Whisper of the Heart

My husband is a fan of European football, and he spends a lot of time scrolling through football Twitter under a pseudonymous throwaway account. Most of the accounts he follows are British. He got annoyed with not being able to watch the region-locked videos people linked to, so a week or two ago he set up a VPN. (If you’re curious, he uses ExpressVPN, which is $8 a month and seems to be working nicely for him.) His computer now registers as being in the UK, and he employs this for the nefarious purpose of watching a few minutes of football videos a day and being amused by the British ads that Twitter shows him (mostly for snacks).

Even though he doesn’t use it much these days, my husband never stopped paying for his Netflix account, and it recently occurred to him that, with a UK address, he could watch British Netflix.

So the other day I was standing in the kitchen waiting for tea to brew, and my husband was sitting on the couch looking at Netflix UK. I asked him if he’s found anything to watch, and he started complaining that Netflix keeps trying to show him animated movies. He told he that they look Japanese.

I was like, “Okay, yes, go on.”

And he was like, “Have you ever heard of Studio Ghibli?”

That’s when I realized that my husband had never heard of Studio Ghibli.

. . . . .

My husband enjoys movies, but he’s in his forties and comes from a country where there hasn’t been a culture of anime fandom until relatively recently. He likes the Makoto Shinkai movies we’ve watched, which he calls “documentaries about Japan,” so I thought that Whisper of the Heart would be the best Studio Ghibli movie to show him. He loved it.

I loved it too. It’s been about ten years since I last saw Whisper of the Heart, and I was not expecting it to hit as hard as it did.

Whisper of the Heart is about a middle-school girl named Shizuku who loves reading. Shizuku checks out books from the local library, and she’s noticed that there’s another kid’s name on almost all of the library borrower cards inside the covers of the books she reads. She ends up meeting this boy, who is her age but wants to study the craft of violin making in Italy instead of matriculating to high school. Inspired by his determination to follow his dream, Shizuku decides to follow her own dream of writing a fantasy novel.

Shizuku gets really absorbed in her writing. She tells a friend that she has no appetite because she’s too preoccupied with her novel, and then she eats shortbread cookies so she can stay awake while she’s writing in the evening. She stops hanging out with her friends after school so that she can fantasize about her novel while walking home. She only puts in the bare minimum of work necessary to get by at school, and her grades drop. She gets explosively irritated when people interrupt her while she’s writing. When she’s done with the story, she gets super neurotic about feedback. She cries a lot.

I was just sitting there, like, “Oh my god. Oh my god. Oh my god.”

How dare Hayao Miyazaki come into my house and call me out like this.

. . . . .

The range of what my husband does and doesn’t know about internet culture is a mystery to me, so I was surprised when he asked me if the anime girl from the Lofi Hip Hop Radio channel on YouTube is modeled on the protagonist of Whisper of the Heart.

The answer is yes, of course she is. This reference is so obvious to me that I never thought about it as something other people might not get.

Because I teach upper-level seminar classes that don’t have any formal prerequisites, I spend a lot of time thinking about what my students do and don’t already know. I treat grad students like the educated adults they are, but it can sometimes be difficult to tell with undergrads. At George Mason, most of the students were either immigrants or the children of immigrants, but they had all gone through American public high school, so I could assume that they were vaguely aware of certain cultural touchstones. At UPenn, on the other hand, the students who went to public high school in America might actually be a tiny minority. Each new microgeneration of kids is going to create its own common knowledge base regardless of where they come from, so you have to be sensitive to that, but it’s just the nature of working with a large and heterogeneous group of people that there will be all sorts of things you don’t think about.

I went to college early, and then went to grad school right after college and got my PhD fairly quickly, so I was roughly in the same generation as my students for most of the time I was teaching. I’ve gotten older, though, as people tend to do. Now it surprises me when my undergrads are genuinely curious about Harry Potter because they’ve never read the books or seen the movies. Things I just absorbed by osmosis because I grew up with them are now units of knowledge that need to be explained, and that’s wild.

I can’t help but wonder if that’s what getting older is about – being able to pick up on more cultural references because I’ve had more years in common with the people who create media. And then I wonder when the cross-over point is going to be, like, when will I stop getting references because I’m so old that younger people no longer have any culture in common with me?

In any case, Whisper of the Heart is set in the 1990s but feels timeless. It’s still just as beautiful to me now as it was when I first watched it in college. The fact that the vast majority of anime fans under the age of thirty have probably never even heard of movie feels a little weird, but it’s also kind of nice. It’s wonderful that amazing stories were created in the past, but the genius and creativity of past work doesn’t need to be a burden, as there will always be cultural room to create stories in the future that build on the past but still feel fresh and new to each generation.

Disney Doesn’t Need Public Defense

The Marvel Juggernaut: With Great Power Comes Zero Responsibility

Due to the clout of its ubiquity, AVENGERS: ENDGAME merits a deeper look. Its fundamental ideology is libertarian-conservative. Superheroes fight, but only up until the point they want to quit. They’re rewarded with the domestic tranquility of the heterosexual nuclear family (at the expense of the less conventional concept of “found family”). Every female character receives sub-par treatment, especially Natasha Romanoff—a childhood abuse victim incapable of bearing children, sacrificed in favor of a “family man” who commits (racially selective) extra-judicial murder without consequence. Untold trillions of lives lost as collateral damage in the aftermath of Thanos’ cosmos-wide “snap” are forfeit for the sake of one five-year old child of one billionaire on one planet.

