons and on Amazon and eBay for prices that won’t give you a stomachache thinking about how you’ll pay the electric bill this month. This book is full of great artwork by Soejima, character designer and chief artist of the modern Persona games. Most of the pieces here are of Persona 3 and Persona 4 characters — if you want Persona 5 or Catherine art, you’ll naturally have to spring for 2010-2017.  There’s also an interesting interview with Soejima in the back of the book dealing with his history, his general approach to art, and the unusually detailed cover art of Aigis. I wish more artbooks had interviews like this one.

Side-by-side comparison of the first volume English and second volume Japanese Soejima books.

The only real complaint I have about this book is that it lacks both the dust jacket and the additional protective clear cover that the Japanese version has. Above you can see the difference between the English version of the first volume and the Japanese version of the second, which is modeled after the first. Not sure why we get short-changed like this, but maybe such cost-cutting measures are necessary to sell these books in the West at a profit. At least I can read the interview in the English version, which is nice, but if you can read Japanese I’d consider buying that version unless there’s a big price difference between the two.

DISGAEArt!!! Disgaea Official Illustration Collection

I’ve seen this book around for a long time, but until finding it at the con and reading through it, I avoided it out of a fear that it would be duplicative of the two Takehito Harada Art Works volumes I already own. While there is some overlap — probably unavoidable considering how much material is in those books — there’s also work in this volume you won’t find in those. As the name suggests, DISGAEArt is full of promotional and character art from the series, covering Disgaea 1 through Disgaea 4. There is a separate artbook dedicated to Disgaea 5 that I want to get, but it will have to wait for a while.

A Mage being a real asshole to some Prinnies. What’s her problem, anyway?

This book is a bit smaller than most other artbooks, more the size of a typical doujin work, but it’s also priced a bit lower than those oversized artbooks — I got mine for less than 30 dollars. Not a bad deal for an import. And no, there’s no English version of DISGAEArt as far as I can tell, but there’s so little text in it that it doesn’t make much of a difference unless you really need to be able to read the index in the back listing the source of every illustration.

If you’re a fan of Harada or Disgaea in general, this is a good book to look out for.  I do still like the two separate, larger Harada Art Works books better, especially Vol. 1, which got an English translation a while back.  However, they’re long out of print, and even the newer English version of Vol. 1 is selling in very good/like new condition for around 75-85 dollars as of this writing, whereas you can get DISGAEArt for less than half that price.  An easy choice to make if you’re concerned with money, which most of us are.

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That’s it for the artbooks.  But I did promise an announcement, didn’t I?  It’s one of those good news/bad news deals.  I don’t know whether anyone will actually care enough about any of this to be that emotionally affected by it, but I’ll start with the bad news anyway: I’m dropping the Seasonal Anime Draft stuff I was working on.  I just don’t have the time to keep up with running series that may or may not turn out to be any good.  Sorry about that.  But if you want to follow bloggers who write great beat-by-beat reviews of currently airing shows and/or weekly review posts, check out Irina at I drink and watch anime, Cactus Matt at Anime QandA, Scott at Mechanical Anime Reviews, and Jiraiyan at Otaku Orbit.

Now for the good news.  I’ve said for years that I need to learn Japanese, this language that’s in so much of the media I consume in some form or another.  Well, I’m doing it.  I recently learned that I can make a lot more in my current field if I qualify as fluent in Japanese, in part because so few American attorneys (or Americans in general, I guess) know the language.  And of course, if I learn to read Japanese fluently, I can play Japanese games without having to wait forever for ports or worry that we won’t even get a port.  I’ll also be able to read the text in all these god damn artbooks I own that aren’t translated.  I can be a king among weebs, most of whom don’t seem to know Japanese probably because it’s so damn different from English or their own native languages.

I might also be doing it to understand all those kanji-based jokes I’ve seen

Yeah, learning Japanese is a big project.  Thankfully, I already have some basic knowledge: I know my hiragana and katakana, about a hundred kanji, and some very basic vocabulary and grammar.  It will still take a hell of a long time, but I think of it this way: if I’d started studying Japanese the day I started this blog, I probably would have been fluent three years ago. Even the difference from English seems like more of an advantage than a disadvantage to me.  Over the years I’ve taken Spanish and German, and while I’ve kept bits of those languages, for all the classes I took in school I’m nowhere near fluent or even conversational.  I think part of the reason I had issues with those was that my brain didn’t easily separate them from English — after all, English is a Germanic language with Romance elements in it, and so it has some basic similarities with Spanish and a whole lot with German.  Japanese, however, is such an entirely different language system that my brain says “hey, this is different!” making it easier to set aside in its own compartment if that makes any sense.

So fuck it — I’m going for it.  I suppose this is what I’m doing now instead of watching currently airing anime, but I’m willing to make that change to learn the language.  However, I’ll still be posting here on a regular basis, so don’t worry about that.  The deep reads posts and the occasional reviews will still be coming along with whatever angry rants and caffeine-fueled late night legal analysis I happen to think up.  In fact, I might try to find a way to incorporate my Japanese-learning odyssey into the blog, especially if anyone’s interested in taking the plunge and learning along with me.

