Thursday, June 18, 2009

Nostalgia and Timelessness

So I started rewatching Gundam Wing dub last night. It's a special series for me since, like many others, it was my catapult into the Gundam franchise on the whole. It was one of my first major fandoms, and I'd seen it in its entirety two or three times back in glory days of Toonami, but it's been a good seven or eight years or so since I'd seen it last (and it feels much longer than that). Like some things I've revisited from the past, I was half-expecting it to be terrible, and to some extent, it was. The characters are hilariously unobservant and brash in ways that don't even begin to make sense. The dubbing also offers some choice lines in amazingly awkward voices. There are many logic and realism gaps. I laughed a lot.

And yet, even with all the lulz, it's still so epic when it counts. I'm still enjoying this way too much. Treize takes over the world in seven episodes in one of the most awesome coup de'tats ever. There are so many political things I'm noticing and understanding now that I didn't even notice the first time around, and it's just a lot fun to revisit something while simultaneously gaining a whole new experience. Nostalgia and sentimentality is undoubtedly what's allowing me to forgive all of the more blatant flaws -- I'd never accept such huge logic and realism gaps in a recent show, as evidenced by my dislike of Gundam 00, but for Wing, it's all right.

But I never feel as if the nostalgia factor blinds me. Forgiving the flaws isn't the same as denying they're there, and besides, most good things have their flaws. It's just your perspective that determines whether the good outweighs the bad, or if the bad outweighs the good. I'm only seven episodes into the rewatch, but right now, I honestly still think this is a great show. Wing's storyline is strong and clear, and has many interesting concepts. Its characters are varied and relatively engaging. I still think the music is amazing. I still think the mecha designs in this series are some of the best in the franchise. These are the things that won't change with time, no matter how many years pass. Good stories are good stories. Good art is good art.

The art and animation are a bit aged now, yes, but they still suit the story. That compatibility is much more important than the fact that it's not as shiny by today's standards. Of course it isn't as shiny; Gundam Wing debuted fourteen years ago. But that doesn't matter, just like it doesn't matter that Nosferatu is a black and white, silent, German film. The medium still fits the story, and the story is still good. In that sense, I think that most productions, whether movies or television shows or anime or manga, can be considered "timeless." It doesn't matter when it was made; if it had a good story and the medium suited it, then it can remain accessible to any subsequent generation.

But then, what about the things that don't hold up? Does that imply that they were never good stories in the first place, if the stories aren't as good now as supposedly used to be?

Actually, I can't think of many examples of (once) good stories that don't hold up against the test of time. Most of the stories I loved as a kid I either still love now or still appreciate as something aimed towards kids. Some stories with overt social or political commentary or controversy might be more popular in one century than another, but if there's enough story to go along with the opinion, I don't think it'd have trouble remaining accessible. Just look at The Sound of Music or the Watchmen comic or books like Number the Stars.

Stories grounded in a certain time period also aren't at a particular disadvantage either. As long as people have an understanding of the surrounding history and perspective, it isn't really a problem. Shakespeare remains timeless despite the fact that his plays are centuries old and in a dialect that died somewhere along the way. The language might turn some people off, but the core of the quality of the stories are unaffected by neither time nor anything else. Can the stories still appeal to people if the language was updated to something more modern? Probably. It's the same as when a popular novel is translated into several different languages, isn't it? The story is the same. The story is still good. Everything else is secondary.

It's kind of interesting to note also that there are a lot more things that I like more the second or third time around than things that I dislike the second or third time around. Second and third experiences allow for better understanding of the story involved, and understanding is essential to many experiences.

Many of the best anime and manga I've encountered are neither socially or politically charged or grounded in a specific time period, which will probably help them a lot. Some of them depend heavily on cultural quirks and current fandom (Ouran High School Host Club), and some of them are concentrated on ideas in technology that may well change in the future (Planetes, Ghost in the Shell), but as long as the people in the year 2500 take the time to understand where these stories are coming from, they can enjoy them just as we have. I'm pretty sure I'm going to end up still liking Gundam Wing a lot this time around, and if that's the case, I don't think that will change in another decade or two, or three, or four. Similarly, I probably still won't like Gundam 00 in however many years.

Final conclusion? All good stories are timeless.

