Aladdin (2019): An Arab-American’s Perspective (Guest Post by Sarah Crickard)

Sarah Crickard is a Catholic wife and mother living among Ohio’s beautiful and infinite cornfields. When she is not working with low-income seniors as a caseworker, she enjoys writing fantasy, sewing, running and posting pictures of her food on Instagram. She is fluent in Arabic and sarcasm. Instagram: @SarahCrickard

Much to my loved one’s annoyance, I have had a very public and long-winded problem with the 1992 Disney movie Aladdin for…ever. So much so that when I finally went to Disneyworld at the tender age of 26 I had to get a picture of myself “fighting” with Jasmine, and my husband truly wondered if I might get us kicked out of the park if and when we ran into that particular princess. It was on the “do not play” list among my middle school and high school friends because they all wanted to avoid having to listen to my analysis of the movie’s many flaws for several hours.

Disney announced their live-action remake of Aladdin, scheduled to come out on my birthday in 2019 (Oh, the irony). I don’t have much time to go to the movies, so I waited for the film to become available for purchase, and bought a digital version to watch at home. And watch it I did…last night. So clearly I have to write up my thoughts right now. I’ll begin with my problems with the original, the 90s version. Once we get those out of the way I can get to raving about how much I loved the remake.

Aladdin is set in the imaginary kingdom of Agrabah. If I had a nickel for every time someone stressed to me that it was an imaginary place, as an excuse for the film’s overall cultural insensitivity…I’d have a lot of nickels. The movie opens with “Arabian Nights“, a musical narration of the setting. The song makes it very clear that this is an Arab country, even if it’s an imaginary Arab country. The song also contains gems like “Where they cut off your ear If they don’t like your face. It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.” In Disney’s defense, when the song was poorly received in 1992, they re-released the song without these lyrics, but my family had already purchased the original on VHS and these are the lyrics I, and many, grew up with. 

The song essentially starts off the movie with two points: It’s hot and sandy here because this is the middle east, and the people are barbarians. This, while we are given aerial shots of a very Taj-Mahal-like palace, and women in saris walking the streets. The rest of the movie continues like this with random references to Islam and Arab culture sprinkled throughout in the hopes that no one will notice that what they’re looking at really looks a lot more like India than the Middle East. If Disney set out to make up a fake culture, they utterly failed. What they did end up doing is poorly representing two distinct and rich cultures by mashing them together and portraying them entirely in stereotypes. The 2019 remake also doesn’t seem to distinguish Arab and Indian culture, but I’ll talk about why it’s okay in the remake in a moment.

The issues continue as we meet our two main characters Aladdin and Jasmine. These were supposed to be the Arab prince and princess I could look up to as examples as a young Arab-American girl growing up in a very white mid-west. 

Aladdin, instead, is kind of stupid. He is smart enough to escape the blundering mooks that serve as guards but is immediately bested the moment he faces a semi-competent nemesis in Jafar. In fact, all his victories seem to happen simply because everyone around him got a little stupider while he was there, or because he has a magical servant who can actually snap his fingers and fix it. Aladdin’s arc is simply one of a man who starts off a liar and thief, and then in the last five minutes of the movie learns to tell the truth. This lesson is learned very quickly and without much in the way of consequences. He basically apologizes for lying once and is given a bride (who comes attached to a future kingship). 

Jasmine is even more of a letdown. She’s introduced as some sort of feminist icon, who wants to be free to choose her own future. Her struggle throughout the movie is that she does not want to marry for political gain, but for love. At first pass, this seems good, but if we really think about it, she only reinforces the problems she is facing. She rebels against the notion that she should marry in order to give her kingdom greater security but instead wants to find someone who gives her butterflies. This culminates in her choosing the man who’s been lying to her for the duration of the movie. So she uses her “freedom” to make, arguably, a very silly choice. The 2019 remake addresses both of these characters’ flaws as well as the cultural setting they are living in. 

Aladdin, when we meet him in the 2019 version, is being chased by guards just like in the original. We’re shown immediately that this new Aladdin is able to outrun the guards, not because they are bumbling idiots, but because he’s smart. When he realizes he is going to be caught, he creates a decoy, and promptly escapes in the other direction, leaving the guards puzzling over where he’d gone. Then, he and Jasmine have a discussion about the fact that Abu, Aladdin’s pet monkey, steals indiscriminately, while Aladdin himself only steals what he needs. Jasmine’s bracelet goes missing and she believes Aladdin has lied, although we can see it was really Abu who took it. Aladdin then sets out to return the bracelet and prove he’s not a liar. This, among other things, is a drastic departure from the 1992 Aladdin who really did just steal and lie because he didn’t seem to know any better. Our 2019 Aladdin steals and lies, but he spends the movie grappling with his own greed, eventually choosing the right thing multiple times in the last half of the movie, even when it gets him into worse situations.