Everything is bad for you

It’s mid-August, which means it’s time for my quarterly post. I was originally going to write about the new artbook I bought – Shigenori Soejima & P-Studio Art Unit: Art Works 2010-2017, featuring the art of Persona character designer Shigenori Soejima. I was going to tell you about how it’s filled with beautiful pieces of art and sketches of characters from Persona 3Persona 4Persona 5, from their various spinoffs, and from other Atlus titles like Catherine. About how it features interviews with Soejima and other members of the P-Studio art team that I can barely read because they’re all in Japanese, and about how I’ll probably buy the English version if this book is ever translated and have a redundant copy on my shelf.  And about how even though I love the book’s cover, I thought the decision to print its title in silver was pretty stupid, because the color blends in with Futaba’s white and silver shirt.  (Fortunately, the text is printed not on the cover itself but rather on the dust jacket, which is transparent.  Still looks weird.)

Somewhere along the way, I ran off course. I started thinking about the purpose of this site. I started Everything is bad for you (a name I probably came up with while I was either drunk or sleep-deprived, because I can’t explain the reasoning behind it at all now) five years ago, just before entering law school. I had no real direction in my life – I was attending law school because I managed to get into a pretty good school, and to attend it fairly cheaply, and because it seemed like a thing to do. Two years into the profession at this point, I’m just about where I began. I still have no direction. There’s nothing I really want that I can realistically get from either my personal or professional lives, and when you’re working hard in a life that you don’t care about it becomes difficult to even get out of bed in the morning. I don’t have a family to support yet, but soon enough, I’ll have my relatives trying to fix me up with someone, since my relatives are undoubtedly already wondering about me (imagine whatever you’d like about what they’re wondering, but it’s not hard to guess.) Of course, I could tell them all to fuck off, but then I’d become completely isolated from almost all of my family. Something in me won’t allow that. So I get to go on living a life that I don’t enjoy – and not only do I have to keep living it, but I have to look like I’m enjoying it. It’s not easy to put on that act every day.

Those of you who are still reading this mess of complaints might have no idea what I’m talking about. Or you might think I’m just whining about “first-world problems” and feel that I’m simply ungrateful for what I have. So much the better for you if you don’t understand what I’m saying. To be very honest, I’m not writing for you and I never will. I’m writing for the other kind of person – the kind who feels like an outsider, the way I always have. I’m writing for the kind of person who looks at the prospects of living a conventional life and feels sick, but who has no other choice.

So why this site? It’s an escape. Just like playing video games, or reading novels, or buying artbooks, or drinking whiskey or gin after dinner, probably to excess. Each of these are ways for me to escape not only from the present but also from the future, and I probably don’t need to tell you how futile that is.  Since I’m already being honest, I will admit that I’ve had suicidal thoughts throughout my adult life – thoughts I’ve thankfully never acted on, and at this point that I most likely never will act on.  These thoughts are usually not at the front of my mind, but every so often they emerge.

Tonight is the beginning of Eid Al-Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice.  The closest western parallel I can think of to this holiday is Thanksgiving with a religious dimension – this Eid mainly involves having a feast with family and giving charity.  It’s a day to be grateful for what you have.  So why can’t I feel that way?

Two pages from Soejima Art Works 2010-2017. Miku is technically a Persona character because she was featured in DLC for Persona 4: Dancing All Night, which is a pretty good game for a fanservice-filled spinoff.

I never wanted to make a personal post on this site, but it seems that in the end I couldn’t avoid it.  I don’t know how I’ll face a future that I don’t really want.  The only thing I know for sure is that I’ll keep writing.  I thought about quitting this site entirely, but I can’t bring myself to do it.  As long as my writing connects with someone, it will be worth the effort, and it will keep me going through this vale of tears that we call life.  I might even try some fiction soon, though it will probably turn out to be lousy hackwork.

Sorry for being so dramatic.  Shigenori Soejima & P-Studio Art Unit: Art Works 2010-2017 is a good artbook, and you should buy it.  Still pretty cheap on Amazon and weeb-centric marketplaces like Tokyo Otaku Mode.  Feel free to leave your thoughts below if you decide to go for it.  God willing, I’ll stick around and keep writing here and on my other site that I’ve been neglecting.  I’ll try not to make it another two-month break.  In the meantime, no matter what your religious beliefs are or whether you have any, I wish you a happy Eid and hope the rest of the year goes your way.

Edit (8/26/18): Thought about taking this post down, but I decided I won’t.  Even if it is self-indulgent or looks like it’s fishing for sympathy.  I know there are other people out there, espcially people in our hobby/subculture/whatever, who carry around a lot of bitterness or just plain apathy about the world and their place in it and who have a hard time finding meaning in living a life that feels predetermined.  Sorry for bringing the mood down with this one, but I was in an especially bad place mentally when I wrote it.  I’ll be my usual cheery self next post.