7 comments:

ghostlightning said...

First off, I agree with your general thought. So I won't argue your claims about Shakespeare or even W.

Moving on, I have a fundamental problem with the idea of timelessness. I feel it's quite hubristic for me or anyone to call piece timeless as if it were a quality, or attribute of the work, rather than a contingent phenomenon: the subject text happens to be appreciated contemporary critics.

Part of this is due to my personal withdrawal from making reviews/rankings etc. for general consumption. I always come from a very subjective place and offer such declarations as sharing (for like-minded people to agree with, or just something to consider) rather than making a stand on a specific work (i.e. Gundam 00 is a good show, a solid 7 on MAL).

Here are some things worth considering I think:

Can timelessness be attributable to content? You mention that certain narratives are timeless, and Campbell/Jung/Frye's work on myth and archetypes will probably tell us yes (read: these things are always relevant to human beings).

The idea of a literary/musical/artistic canon is informed by the attribute of timelessness after all. The idea of a canon is that the works within it are either essential to the media, or should be required experiences for the student/critic/connossieur.

If no, what is the baseline time period to measure timelessness? This I think must be applied to an individual work rather than a corpus of an author, or an entire artistic movement (i.e. romanticism, baroque, etc.) 2 decades? Half a century?

This particular question is relevant to the contingencies of young media. Princes Mononoke may seem timeless, but is animated cinema timeless in itself as a medium? Is anime timeless? Is manga timeless?

I wonder about titles such as Tetsuwon Atom/Astroboy, which failed to capture subsequent generations of fans, or more accurately capture the imagination of fans outside Japan. What does this mean within the conversation of timelessness?

Kiriska said...

You bring up a lot of good points. If we consider that all good stories are essentially "timeless," then it might be both a quality and a contingent phenomenon depending on the beholder or the critic. After all, nothing is universally regarded as "good" either. There can be no objectivity when it comes to judging works, only perceived fairness.

Timelessness likely has to be attributed only to content because any accompanying media is almost surely doomed to advances in technology. The movie The Sound of Music may well disappear into obscurity in the future as video tapes, VHS, DVDs, and the ilk fade away from use, but the story presented in that movie may transcend through whatever new media is created. It might be comparable to the number of people who have actually seen a Shakespeare stage play performed rather than experienced through some other form. Even for something like animation, where the media is so tied so closely to the content, the "timeless" attribute applies more to the content as the media can still be updated or remastered or whatever else as long as the bulk of the story remains untouched, kind of like Dragonball Kai?

I've never liked the idea of a creative canon -- "essential" is an opinion and therefore can't be dictated. If timelessness applies to all good stories and the definition of a good story varies from person to person, then surely there cannot be any sort of canon created from that. Even popular opinion is only popular opinion.

There really can't be a baseline time period to measure timelessness because critics cannot watch the world change around a work forever. In that sense, you're undoubtedly right -- no one can really ever judge timelessness because individuals are not timeless. They are only capable of judging in the span of time that has passed within their lifetime, and yet, if they believe a story is good and accessible, then why not? Assuming technological compatibility, any person at any point in time can take the time to experience something in almost exactly the way it was originally intended, including background information about the time it was produced.

But yes, the adjective should only apply to individual works rather than a body or a movement.

As far as the media is concerned, like I say -- it is the story that's timeless, not its media. Princess Mononoke is a good story. That is an opinion, but there will likely always be people who think that it's a good story. It has gorgeous animation, but no media is timeless. In the future, maybe they will enjoy the movie via direct input to the brain. I have no idea how that'd work and whether the animation would somehow translate correctly, but in the end, even if the story is relayed by means of telepathy... it's still a good story. Animation might become a lost art eventually, but Princess Mononoke will still be a good story.

I've personally seen very little of Astro Boy, not enough to make a judgment call, but I do know individuals that hold it in high regard. I think popularity is a poor indication of quality though, so the fact that it never caught on with later generations or outside of Asia may only be because of general laziness on the part of those audiences. Maybe they just haven't taken the time to look at with the past and the context in consideration.

ghostlightning said...

This is what's occupying my thoughts:

There isn't really a lot of variety with regards to plots in narratives, or story structures.