Jasmine, too, is much improved. We’re shown that her desire to marry is balanced by a desire to rule. Isolated in the palace, she’s spent her life studying politics and maps. She wants to marry for love, not so that her loving husband can rule her kingdom, but so that she can rule with someone supportive by her side. We are shown that all the men in her life find her annoying. Then Aladdin steps in and believes that she is capable of making good decisions with or without his help. These two character arcs are worlds better than the 1992 version and give us two real people we can struggle and feel with.

The other improvement is the wider setting of the movie. In the 1992 version, we see silly things in the background like “Hakim’s discount fertilizer” a cart of manure that Aladdin flings a guard into. Aladdin also comically injures a sword swallower, snake charmer, and a man on a bed of nails. The cultural notes in the background all serve for comedic moments, and there’s no concern given to what snake charmers, sword swallowers, spice merchants, camels, etc. mean to the people in this culture. 

I’ve been to an Arab Bazar in Bethlehem and it was the single most dazzling experience of my life. This is captured in the 2019 version of “Arabian Nights” which has been rewritten as a celebration of the mingling of Eastern cultures in trade centers. Lyrics like “Where you wander among every culture and tongue. It’s chaotic, but hey, it’s home” the song tells us that this a fantasy land before going on “As you wind through the streets at the fabled bazaars with the cardamom-cluttered stalls. You can smell every spice while you haggle the price of the silks and the satin shawls. Oh, the music that plays as you move through a maze in the haze of your pure delight. You are caught in a dance, you are lost in the trance of another Arabian night.” 

I began to cry (and my husband will attest it takes a lot to make me cry) when the movie opened on these lyrics. I turned to him and said “This. This is a celebration of my part of the world.” “Arabian Nights” is still the musical orientation of the movie’s setting, but this time we’re told that Agraba is a place where cultures come together and mix. It’s an imaginary kingdom where the best of India, the Middle East, and the East, in general, can come together in a dazzling display of human creativity. The movie continues as a showcase of this as we see traditional and modern dancing, spectacular costumes, and beautiful architecture. None of the cultural notes are played for comedy. This is why the 2019 version is able to get away with mixing together cultures. It is a celebration of the East and not a sloppy mockery of it.

I grew up feeling very out of place. I knew from a young age that “Arab” was a large part of my identity, even though, at first glance, I don’t necessarily look like a person of color. In the 90s and then even more so starting in 2001, Arab was not a very popular thing to be. I was proud of my heritage, and I never wanted to be anything else. The problem was showing others that. I often interacted with people who felt I should be apologetic for what I was or at least try to be a little more discrete. I grew up in the habit of being a translator for my family members. I became used to the looks of disgust when someone would tell me, a perfectly ordinary American child, something and I would turn to my grandmother and repeat it in Arabic, then relay the response. It was clear to me from a young age that my hair and skin were too dark, my language sounded too angry, and that my beautiful culture made people uncomfortable.

1992’s Aladdin being Disney’s “Arab movie” only reinforced that we were the wrong sort of people. I have always known this to be untrue, but there’s something especially painful about seeing that lie in technicolor on the big screen. The 2019 remake has taken that lie and transformed it into a celebration, and I for one, am here and ready to party. 

Now excuse me while I rock out to the song Speechless for the hundredth time today. 


A Voice From The Dark

Back in my college days, I discovered a website full of reviewers. I went to this website everyday, falling in love with the community that came from such a unique group of people. Unfortunately, that community has fallen apart recently. The content creators have moved on, making their own videos on YouTube. However, there was still a part of me that misses the old camaraderie.

One month ago, Linkara, one of the biggest former content creators of the website I used to love, released a trailer for a project he’d been working on:

Now usually, I’m not into audio dramas. I could never get into Welcome to Nightvale because the show was way too absurd for me. However, the trailer was enough to get me interested. The first episode was released onto YouTube on June 17. I decided to blog about this in order to help promote the audio play.

Right from the start, the story immerses the listener into this creepy, atmospheric haunted house. The premise is simple enough: about a couple dozen content creators have gathered in Scarsdale Mansion for what they assumed would be some kind of escape room style party. Unfortunately, things start to go wrong right away as the house collapses and splits the producers into four different groups. The next few parts of the series unfold a nefarious plot involving some kind of monster called The Voice.

