Kill!

Kill! is one of those movies which cannot be properly appreciated without first having seen a number of other films in the same genre. It’s not exactly a parody of the chanbara/samurai films but it pokes fun at the tropes: the wandering ronin, the farmer out to become a samurai, a kidnapped chamberlain, the idealist samurai out to right the corruption of their clan, the fact that there’s seven of them…

Kill! Is based on the same story Sanjuro is* and I feel like some kind of heretic saying this, but it’s better than Sanjuro. I have no idea what the original story is like but Sanjuro (the character) is shoehorned into it. He doesn’t fit well.

*(Wikipedia and Infogalactic give a varying assortment of stories which the movie could have been based on but generally agree that a) whatever it was was written by Shugoro Yamamoto and b) was the same source as for the story of Sanjuro. When I googled one of the possible sources “Peaceful Days”, the various sites talking about couldn’t agree if it were a novel or a short story. The Criterion Collect version of Sanjuro says it’s “Peaceful Days” and a novel so I’m going to assume they’re correct.)

In Kill! a ronin, Hanjiro, wanders into the beginning of the film in a sequence reminiscent of the opening of Yojimbo. A desolate windy place. A town clearly wrecked with strife. He bumps into another wanderer, Genta, a yakuza. Neither of these characters is exactly what they profess to be.Genta and Hanjiro

The humor from the outset is both aburd and exceedingly black. Hanjiro is horrified to find the woman in the inn/restaurant has hung herself. He and Genta, miserable and hungry, then proceed, crawling in the dusty street, to stalk a straggly chicken. The effect of the two men’s eyes lighting on the pathetic bird invokes something almost like cartoon characters looking at something and seeing a drumstick.

Their potential dinner is frightened away by a samurai striding down the street. The difference between our two heroes become immediately apparent when Hanjiro, getting his hands on the samurai’s food, stuffs his face while Genta, regretfully, tries to give it back.

samurai fightGenta is the Sanjuro-esque character here. He’s the clever schemer pretending to help one side while serving the other. (It’s kind of funny for Tatsuya Nakadai to play this when he was also one of the villains in Sanjuro.) He immediately recognizes the group of samurai they’ve bumped into is heading for trouble and tries to help. But where Sanjuro is gruff and brash, Genta is quiet and mild. He’s willing to simply advise and then sit and play cards with the priest while the samurai work things out for themselves… at least until it comes obvious that they can’t.

And that’s really why Kill! is superior to Sanjuro. Sanjuro spends most of the movie tripping over the other samurai. They screw his schemes up, stopping him from really being able to put them fully into play. In Yojimbo, when a scheme went wrong it was because of the enemies; in Sanjuro, it’s because of the allies. It’s missing the element of a clever, suspenseful back and forth between hero and foe. Additionally there’s never a real sense that Sanjuro is in much danger. Kill! has all that. Genta is able to act without allies getting in his way.  He has a rather more subtle style, more inclined to have people think he’s not nearly as skilled as he is. He slips in and out learning things from the enemy, doing a little sabotage, and killing when he must. When his scheme goes wrong, he needs to be rescued or he’s gonna be dead.

Which is where Hanjiro comes in. In some ways a buffoon, he provides a lot of humor but the wannabe samurai has his heart in the right place.  When it comes down to it, he’s willing to sacrifice his hard sought after dream.

There’s a weird almost contradictory theme running through the movie: samurai are not the amazing, noble, trustworthy people they’re set up to be. The villainous samurai are corrupt traitors and liars, willing to trick and murder their underlings.  Genta tries repeatedly to persuade Hanjiro that samurai are no good.  But at the same time the most honorable, heroic characters are samurai.

Kill! succeeds in being a better movie all around than Sanjuro is.  There’s some obvious similarities but it’s a very different movie.  Blackly funny, exciting, and full of action, it’s well worth a watch.

The Pulp and the Unpleasant

Nathan Housley, the Pulp Archivist, had something on Gab about a video response to Jon Mollison’s reviews of Pulp Nova:

Most criticism of #PulpRev tends to come from the closely related #Superversive viewpoint. Here’s a critique from well outside the usual suspects. Is Grim right?

