See more articles, reviews, fiction and poetry, including more of my writings, at group blog PLUTO'S REALM.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Ghost in the Shell - Solid State Society

Click the image on your left for the trailer!

In the few years I've been watching anime, I've never found anything I liked quite so well as the Ghost in the Shell series. The anime are based on the incredible manga by Masamune Shirow, of whom a good bibliography can be found at that link. Although Shirow has said that he considered the Appleseed series (which led to the anime film of the same name, the latter version of which was my favorite anime before the instant Ghost film) to be his main work, he is best known for the Ghost in the Shell works.

Without recapping all the material in the bibliography, Ghost in the Shell came out in 1995 and was the first anime to really blow my head off. I usually don't like any kind of fiction where cops are the heroes, but this stuff is the exception. Section 9 is a near-future police / "anti-terrorist" force staffed mostly by cyborgs, humans who have made most of their body parts replaced, or have entirely cybernetic bodies. Its protagonist is Major Motoko Kusanagi, a brooding, beautiful cyborg who turns out to be one of the most enigmatic, fascination heroes in science fiction. At the end of the original movie, Motoko blends with its villain, the Puppet Master, and disappears into the net. There is a sequel manga to the first volume, and a beautiful sequel film from 2004 (which take place in different universes, and don't follow the same plot line). For some reason the version of Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence released here has no dub and you'll have to deal with the subtitles (if anyone hasn't figured it out yet, this stuff is all originally Japanese....), but it's well worth the experience.

To confuse you further, the Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex TV series by Kenji Kuriyama, doesn't follow the plot lines of any of the above, but takes place in a universe where Motoko never left Section 9 but continues at the helm. It ran two seasons and has to be the most complex, intelligent thing I've ever seen in the guise of a TV show; it makes me wonder if the Japanese audience isn't a lot more sophisticated than the American, which come to think of it wouldn't be hard.

The new film is simply the most beautiful, exciting and elegant entry in the whole opus so far. It seems to have been done in lieu of a third season of SAC, and it reputedly set a budget record for an anime TV movie; the money shows in the production. Get ready to fall in love with Motoko all over again. If you thought the second season of SAC got too talky, this is the antidote for it - lots of action.

When William Gibson inadvertently invented what became known as cyberpunk in the 'nineties, he created or uncovered a huge fanbase for an art form that barely existed. He admits that his own skills as a writer were limited at that point, although that early stuff, with its heroes like Case and especially Molly the razor girl, still fascinates me, and I'm not alone. Most of the "cyberpunk" that followed was garbage, including a lot of stuff by Gibson's friend and unfortunate collaborator, Bruce Stirling, that I really, really tried to like. But occasionally you get a genius like Shirow, whose knowledge shows through in every page of the manga, down to the footnotes (and whose vision, like Gibson's, foreshadowed and doubtless influenced our current cybernetic reality). This is the real stuff, and Shirow (and Kuriyama), like Gibson, will never insult your intelligence).

What I'm saying is, go get Ghost in the Shell - Solid State Society now; but if you haven't seen its precursors first, you should. See the two other films in order followed by both series of SAC. And you really ought to read all the manga; the go for Appleseed, followed by Shirow's other works. It'll be the best anime time you ever spent. If you're not into anime, you will be after this, or you just don't get it. But this is philosophical stuff, and it does require a modicum of knowledge about what has come to be known as cyberspace. It's not for kids.

And kind of a big footnote: The more Ghost in the Shell I watch, the more I identify with Batou, the brooding (yes, him too) cyborg who is Motoko's partner. I just read a great book, After the Long Goodbye, which takes place in the universe of the original movies, after Motoko is gone, and stars Batou. Now, novelizations are crap, but this book is by noted sci fi auther Masaki Yamada, and is a piece of literature in its own right. It is the story of Batou's quest for his lost bassett hound, and it is also an interesting mediation on the essence of humanity, strongly flavored by Japan's Buddhist backdrop (and its modern, atheist one as well). You won't be disappointed, in any of this.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Sit Down and Shut Up!

I don't know why it took me so long to get around to reading Brad Warner's second book, Sit Down and Shut up. Maybe it was because I was so involved with the Buddhist Festival to even think about reading a Buddhist book in my free time, or maybe it was because I've been following Brad's blog and his columns for Suicide Girls for so long now that I thought I'd heard everything he had to say. Which I have, really, but still, reading this book over the last week has been a breath of fresh air, reaffirming my commitment to Zazen, as opposed to Buddhism, and blowing out all the smoke from all the other schools of Buddhism (and beyond - more to come!) I've been saturated with the last few months.