I tend to be picky when it comes to horror. One thing I can say is a benefit of this audio play is that it’s not really that gory. For one thing, it relies solely on pictures of the characters so that you know who’s talking, so there’s no visuals of blood or torture. There’s a room full of corpses that gets mentioned, but that’s about as gory as this story gets. It also plays on a lot of familiar horror tropes, such as the mad scientist, ghosts, and zombies.

What I love most about this audio drama, however, is the added catharsis factor. A lot of grievances get aired and it filled me with bittersweet longing for those happier times. (I’m actually kinda tearing up just thinking about it.) However, I do realize that the catharsis factor is a personal one for me.

With all that said, A Voice From The Dark holds really well on its own and I don’t think you don’t have to know all the details of what happened in order to fully enjoy it. If I was gonna recommend this to someone who had no clue who anyone was, I would say that this audio drama focuses on a group of people who used to work together and suffered from losing their sense of community.

The conclusion to this horrific tale will be uploaded to YouTube tomorrow. Have fun listening, but proceed with caution. You do not want to listen to all of it in the dark with the lights off.

Defenders: A Review

defenders

As a fan of Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’ve had a hit and miss relationship with the four Netflix Original Series shows. On the one hand, Daredevil started off well, but got muddled in the second season. I liked aspects of Jessica Jones, but I don’t think I could watch it again because Kilgrave is a living nightmare and I didn’t feel like Jessica had any hope of moving forward by the end of the series. Luke Cage is okay, but the violence feels all too real considering current events. Iron Fist felt too derivative and mediocre.

Defenders, much like Avengers, is the story of how these four street-level heroes become a team in order to take down the Hand, an ancient criminal organization. Daredevil and Iron Fist have the most at stake, since they have dealt with the Hand in the past. However, Luke Cage and Jessica Jones still have their own character arcs as well, wanting to help the people in their neighborhoods whose lives are being affected by the Hand’s conspiracy.

The action in this series is top notch, from the signature hallway fight to the fight between Luke Cage and Iron Fist and every other brawl in between. And the overall story is solid. The members of the Hand all want to prolong their immortal lives, especially Alexandra (played by Sigourney Weaver). They resurrect Elektra to act as their enforcer.

Matt Murdock’s character arc centers on trying to live out a normal life as a lawyer while still having the desire to fight crime as Daredevil. He is the only one who actually needs to hide his secret identity, since his double life could cost him his job and all the cases he won. Elektra’s return brings back issues for Matt Murdock who’s still not over her. While I understand their relationship, it’s not what you would call a healthy one.

Danny Rand starts out as being a single-minded, immature man-child, wanting to take down the Hand at any cost. Through meeting the other Defenders, he learns that he doesn’t have to follow his duty alone. His scenes with Luke Cage are my favorite scenes in the series, which makes sense because they’re best friends in the comics. I only wished that there was a scene where they talked about their taste in music. They also fight well together, as evidence in the fight with Alexandra’s minions.

Luke Cage acts as the conscience of the team, not wanting innocent people to get hurt. He has a lot to live up to as the Hero of Harlem and while he doesn’t have a lot of personal stakes in the series, he’s smart enough to go along with everything, even when things don’t make sense. He is also the hero who captures one of the members of the Hand. He’s better at escaping an attempted kidnapping than Danny, sad to say.

Jessica has the least amount of character development, given that she has the least amount of personal stakes and connection with the Hand in this series. She’s still isolating herself, not taking on any clients except for someone who provides the MacGuffin. By the end of the series, Jessica finds the resolve to start working again. And while I like that Jessica and Luke got some closure in terms of their relationship, I still ship them so hard that I wanted them to have at least one “ship tease” moment. Since Luke is still in a happy relationship with Claire, my Jessica/Luke ship is not gonna be sailing off anytime soon.

The major villains in Defenders are Alexandra and Madame Gao. The other three members of the Hand play second fiddle. Alexandra takes it upon herself to raise Elektra as the Black Sky, the Hand’s living weapon. Madame Gao is trying to keep the Hand from falling apart and proves to be a surprisingly good fighter. She’s also very intimidating, in spite of her age. Elektra, however, is the most complex villain in the series. Even though she is tasked with helping the Hand achieve their latest goal of gaining immortality and destroying New York City, she still has feelings for Matt. In the end, she chooses her own path, though where it will lead her and Matt is still unknown.