I don’t know about superversive but I think Grim is making a mistake by equating a story having certain elements in it and those elements taking over a story.

Characters can be gritty, unpleasant, and immoral and yet the world they occupy isn’t. The story doesn’t leave a nasty taste in your mouth. The plot and ending of say, The Little Sister by Raymond Chandler (which I just finished), handled differently could have been exceedingly unpleasant. Yet that ending was satisfying. Sure, it’s grim and one villain walks away scot free. Justice doesn’t come from the law and Marlowe doesn’t follow the law anyhow. It’s gritty, full of immoral people, lies, murder, and blackmail. But it also has a moral center. Marlowe, despite his foibles, is a noble man willing to risk his life and career to protect a woman he doesn’t know. He gets himself in trouble for it and gets nothing in return.

I also just read Black Amazon of Mars by Leigh Brackett. The hero is a snarling savage who bites someone’s wrist so hard he breaks it. A horde of barbarians take over and loot a city and… well, that’s okay! The barbarians get to keep the city. But our hero, despite being mostly a savage, saves the world from ancient evil. Not only does he but he saves his two companions as well. How many modern stories allow that to happen? No, if you save the world, you’ve got to sacrifice something. Can’t save everybody.

There’s a difference between a story having nasty things in it and the story being nasty. It’s like the difference between Kolchak and Night Stalker. Unpleasant things happen in Kolchak. Nice old men get eaten by monsters. College fellows get the life sucked out of them. That show is so much fun. The remake sucked. It had no fun, no humor, and no heart in it.

The old stuff has something about it. Something wonderful. Something fun. Something that makes you want to keep reading and finding more like it. I mostly stopped reading for fun during college and then it took me a very long time to get back into it. I’ve always been very cautious about trying new authors and I couldn’t find much that interested me. I’d try new things and even if I finished the book would rarely go on to read more by that author. Reading The Three Body Problem was a bit of a shock. There was something incredibly imaginative and amazing about it, a feeling that I hadn’t gotten out of a book in a long time. And there’s more than a few unpleasant things in that book.

Pleasantness has got nothing to do with it. Modern works have lost all sense of wonder and what it is to entertain. And how can you have those when you know that the world is a filthy, nasty place full of wretched people? People who have no moral compesses, not even imperfect ones. A world where there are no good choices. Morality only comes in shades of dark gray and black. Nobody and nothing is good.

The world isn’t actually like this. It might suck, it even might suck most of the time, but the world is still beautiful and people can still have fun and do good things.

And even if the world really did suck utterly and completely all the time, why the hell would I want to read about that?

Why they talk so tough

This never would have stood out to me if it weren’t for the Pulp Revolution but Raymond Chandler seems to like to drop little mentions of pulps in his books.  There was the one in The High Window, then in The Little Sister a character is said to have a “love-pulp” in his room.

Later when discussing a theory that the police have, Marlowe’s interlocutor dismisses it saying:

“Your cop friend has been reading pulp magazines.”

“They all do,” I said.  “That’s why they talk so tough.”

The Games of Bethesda and a Lack of Moral Agency

I want a world where good choices are possible. It’s hard enough to figure out what is a good choice in the real world but in video games you’d think it might be easier. In a role playing game, in order to play a role, you need the ability in the game to make good or bad or neutral choices. Bethesda, for all their love of crime/moral systems, doesn’t like good choices. In fact, their crime/moral systems suck.

Oblivion guard

STOP RIGHT THERE, CRIMINAL SCUM!

Now sometimes this is simply sloppy design. It shouldn’t be so easy to commit crimes that you do it without ever realizing you did it. I had several times in Oblivion, minding my own business I thought, and a guard would pop out of nowhere bellowing at me. What did I do? I have no idea. Somehow accidentally tripped something in the game that counted as a crime. Picked something up by accident maybe? Walked through the wrong door? I’M INNOCENT I TELL YOU!

(Did you know that horses can report you for stealing them? Who decided that made any sense?)

There’s multiple cases in that game where it’s consisdered licit to kill a character, even necessary in a quest, but then illicit to take any of their stuff.

