Transnational Geek

Author M. H. Boroson shares his geeky passions: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, spirit magic kung fu movies, the ethics of cultural appropriation, Chinese American literature and history, The Dresden Files, Daoist magic, strong female characters, Asian monsters, spirit world depictions, traditional Chinese foods, race, class, gender, and culture.

Sunday, August 26, 2012


In the near future, my friends and I are planning to watch WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS, and I'm looking forward to it.  I remember watching Godzilla movies on television when I was a child.  I was so caught up in that terrible destruction, the battles between godlike powers, the roaring, flying, enormous creatures that spat lightning or puked fire.  Immense, unearthly gladiators making our cities the arena for their titanic clashes, while we flee and scream, for beside them we all are no more than flotsam.

Yet the human drama sustained  the story.  Staying alive, protecting one's family, at a time of terrible devastation, how far are you willing to go?  Will you run up to the very claw of the monster looming over your city in order to protect your child?  Perhaps you're the child's stepfather, and the child has not trusted you or accepted you.  Now buildings are collapsing, and you are the only one who can keep that child safe.  This is the point where we learn what kind of person you are, and what kind of story this is.  Will your wife watch your cowardice and realize you're no true partner to her?  Or will you risk your life and save the child, thereby proving your worth as a parent?

The big monsters are often expressions of fears of natural catastrophe, of science pushing past ethical boundaries.  Coming as these movies usually do from the only nation that has experienced a nuclear dawn, it's a profound metaphor for a world in which a broken atom can tear a city apart.

There's only been one attempt that I know of to write kaiju fiction in English -- Raiju, Kaiju Hunter, by K.H. Koehler, which handles the human drama exceptionally well.  I don't think Koehler's approach managed to translate the terrifying magnitude of the warring beasts into prose, and I'd love to see more authors give it a try.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Sōu Shān Tú (搜山图)

I've never made a study of Chinese art.  There's too much else, the lore and language, clothes and customs, literature, history, music, and religion of dozens of different ethnic groups with the regional diversity you'd expect on a land-mass the size of the US and its outlying territories, except with five thousand years of history.

Have you noticed, by the way, that I like monsters?  Always have.  I don't want to conceptualize "the nature of the monstrous" or any other abstractosity before really looking at what's in front of me, but I like monsters.  I have an interest in them.  So imagine my delight when I discovered an entire genre of Chinese art dedicated to a particular monster encounter?

A group of human women are sitting in the wilderness with anthropomorphic animals.  The women and animals are apparently lovers.  But demons attack!  And across these long painted scrolls, a battle takes place, demons vs. animals, with some human women caught in the fracas and crossfire.

I want to do some more research in Chinese texts before speculating more about the meaning and nature of these wonderful painted scrolls.  So for now, I leave you with a rather silly write-up from California.

According to Annual Report University of California & Berkeley Art Museum,
Sou-shan T’u starts with a drunken party scene, where Chinese women offer up copious alcohol and the peaches of immortality to large monkeys, serpents, and oxen. The overblown curves of the women and the flowing scarves and robes they wear represent Tang dynasty (618–907 ce) figure style and tastes, but the faceted rocks and the trees dotted with lichen that form the background landscape are clearly a Ming invention. The partygoers come under attack from a horde of demons wearing armor and carrying the latest in bladed weaponry, and the animals and women are rounded up and led off in chains. The captured women fight with passion to protect their animal children, and some even begin to sprout animal characteristics (monkey hands, a reptilian tail) as they are carried off.

The narrative climaxes with a breathtaking scene of a rearing dragon tamed by the fetters demons are placing on its limbs and tail in the midst of an olive-dark sea. Narrative handscrolls have their own flow that depends on how quickly a viewer unrolls and rerolls it to follow the story—some sections we hurry through to find out what happens next, others invite us to linger over details or puzzle out clues to the story—and this scene always stops us in our tracks, exactly as the unknown artist planned.

The final segment shows a misty landscape that becomes peopled with a galaxy of varied and slightly comical demons (a particularly hairy one seems to be channeling Cousin Itt from the Addams Family cartoons), many drawn from folk sources and unlike the serious warriors of earlier scenes. They crowd meekly around a relaxed Chinese gentleman seated on a camp chair and clearly in charge of the proceedings. The scroll ends with a colophon, an added section of paper with a calligraphed text, which was written by a scholar at a much later date in an attempt to explain the pictured events. He calls it a battle of demons and animals, but doesn’t say—and clearly doesn’t know—why they fight.

Even without a good sense of what’s happening (are the demons the bad guys or not?) we get caught up in the impetus of the storytelling here, and also become aware of the visual strategies that create this quickening rhythm—the landscape features that open up and close in to frame the characters, subsidiary figures that lead the eye from scene to scene—and other aspects that occasionally slow the eye down, such as beautifully detailed renderings of sea creatures or humorous asides like the scrawny demon burdened by a hefty and upside-down female captive.
hyakki yako

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

On Genre

In 1974, a film critic named Paul Schrader wrote an essay about the yakuza film genre.  His conclusion is a superb statement about genre in general.
The important thing to remember about strict genre forms like yakuza-eiga is that these films are not necessarily individual works of art but instead variations on a complex tacit social metaphor, a secret agreement between the artists and the audiences of a certain period.

When massive social forces are in flux, rigid genre forms often arise to help individuals make the transition. Americans created the Western to help codify a morality of the frontier; they created a gangster film to cope with the new social forces of the city.

If the original social metaphor is valid, the resulting genre will long outlive the individual artists who created it -- it may even outlive the times which evolved it. In the present personality-oriented culture, rigid genre forms are the closest thing we have to a popular "art without names."

When a new genre comes into being, one immediately suspects that its causes run far deeper than the imagination of a few astute artists and businessmen. The whole social fabric of a culture has been torn, and a new metaphor has arisen to help mend it. 

The yakuza-eiga is a popular social contract between the artists and the audiences of Japan to reevaluate and restructure these traditional virtues. The Samurai Film was no longer serving its intermediary function; new characters, themes and conventions had to be created. Just as early twentieth century Americans needed the Western, contemporary Japanese need a genre which can serve as a moral battleground -- a genre on which the traditional virtues can fight to the death.

Genre and art are not mutually exclusive.  The western was a genre, a knight-errant tale of the frontier, and Sergio Leone raised it to art, as did TheAwesome movie Unforgiven and the tv series Deadwood.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Hún Dūn (渾敦)

Hún Dūn (渾敦). Described in the Shān Hǎi Jīng as having the shape of a pill, the color of fire, six legs, and four wings.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Zhīzhū jīng (蜘蛛精)

Zhīzhū jīng (蜘蛛精). Spiders that have grown old and powerful. They can change their shape.