Overall, this series is worth watching, but I recommend not binge-watching everything at once. I don’t regret spending my weekend watching it, but watching the series one episode at a time helps to remember all the little things more. And thankfully, aside from one gratuitous sex scene, the violence is the only thing that makes this series MA. It’s a soft R rating overall. Watch it for the action and the character development. These guys are awesome.

 

The Importance of Being Mantis

mantis

What exactly makes Guardians of the Galaxy so beloved within the overall Marvel Cinematic Universe? Aside from the soundtracks, the real driving forces behind Guardians of the Galaxy and the sequel are the protagonists. Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 gives everyone character development that takes them from being “Space Avengers” to stand-out individuals. It also introduced Mantis, Ego’s adopted daughter, played by Pom Klementieff. Mantis is a unique character compared to the others in the movie and even in the larger scope of all the Marvel Cinematic Universe characters.

 

Up to this point, the female characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have either been very stoic and efficient in battle (Black Widow, Gamora, Daisy Johnson) or love interests that are relegated to supporting roles (Pepper Potts, Jane Foster). Mantis, however, is neither a love interest nor an action girl. Instead, she connects to the Guardians of the Galaxy by her empathic abilities. The fact that her character arc centers on emotionally connecting with others and sharing her social awkwardness is a breath of fresh air when considering how often people want women in the media to either be tough, strong, and stoic or the emotional damsel in distress or just act as fanservice.

 

Mantis is the first character from the Marvel Cinematic Universe that I could say is the character who is most like me. Given that the MCU has been around since 2008, it’s hard to believe that it took almost a decade for Marvel to introduce a character like her. It’s not to say that I didn’t like The Avengers or the Guardians or the Agents of Shield or the Defenders. I love all of them to certain extents. However, something that made Marvel comics appealing was that it introduced characters that felt relatable, like an average teenage boy from Queens suddenly getting spider abilities or an average Muslim girl from New Jersey suddenly being able to stretch and shrink her body. While Mantis is by no means an average human being, she was based on a half-Asian human character from the comics. What makes her relatable to me is her social awkwardness and empathic abilities.

 

In an interview with Carson Daly, Pom Klementieff said:

In Marvel movies, we’re used to seeing badass and strong female characters, which I love…But it’s cool to show something else, you know, to show someone who’s less self-confident, who’s a bit weird.

 

Throughout the movie, Mantis connects to the other Guardians, especially Drax (played by Dave Bautista). It makes sense, given that they’re both socially awkward. However, what really seals their friendship is when she uses her empathic powers on Drax as he reflects on the loss of his wife and daughter. She breaks down in tears while he looks out at the beautiful scenery with a smile. It’s not certain whether Drax is at peace with what happened or if he happy that he’s just starting to move on. What is certain is that Drax finally found a friend who understands his grief.

 

Of course, my shipping radar went off the roof with how Drax and Mantis interacted with each other. I find relationships based on emotional connection and attraction very appealing. However, it’s made explicitly clear that Mantis and Drax find each other physically repulsive and do not want to pursue anything romantic. This averts any ideas of the emotional, empathetic one being anyone’s designated love interest.  (Apologies to the Drax/Mantis shippers.)

 

In a world that’s trying to figure out the ideal heroic woman, having a character like Mantis is a step forward in the right direction. It’s important for young girls to know that there are times that call them to be strong, but they shouldn’t discard their ability to empathize with others. The purpose of stories is to create empathy for people we wouldn’t normally connect with. Mantis shows that there is a great strength in being empathetic. Having empathy allowed Mantis to find people who cared for her as a person, a new family beyond just Ego and her empathic abilities actually helped in the inevitable final battle. I seriously can’t wait to see what she does in the next movie the Guardians appear in!

Ghost in the Shell-A Guest Review by A.R.K. Watson

ghost in the shell

Author’s note: This is a review of Ghost in the Shell written by my friend A.R.K. Watson. She’s a huge fan of Ghost in the Shell as a whole and is an anime fan like me. She’s not Japanese, but she did study abroad in Japan for a year and considers herself a fellow Japanophile. So believe me when I say she is the right person to talk about this movie.

Ghost in the Shell is the latest cyberpunk movie to hit the big screen. It is also one of the first western adaptations of a manga and anime since the atrocious Dragonball Evolution movie. It sits in that golden trifecta of reaching anime, cyberpunk, and action movie audiences. It has the potential to be great and also the potential to bomb.

So does it bomb?

No. I am happy to report that it does not in fact bomb.

But you, dear reader, don’t care so much about whether the hoity-toity reviewers will like it. You want to know if you would like this movie.

The answer: it depends on your expectations.