 

Six artbooks worth owning that won’t empty out your bank account

It’s no secret from my close friends who know my weeb tendencies (but not from my relations) that I love game and to a lesser extent anime-related artbooks. Artbooks on relevant subjects used to be extremely expensive because they were all imports, but times have changed. Even the imports are more affordable than they used to be. Since I’m a value-minded guy who wants to help you the reader, I’ve put together a list of five artbooks that are well worth owning and that won’t cause you pain at the end of the month before payday (and one that might, depending on what kind of deal you can find.)

Takehito Harada Art Works I

The chief artist of the long-running Disgaea series by Nippon Ichi, Takehito Harada has a highly distinctive style that I love.  His work is a big part of why people enjoy the series so much.  A Disgaea game without at least a cameo by the Harada-designed Etna or Flonne, the demon/angel comedy duo from the first Disgaea, is unimaginable.  In fact, the header to my site is a cropped bit of promotional art by Harada from one of the Disgaea games.  I don’t know if that counts as fair use, but in any case he has not contacted me about it yet.

This artbook contains character sheets, promotional art and scenery from the first four Disgaea games as well as a few of the spinoffs like Phantom Brave.  Vol. 1 is translated, but Vol. 2, which I also own, is not.  They’re both worth a buy for the hardcore NIS fan or for the general artbook collector, though Vol. 2 is less essential for the latter.

Gravity Daze Series Official Art Book

The Gravity Rush series (Gravity Daze in Japan) has a unique visual style. The games are based around protagonist Kat’s power to bend gravity to her will. This artbook depicts Kat, other characters, and their surroundings in great detail. Kat is a beautifully designed character and the artbook is worth getting for her alone, but I’ve always loved the game’s city designs as well – they feel like living, breathing places, and it’s fun to simply fly around then without any particular object in mind. This is well worth buying for the fan who wants something new on the bookshelf relevant to his interests.

Atelier: Artworks of Arland

Artist Mel Kishida is a strange cat.   A self-professed hentai dude, he is best known for his work on the Arland trilogy subset of Atelier games that include Atelier Rorona, Atelier Totori, and Atelier Meruru. He also likes to dress up in cosplay, at least one time as a maid, when he personally served fans at a cafe.  Where else can you get that kind of dedication?

All that aside, Kishida’s art is really great.  His style is very much in that cute bishoujo fashion, which I favor a lot.  Probably one of the reasons I like the Arland games, along with their insanely complicated alchemy crafting systems (especially recommended if you have a Vita, since you get extras in those Plus versions.)  This artbook covers character designs and scenery from all three games and is translated.

Senran Kagura: Official Design Works

“TITS ARE LIFE, ASS IS HOMETOWN.” So proclaims one of the front pages of the official artbook for Senran Kagura, a fighting game series known for its busty female ninja characters with conveniently flimsy costumes that somehow get torn off while they pummel each other. The series knows exactly what it is, and so does character artist Nan Yaegashi. This artbook contains illustrations and promotional work for several games in the Senran Kagura series, and much of the content in the book is NSFW or very borderline, which is of course the whole point. I couldn’t even really find a suitable image to post here other than the cover of the book, which is fairly tame. The book itself is translated and contains an interesting interview with the series director and artist.

Re:Futurhythm

Range Murata’s work is quite bizarre. Mr. Murata seems to have a fixation with future technology and girls using or wearing future technology. His work on the anime series Last Exile showcases a bit of that, but the compilation artbook Re:Futurhythm really brings it all out. There are a ton of illustrations in here, mostly of girls… using or wearing future technology. A few of the illustrations are a little racy, but in a weird way, not a pornographic one. Murata’s style is sort of “flat” feeling, if that makes sense, giving his characters an otherworldly feel.

I don’t know quite why Murata’s work connects with me. I really like the 40s/50s sci-fi look, and Murata’s art seems to draw a lot from that style. Or maybe I’m just fuckin weird. Probably. I have to admit that is the reason.

This particular artbook is a little hard to find. In fact, it’s a lie to say it won’t break the bank, because it is a bit expensive as well. For some reason only the front of each page is used, and the paper is as thick as cardstock. Just like its artist, it is an unusual work.

MOMENTARY: The Art of Ilya Kuvshinov

Out of all the artists featured in this list, Ilya Kuvshinov might be my favorite. His book Momentary is printed purposely in a square format and features many stunning pieces of artwork, most of which are portraits of some kind. Mr. Kuvshinov has worked on some games, none of which I’ve played, but I can say that if I were ever working on a game, I would try to recruit him as a character designer. A Russian transplant in Japan, Kuvshinov captures real beauty in his works, most of which are illustrations of cute girls (do you see a pattern here? To be fair to me, you would be hard pressed to find an anime/game-related artbook that doesn’t have this focus.) The book is well-made but cheap and contains a ton of great art.

There are plenty of artists I love like Kazuma Kaneko and Shigenori Soejima who didn’t make this list, but I’m always on the hunt for new artbooks, especially if they’re not obscenely expensive imports. Drop a comment if you find something interesting.