Plots are pretty much informed by conflict, of which there are three general kinds:

1. person vs. person/self(?)
2. person vs. environment/nature/elements
3. person vs. society

Stories either end in favor of the protagonist, or a 'bad' end happens. Stories could be plot resolution oriented (the source of the conflict are destroyed/beaten/repulsed), or can resolve in an epiphany by the protagonist.

Then there are the formulas.

Stories are basically these, only with different specific settings (though even these can be made of general categories), and different characters (of which there are general types). Stories are a collection of tropes (not to say this is a bad thing at all).

Given that, what makes the story good? Is it the particulars of the combination of tropes and types? What makes the Mononoke story good? If we replace the names and the setting but otherwise tell the same story (change the character designs, etc.), but otherwise keep everything at the same quality in execution... will this work be timeless too?

I feel that we're missing something here, but for the life of me I don't know what.

Kiriska said...

Sure, any high school literature class will tell you about the general structure, formulas of all stories, as well as the many archetypal characters. It's pretentious to call any story completely original as far as the premise goes, but the execution of the story is what sets individual tales apart. How characters unravel and develop has also been extremely important to me, which is why I find it hard to care about stories where I don't feel for the characters, even if the premise itself is interesting (Shangri-la).

Theoretically, any adaptation of an existing "timeless" tale has the potential to capture everything that made the original successful. Pixar's A Bug's Life is essentially Kurosawa's Seven Samurai -- much of the premise is the same, and some of the characters are recognizable between the two stories. There are tons and tons that are different about the two as well, including the ending, but A Bug's Life remains a good story. Maybe that's a poor example though, since A Bug's Life does kind of take a life of its own.

For an adaptation that simply twisted names, faces, and locations around while changing nothing else, the work might come under fire simply because people recognized it was contributing little to the original, like the 90's (?) remake of Psycho. But if people completely forgot about the original Psycho, then perhaps the remake would have been better received.

ghostlightning said...

If we're talking about execution, then we're not talking about content anymore right?

Also, I shared your post to cuchlann of superfani blog (I post there too on occasion), and he agreed to let me quote him (he feels that he's being too vitriolic about his opinion, while I think he's just being nice). In any case, he's given voice to some of what I'm struggling with:

"I have a problem with the idea that something is "essentially" good. It's a common logical fallacy -- I've heard it a few times in the guise of "But I'm not a C student."

Strangely, though, I do believe in skill being (relatively) inherent. Shakespeare, for instance, is very well done, I don't think that is a fact that will change over time. Shakespeare's supposed "timelessness," on the other hand, is one part canonical support and one part writing on topics that probably won't go out of style -- like sex, revenge, and parent issues.

I'm not quite sure where the post is going... That old animation is still good animation? Sure. I don't see this as much of an arguable issue, like a student last semester who argued violence against women is wrong. I'm left saying, "Yes... and?"

I also personally think the argument about "timelessness" is useless. I don't really care if X show/book/movie will be popular in fifty years, or a hundred years. I also don't think that's a good judge of quality (someone tried to use that argument on me concerning Salinger; I assume he was mimicking something a professor had once said).

Some of the stuff in the post is interesting for discussion, definitely. I don't believe you can separate "style" from "content," though, so the post's claim that "a good story" is "a good story" no matter what is wrong, I think. Any story at all can be "good" if it is "told" well."

There. I really have trouble with absolutes and essentialisms like "good." Not that there isn't any at all, just not that easy to define thoroughly.

Kiriska said...

Well, ideally, I'd want to apply the "timeless" attribute only to the content, but unfortunately, for many things execution and content are directly related because an ineffective execution can cause the content to be lost to the audience. For the same reason, it's also hard to completely divorce the technical aspects of an animation from the story portions of an animation even though I tend to do it anyway, as far as reviewing things go. So I guess I'm agreeing with you, but I think the good story = good story still works in the sense that if something is a good story to you (perhaps it should be just "good" then, so the story and presentation can be packaged together), you're unlikely to change your mind drastically over time.

I would agree with contesting the notion that something is "essentially" good, or further, the idea that anything is "essentially" anything. "Essential" is yet another subjective attribute on a list of many.

I'm not really sure that we're actually disagreeing on anything here, actually. XD

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