If you are a massive fan and have seen the 1995 movie, read the manga, seen the TV show Stand Alone Complex or other combination of sequel movies and TV shows

This movie was made for you. Right down to some adorable scenes with Batou and basset hounds. Go see it and squeal politely into your hand in the theater so as not to disturb your neighbors. The biggest drawback is while the Tachikoma do make a cameo appearance, their delightful personalities get no screen time. If the movie gets a sequel, we can hope that our dear little spider bots will get a chance to rise up and take over the plot.

If you have never even heard of the original anime or manga until this movie came out Get ready for a beautiful film that draws and improves upon the atmospheric beauty of Blade Runner, with the themes and ambiguity of Total Recall and the cyberpunk aspects of The Matrix. Be warned that like The Matrix, Ghost in the Shell does not have very expressive characters. Unlike The Matrix where Keanu Reeves played the stoic hero, we get Scarlett Johansson instead. It’s not a bad trade off. In fact The Matrix is a good benchmark for discerning whether you would like this movie or not. If you liked The Matrix, you will likely enjoy this movie for its big concepts, beautiful scenery, and graceful action scenes. If you hated The Matrix then this might not be the movie for you.

If you are a fan of Ghost in the Shell ,but have only seen the 1995 movie

You probably won’t like it. Visually this movie often steals scenes shot for shot from the movie but the plot, the villains, the themes are all drawn from the TV show Stand Alone Complex. There is no puppet master or subsequent nirvana-like themes. If the themes and message of the 1995 movie are where your heart truly lays then you will be disappointed. Does that make this a bad adaptation of a movie? Some people will disagree with me, but I don’t think this is a bad adaptation. I cannot explain more, though, without getting into spoilers. If you still want to see the movie, you might consider reading my Spoiler Section below just to set your expectations in the right spot before seeing it. Suffice to say that the message and themes are still faithful to its Buddhist roots and the wider Ghost in the Shell universe.

Now, on to the actual review.

I. The World

Visually this movie is breathtaking. Scenes are taken shot for shot from the 1995 movie and from the Stand Alone Complex TV show. I was afraid this would make the scenes boring for me, a fan who has seen these scenes on multiple rewatchings. It did not. There were enough changes and alterations to keep me interested and thankful that I took the chance to see this film on the big screen where I could really appreciate it.

II. The Characters

Scarlett Johansson does a good job. Seriously. Hate her or love her, I cannot fault her acting in this. In the manga and anime, Major Motoko Kusanagi is not the most emotive, expressive, or empathetic character. She’s very stoic to be honest. I’ve read many a review that criticizes Johannson for this stoic-ness, but she couldn’t have done differently without her role feeling too different from the Motoko I know in the anime. There’s something about the strength in Johansson’s acting that compells me to the point that, at times, I felt more engaged by her character than the anime version.

Pilou Asbaek is perfect as Batou, the male lead in this movie. He did an even better job than Johannson. Pilou Asbaek conveyed Batou’s strength as well as his subtle emotional vulnerability. Also they gave an origin story for his cyber eyes that is tied to his secret/not-so-secret crush on Motoko. It was adorable and was one of the moments I had a hard time not making fangirl squee in the movie theater. (In case you can’t tell, I totally ship it!)

“Beat” Takeshi Kitano portrays Chief Daisuke Aramaki. He’s basically this movie’s version of Director Nick Fury from Avengers and he does an okay job. I liked that they have him deliver all his lines in Japanese, but there were a few times where Takeshi seemed too stoic. He almost looked bored when he delivered his lines. But overall, I think he did a decent job. He even gets an action scene, which was pretty cool.

The other characters are all very background though. I would have enjoyed seeing more of Togusa, Ishikawa, and Saito but I understand why they couldn’t fit everything in. I really hope there’s a sequel because I would love these characters to get more development!

About the Whitewashing

Yes, yes I know. You’ve heard this so many times you are sick of it I’m sure. But it needs to be addressed.

Yes, casting Johansson as the Major is whitewashing. It is bad. They should’ve cast a Japanese actress.

No, the approval of the casting by Japanese citizens does not make this okay. This isn’t just about doing justice to the original content. As the Japanese people in that video explain, a diverse casting is in keeping with the aesthetic of a lot of anime and Johansson does actually look like the Motoko in animation.

This is about the USA and the Hollywood version of a Japanese story. In Japan, the Japanese are the majority. Any westerner regardless of color or race is a minority and suffers the subsequent institutionalized inequalities that come with that. Anyone not racially Japanese, for example, can never gain the right to vote regardless of whether they become a citizen or not. So perhaps if Japan were to make their own live action version of Ghost in the Shell, it would be more appropriate for them to cast Johansson. Even then, it would still be a little creepy given how the Japanese often over idealize white people. Its almost exactly the same way some American guys just love Asian girls in that overly creepy way.