I will always consider Brad to be one of my Zen teachers, despite the fact that I've only met with him, and sat zazen with him, for the three-day sesshin known as the Empty Well here, near Nashville, which opened my eyes as to the unreliability of the Nashville Zen Center as any kind of vehicle to furthering my own practice. It was Brad's first book, Hardcore Zen, that brought me back to Zen just when I needed it. At the end of 2004, following a year and a half of tumult that completely uprooted what little previous life I had developed since my return to Tennessee in 1993, I was seriously looking for some sort of "spiritual" practice, which I knew from experience I needed to anchor the new identity I was establishing. I had known that I was a Buddhist since about 198o, but I had burned through Nichiren Shoshu back in the 80's and hadn't stayed with a practice since. In 2004 I was looking at Tibetan Buddhism, but it wasn't working for me; the people were great, but I was getting nothing out of the practice (although I'm told the true nature of their practice was something esoteric that hadn't yet been "revealed" to me). Then I found Hardcore Zen, and I knew I had come home.

If you haven't read Hardcore Zen, you owe it to yourself to do so, whether or not you are inclined to Buddhism. You certainly can't learn Buddhism from a book, so the best Zen book is the one that makes you want to sit zazen, period. And this was it for me. Much has been made of Brad's punk rock background, but I think what really brought me back to Zen was his writing voice. He speaks clearly and directly, without the sanctimony of most Buddhist writers. If his writings don't appeal to you, you are nothing like me.

Of course, sitting with Brad as a teacher is not quite like reading his books. He is actually very respectful of Soto Zen forms, and he is not a sarcastic jackass like you might expect. He is in fact a very nice guy. If you've read my Empty Well blog, you know that only a handful of us experienced the weekend sesshin with him. Nat and I had a great sit, got to know Brad and his wife Yuka, and learned a lot. I don't know about anyone else. Of course, I was embarassed by the NZC's failing to show, en masse, but I bet Brad doesn't even remember, or at least most times I hope not.

Anyway, the Brad Warner of Sit Down and Shut Up is a lot more like the Brad with whom we sat, than the younger Brad Warner of Hardcore Zen. This book is a lot more about Zen, and is in fact a very readable first approach to the Shobogenzo, the main book if there is one, of Soto Zen (the most-utilized, and most readable, translation of which, is, by the way, by Brad's teacher Gudo Nishijima and his student Chodo Cross). This time, Brad uses his recent activities, including a reunion of his band Zero Defects (0DFx) and his work on his movie Cleveland's Screaming, as a backdrop. But this book as opposed to the first, is less punk, more Zen, as probably befits Brad's emergence as a teacher. This is a more mature Brad Warner. I read somewhere online that Brad has been chosen as Nishijima's successor to lead the Dogen Shangha, which event prompted attacks from jealous fellow students, especially targeting Brad's column on Suicide Girls (which I happen to love -- the column and the site in general).

I don' t know about you, but I get saturated with bullshit. I am extremely grateful to Nat for "volunteering" me for the Nashville Buddhist Festival this year; I got a lot out of it, including learning how to build a real website (albeit still with templates), and mostly I met a lot of great people, who practice all sorts of Buddhism, and beyond. I'm not saying that the practices of the other schools of Buddhism are bullshit; they're just not my practice. But then I got a little further afield, and that field is wide open! And then, with the same impeccable timing that Hardcore Zen came to me to bring me back to my original practice of zazen, Sit Down and Shut Up came back to remind me that I am in fact a Soto Zen Buddhist, of a fairly non-eclectic mindset. No enlightenment machines or hypnotic treats for me! No blunt-puffing Shamans for Zen teachers! (What, you say? More to come in a future blog entry!)

Monday, October 01, 2007

Thanks for the Reminder

I apologize for once again spending too much time on this blog on local Buddhist issues, especially since most of you probably have no clue what I'm talking about, and what's more don't care. Plus it probably does no good for me or anyone else for me to spend time and cyberspace ripping well-meaning people for their ineptitude. As for Nashville Buddhism, I'm not a Buddhist teacher and have never claimed to be, so I think it's time for me to follow Brad's advice and Sit Down and Shut Up. I need to spend more time on my own personal practice and less on non-existent Buddhist "politics." In future entries, I will spend some time and some stuff that's worked for me, now and in the past, and leave other people alone. At least I'll try, thought there's this one local group just begging for a parody...