The story quashes the political nature of its chief protagonist, Steve Rogers—created by two Jewish men to combat the rise of pro-fascist sentiment in a pre-war, isolationist America. Favoring a bigoted past over a present more aligned with Steve’s values, Marvel takes a vocal political force—a tireless fighter against oppression—and reduces him to milquetoast, Pleasantville made manifest. Adding insult to injury, Peggy Carter spectates this regressive resolution to Steve’s arc. She’s wordless, existing only for Steve’s gaze, her independent life overwritten to be his prize and a means to an end: the complete neutralization of an anti-fascist.

People are free to enjoy whatever they like, of course, but the Disney Corporation is no one’s friend.

Every Seven Days

This comic was drawn by Elizabeth D. (@mushroomys on Twitter) and written by me, Kathryn Hemmann (@kathrynthehuman on Twitter).

I used to think the Japanese horror film Ringu was super scary, and the Hollywood version creeped me out as well. As I’ve gotten older, however, I’ve begun to find both movies silly and charming, especially since I would love to have a ghost friend come to visit through my television screen.

Horror Haiku

In the spring of 2014, I made a half-letter size photocopied zine that collected thirty horror-themed haiku. I had so much fun putting it together that I made a second issue the very next week. I was teaching at Notre Dame that year and driving to Chicago practically every weekend to stay sane, and I spent a lot of time at Quimby’s Bookstore in Wicker Park. I took a handful of zines to Quimby’s to ask if they would take them on consignment, and they agreed. This turned out to be an incredibly transformative experience for me.

I was expected to teach a course on Japanese cinema during the spring semester, so I spent the summer and fall reading recent issues of about half a dozen different Cinema Studies journals from cover to cover. There are a number of excellent independent theaters in Philadelphia (and Tokyo), so I’d watched a lot of movies during grad school. I was excited about movies, and I was excited about Cinema Studies. I was also high off the experience of having finished my dissertation, so I ended up being very productive and writing a handful of essays about horror movies, which I sent to the specific journals whose articles and general editorial voices inspired me.

Everything I wrote was rejected without even going to peer review. Because the editors felt no need to be anonymous, they told me exactly why they rejected my work, and I knew exactly who they were.

Basically, I am gay and I love monsters, and I was looking at horror films from the perspectives of Queer Studies, which was a major focus of my dissertation, and Disability Studies, which was just starting to emerge as a discipline at the time. What one older straight white man after another told me was that, while my essays were well-written and skillfully argued, I lacked the “critical distance” necessary to engage in serious scholarship in Cinema Studies. Also, because I was writing about East Asian cinema, DO NOT GET ME STARTED on the racism I encountered. (I’m especially looking at you, British academics.)

I should have pushed back or tried to reach out to other female and female-identified scholars who wrote about East Asian cinema, but what I ended up doing was crying. I cried kind of a lot, actually. I cried and watched movies and wrote a bunch of horror haiku, which eventually became these two zines.

When Quimby’s agreed to put my zines on the shelves of their store, it gave me the courage I needed to keep writing. It’s not that my work wasn’t worth being read; it’s that I was trying to get it past the wrong gatekeepers. Once I realized that a smug rejection from some narrow-minded older white man didn’t mean that there was something wrong with my writing or scholarship, I started submitting to different venues and, thankfully, getting my work published.

Zines have historically served as a platform for minority voices that have been denied expression in mainstream and more traditional venues, and that’s how they worked for me. Honestly, Quimby’s Bookstore probably saved my academic career. Be gay! Make zines!!

Both of these zines have long since sold out, but you can still find my old horror haiku (here).

The Shape of Water

I expected to like The Shape of Water for different reasons than I did.

The central love story between a human woman and an amphibious man came off as more than a little creepy to me, and not because of why you might think it would.

In the opening ten minutes of The Shape of Water, the lead actress, Sally Hawkins, is shown disrobing and masturbating while naked in the bathtub. Just in case the first depiction of masturbation was too subtle for the audience to catch, the director helpfully provides a second masturbation scene accompanied by a sexy moan. I think the point is to establish that Hawkins’s character, a speech-impaired janitor named Elisa, is an adult woman with sexual needs. It still felt unnecessary to me, especially since Elisa is so innocent and naive as to be almost childish.

When it comes to interspecies romance, I am all for it as long as both parties are consenting adults. The problem with the romance between Elisa and her fish boyfriend is that I’m not sure that it can be called consensual. I’m also not entirely certain that the fishboy is an adult. The ways in which he’s visually characterized, with huge eyes and a lanky body, make him seem more like a teenage member of a boy band than an adult male of his species, and his narrative characterization of wide-eyed wonder and almost complete passivity makes him seem more like a child. Moreover, he is either a prisoner at the scientific laboratory or a prisoner in Elisa’s apartment, and he depends on Elisa’s goodwill not just for food and shelter but also, essentially, for the ability to continue breathing. Although she does not take advantage of him physically, and though he could easily kill her if he wished, the power imbalance (and strongly implied age imbalance) in their relationship is too pronounced for me to feel comfortable about his ability to give consent.