But Japan didn’t make this movie. Hollywood did. This is the same Hollywood in which Asian actors and actresses face greater hurdles to land roles, where they are usually the sidekick or best friend. This is the Hollywood where Asian actors are pressured to spend a ton of money on tutors to lose their accent and then asked to lean into that same accent on set in order to make the role more “ethnic.” It isn’t the Japanese citizens who are the final word on whether or not the casting is inappropriate—it’s American Japanese citizens who are.

By now I’m sure you are saying, but Watson, you saw the movie, are you saying I shouldn’t? Perhaps, but not before considering two more points.

  1. This movie is actually diverse. If it weren’t an adaptation I think people would notice that more. Of the named characters I counted six white people and seven persons of color, and that’s not even getting into the great efforts this movie took to involve Japanese crew. They even recast Ishikawa as a Black man. While I do still wish they made Motoko Japanese, if you boycott this movie solely based on whitewashing the main character, those many POV actors won’t get the acclaim they deserve.
  2. They do give a story reason for the whitewashing in the movie. I will tell you what that is in the spoiler section, but for now I can only say that the reason is in keeping with the wider themes explored in Ghost in the Shell and it made sense in the context of the story. Will the reason please everyone? No. I wasn’t particularly pleased myself, but it does leave a plot opportunity open to fix the issue in a sequel. Major Motoko is, after all, a cyborg. She is already emotionally disconnected to her body. Changing faces would be no problem and she is even given a plot reason to seriously consider doing so.
  3. Giving this movie no success at all will do about as much for encouraging more live action anime adaptations as if you decided to spend your ticket on an adaptation where all the actors were white and the writers clearly didn’t even read the original source material. I guess I don’t want this movie to have all the success. I just want it to make just enough money for Hollywood to realize that this is an untapped audience and that we might give them our money if they would take the time to get it right.

It’s because of this last reason that I decided to see the movie. I cannot say I regret going. Despite everything this movie truly is the big budget faithful adaptation of an anime that we’ve been waiting for.

Spoilers Ahead! Beware!!

Saw the movie? Awesome!

From here on out I will assume you know what I’m talking about and thus cut down on the summary. You’ve seen the movie and you know how you feel about it. I just want to take the time to point out two aspects you might not be aware of if you haven’t seen the other Ghost in the Shell media or if you’ve only seen the 1995 movie. The last bit is my final and very conflicted word on the whitewashing issue in light of the “twist.”

About the Villain

Peter Ferdinando’s portrayal of Cutter, the Hanka Robotics’ CEO ,was trite and boring. Also, how the hell did a white man start running an obviously Japanese company? Forget him!

The real interesting villain is Hideo Kuze, played by Michael Pitt. Kuze is inspired by the villain of Stand Alone Complex season two. I say “inspired by” because there are a lot of differences, but I think that this is where the live action movie actually improves the storyline.

What they got right—Michael Pitt does look a little similar to the Kuze in Stand Alone Complex (S.A.C. for short) ., if perhaps you mashed him with the rogue A.I. Roy Batty from Blade Runner. Just like in the original anime, he is going on a revenge spree and he does have a human created neural network, though in S.A.C., the network was very voluntary and much less creepy. It’s also never fully explained or explored; much like it is in this movie, so I suppose I can’t blame the 2017 movie for being confusing when the original content is as well. The TV show version also gives Kuze a backstory in which a personal connection to Motoko Kusanagi is implied, but we are given scant details and it never felt genuine to me. Apparently they were childhood friends who helped each other deal with being full cyborgs before he got shipped off to war and framed for war crimes he didn’t commit. The anime version of Kuze was definitely not a teenage runaway. Honestly though I prefer the 2017 backstory for Kuze. He’s a much more emotionally interesting character here than he is in S.A.C. and it makes him and Motoko all the more interesting for it.

The many lives of Motoko’s backstory

In the anime and manga, Motoko’s backstory has already gone through some subtle changes but in no version was she a teen runaway or a victim of human experimentation.

In the original story, Motoko was always someone who became a cyborg at a very young age and with the full consent of her parents or guardians. In the TV show Stand Alone Complex, her backstory is that she was the victim of a terrorist attack when she was in elementary school and suffered a coma. In order to have a normal life, she was moved to a fully synthetic body and grew up as a cyborg. In the more recent movie series, Arise, her back story was changed so that it was actually her mother who was a victim of a terrorist attack when she was pregnant with Motoko and one of the EMP’s on the scene saved the consciousness of unborn Motoko by transferring it to a cyber brain. In that version, she grows up with absolutely no memories of having a human body.