Anyway. I ran across this article this morning, and it reminded me why I started the Ratzaz Diaries, almost two years and one hundred entries ago. John McCain, who once appeared to be a man of integrity and clarity compared to the Bush Cabal, then sold his soul and his credibility in his efforts to appeal to brain-dead Bush supporters, has once again branded himself as the kind of doofus who shouldn't be anywhere near a position of political responsibility in American. The fact that he's still better than the creatures who are in control now is a moot point, though a scary one. Luckily, he seems to have permanently alienated the kind of thoughtless, history-free moron who might be wooed by the position he sets forth, apparently in Beliefnet, that only Christians should be allowed to assume the permanently soiled mantle of the U.S. Presidency.

Early on in the Ratzaz Diaries, I took a radically anti-Christian position. That position was based on my personal situation at the time. Since then, I have definitely mellowed on the subject; in a world in which a huge portion of humanity has given up on any positive or redeeming principles at all, the sincere Christians are trying to do what they believe is right. Yes, I still think that their underlying beliefs are delusional and pretty much flat-out insane, in the face of the modern world; but I also think that since we are all marching toward the same oblivion as a civilization, that Christians, like morphine addicts, can be forgiven their escape hatch. My own different path is based on an insistence on confronting and accepting reality, but not everyone will find that either desirable or possible, when the bullet meets the bone (to quote Golden Earring).

Also, a word to you well-meaning soles who have argued, in the spirit of Thomas Merton, that all religions come together on the highest level: perhaps. When one is speaking, say, of a Trappist monk and a Tibetan monk who have each spent thirty years in silent meditation, I am quite wiling to believe that the state they have entered is the same. I've never been there, and probably won't get there. I still think ultimately one has to drop off the sense of the Other, whether that be God, Jesus or Buddha, before one finds the selfless Self. But that's too much for this post.

The issue is, that's not the Christianity John McCain is talking about, or that his follower would identify with, if he still has any. I think that their Christianity is more like that of the man who inspired me to begin the Ratzaz Diaries in October, 2005 (and to quit my job less than three months later). That man was the manager of the company I worked for at the time, and he used to come in every day, whacked out of what was left of his mind on prescription drugs, puffing and snorting, full of his daily dose of reality from Fox News. Probably his major disease was an obsessive homophobia, which I have always taken to be a symptom of closeted gay urges, and I couldn't take one more day of this moron ranting about "queers." His second obsession was his own Christianity; he was a lifelong Catholic, and I believe his beliefs are quite sincere; he claims to have many friends of other religions and to approve of all of them (though he never could wrap his cloudy head around a religion without a God), yet at the same time he would insist that the United States was a Christian country, founded by Christians, and should stay that way.

By the way, this man was in many ways a very well-intentioned human being. I think he very much wanted to be my friend, and in a way he was and still is. He spent hours fixing my computer when I dumped the hard drive, and was probably the easiest person to work for imaginable, if you could ignore the bombasts. So this is really about how dumb beliefs (and Fox News) can poison a good person who does not have a sufficient defense against institutionally promulgated ignorance.

Now anyone with a real history book or an inquisitive mind knows that, while doubtless the earlier settlers of the Americas were in fact primarily Christians - under pain of death to be, many of them - the Constitution was a child of the rational European mind of the eighteenth century, and was written primarily by Deists and atheists. In its flawed brilliance, the United States Constitution was probably the greatest document ever to emerge from a committee, foreshadowed perhaps by the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence, but the first indication of the dominance of the rational mind over the Western civilization of the next two centuries. It is a document that most of the world does not have the cultural background to understand or appreciate, which the morons who now run this "Christian" nation ignore when they try to foist the child of Western rationalism among Islamic fundamentalists or Asians whose traditions all come from monarchy or dictatorship.

When the civilization of which we have been fortunate enough to have experienced the peak and best is gone; when in the next few generations the total of the accomplishments of mankind has been wiped out by the inevitable consequences of mankind's obsessive, self-replicating, mindlessly spawning and all-consuming nature; will there still be copy of the U.S. Constituition left anywhere, as a paeon to our best and brightest moments? Indeed, in this age of the renaissance of blindness, ignorance and fanaticism, of civilizations's last grasping moments, will the clarity and hope of this country's founders survive even one more term of the Supreme Court, or one more lie from the mouths of its evil, corrupt and morally bankrupt leaders?

So, yeah you could do a lot worse than sincere Christianity. Sincere anything is at a a premium now. But thanks again to John McCain for the reminder of the well-meaning man who taught me the meaning for all time of one of the Boddhisattva vows: Fear, hatred, and ignorance rise endlessly. I vow to abandon them.