Moreover, Elisa makes very little attempt to communicate with him. He seems to be able to understand the basic sign language that she’s shared with him, but she doesn’t teach him enough to have an actual conversation. According to what the viewer sees, she knows nothing about him, including his name. She never attempts to tell him about what has happened to him or where he is or what she intends to do, and she also never tries to ask him what he wants.

There’s a scene about halfway through the film in which the villain, a military officer charged with overseeing the lab’s security, sexually harasses Elisa in his office, physically intimidating her while invading her space and telling her that he finds her inability to use her voice erotic. The viewer is supposed to understand that his attraction to her difference is nothing more than a fetish that transforms her into an object that serves his pleasure while denying her subjectivity. In the same way, however, Elisa’s attraction to the fishboy is also fetishistic. She is drawn to him because… He resembles a healthy and attractive adolescent human male? Because she masturbates in the bathtub and associates water with physical pleasure? Because she’s lonely and needs to see what she considers to be her own pathological difference reflected in a romantic partner in order to feel secure? To me, a woman who is old enough to worry about the creases in the skin of her neck when she looks in the mirror is old enough to at least try to talk to her partner, or at the very least ask him what his name is. Elisa is not a stupid lovestruck teenager, and it’s offensive that she’s portrayed as acting as if she’s only as emotionally mature as one.

Thankfully, the movie contains two other stories of border crossing that I found far more emotionally satisfying. One of these stories is about a Russian immigrant who came to America seeking intellectual freedom, and the other is about a black woman carving out a space for herself in the white-dominated society of the 1960s.

I found a lot of emotional resonance with the lead scientist of the team investigating the fishboy, who is a Russian named Dmitri posing as an American named Bob. Although this man is acting as a spy, he considers himself to be first and foremost a scientist. It’s unclear how much of his backstory is fabricated, but he seems to have held a tenure-track research position at an American university, which means that he would have gotten a PhD at an American institution as well. If this is the case, it’s likely that he trained at a Russian university and then, after realizing the severe educational limitations enforced by Soviet ideology, he came to America like many other Russian scientists and intellectuals of his generation.

Due to Cold War politics, Dmitri has been forced to report to Soviet operatives, which he does unwillingly and in full knowledge of the precarity of his position. This reads like a dramatization of the way that many immigrants and refugees coming to America during the latter half of the twentieth century were torn between cultures and languages and identities. Also, because of his cultural liminality, Dmitri is forced to insist repeatedly and to multiple parties that he is a scientist, and that his knowledge and qualifications need to be taken seriously. When push comes to shove, however, Dmitri is neither Russian nor American but rather a human who not only sees the fishboy as a fellow sentient creature but is also able to perceive and unconditionally trust the intelligence and competence of the two female janitors whom he observes making plans to rescue his charge.

The woman who helps Elisa break her fish boyfriend out of the lab is Zelda, who’s played with style and grace by Octavia Spencer. Despite being set in Baltimore, a city with an African American majority population, The Shape of Water is very much a movie about white people, and it’s somewhat aggravating that Spencer was cast in the role of the sassy black friend. Still, the film does not shy away from how her character navigates the space of the research lab, which is filled with white people. As a black woman, she is more or less invisible, a status that’s emphasized by the way that she and the other black workers have figured out how to take advantage of the blind spots in the lab’s system of security cameras. Because the white scientists and military officials have been socialized to ignore “the help,” Zelda is able to see and hear everything and go anywhere without attracting attention, an ability she is able to use effectively.

There’s a scene late in the film when the white military officer hunting the fishboy storms into Zelda’s apartment and attempts to intimidate her. In the process, he performs an act of terrible violence, but Zelda stands up to him like an absolute boss and then immediately runs to the phone to warn Elisa without even bothering to check if the man who just threatened to kill her has left. She then calls the police, which I find extremely interesting. Like the city itself, the police force of Baltimore is comprised of a black majority, and the way that a black woman was able to call on the black local police to resist the white federal government reflects the history of the city as a major site of resistance against white supremacy during the Civil Rights Movement. For a movie that could very easily have taken the Stranger Things route to a comfortable and uncontroversial type of cultural nostalgia, this is subtle but sharp reflection of what was actually going on in the United States during the 1960s.

Ultimately, the love story between a human woman and her amphibious boyfriend feels like a fairy tale version of the various cultural changes and border crossings that are represented elsewhere in the film. The fairy tale version of this story has a relatively happy ending, but the reality of the people who have to remain above water in the real world is far more bitter than sweet. This is why, when I watched The Shape of Water, I found myself sympathizing far more with the supporting characters. Still, the movie is just as weird and gorgeous as you’d expect, and I have to admit that the fishboy is pretty damn cute.

( Header image from the film review on Collider )