I think you can see where the 2017 movie got its idea for “Meera Killian’s” terrorist victim backstory can’t you?

I must say too I actually like the changes made to this version of Motoko’s backstory. Meera/Motoko still has lost most all her memories of having an normal body so if they make sequels to the movie they can still explore that body-mind dissonance that is so fascinating in the original story, but with the added drama that bringing her birth mother into it entails.

While it is implied in the anime that she had a normal childhood other than the cyborization, we never actually meet her parents, be they natural or adoptive. Motoko is very James Bond like in that she rarely shows deep emotion and serves more as the show’s unshakable noir-type investigator. I found myself more emotionally engaged by this version of Motoko than I have ever before. That scene where Motoko meets her mother is a perfect example of two actresses with some really good talent. Johansson did a great job but Kaori Mamoi, who played Motoko’s mother, blew everyone in that movie out of the water in just one scene.

Also I have a Catholic joke for you nerds out there. Motoko’s fake name in this movie was Meera—as in the Irish version of the name Mary. Did anyone laugh when our Marian cyborg said, “I was made for justice” or was that just me and my apophenia?

Again with the Whitewashing

For all that I still have problems with casting Motoko as a white woman, I also love the message that this movie sends against whitewashing. The exploration of the way that the cyborization is inhuman is pure cyberpunk. By casting Motoko as white and calling to attention her stolen memories and stolen race, the movie makes it very clear that treating a person as just a mind or disembodied soul is disrespectful. Cyborization is itself the ultimate white washing, and it isn’t just that it would be less common for companies to issue Black cyber bodies—even the so-called Arian model cyborgs would likely be the idealized version instead of the reality. Body diversity even within the white population would be erased and replaced with whatever the current fashion says is the ideal body type. Full cyborization is a tragedy. The original manga and show knew it and so does this film, most of the time. Even when the original content portrayed Motoko as someone whose life was saved by cybertech, the grief Motoko experiences for her dead body never really leaves her and I’m glad that the live action movie found a new way to explore the same theme.

Then again, if they don’t recast her as Asian in the sequel that whole message will mean nothing won’t it?

Regardless, I am not sad I saw this movie. It truly was the big budget Hollywood adaptation of an anime that Japanophile nerds have been waiting for. So I did it. I went. I gave my money and I even sort-of recommend it. But, hey if the amount of racist stuff in this world is getting you down it’s totally a worthy move to take a day or moment off and just save yourself the mental health. If that’s the case do yourself a favor and go see Moana.

Now it’s up to Hollywood. Give us a sequel and/or different adaptation and give us a Japanese casting already!

What Would Buffy Do?- A Book Review

What_Would_Buffy_Do_(Buffyverse)

To say that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a unique show that ended up changing my life forever would be an understatement. Much like how the Doctor from Doctor Who has two hearts, I have two great loves in my life: My Catholic faith and my obsession with fandoms, especially Buffy the Vampire Slayer. So imagine my surprise when I found out that a book like this one existed.

What Would Buffy Do: The Vampire Slayer as Spiritual Guide is a collection of essays by Jana Reiss, a Mormon writer who specializes in writing things relating to religion and spirituality. It really boggles the mind that a show like Buffy, created by well-renowned atheist Joss Whedon, would have spiritual and religious themes that would lead to a Mormon writing essays on it, among other things.

The essays in Spiritual Guide are split into three sections: Personal Spirituality, “Companions on the Journey” (Interpersonal aspects of spirituality), and “Saving the World” (broad spiritual themes).  The essays in the first section are the most accessible to understand. “Be a Hero, Even When You’d Rather Go to the Mall” looks into the theme of self-sacrifice, using the characters of Buffy, Angel, and Xander as examples. This essay ties self-sacrifice with the Buddhist concept of the bodhisattva, “beings who are more concerned with the welfare of others.”  Although it includes the prayer of St. Francis as a quote (the same prayer also used in the end of the Buffy season 6 finale “Grave”), it neglects to mention the Christian aspect of agape and altruism, especially this verse from John 15:13 “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

“Change Makes us Human” looks into how vampires were originally conceived in the show: as metaphors for the selfish tendencies we have and the obstacles we have to deal with in the process of growing up. Spike is used as an example of this inability to change. In the episode “School Hard, Angel confronts Spike, saying “Things change.” Spike replies “Not us! Not demons!” The essay goes on to show how Spike becomes one of the most dynamic characters in the show, starting with the fact that Spike was the vampire with the most humanity. He cared for Drusilla for over a century and it’s through love (his love for Dawn and Buffy) that compels Spike to get his soul. Willow, Xander, and Giles’s character arcs are also examined.  What makes Buffy unique is that how slowly the show changes and evolves and the characters (and the audience) are forced to adapt and adjust to the change.

