Monday, October 17, 2005

Make Your Own Kind of Music

I have never seen the movie Akira, although it's been on my list for several years. It's apparently a giant in Anime history, and marks the first time Anime was really taken seriously over here in the states. From what I've heard it adopts a lot of American comic-book elements and thus isn't considered "pure" by many aficionados, but remains well-loved.
Anime directors, in my experience, are not very prolific, and so it probably shouldn't surprise that we haven't heard a lot from Katsuhiro Otomo. In the more than 15 years since Akira was released he has only done one film that I can find, something called "Rojin Z." Last year, though, he released a new movie called "Steamboy." It was pretty well received critically (it received the standard approval of "Not as good as Akira, but then again, what is?"), and I was looking forward to seeing it in the theaters, only to be miffed when it exited Kansas City after a single week's engagement. Fie!
Fortunately, public expenditures were my salvation: I was able to find a DVD copy at my local library, and enjoyed an evening with the film. The rest of this post is just my disjointed thoughts on it.
First off, this would be a good movie to introduce Anime virgins to the form. While I think Miyazaki's movies are better, they also have little cultural tics and oddities in them that might be off-putting to people who aren't used to them. Since Steamboy is set in an alternate-reality England, you aren't getting any references to Japanese culture. It also helps that it is relatively fast-paced and contains some good action scenes, without touching the gore found in "Princess Mononoke" or Eva. (I think it's PG-13, but you don't see a lot of blood.)
It took me a while to get into the movie. Maybe I had been oversold it, but I was a little disappointed early on: while the design was wonderful, the actual animation didn't seem THAT spectacular; it just got the job done. And the general arc of the story felt somewhat clich├ęd. The further I got into it, though, the more intrigued I became, in large part because they subvert the archetypes you're relying on.
Oh, I should probably put a "spoilers" warning here. You've been warned.
Once you find out the father isn't dead, things shift into uncertain territory. My sentiments were with the grandfather, but I have a soft spot for crazy old men, and it seemed at least plausible that he was doing good within the O'Hara structure. This really engaged me, and as I got drawn into the plot, the cumulative total of the very imaginative design hit me. I've done steampunk before, but I've never seen it look as good.
What really sold me on Steamboy, though, was the way they gradually spun out the conflict between Eddie and Lloyd. Lloyd, the grandfather, strikes me as a true scientist: he is utterly dedicated to advancing the course of knowledge and is willing to accept (or inflict) a high cost for that; witness the dramatic first scene. Like a true idealistic scientist, he is also very optimistic about the potential his discoveries can bring. I find it interesting that he is a far more compassionate person in abstract than in principal; he is dedicated to doing good for "the people" without seeming to particularly care what happens to his son or others close to him.
Eddie, while arguably the villain, is incredibly sympathetic. (Tangent: this is probably the single thing I enjoy most about Japanese anime, the complex way villains are presented. They are treated with respect as people with their own drives and desires, as opposed to the caricatures that wear black hats in virtually every American movie.) He is virtually the opposite of his father: he shows kindness to David and deference to Scarlett, but shows little real concern for the deaths his work will bring. If Lloyd is a scientist, Eddie is an engineer: he is interested in the application, in turning knowledge towards some concrete end. His main drive is for manifestation, to realize his vision, to pull it from the abstract world into reality. To his perspective, the O'Hara foundation is only good, because they have devoted their resources into realizing his vision. To put it bluntly, he wants the grant money so he can truly finish his research.
The pull between Lloyd and Eddie isn't simply good versus evil. The question is whether the advancement of science is a laudable end in itself (Eddie), or whether every step taken along the way needs to benefit humanity (Lloyd). One can imagine Eddie arguing that, while the steam devices would cause death in the short term, they would hasten the availability of widespread positive applications to extend lifespans and ease people's existence. But I don't think Eddie sees his work on being contingent on some future good. To him, science is a religion, something to be advanced for its own sake independent of its affect on people.
I find this tension fascinating. On paper, of course, most of us agree with Lloyd. I would argue, though, that for those of us involved in engineering, in practice we act like Eddie every chance we get. When you're working on a project, do you really stop and think about what impact it will have on people? How it will affect their happiness, their wallet, their minds and bodies? Or do you view it in isolation, considering the work by itself as something to be completed for its own sake? I do think about how my work impacts people, but far more often I'm more concerned with just making it work, and when I'm done, I'm more likely to admire its technical elegance than its application.
Kurt Vonnegut addressed this tension himself in a graduation speech at MIT back in 1985. This is reprinted in Chapter 12 of "Fates Worse than Death," which is a book I think you would enjoy. He makes his point far more elegantly than I ever could, but his message to these graduating scientists and engineers is essentially this: You are the men and women who will develop the next atomic bomb, or the next supervirus, or the next giant space weapon. Do not deceive yourselves into thinking that you are not responsible for what happens with the forces you bring into the world. Please turn your energies towards peaceful employers who seek to benefit mankind, not military who seek to destroy it.
Vonnegut admits that the speech bombed, spectacularly. I was struck by his description of what many people had told him, that they didn't think Star Wars (the Strategic Defense Initiative to y'all) would work, but everyone wanted to work on it. Why? Because it was well-funded, and they could solve interesting problems while toiling away at it. People were offended by the suggestion that they had a responsibility to use their minds in the service of good. "I'm an engineer! I can't/shouldn't worry about what my employer will do with the tools I make for them!"
I read this speech a few years ago, and while it certainly didn't change my mind about anything, it has strengthened my convictions. When I graduated from Wash U in the spring of '03, the only companies interviewing on campus were healthcare companies and defense contractors. Even though it meant cutting my prospective employment by 50% (including some very lucrative opportunities in the post-9/11 ramp-up to war), I knew that I wouldn't be able to stand it if the software I wrote helped kill more people.
A decade later, Steamboy has reinforced the message again. The fun-fair is more valuable than the weapon, which serves to destroy. Resist the Eddies, who compromise ethics to advance their careers, and resist the Stevensons, who advance the deadly philosophy of "if we don't do it, somebody else will." If political leaders would take the lessons of Steamboy to heart, we'd live in a kinder world; if scientists and engineers paid attention, we'd live in a far less dangerous one.

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