In Skyrim, meanwhile, there you are innocently defending yourself against a dragon which landed in the middle of town and a chicken walks by just as you shout at it… and then everybody in town attacks you.

But that’s just design quirks. What about actual moral choices?

Fallout 3 has a karma system. It affects which companions you get, which faction will be attacking you constantly, stuff like that. All well and good. Except that it doesn’t necessary reflect good and bad. As part of the main quest, the player character has to go and get something from Vault 112. The inhabitants of Vault 112 are trapped in a virtual reality by a sadistic scientist. Then you have two choices: torture and kill everybody but actually leave them trapped for the rest of their lives to be tortured and killed repeated or actually kill everybody. One of these will get you negative karma and the other good but here is no good choice.

One soon to be deceased vigilant

I think that cheese is eating him

In Elder Scrolls, do a daedra quest and most of the time you’ll be forced to do something awful. Well, just don’t do them then, right? Except that the developers sometimes set it up to trick you into it. Walking into Markarth you may come upon a Vigilant of Stendar hell bent on getting himself killed (the only thing apparently Vigilants of Stendar are good for). Help me investigate this house, he asks and if you don’t know better and go along, you end up traped in the house. The only way out: kill him.

In both cases the game designer deliberately put the player into situation where they have no real choice of how they act.

Now I must make an aside about the nature of video games which complicates moral choices somewhat: you can know ahead of time what’s going to happen. Either you read it on a wiki or your roommate walked in while you were playing it and said, “hey, you realize if you help those people they murder everyone else right?”

So back in Markarth someone who gets just a touch annoyed with being railroaded into doing things they don’t like will turn their nose up at the quest you stumble into first (don’t even get me started on that one) and the nitwit next abandoned house can stand there forever unhelped and maybe actually they’ll just not bother going to Markarth. It’s really not that great anyway. These people are so stupid they sleep on stone beds. Screw Markarth.

This is unfortunately the only way to play something approaching lawful good or just plain good actually in Elder Scrolls: Skip stuff. With that foreknowledge, however, comes the temptation to act differently. If you know that a particular character will murder a group of people, maybe–if you can–it’ll seem like a more moral choice to kill them first.

So if you know that the ghouls outside Tenpenny Tower are going to kill everyone if you talk the people into letting them in, you could save the people and wipe out the ghouls. Then you get negative karma!

Game developers are fallible human beings. They’re probably also ones without any concept of natural law. As such, the morality systems they impose of their virtual worlds are often incomplete and contradictory. But they also have notions about the favor of the world and type of things that must happen which interferes further with the freedom of choice afforded the player.

How can you truly be role playing if you have no choice about your character’s moral orientation? Certainly you have choice when it comes to is this character pure mage or pure might or somewhere in the middle. But a character who murders people is a murderer and one that steals is a thief. One ought to have the option NOT to do these things. Why can’t I, for instance, save the people in Vault 112? The only reason not is that the game delevopers said no. Why? Because it doesn’t conform with what they wanted for the world. Who cares what the player wants to do.

Wouldn’t it be interesting if a game like Skyrim actually had different paths to follow down based on moral choices?  The main quests could have been more like Dawnguard which let you pick which faction you helped. They could have had a whole quest line to destroy the Dark Brotherhood for example. Oh, sure, sure, you can destroy them. IF you murder someone first.

Agricultural Avarice

I bought Stardew Valley as my friend Chadwick recommended it as a good game to play while listening to audiobooks. I am ashamed to say that I’ve gone and played it for two weeks without doing anything of sort.

Stardew Valley is both very fun and rather annoying, both addictive and repetitive. There’s not exactly much in the way of plot. I mean, you plant stuff and you fish and whack on rocks. It’s really all about money. Gotta mine ore so you can build things like kegs so you can make wine so you can make more money. Gotta fish so you can make more quality fertilizer to make more money on crops.

You can work on relationships with the townsfolk but I am way too antisocial to get into the friendship side of the game. Whaddya mean I’ve got to talk to you every day? Gifts? Are you crazy? Invite me to dinner and demand I bring my own food? They’re all just a bunch of friends of utility. Obviously it works for some people. Chadwick loves that kind of thing. The character he showed me was married and divorced twice and had three girlfriends on the side at the same time.