One aspect of change that this book looks into is death, examined in the essay “Death is Our Gift.” Death is shown as  something to be feared initially in Buffy and gave rise to the running joke of Joss Whedon killing off everyone the fans love. However, the darkness that death brings is one of the themes in season six. Sarah Michelle Gellar said that she felt uncomfortable with Buffy’s story arc in season six as it didn’t feel like the character she knew and loved. Marti Noxon, one of the writers and producers, called seas on six Buffy’s “Dark Night of the Soul.” Sadly, that’s the only mention of the Dark Night of the Soul in this entire book.

There is an essay on darkness in the third section of the book entitled “Taming the Darkness Within Ourselves,” but it looks into darkness from a more thematic and psychological perspective and not a spiritual one. Given that Spiritual Guide was published in 2004 and Mother Teresa’s struggles with her interior darkness wouldn’t be published until 2007, it’s somewhat understandable why the idea of spiritual darkness wasn’t fully examined in this book. The essay on humor “The ‘Monster Sarcasm Rally,'” also neglects to examine the ties between humor and faith. Then again, humor and religion have only recently shown to go hand in hand.

This book is a wonderful read as far as examining the various themes and the complexity of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but the spiritual roots are soaking in shallow water, probably so that the book would be accessible to a general audience. I would love to see a follow-up to this book, some kind of anthology with essays from people of all denominations. On the other hand, maybe it’s a good thing that this book has me asking more questions than answers, leaving me wanting to dig deeper and continue down the path towards integrating my favorite show with my belief system.

In the last episode of Buffy, “Chosen,” the power of the Slayer is given to every girl in the world and ends with Dawn asking Buffy “What do we do now?” When I finished watching the show for the first time, I was left wanting more and eventually found a community of fellow fans who love Buffy. To my surprise, these friends are also people whom I can discuss my Catholic faith with openly. I think the Vampire Slayer Spiritual Guide serves a similar purpose. It’s not meant to give straightforward answers, but to act as a conversation piece for people like me who have both faith and fandoms in their lives. It might be a good way to introduce the show to those who wouldn’t watch something with horror and modern themes.

Tl;dr: Read this book and have a good discussion with your fellow philosophy and theology majors. And then watch Buffy. It will make you laugh, cry, and change your life forever.

The Geek’s Guide to Unrequited Love: A Book Review

geeks-guide-to-unrequited-love

I bought The Geek’s Guide to Unrequited Love last year while working on my own novel for NaNoWriMo. As someone who loves conventions, cosplay, and geek/nerd life in general, I knew that I would love this book as soon as I read the summary.

The “geek” in question from the title of the book is sixteen year old Graham William Posner, “lanky, pale, glasses, with a penchant for fantasy worlds.” He has a crush on his best friend, Roxy and hopes that going to New York Comic Con with her would provide him with the opportunity for him to confess his feelings, especially when one of the guests at NYCC is Robert Zinc, a reclusive comic book writer who is stepping out of the shadows for the first time in forever. Of course, things don’t go the way Graham hopes, especially when Roxy hits it off with a guy she meets at the con.

As Graham tries to get the best NYCC experience possible and impress Roxy in the process, the reader is treated to a very genuine perspective of what it’s like to be at a con: the costumes, the merch, the panels, and  all the unique events that fans get to go to. All the while,  Graham continually fails at impressing Roxy and eventually learns that his feelings are unrequited.

What makes this book work is that you really root for Graham and he never acts like he’s entitled to Roxy’s love. He gets jealous of the new guy, but he eventually learns that it’s okay to not get the girl. The book may not end with the conventional happily ever after, but I still love it because by the time the story ends, you see how much Graham has matured and his desires change towards things bigger than just getting the girl.

I recommend this book to all my nerdy friends and to people who can learn a thing or two about being in love. We’ve all experienced unrequited love and this book shows how people can deal with it in a healthy way without friendships taking collateral damage. It’s refreshing to find a story that focuses more on selfless love and friendship rather than the tired love triangles and “pretty people problems” you see in every other YA novel.

We need more books like this!