12/30/2008

Shiva's Consort

Here's a little Christmas gift for everyone:

In VS Ramachandran's books A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness and Phantoms in the Brain, he attempts to begin to tackle the question of the neurological basis of art. A tall order indeed...

One of the subjects he suggests is called “Peak Shift”. A caricature is created by overplaying everything that is unique about someone's face, and downplaying everything that is not. A caricature of Richard Nixon has a huge nose and jowls, but his chin and eyes are downplayed, while a Buster Keaton caricature would have huge eyes.

Our emotional or instinctive reaction to something that we see is based on the recognition of a small number of salient characteristics. When those characteristics that we look for (consciously or not) are exaggerated, it looks more and more like the thing that we look for, even to the point where a caricature of Richard Nixon can be said to look more like Nixon than he does.

Permit me, if you will, an extended example: The basis of this concept in Ramachandran's book started with an experiment with a bird that, when it hatched, identified its mother by a red spot on its yellow beak. It was quickly discovered that the spot on the beak was the salient characteristic that the bird was looking for. It would respond equally to a disembodied fake beak as it would to an actual bird. In fact, the experimenter was able to create a short yellow stick with three red stripes on it that, in a sense, looked more like a beak than an actual beak. It had the salient characteristic the baby bird was looking for, “yellow thing with some red stuff on the end”, but it had no other characteristics to distract from that, so the birds went nuts over it. He had created, in Ramachandran's words, a “super beak”.

This applies to human endeavors as well. Again, using Ramachandran's examples, the Hindu goddess Parvati:



Parvati, Shiva's consort, is modeled to be the epitome of all things feminine. She has a small waist, huge breasts, wide hips, all the stereotypically feminine physical qualities taken to a large degree. Supposedly, when confronted with statues like this, most Victorian westerners complained that it was primitive and worthless because it didn't look like a real person. What they didn't realize is that the creator had, consciously or unconsciously, emphasized the salient qualities of the character (femininity, sensuality, poise and so forth) and tried to abstract away everything that is common to the larger category (the human form), but not a part of the specific form they were creating. The end result is, as Ramachandran puts it, “one anatomically incorrect but very sexy goddess”.

If you look at the anime style of drawing, you have, generally, very large eyes, mouths that vary in size hugely, and small/downplayed noses. The keys to emotional expression (mouth, eyes, eyebrows) are overplayed, and the less expressive features of faces (noses, chins) are minimized. Anime characters aren't supposed to look realistic, they're caricatures designed for maximum expression of emotion.

This concept, I submit, applies to narrative as well. If I want to write a story about a character who is particularly brave, I will write a story in which that character does things that show bravery. If in the story, my character spends time doing things like eating, shopping, using the bathroom, and so forth, it diminishes the effect of the story.

This is a pretty simple lesson to learn as a writer. In any given story you write, you need to go through every single event, and ask “What purpose does this serve in shaping the overall narrative?” If you don't have a good answer, it needs to go.

Even beyond that, though, Western storytelling, cinema in particular, has a long love affair with movies in which your enjoyment of the film hinges almost exclusively on understanding precisely what is going on. Memento, The Prestige, The Usual Suspects, Murder on the Orient Express... even the entire first season of Lost is predicated on cascading character (learning a new piece of information about a character which makes you reevaluate all your previously acquired information). Even beyond that,

Here's where it gets interesting, however. Take “Kino's Journey”, a 2003 anime series based on a short series of Japanese novellas by Keiichi Sigsawa, and consists of 13 episodes, each detailing their own independent story, designed to raise serious metaphysical and ethical questions. In the second episode, the main character helps a team of people stranded in the snow, and ponders the ethics of hunting rabbits to save the traders who are snowed in, only to discover in the end that the traders are actually slavers. The show has no interest in placing this story as part of a larger world, or convincing you that these characters are real people with real problems. The show is only interested in posing the ethical question of taking a creature's life to preserve the life of another creature, so it doesn't go into things like the names of the slavers, and it only focuses on their humanity in as much as it serves to make the ethical dilemma more engaging.

This kind of convention is rampant in anime in particular. One of the reasons Neon Genesis Evangelion is so enduring is that all of the robots doing their thing is, as Stephen Notely puts it, “a psychological puppet show”. As tongue-in-cheek as the cartoon is, the destroying is largely incidental. Figuring out what's going on, because it's less important than the emotional angle of the show, is downplayed. The “salient characteristic” (to possibly coin a term) is the study in dysfunctional personalities, particularly Shinji, Asuka, and Misato. Everything that isn't in service of that is absent or minimized, which leads to the strong emotional reactions that many people have to the show.

It's important to note that this is slightly different from the “Everything that isn't in service of your story needs to be cut” axiom. In Chinatown, a movie widely praised for its screenplay, everything that happens happens for a reason, but understanding what happens is at least as important, if not more important that how it makes you feel. Or, more accurately, feeling the way that the filmmaker wants you to feel is predicated on a full understanding of the events of the film.

To give another example, Revolutionary Girl Utena, another anime, love it or hate it, will frequently feature scenes with characters talking, with action going on in the background that you obviously know is not actually occuring, (baseball games on balconies, trains running through classrooms, etc.) but assist you in interpreting the things being said by the characters. You are very clearly coached on how to feel about the conversation, and things not in service of the feel of the conversation (where the characters are) are dropped in favor of further emphasis on the emotional content of the scene.

But, you ask, isn't the heart of good cinematography to reinforce the message of the film with every available outlet? Well, yes. However, there's a limit to that that the japanese anime style frequently leaps over entirely. You can have an area and weather that reinforces the general feeling of a conversation, but it's kind of difficult to cram an entire conversations worth of changing opinions, facts, and alliances into a weather formation, which is suddenly possible when you have a baseball game going on amongst the characters.

Now, please understand, this is not about a value judgment. Is Michelangelo's David “better” than the aforementioned statue of Parvati? It's a nonsense question, but Michelangelo's David is a made in the Greek representational mindset, while the Parvati is not, but it seems like a valuable idea to stop and point out the differences between the representational and the intuitive mindset when it comes to both art and narrative. More on this later.

3 comments:

orange-fell said...

Again, sort of baffled--it seems to me that your examples are opposites. In Kino's Journey the world and the dilemmas are so huge that Kino and the people s/he meets are only slightly "filled in," whereas Evangelion, you're arguing, is a character drama. Yet both have the same anime "conventions" of huge eyes, little noses, weird mouths, etc. So what's going on?

It's also funny that Ramachadran quoted Victorian observers' reactions to Parvati's bod. Sure, they didn't go in for nudity, but have you ever thought what Victorian clothing does to the female form? Bosoms pushed up, waists nipped waaaay in, the rear emphasized with a huge bustle--anatomically incorrect, but the salient characteristics are very sexual. Cultural relativism strikes again!

William said...

Well, in this case, it's not about the specificity of this situation, in regards to Kino's Journey of Evangelion.

I think the important characteristic here is the relative importance of the representational style. Kino's Journey departs from realism even more than Evangelion, but neither are particularly concerned with realism in the first place.

You know, I wonder if that's what the Victorians thought they were doing...

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