Occasional quests from characters are nice but since all the ones on the bulletin board are time dependent I find most of those impossible to do. Not that they are particularly hard but that once I’ve completed the task, I can’t find the person who wanted it. The easiest way to handle that is to become a compulsive hoarder. Have a couple of each item stashed away, then you’ve got two days to track down the person who wants it. (Or of course you can go to the wiki and figure out where they are on any given day.) Even that doesn’t always work, however, if somebody, say Clint, wants his ore fresh. The jerk.

The Community Center offers a nice non-time dependant set of quests but these are actually easier to complete than I initially thought. Once you get a hang of various skills and pay attention to what needs to be planted to get certain things, then it’s fairly easy to accumulate necessary items. But this is also one of those things where the wiki comes in very helpful. How the heck am I supposed to figure out that eels only come out on rainy days in Spring and Fall after 4pm? Oh, well, you’re supposed to just fish constantly and figure it out. I have not got the patience for that.

It definitely takes less brain power than HMM3.  When I finally decide to use my brain again, this game is going to be very good for audiobooks.

Self-depreciation

After the recent Brainstrom, Vox Day said:

As usual, Professor Keen was brilliant, informative, and entertaining. … I don’t think he’ll object to me posting the email he sent me a few months ago when I asked him about the implications for free trade of the demand-based break between micro and macro caused by the Sonnenschein-Mantel-Debreu theorem. Or, as I memorably renamed it last night, Sonnensomething-Niederbopp-Whatever.

It’s a little throw away comment about not being able to remember a name but it reminded me of something John Mollison had on G+ quite a while back:

#PulpRevvers, don’t be this guy. Please don’t be this guy.

Meme magic is real, and it causes self-deprecation to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Every time this guy fires up his blog he sees a reminder that he is average, that he is mediocre. That stuff gets in your brain, it wires your synapses to think average, to think mediocre.

But it doesn’t just work on you, it works on your readers and your potential readers. A blog name like that tells the world that even you, the person who knows you best, thinks you aren’t worth the risk.

Need more proof? Scalzi’s blog is called “whatever”. My thoughts exactly, John.

Don’t self-deprecate – plenty of people will be willing to do that for you – be awesome. Be mighty. Be magnificent.

He had a link to a post on a blog called (Almost) Average: Ramblings of the Mediocre.  The name alone should tell you all you need to know about the blogger’s attitude towards himself.  But what does this have to do with Sonnensomething-Niederbopp-Whatever?

Vox’s self-depreciation is that of a confident man laughing at himself. The mistake was funny. Bringing it up again is just a reminder that it was funny. The fellow Mollison is talking about, however, is using self-deprecation very differently and Mollison sees what will come of it. I’m not a big fan of mindset stuff but it is true: if you talk down to yourself, you can very well create a downward spiral of suck that you’ll be stuck in. But that’s an aftereffect not the beginning.

In a case like that, self-depreciation is a defence mechanism. It’s all about muh feels. If you go out and tell everyone that you’re a stupid nobody–be it true or not–then when someone else pops up and declares you to be a stupid nobody, well, you already said it. It’s much easier to pretend you don’t care.

The problems is that you DO care. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t keep bringing it up. It’s a sign of insecurity. You’re afraid that people are going to say these things about you. You don’t want it to hurt and try to beat them to punch.

So instead you come across as whiny. It’s not funny; it’s annoying. The defence mechanism is self defeating. The more you do it the worse it gets.

Now maybe I’m mistaken about where this comes from and am simply reading into it based on my own insecurities. After all, my first instinct is to add “well, maybe I’m wrong…” instead of owning my opinions and comments. Because it’s a defence against someone coming along and saying you’re wrong. It’s a bad defence that makes you look stupid and merely helps pull you further down into being stupid. If you don’t have confidence in your argument, don’t publish it. If you don’t have confidence in yourself, shut up about it. Nobody cares. If someone comes along and tells you that you’re wrong, either argue the point or admit the mistake.

When you’re capable of truly laughing at yourself, maybe then you can use self-depreciation.